2nd Lieutenant John C. Morgan – Medal Of Honour

On July 26th 1943, a dramatic and heroic act enabled not only the safe return of a badly damaged B-17, but also the majority of its crew, who no doubt, would have otherwise perished or at best, be captured and incarcerated. For his actions that day, the co-pilot, John C. Morgan Flight Officer (later 2nd Lt.) was awarded the highest military honour a US serviceman can receive – the Medal of Honour.

Born on August 24th, 1914 in Vernon, Wilbarger County, Texas, Morgan was the son of an attorney and the oldest of four children. At the age of 17 he graduated from Military school, going on to attend a number of further establishments including: the Amarillo College, the New Mexico Military Institute, a teacher college and a university, both in his home state Texas.  In 1934 he learned to fly, a passion that would shape his future. 

Lieutenant John C “Red” Morgan of the 482nd Bomb Group with a B-17 Flying Fortress. (IWM FRE 2007)

After leaving education early , Morgan moved to Fiji where he worked on a plantation growing pineapples, staying there for four years until 1938. Still wanting to fly, he returned to the United States aboard the liner S.S.Monterey, where upon he tried to enlist in the US Army Air Corps. However, the Air Corps considered his education to be too poor, and so he was refused entry. With little alternative, Morgan sought employment in the booming Texas oil fields instead. A vast desert of oil pumps, Texas’ rich oil fields had begun what became known as the ‘Usher age’ – the start of the great period of oil.

In December 1939, Morgan married Margaret Maples in Oklahoma City, sadly though, the marriage would last just seventeen months. The cause of the demise of the union is not known, but it was whilst working in the oil fields that Morgan sustained a broken neck, an industrial accident that would potentially end all future prospects of work. 

With his opportunities now restricted, in 1940, he attempted to join the US Army, and unsurprisingly was classified as medically unqualified for military service (graded ‘4-F’). Undeterred though, Morgan then tried an alternative route, enlisting in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) on August 4th, 1941. Somehow, Morgan manged to pass his medical gaining his place within the armed forces of Canada. Training at Saskatchewan and Ontario, he soon transferred to England and the instructor training site RAF Church Lawford. Following a spell  with the RAF, Morgan was awarded the rank of Flight Officer, a status he took with him on his transfer in March 1943 to the fledgling USAAF.

His initial posting would be flying in B-17s with the 92nd Bomb Group’s 326th Bomb Squadron, based at RAF Alconbury. The 92nd had only been activated a year earlier initially flying anti-submarine operations off the US coast. After moving to England in July\August, they carried out minor operations before taking on the training of replacement bomber crews. Major operations for the 92nd didn’t begin in earnest until the May 1943.

On his fifth mission, two months later, on July 26th 1943, John C. Morgan (s/n: O-2044877) would be co-pilot in B-17F #42-29802  “Ruthie II“. The aircraft, one of nineteen from the 92nd, was one of sixty from the 1st Bombardment Wing heading for the tyre plant at Hanover, when a canon shell ripped through the windscreen splitting the pilots head. The B-17 also suffered damage, the oxygen system to the tail, radio and waist gun positions was now inoperable. In the relentless attack that followed, the top turret gunner lost the use of both of his arms, one being completely shot off, as well as major injuries to his side; the intercom system was put out of action and several crew members had lost consciousness due to the lack of Oxygen. 

Luftwaffe aircraft repeated their attacks, causing extensive injury and further damage to the B-17. The navigator, Keith Koske, tried in vain to assist the stricken top turret gunner, but in desperation, attached his parachute and pushed him out of the aircraft. Thankfully it worked, the gunner somehow survived the descent and was cared for by German surgeons until being repatriated n 1944. 

Morgan meanwhile grappled with the severely wounded pilot, 1st Lt. Robert Campbell, who had by now wrapped his arms around the controls, to try and maintain level flight. Morgan, taking control, decided the protection of the formation was better than heading for home alone, and so for the next two hours he flew on holding the pilot back with one hand whilst steering with the other. Eventually, after completing the bomb run, the navigator came forward and gave assistance allowing the aircraft to reach the safety of England and RAF Foulsham. Sadly, 1st Lt. Robert Campbell died from his terrible injuries shortly after the severely damaged B-17 landed at Foulsham .

For his actions that day, Morgan received the Medal of Honour in the following December. The ceremony was presided over by Lt. General Ira C. Eaker. Morgan’s citation read*1:

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Second Lieutenant (Air Corps) John Cary “Red” Morgan (ASN: 0-2044877), United States Army Air Forces, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty, while serving with the 326th Bombardment Squadron, 92d Bombardment Group (H), Eighth Air Force, participating on a bombing mission over enemy-occupied continental Europe, 28 July 1943. Prior to reaching the German coast on the way to the target, the B-17 airplane in which 2d Lt. Morgan was serving as copilot was attacked by a large force of enemy fighters, during which the oxygen system to the tail, waist, and radio gun positions was knocked out. A frontal attack placed a cannon shell through the windshield, totally shattering it, and the pilot’s skull was split open by a .303-caliber shell, leaving him in a crazed condition. The pilot fell over the steering wheel, tightly clamping his arms around it. Second Lt. Morgan at once grasped the controls from his side and, by sheer strength, pulled the airplane back into formation despite the frantic struggles of the semiconscious pilot. The interphone had been destroyed, rendering it impossible to call for help. At this time the top turret gunner fell to the floor and down through the hatch with his arms shot off at the shoulder and a gaping wound in his side. The waist, tail, and radio gunners had lost consciousness from lack of oxygen and, hearing no fire from their guns, the copilot believed they had bailed out. The wounded pilot still offered desperate resistance in his crazed attempts to fly the airplane. There remained the prospect of flying to and over the target and back to a friendly base wholly unassisted. In the face of this desperate situation, 2d Lt. Morgan made his decision to continue the flight and protect any members of the crew who might still be in the ship and for two hours he flew in formation with one hand at the controls and the other holding off the struggling pilot before the navigator entered the steering compartment and relieved the situation. The miraculous and heroic performance of 2d Lt. Morgan on this occasion resulted in the successful completion of a vital bombing mission and the safe return of his airplane and crew.”

(Whilst his citation notes July 28th as the day of Morgan’s action, the Hanover raid actually took place on July 26th and the citation is an error.)

Morgan receives the MOH from Lt. General Ira C. Eaker (IWM UPL 29867)

Morgan then returned to duty, undertaking further operations in a bomber over occupied Europe.

On March 6th 1944, Morgan would once again find himself in the thick of a heavy and prolonged battle over Germany. Flying withing a formation of 262 1st Bomb Division aircraft, it would prove to be another decisive day.

Morgan’s B-17. #42-3491 ‘Chopstick’, was flying with the 812nd BS, 482nd BG from Alconbury, when the aircraft was hit by flak over Berlin. The aircraft, which had been fitted with H2X , caught fire and exploded. Only four crew members were able to escape the fireball, Morgan amongst them. Once on the ground, their safety was by no means ensured, and very soon all four were captured by German ground forces. Morgan himself was incarcerated in Stalag Luft I for the next fourteen months. The remainder of the crew on board all perished.

For his actions and continued dedication to the Air Force, Morgan was rewarded with a promotion to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant, a move that occurred  in September 1944.

It is believed that this event made Morgan (who was now on his twentieth-sixth mission) the only known Medal of Honour recipient, to have been captured after receiving the Medal. 

42-3491 B-17F-70-DL One of the last 86 Douglas F models, these aircraft were built with chin turrets. This plane is one of the original twelve H2X radar equipped pathfinders. Distinguished from later versions by the radome mounted behind the chin turret. Hit by flack near Berlin on 3-6-44, broke up and crashed, 4 POW, 6 KIA.

#42-3491 ‘Chopstick‘ with Morgan on board. This plane is one of the original twelve H2X radar equipped pathfinders. Hit by 88mm flack near Berlin on 6th March 1944, the No.3 engine caught fire setting fire to the wing, causing the aircraft to explode and crash near Lake Havel, Berlin.  The plane was the lead bomber and Colonel Russell Alger Wilson, Commander of the 4th Bomb Wing, was onboard as Combat Leader. Wilson was one of the those killed in the explosion. (IWM UPL 29865).

After the war Morgan remained in the new reformed air force, the USAF, serving in Korea until his retirement as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1953.

On January 17th, 1991 Morgan passed away, being was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. 

John C Morgan. His grave is located at Arlington National Cemetery, Section 59; Site 351

The incredible story of Morgan’s bravery would form a part of the story line in the book and movie “Twelve O’Clock High”, when at the beginning, Lt. Jesse Bishop’s B-17 belly lands with a badly injured crew. (08:00 – 14:05).

Sources and further reading.

*1 The Congregational Medal of Honour website

92nd BG website

B-17 Bomber Flying Fortress – The Queen Of The Skies website

Arlington National Cemetery website

RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 5)

Part 4 revealed how FIDO proved to be a valuable asset to Foulsham. A new model of aircraft arrived along with its US crews and the war entered its final year. Now, as the war draws to a close, the future looks uncertain.

FIDO’s record at Foulsham was, like many other airfields, a great success. Only on the night of 23rd February 1945 did fatalities occur whilst using the system. With several aircraft on ops that night, fog again prevented many from returning to their own bases, and a Mosquito from 239 Sqn based at nearby RAF West Raynham, attempted a landing without permission. FIDO had just been lit but some of the pipes had burst adding smoke to the fog that had by now risen to 50 feet above the runway. The pilot, 23 year old Flt.Sgt. Leonard Twigg attempted to land Mosquito NF.30 ‘NT354’ only to miss the runway and land some 70 feet to one side, colliding with a Halifax of 192 Squadron parked at its dispersal. The pilot was killed in the incident but the navigator (Flt Sgt. Turner) managed to escape with injuries. As a result only one other aircraft, a Halifax, landed that night, the others being diverted to alternative airfields.

Two other 192 Halifaxes were lost that night, both being shot down over Germany with the loss of almost all sixteen crewmen – the only three survivors being taken prisoner. Both Halifax MK. IIIs ‘DT-T’ and ‘DT-O’ carried British, Australian and other commonwealth crews.

But the events of the 23rd February would pale into insignificance on the next night- the worst on record for the Australian 462 Sqn. Considered ‘minor operations’, they were tasked with dropping window, flying ahead of seventy-four training aircraft who were acting as a diversionary raid over northern France. Four of the squadron’s aircraft were lost that night, with the loss of twenty-six of the thirty-one lives. A further 100 group aircraft, a B-17 from RAF Oulton was also lost that night, these five accounting for the bulk of the losses of that one operation.

The late spring of April 1945 produced further poor weather, and FIDO was brought into action once more (possibly for the last time) on the night of 18th/19th. The use of FIDO that night allowed some thirteen aircraft to successfully land, providing a safe landing for crews who were no doubt by now, looking to the war’s end and a apprehensive return to peacetime,.

By August 1945 the war in Europe was over and squadrons were already beginning to disband. The FIDO system was drained and dismantled after providing a safe take-off or landing for a considerable number of aircraft. For 462 Sqn, the 24th September 1945 signified the end of its road. Eleven months after its reformation at Driffield, it ceased to exist, being removed from RAF inventory for good. Its demise also signified the coming of the end of flying operations at Foulsham and ultimately its closure.

In June 1946 the airfield was closed to all flying duties, whereupon it became the final resting ground for a large number of Mosquitoes prior to scrapping. Foulsham then remained ‘in-service’ until the mid 1950s, with a US Army Special Signals Unit, until the MOD deemed the site surplus to requirements. It was then sold off in the 1980s and its doors closed for the last and final time.

RAF Foulsham

A former workshop nestled between two refurbished T2s.

Foulsham, like many of its counterparts in this region played a major part in the electronic war, monitoring and jamming radar transmissions for larger formations of bombers. Despite this important and ground breaking role, Foulsham had only a short operational existence.

Many of Foulsham’s buildings have surprisingly withstood the test of time. Whilst the runways have all but gone, now farm tracks and tree lines, some of the buildings do still remain and even from the roadside, you can see what must have been a remarkable place during its short, but hectic life. The road passes along the eastern side of the airfield, here, you can still see a number of the original T2 hangars, three in total, now utilised by a local potato business. (‘Addison Farm’ as it is aptly named, is in recognition of Air Vice Marshall Edward Barker Addison, the only person to Command 100 Group*2 during the war). Whilst two of these hangars have been re-clad, the third is still in its original metal. Hidden amongst these structures, are some of the original technical buildings, again some refurbished, some original. The mass concrete bases signify the manoeuvring areas linking this area to the main section of the airfield to the west.

At this point, there was until recently, gates separating the dispersal area to the east (now farm dwellings) to the hangar area on your left. During the War, this road was surprisingly open to the public and aircraft would be manoeuvred across the road, traffic being halted by an RAF Policeman.

Further to the north, beyond this area passing an air raid shelter, is the original entrance and further technical area. A pill-box, marks where the main entrance was. Turn left here and follow the road west. To your right you pass the original Fire Tender shed, a B1 hangar and other minor buildings in varying states of disrepair. To your left, a further T2, partially refurbished partially original. Further along, the road crosses the original N/S runway, full width remnants to the right and a tree-lined track to the left mark clearly where the enormous concrete structure was laid. The road ahead, is the where the 08/26 runway ran as it disappears over the brow of the hill. The road then turns away north leaving the runway and airfield behind you.

As with all airfields, the accommodation blocks and bomb stores were scattered well away from the main airfield. With some searching, evidence of these may be found amongst the hedges and trees, public roads utilising the concrete sections of RAF road laid down originally.

Whilst the main layout of Foulsham is difficult to see from the road, the last remaining buildings have fared quite well and remain some of the better examples of original wartime architecture. There is a distinct ‘feel’ to the site that transforms you back in time to the days when heavy bombers and lighter twin-engined aircraft would rumble along its runways. Recent and ongoing development work by the farmer seems to be sympathetic and ‘in tune’ with the site, many buildings being reclaimed from nature and now ‘on show’ to the passing public. Whilst all are on private land, they are easily seen and it seems that there may be a winning formula here that other land owners could quite easily follow and preserve what is left of our disappearing heritage.

RAF Foulsham

The remains of the 08/26 runway.

In the nearby village of Foulsham, beneath the village sign, stands a memorial to the crews and personnel who once served at RAF Foulsham.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

Sources and Further Reading (Foulsham)

*1 Williams, G. “Flying through Fire – FIDO the Fogbuster of World War Two“. Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995.

*2 There is a 100 Group Association that keeps the memories of 100 group alive.  A number of Veterans from the group meet for reunions, coming from all over the world.

*3 The Congregational Medal of Honour Website.

*4 Bowman, M., “100 Group (Bomber Support)” 2006, Pen and Sword.

*5 National Archives: AIR 27/782/1

National Archives: AIR 27/1156/59
National Archives: AIR 27/1156/60
National Archives: AIR 27/1456/69
National Archives: AIR 27/1917/17
National Archives: AIR 27/1917/18
National Archives: AIR 27/1156/43

Sweetman. J., “Bomber Crew – Taking on the Reich“, Abacus, 2004

Janine Harrington, secretary for the Association, writes her own books based around 100 Group, read it through her blog.

Janine’s writings are inspired by her mother’s story of her wartime fiance Vic Vinnell of 192 Squadron at Foulsham, who, together with Canadian pilot Jack Fisher, never returned from a secret operation on the night of 26th / 27th November 1944.

The wartime memories project, has a section focusing on RAF Foulsham and people trying to trace crew members who served there. It is worth a look through perhaps you may know someone from there.

RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 4)

In Part 3, we saw the arrival of FIDO at Foulsham, a system yet to be fully tested. As poor weather continues to hamper operations, FIDO eventually comes into its own and proves its worth. A new aircraft arrives with its aircrew, and its an aircraft not commonly seen in UK skies.

 

On 27th April 1944 seven aircraft, a mix of three Halifaxes, two Mosquitoes and two Wellingtons, were detailed to operations performing ‘special duties’ over the continent. On their return, Mosquito DZ377 ‘DT-L’ landed first. Moments later, Halifax MZ564 ‘DT-X’ came in behind. After what appears to have been an error by the ground control staff, the Halifax landed on-top of the Mosquito without any knowledge of the heavy bomber’s crew. The situation had been made worse, not only by the poor weather, but by the fact that the Halifax appeared to have no working radio and that aircraft navigation lights had been extinguished due to an air raid warning at the airfield.

The accident occurred *4, after the Senior Control Officer had flashed a steady ‘green’ to the Mosquito pilot, who was at the wrong height and (apparently) accepted the light as permission to land. The result being, the two aircraft came in to land simultaneously with near disastrous consequences. However, there were no causalities except for the Senior Flying Control Office being posted and demoted for his misjudgement of the situation.

Meanwhile, the FIDO installation continued, with initial test burns being made in July. This first burn consumed some 16,250 gallons of fuel*1, and although results were positive, it wouldn’t be until the end of the year before the system would be put to the test and its first operational use.

Being such a ‘specialist’ unit, 192 Sqn  operated for a short time in conjunction with a detachment of P-38/F-5 Lightnings of the USAAF. It would appear that there were five aircraft, Lightning 155, 156, 479, 501 and 515, operated by ten aircrew (Lt. Zeilder, Lt. Alley, Lt. Richards, Lt. Stallcup, Flt. Off. Vasser, Lt. Kunze, Capt. Brink, Capt Adams, Capt. Dixon and Lt. Holt) rotating around each one. The P-38 being a single seat fighter had to be modified to a two-seater to take the ‘Special Operator’. The purpose of this detachment was to search over the Zuider Zee in south Holland looking for signals associated with enemy radar controlled missiles – V2s. Often these searches would occur in pairs, but occasionally singular. On October 26th, Lightning 515 piloted by Capt. F. Brink with special operator Lt. F. Kunze, sent a message stating their intention to ditch in the North Sea. Using a position 60 miles off the Norfolk coast, four aircraft, two Mosquitoes and two Halifaxes, were immediately dispatched to search the area, unfortunately no sign of the aircraft was seen nor the crew. An Air-Sea-Rescue launch was also dispatched to the area locating items of wreckage that was later identified as part of a P-38 Lightning. The crew though, were never found.

December 1944 was one of Bomber Commands busiest. On the 9th the poor weather broke sufficiently for operations to take place. Four aircraft were ordered to fly, two Mosquitoes, a Wellington and a Halifax. The Mosquitoes, flew to Germany to monitor and record R/T transmissions; the Wellington monitored Knickebein transmissions thought to be used for Flying Boat activities whilst the Halifax was sent to the Ruhr for a ‘window’ dropping exercise. Unfortunately the Wellington had to return due to the bad weather whilst the Halifax failed to get airborne and crashed beyond the runway.

The aircraft, a Halifax III piloted by  F.O. N. Irvine, had 22 operations under its belt. However, with time up at 18:28, the four engined heavy was unable to get airborne and ran off the end of the runway into an adjacent field. In the accident MZ817 ‘DT-O’, “Pete the Penguin” was badly damaged but thankfully none of the crew were injured and all walked away unhurt.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

Halifax B III, MZ817 ‘DT-O’, “Pete the Penguin” 192 Squadron, after running off the runway, 9th December 1944.  @IWM HU 60601

December was an eventful month for Foulsham. With the continuing bad weather, Bomber Command were having great difficulty getting aircraft back safely. On the night of the 18th/19th, a particularly poor night, the FIDO installation at Foulsham was finally lit and used operationally.

On that night, a large force of Lancasters were ordered to perform four operations to the Polish port of Gdynia on the Baltic coast. Along with the heavy bombers were a number of 100 Group aircraft including those from 192 Sqn based here at Foulsham. Five aircraft were ordered out on ‘Special Duties’, four Halifaxes and a Mosquito, in which ‘Window’ was dropped by three of them over the Rhur, whilst the other two monitored German radio transmissions – one 50 miles west of Stettin and the other over Gdynia.

On return to Foulsham, it was found that the airfield, as were many others in the area, was fogbound, and it had become necessary to light FIDO. The alert went out to all FIDO airfields and at Foulsham the burners were lit just after 02:00 hrs. A lack of experience and waterlogged pipes meant the system was not fully burning until some 25 minutes after the initial lighting, but just in time for the first aircraft ‘S’ Sugar to approach the runway.

The first aircraft to land was Halifax III LW623 piloted by Wing Commander D. W. Donaldson who, even after encountering strong winds caused by the fires, made a safe and successful landing. He is recorded as being the first captain to land such an aircraft at Foulsham.

Following on behind Donaldson was B-17 ‘R’ Roger from nearby RAF Oulton, who like many others, was flying on fumes. The pilot had just one chance and as he approached, he ordered the crew to take up crash positions. With visibility down to some 100 yards, he brought the B-17 in making a relatively good landing in appalling conditions between the rows of flames lining either side of the runway. Two further B-17s landed that night, one on three engines and another who missed the runway and became bogged down in the mud alongside.  By the end of the night after all aircraft had been received, the burners were extinguished and visibility over the airfield diminished  once more.

By the end of December, fifteen aircraft had benefited from the installation of FIDO at Foulsham; a system that had enabled them all to land safely in conditions that would otherwise have necessitated either finding an alternative site or bailing out. A third option was of course available, but the consequences almost final and fatal.

Whilst all this was going on, it was decided to create a new unit at Foulsham to support the electronics group. The Bomber support Development Unit (BSDU) were formed here during the April of 1944. Born out of the Special Duties (Radio) Development unit they would go on to disband at Swanton Morley in 1945 to become the Radio Warfare Establishment. Whilst here at Foulsham though, they would operate both Mosquitoes and Spitfire VBs along with the Tiger Moth and Avro Anson.

A further Halifax unit would grace the skies of Foulsham in the remaining months of the year. Also an electronics unit, 462 (RAAF) Squadron, was brought in to enable full coverage of ECM work as the war drew to its close. A former RAF Driffield unit, the squadron spent most of the last few days of the month transporting equipment to Driffield train station before departing themselves for Foulsham.

The weather over the winter of 1944 – 45 was one of the worst recorded. The Allies had reached the Ardennes where a final desperate counter attack was mounted by the Germans. Embedded in the thick woodland, troops fought both the weather and the enemy whilst much of the air cover was prevented from flying due to the continuing fog and snow.

At Foulsham some operations did occur, and on some occasions FIDO had to be lit to enable aircraft to either take off or land. January saw particularly strong winds, rain and snow, necessitating all personnel being tasked with snow clearing on January 10th. On the 15th, whilst climbing to cruising altitude the starboard outer engine caught fire. The engine was feathered and action taken to remedy the situation. However, a feathered propeller soon began windmilling causing dangerous drag and the fire spread. The bale out order was given but only two members of the crew were able to escape before the wing became detached and the aircraft came crashing to earth in a fireball. The two who escaped (Sgt. G. Sandy and F/Sgt N. Reed) were both injured in their landing, none of the others escaped with their lives.

On another occasion, an American B-24 had difficulty of its own and whilst attempting to land, crashed after over shooting the runway. The aircraft was eventually salvaged after coming to a stop on a local road.

A crashed B-24 Liberator (DC-F, serial number 42-95464) of the 577th Bomb Squadron, 392nd Bomb Group near Foulsham, 14 February 1945. Handwritten caption on reverse: '392/577. 42-95464. :F. Foulsham, 14/2/45.'

Liberator ‘DC-F’, (s/n 42-95464) of the 577th BS, 392nd BG over ran the runway at Foulsham, 14th February 1945. (IWM FRE 7993)

In Part 5, the final part, Foulsham begins the slow down of activity, the war draws to a close and the future becomes uncertain. Apprehension falls across the airfield as flights begin to reduce and personnel are posted out.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 3)

In Part 2, we reached a milestone in the life of Foulsham as it was on the brink of changing hands once more. As the new Group takes over new challenges are about to be faced, and FIDO, the fog dispersal system is desperately needed to counter the appalling weather.

By the 25th November, the move had been completed, and both 514 and 1678 HCU had now departed the airfield. With Foulsham now empty, it would undergo yet another change of ownership, this time to 100 Group, the specialists in electronic warfare. This change of ownership would, as before, bring another two new units, 192 Sqn and a supporting training unit 1508 (Blind Approach Training) Flight.

100 Group was formed that November as 100 (Special Duties) Group under the Command of Air Commodore E.B. Addison CB, CBE with its headquarters at Radlett in Hertfordshire. The aim of the move was to place all the electronic units under one single command, thus unifying its aim and bringing together all the resources of the thinly spread units. One of the main aims of the Group was to provide ‘spoof’ operations, confusing the ground operators and radar controlled night fighters, thus spreading them over wider areas. This would in turn, it was hoped, reduce the number of casualties from RAF bombers and achieve better bombing results as a consequence.

Other duties of the Group would involve the jamming of radar and radio equipment used by German aircraft and ground stations, monitoring German airways and providing incorrect orders to German crews using native speaking RAF crewmen. The war had become a battle of science.

RAF Foulsham

One of four T2 hangars.

Over November and December, airfields were taken over and aircraft supplied to the new Group. Squadrons were brought in to fill these sites and the Group grew from strength to strength.

A newly registered unit, 192 Sqn (formed a year before at RAF Gransden Lodge)  operating a mix of Wellingtons, Mosquitoes, Halifax IIs and more  recently, their newly acquired Halifax Vs, were transferred over to Foulsham, in one of the first moves to the airfield.

Formed through the renumbering of 1474 (Special Duties) Flight, 192 Sqn had been previously been monitoring the German Ruffian and Knickebein beams. In their new form they would monitor, amongst others, the western approaches to the Bay of Biscay, monitoring and recording night fighter channels.

However, the winter weather was up to its usual tricks, and it played havoc with initial flights. But despite this, within 48 hours of their arrival, 192 Sqn was classed as operational, and a memo to that effect was sent off to Headquarters 3 Group Bomber Command.

With no flying over the next three days due to the continuing bad weather, initial flights were able to begin on the 29th November, with three aircraft, all Wellingtons, performing Special Duties Flights over the Bay of Biscay. After landing at Davidstow Moor for refuelling, there was a major electrical fault at the airfield and the entire flare path and flying control facilities were put out of action. As a result, the three Wellingtons were grounded and unable to continue their flight home.

The weather continued to play havoc for the crews at Foulsham. A flight planned for a Mosquito and two Wellingtons on the 1st December had to be postponed and then finally cancelled. The next day, 2nd December 1943, three aircraft were ordered to fly to the Frisian Islands and the Dutch coast, but one had to return due to the pilot’s escape hatch blowing off, and a second overshot the runway on take off becoming bogged down in the mud. The aircraft was damaged but the crew were unhurt in the incident.

On December 7th, Foulsham officially became part of 100 Group and another unit No. 1473 (Radio Counter Measures) Flight also arrived here to assist with the ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) operations. By February 1944, it was decided to merge the Flight with 192 thus forming a ‘C’ Flight. With additional Mosquitoes and Ansons – the hardware inventory at Foulsham was now growing rapidly.

Much of December suffered the same fate as its preceding months however, poor weather rendering flying unsuitable, leaving many aircraft and their crews grounded for prolonged periods of time.

100 Group’s inaugural operation on the night of 16th / 17th December, did not however, go in their favour. On what has become known as ‘Black Thursday’ the RAF bomber force of over 480 aircraft, took heavy losses. These losses whilst high over occupied territory, were made far worse by poor weather which claimed some eight aircraft from 97 Squadron at RAF Bourn – one sixth of its strength,

The beginning of the new year, 1944, saw big changes not only in Bomber Command, but at Foulsham also. As the second phase of the ‘Battle of Berlin’ began, Stirling squadrons and now Halifax units were being pulled out of the front line bombing campaign; their shortcomings becoming all to obvious as losses in the types began to mount. The poor weather continued to cause misery across Britain’s airfields, rain and fog preventing large  continuous attacks on the German heartland.

The interminable fog was the driving force behind the new FIDO system now being installed at Foulsham. Bomber command had initially asked for eight airfields across the UK, but by the end of 1943 they were seeking twelve, and Foulsham (designated Station XXI) was identified as one suitable.

William Press were given the contract to install the system, and by mid February work had begun. Supplying the huge storage tanks was going to be a challenge though, and so a new siding was constructed at nearby Foulsham railway station. Its not known for sure whether the fuel was then piped the two mile distance to the airfield, or brought across in tankers, but whichever it was, it required a good deal of extra work.

At the airfield site, three storage tanks were assembled on Land at Low Farm, located at the northern end of the main runway. The much needed pump house and control point were also located here. Operators were kept on a 24 hr watch system, being billeted near to the equipment in two Nissen huts, one for officers and the other for ‘other ranks’.

RAF Foulsham

One of the air raid shelters used around wartime airfields.

Initial plans were for a mile of runway to be lined with the Haigill MK IV burners, with intersecting burners placed in trenches across the two intersecting runways. The placing of these burners, well out of the way of moving aircraft, initially being a difficult challenge to overcome.

Operating the burners was a tedious and dangerous job. After opening the valves and allowing petrol to fill a pool through which the operator had to walk, a match was thrown into the pool and the poor ‘Erk’ had to then run as fast as he could and throw himself into a small indentation in the ground hoping the flames would pass over and not ignite the clothes he was wearing. Once the burn had been achieved and all aircraft were down safely, the system was shut down and allowed to cool. Once the pipes were cool enough to touch, some 72,000 holes along the length of the pipes adjoining the runway had to be cleaned out to prevent a build up of soot. It was perhaps, one of the most tedious but vital jobs, RAF personnel had to perform.

Before the system could be fully tested though, a bizarre accident happened that resulted in no crew injuries, but two badly damaged aircraft and a Senior Flying Control Officer being posted and demoted.

In the next part (4) Foulsham’s  appalling weather accounts for a bizarre accident. The arrival of a new and relatively unique aircraft brings excitement to the site and FIDO really comes into its own.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 2)

In part 1 we saw how Foulsham began its life and how early squadrons suffered with bad weather and malfunctioning guns. In Part 2, we continue our journey and find out how an American pilot, who crash landed at Foulsham was awarded the Medal of honour.

On that particular day, the aircraft, “Ruthie II“, was in a mass formation heading for Hanover, when a canon shell ripped through the windscreen splitting the pilots head. In addition to this, the oxygen system to the tail, waist, and radio positions was  also inoperable, the top turret gunner had lost both arms and had major injuries to his side; the intercom system was out of action and several crew members had lost consciousness due to the lack of Oxygen.

Morgan grappled with the severely wounded pilot, who had wrapped his arms round the controls, to try and maintain level flight. Morgan decided the protection of the formation was better than heading for home alone, and so for the next two hours he flew in formation holding the pilot back with one hand whilst steering with the other. Eventually the navigator came forward and gave assistance allowing the aircraft to reach the safety of England and Foulsham.

For his actions, Morgan, of Vernon, Wilbarger County, Texas, received the Medal of Honour the following December in a ceremony presided over by Lt. General Ira C. Eaker. The story of Morgan’s bravery would form a part of the story line in the book and movie “Twelve O’Clock High”.*3

The posting of 98 and 180 Squadrons in August 1943 was no coincidence, as the airfield saw further development and new hangars added. These hangars were erected at various locations around the airfield site, ready to accommodate the forty or so Horsa gliders that would soon arrive here escorted by 12 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section. Their arrival marking the beginning of the  preparations for the invasion of Normandy the following year.

A few days later, on September 1st, 1943, the handover of Foulsham took place and 3 Group became the new owners in a move that also signified the forming of 514 Squadron with Lancaster IIs, the less common radial engined version of this famous Avro aircraft.

514 Sqn was initially headed by Acting Wing Commander A.J. Samson D.F.C., although the first to arrive at the airfield was the squadron adjutant. On first inspection, he and his small party found that the office blocks had been completely stripped of all their furniture, even shelving had annoyingly been removed from walls. As a result the offices were virtually unusable, and so a huge clean up operation began in readiness for the ground and air crews who were to shortly follow.

RAF Foulsham

One of the original T2 hangars.

Accommodation sites 2 and 5 were quickly allocated to the squadron for personnel use, and as soon as equipment began arriving, on a rainy and very wet September day, everyone was drafted in to unload and store the various much needed supplies.

To provide flying personnel for the new squadron, a support unit would also be formed at the airfield, that of 1678 Heavy Conversion Unit. The formation of this unit was achieved through the renumbering of the Flight of the same designation, a changeover that took place a month later, on October 16th 1943. The role of this unit was to convert experienced bomber crews over to the new Lancaster.

In the interim period, the new aircraft began to arrive. The first Lancaster ‘DS735’ touching down on 11th September, 1943, followed by three more (DS785, 783 and 784) over the next three days. Their arrival was met not with pomp and ceremony though, but by heavy showers and thunderstorms, the weather that had dogged earlier squadrons continued to play its terrible part in life at Foulsham. Over the next few weeks, aircraft were quickly modified and air-tested ready for flying, by the end of the month, eighteen Lancasters had been flown in and virtually all the crews had arrived ready for converting to the new type.

Over the next month, and although the weather yet again played havoc with flights, cross-countries and air tests were carried out with a high level of success. However, no one could control the weather, and the first planned operational sortie had to be cancelled due to extensive fog that blanketed the Norfolk countryside. Not until November 6th did a break allow any operational flying to take place, and that break allowed two small flights to get airborne.

A mining operation undertaken by four aircraft along with a bombing mission in which only two aircraft got off the ground, were the squadrons break into operational flying; not a major mission, but one that nevertheless broke the ice.

With the poor weather continuing, several more ‘ops’ were again cancelled allowing only the occasional ‘Bulls-eye’ or morning flight to get away. Whilst it must have been frustrating for crews, this did allow them to finally put into practice all the training they had undertaken so far.

Then on the 14th November 1943, news came through from above that 3 Group was being reorganised and that 514 Sqn would be moving from Foulsham to RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire as a result. The move, expected to be completed by the 23rd, would coincide with the first operation to Berlin, a move that also signified the first phase of the ‘Battle of Berlin’. This would also be the first time a 514 Sqn aircraft (DS784 ‘JI-C’) would not return from operations; the loss being a blow to the squadron. Of the seven-man crew, one would be taken prisoner (F/S. B. Haines (RAAF)) whilst a further (Sgt. H. Lucas) would evade capture,  successfully hiding out in Brussels until its liberation in 1944. The remaining five crewmen however, all perished in the aircraft’s crash.

In Part 3, Foulsham passes to new ownership and its life in electronic warfare begins. The new Group will bring new challenges, new aircraft and the installation of FIDO, the Fog dispersal system.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 1)

In Norfolk sits an airfield that only had a short wartime life, but it is one that is more than significant. Used in the electronic warfare role, it went on to house a small number of heavy bomber squadrons all crammed with electronics to detect, monitor and interfere with enemy transmissions.

In conjunction with this, it also saw a detachment of two-seat P-38/F-5 Lightnings, a rare aircraft in this country, and possibly the only one to do so. Dogged by bad weather it was identified as a suitable site for ‘FIDO’ the fog dispersal system, and post war it was used in both the scrapping of DH Mosquitoes and as a storage unit.

In Trail 22 we revisit the former RAF Foulsham.

RAF Foulsham

RAF Foulsham, sits approximately 8 miles north-east of the Norfolk town of Dereham. It had a short active life of just three years, lasting between May 1942 and 1945, at which point it was closed to flying and used as a storage site for military hardware. It remained in this lesser state until the 1980s when it was deemed surplus to requirements and finally closed. The land it stood on, was then sold off to local farmers.

Built over the period 1940-41 by the construction company Kirk and Kirk Ltd, RAF Foulsham occupied land some 173 feet above sea level, and opened under the control of 2 Group Bomber Command. Much of the material that was brought in to construct Foulsham came via nearby railways stations, then along local roads through the village, leaving locals facing endless mud and traffic.

As a war-time airfield, Foulsham would have three tar and wood chip runways, one of which would later be equipped with the fog dispersal system ‘FIDO’, a valuable if not bizarre system designed to dissipate fog along airfield runways.

Foulsham’s three runways were 1,900 and 1,350 yards long, with the main runway heading in a north-south direction. By the end of the war it would have thirty-seven heavy bomber hardstands, nine T2 hangars and one B1, and as such, was a formidable size. Personnel numbers were reflected in this, with accommodation spread over several sites to both the south and east, able to accommodate upward of 2,500 personnel of mixed rank and gender. The ever important technical site sat to the east, with the bomb store situated to the south-west of the airfield, just off the end of the main north-south runway.

RAF Foulsham

The original Fire Tender shed.

The watch office, now long gone, was built to design 518/40 which included and Meteorological section attached to the building. These designs were a development of earlier models using a new 9 inch rendered brick wall as opposed to timber, although timber was initially required for the floors and ceilings. Due to a shortage in wood at the time though, concrete replaced a large portion of these leaving only the balcony and control room using such material.

Whilst Foulsham opened under 2 Group, it would almost immediately – within a month of opening – be handed over to the US forces of the 8th Air Force and be renamed station B.13. However, this change never evolved into anything  more as no American personnel were stationed here, and by the October it was back in RAF hands, and 2 Group once more. The next few years would see the airfield change hands several more times, and with each change would come new aircraft, new personnel and new roles.

The first units to arrive here were those of the host unit 2 Group. Both 98 and 180 Squadron arrived in mid October 1942 after their reformation/formation at RAF West Raynham. During this time, they both began to receive their aircraft, the American built B-25 ‘Mitchell II’. Their transfer across to Foulsham gave the airfield the honour of being the first station to use the type operationally. Both squadrons would remain active in the light bomber role until 18th August 1943 at which point they would depart and the airfield would change ownership once more.

98 Squadron, a First World War unit, had been operating out of Kaldadarnes in Iceland following a terrible loss of personnel when the Lancastria was sunk in June 1940. Their reformation at West Raynham, and subsequent move to Foulsham, had been quickly met with yet more losses, when one of the Mitchells ‘FL206’, spun killing all four members of the crew on board.

After this, the squadron would be dogged by misfortune, the squadron adjutant noting in the Operational Records that excessive rain had turned the site into a “disgraceful condition”; the weather was one aspect the staff would have to put up with for some time to come. *5

For the first sixteen days of November, all but a handful of days were washed out, the despair of staff being felt through the Operational Records, each day met with ‘Lectures continue, adverse weather for flying‘. However, on the 16th, training flights did manage to take place, but it too was met with more sadness as a second set of fatalities occurred.

During the training flight, Mitchell FL179 suffered a bird strike in the carburettor of the starboard engine, this caused the engine to fail. With only one serviceable engine the pilot, Flt. Sgt. K. Williams (s/n: 1062588), tried to land at nearby RAF Attlebridge, unfortunately the aircraft stalled and went into a spin. The resultant crash killed all three aircrew on board and wrote off the Mitchell.

Things were to not get any better for the squadron either. On the 30th, a third crash took yet four more lives when FL708 collided with high tension cables near to RAF Wendling. The explosion from the collision also killed a local farmer who was ploughing his field at the time of the accident. It had been a terrible start for the fledgling unit.

The poor weather continued relentlessly, hampering the squadron’s progress, both on the ground and in the air, with training flights being cancelled on a regular basis. During the small numbers that were taking place, further problems came to light adding to the frustrations already felt by the crews.  Since taking on the initial batch of nine Mitchells on September 18th, the squadron had been having problems with the aircraft especially the guns and their turrets.

Gunners had found that extended bursts of gunfire were impossible, usually no more than a dozen rounds could be fired at any one time, a situation borne out by Wing Commander Foster, the Group Armament Officer, on the 16th December. In an attempt to remedy the situation, an American gun turret specialist visited the squadron, but by the 18th it was considered that the guns were ‘obsolete’.

RAF Foulsham

A defence ‘pill box’.

January was much the same, snow added to further problems and again the aerodrome was noted as being in a “very bad condition“, all flying being cancelled until the middle of the month when a small number of flights did get airborne.

The first battle order came through on January 21st, but due to a late delivery of bombs, it was also cancelled, meaning the squadrons first operation flight wouldn’t take place until the next day.

Six aircraft were ordered to operations, and whilst all made it to the target, one aircraft, FL693, was hit by flak and disintegrated. All on board were presumed killed.  The first months of 98 squadron had been challenging and difficult for those posted here.

180 Squadron had fared a little better, although after walking into a spinning propeller, L.A.C. J. Aspinall was killed, the only fatality of the squadron during the same period.

On July 26th 1943, an emergency landing was made at Foulsham by a B-17F #42-29802 of the 326th BS, 92nd BG, 8th AF, after a traumatic series of events that earned the co-pilot, John C. Morgan Flight Officer (later 2nd Lt.), the Medal of Honour for his valour and courage in action.

In part 2 we see how Morgan earned this prestigious award and how Foulsham continues to develop.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

Flying Officer Leslie Manser VC. (RAFVR) 50 Squadron – Royal Air Force

Born in New Delhi in 1922, Flying Officer Leslie Thomas Manser, (66542) posthumously earned himself the Victoria Cross for an act of bravery in his Avro Manchester, over Cologne on the night of May 30th, 1942.

manser
Flying Officer Leslie Manser VC. (RAFVR) 50 Squadron – Royal Air Force

As a young child, he moved with his family to Radlett, Hertfordshire, England, was educated at St. Faith’s, Cambridge and Cox’s House Aldenham, Hertfordshire. Following this, he decided to join the Armed Forces. Attempts to enlist in both the Army and Royal Navy were unsuccessful, however, in August 1940, he approached the Royal Air Force and was quickly accepted.

Manser was commissioned as a pilot officer in May the following year and after further training, was posted on 27th August to 50 Sqn at RAF Swinderby, Lincolnshire, operating Hampdens.

His first experience of war, came very quickly. As a copilot, he was to join over 100 other aircraft in the Frankfurt raid only two days after his arrival. Further action saw him fly over prestigious targets such as Berlin, Hamburg and Karlsruhe before being posted twice to Finningly and then back to Swinderby, this time as an instructor.

Following a brief service with No. 420 (R.C.A.F.) Sqn, again on Hampdens,  Manser returned to 50 Sqn, this time operating from Skellingthorpe, Lincolnshire. It was here that he experienced for the first time, the ill-liked Heavy Bomber, the Avro Manchester. Manser flew a number of missions on this type including a leaflet drop over occupied Paris on April 8th. His skill as a pilot soon earned him promotion to the rank of Flying Officer just five days before his 20th birthday on May 6th 1944.

With high losses and increasing ‘failures’, bomber command was coming in for its own criticism and despite some success, Harris was making enemies at home as well as overseas. It was now that he created his master plan “The Thousand Plan” code named ‘Operation Millennium’. This would involve over 1,000 British bombers, attacking one major German city in a single night. Churchill, impressed with the idea, gave Harris full support and the wheels of Operation Millenium were put in motion. Aircraft and crews were pulled from every available source, many being taken from training units where crews were only partially trained and inexperienced.

Orders were finalised on 26th May, and an initial date for the attack set for the night of the 27/28th May, the target would be Bremen. However, continued unfavourable weather conditions made Harris’s first choice unsuitable and then at midday on the 30th May, 1942, Harris issued the order to strike, that night, against his second choice of target – Cologne.

The immense armada, which consisted of: Whitleys, Wellingtons and Hampdens, Stirlings, Halifaxes, Manchesters and Lancasters made up a force of 1,046 bomber aircraft along with an assortment of night fighters in support.

On the morning of 30th, Manser and another pilot were instructed to collect two Manchesters from Coningsby, Lincolnshire. As many of these aircraft were drawn from reserves and training squadrons, it was inevitable that many would be in poor condition. Manser’s was no exception, it had no mid upper turret and a sealed escape hatch.

50 sqn

When the order came and Manser took off, his aircraft L7301 ‘D’ Dog, an Avro Manchester Mk1, with a full bomb load of incendiaries, was now difficult to manoeuvre and he was unable to reach an altitude of more than about 7,000 ft. Hoping the main bomber force would attract the greater concentration of  flak, he decided to continue on.

They soon arrived over the target area and being lower, they were subjected to an immense barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Many of these shells struck the aircraft causing fires within the fuselage and the port engine. Careful nursing and a cool head by Manser, enabled them to eventually extinguish the fire which had now spread along the entire wing.

Struggling to maintain any height and keep the aircraft airborne, the crew threw out whatever they could to lighten the load. with little power, the aircraft lost considerable height and Manser finally ordered the crew to bail out. Knowing his crew would not survive jumping as the aircraft swung and moved awkwardly, he fought to maintain level flight for as long as possible. Refusing his own parachute over his crew’s safety, he held it just long enough for them to get out. The bomber finally crashed a few miles from the Dutch border near to Bree 13 mi (21 km) north-east of Genk in Belgium and burst into flames with Manser at the controls, he was just 20 years old. Manser’s bravery came out following debriefing of the crew members, five of the six having made it home through the resistance network.

Manser’s crew on that flight were:

Sergeant Baveystock (2nd Pilot)
Pilot Officer Horsley (Wireless Operator)
Sergeant Naylor (Rear Gunner)
Flying Officer ‘Bang On’ Barnes (Navigator / Bomb Aimer – Captured following jumping at low-level)
Sergeant King (Second Wireless Operator)
Sergeant Mills (Front Gunner)

Leslie Manser’s courage and self-sacrifice led to him being posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. On 23rd October 1942. The citation for the VC read:

“In pressing home his attack in the face of strong opposition, in striving, against heavy odds, to bring back his aircraft and crew and, finally, when in extreme peril, thinking only of the safety of his comrades, Flying Officer Manser displayed determination and valour of the highest order.”

Other members of the crew:  Barnes, Horsley,  Baveystock, Mills and Naylor all received immediate awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross or Distinguished Flying Medal.

Today Manser’s memory lives on. A Primary School (The Leslie Manser Primary School) was opened in 1981 on what was the old RAF Skellingthorpe airfield. On 31st June 2004, a Memorial to F/Off. Leslie Manser was unveiled in  Stamprooierbroek near Molenbeersel, Kinrooi in the north-east of Belgium. He is buried at Heverlee War Cemetery Leuven, Flemish Brabant (Vlaams-Brabant), Belgium. Plot: 7.G.1.

Manser’s VC is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, London.

The following personal message from Sir Arthur Harris was sent to Leslie Manser’s Father:

“Sir,

Accept from me personally and on behalf of my Command and my Service, Salutations upon the signal honour, so well indeed merited, which his Majesty the King has seen fit to confer upon your gallant son. No Victoria Cross has been more gallantly earned. I cannot offer you and yours condolence in personal loss in circumstances wherein your son’s death and the manner of his passing must so far surmount, by reason of the great services he rendered this country and the last service to his crew, all considerations of personal grief. His shining example of unsurpassed courage and staunchness to death will remain an inspiration to his Service and to him an imperishable memorial.

Arthur T. Harris Air Marshal R.A.F.”

M/Sgt. Hewitt Dunn – Flew 104 missions.

RAF Framlingham (Parham) otherwise known as Station 153, achieved a remarkable record, or rather one man in particular did. His name was Hewitt Dunn, a Master Sergeant in the U.S.A.A.F and later the U.S.A.F.

Known as “Buck” he would achieve the remarkable record of completing 104 missions with the 390th Bombardment Group (Heavy) – a record that astounded many as life expectancy in a heavy bomber was short, and few survived beyond one tour of 30 missions.

Hewitt Tomlinson Dunn (s/n 13065206) was born on July 14th 1920. He progressed through school to join the Air Corps where he was assigned to the 390th Bombardment Group (Heavy), 13th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division, Eighth Air Force, as a gunner in December 1943.

His first mission was with the 569th Bombardment Squadron in the following January. He completed his first gruelling tour of 30 missions by April that year, upon which he immediately applied for a further tour that he would complete by the summer of 1944. His attitude of ‘its not over until its won’, would see him accept a further remarkable third tour, virtually unheard of for a heavy bomber crew member.

On Friday, April 6th 1945, mission 930, an armada of aircraft of the U.S.A.A.F would strike at the marshalling yards in Leipzig, Germany. Inside B-17 #43-38663, ‘The Great McGinty‘, was Hewitt Dunn.

After the mission Dunn described how earlier at the morning briefing, he, like so many of his colleagues, had been a little ‘nervous’. Then, when the curtain was pulled back, their nervousness was justified, Leipzig – the 390th had been there before.

Many crews in that briefing would look to Dunn for signs of anguish, if he remained steady and relaxed, they knew it would be ‘easy’, if he sat forward, then it was going to be a difficult one. The atmosphere must have been tense.

Luckily, unlike other missions into the German heartland, this one turned out to be ‘just another mission’ a ‘milk run’. Much to the huge relief of those in command of the 390th, all aircraft returned safely.

On his arrival back at Framlingham, Dunn was greeted by cheering crowds, ground crews lifted him high in their air carrying him triumphantly away from his aircraft, it was a heroes welcome.

By the time the war had finished, Dunn had flown in 104 missions, he had been a tail gunner on twenty-six missions, twice a top-turret gunner, a waist gunner and the remainder as togglier (Bombardier). He had flown over Berlin nine times, he claimed a FW-190 shot down and had amassed an impressive array of medals for his bravery and actions, and all at just 24 years old.

Post war, he continued to fly as an Instructor Gunner for B-52s in the 328th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Strategic Bomb Wing, at Castle Air Force Base in California. Here he was described as “quiet and reserved” and never talked about his war experiences. He was “handsome man with black hair”, and only when he wore his dress uniform, did others realise how well decorated he was.

Dunn was considered a rock by those who knew him and perhaps immortal, but he was not, and on June 15th , 1961 after flying for a further 64 flights, he was killed. Details of his death are sketchy, but the man who had flown in more missions than any other person in the Eighth Air Force and had gone to train others in that very role, was highly decorated. He was looked up to and liked by those who knew him.

Following his death a service was held in Merced, California, his body was then taken to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. where he was finally laid to rest in grave number 3675, section 28.

For a man who achieved so much in his fighting career, little exists about him or his achievements. Maybe, by the end of the war, records were no longer needed, tales of dedication and bravery were no longer useful propaganda. Whatever the reason, Hewitt Dunn’s name should be heavily embossed in the history books of the Second World War.

hewiit-dunn

Hewitt Dunn on return from his 100th mission, April 1945 (IWM)

Hewitt Dunn’s medal tally:

– Air Force Longevity Service Award with 3 oak leaf clusters
– Air Medal with 13 oak leaf clusters (2 silver, 3 bronze)
– Air Medal with 7 oak leaf clusters (1 silver, 2 bronze)
– American Campaign Medal
– Distinguished Flying Cross with 1 oak leaf cluster
– Good Conduct Medal
– National Defence Service Medal
– Silver Star
– World War II Victory Medal
– European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 1 bronze star
– European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 1 silver star

Hewitt Dunn’s story is one of many featured in Heroic Tales.

RAF North Witham – Leading the way into Normandy.

If you follow the A151 towards the main A1, close to the Lincolnshire / Leicestershire border, and you come across Twyford Woods, and an airfield that is little known about, yet its part in history is perhaps one of the most important played by any airfield in Britain. Famous battles such as the Normandy invasion, the Ardennes and the crossing of the Rhine all took place because of the events that occurred here, and were it not for this airfield, many may not have been as successful as they were. In Trail 3, we head further west to perhaps one of Britain’s best kept secrets – RAF North Witham.

RAF North Witham (Station 479)

RAF North Witham sits quietly amongst the trees of Twyford Woods, a site originally known as Witham Wood, which is now a public space owned and maintained by the U.K.’s Forestry Commission.

Originally, North Witham was one of twelve airfields in the Leicestershire cluster intended to be an RAF bomber station for No. 7 Group, however, it was never used operationally by the Royal Air Force, instead like ten others in the area, it was handed over to the US Ninth Air Force and in particular the IX Troop Carrier Command.

North Whitham control tower

North Witham’s Tower – now a mere shell.

As it was originally designed as a bomber station it was built to the Air Ministry’s class ‘A’ specification, formed around the usual three triangular runways, perimeter track and aircraft hardstands. With construction beginning in the mid-war years 1942/43, its main runway would be 2000 yds long, with the second and third runways 1,400 yds in length and all 50 yds wide. To accommodate the aircraft, 50  ‘spectacle’ style dispersals were built, scattered around the adjoining perimeter track. As a bomber base it had a bomb store, located to the north-eastern side of the airfield, with the admin and technical site to the south-east. The usual range of stores and ancillary buildings adorned these areas. One architectural feature of North Witham was its operations block, built to drawing 4891/42, it was larger than most, with ceilings of 14 feet high. Amongst the myriad of rooms were a battery room, cipher office, meteorology room, PBX, traffic office and teleprinter room, all accessed through specially designed air locks. A further feature of this design was the attachment of a Nissen hut to house plant and boiler equipment, a feature not commonly seen at this time.

Aircraft maintenance could be carried out in one of two ‘T2’ hangars with additional work space provided by one of six ‘Butler’ hangars. Designed and built by the Butler Manufacturing Company of Kansas, USA, these were supplied in kit form and had to be erected on site by an Engineer Aviation Battalion. These hangars consisted of rigid box section girders over a canvas cladding, and once fully erected, gave a wide 40 ft span. Quite a rare feature, these types of structures were only built in limited numbers during the Second World War and only appeared on American occupied airfields. Post-war however, they were far more commonly used appearing on many American cold-war sites across the UK.

A hangar under construction at the 1st Tactical Air Depot at North Witham. Printed caption on reverse: '77877 AC - A butler hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion at North Witham, England. U.S. Air Force Photo.'

A ‘Butler’ hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion (EAB) at a very snowy North Witham (IWM479)

The Ninth Air Force was born in 1942 out of the ashes of the V Air Support Command, and then combined with units already located in the England operating under the American Eighth Air Force. Its initial activities focused on the allied push across North Africa followed by the move up into southern Europe through Italy.

Moving to England in October 1943, it then became the tactical Air Force that would support the Normandy invasion, supplying medium bombers, operating as troop support and finally providing supply flights. Facilitation of this massive invasion required both a huge backup, and an intricate supply and support network. North Witham would form part of this support network through both repair and maintenance of the troop carrier aircraft that were operated by the Ninth Air Force – primarily the C-47s. The main group undertaking this role at North Witham was the 1st Tactical Air Depot comprising the 29th and 33rd Air Depot Groups between January and September 1944*1. One of a number of depots, they were once described as the “backbone of Supply for the Army Air Force”, and had a complicated arrangement that encompassed numerous groups across the entire world theatre.

For such a large base, North Witham would be operationally ‘underused’, the only unit to fly from here being those of the IX Troop Carrier Command (TCC), who would primarily use C-47 ‘Skytrains’ – an established and true workhorse, and one that would go on to supply many air forces around the world.

During the Sicily campaign, it was found that many incoming aircraft were not finding the drop zones as accurately as they should, and as a result, paratroops were being widely and thinly scattered. More accurate flying aided by precise target marking was therefore required, and so the first Pathfinder School was set up.

North Whitham pen

Part of one of North Witham’s 50 dispersal pans.

The IX TCC Pathfinder School (incorporating the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Pathfinder Squadrons) was formed whilst the TCC was at RAF Cottesmore in Rutland. Initially having only seven C-47 aircraft, it arrived at North Witham on March 22nd 1944. These aircraft were fitted with, at the time, modern Gee radar and navigation equipment, along with SCR-717 navigational radar housed in a dome beneath the fuselage of the aircraft. This combination of equipment would allow the aircraft to be used as ‘Pathfinders’, and would be used to train both crews and paratroops of the 101st and 82nd Airborne to mark targets prior to the main invasion force arriving.

These crack troops would train at North Witham before returning to their own designated bases to pass on their newly acquired skills. The idea being that these troops would set up ‘homing’ stations using ‘Eureka’ beacons that would connect to ‘Rebecca’ receivers in the aircraft (distinguished from the outside by antenna protruding from the nose). This would allow flying to near pinpoint accuracy even in poor weather or at night; something that would be employed with relative success in the forthcoming Normandy landings.

On arrival at North Witham, the Pathfinders were accommodated in the huts originally provided for the depot’s crews – some 1,250 enlisted men and 75 officers. Many of these displaced men were rehoused in tents along the northern end of the site which only added a further strain to the already rudimentary accommodation that was already in place at the airfield. At its height, North Witham would house upward of 3,700 men in total, a figure that included an RAF detachment of 86 men and large quantities of GIs.

After arrival, the crews began training for the invasion. Flying cross country flights enabled them to practise using their new radar sets, flying in all weathers, at night and during the day. By D-Day, all navigators had been using the equipment in excess of 25 hours and were considered more than competent in its operation.

With postponements of the invasion came frustration, crews and paratroops mentally prepared for war were let down, there was little for them to do to release the tension that many must have felt.

On June 5th, after the plan was finally given the go ahead, some 821 Dakotas at various sites across England were primed ready for the initial wave of the invasion. Timing was of the utmost importance. As rehearsals had shown, seconds could mean the difference between life and death – for the crews of the C-47s, the pressure was on.

Around 200 Pathfinders of North Witham were the first to leave the UK and enter the Normandy arena. Departing late in the evening of June 5th, men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne climbed aboard their twenty C-47s and rose into the night sky. North Witham based C-47A*2 ‘#42-93098’ piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch*3, led the way. Nineteen other North Witham aircraft joined Crouch that night, and remarkably only one aircraft was lost in the entire flight. Flying under mission ‘Albany‘, the Douglas built C-47A-15-DK Skytrain, #42-92845 (aircraft #4) was lost en route either due to mechanical failure, or as some sources say, following a direct hit by Anti-Aircraft fire. Either way, the aircraft lost an engine and was forced to ditch in the sea. Once down, the crew and paratroops on-board were rescued by the British destroyer HMS Tartar.

Image result for Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch and his crew

The Crew of C-47A #42-93098, a few hours before they left for Normandy. Including Pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch (centre), Captain Vito Pedone (copilot), Captain William Culp (Navigator), Harold Coonrod (Radio Operator), along with Dr. Ed Cannon (physician), and E. Larendeal (crew chief)*1

The aircraft flew in groups of three in an in-line ‘V’ formation; aircraft 1, 2, 3 followed by 4, 5, 6; 19 and 20 (added as a late decision); 7, 8, 9; 10, 11, 12; then 16, 17 and 18. The formation was finally completed with aircraft 13, 14 and 15 bringing up the rear. Each C-47 would deposit its collection of Paratroops over six drop zones (DZ) A, C, D, O, N and T between 00:20 and 02:02.

Flying alongside aircraft #19, the only pair on the flight, was C-47 #20 piloted by 1st Lt. Paul F. G. Egan, of Massachusetts. Joining him in the aircraft were: Sgt. Jack Buchannon, Crew Chief (Mass); 2nd Lt. Richard A. Young, Co-Pilot (Ohio); 2nd Lt. Fern D. Murphy, Navigator (PA);  Staff Sgt. Marvin Rosenblatt, Radio Operator (NY) along with ten Combat Engineers of the 101st Airborne who  were dropped at Sainte-Mère-Église on the Cherbourg Peninsula early in the morning 6 June 1944.

Lt. Paul Egan had a remarkable service history, serving in each of the US Army, US Army Air Force and US Air Force after the war, a service that stretched from 1939 to 1967. His remarkable record includes: Pearl Harbour in 1939 and the Japanese attack in December 1941, the Battle of Midway in 1942, followed by advanced training in 1943. This training kept Lt. Egan in military intelligence as a Pathfinder pilot flying mostly C-47s out of both North Witham and later Chalgrove. As well as dropping the paratroopers on D-Day in Operation Market Garden, he also dropped troops in Operation Varsity along with every other major airborne operation flown from England. He also flew bombing missions in B-17s and flew ‘secret’ missions in early 1945. At the signing of the Japanese surrender onboard the USS Missouri on September 2nd 1945, he was the only USAAF representative there, General McArthur wanting someone who was present at Pearl Harbour to also be present at the surrender. His record is certainly remarkable and one to admire.*5

1st Lt Paul F. G. Egan and crew (photo courtesy Jean Egan)

Photo taken at North Witham Air Base, England on June 5, 1944, the night before D-Day. C-47 #20 (note the number chalked in front of the door to ensure paratroops boarded the right aircraft, and the crudely painted invasion stripes) one of the first 20 aircraft to fly with the elite group, the Pathfinders.  Front row: Sgt. Jack Buchannon, Crew Chief; 2nd Lt. Richard A Young, Co-Pilot; 2nd Lt. Fern D. Murphy, Navigator; 1st Lt. Paul F. G. Egan, Pilot (Captain); Staff Sgt. Marvin Rosenblatt, Radio Operator along with ten 101st Airborne Combat Engineers dropped on the Cherbourg Peninsula early morning 6 June 1944, “D-Day” (Photo courtesy Jean Egan).

Pathfinder training continued at North Witham beyond D-Day, well into 1944. The scope of those trained expanding to include Polish paratroops of the 1st Independent Polish Airborne Brigade, who would perform a similar role to their American counterparts. These various Pathfinder groups would go on to have long and distinguished careers, supporting the battles at Arnhem, the Ardennes and also Operation Varsity – the Allied crossing of the Rhine.

As the Allies pushed further into enemy territory, the flying distance from England became too great and so new airfields were either hastily constructed on the continent or captured airfields refurbished. As a result, the Pathfinder School soon moved away to Hampshire and the maintenance units, needed nearer the front lines, gradually departed to these newly acquired bases on the continent.

September 1944 would see big changes in the Ninth and the knock-on was felt at North Witham. Firstly, the IX TCC transferred from the Ninth AF to the First Allied Airborne Army, and as a result, the Air Depot title was changed to IX Troop Carrier Service Wing (Provisional), which was re-assigned to aid and supply the new Troop Carrier Groups (TCG) now based in France. To accomplish this new role, groups often used borrowed or war-weary C-47s, C-46 (Commandos) or C-109s (converted B-24 Liberators) to fulfil their role. Secondly, the Pathfinder School was re-designated IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group (Provisional) and they moved away from North Witham to their new base at Chalgrove near Oxford. Now much quieter, life otherwise continued on at North Witham, but it wouldn’t long before the demand for UK-based maintenance and repair work would slow, and within months North Witham’s fate would be finally sealed.

As the end of the war approached, the airfield quickly became obsolete, and the long wind-down to closure, that many of these unique places suffered, began to take effect.

By the time the war was over, the last American personnel had pulled out and the site was handed back to the RAF’s 40 Group who, after using it for a brief spell as a maintenance depot themselves, placed it under care and maintenance. It was used as a munitions and hardware store until 1948, and then finally, in 1956, it was closed by the Ministry and within two years the site was sold off.

Photograph of North Witham taken on 17th January 1947. The technical site and barrack sites are at the top left, the bomb dump is bottom left. (IWM RAF_CPE_UK_1932_FP_1221)

The site, intact as it was, was returned to the Forestry Commission who planted a range of new tress around the site, covering the vast areas of grass. The technical area was developed into a small industrial unit and perhaps most sadly the watch office left to decay and fall apart.

Today the three runways and perimeter track still exist almost in their entirety, and remarkably, in generally good condition. Largely overgrown with weeds and small trees, the remainder is well hidden obscuring what little there is in the way of buildings – most being demolished and the remains left piled up where they stood. However, a T2 hangar is now used on the industrial estate and the watch office still stands tucked away amongst the trees and undergrowth. This area is a favourite place for dog walkers, and because of its runways, it is accessible for prams and pushchairs. Whilst here, I spoke to quite a few people, remarkably none of them knew of the site’s historical significance let alone the office’s existence!

Today the watch office remains open to the elements. Surrounded by used tyres and in constant threat of the impending industrial complex over the fence, its future is uncertain. Access stairs have been removed, but an entrance has been made by piling tyres up to the door – presumably by those wishing to enter and ‘explore’ further. Little evidence of its history can be seen from the outside, even the rendering has been removed, and so, any possible personal links with the past are more than likely now gone.

North Whitham runway

The view of the main runway from outside the tower.

Returning back to the main public entrance along the perimeter track, a number of dispersal pens can be found; overgrown but relatively intact, they are a further sign that even here, war was never very far away.

North Witham was one of those ‘backroom boys’ whose contribution, whilst extremely important, is little known about. The work carried out here not only helped to maintain a strong and reliable fighting force, but one that spearheaded the frontal invasion of Normandy. It served as a cold and perhaps uncomfortable home to many brave troops, many of whom took the fight direct to Nazi Germany.

Standing here today, it is quiet and strangely surreal – you can almost hear the roar of engines. Looking along its enormous runways you get an eerie feeling – how many troops also stood here, spending their last few hours in this quiet place. Looking around now, it is difficult to imagine the immense work that went on here, the gathering of equipment as preparations were made for the big push into Normandy on that famous June night.

North Witham is truly a remarkable place, hidden away amongst the trees as a giant time capsule, a monument to those who lived, worked and died during that turbulent time in 1944-45.

North Whitham runway

Another view along the main runway.

Sadly in May 2015, Twyford Woods was the scene of a large illegal rave, over 1000 people attended the event where a number of arrests were made in the violent altercations that took place*4. A sad day that would turn the souls of those who sacrificed themselves for the freedom we take for granted so very easily today.

(North Witham was originally visited in early 2013)

Links and sources (RAF North Witham)

*1 American Air Museum in Britain

*2 C-47A #42-93098 itself was later lost whilst flying with the 439th Troop Carrier Group (TCG) on September 18th 1944, whilst flying in support of Operation ‘Market Garden‘ in Holland.

*3 Superb footage of Crouch and his crew as they depart from North Witham is available on-line, it also shows the Watch Tower in its former glory.

*4 A report of the event is available on the BBC News website.

*5 My sincere thanks go to Jean Egan, daughter of Lt. Paul Egan, for the information and photograph.

An excellent website contain photos of paratroops and air crew as they prepare for embarkation and advance through France.

RAF West Raynham Trail 21 – Part 5.

We have now seen how West Raynham developed from an expansion period airfield, through the Second World War and on into the Cold War. With tensions now easing and Government cuts biting hard, the future of West Raynham and the Service, hangs in the balance. But with new jets in the pipeline, changes to the Nuclear deterrent coming, a new direction may save the airfield from immediate closure. We also see how one man takes matters into his own hands and protests as these events which are to shape the future Air Force.

Later in August that same year, Nos. 1 and 54 Squadrons arrived at West Raynham boosting the numbers of personnel present here once more. Both units transferred over from Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, in a move that saw the return of the Hawker Hunter F.G.A. 9.

No.1 Squadron, one of the RAF’s longest serving squadrons had provided almost continuous service since 1912, and had flown a wide variety of aircraft across Britain, France and the Far East. They brought with them a long and distinguished history.

It was perhaps a No. 1 Sqn pilot who defined West Raynham’s lasting legacy, that of the Flight Commander – Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock, who around midday on 5th April 1968, flew a Hawker Hunter FGA.9 (XF442) between the two spans of Tower Bridge in London. The stunt, a protest by Pollock already annoyed at the Government’s defence cuts, was to raise the concerns of personnel at the lack of celebration of the RAF’s fiftieth anniversary. After leaving Tangmere (following a celebration dinner) he and his colleagues headed back toward their home base at RAF West Raynham. Pollock then turned away from the group and flew at tree top level along the Thames circling the Houses of Parliament no less than three times, before dipping his wings at the RAF Memorial and heading along the river and home. However, before long he was faced with Tower Bridge and a split second decision had to made. He decided to fly through the arches rather than over the bridge.

His fate was well and truly sealed, he was going to be disciplined and severely. On the way home, his single handed salute to the service he adored included ‘beating up’ Wattisham, Lakenheath and Marham airfields, before carrying out an inverted flypast at West Raynham. On landing, Pollock was arrested by the Military Police, after which a long, drawn out legal process was put into place. Rather than face a public outcry, the authorities gave him the ‘option’ to leave on medical grounds or through the more severe removal under Queens Regulations with the loss of all financial backing.

There was no option, and Flt. Lt. Pollock was sent packing. The political fallout from the event went on for months afterwards, leading to a stronger rebellion from the press who were already gunning for the Wilson Government. No one in authority wanted their ‘dirty washing’ aired in a public hearing.

54 Sqn meanwhile operated out of West Raynham as part of 38 Group Air Support Command.  A role that required them to fly as a ground support unit, operating in conjunction with army ground forces. They flew from West Raynham for seven years, departing at the end of the decade. During this time, they would reinforce the Mediterranean and Germany even locating to Gibraltar after political ‘pressure’ from General Franco.

The 1960s also saw a change in direction for Britain’s defence network, which was brought about by the same 1957 Defence White Paper that saw the demise of 85 Sqn. The basis of this saw manned fighters be replaced by guided missiles along with investment in the V bombers, a retaliatory force that could deliver Britain’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

On September 1st, 1965, the first of West Raynham’s guided surface-to-air missiles arrived. The reformation of No. 41 Sqn with two units (sixteen missiles in each) saw the construction of a secure Bloodhound missile site on the eastern side of the airfield. These MK.II guided weapons would become the main airfield protection system of that time, although their presence only lasted five years before the unit was again disbanded and the missiles put onto storage.

With the birth of vertical take off and landings in the form of the Kestrel (later the Harrier) an evaluation unit was set up here at West Raynham. Designed to test the flying abilities of the Kestrel, up to and including near service conditions, it was made up of pilots from the UK, USA and West Germany. The unit, designated the Tri-Partite Evaluation Squadron Royal Air Force (TES), was designed to see how the aircraft would perform from both airfields and unprepared sites, using its VTOL and STOL capabilities. To this end the unit also used Buckenham Tofts located in the Stanford Training Area, the Army’s huge training area near to Thetford.

Testing any new aircraft is a risky business, the Kestrel being no different, and on April 1st 1965, Kestrel XS696, caught fire and crashed following a take off from West Raynham. Only a month old, the aircraft was struck off charge the same day as a Cat.5(c) and the remains scrapped after all recoverable components had been removed. The pilot was thankfully unhurt in the incident.

The accident didn’t completely deter the US Government though, and at the end of the year, six aircraft were sold to the US for further tests. Initially they were not convinced of its use, but the US Marine Corps were interested, and subsequently a long service began for the Harrier in both the US and here in the UK.

In 1967, Napalm saw a return to West Raynham when famously the Torrey Canyon struck rocks off the Cornish coast. The ship soon grounded and began to break up, spilling its cargo of oil onto rocks and into the waters around Cornwall. The Government decided to bomb the stricken vessel to reduce the impact of the oil spill, and so aircraft from the Fleet Air Arm and RAF were called in to bomb it. No. 1 Squadron were assigned the challenge and four Hunters were tasked with the role. Eventually after several attempts the wreck finally sank and much of the oil was burnt off.

Two years later in 1969, both No. 1 and No. 54 Sqns departed West Raynham. Their gap quickly being filled by No. 4 Sqn who arrived in September that year staying until the following March. Both 1 and 54 Sqns would become new Harrier units, forming squadrons in both Germany and here in the UK.

The dawning of 1972 saw the return of 85 Sqn, who after a spell of some nine years at Binbrook, returned with a new model Canberra the PR.3, a long range photo-reconnaissance aircraft, it was unarmed and relied on its high speed to escape any enemy aircraft.

A month later in February, it was decided to also reform 100 Sqn here at West Raynham, initially using staff from 85 Sqn. Starting off with the Canberra B.2, they quickly began changing these for the T.19, essentially a T.II with its Airborne Intercept radar (A.I.) removed – West Raynham was now awash with Canberras. One of the roles of 85 Sqn was to act as enemy intruders so QRA crews could perform practice intercepts. Although the QRA crews were aware of the nature of the intercepts, Canberras would fly in low and then climb over the UK coast imitating a Soviet bomber – often to great success.

On June 26th 1972 tragedy would strike at West Raynham once more, when a 100 Sqn Canberra T.19 ‘WJ610’ crashed shortly after take off. The Aircraft, crewed by  Flight Lieutenant Nicholas Whitlock (pilot) with navigator Flight Lieutenant John Sheran, struck trees 2 miles south, south west of Rougham whereupon it burst into flames killing both airmen.

In the months before the accident, the aircraft had been on loan to 85 Sqn, although this had no bearing on the cause of the crash itself, but it has led to some confusion as to which squadron it was actually with at that time,

Investigations recorded that the aircraft was one of a pair that took off in bad weather flying on instruments. Then as it entered low cloud, Flt. Lt. Whitlock reported that the aircraft had suffered an undercarriage problem, at which point it peeled away from its leader, the assumption being that Flt. Lt. Whitlock was aiming to deal with the issue in hand. The investigation surmised that he may have been concentrating on the gear issue and became disorientated as a result. It is thought this then led to the accident and the aircraft’s inverted crash.

As a result of the tragic loss, formation take offs by Canberras were subsequently prohibited, any future take offs having a minimum of 30 seconds between each departing aircraft, it was a tragic loss that served to help others*2.

A brief interlude in the autumn of 1972 saw the reformation of 45 Sqn with Hunter F.G.A.9s, once established and organised the unit quickly transferred out, leaving West Raynham behind.

The 1970s saw further big changes within the RAF. The handing over of the nuclear deterrent to the Royal Navy for one along with Britain’s air defence missiles (Bloodhound) being withdrawn and transferred to Germany. However, later concerns over potential attacks forced a review, and as a result, in December 1975, 85 Sqn were disbanded, the aircraft were transferred out, and they were  immediately reformed as a new Bloodhound unit. The missiles were brought out of storage and placed here in Norfolk. Some of the 85 Sqn personnel were absorbed into West Raynham’s 100 Sqn but they would only remain here at West Raynham for a further month before they too moved out.

Bloodhound

Bloodhound Missile at the Norfolk and Suffolk Air Museum (2014)

85 Sqn operated across a number of sites. Primarily based at West Raynham, they had Flights at both Bawdsey on the south Essex coast and North Coates in Lincolnshire. In October 1989 the squadron grew further, absorbing No. 25 Sqn, which gave the unit three more Flights at Wattisham, Barkston Heath and Wyton. By the start of the 1990s though, Bloodhound had become obsolete ‘Rapiers’ being the new low level airfield defence missile, and so Flights ‘B’, ‘C’ , ‘D’, and ‘F’ were all disbanded. This left the HQ (West Raynham), ‘A’ Flight (North Coates) and ‘E’ Flight (Wattisham), until these too were disbanded the following summer.

RAF West Raynham

West Raynham’s Rapier training dome is now of ‘Historic Interest’. (2015)

By the time the 1980s had dawned, front line flying at West Raynham had been scaled back and no operational fighter units were based here. The airfield had entered the long and slow wind down to eventual closure.

By July 1991, with the last of the Bloodhound units being disbanded, the missiles they had been using scrapped or sold to the Swiss military, and the personnel pulled out, the site was left all but empty.

Any residue support units were also removed and in 1994 West Raynham finally closed its hangar doors. The airfield itself remained in MOD hands, but sadly the housing lay empty and it quickly became derelict, targeted by vandals. The accommodation blocks were damaged and windows were smashed. Long debates and scornful banter over the housing shortage boiled over in parliament and sites such as West Raynham were seen as prime land, with a huge infrastructure already in place, they were half way to meeting the needs of a growing community. The MOD eventually gave in, agreed to the sale and the site was handed over.

The two gate guardians, a Bloodhound missile ended up at Cosford Museum whilst the Javelin XH980 , was scrapped on site and disposed of. Since then the site remained closed and quiet.

This closure left what is a rare example of a complete wartime  and post-war airfield. As a result, many of its buildings are now of ‘historical interest’ and attempts at obtaining a Grade II listing to a large number of the airfield’s buildings was made by the English Heritage. Sadly, this was later withdrawn and no follow-up made although the post war Watch Office is now Grade II listed and more recently a private dwelling.

For many years the site stood empty gradually decaying.  A number of planning applications were submitted and some of the accommodation blocks were transformed into private homes. This has thankfully meant that the original style and layout has been maintained. However, the runway and Bloodhound sites have now gone, having been replaced by what is reputed to be, one of Britain’s largest Solar Parks.

In 2016 a proposal was put forward to develop the site into a mix of housing, leisure facilities and industrial units, all utilising the existing buildings where possible. A design brief was put forward by FW Properties who estimated the 158 acre site to be worth £7.3m with a refurbishment value of some £5.2m. The proposal was for a four phase plan to include refurbishment of the original properties for housing, redevelopment of the landscape and infrastructure and new builds to create an integrated community on the site. A grand proposal that would keep the integrity of the site and utilise as many of the buildings as possible.

When I initially visited, the site had been sealed off, but the control tower along with a wide range of smaller ancillary buildings, were all shrouded in scaffolding. The  Officers Mess had seen better days and the adjacent tennis courts had been reclaimed by trees.

The Rapier training dome, original Battle headquarters and wartime pill boxes were also evident. A memorial to the crews of West Raynham had been erected in what is now the centre of a housing area that utilises the old accommodation blocks.

Today, much of it hasn’t changed, many of the smaller buildings continue to decay, but the post war watch office is a private dwelling, open for visitors and tours on heritage days, the guard house is a shop for fire places and the hangars are used by small, light industrial companies.

A Hunter F.1 ‘WT660’ has been acquired and sits near to the modern watch office, previously on display/stored in Scotland, it has been brought back to be refurbished and displayed in the colours it would have worn whilst in the Day Fighter Leader School between 1955 and 1957 here at West Raynham.

RAF West Raynham

The West Raynham memorial sits next in the former accommodation area.

West Raynham is one of only a few complete sites that reflect the development and commitment of Britain’s air defences. Its origins and initial construction in the 1930s has seen continued improvements leading to its gaining a remarkable status that few other sites have gained.

Throughout its history it has seen a wide range of units, personnel and aircraft, it has been a training airfield, a front line fighter defence, a bomber airfield and even a missile base. Its future is now in the hands of a developer, who are implementing a gradual change from airfield to community utilising the main buildings on site to support light industry and housing. What the eventual model will look like only time will tell, lets hope the promises hold and West Raynham becomes a model for other disused airfields before they are bulldozed and all their history cleared for evermore.

I hope to make a further visit shortly and capture some more up to date photos.

The full story can be read in Trail 21 – North Norfolk Part 2.

Sources and further Reading (West Raynham).

*1 National Archives Operational Record Book 114 Sqn August 1941 – AIR 27/882/36

*2 Aviation Safety Network database

*3 National Archives AIR 27/882/36

*4 National Archives AIR 27/1456/75

*5 “Hansard 1803–2005”  digitised editions of Commons and Lords Hansard, the Official Report of debates in Parliament. Hunter Aircraft (report of Enquiry)

National Archives AIR 27/731/1

AIR 27/801/1
AIR 27/882/33
AIR 27/2870/21
AIR 27/971/33

For personal stories and more photos see the West Raynham Association website.

The West Raynham Development Brief published by FW Properties.

My thanks to Jon Booty at the West Raynham Control Tower for corrections.