RAF Downham Market (Part 2 – D-Day to the War’s End)

In Part 1 Downham was born, serving the Stirlings of Bomber Command before becoming part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force. A large airfield, it was often busy and as the war progressed toward D-Day, preparations began for operations over the invasion area.

On June 3rd 1944 Lancaster ND841 ‘F2-D‘ piloted by F/O. George. A. Young (s/n: 134149) RAFVR 635 Squadron, was detailed to attack Calais as part of the preparations for the forthcoming D-Day invasion. There would be eight other aircraft from RAF Downham Market also detailed for the mission, and take off would be late that evening.

The mission as a whole would involve 127 Lancasters and 8 Mosquitoes of 1, 3 and 8 Groups and the targets would be the gun batteries at both Calais and Wimerereux. It was a  diversionary raid as part of Operation “Fortitude South“, the elaborate plan to fool the Germans into believing the invasion would occur in the Pas-de-Calais region.

At 28 minutes past midnight, F/O. Young lined the Lancaster up on the runway, opened the throttles and began the long run. As the Lancaster approached take off, it began to swing striking the roof of the B1 Hangar. In an uncontrollable state the aircraft crashed just outside the airfield killing all those on board. What was left of the aircraft was salvaged, and three of the crew buried in the local cemetery in Downham Market.

Downham Market Cemetery

F.Sgt. Stanley Wharton (RAFVR) 635 Sqn. One of seven Killed 4th June 1944.

Two months later, another pilot of 635 Sqn, also flying a Lancaster III, ND811, ‘F2-T’, Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, would be awarded the second of Downham’s Victoria Crosses.

On August 4th 1944, flying Lancaster ‘T’ for Tommy, on a daylight raid to mark the V1 storage depot at Trossy St. Maximin, the aircraft was hit by flak knocking out both starboard engines and setting the aircraft on fire. Bazalgette pressed on, marked the target and then instructed the crew to bail out. Two of the crew were so badly injured they could not do so, and so Bazalgette attempted a crash landing. Unfortunately on impact with the ground the aircraft exploded, killing all three remaining crew members on board.

For his bravery and sacrifice, Ian Bazalgette was also awarded the V.C., the highest honour for military personnel. The London Gazette, of 14th August 1945, announced the award, citing: “His heroic sacrifice marked the climax of a long career of operations against the enemy. He always chose the more dangerous and exacting roles. His courage and devotion to duty were beyond praise“.

During that same month, August 1944, another squadron would appear here at Downham. Joining 635 Sqn were 608 Sqn, who had previously been operating abroad. They were reformed here on August 1st that year, also joining Bennett’s elite group. Another Mosquito squadron, they bolstered the number of aircraft and personnel present here at Downham. Flying the Mosquito XX, XXV and eventually XVI, they remained at Downham for a year whereupon they were once more disbanded. Whilst operating these aircraft, 608 Sqn would fly 1,726 operational sorties all as part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force.

608 Sqn’s primary role was to carry out night strikes as part of the Pathfinder Operations focusing on the German heartland. Targets included: Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, Essen, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Emden and Kiel. Their first operational sortie from Downham was on the night of 5th/6th August 1944, when a single Mosquito took off and bombed Wanne-Eickel.

Then, a month later, on the night of 6th November 1944, twelve aircraft from 608 Sqn took off in a diversionary attack on targets at Gelsenkirchen. The idea was to draw defences away from a much larger force attacking both Gravenhorst and Koblenz. The plan was for 608 to begin their attack five minutes ahead of the other forces, a plan that went like clockwork.

The full story of Mosquito KB364, piloted by P.O. James McLean (26) and Sgt. Mervyn Lambert Tansley (21), appears in Heroic Tales, but this was to be their final, fatal flight.

On return, the aircraft careered into All Saints’ Church, Bawdeswell, some 30 miles north-east of the airfield, setting it alight. The impact was such that parts of the aircraft struck two other homes, causing extensive damage to both properties. The resultant fire took four hours to extinguish and included crews from other nearby airfields. In honour of the two airmen, a plaque manufactured from part of the Mosquito has been mounted on the church wall inside the building.

The Christmas period of 1944 was a busy one for Downham and for the FIDO operators. With freezing fog, snow and general poor weather causing many problems for those on the continent and for those on British soil attempting to take off, FIDO crews were going to be busy. FIDO primarily designed as a landing aid, also permitted take offs during poor visibility. However, getting to the runway was a challenge in itself. Often with visibility down to just feet, ground staff would line the perimeter tracks with torches to guide each aircraft safely along. Anyone who made a mistake took the risk of running off the perimeter track, sinking into the ground along side or worse.

By the dawn of 1945 the war in Europe was all but over. Operations began to focus on troop concentrations, possible German escape routes and harbours. Both 635 and 608 Sqns continued operational flying until the war’s end. In August and early September these last two operational squadrons at Downham Market were disbanded, 608 Sqn on August 24th and 635 Sqn on September 1st. This left Downham devoid of all front line units.

last raid - Kiel canal ground & air crew photo 2 May 1945 at Downham Market found by Brian Emsley, Welwyn G, father Edward Emsley far left httpwww.bbc.co.uknewseducation-32532153

A recently discovered photograph showing a D.H. Mosquito of Downham Market, taken on May 2nd 1945. It was taken just prior to the last mission undertaken by RAF aircraft on an attack on the Kiel Canal. It shows Ground & Aircrew next to their Mosquito and ‘Cookie’. It was found by Brian Emsley,  his father Edward Emsley is far left.*

With peace now settling across Europe, focus turned to returning personnel back to ‘Civvy street’. Within 8 Group, a new scheme was set up, and personnel were encouraged to make use of it. Across the range of Pathfinder stations, EVT (Educational and Vocational Training) was introduced. These classes were designed to give personnel the much needed skills in a range of civilian areas, to help them integrate back into civil life. Classes were broad and included a range of domestic activities such as: landscape gardening, cookery, music and carpentry. Some of these such as ‘domestic science’ were designed with the WAAFs in mind, whilst others were geared more (but not exclusively) toward the men.

"CIVVY STREET COURSE" IN R.A.F. PATHFINDER GROUP

1945 – Landscape and floral gardening are subjects given in the E.V.T. classes at Downham Market. Leading Aircraftman Arthur Pickersgill [centre] is now the station instructor. (IWM CH16028)

RAF Downham Market finally closed in 1946, but in 1948 the site was used for night Helicopter flight trials by BEA – the civil air company – transporting mail using Sikorsky S-51 Helicopters. This was a short lived venture but was by the end, considered a very successful companion to the day times routes recently started between Peterborough and a number of towns between Kings Lynn and Norwich. The venture included installing a flashing Sodium Beacon at Downham Market, its precise location on the airfield is not known and it may well have been a mobile unit*4.

Eventually in 1957, the land was sold off. The site was returned to agriculture but the airfield’s runways remained intact. In the 1970s, the Downham Market by-pass was built and the concrete runways were an ideal source of local hardcore. All three were subsequently removed along with large sections of the perimeter track leaving a mere road’s width for the larger part. Many of the buildings were at this time left, and small businesses soon took them over. One of these, a kitchen sales shop, now houses a small display relating to the history of the airfield.

At ground level, the discerning eye and a general appreciation of airfield structure and layout, suggest a presence of something more interesting. Huts, whilst in very poor condition, poke through overgrown trees and bushes, and provide shelter and storage facilities for local industry. The condition of windows and brickwork suggest that time is gradually running out for this once thriving airfield, unless other businesses move in.

The main runway ran east – west and for many years a small section of this remained for the farmers use. It was this runway that utilised FIDO, the storage area (at the far end) now taken over by the car dealership.

Downham Market Runway remains

The remnants of the main runway. Sadly this has now also been removed. It was this runway that utilised FIDO.

The remaining two runways were both removed for the hardcore. The western perimeter track remains in part width, from the threshold of the second runway virtually to the top to the threshold of the northern end of the third runway. However, the A10 road now dissects this and the uppermost part has been removed also. A new track (a public track) has been built for the farmer, this cuts across the northern end of the airfield and it is here that the (flooded) Battle Headquarters can be found. Now part of a ditch, its roof forms a bridge into one of the adjoining fields, it can only be found with careful searches of this ditch!

Battle Headquarters

A flooded Battle Headquarters. Several rooms exist below ground level, but these are all flooded, some said to be very deep.

Virtually the entire length of the northern part of the peri track can be walked round to the eastern end of the main runway. Part way along, another track leads off to the former bomb store, this is private the store now a wooded area. Also along here is the ultra heavy fusing point, a shed that is now used by the local farmer. At the far end of the peri track is where the accommodation area was constructed for the FIDO installers using Laing Hutting. Across the road can be seen the car dealership built on what was the FIDO installation. None of the original buildings remain here, but the peri track widens out to full width again at this point and heads east back toward the technical area.

Across the road from the technical area is the camp entrance and Bexwell, a small collection of houses and a church. Here a small memorial is placed telling the stories of the two heroic and brave crew members Aaron and Bazalgette. This road is the old road that led to all the accommodation areas. The WAAF site being the first and one of only two sites left with buildings still in place.

RAF Downham Market

Buildings on the WAAF site.

The other sites here include the Communal Site 1, Dormitory Site 1 (A), Sick Quarters, Dormitory Sites No. 2 (B), 3 (C), 4 (K) and 5 (J). Another track leads off to a sewage works. The road eventually joins the main A10. Across from here is the Communal Site 2, the second site with buildings still in use, and currently used by an engineering firm. A First World War memorial is also located here oddly hidden away amongst the bushes. Alongside these buildings are a pathway that leads to the second sewage treatment works.  This site can also be accessed by public footpath from the main road into Downham itself.

looking back to accomodation area

The sewage site. Through the trees you can see the remains of Communal Site 2.

Downham Market is an airfield that has a remarkable history, the dedication and bravery of the crews being second to none. What is left of this historic site is continually under threat, decay and dilapidation rapidly taking over.

The town is regularly overflown by F-35s from Marham, but when I was first here, two Tornadoes flew over whilst I was reading the dedications to both Bazalgette and Aaron. A fitting tribute not only to the two brave pilots, but all the crews that served here and to a station originally built to serve as a satellite for the very same airfield.

In 2015, a £170m regeneration plan was announced, perhaps signalling the end of Downham Market airfield for good (see here) – further details of these plans were to be released in the early part of 2016, but the funding for the scheme seemed to have been withdrawn in January 2020. No more seems to have been said about this venture, but more recently, development work for a fast-food outlet and shop was started alongside the western perimeter track, hopefully this won’t lead to further loss.

In April 2017 a project was launched to raise money for a seven slab memorial to be built close to the site of the former Dormitory Site 1, adjacent to the A10 road. The project hoped to raise in the region of £250,000 to cover the cost of the memorial and provide a lasting memory of those who flew and died whilst serving at RAF Downham Market. The full story and pictures can be accessed on the Eastern Daily Press website. There are more details and a link to the donations page on the RAF Downham Market website. I have been unable to confirm latest details and it may be another victim to the pandemic of 2020/21, only time will tell.

Trail 7 next leaves Downham Market heading east towards Norwich, stopping off at RAF Marham. On the way, we pass through the Norfolk countryside and a secret that shall no doubt, forever remain just that.

Sources and further reading (Downham Market).

* Photo published by the BBC 3/5/2015.

Technical information regarding the site was obtained from official drawings 50/W/117/42 and 50/W/116/42 courtesy of RAF Museum Hendon.

*1 National Archives AIR 27/1350

*2 National Archives AIR 27/1352/5

*3 National Archives AIR 27/2155/1, AIR 27/381/5

*4 Woodley, C. “The History Of British European Airways” Pen & Sword, 2006

The RAF’s pathfinder group, 635 squadron, flew daring missions in Lancasters, and a site dedicated to the crew and personnel of the squadron can be found on the RAF pathfinders archive website. A superb collection of photographs and personal accounts bring their memories alive.

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.

RAF Downham Market (Part 1 – The beginning)

In Trail 7, we visited the northern part of Norfolk, not far from the coast where it borders Cambridgeshire to the west and the North Sea to the north and east. In this part of the trail we visit a site that was once one of Norfolk’s most prestigious airfields, where not one, but two VCs were awarded to airmen of the RAF.

Not far from RAF Marham, we return to this once busy airfield to see what is left and take another look at the incredible history that was RAF Downham Market.

RAF Downham Market (Bexwell)

Located in the corner of the A10 and A1122, 10 miles south of Kings Lynn and and 15 miles north east of Ely, RAF Downham Market (known locally as Bexwell) was only open for four years. Yet considering its relatively short life, it created for itself a unique history that was, and remains, unprecedented in military history.

Built by W. & C. French Ltd., it was primarily a bomber station serving initially with 2 Group before transferring to 3 Group and then to 8 PFF (Pathfinder) Group, Bomber Command. Opened as a satellite station to RAF Marham, it eventually became an airfield in its own right, achieving this status on 3rd March 1944, when it became a parent station itself.

RAF Downham Market

One of the several buildings surviving at Downham Market.

Downham opened in 1942 as a bomber station, a role it performed for the duration of the Second World War. To achieve this, it would require substantial runways and a number of dispersed accommodation sites. As a classic Class ‘A’ airfield, it was spread over a large area incorporating two main sites, the main airfield to the north and the accommodation to the south. It was equipped to accommodate 1,719 male and 326 female personnel at its peak. A network of small roads would link all these dispersed sites together.

Downham would have three concrete runways the main being 1,900 yards long running east-west, whilst the second and third ran north-west to south-east and north-east to south-west, each 1,400 yds long. The classic ‘A’ formed by these runways, was linked by a perimeter track with 36 original pan style hardstands. At its peak, Downham boasted seven hangers, six ‘T2’ and one ‘B1’ which replaced two of the hardstands reducing the number to 34. None of these hangars survive here today. It had the usual bomb store (to the north east), technical area (south side) and eight accommodation areas spread well to the south and south west. As with all these Class ‘A’ stations, the two areas were separated by a public road, the ‘airfield’ to the north and accommodation to the south.

Today, little remains of the actual airfield site, the runways having been removed some considerable time ago. However, on the technical site there are a number of buildings still remaining, and in the accommodation areas further buildings also exist. All of these are either used by local industry or local farmers.

On opening, Downham received its first residents, the Stirling MK.Is of 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron. Arriving on the 8th July 1942, they would retain these aircraft until February 1943, when the new updated Stirling MK.III was brought into squadron service. 218 Sqn had a history that went back to the First World War; disbanded in 1919 they had been reborn in 1936, and were posted to France where their Fairey Battles were decimated by the superior fighters of the Luftwaffe. In November 1940, prior to arriving here at Downham, the squadron joined 3 Group, it remained operational with this Group for the remainder of the war.

On July 6th, they began preparing for their move to Downham, aircraft were stood down and no operational flying took place. On the morning of the 7th, thirteen Stirlings departed RAF Marham, completing the 10 mile straight line flight they arrived at Downham fifteen minutes later. By midnight, the entire squadron had transferred over, and crews were settling into their new quarters. Over the next few days air tests, fighter affiliations and cross country flying were the order of the day, the first operational flight not taking place until the 12th. In Stirling ‘HA-N’ was P.O. Farquharson and in ‘HA-R’ was Sgt. Hartley. A ‘gardening’ mission, only two crews were assigned and briefed but records show that “The vegetables were planted in the allotted positions. 18,000lb of seed were planted during this effort“*1. With that, Downham Market had now entered the war.

Over the next few weeks operations began to build, and targets moved into Germany itself. Lubeck, Vegesack, Duisberg, Hamburg and Saarbrucken were all on the initial list of operations. Apart from early returners due to ice or poor weather, all operations were considered successful and bombing was ‘accurate’.

On 29th July, a royal party visited RAF Downham Market to see how the crews were settling in at the new station. Led by Air Vice Marshall HRH The Duke of Kent, and accompanied by Sir Louis Grieg KBE CBO (ret),  the party were given an official tour of the airfield by Wing Commander P. D. Holder DFC – the Station Commander. After talking to a number of ground crews and watching Stirlings being bombed up, the Royal party then sampled the delights of the officers mess before departing the airfield.

In February 1943, 218 began replacing their Stirling MK.Is with the upgraded MK.IIIs, the last model of the Stirling bomber before they were relegated to other duties. By June, the last of the MK.Is were gone. Although fitted with better engines, the MK.III still remained limited by both its short wingspan and poorly designed bomb-bay.

In the following month a major decision was made to install the still experimental FIDO fog dispersal system here at Downham Market. With RAF Graveley only just having hers installed, the benefits of this system were by now bearing fruits, but despite this, only fifteen British airfields were to have the system installed. FIDO used oil burnt through a series of pipes set alongside the runway. These burners were supplied from large storage tanks, which in Downham’s case, were located to the south-east just off the airfield site. Each tank was filled by road from Kings Lynn, five tankers carrying out two runs each to complete the fill. Oil from these tanks, was then fed into the system – which was installed along the main east-west runway – by large pumps. Once lit, the burners could clear extensive fog or mist in a relatively quick time. The main storage tank site is today a car dealership, all signs of the network of pipes having since been removed.

Downham’s FIDO installation was slow at first, and only covered the initial touchdown area and the first 700 yards of the main east-west runway. A number of burner types were fitted at Downham over a period of time, starting with the MK.III or Haigill burner. These were in turn were replaced y the MK.IV and eventually, when labour became more available, the MK.V which was a sturdier, longer lasting burner capable of withstanding much heavier use.  It wouldn’t be until late 1943/44 that a longer section of the system was installed, now extending to 1,362 yds, almost the entire length of the main runway. The problem with FIDO was always where runways crossed, and here the pipes had to be placed below ground level. Along side the runway they were above ground, and with difficulty in seeing, some aircraft did manage to damage the piping on more than one occasion. With experimental lighting and landings used in the autumn of 1943, the first use of the system was on the night of December 16th/17th that year, when a large number of aircraft returning from Berlin were diverted to Downham due to their own bases being fog bound.

Over 35 aircraft landed at Downham that night, the toll on crews had FIDO not been in existence would certainly have been considerably higher than the terrible price that had already been paid on that disastrous night over Berlin. FIDO with all its counter arguments, had proved its worth in one fell swoop.

The Short Stirling, the first of the heavies for Bomber Command, was liked by many crews, but its short-comings were to become apparent all too soon. One of its problems was its enormous height, created through its huge and weak, undercarriage, which sometimes made landings difficult. Another recurring problem was a significant swing to port when taking off, combine the two features, and you have a difficult aeroplane to control at the best of times, let alone when badly damaged or in very poor weather.

One of the first casualties at Downham occurred on the morning of May 14th 1943, when Stirling ‘BF480’ HA-I piloted by Sgt. W. Carney, swung on touchdown careering off the runway into the Watch Office. No injuries were sustained by those onboard, but two other crewmen on the ground, who had previously landed, were killed in the accident. Coincidentally, another 218 Sqn Stirling, ‘EF367’, HA-G had a similar landing away at RAF Chedburgh at the same time on the same night. Onboard that aircraft there were an American and a New Zealander, all but two of the crewmen were killed, the others  escaping with injuries.

With plans for the invasion of occupied Europe well in hand by mid 1943, movements across Britain were starting to take place. At Downham a number of hangars were used to store Horsa gliders (hence the large number on site) ready for the invasion the following year. Between April 1943 and March 1944 the airfield was awash with stored examples. Accompanying the gliders were No. 14 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section, who maintained and prepared the gliders ready for when they were needed.

In the August 1943, an element of 218 Sqn was extracted to create a new squadron, 623 Sqn, using the MK.III Stirlings already on site. On the very day they were formed, 10th August 1943, four crews were briefed for operations, the target Nuremberg. Unfortunately, once over the target, crews had difficulty in distinguishing any relevant ground detail, and as a result, bombs were scattered over a wide area and the operation was largely unsuccessful. With little opposition all aircraft returned to Downham safely.

RAF Downham Market

One of the many huts that were left on the airfield.

However, two days after this on the night of August 12th /13th 1943, it was a different matter. It was whilst flying a 218 Sqn Stirling over Turin, that Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, would suffer bullet strikes to his head that would break his jaw and tear away a large part of his face. Further bullets damaged his lung and right arm rendering it useless. Aaron still fought on though, despite his severe injuries, managing to assist the bomb-aimer in flying the stricken Stirling away from the enemy. Unable to speak, he communicated instructions to his bomb-aimer by writing with his left hand. Aaron attempted on four occasions to land the plane, but with failing strength, he was persuaded to vacate the cockpit; enabling the bomb-aimer to complete the belly landing on the fifth attempt. Aaron later died from exhaustion, the consequence of his determination and unparalleled allegiance to his crew, his aircraft and his duty. Aaron was the first of two pilots to receive the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market – both for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.

The new squadron 623 Sqn, like many other squadrons however, was to be a short lived one. With high demand for Stirlings in the Conversion Units, it was decided to utilise the aircraft of 623 Sqn for this role, and on December 6th 1943 the unit was officially disbanded. Some crews returned to 218 Sqn but many others were posted out to new units. Flying of a total of 150 sorties in just four months, the squadron would lose ten aircraft, a loss rate of almost 7%.

The void left by 623 Sqn would be soon filled though. Just four days later another unit would transfer in, that of 214 (Federated Malay States) Sqn from RAF Chedburgh also a Stirling MK.III unit. For the majority of December, 214 Sqn would carry out ‘gardening’ missions, dropping mines designated ‘Nectarines‘ or ‘Cinnamon‘. Other operations would see bombs dropped on ‘Special Targets‘ although the Operational Records don’t specify the identity of these targets. 214 Sqn as with 623 Sqn, would be another of these short stay units, on January 17th 1944 they would transfer to RAF Sculthorpe and 100 Group, for RCM (electronic warfare) duties and a new aircraft, the B-17 Flying Fortress or Fortress I. As crews carried out circuits, lectures and training at Sculthorpe, the remainder of the squadron continued operations from Downham. By the 24th January though, all personnel had transferred over and Downham Market was far behind them.

In March 1944, Downham’s long standing unit 218 Sqn was finally ordered out, and on the 7th the entire squadron departed, the operations books simply stating: “218 Sqn moved from Downham Market to Woolfox Lodge by road and air today“. *2 Once at Woolfox Lodge, they would begin disposing of their Stirlings to take on the new heavy bomber – the Avro Lancaster.

The dust wasn’t allowed to settle at Downham however, and before long more personnel and a new Squadron would arrive, ready to fill the skies of Norfolk. This was no ordinary squadron though. With concerns about the poor quality of bombing and the lack of accuracy, it was decided to form a new Group that went much against the wishes of Arthur Harris. Seen as ‘elitist’, Harris vehemently disagreed with the new Group and fought his corner bravely. But with little choice in the matter and lacking his own high level support, he eventually succumbed to the Air Ministry’s demands, putting in command the Australian Group Captain Donald C.T Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO.

The new group would be called 8 Group (PFF) ‘The Pathfinders’, and was designed to use the cream of Bomber Command crews whose record for bombing had been excellent. Aircraft from the Group were to fly ahead of the main bomber force and ‘mark’ the target by various means – coloured flares being the primary and main method. In principle it worked well, but as records show, it was not without its own difficulties or setbacks.

Bennett, an aggressive pilot who didn’t suffer fools gladly, quickly won the admiration of his crews. He was also highly admired by Harris, who once described him as the the “most efficient airman” he had ever met; Harris considered Bennett perfect for the role. In appointing Bennett, Harris dismissed all other possible candidates including Air Chief Marshall Basil Embry, the Air Ministry’s most likely favourite.

The Pathfinders were officially formed on 15th August 1942, with 8 Group coming into official formation in January 1943. With the arrival of the new Squadron, 635 Sqn, Downham would now be playing its part in this role. This change would also mean a change in aircraft type at this Norfolk airfield, out went the now relegated Stirlings and in came Avro’s remarkable four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.III.

RAF Downham Market

The remains of the Technical site looking toward the airfield.

635 Sqn was created under the command of Wing Commander Alan George Seymour Cousens on March 20th 1944. Using ‘C’ Flight from RAF Graveley’s 35 Sqn and ‘C’ Flight from RAF Bourn’s 97 Sqn. A total of eight aircraft and crews from each flight immediately began the move to Downham. At 09:15 the first of the road crews arrived from Bourn, with further sporadic arrivals until 11:00. The first aircraft to arrive touched down at 12:00, and within the next 20 minutes all aircraft were safely on the ground. Graveley crews began arriving soon after this, their first aircraft, along with a ground party, arriving at 15:05.

The new squadron consisted of 36 Officers, 120 NCOs and 200 ‘other ranks’. They were accommodated in Site ‘J’ whilst 20 NCOs and 40 armourers were accommodated in site ‘B’. A small number of officers were put up in the Rectory just outside the main gate of the airfield*3.

Shortly after the crews had landed, they were quickly briefed for an operation to attack Munich, but by the time the aircraft were prepared and bombs loaded, the operation was cancelled, the crews were then given the chance to settle in to their new homes.

635 Sqn would continue to use the Mk.III Lancaster for the next four months, replacing it with the Lancaster MK.VI  from March onward. This was an unusual model of the famous aircraft as it had neither a nose nor mid-upper turret, instead it was crammed with electronic radar jamming devices. Also replacing the normal three-bladed propellers were four bladed examples, aiming to improve the aircraft’s performance.

A growth in aircraft numbers and the development of Pathfinder methods soon led to a new branch of the Group, the Light Night Striking Force (LNSF) equipped with de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder‘ the Mosquito.  In response to this, 571 Sqn, a new light bomber squadron equipped with the Mosquito XVI, was born here at Downham on April 5th 1944, barely two weeks after 635 Sqn themselves arrived. As a temporary measure it was decided that on April 10th, the squadron would be reduced to one Flight instead of two leaving eight aircraft plus a ‘spare’ at Downham whilst the remainder transferred to RAF Graveley. The idea behind the move was two-fold, firstly to bolster the expansion of 105 Sqn at Graveley, and secondly, to provide experience for the ground crews on the Mosquito.

The move went well, but on the 17th, a new order would come through that would change Downham yet again.

Movement order 21 required the entire 571 squadron to transfer to RAF Oakington, effective by 24th April. With that, preparations began and the advanced party moved from Downham on the 22nd followed by the rear party on the 24th. The entire squadron including the Graveley detachment were, by the end of the day, now at Oakington. Due to the move, there were no operations flown by the squadron from Downham Market during this short period of their history.

This departure left 635 Sqn as the only operational squadron at Downham Market. Whilst somewhat quieter, it is was not to be all plane sailing.

In Part 2, we see how Downham takes part in D-Day, the end of the war approaches but operations continue and Downham remains busy. After the war, the airfield is used for other purposes, and eventually closes. We then see what remains today and ask what does the future hold?

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.

RAF Narborough – The Great Government Aerodrome.

Resting not more than a mile or so from the boundary of Britain’s front line fighter base RAF Marham, is an airfield that never made it beyond the First World War. However, its importance cannot be denied nor should it be over looked. Key to aviation in Norfolk and to the Royal Air Force as a whole, it played a major part in both, and therefore is pivotal to today’s modern air force. Opened originally as a satellite by the Royal Naval Air Service, it became not only Norfolk’s first, but the biggest First World War, fixed wing aircraft airfield, only four airship stations were bigger.  Leading the way for the aviators of today’s Royal Air Force, we look back at the former RAF Narborough.

RAF Narborough

Built as the largest, aircraft based, World War One aerodrome, Narborough has been known under a range of different names. The most common, ‘The Great Government Aerodrome’ reflected not only its size (over 900 acres) but also its multinational stature; the range of aircraft and personnel based here, and its achievements in aviation history. Used by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Air Force (RAF), it would have names that reflected each of these fledgling services.

Records show that Narborough had military links as far back as 1912, in the year that the RFC was established when both the Naval Air Organisation and the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers were combined. Unfortunately, little exists to explain what it was used for at this time, but in later years, it was used to counteract the threat from both the German Zeppelin and Schütte-Lanz airships, and also to train future pilots of the RFC and RAF.

Narborough’s history in these early days is sketchy, few specific records existing as to the many changes that were taking place at this time or to the development of the RFC and RNAS. Its activities – and history though – was no doubt influenced on July 1st 1914, when the name RNAS was officially adopted, and all Naval flying units of the RFC were transferred to the control of the Navy. A major development in the formation of both forces, there were at this point, a total of: 111 officers, 544 other ranks, seven airships,  fifty-five seaplanes (including shipborne aircraft) and forty aeroplanes in RNAS service.*1 Some of these may well have been used at Narborough at this point.

By 1915, Narborough’s future had been sealed, designated as a satellite station to RNAS Great Yarmouth, (itself commissioned in 1913) it was initially to be used as a night landing ground for those aircraft involved in attacks on enemy airships. No crews were permanently stationed here at this time however, but as time went on ‘on-duty’ crews would fly in, and await the call to arms should an airship raid take place over East Anglia.

The first recorded arrival was in August 1915, an event that would keep the site in use by the RNAS for the next ten months, before being designated as surplus to requirements and handed over to the RFC in June 1916.

It was in June 1916 that the first RFC squadron would make use of Narborough as an airfield, 35 Sqn transferring over here from Thetford with Vickers FB.5 and FE.2bs. disposing of their DH2s and Henry Farman F.20s in the process. Within two months of their arrival, the nucleus of the squadron would then be used to form a new unit, 59 Sqn, also here at Narborough, under the command of Lieutenant A.C. Horsburgh with the RE8s. Narborough was already beginning to grow.

It was in that same month, that the perils of war would be brought home to those based at Narborough, when one of 59 Sqn’s pilots, Lt. Gordon William Hall, was killed when the DH.1 (4631) he was flying,  side slipped on approach to the airfield crashing as a result. A court of enquiry confirmed that the aircraft had been “banked too steeply” and that the pilot had put the aircraft into a dive that made it uncontrollable. A verdict of ‘accidental death’ was recorded against Lt. Hall.*2

In August, it was the turn of 35 Sqn to suffer its first fatality in a non too dissimilar accident. On the 29th, an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.3 (6201), was written off after it too side slipped and dived following a slow turn. The Pilot – Air Mechanic 1st Class –  Moses Boyd was tragically killed in the accident flying an aircraft that was based at Thetford but undertaking a training exercise here at Narborough. Already, the dangers of flying were becoming all too apparent and the glamour of flying was becoming tarnished.

Within two months, another 35 Sqn aircraft would also crash, this time one of the two crewmen, pilot 2nd Lt. Robert Leslie Edward would escape with just injuries. The observer, 2nd Lt Ernest Hildreth, however, was not so lucky and was killed in the resultant crash.

As the First World War raged on the European continent, the demand for aircraft was growing. It was quickly developing into a lethal weapon and a very potent reconnaissance vehicle. To fill vacant spaces and meet high demand, training programmes were rushed into place, meaning Narborough would become a preparation ground for new recruits. With training considered very basic by any standards, recruits only had to pass a number of tests before being sent to the front. Written examinations followed up by twenty hours solo flying, cross-country flights and two successful landings, were followed by flying for fifteen minutes at 8,000 feet and landing with a cut engine. Barely enough experience to see anyone through a violent war.

During these flights, these daring young men, many who were considered dashing heroes by the awe-inspired locals, would display their skills for all who lined the local roads to watch. As they were quickly learning though, life was not always ‘fun’, and the dangers of the craft were ever present. Accident rates were high and survival from a crash was rare, even ‘minor’ accidents could prove fatal. The local church yard at Narborough, paying testament to their dangerous career with fourteen of the eighteen graves present being RFC/RAF related.

The RFC was now building in strength, not only in its front line units but in its reserves too. On November 2nd, 1916 a new reserve squadron was constituted and formed here at Narborough, 48 (Reserve) Squadron (RS). Models flown by the unit at this time included the Grahame White XV, the Maurice Farman Shorthorn and Sopwith’s Pup. Over the next period of time, there followed a number of other reserve units: No 50, 53 and 64 (Reserve) Squadron (later designated Training Squadrons*3) all passing through Narborough at some point. However, and even with this large influx of personnel in these early days, Narborough was not to be the most exotic of locations.

As a training ground, accommodation was basic to say the least, being described by one ‘resident’ as a “desolate God-forsaken place“*4. It was soon realised by the authorities that new buildings needed to be erected for not only accommodation, but for training and maintenance roles as well. In response, a total of seven Boulton and Paul hangars, and up to 150 buildings would be built on the site over the next two years. A development that would by the end of the war, see some 1,000 personnel based here at Narborough – a number comparable with any modest Second World War airfield.

Meanwhile the threat from Zeppelins had not yet receded, and as a result 1916 would close with a small detachment of 51 Sqn BE.12s tasked with attacking these marauding menaces. Whilst primarily based at Hingham, 51 Sqn would have detachments spread across a number of East Anglia airfields, all preparing to meet the continued threat from Germany’s enormous airships.

With increasing numbers of squadrons and men being required for front line units in France, both 35 and 59 Squadrons departed Narborough in early 1917, and by the end of February both were gone.

All Saints Church Narborough, Norfolk

2nd Lt. Allen Ingham Murphy, killed March 30th 1917 ‘in an aeroplane accident’.

This left the reserves at Narborough, and it wouldn’t be long before they too suffered causalities. The first of these to lose a valuable pilot was 50 RS on March 30th 1917. A young Canadian, not yet out of his teens, 2nd Lt. Allen Ingham Murphy, was killed when his Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 ‘A2720’ stalled whilst turning after take off. 2nd Lt. Murphy was the first of four casualties from the units that year – training young pilots was not getting any easier.

This danger was made no more obvious than on October 29th, when two aircraft, both from 50 RS were lost in separate accidents. The first an Armstrong Whitworth FK.8 (A2730) side slipped during a turn and nose dived into the ground killing both crewmen, 2Lt. Norman Victor Spear (aged 29) and Air. Mech. 1 Sidney Walter Burrell (age 22).  The second aircraft, also an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 (B219) spun off a low climbing turn also killing its pilot 2Lt. Laurence Edward Stuart Vaile (aged 23). It was indeed a black day for 50 RS and a stark reminder to the trainees.

All Saints Church Narborough, Norfolk

2Lt. Laurence Edward Stuart Vaile, killed in an aeroplane accident August 29th 1917.

In October and December two more units bolstered the numbers of trainees at Narborough. Firstly, 1 Training Squadron were formed here on October 1st, whilst 83 Sqn, born out of 18 (Reserve) Squadron (RS), arrived at Narborough during December that year bringing a range of aircraft that they quickly swapped for FE.2bs.

83 Squadron soon departed Narborough though, heading to France in March 1918 where they performed attacks on troop concentrations, attempting to stem the early spring offensive.

On June 8th, 1917 Lt. Hubert J. Game was killed when the B.E.2e (A2794) he was flying suffered a catastrophic wing failure when pulling out of a dive whilst looping the loop. Lt. Game was originally a Lieutenant in the Royal
Field Artillery (RFA) and was attached to 53 (Training) Sqn RFC at Narborough, when he was tragically killed. Hubert was the younger brother of Air Vice-Marshal Sir Philip Woolcott Game, and was just 26 years old at the time of his death. He is another one of those whose grave lays a short distance away from the site of Narborough airfield.

All Saints Church Narborough, Norfolk

Lt. Hubert J. Game, All Saints Church Narborough.

The occurrences of these tragic accidents were becoming so frequent, that one instructor, Capt. W.E. Johns, creator of ‘Biggles’ later cited spies as the cause of many ‘accidents’ – tampering with machines causing the deaths of the crews on board. Johns, himself having written of many machines, believed Americans with German sounding names were to blame for aircraft breaking up in mid-air or crashing at the bottom of loops. More likely, the fault lay with over exuberant or poorly trained recruits.

As the war drew to a close, one further squadron would be formed here at Narborough. On New Year’s day 1918, 121 Squadron were formed here, initially created to use DH.9s, they instead flew a variety of aircraft until they moved out to Filton in mid August. Shortly after their arrival here they were disbanded.

The last months of the war had no let up in training. Keen to join the RFC young men continued to train to fly. In mid February 1918 two 18 year old boys would perhaps be fulfilling a dream when it all went tragically wrong. Flying a DH.4, 2Lt. John Fyffe Shaw and 2Lt. Charles Arkley Law were both killed after the aircraft’s engine failed causing it to stall and then nose dive into the ground.

All Saints Church Narborough, Norfolk

2Lt. Charles Arkley Law killed after his engine failed and the aircraft stalled.

By August, war was over, and the the big wind down of squadrons would soon begin. At Narborough, two squadrons 69 (Training) Squadron and 26 (Reserve) Squadron would both merge to form a new 22 Training Depot Station. Many other similar units would soon follow suit and either disband or merge. This dramatic wind down continued on into, and beyond, 1919. In February, both 56 Sqn and 64 Sqn arrived as cadres; 64 Sqn was disbanded here later that year whilst 56 transferred to Bircham Newton where they too were disbanded later that same year. A third squadron, 60 Sqn also suffered the same fate, arriving as a cadre mid February before themselves being sent to Bircham Newton and disbandment.

With one last roll of the dice in mid March 1919, 55 Training Deport Station also disbanded here at Narborough, but out of the ashes was born a new unit 55 Training Squadron. With that though, Narborough was heading for closure, its days now over, it was soon to be surplus to requirements.

The post war years then saw the closure of many of Britain’s war time airfields including Narborough. But unlike its sister station RAF Marham a mile or so away, it would remain closed. The buildings were all sold off in what was considered to be one of the biggest auctions in Norfolk, with some of them going to local farmers, other for small industrial units, some to schools and the like, Narborough was now scattered to the four corners of the county. The remainder of the site was sold to the farmer and it quickly returned to agriculture, a state it remains in today. Some of these original buildings are reputed to still exist at various locations around the area today, whether that is true or not, is difficult to ascertain, but most have long since succumbed to age, the inevitable deterioration and eventual demolition.

Narborough itself having no hard runways or perimeter tracks has long since gone. A small memorial has been erected by a local group aiming to promote and preserve the memory of Narborough, a memorial plaque also marks the graves of those who never made it to France; and the small Narborough Museum & Heritage Centre holds exhibits of 59 Squadron in the local church.

All Saints Church Narborough, Norfolk

The Plaque at All Saint’s Church Narborough, honouring those who served at Narborough.

Significant not only in size, but in its history, Narborough has now been relegated to the history books. But with the dedication and determination of a few people the importance and historical significance of this site will hopefully continue to influence not only the aviators of tomorrow, but also the public of today.

Updated memorial August 2021

The Narborough memorial which sits at the entrance to Narborough airfield. It was refurbished after the original was struck by a vehicle.

Sources and further Reading (Narborough)

*1 Fleet Air Arm Officers Association Website accessed 14/6/21

*2 RAF Museum Story Vault Website accessed 14/6/21

*3 On May 31st 1917, all RFC ‘Reserve Squadrons’ were renamed ‘Training Squadrons’.

*4 Letter from 2/AM C. V. Williams from 59squadronraf.org.uk

Narborough appears in Trail 7.

RAF Bircham Newton (Part 5 – The war comes to an end)

After Bircham entered the war in Part 4, and new innovative designs helped to save lives at sea, Bircham continues on and heads towards the war’s end. Numerous squadrons have now passed through this Norfolk airfield, and many more will come. Once the war is over, Bircham enters the wind down, its future uncertain, but on the horizon a saviour is coming and Bircham may well be saved by an unusual guardian.

By 1942, designs in ASR equipment had moved on, and a jettisonable lifeboat had by now been designed. The Hudsons at Bircham were the first unit to have the necessary modifications made to them to enable them to carry such boats, and as a result several crews were saved by the aircraft of 279 Sqn. Many searches however, were not fruitful and lives continued to be lost as a result of the lack of suitable equipment and poor weather.

After ditching B-17 #42-29981 (92nd BG) on 26 July 1943 in the relative safety of a calm sea, the crew managed to escape a and (with difficulty) climb aboard their life raft. An ASR aircraft from RAF Bircham Newton located them and a rescue ensued (AAM UPL 39104).

ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945.

Moments later, an airborne lifeboat is parachuted down by a Hudson of No. 279 Squadron to the crew. (© IWM C 3691)

During the year yet more front line squadrons would arrive here at Bircham. The first, 502 Sqn brought with it a change of aircraft type, with the Whitley V. The Whitley was a 1930’s design, constructed to Specification B.3/34, and was only one of three front line bombers in service at the outbreak of the war.

Within a matter of weeks, one of these Whitleys, returned from a maritime night patrol, overshot the flare path and crash landed. This particular mark of Whitley was soon replaced by the VII, and as 502 received their new models, so they began their departure to St.Eval; they had only been here at Bircham for a mere month.

March and April 1942 would then see two more units, both operating Hudsons. The first, 407 Sqn, was the first Canadian unit to be based here at Bircham, and would only stay here until October. As part of 16 Group, it would perform attacks on enemy shipping between Heligoland and the Bay of Biscay. The second squadron, 320 Sqn, would arrive at Bircham a month later on April 21st and would remain here for the next year. An entirely Dutch manned unit they had transferred from Leuchars in Scotland where they had been carrying out maritime patrols. The main part of April for 320 Sqn would consist of ferry flights, tests and cross country flying.

The final squadron, 521 (Meteorological) Sqn, was formed here on 22nd July 1942 through the joining of 1401 and 1403 (Met) Flights. These were operating a number of aircraft including the Blenheim IV, Gladiator II, Spitfire V, Mosquito IV and Hudson IIIA, and all passed over to 521 Sqn in the July on its formation. In the following year, March 1943, the squadron would be split again, returning back to two flights once more, Nos 1401 and 1409, thus ending this period of its history. The role of 521 sqn was meteorological, the Gladiators flying locally usually above base, whilst the remainder flew long range sorties over northern Germany or to altitudes the Gladiator could not reach.

There was little ‘front line’ movement in or out of Bircham during 1943, only two new squadrons would be seen here, 695 Sqn with various types of aircraft, and 415 (Torpedo Bomber) Sqn another Canadian unit.

415 were initially a torpedo squadron operating in the North Sea and English Channel areas attacking shipping along the Dutch coast. They arrived here at Bircham Newton in November with both Albacores and Wellingtons, and remained here in this role until July 1944 when they left for East Moor and Bomber Command. During D-day the squadron lay down a smoke screen for the allied advance, taking on the Halifax to join in Bomber Command operations. Throughout their stay they retained detachments at a number of airfields including: Docking and North Coates (Wellingtons) and Manston, Thorney Island and Winkleigh (Albacores). They were well and truly spread out!

695 Sqn were formed here out of 1611, 1612 and 1626 Flights, and performed anti-aircraft co-operation duties using numerous aircraft including: Lysanders, Henleys, Martinets, Hurricanes and Spitfires. They remained here until August 1945 whereupon they departed to Horsham St. Faith now Norwich airport.

Main Stores

The main stores with two of the C-type hangars in the background.

The only RAF squadron to appear here at Bircham Newton in 1944, was 524 Sqn. It was originally formed at Oban on the Scottish West coast with the failed Martinet, in October 1943, the squadron lasted a mere two months before being disbanded in the early days of December.

Like a phoenix though, it would be reborn later in April 1944 at Davidstow Moor. By the time it reached Bircham in the July, it was operating the Wellington XIII. After moving to nearby RAF Langham in October,  it would eventually disband for the final time in  1945.

It was also during this year that further FAA units would make their presence here at Bircham. 855 Sqn FAA brought along the Avenger, whilst 819 Sqn FAA brought more Albacores and Swordfish. Both these units served as torpedo spotter reconnaissance and torpedo-bomber reconnaissance squadrons.

As the war drew to a close, 1945 would see the winding down of operations and squadrons. Two units would see their days end at Bircham, 598 Sqn with various types of aircraft and 119 Sqn with the Fairey Swordfish, would both be disbanded – in April and May respectfully.

Bircham’s activity then began to dwindle, and its role as a major airfield lessened. From anti-shipping activities to Fighter Command,  Flying Training, Transport Command and finally to a Technical Training unit, Bircham was now training the Officers of the future. Flying activity naturally reduced, and small trainers such as the Chipmunk became the order of the day. Whilst a number of recruits passed through here, the most notable was perhaps HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, who made several landings here as part of his flying training in the early 1950s.

Like all RAF Stations, Bircham was the proud owner of several ‘gate guardians’, notably at this time was Spitfire LF Mk.Vb Spitfire ‘EP120’ from around 1955 to late 1962, along with Vampire F MK.3 ‘VF272’.

Spitfire EP120, was a Castle Bromwich model, which entered RAF service in May 1942, with 45 Maintenance Unit (MU) at Kinloss in Scotland. Whilst serving with several squadrons she achieved seven confirmed ‘kills’ before being relegated to a ground instructional air frame. There then followed a period of ‘Gate Guardianship’ standing at the front of several stations including Bircham Newton. In 1967 she was used as a static example in the famous Battle of Britain movie, before being transferred back to gate guard duties. In 1989 she was then transferred to a storage facility at St. Athan along with several other Spitfires awaiting their fate. Finally she was bought by the ‘Fighter Collection‘ in 1993. After a two year restoration, EP120 finally returned to the skies once more, in September 1995 where she has performed displays around the country ever since.

Spitfire EP120

Spitfire EP120 at Duxford 2014.

Unfortunately, Vampire VF272 wasn’t so lucky. Whilst her fate is unknown at this time, it is believed she was scrapped on site when Bircham finally closed in 1962.

But it was not to be the end of the story though. In 1965, with the development of the Kestrel, Hawker Siddeley’s VTOL baby, Bircham came to life once more, albeit briefly, with the sound of the jet engine. With tests of the new aircraft being carried out, Bircham Newton once again hung on by its finger nails – if only temporarily.

A year later, Bircham was sold to the National Construction College and the pathways were adorned with young building apprentices, diggers and cranes of varying sizes. Being a busy building college, many of the original buildings have been restored but the runways, flying areas and sadly the watch office, removed. Whilst private, the airfield retains that particular feel associated with a wartime airfield.

Luckily, the main road passes through the centre of Bircham. A memorial project has been set up to remember those that served at the airfield with photos and exhibits from days long gone. A memorial has also been erected and stands outside the original Station Commanders house, just off the main road and is well sign posted. The original accommodation blocks, technical buildings and supporting blocks are still visible even from the road. The 1923 guard-house, is now a shop and the operations block, the reception centre.

Reputedly haunted, the squash courts (built-in 1918) continue to serve their original purpose, and most significantly, the three large C-type hangers and two Bellman sheds are still there – again all visible from the public highway.

RAF Bircham Newton, stands as a well-preserved model one of Britain’s wartime airfields. Although private now, the buildings reflect the once bustling activities of this busy centre of aviation.

In February 2020, the CITB announced that they had sold the site to the Bury St Edmunds based West Suffolk College. The move, it says, was planned as a cost cutting exercise with the loss of some 800 jobs. The intention of the West Suffolk College is to continue with the construction training at Bircham, hopefully preserving this incredibly historic site for generations to come. Only time will tell.

RAF Memorial and Station Commanders house

The RAF Memorial, and behind, the former Station Commander’s house.

Sources and links for further reading (RAF Bircham Newton):

The full text can be seen in Trail 20 – North Norfolk Part 1.

*1A detailed history of the production of the HP.15 /1500 can be found on Tony Wilkin’s blog ‘Defence of the Realm‘.

*2 Letter from C.C. Darley (the brother of C.H. Darley) to Sqn Ldr. J. Wake 1st March 1937 (AIR 27/1089/1 Appendix B)

*3 Gunn, P.B. “Flying Lives with a Norfolk theme“, 2010 Published by Peter Gunn.

*4 Pitchfork, G, “Shot down and in the Drink” 2007, Published by The National Archives. – A very interesting and useful book about the development of the ASR service along with true stories of airmen who had crashed in the sea.

*5 BAE Systems website accessed 6/7/21

*6 Traces of World War 2 Website, accessed 11/7/21

*7 Aviation Safety Network website, accessed 21/7/21

National Archives AIR 27/263/1

National Archives AIR 27/788/1

National Archives AIR 27/1233/1

National Archives AIR 27/1221/1

AIR 27/1222/11, AIR 27/1222/12

Details of 206 Sqn fatalities are available on the 206 Sqn Coastal Command website.

Details of Great Bircham war cemetery graves are available at the role of honour of St Mary’s Church.

The memorial project at RAF Bircham Newton has a website and can be found here.

September 8th 1943 – Tragedy at RAF Mepal.

On the night of September 8/9th 1943,  a force of 257 aircraft comprising 119 Wellingtons, 112 Stirlings, 16 Mosquitoes and 10 Halifaxes took off from various bases around the U.K. to bomb the Nazi gun positions at Boulogne. Included in this force were aircraft from the RAF’s Operational Training Units, and for the first time of the war, five B-17s flown by US aircrews of the USAAF’s 422nd BS, 305th BG at Grafton Underwood. This was the first of eight such missions to test the feasibility of the USAAF carrying out night operations over Europe.  After the remaining seven missions, in which the squadron had dropped 68 tons of bombs, the idea was scrapped, the concept considered ‘uneconomical’ although the aircraft themselves proved to be more than capable of the operations.

RAF Mepal - memorial

RAF Memorial – Mepal

The Gun battery targeted, was the emplacement that housed the Germans’ long-range guns, and the target wold be marked by Oboe Mosquitoes. With good weather and clear visibility, navigation was excellent, allowing the main force to successfully drop their bombs in the target area causing several huge explosions. However, not many fires were seen burning and the mission was not recorded as a success. Reports subsequently showed that the emplacement was undamaged due to both inaccurate marking by Pathfinders, and bombing by the main force. However, as both anti-aircraft fire and night fighter activity were light, no aircraft were lost during the flight making it a rather an uneventful night.

However, the mission was not all plain sailing, and whilst all crews returned, the night was marred by some very tragic events.

Three Stirlings were to take off from their various bases that night: at 21:00 hrs from Chedburgh, Stirling MK. III, EF136, piloted by F/S. R. Bunce of 620 Sqn; at 21:30, another Stirling MK.III, from 75 Sqn at RAF Mepal, BK809 ‘JN-T*1‘ piloted by F/O I.R.Menzies of the RNZAF; and lastly at 21:58 also from Chedburgh, Stirling MK. I, R9288 ‘BU-Q’ piloted by N.J. Tutt  of 214 Sqn.  Unfortunately all three aircraft were to suffer the same and uncanny fate, swinging violently on take off. The first EF136 crashed almost immediately, the second BK809 struck a fuel bowser, and the third R9288 ended up in the bomb dump. Miraculously in both the Chedburgh incidents there were no casualties at all, all fourteen crew men surviving what must have been one of their luckiest escapes of the war! The same cannot be said for the second though.

Stirling BK809 was part of a seventeen strong force of 75 Sqn aircraft. Each aircraft was carrying its full load made up of 1,000lb and 500lb bombs. As the Stirling was running along the runway, it swung violently, striking a fuel bowser which sent it careering into houses bordering the edge of the airfield.

One of the occupants of one of the houses, Mr. P. Smith, saw the aircraft approaching and ran into the street to warn others to get clear. As the aircraft struck the rear of the houses, it burst into flames causing some of the bombs to detonate. This brought considerable rubble down on the occupants of the second house, Mr and Mrs John Randall.

Mrs Randall managed to get out, her legs injured, whereupon she was met by a local fireman, Mr. A.E. Kirby of the National Fire Service. Mr. Kirby went on to help search in the wreckage of the house until his attempts were thwarted by another explosion. His body, along with that of Mr. Randall, was found the next day.

Two other people were also killed that night trying to provide assistance, those being F/Sgt Peter Gerald Dobson, RNZAF and Section Officer Joan Marjorie Easton WAAF. F/Sgt. Dobson was later mentioned in despatches. Three members of the crew lost their lives as a result of the accident, F/O. Menzies and F/O. N. Gale both died in the actual crash whilst Sgt. A. Mellor died later from injuries sustained in the accident.

A number of others were injured in the crash and one further member of the squadron, Cpl Terence Henry King B.E.M, was awarded the British Empire Medal “for his bravery that night in giving assistance“.

The mission on the night of September 8/9th 1943 will not go down as one of the most remarkable, even though  it was unique in many respects, but it will be remembered for the sad loss of crews, serving officers and civilians alike in what was a very tragic and sad event.

The crew of Stirling BK809 were:

F/O. Ian Robert Menzies RNZAF NZ415002. (Pilot).
P/O. Derek Albert Arthur Cordery RAFVR 136360. (Nav).
P/O. Norman Hathway Gale RAFVR 849986. (B/A).
Sgt. Ralph Herbert Barker RNZAF NZ417189. (W/O).
Sgt. Albert Leslie Mellor RAFVR 943914. (Flt. Eng).
Sgt. Bullivant G RAFVR 1395379. (Upp. G)
Sgt. Stewart Donald Muir RNZAF NZ416967. (R/G).

RAF Mepal was visited in Trail 11.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Chorley, 1996 “Bomber Command Losses 1943” notes this aircraft as AA-T.

National Archives: AIR 27/646/42: 75 Sqn ORB September 1943

Chorley, W.R., “Bomber Command Losses – 1943“, Midland Counties, (1996)

Middlebrook M., & Everitt C., “The Bomber Command War Diaries”  Midland Publishing, (1996)

Further details of this accident, the crews and those involved can be found on the 75 (NZ) Sqn blog. This includes the gravestones of those killed and a newspaper report of the event.

My thanks also go to Neil Bright for the initial  information.

RAF Bircham Newton (Part 4 – Bircham Enters the War)

So far we have seen how Bircham Newton developed from a First World War training airfield through the cutbacks of the early 1920s, and on into the Expansion period of the 1930s. Bircham is now in the hands of Coastal Command, a force lacking in materials but not will power. The units at Bircham work hard, and new developments come along that will help save lives at sea and put Bircham on the map. After Part 3, Bircham now enters the war.

The declaration of war and the early 1940’s would see some remarkable events take place at Bircham Newton; new aircraft and new roles, along with some advances that were to help downed airmen who ended up in Britain’s coastal waters.

One of these advances, was the creation of the ‘Bircham Barrel’, a container manufactured from the tail end of a 250lb bomb that was carried under the wing of searching Air Sea Rescue (ASR) aircraft and dropped to downed aircrews. The barrel was based on the ‘Thornaby bag’ a container designed at RAF Thornaby, in which supplies of: water, food rations, first-aid equipment, clothing and cigarettes were all placed. The Bircham Barrel, developed this idea a little further, making it more water tight and easier to retrieve by crews once in the water.*4

The Barrel was placed under the wing of an aircraft on a bomb rack, and once a crew was sighted, the pilot could drop the barrel providing the crew with sufficient rations for several days. After tests, the idea was given the green light and by 1941 it was in use by a range of aircraft operating in the ASR role.

With an increase in coastal operations from Bircham, particularly in the Air Sea Rescue role, many of the aircraft that would now use the airfield would be the twin-engined types. Kicking off the decade were the Bristol Blenheims, of 254 Sqn in January 1940. Joining a small detachment of 233 Sqn  Blenheims that had arrived here late in 1939, 254 Sqn only stayed for three months, operating as ‘Trade defence’ or fisheries protection unit – perhaps one of the lesser well known operations of Coastal Command.

Twin-engined models were not to be the only aircraft seen at Bircham though. The spring and early summer of 1940 would see further detachments with Hurricanes from 229 Sqn, a short stay by 235 Sqn and the first of a number of Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA) units 815 Sqn with the delightful Swordfish. One further unit to be based here at this time, would bring with it one of the more intriguing models of aircraft used during the Second World War, the Wellington DWI of No 2 General Reconnaissance Unit (GRU).

One of the roles of the GRU was to detect and destroy German mines, particularly new magnetic mines that were proving to be a menace to allied shipping. Using a Wellington 1A bomber modified to carry a large 51 foot ring of wood containing an aluminium coil, it would generate, using a Ford motor, an electronic signature that would resemble a ship. By flying low and slow over the water, it was hoped that the signal from the coil would detonate the new mines. Whilst the idea worked well in principal on land, over water it caused a number of issues primarily because the aircraft had to fly between 60 feet and 35 feet to detonate the mine. A number of successful detonations were recorded, but some aircraft were struck by the blast wash, causing them to be knocked ‘off balance’ as the mines exploded. Fortunately though, there are no recordings of any serious damage being sustained by these aircraft, but it was nonetheless, a dangerous job to do and because of advances elsewhere, it became a short lived attempt to gain an advantage over the Germans in the mine laying war.

ROYAL AIR FORCE OPERATIONS IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA, 1940-1943.

Wellington DWI Mark II of No. 1 GRU based at Ismaliya. The ring weighed over two and a quarter tons.© IWM (CM 5312)

Like the Swordfish, both the Wellingtons of 2 GRU and the Blenheims of 235 Sqn were only based at Bircham for a month, all departing in May 1940, although 235 Sqn did return in the summer staying this time for a year. The immediate period after their departure saw yet more FAA units arrive, 826 and 812 Sqns, with Albacores and Swordfish respectively. Both of these units would operate as shipping patrols and also in mine laying operations, but would again only stay for a short period of time. During operations on 21st June 1940, at De Kooy Naval air base, one 826 Sqn aircraft was lost, two of the Albacore’s crewmen: Sub Lieutenant (A) Peter William S. Butterworth, (famed for his acting in the ‘Carry On’ films) and Telegraphist /Air Gunner Robert (TAG) J. Jackson, were both captured. Sub. Lt Butterworth survived ending up in Stalag Luft III after several failed escape attempts, whilst TAG Jackson died in captivity on 18th January 1945. The third crewman, Sub-Lieutenant Victor J. Dyke, died the day after the attack.*6

Peter Butterworth - Wikipedia

Peter Butterworth from the 1968 film “Carry on… Up the Khyber” (wikipedia)

Bircham’s long standing 206 Sqn were by now replacing their Blenheims with Hudsons, the American built twin engined aircraft designed around the civil Lockheed Super Electra. By militarising it, they produced an aircraft that would serve well in Coastal Command operations.

Initially carrying out convoy duties, the Hudsons would then patrol as far away as the ‘North German Islands’, but primarily flew reconnaissance patrols along the  coastline between Norway and Brest. Shipping was engaged on a number of occasions as were flak and Luftwaffe aircraft. During May, as the new Hudsons were being delivered, a number were lost to enemy action, particularly fighters.

For one Hudson, (P5120), life at Bircham would be short lived, the aircraft arriving here in April, only to be written off after a crash landing in June. The aircraft, one of three, departed Bircham on June 19th at 23:50 for a night patrol. On return it struck a ridge on the airfield’s approach causing it to bounce heavily. The aircraft then stalled and hit the ground so hard it caused the undercarriage to collapse. Thankfully all four crewmen emerged from the aircraft unhurt.

WITH A HUDSON OF COASTAL COMMAND

Hudson C-VX (P5120) of 206 Sqn on patrol before being written off in a crash landing. (© IWM CH 287)

Both during and after the build up to Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain, airfields across southern England were targeted by the Luftwaffe, and Bircham Newton was no exception. Whilst not a fighter airfield high on the list of Luftwaffe priorities, bombs nonetheless did fall on the airfield, and it was the Hurricane detachment of 229 Sqn based here, who were tasked with providing cover against such attacks.

In addition, many support units were also based at Bircham, these would provide training for pilots, gunners, navigators, other members of aircrew along with cooperation with ground operations as well. One such unit here at Bircham was No. 1 Anti Aircraft Co-operation Unit (AACU) which consisted of several Flights, designated ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’, ‘K’ and ‘M’, they all operated the Hawker Henley, the Hurricane’s little known relative.

With Flights designated A – Z (‘I’ was omitted), the unit operated at various airfields across Britain, flying a mix of Henley IIIs, Wallace, Lysander and Battle aircraft, with both Flights ‘B’ and ‘M’ being formed here at Bircham Newton. Several of these Flights also used RAF Langham, another Coastal Command / training airfield a few miles away on the Norfolk coast, particularly useful for the training of heavy anti-aircraft guns.

The Henley – built along side the Hurricane – essentially used the same jigs, their similarity thus being quite stark. The Henley was initially designed as a light bomber with modifications to the guns and an additional seat added behind the pilot. However, changes in Government policy toward daylight bombers meant that the Henley was soon transferred to other duties notably target towing. To assist this, a small propeller driven motor was added to the port side of the aircraft, just below the rear cockpit, this would power the winch that held the target drogue as it was towed some 7,000ft behind the aircraft for gunners to aim at*5.

ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945.

Hawker Henley, L3353, of ‘K’ or ‘M’ Flight, No. 1 AACU, next to a bomb crater at Bircham Newton. A lone Do 17 dropped seven high explosive bombs on the station causing light damage but also slightly damaging this aircraft. The similarities to the Hurricane are very evident. (IWM CE 43)

In November of 1940, two more squadrons were formed here, one, another First World War unit, was 252 Sqn. It would not fly operationally from here though, instead collecting its aircraft from Chivenor to where it would move a matter of weeks later.

The second unit, 221 Sqn was formed on the 21st November, and was also a former World War One unit. Disbanded in 1919, it would serve for the remainder of the war with the Wellingtons in the Coastal Command role. The initial order was to train crews at Bircham prior to their move to operations at Limvardy, a role it would perform using twenty-four Wellington IC aircraft. By the end of the month two such models, N2909 and N2910 were delivered and ready to be used for the job. A third aircraft, a dual control Wellington (R2700), arrived on the 6th and then on the 12th December, the personnel were all moved off site to a new location the rather grand Heacham Hall. The hall, which burned down during the war, was a 17th Century building, and had historic ties to Matoaka (better known as “Pocahontas”), who married local man John Rolfe. It must have been a  rather nice change for the airmen to be ‘off base’ and in more luxurious, and historical, surroundings.

During the remainder of December more aircraft arrived and by the last day of the year, eleven more Wellingtons were ‘on role’ along with a growing number of personnel – both air and ground crew.

1941 started on a high for Bircham Newton, with a Royal Visit. On 26th January, the Royal party consisting of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth, visited the area inspecting the airfield and its aircraft. Whilst here, the King gave airmen a number of awards before the whole party moved of to other airfields across Norfolk.

For the whole of January, training flights were the order of the day for the Wellingtons of 221 Sqn, but poor weather meant that only 12 out of the 31 days were actually suitable. However, by March 27th 1941, all pilots had flown solo by day and a new flight was crewed up and ready for operations. The squadron then began its move over to Limvardy in Northern Ireland.

The summer of 1941 was another busy time for Bircham Newton. In May, two squadrons appeared, the first 200 Sqn was formed from 206 Sqn, which had already been used to create 220 Sqn earlier on. 200 Sqn were formed to perform the ‘operational duties of a Coastal Command general reconnaissance land-plane squadron’ in other words maritime and anti-submarine patrols. It would be made up initially of 210 personnel, who would depart Bircham on the 25th to Greenock, whilst seven Hudsons would fly to Gibraltar on route to Gambia. It would remain abroad until its disbandment at the war’s end in 1945.

The second, 500 Sqn moved in from Detling in Kent, bringing Blenheims with it. With detachments at both Limvardi and Carew Cheriton, these were replaced by the Hudson V in November before the unit departed for Stornaway in Scotland’s Western Isles in May 1942. Once at Bircham they immediately began patrols, looking for downed aircrew, mines or enemy shipping. Poor weather restricted many of these patrols, but both mines and shipping were spotted, sadly no dinghies or aircraft were found in these early days.

The next unit to arrive was another Blenheim squadron, 248 Sqn who performed convoy patrols and strikes against enemy shipping. During July, a month after they moved in, they began to replace the Blenheim with Beaufighter ICs, a powerful and heavily armed aircraft built to design Specification F.37/35. After initial handling issues, it became a sturdy weapons platform that performed well, especially in the anti-shipping role, carrying a torpedo or rockets. For the next month the weather prevented much in the way of flying, with fog, rain and poor visibility preventing all but minimal flying, the squadron remained firmly on the ground for a good deal of August.

Armoury and Photographic building

Former armoury and photographic building.

The last of the summer squadrons to arrive were 53 Sqn and 59 Sqn. Initially based at Detling / Thorney Island, they had also maintained a detachment of aircraft here at Bircham. Once the two squadrons had reformed at Bircham, they both took on the Hudson replacing their Blenheims before departing back to St Eval in the October of that year (53 Sqn) and North Coates (59 Sqn).

By September 1941, the need for more Air Sea Rescue aircraft, particularly deep search aircraft, had become ever more apparent, and it called for the creation of two more squadrons able to perform such tasks. However, suitable aircraft were in short supply, especially Lockheed’s Hudson with ASV (Air to Surface Vessel) radar equipment and Lindholme rescue gear. Thanks though to Sir John Salmond GCB, CMG, CVO, DSO & Bar , Coastal Command’s corner was fought, and even though by the end of 1941, aircraft were still few and far between, by the December one of these Squadrons, 279 Sqn, was up and running here at Bircham. However, it would be a long haul, and it would not be until March the following year before they would be fully operational and their Hudsons operating regularly in the Air Sea Rescue role from this airfield.

The second squadron, 280 Sqn however, was not given the Hudson, instead they had to contend with the Anson. Another unit set up in 1941, its primary base was also at Detling in Kent. Whilst performing this duty, they maintained a detachment of aircraft here at Bircham Newton, a position it held whilst the bulk of the squadron moved to Langham in Norfolk in the summer of 1942. It would then be after this, that the entire squadron would move into Bircham Newton.

Like its sister unit it would take time to become fully operational and it would not be until June before the squadron was operating as it should. The benefit of both units was quickly seen though, thirty-five men from six crews were rescued over May – June by 279 Sqn, whilst one crew was rescued by 280 Sqn within days of them becoming fully operational.

The early years of the war were busy for Bircham Newton, and as war progresses, further units arrive and depart, the hectic scenes will not be stopping yet!

The full text can be seen in Trail 20 – North Norfolk Part 1.

RAF Bircham Newton (Part 3 – The build up begins).

In Part 2 we saw how Bircham had grown following the immediate post war cutbacks, and how France was seen as a threat. Now as developments occur in Germany, the dynamics of Europe begin to change and we enter the Expansion Period of the late 1930s.

Bircham sees more new squadrons, new aircraft and further developments to its infrastructure.

In the 1930s, the Government’s plans for expansion took a new direction when Germany too began to build up its armed forces – albeit surreptitiously at first. New expansion schemes were put in place, which not only signified the expansion of the RAF’s forces, but the number of available airfields, their design, and the number of their associated buildings as well.

One of these modifications was the construction of a standard watch office with attached tower. Designed as drawing 1959/34, it became the standard design used for all Watch Offices of this time, and was in essence a square building with a small observation tower built onto a flat roof. In addition to this, Bircham also had new barrack blocks (2357/36) built, now in the familiar ‘H’ shape, supplementing the previous models which were in the form of a ‘T’. These new buildings had reinforced roofs giving better protection to those inside should it be struck by small incendiaries.

The decade started off on a bad foot however, with the loss of a 207 Sqn aircraft, a Fairey IIIF on January 21st 1930. A previous resident of Bircham, the rear party had brought the last of the personnel to Bircham in November 1929. The next weeks were spent getting as many airmen flying solo on the Fairey IIIFs as possible. However, poor visibility due to fog that day, caused the aircraft ‘J9637’ to crash into an orchard near Sudbury in Suffolk killing both crewmen: F.O. Donald Mackenzie (aged 25) and Cpl. Leonard Edward Barnard who was a year younger.

Former Technical Building

One of the former technical buildings no longer used.

In November 1935 information was received at Bircham that two new squadrons were to be formed here, 21 Sqn and 34 Sqn, both bomber units flying Hawker Hinds. Personnel began arriving on December 3rd and began to work on 207 Sqn’s  updated Fairey Gordons, preparing them for dispatch to Cardington prior to their move abroad once more. 21 Sqn were allocated Hangar No. 17, and would receive their first Hind (K.4638) on New Years Eve 1935.

34 Sqn on the other hand, wouldn’t receive their first batch of Hinds until January 1936, when four examples were delivered from the Hawker Aircraft Company Ltd. at Brooklands, by pilots from other units. With two more Hinds being delivered on June 11th, also by pilots of other units, the cadre would soon be preparing to move. On July 30th, both 21 and 34 cadres were ordered north, making the move from Bircham Newton to Abbotsinch in Scotland.

The latter part of the decade reflected previous events at Bircham. Many new changes meant that events at the airfield were as dynamic as ever. Several new squadrons were formed resulting in new crews and some new aircraft. Sharing the space at Bircham were 18 Sqn (Harts and Hinds), 49 Sqn (formed from ‘C’ Flight of 18 Sqn) and ending the decade 206 Sqn with Ansons and later Hudsons. 206 would themselves later be used to form 220 Sqn, which in turn would see ‘C’ Flight be renamed as 269 Sqn. Many of these new squadrons would in turn depart Bircham as changes occurred on the continent.

With 206 came new changes of command at Bircham. Their arrival in 1936, saw a move to Coastal Command (16 Group). Formed at Manston in June under the initial command of Sqn. Ldr. A. H. Love, 23 (Training) Group, 206 Sqn had three flights of six aircraft each and a further six Ansons in reserve. The squadron transferred across to Bircham at the end of July by which time the command had been taken over by Wing Commander F.J. Vincent D.F.C.

206’s main role at this point was training pilots selected for Flying Boats and the  Blenheim squadrons of Coastal Command. Shortly after arrival, the unit’s command would pass over to Wing Commander H. Long D.S.O., and by June 1937, 270 pilots would have been successfully converted in 2,700 hours of flying time.

Naturally accidents did occur during this time, on November 9th 1936, 220 Sqn Anson ‘K6199’ stalled after take-off killing P.O. Peter White (age 23) and injuring three others: Sqn. Ldr. William M. M. Hurley (the pilot), AC.2 Eric D. Butler and AC.1 Reginald K. Birtwistle. The aircraft was written off, after which a court of enquiry recommended modifications to locking bars, as it appeared that the pre-flight checks had been made with the control systems locked. The aircraft was left as an instructional air frame and a stark reminder for proper pre-flight checks!*7

A second accident occurred a year later in September 1937, when another 220 Sqn Anson, ‘K6227’ also stalled, this time falling into the sea near Conway. This time, the crew were not so lucky, with all three, a Sergeant, an AC.1 and an AC.2 all being killed. Their average age was just 22 years old.

Guard House

The former Guard House now stands as a shop.

During the later years of the 1930s, a royal visitor was often seen parked in the hangars at Bircham Newton. The Airspeed Envoy G-AEXX of the King’s Flight was a regular here, being so close to Sandringham House, the Royal residency, it was an ideal location for the aircraft. The Envoy was a creation of the Airspeed company, headed by the author Nevil Shute, a former de Havilland and Vickers employee who later set up his own business, Airspeed Limited. The Envoy was later developed into the Airspeed Oxford which became one of the main trainers used by the RAF.

As the era closed and just weeks before the outbreak of war, another squadron arrived here at Bircham in the form of 42 Sqn with Vickers Vildebeests. The Vildebeest was a late 1920s design biplane, designed to meet Specification 25/25 which required an aircraft operating in the Coastal Defence role and capable of both day bombing and ant-shipping torpedo operations. Several marks were manufactured, up to and including the MK.IV of which only 18 were built. It was some of these that were later delivered to 42 Sqn at Bircham Newton. These aircraft remained in service at Bircham until April 1940, when they were replaced by Beauforts at which point, 42 Sqn departed Bircham transferring to Thorney Island in West Sussex.

On the day war was declared, another very mobile squadron appeared at the door of Bircham, this time it was the Blenheims of 90 Sqn who made a very brief appearance here from West Raynham. Over a period of just two weeks they would locate at five different RAF stations!

With the introduction of the last of the Expansion Schemes ‘L’ and ‘M’ over the years 1938 -39, Bircham would see yet more changes to its infrastructure, notably the demolition of the repair sheds and their replacement with three Type ‘C’ hangars. At this point a fourth was also proposed such was the size and nature of activity at Bircham Newton. In addition, the two original Belfast type hangars were retained providing a mass of hangar space on the airfield. Another bonus for Bircham was the addition of further accommodation blocks, providing better accommodation for the many new air and ground crews who were increasingly appearing at this Norfolk site.

Teetering on the bring of war, Bircham was now operational, more modern aircraft are filtering through and Coastal Command operations begin in earnest. In Part 4, Bircham Newton enters the war.

The full text can be seen in Trail 20 – North Norfolk Part 1.

RAF Bircham Newton (Part 2 – The 1920s)

In Part 1 – The Early Years – we saw how Bircham Newton was created and how it was chosen to be the forefront of long rang bombers targeting Berlin. We saw the untimely death of One Captain Cecil Darley and how, as we enter the 1920s, a new build up of the RAF was required following massive cutbacks after the First World War. In Part 2, we progress through the 20s, Bircham develops into a larger station and how one of its pilots won his VC before arriving here.

This decision to rebuild the RAF in response to France’s build up, then led to an initial burst of refurbishment and development of Britain’s current airfield stock, those not closed by the post-war political hatchet. This included Norfolk’s Bircham Newton.

The link forged in late 1918 with bombers would carry Bircham right through the 1920s and on into the mid 1930s, during which time a number of squadrons would either be formed here or pass through in transit elsewhere. The first of these was through the reforming of 207 Squadron on February 1st, 1920 with DH.9As. This unit came from the nucleus of 274 Sqn, itself a previous resident of Bircham. As a cadre, it would remain here for two years before departing for warmer climates and Turkey, in the Autumn of 1922. That was not the end of the link though, after a spell abroad the squadron would return to the UK, coming back to RAF Bircham Newton at the end of the decade. This return would bring a new variety of aircraft, the Fairey IIIF. By 1932 though, these models were themselves being replaced by another Fairey aircraft, the Gordon, and within three more years the squadron would be back on the road to the Middle East once more.

Another small cadre appeared here on New Year’s Day 1920. Moving in from the former Narborough airfield (Norfolk’s first), the cadre from 60 Squadron would disband later that month, having the good fortune to reappear at Risalpur, India, later in the year.

Over the period 1923 – 24 three more squadrons arrived at Bircham, 7 Sqn (who were formed here from 100 Sqn and stayed for four years); 11 Squadron (6 months) and 99 Squadron (four years) bringing a wide range of aircraft with them to this part of Norfolk. Delights such as the Vickers Vimy; Virginia II, III, IV, V, VI and VII; DH.9A, Fairey Fawn and the Handley Page Hyderabad were all present during this short period of time.

Squash courts

The original squash courts are still used as they were intended.

With such a mass of movement, accidents were inevitable. 7 Sqn suffered a loss when Vickers Vimy (F9187) overturned whilst landing at night on 16th October 1923. Damage to the aircraft itself was not too severe and it was repaired, however, one of the four man crew, AC.1 Ronald Sinclair Watson (aged 20), was not so lucky and was killed  in the crash. The remaining three crew all escaped unhurt.

Another accident befell a 99 Sqn aircraft on 27th February 1925, in which one of its crew was also killed with a second injured. The Avro 504K ‘H3083’,  spun after attempting a stall turn, the manoeuvre resulted in the death of P.O. Cecil S. Marshall Woode also aged just 20. This was the first fatal accident for 99 Sqn.

This build up of squadrons saw continuous movements both in and out of Bircham throughout the 1920s, resulting in many more personnel and aircraft residing at the airfield.

In mid January 1928, 39 Sqn appeared at Bircham (DH.9A) staying for just one year, followed soon after on March 21st, by 101 Sqn. This was another former RFC unit, and were reformed, under the initial command of Sqn. Ldr. J. C. P. Wood. Sqn. Ldr. Wood was posted in from RAF Uxbridge to oversee the formation of the unit and the training of the crews. At its inception the squadron had just 23 airmen in its ranks and was tasked with operating the Sidestrand, an aircraft built by Boulton and Paul aircraft manufacturers.

File:Im1927v145-p46f.jpg

The first example Boulton Paul Sidestrand (Grace’s Guide)

The first model built, J.7938 was collected and brought to Bircham Newton, it was then taken to Ringstead for testing there. It was however, unfortunately damaged in a landing accident after it developed an oil pressure problem whilst being flown by F.O. Duggan, the now Squadron Commander.

Meanwhile, at Bircham, Ground crew were occupied with further ground and air tests, along with lectures by staff from the Bristol Aeroplane Co. on maintenance of the  Sidestrand’s engine, the Jupiter VIIIF.

Rounding off the 1920s was 35 (Bomber) Sqn, reformed with DH.9As and then the Fairey IIIFs, followed not long after by the Fairey  Gordon. 35 Sqn was commanded by  Gilbert Stuart Martin Insall, who had in 1915 been awarded the VC for his actions in France. After having attacked  a German aircraft, he was forced down suffering numerous hits to his own aircraft. Once down, he was able to complete sufficient repairs enabling him to take off again, but in a hail of gunfire that kept others seeking cover.

Later, Insall was shot down again, this time he and his crewman were both injured and captured. Moved from hospital to a POW camp, he made two escape attempts, being recaptured in the first but successfully escaping in the second.

Once repatriated, Insall was by now, a keen archaeologist, and flying with 35 Sqn enabled him to take photographs of the Norfolk landscape. These photographs led to discoveries that have since proven to be very important in the archaeological world. His endeavours in this area went on to help in the development of aerial photography as a reconnaissance tool and to aerial photography as a whole.

However, by the mid 1930s, both Insall and 35 Sqn had also departed Bircham Newton, heading for warmer climates and the Sudan, this move ending their link with this Norfolk airfield.

By now, Bircham had grown considerably, partly in response to the number of its users but also in response to the growing concern over what was happening on the continent. The airfield would by now, have a single aircraft repair section shed along with three double bay general service sheds. All of these were located in the south-eastern corner of the main airfield site, sat in a row with doors facing north-west.

In Part 3, we enter the uncertain times of the 1930s. Germany begins a build up of her forces, and Bircham changes commands being transferred over to Coastal Command.

The full text can be seen in Trail 20 – North Norfolk Part 1.

RAF Bircham Newton (Part 1 – The Early Years)

The north Norfolk coast area boasts numerous wartime airfields and several Cold War examples too, all of which are now closed. Many of these retain buildings or parts of runways in various states of disrepair. In Trail 20, we visit three of these and in one case a substantial amount remains solely thanks to its owners. As we revisit Trail 20, we look at the long history of RAF Bircham Newton.

RAF Bircham Newton.

RAF Bircham Newton has one of the country’s best preserved technical and accommodation areas anywhere in the UK. This remarkable achievement is largely down to the owners, the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), who opened their first training centre here at Bircham Newton in 1966. Attracted particularly by the large hangars, they are an organisation who specialise in training people for the construction industry through a number of training centres spread across the UK. Their work at Bircham Newton has ensured maintenance/preservation of many (but not all) of the buildings on site.

Located 8 miles from the Norfolk town of Fakenham, RAF Bircham Newton has associations with several airfields including: RAF West Raynham (its parent), RAF Docking (its satellite from where all night flying took place) and four minor decoy sites including the former RFC/RAF Sedgeford.

With its origins in the First World War, prior to the birth of the Royal Air Force, Bircham Newton has had a long and distinguished career mainly serving under 16 Group Coastal Command, who operated a range of single and twin engined aircraft from the site.

By the end of the Second World War, it would have seen considerable development, including three runways, all BRC steel matting (British Reinforcing Concrete), three ‘C’ Type Hangars, three Bellmans, ten Blister hangars and two Belfast hangars mainly located in the south eastern corner. It would also have an extensive range of accommodation and technical buildings catering for around 3,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender.

Opened in 1916, little initially happened with the airfield, and it wasn’t until near the war’s then that Bircham really came into being. Its first operational use was as a Fighter Gunnery School in 1918, with No. 3 School of Aerial Fighting & Gunnery (later known as No. 3 Fighting School) as its initial resident.

The School was born out of the need to train both pilots and gunners in the early biplanes to use their guns effectively in aerial combat. With their roots in the Auxiliary School of Aerial Gunnery, they were formed in May 1918 when Numbers 2 and 4 merged with another two Schools, Numbers 1 and 2 School of Aerial Gunnery. This amalgamation of ‘Schools’ was designed to streamline the complex array of establishments that had grown out of the need for new gunners and pilots. Once formed, they would be one of four new schools which were joined by a fifth in September later that year. Operating a range of aircraft including: B.E.2e, Bristol M.IC, D.H.4, Dolphins, Camels and H.P. 0/400 aircraft, their stay at Bircham would however, be short lived, moving to nearby RAF Sedgeford in November of that year.

Early losses with trainee pilots were high, novices learning to fly the hard way. At Bircham, one such loss occurred to 2Lt. Horace G. R. Boyt, who was killed when his Sopwith Camel (D8226) of No. 3 Fighting School stalled whilst attempting a forced landing near to Thornham bombing range, on July 31st 1918. 2Lt. Boyt was only 19 years of age at the time of his death – a young man taken in the prime of his life.

Possibly Bircham’s most significant early aircraft was the Handley Page V/1500 (Super-Handley) bombers*1. An enormous four-engined aircraft, it first flew in May 1918, and was designed to hit Germany hard, striking targets as far away as Berlin. The V/1500 was more than capable for the role too. It could carry up to thirty 250lb bombs over a range of 1,300 miles with a crew of six. Even more unusual, especially for an aircraft so large, it boasted folding wings; presumably this allowed it to be placed inside a hangar/repair shed for maintenance or storage.

BRITISH AIRCRAFT OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR

Handley-Page V/1500 heavy bomber biplane possibly at Bircham Newton. (© IWM Q 67329)

These aircraft arrived with three squadrons, the first 166 Squadron, was formed on 13th June 1918. Whilst initially receiving FE.2Bs, the squadron was created with the sole purpose of bombing Berlin, and the d’elite crews (mainly Canadian) were hand picked accordingly; a situation not unlike 617 (Dambusters) Sqn of the Second World War. Bircham Newton was chosen for these aircraft, as it was both the most suitable and the most easterly aerodrome available to the RAF at that time.

Formed under the command of Major Cecil H. Darley DSC and Bar, DFC,  a seasoned veteran of the war, the squadron fell under the control of 3 Group, a relationship it maintained until 13th September 1918 when it was transferred to 86 Wing, 27 Group. As the squadron rapidly developed, it naturally grew in size taking on new staff on a regular basis. By the end of September, after its Group transfer, it would have 17 officers and 308 ‘other ranks’ on its books.

After building the squadron up and preparing for war, an audacious and no doubt suicidal attack, was planned for November 9th 1918 – a raid on Berlin. However, maintenance problems meant that only two of the three aircraft at Bircham Newton were serviceable, this despite ground crews working hard to get all three in the air. There then followed a spell of bad weather which caused even further delay to the operation. By the time the situation had improved and the weather was more favourable, the armistice had been agreed, and so the raid was no longer required. As a result, the squadron was ordered to ‘stand down’ and the raid never took place.

For 166 Squadron it was a bitter disappointment, had the war gone on and the flight taken place, they certainly would have made history regardless of whether or not they were successful in their task. Perhaps they too would would have been as famous as their Second World War partners 617 Sqn.

As for the V/1500s, it is believed they were left in Bircham’s sheds, allowed to decay until they had deteriorated beyond use, ultimately they were scrapped. A rather appalling end to an incredible aircraft.*2

The second squadron to be formed with these remarkable aircraft here at Bircham, was 167 Sqn, who also failed to see any active military service. Being formed on the 18th November 1918, just days after the Armistice was agreed, they too were no longer required.

The last of these special squadrons to be created was 274 Sqn,  which was also  formed here, at Bircham Newton, a year later on 15th June 1919. Personnel for the unit came from the nucleus of No.  5 (Communication) Squadron after it was renamed. As the war had now come to a conclusive end though, there seemed little need for these huge, long-range bombers and so all three units were disbanded each within six or seven months of their initial creation.

The immediate post-war era saw little interest in the building of a military force, especially an air force, and strong opposition from both the Navy and Army was fuelled by an anti-war feeling amongst the British public. As a result, many airfields were sold off, aircraft and equipment were scrapped and thousands of personnel demobbed. Airfields like Bircham Newton, now had in their store, numerous surplus aircraft awaiting disposal.

On of these surplus aircraft was the V/1500, and it would be Major Darley of 166 Sqn, who would go on to fly one, not in an operational  capacity, but as a non-stop flight to Madrid to promote these long range aircraft as potential civilian transports. It was not all plain sailing though, for the trip nearly cost Major Darley his life when, on the return leg, the aircraft got into difficulties and crashed into he sea off Biarritz. Managing to survive the accident, Major Darley eventually returned home to Bircham where he continued his military service. In honour of his achievements, the Spanish Government awarded Major Darley the Cross of Military Merit.*3

In a twist of fate, Major (now Captain) Cecil H. Darley, was joined in 1919 by his brother Flt. Lt. Charles Curtis Darley, also a veteran of the First World War, here at Bircham Newton, and they would be tasked with flying more of these surplus aircraft, this time Vickers Vimys, to Cairo. On their first trip together, on 24th September 1919, they departed Bircham heading for France, then onto Rome and eventually Cairo. On the 27th, following a forced stop at Lake Bracciano, 20 miles from Rome, the aircraft struck a telegraph pole causing it to crash. The resultant fire killed Captain Cecil Darley whilst his brother tried in vane to pull him free from the burning wreckage.*3

BRITISH AIRCRAFT OF THE INTERWAR PERIOD

Vickers Vimy (© IWM Q 73389)

Whilst Britain had entered a period of ‘demilitarisation’, the early 1920s saw increasing Government concern over France’s build up of military aircraft, particularly its bombers. The Government now saw France not as  potential Allie, but a potential aggressor, and there was now a growing concern over Britain’s lack of defensive strength.

By 1922, Britain had only 12 squadrons available in the UK, a weak and lacking force it would have been unable to counteract any aggressive moves made by the French. Consequently the Government put in a place a plan to rebuild its forces and increase this number, to a more substantial 52 squadrons by the mid 1920s.

In Part 2. we see how Bircham developed in response to the Governments plans and how new squadrons arrived at this rapidly developing airfield.

The full text can be seen in Trail 20 – North Norfolk Part 1.

RAF Graveley and the Pathfinders (Part 2).

In Part 1, we saw how Graveley had been formed, its early years and the how it was drawn into Don Bennett’s Pathfinder Group. We saw the Introduction of FIDO and the benefits of this incredible fog busting system.

In this, the second and final part we see more uses of FIDO, new aircraft and new squadrons arrive, but we start on the night of 18th/19th November 1942 which saw a remarkable turn of fortune for a squadron who had suffered some devastating losses.

Halifax DT488 (TL-S) piloted by Wing Commander B.V. Robinson, caught fire when flares in the bomb bay ignited. He ordered the crew to bail out, but as the last man left, the fire extinguished itself. Robinson then decided to try and nurse the damaged bomber home. Flying single-handed, he reached the safety of RAF Colerne in Wiltshire, where he survived a crash landing. The six crew members who had bailed out also survived but were unfortunately captured and taken as prisoners of war by the Germans.  As a result of his actions, Robinson was awarded a Bar to add to his DSO. Robinson would go on to have a second lucky escape later on, after which, in May 1943, he would become the Station Commander of his home base here at Graveley.

35 Sqn would continue to carry out missions both marking and attacking strategic targets deep in the heart of Germany, but accuracy, whilst improving, was not yet 100%.

By the end of 1942 the new H2S ground scanning radar system was being introduced, and a small number of 35 Sqn aircraft were fitted with the units. The continuing missions were on the whole successful, even after the Germans developed a device able to track aircraft using it, and eventually, the whole of the PFF were fitted with it.

In April 1943, a detachment of 97 Sqn Lancasters arrived at Graveley. Based at the parent station RAF Bourn, they also had detachments at Gransden Lodge and Oakington, and they remained here for a year. After that, they moved on to RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.

A number of major operations were undertaken by 35 Sqn over the coming months, but with it came the end of good fortune for Group Captain Robinson. Fate was finally to catch up with him, and he was lost on the night of 23rd/24th August 1943. Flying in a Halifax II (HR928) ‘TL-R’, his loss that night brought a further blow to the men of Graveley and 35 Sqn. Following this, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris restricted flying operations by base Commanders as the number of these experienced men being lost was quickly becoming unsustainable.

On November 18th/19th 1943, Bomber Command began the first phase of its ‘Battle for Berlin’, and Graveley’s Pathfinders would find FIDO more than beneficial. A raid of some 266 aircraft would see light losses on the second night of operations, but on returning to England, crews would find many of their bases shrouded in heavy fog. With visibility down to as little as 100 yards on the ground, the order was given to light up FIDO. This would be FIDO’s first official wartime use, and whilst some of Graveley’s bombers were diverted elsewhere, four managed to land safely using the system. This new invention may well have saved precious lives, as others failed to survive landing at their own fog-bound bases. At debriefing, one airmen, was noted as saying he could see Graveley’s fire as he crossed the English coast, a considerable distance from where he was now safely stood.

The night of 16th/17th December of 1943 would go down as one of the worst for Bomber Command and in  particular for the Pathfinders who were all based in the area around Graveley.

In what was to become known as ‘Black Thursday’ a massed formation of almost 500 aircraft attacked targets in Berlin, and although covered in cloud, marking was reasonably accurate and bombs struck their intended targets. On return however, England was fog bound, thick fog with a layer of heavy cloud prevented the ground from being seen. Whilst not operational that night, Graveley lit up its FIDO in an attempt to guide fuel starved bombers in. With little hope for even getting in safely here, crew after crew requested landing permission in a desperate attempt to get down. Many, out of fuel, bailed out leaving their aircraft to simply fall from the night sky. Others, desperate for a landing spot, simply crashed into the ground with the expected disastrous results. At Graveley, several attempts were made by desperate crews, but even FIDO was unable to help everyone. One aircraft came in cross wind losing vital power as he realised his error and tried to pull away. Another crashed a few miles away to  the north-east and a third aircraft trying to land came down to the south-east of the airfield. Of all those lost around Graveley that night, survivors could be counted on only one hand. 97 Squadron at Bourn, Gravely’s sister Pathfinder station, had taken the brunt with seven aircraft being lost. The role call the next morning was decimated.

The new year brought new changes to Graveley. Mosquito B.IVs arrived with a newly formed 692 Squadron (RAF). Their first mission here would be on the night of February 1st/2nd 1944 in which a single aircraft would defiantly attack Berlin.

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Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb into a Mosquito. The Mosquitoes were fitted with bulged bomb-bays in order to accommodate ‘Cookies’. The tower can be seen behind. (IWM)

Some of these 692 Sqn Mosquitoes were later modified to carry the enormous 4,000 lb ‘Cookie’ bomb, This was first used by S/Ldr. Watts in Mosquito DZ647 who took off at 20.45 hours to attack Düsseldorf. The attack took place on  the night of 23rd/24th February 1944 from a height of 25,000 feet. The initial bomb was followed by two further bombs from Mosquitoes of the same squadron, DZ534 and DZ637.

The first casualties for 692 Sqn were reported only three days earlier, on the night of 19th/20th February, which also proved to be the worst night for Bomber Command casualties since the war started – even worse than ‘Black Thursday’. With 79 aircraft failing to return home, the RAF had taken another pounding and squadrons were finding themselves short of crews. These casualties including those in Mosquito DZ612 ‘P3-N’. Flown by F/L. W. Thomas (DFC) and F/L. J. Munby (DFC) the aircraft took off at 01:05 to attack Berlin. The Mosquito was subsequently shot down and both crew members killed.

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Mosquito B Mark XVIs of No. 692 Squadron RAF (PF392 ‘P3-R’ nearest), lined up at Graveley. (IWM)

35 Sqn, who were still flying their Halifaxes, suffered even worse. TL-J, TL-B, TL-N, and TL-O, all fell to the accurate guns of night fighters over the continent. In yet another devastating night of losses, neighbouring Warboys, Wyton and distant Leeming and Waterbeach all lost crews. The casualty list was so high, that barely a squadron operating that night didn’t suffer a loss.

In early April 1944, a small detachment of 571 Sqn Mosquitoes (RAF Downham Market) joined 692 passing through on their way to RAF Oakington. From there that then transferred to  RAF Warboys, where the squadron was eventually disbanded. A series of events not untypical for Graveley.

692 would go on to have another claim to fame a year later, when on January 1st 1945, in an attempt to assist in the Ardennes offensive, they attacked supply lines through a tunnel. A daring attempt it required the bomb to be dropped into the mouth of the tunnel where it would explode. These attacks were carried out between 100 and 250 feet using the ‘Cookies’ and were so successful that smoke was seen bellowing from the other end of the tunnel after the attack.

The final 692 Sqn mission would then be on the night of May 2nd/3rd 1945. As the war was coming to a close, it was feared that remaining resolute Germans would make their escape from Keil, and so 23 aircraft in 2 waves of 12 and 11 went sent to bomb the coastal town. A successful mission, all crews returned safely.

692 Squadron, would operate a variety of Mosquito types during its life including the B.IV, XIV and XVI who would prove to be highly successful and instrumental in 8 Group’s ‘Light Night Striking Force’.

692 Sqn would move to Gransden Lodge in June 1945 where they were finally disbanded; a sad end to a remarkable career. The squadron had performed well since arriving here at Graveley, and had seen many highly regarded crew members lost in operations, including both Sqn. Ldr. R. Fitzgerald and Wing Commander A. Cranswick; its record of prestige losses reflecting the nature and danger of flying as part of the elite Pathfinder Force. 35 Sqn meanwhile would go on to have a long and established career, operating as late as 1982.

The remaining buildings utilised by the farm, which no longer resembles the Control Tower it was.

Other units to grace the skies over Graveley would include detachments of 97, 115 and 227  Sqns all with Lancasters MK. I and MK.IIIs, mainly prior to thier disbandment toward the war’s end.

692 Squadron carried out 310 operations from Graveley losing 17 Mosquitoes in all. A  total of 150 aircraft were registered either missing or crashed following operations from this station: 83 Halifaxes, 32 Lancasters and 35 Mosquitoes.

As one of the many Pathfinder stations in this part of the country, Graveley is linked by the long ‘Pathfinder Walk’ a path that leads all the way to RAF Warboys in the north. Using this walk allows you to visit a number of these bases linking each one by open cross-country footpaths.

Today, Graveley is all but gone. The control tower is now very well disguised as a farm-house, its shape considerably different to the original design, the concrete huts have been pulled down and the runways mainly dug-up. A couple of buildings do still remain next to the farm-house, storing a range of modern farm equipment. The perimeter track considerably smaller in width, remains used by the local farm for lorries to transport their goods to the main road.

Perimeter Track

The perimeter track where bombers once lumbered.

A small memorial has been erected and sad to say, was poorly maintained when I was there. It stands at the entrance to the former airfield on the northern side, now the entrance to the farm site.

Graveley is typical of the sad end to many of Britain’s lost airfields. The wide open expanses that once resounded with the roar of piston engines taking brave young men to war, are now quiet and the sounds mere whispers in the wind. Lorries roll where the wheels of laden bombers once lumbered. The brave acts of those young men now laid to rest in a small stone overlooking where they once walked. As a pivotal station in 8 Group, Graveley and its crews deserve a much greater recognition for their dedication, bravery and sacrifice.

This aside, a beautiful stained glass window can be found in the local Graveley church and is worthy of a visit if time allows.

After the quiet of Graveley we head south-east, toward our next planned destination, RAF Bourn. On the way, we make a brief stop at the now extinct RAF Caxton Gibbet, a little airfield with a colourful history.

*1 Williams, G. “Flying Through Fire FIDO – The Fog Buster of World War Two“, 1995, Alan Sutton Publishing, Page 109.

(Graveley was initially visited in 2015, in Trail 29, this is an updated post).