November 7th 1945 – World Air Speed Record Herne Bay.

Trail 44 takes a look at the aviation highlights of the North Kent Coast in the small town of Herne Bay and its neighbour Reculver. It was here, on November 7th 1945, that the World Air Speed record was set in a ‘duel’ between two Gloster Meteors, as they raced across the Kent Sky.

On that day, two Meteor aircraft were prepared in which two pilots, both flying for different groups, would attempt to set a new World Air Speed record over a set course along Herne Bay’s seafront. The first aircraft was piloted by Group Captain Hugh Joseph Wilson, CBE, AFC (the Commandant of the Empire Test Pilots’ School, Cranfield); and the second by Mr. Eric Stanley Greenwood O.B.E., Gloster’s own chief test pilot. In a few hours time both men would have the chance to have their names entered in the history books of aviation by breaking through the 600mph air speed barrier.

The event was run in line with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale‘s rules, covering in total, an 8 mile course flown at, or below, 250 feet. For the attempt, there would be four runs in total by each pilot, two east-to-west and two west-to-east.

With good but not ideal weather, Wilson’s aircraft took off from the former RAF Manston, circling over Thanet before lining his aircraft up for the run in. Following red balloon markers along the shoreline, Wilson flew along the 8 mile course at 250 feet between Reculver Point and  Herne Bay Pier toward the Isle of Sheppey. Above Sheppey, (and below 1,300 ft) Wilson would turn his aircraft and line up for the next run, again at 250ft.

Initial results showed Greenwood achieving the higher speeds, and these were eagerly flashed around the world. However, after confirmation from more sophisticated timing equipment, it was later confirmed that the higher speed was in fact achieved by Wilson, whose recorded speeds were: 604mph, 608mph, 602mph and 611mph, giving an average speed of just over 606mph. Eric Greenwood’s flights were also confirmed, but slightly slower at:  599mph, 608mph, 598mph and 607mph, giving an overall average speed of 603mph. The actual confirmed and awarded speed over the four runs was 606.38mph by Wilson*1.

The event was big news around the world, a reporter for ‘The Argus*2‘ – a Melbourne newspaper – described how both pilots used only two-thirds of their permitted power, and how they both wanted permission to push the air speed even higher, but both were denied at the time.

In the following day’s report*3, Greenwood described what it was like flying at over 600 mph for the very first time.

As I shot across the course of three kilometres (one mile seven furlongs), my principal  worry was to keep my eye on the light on the pier, for it was the best guiding beacon there was. On my first run I hit a bump, got a wing down, and my nose slewed off a bit, but I got back on the course. Below the sea appeared to be rushing past like an out-of-focus picture.

I could not see the Isle of Sheppey, toward which I was heading, because visibility was not all that I wanted.

At 600mph it is a matter of seconds before you are there. It came up just where I  expected it. In the cockpit I was wearing a tropical helmet, grey flannel bags, a white silk shirt, and ordinary shoes. The ride was quite comfortable, and not as bumpy as some practice runs. I did not have time to pay much attention to the gauges and meters, but I could see that my air speed indicator was bobbing round the 600mph mark.

On the first run I only glanced at the altimeter on the turns, so that I should not go too high. My right hand was kept pretty busy on the stick (control column), and my left hand was. throbbing on the two throttle levers.

Greenwood went on to describe how it took four attempts to start the upgraded engines, delaying his attempt by an hour…

I had to get in and out of the cockpit four times before the engines finally started. A technical hitch delayed me for about an hour, and all the time I was getting colder and colder. At last I got away round about 11.30am. 

He described in some detail the first and second runs…

On the first run I had a fleeting glance at the blurred coast, and saw quite a crowd of onlookers on the cliffs. I remembered that my wife was watching me, and I found that there was time to wonder what she was thinking. I knew that she would be more worried than I was, and it struck me that the sooner I could get the thing over the sooner her fears would be put at rest.

On my first turn toward the Isle of Sheppey I was well lined up for passing over the Eastchurch airfield, where visibility was poor for this high-speed type of flying. The horizon had completely disappeared, and I turned by looking down at the ground and hoping that, on coming out of the bank, I would be pointing at two balloons on the pier 12 miles ahead. They were not visible at first.

All this time my air speed indicator had not dropped below 560 mph, in spite of my back-throttling slightly. Then the guiding light flashed from the pier, and in a moment I saw the balloons, so I knew that I was all right for that.

On the return run of my first circuit the cockpit began to get hot. It was for all the world like a tropical-summer day. Perspiration began to collect on my forehead. I did not want it to cloud my eyes, so for the fraction of a second I took my hands off the controls and wiped the sweat off with the back of my gloved hand. I had decided not to wear goggles, as the cockpit was completely sealed. I had taken the precaution, however, of leaving my oxygen turned on, because I thought that it was just that little extra care that might prevent my getting the feeling of “Don’t fence me in.”

Normally I don’t suffer from a feeling of being cooked up in an aircraft, but the Meteor’s cockpit was so completely sealed up that I was not certain how I should feel. As all had gone well, and I had got half-way through the course I checked up my fuel content gauges to be sure that I had plenty of paraffin to complete the job.

I passed over Manston airfield on the second run rather farther east than I had hoped, so my turn took me farther out to sea than I had budgeted for. But I managed to line up again quite satisfactorily, and I opened up just as I was approaching Margate pier at a height of 800 feet. My speed was then 560 mph.

Whilst the first run was smooth, the second he said, “Shook the base of his spine”.

This second run was not so smooth, for I hit a few bumps, which shook the base of my spine. Hitting air bumps at 600 mph is like falling down stone steps—a series of nasty jars. But the biffs were not bad enough to make me back-throttle, and I passed over the line without incident, except that I felt extremely hot and clammy.

After he had completed his four attempts, Greenwood described how he had difficulty in lowering his airspeed to enable him to land safely…

At the end of my effort I came to one of the most difficult jobs of the lot. It was to lose speed after having travelled at 600 mph. I started back-throttling immediately after I had finished my final run, but I had to circuit Manston airfield three times before I got my speed down to 200mph.

The two Meteor aircraft were especially modified for the event. Both originally built as MK.III aircraft – ‘EE454’ (Britannia ) and ‘EE455’ (Yellow Peril) – they had the original engines replaced with Derwent Mk.V turbojets (a scaled-down version of the RB.41 Nene) increasing the thrust to a maximum of 4,000 lbs at sea level – for the runs though, this would be limited to 3,600 lbs each. Other modifications included: reducing and strengthening the canopy; lightening the air frames by removal of all weaponry; smoothing of all flying surfaces; sealing of trim tabs, along with shortening and reshaping of the wings – all of which would go toward making the aircraft as streamlined as possible.

Related image

EE455 ‘Yellow Peril’ was painted in an all yellow scheme (with silver outer wings) to make itself more visible for recording cameras.*4

An official application for the record was submitted to the International Aeronautical Federation for world recognition. As it was announced, Air-Marshal Sir William Coryton (former commander of 5 Group) said that: “Britain had hoped to go farther, but minor defects had developed in ‘Britannia’. There was no sign of damage to the other machine“, he went on to say.

Wilson, born at Westminster, London, England, 28th May 1908, initially received a short service commission, after which he rose through the ranks of the Royal Air Force eventually being placed on the Reserves Officers list. With the outbreak of war, Flt. Lt. Wilson was recalled and assigned as Commanding Officer to the Aerodynamic Flight, R.A.E. Farnborough. A year after promotion to the rank of Squadron Leader in 1940, he was appointed chief test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (R.A.E.) who were then testing captured enemy aircraft. He was promoted to Wing Commander, 20th August 1945, retiring on 20th June 1948 as a Group Captain.

Eric Greenwood, Gloster’s Chief Test Pilot, was credited with the first pilot to exceed 600 miles per hour in level flight, and was awarded the O.B.E. on 13th June 1946.

His career started straight from school, learning to fly at No. 5 F.T.S. at Sealand in 1928. He was then posted to 3 Sqn. at Upavon flying Hawker Woodcocks and Bristol Bulldogs before taking an instructors course, a role he continued in until the end of his commission. After leaving the R.A.F., Greenwood joined up with Lord Malcolm Douglas Hamilton (later Group Captain), performing barnstorming flying and private charter flights in Scotland.

Greenwood then flew to the far East to help set up the Malayan Air Force under the guise of the Penang Flying Club. His time here was adventurous, flying some 2,000 hours in adapted Tiger Moths. His eventual return to England saw him flying for the Armstrong Whitworth, Hawker and Gloster companies, before being sent as chief test pilot to the Air Service Training (A.S.T.) at Hamble in 1941. Here he would test modified U.S. built aircraft such as the Airocobra, until the summer of 1944 when he moved back to Gloster’s – again as test pilot.

It was whilst here at Gloster’s that Greenwood would break two world air speed records, both within two weeks of each other. Pushing a Meteor passed both the 500mph and 600mph barriers meant that the R.A.F. had a fighter that could not only match many of its counterparts but one that had taken aviation to new record speeds.

During the trials for the Meteor, Greenwood and Wilson were joined by Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, who between them tested the slimmed-down and ‘lacquered until it shone’ machine, comparing  drag coefficients with standard machines. Every inch of power had to be squeezed from the engine as reheats were still in their infancy and much too dangerous to use in such trials.

To mark this historic event, two plaques were made, but never, it would seem, displayed. Reputed to have been saved from a council skip, they were initially thought to have been placed in a local cafe, after the cliffs – where they were meant to be displayed – collapsed. The plaques were however left in the council’s possession, until saved by an eagle-eyed employee. Today, they are located in the RAF Manston History Museum where they remain on public display.

RAF Manston History Museum

One of the two plaques now on display at the RAF Manston History Museum.

To mark the place in Herne Bay where this historic event took place, an information board has been added, going some small way to paying tribute to the men and machines who set the world alight with a new World Air Speed record only a few hundred feet from where it stands.

Part of the Herne Bay Tribute to the World Air Speed Record set by Group Captain H.J. Wilson (note the incorrect speed given).

From Herne Bay, we continue on to another trail of aviation history, eastward toward the coastal towns of Margate and Ramsgate, to the now closed Manston airport. Formerly RAF Manston, it is another airfield that is rich in aviation history, and one that closed with huge controversy causing a great deal of ill feeling amongst many people in both the local area and the aviation fraternity.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Guinness World Records website accessed 22/8/17.

*2 The Argus News report, Thursday November 8th 1945 (website) (Recorded readings quoted in this issue were incorrect, the correct records were given in the following day’s issue).

*3 The Argus News report, Thursday November 9th 1945 (website)

*4 Photo from Special Hobby website.

The RAF Manston History Museum website has details of opening times and location.

The Manston Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial museum website has details of opening times and location.

Mosquito Crew – P.O. James McLean and Sgt. Mervyn Tansley, RAF(VR)

Bawdeswell

Bawdeswell New Village Sign Reflects the Incident that Night

On 1 August 1944, No.608 Squadron (Code 6T) was reformed at RAF Downham Market (also known as Bexwell), initially flying Canadian built DH Mosquitoes Mk B.XXs as part of  No.8 (PFF) Group Light Night Striking Force. Their primary role was to carry out night strikes as part of the Pathfinder Operations in the  German heartland. Targets included: Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, Essen, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Emden and Kiel. This was a role it carried out until disbanding on 28th August 1945. Their first operational sortie was on the night of 5th/6th August 1944, when a single Mosquito took off and bombed Wanne-Eickel.

Bawdeswell Chaucer House

The Chaucer House partly damaged in the accident.

However, it was on the night of 6th November 1944 that 12 aircraft from 608 Squadron 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.

For one particular aircraft, Mosquito KB364, piloted by Pilot Officer James McLean (26 year old),  and Sergeant Mervyn Lambert Tansley (21 year old), both of the RAF(VR), this was to be its final, fatal flight.

Bawdeswell

The original cross that stood on the Church tower.

Flying in at 25,000 ft, 608 dropped both flares and high explosive bombs, but reported only light flak over the target area. The mission was a success and 11 of the 12 aircraft returned to Downham Market.

As it was a November night, the air was cold and it is believed that McLean’s aircraft suffered from icing up of the controls. For whatever reason, at 20.45hrs the aircraft lost height and hit some power cables near to Reepham Road, to the east of the village of Bawdeswell (Norfolk). It then careered into All Saints’ Church setting it alight. The impact was such that parts of the aircraft struck two other homes, including the Chaucer House*, opposite the church, causing extensive damage to both properties. The church was completely destroyed in the crash.  Sadly, both Pilot Officer McLean and Sergeant Tansley were killed, but there were no other casualties from the incident. The fire was so ferocious that it took four hours to extinguish, and required both local crews and those from the nearby American airbase at RAF Attlebridge.

Bawdeswell Church

Bawdeswell Church today.

The church has since been completely rebuilt, and as a reminder, the original cross stands outside the entrance. This cross miraculously remained untouched by the fire. Inside the church, a remnant of Mosquito KB364, has been made into a memorial plaque in remembrance of the two courageous crew who died whilst carrying out their duties that night.

Pilot Officer James McLean was buried in Tranent New Cemetery, East Lothian, Scotland and Sergeant Mervyn Lambert Tansley was buried in Fulham Old Cemetery, City of London.

Bawdeswell

The memorial plaque made from the Mosquito.

The Reeve’s Tale magazine website has eye-witness accounts, and further details of the incident.

* Geoffrey Chaucer’s (Canterbury Tales) uncle was believed to be the rector for Bawdeswell and the old timbered house opposite the church known as ‘Chaucer House’ may have been his rectory.

RAF Scone – Rudimentary but Very Important.

In Trail 56, we head north once again, this time across the River Tay into Perthshire,  the gateway to the Highlands.

The grand city of Perth boasts a majestic history, once the capital of Scotland, it is a city with galleries, museums and stunning architecture; described by VisitScotland.com as “a picturesque playground for kings and queens”, and rightly so.

The village that gave this airfield its name, has a history going back as far as the Iron age, once the seat of Royals it is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and once housed the famous ‘Stone of Scone’ or ‘Coronation stone’ that has for centuries been used for coronations of the Kings and Queens of Scotland and England. It was stolen by King Edward I of England who took it to London, and was last used in the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. It now resides in Edinburgh Castle on the proviso that it returned to London for Royal Coronations – it must be the most famous 125kg of rock anywhere in the world.

On Trail 56 we pass though the beautiful city of Perth and onto this small but famous village that leads into the countryside beyond. It is here that we find a former RAF airfield that has since become Perth Airport. In the same region as Scone Castle, we visit the former RAF Scone.

RAF Scone.

RAF Scone is known under a range of names: Perth Airport, Perth Aerodrome, Perth Municipal Airport, RAF Perth, RAF Scone and Scone Aerodrome, and can be found 3 1/2 miles north-east of Perth.

Scone (pronounced Scoone) opened in 1936 under the control of 51 Group based in Leeds and was, throughout it military life, an Elementary Flying Training School operating a number of training flights as well as some operational squadron detachments.

A very rudimentary station, it had no more than a watch office, a single Civil 160 x 90 ft hangar; one 120 x 110 ft hangar, and six blister hangars spread about the site. There were no hardstands and runways were initially grass. A hard perimeter track circumnavigated the airfield and although it only had one officially designated ‘runway’,  a grass strip of 1,300 yds in length, other strips were used.

RAF Scone (Perth Airport)

The Watch Office at Scone (Perth Airport).

Being a training airfield accommodation was also rudimentary and limited, designed for only 400 permanent personnel, it would cater for both males and females of mixed rank. Even though Scone was small, it was by no means insignificant, boasting the passage of hundreds of pupils passing though its gates on their way to front line flying units.

The initial user of Scone  was 11 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School (E&RFTS) operating Hawker Harts, Audax, Hinds, Battles, Tiger Moths and Ansons at some point. Formed here on the 27th January 1936 it was operated by A.M. Airwork Ltd.

The Airwork company was founded in 1928 and based at the then Heston Aerodrome in Middlesex. For much of this time, Airwork’s chief pilot was Captain Valentine Baker MC, DFC, who later joined forces with Sir James Martin to form the now famous  Martin-Baker company famous for it ejector seats found on numerous fast jests world wide.

RAF Scone (Perth Airport)

Numerous buildings survive from Scones wartime past.

Airwork moved north under contract from the Air Ministry to support training needs for the Royal Air Force, they moved into Scone (and several other airfields such as Renfrew and Abbotsinch) and developed the airfield providing much of the infrastructure themselves. A large company they would also provide maintenance facilities and operations across Britain supporting what would become a thriving civil aviation network.

On September 3rd 1939, with Britain’s declaration of war, the training units operating on behalf of the RAF were reorganised and re-designated, 11 E&RFTS becoming known more simply as 11 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS). Also at this time  Airwork formed and operated a further training unit here at Scone,  7 Civil Air Navigation School (CANS) flying Dragon Rapides. They too were re-designated though, becoming  7 Air Observers Navigation School (AONS) on 1st November 1939. They would then take on the Avro Anson, training crews in navigation techniques. On June 1st 1940, the AONS was also disbanded, training needs being met elsewhere. 

Also during early November 1940, 309 Squadron sent a detachment of Lysander IIIs to Scone. only recently formed, they remained here for about six months. The sole purpose of 309 Sqn was as a Polish Cooperation unit to work in conjunction with the C-in-C of the Polish Army. It was unique in that it was ‘double’ ranked, having both British and Polish officers in charge, the idea being that once the Polish personnel were in place the British would be pulled out and the squadron would operate as an independent Polish unit. A series of training flights were carried out by the Polish pilots, but with lectures being carried out through a translator, it was often difficult task to do.

RAF Scone (Perth Airport)

Old buildings are utilised for modern purposes.

In September 1941, ‘E’ Flight of 11 EFTS  was used to form a new training unit, 5 Flying Instructors School (Supplementary) then simply Flying Instructors School, finally becoming Flying Instructors School (Elementary) from April 1942. The small number of pilot instructors flew Miles Masters and Tiger Moths training hundreds of pilots between them before the unit was disbanded in November 1942.

The remainder of 11 EFTS continued on to the war’s end gradually being reduced in size. Post war, in 1947, it was renamed as 11 Reserve Flying School (RFS) still operated by Airwork and still flying the biplane the Tiger Moth along with Airspeed Oxfords, Ansons and Hawk trainers. By 1954, the unit had wound down finally being disbanded that same year.

RAF Scone (Perth Airport)

The Battle Headquarters is very much exposed, this would normally be below ground level with only the slits visible.

In 1949, 666 Squadron was reformed at Scone as a Royal Auxiliary Air Force unit comprising: 1966 Air Observation Post Flight (AOP), with 1967 (AOP) Flight at Renfrew and 1968 (AOP) Flight at Abbotsinch. The squadron flew Austers Vs and VIs, in a cooperation role with Army units, and by 1957 all three flights, and thus the squadron, had ceased to exist when a letter, written by the Queen, was handed to more than eighty senior officers of the RAuxAF, officially ending its existence as it was. With that, thirty-two years of history had come to an end, a history that had seen the RAuxAF take part in virtually all of Britain’s major air battles since 1925.

Later on D.H. Chipmunks of the Glasgow University Air Squadron graced the skies over Scone, the airfield now being known as Perth. A reign that lasted until 1993 when the squadron moved back to Glasgow, and its place of formation in the early days of the Second World War.

Due to high usage, two hard concrete runways were built on the site, whilst the third remained as grass.

With that the RAF’s connections with Perth ceased. The airfield was passed to ACS Aviation, who claim to be the “leading Commercial Flight Training Organisation in Scotland”. Operating a range of services including commercial pilot training and maintenance provisions. Other users of Perth include Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance (SCAA) flying the EC135-T2 helicopter, a charitable organisation that relies solely on donations to keep it flying.

Today many of the wartime buildings remain, in use, by small industrial units. The Battle Headquarters, can be seen from the road very much exposed, as all but the top slotted observation ‘turret’ would normally be underground. The accommodation and technical areas are located together and many now form part of a small hotel for those visiting the area.

The airfield lies a few miles north of Perth, the main A94 offers access to the airfield and views across some of the site. It sits on a hill and so much of it is hidden from view at ground level. Being an active airfield, access is limited and understandably restricted. However, views of the current residents are available and many of the wartime buildings are accessible operating as retail and industrial units.

Scone for such a small airfield, had a long and fruitful history. Its links to pilot training, especially throughout the war years, no doubt sent many airmen to front line squadrons, many of whom  would go onto serve in some of Britain’s fiercest air battles. A small and rudimentary airfield, it played a huge part in Britain’s wartime and post-war aviation history.

RAF Scone (Perth Airport)

Modern day Scone is home to a large number of small aircraft.

Sources and further reading.

National Archives AIR 27/1679/1

Lake, A., “Flying Units of the Royal Air Force“, Airlife, 1999.

RAF Barton Bendish – Norfolk

In Trail 7 we visited north-west Norfolk, staring at the market town of Downham Market heading on toward Norwich. Here we pass seven airfields and a bomb store. In the second visit of this trail, we leave Downham, travel East to find a few miles along, a field, unmarked and to all intents and purposes, insignificant. It did however, play a vital role and serve several squadrons.

RAF Barton Bendish

At the outbreak of war, orders were issued to all airfields across the UK to implement the ‘Scatter’ directive, a plan to relocate aircraft at various satellite airfields to disperse them away from the main airfield and possible German attack. This meant that many squadrons were spread over several airfields for short periods of time until the immediate threat, or perceived threat, had subsided.

This was first seen at Barton Bendish (a satellite of Marham) when Wellingtons of 115 Sqn located at nearby RAF Marham were placed here. With no cover, the protection Barton Bendish offered seemed small in comparison to the main airfield at Marham.

The openness and cold of Barton Bendish has been noted in several scripts, and this caused problems in the winter months when starting cold engines. ‘Johnnie’ Johnson recalls in Martin Bowman’s book “The Wellington Bomber“*1 how they had to start the Wellington’s engine by getting it to backfire into the carburettor thus igniting unspent fuel in the air intake. This was then allowed to burn for a few seconds warming the carburettor allowing the engine to start. Careful timing was paramount, the danger being that the aircraft could catch fire if you were not cautious!

In the early part of the war Barton Bendish was also used as a decoy site, a flare path being lit at night to attract enemy bombers away from Marham a few miles down the road. How effective this was, is not known, but it may well have saved one or two lives at the main airfield.

Also during 1941,  26 Squadron (RAF) flying Tomahawk IIs were stationed here for three days from the 27th – 30th September, as was 268 Squadron on several other occasions. Also flying Tomahawk IIs, they passed through here during May 1941, then again between the 21st and 25th June 1941, 28th and 30th September 1941 and then again on the 25th/26th October 1941, 268 Sqn who were then based at RAF Snailwell, used the airfield as ‘the enemy’ in  a station defence  exercise, whereby they would perform mock attacks on Snailwell using gas, parachute and low flying strafing attacks methods. Being little more than a field, Barton Bendish provided no accommodation for the visitors, and so the aircrews slept in tents overnight, these being removed the next day after the attacks had been made.

By 1942, the Stirling was becoming a predominant feature at Marham, and with Barton Bendish being too small for its required take off distance, Downham Market became the preferred satellite, Barton Bendish being sidelined for other minor uses.

Little exists about its existence or purpose other than a few mentions in the operational record books of these squadrons, or recordings in the writings of RAF Marham personnel. Rumours state a ‘huge military (HQ) bunker’ and hard standings, but these are more likely farmer’s concrete pans, abundant across the area. No physical buildings (other than pill boxes) were ever thought to have been built and the airfield is listed as a satellite or landing ground of the parent airfield RAF Marham. No other signs seem to exist of the airfield. Another case of an airfield completely disappearing!

Continuing on from Barton Bendish, toward Norwich we shortly arrive at RAF Marham, one of the RAF’s few remaining front line fighter stations.

Sources and further reading

National Archives AIR 27/1563/9

*1 Bowman, M. “The Wellington Bomber“, (2015), Pen and Sword

RAF Snailwell – Where life was far from Slow (Pt2)

After part 1, we return to  Snailwell, to see how the American influence played its part at Snailwell and how the build- up to D-day affected life at this small grassed airfield.

The squadron was assigned to the 350th Fighter Group (FG) who would eventually transfer to the Middle East. It would be the 347th’s sister squadron the 346th who would later convert Hurricane Mk I #LB640 target tug into a two-seat liaison plane.

Hurricane Mk I LB640, which was being operated as a target-tug with the P-39-equipped 346th Fighter Squadron, 350th Fighter Group, 12th AF USAAF in Sardinia in early 1944. It was field converted into a two-seater as a liaison plane by the unit's ground crew.

Hurricane Mk I #LB640 after being converted into a two-seat liaison plane.  IWM (UPL 17052)

As they were a new squadron the 347th would initially have no ground echelon, they were still being formed and prepared for transportation over the Atlantic from their base at Harding Field, Louisiana. They would arrive in the UK in the November and after a short period at Snailwell, the entire squadron would move out to RAF Kings Cliffe in Northamptonshire, before moving away to the warmer climate of the Middle East.

The winter of 1942/43 saw further detachments being based here at Snailwell. In conjunction with the US forces were 170 Sqn, who remained here from the end of October through the winter until February 1943. After a short spell away they made a brief one day stop over before being moved to RAF Odiham.

The January of 1943 saw yet more short stays. On the 17th 182 Sqn arrived with Typhoon IBs. Based at RAF Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, 182 Sqn were finding it hard to get in any flying at all, as the heavy winter rains had clogged up the metal PSP runways with thick mud preventing the aircraft from taking off.

Two days earlier 70 ground personnel had been dispatched from Sawbridgeworth to Snailwell in preparation for the forthcoming training operation. Operation “Shatter” as it was designated, would be a mock attack on gun emplacements on the outskirts of Thetford Forest. On the 17th, the ten aircraft were sent from RAF Sawbridgeworth led by Sqn. Ldr Pugh along with a further four from the detachment at RAF Hunsdon. On arrival they found their sister squadron, 181 Sqn also with Typhoons, already here for the Army Cooperation training operation. A large party was given that night in honour of the new 182 Sqn crews. The next day, a preliminary attack was made on the target by eleven 182 Sqn aircraft, who made runs over both the dummy and real guns in a “full frontal attack”. The following day, a complete squadron attack was made with the aircraft having to be airborne in under 4.5 minutes. For the first time since forming, all the canons on the Typhoons are fully loaded with live ammunition and a full squadron scramble was undertaken.

Aerial photograph of Snailwell airfield looking south, 26 July 1942 (IWM RAF_FNO_67_V_6032)

In the afternoon a four ship formation was loaded up with 2 x 250 lb bombs and a further attack was made. This attack ended the training session for 182 Sqn and the next day they return to the muddy runways of Sawbridgeworth.

Two months later on March 8th 1943, 181 Sqn was reunited with her other sister squadron 183 Sqn here at Snailwell. After a number of short training flights covering just four days, 183 Sqn departed the Cambridgeshire airfield leaving 181 Sqn here until the end of the month.

Throughout 1943 much of the same was to happen, short stays for training missions were the order of the day.  309 Sqn flew the Mustang MK.I and Hurricane VIs. The Polish squadron became renowned amongst the Allies when F/Lt Janusz Lewkowicz flew a Mustang I to Norway and back strafing targets at Stavanger just to prove the point that the Mustang had the range!

Another squadron, 613 Sqn also brought their Mustangs along in July, and 184 Sqn arrived with Hurricanes. 247 Sqn brought back the mighty Typhoon, each of these squadrons carrying out training flights, some for as little as two days others for more prolonged periods.

As the end of 1943 drew a line under the busy ebb and flow of visiting squadrons, 1944 would see a rather more settled year. After a single RAF squadron, 527 Sqn, moved in and then out two months later, the  build up to D-day would see big changes at Snailwell.

The invasion of Europe was destined to be the largest invasion build up the world had ever seen, and southern England was to be the primary area in which this build up would take place. With the creation of the Ninth Air Force, whose primary purpose was to provide assistance to the forth coming Normandy landings, more and more airfields were going to be required. Whilst front line units would be directly involved in operations over the Normandy coast, there would need to be a major service and maintenance support network, if the invasion were to succeed. This service was to be carried out by a series of  six Tactical Air Depots (TAD) all falling under the command of the IX Air Force Service Command, via two Advanced Air Depot Areas (AADA).

One of these depots, the 3rd Tactical Air Depot based at RAF Grove some 55 miles from London, were responsible for the maintenance and repair of Douglas A-20 ‘Havocs’ and P-61 ‘Black Widows’. Because of the increasing demand for maintenance facilities, the 3rd TAD took over the facilities at RAF Snailwell, moving in two Mobile Repair and Maintenance Squadrons, the 33rd and 41st, in preparation for maintenance operations. Their primary role was to make field modifications to the aircraft in preparation for operational roles, as a result of which the A-20s became a regular feature around the airfield. After only a short time though it was realised that the 41st would not be required here, and so they returned to RAF Grove. To replace them, a specialist team were brought in – the 51st Service Squadron. By the time D-day had passed, the pressure at Grove had subsided and so both units were able to return home from Snailwell. With that, the American connection with Snailwell ended.

As the war drew to a close so too did both operational flying and training flights. The RAF (Belgian) Initial Training School used the airfield sharing it with nearby RAF Bottisham. In March 1946, the Belgians pulled out returning to their own country now free from the Nazi tyranny that had dominated it for so long.

Snailwell then closed, standing empty and gradually returning to agricultural use. Many of the buildings were pulled down but some hung on for several years being used for agricultural purposes. The Blister hanger, sheds and training buildings remained for a number of years, certainly until the mid 1990s, but gradually even these were removed with little evidence of their existence being left today. The airfield was then dissected by a major road development in 1975, remaining parts being bought up by the British Horse Racing School who now own a large portion of the former airfield. High hedges and gated access restrict most access to the former site, (the Icknield Way long-distance route does pass along side these tracks and borders the former airfield from which remnants can be seen) leaving the last few sections of concrete hanging on as reminders of the airfields once proud and hectic existence.

With a mix of repair and maintenance units added to the pot, the war years for Snailwell were far from slow. The regular ebb and flow of detached units for training flights, and the occasional permanent flying unit, saw a wide range of aircraft types and nationalities grace the skies of this small area of Eastern Cambridgeshire. With little evidence of its existence left today, Snailwell, and its proud history, would seem to have been lost, replaced by Horse racing and the desire for the high stakes demanded by the equestrian market.

From Snailwell, we head west, deeper in to the area owned by the Horse racing fraternity. Here we see on every street corner evidence of this now popular sport, well groomed bushes that surround neatly cut turfs, on what now remains of Britain’s wartime heritage. Our next stop on Trail 55, is the pinnacle of these activities, the former RAF Newmarket Heath.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Official Directorate of Works drawing (WA7/395/41) IWM UPL 17710

British History Online (Snailwell) website.

National Archives AIR 27/1563/9

National Archives AIR 27/954/6

National Archives AIR 27/1135/1

Niall Corduroy. “Whirlwind: Westland’s Enigmatic FighterFonthill Media, 2017.

RAF Snailwell – Where life was far from Slow (Pt 1).

In the latest Trail around Britain’s airfields, we visit four airfields so close that as the crow flys, they are a mere 12.5 km from the first to the last.  It is an area to the east of Cambridge, a large University City that now dwarfs the River Cam the narrow waterway that gave the city its name. The final airfield we visit lies on the outskirts of the city itself, and is probably more famous for its more recent operations under Marshalls of Cambridge, the Aerospace and Defence Group.

Our first stop though takes us through prime horse racing land, through the home of the Jockey Club and an area divided into studs and stabling, not for live stock, but for horses.

Our first stop in Trail 55 is the former RAF Snailwell, a small airfield where life was far from slow!

RAF Snailwell (USAAF Station 361).

Snailwell lies  just outside of the town of Newmarket in the county of Cambridgeshire now infinitely famous for its horse racing. The village of Snailwell from which the airfield takes its name, lies on the northern edge of the former airfield which is now  owned, as is much of this area, by the British Racing School who vehemently protect it from prying eyes.

Sitting to the north of the Bury St. Edmunds railway line, the airfield opened in the Spring of 1941, after the levelling of ten Bronze age Barrows (ancient burial grounds) as a satellite for RAF Duxford located to the south-west. The airfield would go through an ever changing number of roles including: Army Co-Operation, training, and as a fighter base performing low-level attacks on shipping and land based targets. It would also see a wide range of aircraft types from the small trainer to the powerful tank-buster the Typhoon. Opened as a technical training airfield, it passed to the control of 28 (Technical Training) Group whose headquarters were located in London. It fell under the command of Air Commodore John Charles ‘Paddy’  Quinnell, an avid lover of sailing who had a distinguished military history that extended back to 1914, first with the Royal Artillery and then with the Royal Flying Corps.

As a small grass airfield, Snailwell was by no means insignificant. It had three grass runways the largest being just short of 1,700 yards long, whilst the second and third were 1,400 yards in length. The main runway crossed the airfield on a south-west to north-east direction protruding out of the main airfield area. Aircraft were dispersed on concrete hardstands, a mix of twelve ‘Fighter’ style Type B hardstands (capable of holding two aircraft side by side but separated by a bank) along with two 50 ft diameter ‘frying pan’ style stands. They also had the use of a Bellman hangar, and ten blister hangars for servicing and maintenance of aircraft*1.

To the north, hidden amongst the trees was a bomb store, with separate fusing buildings, tail stores, incendiary and component stores, access to the site being via a 12 ft wide concrete road.

In all, there were only a few permanent personnel at the airfield, accommodation was only erected for around 1,100 officers and enlisted men in Nissen huts over just two sites; Dormitory site 1 and 2, which were supplemented with a mess site and sick quarters. It is known that later users were camped in tents around the airfield perimeter – not ideal accommodation by any means. Unusually, the technical area was widely spread with many buildings being away from the airfield hub. The watch office, at the centre of this hub, was designed to 12779/41 and had an adjoining meteorological office attached, an unusual addition for this type. There was also a wide range of buildings, AMT trainer, two Link trainers, flight offices, sleeping shelters, parachute stores, fire tender huts and numerous associated maintenance stores and sheds.

During construction of the airfield a local road was closed, and a lodge, built at the turn of the century, utilised as a guard room for the airfield. This building later passed to the Jockey Club for use by its employees.

The initial users of the airfield were the Army Co-operation Squadron  268 Sqn RAF, who arrived at Snailwell with Lysander IIIs on April 1st 1941. Being a slow aircraft it was ideal as a reconnaissance aircraft, flying patrols along the coast of East Anglia, looking for any sign of an invasion force. After arriving at Snailwell from Bury St. Edmunds, the three Echelons immediately began training, three photographic sorties taking place on the very day they arrived. In the days that followed, combined Army and Air Force exercises were the order of the day, after which the squadron took part in intensive gas training along with routine flying. However, 268 Sqn would not settle here, yo-yoing between Snailwell and numerous other stations no less than eleven times between their first arrival, and their last departure to RAF Odiham on May 31st 1943.

Duxford Battle of Britain Airshow

A Lysander at Duxford’s Battle of Britain Airshow 2019.

In the May of 1941, 268 Sqn would swap their ‘Lizzies’ (as they were affectionately known) for the Tomahawk IIA, an aircraft they kept until changing again to the better performing Mustang I a year later. These Tomahawks would perform a range of duties including – whilst based at RAF Barton Bendish in Norfolk – early morning ‘attacks’ on Snailwell as part of a Station Defence Exercise. These involved mock gas and parachute attacks along with low-level strafing runs. Being little more than a field, Barton Bendish provided no accommodation for visitors, and so the aircrews slept in tents overnight.

During the August of 1941 the first of Snailwell’s many short stay squadrons would arrive. 152 Squadron would use Snailwell for a period of just one week whilst transiting to nearby RAF Swanton Morley. Operating the sleek Spitfire IIA, the brain child of R.J. Mitchell, they would perform fighter sweeps, along with convoy and bomber escort duties. Arriving on the 25th, the only major event occurred on the 28th when the squadron escorted seventeen Blenheims to Rotterdam, Sgt. Savage being the only 152 Sqn pilot to be lost during the mission. The next day, ‘A’ flight searched for signs of him, but sadly found no wreckage nor any sign of Sgt. Savage.

Being a small airfield Snailwell was often home to detachments of squadrons, usually whilst on training. One such unit arriving on November 31st when 137 Sqn posted a detachment here whilst the main body of the squadron stayed at RAF Matlaske further north in Norfolk.  Operating the heavily armed escort fighter the Westland Whirlwind, they would perform escort duties for Lysanders, searches for downed aircraft and ‘X’ raid interception duties. Many of their patrols covered Great Yarmouth on the East Anglian coast in an area to the east of the airfield.

Designed in 1937, the Whirlwind had many teething problems with the engines proving to be a particular issue. After purchasing only 112 examples of the model, 137 would be one of only two squadrons who would use it in any operational role. After moving to Matlaske, 137 began a series of training operations, posting a detachment of aircraft to Snailwell whilst preparing to commence anti-shipping operations in the North Sea.  Once operationally ready, the unit moved north to RAF Drem (August 1942) before returning once more to Matlaske where further training would take place; ‘B’ Flight replaced ‘A’ Flight at Snailwell until both were reunited at Snailwell in late August. Anti shipping operations continued from Matlaske, with their final sortie occurring on August 20th in which an enemy Ju 88 was intercepted – the aircraft evading its pursuers in bad weather. Moving across to reunite the squadron on the 24th, 137 would perform their first operational sortie from Snailwell in early September, a feint attack against Lille. Designed to attract the Luftwaffe fighters into a trap, the twelve Whirlwinds and their fighter escorts failed to sight one enemy plane and all returned to their respective bases not having fired a shot. After this, the Whirlwinds were fitted with bombs and further training followed, but by mid September, they had left Snailwell and were heading for RAF Manston in Kent.

The summer of 1942 would be a busy period for Snailwell, with several squadrons utilising the airfield. At the end of March 56 (Punjab) Squadron would bring  the Hawker Typhoon MK.IA, a model they would begin replacing virtually immediately with the MK.IB. The April of that year was mainly taken up with practice formation flying and aircraft interception flights, before the squadron also moved to Manston in Kent. 56 Sqn would return briefly to Snailwell over the June / August period, but this would be short and they would then depart the airfield for good.

On June 15th 1942, a new squadron would be formed here at Snailwell. Under the command of Sqn. Ldr. F.G. Watson-Smyth, it would have two flights ‘A’ and ‘B’, each led by a Flight Lieutenant. 168 Sqn, initially flying the Curtiss Tomahawk II, was formed from the nucleus of 268 Sqn, and would remain here only until their aircraft and equipment had arrived. Being allocated RAF Bottisham as their main station, they would stay at Snailwell for a mere month. During this time aircraft would have their squadron numbers painted on, and Sqn, Ldr. Spear would give dual flying training to all pilots in a Fairy Battle.

Toward the end of June Sqn. Ldrs. Watson-Smyth and Bowen would visit Bottisham to discuss and prepare the accommodation arrangements for the squadron’s forthcoming arrival. Further deliveries of supplies took place and by the 26th there were seven Tomahawks on charge. On the 13th July, at 14:35 hrs, twelve Tomahawks took off from Snailwell and flew in formation to their new base at Bottisham, a mere stones throw from their current location. The move had begun and 168 Sqn would leave Snailwell for good.

In the August, whilst transiting to North Africa, 614 Sqn would place a detachment of their Blenheim Vs here, a further detachment being placed at Weston Zoyland with the main body of the squadron at Odiham. Coinciding with this was also a detachment of 239 Sqn with Mustang Is, making  Snailwell a very diverse station indeed.

With the arrival of autumn in the October of 1942, Snailwell took a very different turn, being handed over to the US Ninth Air Force Service Command who brought in the Airacobra, one of the few wartime fighters to use a tricycle undercarriage. Transferring across from Duxford, the parent airfield of Snailwell, the 347th Fighter Squadron (FS) were a brand new squadron, only being activated that very same month.

In part two we see the early American influence, and how this small grass airfield played its part in the build up to D-day.

The full page can be seen on Trail 55 – Around Newmarket.

RAF Methwold -History was made, War was won and Lives were lost.

Whilst visiting the Swaffham (Norfolk) area, this was perhaps more prominent than in many of the other places I’d been. Like other sections, this area was predominately American in nature, forming the back bone of the USAAF, bomber squadrons of the 8th Air Force. An area rich in aviation history there are numerous tales of heroism and valour to be found. Our first stop along Trail 8 is RAF Methwold.

RAF Methwold

Methwold Village sign

Methwold village sign

Located between Downham Market and Thetford, Methwold is a small rural setting on the edge of Thetford Forest. Its village sign and combined memorial, remind the passer-by of its strong air force links – a Lockheed Ventura taking off over the village church.

Methwold was actually built as a satellite for nearby RAF Feltwell and as such, had few squadrons of its own. Being a satellite its runways were of grass construction with little in the way of luxuries for accommodation.

On the day war broke out in Europe, 214 Squadron, equipped with Wellington MKIs, moved from RAF Feltwell to here at Methwold. Feltwell being larger, offered a prime target for the Luftwaffe and so their loss would be Methwold’s gain. The first production Wellington, the MKI was powered by two 1,000 hp Bristol Pegasus XVIII radial engines, and would soon be updated and replaced by the MKIA; the main difference being a change in gun turret from the Vickers to the Nash & Thomson. As part of Bomber Command, 214 Sqn did not carry out its first operational bombing flight until June 1940 some four months after it had left Methwold; but that is not to say casualties were not suffered.

On Monday November 6th 1939, Wellington L4345, crashed whilst circling on approach to Methwold. The accident resulted in the deaths of both crewmen, Pilot Officer J. Lingwood and Aircraftman 1, – A. Matthews.

Tragic accidents were not uncommon in these early stages of the war, another similar incident occurring at Methwold only a month later. In mid December, Pilot Officers W. Colmer and R. Russell-Forbes, along with Leading Aircraftman J. Warriner, were all killed whilst on approach to the airfield flying in another Wellington, R2699. Both these Officers were only recently commissioned and were still considered relative flying ‘novices’.

In February 1940, 214 Sqn departed Methwold and transferred to RAF Stradishall leaving only a small number of Wellington IIIs of 57 Sqn detached from their parent station at Feltwell. These would, in September 1942, be replaced by the mighty Lancaster, the four engined bomber that formed the backbone of the RAF’s Bomber Command.

The Intelligence Room of No. 140 Wing, No. 2 Group, at Methwold, Norfolk. © IWM (HU 81315)

Little happened at Methwold for the next two years, then in October 1942, 21 Sqn arrived. After having flown many missions against coastal targets in the Mediterranean, they were disbanded at Luqa only to be reformed and re-equipped at Bodney the same day. After changing their Blenheims for Venturas in May 1942, they transferred to RAF Methwold where they stayed for six months.

Operating both the Ventura MKI and II, they were the first Bomber Command squadron to re-equip with the type, and were one of the small number of squadrons who took part in the famous Eindhoven raid, attacking the Philips radio factory in December 1942. The daring Operation Oyster, would see the loss of sixteen aircraft – three of which belonged to 21 Sqn. Two of these aircraft crashed in enemy territory, whilst the third ditched in the North Sea after having been hit by enemy gunfire. Using a mix of Venturas, Bostons and Mosquitoes, this mission perhaps revealed the true vulnerability of such aircraft over enemy territory, a warning that would violently repeat itself in the months to come.

The spring of 1943 would again see changes at Methwold; as 21 Sqn departed, the ‘Flying Dutchmen’ of 320 (Dutch) Sqn would move in. 320 Sqn, were formed after the German forces invaded the Netherlands and consisted of mainly Dutch nationals. They carried out both anti-shipping and rescue duties before transferring, from Leuchars, to Methwold via Bircham Newton. Upon arriving here, 320 Sqn was absorbed into No. 2 Group and would shortly swap their Hudson VIs for Mitchell IIs. After a very short transfer period, they then departed Methwold, moving to the much larger base at Attlebridge.

Two further squadrons of Venturas arrived at Methwold in the early spring of 1943. Both 464 (RAAF) and 487 (RNZAF) Sqns were formed, transferred and disbanded in unison, and both consisted of commonwealth crews. Having entered the war in a baptism of fire, they also flew alongside 21 Sqn on the Eindhoven raid; 464 Sqn contributing fourteen aircraft whilst 487 contributed sixteen – each squadron losing three aircraft and all but four of the twenty-four crewmen.

RAF Methwold

One of the original hangars at Methwold.

The Venturas earned themselves the unsavoury title the ‘flying pig‘ partly due to their appearance and partly due to poor performance. Based on the Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar, it was primarily a passenger aircraft and even though it had powerful engines, it performance was low and so operational losses were often high.

On May 3rd 1943, whilst on a ‘Ramrod‘ mission, eleven out of twelve (one returning due to engine trouble) 487 Sqn aircraft were lost to enemy action, and all but twelve of the forty-four crewmen were killed. Of these twelve, Squadron Leader Leonard H. Trent, was captured and taken to Stalag Luft III where he participated in the ‘Great Escape‘. On his eventual return to England at the end of the war, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in ensuring the bomb run was completed despite heavy enemy resistance and very high losses.

In the summer of 1943, both 464 and 487 Squadrons became part of the newly formed Second Tactical Air Force; a move that led to their departure from Methwold, along with a new role and new aircraft.

Following their departure, Methwold was passed over to 3 Group and was designated to receive the heavy four-engined bombers of Bomber Command. To accommodate them, the site was upgraded to Class ‘A’ standard. Three runways were built, five hangars (four ‘T2s’ and one ‘B1’) were erected, and a wide range of ancillary buildings added. Aircraft dispersal consisted of 36 hard standings mainly of the spectacle type.

The incoming ground and aircrews would be accommodated in areas to the east of the airfield, buildings were sufficient for a small bomber site of some 1,800 men and just over 300 women, by no means large.

In this interim period on March 13th, a lone American P-47 #42-74727, suffered engine failure whilst on a routine training flight in the area. In an attempt to land at Methwold, the P-47 Thunderbolt crashed, slightly injuring the pilot but writing off the aircraft.

The first of the heavy bombers to arrive at the newly constructed Methwold were the mighty Stirling IIIs of 218 Sqn. A small detachment from RAF Woolfox Lodge, they would operate from here along side 149 Squadron who moved here from RAF Lakenheath in May 1944. 149’s record so far had been highly distinguished. Participating in the RAF’s second bombing mission of the war on September 4th, they had gone on to take part in the first 1,000 bomber raid, attacked prestige targets such as the Rhur, and had taken part in the Battle of Hamburg. They had also been in action in the skies over the Rocket development site at Peenemunde. They had gone on to drop essential supplies to the French Resistance, and one of its pilots, Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton, had won the VC for his valour and determination in action. 149 Sqn would go on with the offensive right up until the war’s end, replacing the ill-fated Stirlings with Lancaster MKIs and later the MKIIIs in August 1944.

During the D-Day landings, 149 Squadron were tasked with dropping dummy parachutists away from the Normandy beaches. As part of Operation Titanic, they were to deceive the German ground forces, aiming to draw them away from the Normandy beaches, thus reducing the defensive force. A task that proved relatively successful in certain areas of the invasion zone, it caused confusion in the German ranks and pulled vital men away from drop zones. During this dramatic operation, two 149 Sqn Stirlings were lost; LJ621 ‘OJ-M’ and LX385  ‘OJ-C’ – with all but three of the eighteen crew being killed.

In August 1944, 218 Sqn moved the remaining crews over to Methwold completing the unit’s strength once more. This move also led to them taking on the Lancaster MKIs and IIIs. 218 Sqn was another squadron with a remarkable record of achievements, its most notable being the VC posthumously awarded to Flight Sergeant Arthur Aaron for his ‘most conspicuous bravery’ whilst at RAF Downham Market.

As the allied advance moved across Europe, 149 Sqn supported them. In December 1944, 218 Sqn departed Methwold taking their Lancasters to RAF Chedburgh and disbandment the following year. 218’s losses were not over though, just days before the war’s end on April 24th 1945, Lancaster NF955 ‘HA-H’ crashed on take off, the last fatality of the squadron’s operational record. For 149 Sqn food packages replaced bombs as the relief operation – Operation Manna – took hold. After the fall of Germany in 1945, 149 Sqn ferried POWs back to Methwold in Operation Exodus, and for many, it was their first taste of freedom for many years.

The final squadron to be stationed at Methwold was 207 Squadron, between October 1945 and the end of April 1946 also flying the Lancaster I and III. As with many other bomber command squadrons, its history was also long and distinguished; flying its final mission of the war on 25th April 1945, against the SS Barracks at Berchtesgaden. During its wartime service 207 Sqn had completed some 540 operations, lost 154 crews and earned themselves a total of 7 DSOs, 115 DFCs and 92 DFMs.

In 1946, the Lancasters of 149 Squadron departed Methwold and all fell quiet. The site was officially closed in 1958 and the land returned to the former owners. In the early 1960s, much of the concrete was removed for hardcore, buildings were demolished and the land returned to agriculture, a state it primarily survives in today.

RAF Methwold

Stores huts used for light industry

Methwold airfield is located south of the village of Methwold, accessible by the B1112. As you drive along this road, the technical area is to your left and the main airfield to your right. The entire site is primarily agricultural, with some of the remaining buildings being used for farming purposes or light industry. Many of these are accessible or at least can be seen from the main public highway.

Large parts of the runways do still exist, although much of them are covered in newly developed industrial units, or are hidden away on private land. These most notable developments are at the northern end of the runway closest to Methwold village. However, best views of what’s left, are from the southern end, along a farm track that was once the perimeter track. Also here, is a single large and original ‘T2’ hangar, now used for storing agricultural equipment and other farm related products. This main north-westerly runway, built later in the war, is also used for farm related storage. Divided by a large fence, it is now part track and part storage. The remaining sections of perimeter track, a fraction of its original size, allows access to the runway past the hangar to an area of development further south to where the turret trainers once stood. Also visible here, is the Gymnasium built to drawing 16428/40 later adapted by the addition of a projection room (889/42) for recreational films.

Back alongside the B1112 hidden amongst the woods, is the technical area. Here in between the trees are the former technical huts and workshops now used by small industrial units, many of which survive in varying conditions, some of these are accessible to the general public.

RAF Methwold

One of the former runways looking north-west.

Methwold was never intended to be major player in the war. home to a small number of squadrons, it housed a variety of aircraft and a number of nationals who all combined, tell incredible stories of heroism, bravery and dedication. The squadrons who passed though here, carried out some of the RAF’s most daring raids, whether it be as part of a thousand bomber raid, a small force to attack the heart of Reich, or a diversionary raid to foil air and ground forces.

Methwold is now quiet, agriculture has taken over. The sound of heavy piston engines are now replaced by the sound of tractors, the buildings that once housed brave young men and their incredible machines now home to the machinery of food and farming. The small remnants of Methwold hold stories of their own, for it is here that history was made, war was won and lives were lost – and all in a very unassuming manner.

Notes and further reading 

Local information and further detail is available from the local Methwold history group. 

Methwold was originally visited in April 2013.

William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

rueckert

William Rueckert with his wife, Dee*1

William G. Rueckert (service Number: 0 -420521) was born September 9th 1920, in Moline, Illinois. At school, he became a model student, achieving high grades throughout his school life. Upon leaving, he won a place at Illinois University where he wanted to study Law. Rueckert had a passion for reading, particularly the classics like Shakespeare and Proust and was known for his hard work and dedication.

It was at University that he met, on a blind date, he wife to be, ‘Dee’. The meeting almost never took place due to a faulty car, but as a lover of dancing, they turned out to be the perfect match and his lateness was forgiven.

Inseparable as a couple, Rueckert and Dee were married only a year later, in 1940, when Rueckert was just 19 years old.

War came even closer, and Rueckert decided he had to do his part and joined up with the Army, on July 15th 1941. Based at Pine Camp, New York, he was part of the 4th Armoured Division, and his hard work and dedication was very quickly realised; he soon won himself an award on the firing range. Constant passionate letters home cemented the love between Rueckert and Dee, in one letter he said; “My life, my love and all my hope all lie in my wife Dee!”

Rueckert’s life then changed and he joined the USAAC. As a trainee pilot, he moved from New York, to California and then onto New Mexico where he gained the qualification of Pilot instructor on October 28th 1943.

Whilst flying here at New Mexico, the plane Rueckert was in, a B-24, collided with a small training aircraft killing its pilot. Rueckert managed to land his own B-24 and following his actions, was credited with saving the lives of the crewmen on board.

Finally, the draw of the war led Rueckert to requesting a post overseas. He was sent to RAF Hardwick, Norfolk to join the 409th BS, 93rd BG, 20th Combat Wing, Eighth Airforce, in April 1944. Formed only two years earlier on 22nd April 1942, the 409th was to be Rueckert’s only operational squadron. Having won three DUCs already for operations over Europe including; the raid on the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti, and the enormous raid of February 1944 ‘Big Week’, the 93rd were a battle hardened group.

“Ted’s Flying Circus” as they were to be known, took part in the preparations for D-Day, completing much of their bombing missions over the Normandy area, cutting supply lines and communication routes across France.

Rueckert’s first and only mission, was on May 1st 1944. It was to be a night flight. He joined his best friend along with his assigned pilot Second Lieutenant Albert Schreiner (0-805532) on B-24 ‘Joy Ride‘ #42-7621, leaving his regular crew behind at Hardwick.

The aircraft, began its roll down the runway, as it neared the take off point, it is thought the undercarriage collapsed causing a catastrophic crash in which seven bombs exploded. The aircraft was completely destroyed and five of the crew killed including the pilot and Lt. Rueckert. The crash was so intense, it closed one of the three enormous runways for five days.

Dee, Rueckert’s wife, found out by telegraph that her husband had been killed. She was understandably devastated as were the two young children, Billy and Dianne.

Rueckert’s body was initially buried at Madingley Cemetery, Cambridge, but later he was repatriated and buried in the family plot in Illinois. His purple Heart, awarded earlier, has since been donated by his son Billy, to the church at Topcroft, where Rueckert prayed the night before that fatal flight. A plaque also sits in the wall in remembrance of the 668 men who never returned to Hardwick. Rueckert’s name appears in the St Paul’s Cathedral Roll of Honour, on page 365.

Hardwick appears in Trail 12

https://i2.wp.com/media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib/rfc/FRE_003762.jpg

A B-24 Liberator (YM-H, serial number 42-95258) of the 409th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group*2

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from The purpleheart.com author unknown.

*2 Photo The American Air Museum in Britain

This story recently appeared in the Eastern Daily Press, December 13th 2014, and contains more photos and personal details.

Boeing B-29s in the UK.

During March 1944, an event took place in the UK that considering its historical importance, is little known about. It was actually quite a momentous event, especially in terms of aviation history, and in particular the Second World War.

As a follow on to RAF Glatton and Trail 6, we look into the short-lived presence of Boeing’s mighty aircraft the B-29 ‘Superfortress’, in what would appear to be its first and only wartime presence on British soil.

At the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, the United States was less than ready for a global war. The retaliation and defeat of not only Japan, but Nazi Germany as well, was going to be both costly and massive, requiring a huge increase in manufacturing of both arms and machinery.

This increase meant not only aircraft for the Air Force, but the infrastructure to support and train the aircrews too. A network of airfields and supporting organisations totalling some $100 million in 1940, would, by the war’s end be valued in the region of  $3,000 million. In terms of size, this infrastructure would cover an area of land equal to the combined areas of: New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.*1

To complete the task, along with aiding her allies, the U.S. was going to need to design and manufacture many new models of aircraft, aircraft that would outshine anything previously made available to the U.S. forces. Long range bombers in particular, capable of travelling great distances were going to be required – and a lot of them. At the outbreak of the European war, the U.S. Army Air Corps was in comparison to the European forces, very small, commanding just 26,000 officers and enlisted men, and operating only 800 front-line aircraft. The Luftwaffe on the other hand, had expanded considerably over the previous years, now commanding some 3,600 aircraft. The British, who were still some way behind the Germans but growing rapidly, had available to them some 2,000 aircraft, whilst the French could muster slightly over 1,700. *1a

To meet this demand, U.S. aircraft manufacturers were going to have to start by modifying, and with some exceptions, redesigning the various aircraft types that were already available to the U.S.  forces. However, and likewise the British and German manufacturers, new models were going to have to be designed and put into production very quickly if victory was to be achieved in any of the world’s theatres.

Preempting war, the US Government put out tenders for long range bombers, in answer to which during the 1930s, the Boeing Model 299, first flew. Eventually being purchased by the US Government to fulfil the role, it was put into production as the iconic B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’, and was followed not long after by the B-24 ‘Liberator’; a more modern aircraft which took its maiden flight in 1939. But sitting on the drawing board at this time, was another aircraft that performed even better, the formidable B-29, a bomber designed to fly at altitudes up to 40,000ft, beyond the range of anti-aircraft guns and  faster than many fighters of the time. The aircraft was so advanced in design that depending upon its payload it was capable of flying distances of up to 5,000 miles, far beyond that of any other heavy bomber.

Whilst the U.S. aircraft manufacturers had already begun designing and testing these new models, it would be some time before the number and types of available aircraft would come anywhere close to being comparable to those of the Luftwaffe, R.A.F. or even later, the Imperial Japanese Air Force.

By August 1942 both the development and production of these two heavy bombers, the B-17 and B-24, were well underway, and so it was decided that they would go initially to the European theatre rather than the Far East. The competition for the attack on Japan now lay between the B-29 and Consolidated’s competitor the B-32 ‘Dominator’ – an enlarged and also pressurised version of their B-24. However, two years after the first design drawings were revealed, neither of these aircraft types had yet flown, and so the shorter ranged B-17 and B-24s were going to have to fill the gap until such times as their replacements could arrive.

The war in the Far East would provide its own set of problems. The distance that supplies would have to be taken would take time and before any invasion could take place, lost ground not only had to be recovered, but held. To achieve this, ground forces would need to be protected by an air umbrella, a defensive shield formed so tightly that air supremacy was guaranteed.

Getting supplies into China was difficult, by air it required long and dangerous flights over the ‘Hump’, the Himalayan mountain range, usually fulfilled by C-47s and DC-3s, their commercial equivalent. With the C-46 ‘Commando’ and C-87 coming on line later on, the frequency and quantity of these supplies could increase but it was still not enough for the Chinese, nor for the difficult task ahead.

By March 1943 the stage was set. The Fourteenth Air Force was created out of Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault’s China Air Task Force, which by the summer time, had begun attacks on coastal positions, ports and troop concentrations under Japanese control.  This air umbrella was in part achieved over Burma, and the desired attacks on Japan now looked more possible, but the B-17s and B-24s that had worked tirelessly lacked the range to hit the Japanese homeland;  the long range high performance B-29 was by now desperately needed.

During the Quebec Conference in August that year, U.S. officials put forward their proposal to stage American long range bombers on airfields in China, the area required for such bases being under Chinese control already and therefore not at the mercy of the Japanese forces. This offensive, designated the Matterhorn Project, would involve the still as yet untested  in battle, B-29s, their longer range and larger bomb capacity enabling them to ‘bomb Japan into submission’ in a similar way that Sir Arthur Harris had hoped for in Europe with the RAF’s bombing campaign against Germany’s industrial targets and cities.

To meet these aims a new force would be created, the Twentieth Air Force, which would be made up of two commands: the XX Bomber Command from China and the XXI Bomber Command who would be based in the Mariana Islands after they were retaken from Japanese control.

The aircraft destined to carry out this role, the B-29, was still very much an unknown quantity. Rushed into production with scant attention to testing, it was a monster of an aircraft, with a crew of eleven in pressurised compartments, electronic gun turrets and a massive 141 ft wingspan. The project was to be the biggest in U.S. aviation history, spares alone in the initial contract costing $19.5m, and one which General Arnold
referred to as the “$3 billion gamble”.*1b

The following film “Birth of the B-29 Superfortress” shows a B-29 production line and a test YB-29 in flight. It also contains some short graphic images at the start.

A batch of four XB-29 prototypes were built, and after initial test flights, a further fourteen ‘test’ aircraft, designated the YB-29, were also constructed. But problems with design drawings, missing parts and rushed testing meant that production was slowed to a minimum, part finished aircraft being stored whilst awaiting vital components. After test flights it became apparent that the B-29’s engines were prone to overheating and in several cases catching fire. This delayed further testing reducing flying time considerably until the problems could be solved. During flight tests, this problem with the engines was graphically seen, first on February 18th 1943, and then again a year later.

In February, XB-29 #41-003 (the second prototype XB) crashed into a meat packing factory killing all eight crew on board along with twenty civilians on the ground. The pilot, Eddie Allen, had already received the Air Medal for successfully landing the same XB-29 following another engine fire in the preceding December. A year later, January 29th 1944, engine problems caused yet another accident when  #41-36967, the last of the  fourteen*2 Wichita YB-29s  manufactured, crashed after losing all four engines whilst in the air. This problem with overheating engines becoming the proverbial  ‘thorn in the side’ of the Boeing production team.

By the summer of 1943, B-29 training squadrons were being set up, the first, the 58th Bombardment Operational Training Wing (Heavy) later the 58th BW (Very Heavy), was formed with the 40th, 444th, 462nd, 468th and 472nd Bombardment Groups, each with four or five squadrons of their own.

After a period of training four of these groups (the 472nd was disbanded April 1944) would transfer to India flying via Africa to join the Twelfth Air Force initially flying supplies over ‘the Hump’, before taking part in operations against Japan from the Chinese airfields.

Departure for these groups occurred over the March – April 1944 period, during which time one of these aircraft would divert to the U.K. causing a huge stir whilst ‘touring’ several U.K. airbases.

Whilst precise sources seem scarce, it is thought that flying B-29s across the southern route raised fears of a Luftwaffe attack whilst en-route, and so a plan of ‘disinformation’ was set in motion to fool the Germans into thinking that the B-29s were to be based in England, ready to be used against German targets. The first part of this ruse was in early March 1944, when YB-29 #41-36963 ‘Hobo Queen‘ took off from Salina Airbase in Kansas and flew to England. It initially took the southern route toward Africa, but then deviated north heading to Newfoundland. The YB-29, piloted by Colonel Frank Cook, then flew across to the UK initially landing at RAF St. Mawgan, in Cornwall.

During its short stay in the U.K. it was known to have visited RAF Horsham St. Faith near Norwich,  RAF Bassingbourn on the 8th March, RAF Knettishall and RAF Glatton on 11th March before its final departure from RAF St. Mawgan to India in April that year. The route took the YB-29 to Marrakech, Cairo (2nd April), Karachi (5th Apr) finally arriving at  Kharagpur, India, on 6th Apr 1944 . Once here, it was assigned to the 769th Bomb Squadron, 462nd Bomb Group who were then based at Piardoba in India, where it was modified as a tanker to ferry fuel over ‘the Hump’. The YB-29, the only test model to fly overseas,  gave a successful service, eventually being declared war weary and returned to the United States, its eventual fate being unknown, presumably, like many war weary models, the aircraft was scrapped.*3

Whilst in the U.K. the YB-29 was certainly a major draw, over 1,000 key personnel viewing the aircraft at RAF Glatton alone, its enormous size dwarfing anything that had been seen in U.K. skies before.

The ruse was considered a success. The many B-29s that followed across the southern route did so without any interference from German aircraft, although how much of that was actually down to the ruse itself, is hard to distinguish. It is even thought in some circles that photos of the ‘Hobo Queen‘ appeared in the newspaper of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party,  The Völkischer Beobachter, although an initial search of the paper through the Austrian National Library proved fruitless.

Crews and ground staff swarm around B-29 #41-36963 at Glatton airfield 11th March 1944*4.

Although B-29s were initially considered for the European theatre none operated from British soil until after the wars end, when a joint British and American operation, Project ‘Ruby‘*5, investigated deep penetration bombs against reinforced concrete structures. Three B-29s were prepared in the United States along with four B-17s and a select detachment of admin, maintenance, technical staff and air crew,  who arrived at RAF Marham, Norfolk, on March 15th 1946. Initial plans were to test a series of bombs on the submarine assembly plant at Farge, but due to the close proximity of housing and an electricity plant, the U-boat shelter at Heligoland was used instead. The bombing trials began on March 25th by which time an original three B-17s from RAF Mildenhall had also joined the group.

A number of both American and British bombs were tested in the trials:

  • The US 22,000lb. ‘Amazon’ bomb
  • The US rocket assisted 4,500lb. ‘Disney’ bomb (used by B-17s in the latter stages of the war)
  • The 4,500lb. ‘Disney’ bomb without rocket assistance
  • The American 22,000lb. fabricated ‘Grand Slam’ (designated T14)
  • The American 12,000lb. fabricated ‘Tall Boy’ (designated T10)
  • The British 12,000lb, ‘Tall Boy’
  • The British 2,000lb. Armour Piercing  bomb
  • The inert loaded 2,000lb. SAP (M103) bomb
  • The Picratol filled 2,000lb. SAP (M103) bomb
  • The 1,650lb. Model bomb

The results of the trials were quite conclusive, none of these bombs in their current form, were capable of penetrating the 23 ft thick concrete of the Farge roof, and therefore, all would need adapting, redeveloping or redesigning if such operations were to be carried out again.

Post war, B-29s were brought into the UK and operated as Boeing Washington B1s, operating with nine RAF Squadrons: No. 15, 35, 44, 57, 90, 115, 149, 192 and 207 at various airfields including RAF Marham, RAF Coningsby, RAF Watton and RAF Waddington, eventually being replaced by the high flying English Electric Canberra. The B-29 then disappeared from operational service in the UK.

Without doubt, the development of the B-29 had a major impact on the world as we know it today, and even though its first arrival in the UK in March 1944 caused a major stir in the aviation world, it incredibly remains a little known about clear fact. With little documentation available, there is clearly much more research to be done.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Nalty, B., et al. “With Courage The U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II” 1994. Air Force Historical Studies Office (p61)

*1a ibid (p38)

*1b ibid (p147)

*2 Only 14 YB-29BWs were built (#41-36954 – #41-36967) and all at Wichita. They were painted olive drab upper surfaces and light gull grey lower surfaces.

*3 MSN 3334.

*4 Image courtesy of 457th BG Association.

*5 Comparative Test of the Effectiveness of Large Bombs Against Large Reinforced Concrete Structures (PDF), Report of the Air Proving Ground Command, Elgin Field, Florida – Anglo-American Bomb Test Project “Ruby”. October 31st, 1946.

Simons. G.M., “B-29 Superfortress: Giant Bomber of World War Two and Korea“. Pen and Sword Aviation. (2012)

Mann. R.A., The B-29 Superfortress: A Comprehensive Registry of the Planes and Their Mission McFarland & Company Inc. (2004)

Harris, S.R., Jr. “B-29s Over Japan, 1944-1945: A Group Commander’s Diary” McFarland & Company Inc. (2011)

Mann. R.A.,.”The B-29 Superfortress Chronology, 1934-1960” McFarland & Company Inc. (2009)

RAF Sedgeford – Operational during two World Wars.

In this new addition to Trail 20, we visit a former airfield whose history not only stems back to the First World War, but is deeply rooted in it. Between the wars it lay dormant, and then sprang into life once more, as military activity in Norfolk increased during the 1940s.  Known under four different names, and controlled by three different branches of the armed forces, we visit an airfield that has been the subject of one of Britain’s largest archaeological digs in recent years. Situated east of the coastal resort of Heacham in Norfolk, it now forms the first airfield on our tour in Trail 20. We start the Trail at the former RAF Sedgeford.

RAF Sedgeford

Also known as RFC Sedgeford,  RNAS Sedgeford or Sedgeford Aerodrome, the airfield lies just outside of the village from which it takes its name, and on the south side of the B1454 Docking Road.

Sedgeford originally opened as a First World War airfield during the latter half of 1915 as Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Sedgeford. It was initially a Class 1 night landing ground (NLG) for the main base at Great Yarmouth (South Denes) much further to the east on East Anglia’s North Sea Coast.

The Royal Naval Air Service were themselves a fledgling service, being formed only a year earlier in July 1914, after the naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was removed from RFC control, being placed under the jurisdiction of the Admiralty. At their time of formation the RNAS had on its books some fifty-five seaplanes (inc. ship-borne aircraft); forty aeroplanes; seven airships; 111 officers and 544 men*1.

With aviation very much in its infancy, the RNAS had been using mainly airships, and were only just beginning to venture into aeroplanes as a means of fighting a war. With a range of airfields in the area including both RFC Holt and RFC Bacton (NLG), it also used Ludham (HMS Flycatcher), Pulham (an airship station), Hickling Road (a seaplane airfield), Lowestoft (a balloon site) and Great Yarmouth (South Denes which was a mixed use airfield for home defence and marine operations). From these humble beginnings, the RNAS were to become a strong force during the First World War.

With the might of the Zeppelin ruling the skies, it wasn’t long before the first attacks were made along the North Norfolk coast, ranging from Great Yarmouth to Kings Lynn. These attacks, and continuing intruder flights by Zeppelins, called for a much greater aerial protection of East Anglia. It was this call that led to the creation of not only Sedgeford but also Aldeburgh, Bacton, Holt, Narborough (which later became Norfolk’s first military airfield) and Burgh Castle as active airfields operating armed flying units*2.

During the early part of 1916, RNAS Sedgeford was transferred across to the RFC (themselves only formed on 13th April 1912) and used as a training station. The site was developed with further buildings added, eventually gaining eleven canvassed Bessonneaux hangars, two more permanent General Service Sheds, a range of buildings suitable for aircraft repair and maintenance, barrack huts, MT (motor transport) sheds and even a locomotive shed fed by a branch line to the main Hunstanton and West Norfolk Railway a mile or so to the north. Sedgeford would develop into a substantial sized airfield with some 100 buildings accommodating over 1,200 personnel including WRENs and WRAFs. Whilst the overall dimensions of the site cannot be confirmed, it is thought that the airfield covered around 170 acres.

The WRAFs, (known affectionately as ‘Penguins,’ because they didn’t fly) were often found working in aircraft doping sheds repairing aircraft fabrics using a potentially harmful ‘dope’ containing an acetate solvent. The fumes from this solvent were known to be lethal in large doses, with many of those using it on a regular basis, feeling ill or in extreme cases, dying from the effects of its toxic fumes. To combat the problem, some First World War doping sheds had extractor fans built into them to remove these hazardous fumes, and at Sedgeford, evidence has been found (by the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project), that confirms their use here.

Over the next few years Sedgeford would house a number of flying units, both training and ‘operational’ whilst preparing to move to France. The first of these (No. 45 Squadron) arrived on 21st May 1916 operating the Bristol BE.2b, an aircraft that they had been using since April at Thetford. Over the next five months, 45 Sqn would take on three other aircraft types: the Henry Farman F.20, (June to August), Royal Aircraft Factory FE.2b (July to Sept) and lastly the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter (July to Sept 1917); the first British aeroplane to have synchronised guns firing through a two bladed propeller. The rather odd name was given to the aircraft because of the unusual ‘half-struts’ that attached the wings to the fuselage.

Sopwith 1 1/Strutter (unknown photographer via Wikipedia.)

In August 1916, 45 Sqn was broken up, with the nucleus being used to form a new squadron here at Sedgeford – No. 64 Sqn. The remainder of No. 45 Sqn then prepared for France, a move it made two months later.

No. 64 Sqn continued using the Henry Farman F.20s that had previously been allocated to them, but over time, they too would use a variety of aircraft types including: the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c and FE.2b, Sopwith’s famous Pup, the Avro 504 and the de Havilland DH5.

Then on February 1st 1917, 64 Sqn was itself then split, the demand for new pilots and new squadrons increasing as the conflict entered its third gruesome year. From this split, another new squadron was born, No. 53 Reserve Squadron, who were  themselves re-designated as No. 53 Training Squadron on 31st May 1917, and operated models such as the RE.8, BE.2c, Avro 504J and the DH.6. They would eventually leave Sedgeford and end their days at Harlaxton where they were disbanded and merged into another unit.

Although many of these pilots were ‘experienced’, being in training meant there were of course accidents, many taking the lives of the young men who had been drawn to the thrill of flying. One such pilot, twenty year old Sec. Lt. Arthur Le Roy Dean, was killed when his Sopwith ‘Pup’ (official name Scout) #B1788 spun into the ground whilst flying with 64 Sqn on August 8th 1917. He initially survived the crash only to die from his injuries the following day.

RAF Sedgeford

The grave of Second Lieutenant Arthur Dean RFC.

The 9th would prove to be a black day for 64 Sqn, after they lost a second pilot, Canadian Lt. Edward Gordon Hanlan, who was killed when his DH.5 (#A9393) crashed following a wing failure whilst performing a loop over the airfield at nearby Bircham Newton.

September 1917 would prove to be a busy month for both Sedgeford airfield and the many airmen stationed there. On the 15th, another new unit arrived to join 64 Sqn. They too were a new squadron, only being formed a few days earlier at Upavon. No. 87 Sqn, remained at Sedgeford for just three months prior to moving to Hounslow before themselves moving across to St. Omer in France, which was rapidly becoming the hub of the Royal Flying Corp in continental Europe.

This month was the penultimate month of 64’s stay at Sedgeford, and prior to them leaving for France another Sopwith Pup (#B1787) would take the life of its pilot, 2Lt. Francis Brian Hallam Anderson (aged 19) who, like Sec. Lt. Dean, survived the actual crash only to succumb to his injuries and die several days later on the 8th. Flying these lightweight aircraft was not proving to be easy.

By mid October (14th), orders to move had come through, and 64 Squadron packed its bags – they were on their way to France taking their DH5s to St. Omer.  St. Omer being the very place the parent squadron (No. 45 Sqn) had moved to almost a year to the day previously. The many faces of 45 Sqn surely being different to those that departed a year before.

It was in France that 64 Sqn’s Acting Captain Flt, Lt. James A. Slater MC., DFC. would go on to be the Sqn’s top ace achieving 22 kills, which when added to the two he achieved with No. 1 Sqn, gave him a total of 24 kills. His determination and expertise in the air earning him both the DFC and Military Cross (with Bar) which was Gazetted in the London Gazette Supplement published on February 1st 1918*3*4.

The beginning of November 1917 would see another short lived unit arrive at this Norfolk site, and it would be the brief reuniting of two sister units.

Both No. 72 Sqn and No. 87 Sqn, had their roots firmly fixed in the same place – the Central Flying School at Upavon; 87 being formed from the resident ‘D’ Flight whilst 72 were formed from ‘A’ Flight. Whilst they perhaps enjoyed a momentary annexation, it would not last long before they would all depart and go their separate ways for good. Whilst 87 Sqn moved to the cold winter of France, No. 72 Sqn would take their Pups to the much warmer Persian Gulf and onto Basra and Baghdad, where they stayed until the war’s end.

Sedgeford was rapidly becoming a major player in the RFC’s continued development, with yet another new unit arriving here the same month they were formed – No. 110 Sqn. They too would be another relatively short stay unit, and again, operating a number of different aircraft types. Formed on November 1st, they were created out of the nucleus of 38 Training Squadron at Rendcomb, and stopped off at Dover on their way to Sedgeford. By June 1918, they were on their way again, moving to Kenley in Surrey, a station that would become famous in the Second World War as a fighter airfield.

Within days of 110 Sqn’s arrival, pilot James Alan Pearson was killed following a flying accident at Sedgeford. Pearson, who was from Chesterfield, had only joined the RFC in August that same year, transferring from South Farnborough, to Winchester, Oxford and then Hendon, where he joined No. 19 Training Squadron on September 19th, 1917. On November 19th, he completed his probationary period and was confirmed as a Temporary Second Lieutenant upon which, he was posted to No. 110 Sqn, at Sedgeford, just after the main squadron arrived at the busy Norfolk airfield.

His death came within a matter of days of his arrival, some references stating he ‘blacked out’, whilst other say his aircraft, a Martinsyde Elephant (#B866), broke apart. No doubt, both actions resulted from a steep dive from which Pearson never recovered. During the dive, and probable breakup of the aeroplane, Pearson was thrown out of the cockpit, unaided or not conscious, he failed to survive the fall. His official service record (AIR 76/396/34) simply states ‘Killed as result of aero accident‘, the short few entries showing how limited, at 18 years old, his experience was.

RAF Sedgeford

The grave of 18 yr old, Sec. Lt. James A. Pearson at St. Mary’s Church, Docking, who was killed within four months of joining the RFC.

As the war turned to another year and the winter of 1917/18 dragged on, New Year’s day 1918, would see No. 110 Sqn joined by another newly formed unit, No. 122 Sqn, who whilst  initially operating a range of aircraft, were earmarked to receive the de Havilland DH.9.  However, the transition would not go smoothly and it would ultimately result in the squadron’s demise.

Both 110 and 122 Sqns were assigned to go to France, 110 Sqn leaving on 15th June 1918 initially to Kenley before Bettoncourt to the south of Nancy in France, whilst No. 122 Sqn were to be sent to Hamble (which became the more prominent Upper Hayford post World War Two) where they were to take on the DH.9s before also moving to the continent.

However, the unit was disbanded whilst still as a training unit at Sedgeford on the day prior to its move on 17th August 1918. No. 122 was then reformed at Hamble, but further plans stalled as the DH.9 was replaced by the DH.10 and a delay in allocation prevented the reformed squadron from its final activation. With the war’s end and no further requirement seen for the squadron, the process then halted, and in November 1918, the squadron was disbanded for good .

With the war in Europe now over, the withdrawal of squadrons from France began and units started the long journey home. Sedgeford would continue to host some of these units, continuing to perform their role as a training airfield. Even at this point, expansion of the airfield was still occurring but the future for Sedgeford was not bright.

At the end of 1918, No 3 Fighting School (FS) (who had been formed at nearby Bircham Newton) arrived at Sedgeford. Being a former Aerial Fighting and Gunnery School, it operated a number of different aircraft types including: Pups, a range of de Havilland models, Dolphins, Camels and Handley Page 0/400s. Perhaps now, as the war was over, a lapse in concentration may have been the cause of a New Year’s misadventure, when on January 24th 1919, two Sopwith Camels collided over Sedgeford airfield. Camel #C8318 flown by Capt. Cecil Frederick King MC., DFC., was in collision with #H2724 flown by Lt Hector Daniel MC.

Capt. King, who had been wounded in France, had been awarded not only the Military Cross in April 1918, but also the Distinguished Flying Cross in August 1918 along with the Croix de Guerre. Incredibly he was just short of his 19th birthday. Lt Daniel (a South African), survived the accident, and also achieved the Military Cross along with the Air Force Cross in July 1918 and June 1919 respectively.*5

RAF Sedgeford

The grave of Capt. Cecil Frederick King MC., DFC, Croix de Guerre

The wind down was slow at Sedgeford, but March 1919 would see two major changes at the airfield. Firstly, on the 14th, No. 3 FS was disbanded, reforming as No. 7 Training Squadron (TS), who continued in the training role at Sedgeford. By October though, with cutbacks in the pipeline, it would no longer be required and so operations were curtailed, and it was finally disbanded.

Secondly, the end of March saw the arrival of a cadre of No. 13 Sqn with RE.8s. Their journey to Sedgeford had taken them around the many battlefields of France over the last three years, the skies of Norfolk must have been a more than welcome break for the young pilots.

As more and more units were disbanded, Sedgeford too would feel the bite. On New Year’s Eve 1919/20, orders were received and subsequently carried out, to disband the last remaining squadron at the airfield, and with this, the end of Sedgeford as a flying base was now signalled.

The interwar years saw many of the buildings removed, many being sold off or demolished, but fortunately some remained, falling into disrepair or put to agricultural use. What remained of the airfield was left in a dormant state, fading bit by bit. But, the 1930s increase in international tensions would be the saviour of Sedgeford, as war once again reared its ugly head. This time however, it would not be as an operational airfield with the usual buzz and activity it was once so used to, this time it would be a much quieter decoy site.

With so many strategic airfields located in East Anglia, and with the extended development of Bircham Newton as few miles away, the protection of these sites was paramount.  The war of deception created the dummy airfield, with the sole purpose of diverting the Luftwaffe bombers away from the real airfield located nearby. Sedgeford was seen as a suitable location for such a site, the few remaining buildings being partly representative of a wartime airfield. With a little development and appropriate lighting added, Sedgeford  became one such site, the remaining buildings being utilised to create an image of activity one would expect to see on an active airfield.

RAF Sedgeford

The airfield today is far different from the one used in World War One.

These decoy sites were the brainchild of Colonel John Fisher Turner, a retired Officer from the Air Ministry who had turned his hand to film work and special effects. Working with a team of tradesmen and engineers, they produced life-like aircraft, vehicles, boats and buildings using canvas, wood and other lightweight materials that when viewed from the air, look like the real thing. With lights added to give the impression of runway lighting, fires and vehicles, it proved to be a major coup in the war against the Luftwaffe. Designated as both a ‘Q’ (night time) and ‘K’ (day time) decoy station, Sedgeford was operational between June 1940 and August 1942, after which time the larger threat of bombing had sub-sided.

Sedgeford had a small number of operators on site to perform the deception, and because they were to attract enemy attention, they were provided with a shelter, the bulk of which still exists on the site today. After this, Sedgeford was finally closed down and  returned to agricultural use once more. A state it has remained in ever since.

The airfield’s site is located just outside of the village, a gate and long path indicate the original entrance to the site. This path was once lined with First World War buildings, none of which remain today. The actual airfield itself is now an agricultural field, the railway spur that led from the main line has also gone, as has the main line itself. From the public road there are sadly no indications of the significance of this once historic site.

RAF Sedgeford

The main entrance and long road into former RAF Sedgeford. The field to the left would have had several buildings along it. The buildings remaining today are located beyond the forest on the horizon.

Along from the airfield toward the village of Docking, is another private dwelling that was also known to have been used as a billet for Sedgeford’s airmen. Formally the Union Workhouse it dates back to 1835 and was one of the largest workhouses in Norfolk at that time. Intended to hold up to 450 people, it rarely had more than 100 at any one time. The RFC took over the building in 1916 handing it back at the war’s end.

Since 2009 the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) has carried out a huge excavation of the site at Sedgeford, uncovering a number of foundations and links to Sedgeford’s aviation history. Some of these buildings include the mortuary and Officers quarters, with its very ornate fireplace, and the World War 2 shelter mentioned previously. These are all firmly on private land hidden in a small wood around which the majority of the technical buildings were originally erected. Access to these sites is understandably only with permission, something I didn’t have on the day. The project, which has been carried out yearly, also uncovered numerous building foundations and a track for a hangar door. Substantial information being gleaned from the various digs being carried out over the years.

The types of buildings remaining at Sedgeford, especially the First World War examples, make this quite a unique site. So few buildings exist from this era, Stow Maries being the only other site with examples of any quality. This, along with the many deaths and sacrifices witnessed by Sedgeford, make it both historically and architecturally significant, and as such, perhaps the site should be protected.

The history of Sedgeford is extraordinary. Many of those who passed through its doors were teenagers, some lasted only weeks, whilst others went on to fly for years performing acts of great bravery and daring. But one thing that draws them all together was the thrill of flying in an era were flight was new and boundaries were unknown. Their bravery and courage should be remembered.

Sedgeford airfield had sadly all but passed into the history books, but recent excavations have given new life to this once significant site, and maybe one day, these will be given public status, and the memories of those who served and died here will live again.

This recognition took a step forward when on 21st July 1918 the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected a memorial at Sedgeford. The report can be seen on both Your Local Paper website, and the ABCT website along with videos of the day and interviews with SHARP members.

From Sedgeford we continue with Trail 20, and travel east toward Docking, stopping off at St. Mary’s Church, before travelling a few miles further to the former airfield RAF Docking.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Fleet Air Arm Officers Association Website accessed 10/8/2019

*2 Gunn. P. “Aviation Landmarks – Norfolk and Suffolk“. The History Press (2017)

*3 London Gazette Publication date: Supplement: 30827, Page:9204.

*4 London Gazette, Publication date: Supplement: 30507. Page:1606 Supplement page 1606.

*5 National Archives AIR 76/276/120, AIR 76/121/132

SHARP interim report 2011 (pdf via website)
Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project website.

Norfolk in the First World War: Somme to Armistice project Website accessed 11/8/19

The Workhouse, The Story of an Institution website. Accessed 12/8/19

Photos of Sedgeford’s buildings can be seen on the ‘Derelict places’ website.