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 Bovingdon – The Hour that Never Was!

During the 1960s, a cult TV series hit the British Screens – ‘The Avengers’ starring  Patrick Macnee (as John Steed), and Diana Rigg (as Emma Peel).

In episode 9 of the fourth series, “The Hour That Never Was” the two characters go to an old airbase, the fictitious RAF Hamelin home to (also fictitious) 472 Squadron, where Steed had been invited to a party before the base was officially closed.

But following an accident in their car, Steed and Mrs. Peel, find things are not what they seem and so begins the investigation into what has happened.

The episode was filmed on location at the former RAF Bovingdon between the 5th July and 20th July 1965 before the site was officially closed in 1972.

The film designer used Bovingdon to cleverly achieve the illusion of abandonment, an aim successfully done through filming in the old original wartime buildings. They even manage to include a shot where Steed climbs inside a D.H. Mosquito!

Bovingdon was initially designed as a bomber airfield for the RAF, but was quickly passed over to the USAAF. Sadly it never became a true operational airbase primarily due to the three short runways. However, the 92nd BG, the only operational unit to be stationed here, are reported to have taken part in a small number of raids in both September and October 1942, before departing to Alconbury in January 1943. Bovingdon then became a training centre for bomber crews as the 11th Combat Crew Replacement Centre, training the majority of US crewmen after their arrival in the UK. It also trained and hosted a number of film stars (including Clarke Gable and James Stewart) along with reporters who were to fly over occupied Europe for reporting and making propaganda films.

As a support station for the Eighth Air Force Headquarters and the Air Technical Section, it would also see a range of aircraft types based here, the most noteworthy being General Eisenhower’s own personal B-17 stored in one of the four T2 hangars that stood on the base.

Bovingdon, now a prison, is also noted for being the location for “633 Squadron” as the fictional base RAF Sutton Craddock also with its D. H. Mosquitoes, and with “The War Lover” with Steve McQueen. Other films include: “Mosquito Squadron“, “The Battle of Britain“, and the James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun“.

Bovingdon has a remarkable and highly significant history and like so many others has earned its place in history.

A ‘You Tube’ version of “The Hour That Never Was” is not the best quality film, but it does give you good views of the airfield and the hangars before the airfield was closed for good.

My thanks go to fellow blogger and reader John Knifton  for the links!

RAF Oulton Museum, Blickling Hall.

If visiting the airfields of North Norfolk, then a stop at the grand 17th Century Blickling Hall is a must. Here, not only do we have a house that dates back some 400 years, but an estate that goes back even further to the 15th Century, and once belonged to the Boleyn family. A mix of Jacobean architecture, grand paintings and tapestries complement a library that contains one of the most historically significant collections of manuscripts and books in England. Walks that take you through a 4,800 acre estate of gardens, wild meadows and woodland, are brimming with wildlife. Even on busy days, you cannot fail to enjoy the peace and tranquillity, the inviting waters of the lake and views over the Norfolk countryside.

But equally important, you have a house that once belonged to Philip Kerr, 11th Marquis of Lothian, Britain’s Ambassador to the United States. Lord Lothian, played a major part in Britain’s war, convincing Churchill to write to Roosevelt, explaining the consequences of a Nazi victory in Europe and the poor defensive position Britain lay in at that time.  A letter that began a chain of events including Lord Lothian’s speech to the American people, that eventually led to the ‘Lend-Lease’ programme being initiated and arms allowed to flow into Britain.

Blickling Hall

Blickling Hall, the Museum can be found in the buildings to the right hand side.

A few miles from Blickling, is the airfield RAF Oulton, part of 100 Group commanded by Air Commodore Addison, whom the farm at RAF Foulsham is named after. Oulton utilised much of the house and grounds of Blickling, billeting officers in its ‘wings’ and other ranks in Nissen huts within its grounds. The lake was regularly used for dingy training, the upper floors allowed for bathing in baths – a real luxury for aircrews in the Second World War.

Housed within one of the ‘wings’, is a small museum, the RAF Oulton Museum.

The museum itself is situated in the upper floors on the eastern side, utilising one of the former barrack blocks used by the RAF. The original paintwork still colours the walls and a ‘mock’ billet has been recreated using original furniture sourced from local shops, auctions and through donations.

The museum holds a unique collection of photographs, personal letters and stories gathered over a number of years accumulating into a fascinating record of life at RAF Oulton only a few miles away.  The winter of 1944-45 was one of the worst on record and many of the photographs show crew members relaxing in the snow on and around the base.

Letters tell of the local people, their connections with the base, the pub outside the main gate formerly the ‘Bird in Hand’, (now a private residence) and the Buckinghamshire Arms next to Blickling Hall, (still a pub) where crews would spend their evenings and ‘free’ time.

Log books and uniforms from those stationed at Oulton, along with a mix of original artefacts and replica newspapers, all help to recreate the atmosphere of an RAF billet. It is packed with historical and personal information – a real gem for those interested in history and life on the RAF base.

A great little museum, it is certainly worth a visit.

More information about Blickling Hall and the RAF Museum can be found on the National Trust Website.

Mosquitoes abound – RAF Swannington

This airfield forms another in a short trail through this part of north Norfolk. An area littered with the remnants of war and aviation history.  As we continue south through the narrow lanes of the Norfolk countryside, we find the almost forgotten airfield at Swannington.

RAF Swannington

Swannington was one of the last airfields to be opened during the Second World War, hence very few units were permanently based here. This considered, an appreciable amount of it remains visible even today.

Also known as Haveringland, construction was started as early as 1942, but it didn’t actually open until 1944. It utilised much of the forests of nearby Haveringland Hall along with large parts of its estate. The hall itself, a rather large and grand building, was blown up at the end of the war following requisition damage and then being classed as ‘surplus to requirements’ by the MOD!

Once the forest area had been removed, work could begin, and a number of accommodation sites were erected. Haveringland Hall itself became the Officers mess, with various accommodation sites constructed all around it, all located to the east of the airfield. In 1944 there were 154 Officers (of both RAF and WAAF ranks) along with 1239 other ranks stationed here although accommodation was provided for around 2,500.

RAF Swannington

Former Sergeants Mess in use Today

Designated a class ‘A’ airfield, Swannington would have two T2 hangars and one B1, three runways (1 x 2000 yds and 2 x 1,400 yds) and 36 loop style hardstands.

100 Group became the immediate owners of Swannington and instantly placed two squadrons of de Havilland’s Mosquito at the base – No. 85 and 157 Squadrons. 100 Group were formed in November 1943 to investigate and oppose the electronic warfare operations being conducted by the Luftwaffe. To counter this threat, a number of airfields in this area were utilised, Swannington being one of them.

Using a range of new devises and tactics, 100 Group operated a range of different aircraft, predominately the heavier bombers: B-24s, Lancasters, B-17s, Halifaxes, Wellingtons along with the smaller and more agile, Mosquito.

On May 1st 1944, following a successful tour at West Malling*1 , the first Mosquito XVIIs of 85 Squadron arrived at Swannington.

Having a history that extended back to the First World War, 85 Sqn had been in France to support the B.E.F then, re-equipped, they participated in the opening skirmishes of the Battle of Britain. After taking on a new role as a night fighter squadron and moving to Yorkshire, they transferred to 100 group with their move to Swannington. Here they began supporting bombing missions, seeking out enemy night fighters before they attacked the bombers and then loitering over their airfields as they returned.

The Mosquitoes had proven so successful in all operations that 85 Sqn were moved back to West Malling for a short period to combat the increasing threat from the V-1 ‘Doodlebugs’. Their stay in Kent ended in the following August, at which point they returned to Swannington upgrading to the Mosquito XXX before moving off again, to RAF Castle Camps.

157 Squadron joined 85 at Swannington on May 7th 1944 with the Mosquito XIX, later upgrading to the NF.30 with its superchargers and a new radar. 157 had been the first squadron to receive the NF.IIs earlier in March 1942 with the delivery of both W4087 and W4098*2 .

157 Sqn’s arrival would not be the best. Three days after their arrival, Flight Lieutenants Tweedale and Cunningham would take off for an Airborne Interception (AI) training sortie in their Mosquito XVII. On their return, the aircraft would crash, losing its starboard undercarriage, and whilst neither officer was injured, it would be the first ‘casualty’ of 157 Squadron whilst based at Swannington. A very successful fighting unit, they would not be immune from further incidents, some to the embarrassment of their crews.

Whilst on patrol on November 21st 1944, Mosquito MM629 ‘RS-Y’ piloted by Flying Officers A Mackinnon and G Waddell, were shot down in error by another Mosquito of the same squadron, who believed them to be a Ju 88! Both crew members parachuted safely into enemy territory but managed to evade capture returning home within 12 hours.

RAF Swannington

Portions of concrete remain in the Technical Area.

157 Sqn would also transfer with 85 Sqn to West Malling, undertaking ‘anti-diver’ or ‘Doodlebug’ sorties; operations that saw 157 Sqn claim a total of 36.5 flying bombs, whilst 85 claimed some 18.

157 Sqn then returned to Swannington with 85 Sqn at the end of August 1944 and as with 85 Sqn, they upgraded to the MK XXX Mosquito. They, unlike 85 Sqn however, remained at Swannington until disbandment on 16th August 1945. By the end of operations at Swannington, both 85 Sqn and 157 Sqn had completed a touch under 2000 sorties between them, with 108 enemy aircraft destroyed and 19 damaged.

Toward the end of 1944 and early 1945, four other fighter squadrons would visit Swannington. 229 and 451 (Australian) Squadrons came first in the November of 1944; in a move initiated by poor weather, they would come from nearby waterlogged Matlask. 229 brought Spitfire IXs which within a month they would replace with LF XVIEs. This was followed by a swift departure to nearby Coltishall where they were disbanded and renumbered 603 (Auxiliary) Sqn in the following January.

It was a similar story for both 453 (Australian) Sqn with their Spitfire LF XVI, and 602 Sqn with their Spitfire XVI, both swinging like a pendulum between Matlask and Swannington and Swannington and Coltishall. 453 Sqn then transferred to Kent and eventually the continent whilst 602 Sqn followed 229 to Coltishall where they were disbanded on May 15th 1945. These late model Spitfires were now escorting daylight bombing raids such was the strength and superiority of the Allied Air Force over Europe.

RAF Swannington

Portions of the Perimeter track remain, some of it in full width.

These four squadrons, 602, 229, 453 and 451, were to join forces with 124 and 303 to tackle the new V-2 rocket, strafing and bombing the launch and control sites. It was on the 14th February 1945, that 602 Sqn pilot Sgt. T “Cupid” Love fired upon a rising V-2, the first (and only) record of any such incident occurring. An account of the event appears in Raymond Baxter’s log, and he explains how it was fortunate that the shots missed, for had he hit the rocket, it would no doubt have exploded ending the lives of himself and his fellow crews.

As the war came to a close and German forces were thought to be amassing troops at Kiel for a final assault on Norway, Mosquitoes from 157 Sqn were sent along with those from 8 Group to attack airfields in the area. These were to be some of the last attacks carried out by RAF aircraft in the European Theatre.

Their final departures signalled the end of operational duties for Swannington. The site was used for storage of surplus materials, mothballed Mosquitoes and numerous Merlin Engines until the RAF finally pulled out in 1947. Future plans for an upgrade to the airfield were abandoned, and the site was then sold off, it has since become a mix of agriculture and forestry.

DSC_0220

Swannington’s Stand By Set House is used for storage.

The majority of Swannington airfield is best seen from the eastern side. Approaching from the north, you first come across the former technical site that marks the top right corner of the site. Turn right here and you will see the location of one of the T2s, a farm building now stands here and behind it the location of the tower and a small number of ancillary buildings. These are today shrouded in trees and large bushes, which prevents any real sighting of them. Sadly the current condition, which is believed to be quite poor, is difficult to verify from this point on the roadside. Large portions of concrete denote the perimeter track and access routes to the technical area. Across the road from here, other buildings do still remain and are easily seen from the roadside. A small portion of the north-east / south-west runway also remains here, virtually full in its width.

Turning back on yourself, turn right and drive past the technical area to your right. Poultry sheds and farm buildings now stand here, but the shape of the hardstands are easily recognisable. On your left are more concrete structures and piles of rubble from former buildings. After a sort distance you arrive at the perimeter track, this crosses the road and is full width at this junction. A gate to your left allows access to the distant church, and by driving along here you traverse the actual perimeter where many Mosquitoes would  have moved on those night missions in 1944/45. The distant round-towered Church was so close to the perimeter that aircraft were often parked next to  the church yard, a rather eerie and stark reminder to those crews boarding the aircraft at this point. Stopping at the church the enormous size of the track can again be seen,  virtually full in its width, photos exist of a Mosquito also standing here in this very same position.

Outside this church, is a memorial dedicated by the ‘Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust’, the only ‘official’ memorial on the site. The church itself is locked, but two graves within the church yard and a bench dedicated to two members of the same family can be found here. The bench, dedicated to Lt. Cdr. M. Auckland and Flt. Lt. W. Auckland, both Harrier Pilots stands near the gate, whilst the older graves, F.O J. Edwards (Navigator) and Corporal C. Mace, can be found behind the church.

Flying Officer Edwards (s/n) 172240) was killed when his Mosquito TA392 ‘RS-K’ developed trouble whilst returning from an intruder mission. The aircraft crashed close to the airfield and both he and his pilot, Flt. Lt. W. Taylor, lost their lives. *3

Before returning, look across to the north to the small wooded area and you will see the Squash courts, standing in  what was the Haveringland Hall estate. Now return back to the road, and turn left, follow the road south. You will cross, a short distance away, the remains of the east-west runway, followed shortly by the returning perimeter track. Carry on to Clay Lane, and turn right. To your left is a small farm and a track that leads away over private land. This is the entrance to the bomb store, it circles round and rejoins the road further along, both now narrow and restricted to farm traffic only.

RAF Swannington

The Grave of F.O. J Edwards, Killed 22nd December 1944, age 22.

From here it is best to retrace your tracks, go back along Clay Lane, turn left and head north. On your right is a turn into the Haveringland Hall Holiday Park. A number of buildings remain here, the squash court, former sergeants mess and standby set house and most in good condition. The woods around here also contain many derelict remains and foundations of former structures. Some visible others shrouded by growth, many are too dangerous to explore.

Swannington had a short life, and many of the crews that passed though here went on to achieve great things. Swannington though wasn’t without its drama. Because of the nature of the operations carried out from here, losses were incurred, many fatal. The later part of 1944 saw a particularly high number of accidents and crew losses, many of these young men never being found.

The remaining buildings at Swannington stand as a silent reminder of the activities of 100 Group. Along with the brave Mosquito and Spitfire crews are all those who fought a long and hard battle against Hitler and his terror weapons. Whilst the Griffons and Merlins have gone, their memories have not.

Sources and further reading.

*1 85 Squadron was previously commanded by Wing Commander ‘Cats Eyes’ Cunningham, who became famous for downing 20 enemy aircraft during hostilities. He later went on to be a test Pilot for de Havilland, testing the DH Comet – the worlds first jet airliner. He received a number of awards and achieved a number of aviation firsts, He died in 2002.

*2 de Havilland Mosquito, An Illustrated History Vol 2, Ian Thirsk, Crecy Publications.

**3RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, W.R. Chorley, Midland.

Spitfire Dive-Bombers versus the V-2, Volume 2, Bill Simpson, Pen and Sword Books, has a good account of the V-2 war by the RAF Squadrons.

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.

Development News for Britain’s Airfields.

Plans have been released this week for the development of three former RAF airfields in Norfolk. On the face of it, these represent steps forward in preservation whilst allowing a sympathetic development of these historical sites in at least two of them, and development and part preservation in a third. These proposals will not only revitalise the decaying structures, but will also allow public access to the very infrastructure of the sites that once protected our skies. In part, they offer a model for future development and preservation of Britain’s aviation heritage, whilst highlighting the sacrifice of the crews who flew from them.

The first of these is that of RAF Downham Market.

RAF Downham Market (RAF Bexwell)

Proposals were put to the government on Monday for a new multi-million pound technology park on the former RAF base at Downham Market. It is proposed that the site will create 4,600 jobs and become a centre of excellence for technology comparable to those already at Cambridge.

The £300m project will include a major campus dealing with data and data handling. This will include a research centre for both under and post-graduate students, a hotel, leisure and tourist facilities.

Whilst the proposals have only just been put forward, consultations have already started, and so final planning proposals are hoped to be revealed early in the new year. Local residents are raising objections due to the losing of the ‘green space’, along with increased pressure on the local infrastructure, which according to some, is already stretched.

According to reports, the plans also include restoring some of the few remaining buildings, creating a bronze statue and a museum to commemorate the work of Downham Market crews; something that is long overdue.

Downham Market airfield was the home of: 218 and 623 Sqns both flying Short Stirlings, 571 Sqn and 608 Sqn, both flying Mosquitos in the Pathfinder role and 635 Sqn who flew Lancasters between March 1944 and September 1945.  It is where Flt. Sgt. Arthur Aaron and Sqn. Ldr. Ian Bazalgette were both awarded VCs for their bravery and heroic acts whilst on missions over Europe. It is from where the last Mosquito mission took place which was also the last RAF operation of the war.

Whilst the runways and perimeter track are long gone, a few buildings still do remain in current use. There is no official memorial at Downham Market, although there is a memorial to both Aaron and Bazalgette outside the local church.

These plans are very much in the early stages, but a number of parties have shown an interest in the proposition and development is likely in the near future.

The government material can be accessed here.

Downham Market was originally visited in Trail 7.

Home to eight squadrons and the Pathfinders.

The second part of Trail 31 continues on through the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside. Low soft hills give for superb views and fine examples of aviation heritage. We move on to the former RAF station at Gransden Lodge.

RAF Gransden Lodge

Sitting high on the hill-top, Gransden lodge rests peacefully nestled next to the villages of Little and Great Gransden to the west and Longstowe to the east; the county borders of Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire pass right across it. Surrounded by undulating countryside it no longer reverberates to the mass sound of piston engines, but more with the gentle whistle of gliders.

Gransden Lodge was another Cambridgeshire airfield modified to class ‘A’ specifications. It was opened in 1942, initially as a satellite for RAF Tempsford. Going through many modifications, the original design differed greatly from the eventual layout; initially the runways not reaching the perimeter track and there being no allocation of hangar, staff accommodation or hardstand space. As a satellite station, presumably these would not have been required. However, with the expansion of Bomber Command and the need for more airfields, Gransden Lodge would eventually become much larger and much more significant. Following changes to plans and redesigns of the infrastructure, three concrete runways (NE-SW, N-S and E-W) were eventually constructed and with one at 1,600 yards and two at 1,200 yards each, they were not huge. However, these were then extended to the more usual 2,000 yards and 1,400 yards later on, when in April 1941, the government decided that every Bomber Command airfield would have to accommodate the larger four-engined aircraft. Again further development of the site was undertaken and the runways were extended.

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Part of the Track in the Technical area.

A total of 36 hardstands were constructed using the pan style design, two of which were replaced when a hangar was built during the later development stage. This would give Gransden Lodge three hangars in total, two (a B1 and T2) to the north and one T2 to the south of the airfield.

The bomb store was located to the eastern side whilst the accommodation sites were spread to the west and north-west. These 10 sites were made up of two communal, two WAAF, and six domestic sites which included sick quarters and associated premises. The technical area would be to the west. In total, Gransden Lodge could accommodate 1,867 men and 252 women ranks.

Building plan of RAF Gransden Lodge*1

Once open, Gransden Lodge would be home to eight operational RAF squadrons: 53, 97, 142, 169, 192, 405, 421 and 692 before it would finally close at the end of the Second World War.

First to arrive were the combined units of 1474 and 1418 flights, who were here between April 1942 and April 1943, conducting radio navigation tests using the new GEE system. Operating the Wellington IC, III, X, IV and Halifax IIs, they were heavily involved in radio navigation and electronic counter-measure operations. These flights would probe German radar defences, gathering information so that counter-measures could be devised allowing bomber formations safer passage to their targets. The Wellingtons used for this would fly over Germany, France, and the Low Countries and even over the Bay of Biscay, gathering information and reporting back.

Eventually, these flights would become combined forming 192 Squadron (RAF) which officially formed on 4th January 1943 here at Gransden Lodge. 192 would pass over to 100 Group and move away to RAF Feltwell on the April 5th that same year and they  would go on to gain the honour of flying more operational sorties, and as a result, suffer more casualties than any other Radio Counter Measures (RCM) squadron in the RAF.

With their departure, Gransden Lodge would then be transferred to No. 8 (PFF) Group like its sister station, RAF Graveley, whereupon its operational role would be changed for good.

The next units to arrive would only stay for 5 days. Passing through with their Mustang Is, 169 Squadron would transit on to RAF Bottisham, whilst 421 Squadron would take their Spitfire VBs to nearby RAF Fowlmere.

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An overgrown Nissen Hut.

On April 18th 1943, 97 Squadron (RAF) arrived at neighbouring RAF Bourn – but would be split over several sites. A detachment was based here are Gransden, whilst two other detachments were located at Graveley and Oakington. 97 would go onto to gain notoriety for the disastrous ‘Black Thursday’ (See RAF Bourn) operation that took the lives of many of its crews. 97 Sqn would undertake many bombing operations staying here for a year, departing Gransden Lodge on 18th April 1944, a year to the day of their arrival.

April 1943 would be a busy time for Gransden. On the 19th, a day after 97 Sqn’s arrival, 405 Squadron (RCAF) would arrive, bringing with them Halifax IIs. Formed on April 23rd 1941, 405 would fly with 6 Group until their arrival here at Gransden. Adopted by the people of Vancouver, it would be the first Canadian unit to serve with Bomber Command.

405 Sqn’s entry into the Pathfinder Group brought more experience and skill. Participating in the both the ‘1000 bomber raid’ on Cologne and conducting temporary operations with Coastal Command, 405 had seen a number of different operational conditions. Initially bringing Halifax IIs, they would take on the Lancaster I and III only four months later. 405 Squadron would be the first unit to fly the Canadian built Lancaster – named ‘The Ruhr Express’, KB700 would be the first production model Mk. X.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

The first Canadian-built Lancaster B Mk X, KB700 “The Ruhr Express”, taxying after landing at Northolt, Middlesex, KB700 was the first of 300 aircraft built by Victory Aircraft of Malton, Ontario. IWM (CH 11041)

405 Sqn would go on to attack many high-profile targets including: Essen, Dortmund, Cologne, Düsseldorf and toward the end of hostilities, Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden. They would be the last unit to attack targets in Italy and they would see action over Peenemunde.

Operating in conjunction with 97 Sqn, 405 would also fall victim to ‘Black Thursday’, when Lancaster JB477 ‘LQ-O’, would strike the ground within a stones throw of Graveley airfield killing six of the seven crew members. Two other Lancasters would also crash with fatalities that night, JB481 ‘LQ-R’ and JB369 ‘LQ-D’, – would both fail to make it home in the thick fog of ‘Black Thursday’ – truly a dark night for the Canadian Squadron.

At the end of 1944, No. 142 Squadron (RAF) would be reformed at Gransden Lodge. With an extensive Middle-Eastern history behind them, they would fly from here between 25th  October 1944 and September 28th 1945, the date of their departure a year later. Serving as apart of 8 Group (PFF) they flew Mosquito XXVs and would go on to complete 1,095 operational sorties, achieving 64 DFC’s and 52 DFM’s. They remained at Gransden Lodge carrying out their last raid on the night of May 2nd / 3rd 1945, finally disbanding on September 28th that year.

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The Watch Tower today.

It was during this time that Gransden’s second Mosquito squadron would arrive. 692 Squadron (RAF) would fly the MK. XIV until September that year. Moving from neighbouring Graveley, it had a short life of only 20 months. Its last casualties being March just before their arrival at Gransden.

It would be three months before any further units would be based at Gransden Lodge. On December 1st 1945, Liberator VIs of 53 Squadron (RAF) would arrive and stay for two months whilst they carried out trials of a new radar-assisted airborne mapping system. They were eventually disbanded on February 28th 1946. Their demise would mark the end of military flying at Gransden and whilst it remained in MOD hands it would not be home to any further military units.

Post war, Gransden Lodge was home to the first motor racing event using the old runways and northern section of the perimeter track. This was not to be permanent arrangement sadly and Gransden would remain disused. Military life almost returned with the escalation of the Cold War when ‘The Lodge’ was earmarked as a possible site for Cold War forces, however this never came to fruition and all continued to be quiet. Finally, in the 1960s Gransden Lodge closed it doors for good and the site was left to decay.

That was not the end of Gransden Lodge though. In the 1990s the Cambridge University Gliding Club, (now the Cambridge Gliding Club) took over the site and flying has returned once again. Small airshows have taken place and whilst gliding is the more prominent, the sound of the piston engine can once more be heard over this historic site.

Whilst little of the original infrastructure survives today, there are some good reminders of this airfield’s history to be found. After driving through Little Gransden go up the hill towards what is now the rear of the airfield, you will arrive at an old Windmill. Sitting below this Windmill is a small and rather sadly insignificant memorial dedicated to the crews and personnel who worked, died and served at RAF Gransden Lodge.  Carry on past the memorial along a small track and you finally arrive at the rear of the airfield. In front of you the barrier and beyond the barrier the former watch tower. This road would have been the main entrance to the airfield’s technical site, you can still see a number of small buildings and a picket post to the side. To the right of this a track leads off to one of the few remaining huts now heavily shrouded in weeds and undergrowth. The tower, a mere shell, has had a modern but temporary ‘watchtower’ added to its roof. Whilst in poor condition, the watch office stands overlooking what is left of the airfield towards the small flying club that keeps its aviation history alive. A small number of other buildings can be seen around here all buried beneath the undergrowth and all skeletons of their former selves.

Leave the site return back to the village bear left, and continue to follow the road round. You will eventually come to a gravel entrance on your left with a small sign pointing to the flying club.

Take this road, and traverse the potholes as you climb the hill. On your left you will pass a small selection of foundations and piles of bricks that were once part of the southern side of the airfield. Continue on from here and the road bears right, this is now the original perimeter track, follow it as it winds its way around the outside of the airfield. It’s width is greatly reduced throughout its length and only small patches of concrete tell you of its former life. As you pass the former bomb store on your right and the end of the modern grass runways, bear left where you will finally arrive at the flying club. Here  a collection of small aircraft and gliders will greet you. A small modern watchtower and clubhouse watch over the aircraft and the airfield as gliders take to the sky.

On warm summer days, or when  the thermals are good, this is a lovely place to sit and watch in awe as the majestic birds of the sky float silently above this once busy wartime airfield. A small club house provides refreshments and a welcome break from the dusty road that leads here.

As you depart the club, and drive back round the perimeter track, you can see in the distance, the control tower standing proud on the horizon, what memories it must hold and stories it could tell.

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The Stained Glass window in St. Bartholomew’s Church.

Before departing this site for good, it is worth going to Great-Gransden and the church of Saint Bartholomew. Within its walls is a beautiful stained-glass window that commemorates those who served at Gransden Lodge. Also placed nearby is the roll of honour detailing those individuals who gave their lives whilst serving here. A fitting and well deserved memorial, it forms an excellent record of those long gone.

The villages of Little and Great-Gransden bear virtually  no reminders of their local aviation history. Delightful in their settings, nestled in the Cambridgeshire countryside, their secrets are bound tightly within their boundaries, but the airfield and the flying, still live on.

We finally leave here and head west to another ‘hilltop’ site. One that boasts one of the most prestigious memorials in the country. An open site with superb views over the Cambridgeshire countryside, we head to the former American base – RAF Steeple Morden.

Notes:

*1 Photo courtesy of RAF museum

The Cambridge Gliding Club website can be accessed here.

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

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

RAF Bourn.

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

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

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Views along one of Bourn’s enormous runway.

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

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

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

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

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

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

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

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

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

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

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A Nissen huts survives in modern use.

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

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

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

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

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

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One of the few derelict buildings that still survive.

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

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

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

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

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The fire tender shed, now a small business unit.

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

*3 records from aircrew remembered

A pivotal station in 8 Group, Graveley deserves much greater recognition.

In Trail 29 we turn south and head to the southern end of Cambridgeshire. This area is rich in fighter stations, both RAF and USAAF. Home to Duxford and Bader’s ‘Big Wing’, Mustangs, Spitfires and Hurricanes once, and on many occasions still do, grace the blue skies of this historical part of the country.

We start off though not at a fighter station but one belonging to those other true professionals, the Pathfinders of No 8 Group, RAF and former RAF Graveley,

RAF Graveley

Graveley sits to the south of Huntingdon, a few miles east of St. Neots. It takes its name from the village that lays close by to its eastern side. It would see a range of changes, upgrades and improvements and be home to many different residents during  its wartime life.

Built as a satellite for nearby RAF Tempsford, Graveley opened in March 1942 with 161 (Special Duty) Squadron. Their role was to drop SOE agents in occupied France, a role 161 would undertake throughout its operational life. Equipped with Lysander IIIA, Hudson MkI and Whitley Vs, they were somewhat dwarfed by the enormity of Graveley airfield. Within a month of arriving however, they would leave and move away to their new permanent base at RAF Tempsford, leaving the open expanse of Graveley behind.

Built as a standard ‘A’ class airfield for 8 Group, Graveley would have three concrete runways, the main laying E-W, initially of 1,600 yds long; the second, NW-SE of  1,320 yds and the last laying NE-SW 1,307 yds. Later these would be lengthened to 2,000, 1,420 and 1,407 yards respectively as improvements and upgrades would take place. Accommodation was spread around the north side of the airfield, across the main Offord to Graveley road. These were spread over nine accommodation sites, incorporating a separate communal and sick quarters. Graveley could accommodate up to 2,600 personnel which included 299 WAAFs. As with all sites, the bomb store was well away from the accommodation to the south-west, partially enclosed by the three runways. The 50 foot perimeter track linked the runaways with 36 pan style hardstands (after the extension three of these were replaced by loops). The main technical site lay to the north-west, where two of the three T-2 hangars were located, the other being to the south-east next to a B-1.

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RAF Graveley (author unknown)

Graveley lay operationally dormant following the immediate departure of 161 Sqn in April 1942. However, in May’s ‘1000’ bomber raid, aircraft from 26 OTU flew from Graveley as part of the massive operation. Four Wellingtons (all Mk Ic) failed to return; WS704, DV740, DV707 and DV709 were lost during the night of May 30th/31st – a reality check for those at this quiet Cambridgeshire base.

As Bomber Command developed the new Pathfinder Force (PFF) Graveley would find itself a major player. Its first residents, of the new 8 Group, were 35 Sqn (RAF) with Halifax IIs. These would be upgraded to MK IIIs in the following October and Lancaster I and IIIs a year later. Arriving on August 15th 1942, they would have their first mission from here just three days later. On the night of 18th/19th August, a total of 31 PFF aircraft left to mark the target at Flensburg. Poor weather and strong winds prevented accurate marking and two Danish towns were accidentally bombed as a result. A rather disastrous start for 35 Sqn.

Another blow was to fall 35 Sqn later that same year. On the night of 19th September 1942, the experienced Wing Commander J.H. Marks was lost when his Halifax II (W7657) ‘TL-L’  crashed at Blesme near Saarbrucken with the loss of three crew members. (This same identification was given to Halifax HR928 which also crashed with the loss of its crew see photo below).

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Graveley village sign depicts its aviation heritage.

A number of other experienced crews were to be lost from Graveley over the next few months. But all news was not bad. The night of 18th/19th November saw a remarkable turn of fortune. Halifax DT488 (TL-S) piloted by Wing Commander B.V. Robinson, caught fire when flares in the bomb bay ignited. He ordered the crew to bail out, but as the last man left the fire extinguished itself. Robinson decided to try to nurse the bomber home. Flying single-handed, he reached the safety of RAF Colerne, Wiltshire, where he survived a crash landing. The six crew members who had bailed out also survived but were captured and taken prisoner by the Germans.  As a result of his actions, Robinson was awarded a Bar to add to his DSO.

Robinson would have a second lucky escape later on, after which, in May 1943, he would become the Station Commander of his home base at Graveley.

35 Sqn would carry out a number of missions marking and attacking strategic targets deep in the heart of Germany. By the end of 1942 the new H2S system was being introduced and a small number of 35 Sqn aircraft were fitted with the units. Missions were on the whole successful even after the Germans developed a device able to track aircraft using it; eventually the whole of the PFF were fitted with HS2.

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Halifax Mark II Series 1A, HR928 ‘TL-L’, 35 Sqn RAF being flown by Sqn Ldr A P Cranswick, an outstanding Pathfinder pilot who was killed on the night of 4/5 July 1944 on his 107th mission. The Cranswick coat-of-arms decorates the nose just below the cockpit.(IWM)*1

In early 1943, Graveley was to become the first base to use ‘FIDO’ the Fog Dispersion system, which led to a number of successful, poor weather landings. This in turn led to 15 other operational airfields being fitted with the facility, a  major step forward in allowing Bomber Command to fly in poor weather.

A number of major operations were undertaken by 35 Sqn over the coming months, and the loss of Group Captain Robinson on the night of 23rd/24th August 1943 in a Halifax II (HR928) ‘TL-R’, brought a further blow to the base. Following this, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris restricted flying operations by base Commanders as the number being lost was becoming unsustainable.

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

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Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb into a Mosquito. The Mosquitos were fitted with bulged bomb-bays in order to accommodate ‘Cookies’. The tower can be seen behind. (IWM)*2

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

The first casualties for 692 Sqn were reported only three days earlier, on the night of 19th/20th February, which also proved to be the worst night of Bomber Command casualties in the war so far. Mosquito DZ612 ‘P3-N’ flown by F/L W Thomas (DFC) and F/L J Munby (DFC) took off at 01:05 to attack Berlin. The aircraft was shot down and both crew members killed.

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Mosquito B Mark XVIs of No. 692 Squadron RAF (PF392 ‘P3-R’ nearest), lined up at Graveley. (IWM)*3

In early April 1944, a small detachment of 571 Sqn Mosquitos (RAF Downham Market – Trail 7) joined 692 passing through on their way to RAF Oakington and then Warboys where they were eventually disbanded. An event not un-typical for Graveley.

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

The final 692 Sqn mission would be on the night of May 2nd/3rd 1945, and consisted of 23 aircraft in 2 waves of 12 and 11 aircraft against Kiel; all crews would return safely.

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

35 Sqn RAF would go on to have a long and established career, as late as 1982. 692 Sqn on the other hand would move to Gransden Lodge in June 1945 where they were finally disbanded; a sad end to a remarkable career. Many highly regarded crew members were lost in operations from Graveley. including Sqn. Ldr. R. Fitzgerald and Wing Commander A. Cranswick. Graveley would have a high record of prestige loses such was the nature of the PFF.

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

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

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

As one of the many pathfinder stations in this part of the country, Graveley is linked by the long ‘Pathfinder Walk’ that leads all the way to RAF Warboys in the north (Trail 17). Using this walk allows you to visit a number of pathfinder bases linking each one by open cross-country footpaths.

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

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The perimeter track where bombers once lumbered.

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

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

A beautiful stained glass window can be found in Graveley church and is worthy a visit if time allows.

After the quiet of Graveley we head south-east, but before arriving at our next planned destination, RAF Bourn,  we stop off at the now extinct RAF Caxton Gibbet.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

*2 Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

*3 Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

RAF Fersfield – Where history was made – and lost.

After leaving the open expanses of Deopham Green and the roar of Snetterton, we head to a very remote and quiet airfield. Quiet and remote for a very special reason. From here crews would experience top-secret flights, we would see a link to one of America’s greatest and most powerful families and the RAF would strike another blow at the heart of the Gestapo. We head to RAF Fersfield.

RAF Fersfield (Station 140/554)

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29 August 1946. Photograph taken by No. 541 Squadron, sortie number RAF/106G/UK/1707. English Heritage (RAF Photography).*1

Originally built as a satellite for RAF Knettishall, RAF Fersfield, was built-in late 1943. The third Class A airfield on this Trail, its main runway ran along a NE-SW direction, was 2000 yds in length and was constructed of concrete. There was a second and third runway of 1,400 yds running N-S and E-W again of concrete. Fersfield had two T-2 Hangars, one to the north side and one to the south, and 50 loop dispersals for aircraft storage. The bomb dump was located to the north, the technical area to the south and the accommodation blocks to the south and south-west. Fersfield would eventually be able to accommodate up to 2000 mixed personnel.

Initially, the airfield was called Winfarthing and designated station 140, it was then handed over  to the USAAF who would rename it Fersfield Station 554 (I am at present unable to locate a precise date for this transfer).

Fersfield was specifically chosen for its remote location as, unknown to those who came here, it was going to play a major role in the battle over Europe.

The first residents were a detachment of the 388th Bomb Group (BG) based at Knettishall which consisted of four bomb squadrons: the 560th 561st, 562nd and 563rd. A detachment specifically from the 562nd, were brought here to perform special operations and research into radio controlled bombs using war-weary B-17s and B-24s.

T2 Hangar now a store

An original T2 Hangar now stores grain rather than B17s.

Operating as Operation ‘Aphrodite’, the idea was to remove all operational equipment from the aircraft, fill it with around 20,000 lb of ‘Torpex’ and fly it by remote control into a specified target such as ‘V’ weapon sites, submarine pen (Operations Crossbow and Noball) or similar hight prestige targets that were otherwise difficult to destroy .

Both the USAAF and USN were carrying out these trials. The Navy, also using Fersfield, called their operations ‘Anvil’ and used the PB4Y (the Navy version of the B-24 ‘Liberator’) as their drone.

The first Aphrodite mission took place on August 4th 1944, and was to set the tone for all future operations. Mission 515, was flown using four B-17 ‘babies’ with four accompanying ‘mothers’ to target ‘V’  weapon sites at : Mimoyecques, Siracourt, Watten, and Wizernes. Escorting them were sixteen P-47s and sixteen P-51s. One of the babies, B-17 (42-39835) ‘Wantta Spa(r)‘ (TU-N), had completed 16 missions between November 18th 1943 and July 6th 1944 with the 351st at Polebrook and was declared to be “war-weary”. It took off and very soon  the crew, Lt J. Fisher and T/Sgt E. Most, realised there was a problem with the altimeter causing it to climb too quickly. Whilst T/Sgt Most bailed out, Lt. Fisher struggled on with the controls until it finally crashed in an almighty fireball in woodlands at Sudbourne, Suffolk creating a crater 100ft wide. The three remaining ‘babies’ carried on but all failed to hit their designated targets. One Mother lost control and the baby hit a Gun Battery at Gravelines, the second overshot and the third B-17F formally (41-24639) “The Careful Virgin”  ‘OR-W’ of the 91st BG (323rd BS), hit short due to controller error.

The Careful Virgin 41-24639

B-17F “The Careful Virgin” before modification and whilst in the hands of the 91st BG. (USAF Photo)

Similar results were to follow in another mission only two days later, and then in further operations throughout both the Aphrodite and Anvil projects.

The most famous tragedy of these missions was that of Lieutenant Joseph P Kennedy Jnr, who was killed when his PB4Y unexpectedly blew up over Suffolk killing both him and his co-pilot on 12th August 1944.*2 In all there were 25 drone missions completed but none successfully hit their designated target with either control or accuracy. The missions were all considered failures and the operations were all cancelled soon after.

Operations Block

Former Operations Block south of the Technical site.

Another secret operation taking place from Fersfield, also involved radio controlled bombs. Designated Operation ‘Batty’ it involved GB-4 television controlled bombs being  slung underneath B-17s and guided onto targets using TV. The 563rd BS provided much of the support whilst the others in the 388th BG the crews. In the later part of 1944 a small number of these operations were flown again with little success and this too was abandoned before it could have any significant effect on the war.

All in all, the operations carried out here, were disastrous, killing as many crews and causing as much damage to the UK as it did the enemy. However, it did mean that the Allies had entered into the drone war and set the scene for future military operations.

The Americans left Fersfield late in 1944, and it was handed back to the RAF. A number of units used it for short periods primarily for aircrew training. However, Fersfield was to have one last remarkable mission and a further claim to fame.

Accomodation Site

Nissan Huts on the former accommodation site.

On March 21st 1945, Mosquito VI units of 21 Sqn (RAF), 464 Sqn (RAAF) and 487 Sqn (RNZAF) all part of 140 Wing, were pulled back from the continent for a special mission to attack the Gestapo Headquarters at Copenhagen. Primarily based at Hunsdon (Trail 25), the mission was Led by Gp. Capt R Bateson and Sqn Ldr E Sismore, who took off in Mosquito RS570 ‘X’ at 08:35 and led a group of Mosquitoes in three waves of 6 aircraft in Operation Carthage.

The Shellhaus building raid gained notoriety for two reasons. Firstly, a large part of the building was bombed and destroyed and important documents set alight thus achieving the overall objective of the mission. A low-level daring raid it was operationally a great success. However, Mosquitos following the initial wave attacked what they believed to be the building but what was in fact a school masked by fire and smoke. This caused a significant number of casualties including children.

Six aircraft failed to return from the mission, four Mosquitos (one of which crashed causing the smoke and fire that masked the school) and Two P-51s that were part of a 28 strong fighter escort.

This operation was one of many daring low-level raids that the wing carried out, attacking various buildings including  the Amiens prison.

The wing left Fersfield which signified the end of overseas operations and Fersfield would become a staging post for units prior to disbandment. Between November 1944 and September 1945 a number of units would be located here  which included 98, 107 (one week), 140 (four days), 180 (one week), 226, 605 and 613 Sqns. Operating a number of aircraft types including: Mosquitos (T.III), Bostons (IIa), Hurricanes (IV), Martinets (TT.III), Mitchells (III) and Anson Is, Fersfield had now had its day. In the following month, December 1945, the site was closed and the land sold off. Fersfield had closed its door for the last time and history had been written.

Post war, Fersfield had a brief spell of motor racing on its tracks and runways, but unlike Snetterton or Podington it wouldn’t last and in 1951 Fersfield became agricultural once more, with many of the buildings being demolished and the remainder left to rot or, some thankfully, used for storage.

Nissen Huts

A few buildings remain on the technical Site.

Today a few buildings still do remain clinging onto life. The T-2 on the south side stores grain, and a number of Nissen huts  that housed the technical aspects of the airfield, are now storage for farm machinery and other associated equipment. All these can be located at the end of a small road from the village and when visiting, I found the workers here only to willing to allow the visitor to wander freely among them. Footpaths cross the southern side of this site and to the north across the field dissecting the airfield. The path is very poorly marked and you are simply wandering across the crops. From here, you can find the last few remains of the accommodation site, further south a short distance away. Latrines and other communal buildings are shrouded in weeds, gradually disappearing beneath the undergrowth. Trees sprout from between the walls where so many walked, before or after a mission. Nissen huts survive further out, now dilapidated and hastily patched, their memories mixed amongst the personal belongings of new owners.

Latrine Block

One of the many Latrines on the communal site.

It is hard to believe that an airfield with such an iconic history as Fersfield never made it to the status of so many others. Surprisingly, it was here at this quiet and remote part of Norfolk that aviation history was made and American politics changed forever.

Mosquito Mk.VIs involved in the Operation Carthage,*3.

No 487 Squadron

RS570 ‘X’ Gp Capt R N Bateson / Sqn Ldr E B Sismore (Raid Leader)
PZ402 ‘A’ Wg Cdr F M Denton / Fg Off A J Coe (damaged, belly landed at base)
PZ462 ‘J’ Flt Lt R J Dempsey / Flt Sgt E J Paige (hit by flak, 1 engine u/s, returned safely)
PZ339 ‘T’ Sqn Ldr W P Kemp / Flt Lt R Peel
SZ985 ‘M’ Fg Off G L Peet / Fg Off L A Graham
NT123 ‘Z’ Flt Lt D V Pattison / Flt Sgt F Pygram (missing)

No 464 Squadron

PZ353 Flt Lt W K Shrimpton RAAF (Pilot) / Fg Off P R Lake RAAF
PZ463 Flt Lt C B Thompson / Sgt H D Carter
PZ309 Flt Lt A J Smith RAAF / Flt Sgt H L Green RAAF
SZ999 Fg Off H G Dawson RAAF / Fg Off P T Murray (missing)
RS609 Fg Off J H Palmer RAAF / 2nd Lt H H Becker RNorAF (missing)
SZ968 Wg Cdr Iredale RAAF / Fg Off Johnson
All aircraft took off at 0840; last back landed 1405.

No 21 Squadron

SZ977 Wg Cdr P A Kleboe / Fg Off K Hall (missing)
PZ306 Sqn Ldr A F Carlisle / Flt Lt N J Ingram
LR388 Sqn Ldr A C Henderson / Flt Lt W A Moore
HR162 Flt Lt M Hetherington / Fg Off J K Bell
No 21 Squadron records list only these four aircraft and crews above as taking part in this operation.
All aircraft took off at 0835; the three which returned did so at 1355.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photograph in Public Domain, taken from Wikipedia 20/8/15

*2 For a more detailed explanation of the Anvil operation that killed Joseph Kennedy Jnr see  ‘Heroic Tales‘.

*3 Information from The National Archives, 21/8/15