RAF Waterbeach Museum.

Earlier this year I was able to visit the Waterbeach Military Heritage Museum located on the former RAF Waterbeach airfield; creating the museum has been quite an achievement and a very worthy cause. The museum contains many interesting photographs and artefacts relating to life at “the ‘Beach”, from its inception in 1940 right through to its final closure in 2013.

The current Museum was opened after the Army’s departure and the subsequent closure of the barracks. It is currently housed in Building 3 just inside the main entrance next to the former guard-house, and access is strictly controlled, and by prior arrangement only. It was created by the then curator, Oliver Merrington, along with a handful of local people who wanted to secure the future of the museum and keep the memories of Waterbeach alive for future generations. Mr. Merrington has since sadly passed away, but the volunteers continue the good work he put in place.

Whilst the museum is currently small, it holds a tremendous amount of information, all  of which is neatly displayed in cabinets and on the walls. Many original photographs are supplemented with official documents, personal stories, newspaper cuttings and artefacts, some of which relate to specific aircraft from Waterbeach’s history.

RAF Waterbeach Museum

Part of one of the many displays in the museum.

Whilst most of the displays reflect life at Waterbeach during the Second World War, various aspects reflect its post war life, both with the RAF and with the Army’s Engineer Regiment – the founders of the original Waterbeach Museum in 1984.

The two rooms of the museum are dedicated to all these people, taking you on a journey through the life of Waterbeach, starting with the sad First World War story of three brothers: Sgt. Jack Day, (1st July 1916), Private Walter Day (1st July 1916) and Private Clifford Day (13th August 1918). Like so many families of the war, their lives were all taken prematurely, two of which occurred on the first day of the first Battle of the Somme. The three brothers, whose ages ranged from 19 to 22 years old, were all local boys to Waterbeach, and like so many, left a family devastated by their loss. Two of the boys remain buried abroad but Walter, like so many other young men, has no known grave and remains missing.

From here the display takes us to Waterbeach in the 1940s, the story of its construction and design are told using photographs taken at that time. Representations of the various bomber squadrons who used the airfield are supported with operational details, personal stories and artefacts relating to individual aircraft that flew from Waterbeach during these early war years.

In the post-war period Waterbeach was transferred to the Transport Command and again photographs and documents show the range of aircraft that flew from here: Liberators, Dakotas, Lancastrians and Avro Yorks.

Into the jet age and we see a flying suit, and a canopy from Gloster Javelin XH871, which ended its days at Bovingdon as a fire fighting air frame. It is particularity significant as it previously served here at RAF Waterbeach in the late 1950s.

RAF Waterbeach Museum

One of the many exhibits on display at the Museum.

After the Royal Air Force departed the base was handed over to the Army, and a small number of exhibits represent their presence here at Waterbeach. The Royal Engineers finally departed the barracks themselves in March 2013.

Other exhibits on display here include: the weather vane from the station church (now demolished), the operations boards, astro-compasses, radios and telephone equipment, all neatly arranged inside glass cabinets. A detailed history of one of the former gate guards, Spitfire LF MK.XIVe ‘TE392’ which now flies with the Lone Star Flight Museum, Galveston, Texas, is also on view.

This is a delightful little museum that has been put together to pay homage to those who served at Waterbeach, either under RAF command or with the Royal Engineers. It is run by volunteers and relies on charitable donations to keep it running. Like many museums, it has limited opening hours, but the range of material is fabulous and it deserves a great deal of public support.

On a final note, my personal thanks go out to Adrian Wright who gave up his own time to open up and show me around the museum.

For details of opening times and other information the curator can be contacted via email at:  waterbeachmilitarymuseum@waterbeach.org

or via Facebook at: https://en-gb.facebook.com/waterbeachmilitaryheritagemuseum/

 

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RAF Winfield and the Polish Connection (Part 2)

After Part 1, we return to RAF Winfield, where an ‘odd’ visitor arrives. We also see the post war demise of Winfield into the site it is today.

At the end of the war many Polish units and displaced persons were pulled back to the U.K. in preparation for their repatriation into civilian life and for some return to their native country. Winfield became the site of one such group; the 22 Artillery Support Company (Army Service Corps, 2nd Polish Corps) who whilst fighting in the Middle East and Italy adopted a rather odd mascot. He became known as Wojtek, a Syrian bear who was officially given the rank of Private in the Polish Army, and who ‘fought’ alongside them as one of their own.

THE POLISH ARMY IN BRITAIN, 1940-1947

Wojtek the Syrian bear adopted by the Polish relaxing at Winfield Airfield, the unit’s temporary home after the war.*1

After finding the bear as a young cub wrapped around the neck of a small Iranian boy, Lance Corporal Peter Prendys took him and adopted him. After the war, on October 28th 1946, the Polish Army along with the bear arrived at Winfield Displaced Persons Camp – little did they know what a stir Wojtek would cause.

As displaced persons the Polish men would venture into nearby Berwick, where the locals grew fond of them and drinks flowed in abundance. Wojtek would go with them, becoming a familiar, if not unorthodox, site amongst the streets and bars or Berwick. This cigarette smoking, beer loving character, often causing a stir wherever he went. He became renowned in the area, the local villagers would flock to see him. He joined in with the frolics and loved the life that he was being allowed to live.

As a bear he loved the rivers and the River Tweed flows only a short distance from Winfield, rich and fast flowing it is abundant in that other commodity – Salmon. However, Wojtek was under strict orders not to swim alone nor stray onto the airfield which although closed, could still provide a danger for him if seen.

Wojtek became part of local history, eventually, a year after their arrival, the Polish unit were demobbed and they moved away. Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo to look after, who did so until his death at the age of 21 in 1963. A statue stands in Princess Street Gardens beneath Edinburgh Castle as a reminder of both him and the Polish troops who were stationed at Winfield camp. A second statue of Wojtek stands in the centre of Duns, the village not far from Charterhall. The Wojtek Memorial Trust, set up in his honour, aims to promote both educational and friendship links between the young people of Scotland and Poland, an aim it tirelessly works towards today.

RAF Winfield

Statue of Wojtek in the centre of nearby Duns.

After the Polish troops left, Winfield was allocated to the USAF, and earmarked for development, but this never materialised and the site was left dormant. Winfield then reverted back to RAF control some five years later in October 1955, whereupon it was disposed of and sold off.

A small group of private flyers reopened the site, renovating the watch office and utilising a small hangar on the north of the airfield. This operation has now ceased and the watch office has sadly fallen into disrepair, it windows missing and open to the elements. The demise of Winfield and its subsequent decay has begun.

Winfield airfield lies between two roads, a further public road passes through the site although this was seen to be gated at the southern end. The most prominent feature is by far the Watch Office, a two-story design built to design 15684/41, having walls some 13.5 inches thick as was standard for all night-fighter stations (but different to the one at Charterhall).

Other buildings also remain to the west on the main airfield site but these are only small and very few in number. The accommodation sites have all been removed, however, there are some buildings remaining in the former WAAF site to the north of the airfield. Located down a track just off the B4640, these buildings appear to be latrines and a possible WAAF decontamination block, with other partial remains nearby. Drawing numbers for these are unclear, (but appear to be 14420/41 and 14353/41) indicating WAAF (Officer and sergeant) quarters. Other buildings on this site look to have been a drying room, water storage tank and a picket post. Heading further south along this track leads to a small pond, here is a local design Fire Trailer shelter: a small brick-built building no more than about seven feet square. Presumably this pond was used to fill the fire trailer in cases of fire or attack and was located midway between the WAAF site and the main airfield. Also on this site, which is part of the Displaced Persons Camp, is a makeshift memorial to the Polish Armed Forces, dotted around the ground are a number of metal parts partially buried in the soil.

RAF Winfield

A plaque dedicated to the Polish Armed Forces placed next to the fire trailer hut.

The airfield runways and perimeter tracks are still in place, and years of both decay and locals using them to practice their driving skills on, have taken their toll. Like Charterhall, Winfield was also used as a motor racing circuit, although not to the same extent that Charterhall was. On one occasion though, as many as 50,000 spectators were known to have visited the site on one day alone!

Winfield like its parent site has now become history, the remnants of its past linger on as final reminders of the activities that went on here in the 1940s. The night fighter pilots who pushed the boundaries of aircraft location and interception are gradually fading away; the dilapidated buildings too are gradually crumbling and breaking apart. Inch by inch these sites are disappearing until one day soon, perhaps even they will have gone along with the brave young men who came here to train, to fight and in many cases to die.

As we leave the remnants of Winfield and Charterhall behind, we continue North to our next trail; nearing Edinburgh we take in more of Scotland’s natural beauty and even more tales of its wonderful but tragic aviation history.

My sincere thanks go to both Mr. and Mrs. Campbell for their hospitality and the help in touring these two sites. The history of both Charterhall and Winfield can be read in Trail 41.

Sources and Further Reading – RAF Winfield

*1 Photo IWM collections No.HU 16548.

The Polish Scottish Heritage website provides information about the scheme.

RAF Winfield and the Polish Connection (Part 1)

The second airfield on Trail 41 takes us a little further east to Charterhall’s satellite and a site that had strong links with the armed forces of Poland. Remembered here is an usual mascot, a bear known as ‘Wojtek’. We stop off a few miles away at the satellite that was RAF Winfield.

RAF Winfield.

RAF Winfield, located a few miles east of Charterhall, was pivotal to the success of the night-fighter training programme and in particular to Charterhall and 54 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U.).

Charterhall and Winfield cannot be talked about with great reference to each other, they were built together, manned together and operated as part of the same training programme. Winfield and Charterhall probably operated together more closely than any parent / satellite airfields of the Second World War.

RAF Winfield

Winfield Watch Office one of the few remaining buildings now derelict and forlorn.

Winfield (like Charterhall) was initially used as a First World War landing ground for 77 Sqn based at Edinburgh flying a range of Royal Aircraft Factory B.E. types in the Home Defence role. Whilst many of these airfields were designated ‘landing grounds’, many were not officially recorded to the point that their precise locations remain vague even today. Winfield (or Horndean as it was known), was designed as a site where crews could land in an emergency, perhaps if their aircraft developed problems or if weather prevented landing at their home station.

77 Sqn were part of a force who were to patrol the eastern regions of Britain, an area stretching from Dover in the south to Edinburgh in the north. This area, was the furthest point north and the defence of the Scottish border region fell to 77 Sqn. The conditions at Horndean were not luxury, and the ‘runways’ were far from smooth, but in an emergency any semi-decent ground was most likely welcome. Crews often practised emergency landings at both Horndean and Eccles Toft (Charterhall), where aircraft guards would restart the aircraft before flight could take place again. These ‘guards’ (or Ack Emas as they were known) were often mechanics recruited into the Royal Flying Corps because of their mechanical background and knowledge of engines. After a brief training period of some eight weeks, they were sent to various establishments to maintain and prepare aircraft before and after flight.

Horndean as an airfield was not to last though, and before the war’s end it would close returning to its former agricultural use.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the training of pilots and other crewmen became a priority. Night fighters were also needed and Winfield would fulfil this role.

Winfield was built over the period 1941 – 42 opening later than expected, due to bad weather, in April 1942. A rather hastily affair, it was built between two roads and would only have two runways. Oddly, the initial construction of the runway was by hand, red shale from local quarries being brought in by endless lorries and laid down by local workers. It didn’t take long though before it was realised that this method was too slow, and so heavy machinery was brought in, and the stocks of shale bulldozed into the foundations. At the threshold, rubble stone was laid to a depth of some 12 feet, much deeper than the remainder,  to take the impact of landing aircraft. A covering of tarmac was laid over this layer in depths of between four and six inches thick. The runways at Winfield, like Charterhall, were 1,600 and 1,100 yards and both 50 yards wide. Aircraft dispersal was provided by thirty-seven hardstands whilst maintenance was carried out in four blister hangars.

The first personnel to arrive were an advanced party of thirty-four airmen led by Flying Officer Beal, who arrived on April 30th 1942. Unlike Charterhall, the airfield was complete and ready for the new recruits to move straight in. Being a satellite station, accommodation numbers catered for were less than those at Charterhall, 686 airmen and 56 WAAFs, all spread over five sites: three airmen, a WAAF, and a communal site. A small sewage plant was located not far from these, all to the north-eastern side of the airfield.

Trainees were to follow an initial three-tier programme. Starting in ‘A’ squadron – the conversion unit – they would then pass to ‘B’ and then finally onto ‘C’ here at Winfield. C Squadron, would finely tune skills and train aircrew in uses of Aircraft Interception (AI), ground attack and air-to-air gunnery techniques. Later on, a fourth tier would be added, focusing purely in flying the D.H. Mosquito in the night fighter role.

RAF Winfield

Remains of the former WAAF site.

These initial stages primarily used Beaufighters and Blenheims, aircraft that had been passed down from front line units to the training squadrons of the O.T.U.s. Many were therefore ‘war weary’ and as a result, mechanical problems were common place.

The first fatality at Winfield occurred in a rather bizarre accident on May 23rd 1942. A dispatch rider, Aircraftman 1st Class, John R. Livesey (s/n1478277), was struck by a Blenheim flown by Sgt. J. Grundy as the aircraft was taking off. The aircraft was damaged in the collision and the pilot unhurt, but Livesey was very sadly killed; he now rests at Marton (St. Paul) church in Blackpool.

In August 1942 a combined operation was planned involving Spitfire VBs from 222 Sqn (based at North Weald) and Boston IIIs from Attlebridge’s 88 Sqn. These manoeuvres saw eighteen Spitfires and twelve Bostons arrive, supported by three H.P. Harrows of 271 Sqn bringing ground crews, spares and supplies for the various aircraft. In all, around 360 new crews were accommodated at Winfield over the short two-week period.

Adept at low-level attacks, the two squadrons would arrive here between 1st and 4th August 1942, spend several days attacking ‘enemy’ transport and troop routes across southern Scotland, before departing. Considered a relative success, their stay was only for a short period vacating to RAF airfields at Drem, near Edinburgh, and Attlebridge, in Norfolk, respectively by mid August.

A further deployment of Mustang Is of 241 Sqn based at Ayr was cut short when bad weather prevented both flying and training operations from occurring. Later that month the small party left rather disappointed having hardly flown since arriving here at Winfield.

Being the more advanced tier of the training programme, serious accidents at Winfield occurred less frequently than at Charterhall. Burst tyres and mechanical problems being the main cause of many of the problems that were incurred.

RAF Winfield

Few buildings remain at Winfield, the WAAF site having the majority of the examples.

During July 1943, a Beaufighter from ‘C’ Squadron at Winfield misjudged the distance from himself to the target drogue being pulled by a Lysander, after firing and passing, his airscrew caught the drogue’s wire; luckily both aircraft were able to land safely and neither crew were injured. At the end of July a less fortunate incident occurred when, on a night flight, the port engine of Beaufighter T3370 (a former 456 Sqn RAAF aircraft coded RX-Z) caught fire. The crew bailed out, the pilot surviving but the Radio operator/navigator P/O. Frank Walmsley (s/n J/17124) of the RCAF was posted missing, presumed drowned, after the aircraft crashed into the sea. No trace was ever found of him.

October saw further deaths of crews from Winfield. On the 11th, Beaufighter VI, (ND184) crashed killing its Pilot Sgt. Angus Taylor, after it suffered engine failure; followed the next day by the crash of Beaufighter T3218 in a gunnery exercise over the North Sea. The aircraft crashed into the water after incurring a stall, both crewmen; F/O. John W. Roussel and F/O. Francis L. Kirkwood both of the RCAF, were missing presumed drowned. Both are commemorated on the Runnymede memorial.

During 1944 the tide began to turn and night fighter crews were on the offensive. The invasion of Normandy brought new hope and a new aircraft – the Mosquito. But as 1944 ended it would be the worst for fatalities in 54 OTU.

January brought many heavy bombers to the grounds of Winfield, returning from missions over Europe, they were either damaged or unable to land at their own respective bases due to poor weather. On February 17th 1945, fourteen Halifax IIIs from 420 Squadron RCAF landed at Winfield along with a further 408 Squadron aircraft. Whilst not able to comfortably accommodate such numbers and aircraft, it would have no doubt been a happy, and very much appreciated landing.

As the war drew to a close so did the number of flying hours. By May 31st the war was over and Winfield was no longer required, all the various ranks were pulled back to Charterhall leaving only a small maintenance party behind. For the next few years Winfield would have no operational units stay here, either temporary or permanently.

In the second part of this visit, we see how Winfield changed after the war, an odd visitor arrives, and Winfield’s decline begins. 

 

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 here.

RAF Hethel – from Africa to Norfolk

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

RAF Hethel (Station 114)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Former RAF Hethel

One of the remaining buildings on the Accommodation site.

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

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

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

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

Former RAF Hethel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Former RAF Hethel

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and notes

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

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

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

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

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

A Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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

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

It has been a most humbling experience.

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

American Ghosts – RAF Kimbolton an Airfield with a Remarkable History.

Kimbolton was home to the American USAAF, it also housed one of the RAF’s rarest Wellington Bombers of the Second World War. The 379th BG were the main residents achieving a number of records whilst bombing heavily defended targets in occupied Europe. We go back to see what is left today.

RAF Kimbolton. (Station 117)

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Looking across Kimbolton today.

We arrive not far from the busy A14 to the south-west of Graffham Water. Perched on top of the hill, as many of these sites are, is Station 117 – Kimbolton. Having a short life, it was home to the 379th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force, flying some 330 missions in B-17s. The site is split in two by the main road which uses part of the original perimeter track for it’s base. To one side is where the runways and dispersal pens would have been, to the other side the main hangers, admin blocks, fuel storage and squadron quarters. The former is now open fields used for agriculture and the later a well-kept and busy industrial site. What was the main runway is crossed by this road where there is now a kart track.

Kimbolton Airfield in 1945, taken by 541 Sqn RAF. (English Heritage RAF Photography – RAF_106G_UK_635_RP_3217)

Kimbolton was designed with three concrete runways, the main running north-west / south-east, (2154 yds); the second and third running slightly off north-south (1545 yds) and east-west (1407 yds), it also had two T2 hangars with a proposed third, along with 20 ‘loop’ style hardstands and 31 ‘frying pan’ hardstands around its perimeter.

The local railway line formed the northern boundary,  the bomb store was to the south-west, the technical and administrative site to the south-east and beyond that the accommodation sites. To house the huge numbers staff to be located at Kimbolton, there were two communal sites; a WAAF site; sick quarters; two sewage sites; two officers quarters, an airmen’s quarters; a sergeants site and two further sites with ablutions and latrines. These were all spread to the south-eastern corner of the airfield,

Originally built in 1941 as a  satellite for RAF Molesworth, it was initially used by the RAF’s Wellington IVs, a rare breed where only 220 airframes were built. 460 Sqn were formed out of ‘C’ flight 458 Sqn at Molesworth and used the Wellingtons until August 1942 when they replaced them with the Halifax II. Staying only until January 1942, their departure saw the handing over of both Molesworth and Kimbolton to the USAAF Eighth Air Force and the heavier B-17s. During this time, the airfield was still under construction, and although the majority of the infrastructure was already in place, the perimeter was yet to be completed.

First to arrive was the 91stBG, who only stayed for a month, before moving on to Bassingbourn.  A short stay by ground forces preceded extensions to the runways, accommodation and improved facilities. Now Kimbolton was truly ready for a Heavy Bomb Group.

Soon to arrive, was the 379th BG, 41st CW, flying B-17Fs. Activated in November 1942 they arrived at Kimbolton via Scotland, ground forces sailing from New York whilst the crews flew their aircraft from Maine to Prestwick via the northern supply route.

Arriving in April / May, their first mission would be that same month. The 379th would attack prestige targets such as industrial sites, oil refineries, submarine pens and other targets stretching from France and the lowlands to Norway and onto Poland. Targets famed for heavy defences and bitter fighting, they would often see themselves over, Ludwigshafen, Brunswick, Schweinfurt, Leipzig, Meresberg and Gelsenkirchen. They would receive two DUCs for action over Europe including, raids without fighter escort over central Germany on January 11th 1944. They assisted with the allied invasion, the breakout at St. Lo and attacked communication lines at the Battle of the Bulge. They  would operate from Kimbolton until after the war’s end, when on 12th June 1945, they began their departure to Casablanca.

Life at Kimbolton was not to be easy and initiation into the war would be harsh. On the first operation, four aircraft were lost, three over the target and one further crashing on return. Three of the crews were to die; a stark warning as to what would come. Their second mission would fair little better. An attack on Wilhelmshaven, saw a further six aircraft lost and heavy casualties amongst the survivors. Things were not going well for the 379th and with further losses, this was to be one of the bloodiest entries into the war for any Eight Air Force Group.

A B-17 Flying Fortress (FR-C, serial number 42-38183) nicknamed

B-17 Flying Fortress (‘FR-C’, 42-38183) “The Lost Angel” of the 379th BG sliding on grass after crash landing, flown by Lieutenant Edmund H Lutz at Kimbolton. (Roger Freeman Collection)

As the air battle progressed, further losses would be the pay off for accurate and determined bombing by the 379th. Flying in close formation as they did, accidents often occurred. On January 30th 1944, 42-3325 “Paddy Gremlin” was hit by bombs from above. Then again, on September 16th 1943, two further aircraft were downed by falling bombs, close formation flying certainly had its dangers.

Some 1 in 6 losses of the USAAF were due to accidents of one form or another. Collisions were another inevitable part of the close formation flying. A number of memorials around the country remember crews who lost their lives whilst flying in close formation. Kimbolton and the 379th were to be no different. On June 19th 1944, two B-17Gs 44-6133 (unnamed) and 42-97942 “Heavenly Body II” crashed over Canvey Island killing all but one of 44-6133 and three of Heavenly Body II. The official verdict stated that the second pilot failed to maintain the correct position whilst in poor visibility, a remarkable feat in any condition let alone poor visibility whilst possibly on instruments alone.

However, not all was bad for the 379th though. Luck was on the side of B-17F, 42-3167, “Ye Olde Pub“, when on December 20th 1943, anti-aircraft fire badly damaged the aircraft whilst over Bremen. The aircraft limping for home, was discovered by Lt. Franz Stigler of JG 27/6. On seeing the aircraft, Stigler escorted the B-17 over the North Sea, whereupon he saluted and departed allowing the B-17 safe passage home where it landed and was scrapped.

A number of prestige visitors were seen at Kimbolton. These included King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth and General Doolittle. One particular and rather rare visitor arrived at Kimbolton on January 8th 1944. A rebuilt Messerschmitt BF-109 stayed here whilst on a familiarisation tour for crews. Shot down over Kent it was rebuilt to flying condition and flown around the country.

8th 1944.

Seen in front of a B-17, Messerschmitt BF-109 runs up her engine at Kimbolton, January 8th 1944. (Roger Freeman Collection FRE 4775)

All in all the 379th had a turbulent time. By the time they had left Kimbolton, they had lost a great many crews, but their record was second to none. They flew more sorties than any other Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force – in excess of 10,000 in 330 missions; dropped around 24,000 tons of ordnance, equating to 2.3 tons per aircraft; pioneered the 12 ship formation that became standard practice in 1944 and had the lowest abortive rate of any group from 1943. Kimbolton was visited by Lieutenant General James Doolittle, and two B-17s held the record of that time “Ol Gappy” and “Birmingham Jewel“, for the most missions at the end of their service. They also had overall, one of the lowest loss rates of all Eighth AF Groups largely due to the high mission rates.

With their departure to Casablanca, the 379th would be the last operational unit to reside at Kimbolton. Post war it was retained by the RAF until sold off in the 1960s, it was returned to agriculture, the many buildings torn down, the runways dug up and crops planted where B-17s once flew.

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The old perimeter track exists for farm machinery and forms part of the main road.

Kimbolton today is little more than a small industrial estate and farmland. At the main entrance to the industrial site, is a well-kept memorial. Two flags representing our two nations, stand aside a plaque showing the layout of the field as was, with airfield detail added.  Behind this, and almost un-noticeable, is a neat wooden box with a visitors book and a file documenting all those who left from here never to return. There are a considerable number of pages full of names and personal detail – a moving document. One of the B-17 pilots, Lt. Kermit D. Wooldridge, of the 525th Bomb Squadron, 379th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force kept a diary of his 25 raids, and many of the crew members mentioned in the memorial book appear in his diaries. These are currently being published by his daughter, and can be seen at https://sites.google.com/site/ww2pilotsdiary/  They tell of the raids, the crews and detailed events that took place over the skies of occupied Europe from June 29th 1943. I highly recommend reading it.

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Memorial book listing those that never came home.

This is a lovely place to sit (benches are there) and contemplate what must have been a magnificent sight all those years ago. It made me think of the part in the film ‘Memphis Belle’, where the crew were sitting listening to the poetry just prior to departure, how many young men also stood here ‘listening to poetry’. The control tower would have stood almost opposite where you are now, with views across an enormous expanse. Here they would have stood ‘counting them back’. Like everything else, it has gone and the site is now ‘peaceful’.

Kimbolton saw great deal of action in its short life. But if determination and grit were words to associate with any flying unit of the war, the 379th would be high on that list.

From Kimbolton we head off to another American Ghost, one that holds its own record and a beautiful stained glass window. We go to the American base at RAF Grafton Underwood.

Kimbolton was originally visited a couple of years ago, this is an update of that trail and it appears in Trail 6 – ‘American Ghosts’.

A short but eventful life, RAF Matching, Essex

RAF Matching (Station 166) or Matching Green, was built very late in the war, and was only operational for just over a year. It was initially built for the heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force as a Class ‘A’ heavy bomber station, but was very soon transferred to the Ninth Air Force and used by medium bombers of the 391st Bomb Group, who supported the allied advance into Germany.

It was built with 3 runways all of concrete, 50 loop style hardstands, two T2 hangars; one to the south-east and one to the south-west, a number of blister hangars and a wide range of ancillary and support buildings. Both technical and accommodation areas were all to the east and south-east well away from the main area. The bomb site, had approximately three miles of roadway, giving an indication of its generous size.

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The Watch Office at Matching now homes radar equipment.

Opened in January 1944 the first month would be busy for Matching Green. The first and primary residents were the Olive Drab B-26 Marauders of the 391st Bomb Group of the Ninth Air Force. The 391st were made up of 4 Bomb Squadrons: 572nd, 573rd, 574th, and 575th, and undertook their first mission within a month after arriving in England. They were a new group, ‘rookies’ in comparison to many, only being formed a year earlier.

Their primary targets were: airfields, bridges, marshalling yards and V- weapons sites across France. During the Allied invasion, they attacked German defences along the coast and as the allies moved further inland, they attacked fuel dumps and troop concentrations. They supported the break out at St. Lo in July 1944, and prevented the enemies retreat by attacking transport and communication links behind German lines.

Being to the south of the country, Matching Green was occasionally used by returning aircraft as a safe haven. On February 4th, just a month after it opened,  the first fatality would be recorded. Whilst returning from a mission to Frankfurt and with both engines on one side feathered, B-17G  ’42-31494′ (PY) of the 407BS, 92nd BG, based at Podington, failed to make the airfield and crashed on the approach to Matching Green. The resultant accident killed 5 of its crew members, a worse fate then the aircraft which was later salvaged.

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One of the former accommodation sites.

In September 1944, the 391st moved from Matching Green to Roye/Amy in France, where they received a DUC for action against heavily defended sites without fighter escort. Their departure from Matching Green sounded the end and its short life would soon cease operationally. Between their arrival in January and their departure to France in  September, the 391st would fly some 6,000 sorties losing just under 200 crew members in action over Europe.

As the war drew to a close, the airfield was handed back to the RAF for paratroop activities. Elements of both RAF and the USAAF IX Troop Carrier Command, were reputed to have been based here, operating either Short Stirlings or C-47s. These were the last military units to operate from here and the site was closed in 1945, being returned to agriculture within a very short period of time. The majority of concrete was removed for nearby development, although many of the buildings were luckily left standing.  In the late 1980s, one of the T2 hangars was dismantled and transferred to  nearby North Weald Airfield. It remains there today re clad but still in aviation use. The Control Tower remains today and in remarkably good condition, adorned with electronic equipment, it us used use as a radar equipment test facility.

The site whilst agriculture, is now home to a large selection of fauna and flora. Deer roam freely across the site and a survey in the summer of 1999 recorded over 160 species of trees, grasses and wild flowers that included three different types of Orchid.

Matching Green, like other airfields in this area, lives in the shadow of the modern Stansted International Airport, and this has proven, in part, to be its savour.

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The water tower at Matching Green in a former accommodation site.

Although close to Stansted, the network of country roads that lead to the airfield are small and signposts are few and far between. It is not an easy place to find – one of the many features of Second World War airfields. One of the first things you see is the old original water tower. It pokes its head above the many trees that now cover matching green airfield.

Access to this site is along what would have been the original entrance to the airfield. To mark the spot, a memorial has been built here. Sadly it’s not well looked after and was looking rather worn when I visited in the summer of 2015.

The tower, a rusty guardian, watches over a few of the remaining huts that once formed one of the many accommodation areas in this south-eastern corner of this airfield. A number of huts, in generally good condition, they are now utilised by a quantity of small businesses. The atmosphere of the place has not been lost and it is easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of crews moving between huts along its concrete paths. Some of the huts are in disrepair, a few have been ‘refurbished’ but the layout is clear.

From here drive back to the memorial and with the technical site behind you, turn left, drive along the road past the small forests and you can see evidence of more paths. These would have led to the technical area. This part, whilst predominantly agricultural, is also home to a number of deer and if you are lucky, as I was, you will see them walk across the road from one side to the other. A rather fitting sight bringing peace to a place that once brought death and destruction in the fight against an evil regime. Carry on along this road and you arrive at the more open areas of the airfield. To your right appears from almost nowhere, the original watch tower. In good condition also, it is fenced off and now used as a radar test facility.

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The perimeter track heads off to the north to join the east-west runway at the bend.

With the tower in front of you, the majority of the site is beyond this. A track, that was the perimeter track, leads off onto private land and a farm dwelling still using a blister hangar and other  small buildings. Carry on along the main road, at the bend you are now on the former NW-SE runway as it heads off north-east. At the next bend is further evidence  of the runways. Here the you are at the top of the ‘A’ where two of the three runways cross, now a mere track. Continue along, this is the second runway. It then turns and you drive along the perimeter track. To the south would have been one of the ‘T2s’ and loop dispersals, now all gone. On the other side of the road, the track heads off to the third runway and is used for storing farm ‘waste’.

Much of Matching Green has now gone, returned to agriculture and nature. A peaceful wind blows across the once busy airfield, a few huts linger as reminders of days long gone, but amongst the wild flowers a few well hidden surprises tell the short story of RAF Matching Green.

RAF Fowlmere “a remarkable number of aviation firsts and combat records”.

This airfield concludes our three-part tour of Southern Cambridge for now; we shall be revisiting this area again shortly to see the remaining historic sites that once protected these green and pleasant lands from our invaders. This last stop however, is a former base just a stones throw from the Imperial War Museum and former Fighter Command base at Duxford – we go to RAF Fowlmere.

RAF Fowlmere (Station 378)

Fowlmere’s life can really be divided into two mains parts. That under the RAF as a Battle of Britain era airfield and that of the USAAF for which Fowlmere would achieve a remarkable number of aviation firsts and combat records.

But whatever its achievements, its wartime life was dogged by bad weather, and in particular rain! Poor drainage and heavy water logging left if unusable for large periods, inhospitable and rather bleak with poor accommodation, it was not a noteworthy ‘curriculum vitae’ for a prestigious fighter airfield. It is one of those airfields that took a long time to reach an honorary status, being home to a large number of RAF units, most for short assignments only, it was rarely in the spotlight. In total, it would be home to some 17 operational RAF squadrons,  a small number of training squadrons and one USAAF squadron. A rather high number for any second world war station.

Initially built as a First World War airfield, it opened on October 1st 1916, a small number of buildings were erected including six hangars and the runways were grass. It remained operational until the early 1920s at which point the buildings were demolished and the land reused.

With the next threat of an invasion looming, the defence of Britain was paramount. Fowlmere was then identified as a suitable site for a satellite to nearby Duxford, and Spitfires began to arrive from 19 Squadron. 19 Squadron would ‘yo-yo’ between Duxford and Fowlmere between June 1940 and August 1941, operating the Spitfire I,  IB and IIA in the process. These crews would operate as part of the Duxford Wing in the Battle of Britain where 19 Squadron would gain notoriety.

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A sight once common over Fowlmere.

Following significant loses over France and southern England, the Boulton Paul Defiant was withdrawn from front line operations and pulled back to perform in ‘secondary’ duties. Part of this meant a short stay at Fowlmere in July 1940 for 264 Squadron who, whilst carrying out night-fighter duties, were in transit to Kirton-in-Lindsey.

Subsequent to their departure, there was a silence at Fowlmere which was only broken by a short five-day stay by the Hurriacne IIBs of 133 Squadron, whilst moving between Collyweston and Eglington. Noted for their twelve .303 machine guns and Merlin XX engines, first used in the Hurricane IIA, it used a mix of 30% glycol and 70% water. By using this mix, the fuel mixture was not only safer but it meant the engine would run much cooler thus giving it a longer life. Further examples of this aircraft would return later in the summer of 1942 with another squadron, 174 Sqn, also whilst transiting, but this time from and back to their main station at RAF Manston.

The winter of 1941 / 42 would remain quiet at Fowlmere, and it wouldn’t be until the following spring on March 12th, that there would be any significant action at the base. The first visitors being a detachment of Spitfire VBs from 154 Sqn whose main force was based away at Coltishall. Eventually, a month later, the entire squadron would transit over, but yet again, they would be another short-stay resident who would depart  for RAF Church Stanton in early May that year. Other than the short visits by the Hurricanes, all would be quiet again until the autumn and in September Fowlmere would be blessed with yet another short stay of transiting Spitfires. The VBs of 111 Squadron, would stay for one month whilst on their way the Mediterranean and North Africa. 111 would go on to become famous for their Lightnings and the ‘Black Arrows’ aerobatics team with their Hunters in the post war jet era.

Once again the winter would have a quietening effect on Fowlmere, and there would be little happen for the next few months. The following March though, would see a considerable amount of movement at the airfield. Preceded by a short stay of Austers from 655 Squadron, Spitfire VBs of 411 Squadron and Spitfire VCs of 167 Squadron would arrive in the early days of March. Their departures on the 12th and 13th respectively would be interceded by the arrival of more Spitfire VBs of 421 Squadron, who also left on the 13th of that month. Similar movements would take place only a few days later. On the 19th 2 Sqn RAF arrived and stayed for just over a month. But the arrival and departure of 2 Sqn signalled a big change for Fowlmere and their Mustang Is were to be not only the end of RAF interests in the airfield, but a sign of things yet to come.

Littlefriends.co.uk

Aircraft of the 503rd FS from the waist gunner’s position of a B-17. Aircraft seen are, from rear to foreground: P-51B ‘D7-O’ “Miss Max”; P-51D ‘D7-M’ “Sally II”; P-51D ‘D7-Z’ “Shy Ann”; and P-51D ‘D7-F’ “Dee”. *1

After April, Fowlmere would remain very quiet. With the increasing need for bomber bases for the USAAF, Fowlmere was identified as a possible site. This potential new lease of life was to be short-lived though and the decision was reversed only a matter of weeks later. It was not to be, but thankfully, it was not the end of Fowlmere.

Handed over to the Americans as a fighter airfield, it would be upgraded. Two new runways were built (1,400 and 1,600 yds) using Sommerfield Track and pierced planking, eight new blister hangars were erected, to compliment the ‘T2’ hangar to the north of the site and firm plans were drawn up that would shape Fowlmere for the rest of the war.

To deal with the staff, eight sites would be developed. All to the north-eastern side of the airfield, there would be a communal site, five accommodation blocks in total for officers and enlisted men separately, a sick quarters and a sewage treatment site. The main road to Fowlmere village already severed, would have a runway built across it, aircraft pens, technical buildings and a wide range of supporting structures including: fire sheds, harmonisation walls and around forty hardstands around a perimeter track that encircled the two runways. The main technical area would be to the north, whilst the bomb and fuel stores were to the south along side the remains of the southern section of the main road. Fowlmere would be taking on a new role and it would be permanent.

The control tower at Fowlmere, home of the 339th Fighter Group, 1945. Image via James G Robinson. Written on slide casing: 'Fowlmere Tower, 1945.'

Fowlmere Tower, 1945*2

Fowlmere would open again on the 4th April 1944 as Station 378, with the arrival of the 339th FG, the penultimate fighter group to be based in the UK. Flying P-51s, the 339th FG at this time consisted of three squadrons, the 503rd (D7), 504th (5Q) and 505th FS (6N). They would use Fowlmere as their only European base and whilst here would be used in both the fighter escort and ground attack role.

Their first mission was on April 30th with a fighter sweep over France, followed by around 5 weeks of escort duties of medium and heavy bombers. They soon made their mark on the air war though. In the first thirty days, they claimed forty aircraft shot down and fifteen destroyed on the ground.

Initially flying P-51Bs they would also use the ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘K’ models. Missions would include: strafing runs over airfields; attacking communication lines; supporting the allied push out of Normandy; dive bombing locomotives; marshalling yards; anti-aircraft batteries and troops. They also supported allied advances such as the breakout at St Lo and in the Ardennes. The group received a Distinguished Unit Citation for operations on September 10th and 11th whilst attacking heavily defended airfields and defending bombers of the ‘Bloody Hundredth’ whilst attacking cities in Germany. All in all they were to prove themselves a formidable force in the air.

One of the peculiarities of the 339th was the stripped jacket and baseball cap wearing  Runway Control officer. It was worn so the pilots could see him and his signal that it was clear to take off. A signal they depended upon greatly. Here he signals to a P-51 at Fowlmere embarking on a bombing mission in August 1944.*3

Each time the 339th went into battle it would seem a new record would be set. On the 29th November 1944, in a ferocious air battle, Lt. Jack Daniell shot down five FW-190s, giving him ‘Ace in a day’ status, the last pilot of the US Eighth Air force to do so. In early 1945, during strafing attacks 105 aircraft were destroyed in one mission, another first for any group. A remarkable feat that was repeated only twelve days later with a high score of 118 and an individual record for its leader Captain Robert Ammon.

The 339th would not only becomes a formidable force, but they would be the first units to test new ‘G’ suits, designed to prevent blacking out in tight turns, an essential piece of clothing in today’s modern air force. They would also take the British designed gyroscopic gun sight and develop it for use in the P-51, an innovative device that calculated deflection increasing hit rates both at greater distances and with more accurately.

By the war’s end the 339th would rack up a total of  264 missions, with 680 aircraft destroyed, two-thirds being on the ground and on heavily defended airfields, whilst losing less than 100 aircraft and crews. They achieved the greatest number of air and ground ‘kills’ in any twelve month period of the war,  a DUC and a remarkable reputation.

Fowlmere had finally achieved the status of its more famous neighbours, but it was a little too late for this airfield, the war was finally over. After the Americans pulled out in October 1945, Fowlmere fell silent for the last permanent time. The land was eventually sold off in the 1950s long after all military operations had ceased.

Fowlmere is one of those airfields that is quite difficult to find. Tucked away at the back of the village access is through an industrial site and along a rather grand driveway that is actually a farmers track. The road leads to nowhere other than the farm, a small light airfield and a memorial.

Before driving or walking to the memorial start off at the village centre. Facing south, site 3 would be behind you, and sites 4, 9, 7 and 5 to your front. Take the road south and then turn in toward Manor farm; as you enter, there is an industrial site on your right. This road, was the original main entrance, and there would have been a picket post, Co’s house and Officer’s Mess to your right. On you left was a further Officer’s mess, recreation room for enlisted men, and a block with showers and ablutions for the Sergeants. The road bears right, here you can see, in the field to your right, a Nissen hut once part of the Communal area (Site 2). Now derelict and truly overgrown its days are definitely numbered. The original plan layout differs quite a bit from the current layout, and it is difficult to ascertain the precise nature of its origin. However, it could have been either an ‘A.M.W.D*4‘. or latrines for 310 – 400 enlisted men. Using satellite photos, you can clearly see the foundations for a number of other buildings including the: Officer’s Mess, Dental Centre, Stand-by set house and CO’s quarters. This road, which was originally much shorter than it is today takes you into an industrial estate that has reused some of the period buildings, these may well have come from the original site and have been moved or the site was built differently to the original design. It is at this stage difficult to determine.

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One of the few remaining structures at Fowlmere, now overgrown and disappearing, this Nissen hut stands on Site 2.

Leave here and turn right at the end of the road. This grand road takes you up the hill toward the airfield. On your left would have been the sick block Site 8 with a barrack hut, sick quarters with 18 beds, a garage and mortuary. Follow this road along, at the farm follow the road right, and the memorial is about 100 yards further along on your left. A small space has been made available for parking by the adjacent property who kindly ask you to look after the memorial during your visit. It is sad that we have to ask people to do this, it should be an absolute.

The memorial overlooks the remains of the airfield. The original T2 hangar stands reclad in its original position now storing small private aircraft. Other remains, the crew rest rooms and two main workshops, have been reclaimed by the farm and incorporated into the farm infrastructure. A considerable amount of concrete also exists from this technical area, again utilised by the farm.  The watch office, originally built to 17/65840 for the RAF, was later replaced by a the more common 343/43 two storey type; this too is long gone and would have been to your front beyond the hangar.

A quiet an unassuming place, Fowlmere remained a satellite for most if its life, seeing a number of temporary stays by some prestige aircraft and squadrons. It wasn’t until the latter parts of the war that it really came into its own, sadly though, this was short-lived; but the P-51s of the 339th would carry Fowlmere’s history into the annuls of time and the small private aircraft that now stand where Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mustangs were once dispersed, grace the skies where their forefathers cut their teeth – in the skies over war-torn Europe.

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The Memorial overlooks the airfield, the reclad T2 and its new inhabitants beyond.

A stones throw from Fowlmere, is the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, essential to anyone with an interest in the Second World War. Home of many displays, exhibitions, and restoration projects it has to be on everyone’s list of to-dos. The Duxford website can be accessed here.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from Russell Abbey (www.55th.org) from the ‘Little Friends’ website.

*2 Photo from Roger Freeman collection FRE 5982  American Air Museum in Britain.

*3 Photo from Roger Freeman collection FRE 5961 American Air Museum in Britain.

*4 This is the reference on the site plans, if anyone knows what it means please let me know.

Home to eight squadrons and the Pathfinders.

The second part of Trail 31 continues on through the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside. Low soft hills give for superb views and fine examples of aviation heritage. We move on to the former RAF station at Gransden Lodge.

RAF Gransden Lodge

Sitting high on the hill-top, Gransden lodge rests peacefully nestled next to the villages of Little and Great Gransden to the west and Longstowe to the east; the county borders of Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire pass right across it. Surrounded by undulating countryside it no longer reverberates to the mass sound of piston engines, but more with the gentle whistle of gliders.

Gransden Lodge was another Cambridgeshire airfield modified to class ‘A’ specifications. It was opened in 1942, initially as a satellite for RAF Tempsford. Going through many modifications, the original design differed greatly from the eventual layout; initially the runways not reaching the perimeter track and there being no allocation of hangar, staff accommodation or hardstand space. As a satellite station, presumably these would not have been required. However, with the expansion of Bomber Command and the need for more airfields, Gransden Lodge would eventually become much larger and much more significant. Following changes to plans and redesigns of the infrastructure, three concrete runways (NE-SW, N-S and E-W) were eventually constructed and with one at 1,600 yards and two at 1,200 yards each, they were not huge. However, these were then extended to the more usual 2,000 yards and 1,400 yards later on, when in April 1941, the government decided that every Bomber Command airfield would have to accommodate the larger four-engined aircraft. Again further development of the site was undertaken and the runways were extended.

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Part of the Track in the Technical area.

A total of 36 hardstands were constructed using the pan style design, two of which were replaced when a hangar was built during the later development stage. This would give Gransden Lodge three hangars in total, two (a B1 and T2) to the north and one T2 to the south of the airfield.

The bomb store was located to the eastern side whilst the accommodation sites were spread to the west and north-west. These 10 sites were made up of two communal, two WAAF, and six domestic sites which included sick quarters and associated premises. The technical area would be to the west. In total, Gransden Lodge could accommodate 1,867 men and 252 women ranks.

Building plan of RAF Gransden Lodge*1

Once open, Gransden Lodge would be home to eight operational RAF squadrons: 53, 97, 142, 169, 192, 405, 421 and 692 before it would finally close at the end of the Second World War.

First to arrive were the combined units of 1474 and 1418 flights, who were here between April 1942 and April 1943, conducting radio navigation tests using the new GEE system. Operating the Wellington IC, III, X, IV and Halifax IIs, they were heavily involved in radio navigation and electronic counter-measure operations. These flights would probe German radar defences, gathering information so that counter-measures could be devised allowing bomber formations safer passage to their targets. The Wellingtons used for this would fly over Germany, France, and the Low Countries and even over the Bay of Biscay, gathering information and reporting back.

Eventually, these flights would become combined forming 192 Squadron (RAF) which officially formed on 4th January 1943 here at Gransden Lodge. 192 would pass over to 100 Group and move away to RAF Feltwell on the April 5th that same year and they  would go on to gain the honour of flying more operational sorties, and as a result, suffer more casualties than any other Radio Counter Measures (RCM) squadron in the RAF.

With their departure, Gransden Lodge would then be transferred to No. 8 (PFF) Group like its sister station, RAF Graveley, whereupon its operational role would be changed for good.

The next units to arrive would only stay for 5 days. Passing through with their Mustang Is, 169 Squadron would transit on to RAF Bottisham, whilst 421 Squadron would take their Spitfire VBs to nearby RAF Fowlmere.

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An overgrown Nissen Hut.

On April 18th 1943, 97 Squadron (RAF) arrived at neighbouring RAF Bourn – but would be split over several sites. A detachment was based here are Gransden, whilst two other detachments were located at Graveley and Oakington. 97 would go onto to gain notoriety for the disastrous ‘Black Thursday’ (See RAF Bourn) operation that took the lives of many of its crews. 97 Sqn would undertake many bombing operations staying here for a year, departing Gransden Lodge on 18th April 1944, a year to the day of their arrival.

April 1943 would be a busy time for Gransden. On the 19th, a day after 97 Sqn’s arrival, 405 Squadron (RCAF) would arrive, bringing with them Halifax IIs. Formed on April 23rd 1941, 405 would fly with 6 Group until their arrival here at Gransden. Adopted by the people of Vancouver, it would be the first Canadian unit to serve with Bomber Command.

405 Sqn’s entry into the Pathfinder Group brought more experience and skill. Participating in the both the ‘1000 bomber raid’ on Cologne and conducting temporary operations with Coastal Command, 405 had seen a number of different operational conditions. Initially bringing Halifax IIs, they would take on the Lancaster I and III only four months later. 405 Squadron would be the first unit to fly the Canadian built Lancaster – named ‘The Ruhr Express’, KB700 would be the first production model Mk. X.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

The first Canadian-built Lancaster B Mk X, KB700 “The Ruhr Express”, taxying after landing at Northolt, Middlesex, KB700 was the first of 300 aircraft built by Victory Aircraft of Malton, Ontario. IWM (CH 11041)

405 Sqn would go on to attack many high-profile targets including: Essen, Dortmund, Cologne, Düsseldorf and toward the end of hostilities, Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden. They would be the last unit to attack targets in Italy and they would see action over Peenemunde.

Operating in conjunction with 97 Sqn, 405 would also fall victim to ‘Black Thursday’, when Lancaster JB477 ‘LQ-O’, would strike the ground within a stones throw of Graveley airfield killing six of the seven crew members. Two other Lancasters would also crash with fatalities that night, JB481 ‘LQ-R’ and JB369 ‘LQ-D’, – would both fail to make it home in the thick fog of ‘Black Thursday’ – truly a dark night for the Canadian Squadron.

At the end of 1944, No. 142 Squadron (RAF) would be reformed at Gransden Lodge. With an extensive Middle-Eastern history behind them, they would fly from here between 25th  October 1944 and September 28th 1945, the date of their departure a year later. Serving as apart of 8 Group (PFF) they flew Mosquito XXVs and would go on to complete 1,095 operational sorties, achieving 64 DFC’s and 52 DFM’s. They remained at Gransden Lodge carrying out their last raid on the night of May 2nd / 3rd 1945, finally disbanding on September 28th that year.

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The Watch Tower today.

It was during this time that Gransden’s second Mosquito squadron would arrive. 692 Squadron (RAF) would fly the MK. XIV until September that year. Moving from neighbouring Graveley, it had a short life of only 20 months. Its last casualties being March just before their arrival at Gransden.

It would be three months before any further units would be based at Gransden Lodge. On December 1st 1945, Liberator VIs of 53 Squadron (RAF) would arrive and stay for two months whilst they carried out trials of a new radar-assisted airborne mapping system. They were eventually disbanded on February 28th 1946. Their demise would mark the end of military flying at Gransden and whilst it remained in MOD hands it would not be home to any further military units.

Post war, Gransden Lodge was home to the first motor racing event using the old runways and northern section of the perimeter track. This was not to be permanent arrangement sadly and Gransden would remain disused. Military life almost returned with the escalation of the Cold War when ‘The Lodge’ was earmarked as a possible site for Cold War forces, however this never came to fruition and all continued to be quiet. Finally, in the 1960s Gransden Lodge closed it doors for good and the site was left to decay.

That was not the end of Gransden Lodge though. In the 1990s the Cambridge University Gliding Club, (now the Cambridge Gliding Club) took over the site and flying has returned once again. Small airshows have taken place and whilst gliding is the more prominent, the sound of the piston engine can once more be heard over this historic site.

Whilst little of the original infrastructure survives today, there are some good reminders of this airfield’s history to be found. After driving through Little Gransden go up the hill towards what is now the rear of the airfield, you will arrive at an old Windmill. Sitting below this Windmill is a small and rather sadly insignificant memorial dedicated to the crews and personnel who worked, died and served at RAF Gransden Lodge.  Carry on past the memorial along a small track and you finally arrive at the rear of the airfield. In front of you the barrier and beyond the barrier the former watch tower. This road would have been the main entrance to the airfield’s technical site, you can still see a number of small buildings and a picket post to the side. To the right of this a track leads off to one of the few remaining huts now heavily shrouded in weeds and undergrowth. The tower, a mere shell, has had a modern but temporary ‘watchtower’ added to its roof. Whilst in poor condition, the watch office stands overlooking what is left of the airfield towards the small flying club that keeps its aviation history alive. A small number of other buildings can be seen around here all buried beneath the undergrowth and all skeletons of their former selves.

Leave the site return back to the village bear left, and continue to follow the road round. You will eventually come to a gravel entrance on your left with a small sign pointing to the flying club.

Take this road, and traverse the potholes as you climb the hill. On your left you will pass a small selection of foundations and piles of bricks that were once part of the southern side of the airfield. Continue on from here and the road bears right, this is now the original perimeter track, follow it as it winds its way around the outside of the airfield. It’s width is greatly reduced throughout its length and only small patches of concrete tell you of its former life. As you pass the former bomb store on your right and the end of the modern grass runways, bear left where you will finally arrive at the flying club. Here  a collection of small aircraft and gliders will greet you. A small modern watchtower and clubhouse watch over the aircraft and the airfield as gliders take to the sky.

On warm summer days, or when  the thermals are good, this is a lovely place to sit and watch in awe as the majestic birds of the sky float silently above this once busy wartime airfield. A small club house provides refreshments and a welcome break from the dusty road that leads here.

As you depart the club, and drive back round the perimeter track, you can see in the distance, the control tower standing proud on the horizon, what memories it must hold and stories it could tell.

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The Stained Glass window in St. Bartholomew’s Church.

Before departing this site for good, it is worth going to Great-Gransden and the church of Saint Bartholomew. Within its walls is a beautiful stained-glass window that commemorates those who served at Gransden Lodge. Also placed nearby is the roll of honour detailing those individuals who gave their lives whilst serving here. A fitting and well deserved memorial, it forms an excellent record of those long gone.

The villages of Little and Great-Gransden bear virtually  no reminders of their local aviation history. Delightful in their settings, nestled in the Cambridgeshire countryside, their secrets are bound tightly within their boundaries, but the airfield and the flying, still live on.

We finally leave here and head west to another ‘hilltop’ site. One that boasts one of the most prestigious memorials in the country. An open site with superb views over the Cambridgeshire countryside, we head to the former American base – RAF Steeple Morden.

Notes:

*1 Photo courtesy of RAF museum

The Cambridge Gliding Club website can be accessed here.