RAF Snailwell – Where life was far from Slow (Pt2)

After part 1, we return to  Snailwell, to see how the American influence played its part at Snailwell and how the build- up to D-day affected life at this small grassed airfield.

The squadron was assigned to the 350th Fighter Group (FG) who would eventually transfer to the Middle East. It would be the 347th’s sister squadron the 346th who would later convert Hurricane Mk I #LB640 target tug into a two-seat liaison plane.

Hurricane Mk I LB640, which was being operated as a target-tug with the P-39-equipped 346th Fighter Squadron, 350th Fighter Group, 12th AF USAAF in Sardinia in early 1944. It was field converted into a two-seater as a liaison plane by the unit's ground crew.

Hurricane Mk I #LB640 after being converted into a two-seat liaison plane.  IWM (UPL 17052)

As they were a new squadron the 347th would initially have no ground echelon, they were still being formed and prepared for transportation over the Atlantic from their base at Harding Field, Louisiana. They would arrive in the UK in the November and after a short period at Snailwell, the entire squadron would move out to RAF Kings Cliffe in Northamptonshire, before moving away to the warmer climate of the Middle East.

The winter of 1942/43 saw further detachments being based here at Snailwell. In conjunction with the US forces were No. 170 Sqn, who remained here from the end of October through the winter until February 1943. After a short spell away they made a brief one day stop over before being moved to RAF Odiham.

The January of 1943 saw yet more short stays. On the 17th No. 182 Sqn arrived with Typhoon IBs. Based at RAF Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, No. 182 Sqn were finding it hard to get in any flying at all, as the heavy winter rains had clogged up the metal PSP runways with thick mud preventing the aircraft from taking off.

Two days earlier 70 ground personnel had been dispatched from Sawbridgeworth to Snailwell in preparation for the forthcoming training operation. Operation “Shatter” as it was designated, would be a mock attack on gun emplacements on the outskirts of Thetford Forest. On the 17th, the ten aircraft were sent from RAF Sawbridgeworth led by Sqn. Ldr Pugh along with a further four from the detachment at RAF Hunsdon. On arrival they found their sister squadron, 181 Sqn also with Typhoons, already here for the Army Cooperation training operation. A large party was given that night in honour of the new 182 Sqn crews. The next day, a preliminary attack was made on the target by eleven 182 Sqn aircraft, who made runs over both the dummy and real guns in a “full frontal attack”. The following day, a complete squadron attack was made with the aircraft having to be airborne in under 4.5 minutes. For the first time since forming, all the canons on the Typhoons are fully loaded with live ammunition and a full squadron scramble was undertaken.

Aerial photograph of Snailwell airfield looking south, 26 July 1942 (IWM RAF_FNO_67_V_6032)

In the afternoon a four ship formation was loaded up with 2 x 250 lb bombs and a further attack was made. This attack ended the training session for 182 Sqn and the next day they return to the muddy runways of Sawbridgeworth.

Two months later on March 8th 1943, 181 Sqn was reunited with her other sister squadron No. 183 Sqn here at Snailwell. After a number of short training flights covering just four days, 183 Sqn departed the Cambridgeshire airfield leaving 181 Sqn here until the end of the month.

Throughout 1943 much of the same was to happen, short stays for training missions were the order of the day. No. 309 Sqn flew the Mustang MK.I and Hurricane VIs. The Polish squadron became renowned amongst the Allies when F/Lt Janusz Lewkowicz flew a Mustang I to Norway and back strafing targets at Stavanger just to prove the point that the Mustang had the range!

Another squadron, 613 Sqn also brought their Mustangs along in July, and No. 184 Sqn arrived with Hurricanes. No.247 Sqn brought back the mighty Typhoon, each of these squadrons carrying out training flights, some for as little as two days others for more prolonged periods.

As the end of 1943 drew a line under the busy ebb and flow of visiting squadrons, 1944 would see a rather more settled year. After a single RAF squadron, No. 527 Sqn, moved in and then out two months later, the  build up to D-day would see big changes at Snailwell.

The invasion of Europe was destined to be the largest invasion build up the world had ever seen, and southern England was to be the primary area in which this build up would take place. With the creation of the Ninth Air Force, whose primary purpose was to provide assistance to the forth coming Normandy landings, more and more airfields were going to be required. Whilst front line units would be directly involved in operations over the Normandy coast, there would need to be a major service and maintenance support network, if the invasion were to succeed. This service was to be carried out by a series of  six Tactical Air Depots (TAD) all falling under the command of the IX Air Force Service Command, via two Advanced Air Depot Areas (AADA).

One of these depots, the 3rd Tactical Air Depot based at RAF Grove some 55 miles from London, were responsible for the maintenance and repair of Douglas A-20 ‘Havocs’ and P-61 ‘Black Widows’. Because of the increasing demand for maintenance facilities, the 3rd TAD took over the facilities at RAF Snailwell, moving in two Mobile Repair and Maintenance Squadrons, the 33rd and 41st, in preparation for maintenance operations. Their primary role was to make field modifications to the aircraft in preparation for operational roles, as a result of which the A-20s became a regular feature around the airfield. After only a short time though it was realised that the 41st would not be required here, and so they returned to RAF Grove. To replace them, a specialist team were brought in – the 51st Service Squadron. By the time D-day had passed, the pressure at Grove had subsided and so both units were able to return home from Snailwell. With that, the American connection with Snailwell ended.

As the war drew to a close so too did both operational flying and training flights. The RAF (Belgian) Initial Training School used the airfield sharing it with nearby RAF Bottisham. In March 1946, the Belgians pulled out returning to their own country now free from the Nazi tyranny that had dominated it for so long.

Snailwell then closed, standing empty and gradually returning to agricultural use. Many of the buildings were pulled down but some hung on for several years being used for agricultural purposes. The Blister hanger, sheds and training buildings remained for a number of years, certainly until the mid 1990s, but gradually even these were removed with little evidence of their existence being left today. The airfield was then dissected by a major road development in 1975, remaining parts being bought up by the British Horse Racing School who now own a large portion of the former airfield. High hedges and gated access restrict most access to the former site, (the Icknield Way long-distance route does pass along side these tracks and borders the former airfield from which remnants can be seen) leaving the last few sections of concrete hanging on as reminders of the airfields once proud and hectic existence.

With a mix of repair and maintenance units added to the pot, the war years for Snailwell were far from slow. The regular ebb and flow of detached units for training flights, and the occasional permanent flying unit, saw a wide range of aircraft types and nationalities grace the skies of this small area of Eastern Cambridgeshire. With little evidence of its existence left today, Snailwell, and its proud history, would seem to have been lost, replaced by Horse racing and the desire for the high stakes demanded by the equestrian market.

From Snailwell, we head west, deeper in to the area owned by the Horse racing fraternity. Here we see on every street corner evidence of this now popular sport, well groomed bushes that surround neatly cut turfs, on what now remains of Britain’s wartime heritage. Our next stop on Trail 55, is the pinnacle of these activities, the former RAF Newmarket Heath.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Official Directorate of Works drawing (WA7/395/41) IWM UPL 17710

British History Online (Snailwell) website.

National Archives AIR 27/1563/9

National Archives AIR 27/954/6

National Archives AIR 27/1135/1

Niall Corduroy. “Whirlwind: Westland’s Enigmatic FighterFonthill Media, 2017.

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RAF Snailwell – Where life was far from Slow (Pt 1).

In the latest Trail around Britain’s airfields, we visit four airfields so close that as the crow flys, they are a mere 12.5 km from the first to the last.  It is an area to the east of Cambridge, a large University City that now dwarfs the River Cam the narrow waterway that gave the city its name. The final airfield we visit lies on the outskirts of the city itself, and is probably more famous for its more recent operations under Marshalls of Cambridge, the Aerospace and Defence Group.

Our first stop though takes us through prime horse racing land, through the home of the Jockey Club and an area divided into studs and stabling, not for live stock, but for horses.

Our first stop in Trail 55 is the former RAF Snailwell, a small airfield where life was far from slow!

RAF Snailwell (USAAF Station 361).

Snailwell lies  just outside of the town of Newmarket in the county of Cambridgeshire now infinitely famous for its horse racing. The village of Snailwell from which the airfield takes its name, lies on the northern edge of the former airfield which is now  owned, as is much of this area, by the British Racing School who vehemently protect it from prying eyes.

Sitting to the north of the Bury St. Edmunds railway line, the airfield opened in the Spring of 1941, after the levelling of ten Bronze age Barrows (ancient burial grounds) as a satellite for RAF Duxford located to the south-west. The airfield would go through an ever changing number of roles including: Army Co-Operation, training, and as a fighter base performing low-level attacks on shipping and land based targets. It would also see a wide range of aircraft types from the small trainer to the powerful tank-buster the Typhoon. Opened as a technical training airfield, it passed to the control of No 28 (Technical Training) Group whose headquarters were located in London. It fell under the command of Air Commodore John Charles ‘Paddy’  Quinnell, an avid lover of sailing who had a distinguished military history that extended back to 1914, first with the Royal Artillery and then with the Royal Flying Corps.

As a small grass airfield, Snailwell was by no means insignificant. It had three grass runways the largest being just short of 1,700 yards long, whilst the second and third were 1,400 yards in length. The main runway crossed the airfield on a south-west to north-east direction protruding out of the main airfield area. Aircraft were dispersed on concrete hardstands, a mix of twelve ‘Fighter’ style Type B hardstands (capable of holding two aircraft side by side but separated by a bank) along with two 50 ft diameter ‘frying pan’ style stands. They also had the use of a Bellman hangar, and ten blister hangars for servicing and maintenance of aircraft*1.

To the north, hidden amongst the trees was a bomb store, with separate fusing buildings, tail stores, incendiary and component stores, access to the site being via a 12 ft wide concrete road.

In all, there were only a few permanent personnel at the airfield, accommodation was only erected for around 1,100 officers and enlisted men in Nissen huts over just two sites; Dormitory site 1 and 2, which were supplemented with a mess site and sick quarters. It is known that later users were camped in tents around the airfield perimeter – not ideal accommodation by any means. Unusually, the technical area was widely spread with many buildings being away from the airfield hub. The watch office, at the centre of this hub, was designed to 12779/41 and had an adjoining meteorological office attached, an unusual addition for this type. There was also a wide range of buildings, AMT trainer, two Link trainers, flight offices, sleeping shelters, parachute stores, fire tender huts and numerous associated maintenance stores and sheds.

During construction of the airfield a local road was closed, and a lodge, built at the turn of the century, utilised as a guard room for the airfield. This building later passed to the Jockey Club for use by its employees.

The initial users of the airfield were the Army Co-operation Squadron No. 268 Sqn RAF, who arrived at Snailwell with Lysander IIIs on April 1st 1941. Being a slow aircraft it was ideal as a reconnaissance aircraft, flying patrols along the coast of East Anglia, looking for any sign of an invasion force. After arriving at Snailwell from Bury St. Edmunds, the three Echelons immediately began training, three photographic sorties taking place on the very day they arrived. In the days that followed, combined Army and Air Force exercises were the order of the day, after which the squadron took part in intensive gas training along with routine flying. However, 268 Sqn would not settle here, yo-yoing between Snailwell and numerous other stations no less than eleven times between their first arrival, and their last departure to RAF Odiham on May 31st 1943.

Duxford Battle of Britain Airshow

A Lysander at Duxford’s Battle of Britain Airshow 2019.

In the May of 1941, 268 Sqn would swap their ‘Lizzies’ (as they were affectionately known) for the Tomahawk IIA, an aircraft they kept until changing again to the better performing Mustang I a year later. These Tomahawks would perform a range of duties including – whilst based at RAF Barton Bendish in Norfolk – early morning ‘attacks’ on Snailwell as part of a Station Defence Exercise. These involved mock gas and parachute attacks along with low-level strafing runs. Being little more than a field, Barton Bendish provided no accommodation for visitors, and so the aircrews slept in tents overnight.

During the August of 1941 the first of Snailwell’s many short stay squadrons would arrive. No. 152 Squadron would use Snailwell for a period of just one week whilst transiting to nearby RAF Swanton Morley. Operating the sleek Spitfire IIA, the brain child of R.J. Mitchell, they would perform fighter sweeps, along with convoy and bomber escort duties. Arriving on the 25th, the only major event occurred on the 28th when the squadron escorted seventeen Blenheims to Rotterdam, Sgt. Savage being the only 152 Sqn pilot to be lost during the mission. The next day, ‘A’ flight searched for signs of him, but sadly found no wreckage nor any sign of Sgt. Savage.

Being a small airfield Snailwell was often home to detachments of squadrons, usually whilst on training. One such unit arriving on November 31st when No. 137 Sqn posted a detachment here whilst the main body of the squadron stayed at RAF Matlaske further north in Norfolk.  Operating the heavily armed escort fighter the Westland Whirlwind, they would perform escort duties for Lysanders, searches for downed aircraft and ‘X’ raid interception duties. Many of their patrols covered Great Yarmouth on the East Anglian coast in an area to the east of the airfield.

Designed in 1937, the Whirlwind had many teething problems with the engines proving to be a particular issue. After purchasing only 112 examples of the model, No. 137 would be one of only two squadrons who would use it in any operational role. After moving to Matlaske, No. 137 began a series of training operations, posting a detachment of aircraft to Snailwell whilst preparing to commence anti-shipping operations in the North Sea.  Once operationally ready, the unit moved north to RAF Drem (August 1942) before returning once more to Matlaske where further training would take place; ‘B’ Flight replaced ‘A’ Flight at Snailwell until both were reunited at Snailwell in late August. Anti shipping operations continued from Matlaske, with their final sortie occurring on August 20th in which an enemy Ju 88 was intercepted – the aircraft evading its pursuers in bad weather. Moving across to reunite the squadron on the 24th, No.137 would perform their first operational sortie from Snailwell in early September, a feint attack against Lille. Designed to attract the Luftwaffe fighters into a trap, the twelve Whirlwinds and their fighter escorts failed to sight one enemy plane and all returned to their respective bases not having fired a shot. After this, the Whirlwinds were fitted with bombs and further training followed, but by mid September, they had left Snailwell and were heading for RAF Manston in Kent.

The summer of 1942 would be a busy period for Snailwell, with several squadrons utilising the airfield. At the end of March No. 56 (Punjab) Squadron would bring  the Hawker Typhoon MK.IA, a model they would begin replacing virtually immediately with the MK.IB. The April of that year was mainly taken up with practice formation flying and aircraft interception flights, before the squadron also moved to Manston in Kent. No. 56 Sqn would return briefly to Snailwell over the June / August period, but this would be short and they would then depart the airfield for good.

On June 15th 1942, a new squadron would be formed here at Snailwell. Under the command of Sqn. Ldr. F.G. Watson-Smyth, it would have two flights ‘A’ and ‘B’, each led by a Flight Lieutenant. No. 168 Sqn, initially flying the Curtiss Tomahawk II, was formed from the nucleus of No. 268 Sqn, and would remain here only until their aircraft and equipment had arrived. Being allocated RAF Bottisham as their main station, they would stay at Snailwell for a mere month. During this time aircraft would have their squadron numbers painted on, and Sqn, Ldr. Spear would give dual flying training to all pilots in a Fairy Battle.

Toward the end of June Sqn. Ldrs. Watson-Smyth and Bowen would visit Bottisham to discuss and prepare the accommodation arrangements for the squadron’s forthcoming arrival. Further deliveries of supplies took place and by the 26th there were seven Tomahawks on charge. On the 13th July, at 14:35 hrs, twelve Tomahawks took off from Snailwell and flew in formation to their new base at Bottisham, a mere stones throw from their current location. The move had begun and 168 Sqn would leave Snailwell for good.

In the August, whilst transiting to North Africa, No.614 Sqn would place a detachment of their Blenheim Vs here, a further detachment being placed at Weston Zoyland with the main body of the squadron at Odiham. Coinciding with this was also a detachment of No. 239 Sqn with Mustang Is, making  Snailwell a very diverse station indeed.

With the arrival of autumn in the October of 1942, Snailwell took a very different turn, being handed over to the US Ninth Air Force Service Command who brought in the Airacobra, one of the few wartime fighters to use a tricycle undercarriage. Transferring across from Duxford, the parent airfield of Snailwell, the 347th Fighter Squadron (FS) were a brand new squadron, only being activated that very same month.

In part two we see the early American influence, and how this small grass airfield played its part in the build up to D-day.

The full page can be seen on Trail 55 – Around Newmarket.

RAF Gamston – Home of the OTU.

Britain’s longest, and perhaps most famous road the A1, which is known in part as the ‘Great North Road’, stands at 410 miles (660km) in length, and  connects the two capitals of England (London) and Scotland (Edinburgh) in one direct route. Original parts of it were built by the Romans, always easily distinguished by its direct routing. Over the years, the numerous upgrades and widening programmes have revealed both Roman settlements and Roman artefacts now totalling their thousands.  Much has been written about the A1, both its history and its legacy, but little about its aviation connections.

It is therefore along this route that we next travel, for here we find many of Britain’s wartime airfields, and while most have now disappeared into the history books,  a few still linger on operating the fast jets of the current Royal Air Force.

With such a huge route to cover, it will take time to travel from one end to the other, but it is along this route that we begin our next trail, Trail 54, The Great North Road.

The majority of these airfields, of which there are literally dozens, lie in Northern England, but include notable examples such as: Old Warden (The Shuttleworth Collection), Brampton, Alconbury, Glatton, Wittering, North Witham, Bottesford, Winthorpe, Dishforth, Leeming, Brunton, East Fortune and Macmerry as its close or direct neighbours.

Our first stop in this next trail, is one of the lesser known airfields along this route, one that sits on the very edge of this great road, and one that survives today, not as a military site, but as a civilian airfield where flying is a strong today as it was during those dark days of the 1940s.

From Newark in Nottinghamshire we travel north where we find our first stop, the former RAF Gamston.

RAF Gamston (Retford Airport).

Gamston is a little known airfield, but it is one that played an important part during the Second World War. Opened in December 1942 it was a classic Class A airfield, built with three concrete and tarmac runways with a main runway of 2,000 yards and two subsidiary runways of the standard 1,400 yards forming the distinctive offset A frame. A perimeter track linked all three runways with thirty heavy bomber hardstands located around its length giving an indication as to its wartime role. Further clues to this role are the four type T2 and single B1 aircraft hangars, designed large enough to hold medium to heavy bombers of the RAF. As with all wartime airfields, the technical area came with a variety of ancillary buildings, workshops, MT sheds (12775/41) and stores.

RAF Gamston

Gamston’s former Watch Office is now a residential property.

With temporary accommodation for almost 1,000 male ranks and over 300 female ranks, it was by no means a large airfield, but at a cost of £468,000, it was quite an expensive airfield to build.

When Gamston was being constructed in 1942, Bomber Command was going through a period of reorganisation and re-equipment. At the beginning of the year there were six operational groups: 1,2,3,4,5 and 8 along with two training groups 6 and 7. No. 8 Group was disbanded only to be reborn as the Pathfinders in January 1943 whilst No. 2 Group was transferred to the Tactical Air Force in that same year. A further part of this reorganisation was the renaming of 6 and 7 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U) Groups as No. 91 and 92 (OTU) Groups in the May 1942. In the June, another new Training Group No. 93 (OTU) Group was formed, giving three training Groups in total under Bomber Command’s control. 93 Group bucked the general trend at this point in the war, being the only expansion in what was basically a shrinking Command.

It was this third Group, led by Air Vice Marshal P. E. Maitland, that Gamston would fall beneath, joining in a collection of twelve airfields: Finningly, Bircotes, Worksop, Ossington, Castle Donnington, Wymeswold, Lichfield, Church Broughton, Hixon, Seighford and Peplow that all fell under the direct control of the headquarters at Eggington near Nottingham. This meant that the responsibility of No. 93 Group stretched from Shropshire in the west, through the centre of England into Derbyshire and Nottingham, and north as far as Yorkshire. The purpose of these Operational Training Units was to meet the demand for new crews whilst conducting operational flights with experienced crews as their leads. To this end, Gamston’s closet neighbour Ossington, was to be its ‘parent’, Gamston forming the satellite airfield for all flying operations.

RAF Gamston

One of the many buildings left standing on the Technical Site.

The first unit to use Gamston was No. 82 Operational Training Unit, who were formed at Ossington on June 1st 1943 with Wellington MK.IIIs. Over the time that 82 OTU used the two airfields, they would also fly Wellington MK.Xs. Martinets, Oxfords, Tomahawks, Miles Masters and the Hawker Hurricane. Their period of operations lasted for almost two years until they were disbanded in January 1945 just prior to the war’s end. Flying mainly out of Ossington, 82 OTU wold have their fair share of fatalities, with their first occurring with devastating effect on August 9th 1943, with the loss of all five crewmen and the first total aircraft write-off since forming.

The first Gamston based fatalities occurred on 12th October  that year, when Wellington MK.X HK201 took off on a training flight. Immediately after take off the port engine cut out forcing the aircraft down. Three of the seven crew were killed, the remaining four being treated for their injuries in hospital. For his actions that day, F/O. J Coughian was awarded the DFM.

Gamston would also serve as a safe haven for other operational bombers returning from action over occupied Europe. On December 1st 1943, a No. 9 Squadron RAF, Lancaster MK.I was returning from operations over Berlin. In attempting to land at Gamston, the aircraft DV334 ‘WS-C’ crashed killing six of the eight crewmen on board. The remaining two crew, Sgt. C. Rickards and F/S. L. Owen (RCAF), both being injured. This tragedy brought an end to 1943 but not a change in luck for the training crews of 82 OTU.

RAF Gamston

Many buildings are overgrown and in a poor state.

The January and February 1944 brought two more accidents, the first without fatalities as F/L. D. Parry brought the aircraft, a Wellington MK.X, down with its wheels retracted after the port engine lost power. F/L. Parry was uninjured in the accident unlike his five colleagues, who on the night of February  3 – 4, were all killed when their Wellington ‘X3409’ was seen to dive into the ground near the airfield resulting in a massive explosion. The crew, four Canadians and an Englishman, all perished.

Being an operational training unit, 82 OTU would participate in operational duties, such as flying ‘Nickel‘ operations (leaflet dropping) over occupied Europe. One such operation saw the loss of Wellington MK.X on the night of May 14 – 15 with the loss of all as the aircraft ran out of fuel on the return flight from Rennes.

Another near tragic accident occurred in June when a returning bomber, a Halifax from 1667 HCU was trying to make an emergency landing at Gamston when it collided with a stationary Wellington. There were no injuries in the collision but it was another event that brought home the dangers of flying heavy bombers in wartime Britain.

With two further losses in August 1944, and another in April 1945, death or injury were never far from the minds of the crews. Even as a ground crew you were not safe from the slightest lack of concentration or slip. In November, an accidental spark caused by a slipping airman ignited petrol in one of the hangars whilst working on Wellington MK.X ‘HK750. The accident on November 13th 1944, proved fatal for the Wellington destroying it completely in the subsequent fire.

RAF Gamston

1944 saw yet further changes to the Training Command. In June, the number of Bomber Command Squadrons increased, conversion training was taken away from the main squadrons and given to a new Heavy Conversion Group No. 7 (HCU) Group.  it was also decided that a new OTU was required and so ‘C’ Flight of 82 OTU was moved permanently to Gamston where it was re-designated No. 86 OTU who would specialise in the role of night training with both the Wellington MK.III and X. This was a  short-lived unit though, lasting only until October 15th that same year before being  disbanded. Crews from 86 OTU were then used to form the Heavy Glider Conversion Units elsewhere.

A gradual reduction in crew losses toward the end of 1944 meant that 93 (OTU) Group could now be disbanded,  with the operational training being consolidated into the two original groups. By the end of February 1945, No. 93 (OTU) Group was no more.

As the war drew to a close, other training units also began to close. No. 30 OTU who were originally formed at Hixon in June 1942, also with Wellingtons, moved to Gamston where they were disbanded on 12th June 1945. Their final days at Gamston would not be the quite and sedate ending that many would have hoped for though.  On May 18th, a month before disbanding, Gamston would see its final wartime loss, when Wellington NA718 ‘BT-O’ crashed killing both crewmen: F/O. Robert Fraser Thompson (s/n:174908)  and Leading Aircraftman. Douglas Fletcher Dryden (s/n:1353162). It is not known what caused the accident but, the pilot had attempted to glide the aircraft back into Gamston without success.

With the closure of these units, Bomber Command began the rapid decline that would see it become a shadow of its former self. Crew training was put on hold, aircrew held pending a decision as to where to send them and aircraft mothballed.

Once the European war was finally over, Gamston’s flying days were over, at least for the time being, and from July 1945, it became the main resettlement camp for repatriating Royal Australian Air Force personnel. The responsibility for this fell to No. 9 Aircrew Holding Unit (ACHU), where crews were sent before departure to either the Pacific Theatre or more likely home. Once all the residents had departed the Nottingham site, it lay dormant, being used primarily for agricultural purposes.

RAF Gamston

Many buildings a re left open to the elements.

For 8 years the airfield remained closed, but over 1950-51, the site was used for motor racing activities. Small races were held but these never truly ‘took off’ and any future use of the site for such activities, were curtailed in May 1953, when Gamston reopened as a satellite for nearby RAF Worksop, where No. 211 Advanced Flying School (AFS) were currently based. The aircraft type had now changed and the jet age had dawned. The RAF’s latest jet aircraft the Gloster Meteor and de Havilland Vampire now being the aircraft to utilise Gamston’s runways.

No.211 AFS would go through several numerical changes over the next few years, on June 1st 1954 it became 211 Flying Training School (FTS), disbanding on June 9th 1956 to be absorbed into No. 4 Flying Training School (FTS). This in turn was disbanded at Worksop in 1958 to be reformed at RAF Valley in Wales – thus ending the links with Gamston. All through these changes, the aircraft remained primarily the same types, Meteors, Vampires and Prenctices of various marks.

It was during this time, on 1st April 1955, that a Gloster Meteor T.7  WL474 of 211 FTS would crash 2½m north-east of Gamston whilst performing asymmetric training. During the manoeuvres the aircraft dived into the ground killing both its crewmen: F/O. Stanley T. Jenkins and Acting Pilot Officer Duncan H. Moffat.

Gamston then again closed in 1957, but although officially closed it was used during the 1970s and 80s as a satellite landing ground by training aircraft from RAF Finningley. These consisted mainly of the small de Havilland ‘Chipmunks’ and later Scottish Aviation’s ‘Bulldogs’.

Then in 1993 when the site was purchased by Gamston Aviation Limited who opened and operated it as a civil airport under the name Retford Gamston Airport.

RAF Gamston

Gamston’s former runway is still in use (in part) today as part of Retford Airport.

Since then, Gamston has been upgraded with maintenance work being carried out on both the hangars, usable runway and perimeter tracks. Whilst these are part of the original infrastructure, they are much smaller only dealing with single or twin-engined light aircraft rather than the larger bombers of Bomber command.

The airfield is a going concern today, the main site operated by the Airport Authority whilst the technical area is a small industrial unit. Within this, there are numerous original wartime buildings still surviving in varying degrees of condition. The various stores are used for storing of industrial ‘components’ and general industrial rubbish, whilst another houses a car repair shop. Discarded vehicles lay buried beneath an ever-increasing range of thorny shrubbery while the whole area is fenced off and basically left with little outside interest.

Accessing the two sites is best from the A1, the industrial area is the first turning off this road and takes you along the former perimeter track past the end of the former main runway. It is this runway that is used today, very much a smaller part of the original. The former watch office is also here, tucked away behind hedges it is now a private residence. Various huts and small buildings can be found here, the whole area in a rapid state of decline and disrepair.

Taking a left turn back onto the main road takes you toward the airfield with its modern buildings, hangar space and offices. A small but excellent cafe ‘The Apron’ provides refreshments and the chance to sit and watch the activities of this small but thriving airport. There is also further evidence of the airfields history here, one of the hardstands now forms a parking area, discernible only where a careful eye will distinguish its outline amongst the more modern structures around it.

RAF Gamston

The general state pf the site suggests a bleak future for these historic buildings.

Compared to front line operational airfields Gamston’s history is perhaps ‘less intense’. But, in the bigger picture of Bomber Command, it is a major cog that helped turn the wheels of this massive wartime organisation, providing trained crews for operations over a country, whose determination to destroy all in its path, was finally brought to its knees by those who passed though Gamston’s very doors.

As we leave Gamston behind, we return to the A1 and head north and yet more trails around Britain’s forgotten airfields.

Sources and further reading. 

AIR 27/127/24 – 9 Squadron ORB National Archives.

Chorley, W.R., “Royal Air Force Bomber Command Losses Vol 7“, Midland Publishing, 2002.

The website for Retford (Gamston) Airport has details of its operations and facilities.

My thanks to the anonymous reader for the update of the 1970s and 80s.

The 446th BG (H), “The Bungay Buckaroos” – Part 2

In part 1 of this Trail (Trail 14) we saw how Bungay had grown from a satellite airfield into a fully fledged bomber airfield housing the 446th BG known as “The Bungay Buckaroos”.

The night of April 22nd 1944 saw the USAAF’s Mission 311, when over 800 bombers, a mix of B-17s and B-24s, were ordered to attack the marshalling yards at Hamm in three waves, each with its own designated target. The bombers were to take off from their respective bases between 17:50 and 18:21, but even before the stream arrived over the target, Bungay would bear witness to what was about to happen that night.

For the crew of #42-50306 “Dragon Lady“, it would begin at home. On take off the B24 skidded and crashed killing not only the ten airmen on-board, but two ground staff as well. Then, shortly before arriving over the Dutch coast, a B-17 #42-19818 of the 401st BG at Deenethorpe, suffered a fire inside the fuselage. As the fire took a grip of the aircraft, the pilot Lt. Roland Schellenberg put the B-17 into a steep dive during which three crew members either fell or jumped from the aircraft. Eventually, the fires were extinguished and the aircraft returned to the UK making an emergency landing here at Bungay, with nor further loss. The aircraft was salvaged at the Salvage depot at Watton, but the three crewmen who left the aircraft, were never found even after an intense RAF Air Sea Rescue Search of the area.

B-24H #42-50306 crashed on take off at Bungay on April 27th 1944 with killing twelve men. (IWM FRE 6607)

As the bomber stream made its way to Hamm, unpredicted winds played havoc with many aircraft, some passing beneath the higher groups as they approached the bomb release point, putting themselves in grave danger of being hit from falling bombs. Others following these leading groups also began arriving too early over the target, and were unable to distinguish landmarks due to the heavy smoke from the previous wave’s bombing.

Whilst conditions were very difficult, most aircraft did manage to bomb either their given target or alternative targets of opportunity, and considering this, results were generally good for the three Divisions. However, the troubles for the crews didn’t really start until they left the target and began their flight home.

Being a late operation, returning bombers were not locating their bases until well after dark, a situation the Luftwaffe exploited to their full advantage. A small force of Me-410 night fighters mingled with the returning bombers, and so ground radar were then unable to pick them up. Once the ground staff realised what was happening airfield lights were extinguished and crews ordered to other bases. Unseen, the German fighters gradually picked off the bombers as they tried in vain to land at darkened airstrips.  One such pilot, 2nd. Lt. Frank Baker,  luckily managed to avoid not only the fighters but another B-24 as he struggled to bring his aircraft (#42-95294) down at an alternative base. For his action that night, Baker received an Oak Leaf Cluster to add to his DFC. The entire night cost the USAAF nearly 60 men, some of these being to friendly fire in the confusion that reigned in the skies that night. Twenty Liberators had been damaged by the marauding Luftwaffe fighters, many crashing with fatal results.

The night of June 5th 1944, brought good news and a surprise for the men of the 446th. A crew briefing was called at 23.30 in which they were told they would lead the Eighth Air Force’s part in the invasion the next day. A massive operation, it would require pin-point accuracy and split-second timing to achieve its aim. Bombers were to take off in darkness and rendezvous at given heights with the 2nd Division forming up in an area between the Mersey and Humber estuaries. Take off was just before 02:00 with the 446th’s ‘Red Ass‘ piloted by Captain Charles Ryan, along with Sgt William Barlow, (G); Sgt Stuart Merwin, (R/O); Sgt Bruno Corridino, (G); Sgt Jesse Davis, (G); Sgt Joseph Parkin, (G); Sgt Howard Weaver, (Flt. Eng/G); 1st. Lt Robert McConnel, (C/P); 1st. Lt. Banks Jacobs, (B/A); and 1st. Lt. Michael Paczan, (N) taking the lead. Also on board that day was Col. Jacob Brogger the station Commander.

At 05:55 the formation was over Vierville  dropping one hundred 500lb bombs. A days long event that saw continued and repeated attacks behind the invasion line. With no Luftwaffe intervention, the event was more of a side-show for the gunners of the heavy bombers, and very few casualties were incurred by the crews. This did not mean however, that casualties were absent throughout the invasion period. On June 7th, #42-51116 crashed on takeoff on a mission to Alencon in France. In the accident eight members of the ten crew were killed.

It was also the 446th that would suffer from the little impact that the Luftwaffe had. On the next day 8th and then again on 12th near Jersey and Rennes respectively, they were attacked by a small group of Bf109s, on each day one 446th aircraft was lost.

On the 8th, the first of these two days, #42-109830 went down in the English Channel with the loss of five crewmen. The remaining five were rescued by French fishermen only to be picked up later the German forces.*2 On the second day, B-24 #42-94859 also went down with another five aircrew killed. Of those who survived, one was caught and taken prisoner, whilst the remaining four managed to evade capture.*3

As the allies pushed on thorough France, Holland and into Germany, the 446th supported them. They targeted bridges, gun batteries and enemy troop positions during the St. Lo breakout in July. They dropped supplies to the paratroops around Nijmegen in September and attacked marshalling yards, bridges and road junctions in the Ardennes, preventing German reinforcements from pushing through in December 1944 – January 1945. This support continued right up to the wars end, dropping supplies to advancing troops over the Rhine and on through Germany itself.

Through all these missions, the ‘Bungay Buckaroos‘ managed some remarkable achievements. Liberator #42-52612 of the 706th BS, “Home Breaker” flew 102 missions before returning to the US, and both the 706 BS and the 707 BS surpassed 60 consecutive mission each (62 and 68 respectively) without loss.

RAF Bungay (Flixton)

Admin and bomb site Site – now a decaying.

The end of the war however brought a final twist for the 446th. On April 11th, when on the return flight from Regensburg, two B-24s #42-50790 and #42-51909, both of the 706th BS, collided over the base killing all twenty-two airmen on-board. But as if that were not enough, there was another evil twist of the knife just two weeks later, on the 26th, when two days after their final mission, a transition flight crashed killing a further six crewmen. It was a tragic and sad end to the Group’s war.

In all, the 446th had carried out 273 missions in total, dropping just short of 17,000 tonnes of bombs for the loss of 68 aircraft in combat and 28 through accidents and other incidents. Yet with all these remarkable achievements, the Group were never awarded any recognition in the form of a Citation or Group award.

With the war at an end, the 446th would depart Bungay for home. The aircraft departing mid June via the southern routes and the ground parties departing on the Queen Mary from Greenock in early July.

Bungay airfield, then surplus to US requirements, was transferred over to the Fleet Air Arm and renamed HMS Europa II on September 25th 1945. Bungay formed one of a small cluster of former USAAF airfields handed over to the Fleet Air Arm in preparation for the war in the Pacific. Acting as a satellite for HMS Sparrowhawk (formally RAF Halesworth another US airbase), it fell under the command of  Lt. Csr. R.J. Hanson D.S.O., D.S.C. but due to the end of the war against Japan, it only operated until May 1946 when it was handed back to the RAF and placed under the control of 53 Maintenance Unit. A further change in management saw it pass to 94 Maintenance Unit in November 1947 who stored surplus munitions along its runways and inside its buildings. A range of ordinance, from 250lb bombs to 4,00lb bombs, cables, flares, mines and German munitions were all stored here before disposal.

In the early 1950s the site was gradually run down, no longer needed by the RAF and finally closed in 1955. It was eventually sold off in 1961 and was returned to agriculture. As it closed, the last main gate board to adorn the site was rescued and now rests in the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum a short distance away.

Bungay gate sign

The last main gate sign from Bungay.

After that some private flying did take place at the airfield, the Martlesham Heath Parachute Club using it with a variety of aircraft types, but this was short-lived. Gradually the site was taken over by agricultural uses, the runways and perimeters tracks being all but removed, the buildings allowed to deteriorate with many being removed over time. Time had gone full circle, and Bungay airfield is no more. In memory of those who were stationed here a memorial stone in the shape of a B24 tail fin marks the site of the former airfield. Just one of several memorials in the local area.

Tucked away down a country lane, Bungay is best found from the B1062. Stopping on the small country lane, Abbey Road, you can see along what is left of these parts. Now predominately agriculture, fields stretch where the Liberators once stood, trees adorn the admin areas and hard standings support tractors and other modern farm machinery. Much of what remains is rooted on private land, and many of these buildings contain murals created by those who were stationed here in the latter part of the war. Dilapidated huts, they are gradually falling into ruin, overgrown with bushes and trees.

A well presented memorial and garden marks the site, and the Airfield entrance is now a farm along with its associated dwellings. A small plaque signifies a crash site at Barsham some 3 miles east and a superb museum at nearby Bungay  houses a range of artefacts associated with the 446th and other Eights Air Force groups. The nearby church holds a roll of honour and its own memorial to the group. A former rest room for the crews is now the local Community Centre and it too holds a plaque in memory of the 446th.

RAF Bungay (Flixton)

A peaceful memorial garden to the 446th marks the site of Station 125.

Sources and further reading.

*1 MACR 1735
*2 MACR 5482
*3 MACR 5802

Freeman, R.A., “The Mighty Eighth“, 1986, Arms and Armour Press.

A website dedicated to the 446th has further details of the crews and aircraft.

The 446th BG (H), “The Bungay Buckaroos” Part 1

In Trail 14 we visit an airfield that was built in the mid part of the war and one that took some time to establish itself as a front line bomber station. However, it is one that would have its own share of problems, heroic acts, records and sacrifice.  In the second part of this trip, we visit the former airfield RAF Bungay.

RAF Bungay (Flixton) (USAAF Station 125)

Bungay airfield lies in Suffolk, above an area known as the Waveney Valley, about two miles from the village from which it takes its name and fifteen miles from Norfolk’s county town of Norwich. It served under a variety of names: HMS Europa II,  RAF Flixton,  RNAS Bungay and USAAF Station 125. However, throughout its short life, it remained primarily under the control of the United States Army Air Force as a heavy bomber station designated Station 125.

Construction began in 1942, by Kirk & Kirk Ltd, but the work would not be completed for at least another two years until the spring of 1944. Even though the site was unfinished, the first units to be stationed here, would be so in the autumn of that same year, 1942.  Initially designated as a satellite for the heavy bombers of RAF Hardwick, it would be some time before Bungay would establish itself as a fully operational front line airfield.

With the invasion of North Africa dominating the European theatre, a build up of military might would see many of Britain’s airfields taken over and utilised for both men and machinery. A part of this build up was the arrival of the twin-engined units the: 47th, 310th, 319th and 320th BGs operating the North American B-25 Mitchell. The 310th BG initially arrived at RAF Hardwick, over September and into October, where they would continue their flying training before departing for North Africa. The 310th consisted of the usual four Bomb Squadrons: 379th, 380th, 381st and 428th BS, and it was whilst training at Hardwick that one of these squadrons, the 428th, would move across to Bungay. Their arrival here was no more than as a dispersed site, allowing for free movement of aircraft in the busy skies over this part of East Anglia. At the end of their short stay, they would rejoin the main Group and depart for the warmer climates of North Africa.

The next group to arrive was something considerably bigger but also posted from nearby RAF Hardwick, the 329th BS of the 93rd BG with their B24 Liberators. Known affectionately as ‘Ted’s Travelling Circus‘ (after the CO, Colonel Ted Timberlake), the 93rd BG earned their unique name as a result of their constant moving around, continuously being spread across, what must have seemed, the entire European and Mediterranean theatres of war. Often split between the two, rarely were the Group ever together for any length of time.

During this period UK-based units of the 93rd at Hardwick began transferring to the 2nd Bombardment Wing, where they began training for ‘special duties’. Gaps in the 329th BS were filled with crews from the other 3 squadrons of the Group (328th, 330th, 409th) and were moved here to Bungay. Once here, the aircraft were fitted with the British ‘Gee‘ system and crews trained in its use. A remarkably accurate system of radio navigation, it was devised initially by Robert Dippy as a short-range aid for blind landings, but its success encouraged its development for a much greater use by the  Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at Swanage.

RAF Bungay (Flixton)

The remains of Bungay’s NE-SW runway looking north-east.

Bungay was Initially planned to equip the 44th BG, but the 329th were chosen over them and within a very short time the crews were ready, and ‘Moling’ mission could now begin. Designed as a ‘blind bombing’ utility, and because of fears of the system falling into enemy hands, heavy cloud cover was needed for operations to go ahead. Such conditions occurred early in 1943, on January 2nd, when four B-24s of the 329th set off from Bungay for the Ruhr. Unfortunately, as they neared the target, the cloud cover broke and the flight was exposed. This exposure prevented Gee from being used as it was intended, and the aircraft returned both without bombing and without using their Gee successfully. The weather again proved to be the Achilles heel in the planning on both the 11th and 13th January, when similar conditions were experienced and again all aircraft returned without bombing. These erratic weather conditions carried on well into March, the last attempt being made on the 28th, after which it was decided to abandon the idea, and ‘Moling’ operations were cancelled.

It was not a complete disaster for the 329th though, the experience of flying over occupied territory and using blind bombing equipment, meant they were able to transfer to a new Pathfinder role, now skilled in equipment not known about in other units of the USAAF.

At the end of these trials, and in the absence of her sister squadrons, the 329th joined up with the 44th BG in a move that led to their imminent departure from Bungay.

Following their departure, the work on Bungay’s construction continued. Built to Class A specifications, it would have three concrete, tarmac and wood chip runways intersecting to form the ‘A’ frame. Thirty-six frying pan and fourteen spectacle hardstands provided dispersed aircraft accommodation and two T2 hangars provided covered space for maintenance and repairs. The main technical area lay to the west of the airfield, the bomb store to the east and the main administration site (site 2) across the road to the west. As a dispersed site, many of its accommodation areas would be hidden amongst the trees beyond here. Linked by a maze of footpaths and small roadways, there were two communal sites (sites 3 and 4), seven officer and other ranks sites, a WAAF site, a sewage works and a sick quarters. In all it could accommodate around 3,000 men and women of mixed rank. Updating of the watch office included the addition of a Uni Seco control room (5966/43) by anchoring it to the roof of the already built observation room. By late autumn 1943, it was completed and the site was handed over to the 446th BG (H), Bungay’s most prominent resident, who would become known as  “The Bungay Buckaroos”.

Their arrival here commenced on 4th November 1943, with four squadrons of B-24s – the 704th, 705th, 706th and 707th – all of which formed the larger 20th Combat Wing of the Second Bombardment Division, Eighth Air Force. The remainder of this wing included those of Hardwick’s 93rd BG and Seething’s 448th BG.

The 446th’s journey took the ground echelons from Arizona, to Colorado and onto Bungay via the Queen Mary,  and the air echelons the southern air route via Brazil and Marrakesh. Under the command of Colonel Jacob J. Brogger, they would begin operations on the 16th December 1943. Throughout their term here the 446th would attack prestige targets including: U-boat installations, Bremen’s port, the chemical plants at Ludwigshafen, Berlin’s ball-bearing plants, the aero-engine works in Munich and the marshalling yards at Coblenz. In addition to these, the 446th would support the Normandy invasion, the break out at St.Lo, and drop supplies to the ground forces at both Nijmegen and in the snowy conditions of the Ardennes.

This remarkable list of strategic targets would begin with Bremen. The mission would see twenty-three heavy bomber groups along with a Pathfinder group drop over four thousand 500lb general purpose bombs and over ten thousand 100lb incendiary bombs. During the raid four B-17s would collide in mid-air and as for the 446th, they would not escape without loss. Two of their aircraft would crash, one of which, a Ford built B-24H-1-FO Liberator #42-7539, “Ye Old Thunder Mug“, would run out of fuel and crash near to its home airfield at Bungay.

The 446th would unusually send just one aircraft to Bremen four days later. This aircraft, a 704th BS Liberator, #42-7494 “Bumps Away” was hit by flak over Texel, one of the Dutch Wadden Islands. The strike sheered the tail turret sending the aircraft momentarily out of control. After the pilot (Second Lieutenant Thomas B. Long) stabilised the aircraft, it went on to complete its mission only to collide with another B-24 of the 392nd BG on its return journey. The collision sent the Liberator crashing into the North Sea killing all those on board*1.

Then on the 22nd, the 446th were sent back to Germany, this time Osnabruk. On this mission, B-24 #42-7611, another 704th BS Liberator thought to be ‘Silver Dollar‘, was hit by falling bombs from above. The aircraft fell from the sky killing eight of the crew with another two surviving, both being taken prisoner by the Germans. On board this aircraft was right waist Gunner Sergeant Walter B. Scurlock who had survived the crash landing in “Ye Old Thunder Mug” earlier that month on the 16th. It had been a difficult start for both Sgt. Scurlock and the 446th.

A B-24 of the 446th BG lands at a cold and frosty Bungay 24/12/44 (IWM FRE 6571)

January 1944 then took the men of the 446th to Kiel, but the cold and icy winter would be as much of an enemy to the group as the occupying German forces were a short distance across the sea. With several missions being curtailed during the month, those that did take place were prone to their own problems. On the 7th, the Bomb Group was unable to rendezvous with the 392nd and returned without bombing; on the 11th, the mission to Brunswick was recalled, again due to the bad weather. Following a Noball mission to St. Pierre-des-Jonquies on the 14th, the group were grounded for a week after yet more bad weather closed in. The continuing poor conditions prevented further immediate attacks,  but the 28th would see the weather ease and the start of four days of consecutive flights to Frankfurt, Brunswick and two further Noball targets.

February, March and April were much more conducive to flying activities but the weather still played its part in cancelled or aborted operations. As the lead up to D-Day began, breaks in the weather allowed for strategic targets to be hit, airfields and marshalling yards, along with yet more Noball targets.

April 22nd 1944 saw the USAAF’s Mission 311, a mission that would become notorious in the history of the Eighth Air Force. On this day, the Eighth would lose more aircraft to enemy infiltrators than at any other time in its wartime history. The mission was to attack the  marshalling yards at Hamm, which was considered a highly important strategic communications target, especially in the lead up to the allied invasion of Normandy. Hamm was especially chosen as it was said to be capable of dealing with up to 10,000 railways wagons a day, making it the busiest marshalling yard in Germany, and a prime target for the heavy bombers of the Allied forces.

On that particular day, over 800 bombers, a mix of B-17s and B-24s, were ordered to attack in three waves, each with its own designated target. The bombers were to take off from their respective bases between 17:50 and 18:21, but even before the stream arrived over the target, Bungay would bear witness to what was about to happen that night.

In part two we shall see what happened on the night of April 22nd and how Bungay developed during the closing stages of the war and beyond.

RAF Waterbeach – A period of change (Part 3).

In this last part looking at RAF Waterbeach we see how its military career finally came to a close. The jet age was had arrived but would soon pass, the curtain was about to fall on this historic airfield.

Immediately after the war, two new squadrons would take up residence at Waterbeach. During early September 1945 No. 59 Squadron would arrive followed within a few days by No. 220 Squadron, both flying the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Both these squadrons transferred from Coastal Command into the Transport Command and were used to ferry the many troops back and forth from India and the Far East. These operations would continue well into May (59 Sqn) and June (220 Sqn) 1946 whereupon both Squadrons were disbanded. The cessation of the units allowed for crews of the Squadrons to be transferred to a new unit and training on the Avro York aircraft, a model 59 Sqn would then use once reformed in 1947 at Abingdon. No. 220 Sqn would later reform flying the Shackleton, returning once more to Maritime Patrols from Kinloss in Scotland. Neither Squadron would return to Waterbeach, but whilst here, they would carry almost 19,000 troops across the world, a tremendous achievement indeed.

Whilst neither 59 nor 220 Squadrons would return, the Avro York would come to Waterbeach. In the August of 1946, No. 51 Squadron brought the C.1 York from Stradishall, continuing the India flights that both 59 and 220 had performed before her. Initially carrying freight, they the went on to carry passengers before departing themselves to Abingdon in December 1947.

RAF Waterbeach

Waterbeach seen through the fence.

The advanced party of 51 Sqn would arrive on the 16th, with the main party arriving on the 20th of August (1946). Flights would occur almost daily for the whole of August, flying to Palam (India) and back. In that month alone the Squadron would fly 1,435 hours of training flights, 355 of which were at night.

With a regular number of aircrew being posted to RAF Bourn amongst other airfields, the turnover of staff would be very high. Specific training was targeted at the long distance flights, many going to Cairo or Singapore, and many flying via RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire.

A year later, in mid November 1947, 242 Squadron joined the York group, crews gradually absorbing into 51 Sqn. Shortly after this however, notice came through that 51 Squadron was to move to Abingdon, along with the remnants of three other squadrons (242 included) to form a new long-range unit there.

After their departure, two more transport squadrons moved in to Waterbeach, taking a step backwards in terms of aircraft, both with that Second World War Veteran the  Dakota. No. 18 and 53 Squadrons stayed here, operating flights to and around the Middle East from December 1947 to early September 1948 (18 Sqn) and the end of July 1949 (53 Sqn).

With the Berlin Airlift demanding high levels of aircraft, 18 and 53 Sqns were soon ordered into the affray, and began carrying out flights under operation ‘Plainfare‘. After their withdrawal from the operations, 18 Sqn moved to Oakington for almost a year, during which time No. 24 Squadron moved into Waterbeach momentarily sharing the ramp with 53 Sqn. Yet another York unit, they also flew Avro’s Lancastrians and Dakotas, a role that involved them carry numerous dignitaries such as Field Marshall Lord Montgomery to various destinations around the globe. A short return of 18 Sqn meant that Waterbeach was again particularly busy with transport aircraft, and then for another short two month period it would get even busier.

During the New Year period, 1st December 1949 – 20th February 1950, No 206 Squadron appeared at Waterbeach, also reforming with that old favourite the C-47 Dakota. Using examples such as KN701, it was another squadron who had a long and distinguished history in Maritime patrol, eventually going on to return to this role also from Kinloss in Scotland.

Between the 25th February and the 29th February 1950, both No. 18 and 24 Squadrons departed Waterbeach, 18 Squadron disbanding and 24 Sqn moving to Oakington. During the move, the resident aircraft were disposed of, and the new Vickers Valletta was used in their place.

Quiet then reigned at Waterbeach for about three months. After which time Waterbeach took yet another turn of its page in the history books. With a combined flight of twenty-seven Meteors from both No. 56 and 63 Squadrons the silence was broken and the jet age had arrived. On May 10th 1950, the Meteors became the first major units of the RAF’s front line to be stationed at Waterbeach, two units that would remain here for a number of years operating several variants of the Meteor, Supermarine’s Swift and then the Hawker Hunter.

The initial variants of Meteor F.4 were replaced within two years by the F.8, during which time a number of accidents occurred – some incurring fatalities. Perhaps the worst blow came with the death of the Station Commander Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC when on 27th June 1951 his Meteor F.8 (WA953) rolled after take off crashing into the ground. Sqn. Ldr. Yeates was killed in the resultant crash and is buried in the local cemetery next to the airfield.

Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC

Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC killed on 27th June 1951.

Sqn. Ldr. Yeates’ death came at the end of a month that had seen four other aircraft damaged in landing accidents. These included two Station Flight Tiger Moths and two other Meteor F.8s, a decidedly bad month for the two squadrons.

A further landing accident brought home the dangers of jet aircraft on November 1st 1951, when Meteor WA940 of 63 Sqn collided with Meteor VZ497 of 56 Sqn after landing. The collision caused a fire in which both F/O. K Jones and Sgt. G Baldwin were both killed. As if through foresight, the personnel of 63 Sqn has noted on their arrival in 1950 that not only was the accommodation sub-standard but the hangarage and aircraft dispersals were insufficient for the needs of two squadrons. Highlighting the problems certainly didn’t prevent this tragedy from occurring. The terrible conflict of the Second World War may have been over, but casualties at Waterbeach would continue on for some time yet.

The work of 56 Sqn and 63 Sqn was carried out in cooperation with the US forces at nearby RAF Lakenheath, who at that  time were operating Boeing’s B-29 ‘Superfortress’ known for their devastating effect on Japan. These exercises, carried out over the skies of the UK,  were joint Anglo-American fighter affiliation exercises and included not only the B-29s but F-86 ‘Sabres’ as well.

As if history was to repeat itself, the bad weather that had brought disaster upon the bombers of the RAF’s Bomber Command on ‘Black Thursday‘ (RAF Bourn) ten years earlier also brought havoc to 56 Sqn on December 16th 1953.

With visibility down to a little as 100 yards on the Tuesday, Wednesday saw some improvements. With flying restricted to four aircraft per flight, it was going to be difficult. The Cathode Ray Direction Finding equipment (C.R.D.F.) was not working and so bearings needed to be obtained by VHF. Whilst the majority of aircraft were able to land using a Ground-Controlled Approach (G.C.A.) ‘A’ flight were not so lucky. Red Section were diverted to Duxford, but failed to achieve a landing. Being too low on fuel to continue on or try for a third time, the two aircraft climbed to 5,000 feet and the pilots, Flt/Lt. G. Hoppitt  and F/O. R. Rimmington ejected. Fuel gauges at the time were reading as little as 20 Gallons. Both aircraft came down near to each other, no damage was caused to public property and both pilots were unhurt. Yellow section, also diverted to Duxford, where they attempted G.C.A. landings also, but unable to do so, the section leader, F/O. N. Weerasinghe suffered a broken neck and fractured skull after he force landed in a field. The fourth pilot, F/O. Martin, broke his back in two places after ejecting at only 700 feet. A court of enquiry ruled that three of the pilots had difficulty in jettisoning their canopies, and F/O. Martin, even though he managed to succeed,  ejected at an all time low-level. It was well into the New Year before  F/O. Weerasinghe regained consciousness, and all four aircraft, WA769, WH510, WA930 and WH283 were written off.  In a light-hearted but perhaps tasteless ‘that’s how its done‘ demonstration, both Flt/Lt. Hoppitt  and F/O. Rimmington jumped off the bar at a Pilot’s party in the Bridge Hotel.*2

Over the next four years a number of other squadrons would arrive and depart Waterbeach. On 18th April 1955 a new night fighter squadron was formed, that of No. 253 Sqn. Operating the DH Venom NF.2A, an aircraft designed around the earlier Vampire, it was a short-lived squadron, disbanding on September 2nd 1957. 253’s reforming would however, see the beginnings of a string of Night Fighter Squadrons being stationed here at Waterbeach.

Almost simultaneously to the disbanding of 253 Sqn, was the arrival of a second Night Fighter squadron, the Meteor NF.14 of 153 Sqn from RAF West Malling absorbing the staff of the now disbanded 253 Sqn. Training crews on Meteors along with being on 24 hour standby, meant that flights were frequent, a regime that continued until July 2nd 1958 when 153 was disbanded being renumbered 25 Sqn. After having a short spell in the turmoil of the Middle East, they then began to prepare to upgrade to Gloster’s Delta wing fighter the Javelin in September. By December only a handful of aircraft had been received, but further training and upgrades saw the FAW.7 replaced by the FAW.9. Work was slow but by late 1959 the squadron was considered operational.  By the October 1961, 25 Sqn was posted north to Scotland and RAF Leuchars, where it received the FAW.7 back before being disbanded once more.

Gloster Javelin FAW.7 of No 25 Squadron RAF Waterbeach, showing its missile complement of De Havilland Firestreak infra-red homing air-to-air missiles. © IWM (RAF-T 2172)

During this time 56 Sqn who had been one of Waterbeach’s longest standing squadrons, departed to RAF Wattisham where it would receive the Lightning, the RAF’s high-speed interceptor that burnt fuel at an incredible rate of knots. No. 56 Sqn had whilst here at Waterbeach, used not only the Meteor but the Supermarine Swift (F.1 and F.2) and the Hunter F.5 and F.6. No. 63 Sqn, who also flew the Hunter F.6 was also disbanded at Waterbeach during this period (October 1958), and the loss of these Hunters would also see the end of the line for 63 Sqn RAF.

The last 5 years would see the last of the RAF’s involvement at Waterbeach. July 17th 1959 saw the arrival of No. 46 Sqn with Javelin FAW.6s. Disbanded in 1961 the nucleus would remain ferrying Javelins to the Far East. The November 1961, would then see two more squadrons arrive; No. 1 on the 7th and No. 54 on the 23rd.

Both these squadrons were Hunter FGA.9 Squadrons, both moving in from RAF Stradishall operating as Ground Attack squadrons. With successive  deployments to the Middle East, they were armed for operational flying patrolling the border along Aden.

By August 1963, both No.1 and No.54 Sqn were moved on, thus ending the RAF’s ‘front line’ flying involvement with Waterbeach. Whilst the military retained Waterbeach as an active airfield, the Royal Engineers as airfield construction and maintenance units used the site to  test numerous runway surfaces and construction methods. Testing of these surfaces used a wide variety of aircraft types, from small jets to large multi-engined aircraft such as the Hercules and BAC 111. A further ten years of intermittent flying activity ensured that the legacy of Waterbeach continued on. With various open days and flying events to raise much need money bringing crowds onto the airfield, Waterbeach’s life was extended yet further, but then in March 2013 the MOD finally pulled out, and the site has since been earmarked for development.

The post war era saw many gate guardians at Waterbeach. Spitfire Mk22 (PK664) was later moved to Binbrook, whilst the Hurricane MKIIc went to Bentley Priory. Another  Spitfire replaced both these examples, Mk XVIe (TE392) which was brought here in 1961 and remained here until 1966. A veteran of 63, 65, 126, 164, 595 and 695 Sqns, it eventually ended up in the United States flying with the Lone Star Flight Museum in Texas.

Other guardians include Westland Whirlwind HAR3  (XG577) of the Royal Air Force and a Hawker Hunter (WN904) which flew with 257 Squadron at RAF Wattisham. It was brought in to represent the Hunters, the last aircraft that flew from Waterbeach, and was present here until 2012. It was then moved to the Sywell Aviation Museum in Northampton.

Plans are already in the pipe-line to develop the 293-hectare site along with adjacent fields into a £2.5bn ‘Silicon Valley’ style township, complete with marina facilities and three schools. The barracks site alone will include 6,300 new homes with some original aspects such as the Watch Office utilised in the modern development.

At present the site is empty, entrance strictly controlled and by prior appointment only, the gate guarded by a private security firm. A fabulous museum exists in a managed building just inside the gate and can only be accessed by appointment. Whilst the site is gradually becoming overgrown, it is virtually intact, the main runway, hangars and ancillary buildings are all present. Local farmers store hay on the disused runways and an eerie silence blows across the parade ground.

Some views are possible from certain public advantage points but these are very limited and restrictive. The busy A10 allowing only occasional glimpses to the watch office and hangars, and side roads giving no more than fleeting glimpses through high fences and locked gates.

This once thriving airfield has finally met its match. The enormous hangars that once housed the heavy bombers of Bomber Command, the mighty B-24s of Transport Command and the fast jets of Fighter Command, now shells awaiting their fate. Once one of the RAF’s biggest and most important airfields, Waterbeach will soon been relegated to the history books, buried beneath the conglomeration of houses, schools and small technology businesses that thrive in today’s fast living world. Which buildings survive have yet to be finalised, the future of Waterbeach lays very much in the hands of the developer, and as a historical site of major aviation significance it is hoped that they look upon it sympathy and understanding, something that is often left out when it comes to development.

RAF Waterbeach appears in full in Trail 11 with Mepal and Witchford.

Sources and further reading.

*Aviation Trails – “The Development of Britain’s Airfields“.
*2 AIR 27/2620/1 – The National Archives
AIR 27/789/5 – The National Archives
AIR 27/792 – The National Archives
AIR 27/1977/2 – The National Archives
AIR 27/1978/11 – The National Archives

Grehan, J., & Mace. M. “Bomber Harris – Sir Arthur Harris’ Despatch on War Operations 1942-1945“, Pen & Sword. 2014

The museum website has details of opening times and access.

For details of the development of Waterbeach see the Cambridge News Live website, with links to the plans.

RAF Waterbeach – Birth of the Conversion Units (Part 1).

In Trail 11, we visit three airfields all within a stones throw of each other, and all situated around Britain’s third smallest city Ely, in Cambridgeshire. They were all once major airfields belonging to the RAF’s Bomber Command. Post war, two of the three went on to be major Cold War stations, one housing the Thor Missile, whilst the second housed the fast jets of the RAF’s front line of defence. It is this one we visit in the final part of this Trail. It is also one whose days are numbered, already closed and earmarked for development, the bulldozers are knocking at the door whilst the final plans are agreed and development can begin. But this development may not be the total clearing of the site it often is. With plans to integrate parts of this historical site into the development, it is aimed to create a living and working space that reflects it significant historical value. Today, in the final part of Trail 11, we visit the former station RAF Waterbeach.

RAF Waterbeach.

The land on which Waterbeach airfield stands has a history of its own, with royal connections going back as far as the 12th Century. Eventually divided up into farms, one of which, Winfold Farm, stood at the centre, the area would be developed into a long-term military base.

RAF Waterbeach would have a long career, one that extended well into the Cold War and beyond. It would be home to no less than twenty-two operational front line squadrons from both Bomber Command and Fighter Command, along with a further five Conversion Units. With only six of these units (3 front line and 3 Conversion Units) operating during the Second World War, the majority would be post-war squadrons, three being reformed here and eleven being disbanded here. This range of squadrons would bring with them a wide range of aircraft from Dakotas and Wellingtons through the four engined heavies the Stirling, Lancaster and B-24 Liberator, and onto the single and two seat jets, the Meteor, Hunter and Javelin, who would all grace the skies over this once famous airfield.

Originally identified as a possible site in the late 1930s, the land was purchased by the Government with development beginning in 1939. The farm at its centre was demolished and the surrounding fields dug up and prepared for the forthcoming heavy bombers of Bomber Command. As with many airfield developments, there was local opposition to the idea, partly as it occupied valuable Fen farmland with a farm at its centre.

In the early years of the war, it was found that heavy aircraft, bombers in particular, were struggling to use the grassed surfaces originally constructed on pre-war airfields. The rather ridiculous test of taxing a laden Whitley bomber across the site to test the ground’s strength would soon be obsolete, and so after much internal wrangling, hard runways were eventually agreed upon which would be built into all bomber and some fighter stations from that point forward*1.

As an airfield built at the end of the expansion period and into the beginning of the war, Waterbeach would be one of those stations whose runways were hard from the start; a concrete base covered with tarmac to the soon to be standard 2,000 and 1,400 yards in length. By the end of 1945, there would be 35 heavy bomber hardstands of the ‘frying pan’ style and a further three of the spectacle style, all supporting a wide range of aircraft types well into the cold war.

Waterbeach would develop into a major airfield, capable of housing in excess of 3,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender, dispersed as was now common, over seven sites to the south-eastern corner of the airfield. The bomb store was located well away to the north of the airfield, but surprisingly close to the main public road that passed alongside the western boundary of the site.

Being a bomber base, there would be a wide range of ancillary and support buildings, including initially, two J type hangars, followed by three T2s and a B1. The site was considered by its new occupants as ‘luxurious’ and compared to many other similar airfields of that time, it certainly was. This opinion was not formed however, when it opened on January 1st 1941, as it was in a state that was nowhere near completion. The official records show that along with Group Captain S. Park (Station Commander) were the Sqn. Ldr. for Admin  (Sqn. Ldr. F Carpenter), Station Adjutant (Flt. Lt. H. Daves) and Sqn. Ldr. J. Kains (Senior Medical Officer) who were joined  by various other administrative officers, Senior NCOs and 157 corporals and Airmen. They found the majority of buildings incomplete, the runways and dispersals still being built and the site generally very muddy. The cook house was ‘adequate’ for the needs of the few who were there, but the sergeants mess could not be occupied for at least another five to six weeks.

RAF Waterbeach 'J' Hangar

A ‘J’ Hangar seen from the public road at Waterbeach.

As occurred with many airfields at this time, the first personnel to arrive took up the task of completing many aspects of the outstanding work themselves, laying concrete, installing fixings and preparing accommodation blocks for the forthcoming arrivals.

During these early years of the Second World War, the Luftwaffe targeted Britain’s Fighter airfields as a way of smashing the RAF before the German planned invasion could take place. Whilst this policy failed, attacks on RAF airfields were continued, becoming more ‘nuisance’ attacks or small raids, in which airfields beyond the reaches of Kent and London were also targeted. Waterbeach itself was subjected to these nuisance attacks on two occasions between the New Year December 1940 and February 1941. During these, some minor damage was done to the site (hangars, aprons and a runway) and there was one fatality.

These early days of 1941 would be a busy time for the personnel at Waterbeach, further attacks intermixed with flying activities kept them alert and on their feet. Being a large base, its runways would become safe havens for crippled or lost aircraft desperately trying to find a suitable site on which to put down. A number of aircraft used Waterbeach for such an activity, primarily Whitleys and Wellingtons, many being damaged and unable to reach their home bases further north in Yorkshire.

With changes in airfield command taking place a month after its opening, the first units to arrive were the Wellingtons of No. 99 Squadron RAF, in a move that was delayed by a further month in part due to the late completion of the construction work and also because of yet another nuisance attack by the Luftwaffe.

Whilst 99 Sqn were preparing to transfer to Waterbeach, operations would continue from their base at Newmarket Heath, bombing raids that took the Wellingtons to Breman, Gelsenkirchen, Dusseldorf, Duisburg and Cologne.

Once arriving here at Waterbeach, they found early missions, on both the 1st and 2nd of April 1941, being cancelled due to poor weather – training would therefore be the order of the day. The 3rd however, would be very different.  With revised orders coming through in the morning, thirteen aircraft would be required to attack the Battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau located in Brest harbour.

Whilst one of the aircraft allocated was forced to land at RAF St Eval in Cornwall due to icing, the remainder flew on completing the raid which was considered a “great success”. One crew, led by P/O. Dixon, carried out particularly daring diving attacks scoring direct hits on one of the two ships in question. Whilst no other hits were recorded by the Wellingtons, many bombs fell very close to the targets and it was thought some may have even struck one of the two ships.

With the squadron being stood down on the 5th April, there would be a return to flying on the 6th, with ten aircraft being allocated to a maximum effort mission returning to Brest and the two German ships. Taking off at 20:17, ten aircraft flew directly to the harbour and carried out their attacks, whilst a ‘freshman’ crew flew a diversionary mission elsewhere. Although all but one aircraft returned safely to base, one aircraft did have problems when its 4,000lb bomb fell off the mounts prematurely.

Flying the MK.I, MK.IC and MK.II Wellington, 99 Sqn would carry out further operations to Germany, and on one of these sorties on the night of April 9th/10th, eight aircraft were assigned to Berlin, two to Breman and a further two to Emden. One Wellington, R1440, piloted by P/O. Thomas Fairhurst (s/n 85673) crashed in the Ijsselmer near Vegesack, whilst the second, R3199 disappeared without trace after making a distress call. On the 30th, the Air Ministry informed Waterbeach that POW cards had been received from a German prison camp from four of the crew: S/L. D. Torrens, P/O. P. Goodwin, Sgt. A. Smith and Sgt. E. Berry. The remaining two crewmen were also taken prisoner but this was not confirmed until much later.

April was a difficult month for 99 Sqn, operations called for in the morning were often cancelled by the evening, those that went ahead were made more difficult by poor weather over the target area. Two positive events occurring during April did bring good news to the crews however. On the 15th, the King approved an award of the DFC to P/O. Michael Dixon (s/n: 86390) for his action in attacking the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau earlier on, and on the 22nd, the Inspector General of the RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt visited the station where he inspected various sections of the squadron, met the crews and discussed some of their recent operations with them. A nice end to what had been a difficult start at Waterbeach.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Bomber Command, sitting in his office at Headquarters Bomber Command, High Wycombe. © IWM (C 1013)

Throughout the summer months 99 Sqn would continue operations into Germany along with further attacks on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau docked at Brest. With further loses on May 5/6, May 8/9, June 11/12 , and June 21st with the loss of X9643 two miles from the airfield, losses would be relatively low. In a freak accident X9643 would be lost with all of her crew when the dingy became dislodged and fouled the elevators causing the aircraft to crash and burst in to flames.

Corporal C. P. Eva

Corporal C. P. Eva, killed 21st June 1941 when the dingy in his aircraft fouled the elevators.

The latter months of 1941 would see two conversion flights formed at Waterbeach. Designed to train crews on the new four engined bombers, the Stirling and latterly the Lancaster, 26 Conversion Flight was formed out of ‘C’ flight of 7 Sqn on 5th October with 106 Conversion Flight joining them in December. Both units flew the Stirling bomber and were amalgamated in January 1942 to form 1651 Conversion Unit (CU) (later 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU)). Flying a mix of Stirlings and later Lancasters, they also used a Beaufighter, Spitfire, Tiger Moth and Airspeed Oxford. 1651 CU were one of only three Conversion Units set up in early 1942, with 1651 being the only Stirling unit at this point; the other two units flying with the Halifax or Liberator aircraft.

By the end of 1941, 99 Sqn would suffer thirty-four aircraft lost (2 in non-operational accidents), with many of the crewmen being killed. Whilst these were tragic losses, they were nevertheless ‘in line’ with the majority of all 3 Group operational units of that year. In early 1942 the squadron was sent overseas to India, a move that coincided with the new arrivals at RAF Waterbeach of No. 215 Sqn.

215 Sqn were going through a process of reorganisation and transfer. On 21st February 1942, the air echelon formed at Waterbeach whilst the ground echelons were already on route to India from Stradishall. With more Wellington ICs, they would also depart for India a month later, where they would stay for the remainder of the war. Being only a brief stay, their departure left Waterbeach with only 1651 Conversion Unit and its associated units in situ.

Being a conversion unit, 1651’s aircraft were worn and often unserviceable, and in February 1942, they could only muster five flight worthy aircraft. As the need for more bomber crews grew, so too did the number of aircraft supplied to the Conversion Units, and as a result the number of crews undertaking training also grew. To help meet this demand, another new squadron was formed within 1651 CU in the April, that of 214 Squadron Conversion Flight. Another Flight was also formed at Alconbury and moved to join these two units, No. 15 Squadron Conversion Flight. The idea behind this unit was to provide aircrews with operational experience, an experience many would find hard to deal with.

In Part 2 we see how the Conversion Units were sent into battle, how they coped with the rigours of the aerial war over occupied Europe and then the change from Stirlings to the Lancaster.

 

RAF Hardwick – Ted’s Travelling Circus. (Part 1).

There are many good museums across the country that tell the stories of heroism and sacrifice witnessed during the Second World War. In Norfolk, most reflect the lives of the ‘friendly invasion’ the lives of the US armed forces and in particular the USAAF, who flocked here in their thousands to a life that was new and very dangerous.

One such group, the 93rd BG, achieved many records and fought in many theatres, but their road was not easy nor was it any ‘milk run’.

In this trail, we return to Norfolk, revisiting the lives of those who served at the former US station 104, otherwise known as RAF Hardwick.

RAF Hardwick (Station 104)

Hardwick is a difficult place to find, primarily due to the narrow lanes and the fact that the name given to it is not the closest village! In fact, Alburgh is closer, but once found this delightful place has a lot to offer to the visitor.

Opening in September 1942, the first units to arrive were B-25 Mitchells of the 310th BG of the Eighth Air Force. Its three runways of concrete and tarmac construction, one of 2,000 yards and two of 1,400 yards, were laid out in the classic Class A style. The entire site covered an enormous area, housing eleven ‘spectacle’ (double loop) and fifty ‘frying pan’ type hardstands, it had three T2 hangars, a watch office (to design 518/40 later modified to 5966/43) and a wide range of support and ancillary buildings common to  all Class A airfields. Being a bomber base, it would require two enormous fuel stores holding a combined total of 144,000 imp Gallons of fuel.

The airfield’s construction process commenced in late 1941 with the main infrastructure being built by John Laing & Son Ltd. Completion was achieved in the autumn of 1942, when the site was officially opened. The construction process would lead to a site capable of  holding around 3,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender. There would be six male sites, two female, two communal quarters and a sick quarters, and as was common with all airfields built after the start of the war, the main public road dissected the airfield separating it from the dispersed accommodation blocks. As a result, the accommodation was to the east beyond the technical area with the bomb dump far to the north-west. Accommodation for the personnel was primarily through ‘Laing’ or ‘Nissen’ hutting, with a small number of Boulton & Paul style huts, none of which offered a great deal of protection from the cold outside.

Handed over to the US forces in 1942, the ground echelons of the 310th BG arrived by sea during the September, with the air echelons bringing their B-25 ‘Mitchells’ via the northern route during early October. The 310th were lucky enough to avoid the seasonal weather change that caused so many problems for units flying across the northern route in the winter months that followed.

Brought to the UK to train crews before they were shipped out to North Africa, the new twin-engined bomber crews would very soon leave Hardwick behind, receiving their posting and transferring abroad in three stages during November and on into December.

RAF Hardwick Memorial

Memorial to the 93rd BG (328th 329th 330th and 409th BS) RAF Hardwick.

Hardwick would take on a very different sound after that, the B-25s being replaced by the heavy four-engined B-24s of the 93rd BG. The 93rd were already a battle experienced outfit, having flown a number of missions from Alconbury since the 9th October 1942 – the day the B-24 Liberator entered into the war.

Many of the early missions performed by the 93rd would be attacks on the submarine pens along the French coast, a move discussed at great length between the two US Generals, Spaatz and Arnold. The poor successes of these missions, which were designed to support the war in the Atlantic, were borne out in an Eighth Air Force study later on. In the report, published on 8th December, it was summarised that American bombs at that time were incapable of penetrating the thick ceilings of the U-boat pens, and that little damage was being achieved by the current US bombing strategy. As a result of this, attacks soon curtailed and operations moved to other targets.

Preceding the move of the 93rd to Hardwick was the posting of a large detachment to North Africa on December 5th. It was a detachment that would see the men and machines of the Eighth transfer across to the Twelfth Air Force. It was a move that was often complained about, seen as draining valuable resources and hindering the training and future operations of the Eighth Air Force in Europe.

Those who remained in the UK began transferring over to the 2nd Bombardment Wing and a new airfield here at Hardwick, where they were trained for ‘special duties’. Gaps in the 329th Bomb Squadron (BS) were filled with crews from the other 3 squadrons of the Group (328th, 330th, 409th) and were moved to a satellite airfield at Bungay. Here, the aircraft were fitted with the British ‘Gee’ system and crews trained on its use. By December they were ready, and ‘Moling‘ mission could now begin.

Unfortunately, the weather played a major part in the operational downfall of these missions, with insufficient amounts of bad weather being found to allow Gee to be used properly. Much to the surprise of the Americans, it didn’t always rain in England!

With the other three squadrons away in North Africa, the 329th joined forces with its sister group the 44th BG at Shipdham. Here they waited in earnest for the return of their associate squadrons.

Gas Training Room.

The gas training room, one of the few remaining buildings at Hardwick.

However, it was not a harmonious relationship. With the squadrons placed in North Africa getting considerable press coverage for their successes, and the B-17 groups being regular features in the UK, the 44th were understandably aggrieved, feeling that the press were ignoring the immense effort and losses they were incurring. The cold of high altitude bombing over occupied Europe was, it would seem, little match for the delights of North Africa.

In the following February / March 1943 the four squadrons were reunited for the first time, and they returned to Hardwick. Here they would fly bombing mission to targets in France and the low countries. In the April, Hardwick was visited by both Lord Trenchard and, ten days later, by Lieutenant General Frank Andrews,  two high-ranking officials who would bring prestige and pride to the men and women of Hardwick. It was Andrews who would be so tragically killed flying across the Northern Atlantic route later on. He along with the crew of B-24 #41-23728 ‘Hot Stuff‘, the first Hardwick crew to achieve their mission quota, would die in a crash that left just one survivor, the tail gunner. The name Andrews would live on though, his name being given to the airfield in Essex, RAF Andrews Field in memory of his work.

The summer of 1943 saw a further detachment being sent out again to North Africa. Here they would earn themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (one of two), for the low-level action over the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. Further moves and detachments between Hardwick and mainly North Africa earned the unit the name ‘Ted’s Travelling Circus’, Ted being Colonel Ted Timberlake, the Group’s Commander.

During this early period of the war the Liberator groups had little in the way of operational ‘clout’ over France and Germany. With the larger operations being handled by the established B-17 Groups, the B-24s were often relegated to Air Sea Rescue missions where they would search for downed aircraft particularity over the North Sea.

By early September 1943 the bulk of the 93rd were back once more at Hardwick, small in numbers they were often overlooked for the more popular B-17s. Looked down upon by the crews of the B-17s who openly criticised the ungainly lines of the Liberator with names such as ‘banana boat’, only led in turn to jeers from B-24 crews who highlighted the short-range and lower bomb load carried by the sleeker B-17.

This short-range was a factor borne out on the 93rd’s first mission back in the UK when on the 6th September, sixty-nine B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division (BD)  were sent along with 338 B-17s of the 1st and 3rd BDs to attack Stuttgart. A disaster from start to finish, heavy cloud prevented the target being bombed, formations were separated and targets of opportunity were then chosen. With the formations broken up, defensive power was lost and the Luftwaffe made easy pickings of those aircraft left out alone. Forty-five of the B-17s were lost compared to none of the B-24s, many B-17s having to ditch in the sea or crash-land in Kent after running out of fuel.  Of the sixty-nine B-24s flown out, none dropped their bombs but all four groups returned to their respective bases safely.

For the remainder of September, the Liberators of the 2nd BD were ordered to carry out ‘STARKEY‘ operations, beginning on the 9th to airfields in France and particularly  St. Omer. With few bombs being dropped it was a poor mission and one that was followed on the 15th September by similar results at Chatres. This would be the last mission for the B-24s of the 93rd before yet another posting to North Africa in a move that left the crews both astonished and in total disbelief. During this mission on the 15th, ten airmen would be lost with at least three having been known to have been killed. All ten were from the 330th BS, a sad end to a poor series of missions.

Returning again in early October, the 93rd of Hardwick would join the recently formed 392nd at Wendling for a mission  to Vegesack, a northern district of Bremen. With heavy cloud cover, alternative targets of opportunity were chosen, with little damage being done to Vegesack itself.

The poor weather continued for much of October, preventing the Liberators flying in anything but training flights. The 93rd were able to launch a diversionary raid for the B-17s ill-fated attack on Schweinfurt on October 14th, the majority of the sixty B-24s allocated for the raid failing to even get airborne. After abandoning the mission those that had managed to get aloft headed for Emden in an aim to draw fighters away from the main body of the Schweinfurt  raid. It was hoped that this move would reduce the mauling that would occur from this deep, unprotected penetration mission.

B-24D Liberator #41-23722 ‘Boomerang‘ (GO-C) of the 328th BS, 93rd BG at Hardwick. This was the first Eighth AF Liberator to complete 50 missions. After completing 53 missions, it was flown back to the US for a War Bond tour.

With further diversionary raids on the 29th, attacks on Wilhelmshaven on the 3rd November, Munster on the 5th and Bremen the 13th; the 93rd would then turn to Norway and targets at Rjukan. An ineffectual raid, it preceded further runs back into Germany. December and the approaching Christmas would see no let up for the men of the 93rd and Hardwick, mission numbers being so high that on the 16th, B-24D #41-23722 ‘Boomerang‘ became the first Liberator of the Eighth to pass the fifty missions mark. Three mission later she would depart the UK for American shores where she would perform a war bond tour raising much-needed money for the war effort.

Five days before Christmas, December 20th 1943, would see a return trip to Bremen. Two more aircraft would be lost on this mission. The first, B-24 #42-40133 of 328th BS piloted by Captain Cleveland Hickman (s/n: 0-727870) was shot down by Lt Kard-Heinz Kapp of JG 27/5 in Bf 109G-6 with the loss of all nine men on board. The second, #42-63963 ‘Unexpected II‘ of the 329th BS collided in midair with P-47D #42-8677 and crashed into North Sea north of Den Helder, Netherlands. All nine from ‘Unexpected II’ were captured and became prisoners of war.

Two days later, T/Sgt.John Tkachuk 329th BS died of anoxia after his foot was caught between a bomb and the bomb rack. The ‘walk around bottle’ he was carrying running out of oxygen before he could be given assistance. 1943 would draw to a close with a very sad overtone.

In Part 2, we see how 1944 arrives and how the closing stages of the war produced some remarkable records for the 93rd BG. We find out what happened to Hardwick and see the museum that has emerged to remember those who served from this airfield in the heart of Norfolk.

RAF Old Buckenham – the home of film stars!

In the second part of Trail 13 we leave Tibenham behind and head to another still active airfield. Like Tibenham, the heavy bombers have all gone, replaced by small single engined aircraft, and also like Tibenham, much of the site has likewise disappeared. However, the history of this airfield remains very much alive, through fly-ins, displays and events that all remind us about those difficult days of the late 1940s.

Synonymous with film starts such as James Stewart and Walter Matthau, this airfield lives on and is thriving. Showcasing a range of facilities it is a delightful little airfield and one that keeps the spirit of flying very much alive. From Tibenham we head only a few miles north-west, where we find the former US airfield Old Buckenham.

RAF Old Buckenham (Station 144)

Old Buckenham is an airfield with a rather grand name. It was a short-lived airfield, purposely built for the USAAF late on in the Second World War. It only ever housed one group, a group that was itself a late joiner. It was initially a rather unpleasant place to be, mud and rain being the airmen’s worst enemy. But as the war progressed it became more hospitable, more lively and more inspiring. Whilst the group was never considered a major player in the war, it did achieve some remarkable results, the group going on to set some extraordinary bomber records.

Opened as a bomber airfield in 1943, it was built under the class ‘A’ specification, with three intersecting concrete and woodchip runways (1 x 2,000 and 2 x 1,400 yds) each 50 yards wide. It had fifty hardstands of the spectacle style, two T2 hangars (four were allocated initially) and a standard 1941 design watch tower (12779/41).

‘Old Buck’ as it became known, was exclusively the home to the American 453rd Bomb Group, operating a range of versions of the enormous B-24 Liberator, initially under the command of Col. Joseph A Miller.

Consisting of the standard four Bomb Squadrons: 732nd (squadron code E3), 733rd (F8), 734th (E8) and 735th (H6), the group was constituted on the 14th May 1943 and activated on 1st June that same year. It then came into physical being on June 29th, taking its officers and enlisted men from the 29th BG (H), who, under Special Order No. 180, transferred fifty-five Officers and 231 enlisted men to the 453rd. Of these, twelve officers were sent to the 732nd, twelve to the 733rd, eleven to the 734th and another twelve to the 735th. Each of the squadrons also received fifty-five enlisted men, the remainder of the workforce going to the Group’s headquarters.

Even before leaving the United States, the 453rd would suffer casualties. Its first loss was B-24E #41-29032 piloted by 2nd Lt. David MacGowan (735thBS), which crashed into a hillside near to Du Bois, Wyoming whilst on a photographic and training exercise. The accident, on August 14th 1943, resulted in the loss of all eleven crewmen on board. It was perhaps, a sign of things to come.

After passing through a number of training sites in the United States: Wendover Field, Pocatello, Idaho and March Field, the ground echelons sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on the Queen Elizabeth to England. They  arrived at Old Buckenham at the end of December into what would prove to be a cold and very unpleasant winter. Considerable rain and snow had turned Old Buckenham into a mud bath. Colds and flu spread like wildfire through the ranks, and overshoes had to be issued to help against the unending sludge.

The air echelons would fly the southern route with the first leaving in early January. On the very day of departure another aircraft was lost  – two crews were now gone before the group had even reached the U.K.

The air echelons arrived throughout January and into February, organising themselves and preparing their ‘H’ model Liberators for the forthcoming battle. When possible, they undertook training flights over the English countryside, received ground instruction and took further role specific training. They began carrying out mock missions including on the 4th, a simulated mission which turned very sour for one particular crew.

Liberator #41-28641, ‘Cee Gee‘ (referred to in some references as ‘Chee Chee‘) piloted by 2nd Lt. John R. Turner, became lost and it would seem, damaged by flak. Forced down onto an enemy airfield, it was repaired by the Germans and put back into service as A3 + KB by KG 200. The aircraft was intended to be used to ferry supplies to the island of Rhodes, and was recaptured by advancing American forces in May 1945. This was the first Luftwaffe captured Liberator and only the second to be put into service with German markings.

S/Sgt J. T. Sipkovsky, inspects B-24H #41-28641 [A5+KB] of KG200  ex 453BG /732BS, left at Salsburg by retreating German forces. (WM UPL 23019)

The next day, February 5th 1944, the Union Jack was officially lowered at Old Buckenham when, with much pomp and ceremony, Sqn. Ldr. L. Archer handed over the keys of the airfield to Col. Miller. Station 144 was now officially open for business.

There would be no break nor celebratory parties for the new Group though. On that same day, the 453rd were to take part in their first mission, a bombing raid to Tours in France.

Tours had been the focus of the invading Germans in the early part of the war. Heavily bombed with incendiaries, it was quickly turned into a fortress housing military camps  with strong fortifications. The allies then made it a focus for their air bombardments, but on this occasion, the weather would be the winner with heavy cloud causing many problems over the Continent. With the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bomb Divisions in action that day, many would drop bombs on alternative targets, reform on other divisions or return home without bombing at all.

On the 6th February, the 453rd were back in action again, and again the horrors of war would be seen at Old Buckenham, when B-24 #42-52178 ‘Little Agnes‘ crashed after take off.  After lifting off the runway, the aircraft lost power, stalled and hit the runway hard sliding along on its belly into a ditch at the end of the threshold. The aircraft then broke up, at which point one of the ten 500lb bombs exploded setting off a chain reaction that led to a fireball. Mechanical failure of the #1 and #4 engines was blamed that day when eight of the ten crew on-board were killed when the aircraft came down.

For the remainder of February, including ‘Big Week’,  the 453rd would carry out further missions to both France, Holland and also Germany. These included: Siracourt (13th & 15th); Brunswick (20th), the airfield at Achmer (21st) and the Me-110 aircraft assembly plant at Gotha (22nd & 24th). Known for its high casualties, the 453rd managed to lose only one aircraft on the two missions it carried out to Gotha, a remarkable escape considering the ferocity of the battle, and the loss of thirty-three from other groups. It was also during this mission that sixteen aircraft would come down in Switzerland, the highest number of any mission of the war.

RAF Old Buckenham

The Blister Hangar at Old Buckenham.

During March 1944, several major events would occur at Old Buckenham. Firstly, on the 6th, B-24H #42-64469 “El Flako” of the 732nd BS, whilst only on her third mission, would accidentally drop her bomb load just 3 miles from the airfield. Thankfully there were no injuries apart from a very large dent in the pride of the crew on board. Red faces aside, this mission, the USAAF’s first daylight attack on Berlin, would not be an easy ride for the 453rd.

Of the twenty-four aircraft sent out, four would fail to return, two over the target and two ditching in the channel. A fifth, piloted by Lt. Richard Holman, was badly damaged with two engines put out of action whilst over the target area. Determined to get back home, Lt. Holman dropped down to the cloud base where he was pursued by a number of FW-190s. With only two turrets operating, the crew managed to fight off the attackers, shooting down almost half of them in the process. After passing through a flak zone in Amsterdam they continued on, Lt. Holman putting the Liberator through some of the most incredible and violent turns possible, until they reached the Channel. With fuel and ammunition now critically short, the crew threw out anything and everything, in a desperate attempt to lighten the load of the failing bomber. Eventually, and only by the skill and determination of the crew, the aircraft arrived back safely at Old Buckingham. Many prayers and thanks were said on that particular day.

Then on the 18th, B-24H #41-28649, ‘Little Bryan‘, was hit by flak over Friedrichshafen, a target located close to the border with Switzerland on the banks of Lake Constance. Whilst the weather was near perfect, the target was covered with a thick smoke screen, preventing accurate visual bombing taking place. Heavy flak and fighter activity made things even worse for the bombers of the mighty Eighth.

Badly damaged, ‘Little Bryan‘ managed to continue flying but was losing fuel fast. As a result it would not make it home. On board ‘Little Bryan‘ that day was the Group’s Commanding Officer, Colonel Joseph A. Miller, along with the Group’s Navigator, Capt. Joseph O’Reilly. The aircraft crashed west of Vernon after the crew had baled out. Of the crew, ten were captured and taken prisoner, the last crewman escaping to fight another day. With the loss of a second aircraft along with three of its crew, March 18th would be a heartbreaking day for the 453rd.

The following day, Col. Ramsey Potts Jnr assumed command at Old Buckenham, a veteran of thirty-two missions he was one of the most decorated officers in the European Theatre, having been on both the Polesti and Rome bombing raids. He remained with the 453rd until mid 1944.

It was also at this time, (March 30th) that Major James “Jimmy” Stewart became the Group’s Operations Officer, Stewart who led the 733rd BS for 11 missions, went on to become a famous actor. He was promoted after the loss of Major Colfield earlier on, on February 16th.

RAF Old Buckenham

The mobile ‘control tower’ at Old Buckenham

April would see further losses for the group, but May would prove to be the worst so far. On the 8th, seven out of thirty-two aircraft would fail to return to Old Buckenham: #41-28650, #41-29571, #42-52180, #42-52185, #42-64453, #42-64464 and #42-110076, all being lost at Brunswick, a target gaining in its notoriety.

Following a move of the ground echelons on April 11th to form a new squadron at North Pickenham, the remaining staff were reshuffled to fill the gaps left behind. A small interruption to the continuing missions over Germany.

The 13th of April saw the first mission undertaken by Major Stewart, an operation that took 274 B-24s to various targets including the Dornier parts factory near Munich. The results that day were considered ‘good’.

For much of April the routine was the same, missions to France and Germany. After three months of being at Old Buckenham, the 453rd were now settling in well, improvements had been made to the living areas, more concrete had been laid to reduce the mud, and the cinema was now showing regular films. Other recreational areas were developed and morale was rising.

Throughout the conflict the 453rd would attack prestige targets: the fuel dump at Dulmen, marshalling yards, Hamm rail centres, Gelsenkirchen oil refineries, along with numerous airfields, canals and viaducts.

May would see yet another return to the dreaded Brunswick, and for the 453rd it would be another high loss mission. Using a mix of general purpose bombs and incendiaries, 307 B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division joined aircraft from the 1st and 3rd Bomb Divisions in attacking it, and other major cities across Germany. On this day, ten aircraft would fail to return to base with eight being lost as the 453rd led the large formations into the target area. In the lead plane was Capt. Andy Low, who for his exemplary leadership, later received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Bombing through 10/10 cloud using Pathfinder equipment, the group was attacked by around 200 enemy fighters, an attack that led to the area being known to the crews as ‘fighter-alley’.

RAF Old Buckenham

Part of the runway is now used as the taxiway.

By now, with mission counts mounting, crews were beginning to finish their tours of duty, the first full crew to do so, being the crew of Lt. Ward on May 31st, 1944.

Keeping morale up whilst the young men were away from home was always a challenge. Whilst undertaking training back in the States, a band was formed, a band that managed to reform itself finding space for rehearsals at Old Buckenham. The ‘GI’vers’ became one of the most successful forces bands in England, performing at dances both at Old Buckenham and at other US bases in the East Anglia area.

The morning of D-Day 6th June, brought early dawn action from the 453rd. Military sites between Le Harve and Cherbourg were targets for the day. The shore line batteries and any targets of opportunity, railways, troop concentrations and road junctions, were now well and truly in the sights of the bombers. So determined to play their part were the 453rd, that they flew four complete missions on that one day, unheard of in many Air Force heavy bomber Squadrons. For the next ten days Old Buckenham would be extremely busy, with missions being flown on all but one day, until the weather eventually brought an enforced break on the 16th.

As the war progressed the Old Buckenham group would go on to support many ground battles, including the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 – 45. A winter that would begin with the first crew loss through anoxia, when S/Sgt. Frank Mayar failed to respond to medical aid after his oxygen mask froze.

The 26th November 1944, would see tragedy strike home again for the 453rd. Mission 182 for the Old Buckenham Group, saw 350 B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division and 381 B-17s of the 3rd Bomb Division attack targets in Germany. One of these targets included the railway viaduct at Bielefeld, a viaduct that became almost illusive until later destroyed by 617 (Dambusters) Sqn of the RAF.

The Bielefeld Viaduct after the dropping of the RAF’s ‘Grand Slam’. The ground bears the scars of continuous and heavy attacks (National Archives)

During take off for the mission, Capt. Ray Conard, the mission leader, failed to gain height. In a desperate attempt to avoid nearby housing, Capt. Conard jettisoned his bombs and, it is believed, deliberately crashed his aircraft away from them, thus saving the lives of those people living inside. For his actions, Capt. Conard, aged just 25, was recommended for the DSC Posthumously.

Christmas brought a much happier cheer to the Old Buckenham crews. Permission was granted to fly a plane load of toys to Paris to deliver them to French children. Locals brought as many as they could muster to the airfield and handed them over to the Americans. After slipping off the runway, ‘Liberty Run‘ eventually made it off the ground delivering the toys just in time for Christmas day.

The notorious winter weather of 1944 would claim yet another victim before the year was out. On December 27th 1944, #42-50898 failed to rise more than a few feet after taking off from a salted and slippery runway at Old Buckenham. Lt. Roscoe Brown was heard to say, “I cannot keep her up, we have had it”, just before the aircraft slammed into the ground. In the ensuing crash, the aircraft broke up and burst into flames, the fire setting off bullets and causing the bombs to explode. There was considerable ice that day, the runway and aircraft’s pitot tube later being found to have been iced up, adding to the already difficult flying conditions. As a pathfinder, it came as a terrible blow to the 453rd whose mission that day was subsequently scrubbed. Only four of Lt. Brown’s crew managed to escape the inferno that followed – it was a sad end to 1944.

The new year started as the old had finished, with more aircraft slipping on ice and crashing into parked aircraft. After further lives were lost and sliding incidents increased, the Group’s Commanding Officer Col. Thomas, called a halt to the proceedings and another mission was also scrubbed. Those that had got off the ground continued on, joining other groups in bombing their target – the Ramagen Bridge.

Crumpled tail of B-24 #42-51865 1st January 45 Old Buckenham. Eventually after numerous crashes and aircraft sliding on ice, the mission was scrubbed. (IWM FRE 1863)

With more attacks on Germany, January would become the month when the 453rd would set a record for the most missions flown (200) by any Liberator Group in a short space of time. A record they would be proud of and celebrate at reunions for years after.

As the war drew to a close, more missions would take the group into the very heart of Germany.  Even though the war was nearly over, accidents continued to occur and aircraft continued to be lost. The last mission for the 453rd took place on March 31st 1945, bombing the rail junction at Amberg. Thankfully all aircraft sent out that day came home. With the decrease in bombing sorties the Group’s focus began to change, recreational activities taking over where flying had been lost.

The final orders to stand-down finally came through on the 12th April 1945, and with it the end of 259 missions, in which 15,800 tons of bombs had been dropped. Of the original sixty-one aircraft sent over with the 453rd, only one was left, ‘Male Call‘, a B-24 veteran of ninety-five missions.

Elsewhere, the 453rd had ten aircraft that had completed 100 or more missions, the highest being that of 120  – “My Babs” of the 733rd Bomb Squadron. Even though they had lost almost all the original aircraft, they had set another record of 82 consecutive  missions without loss; a remarkable achievement considering the losses sustained by other heavy bomber groups in the European Theatre.

In mid April the group received orders to depart European shores for home. The group had been earmarked for a role in the Pacific, but ‘R & R’ was the order of the day and even though ground crews prepared the aircraft for combat, the US was firmly on the minds of all. On the 13th May the USS Hermitage set sail for the States, and Old Buckenham fell silent as the last few men departed closing the gates behind them.

Post-war, the airfield returned to RAF ownership seeing a few aircraft from other units being placed here, but no other major service or operators. Eventually in 1960, the RAF disposed of the site and it returned primarily to agriculture. Flying does continue today though, as Old Buckenham hosts fly-ins, displays and has a thriving aero club on part of the remains of the east-west runway.

As the site is an active airfield, access to any parts other than the public areas is very limited and so there is little to see from those dark days of the 1940s. The runways do remain as small roads for local tractor access, and one small part of the east-west runways is used for light flying. A further section of the north-west/south-east runway also exists as a taxiway to access the main runway. An original blister hangar is also on site along with a Nissen hut that now houses a museum.

RAF Old Buckenham

RAF Old Buckenham, memorial to those who served.

There is a varied collection of military hardware, mainly field guns, located on the site. A further ‘famous’ attraction is the T-55 Tank used in the James Bond film ‘Golden Eye’ which greets you as you arrive. A small, well cared for memorial in the shape of a Liberator tail-fin is dedicated to those 366 crew members and staff of the 453rd BG who lost their lives, and a cafe, aptly entitled “Jimmy’s“, provides refreshments for the visitor.

A delightful place to spend a warm Sunday afternoon watching light aircraft and contemplating what life was like at Old Buckenham as the roar of B-24s filled the air over 70 years ago.

RAF Old Buckenham

The T-55 tank used in the film ‘Golden Eye’

Post script

Some rare photographs taken at Old Buckenham were found following an auction in Montana, in a box of old photographic supplies. The story was reported in the ‘Eastern Daily Press‘ on December 18th 2013.

A museum to honour the men of the 453rd BG has since opened at Old Buckenham. Their website gives details of the collection and opening times.

RAF East Wretham – Home to the Czechs of Bomber Command (P1)

Hidden in the depths of Thetford Forest not far from the two major US Air bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath, is a former airfield that has received a new lease of life as an Army training facility. Once home to Bomber Command’s only Czechoslovakian Squadron, it was also home to Canadians and other Commonwealth nationals. After their final departure, it became the home of an American Fighter unit meaning its history is both diverse and multinational.

In Trail 13, we stop off at the former Station 133, more widely known as RAF East Wretham.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133)

Originally built in the early part of the Second World War and opened in March 1940, East Wretham was primarily designed as a satellite airfield for nearby RAF Honington.  Being a satellite the airfield’s facilities would be basic, accommodation rudimentary and technical facilities limited. It would however, be developed as the war progressed and as its use increased. The main runway for example, (running north-east to south-west) was initially grass but with the arrival of the USAAF it would be covered with Pierced Steel Planking (PSP), designed to strengthen the surfaces and thus prevent aircraft digging into the soil.

East Wretham would also have a range of hangars. In addition to the standard two ‘T2’ hangars, it would have a canvas Bessoneau hangar, (more generally linked to the First World and inter-war years),  and an additional four Blister hangars (9392/42) all believed to be double ‘extra over’ blister hangars each 69 ft wide in the singular design.

The watch office at East Wretham was another unusual design. Built to drawing 15498/40, it was originally a single storey room built on concrete pillars with a flat roof. It was then modified later on in the war to include an overhanging observation room, with the extension being mounted on metal pillars. This new extension had considerably more glazing than the original structure, and was more in keeping with the building style of other wartime airfields. These extra windows gave a much better view across the entire airfield, especially useful as the office was unusually located along the perimeter fence well behind the technical area of the airfield!

The Control Tower of the 359th Fighter Group at East Wretham. Caption on reverse: 'Caption on reverse: '359th FG Photos Source: T.P. Smith via Char Baldridge, Historian Description: #13 Control Tower at Station F-133, East Wretham, England.'

The unusual design of the Watch Office can clearly be seen in this photograph*1. (IWM)

Originally there were only 27 ‘frying pan’ style concrete hardstands, each one being located at various points around the perimeter track, all in groups of three or four. These were then added to later on, again using steel planking, to extend the number of dispersal points located on hard surfaces; a further indication to the problems with the boggy soil found in this part of East Anglia.

Accommodation for the initial 1,700 personnel, was dispersed over twelve sites around the north of the airfield, and across the road from the main airfield site. One of these sites (Site 2) was the nearby Wretham Hall, a grand building built in 1912, it was utilised by Officers of the USAAF for their own personal accommodation. Sadly, the grand three storey building was demolished in the early 1950s, possibly as a result of its wartime use.

A bomb storage site was also built on the airfield. Located on the south side of the site, it was well away from any accommodation or technical buildings. It was also well away from the three large fuel stores,  which boasted storage capacities of: 24,000, 40,000 and 90,000 gallons.

The initial use of East Wretham was as a dispersal for aircraft based at Honington, the first of which was a newly formed Czechoslovakian Squadron, No. 311 (Czech) Sqn, on 29th July 1940. So new were they that they didn’t receive their Wellington ICs until the August. This was to be a unique squadron in that it was the only Czech squadron to fly with Bomber Command, and whilst the main body of the squadron was located at Honington, the operational flight (A Flight) moved to East Wretham shortly after its  formation. In mid September a decision was made to move the entire squadron across to East Wretham posting a detachment to RAF Stradishall, where they stayed until April 1942.

On September 10th 1940, 311 Sqn, now with a small number of operational crews, took part in their first mission, a true baptism of fire flying directly into the German heartland and Berlin. For one of the crews and their Wellington, this would not go well, the aircraft believed forced down in the vicinity of a railway line near Leidschendam in Zuid-Holland, with all but one of the six airmen on-board being captured.

The only crew member not to be caught was Sgt. Karl Kunka, who managed to evade capture for a short period, only to shoot himself with the aircraft’s Very Pistol. It was thought that he carried out this action to not only avoid capture but any possible retaliation against his family back home in Czechoslovakia. Whilst Sgt. Kunka’s wounds were not initially fatal, they were so severe that he later died, failing to respond to treatment whilst in hospital.

The aircraft, Wellington MK.Ia, #L7788, ‘KX-E’, was also captured, repainted in Luftwaffe colours and flown for testing and evaluation to Rechlin, the Luftwaffe’s main aircraft test facility north of Berlin.

RAF East Wretham 3

East Wretham still uses the Nissen huts and smaller buildings today.

During December 1941, a further Czech unit, No.1429 Czech Operational Training Flight (COTF) was formed along side 311 Sqn, under the command of Sqn/Ldr. Josef Šejbl. This unit was designed specifically to train Czechoslovakian aircrews for Bomber Command, with instructors for the flight, being taken from 311 Sqn following completion of their tour of operations.

As aircrew completed their training, they were transferred to the operational flight, a steady but slow build up meant that numbers were quite low, the squadron being  considerably reduced by heavy casualties in the early stages of the war. As with other Bomber Command squadrons, 311 Sqn carried out night bombing missions, many penetrating Germany itself.

1941 would see more missions to Germany, starting with the first three nights January 1st – 3rd, when Bomber Command aircraft hit Bremen, with 311 Sqn taking part on the night of the 2nd. On this night, three aircraft from 311 Sqn would join the Hampdens and Whitleys of Bomber Command in attacking a major railway junction in the centre of the city, where fires and explosions were seen as far away as 20 miles. A relatively successful operation, it would not be long before the first casualties of 311 Sqn would occur.

On the night of January 16th – 17th Wellington IC #T2519 ‘EX-Y’ was lost on a mission to Wilhelmshaven, the aircraft going down after suffering ‘technical’ problems. Last heard from  at 22:21, the aircraft disappeared without trace along with the entire crew, none of whom were ever heard from again.

1941 would end as it started, with a return trip to Wilhelmshaven, in which good results were recorded. One aircraft was lost on this mission, Wellington #T2553 ‘EX-B’, the pilot, Sgt. Alois Siska ditching the aircraft after it had sustained serious flak damage over the target area. As the aircraft sunk, it took the life of the rear gunner Sgt. Rudolf Skalicky, the other’s climbing into the aircraft’s dingy, a small craft in which they remained for several days.

As the dingy drifted towered the Dutch coast, the icy conditions would take two more lives, that of Sgt. Josef Tomanek (Co/P) and F/O. Josef Mohr (Nav.), whilst the pilot, Sgt. Siska, suffered badly from frost bite and gangrene. The remaining crewmen, F/O. Josef Scerba (W/O), Sgt. Pavel Svoboda (air gunner) along with Sgt. Siska, were picked up by German forces and  interned as POWs, mainly staying in hospitals for treatment for cold related injuries. Sgt. Svoboda went on to escape captivity no less than three times, evading capture until after the war whereupon he returned to England.

By mid 1942, 311 Sqn were assigned a new posting and a new airfield, but before departing in their final month, April 1942, they  would be visited by two particularly significant dignitaries. On April 3rd, Air Vice Marshal J. Baldwin, Air Officer Commanding No. 3 Group, RAF Bomber Command, visited to award the DFC  to P/O. Karel Becvar for his services as a navigator with 311 Sqn. Then on the 18th April, the President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Dr. Edward Benes, arrived along with several other dignitaries to inspect the Squadron, and give a speech regarding the work carried out by the crews here at East Wretham.

Tarck to Bomb Store

A number of tracks remain on the site.

During their last month, 311 Sqn would fly twelve more operations before finally departing Norfolk for Northern Ireland and Aldergrove. Whilst here at East Wretham, they would fly 1,011 sorties which included both attacks on industrial targets and propaganda leaflet drops. On the 30th, the main air body along with the rear party departed the site, the bulk of the squadron moving two days earlier. After their departure, 311 Sqn would not return to East Wretham.

In November 1942, after a long quiet break, East Wretham would spring into life once more with the arrival of another bomber squadron, No. 115 Sqn (RAF) from Mildenhall now flying  Wellington MK.IIIs.

Over the winter of 1942-43, 115 Sqn would lose ten aircraft, most to missions over Germany but two whilst ‘Gardening’, the last occurring on the night of New Years Eve 1942.

During the early months of 1943 six more Wellingtons would be lost from 115 Sqn, KO-D, KO-X, KO-C, KO-N, KO-T and KO-Q, the new year had not brought new fortunes.

By now the limits of the Wellington had been realised and its days as a front line bomber were numbered. A poor performer in the bombing theatre, it would be gradually moved to other duties, being replaced by the superior four-engined heavies; 115 Sqn was no exception. The MK.II Lancaster, powered by four Bristol Hercules engines, was less common than the Merlin powered MK.I and MK.III, but none the less was far superior to the Wellington in both performance and bomb carrying capacity.

The first Lancaster arrived in the March of 1943, and as it did the Wellingtons began to depart. To help train crews on the new aircraft, a detachment from 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) would be re-designated 1678 (Heavy Conversion) Flight (HCF) and was based here at East Wretham.

Flying the radial engined Lancaster MK.IIs under the code ‘SW’, they were one of only two HCFs to be established in Bomber Command, both in May of that year. Specifically set up to convert crews from the Wellington to the Lancaster, they were a short-lived unit, becoming a Heavy Conversion Unit once more on September 16th 1943, after moving to RAF Foulsham. During this time the flight would operate only eight aircraft in total, losing none whilst at East Wretham.

Even with the new aircraft though, flying over Germany was not without its problems for 115 Sqn. The first aircraft to be lost, and the first of its type in Bomber Command, Lancaster MK.II #DS625 ‘KO-W’ was lost without trace in a raid to Berlin on the night of March 29th/30th. The Pilot Sgt. H. Ross, (RCAF) and his crew all being commemorated on the Runnymede memorial. The aircraft being new, it had only flown 26 hours since its arrival at East Wretham earlier that year on March 9th.

rear-turret-of-Lanc-lost-595x478

Avro Lancaster B Mk II, DS669 ‘KO-L’, of No. 115 Squadron, was hit by bombs from an aircraft flying above. during a raid on Cologne on the night of 28th/29th June 1943. The tail gun and gunner were both lost. (Author unknown)

With more missions into Germany, 115 Squadron’s Lancasters  would continue to serve well, perhaps one of the worst nights occurring just days before their eventual departure to RAF Little Snoring in early August 1943.

On the night of 2nd/3rd a mission was planned for Hamburg in which 740 aircraft were allocated. Of these, 329 were Lancasters, by far the largest contingency of the raid. Whilst over Germany, the formation entered a severe thunderstorm, and with many aircraft suffering from icing, they were forced to either turn back, or find other targets. The poor weather, including lightning, accounted for several of the losses that night including one of three lost from 115 Sqn.

Lancaster #DS673 was shot down by a night fighter, #DS685 was lost without trace and #DS715 was struck by lightning causing it to crash not far from the target. From the three that went down that night, there were no survivors from the twenty-one crewmen on board. 115’s time at East Wretham would close on a very sour note indeed.

With the departure of 115 Sqn in August, East Wretham would then pass from RAF ownership into the hands of the US Eighth Air Force, to become Station 133, the home of the three squadrons of the 359th Fighter Group – ‘The Unicorns’