RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 2)

In part 1 we saw how Watton had been built as a pre-war expansion period airfield and how the Blenheims that were stationed here were decimated in the face of a superior enemy. Eventually begin withdrawn, they were simply outclassed.

Eventually, the airfield like so many in this area, was handed over to the Americans. It was re-designated and would take on a different role. Watton would now grow and develop.

The USAAF renamed the airfield Station 376, they redeveloped the accommodation blocks, added more hardstands and laid a steel mat runway. The original hangars were added to so that there were now not only the original ‘C’ types, but also the more modern ‘B1’ and ‘T2’ types, along with three smaller blisters hangars. In 1944, the steel matting was removed and a concrete runway built in its place. The airfield’s history would now become a little more complex as it officially became two sites utilising the same single runway.

The main airfield itself would house aircraft of the 802nd Reconnaissance Group (Provisional), who were later renamed the 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance). Whilst on the southern edge of the site, a new complex was built for the repair and refurbishment depot the 3rd Strategic Air Depot (SAD). This complex grew so large that it became a site in its own right, gaining the designation Neaton (Station 505). The name has been somewhat confusing however, as the site was actually closer to the village of Griston that it was to Neaton.

A collection of B-24 engines removed from their mounts. (IWM UPL 5385)

The role of the 3rd SAD was to maintain and repair the battle damaged B-24s of the 2nd Air Division, that had by now, flooded into the UK from the United States. This unenviable task required the recovery of the heavy bombers, washing them out and  perhaps removing the remains of airmen before returning them to flyable condition once more. Whilst not designed to be so, the acronym SAD certainly reflected the role perfectly.

Neaton consisted of a number of sites, 4 accommodation sites, a communal site, a sick quarters, two motor sites, a ‘miscellaneous’ site housing a Steam Jenny and then a 9AD site with tool sheds and other maintenance related buildings. The majority of these accommodation sites incorporated either the more common Laing or Nissen huts.

Watton itself would now become synonymous with reconnaissance, surveillance and electronic countermeasures (ECM). A new unit, 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance), it was constituted on 17th July 1944, and activated in England on 9th August that year. They would only serve from one UK airfield, that of Watton, where they would stay until VE day serving under the umbrella of the 8th Air Force. A visit by the famous ‘Carpetbaggers‘ (the special operations group designed to support French resistance operations) also saw the black Liberator’s fly regular missions from here during this time.

de Havilland DH98 Mosquito PR Mk XVI

The end of Mosquito PR Mk XVI “M” NS774 of the 25th BG after crashing at RAF Watton (Station 376) 25th March 1943. (IWM UPL 6964)

The role of the Watton Group was to carryout reconnaissance missions over the seas around Britain and the Azores, gathering meteorological data. Combined with flights over the continent, the information they would gather, would help in the preparation of bombing missions. They would also carryout aerial mapping and photo reconnaissance missions, identifying German troop movements both at night and during the day.  Many of these operations involved major battles, including northern France, the Rhineland and the Ardennes. Additional tasks included electronic countermeasures using ‘chaff’, and flying ahead of large formations to ascertain last minute weather reports. A varied and dangerous collections of roles, they used a number of aircraft types including: B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, B-26s and P-38 Lightnings.

When VE day did finally arrive, the American unit departed returning to Drew Field in Florida. The August of that year must have been quite surreal, as the Americans left, flying was reduced and Watton was returned back to RAF ownership.

With the war now over, flying units began to return to the UK, many being disbanded not long after. One such unit was 527 Sqn who arrived here in the November, only to be disbanded in the April of 1946.

The next four years saw no other front line ‘operational’ flying units here at Watton, but the 1950s would bring a number of units back through its gates. With the introduction of the jet engine at the end of the war, piston engines fighters were soon being replaced by newer designs.

RAF Watton

One of Watton’s many accommodation blocks in modern use.

The ECM activity initiated at Watton by the 25th Bomb Group, would continue on in these early post-war years. For some twenty years or so in fact, through a variety of aircraft including: the Mosquito, Wellington, Domine, Lincoln, Anson, Proctor, Canberra, Meteor, Sea Fury, Firefly, Venom and many others. Each of these would not only play a vital part in the development and use of ECM, but radio research and training as well. Warfare had taken on a very new twist.

This move would see Watton becoming a hub for ECM activity. A number of RAF and Naval squadrons would operate from here undertaking such tasks. At the end of the war, Watton had become home to the Radio Warfare Establishment (RWE), renamed in 1946 to  the Central Signals Establishment (CSE). It was only one of five such units operating jointly between the military and National Air Traffic Services Organisation (NATS).  The Navy and RAF would jointly use Watton at this time, albeit for only a short period of time between March and September 1947, when the Naval Air Warfare Radio Unit moved in under the disguise of 751 NAS.

The role of the CSE was very complex, for too complex to discuss here, but with a number of squadrons operating under different roles whilst at Watton, it would culminate in 1948 in the forming of three un-numbered units: a Signals Research Squadron, a Monitoring Squadron and a Radio Countermeasures (RCM) Squadron. In essence, their role was to monitor and jam Soviet electronic communications and defence systems – it was an total airborne electronic warfare operation.*1

But the use of un-numbered squadrons was short lived, by the end of the decade the CSE had reverted to using numbered squadrons once more, their role to probe the air defences along the Soviet borders. British aircraft combined with ground stations, would monitor the reaction and activity of Soviet communications, seeing how they responded to intrusions into their airspace. By knowing this detail,  countermeasures could be put in place to jam or scramble these communications, ideally rendering them useless or at least temporarily incapacitated. The first of these numbered squadrons were 192 and 199, who were originally  the calibration and training units of the CSE.

Reformed here in July 1951 flying Mosquitoes, Lincoln B.2s and then the enormous Washington (B-29), 192 Sqn would not receive their first jet until January 1953 when the Canberra B.2 arrived. 192 Sqn would also fly the Varsity and the Comet C.2 before being disbanded and renumbered as 51 Sqn in August 1958.

199 Squadron (reformed on the same day) flew both the Lincoln B.2 and the Mosquito NF.36, in the same role as 192; their stay lasting until April 1952, at which point they moved to Hemswell in Lincolnshire where they picked up their first jet engined aircraft.

The August of 1952 saw a number of other units reform, disband or pass through Watton. 116 Sqn were reformed on the 1st, another ex Calibration flight of the CSE, it stayed until August 1958 when it was disbanded and reformed as 115 Sqn. A battle hardened squadron from Bomber Command, they had since themselves been disbanded. No longer flying operational bombers, the Varsitys 115 Sqn would operate would be the new form of transport, as they were reformed and moved on within days of their inception in that August.

On that same day in late August 1958, 245 Sqn would reform, also from the renumbering of another squadron – 527 Sqn. Flying Canberras they too were gone within days of their reformation.

As 1959 began to close and 1960 dawned, Watton would become the home of a new unit, 263 Sqn, who were operating Bloodhound missiles, the RAF’s ground to air missile used to defend Britain’s airfield against attacking aircraft. The operational use of these giant weapons lasted here until June 1963.

The 1960s saw the last of the flyers, lasting only between January 1962 and May 1963, 151 Sqn operated from here as the Signals Development Squadron, bringing back the props of the Hastings, Lincoln and Varsity before being renumbered again and subsequently disbanded.

Other units at Watton included 97 Sqn from 1963 – 1967; 98 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69), 360 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69) and 361 Sqn (2/1/67 – 14/7/67) two of which were both reformed and disbanded at Watton.

As can be expected, there were a large number of subsidiary and support units based at Watton, many of these attached to the Radio Warfare Establishment, along with SAM Training units, a range of flight units and other various regiments.

RAF Watton

Part of the disused Eastern Radar complex.

By the 1970s all flying had ceased leaving Eastern, and latterly Border Radar, the only ‘operational’ activity on the site. Eventually of course, even these were moved in the early 1990s, signalling the demise of the airfield as an active base. Watton was then handed over to the British Army.

A few years later the Army also reduced it use of Watton and the accommodation areas were sold off for private housing; a move that helped retain that airfield ‘feel’ that it still maintains today. More of the site was then sold later and new housing estates were built on the land where this previously stood; the entire feel of this has now since gone, replaced instead by a rabbit warren of roads with boxes for houses. The last remaining parts of the main airfield were sold off in 2012, the runway and peri-track being retained by the farmer and used for agricultural purposes.

Neaton too was sold off and has now been replaced by HMP Wayland, a prison holding category ‘C’ prisoners at her majesty’s pleasure.  One gruesome part of history being replaced by another.

Today, the perimeter tracks, runways and hard standings support nothing more than housing. A proportion of the perimeter track remains with a small wire fence being the only defence to the continued onslaught of development. The original 4 “C” type hangars were all demolished as were the two control towers, one of which was built to support the new jet-era. Some minor buildings continue to remain surrounded by the original RAF housing, but these are few and far between, and even their future is uncertain.

Almost as lip service, many roads are named after an aircraft, Liberator, Marauder, etc., those aircraft synonymous with the operations of Watton and Neaton. Various concrete remains poke through the undergrowth and make this part of the site rather untidy. How long is it before they too disappear?

The site is split by the main road with some of the former administration buildings remaining on one side with the airfield and accommodation on the other. Some of these buildings are still in use with civilian operators and as such, have been well-preserved; others such as the technical site, have not been so fortunate and have become very rundown and in high states of disrepair.

RAF Watton

Memorial to the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs’ located on the airfield site.

As for the airfield itself, two small memorials ‘guard’ the entrance to the new development. On the one side is the bent propeller recovered from a crashed Blenheim (R3800) shot down in the loss of eleven aircraft over Aalborg on 13th August 1940; on the other side a memorial that commemorates the 25th Bomb group USAAF. On the original housing site itself, a further memorial commemorates the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs‘ who were given the task of defending Britain’s airfields against the Luftwaffe.  Owned by Stanford Training Area (STANTA) for a period of time and used for air mobile training, the odd Hercules or Army helicopter might have been seen here. However, this has now ceased and housing is creeping ever closer. I’m sure it won’t be long before many of these remaining remnants are lost to the developer’s digger.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Flintham, V., “High Stakes: Britain’s Air Arms in Action 1945-1990Pen and Sword, Oct 2008.

National Archives AIR 27/263/1: AIR 27/263/2

A website dedicated to RAF Watton has an extensive range of personal stories and information about life at Watton. It also has a video of the retrieval of Blenheim R3821 being recovered from Aalborg airport.

Further Pictures of the remains at these sites can be seen on Flckr.

NB: There is a museum commemorating the lives of the Watton personnel, open on limited days only, details can be found on their website.

Watton can be found on Trail 9.

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 Great Massingham – Blenheims, Bostons and Mosquitoes.

In the heart of Norfolk, some 40 miles west of Norwich and 13 miles to the east of King’s Lynn, lies a small, quaint village typical of the English stereotype. Small ponds frequented by a range of ducks, are thought originally to be fish ponds for the 11th century Augustinian Abbey, and the history of the village is believed to go back as far as the 5th Century.  Massingham boasts an excellent village pub, and a small shop along with beautiful walks that take you through some of Norfolk’s most beautiful countryside; it has to be one of Norfolk’s greatest visual assets.

Sited above this delight is the former airfield RAF Great Massingham, which during the war years was home to number of light bombers and even for a short while, the four engined heavy, the B-17. In Trail 21, we return to RAF Great Massingham.

RAF Great Massingham

Before entering Great Massingham I suggest you stop at Little Massingham and the church of St. Andrew’s. For inside this delightful but small church, is a roll of honour*1 that lists enormous amounts of information about the crews who served at the nearby base. It gives aircraft details, mission dates and crew names amongst others. It is a hugely detailed collection of information covering 1940-45, in which time 600 Massingham crews lost their lives. Seven of these crew members, are buried in the adjacent church yard: Sqn. Ldr. Hugh Lindsaye (18 Sqn), Sgt. John Wilson (RNZAF – 107 Sqn), Sgt. Thomas Poole (107 Sqn), P/O. Arthur Lockwood (107 Sqn), Flt. Sgt. Gordon Relph (107 Sqn), F/O. Charles Ronayne (RAF) and F/O. Joseph Watkins (239 Sqn), all being killed in different circumstances. This is a valuable and enlightening stop off to say the least.

RAF Great Massingham

The Roll of Honour in St. Andrew’s Church, Little Massingham.

On leaving the church turn right and you will almost straight away enter the village of Great Massingham.

The airfield is to the east behind the village holding the high ground, which makes for a very windy and open site, whilst the village nestled on the lower ground, remains calm and quiet.

Built originally as a satellite for the nearby West Raynham, Massingham opened in 1940 with grass runways initially under the command of 2 Group, Bomber Command and then latterly 100 Group, whose headquarters were at Bylaugh Hall. The distance between both RAF West Raynham and RAF Massingham was so small, that crews would cycle from one to the other each morning before operations.

RAF Great Massingham

The Officers Mess now a farm building.

There were a total of four T2 hangars and one B1 hangar built on this site. The airfield also had sixteen pan-type hardstands and twenty-one loop-type hardstands, giving a total of thirty-seven dispersal points around its perimeter.

The main accommodation and communal sites which totalled five and two respectively, were near to Little Massingham church, to the west, along with further areas to the south of the airfield . These included a communal area to the south-west of the village and sufficient accommodation for 1,197 men, consisting of Officers, Senior NCOs and ordinary ranks.  This was later upgraded to accommodate 1,778 men.

In addition, accommodation was provided for the WAAFs of the airfield, 102 in total at the outset. This was also increased in the airfield’s upgrade, taking the total number of  WAAFs to 431.

The bomb dump and ammunition stores were well to the north away from the personnel as was standard. A number of anti-aircraft sites were scattered around the perimeter offering good protection from any attacking aircraft.

The first occupants of Massingham were the Blenheim IVs of 18 Sqn RAF who arrived in the September of 1940.

18 Sqn were previously based at West Raynham, making the transition invariably very smooth. In fact, operations barely ceased during the change over, the last West Raynham sortie occurring on 7th September 1940 with a six ship formation attack on the docks and shipping at Dunkirk, and the first Great Massingham sortie on the evening of the 9th to Ostend.

Whilst at Great Massingham, 18 Sqn flew the Blenheim Mk.IV initially on short range bombing sorties to the French coast. All was fairly quiet for the first few weeks, the squadron’s first loss not occurring until November 28th 1940, when Blenheim P6934 crashed after hitting high tension wires west of the airfield. All three of the crew were injured and admitted to hospital, but Sgt. William E. Lusty (S/N: 751633) died from his injuries the following day.

18 Squadron remained at Great Massingham until April the following year (1941), performing in the low-level bombing role. Like most other RAF airfields around this area of Norfolk, it would be dominated by twin-engined aircraft like the Blenheim and its subsequent replacements.

As a reminder to those who may have got complacent about the dangers of flying in wartime, the departure of 18 Sqn was marred by the loss of Squadron Leader Hugh Lindsaye (S/N: 40235), who was killed whilst towing a drogue near to Kings Lynn a few miles away. An investigation into the crash revealed that a drogue he was pulling had become separated and fouled the port elevator. The pilot lost control as a result and all three crewmen (SgT. Stone and F/O. Holmes) were killed. Sqn. Ldr. Lindsaye is one of those seven buried in Little Massingham.

Shortly after the departure of 18 Sqn, Massingham took on another Blenheim squadron in the form of 107 Sqn, a move that was coincided with a detachment of B-17 Flying Fortresses of 90 Squadron.

The B-17 (Fortress I) squadron was formed at Watton earlier that month, they moved to West Raynham whereupon they began trials at a number of smaller airfields including Bodney and Massingham, to see if they were suitable for the B-17. These initial tests, which were undertaken by Wing Commander McDougall and Major Walshe, were a series of ‘circuits and bumps’ designed to see if the ground and available runways were suitable. It was decided that Massingham was indeed suitable, and so a decision was made on the 13th, to base the aircraft at Massingham but retain the crews at West Raynham, transport vehicles ferrying them to and from the aircraft on a daily basis.

For the next few days further tests were conducted, and engineers from Boeing came over to instruct ground crews on the B-17’s engineering and armaments. Concerns were soon raised by crews about Massingham’s grass runways, and how well they would perform with the heavier four engined B-17’s constantly pounding them.

RAF Great Massingham

Remains around the perimeter track.

On the 23rd May, H.R.H The King conducted an inspection of Bomber Command aircraft at RAF Abingdon, in Oxfordshire. Amongst the types presented with the RAF bombers was a Fortress I from Massingham. The King, Queen and two Princess’s Elizabeth and Margaret, all attended and took a great interest in the Fortress. The Royal party taking considerable time to view and discuss the heavy bomber’s merits and features.

Back at Massingham, flight tests, training and examinations of the B-17 continued until in June 1941, when 90 Sqn were ordered out of both Massingham and West Raynham, moving to RAF Polebrook in Northamptonshire. But by the October, the Fortress’s had all gone from RAF bomber service, problems with freezing equipment convincing the RAF not to use the heavies in bombing operations. By February 1942 the unit was disbanded and all its assets were absorbed into 1653 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU).

Within days of 90 Sqn’s arrival at Massingham, another more permanent squadron also arrived, again performing in the same low-level bombing role as their predecessors 18 Sqn.

The spring of 1941 saw 2 group perform some of their largest operational sorties to date, with many Blenheims continuing their daylight raids on shipping and docks in north-west Germany. It was during this hectic time, on May 11th, that 107 Sqn, would arrive at the Norfolk base at Massingham.

Being taken off operations on the 10th, the air personnel made their way down from the Scottish base at Leuchars whilst the ground staff travelled by train the following day. A number of crews were posted on detachment to bases at Luqa, Ford and Manston. After a short settling in period missions began again in earnest with their first twelve ship operation in Bomber Command taking them to Heliogoland on the 13th. Two of these Blenheims returned with engine problems, but the remainder managed to attack the target, in an operation that was considered a great success, with complete surprise being achieved. Flying at very low level was key to this operation, and whilst all aircraft returned home safely, one aircraft piloted by Sgt. Charney, flew so low he managed to strike the sea with his port engine; as a result, the airscrew was damaged and broke away leaving the aircraft flying on just one of its two powerplants!

The end of May was a difficult month for 107. On the 21st they returned to Heligoland, with nine aircraft taking off at 14:00, detailed for a daylight formation attack on the target. With  visibility of 12 – 15 miles, they pressed home their attack from as low as fifty feet, in spite of what was an ‘intense and accurate’ flak barrage. Four aircraft were hit by this flak, and in one of them, Sgt. John Wilson (S/N: 40746) was killed when shrapnel struck him in the head. Sgt. Wilson is also one of the seven in the church yard at Little Massingham.*2

On the return flight, a second aircraft also damaged by the flak, had an engine catch fire. The pilot and crew were all lost after ditching in the sea. Fl. Sgt. Douglas J. R. Craig (S/N: 903947) never having being found, whilst two other crewmen (Sgt. Ratcliffe and Sgt. Smith) were seen climbing into their life raft, later being picked up by the Germans and interned as prisoners of war.

On the 23rd the squadron was then detailed to search for shipping off France’s west coast. Due to bad weather, they were unable to make Massingham and had to land at Portsmouth instead. Continued bad weather forced them to stay there until the 27th when they were able at last to return to Massingham. No further operations were then carried out that month.

RAF Great Massingham

Gymnasium and attached Chancellery now a car repair shop.

The dawn of 1942 saw Bomber Command face its critics. High losses brought into question the viability of these small light aircraft as bombers over enemy territory, a situation that would see 2  Group, as it was, all but removed from operations by the year’s end.

But the end was not quite here, and January  of 1942 saw 107 take on the Boston III ( an American built aircraft designated the ‘Havoc’) as a replacement for the now ageing Blenheim. With the new aircraft 107 remained at Massingham, at least until the early August, where they made a short move to Annan before returning to Massingham a mere week later.

It would take only a month before the first 107 Sqn Boston would be lost. Whilst on a training flight, Boston W8319, struggled to join the formation, after turning back, it was seen to fall to the ground, the resultant fireball killing all three crewmen on board.

Despite this, losses over the coming months remained light. With the introduction of US airmen and the 15th Bomb Squadron, June / July saw a number of Massingham aircraft transfer across to the American’s hosts 226 Sqn at Swanton Morley. One of these aircraft, crewed by two US airmen; Captain S. Strachan and Lt. C. Mente, crashed near RAF Molesworth killing both on board.

By the end of 1942, 107 Sqn had lost a total of 23 aircraft on operations, and with each Boston carrying four crewmen it meant losses were increasing for the unit.

In February 1943, the Boston IIIs were replaced by the IIIa model. During May, the whole of 2 Group would begin to transfer across to the 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF) in preparations for the invasion the following year. Losses had been high for the group, the light bombers being easily cut down by both Luftwaffe fighters and flak. At the end of August 1943, it was 107 Sqn’s turn and they departed Great Massingham for Hartford Bridge and a new life within the 2nd TAF.

It was during these summer months that a Free French unit, 342 Lorraine Squadron would arrive at Massingham. A unit formed with Bostons at West Raynham, it would stay at Massingham between July and into early September before moving off to rejoin 107 Sqn at Hartford Bridge, also beginning a new life within the 2nd Tactical Air Force.

It was these postings that would lead to the end of Massingham as a day bomber station, and no further vulnerable light bombers of this nature would be stationed here again.

In April 1944 Great Massingham  was redeveloped and upgraded, more accommodation blocks were provided and three concrete runways were laid; 03/21 and 13/31 both of 1,400 yards, and the third 09/27 at  2,000 yards, this would give the site the shape it retains today.

A year-long stay by 1694 Bomber (Defence) Training Flight with amongst them, Martinets, gave the airfield a much different feel. Target towing became the order the day and non ‘operational’ flying the new style.

In the June of 1944, 169 Sqn would arrive at Massingham, operational flying was once again on the cards, with night intruder and bomber support missions being undertaken with the Wooden Wonder, the D.H. Mosquito. Between June and the cessation of conflict this would be a role the squadron would perform, and perform well, with numerous trains, ground targets and Luftwaffe night fighters falling victim to the Mosquito’s venomous attacks. Included in these are a damaged Ju 88 on the night of October 26th 1944 south of the Kiel Canal, and five trains on the night of October 29th.

RAF Great Massingham

Original high-level Braithwaite water tank.

With them, came 1692 (Bomber Support Training) Flight, to train crews in the use of radar and night interception techniques. Formed at RAF Drem in Scotland in 1942 as 1692 (Special Duties) Flight, they operated a range of aircraft including Defiants, Beaufighters and Mosquitoes.

The two units stayed here at Massingham until both departed in August 1945, at which point 12 Group Fighter Command, took over responsibility of the site.  As radar and night interception roles developed, a new unit was created at Massingham under the control of the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE), who were to trial different techniques and strategies for air interception. They later moved to West Raynham where they continued to carry out this role.

Over the years a number of  post war celebrities were stationed at Massingham, they included F.O. Keith Miller AM, MBE – the Australian Test cricketer; P.O. (later Squadron Leader) Bill Edrich DFC – the England cricketer and the BBC commentator – Flt. Sgt. Kenneth Wolstenholme DFC and Bar.

After the aircraft left, the airfield fell quiet and was very quickly closed. 1946 saw the last personnel leave, and it remained dormant until being sold in 1958. Bought by a farmer, it is now primarily agriculture, although a small private airfield has opened utilising the former runways, and flying visitors are welcomed with prior permission.

The airfield at great Massingham has a public footpath running part way through it. This is accessible at either end of the southern side of the airfield, and permits access along part of the original perimeter track.

Accessing the eastern end of the path is easiest, a gated road from the village takes you up to the airfield site. Once at the top, you can see the large expanse that was the main airfield site. Trees have since been cultivated and small coppices cover parts of it. To your right at this point the peri track continues on in an easterly direction, but this section is now private and access is not permitted. This track would have taken you toward the Watch office, the Fire Tender building and storage sheds – all these being demolished long ago. A further area to the south of here has now been cultivated, and there was, what is believed to have been a blister hangar, located at this point – this too has long since gone.

The public path turns left here and takes you round in a northerly direction. To your left is a T2 hangar, it is believed that this is not the original, but one that had been moved here from elsewhere. This however, cannot be confirmed, but there was certainly a T2 stood here originally.

The track continues round, a farm building, very much like a hangar, houses the aircraft that now fly. Sections of runway drainage are visible and piles of rubble show the location of smaller buildings. The track then takes you left again and back to the village past another dispersal site, now an industrial unit complete with blister hangar. Other foundations can been seen beneath the bushes and leaves on your right. This may have been the original entrance to the site, although Massingham was unique in that in was never fenced off, nor guarded by a main gate. Other examples of airfield architecture may be found to the north side of the airfield, indeed satellite pictures show what looks like a B1 hangar on the northern perimeter.

RAF Great Massingham

The perimeter track and T2 hanger re-sited post war.

After walking round, drive back toward Little Massingham, but turn left before leaving the village and head up toward the distant radio tower, itself a remnant from Massingham’s heyday. We pass on our left, the former accommodation site. Now a field, there is no sign of its previous existence. However, further up to the right, a small enclave utilises part of the Officers’ Mess, the squash court, and gymnasium with attached chancery. Hidden amongst the trees and bushes are remnants of the ablutions block, and other ancillary buildings.

Continue along this road, then take the left turn, toward the tower. Here is the original high-level Braithwaite water tank and pump house, still used for its original purpose and in very good condition.

Finally, a lone pill-box defensive position can also be found to the west of the village, some distance from the airfield in the centre of a farmer’s field. All small reminders of the areas once busy life.

Great Massingham is a delightful little village, set in the heart of Norfolk’s countryside. Its idyllic centre, pubs and shops surround ponds and greens. A short walk away, is the windy and open expanse that once was a bustling airfield, resounding to the noise of piston engines. All is now much quieter, their memories but a book, some dilapidated buildings and a handful of graves. Standing at the end of the runway, looking down the expanse of concrete, you can easily imagine what it must have been like all those years ago.

From Great Massingham we head east, to RAF Foulsham, before turning north and the North Norfolk coast, an area of outstanding natural beauty and some fine examples of airfield architecture.

Sources and links RAF Great Massingham

*1 A comprehensive history of RAF Massingham, including RAF material, is now under the care of the Massingham Historical Society. Contact Anthony Robinson ant@greatmassingham.net for details about the Museum or Roll of Honour, a hard copy of which can be purchased for £10.00.

*2 The ORB shows this as Sgt G, WIlson and not J.W. Wilson. National Archives AIR 27/842/10

RAF Great Massingham is remembered on the Massingham village website which includes details of the Roll of Honour.

Massingham was first visited in 2015.

1st. Lt. William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

In early 2020, I posted an article about the crash and subsequent death of William G. Rueckert of the 93rd BG, 409 BS at RAF Hardwick in Norfolk. Since posting this article, I have been contacted by his son, ‘Little Bill’, who has very kindly sent me a collection of photographs, letters, documents and a considerable amount of information around both his father’s life and his tragic accident. I wholeheartedly thank Bill for this – in some cases – very personal information, which has helped to build a bigger and more detailed image of the life of William Rueckert. This has been added to the page and is included here with Bill’s permission.

The journey of how ‘Little Bill’ found out the details of his father’s death was a long and somewhat difficult one, as many of the official records were destroyed in the St. Louis fire. It was made more difficult by the fact that at home, 1st. Lt. William Rueckert was never talked about by Bill’s mother and step father (2nd Lt. Leroy H. Sargent), and as Bill was only two and a half  years old at the time of his father’s death, he knew little of him. It’s only since Bill’s mother sadly passed away in 1994 that Bill has been able to make proper enquires, kick started by the discovery of a copy of the “Ladies Home Journal” in the attic of her house. All Bill knew before this, was that his father was a pilot and that he died in a crash in England.

Ladies Home Journal ( Jan. 1945)

Ladies Home Journal (Jan. 1945) The magazine that started Bill’s journey to find out about his father.

Since then, Bill has written an article for the “STAR”, a journal for “AWON” (American War Orphans Network) and he has been given an article published in the ‘Weekender’, a supplement published by the Eastern Daily Press*1 newspaper in Norwich, UK, written in December 2014; the title of which was “No Greater Love”, an article about Bill’s mother and father.

His journey also allowed him to make friends with David Neale, an officer of the “Friends of the 2nd “, an organisation he joined not long after. Since then, he has travelled to England on many occasions, including attending the 2nd Air Division  American Library Dedication in Norwich, in November 2001; visiting Madingley Cemetery and the former Hardwick airfield (owned and run by David Woodrow) where Bill’s father lost his life. He has also donated a replica of William’s Purple Heart to the local church at Topcroft, who honour both him and all those who served at Hardwick, every year.

This is 1st. Lt. William Rueckert’s story.

William Gamble Rueckert (S/N: 0-420521) was born June 9th 1920, in the Lutheran Hospital, Moline, Illinois. His father, Reuben Franklin Rueckert (26) was a chief electrician whilst his mother, Fay Wilforim Gamble (24) was a Housewife.

At school, William was a model student, developing a studious and conscientious approach to his studies. He worked hard at all he did, continuously achieving high grades; a work ethic he would carry and continue throughout his short life.

William, Dee and Little Bill

Dorothea ‘Dee’, Little Bill and William

At 18 years of age William joined the Cavalry Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of Illinois, becoming a member of  the ‘Scabbard & Blade‘, an Honorary Military Society that promotes and develops the “Five Gold Stars”: Honour, Leadership, Professionalism, Officership, and Unity.  Here William studied law and used his passion for reading, particularly the classics like Shakespeare and Proust, to continue to achieve those high grades he was known for. His reputation for hard work and dedication was his bedfellow.

Whilst in the Cavalry, William got the nickname ‘Square John‘, he took to fencing and riding, whilst enjoying ‘Breaded Veal chop’ and listening to Ernie Pyle, an American journalist who would become one of the most famous war correspondents of World War II. One of the rules as a Cavalry Cadet  was that you had to carry a ‘handkerchief’, this was used to fulfil the joyful operation of cleaning your horse’s rear, a very unpleasant but ‘necessary’ duty.

On graduating, William would be presented with a sabre from his class, fulfilling both roles of president of the Cavalry Officers’ Club and as a Cadet Major. The sabre would remain in the family home for many years after.

William 'Square John' Horse jumping,

William ‘Square John‘ Horse jumping,

It was at University, on April 29th 1939, that William met on a blind date, his wife to be, Dorothea Griffiths, the woman he later referred to as ‘Dee’. Even before meeting up, the two were destined to face problems, a faulty car doing its utmost to prevent William from getting to his destination on time. But as a lover of dancing, William charmed Dee with his dance floor moves, and they turned out to be the perfect match, Dee forgiving William’s lateness and agreeing to see him a second time.

The two became inseparable, and within a year they were married, on June 10th, 1940, when William was just one day over 20 years old. The ceremony took place at Clinton, Iowa, but it would be here that the second of their problems would arise. Angry at the marriage, William’s mother objected, stating that he was too young to be legally married. Successfully, and much to the anger of William and Dee, she had the marriage annulled. However, the two were not to going to accept that, they simply ran away to repeat the wedding and reinstate their marriage vows in a new ceremony – love had conquered all.

Second Marriage Certificate

William and Dee’s second Marriage Certificate

After leaving the Cavalry and returning to his studies, he graduated from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Science in Commerce and Law on June 9th, 1941.  William and  Dee then moved to 64 Sommers Lane, Staten Island, on the southern edge of New York, Dee’s home town. William managed to secure himself a job with the Bethlehem Steel Co.  a company that would become a major supplier of armour plate and ordnance to the U.S. armed forces. Here William worked in the accounts department, whilst all the time continuing to work for his law license with the New York State Bar.

University Certificate

William’s University Certificate

With the war in Europe escalating, William, being a reserve at this time, was called up under President Roosevelt’s Defence plan, in August 1941, and he was sent to the Maintenance Officer Company, 35th Armoured Regiment, Fourth Armoured Division Pine Camp, Watertown, New York. He served as a 1st Lt. Artillery Officer in Company ‘A’, 1st Battalion. It was here that the dedication and hard work that he had shown throughout his education would shine through yet again, quickly standing out from other cadets. William also stood out on the ranges, soon winning himself a medal for artillery and rifle shooting.

A heavily pregnant Dee joined William at Watertown not long after his call up, remaining at home as a ‘Housekeeper’ whilst William went about his duty. The love between them never faltering once. In an interview after his death, Dee described William as “Sweet” saying that “Even after we were married, he would telephone for a date and arrive home with flowers and candy.”

It was this love for each other that produced at 5:45pm on December 1st, 1941, the same month as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, their first child, William Griffiths Rueckert (Little Bill). Bill being born in a small Catholic Hospital just outside the base at Watertown. In those first few years of his life, Bill would grow very fond of his father, a father who would sadly be taken away from him far too soon. William and Bill developing a mutual love for each other.

Four years after his military career had begun with the cavalry, and one year after leaving the Armoured Division at Pine Camp, William would make a big change in his career,  resigning his commission and  volunteering for the United States Air Corps. In Bill’s words referring to why his father left the Army he said:  “After four years of wiping his horse’s ass, and looking up at the new way to travel, he had the flying bug“.

William Rueckert’s life then changed forever. In 1942 as a 1st Lt. Trainee Pilot, he left New York, Dee and his son, and moved to the West Coast Training Centre whose headquarters and administration centre was at Santa Ana Airbase in California.

Early Flight Training.

William would have progressed through several stages of training, from primary to basic, then on to advanced flying and eventually to the heavy bombers. This would take him through many courses at several sites. After primary flight training, he would have gone onto basic flying. Here a nine week course of some 70 hours or so would have taught William more basic flying skills, including: instrument flying, aerial navigation, night flying, long distance flying, radio operations and etiquette, and finally formation flying.

One of these first stations would be Lemoore AAF in California. Whilst here, William would learn firsthand the perils of flying, when on May 20th, 1943 he was involved in a mid air collision with another aircraft piloted by Air Cadet Donald. W. Christensen (S/N: 39677502). Sadly, Christensen would die in the crash whilst William would suffer a wound to the forehead.

I have, since the original post, been able to establish beyond doubt that this is the accident that Dee refers to, although she would later retell the event believing it was a B-24 at a Biggs Field, El Paso, in Texas.

The Army Air Corps used a range of aircraft to train pilots in basic flying, one of the more powerful and complex models was the single engined aircraft the Vultee BT-13 (replaced by the Vultee BT-15). On that day (May 20th, 1943) William was flying solo in BT-15 #42-1957 at Lemoore AAF, and was approaching to land.

The official records (crash number 43-5-20-6)*8 held at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, states that:

At 17:02, May 20, 1943, while upon final approach at Lemoore Field at the termination of a routine training flight, Student Officer, 1st. Lt. W.G. Rueckert collided with A/C  D.W. Christedsen [sic].

Both airplanes were approaching the field in the usual manner. The wind was slightly from the right at 10 mph. Position of the approaching ships gave the control ship stationed on the south-west corner of the mat no cause for alarm. A/C Christensen in ship 32 was in front below and to the right of Lt. Rueckert in ship 12. Several hundred yards from the south-west edge of the mat. Lt. Rueckert noticeably dropped the nose of his ship which struck the A/C Christensen’s airplane behind the canopy. Both airplanes remained in contact and fell to the edge of the mat from a height of about 50 feet. A/C Christensen plane landed on its back, exploded and burned killing A/C Christensen immediately. Lt. Rueckert’s landed nose first, broke clear of the other plane and the pilot jumped out and attempted to extinguish the blaze with his fire extinguisher. He sustained a cut on his forehead and shock. The fire truck and ambulance arrived immediately afterward, put out the blaze and conveyed Lt. Rueckert to the hospital.

Lt. Rueckert stated that he never saw A/C Christensen’s plane in the traffic pattern.

It is probable that one or both pilots were making improper correction for wind drift although witnesses were located at angles which made it impossible to verify this fact.”

The enquiry that followed concluded:

Failure of pilot in airplane to look around. Poor correction for drift on the part of one or both pilots. Lack of control tower in the vicinity of mat. Present control tower is approximately four thousand feet from the scene of the accident.

Dee would later retell the story to Bill, describing how she went to the hospital and how she had to remove little splinters of the shatter windshield from William’s forehead for weeks after the crash. It had been a hard lesson learnt for William.

On completion of the basic course, he then transferred to the multi engined Advanced Flying Course at Stockton Field*4, California, the Air Force’s first west-coast Advanced Flying Field. Here William was enrolled in Class 43-H.

On the Advanced Flying Course at Stockton Field, William would have undertaken a further seventy hours of multi-engined flying, formation flying, night flying and instrument flying using standard training aircraft such as the: Curtiss AT-9, Beech AT-10 or the Cessna AT-17 / UC-78. Upon completion of this course, William would receive his wings and a Commission.

Whilst William was here at Stockton Field, his son Bill, would reach his first birthday and William would send a heartfelt letter home telling Bill how much he missed him, and looked forward to spending time with him again. In his opening paragraph William said to Bill: “This eventful year you have quickly grown from an infant, into one grand, little boy, and I’m certainly proud of you, Billy.

WIlliam's letter to Little Bill on his first birthday.

William’s letter to Little Bill on his first birthday

The course lasted well into 1943, and on August 30th, Lt. William G. Rueckert graduated received his wings and his commission – his dreams were slowly becoming a reality.

For his next posting, William would be transferred to Kirtland Field, New Mexico (formerly known as Albuquerque Army Air Base, being renamed Kirtland Field in 1942 after Colonel Roy C. Kirtland), which specialised in navigation and bombardier training. The aircraft used here were the twin-engined Beechcraft AT-11 or the Douglas B-18 Bolo aircraft. Although split into three specialist schools, it also trained entire crews ready for the heavy Bombers the B-17 and B-24. It would be here that William would have his first encounter with the B-24 ‘Liberator’.

On October 28th 1943, William passed his instrument flying test, and by the time he was finished at Kirtland Field, he was a qualified pilot instructor on B-24s. With this under his belt, William was now ready, his flying training completed, he would transfer again, this time to Biggs Field, El Paso, Texas.

It would be here at Biggs Field that the family would be reunited once again, Dee and Bill joining William on the base’s accommodation. It would also be here that Dianne, Bill’s sister, would be born. Dianne sadly passing away in 2007.

Little Bill in El Paso

Little Bill in El Paso. The boots, he tells me, he still owns today!

Dee’s account of the accident that is now believed to have been the Lemoore AAF collision was retold later to Bill. Her account of the day’s events being sketchy. I am continuing to search for evidence of this but it is unlikely that William was involved in an accident whilst here at El Paso.

Finally, the draw of the war led William to requesting a post overseas. But before departing, he would pick his own crew members,  Harold Emerson Roehrs – his co-pilot, and Jimmy Gardner – his navigator, both of whom he had become good friends with at El Paso.

Later in life, Harold Roehrs would write his own biographical account, “Harold’s Story“, in which he mentions William in a dedication. William being the one who taught Harold to fly a B-24, something Harold had to prove to his Commanding Officer Major (later Lt. Colonel) Thermand D. Brown. In doing so, Harold flew Major Brown around the skies of Hardwick until he was convinced, and convinced he was! In his book, Harold pays homage to William saying of him: “My pilot and friend who shared his knowledge and taught me how to fly a B-24 Liberator“.  William being one of those many people who helped shaped Harold’s life.

L to R: William, Jimmy and Harold at El Paso

Left to Right: William, Jimmy and Harold at El Paso

The three friends would all be posted together to RAF Hardwick, Norfolk, England to join the 409th BS, 93rd BG, 20th Combat Wing, Eighth Air Force, in April 1944. All three serving in the same crew.

The three left Biggs Field travelling to Forbes Field, Topeka, Kansas at the end of March 1944, where they would collect their B-24 to fly to England. The aircraft was loaded up and they took off heading over the southern route.

Off to War.

"Harold's story"

“Harold’s Story” is dedicated to many including William Rueckert.

Harold detailed the journey in his book “Harold’s Story”*3, shining an immense light on the enormity of the trip, one that was made by many crews transporting themselves and aircraft across the vast southern hemisphere to a war very far away.

The journey would be broken into stages, each covering many miles, with hours of flying over water. Much of the journey taking in hot humid days broken by the cold nights, the time when they would fly the most.

The first part of the journey took them from Topeka to West Palm Beach on Florida’s southern point, then via Aguadilla, Porto Rico, to Georgetown in British Guiana. The crew would then fly onto Belem in Brazil before arriving at Fortaleza, their last stop before the next leg and the Atlantic.

The crossing of the Atlantic, then took the crew from Fortaleza, across the monotonous waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean. They were aiming for Dakar on the Cape Verde Peninsula, Africa’s most westerly point. The 1,928 miles would take them exactly twelve hours and thirty-five minutes, and cross four time zones point to point.

After a nights rest, the crew then flew from Dakar to Marrakesh in Morocco, where they waited for five days until the notoriously poor British weather cleared sufficiently for them to proceed. Finally, they were given the go-ahead, and the last leg would take them around neutral Spain and Portugal, wide of the Bay of Biscay, arriving finally at the US Staging post RAF Valley in Wales.  (RAF Valley, had been designated a major staging post for US arrivals along with St. Mawgan in Cornwall and Prestwick in Scotland).

As in many cases, the aircraft flown over by the crews was not the aircraft they would keep as part of their operational unit. The new aircraft being taken and flown by ferry crews to other operational squadrons. From Valley, crews would make their way to Liverpool where they would then be transferred to their assigned squadrons, William, Jimmy and Harold making their way to Hardwick by train. The journey not being a direct one, would lead to them arriving at Hardwick (Station 104) on April 24th 1944.

Formed only two years earlier on 22nd April 1942, the 409th was to be William’s only operational squadron. Having won three D.U.C.s already for operations over Europe including, the raid on the Romanian oil fields at Polesti, and the enormous raids of February 1944 ‘Big Week’, the 93rd were already a battle hardened group.

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

A B-24 Liberator (YM-H, serial number 42-95258) of the 409th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group (IWM FRE 3762)

Ted’s Flying Circus” as they were to be known, were very much in the front line of operations, taking part in the preparations for D-Day, completing much of their bombing missions over the Normandy area. Here they focused on cutting German supply lines and vital communication routes across France.

First and last Mission.

William’s first and only mission, was on May 1st 1944, one week after his arrival at the base. It was to be an early morning flight, take off at 05:00. Mission 332 was for more than 500 heavy bombers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bomb Divisions, to attack V- Weapons’ sites in northern France. These “Crossbow” operations were designed to destroy launching areas for the Nazi Terror weapons the V-1s that were targeting London and the South East. On that day William and Jimmy decided to volunteer to fill the vacant co-pilot and navigator spots in the crew of pilot Second Lieutenant Albert Schreiner (s/n: 0-805532) on B-24 ‘Joy Ride‘ #42-7621, leaving his other regular crewmen behind at Hardwick including Harold. William’s work ethics playing one last card as he wanted to get familiar with combat missions before taking his own crew out.

2nd Lt. Schreiner, a veteran pilot from Gloucester County, New Jersey had been along a similar path to  William’s, the ‘green’ newcomer. A Cavalry man he had enlisted in 1941, joining the National Guard before transferring across to the Air Corps.

On the night before the mission, William visited the local church at Topcroft, here he said his prayers in preparation for the following day’s flight. The church having strong links with the base, continues to honour the crews today.

The next morning, May Day 1944, two missions were planned, the first to the V Weapons site at Bonnieres, the second to a Brussels railway yard. About half the aircraft managed to get airborne for the first sortie, then it was the turn of ‘Joy Ride’.

The engines roared into life, 2nd Lt. Schreiner had signed the aircraft off fit for flight after a fuse for heating the suits had been replaced; the brakes were released and the aircraft began its roll along the perimeter track to the end of the runway where it sat waiting. After the signal to go was given, the engines were brought to full power, the brakes released and the aircraft shook and shuddered its way down runway 020 heading south. As it reached almost mid point it began to lift off, and when about 20 – 30 feet in the air, Schreiner gave the order to raise the undercarriage. S/Sgt. Monnie Bradshaw, the Top Turret Gunner / Flt. Engineer reported all instruments were well. He reached down to the undercarriage levers, when suddenly the aircraft hit the ground with an almighty sound.

A heavy landing tore off the left undercarriage leg and the nose wheel collapsed. Unable to gain any height, the aircraft crashed down and slid along the rest of runway 020 spinning round several times before ending up at the crossing with runway 032. Flames had by now engulfed the bomb bay and fuselage, Bradshaw pushed open the top hatch striking the Navigator 2nd Lt. James E. Gardner, on the head. Not seriously injured, both men escaped from the aircraft through the hatch, the top turret now resting on the nose of the stricken B-24, the fuselage engulfed in fire.

In the B-24 lined up behind William’s aircraft was Radio Operator Sgt. Cal Davidson who was stood between the pilot and co-pilot, a common practise on ‘night’ flights which allowed the pilot to focus on the instruments whilst the Radio operator watched the runway. Watching carefully between the rows of burning oil drums that lit the darkened runway, Davidson had a grandstand view of the incident that unfolded in horrifying detail in front of him. He described how he watched as William’s B-24 carrying a full load of fuel and bombs, took off from Hardwick’s north-south runway 020. In his diary that day, Sgt. Davidson wrote*5:

May 1 Blue Monday. No sleep last night as we were called for a mission, briefed at 2:00 and scheduled for a 4:00 take off flying the “War Goddess” to go on a practice mission before going to the actual target. As we sat on the runway next in line to take off, the plane ahead of us didn’t make it off crashing and exploding about 2/3rds of the way down the runway. Flames shot up and lit up the whole field. As I was standing between the Pilot and Co-pilot, the three of us watched stunned at what had just happened. Neast [The pilot: John K Neast] put his head down on the controls and said “O God why did this happen?”. He’d never taken off in the dark before and said he was all set until this happened.  The tower sent up red flares and told all remaining crews to get out of their planes. Once out of the plane with the engines quiet you could hear the 50 calibre bullets going off and the 500 lb bombs began exploding. Colonel Fiegel Base Commander and our Sq. C.O. Major Brown had tears in his eyes as he told us it was a 409th plane. Major Brown is one of the finest officers I have ever met.”

He then goes onto say:

One of those killed was a young French-Jewish boy from our barracks and had the bunk next to mine. We had nicknamed him ‘Frenchie’

‘Frenchie’ was Radio operator Sgt. Sheldon Sheinfine, who claimed to be probably the only French-Jew in the Eighth Air Force, he shared a barrack hut with Davidson, having adjacent bunks. Davidson himself, cleared out Sheinfine’s belongings almost immediately, and his loss, and the loss of the crew, had a great impact of Davidson.

Sgt. Cal Davidson front

Sgt. Cal Davidson (laying down front)

Two nearby Groundcrew Sgt. Harry Kelleher*2 and Sgt. Johnny Findley also witnessed the crash. Sgt. Findley was closest and recalled how he heard “the squeaking sparks flying off, as the plane slid along the runway“. Then he watched as it “burst into flames as it continued down 020 north-south to 032  runway“. Findley ran over to one of the ejected crew members holding him until rescue crews arrived. Sgt. Kelleher leapt into a jeep and raced over to the crash site picking up a further two crewmen. “At that point” Kelleher said ,”the gas tanks exploded knocking over the jeep“. That was enough and they made a quick exit, in Kelleher’s words “they got the hell away.”

Standing on dispersal number 8, Engineering Officer Captain Thomas H. Jackson also saw the aircraft “crash and burn“, as it slid along the runway it “burst into flames“.

Another witness, ground crewman Corporal Johnny Fridell Jr*7, who was standing by runway 020 as the B-24 slid along on its belly, described sparks flying from the aircraft until it reached the crossing with 032, spinning around catching fire. Fridell then jumped into a shelter fearing what was about to happen. Over the next half an hour, seven of the 500 lb bombs on board the B-24 exploded, the full complement of fuel caught fire and the ten  ammunition boxes containing nine yards of .50 calibre bullets, began exploding too. It was a massive fireball from which it was unlikely anyone would survive.

Standing on the balcony of the control tower, the Commander Colonel Leland Gordon Fiegel, also watched as the lumbering B-24 came down onto the runway and caught fire. From where he stood, he didn’t think the damage was any more worse than “an ordinary belly landing“, but noted how “the fires increased rapidly in their intensity“.

B-24 "Joy Ride" Tail section

The tail section of B-24 “Joy Ride” after the crash.

Ground crewman Cpl. Johnny Fridell , along with rescue crews, then ran toward the fireball to try and help anyone they could. Miraculously, of the total number of crew, three were uninjured: Navigator 2nd Lt. James Gardner, Waist Gunners S/Sgt. Harold Loucks and T/Sgt. Kerry Belcher, mostly located within the rear of the aircraft between the bomb bay and the tail. Two further crewmen received injuries; Top Turret/ Flight Engineer S/Sgt. Monnie Bradshaw and  Tail Gunner Sgt. Anthony Constantine. The remaining five, including Rueckert, were killed: Pilot 2nd Lt. Albert Schreiner, Bombardier 2nd Lt. Paul Sabin, Radio Operator S/Sgt. Sheldon Sheinfine and Nose Gunner Sgt. John Dalto. All of these were located in the front portion of the aircraft. The fire and explosions were so intense only a single thumb was found by rescuers.

The B-24 after the fireball

The remains of Reuckert’s B-24.

By 16:00 RAF Bomb Disposal crews had managed to remove and deal with the remaining bombs, it was thought at this stage the aircraft may have suffered from prop wash, a devastatingly dangerous effect caused by preceding aircraft creating turbulent air.

The explosion caused such damage that it created a huge crater closing the two main runways for five days. The mission was scrubbed (22 aircraft had already gotten airborne and carried on), red flares being fired into the night sky instructing crews to abandon their aircraft and return. For the next week all aircraft had to take off using the short runway and climb up over nearby woods approaching Topcroft village. As a result of the difficulty in doing so, there were subsequent crashes at Hardwick, with aircraft falling into the woods beyond the airfield. The crater and burnt debris of William’s B-24 leaving a stark reminder of the dangers of flying a heavy bomber laden with combustible and explosive materials.

Dee finds out!

For seventeen days Dee knew nothing of her husband’s fate. At home, she had been working on the new family flat at St. George, on the north-eastern corner of Staten Island, whilst living a few miles away with her family at Castleton Corners. Dee had been writing letters every day, in many cases two or three times a day, but unbeknown to her they were not reaching her husband very quickly – if at all.

To Dee, the old furniture with scratches and rips from the dogs they had owned held fond memories of their early days together. The many moves they had made as William had been posted from one training airfield to another, were emphatically etched in their structure.

Dee was at her mum’s house on May 18th when the buff telegram arrived. With ‘Western Union’ emblazoned across the top and two tell-tale red stars*6 in the bottom left corner, Dee knew exactly what it meant, she didn’t need to open it. As the tar stained hand of her father held it out to her, her life fell apart. The man she had adored for the last five years was gone, the moment she, and all serving personnel wives’ feared, had happened. She became ill and slid towards depression. Seeing the changes in her, Dee’s mother took charge, she gave up her own job and took Dee and the two children in. Encouraging Dee to go out and get a job, as she cared for Bill and Dianne and nursed Dee back to full strength.

Gradually, Dee recovered and got her life back on track. Small reminders would never be far away though, each one bringing William back to her thoughts. Not long after his death, flowers he had ordered only days before the accident, finally arrived on Dee’s doorstep.

The Telegram that brought the terrible news to Dee

The dreaded Telegram that brought the news of William’s death to Dee

Shortly after the 20th, a confirmation letter arrived from the War Department in Washington D.C. In three short paragraphs it confirmed that William had been “killed in action on 1 May 1944 over England.” It said nothing about the incident, as these are “prepared under battle conditions and the means of transmission are limited“. Signed by Brigadier General Robert H. Dunlop, it told Dee that William’s service had been “heroic“.

Back in the UK, those that had escaped, particularly William’s good friend James ‘Jimmy’ Gardner the Navigator, went into shock. He was sent to London to recuperate, before being sent home. In later years Bill tried to talk to him about the crash, but the shutters came down and Jimmy understandably turned away from Bill.  In June 1944, Harold, Bill’s other good friend from  their days at El Paso, would convince Col. Brown of his flying abilities, being approved as a pilot and then assigned another crew, he would go on to complete 37 missions with the 93rd at Hardwick.

In the official enquiry that followed the crash the engineer stated that all engines were running OK, each at 2,600 rpm with 49” M.P. (Manifold Pressure) in each one; recognised as sufficient power to achieve a good take off with the load being carried by the bomber. Schreiner’s training record was scrutinised and found to be in order. The pre-flight mechanic’s report was checked and several eye witness accounts were taken. After deliberations the committee apportioned 100% blame to the pilot Lt. Schreiner’s night take off technique, saying that he had allowed the aircraft to land again without realising what he had done. As a result, the committee recommended modified training for all crews to include further training in night take off and landings.

First page of the Crash Report

The first page of the accident report which blamed the pilot for his ‘take off technique’. Note the misspelling of William’s name.

Rueckert’s remains was initially buried at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial at Madingley, a few miles outside of Cambridge, along with the pilot 2nd Lt. Albert Schreiner. Later on, William’s mother asked Dee if his body could be returned to Illinois to be placed along side his father in the family plot in Moline. Dee, still angry at her attempts to stop the marriage, and knowing there was little more than bricks in the coffin, agreed to the move and the coffin was returned in 1952. Of the others, Bombardier 2nd Lt. Paul Sabin was buried in section 14 of the Mount Carmel Cemetery, Raytown, Jackson County, Missouri, and Radio Operator S/Sgt. Sheldon Sheinfine was buried at the Beth Israel Memorial Park, Woodbridge, Middlesex County, New Jersey. Sheinfine was only nineteen years of age. The last crewman to lose his life that day, was twenty-one year old Sgt. John Dalto, who was buried in the Long Island National Cemetery, East Farmingdale, Suffolk County, New York. The average age of the crew that day was only 20 years old.

At the end of the war, one of William’s original crewmen stopped off at Dee’s to explain that William had volunteered to fly in ‘Joyride‘ that fateful day, the purpose being to gain experience before taking his own crew into heavily defended enemy territory.

Since discovering a lot more about his father’s death, his son ‘Little Bill’, has repeatedly returned to Hardwick and has become very good friends with the site owner David Woodrow. William’s wings and wedding ring were never recovered from the crash site, and remain buried in Hardwick’s 032 runway, where the concrete patch stands today.

On the farm that now stands in the place of Hardwick airfield, is a small museum, maintained by a volunteer crew set up by both David Neale and David Woodrow. The farm also has a memorial to the 93rd BG and regularly honours those who served. During the time the airfield was open, a pond was located in this area, into this pond aircrew who had passed their statutory mission number were thrown, a right of passage that allowed them to go home. Many however didn’t, choosing to stay on and serve for longer.

Following the accident, 1st. Lt. Rueckert was awarded the Purple Heart, as was the pilot. His son Bill, has since donated a replica of the medal to the church at Topcroft, the church William visited the night before his death.

Purple Heart Certificate

William Rueckert’s certificate for his Purple Heart.

Inside the church, a plaque sits on the wall remembering the 668 men who never returned to Hardwick from missions. William’s name also appears in the St Paul’s Cathedral Roll of Honour, on page 365.

William G Rueckert was a brave young man who, like many others, went to fight a war a long way from home. Doing their duty came above all else, but like many others he longed to see his wife and family. Sadly, that day never came, and William lost his life serving the country and people he loved.

RAF Hardwick and the story of the 93rd BG whilst based here appears in Trail 12

William G Rueckert appears on the World War II Honours list of Dead and Missing, State of New York 1946 Page 136.

Sources, notes and further reading.

Much of the basic information used was supplied by William Rueckert (Little Bill) through emails, and all pictures (unless stated) were donated and used by kind permission from Bill to whom I am truly grateful.

*1 The Eastern Daily Press ‘Weekender’ was published on December 13th 2014.

*2 Sgt. Harry Kelleher went with the 39th BG when it took part in the Polesti raid. His rank was that of Non-flying Ordnance ground crew. However, it is believed he joined Captain Llewellyn L. Brown’s crew taking the position of Ball Turret Gunner on the B-24 #41-24298 ‘Queenie‘ which was hit by flak and diverted to Sicily. Harry had been denied the opportunity to fly in the bomber by his superiors, but went anyway. He is credited as Ball Turret Gunner on the ‘American Air Museum’ website having been awarded the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Harry had relayed the story to Little Bill before passing away, however, none of the crew have ever verified his claim and no other record seems to exist of it.

*3 Extracts from “Harold’s Story” written by Harold Emerson Roehrs, William’s best friend, were kindly given to me by Bill. The book I believe is now out of circulation.

*4 The History of Stockton Field can be found on the Military museum website, including images of Stockton Field taken during the war.

*5 Email from Cal Davidson to Bill Rueckert 25/8/04, courtesy of Bill Rueckert.

*6 One Red Star would signify Missing in Action or wounded, whereas two meant they were killed. Hence anyone seeing the telegram would know before even opening it what it meant. Dee’s father owned as company that repaired water tanks on top of the skyscrapers using tar, hence his hands were always covered with it.

*7 Corporal John L. Fridell Jr (s/n: 14077456) was one of the ground crew for ‘The Sleepy Time Girl‘ also referred to as “Sleepytime Gal‘ which completed 135 missions without returning once with mechanical problems.

*8 Accident number 43-5-20-6 Lemoore Army Air Field provided by the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

All quotes regarding the crash of the B-24 are from witness statements taken from the War Department Investigation, Report of Aircraft Accident Number 0000198.

USAAF Training Aircraft Fuselage Codes of WW II website

Abandoned and Little known Airfields website has a  very interesting collection of photographs and information on Lemoore AAF.

Kirtland Air Force Base Website

MyBaseGuide website

Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Research website.

El Paso Times Website.

2Lt. Thomas E. Cartmell Blog by Michael John Hughey, MD

My sincere thanks go to Bill for allowing me to publish his father’s story and to all those who have contributed comments, corrections and information about the accident. I am continuing to search for further information, if / when this arrives, I shall add it to the text.

Spitfires Galore! – RAF Ludham (Part 3)

In the previous parts of RAF Ludham, we have see how it got off to a slow start and how Spitfire squadrons used Ludham for off shore patrols. We saw how the airfield was handed over to the Americans and redeveloped with concrete runways and a new watch office. Now it was the turn of the Royal Navy to use Ludham, an experience they would rather have not had.

Being only four miles from the Norfolk coast, Ludham (or HMS Flycatcher, RNAS Ludham as it was now known) would have normally been ideal for the Royal Navy, however, this was not the case. The RN had recently set up the Mobile Naval Airfields Organisation, (MNAO) and was looking for a suitable location for its headquarters. The RN had considered locations as far away as the Far East, but in desperation had turned to the RAF for help with a suitable site. The RAF offered Ludham which the Royal Navy reluctantly accepted.

A small party arrived at Ludham and took charge, led by Commander (A) J.B. Wilson and Captain L.J.S. Edes. The airfield still being closed to flying, was commissioned for use by the RN on September 4th.

The purpose of the MNAO, which had by now changed names to Mobile Naval Air Base (MONAB), was as a facility providing airfield facilities working in conjunction with the Fleet as they progress across the Pacific toward Japan. They would take control of captured airfields or otherwise construct their own, thus providing air support and maintenance work for Royal Naval aircraft*1. The range of aircraft that Ludham would cater for included: the Avenger; Corsair; Expeditor; Firefly and Hellcat.

The creation and structure of MONAB is complex, each unit consisting upward (and sometimes in excess) of 1,000 personnel a number that would cause great problems for those at Ludham. With new personnel coming in, the numbers would exceed those that Ludham could realistically cater for and so many were put up in tents or other temporary accommodation. The winter of 1944 – 45 being one of the worst, eventually turned Ludham into a bog, cold, wet and very muddy! Ludham soon became a terrible place to work, let alone live! The RN decided to split the MONAB so that only the Receipt & Dispatch Unit was based at Ludham, which in itself led to more complications. As time went on, the RN began searching for a more suitable location, one with good road and rail connections as well as better accommodation facilities.

The whole saga ended up being so poor, that by January the RN were almost as desperate for a new location as they were before being offered Ludham. In February, the Air Ministry offered Middle Wallop, an airfield under the control of 7 Group RAF. On the 16th, the transfer occurred and RNAS Ludham ceased to be, Middle Wallop taking on the both the role and the name HMS Flycatcher.

After the Fleet Air Arm vacated Ludham, the airfield was handed back to RAF control, although many of the functions continued to be carried out by the remaining Naval personnel. In mid February, the former Station Commander of Matlask Sqn. Ldr. P. G. Ottewill (previously awarded the George Medal) arrived to formally take over control of Ludham. His arrival would signify the definitive end of the Navy’s links, and the last Naval personnel finally moved out on the 24th.

Ludham wouldn’t stay quiet for long though. Within days of the Navy’s departure two new squadrons would arrive bringing back the old favourite, the Spitfire, with the arrival of both 602 and 603 Sqns.

Armourers set the tail fuses on a clutch of 500lb bombs in front of a Spitfire XVI, 603 Squadron, Ludham, March 1945. The bombs were destined for V-2 sites in the Netherlands (© IWM CH 14808).

Both 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron and 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron were Auxiliary Air Force (AAF) Squadrons, devised out of the remnants of the First World War, and led by Sir Hugh Trenchard. Post war apathy however, prevented the official formation of this force until 1924 when a Bill was passed in Government making them both legal and official. Initially designed to be ‘reservists’ they were to be located near to the city of their name and would be called upon to protect that region in the event of an attack. Manned by a cadre of regulars and non-regulars, the Auxiliary Air Force officially came into being on January 17th, 1939. Throughout the war the AAF, sometimes seen as ‘part-timers’, were responsible for a number of both high ranking officials and remarkable feats. Indeed, the AAF were a force to be reckoned with, the first Luftwaffe aircraft shot down over Britain*2 (the ‘Humbie Heinkel) going jointly to both 602 and 603 Sqns in an attack over Edinburgh.

602 (City of Glasgow) Sqn had the honour of being the first of these AAF units to emerge from this Bill, being formed on 12th September 1925 at Renfrew, Glasgow. 603 (City of Edinburgh) Sqn joining them not long after on 14th October 1925 at Turnhouse. Throughout the war years both units would move around covering the length and breadth of Britain (603 even having postings to Egypt) before reuniting here at Ludham in February 1945.

February 1945 had been a wintery month, the poor weather causing several missions to be postponed, with all commands of the Allied forces suffering. 602 Sqn returned from France to Coltishall, after which they moved between Matlask, Swannington and back to Coltishall before arriving here at Ludham on February 23rd 1945. The following day, their sister squadron 603 Sqn, arrived having been abroad operating with Beaufighters. Their arrival here at Ludham meant that 12 Group would have six operational squadrons in the vicinity, all dedicated to defeating the V2 rocket menace that was plaguing London and the south east. Upon moving in, neither squadron took long to settle, and the general consensus was that Ludham was a ‘good airfield’ to be based at, especially compared to Matlask and Swannington!

By this time 602 would have the Spitfire XVI which allowed for a 1,000lb bomb-load. This would be used not only against ‘Big Ben‘ (V2) sites, but bridges, railways and other communication lines across Holland and western Germany. 603 Sqn had the LF XVIE Spitfire, capable of carrying a more modest 500lb bomb load (either as 2 x 250lb or 1 x 500lb bomb) as a dive bomber, a role that the Spitfire was not designed for. As might be expected, a friendly rivalry had grown between the two squadrons resulting in a competition to see who could hit the most locomotives or other vehicles. This resulted in numerous ground attacks being carried out, some 1,008 hours being flown by 603 Sqn alone.

The daily routine continued with the bombing of sites in Holland as ‘Ramrod‘ missions. Crews from Matlask, Swannington and Coltishall all joining the Ludham crews. These sorties focusing on the V2 rocket sites, the Haagsche Bosch taking a particular pasting  in these last few cold days of February 1945.

Following information provided by the Dutch resistance, these Spitfires would patrol, with, pretty much, ‘free-reign’ over the Dutch countryside concentrating on areas around The Hague. Woodland became a source for many attacks, the Germans being particularly clever at hiding mobile V2 sites in such areas. Pilots, being acutely aware of Dutch civilians, would look for any traffic movement on roads around these areas and these were to be ‘fair game’, civilian traffic unlikely to be roaming so freely at this time.

Pilots of No. 602 Squadron study targets in Holland, with the aid of a large-scale map and target photographs in the Operations Room at RAF Ludham (possibly March 1945). This was part of a series of ‘posed’ photographs. Note the pilots names on the lockers and the seat-type parachute on the top of one. The pilots are (left to right): P.O. W. J. Robert, F.O. R. F. Baxter (the famous TV presenter, Raymond Baxter), Sgt. S. Gomm, W.Off. L. T. Menzies, W. Off. Crossland, Sgt. T. L. Love, W. Off. J. Toone and W. Off S. Sollitt. (© IWM CH 14810)

Attacks would normally come in from between 6,000 and 8,000 ft, diving down at about 70o, letting bombs go at around 3,000 ft. It was a difficult attack, keeping the target in the sights whilst avoiding flak and keeping the aircraft together. On one occasion, a Spitfire was seen to lose its wings pulling out of a dive too quickly, the bombs still attached to their mounts.

The whole of March saw similar patterns, attacks on railway yards, locomotives, transport facilities, trucks and V2 sites.

By April,  the war was all but over, with which came a final move for both 602 Sqn and 603 Sqns to Coltishall. Prior to this, on the 3rd, the two squadrons were given an ‘Easter gift’ in the form of a day out on the Norfolk Broads. For 603 breakfast finished at 10:30 at which point the bar opened for Guinness, providing a liquid recreation for those who wished it. Other 603 Sqn crews took boats up to the Broads where they joined with 602 crews spending the day relaxing on its quiet waterways.

On the 4th the order to vacate Ludham came through, the airfield was busied, sorting and packing equipment and tools, and on the 5th all aircraft, ground staff and equipment of both squadrons departed in shuttle flights for Coltishall – another link had been broken.

However, this was not to be the end of Ludham. Even as the Nazi war machine ground to a halt, Ludham would continue on, with two more squadrons arriving. Throughout the war the Spitfire in its various marks had been the main type to use Ludham, this was no different, 91 Sqn bringing the Spitfire XXI (8th April), and 1 Sqn the F.21.

There time here at Ludham was filled with mass formation flying, cross-country flights, dive bombing practise and regular parties. The crews even enjoying time fishing and boating on the Broads. Events were becoming so predictable that almost anything different was news, on August 1st Fl. Lt.R. (Tac) Brown became a father, a baby son being recorded in the ORB for that day!

Both units would stay until mid / late July 1945, at which point they departed, 1 Squadron heading to Hutton Cranswick, the Spitfire being the last piston-engined fighter aircraft to fly with this prestigious unit before taking on jets; and 91 Sqn to Fairwood Common, again the Spitfire seeing the end of piston engined aircraft before the dawn of the jet age. With their departure, the end had now come for Ludham as an active military airfield. The site was closed, put into care and maintenance and eventually sold off for agriculture.

By the time it closed Ludham had developed from a basic satellite station to an airfield in its own right, with the addition of three hard runways, twelve pens, nine hardstands and the addition of (US type) single and double hardstands. It also had one type T2 hangar and four blister hangars – one of which survives today although not in its original location.

As with many of Britain’s wartime airfields, Ludham returned to agriculture, the runways were dug up and many of the buildings pulled down. Some remained used for agricultural purposes and part of one runway was left, used for crop sprayers and private light aircraft, one of the blister hangars was uprooted and placed on the end of the runway. Those buildings that were left decayed, including the two watch offices. In 2000 – 01, they were restored, and in 2005, Historic England (entry No: 1393540) designated both buildings as Grade II listed, as an “exceptionally well-preserved example of a Second World War control tower.” However, they were both left empty and the inevitable happened again, they began to decay and fall into disrepair once more a state they exist in today*3.

Dotted around the perimeter (a mere track) are a handful of buildings, defensive posts and firing butts, all remnants of Ludham’s once chaotic but meaningful past.

Ludham airfield rests between the villages of Ludham (to the south west) and Potter Higham (to the south east). The main A149 passes to the eastern side and the entire site is circumnavigated by a minor road. From this road, the majority of remnants can be seen, with good views across the entire site. A small private road leads up to the watch offices, and parts of the peri track and runways are still in evidence. Various buildings and structures can be found around this track too, some hidden in private gardens and utilised for storage.

Ludham started out as a satellite airfield, its future seemingly never intending to be major. But, circumstances dictated otherwise, eventually becoming a major player in the front line against enemy shipping, the V2 menace and as a safe haven for returning aircraft, limping home from battles over occupied Europe. If that isn’t sufficient for an entry in the history books, then what is?

The full story of RAF Ludham appears in Trail 58.

Sources and further reading.

National Archives: AIR 27/253/24 
National Archives:AIR 27/2107/15
National Archives: AIR 27/2107/19
National Archives: AIR 27/1164/17
National Archives: AIR 27/1164/14
National Archives: AIR 27/2078/31
National Archives: AIR 27/2080/29
National Archives: AIR 27/4/33

*1 For further information and a detailed explanation of MONAB, including photographs and history, see The MONAB Story – A history of the mobile airfields of the Royal Navy website.

*2 The shooting down of the ‘Humbie Heinkel‘ can be read in Trail 42 – East Lothian, Edinburgh’s Neighbours. 

*3 Historic England Website Listing 1393540

Simpson, B., “Spitfire Dive-Bombers versus the V2” Pen and Sword (2007) – for further information about Spitfires used against the V2 rockets.

Spitfires Galore! – RAF Ludham (Part 2)

In Part 1 we saw how Ludham began its life and how things got off to a slow but steady start, the period April to August 1942 being  pretty much along similar lines, routine patrols, shipping reconnaissances and scrambles. But the autumn signifies the beginning of many changes here at this Norfolk airfield. First however, the resident Spitfire squadron, 610 Sqn, would take part in one of the Second World War’s more famous failures.

Ludham airfield

One of several buildings located around the perimeter of the airfield.

On August 16th, a need arose for fighters to bolster 11 Group for ‘Operation Jubilee‘ –  the raid on Dieppe by allied forces, primarily Canadian. The raid was supposed to achieve a number of objectives, but only one was successful, the main force being held on the beach where vehicles became bogged down in the shingle. 610 Sqn formed part of the aerial umbrella, along with 411 Sqn and 485 Sqn who all jointly formed the 12 Group wing flying from a temporary base at RAF West Malling. On the previous night to the raid, the 19th, ground crews were busy at West Malling fitting long range drop tanks to the Spitfires which according to the ORB, “proved their worth on this occasion“. During the air battle, which raged between the Spitfires, Typhoons and around fifty Me 109s and FW 190s, 610 Sqn claimed two 109s along with one FW 190 as destroyed and two FW 190s as damaged.  Three of 610 Sqn’s aircraft went down, one of the pilots Flt. Sgt. Creagh, being picked up from the sea. Interestingly enough, during this skirmish, pilots noted seeing FW 190s in Italian markings! By 09:30 hrs the squadron had returned to West Malling.

The flight then returned to the skies over Dieppe three further times that day, taking off at 11:20 hrs and then again at 14:00 hrs, each time to cover the withdrawal of shipping. The last evening sortie took off at 17:35 hrs. On the 20th, 610 Sqn flew out to France once again, this time though it was to escort  US bombers returning from the continent, perhaps seeing the carnage left by the disastrous raid the day before.

By the 21st it was all over, and the sixteen aircraft returned to Ludham where they would receive a message of thanks from the AOC 11 Group – Leigh Mallory.

As the squadron were returning to Ludham, so too came a new delivery, the squadron’s first batch of Spitfire Mk.VCs, with three arriving on the 21st and one further aircraft arriving on the 22nd. These were gradually absorbed into flying duties as the squadron returned to normal patrols and escort duties from Ludham. 610’s tally for the month stood at 123 enemy aircraft destroyed and 41.5 probables.

Over September, flights were pretty much routine once more, then October arrived and Ludham became frantic again. On the 8th, a road party was sent as advanced party to Biggin Hill with a view to taking part in a “Hush-Hush” operation. Unfortunately the operation was cancelled just prior to the party’s arrival, and they had to return to Ludham somewhat disappointed; road and rail transport being provided for the next morning.

That day also saw 610 Sqn Spitfires provide withdrawal cover for “over 100 Fortresses”, which at the time was a “headline” mission, this being the largest daylight raid of the war so far. The incredible sight of this massed formation would be dwarfed in comparison by the wars end with formations consisting of 1,000 aircraft or more, in a stream that lasted for what must have seemed forever.  Whilst enemy aircraft were seen in this first momentous occasion, there were no claims of ‘kills’ or ‘probables’ made by pilots of Ludham’s 610 Sqn.

By now, rumours of another move were circulating widely, hopes for a move south nearer to the action were dashed, when signal O2OB, dated 11.10.42, came through instructing the squadron to move to Castletown, near Caithness in Scotland – the opposite end of the country to where they wanted to be.

The move was to take place on the 14th October, and would be a direct swap with 167 (Gold Coast) Sqn, yet another Spitfire VC squadron. The airlift of 167 Sqn was late in arriving, meaning that many men were left ‘Kicking their heels” at Ludham, so a number headed to Norwich and a little light entertainment at the cinema. The transfer then happened on the next day, the 15th, with many of the pilots suffering sickness on the way up, thought to be due to the poor weather. Now 610’s link to this small Norfolk airfield was broken, and a new link in Ludham’s chain of history would be forged – a new squadron had arrived.

167 Sqn stayed at Ludham for five months, after which they took part in exercise ‘Spartan‘, a twelve day posting first at Kidlington and then Fowlmere, before returning to Ludham on March 13th, 1943. Exercise Spartan was a prelude to D-day, a huge military exercise that took place in southern England as a practise for the allied offensive across Europe in June 1944. Like Operation Jubilee, it consisted heavily of Canadian units, and also like Operation Jubilee, there were many shortcomings, the result of which was the loss of Command for three Canadian Generals.

A further short two month stay at Ludham then saw 167 Sqn depart in May for good. This left the Norfolk airfield to the only Typhoon squadron to use the base – 195 Sqn.

Formed in November 1942, 195 Sqn had formed at Duxford, transferring to Hutton Cranswick where they were assigned their Typhoons. A further move to Woodvale then brought them to Ludham where they would stay until 31st July 1943.

Ludham airfield

The second Watch Office also in a very poor state of disrepair.

On arrival at Ludham the squadron was immediately confirmed as operational, and on the 15th May 1943, the very day the operational  notice came through, Sgt. R.A. Hough spotted an Me 109f bombing Southwold. He engaged the enemy shooting him down into the sea, the squadrons first confirmed kill of the war.

With four more Typhoons arriving on the 20th, the squadron was in good spirits and eager to get on. But like their predecessors before them, their month consisted of patrols, practice scrambles and training flights some of which included the squadron’s Hurricane (7778) and Tiger Moth (209). By the end of the month, the Ludham unit had made 362 flights, most as patrols or as training flights. June was similar, the lack of contact frustrating the pilots; a note in the ORB saying “Patrols carried out dawn to dusk, 12 operational sorties being flown, but the Hun wouldn’t play“. The highlight of the day was perhaps the darts match against the local Home Guard, the Home Guard winning that night! As the month progressed, the squadron began to venture further afield taking on trains and oil storage facilities on the continent, scoring many hits and receiving flak damage as a result. On the 8th July the squadron suffered its first Ludham fatality when Flt. Sgt. F. Vause hit the ground in a low flying exercise. A talk by Sqn. Ldr. Taylor reflected the sentiments of the unit when he said they had lost a “Damn good pilot”. He went on to stress the low flying rules.

The end of July came and notification to depart Ludham for Matalsk, and a share of the airfield with 609 Sqn. There was some regret withe the more ‘romantic’ types of the squadron and due honours were paid to Ludham on that last night of the 30th July.

The last Spitfire squadron before Ludham left RAF control was 611 Sqn, with their Spitfire LF VBs. This was a short stay lasting only until August 4th, when they were told to move to Coltishall as Ludham was being closed down in preparation for transference to the USAAF. After one sortie at Ludham the move went ahead on the 4th, but it was not overly welcomed as Coltishall was already busy and accommodation was cramped.

With that, Ludham was closed, and the airfield was taken over by the Air Ministry (Works) whereupon construction work began on three new concrete and tarmac runways, a project that would take a year to complete. During this time new hardstands were installed – a mix of (17) double and (18) single types using pierced steel, some of these were located outside of the perimeter, and a small maintenance unit took care of the running of the airfield. A new two storey watch office was built with the original being re-purposed.

Designated Station 177, Ludham was never actually occupied by the Americans though, even though all the upgrade work had been completed, it remained firmly deserted apart from a small maintenance unit who oversaw its use.

Instead, it was decided to use Ludham as a dummy airfield and emergency landing ground for returning aircraft. A decision that was partly made for them as heavy bombers returning from daylight missions over occupied Europe would often come in over this part of East Anglia, and Ludham was the first airfield they would come across. Because of this, Ludham would see some eight B-17s, a B-24, one P-47, and a P-38 aircraft have to either crash or make emergency landings at Ludham or in the immediate vicinity.

The first to make use of the airfield in this way occurred on October 8th, 1943 barely a month into the airfield’s upgrading. A B-17F #42-3393  “Just-A-Snappin” was badly damaged over Bremen. The aircraft, piloted by Capt. Everett Blakely, made it back to England crossing the Norfolk coast east of Ludham. The aircraft had sustained severe damage from flak, the Number 4 engine, the hydraulics and the brakes all being put out of action. The aircraft made an emergency landing at Ludham crashing into a large tree causing further damage to the air frame. It was salvaged a few days later. This particular aircraft had only been assigned to the 418th BS at Thorpe Abbots, part of the Bloody Hundredth, in the July. It also went under the name of  “Blakely’s Provisional Group” and ”Did You Say Ten Cents?“, the multitude of names causing confusion in a number of references.

Part of a door cover from P-38 Lightning named

Part of door cover retrieved from wreckage of P-38H5LO #42-67053 ‘CY-L’, flown by Lt. Goudelock on December 13th 1943. The aircraft crashed in Ludham after flying for 375 miles on one engine (IWM FRE 158)

A second aircraft would attempt to use Ludham as a safe haven not long after this. On the 13th December, 1943 P-38H #42-67503 of the 55th FG, 343rd FS, “Vivacious Vera” piloted by First Lt. Hugh J. Goudelock, sustained damage to one engine whilst escorting bombers also over Bremen. After nursing the aircraft back to Britain he attempted a landing at Ludham when, suddenly, the second engine gave out. This left the P-38 powerless, causing it to crash in Ludham, the pilot sustaining only minor injuries. The strength of the P-38 having brought the pilot back for 375 miles on a single engine,

A similar story was repeated on December 23rd when B-17F #42-3273 “Impatient Virgin” crashed at Potter Heigham, another village only a stones throw from the airfield, while attempting to land at Ludham following damage it received over Munster. A sudden loss of power meant the aircraft had to put down in a field rather than on the airfield, all ten crewmen luckily returned to duty and the aircraft was salvaged.

B-17F “Impatient Virgin” #42-3273 of the 95th Bomb after crashing at Potter Heigham near to Ludham airfield. (IWM FRE 3903)

December had certainly been a busy month for Ludham, even though officially it was closed to flying, it had more than proved its worth as an emergency landing ground.

The work continued at Ludham and eventually, in August 1944, it was complete. By then though the US forces had decided against using Ludham and it was handed over to the Royal Navy (RN).

In the concluding part we saw how the Royal Navy fared at Ludham and how eventually Spitfire squadrons return. The V2 becomes a menace to be dealt with and then the war comes to a close and Ludham’s future is decided.

The full story of RAF Ludham appears in Trail 58.

Spitfires Galore! – RAF Ludham (Part 1)

In this second part of Trail 58, we leave Rackheath behind and head east towards the coast of East Anglia, and an area known as the ‘Broads’. A few miles across this flat and wetland we come across a small airfield, currently used by crop sprayers and small light aircraft. This private field, almost indistinguishable from the farming land around it, just hints at its past, with two rundown towers, a blister hangar and a small collection of pathways, its history is fast disappearing.

In this the last part of Trail 58 we visit the former RAF Ludham.

RAF Ludham (Station 177, H.M.S. Flycatcher, RNAS Ludham).

Ludham is a small airfield that has been in existence since September 1941, when it opened as a satellite for RAF Coltishall located a few miles to the north-west. It would change hands on more than one occasion over the next few years, being assigned to the RAF, the USAAF and the Royal Navy before returning to RAF ownership once more.

Throughout this time, it would operate as a fighter airfield seeing  range of Spitfire Marks along with a Typhoon Squadron. A number of B-17s would crash here as would a P-38 lightning and several other USAAF aircraft; part of Ludham’s history being that of an emergency landing strip for returning aircraft.

At its inception, Ludham was a grassed airfield, with a hardened perimeter track linking a number of dispersals. Being a fighter airfield the perimeter was only 40 feet wide but of concrete construction, thus it was not designed for the larger, medium or heavy bombers of the allied air forces.

Furthermore, as a satellite, Ludham lacked the design features of a major airfield, and so the accommodation and technical facilities were not up to the same standard of those found on other sites. The accommodation huts were scattered around the north-western side of the airfield, and an initial single storey watch office was also built to the west. A standard wartime design for satellite airfields (design 3156/41), it was a single-roomed structure with a pyrotechnic cupboard and limited views. A switch room was then added to the building (design 1536/42) in early 1942, before the entire building was abandoned and a new twin storey watch office built. As with most airfields of this type, the twin storey building was constructed in conjunction with the addition of the concrete runways. This new office  (design 12779/41) with lower front windows (343/43) would have many benefits over the original not least better views across the airfield site.

Ludham airfield

The much dilapidated original Watch Office.

Another interesting, but not unique feature of Ludham, was a Modified Hunt Range, a structure designed to teach aircraft recognition. The structure, built inside a Laing Hut, saw the trainee sat in front of an enormous mirror. A moving model was then placed behind the student on an elaborate turntable that could not only move in the horizontal plane, but both turn and bank. A selection of lights and a cyclorama added to the realism, with the model reflected in the mirror in front of the student. The combination of all these features provided the students with life-like conditions, thus recreating the same difficulties they were likely to find in combat situations.

For much of its early life, Ludham was used as a satellite of Coltishall, although many of its squadrons were based here from the outset. The primary aircraft seen here was Supermarine’s magnificent Spitfire, the first of which was the MK.VB of 19 Squadron.

19 Sqn had only had this mark of Spitfire since October, previously operating the MK.IIA at RAF Matlask not far from here on the north Norfolk coast. The Mk V was the most produced Spitfire of all 24 marks (and their sub variants) and was armed with a combination of machine gun and canon depending upon which wing configuration was used. The link between the Spitfire, Matlask and Ludham would be a long one, with units moving from one to the other. forging a bond that would last the entire war.

Arriving in the opening days of December 1941, 19 Sqn immediately began carrying out patrols and bomber escort duties over the North Sea, a duty they had been undertaking whilst at Matlask. On several occasions they would fly out to meet incoming Beauforts and their escorts, after they had completed their anti-shipping missions along the Dutch coast. Daily flights would take: Red, Green, Yellow, White, Black or Blue section, each containing two aircraft, over Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth and around the coastal regions of the Norfolk / Suffolk coastline.

However, most of these encounters produced little in the way of contact – even when pilots were directed onto the enemy aircraft. On the 9th, P.O. Halford and Sgt. Turner were vectored onto an intruder, but neither aircraft saw, nor encountered the ‘bandit’, and they returned empty handed. Another two scrambles that same day by ‘Green’ and ‘Black’ sections also proved fruitless, although ‘Black’ section did manage to locate the aircraft which turned out to be a friendly.

Ludham airfield

An original Blister hangar now located on the former runway.

Other duties carried out by 19 Sqn included shipping reconnaissance flights, shadowing and monitoring shipping movements across the North Sea, particularly along the Dutch coast. Taking off at 11:20 on December 18th, F.O. Edwards and P.O. Brooker flew at zero feet across the Sea to Scheveningen where they spotted a convoy of 11 ships. One of these was identified as a flak ship protecting the convoy as it left for open waters. The pair then turned north and flew along the coast to Yumiden where they encountered three more ships. No enemy aircraft were encountered and the pair returned to Ludham to file their report.

Then on Christmas Eve, P.O.s Vernon and Hindley in ‘Blue‘ Section were tasked with a ‘Rhubarb‘ mission to attack the aerodrome at Katwyk. On route, they came across a convoy and two Me. 109Es, who were acting as escort / cover for the ships. The two Spitfires engaged the 109s, Blue 1 getting a two second canon and machine gun strike on one of them at 300 yards range. Black smoke was seen coming from the fighter which dived to the sea only to pull up at the last minute and head for home. Blue 2  engaged the other enemy aircraft, but no strikes were seen and the German pilot broke off also setting a course for home. The two Spitfires then engaged the convoy attacking a number of vessels, each pilot recording strikes on the ships, claiming some as ‘damaged’. After the attack they returned home, this leg of the flight being uneventful.

These events set a general pattern for the next four months, and one that would become synonymous with Ludham. Then, on April 4th 1942, 19 Sqn would move to RAF Hutton Cranswick, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, a direct swap with 610 Sqn who had been stationed there since the January.

Also during this time a supporting squadron had also been at Ludham, 1489 (Fighter) Gunnery Flight, (formerly 1489 (Target Towing) Flight) which had moved in to help prepare fighter pilots for air-to-air combat. Around the time that 19 Sqn departed Ludham, 1489 Flt also departed, also going to Hutton Cranswick with 19 Sqn where they were disbanded in 1943.

610 Sqn were another Spitfire squadron also operating the MK.VB at this time. They too got straight back into action carrying out the patrols undertaken by 19 squadron before them. No engagements were recorded until the 8th, when what were thought to be two ‘E’ boats were sighted but not engaged.

The remainder of April was much the same, several convoy escorts, reconnaissance missions along the Dutch coast and scrambles that led to very little. On the 27th two Spitfires did encounter and Ju 88 which they shot down, the crew from the Ju 88 were not seen after the aircraft hit the water. On the next day, ten Spitfires took off between midnight and 01:05 hrs to patrol the Norwich area. Here they saw green parachute flares, and flew to intercept. Sticks of bombs were then seen exploding in the streets of the city, and various pilots engaged with Do 217 bombers. Strikes were recorded on the enemy aircraft, but they were lost in smoke and they could not be confirmed as ‘kills’. Further attacks occurred again on the 29th and again strikes were seen by the RAF pilots on the enemy intruders.

The period April to August was pretty much along similar lines, routine patrols, shipping reconnaissances and scrambles.  Then in mid August, 610 Sqn would take part in one of the Second World War’s more famous failures.

Ludham had a mainly uneventful entry to the war, sporadic scrambles, intermittent contacts and many hours of training, its future looked secure. But, there were many changes ahead and many events that would put it firmly on the map of history.

In Part 2 we see how these changes affect Ludham and its future.

The full story of RAF Ludham appears in Trail 58.

RAF Rackheath – The 467th BG, the highest bombing accuracy (pt2).

In Part 1 we saw how Rackheath had been developed, and how the 467th BG, the resident group had been subjected to a fierce introduction to the war.

Now, in part 2, we continue our visit to Rackheath and the bizarre event of December 1944.

On December 24th,  B-24 #42-50675 “Bold Venture III” piloted by 1st. Lt. P. Ehrlich, was one of sixty-two B-24s from the 467th taking part in a maximum effort attack on a range of targets in Germany. Hit by flak over the target, five of the  crew, including the pilot, bailed out fearing the aircraft was lost. All five were subsequently captured and incarcerated as prisoners of war. The fires in the engines then extinguished themselves allowing the remaining crew to engage the auto-pilot, taking the aircraft homeward and over allied territory. Once over France, they too bailed out as they were unable to land the heavy bomber, each of these men being safely picked up by allied forces. The plane then continued on, unmanned across the Channel, until it ran out of fuel.

RAF Rackheath

The former hangar has been completely refurbished.

At this point, the story becomes confused. Some say it landed / crashed  in a field near to  Lower House Farm, Vowchurch Common in Herefordshire. The wreck being salvaged the following day. However, there is little evidence of this event, and other sources (Freeman “The Mighty Eighth“) have it landing in a Welsh marsh a little further west. Whatever the truth is, its a remarkable, but not unique, story of  a crewless bomber flying ‘home’ coming to rest safely on British soil.

Also on that Christmas Eve, another Rackheath B-24, #42-95220, piloted by First Lieutenant William W. Truxes Jr , was hit over Pruen. The aircraft then exploded over Rettigny in Belgium, killing Sgt. Walter Walinski (TG); Sgt. Stanley P. Koly (LWG); Fl. Off. David J. Countey (Nav); Sgt. Roland L. Morehouse (BA); St. Sgt. Peter Hardick Jr (TTG); St. Sgt. John N. Ellefson (Radio Op) and Sgt. Alek Onischuk (RWG). Only the Nose Gunner St. Sgt. Robert J. Ball Jr. returned to duty the remainder being taken prisoners of war.

On the 29th the continuing appalling weather caused the loss of two more B-24s, both crashing attempting to take off from a foggy Rackheath (#42- 95115 and #42-51572). A third (#42-94881) was then abandoned over the sea, and a forth (#44- 10607) crashed at Attlebridge also after sustaining damage on its take off. The  visibility was so poor that day that the crews couldn’t even make out the edge of the runway. As a result of these crashes, the mission to Prum, was finally scrubbed, but by then fifteen airmen had already been lost.

The dawn of 1945 saw the Ardennes offensive continuing, and at Rackheath B-24 ‘Witchcraft‘ was approaching its 100th Mission an achievement it made on January 14th 1945. In just 140 days since arriving, it had reached its 70th mission an average of one mission every two days, but what made this particular achievement so remarkable was not this incredible average, but the fact that the aircraft had been mechanically sound throughout, not having to turn back from any sortie it had undertaken. A remarkable achievement, and a solid testament to the dedication of the ground crews who kept her in the air.

The Witch“, as she affectionately became known, would go on to complete a total of 130 missions without a single abort nor injury to any crewman. She became one of the most celebrated aircraft in the 8th Air force’s history. This total would surpass all other B-24s in the whole of the European theatre of operations. Like many though, ‘The Witch‘ eventually returned to the US where she was unceremoniously taken apart at Altus, Oklahoma. In memory of the aircraft, her achievements and the crews who were lost flying B-24s, she is now represented by the world’s last flying Liberator, currently owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, Massachusetts.

Ground crew of the 467th BG B-24 “Witchcraft“. Standing Crew Chief Joe Ramirez, Chamberlin. Front Row Walter Elliot, Geo Dong, Joe Vetter, Ray Betcher.’ (IWM FRE 1979)

As 1945 progressed the end of the war was near. Attempts by the Luftwaffe to curtail bomber intrusions into German airspace were becoming desperate. The introduction of the Me 262 was too little, too late, to make a major difference. But so determined to stop the bombers were the Luftwaffe pilots that many still got through and they were finding the bombers.

Other fighters more determined to bring down the enemy began ramming them. A specialist squadron the ‘Sonderkommando Elbe‘  was set up using volunteer pilots. They were instructed to strike the fuselage of the bomber between the wing and tail thus cutting the aircraft in two, a tactic that would  allow the German pilot to bail out of his aircraft whilst taking down the bomber.

On April 7th, the unit was put into action in its one and only recorded attack, as over 1,000 heavies flew towards German airfields, oil storage facilities and factories in north-west Germany. From the 2nd AD, 340 B-24s headed for Krummel, Duneburg and Neumunster. As the force approached they were targeted by a mix of over 100 Luftwaffe fighters including 109s, 190s and 262s. In this mix was the Sonderkommando Elbe. Whilst the tactic would prove to be more devastating to the rammer than the target, one of Rackheath’s B-24s #42-94931 ‘Sack Time‘ was hit in the tail severing the starboard stabiliser. The B-24’s pilot, Lt. Robert Winger, managed to keep the aircraft flying but with little control, he ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft once over allied territory. The B-24 then crewless, fell from the sky.

It is not known whether the attack was a deliberate act by the Sonderkommando Elbe, or as a result of the tail gunner Robert (Bob) Perkins’s action. Perkins in his attempt to defend the B-24, fired desperately at the attacker, Heinrich Henkel, striking the aircraft several times.

Then for three days in mid April, the heavies of the USAAF turned their attention to the gun batteries around Royan. These German strong holds were hindering the allied plans to use the port at Bordeaux, they had to be ousted.

During one of the missions, on April 15th, the 467th would make history again when three of the four squadrons released all their 2,000lb bombs within 1,000 ft of the mean point of impact, half of these being within 500 ft – a record that would not be beaten by any other USAAF unit. This was the ‘icing on the cake’ for the 467th who were building a strong reputation for consistent and accurate bombing.  So determined were the Americans to remove the defenders on the ground, that they used Napalm in 500 lb tanks, a rather horrific weapon used to great effect during the Vietnam war.

By the end of April the war was all but over, and at bases all around the UK, air and ground crews eagerly awaited the notice to cease operations. Some units were already being stood down, and very soon operations would begin to drop food rather than bombs. As the end of hostilities was announced, the figures began to be totted up. The 379th BG at Kimbolton were recorded as dropping the greatest number of bombs on a target, with the 467th BG at Rackheath achieving the greatest accuracy. This Rackheath record was due, in part, to the dedication, support and drive of its Commander, Colonel Albert Shower.

On April 25th 1945, the 467th completed its last mission, a total that amounted to 212 (5,538 sorties credited), dropping 13,333 tons of bombs. With 29 aircraft classed as ‘missing’, and a further 19 lost on operations, the war had not been cheap.

RAF Rackheath

The former runway looking north-east.

On May 13th, the 467th were to lead the Victory Flypast over High Wycombe, the headquarters of the Eighth Air Force operations, the choice of a B-24 as lead fuelling the ‘ill-feeling’ between B-24 and B-17 crews even further.

Over the next month, the aircraft and men of the 467th would return to the US, the majority of aircraft departing Rackheath on June 12th, whilst the ground echelons left via the Queen Mary from Greenock, the same port they had arrived at just over a year earlier. Eventually the 467th would be disbanded, renamed the 301st, but for Rackheath it was the end, and within a year much of the airfield was already being ripped up, the runways were disappearing and many of the accommodation buildings had been torn down. The entire site measuring just short of 4 km2  was already beginning to disappear.

Gradually agriculture has taken over, much of the main airfield site are now fields. The technical area has since been developed into an industrial estate with many of the original buildings being re clad, redeveloped, modernised or pulled down. The watch office has thankfully been refurbished and from the outside resembles a watch office typical of the time. Inside it is now offices. The one surviving T2 hangar, has had brickwork added to it, other buildings are almost indistinguishable from their modern counterparts. A memorial, dedicated to the men and Women of the 467th was unveiled on 29th July 1990, by the then 80 year old Colonel Albert J. Shower, returning for one last time to the place he had built up a reputation for hard graft whilst appreciating the need for recreation.

If approaching from the south, take the A1270 from Norwich heading north, leave at the roundabout with Salhouse Road turning right. The Holy Trinity Church is a few hundred yards along this road. Here you will find the village sign, memorial benches and numerous plaques in memory of the 467th. The two wrought iron gates at the entrance of the church were donated by the Coffey crew. Inside here (the church was closed on my visit) a collection of photographs and letters bring the Rackheath to life once more.

RAF Rackheath

The memorial gates donated by the Coffey crew.

When leaving the church, go back but turn right along Green Lane West. This takes you past the remaining hardstands and along to the industrial estate. Enter by Wendover Road, named after Wendover Field in Utah. Turning into Bidwell Road, (following the signs) you will find the main memorial on the the corner of Bidwell Road and Liberator Close.

Coming back again, turn left, follow Wendover Road to the corner with Witchcraft Way, a small road to your left. Here you will see the Watch Office. Also along here are Ramirez Road, Albert Shower Road, the T2 and other buildings of interest. A real rabbit warren, it is best explored to really discover the many buildings and plaques that remain.

The main accommodation areas were located back across the from the entrance of Wendover Road. Today a new road has been cut through this wooded area but within these woods, remains of huts still exist, some with etchings on the walls. All on private land, they are also gradually disappearing from view.

Rackheath was a short lived base, operating for just a short part of the war. But its contribution and the contribution of its crews, was nonetheless immense. With high accuracy and the determination to win, they took the war into the heart of Germany itself. The names of these young men now live on, in the road names and plaques that adorn many of the building and streets around this beautiful and now peaceful area of Norfolk.

After departing Rackheath we head a few miles east, toward the coast. Not far away, is another airfield, this time a former RAF site. Long gone it continues to use part of the original runway, two watch offices remain, and a smattering of wartime buildings lay dormant in the corner of now agricultural fields. In part 2 of Trail 58 we visit RAF Ludham.

Sources and further reading RAF Rackheath

For more detail on Mission 311 see: McLachlan, I., “Night of the Intruders” Pen and Sword (1994).

Sgt. William Stannard – 487 Sqn RAF – Miraculous Escape

There have been many instances of incredible acts of bravery and bizarre cases of survival that would normally seem impossible. Flt. Sgt. Nicholas Alkemade falling from 18,000ft without a parachute is just one of very many.

Another such remarkable event occurred on May 3rd 1943, when twelve Lockheed Venturas attacked a Dutch Power Station near Amsterdam. The ‘Ramrod‘ mission involved twelve Venturas from 487 Squadron from RAF Methwold, an airfield located between Downham Market and Thetford, on the edge of Thetford Forest.

This mission, ‘Ramrod 16‘, turned out to be a total disaster for the Venturas, an aircraft converted from a passenger aircraft  for war. With its fat body and poor handling, the Ventura earned itself the unsavoury name the “Flying Pig”.

On May 3rd, twelve aircraft, all Ventura MK.Is, departed RAF Methwold, heading for Amsterdam as part of a much larger force involving aircraft from both 12 Group (the main force) and 11 Group who were flying a diversionary sweep.

One Ventura from Methwold would turn back shortly after takeoff when the crew hatch broke off, leaving eleven to proceed: AE684 (EG-B); AE713 (T); AE716 (U); AE731 (O); AE780 (S); AE798 (D); AE916 (C); AE956 (H); AJ200 (G); AJ209 (V) and AJ487 (A). On board each of those aircraft were four crewmen including one Squadron Leader Leonard H. Trent V.C.  whose bravery saw the attack through to the bitter end and the awarding of the Victoria Cross for his actions.

The carefully planned attack went horribly wrong though, after aircraft on ‘Rodeo 212′ from 11 Group entered the Vlissingen area thirty minutes ahead of schedule, alerting both the ground and air defences. By the time the Venturas of 487 Sqn arrived, the defenders were well and truly ready.

The crew of  ‘EG-B’ Sgt George Sparkes 2nd from the right – others F/O S. Coshall, F/O R.A. North & Sgt W. Stannard *1

On board another one of the other Venturas AE684, (EG-B) that day,  was Sgt. William Stannard (s/n: 1253660) and crew. As they approached the target area, Sgt. Stannard’s aircraft was attacked by the alerted Luftwaffe fighters, the Ventura being shot down at 17:45 over Bennebroek, a few miles from Haarlem, in Holland. As a result of the attack, the Ventura broke in half, the tail section – in which Sgt. Stannard was located – breaking away from the main fuselage. The main body of the aircraft – now out of control, burning and failing to Earth – would crash killing both the Pilot F.O. Stanley Coshall (s/n: 46911) and Sgt. George Henry Sparkes (s/n: 1392394). The forth crewman, F.O. Rupert A. North, luckily survived the ordeal, bailing out before the aircraft crashed, being captured and taken prisoner. Sgt. North would be reunited for a short while with Sgt. Stannard before being transferred to Stalag Luft Sagan and Belaria.

Sgt. Stannard, still trapped in the tail, remained there until it too hit the ground – its descent slowed by the flying qualities of the tail becoming an impromptu glider. The whole section coming to Earth where it  collided with a tree knocking Sgt. Stannard unconscious. When he came to, Sgt. Stannard was in a Dutch Manor House surrounded by astonished German officials who were waiting to interrogate him before taking him into custody!

Sgt. Stannard, alive and well, was imprisoned at Stalag Kopernikus for the duration of the war. He miraculously survived the fall trapped  inside the rear section of the Ventura which managed to glide to Earth before striking the tree.

Sources.

*1 Photo (Courtesy Pat McGuigan via Paul Garland –  RAF Feltwell – Personnel – memorial pages).

Sgt. North’s story can be read on the RAF Feltwell – Personnel – memorial pages website along with further crew photos.

RAF Methwold appears in Trail 8 and Sqn. Ldr. Leonard Trent’s story appears in Heroic tales.

RAF Rackheath – The 467th BG, the highest bombing accuracy (Pt1).

In Trail 58 we head to the east of Norwich into an area known as the Norfolk Broads; an area created through turf extraction in medieval times. The large, shear sided pits were later flooded giving more navigable inland waterways than both Venice and Amsterdam.

Today, it attracts a wide range of wildlife, and offers a range of boating, bird watching and fishing holidays. The shear size and scope of the Broads attracting some 7 million visitors per year to enjoy the rich nature and peace of the Broads.

But in this area during the Second World War, life was very different. Overhead, the drone of aircraft engines was a constant reminder of a war being fought both across the sea and here in East Anglia.

Between Norwich and the East Anglian coast we visit two airfields, one USAAF and one RAF, both now long closed, they each played a vital part in the destruction of the Nazi tyranny across the sea in Europe.

Our first stop is a former bomber base. Now a huge industrial estate where many of the original wartime buildings have been demolished. But some still remain, refurbished, re-clad and in many cases almost indistinguishable from their original design. A memorial, located in the heart of the estate, denotes the technical area of the former base, and a local church displays a collection of wartime photographs.

Our first stop on this trail is the former US bomber base RAF Rackheath (Station 145).

Rackheath (Station 145)

Rackheath airfield lies approximately 5 miles north-east of Norwich, bordered to the east by the  East Norfolk Railway Line, and to the west by the (modern) A1270.

RAF Rackheath

Rackheath village sign denotes its history and links to the base.

Built over the period 1942-43, it was built as a Class A airfield incorporating three runways: one of  2,000 yds and two of 1,400 yds in length, each 50 yds wide and each covered with concrete.

A large number of hardstands lined the perimeter track, some 50 altogether, all being of the spectacle type; with  a bomb store to the north of the main airfield site, sitting surprisingly close to the majority of the hardstands and nearby Rackheath village.

A wide range of technical buildings, supported by two T2 hangars for aircraft maintenance, allowed for repairs and crew preparation: crew rooms, parachute stores, dingy stores, armouries, photographic blocks and so on. The watch office (design 12779/41) stood proud of the technical area located to the south-west of the site. All personnel areas – eleven accommodation and three ancillary sites – lay to the west of the airfield, dispersed around Rackheath Hall, an early 19 Century listed building with its notable architectural features and its own turbulent history. These sites, hidden amongst the woodland, were both extensive and well serviced by concrete roads that led to the main airfield site.

Rackheath was initially designed as a bomber airfield, but during the construction phase, it was re-designated as a fighter airfield. However, delays in the construction process, led to it never being operated as a fighter station, instead it was manned by the Eighth Air Force’s 467th Bombardment Group (BG) and B-24 Liberators.

The 467th BG consisted of the 788th, 789th, 790th and 791st Bomb Squadrons (BS), each flying Consolidated’s heavy bomber the B-24 Liberator. The group’s long journey to Rackheath started on 19th May 1943 at Wendover Field in Utah. After being activated on August 1st, they moved to Mountain Home Army Airfield in Idaho, then back to Utah and Kearns, from there onto Wendover Field again where they remained for fifteen weeks undertaking intensive training. On 12th February the ground echelons made their way, by train, to Camp Shanks, New York where they boarded the US ship Frederick Lykes. Their Atlantic journey brought them, like so many before them, to Greenock, a major port on the Clyde on Scotland’s west coast. From here, they boarded trains and made their way to Rackheath.

The air echelon in the meantime flew the southern route, tragically en route, they lost one of their B-24s (#42-52554 “Rangoon Rambler“) with all its crew, over the Atlas mountains in North Africa. The remainder of the group finally arrived here at Rackheath combining with the ground echelons in late March 1944, where they began to prepare for their first operation on April 10th.

Operating initially within the 2nd Bombardment Division (later the 2nd Air Division) 96th Combat Wing (CBW), they flew Liberator ‘H’, ‘J’, ‘L’ and ‘M’ models under the command of Colonel Albert J. Shower, the only US group commander to have brought and remained with the same group until the end of hostilities.

The 467th’s first mission was to bomb Bourges airfield, a relatively light target in which 730 bombers pounded aviation targets across the low countries. On the next day, they formed part of a even larger force of over 900 heavies attacking aircraft production factories in Germany, their honeymoon was well and truly over in one fell swoop.

But the first major event of the war for the 467th was to occur shortly after this on April 22nd 1944, on a day that has since become infamous in American aviation history. Mission 311, was an attack by 803 heavy bombers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bombardment Divisions on targets at Hamm, Soest and Koblenz along with targets of opportunity. The Massed formation, escorted by 859 fighters, were led by the 445th BG, 2nd Air Division from Tibbenham. The 96th CBW portion was led  by the 458th BG from Horsham St Faith, with the 466th BG from Attlebridge on the low left, and the 467th ‘The Rackheath Aggies‘  on the high right.

As teleprinters rattled across the East Anglian area, B-24s were bombed up, fuelled and checked over by mechanics who meticulously prepared their machines for war. Maps were drawn up, meteorological reports were read out and orders were strict – ‘avoid the Ruhr!’

Once in the air, brightly coloured assembly ships gathered their flocks together in tight formations, and then it was time to set off for Germany. On route, technical problems dogged the lead plane, which led to inaccurate navigation, and ultimately brought the entire force into Ruhr Valley – exactly where they did not want to be.

Dividing up, the massed formations hit a range of targets, Hamm being the focus of the 467th. Surprisingly though, results were good, especially considering the many problems the formation had suffered flying over to Germany. Pleased with their results, the 467th set course for home, blissfully unaware of the dangers that were lurking not far away as they made the return leg of their journey.

The whole operation had been meticulously planned, but it meant that many of the bombers would be arriving home in the dark, an environment alien to many American crews. Experience had told them that Luftwaffe fighters lurked in the dark, unseen and dangerously accurate in their attacks.

When approaching from the east, Rackheath and Nearby Horsham St. Faith were the first two large airfields available, a distance of just some 4 miles separating them. With navigation lights and landing lights illuminating the aircraft, airfields were lit up like christmas trees, each one inviting their bombers home to safety. These lights were also a beacon for the as yet unknown, marauding Luftwaffe night fighters. As the first Rackheath Liberator approached, the air filled with requests for landing  permission, fuel now getting critically low and crews tired from the long flight. Gun places were vacated and crews began preparing to land, everyone was starting to relax – they were home.

It was this point that all hell was unleashed over Rackheath. Canon shells ripped in to the wings and fuselage of 1st Lt. Stalie Reid’s B-24 #42-52445, setting both starboard engines on fire.  The lead Luftwaffe pilot Staffelkapitaen Hauptmann Dieter Puttfarken of II/KG51, taking his companions, in their mix of night fighters, right into the heart of the flight path of the returning bombers. Here they waited, unseen, until the moment the bombers were at their most vulnerable.

RAF Rackheath

The former Watch Office has been refurbished and used as offices.

As the Liberator began to fall uncontrollably out of the sky, four of the crewmen manged to don their parachutes and escape, the remaining six failing to vacate the aircraft in time. All six were lost in the ensuing crash when the aircraft hit the Earth near to Barsham in Suffolk. For Sgt. Edward Hoke, one of those lucky enough to escape, his troubles were not yet over, for somehow, he was pulled from his parachute, and without a means to slow his descent, he too  fell to his death. It was only the third mission of the war for the crew.

Meanwhile, other aircraft began to line up desperate to land. Near misses were now becoming a risk, aircraft suddenly appearing out of the darkness within feet of each other. Then a second B-24 went down –  struck by the terror of the night. B-24 #42-52536 piloted by 2nd Lt. James A. Roden was hit by canon fire. So severe and so accurate were the strikes, that it severed the tail of the Liberator from the fuselage. Now split in two, the aircraft went into a spin and eventual fireball. The entire crew were lost that night.

Not content with picking aircraft off in the air, the Luftwaffe night fighters then began to attack, with bombs and guns, the main airfield site, strafing ground targets almost at will. By now crews were starting to panic, some withdrew from the landing pattern and headed off away from the airfield only to run the gauntlet of friendly Anti-Aircraft guns who were not expecting to see heavy American bombers at night.  By now it was becoming clear what had happened, and to protect the airfield all lights were extinguished. Aircraft were unable to see the runways, parts of which were now only illuminated by fires of wrecks and bombs. Waiting patiently, or diverting to other bases, B-24s light on fuel, circled frantically the field trying to find some sign that it lay below. The confusion that night, repeated across numerous US airbases, tore a hole in the hearts of the American flyers as numbers of those lost across East Anglia began to filter through.

April 22nd would go down in history as the worst loss in one night to intruders alone, made even worse by the fact that once over home territory, you consider yourself to be ‘safe’. Some American gunners were able to retaliate and there are records of intruders being shot down, but the statistics clearly fell heavily in favour of the intruders.

With that, the 467th had finally cut their teeth, their war was real, and it was having an effect.

On D-Day, the 467th were assigned to bombing shore installations and bridges near to Cherbourg, then as the allies progressed through France they supported them by attacking supply lines at Montreuil. A few days after the D-Day landings, a 467th BG Liberator became the first four engined bomber to land on a beach-head airstrip. The B-24 #42-95237, ‘Normandy Queen‘ piloted by 1st Lt. Charles Grace was hit by flak and badly damaged. Unable to make the crossing back home, he ordered the crew to bail out whilst he and his co-pilot brought the aircraft down onto an allied fighter airstrip, luckily without further mishap. All the crew that day survived to tell the tale.

B-24 Liberator (4Z-U, #42-95237) 791st BS, 467th BG parked on the grass in a field in Normandy – the first four engined heavy to do so. (IWM FRE 8431)

By now the allied onslaught of occupied Europe was well under way. Continual flying began to make its mark on both air and ground crews. The summer months seeing over 28,000 sorties being flown, meaning that many crews were reaching their quotas of missions in a very short space of time.

In early August a reshuffle of command within the Eighth saw several changes at the highest levels. Lower down, in the front line units, further reshuffles saw crews and squadrons move from one unit to another. The 788th BS, who had been taken to form the 801st Group to perform ‘Carpetbagger‘ operations in the lead up to D-Day, now rejoined their original Group back at Rackheath.

The long, cold winter of 1944-45 was known for its persistent fog, snow and ice that hampered air operations, and all just as the German army was about to make its one last push through the Ardennes forest. Christmas 1944 would be sombre time for the US forces, with the loss of both Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle and the fighter ace Major George Preddy who was inadvertently shot down by friendly fire and killed.

For the 467th BG it would also be a period of misery, a period that started with one of the most bizarre events in their history. We shall revisit Rackheath again in Part 2.