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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He described in some detail the first and second runs…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Manston History Museum

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

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

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

Sources and Further Reading.

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

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

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

*4 Photo from Special Hobby website.

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

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

RAF Downham Market (Part 2 – D-Day to the War’s End)

In Part 1 Downham was born, serving the Stirlings of Bomber Command before becoming part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force. A large airfield, it was often busy and as the war progressed toward D-Day, preparations began for operations over the invasion area.

On June 3rd 1944 Lancaster ND841 ‘F2-D‘ piloted by F/O. George. A. Young (s/n: 134149) RAFVR 635 Squadron, was detailed to attack Calais as part of the preparations for the forthcoming D-Day invasion. There would be eight other aircraft from RAF Downham Market also detailed for the mission, and take off would be late that evening.

The mission as a whole would involve 127 Lancasters and 8 Mosquitoes of 1, 3 and 8 Groups and the targets would be the gun batteries at both Calais and Wimerereux. It was a  diversionary raid as part of Operation “Fortitude South“, the elaborate plan to fool the Germans into believing the invasion would occur in the Pas-de-Calais region.

At 28 minutes past midnight, F/O. Young lined the Lancaster up on the runway, opened the throttles and began the long run. As the Lancaster approached take off, it began to swing striking the roof of the B1 Hangar. In an uncontrollable state the aircraft crashed just outside the airfield killing all those on board. What was left of the aircraft was salvaged, and three of the crew buried in the local cemetery in Downham Market.

Downham Market Cemetery

F.Sgt. Stanley Wharton (RAFVR) 635 Sqn. One of seven Killed 4th June 1944.

Two months later, another pilot of 635 Sqn, also flying a Lancaster III, ND811, ‘F2-T’, Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, would be awarded the second of Downham’s Victoria Crosses.

On August 4th 1944, flying Lancaster ‘T’ for Tommy, on a daylight raid to mark the V1 storage depot at Trossy St. Maximin, the aircraft was hit by flak knocking out both starboard engines and setting the aircraft on fire. Bazalgette pressed on, marked the target and then instructed the crew to bail out. Two of the crew were so badly injured they could not do so, and so Bazalgette attempted a crash landing. Unfortunately on impact with the ground the aircraft exploded, killing all three remaining crew members on board.

For his bravery and sacrifice, Ian Bazalgette was also awarded the V.C., the highest honour for military personnel. The London Gazette, of 14th August 1945, announced the award, citing: “His heroic sacrifice marked the climax of a long career of operations against the enemy. He always chose the more dangerous and exacting roles. His courage and devotion to duty were beyond praise“.

During that same month, August 1944, another squadron would appear here at Downham. Joining 635 Sqn were 608 Sqn, who had previously been operating abroad. They were reformed here on August 1st that year, also joining Bennett’s elite group. Another Mosquito squadron, they bolstered the number of aircraft and personnel present here at Downham. Flying the Mosquito XX, XXV and eventually XVI, they remained at Downham for a year whereupon they were once more disbanded. Whilst operating these aircraft, 608 Sqn would fly 1,726 operational sorties all as part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force.

608 Sqn’s primary role was to carry out night strikes as part of the Pathfinder Operations focusing on the German heartland. Targets included: Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, Essen, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Emden and Kiel. Their first operational sortie from Downham was on the night of 5th/6th August 1944, when a single Mosquito took off and bombed Wanne-Eickel.

Then, a month later, on the night of 6th November 1944, twelve aircraft from 608 Sqn took off in a diversionary attack on targets at Gelsenkirchen. The idea was to draw defences away from a much larger force attacking both Gravenhorst and Koblenz. The plan was for 608 to begin their attack five minutes ahead of the other forces, a plan that went like clockwork.

The full story of Mosquito KB364, piloted by P.O. James McLean (26) and Sgt. Mervyn Lambert Tansley (21), appears in Heroic Tales, but this was to be their final, fatal flight.

On return, the aircraft careered into All Saints’ Church, Bawdeswell, some 30 miles north-east of the airfield, setting it alight. The impact was such that parts of the aircraft struck two other homes, causing extensive damage to both properties. The resultant fire took four hours to extinguish and included crews from other nearby airfields. In honour of the two airmen, a plaque manufactured from part of the Mosquito has been mounted on the church wall inside the building.

The Christmas period of 1944 was a busy one for Downham and for the FIDO operators. With freezing fog, snow and general poor weather causing many problems for those on the continent and for those on British soil attempting to take off, FIDO crews were going to be busy. FIDO primarily designed as a landing aid, also permitted take offs during poor visibility. However, getting to the runway was a challenge in itself. Often with visibility down to just feet, ground staff would line the perimeter tracks with torches to guide each aircraft safely along. Anyone who made a mistake took the risk of running off the perimeter track, sinking into the ground along side or worse.

By the dawn of 1945 the war in Europe was all but over. Operations began to focus on troop concentrations, possible German escape routes and harbours. Both 635 and 608 Sqns continued operational flying until the war’s end. In August and early September these last two operational squadrons at Downham Market were disbanded, 608 Sqn on August 24th and 635 Sqn on September 1st. This left Downham devoid of all front line units.

last raid - Kiel canal ground & air crew photo 2 May 1945 at Downham Market found by Brian Emsley, Welwyn G, father Edward Emsley far left httpwww.bbc.co.uknewseducation-32532153

A recently discovered photograph showing a D.H. Mosquito of Downham Market, taken on May 2nd 1945. It was taken just prior to the last mission undertaken by RAF aircraft on an attack on the Kiel Canal. It shows Ground & Aircrew next to their Mosquito and ‘Cookie’. It was found by Brian Emsley,  his father Edward Emsley is far left.*

With peace now settling across Europe, focus turned to returning personnel back to ‘Civvy street’. Within 8 Group, a new scheme was set up, and personnel were encouraged to make use of it. Across the range of Pathfinder stations, EVT (Educational and Vocational Training) was introduced. These classes were designed to give personnel the much needed skills in a range of civilian areas, to help them integrate back into civil life. Classes were broad and included a range of domestic activities such as: landscape gardening, cookery, music and carpentry. Some of these such as ‘domestic science’ were designed with the WAAFs in mind, whilst others were geared more (but not exclusively) toward the men.

"CIVVY STREET COURSE" IN R.A.F. PATHFINDER GROUP

1945 – Landscape and floral gardening are subjects given in the E.V.T. classes at Downham Market. Leading Aircraftman Arthur Pickersgill [centre] is now the station instructor. (IWM CH16028)

RAF Downham Market finally closed in 1946, but in 1948 the site was used for night Helicopter flight trials by BEA – the civil air company – transporting mail using Sikorsky S-51 Helicopters. This was a short lived venture but was by the end, considered a very successful companion to the day times routes recently started between Peterborough and a number of towns between Kings Lynn and Norwich. The venture included installing a flashing Sodium Beacon at Downham Market, its precise location on the airfield is not known and it may well have been a mobile unit*4.

Eventually in 1957, the land was sold off. The site was returned to agriculture but the airfield’s runways remained intact. In the 1970s, the Downham Market by-pass was built and the concrete runways were an ideal source of local hardcore. All three were subsequently removed along with large sections of the perimeter track leaving a mere road’s width for the larger part. Many of the buildings were at this time left, and small businesses soon took them over. One of these, a kitchen sales shop, now houses a small display relating to the history of the airfield.

At ground level, the discerning eye and a general appreciation of airfield structure and layout, suggest a presence of something more interesting. Huts, whilst in very poor condition, poke through overgrown trees and bushes, and provide shelter and storage facilities for local industry. The condition of windows and brickwork suggest that time is gradually running out for this once thriving airfield, unless other businesses move in.

The main runway ran east – west and for many years a small section of this remained for the farmers use. It was this runway that utilised FIDO, the storage area (at the far end) now taken over by the car dealership.

Downham Market Runway remains

The remnants of the main runway. Sadly this has now also been removed. It was this runway that utilised FIDO.

The remaining two runways were both removed for the hardcore. The western perimeter track remains in part width, from the threshold of the second runway virtually to the top to the threshold of the northern end of the third runway. However, the A10 road now dissects this and the uppermost part has been removed also. A new track (a public track) has been built for the farmer, this cuts across the northern end of the airfield and it is here that the (flooded) Battle Headquarters can be found. Now part of a ditch, its roof forms a bridge into one of the adjoining fields, it can only be found with careful searches of this ditch!

Battle Headquarters

A flooded Battle Headquarters. Several rooms exist below ground level, but these are all flooded, some said to be very deep.

Virtually the entire length of the northern part of the peri track can be walked round to the eastern end of the main runway. Part way along, another track leads off to the former bomb store, this is private the store now a wooded area. Also along here is the ultra heavy fusing point, a shed that is now used by the local farmer. At the far end of the peri track is where the accommodation area was constructed for the FIDO installers using Laing Hutting. Across the road can be seen the car dealership built on what was the FIDO installation. None of the original buildings remain here, but the peri track widens out to full width again at this point and heads east back toward the technical area.

Across the road from the technical area is the camp entrance and Bexwell, a small collection of houses and a church. Here a small memorial is placed telling the stories of the two heroic and brave crew members Aaron and Bazalgette. This road is the old road that led to all the accommodation areas. The WAAF site being the first and one of only two sites left with buildings still in place.

RAF Downham Market

Buildings on the WAAF site.

The other sites here include the Communal Site 1, Dormitory Site 1 (A), Sick Quarters, Dormitory Sites No. 2 (B), 3 (C), 4 (K) and 5 (J). Another track leads off to a sewage works. The road eventually joins the main A10. Across from here is the Communal Site 2, the second site with buildings still in use, and currently used by an engineering firm. A First World War memorial is also located here oddly hidden away amongst the bushes. Alongside these buildings are a pathway that leads to the second sewage treatment works.  This site can also be accessed by public footpath from the main road into Downham itself.

looking back to accomodation area

The sewage site. Through the trees you can see the remains of Communal Site 2.

Downham Market is an airfield that has a remarkable history, the dedication and bravery of the crews being second to none. What is left of this historic site is continually under threat, decay and dilapidation rapidly taking over.

The town is regularly overflown by F-35s from Marham, but when I was first here, two Tornadoes flew over whilst I was reading the dedications to both Bazalgette and Aaron. A fitting tribute not only to the two brave pilots, but all the crews that served here and to a station originally built to serve as a satellite for the very same airfield.

In 2015, a £170m regeneration plan was announced, perhaps signalling the end of Downham Market airfield for good (see here) – further details of these plans were to be released in the early part of 2016, but the funding for the scheme seemed to have been withdrawn in January 2020. No more seems to have been said about this venture, but more recently, development work for a fast-food outlet and shop was started alongside the western perimeter track, hopefully this won’t lead to further loss.

In April 2017 a project was launched to raise money for a seven slab memorial to be built close to the site of the former Dormitory Site 1, adjacent to the A10 road. The project hoped to raise in the region of £250,000 to cover the cost of the memorial and provide a lasting memory of those who flew and died whilst serving at RAF Downham Market. 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. I have been unable to confirm latest details and it may be another victim to the pandemic of 2020/21, only time will tell.

Trail 7 next leaves Downham Market heading east towards Norwich, stopping off at RAF Marham. On the way, we pass through the Norfolk countryside and a secret that shall no doubt, forever remain just that.

Sources and further reading (Downham Market).

* Photo published by the BBC 3/5/2015.

Technical information regarding the site was obtained from official drawings 50/W/117/42 and 50/W/116/42 courtesy of RAF Museum Hendon.

*1 National Archives AIR 27/1350

*2 National Archives AIR 27/1352/5

*3 National Archives AIR 27/2155/1, AIR 27/381/5

*4 Woodley, C. “The History Of British European Airways” Pen & Sword, 2006

The RAF’s pathfinder group, 635 squadron, flew daring missions in Lancasters, and a site dedicated to the crew and personnel of the squadron can be found on the RAF pathfinders archive website. A superb collection of photographs and personal accounts bring their memories alive.

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.

RAF Downham Market (Part 1 – The beginning)

In Trail 7, we visited the northern part of Norfolk, not far from the coast where it borders Cambridgeshire to the west and the North Sea to the north and east. In this part of the trail we visit a site that was once one of Norfolk’s most prestigious airfields, where not one, but two VCs were awarded to airmen of the RAF.

Not far from RAF Marham, we return to this once busy airfield to see what is left and take another look at the incredible history that was RAF Downham Market.

RAF Downham Market (Bexwell)

Located in the corner of the A10 and A1122, 10 miles south of Kings Lynn and and 15 miles north east of Ely, RAF Downham Market (known locally as Bexwell) was only open for four years. Yet considering its relatively short life, it created for itself a unique history that was, and remains, unprecedented in military history.

Built by W. & C. French Ltd., it was primarily a bomber station serving initially with 2 Group before transferring to 3 Group and then to 8 PFF (Pathfinder) Group, Bomber Command. Opened as a satellite station to RAF Marham, it eventually became an airfield in its own right, achieving this status on 3rd March 1944, when it became a parent station itself.

RAF Downham Market

One of the several buildings surviving at Downham Market.

Downham opened in 1942 as a bomber station, a role it performed for the duration of the Second World War. To achieve this, it would require substantial runways and a number of dispersed accommodation sites. As a classic Class ‘A’ airfield, it was spread over a large area incorporating two main sites, the main airfield to the north and the accommodation to the south. It was equipped to accommodate 1,719 male and 326 female personnel at its peak. A network of small roads would link all these dispersed sites together.

Downham would have three concrete runways the main being 1,900 yards long running east-west, whilst the second and third ran north-west to south-east and north-east to south-west, each 1,400 yds long. The classic ‘A’ formed by these runways, was linked by a perimeter track with 36 original pan style hardstands. At its peak, Downham boasted seven hangers, six ‘T2’ and one ‘B1’ which replaced two of the hardstands reducing the number to 34. None of these hangars survive here today. It had the usual bomb store (to the north east), technical area (south side) and eight accommodation areas spread well to the south and south west. As with all these Class ‘A’ stations, the two areas were separated by a public road, the ‘airfield’ to the north and accommodation to the south.

Today, little remains of the actual airfield site, the runways having been removed some considerable time ago. However, on the technical site there are a number of buildings still remaining, and in the accommodation areas further buildings also exist. All of these are either used by local industry or local farmers.

On opening, Downham received its first residents, the Stirling MK.Is of 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron. Arriving on the 8th July 1942, they would retain these aircraft until February 1943, when the new updated Stirling MK.III was brought into squadron service. 218 Sqn had a history that went back to the First World War; disbanded in 1919 they had been reborn in 1936, and were posted to France where their Fairey Battles were decimated by the superior fighters of the Luftwaffe. In November 1940, prior to arriving here at Downham, the squadron joined 3 Group, it remained operational with this Group for the remainder of the war.

On July 6th, they began preparing for their move to Downham, aircraft were stood down and no operational flying took place. On the morning of the 7th, thirteen Stirlings departed RAF Marham, completing the 10 mile straight line flight they arrived at Downham fifteen minutes later. By midnight, the entire squadron had transferred over, and crews were settling into their new quarters. Over the next few days air tests, fighter affiliations and cross country flying were the order of the day, the first operational flight not taking place until the 12th. In Stirling ‘HA-N’ was P.O. Farquharson and in ‘HA-R’ was Sgt. Hartley. A ‘gardening’ mission, only two crews were assigned and briefed but records show that “The vegetables were planted in the allotted positions. 18,000lb of seed were planted during this effort“*1. With that, Downham Market had now entered the war.

Over the next few weeks operations began to build, and targets moved into Germany itself. Lubeck, Vegesack, Duisberg, Hamburg and Saarbrucken were all on the initial list of operations. Apart from early returners due to ice or poor weather, all operations were considered successful and bombing was ‘accurate’.

On 29th July, a royal party visited RAF Downham Market to see how the crews were settling in at the new station. Led by Air Vice Marshall HRH The Duke of Kent, and accompanied by Sir Louis Grieg KBE CBO (ret),  the party were given an official tour of the airfield by Wing Commander P. D. Holder DFC – the Station Commander. After talking to a number of ground crews and watching Stirlings being bombed up, the Royal party then sampled the delights of the officers mess before departing the airfield.

In February 1943, 218 began replacing their Stirling MK.Is with the upgraded MK.IIIs, the last model of the Stirling bomber before they were relegated to other duties. By June, the last of the MK.Is were gone. Although fitted with better engines, the MK.III still remained limited by both its short wingspan and poorly designed bomb-bay.

In the following month a major decision was made to install the still experimental FIDO fog dispersal system here at Downham Market. With RAF Graveley only just having hers installed, the benefits of this system were by now bearing fruits, but despite this, only fifteen British airfields were to have the system installed. FIDO used oil burnt through a series of pipes set alongside the runway. These burners were supplied from large storage tanks, which in Downham’s case, were located to the south-east just off the airfield site. Each tank was filled by road from Kings Lynn, five tankers carrying out two runs each to complete the fill. Oil from these tanks, was then fed into the system – which was installed along the main east-west runway – by large pumps. Once lit, the burners could clear extensive fog or mist in a relatively quick time. The main storage tank site is today a car dealership, all signs of the network of pipes having since been removed.

Downham’s FIDO installation was slow at first, and only covered the initial touchdown area and the first 700 yards of the main east-west runway. A number of burner types were fitted at Downham over a period of time, starting with the MK.III or Haigill burner. These were in turn were replaced y the MK.IV and eventually, when labour became more available, the MK.V which was a sturdier, longer lasting burner capable of withstanding much heavier use.  It wouldn’t be until late 1943/44 that a longer section of the system was installed, now extending to 1,362 yds, almost the entire length of the main runway. The problem with FIDO was always where runways crossed, and here the pipes had to be placed below ground level. Along side the runway they were above ground, and with difficulty in seeing, some aircraft did manage to damage the piping on more than one occasion. With experimental lighting and landings used in the autumn of 1943, the first use of the system was on the night of December 16th/17th that year, when a large number of aircraft returning from Berlin were diverted to Downham due to their own bases being fog bound.

Over 35 aircraft landed at Downham that night, the toll on crews had FIDO not been in existence would certainly have been considerably higher than the terrible price that had already been paid on that disastrous night over Berlin. FIDO with all its counter arguments, had proved its worth in one fell swoop.

The Short Stirling, the first of the heavies for Bomber Command, was liked by many crews, but its short-comings were to become apparent all too soon. One of its problems was its enormous height, created through its huge and weak, undercarriage, which sometimes made landings difficult. Another recurring problem was a significant swing to port when taking off, combine the two features, and you have a difficult aeroplane to control at the best of times, let alone when badly damaged or in very poor weather.

One of the first casualties at Downham occurred on the morning of May 14th 1943, when Stirling ‘BF480’ HA-I piloted by Sgt. W. Carney, swung on touchdown careering off the runway into the Watch Office. No injuries were sustained by those onboard, but two other crewmen on the ground, who had previously landed, were killed in the accident. Coincidentally, another 218 Sqn Stirling, ‘EF367’, HA-G had a similar landing away at RAF Chedburgh at the same time on the same night. Onboard that aircraft there were an American and a New Zealander, all but two of the crewmen were killed, the others  escaping with injuries.

With plans for the invasion of occupied Europe well in hand by mid 1943, movements across Britain were starting to take place. At Downham a number of hangars were used to store Horsa gliders (hence the large number on site) ready for the invasion the following year. Between April 1943 and March 1944 the airfield was awash with stored examples. Accompanying the gliders were No. 14 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section, who maintained and prepared the gliders ready for when they were needed.

In the August 1943, an element of 218 Sqn was extracted to create a new squadron, 623 Sqn, using the MK.III Stirlings already on site. On the very day they were formed, 10th August 1943, four crews were briefed for operations, the target Nuremberg. Unfortunately, once over the target, crews had difficulty in distinguishing any relevant ground detail, and as a result, bombs were scattered over a wide area and the operation was largely unsuccessful. With little opposition all aircraft returned to Downham safely.

RAF Downham Market

One of the many huts that were left on the airfield.

However, two days after this on the night of August 12th /13th 1943, it was a different matter. It was whilst flying a 218 Sqn Stirling over Turin, that Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, would suffer bullet strikes to his head that would break his jaw and tear away a large part of his face. Further bullets damaged his lung and right arm rendering it useless. Aaron still fought on though, despite his severe injuries, managing to assist the bomb-aimer in flying the stricken Stirling away from the enemy. Unable to speak, he communicated instructions to his bomb-aimer by writing with his left hand. Aaron attempted on four occasions to land the plane, but with failing strength, he was persuaded to vacate the cockpit; enabling the bomb-aimer to complete the belly landing on the fifth attempt. Aaron later died from exhaustion, the consequence of his determination and unparalleled allegiance to his crew, his aircraft and his duty. Aaron was the first of two pilots to receive the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market – both for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.

The new squadron 623 Sqn, like many other squadrons however, was to be a short lived one. With high demand for Stirlings in the Conversion Units, it was decided to utilise the aircraft of 623 Sqn for this role, and on December 6th 1943 the unit was officially disbanded. Some crews returned to 218 Sqn but many others were posted out to new units. Flying of a total of 150 sorties in just four months, the squadron would lose ten aircraft, a loss rate of almost 7%.

The void left by 623 Sqn would be soon filled though. Just four days later another unit would transfer in, that of 214 (Federated Malay States) Sqn from RAF Chedburgh also a Stirling MK.III unit. For the majority of December, 214 Sqn would carry out ‘gardening’ missions, dropping mines designated ‘Nectarines‘ or ‘Cinnamon‘. Other operations would see bombs dropped on ‘Special Targets‘ although the Operational Records don’t specify the identity of these targets. 214 Sqn as with 623 Sqn, would be another of these short stay units, on January 17th 1944 they would transfer to RAF Sculthorpe and 100 Group, for RCM (electronic warfare) duties and a new aircraft, the B-17 Flying Fortress or Fortress I. As crews carried out circuits, lectures and training at Sculthorpe, the remainder of the squadron continued operations from Downham. By the 24th January though, all personnel had transferred over and Downham Market was far behind them.

In March 1944, Downham’s long standing unit 218 Sqn was finally ordered out, and on the 7th the entire squadron departed, the operations books simply stating: “218 Sqn moved from Downham Market to Woolfox Lodge by road and air today“. *2 Once at Woolfox Lodge, they would begin disposing of their Stirlings to take on the new heavy bomber – the Avro Lancaster.

The dust wasn’t allowed to settle at Downham however, and before long more personnel and a new Squadron would arrive, ready to fill the skies of Norfolk. This was no ordinary squadron though. With concerns about the poor quality of bombing and the lack of accuracy, it was decided to form a new Group that went much against the wishes of Arthur Harris. Seen as ‘elitist’, Harris vehemently disagreed with the new Group and fought his corner bravely. But with little choice in the matter and lacking his own high level support, he eventually succumbed to the Air Ministry’s demands, putting in command the Australian Group Captain Donald C.T Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO.

The new group would be called 8 Group (PFF) ‘The Pathfinders’, and was designed to use the cream of Bomber Command crews whose record for bombing had been excellent. Aircraft from the Group were to fly ahead of the main bomber force and ‘mark’ the target by various means – coloured flares being the primary and main method. In principle it worked well, but as records show, it was not without its own difficulties or setbacks.

Bennett, an aggressive pilot who didn’t suffer fools gladly, quickly won the admiration of his crews. He was also highly admired by Harris, who once described him as the the “most efficient airman” he had ever met; Harris considered Bennett perfect for the role. In appointing Bennett, Harris dismissed all other possible candidates including Air Chief Marshall Basil Embry, the Air Ministry’s most likely favourite.

The Pathfinders were officially formed on 15th August 1942, with 8 Group coming into official formation in January 1943. With the arrival of the new Squadron, 635 Sqn, Downham would now be playing its part in this role. This change would also mean a change in aircraft type at this Norfolk airfield, out went the now relegated Stirlings and in came Avro’s remarkable four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.III.

RAF Downham Market

The remains of the Technical site looking toward the airfield.

635 Sqn was created under the command of Wing Commander Alan George Seymour Cousens on March 20th 1944. Using ‘C’ Flight from RAF Graveley’s 35 Sqn and ‘C’ Flight from RAF Bourn’s 97 Sqn. A total of eight aircraft and crews from each flight immediately began the move to Downham. At 09:15 the first of the road crews arrived from Bourn, with further sporadic arrivals until 11:00. The first aircraft to arrive touched down at 12:00, and within the next 20 minutes all aircraft were safely on the ground. Graveley crews began arriving soon after this, their first aircraft, along with a ground party, arriving at 15:05.

The new squadron consisted of 36 Officers, 120 NCOs and 200 ‘other ranks’. They were accommodated in Site ‘J’ whilst 20 NCOs and 40 armourers were accommodated in site ‘B’. A small number of officers were put up in the Rectory just outside the main gate of the airfield*3.

Shortly after the crews had landed, they were quickly briefed for an operation to attack Munich, but by the time the aircraft were prepared and bombs loaded, the operation was cancelled, the crews were then given the chance to settle in to their new homes.

635 Sqn would continue to use the Mk.III Lancaster for the next four months, replacing it with the Lancaster MK.VI  from March onward. This was an unusual model of the famous aircraft as it had neither a nose nor mid-upper turret, instead it was crammed with electronic radar jamming devices. Also replacing the normal three-bladed propellers were four bladed examples, aiming to improve the aircraft’s performance.

A growth in aircraft numbers and the development of Pathfinder methods soon led to a new branch of the Group, the Light Night Striking Force (LNSF) equipped with de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder‘ the Mosquito.  In response to this, 571 Sqn, a new light bomber squadron equipped with the Mosquito XVI, was born here at Downham on April 5th 1944, barely two weeks after 635 Sqn themselves arrived. As a temporary measure it was decided that on April 10th, the squadron would be reduced to one Flight instead of two leaving eight aircraft plus a ‘spare’ at Downham whilst the remainder transferred to RAF Graveley. The idea behind the move was two-fold, firstly to bolster the expansion of 105 Sqn at Graveley, and secondly, to provide experience for the ground crews on the Mosquito.

The move went well, but on the 17th, a new order would come through that would change Downham yet again.

Movement order 21 required the entire 571 squadron to transfer to RAF Oakington, effective by 24th April. With that, preparations began and the advanced party moved from Downham on the 22nd followed by the rear party on the 24th. The entire squadron including the Graveley detachment were, by the end of the day, now at Oakington. Due to the move, there were no operations flown by the squadron from Downham Market during this short period of their history.

This departure left 635 Sqn as the only operational squadron at Downham Market. Whilst somewhat quieter, it is was not to be all plane sailing.

In Part 2, we see how Downham takes part in D-Day, the end of the war approaches but operations continue and Downham remains busy. After the war, the airfield is used for other purposes, and eventually closes. We then see what remains today and ask what does the future hold?

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.

RAF Narborough – The Great Government Aerodrome.

Resting not more than a mile or so from the boundary of Britain’s front line fighter base RAF Marham, is an airfield that never made it beyond the First World War. However, its importance cannot be denied nor should it be over looked. Key to aviation in Norfolk and to the Royal Air Force as a whole, it played a major part in both, and therefore is pivotal to today’s modern air force. Opened originally as a satellite by the Royal Naval Air Service, it became not only Norfolk’s first, but the biggest First World War, fixed wing aircraft airfield, only four airship stations were bigger.  Leading the way for the aviators of today’s Royal Air Force, we look back at the former RAF Narborough.

RAF Narborough

Built as the largest, aircraft based, World War One aerodrome, Narborough has been known under a range of different names. The most common, ‘The Great Government Aerodrome’ reflected not only its size (over 900 acres) but also its multinational stature; the range of aircraft and personnel based here, and its achievements in aviation history. Used by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Air Force (RAF), it would have names that reflected each of these fledgling services.

Records show that Narborough had military links as far back as 1912, in the year that the RFC was established when both the Naval Air Organisation and the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers were combined. Unfortunately, little exists to explain what it was used for at this time, but in later years, it was used to counteract the threat from both the German Zeppelin and Schütte-Lanz airships, and also to train future pilots of the RFC and RAF.

Narborough’s history in these early days is sketchy, few specific records existing as to the many changes that were taking place at this time or to the development of the RFC and RNAS. Its activities – and history though – was no doubt influenced on July 1st 1914, when the name RNAS was officially adopted, and all Naval flying units of the RFC were transferred to the control of the Navy. A major development in the formation of both forces, there were at this point, a total of: 111 officers, 544 other ranks, seven airships,  fifty-five seaplanes (including shipborne aircraft) and forty aeroplanes in RNAS service.*1 Some of these may well have been used at Narborough at this point.

By 1915, Narborough’s future had been sealed, designated as a satellite station to RNAS Great Yarmouth, (itself commissioned in 1913) it was initially to be used as a night landing ground for those aircraft involved in attacks on enemy airships. No crews were permanently stationed here at this time however, but as time went on ‘on-duty’ crews would fly in, and await the call to arms should an airship raid take place over East Anglia.

The first recorded arrival was in August 1915, an event that would keep the site in use by the RNAS for the next ten months, before being designated as surplus to requirements and handed over to the RFC in June 1916.

It was in June 1916 that the first RFC squadron would make use of Narborough as an airfield, 35 Sqn transferring over here from Thetford with Vickers FB.5 and FE.2bs. disposing of their DH2s and Henry Farman F.20s in the process. Within two months of their arrival, the nucleus of the squadron would then be used to form a new unit, 59 Sqn, also here at Narborough, under the command of Lieutenant A.C. Horsburgh with the RE8s. Narborough was already beginning to grow.

It was in that same month, that the perils of war would be brought home to those based at Narborough, when one of 59 Sqn’s pilots, Lt. Gordon William Hall, was killed when the DH.1 (4631) he was flying,  side slipped on approach to the airfield crashing as a result. A court of enquiry confirmed that the aircraft had been “banked too steeply” and that the pilot had put the aircraft into a dive that made it uncontrollable. A verdict of ‘accidental death’ was recorded against Lt. Hall.*2

In August, it was the turn of 35 Sqn to suffer its first fatality in a non too dissimilar accident. On the 29th, an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.3 (6201), was written off after it too side slipped and dived following a slow turn. The Pilot – Air Mechanic 1st Class –  Moses Boyd was tragically killed in the accident flying an aircraft that was based at Thetford but undertaking a training exercise here at Narborough. Already, the dangers of flying were becoming all too apparent and the glamour of flying was becoming tarnished.

Within two months, another 35 Sqn aircraft would also crash, this time one of the two crewmen, pilot 2nd Lt. Robert Leslie Edward would escape with just injuries. The observer, 2nd Lt Ernest Hildreth, however, was not so lucky and was killed in the resultant crash.

As the First World War raged on the European continent, the demand for aircraft was growing. It was quickly developing into a lethal weapon and a very potent reconnaissance vehicle. To fill vacant spaces and meet high demand, training programmes were rushed into place, meaning Narborough would become a preparation ground for new recruits. With training considered very basic by any standards, recruits only had to pass a number of tests before being sent to the front. Written examinations followed up by twenty hours solo flying, cross-country flights and two successful landings, were followed by flying for fifteen minutes at 8,000 feet and landing with a cut engine. Barely enough experience to see anyone through a violent war.

During these flights, these daring young men, many who were considered dashing heroes by the awe-inspired locals, would display their skills for all who lined the local roads to watch. As they were quickly learning though, life was not always ‘fun’, and the dangers of the craft were ever present. Accident rates were high and survival from a crash was rare, even ‘minor’ accidents could prove fatal. The local church yard at Narborough, paying testament to their dangerous career with fourteen of the eighteen graves present being RFC/RAF related.

The RFC was now building in strength, not only in its front line units but in its reserves too. On November 2nd, 1916 a new reserve squadron was constituted and formed here at Narborough, 48 (Reserve) Squadron (RS). Models flown by the unit at this time included the Grahame White XV, the Maurice Farman Shorthorn and Sopwith’s Pup. Over the next period of time, there followed a number of other reserve units: No 50, 53 and 64 (Reserve) Squadron (later designated Training Squadrons*3) all passing through Narborough at some point. However, and even with this large influx of personnel in these early days, Narborough was not to be the most exotic of locations.

As a training ground, accommodation was basic to say the least, being described by one ‘resident’ as a “desolate God-forsaken place“*4. It was soon realised by the authorities that new buildings needed to be erected for not only accommodation, but for training and maintenance roles as well. In response, a total of seven Boulton and Paul hangars, and up to 150 buildings would be built on the site over the next two years. A development that would by the end of the war, see some 1,000 personnel based here at Narborough – a number comparable with any modest Second World War airfield.

Meanwhile the threat from Zeppelins had not yet receded, and as a result 1916 would close with a small detachment of 51 Sqn BE.12s tasked with attacking these marauding menaces. Whilst primarily based at Hingham, 51 Sqn would have detachments spread across a number of East Anglia airfields, all preparing to meet the continued threat from Germany’s enormous airships.

With increasing numbers of squadrons and men being required for front line units in France, both 35 and 59 Squadrons departed Narborough in early 1917, and by the end of February both were gone.

All Saints Church Narborough, Norfolk

2nd Lt. Allen Ingham Murphy, killed March 30th 1917 ‘in an aeroplane accident’.

This left the reserves at Narborough, and it wouldn’t be long before they too suffered causalities. The first of these to lose a valuable pilot was 50 RS on March 30th 1917. A young Canadian, not yet out of his teens, 2nd Lt. Allen Ingham Murphy, was killed when his Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 ‘A2720’ stalled whilst turning after take off. 2nd Lt. Murphy was the first of four casualties from the units that year – training young pilots was not getting any easier.

This danger was made no more obvious than on October 29th, when two aircraft, both from 50 RS were lost in separate accidents. The first an Armstrong Whitworth FK.8 (A2730) side slipped during a turn and nose dived into the ground killing both crewmen, 2Lt. Norman Victor Spear (aged 29) and Air. Mech. 1 Sidney Walter Burrell (age 22).  The second aircraft, also an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 (B219) spun off a low climbing turn also killing its pilot 2Lt. Laurence Edward Stuart Vaile (aged 23). It was indeed a black day for 50 RS and a stark reminder to the trainees.

All Saints Church Narborough, Norfolk

2Lt. Laurence Edward Stuart Vaile, killed in an aeroplane accident August 29th 1917.

In October and December two more units bolstered the numbers of trainees at Narborough. Firstly, 1 Training Squadron were formed here on October 1st, whilst 83 Sqn, born out of 18 (Reserve) Squadron (RS), arrived at Narborough during December that year bringing a range of aircraft that they quickly swapped for FE.2bs.

83 Squadron soon departed Narborough though, heading to France in March 1918 where they performed attacks on troop concentrations, attempting to stem the early spring offensive.

On June 8th, 1917 Lt. Hubert J. Game was killed when the B.E.2e (A2794) he was flying suffered a catastrophic wing failure when pulling out of a dive whilst looping the loop. Lt. Game was originally a Lieutenant in the Royal
Field Artillery (RFA) and was attached to 53 (Training) Sqn RFC at Narborough, when he was tragically killed. Hubert was the younger brother of Air Vice-Marshal Sir Philip Woolcott Game, and was just 26 years old at the time of his death. He is another one of those whose grave lays a short distance away from the site of Narborough airfield.

All Saints Church Narborough, Norfolk

Lt. Hubert J. Game, All Saints Church Narborough.

The occurrences of these tragic accidents were becoming so frequent, that one instructor, Capt. W.E. Johns, creator of ‘Biggles’ later cited spies as the cause of many ‘accidents’ – tampering with machines causing the deaths of the crews on board. Johns, himself having written of many machines, believed Americans with German sounding names were to blame for aircraft breaking up in mid-air or crashing at the bottom of loops. More likely, the fault lay with over exuberant or poorly trained recruits.

As the war drew to a close, one further squadron would be formed here at Narborough. On New Year’s day 1918, 121 Squadron were formed here, initially created to use DH.9s, they instead flew a variety of aircraft until they moved out to Filton in mid August. Shortly after their arrival here they were disbanded.

The last months of the war had no let up in training. Keen to join the RFC young men continued to train to fly. In mid February 1918 two 18 year old boys would perhaps be fulfilling a dream when it all went tragically wrong. Flying a DH.4, 2Lt. John Fyffe Shaw and 2Lt. Charles Arkley Law were both killed after the aircraft’s engine failed causing it to stall and then nose dive into the ground.

All Saints Church Narborough, Norfolk

2Lt. Charles Arkley Law killed after his engine failed and the aircraft stalled.

By August, war was over, and the the big wind down of squadrons would soon begin. At Narborough, two squadrons 69 (Training) Squadron and 26 (Reserve) Squadron would both merge to form a new 22 Training Depot Station. Many other similar units would soon follow suit and either disband or merge. This dramatic wind down continued on into, and beyond, 1919. In February, both 56 Sqn and 64 Sqn arrived as cadres; 64 Sqn was disbanded here later that year whilst 56 transferred to Bircham Newton where they too were disbanded later that same year. A third squadron, 60 Sqn also suffered the same fate, arriving as a cadre mid February before themselves being sent to Bircham Newton and disbandment.

With one last roll of the dice in mid March 1919, 55 Training Deport Station also disbanded here at Narborough, but out of the ashes was born a new unit 55 Training Squadron. With that though, Narborough was heading for closure, its days now over, it was soon to be surplus to requirements.

The post war years then saw the closure of many of Britain’s war time airfields including Narborough. But unlike its sister station RAF Marham a mile or so away, it would remain closed. The buildings were all sold off in what was considered to be one of the biggest auctions in Norfolk, with some of them going to local farmers, other for small industrial units, some to schools and the like, Narborough was now scattered to the four corners of the county. The remainder of the site was sold to the farmer and it quickly returned to agriculture, a state it remains in today. Some of these original buildings are reputed to still exist at various locations around the area today, whether that is true or not, is difficult to ascertain, but most have long since succumbed to age, the inevitable deterioration and eventual demolition.

Narborough itself having no hard runways or perimeter tracks has long since gone. A small memorial has been erected by a local group aiming to promote and preserve the memory of Narborough, a memorial plaque also marks the graves of those who never made it to France; and the small Narborough Museum & Heritage Centre holds exhibits of 59 Squadron in the local church.

All Saints Church Narborough, Norfolk

The Plaque at All Saint’s Church Narborough, honouring those who served at Narborough.

Significant not only in size, but in its history, Narborough has now been relegated to the history books. But with the dedication and determination of a few people the importance and historical significance of this site will hopefully continue to influence not only the aviators of tomorrow, but also the public of today.

Updated memorial August 2021

The Narborough memorial which sits at the entrance to Narborough airfield. It was refurbished after the original was struck by a vehicle.

Sources and further Reading (Narborough)

*1 Fleet Air Arm Officers Association Website accessed 14/6/21

*2 RAF Museum Story Vault Website accessed 14/6/21

*3 On May 31st 1917, all RFC ‘Reserve Squadrons’ were renamed ‘Training Squadrons’.

*4 Letter from 2/AM C. V. Williams from 59squadronraf.org.uk

Narborough appears in Trail 7.

Secrets Of The (Not So) Deep.

By Mitch Peeke.

This latest chapter in the story of B17 44-6133, which crashed in shallow water at Allhallows, Kent, in June of 1944, came about during a visit I made to The Kent Battle Of Britain Museum at Hawkinge; which ordinarily, is not perhaps the sort of of venue one might expect to find anything related to The Mighty Eighth.

I have been to this excellent museum a few times. They very graciously stocked the promotional leaflets for my own Battle Of Britain E-Book; 1940: The Battles To Stop Hitler when it came out in 2015. Four years later, in the Summer of 2019, I had organized the creation of a memorial at Allhallows, commemorating the lost crew of B17 44-6133 and later that same Summer, there I was, talking to Dave Brocklehurst MBE, Curator of the museum at Hawkinge, about my project, the memorial day we’d just held there and how there was going to be a new museum at nearby Slough Fort, which would include a display relating to the crash. The Fort has a small piece of wreckage from the B17 that had washed up on the beach front at Allhallows. It was then that Dave told me that he also had a genuine piece of that B17 in storage and he offered it to me, for inclusion in the Fort’s display. It is a fair-sized but broken piece of armour plate, thought to be a section of armour from either of the Pilots’ chairs, though Dave was by no means certain of that. We arranged for him to retrieve it from his storage section and for me to return to the museum to collect it. Then came the Covid pandemic of course!

Successive lockdowns meant I couldn’t collect it. Dave was kept extremely busy, not only with the general upkeep but also the museum’s newest acquisition; a Spanish-built Heinkel 111 that had been used in the 1969 film The Battle Of Britain, which of course had seen Hawkinge used as a filming location. Each time we made our arrangements, another lockdown put paid to our plans, then finally, we were able to make a definite date, in May of 2021, nearly two years after first discussing the idea, for me to collect the B17 artefact.

Dave Brocklehurst MBE, (right) Curator of The Kent Battle Of Britain Museum at Hawkinge, Presents Mitch Peeke with the salvaged armour plate. (Photo: Mitch Peeke.)

The first thing that struck me when Dave handed the plate to me, was the sheer weight of it. The plate measures a mere 17 by 19 inches. It is a quarter of an inch thick, but it weighs an incredible 22.6 pounds: 10 kg. No wonder Dave told me not to come to collect it on my Harley! I used my wife’s SUV instead.

Once I got it safely home, I photographed it from several angles and set about the task of trying to positively identify it. To that end, I emailed the Museum of aviation at Robins Air Force Base in America, as they are currently in the process of restoring a B17 to its former glory. Their Curator, a former US Air Force officer by the name of Arthur Sullivan, replied to my enquiry with 24 hours, expressing a great interest in the the plate and the story behind it. Despite casting their expert eyes over the photos I sent them, we are still not 100% certain; but it would seem likely, given its curved edges and obvious mounting bolts underneath, that it is seat base armour from either of the Pilot’s seats; the two angled slots most likely to have been for the lap straps to pass through.

Underside of the plate, showing the mounting bolts and possible Lap Strap slots. (Photo: Mitch Peeke.)

The plate was salvaged from the wreck site, a muddy, watery crater some 500 yards off the beach at Allhallows, in the late 1970’s. By then, some nefarious low tide salvage attempts had already been made, most notably by slightly drunk members of the Allhallows Yacht Club. One such foray had resulted in the Police being called to the club when the returning “Trophy Hunters” had brought a quantity of .50 caliber machine gun bullets back with them and decided to try “firing” them from a vice on a workbench, using a hammer and the pointed end of a six inch nail. Luckily for those concerned, the bullets had deteriorated to such an extent after laying on the muddy bottom of the Thames Estuary for 32 years, that they merely fizzled and smoked. The Police confiscated them. The Trophy Hunters had also retrieved one of the bombers Browning machine guns, probably one of the waist guns, but that had been hidden from the Police. That gun was apparently later taken apart and smuggled into Canada. To discourage any further foolhardy amateur salvage operations, the Royal Engineers were called in to demolish the wreck with explosives. Nobody seemed to consider the possibility of that wreck being a War Grave. The body of Staff Sergeant Cecil Tognazzini, the bomber’s Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner, has never been found. He is the only member of 44-6133’s crew who is still unaccounted for.

Today, the crater is still visible at low tide, as are the fragmented remains of the B17. The tidal mud holds a lot of the wreckage in suspension, so every now and again, more of it becomes visible, sticking up out of the muddy floor of the crater, when the tide goes out. Tempting though it still is for some to venture out there, the oozing mud makes such an expedition a dangerously foolish pursuit. Letting that sleeping B17 rest in peace is a far more noble and worthy aim.

In the meantime, we do now have two tangible pieces of 44-6133; one is the small piece of wreckage that washed ashore in 2017 and the other is the newly re-discovered armour plate. Both are now on display in the Slough Fort Museum. Thanks to Jeanne Cronis-Campbell, we also now have photographs of some of 44-6133’s young crew, taken by her late Father, Teddy; who was the plane’s Bombardier and the sole survivor of 6133’s crew, which I added to the memorial last year. And of course, we finally have that permanent memorial to those men, overlooking the place where they fell. We will, remember them.

My thanks to Mitch for the update.

The full story of 44-6133 can be found in ‘A Long way from Home‘,

July 2nd 1919, H.M.A. R.34 Sets A World Record Flight.

On July 2nd 1919 at 01:42, airship R.34 lifted off from the airfield at East Fortune, east of Edinburgh, to make an epic voyage – the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean east to west by a powered aircraft.

R.34 possibly at East Fortune. (author unknown)

Conceived as early as 1916, R.34 was built at the works of William Beardmore and Co. Ltd. of Inchinnan near Glasgow. At 634 feet in length with a top speed of 62 mph, she would have five 270 hp Sunbeam ‘Maori’ engines, and would cost £350,000 to build. Her massive size gave her an impressive 1,950,000 cubic feet for gas storage, and she would be equivalent in size to a Dreadnought battleship. A major step forward in airship design, her aerodynamic shape reduced total air resistance to that of just 7% of an equivalently sized flat disc.

As she was designed under war specifications, R.34 would be built to carry twenty 100 lb and four 550 lb bombs, a range of Pom-Pom guns, Lewis machine guns and a small number of two-pounder quick-firing guns; but as she wasn’t finished until after the war, none of these were ever fitted, nor was she ever flown in anger.

Completed in early 1919, she just missed out on achieving the record of the first Atlantic crossing, being laid up by damage caused by poor handling, and thus beaten to the record now held by Alcock and Brown.

In May, she arrived at East Fortune airfield, a major airship station in East Lothian, from where she carried out a number of test flights including an endurance flight across the Scandinavian countries. In July she was set to make the first  Atlantic crossing, east to west.

In preparation for the flight, eight engineers were sent to the United States to train ground crews in the safe handling of the airship. The Admiralty provided two  warships, the Renown and Tiger, as surface supply vessels, and should R.34 have got into difficulty, she could have been taken in tow by one, or both of the two vessels.

On the evening of 1st July 1919 the ship was fueled to capacity (some 6,000 gallons), and in the early hours of the morning she was moved out of her shed and prepared for the flight. Her captain, Major G. H. Scott, gave the order to release early, and at 1.42 am (GMT) R.34 lifted slowly in to the Scottish sky.

After battling strong winds and Atlantic storms, R.34 finally arrived at Mineola. Huge crowds had turned out to greet her and her crew, a grandstand had been erected, parks and public spaces were packed with onlookers. Major J. Pritchard (The Special Duties Officer) put on a parachute and jumped from the airship to become the first man to arrive in America by air. He helped organise ground staff and prepared the way for R.34 to safely dock. As she settled on her moorings, she had not only become the fist aircraft to fly the Atlantic East to West, but broke the current endurance record previously held by the North Sea Airship NS 11, also based at East Fortune.

A record was made, R.34 had put British Airship designs and East Fortune firmly on the map. After 108 hours and 12 minutes flying time, R.34, her crew and two stowaways: William Ballantyne and a small tabby kitten called “Whoopsie”, had landed at Mineola, Long Island, New York.

After a 3 day stay in which the crew were treated like the heroes they were, R.34 was prepared for the homeward journey. On Wednesday July 10th 1919, at 23:54 she lifted off and set sail for home.

With prevailing winds carrying her eastward, she made an astonishing 90 mph, giving the opportunity to cut some of the engines and preserve fuel. This gave the crew a chance to divert over London, but due to a mechanical breakdown, this was cancelled and R.34 continued on her original route. Poor weather at East Fortune meant that she was ordered to divert to Pulham Air Station, Norfolk, but even after clarification that the weather had improved, her return to East Fortune was denied and she had to continue to Pulham – much to the disgust of the crew on board. At Pulham, the reception was quiet, RAF personnel greeted her and secured her moorings. She has covered almost 7,500 miles at an average speed of 43 mph.

Eventually after a major refit at East Fortune, R.34 left for the return to Pulham. After six weeks of static mooring, R.34 was sent to Yorkshire, to Howden Airship Station. Here she was used to train American crews, was modified for mast mooring and used for general training duties. During one such training mission, she was badly damaged in strong winds, and after sustaining further damage whilst trying to moor and secure her, she began to buckle. Falling to the ground, she broke up and was damaged beyond repair. R.34 was then stripped of all useful materials and the remainder of her enormous structure sold for scrap – a rather ungainly ending to an incredible and historical machine.

H.M.A. R.34 and her crew had become the first to cross the Atlantic east to west, they had achieved the  longest endurance flight, and become the first aircraft to complete a double-crossing of the Atlantic.

East Fortune

The memorial stone at East Fortune airfield commemorating the epic flight of R.34.

The Flight Crew for the Atlantic journey were:

Major G. H. Scott A.F.C – Captain
Captain G. S. Greenland – Second Officer
Second Lt. H. F. Luck- Third Officer
Second Lt. J. D. Shotter – Engineering Officer
Major G. G. H. Cooke DSC – Navigator
Major J. E. M. Pritchard O.B.E. – Special Duties
Lt. G. Harris – Meteorological Officer Second
Lt. R. F. Durrant – Wireless Officer
Lt. Commander Z. Lansdowne – Representative U S Navy
Brigadier General E. M. Maitland – Special Duties
Warrant Officer W. R. Mayes – First Coxswain
Flight Sergeant W. J. Robinson – Second Coxswain

Sergeant H. M. Watson – Rigger
Corporal R. J. Burgess – Rigger
Corporal F. Smith – Rigger
F. P. Browdie – Rigger
J. Forteath – Rigger Corporal

H. R. Powell – Wireless Telegraphy
W. J. Edwards – Wireless Telegraphy

W. R. Gent – Engineer
R. W. Ripley – Engineer
N. A. Scull – Engineer
G. Evenden – Engineer
J. Thirlwall – Engineer
E. P. Cross – Engineer
J. H. Gray – Engineer
G. Graham – Engineer
J. S. Mort – Engineer
J. Northeast – Engineer
R. Parker – Engineer

W. Ballantyne – Stowaway
“Whoopsie” – a small tabby kitten and stowaway

The crew of R.34 Crew – with the crew pets.

East Fortune airfield appears in Trail 42.

June 25th 1944, loss of a Rugby Star.

Sir Arthur Harris’s continuation of the bomber initiative of 14th February 1942, in which German cities became the focus for RAF raids, led to massed formations of light and heavy bombers striking at the very heart of Germany.

In order to achieve these aims, bomber forces of 1,000 aircraft would be required, meaning every available Bomber Command aircraft would be utilised along with those from Operational Training Units (OTU) and (Heavy) Converstion Units (CU).

On June 25th, 1942, whilst on operations to Bremen, the third of the ‘1,000’ bomber raids, one of the first operational aircraft casualties  for 1651 CU would occur when N7442 was shot down shortly before 01:00 by a Luftwaffe night-fighter over Holland. One factor that made this particular loss so great was that not only did all seven crewmen onboard lose their lives, but one of the crew, P/O. Lewis A. Booth (s/n: 118627), had gained international caps playing for England’s National  rugby team.

Born on September 26th 1909, Lewis Booth was the son of Alfred and Amie Booth. He was educated initially at Giggleswick School in Yorkshire, after which he transferred to the Malsis School becoming one of sixteen boys who was lost during the war and since commemorated on the Chapel’s Stained glass window.

Booth attended the Malsis school for two years, 1920-22, when the school first opened. A grand School, it was founded by Albert Henry Montagu, which grew and expanded over the years.

Ten years after he left the school, Booth made his international rugby debut in a game against Wales at Twickenham (January 21st, 1933), in front of a crowd of 64,000 fans; a game in which Wales beat England by 7 points to 3. Booth played his last international match against Scotland at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield stadium two years later on March 16th, 1935. Throughout his two year international rugby career he achieved seven caps for England scoring three tries, his first for England against Ireland at Twickenham, on 11th February 1933. After serving his national team, Booth went on to serve his country joining  the Royal Air Force where he achieved the rank of Pilot Officer within Bomber Command.

On the night of 25/26th June 1942, he was in a Short Stirling MK.I flying with 1651 Conversion Unit (CU) based at RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire. 1651 CU was one of three Conversion Units set up in January 1942, by merging previously formed Conversion Flights. It served to convert crews of No. 3 Group to the Stirling, a rather ungainly aircraft that developed a poor reputation as a bomber. 1651 CU would join that night, sixty-eight other Stirlings in a force of over 1,000 aircraft; a mix of heavy and light bombers, ranging from the Hampden and Whitley to the Halifax and Lancaster.

Take off was at 23:58 from RAF Waterbeach, the weather that week had been good with little rain for many days. After forming up they headed for Germany a course that would take them across the North Sea and on to the western coast of Holland. Just 40 minutes into the flight, whilst over Waddenzee, the Stirling was attacked by a Luftwaffe night fighter and shot down with the loss of all seven crewmen on-board.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

A Stirling MK.I bomber of 1651 HCU at Waterbeach. @IWM (COL202)

P/O. Booth was publicly reported missing four days later on Tuesday 30th June in an article in the local paper “Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer”, which stated that he had been ‘lost in a Bomber Command raid’. The article highlighted Booth’s rugby career, saying that he had been a member of the Headingly Club playing over sixty games for his county team Yorkshire, before leaving to join up. 

P/O. Booth died just short of his 33rd birthday, he left behind a wife, Gladys, and a son Michael. His son would follow in his father’s footsteps also taking up rugby and also playing for his home country. P/O. Booth’s body was never recovered and remains missing to this day.

P/O Lewis Booth is joined by two other Pilot Officers, two Flying Officers, a Flight Lieutenant and two Sergeant Pilots amongst other ranks and service personnel all honoured by the Malsis School. Amongst the many awards they’ve achieved are three D.F.C.s and an A.F.M.

The game of rugby was hit hard by the Second World War, during which Germany would lose 16 of its international rugby players, Scotland 15, England 14, Wales 11, Australia 10, Ireland and France both 8, Wales 3 and New Zealand 2. All these losses were a severe blow to the international game, a game that brought many enemies face to face in a friendly tournament where there was little more at stake that honour and a cup.

With no official burial, P/O Booth’s service was commemorated on Panel 68 of the Runneymede Memorial, Surrey.

Lewis Alfred Booth @Tim Birdsall from the Malsis website.

Sources

ESPN Website accessed.

The British Newspaper Archive.

Old Malsis Association website accessed.

Rugby Football History website accessed.

RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 1)

Norfolk once boasted many major airfields, virtually all of which are now closed to military flying. Marham is the only major survivor spearheading the RAF’s front line fighter force, in conjunction with Lincolnshire’s RAF Coningsby and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, Scotland.

However, during the Second World War the Norfolk landscape was very different; it was littered with front line airfields, composed mainly of light bomber and fighter squadrons, all of which could be found with relative ease.

One such airfield was that of Watton. Used by a range of light and heavy aircraft, its history was chequered, bearing witness to some of the more gruesome aspects of the air-war.

Today it is a housing estate, the single runway remains and is used for storage, the hangers and technical buildings have gone and the accommodation areas have all been sold off. That said, the perimeter track remains in part, the ‘feel’ of the airfield hangs over the area and a number of memorials pay silent tribute to those who served here.

Found on the edge of the town of Watton in Norfolk, we go back to this once busy RAF base and see what has changed, and relive the life of RAF Watton.

RAF Watton (Station 376)

RAF Watton, located some 11.5 miles north-east of Thetford, opened in 1939 as a medium bomber station with the RAF. Unusually it only had one runway, a grass example, which was later extended to 2,000 yards and crossed the airfield in an east-west direction.

The late 1930s saw a massive expansion of Britain’s military might, and in particular, its airfields. With little foresight into what lay ahead, these pre-war and early war airfields were not designed, nor built, as dispersed sites. Once the realisation of what the war would bring hit home however, later examples would be dispersed, giving a new dimension to airfield design. As a result, Watton (built by the John Laing company) was constructed with much of the accommodation block, technical area, hangars and so on, all being placed closely together on one single site.

Housing for the personnel was located in the north-western corner, with the technical area just east of this. The bomb dump, an ideal target, was further to the east of this area. Four ‘C’ type hangers were constructed each having a span of 150 feet, a length of 300 feet and a height of 35 feet. Whilst Watton was a medium bomber airfield, and thus aircraft were relatively small, it was envisaged at this time that larger, heavier bombers would soon come on line, and so foresight deemed larger than necessary hangar space be provided. A 1934/35 design, these hangars would be common place across expansion period airfields.

Another architectural design found at Watton was the redesigned Watch Office, an all concrete affair built to drawing 207/36, it was one that would very quickly become inadequate, requiring either heavily modifying or, as was in many other cases, replacing altogether.

RAF Watton

Part of Watton’s decaying perimeter track.

Partially opened in 1937, the airfield wasn’t fully completed and handed over to the RAF until 1939. Being a pre-war design, building materials were in good supply, and so the  accommodation blocks were constructed using brick, and they catered well for those who would find themselves posted here.

Another aspect considered at this time was that of camouflage; airfields were enormous open expanses and could be easily seen from great distances and heights. Numerous proposals for hiding them were put forward, a move that resulted in the formation of a special unit within the Directorate of Works led by Colonel Sir John Turner. Watton came under the eyes of Sir John and his department, and this led to an ingenious camouflage pattern of fields and hedges being painted across the entire airfield,  thus disguising it from prying eyes above. Whilst not completely effective, it certainly went some way to protecting it from attack.

Watton airfield taken in 1942 by No. 8 Operational Training Unit. The four hangars can be seen in the centre of the photo with the patchwork of ‘fields’ disguising the main airfield. English Heritage (RAF Photography).

The first postings to arrive were the men and machines of 21 and 34 Squadrons RAF. Their arrivals on March 2nd 1939 saw a reuniting of both squadrons under the Command of Group Captain P. J. Vincent DFC and 6 (B) Group . On the 7th, the airfield was inspected by the Group’s AOC after which 34 Sqn performed a flypast; one such event that would be the start of many visits from numerous dignitaries including the Marshall of the Royal Air Force himself, Sir Edward Ellington  GCB, CMG, CBE.

Little flying took place by either squadron at this time however, as the aerodrome was soon unserviceable due to the very poor British weather. Grass runways soon became bogs, and as was found across many grassed airfields at this time, unsafe for aircraft to either take off or land without mishap. From April  things picked up slightly, and intensive training began in the form of station tactics and defence exercises. The weather would however, continue to be the worst enemy, repeatedly preventing or restricting flying from taking place.

In August, 34 Sqn received orders to depart Watton and  proceed to Singapore, and so on the 12th, the air and ground parties began their long transit leaving Watton and England far behind. The quiet of their departure would not last ling however, as within a few days of them leaving, their empty beds would be filled once more, when the Blenheims and crews of 82 Sqn arrived.

At 11:05 on September 3rd 1939, notification came though to Watton of Britain’s declaration of war. Within days of the announcement aircraft were being moved out under the ‘Scatter’ scheme to another airfield, Sealand, for there was a fear of imminent air attacks following the war’s declaration. The Blenheims remained at Sealand until mid September, at which point they were recalled and prepared for attacks on vessels belonging to the German Navy. These vessels were not located however, and so the order to stand by was cancelled and the crews stood down. This would sadly become a regular and frustrating occurrence for the men of 21 Sqn.

Shortly after on the 9th, the first of the new MK.IV Blenheims were collected from Rootes Ltd at Speke, with further examples arriving over the next few days. Further movements saw aircraft detached to Netheravon and then onto Bassingbourne where Blenheim L8473 was damaged as it ‘nosed over’ whilst taxiing. A minor, but unfortunate accident, it would be the first of many more serious losses for the squadron.

RAF Watton

A fence separates the housing estate from the airfield remains.

On 26th September, another order came through for aircraft of 21 Sqn to stand by to attack  the German fleet, whilst a further two Blenheims (L8734 and L8743) would fly to the Rhur to carry out a photographic reconnaissance mission. However, bad weather, industrial smoke and a faulty camera prevented both aircraft from carrying out their duties: each one returning to Watton empty handed but unscathed – crews reporting heavy flak over the target area. The whole of October and November were pretty much a wash-out. Bad weather with prolonged heavy rain prevented any substantial flying beyond the local area. Air gunnery and co-operation flights were carried out whenever  possible, but the late months of 1939 had certainly been a ‘phoney war’ for 21 Sqn.

As 1940 dawned, things on the continent began to heat up and ground attacks increased for both Watton squadrons. Low-level sorties saw them attacking troop formations and enemy hardware as its galloped its was across the low-countries. Whilst bravely flying on and escorted by fighters, overall loses for the slower Blenheims of 2 Group were beginning to rise, a pattern that would only increase in the face of a far superior enemy in the coming months.

These losses were bourne out by 82 Sqn in dramatic style on the 17th May, when twelve aircraft took off at 04:50 to attack Gembloux. They were met with heavy anti-aircraft fire and overwhelming fighter opposition – fifteen BF.109s, decimated the squadron. All but one aircraft was lost, the only survivor being P8858 crewed by Sgt. Morrison, Sgt. Carbutt and AC Cleary. Whilst not injured in the melee, the aircraft was badly damaged and as a result, was deemed unrepairable and written off. An entire squadron had all but been wiped out in one fell swoop.

This disaster would be reflected right across 2 Group, who had now suffered its greatest overall loss to date, but for 82 Sqn it would not yet be the end of this traumatic and devastating period. The burning cauldron that was now facing the light bomber was taking its toll on crews, who were all at a distinct disadvantage to their Luftwaffe counterparts. On the 21st, three more aircraft were lost from Watton, with one being forced down in France, another lost without trace and a third limping home so badly damaged it also had to be written off.

A short visit by 18 Sqn between 21st and 26th May barely interrupted proceedings at Watton. After returning from France, they had spent no less than nine days in May at five different airfields including the nearby Great Massingham.

By early June 1940 Operation Dynamo had been completed and France was lost. The British Bulldog, whilst not a spent force, had shown her teeth, been bitten hard and was now licking her heavy wounds. Preparations would now begin to protect her own shores from the impending invasion.

Fuelled by revenge, combined attacks by both 21 and 82 Sqn continued on into the summer months. But revenge alone does not protect a crew from superior fighters and heavy flak. On June 11th, three more 21 Sqn aircraft were lost whilst attacking positions around La Mare, it is thought all three fell to Luftwaffe fighters. Two days later on the 13th, another five aircraft were lost, two from 21 Sqn and three from 82 Sqn; losses were mounting for the light bombers and Watton was amongst those bearing the brunt of these. On the 24th, 21 Sqn saw a reprieve, whether to rest crews, take on a new role or simply regroup, they began a move north to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. 82 Sqn however, would remain at Watton, where they would carry on with the punishing raids over the continent.

After the arrival and departure of another short stay unit, 105 Sqn between 10th July and 31st October, Watton was now left in the lone hands of 82 Sqn, a situation that would remain until the spring of 1942.

The dramatic loss of eleven crews back in May would come back to haunt 82 Sqn in August that year. On the 12th, another twelve aircraft took off on a high altitude bombing mission to Aalborg in Denmark. The airfield they were to target was well defended, and as if history were to repeat itself, once again eleven of the twelve aircraft were lost. The only one to return, that of R3915 crewed by Sgt. Baron, Sgt. Mason and Sgt, Marriott, turned back early due to low fuel.

In the space of three months, an entire squadron has been all but wiped out not once, but twice, unsustainable losses that would surely bring the squadron to its knees.

RAF Watton

Memorial to the crews lost at Aalborg, 13th August 1940. The propeller of Blenheim R3800, that crashed that day.

It was loses like this that helped convince the authorities to eventually withdraw Blenheims from front line service during 1942 – the Blenheim being long outdated and outclassed. At this time, Watton’s 82 Sqn, would begin their transfer to the Far East, a place they would remain at until the war’s end.

A lull in operations meant that Watton was then reduced to mainly training flights, through the Advanced Flying Unit. Small single and twin-engined aircraft providing the activity over the Norfolk countryside. Many of the crews being trained here would be shipped out to the satellite airfield at Bodney, before returning here for their evening meals.

A brief interlude in the May of 1942 saw the rebirth of the former 90 Squadron, a First World War unit that had gone through this very process on a number of occasions since its inception in 1917.

Flying the American B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ or Fortress I as it was in RAF designations, 90 Sqn was set up to trial the use of the four-engined heavy for its suitability as an RAF bomber. During the first 15 days at Watton, the squadron gained personnel and received their first aircraft,  after which they moved to nearby RAF West Raynham. Here they would begin these trials which also required the use of a number of smaller airfields in the local area. These included both RAF Great Massingham and RAF Bodney, neither of which were particularly suited to the heavy bombers.

Watton then saw no further operational units, and in the mid 1943, it was handed over to the Americans who began to develop the airfield into something more suitable for their needs. It was now that Watton would take on a more sinister role.

In Part 2 we see how the Americans developed Watton, and how it became two sites rather than just one, and also, how its role in Electronic countermeasure took it into the post war years.

The full story of Watton can be found in Trail 9.

RAF Bottisham – A small airfield that became a big player (P2)

In Part 1 of RAF Bottisham, we saw how the airfield was opened as a satellite and how it was underused for the first part of its life. With numerous short stay or training squadrons it never really  attained the level of prestige it wanted.

In part 2 we see how this struggle continued in 1943, but in 1944 things would change, and Bottisham would become a major front line airfield with a record breaking Fighter Group.

RAF Bottisham (Station 374).

Between January and mid March, 2 Squadron were stationed here, albeit briefly, after receiving their own Mustangs in the preceding April. With their parent airfield Sawbridgeworth being unusable, they needed a new place to stay. The advanced party departing, led by F.Lt. Fletcher, on the 30 January, with the main party leaving the following day. Using these Mustangs 2 Sqn would fly long range reconnaissance flights over to Holland, where they would photograph military compounds and enemy shipping.

After that, in March, came another four short-stay units; 268 Squadron who stayed for a mere 4 days; 613 Sqn who stayed for twelve days; 169 Sqn for two days and 4 Sqn who stayed here for a little longer at four months. 4 Sqn were another unit who had previously used both the Lysander and Tomahawk before converting over to the Mustang.

Their departure in July signified the end of RAF operations from Bottisham airfield, the site being all but empty for the next six months. At this point the US Eighth Air Force took over the airfield, poured engineers into it, developed the technical site and  improved the accommodation blocks. After renaming the airfield Station 374, they began to bring in a new unit and Bottisham would finally become the airfield it was so struggling to be.

At the end of November, the twelfth and last Fighter Group to fly P-47s joined the VIII Air Force here at Bottisham. The 361st FG had only been active for eleven months when they entered combat in January 1944. Their journey had taken them from Richmond AAB in Virginia, through Langley Field, Millville New Jersey, back to Richmond and then, via the Queen Elizabeth, on to Bottisham their first European stop. Here the three squadrons: 374th FS, 375th FS and 376th FS flew P-47D ‘Thunderbolts’ or ‘Jugs’ as they were affectionately known, under the command of Colonel Thomas J.J. Christian Jnr, a high ranking officer who was killed in action in August 1944.

‘The Bottisham Four’, 26th July 1944, Leader is Col. Thomas J. J. Christian Jr. Second plane ‘E2-S’ flown by Lt. Urban L. Drew; third is Major Roswell Freedman’s E2-A and the fourth is P-51B E2-H ‘Suzy G’ flown by Lt. Francis Glankler. None of these aircraft survived the war (IWM UPL 18209)

Colonel Christian led the 361st on their first combat sortie on January 21st 1944, as part of an escort of over 600 fighters, to the Pas de Calais and Cherbourg areas. Here, almost 800 B-17s and B-24s from the First, Second and Third Bomb Groups attacked thirty-six ‘V’ weapons sites, thirty-four in the Pas de Calais and two at Cherbourg. As the formation split, the 361st went to Calais, where poor weather hampered the bomb runs. However, allied air superiority meant there were little pickings for the fighters and few enemy aircraft were engaged or shot down. The group returned to Bottisham yet to draw their first blood.

Over the next few weeks, the Group would take part in further escort duties, covering bombers to Frankfurt, Watton, Wilhelmshaven and Gilze-Rijen. February saw them participate in the ‘Big Week’ campaign with further missions to Germany.

On April 27th, the Eighth Air Force undertook two missions, No. 322 and 323, both targeting areas in France and Belgium. On one of these missions was Capt. Charles H. Feller who took off with the 375th FS to escort the bombers. His P-47, ’42-75447′ was the only aircraft lost on that mission, a loss made worse by the fact that his brother Cpl. Jack Feller, was waiting to meet him at the main gate. Cpl. Feller, was informed that his brother was missing in action, and at the time his whereabouts weren’t known. It later transpired that he was killed whilst attacking the former French Air base Etampes-Mondesir which had been taken over by the Luftwaffe*1.

Back at Bottisham, the heavy weight of the Thunderbolt was playing havoc with the Sommerfeld tracking, forcing it to be replaced with Pierced Steel Planking (PSP), a feat that was achieved in a matter of just three days.

As the winter of 1944 passed and spring arrived, the 361st were told that their P-47s were to be replaced by Mustangs, the P-51 would be returning to Bottisham once more, but in a far Superior form than its original one.

In May, the first of these more agile and more powerful P-51s arrived, and under the guidance of General Arnold’s New Year message, “Destroy the enemy Air Force where ever you find them, in the air, on the ground and in the factories” they performed well achieving many high scores. Operating over the Normandy landscape during May, they attacked targets such as airfields, marshalling yards and transport systems, taking out 23 Locomotives in one day, a quarter of the entire day’s total. After Normandy, the 361st  would go on to  cover the breakout at St. Lo, and the failed airborne operation ‘Market Garden‘ in the autumn of 1944.

In late September 1944, the 361st transferred to Little Walden in Essex, but even with their belongings packed and furniture in transit, they would still be willing to perform their duty. On the 26th, they escorted over 1,100 heavy bombers to a range of targets in Germany. Whilst approaching Hamm, one of the pilots 1st Lt. Urban Drew (one of the Bottisham Four), spotted an Me 262 beneath him. After giving chase, diving at incredible speeds to catch the jet, he finally lost him, but not until after he had expelled over 1,300 rounds of ammunition, in a chase that took him from 20,000 ft to 0 ft, in a matter of minutes. The frustration of the pilots in catching these new aircraft clear in their reports back at base.

On the next day, as the move was progressing, another call came out. This time it would be a good day for the pilots of the 361st. Escorting almost 1,200 bombers to Germany again, the group spotted large numbers of enemy fighters attacking the bomber formation in a ‘company front’ attack. The P-51s dived in, splitting the 109s and 190s sending them wayward. ‘Heading for the deck’, a flight of four P-51s lead by Lt. William Beyer gave chase, and in what turned out to be a disastrous day for the Tibbenham based 455th BG (losing 25 aircraft the highest of any mission), the 361st managed to achieve the highest recorded number of kills for any fighter group to date.

After Kassel, Sept. 27, 1944: Lt. William Beyer (left), and Lt. Bocquin (right) prepare their reports. While Bocquin downed three enemy planes, Beyer got five– becoming an “Ace in a Day.” .(IWM UPL 29364)

With eighteen confirmed kills, five for Beyer who was an ‘Ace in a day’, and three for the Squadron Leader 1st. Lt. Victor Bocquin, it was an amazing achievement for the 361st, and as their last operation from Bottisham, it gave cause for great celebration.

Their time at Bottisham had now come to an end and they never returned to the airfield where they had cut their teeth. The move, instigated by a reshuffling of the Air Force’s organisation, meant that the 361st would be closer to the Bomb Groups they were to be attached to. It also signalled the end of Bottisham as an active front line airfield.

By the time the ‘Yellow Jackets‘ as they were known, had completed their tours, they had completed 441 missions, claiming 226 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air and 105 on the ground.

With the departure of the 361st, Bottisham fell operationally quiet. In the following June 1945, it was passed back to RAF control and linked once more to Snailwell, who used it as a relief airfield for Belgian pilots of the RAF (Belgian) Initial Training School. In the October, its status was reduced to satellite and the Belgian’s partially moved in. Using primarily Tiger Moths, the Belgians used Bottisham for a mere ten months, disbanding as a Royal Air Force unit in April 1946 and passing over to the Belgian Air Force. With that, Bottisham closed on May 1st, and stood empty until sold for agricultural use in October 1958.

Since then, the runways have been pulled up, the buildings on the airfield have been removed and the accommodation blocks have all been built up expanding the village that played such a great part in its life. On the corner of the airfield site a small cluster of buildings still stand, these include the former squadron offices (themselves former crew rooms), a sleeping shelter, and general purpose huts. These have been purchased and are being restored to house a small museum dedicated to those who served at the airfield.

RAF Bottisham

The former Sleeping Shelter.

The airfield itself is now cut by the main A14 dual carriageway. But by leaving this road and turning along the A1303,  you can access both the museum and the airfield quite easily. The museum sits on the corner of the A1303 and Wilbraham Road, along which, if you turn right, cuts across the airfield and the remains of the former runway. As with many former airfields the runway line has been planted with trees giving a good indication of both its location and size. Parts of the perimeter track are also visible from this road to the north end, but otherwise there is little left to see other than a small selection of concrete patches. The village has a memorial in both the British Legion club and in the village with the Thomas Christian memorial. Sadly, little else of this small but once busy airfield exists today.

Bottisham airfield was generally speaking, a minor airfield housing a number of units in its early years. However, once it became fully fledged, it became not only significant, but a leader in the stakes of war. Now all but gone, the memories of those who served here are firmly embedded in the streets of Bottisham along with a few buildings that survive to tell their story.

My sincere thanks go to the members of the Bottisham Airfield Museum who so kindly stopped their work to give me a personal guided tour of the site when I visited. I wish them luck in their venture.

Sources and Further Reading.

The full story of Bottisham can be read in Trail 55 – Around Newmarket.

The full story of Colonel Thomas Christian appears in Heroic Tales. 

National Archives – AIR 27/1465/10

National Archives – AIR 27/19/25

National Archives – AIR 27/2170/1

Bottisham Airfield Museum website.

*1 Wilson, K., “Blood and Fears – How America’s Bomber Boys and Girls in England Won Their War” Orion Books, 2016.

RAF Bottisham – A small airfield that became a big player (P1)

In Trail 55 we travel from Snailwell to Cambridge passing through Newmarket and the former bomber airfield that has become the famous horse racing circuit. From here, we continue west where we find a small airfield that has all but gone, the last remnants now a small museum that utilises a mix of original and non-original buildings.

This particular airfield was home to a number of RAF units but is perhaps more noted for its American links, and in particular the fighters of the 361st Fighter Group. On our third stop around Newmarket, we visit the former airfield RAF Bottisham.

RAF Bottisham (Station 374).

Located about 5.5 miles east of Cambridge between the villages of Little Wilbraham and Bottisham village, Bottisham airfield was initially opened in 1940 as a satellite for the new bomber base at Waterbeach, a few miles to the north of nearby Cambridge. Although designed as a satellite, it would later become a fighter airfield in its own right, with its own resident unit.

At first, the runways were grass and there were only two. However, later on, a third runway was ‘constructed’ and each of the three were then strengthened, using initially Sommerfeld Track and then Pierced Planking, both similar and both temporary methods of construction that were easy and quick to lay. Around the concrete perimeter track were fifteen concrete hardstands and a further 48 hardstands constructed with the steel matting. This gave a vast number of areas to safely disperse parked aircraft.

The longest runway was 1,435 yards long, whilst the shortest was some 300 yards shorter. The Watch office, designed to drawing 15371/41, was of brick construction with concrete slabs for the roof, which was the most common design used on World War Two airfields. Demolished in 1948, it was an off-shoot of design 12779/41 which allowed for smaller windows at the front of the tower, more commonly found where night flying regularly took place such as bomber airfields.

RAF Bottisham

On site, there were eight Blister hangars (9392/42), a fourteen bay T2 Hangar (3635/42) and a range of stores, fire tender shelters, workshops and offices, mostly brick or steel framed buildings of standard airfield designs.

Accommodation was eventually erected over ten sites both WAAF and enlisted men/officers, many of which were located in and around the village of Bottisham itself.  This huge increase would eventually lead to a massive explosion in the village’s population.

For the first seven months of its existence, from March to October 1940, Bottisham saw little activity, and as the land was little more than a field, it was totally unsuitable for anything larger than a small aircraft. As a result it was barely used, and little development occurred on the site. The only visitors being seen were the occasional Tiger Moth of the 22 Elementary Flying School (EFTS), from nearby Cambridge. 22 EFTS was set up, at Cambridge, on the declaration of war in 1939, and they used a range of small light trainers: Miles Magisters, Proctors, Tiger Moths and Hawker Demons.

For the next year or so, Bottisham airfield remained in this state, barely used and under-developed until, in July 1941, it was handed over to the Army Co-operation Command and 241 Squadron.

After being disbanded at the end of 1919, 241 Squadron was reformed in 1940 by merging two ‘A’ Flights from other units. They initially used Lysander IIs replacing them with Blackburn Rocs, a model they replaced again with Lysander IIIs before moving to Bury St. Edmunds. After that, they moved here to Bottisham, on July 1st 1941. After a matter of only weeks, the Lysanders were replaced with Tomahawk IIA (the British named P-40) which was intended to be a fighter escort aircraft for the RAF. However, its poor performance led to it being used instead for pilot training and Army cooperation work. Something that would become significant over the next year or so. Over the next few weeks, the new aircraft were collected and ‘normal flying training’ flights were the order of the day.

RAF Bottisham

The runway, marked by the treeline looking south-west.

The British saw the Tomahawk as a possible fighter aircraft during the 1940s supplementing the Spitfires and Hurricanes provided by British aircraft manufacturers. However, production problems of the P-40 led to the British seeking alternative suppliers. Realising there was a niche for a new model, the North American Company offered to design their own fighter, one which they designed, built and tested within 100 days. This new model, whilst not perfect, its Allison engine performing badly at altitude, would eventually go on to supply the American Air force and become one of the most famous aircraft ever built – the P-51 Mustang.

With detachments of aircraft based at Snailwell, Macmerry, Henlow and Docking, 241 Squadron would be spread far and wide, but continued to pursue their duties as an Army Cooperation flight. However, their job was not easy, the new Tomahawks and the poor British weather over the winter 1941-42, proved to be a major challenge for both air and ground crews here at Bottisham. The Operational Record Books for the period showing that the month of January in particular was ‘not satisfactory’, with crews struggling to keep aircraft serviceable in the poor weather. On the 20th, a new structure for the Air Force and a new section for the Squadron were brought into being. This did not however, alleviate the difficulties the crews were having. The main issue seemed to be down to generator drive problems in the P-40s, which combined with an accident in the squadron’s  Airocobra, meant flying was very much restricted to the last remaining Lysanders.

On March 15th 1942, things would begin to change. In now fine weather, the first four of the new P-51 Mustangs arrived, flown down from Speke (now Liverpool airport) by P/Os Kirkus, Clarke, Harrup and F/Lt. Coe. During the next few weeks as more P-51s arrived, the old Tomahawks were gratefully handed over to other Training units and Squadrons, and probably without a tear being shed.  Then on May 1st 1942, 241 Squadron began its departure for pastures new and Ayr in Scotland. On that day, the road party left Bottisham in 21 vehicles at 09.00hrs, whilst the rail party left in the evening at 20:00hrs. By the next day, the rail party had arrived but it would be a further 24 hours before the road party would find their new home.

Throughout the war Bottisham would develop a strong relationship with nearby RAF Snailwell, being only a few miles apart, the two frequently used each other to store and operate their aircraft. The next two squadrons to arrive were just that, both Snailwell based units that moved in to Bottisham. Bottisham was never considered a good posting in these early stages of the war, its accommodation at this point was considered primitive, cold and damp, it was certainly not the most hospitable airfield to have to stay at.

RAF Bottisham

A pot Belly stove stand now in the museum.

Some two weeks after 241’s departure the first of these squadrons arrived – 652 squadron. 652 was part of the Air Observation Post (AOP) and like all the units 651 – 666 they were manned partly by Army (pilots) and RAF (maintenance crews) personnel, they were noted for persistent and regular moves sometimes even daily. Noted as being at Bottisham between June and August 1942, 652 Sqn operated Tiger Moths in the observation role, spotting gun shots off the Hunstanton coast for field artillery units. At the end of their stay here at Bottisham they departed moving to Westley in Suffolk.

The second squadron to arrive at this time was another Tomahawk squadron, 168 Squadron, who were formed at Snailwell on 15th June 1942, moving across to Bottisham in mid July after receiving their Tomahawk IIs. Operating from Bottisham in these early days preceded a move to the fighter station at Tangmere and a more glamorous role with Mustangs and later Typhoons.

The transfer occurred in the afternoon of July 13th, with four flights amounting to twelve aircraft flying in formation across to Bottisham. The flights were led by W/Cdr. Watson-Smyth, who on their arrival realised that the AOP squadron were still using the accommodation blocks, and as the new ones were not yet finished, ‘A’ flight had to share until theirs was suitably completed. There was also insufficient room for the officers, who had to sleep in tents in the grounds around the Mess, whilst ground crews were billeted in three huts in the grounds of Bottisham Hall.

On July 19th, the squadron used the new north-south runway for the first time, it was noted that it was rather more “bumpy” and “shorter” than the east-west runway  but was considered “satisfactory” for their use.

During their stay here, 168 Sqn performed many cross country navigation and fighter affiliation exercises. However, a lack of Allison engine tool kits meant many aircraft were unserviceable for long periods. This became a frustration with the flights, restricting their flying time to a minimum. Then on 31st July, a large quantity of the specialist tool kits finally arrived, and the aircraft were able to be repaired and normal flying duties continued.

The dawn of 1943 would bring little change to Bottisham. More short stay units would mean life was a little more hectic, but Bottisham was still not the major front line airfield it so wanted to be.

In part two we see how Bottisham struggled on in the next year. But January 1944 would see big changes and a renewed impetus that would propel Bottisham to the forefront of Fighter aviation.