Britain’s Latest Housing Proposal

In November 2011, the Coalition Government, led by David Cameron, set out its ambitions to stimulate the development and construction sector in order to meet the rising demand for housing in England. The document ‘Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England ‘ sets out the long-term plans for tackling the current critical housing shortage.

The Government states in the document that:

In 2009/10, there were 115,000 new build housing completions in England. Meanwhile, the latest household projections suggest that the number of households will grow by 232,000 per year (average annual figure until 2033).

If this growing demand is to be met, then there needs to be both extensive investment and increased development in the housing sector.

The problem as seen by the Government is wide-reaching: Investors, developers, growing families, growth of tenants and restrictions by the lending banks were all factors that culminated in the stagnation of new housing development;  but one of the biggest issues, and probably the most contentious, is where to build these houses.

Land in the UK is at a premium, finding the right location that meets the demands both socially, geographically, and economically, is a challenge, and we’re not talking about a handful of houses here, we’re talking about thousands at any one given time.

As part of the proposals to solve these issues, the Government said it will:

– Free up public sector land with capacity to deliver up to 100,000 new homes – with ‘Build Now, Pay Later’ deals on the table, where there is market demand and where this is affordable and represents value for money, to support builders who are struggling to get finance upfront.

– We will provide more support for local areas that want to deliver larger scale new development to meet the needs of their growing communities – through locally planned large-scale development – with a programme of support for places with the ambition to support new housing development on various scales.

– We have consulted on simplifying planning policy through the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

– We are giving communities new powers to deliver the development they want through Community Right to Build.

Former defence sites especially airfields, have become prime ‘targets’ for housing development, and for a variety of reasons, (many of these have been highlighted in previous posts: Britain’s Airfields – What does the future hold?). However, they are not unique. Other ‘Brown Field’ sites, ex industrial areas, derelict housing estates and so on, are also targets and have also been identified as possible areas for development. The problem with some of these sites is clearing them, many may have contaminated soils or are just ‘inappropriate’ for housing development, and so existing land, adjacent or near to other larger conurbations, is preferred. It would now seem that this is where many of these new developments are heading. (Many of the identified sites are listed in the ‘National Land Use Database of Previously Developed Land 2012 (NLUD-PDL)‘ ).

Adding to this, the Ministry of Defence is desperate to save money and recently gave notice of its intention to close and sell off a number of active sites around the UK, again these have been highlighted previously, (Britain’s Airfields – What does the future hold?). Furthermore, with American interests in European defence also wavering, the possibility of further cuts, or condensing of their activities, is also a possibility on top of those previously identified.

With all this in mind, the Government recently outlined and published its list of the first 14 sites where new ‘Garden Villages’ will be built. One of these is directly on the former airfield at Deenethorpe whilst a second directly affects the currently active site at former Andrews Field.

Whilst neither the Deenethorpe nor Andrews Field  development proposals are new, this move certainly signifies the end of flying at Deenethorpe and certain development of one of the UK’s larger former bomber bases. It also threatens flying opportunities in Essex and risks further development on that site.

This move is a major step forward in meeting the current housing crises, but at what cost both environmentally, locally and historically? How much of the history of these sites will be lost or preserved and what does it say about preservation of historical sites in this country? This could well be the ‘thin end of the wedge’ for these old sites – only time will tell.

Further reading and links

RAF Deenethorpe appears in Trail 6

RAF Andrews Field appears in Trail 33

For a full list of the 14 sites designated for development see the BBC report .

The Deenethorpe proposal can be seen as a pdf file here.

News reports about Andrews Field can be found on the Braintree and Witham Times.


Spanhoe Airfield – into the Jaws of Death

RAF Spanhoe (Station 493)

With the BEF evacuation at Dunkirk, some thought that the war was over and that the mighty Nazi war machine was undefeatable. Poised on the edge France, a mere 20 or so miles from the English coast, the armies of the Wehrmacht were waiting ready to pounce and invade England. For Britain though, the defences came up and the determination to defeat this evil regime grew even stronger.

Defeat in the air during the Battle of Britain reversed the fortunes of Germany. Then the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in the Pacific, which led to the United States joining the war, set the scene for a new and vigorous joint front that would lead to the eventual invasion of occupied Europe, and ultimately the freedom for those held in the grip of the Nazi tyranny.

Plans for the invasion were never far from the thoughts of those in power – even in the darkest hours of both Dunkirk and the Battle for the British homeland. To complete this enormous task, an operation of unprecedented size and complexity would be needed. Vehicles, troops and supplies would all needed to be ferried across the English Channel, a massive air armada would have to fly thousands of young men to the continent. To succeed in this auspicious and daring operation, a number of both training and operational airfields would need to be built, and in 1943 Spanhoe was born.

Known originally as RAF Wakerley (and also referred to as Harringworth or Spanhoe Lodge) it was handed over to the U.S.A.A.F. and designated Station 493.

RAF Spanhoe Lodge

Remaining buildings on the Technical site at Spanhoe Lodge.

Located in the county of Northamptonshire, it would be a huge site with three concrete runways, the longest of which was 6000 ft. Two smaller intersecting runways were of 4,200 ft and all three were a huge 150 ft wide. A total of 50 spectacle hardstands were spread around the perimeter track whilst the tower, built to a 1941 design (12779/41), was located to the south of the airfield between the technical area and main airfield. Such was the design of the airfield, that the tower was located a good distance away from the main runway to the north. The technical area included a small number of Quonset huts, temporary brick-built buildings and two T2 hangars. Instructional and training buildings included a Synthetic Navigation Classroom (2075/43) designed with the most up-to-date projection and synthetic training instruments possible. These buildings were made more distinct by the two glazed astrodomes located at one end of the building which could be used on nights when stars were visible.

As Spanhoe was originally built as a bomber station, a bomb and pyrotechnic store was built on the eastern side of the airfield with three huge fuel stores, one to the north and two others to the west, all capable of holding 72,000 gallons of aviation fuel each.

Accommodation for the crews and ground staff was widely spread to the south amongst the local woods and fields, and consisted of numerous cold Quonset huts – but for the residents, Spanhoe was considered nothing special to write home about.

The first U.S. units to arrive were the Troop Carriers the of the 315th Troop Carrier Group (TCG), whose journey from the United States was not as straightforward as most.

Whilst on their way over the north Atlantic route, they were hit by bad weather and had to be diverted to Greenland. Here they stayed for over a month scouring the seas for downed aircraft and dropping supplies to the crews before they were rescued.

Eventually the 315th made England and began a series of training operations. A small detachment were sent to Algiers to assist in the dropping of supplies to troops in the Sicily and Italy campaigns before returning to the main squadron in the U.K. The 315th arrived at Spanhoe on 7th February 1944 now part of the Ninth Air Force,  IX Troop Carrier Command, 52nd Troop Carrier Wing. They operated two versions of the adapted Douglas DC-3; the C-47 Skytrain and the C-53 Skytrooper transport aircraft. Four Troop Carrier Squadrons (TCS) would use Spanhoe: the 34th, 43rd, 309th and 310th, and would all operate purely as paratroop carriers.

C-47 Skytrains of the 315th Troop Carrier Group in flight. Handwritten caption on reverse: 'C-47 Skytrain. 315 TCG over Lincolnshire. C-47 before 1944.'Image actually shows Harringworth Viaduct. RAF Spanhoe, the home field of the two Aircraft, is slightly out of shot to the left, making this right on the border of Rutland & Northamptonshire.

C-47 Skytrains of the 315th Troop Carrier Group in flight. over the Harringworth Viaduct. RAF Spanhoe, the home of the two Aircraft is just out of shot. (IWM – FRE 3396)

For the next few months they would train in preparation for the forthcoming D-day landings in which they would rehearse both formation flying at night and night paratroop drops with the 82nd Airborne; the unit the 315th would take to drop zones behind enemy lines in Normandy. These preparations were relentless, and not without casualties. The 315th were considered as one of the ‘weaker’ elements of the air invasion force, and would carry out drops nightly until the paratroops had completed their full quota of jumps and all were finally classed as ‘proficient’. The majority of these jumps were however, carried out in clear weather, a point that had not been factored into the final decision.

Flying at night would, unsurprisingly, claim  lives and this was brought home when on the night of May 11th-12th, two aircraft from the 315th’s sister group the 316th, collided during combined operations, killing fourteen airmen.

Even with all this training and a very high aircraft maintenance programme, there were many factors that could affect the outcome of operations. Some 40% of crews had only recently arrived before operations, and thus were not a party to a large part of the training missions.  Of the 924 crews that were designated for the operations, 20% had only had minimal training and 75% had never actually been under fire. The airborne crews were not well prepared.

On the third day of June the order came through to paint invasion stripes on the aircraft. These three white and two black stripes, each two feet wide, were designed to enable the recognition of allied aircraft who were sworn to radio silence over the invasion zones. D-Day was now imminent.

The 52nd’s mission would involve all the other groups of the Wing, taking aircraft from: Barkston Heath (61st TCG), Folkingham (313th TCG) Saltby (314th TCG) and Cottesmore (316th TCG) as well as eleven other paratroop and glider-towing units of the U.S. Ninth Air Force and fifteen RAF Squadrons – it was going to be an incredible sight.

315th C-47 landing at Spanhoe. On the ground can be seen the 315th’s C-109 (converted B-24) tanker . (Knight Collection)

Forty-eight aircraft took off from Spanhoe and formed up with the other Groups at checkpoint ‘ATLANTA’, they continued on toward Bristol turning south at checkpoint ‘CLEVELAND’ . They flew crossed the south coast at Portland and headed out toward Guernsey. The route would then take them north of the island where the 52nd would turn east and head over the Cherbourg Peninsula. They would drop their load of heavily laden paratroops south of Utah beach to capture the important town of St. Mere-Eglise. A ten-mile wide corridor would be filled with aircraft and gliders.

Over the drop zone the aircraft encountered cloud and heavy flak. Whilst a quarter received damage, all but one were able to return to England, the last being lost over the drop zone. For their efforts that night, the 315th TCG was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation, the only one they would receive during the war.

After D-day, units of the 315th continued to drop supplies to the advancing troops, a default role they carried out for much of the war.

Tragedy was to rear its ugly head again and strike down Spanhoe crews. In July 1944, 369 Polish paratroopers arrived for training as part of Operation ‘Burden’. This involved thirty-three C-47s of the 309th TCS, fully loaded flying in formation at around 1,300 ft. The aim of the flight was to drop the Polish Paratroops at a drop zone (DZ) over R.A.F. Wittering.

RAF Spanhoe Lodge

One of the few overgrown buildings at the entrance to Spanhoe Lodge.

Shortly before arriving at the DZ near to the Village of Tinwell, two aircraft made deadly contact and both plummeted to the ground. Twenty-six paratroops and eight crewmen were killed that day, the only survivor was Corporal Thomas Chambers who jumped from an open door. Eyewitness accounts tell of “soil soaked in aviation fuel”, and bodies strapped to part open parachutes as many tried to jump as the aircraft fell. This tragic accident was a devastating blow to the Polish troops especially as they had not yet been able to prove themselves in combat and one that ultimately led to the disbandment of the section and reabsorption into other units.*1

The 315th’s next major combat mission would be ‘Market Garden‘ on September 17th, 1944, another event that led to many tragedies. On the initial day, ninety aircraft left Spanhoe with 354 Paratroops of the U.S. 82nd Airborne, the following day another fifty-four aircraft took British paratroops and then on the third day they were to take Polish troops. However, bad weather continually caused the cancellation of the Polish operations and even with attempts at take-offs, it wasn’t to be. Finally on September 23rd good skies returned and operations could once more be carried out. During all this time, the Polish troops were loaded and unloaded, stores under the wings of the C-47s were added and then removed, it became so frustrating that one Polish paratrooper, unable to cope with the stress and anticipation of operations, fatally shot himself.

Later that month, another plan was hatched to resupply the beleaguered troops in Holland. The idea was to land large numbers of C-47s on different airfields close to Nijmegen. Not sure if they had been secured, or even taken, the daring mission went ahead. Escorting fighters and ground attack aircraft neutralised anti-aircraft positions around the airfields allowing hundreds of C-47s to land, deposit their supplies and take off again, in a mission that took over six hours to complete. In total: jeeps, trailers, motorcycles, fuel, ammunition, rations and 882 new troops were all delivered safely without the loss of a single transport aircraft – a remarkable feat.

Further supplies were dropped to troops during both the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Varsity – the crossing of the Rhine – in March 1945. During this operation, the 315th would drop more British paratroopers near Wesel, Germany, a mission that would cost 19 aircraft with a further 36 badly damaged.

By now the Allies were in Germany and the Troop Carrier units were able to move to France leaving their U.K. bases behind. This departure signalled the operational end for Spanhoe and all military flying at the airfield would now cease.

Two months later the 253rd Maintenance Unit arrived and prepared Spanhoe for the receiving of thousands of military vehicles that would soon be arriving from the continent. Now surplus to requirements, they would either be scrapped or sold off, Spanhoe became a huge car park and at its height, would accommodate 17,500 vehicles. For the next two years trucks, trailers and jeeps of all shapes and sizes would pass through, until in 1947 the unit left and the site was closed for good and eventually sold off.

This was not the end for Spanhoe though. Aviation and controversy would return again for a fleeting moment on August 12th 1960, with the crash of Vickers Valiant BK1 ‘XD864’ of 7 Squadron RAF. The aircraft, piloted by Flt. Lt. Brian Wickham, took off from its base at nearby RAF Wittering, turned and crashed on Spanhoe airfield just three minutes after take off. The official board of enquiry concluded that the accident was caused by pilot error and that Flt. Lt. Wickham, was guilty of “blameworthy negligence”. The Boards findings were investigated by an independent body who successfully identified major flaws in both the analysis and the Boards subsequent findings.  Sadly no review of the accident or the Boards decision has ever taken place since.

Spanhoe Lodge

Spanhoe was the home of the 315th Troop Carrier Group, part of the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing, Ninth Air Force.

Spanhoe was then turned into a limestone quarry by new owners, the runways and the majority of the perimeter track was dug up and the substrate was removed. The majority of the buildings were demolished but a few were left and now survive as small industrial units involved in, amongst other things, aircraft maintenance and preservation work. A private flying club has also started up and small light aircraft now use what remains of the southern section of the perimeter track and technical area.

The main entrance to the airfield is no longer grand, and in no way reflects the events that once took place here. From this point you can see some of the original technical buildings and hidden behind the thicket, what was possibly a picket post. A footpath though the nearby woods allows access to the remains of eastern end of the main runway and perimeter track, other than this little is accessible without permission.

Outside the main entrance are two memorials consisting of a modern board detailing the group and squadron codes, and a stone obelisk listing the names of those crew members who failed to come home. Both are well cared for if not a little weathered.


Spanhoe Lodge memorial

Spanhoe leaves a legacy, for both good reasons and bad. The crews that left here taking hundreds of young men into the jaws of death showed great bravery and skill. Determination to be the best and perform at the limits were driving factors behind their successes. Relentless training led to the deaths of many who had never even seen combat, and the scars of these events linger in what remains of the airfield today. Thankfully for the time being, the spirit of aviation lives on, and Spanhoe clings to the edge, each last gasp of breath a reminder of those brave men who flew defenceless in those daring and dangerous missions over occupied Europe.

On leaving Spanhoe, return to the main road, keeping the airfield to your left, join the A43, and then turn right and then immediately left. Follow signs to Oundle and Kings Cliffe and our next destination, the former airfield at Kings Cliffe, an airfield with its own modern controversies.

Spanhoe features as part of Trail 6, ‘American Ghosts’.

Sources and Further Reading

*1 A list of those killed in the Tinwell Crash can be found via this Dutch website for Polish War Graves.

The 315th TCG has a detailed website with regular newsletters and photographs.

RAF Grafton Underwood – a remarkably important and historical place.

As part of the ‘American Ghosts’ trail around the borders of Northampton and Cambridgeshire, we move away from Kimbolton to an airfield that is synonymous with both the first and last bombing raids of the American Air War in Europe. We travel a few miles north, here we find a truly remarkable memorial and an area rich in history. We go to RAF Grafton Underwood.

RAF Grafton Underwood. (Station 106)

Construction of Grafton Underwood began in 1941, originally part of the RAF’s preparation of the soon to be defunct bomber group to be based in this region. But with the birth of the Eighth Air Force on January 28th 1942, it would become the USAAF’s first bomber base, when the 15th Bomber Squadron arrived after sailing on the SS Cathay from the United States.

Grafton Underwood

A B-17 of the 384th BG features in the Memorial Window at Grafton Underwood.

The original idea for the ‘Mighty Eighth’ was to house a total of  some 3,500 aircraft of mixed design in 60 combat groups. Four squadrons would reside at each airfield with each group occupying two airfields, this would require 75 airfields for the bomber units alone. This figure was certainly low and it would increase gradually as the war progressed and demand for bomber aircraft grew.

The terrible attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour diverted both attention and crews away from the European Theatre, but in April / May 1942 the build up began and American forces started to arrive in the UK.

With ground staff sailing across the Atlantic and aircrews ferrying their aircraft on the northern route via Iceland, the first plain olive drab B-17Es and Fs of the 97th BG set down on July 6th 1942, two squadrons at Polebrook and two at Grafton Underwood.

The sight of American airmen brought a huge change to life in this quiet part of the countryside. Locals would gather at the fence and stand watching the crews as if they were something strange. But as the war progressed, the Americans would become accepted and form part of everyday life at Grafton Underwood.

Eventually the airfield would be complete and although it would go through development stages, it would remain a massive site covering around 500 acres of land.

Grafton Underwood

The remains of the main runway looking south.

A total of thirteen separate accommodation and support sites would be built; two communal; seven officers; a WAAF site; a sick quarters and two sewage treatment sites to cope with upward of 3,000 men and women who were to be based here.

The accommodation was based around an octagonal road design, the centre piece being the ‘Foxy’ cinema in Site 3 the main communal site. Roads from here took the crews away to various sites hidden amongst the trees of the wooded area. All theses site were located east of Site 1, the main airfield itself.

Grafton would have three runways; runway 1 (6,000 ft) running north-east / south-west, runway 2 (5,200 ft) running north-west / south-east and runway three (4,200 ft) running north to south, all concrete enabling the airfield to remain active all year round.

42-97948 BK-U,

B-17 ’42-97948′ BK-U, “Hell on Wings” 384th BG, 546th BS. Prior to being lost on 11th October 1944. (IWM UPL 12946)

A large bomb store was located to the north-western side of the airfield, served by two access roads, it had both  ‘ultra heavy’ and ‘light’ fuzing buildings; with a second store to the north just east of the threshold of runway 1. Thirty-seven ‘pan’ style hardstands and three blocks of four ‘spectacle’ hardstands accommodated dispersed aircraft around the perimeter track. Surprisingly only two hangars were built, both T2 (drg 3653/42) one in the technical area to the east and the second to the south-west.

On May 15th 1942, Grafton officially opened with the arrival of its first detachment. The 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light) arrived without aircraft and had to ‘borrow’ RAF Bostons for training and deployment. As yet there was no official directive, and so crews had little to do other than bed in. The 15th BS remained here until June 9th 1942 whereupon they moved to their new base at RAF Molesworth and began operations in their RAF aircraft supported by experienced RAF crews. This move coincided with the arrival of the main body of the Eighth Air Force on UK soil and the vacancy at Grafton was soon filled with B-17s of the 97th BG (Heavy).

Only activated in February that year, the 97th consisted of four Squadrons: at Polebrook were the 340th BS and the 341st BS, whilst at Grafton were the 342nd BS and the 414th BS. Whilst State side they flew submarine patrols along the US coast, but with clear skies and little in the way of realistic action, the ‘rookie’ crews would be ill prepared for what was about to come.

With the parent airfield at RAF Polebrook providing much of the administration for the crews, it was soon realised that gun crews, navigators, pilots and radio operators were poorly trained for combat situations. Quickly thrown together many could not use their equipment – whether a radio or gun – effectively and so a dramatic period of intense training was initiated. The skies around Grafton and Polebrook, quickly filled with the reverberating sound of the multi-engined bombers.

These early days were to be hazardous for the 97th. On August 1st, B-17 “King Condor” would crash on landing at Grafton Underwood. The aircraft’s brakes failed, it overshot the runway, went through a hedge and hit a lorry killing the driver.

B-17 41-9024 ‘King Condor’ Crash landed August 1st, 1942 pilot Lt Claude Lawrence ran off runway, through hedge and hit a truck, killing driver John Jimmison. (IWM UPL 19654)

On August 9th, the atmosphere at Grafton became electric, as orders for the first mission came through. Unfortunately for the keen and now ‘combat ready’ crews, the English weather changed at the last-minute and the mission was scrubbed. This disappointment was to be repeated again only 3 days later, when further orders came through only to find the weather changing again and the mission being scrubbed once more.

In the intervening days the weather was to play another cruel joke on the group claiming the first major victim of the 97th. A 340th BS B-17E ’41-9098′, crashed into the mountainside at Craig Berwyn, Cadair Berwyn, Wales, killing all 11 crew members. A sad start indeed for the youngsters.

Eventually though the weather calmed and on August 17th 1942, at 15:12, twelve aircraft took off from Polebrook and Grafton and headed south-east over the French coast. Not only was it notable for its historical relevance as Mission 1, but on board one of the B-17s was Major Paul Tibbets who later went on to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima 3 years later. If this wasn’t enough, a further B-17, ’41-9023′, “Yankee Doodle”, also contained the Commanding General of the Eighth, Ira Eaker, – truly a remarkably important and historical flight indeed.

The 97th would go on to attack numerous targets including airfields, marshalling yards, industrial sites and naval installations before transferring to the Twelfth Air Force and moving away from Grafton to the Mediterranean in November 1942.

There then followed a quiet spell, for Grafton. A short spell between September and December 1942 saw the heavy bombers of the 305th BG reside at Grafton before moving off to Chelveston and another short spell for the heavies of the 96th BG in the latter half of April 1943 whilst on their way to Great Saling in Essex. It wouldn’t be until early June 1943 that Grafton would once again see continuous action over occupied Europe.

Activated at the end of 1942, the 384th BG (formed with the 544th, 545th, 546th and 547th BS) would train for combat with B-17Fs and Gs, move to Grafton via Gowen Field, Idaho, and Wendover Field, Utah, and perform as a major strategic bomber force. Focussing their attacks on airfields, industrial sites and heavy industry deep in the heart of Germany, they would receive a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C) for their action on January 11th 1944. Targets included the high prestige works such as: Cologne, Gelsenkirchen, Halberstadt, Magdeburg and Schweinfurt. They would take part in the ‘Big Week’ attacks in February 1944, support the Normandy invasion, the break out at St. Lo, Eindhoven, the Battle of the Bulge and support the allied advance over the Rhine. A further DUC came on 24th April 1944 when the group led the 41st Wing in the attack against Oberpfaffenkofen airfield and factory. Against overwhelming odds, the group suffered heavy losses but took the fight all the way to the Nazis.

A dramatic photo of B-17 Flying Fortress BK-H, (s/n 42-37781) “Silver Dollar” of the 546th BS, 384th BG as it goes down after losing its tail. (IWM FRE1282)

Just as Grafton had played its part in the opening salvo of American bombings, it was to be a part of the last. On April 25th 1945, the last bombing raids took place over south-east Germany and Czechoslovakia. Mission 968 saw 589 bombers and 486 fighters drop the final salvos of bombs of the war on rail, industrial and airfield targets, shooting down a small number of enemy aircraft including an Arado 234 jet. Last ditch efforts by the remnants of the Luftwaffe claimed 6 bombers and 1 fighter, before the fight was over. After this all remaining missions were propaganda leaflets as bombs were replaced by paper.

Two years after their arrival the 384th departed for France, eventually returning to the US in 1949 and disbandment. Their departure left Grafton quiet, it was retained by the RAF under care and maintenance and then finally in 1959 declared surplus to requirements and sold off.

In the short two years of being at Grafton, the 384th had amassed 9,348 operational sorties, in 314 missions. They dropped 22,415 tons of explosives and lost 159 aircraft for the shooting down of 165 enemy aircraft. They received two Distinguished Unit Citations and over 1000 Distinguished Flying Crosses. A remarkable achievement for any bomb group.

Grafton today is very different to how it was in the mid 1940s. But before you go to the airfield, you must visit the local church. Passing through the village you’ll see a signpost for the church, park here and walk up the short path. Approaching the church, roughly from the East, you see a dark window which is difficult to make out. However, enter the church and look back, you will see the most amazing stained glass window ever, – the vibrant colours strike quite hard. This window commemorates the men and women of the 384th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force who were stationed at here at Grafton Underwood.

Next to it, someone has placed a handwritten note with the picture of a very young man 2nd Lt. Thomas K Kohlhaas and details of the crew of B-17 ‘43-37713’ “Sons o’ Fun”. It states that he, along with 3 others of the crew, were murdered by German civilians after their aircraft was downed by flak on 30th November 1944. This is a very moving and personal place to be and a poignant reminder of what these young men were facing all those years ago.

When you leave the church, look on the wall of the porch and you will see two dedications. These list the location and names of trees, dedicated to the personnel of the Mighty Eighth, that have now replaced the runways on the airfield. Unfortunately these are on private land and for some very odd reason, not accessible.

Leave the church, turn left into the village, following the stream and then turn left up the hill. The memorial is on your right. Like most American memorials of the USAAF, it has the two flags aside the memorial which is well-kept. When I visited, ‘the keeper’ (who has since become a good friend of mine) was there and we chatted for ages. The memorial stands on what was the 6000 ft main runway and when you look behind you, you see what is left of it, a small track used for estate business. Other than this and a few inaccessible sections, the remains of the airfield have gone and it is open agriculture once more.

Grafton Underwood

Small tracks remain in the accommodation areas.

Grafton, like Kimbolton, is split by the road. Leaving the memorial drive back to the village, turn left and follow the road. Along on the left is the former technical site, a few small huts still stand here used by the local farmer. Also, a few feet from the roadside would have been the perimeter track and dispersal pans. What is left of the main entrance, now nothing more than a large blue gate, can be seen as you pass. Odd patches of concrete can also be seen through the thick trees but little else. Then a little further along, passed the equine sign, is another blue gate. Park here. This is the entrance to Grafton Park, a public space, and what was the main thoroughfare to the mess, barracks and squadron quarters. Grafton housed some 3000 personnel of which some 1600 never returned. It is immense! Walking along the path, you can just see the Battle Headquarters, poking out of the trees, the site is very overgrown and nature is claiming back what was once hers. The roads remain and are clearly laid out, some having been recovered with tarmac, but careful observations will see the original concrete beneath. Keep on the ‘Broadway’ and you will pass a number of side roads until you come to the hub. This forms a central octagonal star, off from which were the aptly named: ‘Foxy’ cinema, mess clubs and hospitals. Each road taking you from here, site 3, to the various other sites a short distance away. Careful observations and exploring – there are many hidden ditches and pits – will show foundations and the odd brick wall from the various buildings that remain. A nice touch to the hub, is that it is now a grassed area with picnic tables.

Grafton Underwood

The hub of the accommodation site is now a picnic area.

You do lose a sense of this being an airfield; the trees and vegetation have taken over quite virulently and hidden what little evidence remains. Exploring the area, you will find some evidence, but you have to look hard. Walk back along the Broadway, and take the first turn left. Keep an open to the right, and you will see other small buildings, the officers’ quarters and shelters – this was site 4. Again, very careful footing will allow some exploration, but there is little to gain from this.

Considering the size of Grafton Underwood, and then fact that 3000 men and women lived here, there is little to see for the casual eye. A beautiful place to walk, Grafton’s secrets are well hidden; perhaps too well hidden, but maybe the fact that it is so peaceful is as a result and great service to those that fought in that terrible battle above the skies of Europe directly from here.

There is a superb website dedicated to the crews of  Grafton Underwood and it can be found at:

Grafton Underwood was originally visited in 2014, this post has been updated since then. It forms part of Trail 6.

RAF Matlask, a Windy Corner of Norfolk with Hurricanes, Whirlwinds and Typhoons

In this, the 34th trail, we go back to the northern area of Norfolk, not far from the North Sea coast, and then head south. We end up near to RAF Attlebridge found in Trail 7, west of the city of Norwich.

Our first stop was a quite unassuming airfield, but one that played an important role during the Second World War. British readers will remember the distinct voice of one Raymond Baxter OBE,  the voice behind so many thrilling air show commentaries, the TV programme ‘Tomorrow’s World‘ and a wide range of outside commentaries that brought the wonders of science and technology into our homes. Baxter himself served in 602 Sqn RAF, and was stationed at the airfield in the latter stages of the war.  We are of course at RAF Matlask.

RAF Matlask (Station 178)

Documented on airfield site plans and other RAF Documents as  Matlask, as opposed to Matlaske the name of the village, it was a large grassed airfield hidden well into the Norfolk countryside.

The village of Matlaske separates the main airfield from the  four airmen sites and sewage disposal site, which were widely spread away to the north; only site 2 (communal and WAAF area) and site 7 (Sick Quarters), were located in the village itself.

RAF Matlaske

One of the few remaining buildings at Matlask. This being the former Site 3.

Accommodation was substantial, even taking over the large and rather grand Barningham Hall for the Officer’s Mess. The current building dates back to 1612 and stands in 150 Hectares of garden, park and lakes, a rather ‘up market’ dwelling, that is closed off to public access.

Other accommodation included a range of the usual huts, ‘Nissen’ and ‘Laing’ being the most prominent, with brick and timber featuring most.

The airfield itself stands to the south of the village, with the main entrance way off to the western side. A guard hut would have marked the main gate where a number of brick buildings would have been used for storage, technical activities, fuel storage and the like. A small road took you onto the concrete perimeter track that led all the way round the site. Dispersal was provided by 21 concrete hardstands, although a further 21 temporary hardstands were planned. One single T2 hangar was located  next to the technical area, with a further 5 Blister hangers (design 12512/41) spread around the perimeter. Aircraft dispersal was also provided by the standard 6 Type B protected dispersal pens, (7151/41) with built-in air raid shelters; each shelter having a crew entrance and emergency exit. Matlask initially had one watch tower to the north of the site next to the technical area. This was later modified to a two storey design and then a further example was built slightly to the south, this being of the more common two storey ‘standard’. wartime design (343/43).

Matlask although tucked away in the Norfolk countryside would not be devoid of activity. Some 22 RAF squadrons, an Air Sea Rescue unit and an American Fighter Group would all use it at some point.

Designed initially as a satellite for Coltishall, it was dogged with drainage problems, and surprisingly never seem to warrant any form of hard runway. It was opened in 1940 as part of 12 group, destined for fighter defence of the Midlands.

In 1937, 72 Sqn (RAF) was reformed. they moved around a variety of bases eventually ending up at Matlask’s parent base, RAF Coltishall. When Coltishall was attacked in late October 1940, it was decided to move the Spitfire squadron to Matlask for protection. This merely brought the war to Matlask for on the 29th, five Dorniers attacked the airfield, inflicting damage on several dispersed aircraft and injuring a number of personnel.


The village sign in Matlaske village.

After this attack, the first of two, the Spitfires would leave and Matlask would revert back to a satellite having no permanent residents of its own. This situation continued until May/June 1941, when Spitfires IIbs would arrive also from RAF Coltishall (Trail 7) . 222 Sqn (RAF) only stayed until the following July, moving south to the large fighter base at RAF Manston, in Kent.

This would then set the tone for Matlask, a large number of short stays, most for no more than a month or so. But whilst their stays were short, the diversity of aircraft they used was not. Spitfire Is, IIbs, IX, XVI, Hurricane II, Airacobra I, Walrus, Lysanders, Westland Whirlwind, Typhoon Ia and Ib, P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’, Miles Master, Martinets, Hawker’s Henley, Tempest Vs and Mustang IIIs would all grace the skies over this region of Norfolk.

Perhaps one of the more notable examples to fly here, was the American Airacobra. 601 Sqn (RAF) moved from RAF Manston to Matlask at the end of June 1941, bringing Hurricanes with them. These were replaced by the distinctive tricycle undercarriaged P-39 ‘Airacobra‘ a short time after. The first auxiliary squadron, 601 was known as the “Millionaires’ Squadron” and said to have been created by Lord Grosvenor at the gentlemen’s club “White’s“. Membership was initially very restricted, and boasted a unique initiation into the ‘club’. Whilst a determined and very professional unit in the air, they acquired a reputation for flamboyance and bravado on the ground.

In looking for a new fighter, the RAF turned to the Americans. The Airacobra was trialled and whilst found to have a number of advantages over its adversaries, it was considered too poor at heights over 15,000ft. Used in only a small number of raids it was deemed inadequate and soon replaced, with many supplied models being sent on to Russia and the Far East. 601 would use these partly at Matlask and then back at the Fighter Development Unit at Duxford where they moved to on August 16th 1941.

On that same day, Spitfires arrived with 19 Sqn (RAF). They changed their Mk.IIs for Vbs before moving off to RAF Ludham in December. It was during this stay though that a change was to take place for Matlask.

On October 1st 1941, 278 Sqn would be formed out of 3 Air Sea Rescue (ASR) Flight, operating Lysander IIIs. These, whilst successful in SOE missions, were considered the weak link in the Air Sea Rescue Role.  Operating initially as a spotter, it would fly to the last reported position of the downed aircraft, carry out a search, drop whatever aids it could, and then pass the information on to a Walrus which would collect the airman. In theory this worked well, but due to its poor capacity (supplies were limited to what could be fitted on the bomb racks), slow speed and vulnerability, it was limited to flying no further than 40 miles from the coast. As a result, and almost immediately, the Lysanders were replaced by the Walrus, an aircraft 278 Sqn operated for some time. Performing in this vital role, they were eventually moved in April 1942 to RAF Coltishall leaving Matlask firmly behind.

Around the time 19 Sqn departed Matlask, 137 Sqn moved in. They were to be perhaps the longest-serving squadron at Matlask and perhaps also one of the most notable.

Operating in the Coastal patrol and fighter role, they brought with them the Westland Whirlwind. Potentially thought be a world-beater, they would be liked by their crews, perform well at low altitude and have a punch that matched anything in the European Theatre at that time. However, having a poor combat range, and production problems with their engines, they were only built-in limited numbers and were restricted to ground attack, anti-shipping duties and low-level sorties. As such, they were only supplied to 2 operational squadrons, 137 Sqn and 263 Sqn; 137 Sqn being the second. Operations by the Whirlwind were mixed. Some great successes were reported, its concentrated fire power proving devastating not only to enemy aircraft but more heavily armoured targets including locomotives.

Despite this however, 137 Sqn was to suffer a major blow in February 1942. Whilst escorting British destroyers, they were unaware of the presence of the two German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. On diving to investigate, they were attacked from above by escorting Bf-109s and of the six Whirlwinds sent out, four were shot down and lost.  Despite its good performance, it was never to enter full production and soon the Whirlwind would be declared obsolete and be destined to fall into aviation obscurity.


Typhoon IB of 56 Squadron runs up its engine in a revetment at Matlask, before taking off on a ‘Rhubarb’ mission over Holland. © IWM (CH 9250)

137 Sqn would leave Matlask in August 1942 only to return 10 days later before departing again to RAF Snailwell at the end of the month. Almost as a direct replacement, Typhoons from Snailwell’s 56 Sqn and Coltishall’s 266 Sqn took their place. 56 Sqn stayed here for almost a year, moving to Manston in July 1943 whilst 266 Sqn moved to Duxford that same month. One of the last fatalities of 56 Sqn was Flight Sergeant R.G. Gravett (s/n 1268706), flying a ‘Rhubarb’ mission in his Typhoon JP392, who was killed when his aircraft was hit by Flak whilst attacking a locomotive at Leiden train station. The resultant crash, which hit 5 homes in Leiden, also killed one civilian and wounded five others.*1

After 56 Sqn’s departure the airfield was allocated to the Eighth Air Force and given the designation Station 178. Sadly though, it was only used for small detachments of the 56th FG flying P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’, and plans to expand the station to three runways were not carried out.

Apart from target towing activities, the early summer of 1943 was relatively quiet at Matlask; Lysanders returned along with the more unusual Masters, Henleys and Martinets of 1489 Flt.

Then came a flurry of fighter activity. The July of that year would see Matlask become a fighter base once again, with Spitfires, Tempest and Mustangs all being stationed here. Some 11 squadrons: 611, 195, 609, 3, 486, 65, 122, 229, 453, 602 and 451 all brought their own variety of fighter with them over the next year.

January 1944 would bring two more ‘unusual’ visitors to Matlask, although neither would be particularly graceful. On the 11th, B-17G (s/n 42-31090) ‘Nasty Habit‘ was instructed to land at Matlask, because of poor weather at its own station, RAF Deenethorpe (Trail 6). The B17 overshot and crashed through the boundary hedges and onto the road. Flying with the 613 BS, 401 BG, it was salvaged ten days later.

A B-17 Flying Fortress (IN-L, serial number 42-31090) nicknamed

B-17G (s/n 42-31090) ‘Nasty Habit’ *2

Then at the end of that month, whilst returning from a mission to Berlin, Halifax III, HX239*3 ‘HD-G’ of 466 Sqn RAF Leconfield, attempted a landing at Matlask due to low fuel. On touchdown the pilot, P.O. D. Graham realised he was on a  collision course for a group of workmen. In averting what could have been a major catastrophe, he ground looped and hit a partially built building, injuring three of the crew members. For the crew, a mix of Canadians and Australians, it was not the most comfortable of landings!

Almost as quickly as it all started, aircrews left and Matlask fell silent. The war came to an end and the RAF pulled out. 451 Squadron leapfrogged between here and nearby RAF Swannington, finally leaving on April 6th 1945 to RAF Lympne in Kent. The end had arrived for Matlask. A short spell as a POW camp and then it began its rapid return to agriculture and its present day form.

Matlask airfield today is very different from its heyday of the 1940s. The perimeter track is all but gone, only a small section remains as a simple farm track that leads across what was the northern section of the airfield. Half way across this part of the airfield lay the remains of the base of the T2 hanger. Today its holds farm machinery, waste and other products. On the north-western side would have been the main gate and the technical area. The two towers have left no remnants and even the last fighter pen is all but indistinguishable. Having grass runways, means the site is flat and unrecognisable as having any notable history. A memorial erected by the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust stands on what was the north-eastern section of the airfield just south of the village. From the village, heading south past this memorial takes you parallel to the airfield, the former perimeter tracks only feet from where you are driving.

In the village of Matlaske itself, you can find the former sick quarters – site 7, its distinctive roadway still evident but housing small homes and Bungalows now rather than sick bays of the 1940s. To the west there are a small number of buildings remaining on private land, shrouded in vegetation and trees, they are barely visible from the roadside. This would have been the former site 3, the location of six airmen’s barracks, five latrines, an ablutions block, drying room, fuel compound and a picket post. A small community in its own right.

Many of the accommodation sites are located within the grounds of Barningham Hall and the roadways that once took weary crews to and from the airfield now gone. Driving down the western side past the technical site, presents no sign of wartime activity. The former huts have all been removed, and even the battle headquarters, often one of the last few buildings to survive, has been removed.

Matlask has all but gone. When I visited early in 2016 it was a foggy, cold morning. The Norfolk wind has replaced the piston engines, the Merlin’s no longer resonate across the open expanse. The village is quiet. A public defibrillator in an old phone box perhaps a metaphorical gesture. The village sign acknowledges the history, a lone aircraft flying low over the village. As the fog lifts on this winter morning it reveals a wide open expanse that was once the busy and historic RAF Matlask.

Raymond Baxter commentates on some British Classics at RAF St. Athan.

After leaving Matlask airfield, we head south, a short distance to the former base at Swannington.


*1 Air War WW2 database V4.1, Jan Nieuwenhuis, Netherlands

*Photo IWM, Roger Freeman Collection. FRE 8078

*3 Aircrew Remembered website, accessed 4/3/16

*Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, W.R.Chorley, 1944, Midland Publishing


Britain’s Airfields – What does the future hold?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and Further Reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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

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

It has been a most humbling experience.

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

Engines roar over Grafton Underwood once more. 

The ‘updated’ memorial at the former American Airbase,  RAF Grafton Underwood (Station 106), has been revealed with the help of Europe’s only flying B17 – ‘Sally B‘.

A large crowd gathered at the Memorial On Friday 29th May 2015, to hear speakers and see the beautiful ‘Sally B‘ perform a number of flypasts over the skies of Station 106 once more.

I sadly could not go due to work commitments, but have been informed that it was a resounding success and that it was very well attended by well wishers and members of the public alike.

This updating, has been in the pipeline for a while now and all the hard work has finally paid off. A new parking area and flag poles have been added and the site generally improved for visitors.

I have obtained and attached a short ‘You Tube’ video taken by one of the visitors to the event for you to see.

A lovely end to a remarkable tail.

My thanks go to Kevin for all his hard work and dedication keeping the memorial in such great condition and the memories of the 384th BG (H) well and truly alive.

The video of the event was kindly sent to me,  I don’t know who took it but all credit goes to them. I will try to find their name and attach it when I can.

Grafton Underwood appears in Trail 6.

A new parking area for the 384th BG memorial Grafton Underwood

Following many months of lobbying, letters and phone calls, a friend of mine, whom I met whilst trailing ‘American Ghosts‘, has finally secured and had built, a new parking area adjacent to the Memorial of the 384th BG at the former airfield, RAF Grafton Underwood (Station 106).

Kevin Fleckner, has maintained the site for some considerable time, which is located on the former airfield at the end of the 6000ft long, No.1 runway, part of which can still be seen in front of the memorial today.

Kevin’s next aim is to get both the ‘Stars ‘n’ Stripes’ and the union Flag raised once more, something that has not happened since the end of hostilities, 70 years ago.

The parking area is now tarmac, with top soil, seed and bollards placed to repair damage done by tractors and other road traffic.

It is accessible by wheelchairs and is a superb memorial, paying tribute the many men and women who served at Grafton Underwood during the Second World War.

My congratulations and thanks go to Kevin, for his dedication and for all the hard work he puts in maintaining the memorial on behalf of us all.

Well done buddy!

Grafton memorial

Grafton memorial


The remains of the No.1 Runway

The memorial is bottom left by the road.

The memorial is bottom left by the road.


The Church memorial window dedicated to the 384th BG


As Heard on the BBC: RAF Kings Cliffe – Time is Running Out!

We recently published a post highlighting the proposed development of the former RAF Kings Cliffe airfield (Trail 6), and in particular the Glenn Miller Memorial located at Jack’s Green, which is part of Rockingham Forest in Northamptonshire, England (post 6/1/15).


The memorial and hangar base where Maj. Glenn Miller played his last hangar concert on 3rd October 1944.

The proposal, by the land owner/developer, Philip Ashton-Jones, states that a ‘caravan site’ with access and associated buildings would be built on part of the former airfield. This outlined plan includes the location of the memorial on the hangar base where Maj. Glenn Miller performed his final hangar concert (3rd October 1944) before his mysterious disappearance over the English Channel in December that year.

Whilst promoting the issue, Marcella, contacted John Griff at BBC Northants, who in turn asked for an interview on the Stuart Linnell Breakfast Show. Living in the U.S., this would prove interesting as there is a time difference of 5 hours. However, a suitable time was agreed and arrangements made for a pre-recorded rather than live interview.

The proposal has, unsurprisingly, been met with resistance from the local community. Some of the issues include: impact on local property and the current roads around Kings Cliffe which pass a quarry and lead to the back of Kings Cliffe village. The roads are very narrow, and unsuitable for high levels of traffic. The area is relatively high up and gives great views of the surrounding countryside, a reason why it is used by walkers, horse riders, cyclists etc. Furthermore, there is a wide range of wildlife including a herd of  deer that roam freely through the forest – it is indeed an idyllic area of pristine and natural beauty.

Of course there is the NIMBY aspect, no one wants a holiday village in their back garden. There are fears of ‘development creep’ and damage to the local finely balanced ecosystem. To Aviation Trails, it is not only the environment, but it the future of the Glenn Miller Memorial that is at stake, as are the remains of the airfield where so many brave young men, who gave the ultimate sacrifice, flew from during the Second World War.

The BBC broadcast both sides of the debate, including an interview with the landowner/developer, Mr. Philip Ashton-Jones, who slipped into admitting it was not caravans but 55 ‘luxury lodges’ that are being proposed. This was one of several ‘suspicious’ actions, along with the time at which the planning application was made public (i.e. prior to the Christmas holiday when the planning offices were closed), that caused some concern. This action reduced the amount of time objectors had to raise their concerns.

We feel these issues and the memorial in particular, are an important part of our shared British and American history. RAF Kings Cliffe comes from an era that changed the world, and Maj. Glenn Miller was a man whose musical talents helped shape and develop popular music for years to come.

These ancient forests are now delicate ecosystems, the memorials, rapidly disappearing monuments to past generations and Anglo-American heritage. Both need protection from permanent and sustained damage.

The BBC site has the various interviews available through their website, (links are valid for 30 days from the 9th February 2015 – but may be available on archives). They are for entire shows, but we have noted the timings of the relevant parts.

The BBC news website article can be found here.

A facebook page here, anyone can access this.

The radio interview with Marcella can be found here at 1:39:20

The interview with Ian Sharpe and Mr Philip Ashton-Jones can be found here at 2:39:15

A further report from the site can be found here on the John Griff show at 1:15:30

A big thanks also goes to my good friend, Kevin Fleckner, who wrote in support of the memorial.

As an additional note, there is also talk of development on the nearby RAF Deenethorpe site, another Northampton historical site likely to disappear. See the BBC report here.

Andy Laing and Marcella Beaudreau

Sgt. Archibald Mathies, USAAF, RAF Polebrook (Medal Of Honour)

Staff Sgt. Archibald Mathies (U.S. Air Force file photo)*1

Born in the Scottish town of Stonehouse, South Lanarkshire, on the 3rd June 1918, Archibald (Archie) Mathies was to become a Second World War hero. He was awarded the Medal of Honour (MOH) for his actions whilst at RAF Polebrook (USAAF Station 110) in Northamptonshire, England.

It would be on the 20th February 1944, shortly after arriving at Polebrook, that he would earn this honour but his life would be dramatically cut short.

Not long after his birth in Scotland, Mathies moved with his family to the United States, to a small town in Western Pennsylvania called Finleyville, in Washington County.

After leaving school, he began work in a local coal mine. The work was hard, and the pay was low; Mathies was not inspired. Then, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, as many other brave young American men did, he joined the Army, enlisting in Pittsburgh on the 30th December 1940. Mathies would transition through a number of stations and training centres before finally completing a course in aerial gunnery on the 22nd March 1943. His last U.S. posting was to the 796th Bombardment Squadron at Alexandria, Louisiana for operational training duties flying B-17s. He would leave here on the 8th December 1943 bound for England and the European Theatre of Operations.

Mathies arrived in the U.K. eight days later. His initial assignment was with the Eighth Air Force Replacement Depot, before being attached to the 1st Replacement and Training Squadron. On the 19th January 1944, he received his first and only operational squadron posting; the 510th Bomb Squadron, 351st Bomb Group, based at RAF Polebrook, as an engineer/gunner. Promotion was swift, and on 17th February 1944, probably following his first mission, Mathies was awarded the rank of Staff Sergeant.

A few days later, on 20th February 1944, the allies began the enormous aerial campaign known as ‘Big Week’. During this short period a massive number of aircraft would attack targets deep in the heart of Nazi Germany. One of the first, (Mission 226) would see a total of 417 aircraft fly from airfields across England. From RAF Polebrook, 39 B-17s took off to attack Leipzig. In the lead planes were Maj. Leonard B. Roper (s/n O-734101 ) of the 510th BS forming the high group, and Maj. James T. Stewart (s/n O-659405) of the 508th BS, leading the low group.

Flying in the number three ship of the lower Squadron, in B-17 (42-31763) ‘Ten Horsepower‘ was: Pilot: Clarry Nelson, Co-Pilot: Roland Bartley, Navigator: Walter Truemper, Engineer / Top Turret Gunner: Archie Mathies, Bombardier: Joe Martin, Radio Operator: Joe Rex, Ball Turret Gunner: Carl Moore, Waist Gunner: Tom Sowell, Waist Gunner: Russ Robinson, and Tail Gunner: Magnus Hagbo.

A B-17 believed to be “Ten Horsepower” (TU-A, serial number 42-31763) taken prior to its crash”2.

On approaching the target, the formation was hit hard by fighters and flak, who would attack the formation for over an hour, hitting many aircraft in the subsequent melee. Ten Horsepower, was targeted repeatedly receiving many hits from 20mm cannon shells. In these attacks the co-pilot was killed and the pilot knocked unconscious from his wounds. Fearing the bomber was doomed, the bombardier jettisoned the bombs and then bailed out, later being captured by the Germans and becoming a prisoner of war. The remaining crew remained with the B-17 which soon began a deathly spiral toward the ground.

Mathies and the navigator (Walter Truemper) would eventually take over control of the aircraft and nurse it back to England. Once over their base at RAF Polebrook, the crew were instructed to bail out but both Mathies and Truemper refused to leave the injured pilot. After deliberation, they were given permission to try to land, the remaining two crew members prepared themselves for a heavy landing.

The first two attempts had to be aborted, but on the third attempt, as they approached the airfield, the aircraft struck the ground, killing all three crew members onboard.

The crash was a severe blow for the base, both air and ground crews were devastated. On returning from the mission, five other aircraft (42-38028, 42-38005, 42-39760, 42-39853 and 42-6151). were forced to land at nearby Glatton (Conington) only a short distance away.

This was only Mathies’ second mission and sadly, his last.

For his bravery, Mathies was awarded the Medal of Honour; his name now appears on page 280 of the St. Paul’s Cathedral Roll of Honour. Also, as a dedication to him, one of the temporary lodging units at the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling is named after him, as is the Airman Leadership School at RAF Feltwell,  and the Noncommissioned Officer Academy at Keesler AFB, Mississippi. In addition, the bridge on Truemper Drive crossing Military Highway at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas; the USCIS Dallas District Office and the Mathies Coal Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are all named in his honour.

Archibald Mathies  citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy in connection with a bombing mission over enemy-occupied Europe on 20 February 1944. The aircraft on which Sgt. Mathies was serving as engineer and ball turret gunner was attacked by a squadron of enemy fighters with the result that the copilot was killed outright, the pilot wounded and rendered unconscious, the radio operator wounded and the plane severely damaged. Nevertheless, Sgt. Mathies and other members of the crew managed to right the plane and fly it back to their home station, where they contacted the control tower and reported the situation. Sgt. Mathies and the navigator volunteered to attempt to land the plane. Other members of the crew were ordered to jump, leaving Sgt. Mathies and the navigator aboard. After observing the distressed aircraft from another plane, Sgt. Mathies’ commanding officer decided the damaged plane could not be landed by the inexperienced crew and ordered them to abandon it and parachute to safety. Demonstrating unsurpassed courage and heroism, Sgt. Mathies and the navigator replied that the pilot was still alive but could not be moved and they would not desert him. They were then told to attempt a landing. After two unsuccessful efforts, the plane crashed into an open field in a third attempt to land. Sgt. Mathies, the navigator, and the wounded pilot were killed“.*3

Mathies was truly a brave and dedicated man, who in the face of adversity, refused to leave his wounded pilot and friend. Daring to land a badly damaged aircraft, he sadly lost his life showing both great courage and determination.

The crew of ‘Ten Horsepower‘ were:

Pilot: Clarry Nelson,
Co-Pilot: Roland Bartley,
Navigator: Walter Truemper
Engineer / Top Turret Gunner: Archie Mathies
Bombardier: Joe Martin (POW)
Radio Operator: Joe Rex,
Ball Turret Gunner: Carl Moore,
Waist Gunner: Tom Sowell,
Waist Gunner: Russ Robinson,
Tail Gunner: Magnus Hagbo


*1 Photo from Malmstrom Air Force Base website.

*2 Photo IWM Freeman Collection FRE 4725

*3 Citation taken from: US Army Centre for Military History website.