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.
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.
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.
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?