A New Memorial to Honour Those Who Never Came Home.

RAF Downham Market in Norfolk, was home to 6 squadrons during the Second World War: 214, 218, 571, 608, 623 and 635 along with a number of other non-flying units. It was also home to a number of aircraft types, Short’s enormous Stirling, the famous Lancaster and of course de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder’ the Mosquito of the RAF’s Pathfinder force.

RAF Downham Market

One of the many huts still left on the airfield.

It was also the airfield that launched the last bombing mission by an RAF aircraft, a Mosquito, on May 2nd 1945, to attack retreating German forces at the Kiel canal.

Considering the strong links it has with the RAF and Bomber Command, it has never been given a fitting memorial, but maybe finally, this is about to change.

A proposal has been put forward to erect a grand memorial on a site next to where one of the former accommodation sites once stood. It will honour not only those who flew from Downham Market and never returned, but those who served and were stationed here as well.

It is hoped that the new memorial will consist of seven polished, black granite slabs with each name of the 700 crewmen who lost their lives, carved into it, in the order in which they were lost. It is hoped to raise £250,000 to cover the cost of the structure which will be grand in scale and stand next to the main A10, a road that was made using the runways for its hardcore.

Currently the only reminder of their sacrifice is a small memorial outside of Bexwell church. It is a small memorial telling the stories of the two heroic crew members, Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron and Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, two pilots who both received the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market, for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.

Today whilst none of the runways or perimeter tracks exist, a number of the original buildings are still present, used by small businesses and light industry. Recently however, a  £170m regeneration plan was announced, one that may signify the end of these buildings and Downham Market airfield for good (see here).

RAF Downham Market and especially the many crew members, who came from all across the Commonwealth, deserve great recognition for the work they did. Perhaps this, is finally a sign that it may now happen.

The full story and pictures can be accessed on the Eastern Daily Press website. There are more details and a link to the donations page on the RAF Downham Market website. 

RAF Downham Market appears on Trail 7 – North West Norfolk. 

 

RAF Methwold – unassumingly famous.

The East Anglia countryside is littered with remnants of the Second World War. The massive build up that occurred here in the mid 1940s has led to changes in both landscape and culture, the ‘friendly invasion’ as it has become fondly known, had a huge impact on the towns and villages around here. An area rich in aviation history there are numerous tales of heroism and valour to be found.

Whilst on the eighth Trail of aviation sites, we stop at the former site that was 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 Mosquitos, 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.

DSC_0029

One of the original hangers

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:

Methwold appears in Trail 8 and was originally visited in April 2013.

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

Lancaster Pilot Maxwell Storey – 149 Squadron

I was recently contacted by a reader who was trying to find out information about her grandfather, F.O. Maxwell Graydon Storey, 149 Squadron RAAF, Bomber Command, RAF Methwold.

This is his story so far:

He joined the Air Force in Australia in 1942/43 and was sent to England in December 1943. Here he was attached to the RAF and continued with his training as a bomber pilot. He transferred through a number of stations honing his skills and advancing his flying attributes. On completion, he joined 149 Squadron at RAF Methwold, where he flew Lancaster MK IBs up to and after the war. He flew a small number of bombing and food parcel missions before the war ended and his eventual return to Australia.

Maxwell died earlier this year at the age of 92, he didn’t reveal very much about his time in England and so there are a number of gaps to be filled. Whilst I have manged to find out a fair bit, we are lacking photographs and finer details, if you, or anyone you know, could provide these, they would be a most welcome addition to the history of this Lancaster pilot and help his granddaughter find the missing pieces to his life.

Training sites in the UK.

1.RAF Flying Training Command RAF Smith’s Lawn.(RAF Smith’s Lawn was used primarily used as dispersal site and Relief Landing Ground for the de Havilland Tiger Moth trainers of the unit. He would have more likely been at RAF Fairoaks near Cobham).

Wrexham Instrument Flying School – Does anyone have any record of this site?

RAF Abingdon Training Station, Oxfordshire – used to train crews in landing in poor weather flying medium bombers (Vickers Wellingtons possibly of 10 Operational Training Unit)

RAF Wing – flying Wellington X Bombers 26 OTU Again there is very limited information about this, can anyone shed any light on it?

No 3 Aircrew Survival School, Whitby – I can find no records for this.

1651 HCU- RAF Woolfox Lodge – Information about 1651 HCU?

RAF Methwold – posted to 149 Sqn either February or more likely March 1945. (149 Squadron arrived Methwold 15.5.44).

Aircraft he is known to have flown with, targets and crews: 

img_4736

April 14th 1945, P.O. Storey flew Lancaster HK795 ‘TK-B’ to Potsdam.

Lancaster I – HK 795 – “TK-B” – 14 April 1945 – bombing mission to Potsdam

F/S. L. A. Pounder (Nav.), Sgt F.W. Harris (Bomb Aimer), Sgt W. T. Wiggins (F/Eng), Sgt J.R. Richards (W/op), F/O E.C. Grimwood (M/upper) and F/O R. Silver (R/G)

Lancaster 1 – HK 645 – “TK-D” – 18 April 1945 – bombing mission to Heligoland

F/S. L. A. Pounder (Nav.), Sgt F.W. Harris (Bomb Aimer), Sgt W. T. Wiggins (F/Eng), Sgt J.R. Richards (W/op), Sgt. J. Bell (M/upper) and Sgt M. Stewart (R/G).

Lancaster 1 – HK 652 – “TK-E” – 22 April 1945 – bombing mission to Bremen

F/S. L. A. Pounder (Nav.), Sgt F.W. Harris (Bomb Aimer), Sgt W. T. Wiggins (F/Eng), Sgt J.R. Richards (W/op), F/S R.P. Irwin (M/Upper) and F/S. A.E. Sutton (R/G)

Lancaster I – HK654 – “TK-G” – 1 May 1945 – ‘Target’ The Hague – Food parcels

F/S. L. A. Pounder (Nav.), Sgt F.W. Harris (Bomb Aimer), Sgt W. T. Wiggins (F/Eng), Sgt J.R. Richards (W/op), F/L T.B. Oddie (M/Upper) and F/O. E.C. Grimwood (R/G)

Lancaster I – HK577 – “TK-H” – 7 May 1945 – ‘Target’ Gouda – Food parcels

F/S. L. A. Pounder (Nav.), Sgt F.W. Harris (Bomb Aimer), Sgt W. T. Wiggins (F/Eng), Sgt J.R. Richards (W/op), F/S G. Moxham (M/Upper) and F/S A. Perkins (R/G).

Lancaster HK577. The gentleman in the doorway is P.O. Storey (although on the website it says Story – I can find no record of a ‘Story’ so I presume it’s a spelling error). The gentleman with his foot on the ladder is the navigator, L. A. Pounder. I do not know who the other three are and one member is missing (perhaps he took the photo). *1

If you have any information about any of the places or people mentioned above, I would love to hear from you and would be only to willing to pass the information on.

Sources and further reading

*1 Photo from Mr. David Pounder, via the C.N.P.G. website.

The National Archives, London.

Mildenhall (15, 90, 149, 218 and 622 sqn Association) website.

The National Archives of Australia 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crew of Lancaster WS-P were:

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

Sgt. CR Land,

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

A Happy New Year!

As 2015 fades away I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you who has visited, followed, liked, reblogged, commented and generally supported “Aviation Trails” during the last year. Without you, it would not be the site it is today.

It has certainly grown over the last year and taken on a new dimension. Investment in research material has enabled much longer posts and more personal information to be included, something that I know many people like to see. Not only do ‘we’ as enthusiasts, historical ‘writers’, modellers, relations of veterans etc. preserve our common history, but openly promote and educate others through the writing we do.

I believe it is important to remember what went on, the sacrifice and dedication to freedom, and if I can go a small way to helping that then it has all been worthwhile.

I have been inspired to take up old hobbies, learnt about aspects of military and natural history that I had never heard of, found new places in the world and been a part of a group of people who share the desire to learn, educate and inform others. It has been a wonderful year.

The tally of airfields I have visited is now around 75, double what it was this time last year. I have walked in the footsteps of famous people like Guy Gibson, Glenn Miller and Joe Kennedy, stood where important and famous missions have been planned and executed, trodden the very ground where so many young men and women served their country, many thousands giving the ultimate sacrifice.

It has been a most humbling experience.

So to each and every one of you, a heartfelt thank you, and here’s to a happy, peaceful and rewarding 2016.

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

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

RAF Bourn.

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

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

runway

Views along one of Bourn’s enormous runway.

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

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

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

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

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 2015 014

A Nissen huts survives in modern use.

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 2015 012

One of the few derelict buildings that still survive.

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

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

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

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

Aug 2015 016

The fire tender shed, now a small business unit.

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

*3 records from aircrew remembered

Amongst the Rabbit holes and bracken stand the bomb stores of yesteryear.

Trail 13 continued around the western edges of Norfolk, near to Thetford Forest and the heaths of Breckland. Here, not from Thetford, is an airfield left over from the latter parts of the war. Seeing both RAF and USAAF personnel, it was often boggy and wet, but that didn’t deter those brave young men who fought for freedom.

Now an Army training camp, what’s left is being attacked by another enemy. We return to Southern Norfolk to complete an earlier Trail.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133)

Originally built-in the early part of the Second World War and opened in March 1940, East Wretham was designed as a satellite to RAF Honington with an all grass runway running NE/SW, 2 x T2 hangars, various defence pillboxes, support buildings and a number of blister hangars. At Honington, a newly formed 311 (Czech) Sqn was formed (29th July 1940) flying Wellington ICs, and they utilised East Wretham as a dispersal until August that year, when they permanently moved in. 311 Sqn carried out night bombing duties for the duration of the time they were here, but then in 1942, Wretham’s status changed once more. 311 sqn moved out and East Wretham became a satellite for Mildenhall taking in 115 Sqn on the 8th November, with their Wellington IIIs. The following March (1943) these were replaced with the rarer Lancaster MkIIs and these remained here in the night bomber role, until a further change in August 1943 when 115 sqn moved to Little Snoring and the site passed to American hands to become Station 133.

rear-turret-of-Lanc-lost-595x478

Avro Lancaster B Mk II, DS669 ‘KO-L’, of No. 115 Squadron, was hit by bombs from an aircraft flying above. durinhttps://aviationtrails.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1422&action=editg a raid on Cologne on the night of 28/29 June 1943. The tail gun and gunner were both lost. (Author unknown)

Now home to the 359th Fighter Group,  it hosted the big heavy P-47 Thunderbolts of the 368th (code CV), 369th (IV) and 370th (CR latterly CS) Fighter Squadrons and so had to have steel matting runways laid to accommodate their heavy weight on the soft ground. Used primarily for bomber escort, the 359th FG would fly escort to targets in nearby France. However, in April 1944 the P-47s  were replaced with the more agile P-51s which allowed them to penetrate deep into the heart of both Germany and Poland. A task the ‘Mustang’ became famous for. During the Allied invasion of Normandy the 359th attacked bridges, locomotives and supported bombers hitting targets around the invasion area. As the invasion force got a foothold in France, the three squadrons of the 359th returned to long-range bomber escort duties, taking part in raids over Ludwigshafen, Frankfurt, Berlin and Merseburg. During August 1944, the group supported the operations in ‘Market Garden‘ and later that year the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes.

Wetmore

Maj. R. Wetmore, of the 370th FS, in front of P-51B (42-106894) ‘CS-P’. on the shoulders of his ground crew*1.

On 11th September 1944, the Green nosed Mustangs of the 359th really made their mark when they shot down 26 enemy fighters; for this, they received the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC). The determination shown by the 359th resulted in many outstanding pilots. One, Maj. Raymond “X-Ray Eyes” Wetmore became the 359th (370th FS) top ace scoring 21 victories – his last being an Me 163. Flying in P-51 “Daddies Girl” named after his daughter, he received numerous awards and by the end of the conflict had completed 142 missions covering 563 combat hours.

Aug 2015 002

The old part remains cordoned off.

This attitude to the war, gave the 359th a worthy credit of 263 aircraft shot down with over 100 more being destroyed on the ground. In the 346 missions they flew, they lost a total of 106 of their own aircraft.

In November 1945 the USAAF left and no further flying took place at East Wretham . The airfield reverted to 12 Group (RAF) ownership, then in May the following year, it was handed back once more to Bomber Command . Within a month the site was handed over to the Technical Training Command and finally East Wretham became a Polish resettlement camp for those personnel who were unable to return home. When they had all finally be moved on, the majority of the site became what it is today, used by the British Army as part of the massive Stanford Practical Training Area (STANTA ) for manoeuvres and live firing training.

Aug 2015 015

The bombs stores blast walls are still intact – just.

Today most traces of the airfield as it was are gone. A number of buildings notably a T2 hangar and several Nissen huts survive on what is now farmland or in the military camp. The unique Watch Tower was demolished after the war as were many of the other ‘temporary’ buildings. Now used by STANTA, a mix of old and new are intertwined and the majority stands on inaccessible military ground.

Perhaps the best and by far most accessible examples of East Wretham’s past, is the bomb site which forms part of the East Wretham Heath Nature Heritage Trail. Access is to the south of the site just off the main A1075, Thetford Road. A two-mile walk though Heath land, it takes you right through the original bomb store. An area of natural beauty, famed for its wetland and ancient flints, you can easily find the many blast walls and small fusing buildings still there. Also traceable are the tracks that once took bomb loaded trailers to the airfield across the heath. Many now buried under the acidic soil, their existence evident in exposed patches of bare concrete.

Aug 2015 020

The decay is evident throughout the bomb store.

All these stores are being gradually reclaimed by nature, trees and rabbit holes have both played taken their toll, the layout is still discernible and whilst much of the brickwork is intact, the warning signs are there and they are crumbling fast.

A small airfield, East Wretham was never considered the most ‘homely’ of sites. Often wet and boggy, it was one of the less well-known and less famous places to be used. But the courage and determination of those who served here both RAF and USAAF, went a long way to helping defeat the tyranny that stood facing us across the small section of water not so far away.

To see the other sites on this Trail, Old Buckenham and Tibbenham, go to Trail 13.

Sources and further reading:

*1 Photo: 359th Fighter Group Association, accessed at http://www.littlefriends.co.uk/

156 Sqn RAF – a 15% chance of survival!

Due to high losses, 156 sqn became known as the ‘chop’ squadron and consequently,  morale fell. With a 15%  chance of survival, morale continued to be an issue and the station was stood down for a short period. In a desperate attempt to bolster the men’s spirits and raise morale, a royal visit was arranged for the Queen. Read more about RAF Warboys and the valuable work they did here.

DSC_0112

Warboy’s Church Memorial to the Pathfinders.