RAF Bardney to become a Shooting Range

After the closure of many of Britain’s wartime airfields, many were returned to agriculture or converted for use by light industry. Some were completely removed and some developed into housing. RAF Bardney, located a few miles to the east of Lincoln, has since been one of those used for a multitude of light industrial and agricultural uses and has been the recent subject of a planning application.

Bardney was home to three RAF squadrons during World War Two: Nos 9, (April 1943 – July 1945);  No. 227, who were reformed here at Bardney from ‘A’ flight of No. 9 Sqn and ‘B’ flight of 619 Sqn, staying for two weeks in October 1944; and finally No. 189 Sqn (April – October 1945) – all three squadrons operated the Lancaster MKI and MKIII.

During their stay here, No. 9 Sqn operated as part of 5 Group Bomber Command, using the Squadron code ‘WS’, and after moving in from nearby Waddington, they carried out a number of operations into the German heartland losing fifty-nine aircraft during 1943, half of which were whilst based here at Bardney.

The first fatality occurred on April 30th, when Lancaster III WS-R, ‘KD838’ was lost without trace in an operation to Essen. None of the seven crew members were ever found nor was there ever any trace of the aircraft.

9 Squadron was a mix of nationalities: British, Australian, Canadian, Rhodesian and Trinidadian. As with KD838, a large number of these crews were lost without trace, and as such, have no known grave – their memories being carved into the walls of the Runnymede Memorial.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

Lancaster Mk III, ED831 ‘WS-H’, of No 9 Squadron RAF, flown by Squadron Leader A M Hobbs RNZAF and his crew, at Bardney. © IWM (CH 10405)

In the dying stages of the war, Bardney was used by the RAF’s Bomber Command Film Unit, flying Lancasters and Mosquitoes, the unit was itself eventually disbanded at Upwood later in the same year.

Post war Bardney was used  as a Thor missiles base by No. 106 Squadron (July 1959 – May 1963), before its eventual closure and final disposal.

A planning application was originally submitted in September 2016 for a:

“Change of use and conversion of existing agricultural land and associated outbuildings to provide an outdoor activities centre providing archery, air rifle shooting, axe throwing, combat archery and zombie training, and the construction of earth bunds to a maximum height of 3.0metres (bunds already constructed), in accordance with the amended plans received by the Local Planning Authority on 15th November 2016”.

Objections were put forward by local people and comments made by other interested bodies such as Environmental Health, Health and Safety and the Economic Development Team. Permission was initially granted in December that year. There are certain conditions in the terms of the decision, but it seems more than likely that the development will progress as planned.

The proposal and supporting documents can be found on the East Lindsey District Council Planning site.

The story first appeared in ‘Lincolnshire Live‘ news report on May 27th 2017.

RAF Cottam – Built and Abandoned.

Up in the Yorkshire Wolds stands an airfield that could have been considered as one the Air Ministry’s ‘less sensible’ decisions. Open to the elements, this site was built but never fully used by an operational flying unit, in fact, Cottam could be considered one of the RAF’s more expensive bomb dumps, used primarily for munitions storage toward the war’s end. In its construction it would have accommodation, a hangar, and a watch office, along with three concrete runways – all the makings of an RAF bomber base, yet it was often desolate and empty. Even though it wasn’t used operationally, it did have its own problems however, and its own casualties . As we head across the River Humber into the East Riding of Yorkshire, we visit the former RAF airfield, RAF Cottam.

RAF Cottam.

Designed originally as a satellite for RAF Driffield, Cottam airfield lies high up in the hills on Cottam Well Dale, about 5 miles north of Driffield, just a stones throw from the village of Langtoft, and the tiny parish of Cottam. At 475 ft. above sea level, it is one of the higher peaks in the area which makes it popular with dog walkers and ramblers alike.

The airfield site encompasses the site of the ancient village of Cottam, (on maps of the late 1600s it appears as Cotham) of which only the church remains.  A lone building, it stands neglected and derelict, a reminder of a small community that has long since gone.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The abandoned medieval church marks the boundary of Cottam airfield and a community long gone.

The Air Ministry decided to build an airfield here to be used as a satellite and possible bomber base. The airfield would have a watch office with detached operations block (the separate block designed to drawing 13023/41). As construction was completed before June 1941, it would be classed as a Type ‘A’ building, and would need to be modified to bring it up to the newer Type ‘B’ standard as were being built on later airfield sites. Under the Type ‘B’ scheme, Cottam would have a Watch Office built to design 13726/41, then adapted by the fitting of smaller ‘slit’ windows more in line with bomber and O.T.U. satellite airfields of that time (15683/41). Sadly, the entire building was demolished in 1980, and no there are no signs of its existence left on site today.

A single T1 hangar provided space for aircraft repairs and maintenance, and accommodation, although sparse, would accommodate around 1000 men and 120 women of the Maintenance Command by December 1944.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The remains of the secondary runway looking west.

Cottam officially opened in September 1939, and as a grassed airfield, would only be used for dispersed aircraft from Driffield’s 4 Group Bomber Command, flying Whitleys of 77 and 102 Sqn. Cottam was also used later on for the Fairy Battles of 4 Group Target Towing Flight (4G T.T.F.) also based at Driffield at that time.

It wouldn’t be long though before Cottam would have its first accident. On July 1st 1940, a dispersed aircraft, Whitley V, (N1391) ‘DY-H’ of 102 Sqn, swung on take off causing minor damage to the aircraft. Luckily there weren’t thought to be any casualties in the incident, but the aircraft was rendered unable to fly, and the damage was sufficiently serious to need it to be taken away for repairs.

A month later, the 15th August 1940, signified a major point in the Battle of Britain, one which saw all of the Luftwaffe’s air fleets deployed for the first time, in a full and coordinated attack on the British mainland. This day saw the heaviest fighting of the Battle with attacks ranging from the south coast to east Yorkshire, and up to Edinburgh. This also meant the start of a number of attacks on British airfields and Driffield would not be left out. In this first attack, a Luftwaffe force of some 50 Junkers Ju 88s attacked the airfield damaging or destroying 12 aircraft on the ground – many of these were Whitleys. This attack was particularly devastating for a number of reasons, one of which was that it caused the first death on active service of a Bomber Command W.A.A.F., (A.C.W.2) Marguerite Hudson, who was killed after delivering stores to the site. This attack caused extensive damage to both the airfield site, infrastructure, and aircraft, and for a short period whilst repairs were undertaken, some aircraft were moved and dispersed here at Cottam. Indeed, on 27th September 1940, 4 Group T.T.F moved over to Cottam where they stayed for a month, not returning until the 24th October, once repairs had been completed and air attacks had all but ceased.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The secondary runway looking east, this part is full width but built upon.

It is possible that these attacks may have led to the demise of one 77 Sqn Whitley V (N1355) ‘KN-X’ flown by Sgt. James Walter Ward RAFVR (741435), who undershot on landing at Cottam, hitting a fence, causing the undercarriage to later collapse. The five occupants of the aircraft were unhurt, but the aircraft itself was later struck off charge on 22nd September 1940, after assessment at Armstrong Whitworth in Baginton*1. Ward himself was killed with his crew only five days later, when his aircraft, Whitley V, (N1473) was shot down by flak over Noord Brabant, 2km from Vijfhuizen, on September 25th 1940. He died along with P/O C. Montague, himself a veteran of three previous serious crashes.

By the end of August 1940, both 77 and 102 Sqns had departed Driffield and so Cottam, which left it only being used by the Fairy Battles of 4 G T.T.F. During the winter months Cottam was abandoned by these aircraft, presumably due to its inclement weather conditions, but dispersed aircraft did return again in the spring and summer months. In October 1941, 4G T.T.F. reformed at Driffield as 1484 T.T.F., and it is at this point that it is thought their use of Cottam ceased.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The perimeter track looking east. The main airfield is to your left.

Under the Ministry’s airfield expansion plan, new airfields of the early 40s were built with concrete surfaces. ‘Older’ grass sites, like Cottam, were upgraded having new runways laid down in an effort to reduce water logging and provide a more stable surface for the heavier bomber aircraft coming in. To meet these upgrades Cottam’s three runways – all consisting of concrete and wood chip – were built; the main being just short of 5,300 ft., with the two further runways around 4,000 ft. in length. Pan style aircraft dispersals were also added which gave Cottam a new look and hope for the future. However, and even though huge amounts of money had been spent on the airfield, it was decided it was not to be used further, as either a satellite or a bomber station. Cottam was offered to various other military groups who all turned down the location for various reasons. The army did take up residency for a short while until March 1944, whereupon it was then used to store vehicles for the impending invasion of Normandy.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

Blocks from the former site, and the beautiful views across the Wolds from one of the highest peaks in the area.

It is believed that further forced landings took place at Cottam during this time. Firstly, a damaged B-24 ‘Liberator’ came down after sustaining damage on a raid; and secondly, it is also thought that a Halifax landed here after an S.O.E. mission. Sadly at present, I can find no further official details of these events, and cannot therefore expand on them further.

Toward the end of the year 91 Maintenance Unit (M.U.) were based here*2 using the runways and hardstandings to store ammunition and other stores that were delivered by road from the rail yard at Driffield. A spell of residency for 244 Maintenance Unit carried on the storage work before the airfield was finally abandoned and closed in June 1954.

Returned to agriculture, the airfield is mostly gone, a section of the easy-west runway does still exist, and in part, at full width. Footpaths allow for walks across the site allowing views along the runway in both directions, they also allow walkers to use the remains of the perimeter track and secondary runway – albeit as a track. The frame of an air-raid shelter and the standby set house (designed to drawing 13244/41) are in situ, although by far the runways are the most prominent feature surviving today.

Access is best made from the Cottam Lane junction. The path leads up through the site of the medieval village of Cottam where the church still stands. This takes you south onto the airfield site itself and along the two runways. The walk extends along the perimeter track to the south, where debris from the perimeter track can also be seen.

Built high on the Wolds of Yorkshire, it is hard to understand why such a site was chosen. In winter, it could be bleak, windy and very cold. Landing conditions must have been difficult at best, and treacherous at worst. Its history of accidents tell their own tale.

In 2016, Cottam Airfield was the subject of a wind farm review, and a battle between the locals and the energy firm R.W.E, began. As yet though the site remains free of turbines, a gem for walkers and those wishing to experience the natural beauty of the Yorkshire Wolds. The open air and fabulous views hide a strange history, one that goes back long before the Second World War, but one that has only scars to tell the tale in this oddly historical, but beautiful part of Yorkshire. *3

Source and further reading:

*1 This was reported on a number of sites (Air Safety Network) but no records could be found referring to the accident in the Operational Records Book recorded by 77 Squadron at that time.

*2 See the National Archives website for details.

*3 News report on the proposal.

The Hull and East Riding at War Website has a range of information on the area during the Second World War.

My thanks go to Ronnie and Jo for the great walk, and for being such fabulous hosts. 

RAF Martlesham Heath (part 2) – A long and distinguished history.

In part two of this Trail, we continue looking at the history of RAF Martlesham Heath.

RAF Martlesham Heath (Station 369).

On August 15th 1944, two P-47s flying more than 200 miles off course mistakenly attacked the Ninth Air Force headquarters near to Laval. In the attack, ground gun crews managed to bring down one of the aircraft killing its pilot. The second aircraft managed to avoid the anti-aircraft fire and returned home safely.

For three days in September, the 356th attacked enemy gun emplacements at Arnhem, earning themselves a DUC for their actions. These aircraft had the unenviable task of attacking the gun emplacements defending the allied drop zones. In order to neutralise the guns, the pilots first had to find them, a move that involved presenting themselves as bait. They proved their worth, bombing and strafing with 260lb fragmentation bombs, destroying all but two of the guns.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

Martlesham Heath’s Watch Office now a museum surrounded by housing.

In November 1944 the P-47s were replaced by the P-51 ‘Mustangs’, the delight of the USAAF Fighter Groups. Early successes were good, even though they were tainted with repeated and wide-spread gun jamming.

The winter of 1944-45 was notoriously bad, one of the worst on record and many flights were cancelled at the last-minute. Maintenance on open airfields was incredibly difficult and accidents increased because of cloud, ice and snow. In mid January, five P-51s were lost, crashing on snow packed runways, being lost in cloud or suffering from taxiing accidents. By now though the war had turned and the blue and red chequered nosed fighters of the USAAF had turned to hunters and were eager for blood.

By now, Luftwaffe jets had now been in service for some time, harassing bombing formations, diving in amongst them, firing and then fleeing. Three P-51s of the 356th had the good fortune to catch an Arado-234 in the Bielefield area. After the pilot bailed out, they flew along side photographing the aircraft before finally shooting it down. It was one of a number that day that were lost to American airmen.

As the war ended the 356th had seen only eighteen months of active service, a short time that had allowed them to amass 276.5 kills in the air. Whilst being the lowest ‘score’ in the US Air Force, it doesn’t detract from the determination nor the skill of the brave pilots who flew with the 356th.

After the war’s end, the Americans departed and in November 1945, Martlesham Heath was returned to RAF ownership.

In 1946, experimental units returned with the forming of the Armament and Instrument Experimental Unit. Over the next few years they would go through several changes of name , but in essence retained their primary role. During this period, they would operate a small number of aircraft including amongst them: Mosquito NF38 (VT654); Meteor F4 (VW308); Lincoln B1 (RE242); Canberra T4 (WE189) and Comet 3B (XP915).

On November 1st 1949, the Bomb Ballistic Unit (formed May 1944 at Woodbridge) and Blind Landing Experimental Units (formed October 1945 also at Woodbridge) were amalgamated, forming one complete unit (the Bomb Ballistic and Blind Landing Experimental Unit) here at Martlesham Heath. They each operated a number of twin and four engined aircraft that would be absorbed into the Armament and Instrument Experimental Unit 15 days later. On November 1st 1955 RAF control of the unit ceased, and it was re-branded Armament and Instrument Experimental Establishment, whereupon it ran until 1st July 1957, when it was disbanded and absorbed into the Royal Aircraft Establishment.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

A number of the ‘H’ blocks have been given a new lease of life as office blocks. The parade ground, the car park.

With little operationally occurring at Martlesham, its decline was inevitable. Between 15th April 1958, and New Years Eve 1960, 11 Group Communications Flight operated: two Ansons (TX193 & WB453); a Devon (VP974); a Meteor T7 (WL378) and Chipmunk T.10 (WG465). Following their disbandment the only other flying units to use Martlesham were the then Hurricane and four Spitfires of the Battle of Britain Flight (now the legendary Battle of Britain Memorial Flight based at RAF Coningsby) between 1958 and 1961. The 612 Glider School also used the site between September 1952 and May 1963, whereupon they disbanded and the airfield then closed. Remaining intact, the airfield would continue to be used but for light private flying only, until this also finally ceased in 1979.

Following its closure, Martlesham Heath’s 600 acres were handed over to the Bradford Property Trust following the reversion of the lease from the Air Ministry, and because of its location to both the larger town of Ipswich and the major sea port at Felixstowe, it was destined for development. It was declared by the new owners that Martlesham would become a ‘village’, rather than a traditional ‘housing estate’ in which the concept of small groups of housing would be built, often around a cul-de-sac rather than in rows, thus promoting a ‘community spirit’ within each segment of the development. Planning permission was granted in 1973, ten years after the Ministry sold it off, the development was finally completed in 1990.*2

On its completion Martlesham was designated a village, and since then the original 3,500 population has grown, in 2011, the Martlesham Neighbourhood Development Plan stated the population of the Parish at 5,478.

Today Martlesham Heath is a thriving mix of private housing, industrial and retail units, reflecting this ‘Garden Village’ design. Two major employers soon moved in: the British Telecom Research Centre and Suffolk County Police – forming their headquarters on this and the adjacent land.

Beneath all this development though, elements of the ‘Heath’ do still exist, largely due to the good foresight of the developers. The parade ground (now a car park), the barrack ’H’ blocks (like West Malling are office blocks), the watch office, messes, hangars and RAF workshops all transformed into light industrial units which remain in use today.

In 1982, local people set on preserving the heritage of Martlesham Heath created the Martlesham Heath Aviation Society, and were allowed to set up their home in the former watch office. After raising funds, the office was refurbished and turned into a museum displaying many artefacts, stories and photographs of Martlesham’s history. The museum finally opened in 2000 and remains there today encircled by housing on all four sides. The spirit of Martlesham Heath also lives on in the road names. Even the Douglas Bader pub has a tenuous link to this historic place.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

The memorials to those who served at Martlesham Heath during its long and distinguished career.

Viewing the airfield remains are relatively easy as most are visible and accessible from the public highway. Finding them is another matter. The design of the streets are such that there are many paths and small side streets and ‘getting lost’ is quite easy for the visitor. The main A12 road through Martlesham dissects the airfield site in two. The museum is to the west off Eagles way, surrounded by housing – an odd remnant of a bygone era. What little remains of the runway can be seen further south off Dobbs lane, in an area of heath and scrub – a lingering reminder of this once historic airfield, how long I wonder, before this too is removed.

The hangars and barrack blocks are to the eastern side, mostly among the retail park. The three memorials are located on Barrack Road opposite the BT building and alongside the former parade ground and ‘H’ blocks.

Now listed locally and with Suffolk Coastal District Council, many of the remaining but obscure remnants (airfield markers, hangar foundations, revetments, and the last remains of the runway) all lie dormant amongst the footpaths, cycle tracks and parks of the huge Martlesham Heath conurbation that was once RAF Martlesham Heath.

Notes and further reading

*2 Ward, S.V., The Garden City, past, Present and Future,  1992, Spon Press

RAF Martlesham Heath (Part 1) – a long and distinguished history.

On the outskirts of Ipswich close to the former Cold War bases at Woodbridge and Bentwaters, is what is perhaps a model of the future, of many of our wartime airfields. Built upon with town housing hidden in the ‘Village’ idea, it is a place with major industry and retail parks, where the few remains that exist are hidden amongst the pathways and roads of this large conurbation. However, not all is lost, a museum and modern use of many of its original structures ensure the history of this once busy airfield are not lost forever.  In Trail 40 we head to the southern reaches of East Anglia, to the the outskirts of Ipswich and the former site that was once RAF Martlesham Heath.

RAF Martlesham Heath (Station 369).

Martlesham Heath was opened in 1917, and until it closed in 1963, was the home to a very large number of military units. It was also used by a number of aircraft experimental units, each one investigating the various aspects of aircraft and weapons designs needed in a modern air force. These investigations were carried out initially by the RFC Aeroplane Experimental Station and latterly the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE). Also present at Martlesham were the Armament & Instrument Experimental Unit, the Air Sea Rescue units, and the Battle of Britain Flight (now the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight based at RAF Coningsby). In addition, a Gunnery flight was also based here, as were gliders and numerous squadrons flown by a whole range of Nationalities including: Belgian, Czech, Polish, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and American airmen. With all these units came a broad and diverse range of aircraft types. Its history is certainly long and very, very distinguished.

The dawn of aviation happened at Martlesham Heath when it officially opened on January 16th, 1917.  During that year, the Aircraft Testing Squadron would arrive here from its base at Upavon to be joined on March 16th 1920 by the Armament Experimental Station from Orfordness. The amalgamation of these two aircraft experimental units would set the foundations for Britain’s future research and development organisation. This marriage, forged the name the Aeroplane Experimental Establishment (Home) until 24th March 1924, when it disbanded to become the better known Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE), who carried out their work here, at Martlesham Heath, until the outbreak of war in 1939. 

A number of both civilian and military aircraft were tested here, one of the most notable being the enormous all-metal tri-engined transport, the Beardmore Inflexible. Designed by William Beardmore, it had a wing span of 157 feet – 16 feet longer than Boeing B-29. Other aircraft included the 4.F1 ‘Taper Wing’ Camel, a sole example was produced with simplified wing-struts in an attempt to reduce drag and improve the Camel’s performance.  Amongst others featuring at Martlesham, were the Bristol Blenheim, various Auto Gyros and the Bristol Bombay. The A&AEE would be joined in July 1923 by the reformed 22 Sqn who would undertake armament testing investigations; and then, a year later, by the reformed 15 Sqn who would carry out performance and handling trials. Both these units operated solely as trials units, flying  a notional number of aircraft including a: Boulton Paul Bugle II, Fairy Ferret, Gloster Gamecock, Vickers 161 and Hawker Horsley aircraft.

INTER WAR BRITISH AIRCRAFT

The prototype Bristol Blenheim at Martlesham Heath under evaluation. (IWM)

With the outbreak of war, all sections of the A&AEE, with one exception, was moved for its own protection, to its new base at Boscombe Down. Here its history has become renowned, and many weapons and aircraft developments have taken place since. The exception to the move, was ‘D’ Flight of the A&AEE’s Performance Testing section, who moved to Perth where it became the Royal Air Force Detachment, Perth.

Over the next few years Martlesham Heath would become a major player in the war. Some 60 or so RAF squadrons would pass through here, either permanently based here or as detachments away from their parent bases. The first of these was 64 Sqn RAF flying Hawker Demons. After a short spell abroad, they would return in 1941 with Spitfire IIAs – the first permanently based unit. Other sqn’s that would pass through in these early years included:  29 and 151 Sqn (December 1938); 110 Sqn (June 1939); 25 and 56 Sqn (October 1939);  604 Sqn (September 1939) and 236 Sqn (December 1939).

With the evacuation of the BEF and the subsequent Battle of Britain, Martlesham would become increasingly busy. During 1940 five squadrons would be based here, whilst in 1941, thirteen squadrons would pass through. This would increase to sixteen in 1942; nine in 1943 and only two in 1944; thus the number of units using Martlesham would reflect both the level of the German threat and direction that the war was moving.

Being close to London, Martlesham would play its part in the Battle of Britain. A number of gritty and determined fighter pilots would serve here, including both Group Captain Douglas Bader and Squadron Leader Bob Stanford Tuck.

Squadron Leader Stanford Tuck poses with a group of pilots of 257 Squadron, RAF © IWM (CH 1674)

On September 19th 1940, 71 Sqn was reformed at RAF Church Fenton moving to Martlesham in the following April. Made of volunteer U.S. pilots it was to be one of three ‘Eagle Squadrons’ destined to become famous before the U.S. officially entered the conflict in December 1941. (Also during this time, ‘A’ Flight of the Special Duties Flight would reside here whilst the main parent unit was located at St. Athan, until replaced by the various Radio Servicing Sections).

71 Squadron were initially provided with Brewster Buffalo MKIs, so disappointed with them were they, that it was rumoured the commanding officer ‘instructed’ his pilots to deliberately damage them so that more ‘appropriate’ aircraft would be issued*1. By the time 71 Sqn arrived at Martlesham Heath in early April 1941, these Buffaloes had been replaced and 71 Sqn  was equipped with the much superior Hurricane MKIs, followed soon afterwards, by the Hurricane MKIIA. 71 Squadron then left Martlesham in June 1941 only to return in December that year with Spitfire VBs. They finally departed in May 1942 thus ending their presence  at the ‘Heath’ for good. It wasn’t the last of the Eagle squadrons though, for a very short period of about eight days, 133 Squadron graced the grounds of this Suffolk airfield before departing to Biggin Hill and eventual amalgamation into the USAAF.

Primarily a grass stripped fighter base, Spitfires and Hurricanes were the most commonly seen aircraft here. Exceptions being the very brief visit of Tomahawks of No. 2 Sqn, Mustang MkIs of 26 and 239 Sqns, Typhoons of 198 and 182 Sqns (who were formed here in August 1942) ; Defiants of 264 Sqn; Lysander IIIA of the Air Sea Rescue Flight (formed here May 1941 and latterly 277 Sqn) and a detachment of Lysander IIs of 613 Sqn in September 1940. Thus a wide range of aircraft were to pass through Martlesham adding to the variety and diversity of its aviation history.

Many of those units to use Martlesham’s facilities were short stays, often passing through to other stations either in the U.K. or abroad. Some consisted of days whilst others were perhaps weeks.

In 1942, the airfield was designated as a U.S. Fighter base and the first real permanently stationed units would soon arrive. Following testing, they created two soil-stabilised, oil and tar mixture runways, linked together by steel pierced planking.  Also known as ‘Marston Matting’ or Perforated Steel Planking (PSP), these were strips of metal slotted together that meant no heavy excavations were needed and the tracks could be laid very quickly by small engineering teams. Once work had been undertaken, Martlesham Heath would receive the P-47s and latterly P-51s, of the 356th Fighter Group.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

Memorial to the 356th FG based at Martlesham Heath.

By the time the airfield had been developed it covered a wide area, and because of it long history, it would consist of multitude of architectural features. Many of these dated back to the First World War and included aeroplane sheds (damaged in attacks) built to various drawings (e.g. 146/16-149/16, 110/16 and 1656/18); Type A aeroplane sheds (based on 19a/24 designs); aeroplane Type B ‘Goliath’ shed (1455/27); blacksmiths and welders workshops; a range of barrack blocks; married and single officers quarters; separate RAF and USAAF latrines; workshops; blister hangars; squadron offices and a wide range of associated buildings.

Around 70 aircraft dispersals were also laid using a mix of both an unusual square, and the more common pan style hardstands.

The 356th FG, arrived here in October 1943, after a 10 month journey that began at Westover Field, Massachusetts. They arrived in England in  August 1943 transiting from Goxhill to Martlesham Heath over the following weeks. Consisting of three squadrons: the 359th, 360th and 361st FS, they would initially be equipped with P-47D ‘Thunderbolts’ lovingly referred to as ‘Jugs‘.

The main duties of the 356th FG was as fighter escort covering the heavy bombers of the American Eighth Air Force as they penetrated occupied Europe. After initial engine difficulties, the P-47 proved to be a reliable and agile workhorse, much against the stereotyped view reflected by its resemblance to a ‘flying brick’. One of the first missions the 356th carried out was to escort a mix of P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’ of the 56th FG fitted with bombs flying in conjunction with B-24 ‘Mitchells’. This new strategy became known as ‘drop-on-leader’ whereby the B-24s would sight the target, and drop their bombs as a signal to the P-47s to drop theirs. The first mission to St. Omer was to produce poor results however, the B-24 bombing mechanisms jamming which resulted in all the bombs overshooting the target.

The 356th would be active throughout the remainder of the war, initially supporting bombers until January 1944 when they took on the role of ground attack, strafing targets such as U-Boat installations, Marshalling yards, Locomotives, airfield flak units and German radar installations. In June 1944 they supported the Normandy invasion going on to assist in the allied push through France,  the low countries and on into Germany itself. With ground attack and fighter aircraft being given almost free-reign, anything that moved became a target. Avoiding civilian areas and civilian traffic was a high priority and the perceived threat of friendly fire on troops below, a distant thought in the minds of the crews. However, not everything went according to plan.

Part 2 will follow next week.

 

Notes and further reading

*1 Imperial War Museum Website

Britain’s Latest Housing Proposal

In November 2011, the Coalition Government, led by David Cameron, set out its ambitions to stimulate the development and construction sector in order to meet the rising demand for housing in England. The document ‘Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England ‘ sets out the long-term plans for tackling the current critical housing shortage.

The Government states in the document that:

In 2009/10, there were 115,000 new build housing completions in England. Meanwhile, the latest household projections suggest that the number of households will grow by 232,000 per year (average annual figure until 2033).

If this growing demand is to be met, then there needs to be both extensive investment and increased development in the housing sector.

The problem as seen by the Government is wide-reaching: Investors, developers, growing families, growth of tenants and restrictions by the lending banks were all factors that culminated in the stagnation of new housing development;  but one of the biggest issues, and probably the most contentious, is where to build these houses.

Land in the UK is at a premium, finding the right location that meets the demands both socially, geographically, and economically, is a challenge, and we’re not talking about a handful of houses here, we’re talking about thousands at any one given time.

As part of the proposals to solve these issues, the Government said it will:

– Free up public sector land with capacity to deliver up to 100,000 new homes – with ‘Build Now, Pay Later’ deals on the table, where there is market demand and where this is affordable and represents value for money, to support builders who are struggling to get finance upfront.

– We will provide more support for local areas that want to deliver larger scale new development to meet the needs of their growing communities – through locally planned large-scale development – with a programme of support for places with the ambition to support new housing development on various scales.

– We have consulted on simplifying planning policy through the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

– We are giving communities new powers to deliver the development they want through Community Right to Build.

Former defence sites especially airfields, have become prime ‘targets’ for housing development, and for a variety of reasons, (many of these have been highlighted in previous posts: Britain’s Airfields – What does the future hold?). However, they are not unique. Other ‘Brown Field’ sites, ex industrial areas, derelict housing estates and so on, are also targets and have also been identified as possible areas for development. The problem with some of these sites is clearing them, many may have contaminated soils or are just ‘inappropriate’ for housing development, and so existing land, adjacent or near to other larger conurbations, is preferred. It would now seem that this is where many of these new developments are heading. (Many of the identified sites are listed in the ‘National Land Use Database of Previously Developed Land 2012 (NLUD-PDL)‘ ).

Adding to this, the Ministry of Defence is desperate to save money and recently gave notice of its intention to close and sell off a number of active sites around the UK, again these have been highlighted previously, (Britain’s Airfields – What does the future hold?). Furthermore, with American interests in European defence also wavering, the possibility of further cuts, or condensing of their activities, is also a possibility on top of those previously identified.

With all this in mind, the Government recently outlined and published its list of the first 14 sites where new ‘Garden Villages’ will be built. One of these is directly on the former airfield at Deenethorpe whilst a second directly affects the currently active site at former Andrews Field.

Whilst neither the Deenethorpe nor Andrews Field  development proposals are new, this move certainly signifies the end of flying at Deenethorpe and certain development of one of the UK’s larger former bomber bases. It also threatens flying opportunities in Essex and risks further development on that site.

This move is a major step forward in meeting the current housing crises, but at what cost both environmentally, locally and historically? How much of the history of these sites will be lost or preserved and what does it say about preservation of historical sites in this country? This could well be the ‘thin end of the wedge’ for these old sites – only time will tell.

Further reading and links

RAF Deenethorpe appears in Trail 6

RAF Andrews Field appears in Trail 33

For a full list of the 14 sites designated for development see the BBC report .

The Deenethorpe proposal can be seen as a pdf file here.

News reports about Andrews Field can be found on the Braintree and Witham Times.

Britain’s Airfields 1944

By the end of the Second World War, there were a substantial number of airfields covering the UK, mainly used by the Royal Air Force, the United States Army Air Force, the Royal Navy and all their associated branches; they were handed back to the RAF at the end of the war as the various forces were pulled out. Some were used as POW or repatriation camps, some were used to store surplus aircraft, vehicles or ordinance; many were put into care and maintenance whilst the RAF decided their ultimate fate.

Thankfully a few have lasted as airfields and are even fulfilling that role today, sadly though, many were dug up, their runways used for hardcore, the buildings demolished and the events that occurred there reserved for the history books.

The scale and pace of development was massive. The size of these sites bigger than many of the villages they took their names from, the populations larger than many towns of the time. Architecturally they changed the landscape dramatically.

Today as they dwindle away, many are mere names, locals have little knowledge of their existence, memorials are being forgotten, and life is moving on.

As a little reminder of those times and to put the scale of development into perspective, here are two maps held by the British Library that show the main Royal Air Force and Royal Navy airfields as of 31st December 1944.

The two maps, divide the UK and show not only the airfields but satellites as well. They also show Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Water Airfields, and Royal Air Force Moorings. There are a number of sites not included on the map such as relief landing grounds, and training schools, but they do give an indication of the number of airfields that covered the UK by the end of the war.

These are both low resolution pictures, and copyright is held by the British Library who have given permission for them to be reproduced here.

Security Released Airfields in the United Kingdom (Sheet 1)
Security Released Airfields in the United Kingdom (Sheet 2)

© The British Library, Maps MOD GSGS Misc. 505 (sheet 1 and Sheet 2)

Britain’s Airfields – What does the future hold?

There has been a recent ‘spate’ of developments with planning applications that affect Britain’s wartime heritage, and in particular the airfields that were used during the Second World War.

With land at a premium, a housing crisis that is growing, these sites are becoming more and more handsome as development opportunities. Many have a ready-made infrastructure, many are open fields and as such, prime agricultural or development land. So what does the future hold for Britain’s heritage?

We have seen applications submitted or at least interest shown, for the former: RAF Kings Cliffe, RAF Downham Market, RAF West Raynham, RAF Denethorpe and RAF Coltishall, further applications have now been seen affecting former RAF Dunsfold, RAF Bourn and RAF Wellesbourne Mountford.

We also know that the USAF have given notice of withdrawal from their major UK base at RAF Mildenhall, the smaller site at RAF Molesworth and the remaining site at RAF Alconbury. The Government has already announced it will be selling these sites for housing after the military withdrawal in 2020-23. These three sites form part of an estimated £500m sell-off that would also include: RAF Barnham (Suffolk), Kneller Hall (Twickenham), Claro and Deverell Barracks (Ripon), Lodge Hill (Kent), Craigiehall (Edinburgh), HMS Nelson Wardroom (Portsmouth), Hullavington Airfield (Wiltshire) and MOD Felton (London). Changes at RAF Lakenheath will also see job losses through streamlining of operations.

It is estimated that the 12 sites could accommodate an estimated 15,000 homes with Alconbury having 5,000 alone.

The former airfield and barracks at RAF Waterbeach is also subject to planning proposals, and the Bassingbourn barracks near Cambridge is also under the development spotlight. The recent closure of Manston (a vital Second World War airfield) has led to speculation of its future both as an airfield (possibly London’s third) and as a development opportunity. These are perhaps just a few of the prime areas of land that are now becoming the focus of planners and developers alike.

There are many variables in this heated and long-lasting debate, in fact far too many to raise and discuss here. Strong feelings exist both toward and against the idea of development and it is certainly not a new one. Employment, jobs, environment, heritage, housing etc, they all create discussion and a strong case for both arguments, but the debate here is not “should we build or not” this is quite frankly, inevitable and in many cases much-needed, no, it’s more how can we meet the needs of an ever-growing population with the needs to preserve historically important sites that form the very thread of today’s society.

We have a dynamic population, and as health care improves, social mobility increases and a growing desire to own our own home increases, the need for more housing, affordable homes and homes for rent also increases. We are an ageing population, care homes, schools for our children and hospitals for the sick are all in much greater need. Where do we build them?

Whilst housing demands have always been with us and the need for more housing an all important one, the recent developments suggest that these old airfields could become prime land to meet these future housing needs.

Many of the current Second World War airfields are now either industrial conurbations or agricultural areas. Most have little or no remnants of their former lives visible, and certainly not widely accessible. Many argue that these sites are scrub, derelict and in need of development, and some indeed are. A proportion of the more recently used sites, are ‘mothballed’ or in part operating aviation related activities. They cover huge areas and have a ready-made infrastructure such were the designs of war and post war airfields. These sites also contain extensive dereliction, primarily due to being left and allowed to decay by their owners. Vandalism and pilfering has left them rotting like carcasses of forgotten wild animals. Where industry has been operating, contaminates have seeped into the soils, damaging flora and fauna growth; some so severe that they are rendered too difficult to reclaim as ‘Green Space’. Certainly on paper, they offer good sources for today’s desperate housing stock.

However, balance this against the historical and cultural importance of these places and the argument becomes a little blurred at the seams. Had it not been for the people who came to this country from all over the world to fight the Nazi tyranny in the war years 1939-45, then Britain and Europe would probably not be the Europe we know today. Many thousands of people gave their lives during those dark days, and for many of them, these airfields were their last homes, cold, often draughty huts on the outskirts of some bleak airfield. Their dedication helped form the very society we live in today, the democracy and freedom of speech we so enjoy and relish, the open spaces where we can walk our dog without fear and in freedom. The fact that we can have this very debate, is in itself, testament to those who came here never to return. The very nature and fabric of our local communities has been built around the ‘friendly invasion’ the acceptance of others into our quaint life and idyllic life-styles. Influences from other nations and cultures grew and developed as a result of those who came here from far and wide to give up their lives.

These sites have become monuments to them, their lives and deaths, many still have no known grave; many simply ‘disappeared’ such was the ferocity of the explosion that killed them. The design of Britain’s airfields are architecturally significant to our heritage, buildings were designed to fulfil a purpose and just like our castles and stately homes, they are monuments to a significant period of not only British, but world history. Our education system, includes this very period as a subject for discussion, debate and analysis. To build over such sites without due regard to them would be a travesty, and one that we would regret in the future. To paraphrase that well-known quote; If we are to learn from our mistakes then we need to remember the past. The Second World War is still, for the moment, in living memory, the veterans and civilians who survived it are dwindling in numbers and very soon their memories will be lost for ever. Each day brings news of a lost veteran or a newly discovered story. If we don’t acknowledge the value of these places, if we don’t plan for their ‘preservation’ then both we and our future generations, will be the ones to regret it.

So where do we go from here? The plans published for RAF West Raynham and RAF Coltishall take into account the nature of these sites, they are sympathetic to their historical value and acknowledge the sacrifices made. West Raynham utilises the very buildings that were created, thus keeping the atmosphere for those who wish to visit. Small museums create a record, first hand experiences and artefacts, all valuable records for the education of future generations. But both of these are unique. Both closed in more recent history, they have retained their structures whereas many older sites have had theirs long since demolished.

It is a delicate balance, and as sad as it would be to see them go, there has to be legislation to create compromise. Sympathetic developments have to be the way forward, acknowledgement of the sacrifice has to be high on the agenda. Many of the airfields I have been too have no museum, no memorial barely even a signpost. Surely this is wrong.

If we are to preserve our fragile heritage, we need to consider the implications of the planning process, to look at the value of these sites as both suitable housing and significant historical areas, the sacrifice of the many needs to be acknowledged and it needs to be done soon.

Sources and Further Reading.

Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England ” HM Gov, November 2011

Stimulating housing supply – Government initiatives (England)” House of Commons Library, 9 December 2014

The “Get Surrey” news report issued on January 5th 2016 relating to Dunsfold can be found here.

Then latest news from “Cambridge News” December 16th 2015 can be found here.

The “Stratford-Upon-Avon Herald” January 6th 2016 front page story about Wellesbourne can be found here. (This may be a limited time link).

The latest news on RAF Mildenhall and Lakenheath published by the BBC, 18th January 2016 can be found here.

401st BG, reputedly “The best damned outfit in the USAAF!”

Deenethorpe saw action by 4 squadrons from the 401st Bombardment group, reputedly the “The best damned outfit in the USAAF”. They flew 254 combat missions and received two Distinguished unit Citations. They had the best bombing accuracy of the mighty Eighth and one of the lowest loss ratios of any USAAF unit. However, a local disaster and inauspicious start, did not mean it was all plain sailing.

RAF Deenethorpe (Station 128)

Deenethorpe October 1942, taken by No. 8 OTU (RAF/FNO/166). English Heritage (RAF Photography). The memorial is to the bottom right*1

Constructed in 1942/43 as a Class ‘A’ airfield, it would have three concrete runways, a main of 2,000 yds and two secondary both 1,400 yds. The main runway ran in a north-east to south-west direction whilst the two secondary runways ran north-west to south-east and east-west respectively. The airfield was built adjacent to the (now) main A427 Weldon to Upper Benefield road and had around 50 loop style hardstands for aircraft dispersal.

For maintenance of the heavy bombers, two ‘T2’ hangars were sited on the airfield, one to the south-eastern corner and the second to the west, next to the apex of the ‘A’. Fuel stores were in the southern and northern sections, away form the technical site located to the south-east. Accommodation sites for 421 Officers and 2,473 enlisted men were also to the south-east beyond the road. Initially used by the RAF as a training base, it was quickly adopted by the USAAF and personnel soon moved in.

The main inhabitants of Deenethorpe were the four squadrons of the 401st BG, 94th Combat Wing, 1st Air Division. This Division, operated from nine airfields, in this Peterborough-Cambridge-Northampton triangle with three further fields to the south-east of Cambridge. A small cluster of sites located close together but away from the main 2nd and 3rd Air Divisions of Norfolk and Suffolk.

The 401st were a short-term unit operating until the end of the war; although they did go on to serve post war in the 1950s following reactivation. Originally constituted on March 20th 1943, they moved through various training airfields eventually arriving in England in October/November 1943.

B-17 Flying Fortress SC-O (42-97487) “Hangover Haven” of the 612th BS/401st BG after crash landing at Deenethorpe, 3rd October 1944*2

The four squadrons of the 401st, the 612th, 613th, 614th and 615th, all flew B-17Gs and operated with  the codes ‘SC’, ‘IN’, ‘IW’ and ‘IY’ respectively.  Using a tail code of a white ‘S’ in a black triangle, a yellow band was later added across the fin (prior to September 1943, the tail fin codes were reversed, i.e. black ‘S’ in a white triangle as in the above photo). The ground forces arrived via Greenock sailing on the Queen Mary, whilst the air echelon flew the northern routes via Iceland. Their introduction into the war would be a swift one.

The primary role of the 401st would be to attack strategic targets, such as submarine pens, ship building sites, heavy industrial units, marshalling yards and other vital transport routes. Many of these were heavily defended either by flak or by fighter cover, much of which was very accurate and determined.

On the 26th November 1943 they would fly their first mission – Bremen, headed by their commanding officer Colonel Harold W. Bowman. It was not to be an auspicious start though. With 24 crews briefed, engines started at 08:00, twenty-four B-17s rolled along the perimeter track to their take off positions at the head of the northern end of the main runway.

It was then that B-17 “Penny’s Thunderhead” 42-31098, of the 614th BS, slipped of the perimeter track trapping the following aircraft, commanded by the Station Commander Major Seawell, behind it. Then a further incident occurred where aircraft 42-39873, “Stormy Weather” suffered brake failure and collided into the tail of 42-31091 “Maggie“, severely damaging the tail. Four crews were out of action before the first mission had even starte. Bad luck was not to stop there. Once over the target, cloud obscured vision and whilst on the bomb run “Fancy Nancy“, 42-37838, collided with another B17 from the 388thBG. “Fancy Nancy” was luckily able to return to England, but severely damaged it could only make RAF Detling in Kent where it crash landed. So severe was the damage, that it could only be salvaged for parts and scrap. The mission report for the day shows that the ball turret gunner lost his life in the incident, the turret being cut free from the fuselage. A further gunner was wounded by flak and a third suffered frost injuries to his face.

On their second mission, the 401st were able to claim their first kill. A FW-190 was hit over the target at Solingen and the aircraft destroyed, but their luck was not necessarily about to change.

Within a matter of weeks the 401st were to have yet another set back and it was only due to the quick thinking of the crew that casualties were kept to a minimum. On December 5th 1943, mission 3 for the 401st, target Paris; B-17 42-39825, “Zenobia” crashed on take off coming to rest in nearby Deenethorpe village. The uninjured crew vacated the burning aircraft and warned the villagers of an impending explosion. Fire crews and colleagues rushed to the scene, and the two remaining injured crewmen were safely pulled out. Twenty minutes after the initial crash, the aircraft, full of fuel and bombs, finally exploded destroying a number of properties along with the fire tender. The explosion was so enormous, it was heard nine miles away.

The crew of the B17 which crashed on the village of Deenthorpe. L-R. T/Sgt William D Woodward, (t/t), Sergeant Waldon D Cohen, (b/t), Sergeant Harold J Kelsen, (w/g), Sergeant Robert V Kerr, (t/g), S/Sgt Benjamin C Misser, (r/o), and Lieutenant Walter B Keith, talking to Captain RJ White, who rescued the navigator Lieutenant King. The navigator and bomb-aimer are still in hospital, recovering from injuries. *3

The new year however, brought new luck. During operations in both January and February 1944 against aircraft production facilities, the 401st were awarded two DUCs for their action and as part of the 1st Air Division, they would be awarded a Presidential Citation. The 401st attacked many prestige targets during their time at Deenethorpe including: Schweinfurt, Brunswick, Berlin, Frankfurt, Merseburg and Cologne, achieving an incredible 30 consecutive missions without the loss of a single crew member.

Like many of their counterparts, they would go on to support the Normandy invasion, the break out at St Lo. the Siege of Brest and the airborne assault in Holland. They attacked communication lines in the Battle of the Bulge and went on to support the Allied crossing into Hitler’s homeland over the Rhine.

The 401st performed many operations, 254 in total. Their last being on April 20th 1945 to the Marshalling yards at Brandenburg. During the mission, B17 “Der Grossarschvogel” (The Big Ass Bird) was shot down. Five crew members were killed in the crash and several others, who had managed to escape, were beaten by civilians almost killing two of them. Ironically, they were ‘saved’ by Luftwaffe personnel, and in one case, even freed although the orders had been to shoot him.

These were not to be the last 401st fatalities though. On May 5th 1945, VE day of all days, Sgt G. Kinney was hit by the spinning propeller of a taxying B17 killing him; a devastating end to operational activities at Deenethorpe.

On June 20th, the 401st vacated Deenethorpe, returning via the same route that they came and were  then disbanded in the US. Deenethorpe was returned to RAF ownership and retained until the 1960s when it was sold off. The standard design 12779/41 tower was demolished in 1996 and the remainder of site returned to agriculture. All major buildings have been removed as have two of the three runways. The main one still exists today for light aircraft and microlights, as does most of the perimeter track – but as a mere fraction of its former self.

Whilst there is little to see of this once enormous airfield, best views can be obtained from the main road the A427 Weldon to Upper Benefield road. A few miles along from Weldon on your left is the airfield. Stop at the memorial. The original control tower, now gone, stood proud, visible from here beyond the memorial. The technical site would be to your right, and you would be looking almost straight down the secondary runway to your left. The communal and accommodation sites were directly behind you and traces of these can be seen but only as building footings. In the distance you can see the modern-day hangars used to store the microlights,

Access to this area is restricted, prior permission being needed before entering the site, records show that there have been a number of ‘incidents’ with landowners and users of the airfield. So what little remains is best viewed from here.

The memorial is flanked by two flags, is neat and well cared for. The runway layout is depicted on the memorial stone and it proudly states the achievements of the 401st. I am led to believe the ‘Wheatsheaf’ pub further along was the haunt of many an American airman and has a ‘401 bar’ with photos and memorabilia. I was not able to visit this  unfortunately and cannot therefore verify this. Definitely one for another day!

DSC_0155

Modern activity at Deenethorpe

Deenethorpe is one of those airfields that has quietly slipped away, the passage of time leaving only simple scars on the landscape. This once busy and prestigious airfield now nothing more than rubble and fields with a memorial to mark the brave actions, the death and the sacrifice made by crews of the United States Army Air Force so long ago.

A BBC news report covered the planting of a time capsule in June 2011, when the widow of Tom Parker (the last of the 401st Bombardment Squadron crew, that flew the B-17 plane “Lady Luck” out of Deenethorpe), kept their promise that whoever was last would bring a collection of tankards back to Deenethorpe with their own personal stories.  The tankards were a gift from the pilot of Lady Luck, Lt Bob Kamper who presented them to the crew at a reunion in 1972. Mr Parker, the last member of the crew, sadly died in March 2011.

May their stories live on forever more.

The BBC news report can be found here.

Deenethorpe falls under Northampton County Council, and like Kings Cliffe in the same area, has been the subject of planning applications. It is proposed that the airfield be removed and all flying activity stopped. A Garden Village will be built on the site, and the area landscaped accordingly. The proposal can be found here.

Deenethorpe was originally visited in Trail 6, ‘American Ghosts‘, from here we go onto an airfield that saw action involving a large numbers of paratroopers, we go to Spanhoe Lodge.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from IWM American Air Museum In Britain.

*2 Photo Roger Freeman Collection, from IWM American Air Museum In Britain. FRE 8079

*3 Photo Roger Freeman Collection, from IWM American Air Museum In Britain. FRE 2218

The 401st BG website contain a vast amount of information about crews, aircraft and missions of the 401st. It can be accessed here.

I highly recommend the book, “The B-17 Flying Fortress Story“, by Roger Freeman, published by Arms and Armour, 1998. Some aspects may have been updated, but the detail is incredible and a worthwhile investment for anyone interested in this area.

RAF King’s Cliffe – buildings not recommended for listing.

A recent assessment of the remaining buildings on the former RAF King’s Cliffe airfield, Northamptonshire, has not proven to be as positive as one had hoped for. The result could open the door to future development of the site and ultimately the permanent loss of these buildings as a result.

Oakington Pillbox Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

One of the rarer Oakington Pillboxes deemed not to be of Historical interest.

King’s Cliffe (originally visited in Trail 6) was the station for a number of RAF and USAAF units flying P-38s and P-51s amongst them . They operated as fighter escort for the heavy bombers of the Eighth, seeking out targets of opportunity, particularly enemy locomotives, as enemy fighters reduced in numbers. It was also the site of Glenn Miller’s final hangar concert, for which a memorial has been erected on the base of the hanger structure.

Closed post war, it was returned to agriculture, and the runways removed for hardcore. A few buildings still remain including: aircraft pens, pillboxes, the Battle headquarters and a rather dilapidated watch office. Away from the airfield site, the chapel and other small accommodation buildings survive in modern use. King’s Cliffe has certainly taken its share of post war degradation.

This survey was initiated following the successful planing application made for Jacks Green; the area to the southern side of the airfield around the Glenn Miller Memorial. This application has been granted (see here and the media reports here), and development is due to proceed. This combined with the findings of the survey by Historic England, won’t help the long-term future of King’s Cliffe’s buildings, and it may have further implications for the preservation of the site as a whole.

Historic England,  submitted their report to the Secretary of State who has deemed that the remaining buildings, including those mentioned, are not suitable for classification as “historically significant” and therefore will not be added to the list of  Buildings of Historical interest and so ‘listed’.

 Under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic interest; buildings that are deemed to be significant in terms of their architecture, historical importance or rarity, can be classified.

The full report can be accessed via the Historical England Website, but the key points they highlight are thus:

1. The Watch Office:

The report highlights the fact that of the 18 different models constructed, there are 220 examples still surviving today,  with many of them surviving in a better condition.

At King’s Cliffe the watch office (type Watch Office for Night Fighter Stations FCW4514) is a windowless shell, with some of its internal walls demolished and its balcony rails missing. There are no internal features. It is a poignant and dramatic ruin, but its condition precludes designation.

2. The Battle Headquarters:

At the time of the survey, the building was flooded and so access was inhibited, but it is thought that it is unlikely to contain anything of historical or architectural significance. Again Historic England state that there are better preserved examples on other sites around the UK.

The report states:

At King’s Cliffe, much of the essential wartime context has been lost with the removal of its runways and hangers. Moreover, the interior of the structure, which is flooded currently and effectively inaccessible, is unlikely to retain fixtures and fittings of interest. Together, these considerations mean that King’s Cliffe’s Battle HQ cannot be recommended as an addition to the List.

3. Fighter Pens:

Built to protect fighters and crews from attack, with soil mounds, brick walls and protectives rifle slits, there are a variety of these structures surviving today around the UK. More significant examples can be found at Battle of Britain airfields for example, and whilst those at King’s Cliffe were important, they are in mixed condition and according to the report, not of significant value.

The report states:

Elsewhere, however, the pens are very degraded or part demolished. The fact that only a proportion of the fighter pens survival relatively well as an ensemble, and that much of the essential wartime context has been lost with the removal of the runways and hangers, means that King’s Cliffe’s fighter pens cannot be recommended as additions to the List.

4. Pillboxes:

There are a small quantity of pillboxes around the airfield site and these represent a minute number of the 28,000 constructed in defence of the UK. Rarer examples are more likely to be selected for listing than the more common examples. Those found at King’s Cliffe are the Oakington style, a rarer model of which only 61 have been recorded by the English Heritage Monuments Protection Programme. Some of these have since been demolished and so an even smaller number exist today. However, “a high degree of selectivity” was used as a basis for the decision.

While the three examples at King’s Cliffe are also of undoubted interest, and generally survive in relatively good condition, a high degree of selectivity must be deployed when assessing structures of this late date. The loss of so many key components of the wartime airfield compromises their historic context and argues against recommending them for designation.

The conclusion of this report, states that the decision not to recommend listing these buildings is down to three primary points:

1. The fact there the buildings are in poor condition,
2. The fact that they are not ‘rare’ and,
3. The fact that because the other major features, (runways and hangars) have been removed, they are not significant in ‘Group Value’.

This decision is not surprising, but the wording suggests that any airfield with no runway or hangars, is not likely to have its buildings listed for preservation unless they are either very rare or in very good condition. After 75 years, that is extremely unlikely.

This outcome means that any decision to demolish the buildings lays with the landowner, and whilst they have been in situ for the last 70 years or so, there is now no need to retain them in any form should they so wish.

Ultimately, these buildings could be removed for land development, or agriculture use, meaning they would then be lost forever. That would leave the two small memorials as the only significant reminders of the King’s Cliffe site.

The full report can be accessed via the link below, which gives a detailed explanation for the decision. The annex of the report will be published on the Heritage Gateway website.

www.historicengland.org.uk case number 1426070

Anyone who wishes to challenge this decision can do so within 28 days with a request that the decision be reviewed in light of further evidence or because of irregularities in the process, full details are available through the link below. A form is available through this link, with appropriate guidance for completion. Both downloadable from the ‘Reviews of Listing Decisions’ page.

https://www.gov.uk/how-to-challenge-our-decision-to-list-or-not-list-a-building

If you are unable to access the website please contact:

The Listing Review Officer
Heritage Protection Branch
Culture Team
Department for Culture Media and Sport
4th Floor
100 Parliament Street
London
SW1A 2BQ

My thanks to Sandra Beale for forwarding this information.

Development News for Britain’s Airfields (3).

A third proposal for airfield development had been released in this last week. The first two, RAF Downham Market and RAF West Raynham have been highlighted in previous posts. The third, is possibly the most significant so far and one that like RAF West Raynham, sets a standard by which future developments could proceed. This site is that of RAF Coltishall.

RAF Coltishall – The Future

RAF Coltishall was home to around 56 RAF Squadrons throughout its life, these included the Jaguars of 6, 41 and 54 Squadrons along with a wide range of  aircraft from both the Second World War, Cold War era and the Gulf War.  It is a large site that accommodated around  1,500 people at its height, with four hangars, a single runway and both extensive accommodation and technical sites.

Vacated by the RAF  in 2006, it has been the subject of a public consultation since 2013. Questions were asked about the possible future use of the site which included light aviation with air displays, a change to affordable housing, industrial use and site redevelopment. Norfolk County Council took the future of the site very seriously, knowing how much it meant to both the local people of Norfolk and Britain’s aviation heritage. The results of this consultation have now been released and can be accessed through the link at the base of the page.

DSC_0095

The Control Tower at Coltishall may be part of a Heritage Trail

As with West Raynham, a site like Coltishall, that is complete, offers a unique opportunity to develop the buildings and structures whilst retaining and highlighting the heritage value that it represents. The buildings and infrastructure are ideal for a small self-contained ‘village’ that encourages links with both the local and wider community as a whole.

Norfolk County Council have recognised the importance of this site in particular, and as a result, much of it is now listed as ‘ancient monuments’ or locally listed buildings. These include: the World War 2 dispersals, Cold War blast walls, hangars, tower and communal buildings. It survives today in its entirety, primarily because the entire airfield is designated a Conservation Area by Norfolk County Council. This status gives protection against some of the more virile development and ensures in part, the preservation of the site for future generations.

Norfolk County Council have now released their proposed plans for the site, which include a harmonic development of both the main technical and accommodation areas utilising the buildings in situ where they can.

These plans may mean the sad loss of the main runway and grassed areas, probably both being returned to agriculture or open green space. It would also suggest a loss of much of the perimeter track as well.  However, their plans do include creating a public heritage trail, viewing platform and sign-age to promote and explain the uses of Coltishall, as it was throughout its aviation life. There are also suggestion of ‘interpretations’ of both cold war and second world war aircraft in their respective pens.

Just this week however, a private enterprise (led by a cycle shop owner) put forward a proposal to use the three-mile perimeter track as a cycle track for recreational and competition cycling opportunities. Further proposals include  a £300,000 development of the former operations room into a cafe and cycle workshop.  Landscaping would also be included making it a hub for recreational activities linked by cycles paths to Norwich, Hoveton and Aylsham.

Financial support has not yet been granted for this particular part of the proposal, but it is hoped that the site will be open mid 2016.

Norfolk County Council are considering the plans in line with their own heritage and development ideas. If it all goes ahead, then once developed, RAF Coltishall is likely to be the best preserved airfield in the UK that has not only been developed but opened to the public. Furthermore, if these proposals are to come to fruition, it could become a model for future development of Britain’s old wartime relics.

Details of the Council’s proposal can be found here.

The overall plan can be found here.

RAF Coltishall appears in Trail 7.