Hingham – an airfield fallen into obscurity.

Continuing  on Trail 38, we depart Swanton Morley and travel south-east toward the former RAF / USAAF base at Hethel. Here we find fast cars, a museum, and more remnants of yesteryear. On the way, we pass-by another former RFC airfield from the First World War – the Home Defence Station at Hingham.

Hingham Home Defence Station.

There is considerable speculation about the true location of Hingham airfield. It is sadly one of those sites that has long since gone, and its history is now so blurred that its true location is not accurately known. It is known however, that it housed only three squadrons in its very short life: 51 (HD), 100 and 102, but only 51 Sqn remained for any period of time, thus making it the sole unit to have flown actively from this airfield.

A grass site, it was believed to be located near to the village of Hingham in Norfolk, some 12 miles south-west of Norwich, however, some sources cite it as Scoulton (latterly Watton airfield) located a few miles to the west of here. Wherever the true whereabouts of Hingham are, it is known that it did play a small but important part in the defence of Great Britain, and therefore worthy of a thought as we pass by.

Following the reorganisation of the RFC and RNAS in 1916, it was known that 51 (HD)  transferred from Thetford to Hingham, arriving at the fledgling airfield on 23rd September 1916, with the Royal Aircraft Factory BE12s. With detachments at Harling Road, Mattishall and Narborough, they were widely spread and would operate solely in the Home Defence role. These airfields were designated Home Defence Stations of which there were two, the ‘Flight‘ station (the smaller of the two) and the ‘Squadron‘ Station, the larger and main station. It is very likely that Hingham was designated as a Flight Station.

In October 1916, 51 (HD) replaced with the BE12s with  two-seat FE2bs and then with further RAE aircraft, the BE2e, in December 1916. The Hingham flight moved to Marham in early august 1917, whilst the Mattishall flight remained where they were.  ‘B’ flight moved west to Tydd St. Mary, a small airfield located on the Lincolnshire / Cambridgeshire border.

RAF Museum Hendon

The Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b at Hendon, London

Throughout the war 51 (HD) squadron fought against the Zeppelins that foraged over the eastern counties. By flying across the North Sea and then turning into The Wash, they were aiming to reach targets as far afield as Liverpool, Coventry and London.

One of several Home Defence airfields in this region, the role of Hingham aircraft (and the other Home Defence units around here), was to protect these industrial areas by intercepting the Zeppelins before they were able to fly further inland.

However, in the early days of the war, Zeppelins were able to fly at greater speeds and altitudes than many of the RFC aircraft that were available, and so the number of RFC ‘kills’ were relatively light. Many of these German Naval airships were able to wander almost at will around the Fens of Cambridge and Lincolnshire dropping their bombs wherever they pleased. It was this lack of a strong defence strategy that perpetuated the creation of the Home Defence squadrons. This new organisation along with improvements and developments in both ammunition and aircraft performance, began to improve the ‘kill’ success rates, and gradually the number of raids decreased. 51 (HD) Sqn played a pivotal part in this role, attacking Zeppelins on a number of occasions in these mid-war years.

It was during this time that two new RFC squadrons would be formed at Hingham. On February 11th 1917, the nucleus of 51 Sqn were relocated here to form the new 100 Sqn, whilst on August 9th that same year, the new 102 Sqn was formed. Both these units would train in the night bombing role and then go on to attack airfields and troops in Northern France in support of the stagnating Allied ground troops.

A stay of about 6 weeks for 102 Sqn and 12 days for 100 Sqn saw them both depart to pastures new, St. Andre-aux-Bois in France and Farnborough in the south of England respectively. It was at these locations that they would collect their operational aircraft before reuniting in Northern France in March that year.

After 51 (HD) squadron left Hingham, the site was never used again by the military and it was subsequently closed down. Whatever structures that were there were presumably sold off in the post war RAF cutbacks, and the field returned to agriculture with all traces, if any, removed – Hingham’s short history had finally come to a close.

Hingham was a small airfield that played its own small part in the defence of the Eastern counties. Whilst its true location is sadly not known, it is certainly worthy of a thought as we travel between two much larger, and perhaps much more significant sites, in this historical part of Norfolk.

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RAF Narborough – Norfolk’s first Airfield.

Resting not more than a mile or so from the boundary of RAF Marham, is an airfield that never made it beyond the First World War – but it played such a major part, it should never be forgotten. Opened originally as a satellite by the Royal Naval Air Service, it became the biggest First World War airfield and led the way for the aviators of today’s Royal Air Force.

RAF Narborough

Built as the largest, aircraft based, World War One aerodrome, Narborough was known under a range of different names. The most common, ‘The Great Government Aerodrome’ reflected not only its size but also its multi-national stature and its achievements in aviation history. Used by both the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) it would also have names that reflected both these fledgling services.

Designed to counteract the threat of the German Zeppelin and Schütte-Lanz airships, Narborough was initially used by the RNAS as a satellite station to RNAS Great Yarmouth. No crews were permanently stationed here, but ‘on-duty’ crews would fly in and await the call to arms should a 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.

Used as a training ground, accommodation was basic to say the least, being described as a “desolate God-forsaken place”*1 buildings needed to be erected for accommodation, training and maintenance. A total of seven Boulton and Paul hangars and up to 150 buildings would be built on the site over the next two years. By the end of the war, some 1,000 personnel would be based at Narborough – a number comparable with any modest Second World War airfield.

As the First World War raged on the European continent, the use of aircraft was seen as a new way to monitor, kill and record enemy troop movements; it would develop into a lethal weapon and a very potent reconnaissance vehicle. Training programmes were rushed into place, and Narborough would become a preparation ground for new recruits. With training considered basic by today’s standards, recruits had to pass a series of tests before being sent to the France. 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. These daring young men, many who were considered dashing heroes by the locals, would display their skills for all who lined the local roads awe-inspired by their antics.

Life was not always ‘fun’ though. Accident rates were high and survival from a crash was rare. Some 15 graves lay in the local church  at Narborough, all young men who never made it through the training and on to the battle in France.

The occurrences of these accidents were so frequent, that one instructor, W.E. Johns, creator of ‘Biggles’ 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.

Narborough as a training station would operate a wide range of aircraft. The French designed Henry Farman F.20, a military reconnaissance trainer, would operate with 35 Squadron from June 1916 until October when they were replaced by the Armstrong Whitworth FK8; 35 Sqn moving to France with these aircraft in January 1917.

The first full squadron to be formed here was 59 Sqn on 21st June 1916. Born out of 35 Sqn, they would operate Avro’s 504K followed by the second French design, the Maurice Farman Shorthorn; named so because of the length of the skids designed to prevent recruits overturning the aircraft on landing. After these came the BE2c, BE12 and RE8s, before the squadron moved to St-Omer in February 1917.

It was during this year that 83 Squadron would be born out of 18 Reserve Squadron (RS) operating various aircraft in the training role. They arrived at Narborough during December that year with FE2bs before they themselves moved to St-Omer in March 1918.

As the war drew to a close, one further squadron was formed at Narborough; 121 Squadron on New Year’s Day 1918. Whilst originally formed to fly the DH9, they actually used a variety of aircraft before being moved to Fliton and eventual disbandment on 17th August 1918.

Sgt Pilots of No 121 Squadron, 1918. Chaundry (A/Flt), Ghennis (orderly), Turner (Exchange), Davis (C/Flt), Allerton (Post Master), Windspear (Orderly).*2

Three other units would pass through Narborough before it closed. Now part of the Royal Air Force, 56, 60 and 64 Sqns would all come here as cadres in February 1919. 64 Sqn disbanded here in the following year, whilst both 56 and 60 Sqn moved to Bircham Newton and onto disbandment.

The end of the war saw the closure of 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, small industrial units, schools and the like. Some of these buildings still exist at various places around the local area today but many have long since succumbed to age and inevitable deterioration.

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 fifteen 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.

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.

The memorial to those who served at Narborough.

Sources, Links and Further Reading.

*1 letter from 2/AM C. V. Williams from 59squadronraf.org.uk

*2 Photo appeared in ‘Let’s Talk‘ – ‘ High flyers of Narborough’ published 22nd October 2014.

C.G. Jefford, RAF Squadrons, Airlife Publishing limited, 2001

The Narborough History Society cane be visited through their website.

The Narborough Airfield Research Group tell the history of 59 Squadron at Narborough, this includes personal notes and details of the Narborough airfield.

Air Crew Memorials – Sgt R. C. Land (RAFVR)

Young men who died in service for their country, may their memories last forever.

On February 4th 1943, Lancaster III, ED496, ‘WS-P’ of No. 9 Squadron (RAF) took off from its base at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. On board were the crew members: Sgts Land, Packer, Gullery, Levesque (RCAF) and McGonigal all of the RAF (VR). This was to be a routine test flight for the crew, but it would end tragically for all those on board.

February 1943 was one of the mildest on record, experiencing low snowfalls and warmer temperatures across the country. However, on the fourth, particularly low temperatures were recorded, and during the night many aircraft on operations turned back due to associated icing problems. During that month there was a very low seasonal rainfall, particularly around Lincoln and the east coast area; with prevailing south-westerly winds, the weather was considered to be ‘fair’.

Lancaster WS-P took off on a routine air test, it was to undertake a number of circuits carrying out practice landings testing on-board equipment aiding such manoeuvres. At 16:00, the aircraft dived in to the ground crashing at Scopwick, north of Sleaford, Lincolnshire. With all its four engines still running when the aircraft struck the ground, the resultant crash led to an inevitable explosion and fire killing all on board. Whilst Sgt Land’s body was thrown clear, the remaining crew members were not and they remained trapped inside. The force of the crash buried the aircraft  deep in to the peaty Lincolnshire soil, rendering any recovery virtually impossible.

The crash was investigated by the Air Investigation Branch and their findings summarised in report W1458; but whilst no firm conclusions were drawn, it is believed that ‘structural failure’ of the air frame was to blame for the accident.

The aircraft and bodies remain in the ground to this day and a small monument has been erected in their honour. Sgt Land’s body was taken to Weston Longville, Norfolk, where he was buried in the grounds of All Saints Church. His companions are all honoured at the Runnymede Cemetery, Surrey.

The crew of Lancaster WS-P were:

Sgt Charles Richard Land, (s/n 1332099)
Ronald Jack Packer (s/n 901009) (Panel 160)
Sgt  Hugh Francis Gullery, (s/n 1378136) (Panel 151)
Sgt Joseph Thomas Levesque (RCAF) (s/n R/55503) (Panel 183)
Sgt Francis Victor McGonigal, (s/n 1554452) (Panel 157)

Sgt. CR Land,

Sgt Land is buried in the grounds of All Saints Church, Weston Longville, Norfolk.

F/O. Edwin C. Gardner, RAF Hemswell, 61 Squadron

One of many young men killed in the Second World War whose stories deserve to be told.

F/O E Gardner

Flying Officer E. Gardner, RAF(VR)

Flying Officer Edwin Charles. Gardner (s/n 72558) was stationed at RAF Hemswell with 61 Squadron flying Hampden Mk.I bombers. He was part of the RAF(VR) and was killed 17th October 1940 age 24.

61 Sqn (RAF), a former World War I unit,  was re-formed on March 8th 1937 at RAF Hemswell as a bomber squadron flying Audax aircraft. Over the next two years they would transition through a number of makes – Anson Mk I and Blenheim Mk I eventually equipping with the Handley Page Hampden in February 1939. They were formed as part of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command, and would take part in several prestige operations. During the early part of the war they would carry out the very first attack on a German land target, (Hornum, 19th/20th March 1940), the first major bombing raid on the German mainland (Monchengladbach, 11th/12th May 1940), and take part in the first RAF bombing raid on Berlin on the night of August 25th/26th 1940.

It was two months after this, that Flying Officer Gardner would lose his life at the age of 24.

Gardner’s aircraft, X-2979, QR-? took off around 18:00 to attack the German city of Merseburg. They would form part of a 73  strong formation made up of both Wellington and Hampden aircraft, attacking a number of targets at: Bremen, Kiel, Bordeaux and the Harz Forest, intending to set it alight with incendiaries. The force included aircraft from a number of squadrons that night.

With F/O Gardner were the Pilot – Pilot Officer William Herbert Clemenson (s/n 81027), Wireless Operator – Sgt William Hutchinson Hewitt (s/n 822581) and Sgt Dominick Flanagan (s/n 532927), the air gunner on board the aircraft.

The force attacked their designated targets successfully, returning home to the respective bases after having suffered very lightly (3 aircraft in total) over the target areas. On the return trip however, they encountered dense fog which, combined with technical problems with a number of aircraft, caused 10 Hampdens and 4 Wellingtons to crash, many with loss of life.

Reports show that Gardner’s aircraft contacted Hemswell twice in the early hours of the Thursday Morning to gain fixes on their positions. Possibly out of fuel, the aircraft finally came down at Sporle, a few miles west of Norwich, killing all four crew, members.

Flying Officer Gardner was laid to rest at All Saints Church Tacolneston, Norfolk a few miles west of Norwich. His companions were returned to their respective parishes. His grave stands alone in a quiet corner of this 13th Century church. May he rest in peace.

‘Death is Swallowed up in Victory’

Sources

Chorley. W.R., Bomber Command Losses Vol I, 1939-40, Classic Publication, 1992.

Is this the missing Stirling LJ850?

A recent report has identified what is believed to be the wreckage of Stirling LJ850 ‘QS-Y’ of 620 Squadron (RAF), that crashed whilst on a mission to drop paratroopers behind German lines.

Crew of Missing Stirling LJ850

The crew of LJ850 *1

The aircraft was part of a three ship formation and disappeared on the night of 17th / 18th June 1944, with a number of RAF personnel and the 1st SAS Regiment servicemen on board, – there were no survivors*2.

There has been considerable speculation about the fate of this aircraft and a number of theories as to what happened to it.

It was last heard from whilst over the English Channel, and initial thoughts were that it crashed into the sea. Other reports state it crashed into high ground on the run-in to the drop zone in the Morvan Mountains area near Les Valottes. A further report states it crashed 100 miles off course in the Savoy Hills, but there were never any reports by the German authorities at the time and no substantial wreckage has as yet been found.

Fragments form this particular wreckage may have been located a few miles inland of what was Omaha Beach, a possible location if LJ850 did come down shortly after its last transmission.

It is known that there were very few heavy bomber activities that night, and no bomber casualties were reported. Early indications are that the wreckage is of a Stirling bomber, so could this be the wreck of LJ850?

Before any investigations can proceed, a permit is required, but French officials are refusing to grant permission for any detailed search of the site, as the site is a “war grave”. They also quite rightly raise concerns over the conservation of the site, safety issues, and also jurisdictional considerations. So, for now, the story and final closure of LJ850 looks set to continue for some time yet.

620 Squadron was formed on 17th June 1943 at Chedburgh, and were initially involved in night bombing duties. In November 1943, they converted to airborne operations, dropping supplies, Paratroops and performing glider tug operations. Between March 18th 1944 and 18th October 1944, they operated from RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, before moving to Great Dunmow and subsequently to the Middle East at the end of the war.

The crew of the Stirling were:

Wing Commander R.W. Crane  RAAF (s/n 413535) (Pilot)
Fgt. Sgt. F.N. Johnson  RAFVR (s/n 1395038) (Nav.)
W.O. II J.P. Clasper RCAF (s/n R159971) (B/A)
Sgt. D.W. Evans RAFVR (s/n 1407968) (Flt. Eng)
Flt. Sgt. G.W. Stopford RAFVR (s/n 657479) (W/O – A/G)
Flt. Sgt. B.J. Profit RCAF (s/n R189226)  (A/G)
Sgt. P. Wilding RAFVR (s/n 1345156) (Parachutist Dispatcher)*2.

The crew are represented on the Runnymede memorial.

Included on that flight when it crashed was Sgt. Reginald Wortley, (s/n 4863732) of the 1st Special Air Service Regiment. Wortley was one of the founder members of the SAS.

The names of the paratroops appear on the Bayeux Memorial.

The reported story can be found here.

*1 photo from CBC News website.

*In Dennis Williams’ book “Stirlings in Action with the Airborne Forces“, the crew list omits Wilding, the dispatcher, and lists 15 SAS troops killed on the night. Many thanks go to reader Darren Sladden for the further information and book recommendation, which I too recommend to anyone with an interest in this area of aviation. The Book was published by Pen and Sword Books, 2008, ISBN 184415648-6,

February 13th, Birthday of a Young Hero.

Today, 13th February, marks the birthday of an American airman who like so many, died at the young age of just 21, in the early morning of D-Day, 1944.

He was a gallant and brave young man, whose tragedy perhaps led to the success of his fellow airmen, and whose sacrifice is still remembered today.

As the world’s largest amphibious assault force assembled along the South Coast of England, thousands of aircrew prepared for what was to be the most incredible night of their lives.

Across the Midland Counties, American ground crews prepared their fighters and paratrooper aircraft. Along southern England, the same scene was being played out. RAF crews too prepared their aircraft; fighter groups were briefed and paratroopers readied their gear. The invasion was on!

Flying an operation of this magnitude was going to require guts, daring and precision flying. There was little room for error.

In the lead up to June 6th, the RAF and USAAF had been bombing prime targets across Northern France to soften up the defending Germans. Supply lines were severed and gun emplacements destroyed. Beachhead bunkers had been heavily targeted, and supporting artillery further inland, hit hard.

In the air, fighters had been downing the Luftwaffe in an effort to gain vital air superiority over the drop zones. At home, huge attempts were made to keep the plans and preparations as secret as possible. An intricate operation of deception was being played out; dummy airfields were built, camps and troop movements were hidden under cover and concealed in forests.

At an airfield in Norfolk, the day was to begin very badly for one particular young pilot. He was 1st Lt. Robert C. Frascotti of Milford, Massachusetts.

In the days leading up to D-Day at RAF Bodney (USAAF Station 141), the 352nd FG had been flying intruder missions over France, attacking ground targets and completing air superiority missions. P-51s were rapidly being prepared, and the growth of black and white stripes adorning aircraft, hinted of an imminent invasion.

In the late hours of June 5th, the P-51s were being fueled up and armed, ready for an early morning takeoff.  The weather was not at its best and a low mist shrouded the airfield reducing visibility. The mission ahead was to support the troops landing on the Normandy beaches.

At 02:30, the pilots climbed in, fastened their belts and awaited the signal to launch D-Day. First to leave were the 486th FS. To help with the takeoff, temporary lights were placed along the runway, guiding the aircraft safely out of harm’s way into the night sky. One of these aircraft, unfortunately struck the lights knocking them out and plunging the airfield into darkness once more. Lining up behind them were the second flight of the 486th, including Frascotti’s P-51.

When lining up, the flight were unaware that they were off centre. Frascotti and his wingman, Lt. Carlton “Bud” Fuhrman, accelerated away and raced down the runway. Fuhrman watched Frascotti to his left when suddenly there was a massive fireball. Thinking someone had dropped their external fuel tanks, Fuhrman pulled up sharply and pushed on through the flames hoping his engine would not falter resulting in him crashing into the raging fire below. Momentarily blinded by the now total darkness, Fuhrman, pushed the stick forward and fought against the impending stall. Eventually his sight returned and he was able to read his instruments once more. Looking back, he could see Frascotti’s fully fueled plane engulfed in fire with no hope of an escape. Frascotti died instantly.

The accident report filed after Frascotti’s death stated that an inadequately lit tower along with poor weather and high levels of traffic had caused him to inadvertently strike the unfinished control tower at Bodney resulting in the ignition of his fuel. Tragically, Frascotti died instantly, and the aircraft was a total loss.

Frascotti’s plane, a blue nosed P-51B-5 Mustang, 43-6685 was named ‘Umbriago‘. In Italian, ‘umbriago’ means ‘drunk’. Frascotti could have named his plane for that reason, but it could also be he was referring to the World War II-era song of 1944, “Umbriago”by Jimmy Durante about a fabled friend of the same name. The song lyrics end with, “So when you feel low, better send for my friend, Umbriago.”

At a mere 21 years of age, 1st Lt. Robert C. Frascotti had many tributes written about him. There was one benefit of his tragic accident: the following aircraft now had a ‘guiding light’ by which they could safely takeoff and leave for Normandy.

Frascotti was born on February 13th, 1923 into a very close-knit and patriotic family in Milford, Massachusetts. (His father fought in World War I where he was gassed). Frascotti was awarded his pilot wings in Marianna, Florida on March 25, 1943, then completed advanced fighter training before deploying to England in March 1944. He joined the 486th FS of the 352nd FG, otherwise known as ‘The Blue Nosed Bastards of Bodney”. 1st Lt. Donald “Red” Whinnem of Hartford, Connecticut, was best friends with Frascotti since the early days of flight school. On D-Day at Bodney, “Red” took off without incident and flew for sixteen hours, returning to discover the tragedy that had occurred. “Red” says of his friend;

“Bob was the nicest guy you would ever want to know, and a great athlete as well. He could stir up laughter anywhere he went, and he was great fun to be with. Bob would sing a song or tell a story and cheer everyone up. You couldn’t ask for a better friend, and he was closer than a brother to me.”

During his service, Frascotti was credited with the destruction of two enemy aircraft on the ground whilst strafing enemy airfields. On D-Day, he departed for his 89th mission. This was to be his last mission of the war as he was due to return to the States leaving conflict behind him. Sadly, he never made that journey home to Massachusetts until many years later.

Initially, Frascotti was buried in England. His remains were eventually taken back to Massachusetts in 1948 after his next of kin had his body exhumed, and he now lies in the Sacred Heart Cemetery, in Milford. Lt. Robert C. Frascotti VFW Post 1544 in his hometown, now bears his name, and on December 6th, 2013, as part of the annual “Wreaths Across the Worcester and Norfolk District”, a group of local veterans, families and friends, laid a holiday wreath at Calzone Park in Milford to remember the fallen veterans of the area, including Frascotti. Since the war, every year until his death in 1998, 1st Lt. Donald “Red” Whinnem traveled to Frascotti’s grave in Milford to pay his respects and remember his wartime friend.

Fly pasts and tributes continue to be paid for Frascotti, in both the United States and here at RAF Bodney, Norfolk. 1st Lt. Robert C. Frascotti will long be remembered for his brave sacrifice, and we that are here, are honored to continue to tell his story.

As for RAF Bodney, the airfield is now an Army training camp and part of the Stanford Training Area (STANTA) in Thetford Forest. Little remains of the airfield today but the history held within its decaying walls will long live on.

RAF Bodney can be visited in Trail 8 – Swaffham and her Neighbours (Part 1).

IMG_2210

Robert Frascotti next to his P-51B, 43-6685, named ‘Umbriago’ . At 21 years of age he was killed on his final mission before returning home. (Photo – Marc Hamel)

I came across this video on You Tube, published on May 27th 2013, it shows the control tower at Bodney airfield.

(The Frascotti page was originally posted on June 6th 2014)

B-17 Reveals its Secrets after 73 years.

There are many tragic and sad events associated with the Second World War, a recent discovery is no different. The story of a B-17 and her crew as they left on one of the first missions of the American air war has recently come to light with the discovery of the aircraft off the North Norfolk coast.

The story of this particular aircraft, believed to be B-17F-VE ’42-29752′ is especially sad, not only because it was the first operational mission of the unit and the first casualty, but because of the nature of the loss;  just moments after take off, a month after it and its crews had first arrived in the UK.

The B-17, was built and delivered at  Cheyenne on February 12th 1943. Its journey to the UK would take it through a number of stations, via Walker airbase, Salina, and on to Presque Isle, in the north-eastern sector of Maine, where it arrived on April 8th 1943. It was here that it was allocated to the 338th BS, 96th BG and ferried across the northern route with the air echelon of the 338th, arriving at RAF Grafton Underwood in April 1943, before onward shipment and operational duties.

The 338th BS had only been activated themselves one year earlier in July 1942 and as such were relatively new to the war. Their journey took them through a number of training bases from Salt Lake City, through Utah, Idaho and onto their final station at Pyote AAB Texas. From here, the air and ground echelons went their separate ways, the air echelon travelling north and the ground crews to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey and onward via the Queen Elizabeth to Greenock, Scotland and the European Theatre of Operation. The ground echelons arrived at Great Saling (Andrews Field) in early May 1943 moving to Snetterton Heath a month later where they would join up with the air echelons.

It would be whilst temporarily based here at Grafton Underwood, on May 13th 1943 that the B-17 would end its short life and become an almost forgotten part of history.

The 338th would take part in a 72 aircraft mission to bomb the Longuenesse and Ft. Rouge Airfields at St Omer, France. On the day in question, the aircraft were to form up over the North Norfolk coast, before heading off south. Crews had been briefed about the possibility of being attacked by marauding Luftwaffe aircraft and so many crews had their guns charged as they climbed away from the airfield. It was this very precaution that led to the tragic death of one of the crew members and demise of the B-17.

As the aircraft, piloted by Capt. Derrol Rogers, formed up, a waist gun was accidentally discharged sending high calibre bullets into the stabilizer completely severing it and forcing the aircraft into an uncontrollable climb and potential stall. Fighting with the controls, Capt. Rogers fought to keep it from crashing. Both he and his Co-Pilot: Lt. Norville Gorse, managed to get the aircraft back under control long enough to allow the crew to bail out over land. Once out, they took the aircraft back out over The Wash and jettisoned the bombs. Then as they approached land once more, they tied a rope to the yolk and bailed out themselves.

42-29752 after stabilizer accidently shot off

Aircraft, believed to be 42-29752, after the waist gun was accidentally discharged, severing the stabilizer. (American Air Museum)*1

Lt. Gorse was picked up by an RAF rescue launch and returned to his unit, but unfortunately, Capt. Rogers, being in the sea for some time, didn’t survive. He was the only fatality of the incident, the remaining crew all returning to their base and operational duties.

The B-17 now unmanned and destabilized, plunged into the North Sea where it has laid for the last 70 years. A truly tragic start to a very bitter war.

An engine was initially caught up in a fishing boat net in the 1970s, but no real investigation was made of the wreck. More recently, towards the end of 2015, a small team of divers went back down to photograph the aircraft, and it was then that it was identified and its remarkable story revealed.

The Crew of B-17 ’42-29752′

Capt: Derrol W. Rogers,
Co-pilot: Norville Gorse,
Navigator: Joe Hudson,
Bombardier: George Rawlings,
Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Basil Maxwell,
Radio Operator: Bob Bennett,
Ball turret gunner: Alf Miles,
Waist gunner: Bob Dominick,
Waist gunner: Edwin Wolfkuhle,
Tail gunner: Ed Youngers (injured by discharged bullets)

Capt. D.W. Rogers (s/n O-403737) is listed in the St Paul’s Roll of Honour, (Page 360), he is buried in the Cambridge American Cemetery, Madingley, Plot D, Row 7, Grave 69, he was awarded the DFC and Purple Heart.

*1 Photo from the American Air Museum (IWM) UPL 19232

The story first appeared in the Eastern Daily Press on November 30th 2015.

 

‘Black Thursday’ took the lives of many crews – RAF Bourn.

In Trail 31 we continue our trip around the historic countryside of Southern Cambridgeshire. Moving on from the open expanses of Graveley and Caxton Gibbet, we visit two more airfields both of which continue for now, to uphold their aviation heritage. Our first stop is the current small airfield on the former RAF Bourn.

RAF Bourn.

Bourn sits between the towns of Cambourne to the west and Hardwick to the east and is confined by the new dual carriageway cutting across its northern side. Both the immediate eastern and western sides are heavily built upon and with further developments under proposal, the future of this historic airfield remains in the balance.

RAF Bourn was built-in 1940 /41 initially as a satellite for nearby RAF Oakington. With growing pressure from Bomber Command it would eventually become a bomber station  in its own right and come under the control of Air Commodore Donald Bennett’s 8 Group operating the elite Pathfinder Force (PFF). Accommodation would be suitable for 1,805 males and 276 females making it a relatively large airfield. Its three ‘A’ style concrete runways, would be extended later in 1942 to accommodate the heavier aircraft that were to use Bourn thus raising its profile as a bomber base. By the end of the war, Bourn squadrons would lose 135 aircraft in total accounting for: 60 Lancasters, 32 Short Stirlings, 24 Mosquitos and 19 Wellingtons – a considerable number of lives.

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Views along one of Bourn’s enormous runway.

Bourn would serve a number of RAF squadrons during its short wartime life: 15, 97, 101, 105, 162 and 609 would all play a part in its rich wartime tapestry. The first to arrive were the Wellington ICs of 101 Squadron (RAF). They arrived at Bourn very soon after the runways were constructed on February 11th 1942. During this time 101 were going through the process of updating their Wellingtons with the new Mk III. One of the first casualties of Bourne would be one of these models. Wellington ‘X3656’  SR-L, was lost on the night of March 8th/9th 1942, on a mission to Essen. Flight Sgt. S. Brown, P.O. C. Luin and Sergeants L. Calderhead, R. Lawrence and C. Parry were all lost in the attack; the aircraft missing in action and the crew presumed dead. Their names are now inscribed  on the wall of remembrance at Runneymede Cemetery.

101 sqn would continue the fight staying at Bourn until the 11th August that same year. They would then move on to Stradishall and Holme-on-Spalding Moor where they took on the Lancaster.

As 101 left, 15 Sqn (RAF) moved in, bringing the much heavier Short Stirling MkI. Having a rather checkered history behind them, 15 Sqn would operate the MkIs until the following January when the MK IIIs came into operation. Built by Short Brothers, the Stirling was a massive aircraft, dwarfing many of its counterparts with a cockpit height of some 22 feet. A forbidding aircraft, it was cumbersome on the ground but was said to be very agile in the air, some would say it could out-turn a Spitfire! Sadly though, it was a slow aircraft and whilst heavily defended, loses were to be high leading to its eventual withdrawal from front line operations .

A few miles away at Cambridge, an industrial unit of some  six / seven hangars were built by Short Sebro Ltd who manufactured the Stirling parts. Final assembly and air testing was then carried out at Bourn, the wings being transported by ‘Queen Mary’ trailers and the fuselage on specially made carriers pulled by tractors. To help, three large hangars would be built away to the east of the airfield to accommodate both these and battle damaged bombers for repair.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

The crew of the Short Stirling Mk I, N3669 ‘LS-H’, of No. 15 Squadron after their 62nd mission. © IWM (CH 7747)

It was here at Bourn that a record would be set by a 15 Squadron crew. Stirling Mk I, N3669 ‘LS-H’,  would go on to complete 67 operations, a record for the type. N3669 would eventually be reduced to an instructional airframe in February 1943.

A short spell of conversion proceeded 15 Sqn moving to their new base at RAF Mildenhall on April 14th 1943, where they would eventually take on the new and more successful Lancaster I. It was here that LL806 “J-Jig”, would become one of the most famous Lancasters in Bomber Command, flying 134 sorties accumulating 765 hours in the air. Two incredible records were now set by 15 squadron aircraft and their crews.

Bourn would then have just another short spell visitor, 609 Sqn. Battled hardened from covering the BEF withdrawal at Dunkirk and defending Britain in the Battle of Britain, 609 Sqn moved in on 26th August 1942, with the potent Typhoon IB. Accustom as they were to moving around, their stay at Bourn would last only 4 days.

It was at this time that Bourn really came into its own as a bomber base. 97 squadron (RAF) arrived on April 18th 1943 with their Lancaster Is and IIIs. With small detachments at nearby Graveley, Gransden Lodge and Oakington, they would stay here until moving on to Coningsby a year to the day later. Whilst at Bourn, they became a ‘marker’ squadron as part of the PFF  Group.  Notable target’s were both the  Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen in June 1943 and the Italian naval base at Spezia in April 1944; an event that became to be the first RAF “shuttle-bombing” raid. The introduction of Lancasters at Bourn greatly reduced the number of crews being lost. However, 97 Sqn were to suffer one of the worst nights on Bomber Command record, and not through enemy action either. During the night of December 16th /17th 1943, a large number of aircraft left from some 20 squadrons*1 to attack Berlin. Casualties to and from the target were on the whole low but for 97 Squadron it was arriving home that their troubles were to begin. This night would become known as ‘Black Thursday’.*2.

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A Nissen huts survives in modern use.

As they approached Cambridgeshire, they were informed that the weather had closed in on Bourn and landing would be very difficult if not impossible. In an effort to get the bombers down safely, all manner of tactics were used to move the fog and illuminate the runways.  Some aircraft managed to divert to other bases in Lincolnshire and Norfolk where FIDO was in operation, but many tried to wait it out. The result was a critical loss of fuel and subsequently several aircraft crashed in the dense fog. The loss that night was devastating for 97 Sqn: JB531 ‘OF-Y’; JA963 ‘Q’; JB243 ‘P’; JB482 ‘S’; JB219 ‘R’; JB117 ‘C’; JB119 ‘F’ and JB176 ‘K’ were all lost crashing in the vicinity of the airfield with many of the crews being killed.*3

It was during these last few weeks of 97 Sqn’s stay that Bourn would start to accept new residents. The smaller and much more agile Mosquito IX of 105 Squadron arrived to continue the pathfinder operations. Noted for their unusual black paint work, they would carry out many notable operations from here, especially in the lead up to D-day in June 1944, identifying and marking coastal batteries for the heavier bombers to attack in preparation for the invasion. One of these aircraft, MM237, would sadly fall victim to ‘friendly fire’. On crossing the coast on its way home, on March 6th 1945, it was shot down by a British night fighter. The crew luckily managed to bale out moments before the aircraft struck the ground.

105 would stay at Bourn for the duration of the war, taking on a new model Mosquito XVI in March 1944. They would mark high-profile targets such as: oil refineries, road and rail junctions, marshalling yards and coastal batteries. Many targets were as far afield as the German heartland; 105’s  final operational sorties would take  4 Mosquitos to Eggebeck on the night of 2nd/3rd May 1945, a month before they left Bourn for Upwood and final disbandment.

In December 1944, the last residents of Bourn would arrive and join 105 Sqn. Being reformed here on December 16th, 162 Squadron (RAF), would fly the Mosquito XXV until February the following year when they would replace them with the Mosquito Mk XX. As part of the light-bomber unit of the Light Night Striking Force, 162 would quickly establish their effectiveness, striking hard at the heart of Germany, Berlin, in 36 consecutive raids.  162 would eventually leave Bourn on July 10th 1945 to go to RAF Blackbushe and their disbandment. Even though they were only here at Bourn for a short period, they would amass 4,037 flying hours in 913 operational sorties. Their loss rate would reflect the effectiveness of the Mosquito as a fighter, a bomber and a PFF weapon, losing only four aircraft in operational missions.

The departure of 162 Sqn would leave Bourn both desolate and very quiet.

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One of the few derelict buildings that still survive.

Post war, Bourn lay idle, the nearby hangars were used by Marshalls of Cambridge for vehicle repairs but eventually these were sold at auction, leaving the  site empty. It was completely closed down three years later. The land was sold off in the early 1960s and development has gradually encroached ever since. One small saving grace for Bourn is that a small flying club operated by the Rural Flying Corps is utilising a small part of the field including sections of two of the original runways. It is hoped that this will continue and keep the history of Bourn airfield alive.

Recently affected by the building of extensive housing developments and a new dual carriageway, Bourn has had much of its original infrastructure removed. The runways were cut slightly short and much of the accommodation and technical site redeveloped. However, a small gain from this is that the dual carriage way offers some interesting views along the remains of its enormous stretches of runway.

If approaching from Caxton Gibbet to the west, leave the dual carriageway and pull on to the smaller Saint Neots road that runs parallel. From the bank you can see along the runway taking in its enormous width. Other views of this, can be seen from the bridge that takes you back over the A428 toward the village of Bourn to the south.

It is also along this road that the fire tender station can be found, now utilised by a small industrial company it is one of the few original buildings surviving in good condition today.

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The fire tender shed, now a small business unit.

Many tracks can also be seen along here, pathways that would have led to the admin and accommodation areas of Bourn, the road now separating the two areas. There are a couple of Nissen huts here too, again used by small industrial companies, whilst other buildings stand derelict and in grave danger of demolition by weather or developer.

Whilst the runways are intact, large parts are used for storage and a section is used for motorcycle training. A lone windsock flies over the flying club.

Recent archeological investigations have revealed late prehistoric and Roman connections around the site, including a Roman burial site within the grounds of the airfield. Great crested Newts are also known to inhabit the area, perhaps history and nature will prevail. With continued development and further proposed housing, the future of Bourn is very uncertain and should these plans go ahead, Bourn like many other airfields of Britain will most likely cease to exist.

After leaving Bourn, we travel a stones throw south-west to a small airfield now more commonly seen with sedate gliders than fearsome fighters of the Second World War. We stop at Gransden Lodge.

Notes:

*1 loses were recorded from 7, 9, 12, 44, 57, 97, 100, 101, 103, 156, 166, 207, 405, 408, 426, 432, 460, 576, 619, 625 squadrons all Lancasters.

*2 a website dedicated to 97 Squadron gives detailed information into ‘Black Thursday’ including personal accounts, the unit, men and operations.

*3 records from aircrew remembered

1940s revisited

A little more light-hearted look at the 1940s away form the disused airfields of Britain.

These last two years have been significant years in terms of both the First and Second World Wars. With the 100th anniversary  of the start of WWI last year, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain this year, VE-day and of course to come VJ-day commemorations, there has been an understandable increase in interest in all things Second World War.

One thing I have noticed in particular, is the increase in numbers at 1940s weekends, in both participants and visitors.

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Vehicles of all shapes and sizes came for the weekend.

I myself have been to two recently, and at one I got the chance to sit in a Spitfire cockpit. Not something you do every day!

I know these events are not to everyone’s taste and some will groan at the thought of it, but I do think there is an historical value to them. Many of the participants only use genuine clothing or equipment, much of what you see is rare and in all cases they are only too keen to talk about what they have, its history, how and where it was used and in some cases, allow you to hold the articles in question.

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The rumbling of tanks could be heard once more.

From another perspective, and for those of you who know my day job, there are too, a growing number of children attending these events which I believe is a good thing as it brings history to life – something that is very difficult in a school classroom. A gun in school? I can see the headline now!

Two events I recently attended, both for different reasons, were at Woodhall Spa and Baston, two small villages in ‘Bomber country’, Lincolnshire.

Woodhall Spa was the home to the Dambusters, and for one weekend each year the entire village steps back in time to the 1940s. A second invasion occurs. Walking along the high street is like walking along in 1940, uniforms of every description can be seen, from RAF aircrew to British Army, U.S. infantry, Canadian, and even a variety of Russian, Luftwaffe and German infantry. Even the 1940s housewife, ‘spiv’, Firemen, Policeman and Milkman are represented in full 1940s attire. Many of the vehicles that line the numerous side streets are authentic World War II vehicles, half-tracks, trucks, endless jeeps and even the odd small tank driven here on trailers or under their own steam. Owners have taken a lot of time and money to get them rebuilt and keep them going.

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Re-enactors were everywhere

At the Petwood Hotel, used by 617 Squadron as a mess and officers quarters, there are re-enactments, talks and even ‘briefings’ in a 1940s style. The BBMF perform short displays over the grounds of this small village adding to the feel and as always people stop and watch in awe as once again a Spitfire, Hurricane and Dakota fly low over the streets of this small Lincolnshire village.

Inside the Petwood, you can wander the rooms that 617 Sqn once wandered by Guy Gibson and his crews; drink a tea or refreshing beer in the same room they did. The Squadron bar, displays numerous letters, photographs and other memorabilia connected with 617’s stay here. It is a remarkable place to be, knowing you walk the same ground as those special crew members did some 70 years ago.

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The Squadron bar.

Outside in the manicured gardens among the rhododendrons singers perform the many songs that inspired a nation, bolstered our morale and kept us going through those dark days of the Second World War. The feel is very much 1940s.

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Spitfire that is about 80% original.

Baston was very much the same. A large participation of re-enactors, vehicles and uniforms, many rasing money, good money, for War Veterans – a valuable cause I’d say. But it is the most odd feeling to walk amongst uniforms that once fought to the death and that were feared by those who were governed by them. In the summer and autumn of 1940, Britain came so close to being invaded, today an invasion has taken place.

Whether you like them or not, these events do have a place in our ‘living history’ and thankfully now, at least, it is on friendly terms.

The Korean War Memorial, London

On July 27th 1953, the Korean War, a very much ‘forgotten’ war, came to an end. For over 50 years, the 81,084 British Troops who were sent there feel they have had little official recognition from the authorities or public.

The Memorial stands overlooking the Thames.

However, on the 3rd December 2014,  320 veterans and 180 other guests, watched as HRH the Duke of Gloucester unveiled a new memorial on the Embankment next to the Royal Air Force, Fleet Air Arm and Battle of Britain memorials.

The memorial, which was a gift from the Republic of Korea in honour of the British Troops sent there, stands six metres high and was carved by Philip Jackson – famed for carvings of Sports personalities, artists and the Gurkha Memorial. It shows a Bronze statue of a soldier, head bowed, standing on a base of Welsh Slate in front of an obelisk of Portland Stone. Dressed in winter wear, the statue reflects the tiredness of constant rain, and the never-ending battle against both a determined enemy and the elements.

Behind the weary soldier are several carvings, including a mountainous landscape representing Korea’s environment, along with a number of inscriptions. On the base, to the front, reads (in both English and Korean)

“With gratitude for the sacrifice made by the British Armed Forces in defence of freedom and democracy in the Republic of Korea.”

To the North side of the memorial is a further inscription:

“The Korean War was the first UN action against aggression. The UN forces that fought the North Korean invasion were drawn from 21 countries. Although exhausted and impoverished after the Second World War, Britain responded immediately by providing strong naval, army and air forces and became the second largest contributor after the United States. A distant obligation honourably discharged.”

On the south side of the obelisk, below the Union Flag, it reads:

“In this fierce and brutal conflict those who fought included many Second World War veterans reinforced by reservists and young national servicemen. The land battle was fought against numerically superior communist forces, the terrain was mountainous and the weather extreme. 81,084 British servicemen served in the theatre of operations. 1,106 were killed in action, thousands were wounded and 1,060 suffered as prisoners of war.”

The Korean War was the first UN action and took troops from 21 different countries, many of whom had only just started to recover from the Second World War. For their action, two British Soldiers were awarded the highest military honour – the Victoria Cross – but yet despite this, it still remains very much a ‘forgotten war’.

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HMS Triumph as she appeared in my father’s photo album on return from Korea.

Much of the fighting took place around the 38th Parallel, a point that once stabilised, became not only the border between North and South Korea, but the Russians and the West in what would be a long and at times trying Cold War.

The memorial stands facing the Thames, amongst a number of other memorials outside the Ministry of Defence building on the north embankment and forms a group of Korean memorials. These include a plaque in the crypt of St Paul’s, and two other memorials in the National Arboretum in Staffordshire and in Bathgate, Scotland.

This memorial stands as a reminder of a short war, but for those who took part, it is a timely reminder of the sacrifice that they and their colleagues made.

The unveiling of the memorial.


A website dedicated to the Korean War Veterans can be found here.

Other major memorials can be found here and RAF / USAAF memorials here.