Debach Museum

On a recent trail in Suffolk, I was lucky enough to be able to visit two terrific museums both situated in the former Watch Offices of U.S.A.A.F bomber bases.

The second of these was at the former base at RAF Debach.

Like many of these sites the airfield and tower fell into disrepair after the war and remained so for many years, gradually deteriorating in the extremes of the British weather. By 1960, vegetation had taken hold and the building had become derelict.

But in the mid 1990s, the land owner decided to invest in the tower and with help from volunteers began a major restoration project that would not only restore it to its former glory, but make it into a memorial and museum to the crews and staff who lived, served and died whilst on active service at RAF Debach.

Usually open on Sunday’s, and Wednesday’s by appointment, I had the delightful opportunity to be given a personal guided tour of the site by the knowledgeable and dedicated wife of the current land owner.

Debach Airfield and Museum

1940s inside the Watch Office

The volunteers of the site were there, busy working away, and were more than happy to chat providing one of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever had the pleasure of.

The site today is a busy working farm, and any self-respecting visitor will appreciate the work, time and money that has been poured into this site. Not just the tower, but the cafe, the various buildings that remain, the enormous and varied collection of memorabilia and working vehicles hat have been collected and resorted to full working order.

The tower itself has been returned to what it would have been like during its use in the late 1940s. Each room filled with original equipment (where possible) sourced from around the world. Old photographs have been used as references and provide excellent comparisons to the current displays.

The glass house has been rebuilt, and as with other towers, provides excellent views over the former site. What a sight it must have been to stand here watching the bombers return from their daylight missions over Europe.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The ‘Glass House’ on top of the Watch Office.

The main room houses a number of dressed mannequins, radio sets and wartime artefacts set out as it would have been; whilst other rooms contain personal effects, electronic equipment, administration equipment, maps and the like. Photographs around the building tell the more personal stories of Debach airfield during the war.

Outside, one of the former huts now houses what has to be one of, if not the biggest collections of original nursing and dental equipment around. An entire dental room is on display each item having been bought by the owners over a number of years. Much of this equipment having been hidden away and not generally on show elsewhere.

Debach Airfield and Museum

Debach houses one of the finest collections of dental equipment around.

The usual array of uniforms, weapons and artefacts gathered from the airfield can also be found, along with a collection of toys and gifts made by POWs kept here post war. This collection is thought to be the biggest in the eastern region.

Also found here is an original Queen Mary trailer now converted in to a small cinema which shows films from the era, giving further insights and experiences of life in the 1940s.

Another original building, the former fire tender shed, is now a collection of household materials and artefacts depicting various rooms of a house during the Second World War. For anyone interested in domestic life in the 1940s this is a must.

Debach Airfield and Museum

One of the many rooms depicting war and post war domestic life.

Many of the original buildings on the technical site remain, the dingy shed, parachute store and stores huts, and whilst many are used for storing farm machinery, one does hold a large number of working second world war vehicles. I was lucky enough to have them start one of these up and the noise was incredible. These vehicles just ooze power!

Not being a knowledgeable vehicle buff myself, several of the volunteers gladly took timeout to explain the history and uses of each one and allowed me the freedom to wander around them.

Debach Airfield and Museum

One of the many restored vehicles that run today.

Other buildings contain further vehicles, again all restored and running. Aircraft parts and a B-17 engine recovered after 57 years are also on view, along with more Second World War artefacts that fill these rooms.

Even though the technical site is a working farm, there are no unrealistic restrictions to access and as a visitor you are warmly welcomed to wander.

Across the road, only a short walk away, is the memorial. This has been laid outside the former headquarters building, which is now used by a small industrial unit.  Again I was invited in, and allowed to peruse the photographs and record boards that adorn the walls. These photos show the building as it was during the war and make for very interesting viewing.

Debach museum is a fascinating and well run museum where a friendly welcome, excellent facilities and enormous collection of Second World War equipment is fabulously displayed, I simply cannot recommend it enough.

For further information, event listing and opening times visit the museum website.

A Merry Christmas to all!

As the year draws to close and we spend time with our loved ones, I would like to just wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful new year.

Another year has passed and looking back, we realise how quickly time passes. I am amazed how my own blog has gone from strength to strength, how my own writing has developed, from early posts that were merely a couple of paragraphs to more recent ones that are 2-3000 words long – a big change for me! I must admit I have a slight cringe when I read some of those early posts; as time has gone on I have started to revisit them (and the places they are about) and make some updates.

I would like to take time to thank each and every one of you who has read, commented and stayed with me during this journey, it has certainly been an experience I don’t want to forget.

This year, the blog surpassed 21,000 visitors and 50,000 views whilst not huge in comparison to some, it is certainly far more than I ever thought it would, and I appreciate each and every one.

Some notable posts/events you may have missed:

Hearbreak on Christmas Eve – the sad loss of Brigadier General  Frederick W. Castle (posted December 2015), whose awarding of the Medal of Honour, reflected the determination and personality of one of Eakers “Original Seven”. He chose to leave a safe position for a combat role, taking on the demoralised 94th, leading them into some of the Second World War’s most ferocious air battles.

The Last Word to Guy Gibson – also posted last year, a poignant word written in Gibson’s book.

In October 2015 we saw the end of an era, with the grounding of Avro Vulcan XH558. After an eight year reign as Queen of the skies, she finally bowed out after the three main technical companies that support her, withdrew their support. In her last flight on October 28th 2015, she completed a short 15 minute flight, the culmination of 228 flights and 346 hours flying time. A landmark in British Aviation history.

A number of British airfields were earmarked for development or planning applications, amongst them are the former: RAF Kings Cliffe, RAF Downham Market, RAF West Raynham, RAF Denethorpe and RAF Coltishall, with further applications affecting former RAF Dunsfold, RAF Bourn and RAF Wellesbourne Mountford. So what does the future hold for Britain’s airfields?

Early 2016, Aviation Trails was nominated for the Liebster Award by The Aviation Site and I was honoured to accept this award and in November it was nominated by Historypresent for a further writing accolade. Sadly this slipped off the list, but I would like to offer my sincere thanks for this very kind nomination.

With the total number of Trails standing at almost 40, I have visited what must be over 100 airfields; in addition a large number of memorials, and many great museums, and there are still many, many more of each to get to.

The interactive map has been useful to many readers outside of Britain hoping to find places where loved ones served, and a few people have contacted me which has hopefully helped trace some information thus filing in some gaps.

All in all it has been a marvellous year for AviationTrails, I wish to pass on my gratitude and thanks to each and every one of you.

So without further ado, a very Merry Christmas to everyone and a peaceful and safe New Year!

Andy

RAF Debach – Home of Helton’s Hellcats.

As we depart Framlingham we head a short distance away to the south-west, to another U.S Bomber base also with a remarkable museum. As we head towards Ipswich we arrive at Debach, the former base of the 493rd BG(H) and a group named after its commander Col. Elbert Helton, “Helton’s Hellcats.”

RAF Debach (Station 152).

Debach was one of the last bases to be built during the war, hence its life span was relatively short. Construction began in 1943 opening in 1944 and was constructed by the 820th Engineer Battalion (Aviation) whose headquarters were at Great Barrington in the Cotswolds.

Debach Airfield and Museum

Part of the runway at Debach, cracking and breaking up, it once resounded to the roar of heavy bombers.

As a Class ‘A’ site, it had three concrete runways, the main running slightly off north/east-south/west, the second east-west, and the third slightly off north-south.  The runway patterns at Debach were slightly different to the norm in that the cross of the ‘A’ was at the base rather than part way up, but the various lengths were as per other Class ‘A’ models.

A perimeter track with 50 spectacle hardstands joined the thresholds of each runway, with the bomb store to the south-east and the accommodation, admin and technical areas all spread along the western side. The airfield site encompassed the medieval site of Thistledon Hall, a three-moated house that has historical features dating back to the late 16th and early 17th Century. A building that was demolished to make way for the airfield.

Accommodation was split over 6 officer and enlisted crewmen sites, two WAAF sites, a sick quarters and admin block that granted access to the main airfield. The majority of the buildings were Nissen huts, with some Romneys, a blister hanger for the gunnery trainer and two T2 hangars.

The watch office was of the standard wartime design, built to drawing 12779/41 later adapted to take the much smaller windows as per the updated drawing 343/43. This gave it a slightly different appearance to non-modified towers of the time.

In the technical area, Debach had the usual range of buildings, stores and supply huts, however, the parachute store was almost unique in that it had its own drying room attached – perhaps as a result of the late building of the site.

The mid war years saw a dramatic and rapid build up of the Eighth Air Force on British soil. This build up had seen huge numbers of both men and machinery arrive via Atlantic routes, many coming through the large ports at Greenock or Liverpool. The 40th, and last group to be assigned to the ‘Mighty Eighth’, would be the 493rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) and they would be assigned to RAF Debach.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The perimeter track forms access for farm vehicles.

The 493rd would be a relatively short-lived unit, moving from their training ground at McCook Army Airfield in Nebraska, to their headquarters at Elveldon Hall, and Debach airfield. They remained here until their return to Sioux Falls post war. Their entire service would last just short of 2 years. Following their activation in November 1943, they had their ground echelons assigned in early 1944 with the air echelons joining in the following May. Ground crews were pulled in from other units to form these ground echelons, with additional support coming over from the U.S arriving at Liverpool on the USS Brazil. The 493rd were initially assigned the mighty ‘Olive-Drab’ B-24H ‘Liberator’  a lumbering giant of the skies it was loved by many and loathed by some.

Their inauguration would be a baptism of fire, celebrations overshadowed by events taking place overseas. On the morning of Tuesday 6th June 1944, high spirits took the crews of the 860th, 861st, 862nd and 863rd Bombardment squadrons high above the beaches of Normandy. Joining some 11,000 other aircraft, this 3rd Air Division unit would aim to soften up German gun defences dug in along the Normandy beach head. As the allies moved inland, the 493rd would go on to target key bridges and airfields, German strongholds around St. Lo and Caen. Other strategic targets further inland would include marshalling yards, manufacturing plants and the heavily defended oil plants at Merseberg.

Cpl Kenneth E Blair

Cpl. Kenneth Blair died in a tragic accident on July 8th 1944. He is buried in the Cambridge American Cemetery, Madingley.*1

Losses in battle are often more ‘acceptable’ than losses though accidents, and Debach would have its share of both. On July 8th 1944 only a month after their first mission, Cpl. Kenneth Blair of the 18th Weather Squadron, 493rd BG would be killed in a tragic accident that involved him walking into the spinning propeller of a running B-24. Only minutes before, he had received good news that took him  to his ultimate and tragic death.

The last mission to see the 493rd using B-24s was on August 24th, when fifty-two B-24s and 383 B-17s attacked Kiel in Germany. Within two weeks crews were using the formidable B-17G ‘Flying Fortress’, an aircraft that took them back to the German Heartland. Using these aircraft they went on to support the allied push through Holland to Arnhem, and in the fight back against Von Rundstedt’s last-ditch attempt to push back the Allies in the Ardennes.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The parachute room was rare with its addition of a separate drying area.

Late 1944 was a difficult time for the crews of the Air Forces. many of the airfields in the UK were shrouded in fog, causing many operations to be cancelled at late notice. Those that did go ahead were largely ineffective until finally, the clouds lifted and the fog dispersed. The frustration for the crews must have been immense.

It was during this time that one crew had a very lucky escape in an event that was reflected on many airfields across England. On December 12th, whilst on the 493rd’s third trip to Darmstadt, B-17 #43-38219 ‘Devil’s Own‘ suffered an engine problem that resulted in an intense fire on the port wing. In an attempt to extinguish the fire, the pilot, Lt. John E. DeWitt, put the aircraft into a dive. This proved fruitless and with little choice left he decided to bring the stricken aircraft back to Debach. The fire had now become so intense that there was an almost certain chance that the wing would separate from the fuselage. The resulting crash would have most certainly led to the deaths of the crew and those on the ground below.

DeWitt flew straight in to Debach narrowly missing parked aircraft and vehicles. The crew abandoned the B-17 and within moments the entire bomb load exploded in an explosion that was so severe that the nearby hangar doors were blown completely off their rails. The aircraft was blown apart and pieces spread across a wide area.

With fires still burning, ‘Devil’s Own‘ is scattered across a wide area of Debach. (IWM)

The weather at this time was to play its own part in Debach’s history. Even though it was a relatively new airfield, the frost and cold worked its way into the runway surfaces, and with continued heavy use, it began to break up. New runways were the only answer and so as soon as the aircraft left to attack Uim on March 1st, the ground echelons and servicing units began the arduous task of moving every possible piece of machinery and all supplies over to a temporary base at Little Walden. The 493rd would fly twenty missions from this site as the runways of Debach were removed and then relaid. Remarkably the entire event went with out a single hitch.

In 1945, the 493rd went on to  support the Rhine crossing softening up defences along the German borders, but by the end of April, their bombing war was over, their last mission was carried out on the 20th April 1945 in which they attacked the marshalling yards at Nauen just 38 km west of Berlin. An event that would take their bomb load tally to 11,733 tons in 4,871 sorties. For the remainder of the war the 493rd took part in operation Mania, dropping food in six missions over Holland. Further revival flights took the 493rd to Austria on four occasions in the last days of May 1945.

In the following month the ground echelons returned via the Queen Elizabeth to New York whilst the air echelons flew back in the following July and August. Following thirty days rest and recuperation the unit was disbanded. Debach was now devoid of aircraft and the empty accommodation blocks became a site for both German and Italian Prisoners of War, and displaced persons.

Post war, Debach fell into disrepair. It was eventually sold to the current landowner after the T2s were removed and the runways largely dug up for the lucrative road hardcore. Many of the technical buildings were left and, as with the watch tower, they were in a very poor state of repair.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The Watch Office is now a superbly restored museum dedicated to those who served at Debach.

Debach is now a busy farm, the watch tower has been superbly refurbished as have many of the remaining buildings. It now forms the 493d BG museum which houses an incredible amount of memorabilia and wartime stories. It also has a remarkable collection of toys and other items made by prisoners of war and is thought to be the largest collection in the East Anglia region.

Debach is a working farm and the museum is only open at limited times. However, the curators and farm owners are happy to oblige visitors, my self having a personal guided tour of the museum during the summer of 2016. Much of the perimeter track is still there, sections of the runways are also there in part  and allow for the landing of light aircraft during special occasions; but these are amongst the farm grounds and generally off-limits to the public. Then technical area has several buildings used for storage of farm material and a wide collection of military vehicles and memorabilia. The parachute and dingy store are still present as are former motor transport shed and other stores; as a visitor you are able to wander these at will.

If you leave through via main entrance (itself the original airfield entrance) cross the road, walk along the track, on your right you will find the former headquarters building which is now a small industrial unit, this is where you will find the memorial. I was invited in to the building to browse, again freely, at the various photos and mission charts that adorned the walls. These give a fascinating insight into the lives of those at Debach.

When you leave here, head north, (left) turn right at the main road and pass the Clopton Commercial Park (the northern most end of the main and secondary runway, which is still visible beneath the many huts built upon them now). Turn right into Debach village, the village sign is on your left. Depicting a B-17 flying over the village, it has at its base a dedication to those who served and died at the base. Behind the houses to your right are where many of the hardstands upon which the B-17s would have stood. These are now gone beneath the homes of the local residents. Continue on and then turn first right, this road is the old perimeter track and takes you to the end of the secondary runway. From here you can see along its length and width which is still full width today. The decay is obvious though and large cracks filled with small bushes are a sign of its impending demise. This road, still using the perimeter track, then takes you round toward the end of the main runway and away from the site.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The Dingy Store is one of the many buildings in use today storing farm machinery.

Whilst only being around for a short period of time, Debach has, like so many of these wartime airfields, its own unique stories to tell. It has a history that is part of a time so dramatic that it has become a monument to human ingenuity, planning and suffering.

Almost forgotten and abandoned for good, Debach has been painstakingly and lovingly restored to represent a superb monument to those who fought and died from his airfield. The dedication of the owners is second to none, their passion for the site reflected in the warm welcome you receive when visiting. The small group of volunteers that work so tirelessly to keep it open, enables it to stand today as a reminder of so many events that occurred in the dreadful years leading up to end of the conflict in 1945.

Links and further reading.

Whilst in the village, the now closed church of All Saints also has a memorial in its graveyard.

The 493rd Museum website has all the details of the site and the museum opening hours.

*1 Photo from findagrave.com

Parham Museum – A Great Day Out.

Located in the old refurbished Watch Tower at RAF Framlingham is the museum of the 390th Bombardment Group (H). Parham airfield, as it is more commonly known, was home to the heavy B-17s of the U.S.A.A.F from 1943 to 1945 (see Trail 39) and the museum tells of the many people who were stationed at Framlingham during this time.

The airfield was sold off after the war and the tower left to deteriorate for some 30 years. A small group of volunteers then got together and raised enough funds to transform the building into what it is today, finally opening its doors in 1976.

Tower

The former Watch Tower, now refurbished, holds a remarkable and historical collection.

The entrance located next to the small car park, displays a large board, on which lists all those who flew from Framlingham and never returned, 729 in all, and a further 754 who were taken as prisoners of war. The seemingly endless list of names being a stark reminder of the losses that occurred flying from Framlingham.

The main museum is split into two layers, the ground floor housing the many heavier and larger artefacts, including engines (a Wright Cyclone from a B-17 and a Merlin from a Mosquito NF.II to name but two), and aircraft and undercarriage parts from both fighters and heavy bombers. The upper floor, houses a large diorama, with an array of uniforms and photographs of life at RAF Framlingham. A doorway allows access to the balcony and further steps to the ‘glass house’ on the roof. With fantastic views over what is left of the airfield, you can only imagine what it was like standing here as the bombers took off or returned following a mission over occupied Europe. With an adjoining Quonset hut remodelled as a barrack room to represent what it would have been like during the time that the 390th were here, the whole experience gives a good insight into airfield life during the Second World War.

A further hut tells the unique story of the Resistance Organisation, in a thoughtful and meaningful way. Personal items, documents, photographs and examples of equipment, all add to the fascinating story of this most secret organisation.

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A number of undercarriage parts stand against the wall on the lower floor.

A further room off here houses the wall of remembrance, a chapel to go and pay your respects. The number of signatures from veterans and their families show the immense interest in retracing the steps of lost loved ones.

Wall of remebrance signed by visiting vets

The wall of remembrance has been signed by visiting veterans.

Perhaps some of the more unusual exhibits in the museum are the top, and tail turrets from a B-24  Liberator and a further Frazer-Nash top turret from a Short Stirling of the R.A.F, all refurbished from what was basically scrap metal. Also on the upper floor, is what is believed to be parts of the bomb bay from Joe Kennedy’s adapted B-24 (PBY) Liberator that blew up on the Anvil mission over Suffolk, killing both Kennedy and his co pilot “Bud” Willy – a very rare find indeed.

Uniforms, documents and some of the more unusual aspects of the air war are nicely displayed in glass cabinets throughout the building and all add up to a fascinating trip back to the 1940s.

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More than just a list of names, those who never returned or who taken prisoner are listed – over 1,400 crew members.

A further bonus for anyone interested in the aviation war is the ‘research room’, where you can access hundreds of records, both print and electronic, pertaining to the people who were based at RAF Framlingham during the war, a very useful addition to any small museum.

A good cafe that sells a range of products, refreshments and food, finishes the day off nicely. All in all, the museum and the very helpful volunteers at Framlingham, tell a remarkable story of the air war and of the people who were based here. To top it all off it is free, but donations are as always, very much welcomed, and in my opinion, exceedingly well-earned.

Parham museum is open Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays, April – October and Wednesdays (June – August). The website has further details.

RAF Framlingham & the 390th BG – Masters of the Air

In Trail 39 we turn south once more and return to Suffolk, to the southern most regions of East Anglia, to an area known for its outstanding beauty and its stunning coastline. It is also an area rich in both Second World War and Cold War history. Perhaps better known for its fighter and light bomber stations, it was also the location for several heavy bomber bases, each one with its own fascinating story to tell.

We start off this trail at the former site of American base at RAF Framlingham.

RAF Framlingham (Station 153)

RAF Framlingham is actually closer to the village of Parham than it is the town of Framlingham, hence it was also known as RAF Parham – a name that it became synonymous with. Built as a class ‘A’ bomber station its official American designation was Station 153.

Building work commenced in 1942, and as with most large bomber stations it was designed to the Class A specification to include: three concrete runways (one of  6,400 ft and two of 4,400 feet in length), an adjoining perimeter track that linked fifty ‘pan style’ dispersals; two T-2 hangars (one to the west with the technical site and one to the south-east) and accommodation for some 3,000 personnel dispersed in 10 sites to the south-west of the airfield.  A  further sewage treatment plant dealt with the site’s waste.

The main runway ran east-west and to the eastern end sat the bomb store, a large area that included: a pyrotechnic store, fusing point, incendiary store and small arms store – all encircled by a concrete roadway.

Peri track looking north toward tech area (A)

Part of the Perimeter track at the southern end of the airfield. To the right was the crew rest rooms, locker and drying rooms.

The administration site sat between the main technical site and accommodation areas all located to the south-west side of the airfield.

Opened in 1943, the first residents were the B-17s of 95th Bomb Group which consisted of four bomb squadrons: the 334th, 335th, 336th and the 412th. Flying a tail code of a square ‘B’ they initially formed part of the 4th Bomb Wing, changing to the 13th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division of the Eighth Air Force in September 1943 following the reorganisation of the U.S. Air Force in Europe.

Following their inception and constitution on 28th January 1942 and subsequent activation in June, they moved from their training ground at Barksdale Field, Louisiana, through Oregon, Washington and eventually to Rapid City Air force Base in South Dakota. They began their move across the Atlantic in the spring of 1943, taking the southern route via Florida arriving at Alconbury and then moving on directly to Framlingham in early May/June that year. It was whilst stationed at Alconbury though that they would have their first few encounters of the war, and they would not all be plain sailing.

On May 27th, 1943 just 14 days after their first mission, ground crews were loading 500 lb bombs onto a 334th BS B-17 ’42-29685′ when the bombs inexplicably detonated, the Alconbury landscape was instantly turned to utter carnage and devastation. The blast was so severe that it killed eighteen men (another later died of his injuries), injured twenty-one seriously and fourteen others slightly.  The B-17 involved was completely destroyed and very little of its remains could be found in or around the huge crater that was left deep in the Alconbury soil. Three other aircraft, 42-29808, 42-29706 and 42-29833, all sat within 500 feet of the explosion, were severely damaged and subsequently scrapped. In total, fifteen B-17s were damaged by the blast, it was a major blow to the 95th and a terrible start to their war.

There then followed a transition period in which the group moved to Framlingham. During this time operations would continue from both airfields leaving the squadrons split between the two bases. The first few missions were relatively light in terms of numbers of aircraft lost, however, on June 13th 1943, they were part of a ‘small’ force of seventy-six B-17s targeting Kiel’s U-boat yards. This was to be no easy run for the 95th, a total of twenty-two aircraft were lost on this raid and of the eighteen aircraft who set off from Framlingham in the lead section, two aborted and only six made it back. In one of the lead planes, was the newly appointed Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest as observer. Riddled with bullet holes, his aircraft plummeted from of the sky with the majority of its tail plane missing and one of its engines ablaze. His body was never found and he became the first U.S. General causality of the war. In total, the raid resulted in 236 crewmen being listed as either missing, killed or wounded – this would be the 95th’s heaviest and most costly mission of the entire war.

A view from the tower looking East to West.

Two days after this mission the group would depart Framlingham and move to RAF Horham a few miles north-west, where they remained for the remainder of the war. The majority of the crews would probably be pleased to move away leaving behind many terrible memories and lost friends. However, the tide would turn and they would go on to gain a remarkable reputation and make a number of USAAF records. They would be the only Eighth Air Force group to achieve three Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC), and be the first group to bomb Berlin. They also claimed the highest number of enemy aircraft shot down by any bomb group and they would be the group to suffer the last aircraft loss (on a mission) of the war – all quite remarkable considering their devastating introduction to the European Theatre.

As the 95th departed Framlingham so moved in the 390th BG.

The 390th BG like the 95th and 100th were part of the 13th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division. They too were a new Group, only being formed themselves early in 1943. The 390th BG was made up of four B-17 bomb squadrons: the 568th, 569th, 570th and 571st, and at initial full strength consisted of just short of 400 personnel. They formed part of the larger second wave of USAAF influxes who were all new recruits and whose arrival in the U.K. would double the size of the USAAF’s presence overnight.

Old hands of the Mighty Eighth, took great pride in teasing these new recruits whose bravado and cockiness would soon be knocked out of them by the more experienced Luftwaffe fighter pilots.

The 390th would create quite a stir in the Suffolk countryside and not just because of their ‘smooth taking’, ‘endless supply of chocolate’ and ‘upbeat music’. Up until now, the ‘smuggling’ of pets into American airbases had been by-and-large ignored, but with the 390th came a Honey Bear, a beast that quite frequently escaped only to be confronted by rather bemused locals! There would be however, despite all this frivolity, no rest period for the crews, and operations would start the 12th August 1943, less than a month after they arrived.

B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 390th Bomb Group in flight over Framlingham. Handwritten caption on reverse: '390BG.'

B-17s of the 390th BG over RAF Framlingham (IWM)

The latter parts of 1943 saw a lot of poor weather over both the U.K. and the continent, and this combined with the heavy use of smoke screens by the Germans, prevented large numbers of bombers finding their targets. As a result, many crews sought targets of opportunity thus breaking up strong defensive formations. The eager Luftwaffe pilots made good use of this, taking advantage of broken formations and poor defences. As a result, the bombers of this new influx would receive many heavy casualties and August 12th was to become the second heaviest loss of life in the American air war so far.

1943 would be a busy time for the 390th, within a few days and on the anniversary of the U.S. VIII Air Force’s first European operation, they would attack the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg, a mission for which they would receive their first Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC).

The operation would be a blood bath. On that day 147 B-17s took off with the 390th forming the high squadron in the first formation. For over an hour and a half, multiple fighters of the Luftwaffe attacked the formations which were split by delayed arrivals, and large gaps in the formation. Compounded with this was the fact that the escorting P-47s had to return home leaving the formations largely undefended. With no fighter escort the bombers became easy prey and the numbers of blood-thirsty attacks increased. The rear and low formations of the force were decimated and departing P-47 fighter crews could only look on in horror.

Over the target, skies cleared and bombing accuracy was excellent, but it was the 390th that would excel. Of the seven groups to attack, the 390th manged to get 58% of its bombs within 1000 ft of the target and 94% within 2000 ft, a remarkable achievement for a fledgling group. Flying on, they passed over the Alps and across Italy onto North Africa where they landed – their first shuttle mission was complete. The run in to the target and subsequent journey to North Africa would create multiple records; two B-17s, one of which belonged to the 390th, sought sanctuary in neutral Switzerland, the first of any group to do so. But the journey across Europe had been difficult and it would cost the lives of six B-17 crews – it had truly been a hard-won DUC.

Two months and some 20 missions later, they would repeat this epic achievement. On October 14th 1943, they took part in the second major attack on Schweinfurt, a target whose name alone put the fear of God into many crews. The route that day would take them across some of the most notorious Flak black spots, Aachen, Frankfurt, Bad Kissingen and Schweinfurt itself. On top of that, Luftwaffe fighters would be hungry for blood, many crew members knew this would be a one way trip.

Take off was at 10:00am, and the Third Air Division would provide 154 aircraft, but again due to mechanical problems and poor weather, the formation were scattered across the sky and defences were weak. As they crossed the channel enemy aircraft were few and far between, giving false hopes to rookie crews who were cruising 20,000 feet above the ground. Eventually at around 1:00pm the escorts left and the waiting Luftwaffe crews stepped in. All hell broke loose. Rockets, timed bombs and heavy machine gun fire riddled the B-17 formations – Schweinfurt was going to live up to its reputation. After fending off relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe, the formation reached their target and all 390th aircraft managed to bomb with an accuracy of 51% of the MPI (Mean Point of Impact). For this they received their second DUC – the newbies were rapidly becoming masters of the air.

July 2016 019

The widest section of runway, now a mere fraction of its former self.

1943 would draw to a close, and the optimism of many ‘successful’ raids over the Reich would bring the dawn of 1944.  Big week in February saw the massed attacks on the German aircraft production factories, and in March, the 390th attacked Berlin. During this raid B-17 ’42-30713′ “Phyllis Marie” made an emergency landing only to be captured intact by the Luftwaffe and flown under KG200. It was later found in Bavaria.

Other major targets for the 390th this year included Frankfurt marshalling yards, Cologne, Mannheim, the navel yards at Bremen and the oil refineries at Mersburg. In 1944 the 390th softened the German defences along the Atlantic coast just fifteen minutes before the invasion force landed in June. They followed up the advance by supporting the allied break out at St. Lo.

During August 1944, the 390th flew a round mission that took them for the second time to a Russian airfield. After refuelling and rearming, they attacked the oil refineries at Trzebinia (later famed with the POW’s ‘death march’ across western Europe) and then back to Russia. Three days later they flew to North Africa, depositing high explosives in Romania, and then four days after that, the return trip to Framlingham bombing Toulouse on the way.

The cold winter of 1944 would become well-known for its snow and ice, a period in which almost as many aircraft were lost to ice as to enemy action. On December 27th, the cold would claim B-17 ’42-107010′ “Gloria-Ann II” of the 569th BS. A build up of ice would bring her down within a minute of taking off and the ensuing explosion of fuel and bombs would cause a fire from which nine crew members would perish. Houses in the vicinity of Parham were also damaged but there were no local casualties and the aircraft would be salvaged and reborn as “Close Crop“.

B-17G-35-VE #42-97849

Battle damage was often severe, here B-17G #42-97849 “Liberty Bell” of the 570th BS, shows extensive damage to her tail section. (IWM)

In the early months of 1945 the Ardennes was also gripped in this terrible fog and cold. The 390th took off in support of the paratroopers locked in the Belgium forests, bombing strategic targets beyond the Ardennes, they cut German lines preventing further supplies reaching the front.

By 1945 it was no longer a rare occurrence for bombers to have exceeded the 100 mission milestone, for the crews however, it was a target to avoid. For the 390th, April 1945 would see the first US airman to surpass the 100 mission mark achieved solely whilst operating in the European theatre. Hewitt Dunn, acting as bombardier (Togglier) was the first US Eighth AF airman to surpass 100 missions in an operational span that started in January 1944 and that had seen him in virtually every position of an operational B-17, and over virtually every high risk target in occupied Europe – he was just 24 years old.

Gradually the summer sun came and with it clear skies. Allied air operations increased and soon the end was in sight for Nazi Germany, but air accidents and US losses would still continue. On landing his B-17 “Chapel in the Sky“, Murrell Corder ground looped his aircraft to prevent crashing into other parked B-17s. In doing so, he clipped the wings of “Satan’s Second Sister” severely damaging both aircraft, thankfully though, there were no casualties.

At the end of the war the 390th left Framlingham and returned to the United States. They had received two Distinguished Unit Citations, had the highest enemy aircraft claim of any unit on one single mission and reached the first 100th mission of any aircrew member. Their tally had amounted to 300 missions in which they had dropped over 19,000 tons of bombs. They had definitely earned their place in the Framlingham history books.

On departure, Framlingham was given back to the RAF who used it as a transit camp to help with the relocation of displaced Polish people. It was then closed in the late 1940s and sold back to the local farmer, with whom it remains today.

A small consortium of volunteers have manged to rebuild the control tower into a fabulous museum, displaying a wide variety of aircraft and airfield parts, and personal stories from those at Framlingham. They have also refurbished a couple of Nissen huts, recreating life in a barrack room as it would have been during the Second World War, and displaying articles and stories from the resistance organisation.

As for the airfield, much of the perimeter track remains as do long sections of the runways as farm tracks. The public road today passes through the centre of the airfield dissecting the technical area from the bomb store. From the northern most end a footpath allows you to walk along the north-western section of the perimeter track, currently used by a road repair company for storing stone chippings and lorries. The hardstands have been removed and piles of rubble contain evidence of drainage and electrical supply pipes. From the road at this point you can also see a small section of the main runway – now holding piggery sheds – which has virtually all been removed. From the western side of the perimeter track you can look along the north-west to south-east runway, a mere fraction of its former self, it is barely wide enough for a tractor let alone a heavily laden B-17 and her crew.

Returning to the museum front takes you along the widest part of this runway. A small section at almost full width, it gives you an indication of the 150 feet of concrete that makes up these great structures, and an insight into what they would have been like during the mid 1940s.

Tower 4

The Watch office is now a refurbished museum and highly recommended.

Behind the museum stands one of the hangars, this along with the tower are the two most discernible buildings left on site. Many of the accommodation buildings are now gone, and what is left is difficult to see. A footpath does allow access across the bomb store – now a wooded area, but if walking from the north, it is virtually impossible to park a car due to the very narrow and tight roads in the area.

Like many of Britain’s airfields Framlingham holds a wealth of stories in its midsts. The near constant roar of B-17s flying daily missions over occupied Europe are now whispers in the trees. The museum, a lone statue, gazes silently over the remains of the airfield offering views of ghostly silhouettes as they lumber passed on their way to a world gradually being forgotten. Framlingham and the 390th, have definitely earned their place in the world’s history books.

Whilst in the area, take a short trip to Framlingham town, below the castle, is St Michael’s church and above the door a 390th Group Hatchment in honour of those who served at Framlingham.

From here, we travel south-west toward Ipswich and stop at another USAAF base also with a fabulous museum. We go to RAF Debach – home of the 493rd BG(H).

Notes, sources and further reading.

*Photos exist of what appears to be a Type ‘J’ or ‘K’ hangar on the site. This does not appear on the airfield drawings however and its origin is as yet unknown.

A number of sources were used to research the history of RAF Framlingham and the 390th, they are highly recommended for further information. They include:

The 390th Memorial Museum website.

Veronico. N., “Bloody Skies“, Stackpole Books, 2014

Freeman, R., “The Mighty Eighth“, Arms and Armour Press, 1986

Freeman, R,. “The B-17 Flying Fortress Story“, Arms and Armour Press, 1998

RAF Hethel – from Africa to Norfolk

As we leave both Swanton Morley and Hingham behind, we head directly east crossing the main A11 toward Wymondham and Mulbarton. Here we visit another former USAAF base now home to Lotus cars. We stop off at RAF Hethel.

RAF Hethel (Station 114)

RAF Hethel was initially designed for the RAF but, like so many airfields of the Second World War, it was transferred very quickly to the USAAF for use by the bombers of the  Eighth Air Force. Construction of the site began in 1941 and wasn’t complete when the first units arrived in 1942.

The ground echelons of the 320th BG arrived at Hethel in September, poised and ready for training. Travelling across the northern sea route, they arrived long before the air echelons who, due to extremely bad weather, had to divert from their designated route to the longer Southern route, via Africa. As this was considerably further to fly, many of the B-26s, of these units did not arrive until well into the December.

A dramatic picture of B-24 Liberator ’44-40085′ “Z-Bar” of the 389th BG after crash landing at Hethel. It was hit by British Flak and on trying to land, crashed into a radar building. Surprisingly all the crew escaped. 22nd April 1944 (IWM)

Training of these raw crews became the responsibility of the Eighth Air Force – and raw they certainly were. The 320th had only been active since June 23rd that year, and within  weeks they would be posted to North Africa once suitable airfields had been secured.

Construction work continued on Hethel throughout the latter stages of 1942 and into 1943; the number of hardstands rose from the original 36 to 50 giving a mix of both ‘spectacle’ and ‘frying pan’ types dotted around the three concrete runways. The main runway ran north-east to south-west with two smaller runways traversing east-west and north-west to south-east respectively. A large bomb store was located to the north-west, the opposite side to both the technical and accommodation areas both of which were to the south-eastern side of the airfield. That all important commodity, fuel, was stored to the south, and three T2 hangars would eventually provide room for aircraft maintenance away from the bitter 1940’s winters.

With the 320th away in North Africa, Hethel was operationally quiet, but the summer of 1943 would once again bring changes.

Oil had long been considered a major target, reduce your enemies oil supplies and you reduce their ability to function. Stopping these supplies however, was going to be no easy task. The mighty German war machine was using oil located in the far eastern regions of Europe, located at the very edge of any major allied aircraft’s range. This gave the Luftwaffe plenty of time to attack, on both the inward and outward journeys. With round trips in excess of 2,000 miles, they would be dangerous and difficult missions for any crews. Polesti in Romania would become synonymous with oil production and a major target for the allied forces. To reach it, crews would have to fly from North Africa at very low-level, something they had not even thought possible let alone trained for in B-24s. In the summer a plan was hatched to do just that, a low-level bomber raid by B-24 Liberators of the Eighth and Ninth Air Force launched from bases in North Africa.

Hethel and the 389th would play their part in this daring plan. The first vanguard of the 389th led by Brigadier General Jack Wood, arrived at Hethel on June 11th 1943, followed by the air echelons of the four squadrons: 564th, 565th, 566th and 567th over the next two weeks. The ground echelons travelling by ship, would arrive some time later. Urgency was the key word and so as to not lose valuable training time, ground crews were drafted in from nearby Shipdham (93rd BG) and Hardwick’s 44th BG.

This change in tactics, from high-level to low certainly perplexed the crews of the 389th. New top-secret bomb sights had been trialled over The Wash to the north of the Norfolk coast and they had been successful in their operation. Extensive training operations were put in place to prepare the crews for the forthcoming operations. So intense was this low-level training, that two B-24Ds collided over East Anglia, ’42-40687′ piloted by 1st Lt. Edward Fowble, and ’42-40774′ “Heaven Can Wait” piloted by 1st Lt. Harold James, struck each other. Whilst both aircraft managed to return to Hethel, one of the navigators, 2nd Lt. Charles Quantrell sadly lost his life. Eventually on the 31st June, the crews left Hethel, to join those they had worked so hard with, they flew via Portreath to their destination in Libya. From here they would undertake a multitude of missions including the support of the Sicily invasion before going on to attack the infamous oil refineries at Polesti. Whilst in Libya the 389th would earn many distinctions including a posthumous Medal of Honour to Lt. Lloyd H. Hughes (s/n 0-666292) for his determination in dropping his bombs on target even though his B-24 was burning ferociously. The 389th would also receive the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) from Lt. General Spaatz and hence forth become known as “The Sky Scorpions“.

Former RAF Hethel

One of the remaining buildings on the Accommodation site.

Whilst the main sections of the 389th were out in Libya, the remaining Hethel units were reduced to training and Air-Sea rescue missions, ironically searching for downed B-17 crews, something the Liberator would prove to be invaluable at.

With the return of the Africa detachments, the Bomb Group  was complete again, and missions over occupied Europe could begin once more from Hethel. Their first contribution to this new phase was to attack Leeuwarden, but cloud cover forced them to find alternative targets on which they unleashed their devastating load. With operation STARKEY about to commence, the 389th were ordered to target the Luftwaffe airfields in the St. Omer region, and then again six days later they visited St. Andre De L’Eure. The next day, the 389th were informed that they would be returning to North Africa this time in support of the Salerno beachhead. A blow to those crews who had only recently arrived here at Hethel.

With the group split again, Hethel based units would continue the fight on. As the renamed 2nd Bombardment Division, they now carried a large Black ‘C’ enclosed in a white circle on their tail fins and starboard wingtip, they would also fly the updated ‘H’ model B-24. With a nose turret, more experienced crews had their reservations about these aircraft, slower and heavier they were also colder due to gaps in the turret surrounds.

A number of strategic missions took these aircraft over occupied Europe many deep across the German Heartland. As 1943 drew to a close the 389th would attack dock yards at Vegesack, Danzig and Wilhelmshaven; targets at Munster, Breman, Emden and Kiel to name but a few. It was at Emden that the Luftwaffe fighters were trialling a new weapon, a bomb dangled on 100 feet of wire to catch the bombers. A rather poor attempt it nevertheless caused great concern for pilots having to fly through wires hanging in an already busy sky. To bring 1943 to a close, on the 30th and 31st December, the 389th were part of further large formations attacking both Ludwigshafen on the Rhine and the airfield at St. Jean D’Angeley respectively.

Former RAF Hethel

Views of the former Technical site, now under the ownership of Lotus cars. The grey line across the centre of the photograph is the former runway now a testing track.

A new year brought little change, but with the introduction of H2X-equipped aircraft, bombing became more accurate, and new targets were identified; ‘No Ball’ operations began and attacks on German cities increased. Late February saw the 389th in action during ‘Big Week’, an operation designed to cripple the German aircraft industry by targeting both aircraft and component manufacturing sites.

With the lead up to D-day, operations would occur almost every day from June 2nd up to June 29th, there would be only six days in this month period where no missions were flown by the 389th.

November 1944 would bring another devastating blow to the crews of Hethel. A collision between B-24J ’42-50452′ ‘Earthquake Magoon‘ and another B-24J ’44-10513’ on November 21st over the local parish of Carelton Rode, saw the loss of 17 of the 20 crew men. A devastating blow that highlighted the need for good communication and careful flying in these close quarters.

Missions carried on and as the war drew to a close, fighter attacks became less effective but even more daring. Pockets of resistance were becoming a ‘nuisance’ and the need for the further ports led to an attack in the Bordeaux region. On April 14th 1945, 1,161 heavy bombers were sent to the area. The 2nd Air Division accounted for 336 of these aircraft, of which only two were lost; B-24J ’42-50774′ “Stand By” and B-24J ’42-51233′ “The Bigast Boid“.

In “The Bigast Boid” of the 567th BS, was pilot 2nd Lt. Edward Bush and his nine other crew members. The aircraft was seemingly hit by friendly fire from B-17s flying above, completely severing the aircraft in half at the trailing edge of the wing, resulting in total loss of control. In the subsequent crash all ten crew members were killed. Other pilots from the 389th who witnessed the accident, attributed the fires and crash to flares being dropped from higher flying B-17s, – such was the danger of flying in tight formations.

Leon J Nowicki, and engineer of the 389th Bomb Group with the nose art of a B-24 Liberator (serial number 42-51233 nicknamed

Leon J Nowicki, engineer of the 389th BG with the B-24 “The Bigast Boid”. The aircraft would be lost to ‘friendly fire’ on April 14th 1945.  (IWM)

Eleven days later on April 25th, 1945 the 389th BG flew its final mission. The last target to receive the attention of the four squadrons was Salsburg, an operation that closed the books on 321 operational missions in five different versions of B-24. In total they dropped 17,548 tons of ordnance, lost 116 aircraft as Missing in action and claimed 209 enemy aircraft shot down. In 1945 they were awarded ‘best squadron’ on efficiency, an award that clearly reflected their attitude and dedication to the war effort.

With the departure of the air echelon at the end of May 1945 and the ground echelons from Bristol, the unit was given 30 days ‘R and R’ before inactivation in September. Hethel like so many airfields was then handed back to RAF Fighter Command who stationed a small number of Squadrons here before disbanding them. In September 1945, 65 Sqn and 126 Sqn were here with Mustang IVs. 65 Sqn stayed taking on Spitfire LF XVI E models before moving to Spilsby in early 1946. 126 Sqn left, had a months stay at Bradwell bay and then returned here, also taking the Spitfire LF XVI E and eventual disbandment in the following March.

Five Polish squadrons then came to Hethel. During the period March to December 1946: 302, 303, 308, 316 and 317 each stayed bringing with them Spitfire XVIs / Es, Mustang IIIs, and IVs, before all being disbanded in the December 1946.

Some technical activity on the site became almost token in comparison and eventually, after being used for repatriation and displaced persons purposes, Hethel was closed and sold off. After laying dormant for a number of years, the majority of the site was bought by Lotus Cars, the company who own the ‘airfield’ today using part of the main runway and perimeter track for testing their high performance cars. The remaining accommodation areas were bought back by the local farmer and are now used for chicken farming, or left allowing the woods to envelop what is left of the accommodation sites.

Former RAF Hethel

A T2 Hangar moved to the northern side of the airfield. One of the better ‘accessible’ features of Hethel.

Considering the role of the Lotus factory, access is generally good. Look for signs for ‘Lotus Engineering’ and drive along the road passing the Lotus site. This was the main entrance to the airfield, separating the ten accommodation and defence sites (on your right) from the main airfield to your left. On the right hand side are some of the former Defence site buildings, now used by small industrial units, the Lotus factory taking over the main technical area including the control tower. On your left is one of the original three hangars. Continue on past the Lotus entrance along the road as far as you can. To your right is a wood, this once housed Communal Site 1 and beyond this the other accommodation sites. A footpath allows access through here where a small number of buildings can be seen albeit enveloped in very dense undergrowth. The road along here eventually turns into a farm, and private property, however, the chapel and Gymnasium are located along this road and have since been turned into a museum. Access to the museum is through this gate. Beyond, the road turns into a footpath and utilises the former perimeter track linking to the main runway to the north. This runs alongside the track now used by Lotus.

From here turn back, return to the main road and turn right. Follow the road parallel to the former east-west runway and turn right. Keep going following the road round, eventually you come to another T2 Hangar. Not originally erected here, it was moved at some point from elsewhere, but is perhaps one of the better examples of airfield archaeology left on the site that is ‘accessible’.

Whilst the majority of Hethel has been removed or utilised by Lotus, it makes for a fascinating trip. The museum, run by volunteers, opens infrequently but I believe offers a fabulous insight into life on the base during the war. One of the more stunning aspects of the exhibition is a number of murals painted in 1944 by “Bud” Doyle. A small memorial is also located at the museum in honour of those who served here.

Hethel was once a heaving airfield, it has now taken on a new sound, but the memories of those brave young men still linger in the Norfolk air; the trees sway to the tunes of their music and their lives rest peacefully at last, honoured in the churches of the nearby Norfolk villages.

Sources and notes

While in the area, visit All Saints Church at Hethel, a memorial headstone dedicated to the crews of Hethel is located in the churchyard with a Roll of Honour inside the church itself. It also contains a Roll of Honour and extracts from ‘The Attlebridge Diaries’, for those who flew as part of the 466th BG from nearby RAF Attlebridge.

A plaque and small stained glass window in All Saints Church, Carelton Rode, commemorates the deaths of the seventeen airmen killed in a mid-air collision in November 1944.

The Hethel Museum was closed on my visit, but a blog site gives some details of the exhibits along with the restricted opening time information.

I recommend: Freeman, R.A., “The Mighty Eighth“, published by Arms and Armour, 1986 which has proven to be a valuable source of background information.

Also Joe Baugher’s website, for serial numbers of the USAAF aircraft.

Trail 34 a visit to former RAF Oulton

Laying quietly between the airfields at Matlaske and Swannington is another one of Addison’s 100 group’s small collection. An airfield that not only saw a variety of makes and models, but a range of nationalities as well, each having a remarkable story to tell. In the second part of Trail 34, we travel a few miles south and visit RAF Oulton.

RAF Oulton.

RAF Oulton in 1946, taken  from the north. (IWM)

Although an RAF base, Oulton was also home to the heavy American bombers the B-17 and B-24. However, they were not used in their natural heavy bomber role, but a more secret and sinister one.

Initially built as a satellite for the larger bomber base at Horsham St. Faith, Oulton originally only had grass runways. It would later, in 1942, be upgraded to class ‘A’ standard, which would require the construction of three concrete runways, a new tower and bomb store and upgrading to the technical site. Runway 1 (2000 yds) ran east-west, runway 2 (1,400 yds), north-east to south-west, and runway 3 ran approximately north-south and was also 1,400 yds. All were the standard 50 yards wide and would be connected by thirty-two loop style hardstands and eleven pan style hardstands. Uncommonly, Oulton would also have four T2 hangars (three to the eastern side and one to west, two of which would later hold Horsa gliders) and a further blister hangar.

The majority of the technical area was to the eastern side of the airfield next to the main entrance and along side Oulton Street. The two bomb stores were located to the north and western sides of the airfield well away from personnel and aircraft as was common. The first of the two towers, was built to drawing 15898/40, which combined the tower and crew rooms; the second built later to drawing 12779/41 (adapted to the now common 343/43) brought the airfield in line with other Class ‘A’ airfields.

RAF Oulton

One of the huts used for agricultural purposes today.

Throughout the war personnel accommodation utilised the grand and audacious Blickling Hall. A seventeenth century building that stands in a 4,777 acre estate that once belonged to the family of Anne Boleyn. Owned more recently by Lord Lothian, he famously persuaded Churchill to write to Roosevelt declaring Britain’s position and poor military strength. Lord Lothian was a great entertainer dining with many notable people including Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign Policy advisor and close friend. A number of other notable events took place at Blickling, including, in early 1945, Margaret Lockwood raising eyebrows when she and James Mason arrived to film ‘The Wicked Lady’ .

In the early 1940s, the hall was requisitioned by the RAF, officers were billeted inside the ‘wings’ whilst other ranks were put up in Nissen huts within the grounds. The lake was used for Dingy training and the upper floors allowed for baths albeit with cold water!  In total some 1,780 personnel could be housed in and around the estate.

For the first two years between 1940 and 1942, Oulton airfield was the home to Blenheims, Hudsons and Beaufighters, each undertaking a light bombing or anti-shipping role as part of 2 Group.

First came 114 sqn on August 10th 1940 with Blenheim IVs. Apart from a small detachment at Hornchurch, they stayed here until the following March whereupon they moved to Thornaby. Their most notable mission was the mid-December attack on Mannheim, an attack that would signify the start of the RAF’s ‘area’ bombing campaign.  A short spell of three months beginning April 1941 by 18 Sqn, preceded their return later in November and then subsequent move to Horsham St Faith.

Like many airfields during this time, units moved around and it was no different for 139 Sqn. With their Blenheims and later Hudsons, they would leapfrog between Horsham St. Faith and Oulton throughout 1941 only to disband and reform returning in 1942 with Mosquito IVs.

RAF Oulton

A few buildings remain on the site, many are fighting a losing battle with nature. The main entrance to the airfield is just to the right of this building.

It was during this time in late 1941 that Hudson conversion flight 1428 would be formed at Oulton with the sole job of training crews on the Hudson III. They would remain here until the following May, at which point they were disbanded.

The re-establishment of 236 Sqn in July 1942 with Beaufighter ICs meant Oulton performed as part of Coastal Command for a short time. The success of 236 in torpedo strikes, led to a new wing being formed at North Coates with 236 leading the way, they departed taking their Beaufighters with them. This left a vacancy, that would soon be filled with a new twin-engined model, the Boston III and 88 Squadron.

88 Sqn were split over 6 different airfields before being pulled together here at Oulton. They retained two of these detachments, one at RAF Ford and the other at RAF Hurn, and their arrival and start of operations at Oulton, would be tarnished with sadness.

On October 31st 1942, a month after they arrived, ground crews were unloading a 250lb bomb from 88 Sqn Boston ‘W8297’ when it suddenly went off. The resultant explosion destroyed the Boston and killed six members*1 of the ground crew. The youngest of these, AC2 K. F. Fowler, was only 19.

After having suffered serious losses in France whilst claiming the first RAF ‘kill’ of the war, they were the first unit to fly the new Boston, and would continue to undertake dangerous daylight intruder operations. Flying daring, low-level missions, they would attack shipping and coastal targets before supporting the allied advance on D-day. Their most famous attack was the renowned bombing of the Philips works in Eindhoven, which resulted in the loss of production for six months following the raid. Ninety-three aircraft took part in the raid, all flying beyond the reach of any fighter escort, a factor that no doubt resulted in the heavy casualties sustained by 2 Group on that mission*2 .

DSC_0178

Two Nissen huts would have been next to this building, and according to the site map, it was part of the rubber store.

In March 1943, the Boston IIIs left and Oulton passed to Addison’s 100 group. As with many other airfields in this part of Norfolk, 100 group were using them to fly missions investigating electronic warfare and radio counter measures. This move to 100 Group would bring a major change for Oulton.

The now satellite of Foulsham would soon be seeing larger and heavier aircraft in the form of the American Fortress I (B-17E), II (F), III (G) and Liberator VI (B-24H). This change required extensive upgrading; the construction of hard runways, updating of the accommodation, new technical buildings and a second, updated tower, along with further storage facilities. The airfield was closed throughout the operation, and with the completion in May 1944 operations could begin almost immediately.

Both USAAF and RAF crews moved in. 1699 Flight were providing conversion for crews to fly the heavy bombers for their parent Squadron 214 Sqn, whilst the American 803rd BS, 36th BG flew radio-countermeasures in their B-17s and later B24s. This move here allowed their own parent station RAF Sculthorpe, to also be extensively redeveloped.

The Americans stayed for three months whilst their work was undertaken, but the RAF units remained until the end of the war. After 1699 Flt. had completed conversions, 214 changed Fortress IIs for IIIs and flew these until disbandment on July 27th 1945.

On August 23rd 1944, 223 Sqn reformed at Oulton. Having previously been flying the twin-engined Baltimore, the new unit would have to get used to much larger aircraft very quickly, a task they commanded with relative ease. They flew the heavier Liberator IVs, and Fortress IIs and IIIs until their final disbandment a year later.

Both 214 and 223 flew the heavy bombers now bristling with electronics. Using a range of electronic gadgetry such as ‘window’ ,’H2S’ and ‘Mandrel’, they had their front turrets painted over or removed and electronic equipment added. ‘Window‘ chutes were installed in the fuselage of the aircraft and a heavy secrecy enveloped the airfield.

The winter of 1944 proved to be one of the worst for many years, crews worked hard in the snowy environment, relaxing where they could at the nearby pubs, one nicely placed next to Blickling Hall and the other directly opposite the entrance to the airfield.

Both units would participate in a number of major, high prestige operations, providing radio jamming and window curtains for the bomber formations. ‘Spoof’ operations were common, diverting enemy fighters away from the real force and playing a daring game of cat and mouse with the German radio operators. As the war drew to a close, so too did the operations from 214 and 223. Eventually in July 1945 both Squadrons were disbanded, 214 being the renumbered 614 squadron, with 223 having to wait until 1959 before being reborn as a THOR missile squadron.

With the withdrawal of the heavies, the end was near for Oulton. After being used for storage of surplus  Mosquitoes for a year it was closed and sold off. The end had finally arrived and Oulton closed its gates for the last time.

Oulton airfield stands as a  reminder of the bravery of the light bomber and ECM crews; today many of the original buildings still remain, used for agricultural purposes and even by the National Trust.

RAF Oulton

One of the few buildings that remain, the former squadron offices.

Whilst the general layout of the airfield has changed with the addition of farm and ‘industrial’ units, its layout can still be recognised. The majority of the runways still exist, now housing poultry sheds, and large sections can easily be seen from the roadside. Luckily, even some of the original huts from the technical area are also in existence and ‘accessible’.

Approaching from the north, the first reference point is the memorial. Standing at the crossroads on the north-eastern corner, it serves as a pointer directly in line with the centreline of the Runway 2. Behind you to your right is the former sick quarters, here would have been an ambulance station, Static water tank and sick quarters, now all gone. Turning right here, keeping the airfield to your left, you pass along the northern boundary, within a short distance of what would have been the perimeter track.

The first sign is a pillbox. This was placed next to the special signals workshop which consisted of three small buildings. Now overgrown, this maybe a Vickers Machine gun Pillbox, different to ‘standard’ pill boxes as it has a concrete ‘table’ beneath the gun port designed to support the heavier gun and tripod.

Further along this road, to your right, is the first and main bomb store. A small track being the only visible reminder, the walls having been removed long ago. The large concrete ‘pan’ being the entrance, on which farm products are now stored.

The second store and USAAF quarters were further along this road, again all trace has gone and it is purely agricultural now. Retracing your steps, go back to the memorial. At the crossroads, ahead of you, was Number 1 accommodation site, now all farm buildings, but formerly the officers, sergeants quarters and airman’s barracks.

Turn right here and as you drive down Oulton Street, there are a number of original buildings back from the road in a small enclave. The National Trust own part of these and use them to restore historic textiles, one of these buildings being the squadron offices. The main entrance to the airfield is further along this road and now an insignificant farm gate, allowed to grow and fill in, the path buried beneath the grass. Beyond this, you can see some remaining buildings across the field, truly overgrown and very dilapidated, these are possibly the crew locker and drying rooms. Continue on along this narrow road and you arrive at the pond. Behind the pond, stands a well-preserved hut and smaller buildings. These were the main workshops, rubber store and general stores, now holding agricultural products and waste material. Certainly they are some of the better preserved buildings on the site. Further along, the road crosses the main runway, here it is full width on both sides of the road. Poultry sheds stand on the main section, whilst farm waste resides on the left.

RAF Oulton

The eastern end of the main runway.

Continuing on and the road crosses the third runway, where we turn left. We can now see the site of one of the four T2s, the road at this point using the original perimeter track before it departs away to the north.

From here, we return north, head back past the airfield and return to the main road. Here we turn right and follow the road for a few miles east through the woodland where we arrive at Blickling Hall. The accommodation sites here, include the No.1 and 2 WAAF sites, NAAFI, No. 4 and 5 accommodation site and various service sites.

The east wing of the Blickling Hall is now a museum, formerly the barracks and still shows the original paintwork. A range of uniforms, photos and personal stories can be seen and read.

There are virtually no remnants of the other sites which were primarily Nissen huts. Footpaths do allow you to walk through these, now natural spaces, walking in the footsteps of former airmen and women.

Next to the Hall, is the church of St. Andrew, in here is a small collection of artefacts and a roll of honour for those who died at Oulton. Also here is the sole grave of Sergeant L. Billington, who died on March 4th 1945 at the young age of 20. He was part of a crew in a Fortress III (B-17) on window duties. As the aircraft was returning from its mission, it was attacked by a JU 88, causing it to crash on the airfield boundary. All but two of the crew were killed*3, their bodies being buried in different locations. A sad end to another young life at Oulton.

St. Andrew's Church

The Roll of Honour at St. Andrew’s Church, next to Blickling Hall.

RAF Oulton housed a range of aircraft types and nationalities. Their role encompassed many important duties and missions that certainly helped defeat the Nazi tyranny. Many of these young men, led the way in today’s electronic counter measures and electronic warfare. The daring missions they led, firmly embedded in our history, and now the remnants of Oulton stand as a reminder to both their sacrifice and dedication.

Notes and Further Reading.

*1 The ground crew were:

E.J. Bone, Aircraftsman Ist Class
H. Bramham, Aircraftsman 2nd Class
A.C. Emery, Aircraftsman 2nd Class
K.F. Fowler, Aircraftsman, 2nd Class
F. Packard, Leading Aircraftsman
A. Torrence, Leading Aircraftsman

Source Aircrew remembered website.

*2 National Archives, RAF Bomber command diary 1940.

* The crew were:

P/O H Bennett
Sgt. L Billington
F/S H. Barnfield
W/O LJ Odgers (RAAF)
F/S W Bridden
F/S LA Hadder
F/S F Hares
Sgt. A McDirmid (injured)
W/O RW Church (injured)
Sgt. PJ Healy

Source: Chorley, W.R., RAF Bomber Command Losses 1945, 1998, Midland Counties.

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.

Britain’s Airfields – What does the future hold?

There has been a recent ‘spate’ of developments with planning applications that affect Britain’s wartime heritage, and in particular the airfields that were used during the Second World War.

With land at a premium, a housing crisis that is growing, these sites are becoming more and more handsome as development opportunities. Many have a ready-made infrastructure, many are open fields and as such, prime agricultural or development land. So what does the future hold for Britain’s heritage?

We have seen applications submitted or at least interest shown, for the former: RAF Kings Cliffe, RAF Downham Market, RAF West Raynham, RAF Denethorpe and RAF Coltishall, further applications have now been seen affecting former RAF Dunsfold, RAF Bourn and RAF Wellesbourne Mountford.

We also know that the USAF have given notice of withdrawal from their major UK base at RAF Mildenhall, the smaller site at RAF Molesworth and the remaining site at RAF Alconbury. The Government has already announced it will be selling these sites for housing after the military withdrawal in 2020-23. These three sites form part of an estimated £500m sell-off that would also include: RAF Barnham (Suffolk), Kneller Hall (Twickenham), Claro and Deverell Barracks (Ripon), Lodge Hill (Kent), Craigiehall (Edinburgh), HMS Nelson Wardroom (Portsmouth), Hullavington Airfield (Wiltshire) and MOD Felton (London). Changes at RAF Lakenheath will also see job losses through streamlining of operations.

It is estimated that the 12 sites could accommodate an estimated 15,000 homes with Alconbury having 5,000 alone.

The former airfield and barracks at RAF Waterbeach is also subject to planning proposals, and the Bassingbourn barracks near Cambridge is also under the development spotlight. The recent closure of Manston (a vital Second World War airfield) has led to speculation of its future both as an airfield (possibly London’s third) and as a development opportunity. These are perhaps just a few of the prime areas of land that are now becoming the focus of planners and developers alike.

There are many variables in this heated and long-lasting debate, in fact far too many to raise and discuss here. Strong feelings exist both toward and against the idea of development and it is certainly not a new one. Employment, jobs, environment, heritage, housing etc, they all create discussion and a strong case for both arguments, but the debate here is not “should we build or not” this is quite frankly, inevitable and in many cases much-needed, no, it’s more how can we meet the needs of an ever-growing population with the needs to preserve historically important sites that form the very thread of today’s society.

We have a dynamic population, and as health care improves, social mobility increases and a growing desire to own our own home increases, the need for more housing, affordable homes and homes for rent also increases. We are an ageing population, care homes, schools for our children and hospitals for the sick are all in much greater need. Where do we build them?

Whilst housing demands have always been with us and the need for more housing an all important one, the recent developments suggest that these old airfields could become prime land to meet these future housing needs.

Many of the current Second World War airfields are now either industrial conurbations or agricultural areas. Most have little or no remnants of their former lives visible, and certainly not widely accessible. Many argue that these sites are scrub, derelict and in need of development, and some indeed are. A proportion of the more recently used sites, are ‘mothballed’ or in part operating aviation related activities. They cover huge areas and have a ready-made infrastructure such were the designs of war and post war airfields. These sites also contain extensive dereliction, primarily due to being left and allowed to decay by their owners. Vandalism and pilfering has left them rotting like carcasses of forgotten wild animals. Where industry has been operating, contaminates have seeped into the soils, damaging flora and fauna growth; some so severe that they are rendered too difficult to reclaim as ‘Green Space’. Certainly on paper, they offer good sources for today’s desperate housing stock.

However, balance this against the historical and cultural importance of these places and the argument becomes a little blurred at the seams. Had it not been for the people who came to this country from all over the world to fight the Nazi tyranny in the war years 1939-45, then Britain and Europe would probably not be the Europe we know today. Many thousands of people gave their lives during those dark days, and for many of them, these airfields were their last homes, cold, often draughty huts on the outskirts of some bleak airfield. Their dedication helped form the very society we live in today, the democracy and freedom of speech we so enjoy and relish, the open spaces where we can walk our dog without fear and in freedom. The fact that we can have this very debate, is in itself, testament to those who came here never to return. The very nature and fabric of our local communities has been built around the ‘friendly invasion’ the acceptance of others into our quaint life and idyllic life-styles. Influences from other nations and cultures grew and developed as a result of those who came here from far and wide to give up their lives.

These sites have become monuments to them, their lives and deaths, many still have no known grave; many simply ‘disappeared’ such was the ferocity of the explosion that killed them. The design of Britain’s airfields are architecturally significant to our heritage, buildings were designed to fulfil a purpose and just like our castles and stately homes, they are monuments to a significant period of not only British, but world history. Our education system, includes this very period as a subject for discussion, debate and analysis. To build over such sites without due regard to them would be a travesty, and one that we would regret in the future. To paraphrase that well-known quote; If we are to learn from our mistakes then we need to remember the past. The Second World War is still, for the moment, in living memory, the veterans and civilians who survived it are dwindling in numbers and very soon their memories will be lost for ever. Each day brings news of a lost veteran or a newly discovered story. If we don’t acknowledge the value of these places, if we don’t plan for their ‘preservation’ then both we and our future generations, will be the ones to regret it.

So where do we go from here? The plans published for RAF West Raynham and RAF Coltishall take into account the nature of these sites, they are sympathetic to their historical value and acknowledge the sacrifices made. West Raynham utilises the very buildings that were created, thus keeping the atmosphere for those who wish to visit. Small museums create a record, first hand experiences and artefacts, all valuable records for the education of future generations. But both of these are unique. Both closed in more recent history, they have retained their structures whereas many older sites have had theirs long since demolished.

It is a delicate balance, and as sad as it would be to see them go, there has to be legislation to create compromise. Sympathetic developments have to be the way forward, acknowledgement of the sacrifice has to be high on the agenda. Many of the airfields I have been too have no museum, no memorial barely even a signpost. Surely this is wrong.

If we are to preserve our fragile heritage, we need to consider the implications of the planning process, to look at the value of these sites as both suitable housing and significant historical areas, the sacrifice of the many needs to be acknowledged and it needs to be done soon.

Sources and Further Reading.

Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England ” HM Gov, November 2011

Stimulating housing supply – Government initiatives (England)” House of Commons Library, 9 December 2014

The “Get Surrey” news report issued on January 5th 2016 relating to Dunsfold can be found here.

Then latest news from “Cambridge News” December 16th 2015 can be found here.

The “Stratford-Upon-Avon Herald” January 6th 2016 front page story about Wellesbourne can be found here. (This may be a limited time link).

The latest news on RAF Mildenhall and Lakenheath published by the BBC, 18th January 2016 can be found here.

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.