RAF Boulmer – Sophistication and intrigue (Part 2).

After Part 1 of ‘RAF Boulmer – Sophistication and intrigue’ we see how Boulmer developed during and after the Cold War. From a small decoy airfield, to a training facility for fighter pilots of 57 Operational Training Unit it then closed at the end of World War 2. Laying dormant for a while, flying would return, and Boulmer would become one of the most sophisticated RAF facilities anywhere in the United Kingdom.

RAF Boulmer

Boulmer’s modern watch office and hangar

After this, the RAF had no need to retain Boulmer, and so it was placed into care and maintenance. But then, in the early 1950s with the Cold War heating up, Boulmer was put back into action but not as an operational airfield flying front line aircraft, but as part of a sophisticated network of radar stations monitoring British airspace. To accommodate this new equipment, a new part to the of the airfield was opened up, located on both new land and former domestic sites to the north-west of the main airfield. This new construction took the name of the airfield but remains separate from its namesake, and well guarded from prying eyes.

During this time Boulmer would use  Linesman Passive Detection equipment, *1 to detect jamming targets in mass formations. An innovative design they were eventually removed as new and more modern equipment came into operation. In conjunction with this was the primary radar, the Marconi Type 84 and 85 search radars. These massive structures used  antenna reflectors measuring some 60 feet wide by 22 feet high, completing a full rotation four times every minute.

It was at this time, in the mid 1960s, that Boulmer the airfield, would once again see military flying take place. But by now the hard runways had been removed, and Boulmer’s gain had sadly been Acklington’s loss.

The closure of RAF Acklington meant that the Search and Rescue helicopters of 202 Sqn ‘A’ flight, would be moved into Boulmer to carry out Search and Rescue operations over the eastern regions of England and Scotland.  The Whirlwind HAR 10s of 202 Sqn were spread far and wide in a complex range of changes that saw them move as far a field as Coltishall, Leuchars, Lossiemouth, Manston and Port Stanley. These moves placed many stresses on the unit, and with the reduction in operational aircraft, Boulmer’s search area became much bigger.

A series of updates over the coming years meant several changes to the  various sites at Boulmer.  For a short period between 1968 and 1974, Boulmer Radar Station (Lesbury) was closed, as upgrading took place which saw ‘electronic’ warfare, and later a computerised interception control system, added. By the 1990s mobile radar was becoming more widely available and the giant Type 85 radar was dismantled and replaced by modern 3-D screening and automated tracking radar. Part of this network being housed on part of the former RAF Brunton.

In 1975 the robust Search and Rescue helicopters on the former airfield began being replaced by the successful Sea King HAR-3, an aircraft they operated for a further forty years in the Search & Rescue role. In 1978, the Sea King was withdrawn from some of these 202 Sqn operations and replaced themselves by the Wessex HAR 2, but three Sea King helicopters continued on at Boulmer, being the last aircraft to fly here under Military control. In conjunction with these changes, the main headquarters of 202 Sqn also moved into premises at RAF Boulmer, giving a new and extended lease of life to the former airfield.

In this new role Boulmer would regularly bear witness to accidents and fatalities. On Sunday 17th May 1987, an ex Boulmer airmen F/Sgt. Philip Scott crashed in an Steen Skybolt he had built himself at Boulmer. The aircraft ploughing into the ground killing  both F/Sgt. Scott and his passenger Cpl. Martin Leitner. It was suggested that a suitcase on board the aircraft had restricted control column movement leading to the crash.

In July 1989 an RAF Sea King from Boulmer was involved in a rescue mission to save two downed military airmen. A Tornado F3 of 23 Sqn RAF Leeming crashed into the sea 35 miles off Tynemouth, both airmen ejected, and whilst the navigator was saved, the pilot F/Lt. Stephen Moir was killed, trapped under his parachute in the cold waters of the North Sea.

Another RAF Leeming Tornado F3 (11 Sqn) got into difficulties later in 1994, the crew ejecting again but not before managing to transmit a distress call. This time both airmen were pulled from the water and taken to hospital with minor injuries, RAF Boulmer crews being on the spot within minutes.

A year later, 1995 saw another rescue mission by a Boulmer Sea King, when two Tornadoes collided 60 miles off the coast of Berwick-upon-Tweed. All four aircrew survived with two ejecting from one aircraft at the scene, whist the second (ZE773) was gingerly nursed back to RAF Leuchars. The aircraft landed without further incident even though it had no hydraulics or navigational aids.

In 2003 the Government put forward plans to close Boulmer, but protests from those opposed to the end of search and rescue operations led to a reprieve, and Boulmer would live a little longer.

Then during 2015, it was decided that the last six remaining UK RAF Search and Rescue bases – RAF Lossiemouth (202 Sn ‘D’ Flt.), DST Leconfield (202 Sqn ‘E’ Flt.), RAF Valley (22 Sqn ‘C’ Flt.), RAF Wattisham (22 Sqn ‘B’ Flt.), RAF Chivenor (22 Sqn ‘A’ Flt.) and RAF Boulmer’s ‘A’ Flight – would close, as Search and Rescue operations were finally privatised. Boulmer ceased operations on 30th September, with the last crews at RAF Chivenor being told to ‘Stand down’ a few days later on October 4th 2015, an event that ended seventy-four years of Search and Rescue history.

Since April 1st 1983 Search and Rescue units had answered 34,122 call-outs during which time 26,916 people have been rescued from both the sea and land*2.  Boulmer’s operations had now ended, raising a feeling of great sadness in the local community, a community who had regularly witnessed the S & R helicopters over their small village.

RAF Boulmer

Many of the private gardens around the airfield use shelters for storage.

During this time the Sea Kings had operated in some of the most treacherous of conditions and some of the most important events in recent history. This included rescue operations in the Lockerbie bombing, the collapsed North Sea oil rig ‘Alexander Kielland‘ and the Carlisle floods.

Boulmer’s name would not end there though, now forming the backbone of Britain’s Air Defence Network as the headquarters of the Air Surveillance and Control System Force (ASACS), it monitors the UK and NATO airspace 24 hours a day, 365 days year.  As part of a sophisticated network of mobile and fixed radar monitoring stations, it is linked to European based networks ready to intercept any threat or unidentified aircraft entering British Airspace. Boulmer remains the headquarters of this force with No.1 Air Control Centre currently at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, but due to return to Lossiemouth once Scampton has closed and refurbishment at Lossiemouth are complete. Together their information can lead to the dispatch of QRA Typhoons from RAF Coningsby or RAF Lossiemouth depending upon the direction and location of the threat.

Whilst the main airfield site is still owned and used by the RAF, there are currently no flying operations taking place. High tech training is the order of the day, Boulmer being home to the RAF School of Aerospace Battle Management (SABM). This is a worldwide centre of excellence leading battlespace management training and education for not only the UK’s Armed Forces, but NATO and other foreign military personnel as well. A range of associated technical units also serve and train here, giving Boulmer one of the most sophisticated organisational groups in RAF service. There are currently some 1,000 Service, civilian and contracted personnel working at the site at any time.

RAF Boulmer

RAF Phantom guarding RAF Boulmer.

Whilst flying ceased some years ago, Boulmer’s aviation history has not been forgotten. The main gate at Boulmer continues today to be guarded by Phantom XV415 an FGR.2 which operated with eight RAF squadrons before its final retirement. Prior to this, Spitfire MKVb EP120 was in pride of place until 1967 when it was removed for use in the film ‘The Battle of Britain‘. Its replacement was another Spitfire F, Mk XVI TB252 which left in December 1969 for RAF Leuchars.

These Spitfires headed a succession of aircraft to guard Boulmer’s gate. In 1972 Lightning XP745 became guardian as  tribute to the close work carried out between the radar station and 11 Group’s fighters. The twenty-sixth MK.3 Lightning built, XP745 was formerly based at RAF Wattisham with 56 Sqn, it moved to Akrotiri and then back to Wattisham and 29 Sqn. The Lightning made its last flight on February 4th 1975 to Leconfield, where it remained for a number of years donating parts and being gradually stripped of its components. Eventually it was given to Boulmer and returned to guardian standard. The current gate guardian, a McDonnell Douglas Phantom FGR.2 XV415 ‘E’, like its predecessor, also stands at Boulmer in the colours of No. 56 Sqn formerly of RAF Wattisham.

Even though Boulmer is no longer a flying RAF base, it is heavily guarded and its operations kept secret behind high fences. The main airfield site has itself gone, the runways all removed (a small patch remained at the time of visit in 2018) and little of the wartime airfield remains in public view.  The road approaching Boulmer gives you a choice, turning right takes you to the Radar centre an area patrolled by dog handlers and armed guards, this gives some indication of the seriousness taken inside the perimeter fence. Taking the left fork brings you to the main gate of the former airfield and Air Sea Rescue centre, and the location of the Phantom gate guard mentioned above. Behind here are the various training facilities, again guarded from prying eyes and unwanted visitors.

Carrying on past here, in a small coppice on the left, is a small collection of wartime buildings, very much left to the elements they are still mainly intact and possibly the best reminders of any wartime activity here at Boulmer.

Continue on from here along the coast road. This takes you to the eastern end of the former airfield, and in parts, along the original perimeter track used during Boulmer’s flying life. A caravan park sits on what was part of the airfield here, the only location where the remnants of the runway can still be found.

RAF Boulmer

What’s left of Boulmer’s runways are barely distinguishable beneath the stones.

Further along this road and you come to a bend, this is the threshold to the two main runways with their location still visible as scars on the earth disappearing into the distance. Distant views also allow sighting of the current hangar and watch office, but there is little to be gained here. The road then continues round and whilst the perimeter track carries on into the field, the road leaves here and passes away from the airfield site. The perimeter track at this point is now a mere single track hardly distinguishable as an airfield perimeter track.

RAF Boulmer

The scars of the two runways can still be seen in the fields of Boulmer.

Other than small buildings found in private gardens, little exists of this rather interesting site. Whilst its early wartime history is not earth shattering, it has however become one of the most important and key RAF sites in the UK today.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 For a detailed explanation of these radar systems and personal accounts of using them, visit Dick Barrett’s excellent website.

*2 MOD Memo dated 10 May 2016 in response to a freedom of information request.

Chronical Live website accessed September 29, 2015 “Farewell to the Sea Kings at RAF Boulmer as new era in search and rescue dawns

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RAF Boulmer – Sophistication and intrigue (Part 1).

In this part of Trail 47 we return to the Northumbrian coast, and like many airfields in this northern arena area, this is one that sits on the very coastline itself. Originally a decoy airfield opened in the mid war years, it was eventually converted to flying status only to close to flying in the latter part of 1945.  However, it has continued to operate under the control of the RAF, but in a much more secretive and less obvious manner.

This airfield spent most of its life as a decoy airfield to RAF Acklington, and it wasn’t until later in is wartime life, that it actually became an airfield used for flying.  Throughout the Cold War era it played a major part in Britain’s defence, a role it continues to play today, and whilst no flying units are based here, nor have they been for a good number of years, it is none the less one of Britain’s most important RAF sites and one that has a history unique to itself.

In this part of Trail 47 we visit the site that is the former RAF Boulmer.

RAF Boulmer (Longhoughton).

RAF Boulmer sits on the very coast of Northumbria approximately 4 miles east of the historic town of Alnwick. Its life began in 1940 as a decoy airfield called Longhoughton with dummy Hurricanes and Spitfires protected by four Lewis Machine guns mounted on tripods. To add to the realistic effect, the dummy aircraft were moved about on a regular basis, the three grass runways were kept in good condition and a series of landing lights were left on to imitate an active airfield, The rouse was so good that the airfield was repeatedly attacked by Luftwaffe aircraft, but with little damage being sustained as result.

The airfield was manned by as few as twenty personnel, who maintained the deception well into the mid war years, until such time as the threat of invasion and raids had died down. No longer needed, the decoy site was closed and Boulmer would then enter a new phase in its long life.

In 1942 a decision was made to develop Boulmer into a hard-surfaced airfield, and although the tarmac and woodchip runways (1,800, 1,400 and 1,300 yds x 50 yds) weren’t added until November 1943, the airfield was opened and used ‘operationally’. Opened as a satellite airfield under the control of 12 Group, it would become a training station seeing a mix of Spitfires flown by 57 Operational Training Unit (OTU), (based as RAF Eshott) use its facilities. In addition to the hard runways were some twenty-five aircraft dispersal pans, a storage facility supplemented with four Dorman Long Blister hangars. These hangars were different to other types of Blister hangar by the fact that they were bolted to foundations and not held in place by their own weight. A larger more common T2 hangar was also planned, but this it would seem, never materialised.

57 OTU were originally reformed through the renumbering of No. 7 OTU on 1st November 1940 at Harwarden, before they transferred to RAF Eshott in Northumberland, two years later. They remained at Eshott for the duration of the war running 76 pilot training courses at both Eshott and Boulmer. The principal aircraft of the unit was the Spitfire, but they also used a variety of other small single engined aircraft including the Fairy Battle, the Lysander, Magister and Boulton Paul’s Defiant.

RAF Boulmer

Inside one of the remaining wartime shelters at RAF Boulmer.

Boulmer would become quite a busy airfield over the next few years, not only used by 57 OTU, but also by other ‘local’ squadrons as a relief landing ground. Boulmer’s primary aim at this point was to train pilots to fly the Hurricane and Spitfire. Pilots would work through a series of exercises from basic flying training at Eshott, to more advanced flying techniques here at Boulmer. Like many of these training airfields Charter Hall, Millfield and Brunton, the aircraft they used were old and in many cases ex Battle of Britain examples. Patched up and repeatedly repaired, they were not the most reliable models to be given to trainees.

One of the first accidents to happen at Boulmer was the collision between Spitfire MK.IIa #P8071 and Spitfire MK.IIa #P7836 over the North Sea. The pilot of #P8071, Sgt. Leonard Baker (s/n:658739), was killed outright, whilst the other pilot managed to nurse his aircraft home, landing wheels-up at Boulmer – he being unhurt. At the time of his death, Sgt. Baker was only a young man at 22 years of age.

In November, that year, another Spitfire was lost also with its pilot, F/O. Geoffrey Booth (s/n: 119496), when his aircraft #P8197, also a MK.IIa, crashed shortly after taking off during a night training flight. F/O. Booth (RAFVR) was another youngster being only 23 years of age. He is buried in Chevington Cemetery in Northumberland, and was the Son of Harold and Elsie Booth, of Leeds, Yorkshire.

A number of other accidents occurred in which aircraft swung, engines failed or undercarriage jammed. The last 57 OTU accident at Boulmer involved a Spitfire VB #W3713 on March 2nd 1945, when just after take off, the aircraft struck a tree causing both the pitot head to break off and the throttle to jam open. An ex USAAF aircraft, it was one of 20 produced under contract B19713/39 and was written off as a result.

The latter part of the war (1943/44) continued to see units from other nearby airfields use Boulmer, 59 OTU who were based primarily at RAF Millfield, would use Boulmer whilst their satellite station RAF Brunton was under repair. Millfield was also set up to train pilots on the Hurricane, a training unit that would take the pilot from an ordinary single engined trainer onto the Hurricane before posting to an operational unit. Later on, this took on ground attack duties as the Typhoons were brought in, eventually being disbanded and reformed as the Fighter Leader School (FLS). All these training groups came under the jurisdiction of No. 9 Group, whose headquarters were at Barton Hall in Preston. These groups taught the pilots the art of night flying, dive bombing and ground attack tactics, all very important  techniques in the new developing war.

In the closing days of September 1944 the Fleet Air Arm Squadron 808 Sqn, placed their Seafire L MK.IIIs here whilst in transit from Harwarden to Eglington. A brief stay, it nonetheless brought  a new model of Spitfire from the famous mould to this remote part of Northumberland. 808 Sqn’s history had taken them through some of the most incredible wartime events including their participation in the Battle of Britain, to the sinking of their carrier, the Ark Royal. They also took part in the Normandy operations acting as spotters for naval guns, who were pounding the beaches and inland batteries along the French coast.

The winter of 1944/45 was very cold, with extensive frost, fog and ice hampering many RAF and USAAF bombing missions. Those aircraft that were flown during this time often found their home bases fog bound, and unable to land there, they had to divert elsewhere. In October, Halifax MK.III of 425 (Alouette) Sqn was diverted to Boulmer, only to find that on its later departure, the two starboard engines cut out causing the aircraft to swing violently. As a result, the aircraft piloted by F/O. W Corbett, struck a wood shed damaging the aircraft. Luckily on this occasion though, there were no casualties in the unfortunate accident.

This use of Boulmer as a safe haven was not unique. Indeed that same year on New Years Eve, no less than six US Eighth Air Force B-24s were diverted from their home bases to Boulmer. On New Years Eve 1944, a total of 956 B-17 Flying Fortresses, 371 B-24 Liberators and 785 escort fighters were dispatched to various targets in Germany (mission 772). German fighter cover that day was light, for unknown to the Allies, the Luftwaffe were preparing for their New Years Day massed attack on liberated airfields in the lowlands in Operation Boddenplatte.

The continent like the UK was largely fogged in, and considering the size of the formations and numbers of aircraft involved, casualties were relatively light. On return many of the aircraft found their home bases closed and so were diverted elsewhere. It was during this flight that six B-24s  ended up at Boulmer as a result of the bad weather.

Eventually the war came to a close, and no longer required, units began to leave or be disbanded, 57 OTU being no exception. Disbanded on June 6th 1945, a year after the invasion of occupied Europe, it would take its mix of Spitfires and leave Boulmer for good.

With the demise of 57 OTU, Boulmer was placed into care and maintenance. In part 2, we shall see how Boulmer developed over the next 70 years, how flying returned to this part of Northumberland and how Boulmer came to be one of the most strategic sites in Britain’s Air Defence Network.

Trail 52 – RAF Bottesford and the bizarre accident that killed five airmen.

In this next trail we turn westward and head to the Midlands towards Nottingham and Leicester. Here we take in an airfield that was part of the RAF’s Bomber Command, and whilst it is an airfield that saw only a small number of squadrons operating from it, it nonetheless has a very significant story to tell.  Now a successful industrial park, much of the site remains – albeit behind a security gate and fencing. This airfield was home to both the RAF and the USAAF and played an important part in the fight against Nazi Germany. Today we visit the former airfield RAF Bottesford.

RAF Bottesford (Station 481)

RAF Bottesford was built in the period 1940 / 41 by the major airfield builder George Wimpey & Co. Ltd. It was known more locally as Normanton after the small village that lies on the south-western corner of the site, and although a Leicestershire airfield, it actually straddles both Leicestershire, Nottingham and Lincolnshire. As a new bomber airfield, it was the first in the area to be built with concrete surfaces, a welcome break from the problematic grassed surfaces that Bomber Command had been fighting against before.

In 1941 Bottesford would open under the control of No. 5 Group, a group formerly headed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, who had seen the group carry out anti-shipping sweeps over the North Sea and leaflet drops over Germany. Now under the guidance of Air Chief Marshal Sir John Slessor, No. 5 Group was able to muster a considerable number of heavy bombers capable of reaching Germany’s heartland.

As a bomber airfield Bottesford had a wide range of technical buildings, three concrete runways, one of 2,000 yds (after being extended) and two just short of 1,500 yds, all 50 yds wide and linked by a perimeter track. The technical site with its various support buildings lay to the north-west of the airfield with the bomb site to the east, and accommodation areas dispersed to the north-east beyond the airfield perimeter.

Bottesford would accommodate around 2,500 personnel of mixed rank, both male and female, in conditions that were often described as ‘poor’, the site suffering from extensive rain and lack of quality drainage as the Operational Records would show *1.

Around the airfield there would eventually be 50 dispersals, half of these being constructed initially as ‘frying pan’ hardstands, and then with the introduction of the improved ‘spectacle hardstand’, this number was doubled by 1945.

Aircraft maintenance would initially be in four hangars, but these were also increased to ten in total, giving a mix of T2 and B1 designs. An unusual design feature of Bottesford was that some of these dispersals, and later hangars, were across a public road and, like RAF Foulsham (Trail 22), a gate system operated by RAF Police would allow the road to be closed off when aircraft were moved into or out of the area. The airfield would therefore, undergo quite a major change during its operational life.

Aerial photograph of Bottesford airfield looking west, the technical site is bottom right, 8 June 1942. Photograph taken by No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, sortie number RAF/HLA/590. English Heritage (RAF Photography).

RAF photo reconnaissance photo taken on 8 June 1942. Compare this to the photograph taken three years later (below)*2

Aerial photograph of Bottesford airfield looking east, the technical site with seven T2 hangars, control tower and airfield code are top left, the bomb dump is on the right, 30 May 1945. Photograph taken by No. 544 Squadron, sortie number RAF/106G/LA/203. English Heritage (RAF Photography).

Bottesford 1945 *3

Only three operational front line RAF units would operate from Bottesford, the first being 207 Squadron flying the Avro Manchester, arriving on November 17th 1941, the same month as production of the Manchester ceased. Their arrival would also coincide with the arrival of 1524 (BEAM Approach Training) Flight operating the Airspeed Oxford.

207 Sqn were reformed as a new squadron at the beginning of November 1940, taking on the ill-fated Avro Manchester MK.I, before arriving here at Bottesford a year later. The first squadron to operate the type, they were soon to discover it had major issues, and so poor was the Manchester, that by the Spring of 1942 it was being withdrawn, replaced by its more successful sister the Lancaster. After its promising introduction into Bomber Command in late 1940, it became clear that the Manchester was going to become a troublesome aircraft. With engine seizures often followed by fires, it was very much under-powered even though it had what were in essence, two V12 engines mounted in one single engine.  Bearing failures led to engines failing, and already working at its limits, the Rolls-Royce Vulture engine was not able to keep the Manchester aloft without great skill from the crew.

After a period of bedding in and conversion of the crews to the new Manchester, the new year at Bottesford would start off badly, seeing the first casualty for 207 Sqn, on the night of 9th January 1942. On this mission, Manchester MK.I L7322 piloted by F/O G Bayley, would crash after being hit by flak on operations to Brest. There were 151 aircraft on this mission, with this aircraft being the only causality in which only three of the crew’s bodies were ever recovered.

The transition from the Manchester to the Lancaster would not be straight forward for 207 Sqn. Whilst on training flights, Lancaster MK.I ‘EM-G’ R5501 would collide in  mid-air with a Magister from RAF Cranwell, four crewmen would lose their lives along with the pilot of the Magister. Then on the 8th April, a second Lancaster would suffer problems when ‘EM-Z’ R5498 experienced fuel starvation in both starboard engines causing them to cut out. The aircraft crashed close to Normanton Lodge on the north-south boundary on approach to Bottesford’s main runway. Fortunately no one was seriously injured in the accident.

A third training accident occurred on the night of May 24th 1942, when Lancaster R5617 hit the ground in poor visibility near to Tavistock in Devon. In the resultant crash, four of the crew were killed whilst two further crewmen were injured. It was proving to be  a difficult transition for the crews of 207 Sqn.

The first operational loss of a 207 Sqn Lancaster came on the night of June 3rd / 4th, when ‘EM-Y’ R5847 was shot down whilst on a mission to Bremen in north-west Germany. During the flight, the aircraft were attacked by German night fighters. As a result a number of aircraft from various squadrons were lost, including this one flown by pilot W/O C. Watney, who along with all his crew, were killed.

With the last mission by a Manchester taking place on the night of June 25th / 26th, 1942 would be a difficult year for 207 Sqn, losing four Manchesters and twenty-five Lancasters, which when added to the twenty Manchesters lost in 1941, proved that things were not going well for the 5 Group squadron at Bottesford.

RAF Bottesford

Sgt. Harold Curson (s/n: 537658) was killed in a bizarre accident at Bottesford when a Manchester landed on top of a Lancaster destroying the aircraft and killing three of its crew.

Perhaps one of the most bizarre accidents to happen at Bottesford, occurred on August 6th 1942, when Manchester L7385 landed very badly. Somehow, the aircraft ended up on top of a Lancaster, R5550 who was also engaged in training operations. The accident was so severe, that two of the crew in the Manchester and three of the crew in the Lancaster were killed. The remaining five crewmen, whilst not killed in the accident, all sustained various degrees of injury.

Then in September 1942, 207 Sqn were transferred from Bottesford to nearby Langar, the satellite airfield for Bottesford. This would be the first of many moves that would last into early 1950 when the squadron was finally disbanded whilst operating the Avro Lincoln. The squadron’s tie with Avro had finally come to an end (207 Sqn would reform several times eventually being disbanded in the mid 1980s).

The October / November 1942 then saw two further Bomber Command squadrons move into this Leicester airfield, those of 90 Squadron and 467 Squadron.

Reformed here after being disbanded and absorbed into 1653 HCU the previous February, 90 Sqn brought with them the other great heavy bomber, the Stirling.

An enormous aircraft, the Stirling also failed to live up to its promise, suffering from a poor ceiling and often being targeted by fighters when in mass formations. The Stirlings were eventually pulled out of front line operations and moved to transport and SOE operations, such were their high losses.

At the end of the year once the squadron was fully manned and organised, No. 90 Sqn departed Bottesford taking the Mk.Is to RAF Ridgewell, where they continued on in the bomber role. The only casualty for 90 Sqn during this short time occurring on the very same day they moved when ‘WP-D’ BK625 crash landed at Ridgewell airfield.

Also during the month of November 1942, on the 24th, 467 Squadron (RAAF) joined 90 Sqn, in a move that saw the return of the Lancaster MK.I and MK.III, these crews must have been the envy of those who struggled with the mighty Stirling in their sister unit. Formed on the 7th November at RAF Scampton under the command of W/Cdr. C. Gomm DFC No. 5 Group, 467 Sqn were another short-lived squadron eventually being disbanded on September 30th 1945 at Metheringham airfield in Lincolnshire.

In the first days of their formation there were initially sixteen complete aircrews, divided into two flights: ‘A’ commanded by Acting S/Ldr. D Green DFC and ‘B’ Flight with Acting S/Ldr. A. Pappe DFC. As yet though, they had an insufficient number of aircraft to accommodate all the crews.

After arriving at Bottesford, 467 Sqn battled with lack of equipment and poor weather which hindered both training and flying activities. A number of dances were held to make the Australians and New Zealand crews “feel at home”,  and a visit was made by Air Marshal Williams (RAAF). At the end of the month, aircraft numbers totalled just seven.

By the end of December new aircraft had been delivered and the Lancaster total stood at nineteen, but poor weather continued to hamper flying. Early January saw the first sign of any operational action at Bottesford, which occurred on the night of January 2nd / 3rd 1943. Five crews were assigned to a ‘Gardening’ sortie, laying mines, which excited the ground crews who were keen to see their aircraft finally participating in operations. It wouldn’t be until January 17th / 18th that 467 Sqn would finally venture into German territory laden with bombs. A mission that took them to the heart of Germany and Berlin.

RAF Bottesford

One of Bottesford’s hangars in use today.

With great excitement nine Australian crews, who were keen to show what they were capable of, took off from Bottesford to hit the target. The mission was considered a ‘disappointment’, damage to the target being very light due to both haze and lack of good radar. Target Indicators were used for the first time on this mission and it was the first all four-engined sortie. On their return flight, Sgt. Broemeling, the rear-gunner of F/Lt. Thiele’s crew was found unconscious, he had suffered from oxygen starvation and even after diving the aircraft to a safe breathing height and giving artificial resuscitation, he was declared dead on arrival at Bottesford.

A second night saw 187 RAF bombers from No. 1, 4 and 5 Groups in a subsequent raid that, like the previous night, also resulted in poor results.  Bombing saw little damage on the ground but twenty-two aircraft were lost. One of these aircraft being from 467 Sqn, that of Lancaster ‘PO-N’ W4378, which was piloted by a New Zealander, Sgt. K Aicken. Sgt Aicken had been one of the original pilots at 467’s formation. All seven crewmen from ‘PO-N’ were killed that night.

The next casualties would occur a month later, in a mission that saw 338 RAF heavies attack the port of Wihelmshaven in northern Germany. With the mission considered a ‘failure’, outdated maps were blamed, pathfinders marking the target area inaccurately as a result. The raid would also be notable for the loss of two Bottesford Lancasters; ED525 and ED529. On board the second aircraft were two crewmen Sgt. Robert Sinden (s/n: 577701) and Sgt. Derek Arnold Booth (RAFVR) (s/n: 1378781) who were just 18 and 17 years old respectively – the youngest crewmen to lose their lives in Bomber Command’s campaign of 1943. None of the fourteen men were ever found, their aircraft lost without trace.

A year after their arrival 467 Sqn then departed Bottesford heading for RAF Waddington, a point at which the RAF handed Bottesford over to the Americans in answer to their call for airfields to support the forthcoming invasion of the continent. 467 Sqn would go on to fight under Bomber Command, and in that month a special Lancaster would join the Sqn, that of R5868 ‘PO-S’ which went on to be the first Lancaster to reach the 100 mission milestone completing a total of 137 before the war’s end. She sat outside RAF Scampton as a gate guard after the war but has thankfully ended her days as the centre piece of the Bomber Command Hall at the RAF Museum in Hendon.*4

RAF Museum Hendon

‘S-Sugar’ a former 467 Sqn Lancaster stands in the RAF Museum, Hendon. Note the incorrect Spelling of ‘Hermann’ beneath the quote.

As one of a cluster in the area (North Witham (Trail 3), Spanhoe (Trail 6), Barkston Heath and Langar amongst others), Bottesford would become a home to the Glider units of the US Troop Carrier Command (TCC).

The airfield (renamed Station 481) would become the headquarters of the 50th Troop Carrier Wing (TCW), Ninth Air Force, and used as a staging post for new C-47 units arriving from the United States. The 50th remained here at Bottesford until April 1944 at which point they moved south to Exeter in their final preparations for the Normandy invasion.

This deployment would see a number of American units arrive, be organised and transfer to their own bases elsewhere, these included the eight squadrons of the 436th Troop Carrier Group (TCG) and the 440th Troop Carrier Group (TCG).

The 436th TCG were made up of the four squadrons:79th Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS), 80th TCS, 81st TCS and 82nd TCS, all flying C-47 aircraft. The Group was only one year old when they arrived at Bottesford, and their introduction to the war would be a baptism of fire.

The cramped barracks of the 436th TCG and 440th TCG at Bottesford. (IWM – FRE 3354)

Whilst primarily training and organising themselves at Bottesford they would go on to take part in the Normandy invasion, dropping paratroops early in the morning of June 6th 1944 into the Normandy arena. In the afternoon, they returned with gliders, again dropping them behind enemy lines to supply and support those already fighting on the ground. A further trip the following morning saw the group awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for their action over the Normandy landing zones. Before the war’s end the 436th would take part in four major allied airborne operations, dropping units of both the 82nd and the 101st Airborne.

The 440th, like the 436th, were a very young unit, only being activated the previous July, and like the 436th, their introduction would be a memorable one. Dropping paratroops of the 101st Airborne into Carentan on D-Day, followed by fuel, food and ammunition the next; for their action they too were awarded a DUC. The 440th would also take part in the Battle of the Bulge supplying troops at Bastogne and later the crossing of the Rhine.

Whilst both units were only here at Bottesford a short time, they undoubtedly played a major part in the Allied invasion and all major airborne battles on the continent, a point that Bottesford should be remembered for.

The 436th moved to Membury whilst the 440th moved to Exeter in a mass move with the 50th TCW. After this, the US brought in a Glider repair and maintenance unit, who only stayed here for a short time before they too departed for pastures new. This then left Bottesford surplus to American requirements, and so in July 1944 it was handed back to the RAF and 5 Group once more.

This transfer would see the last flying unit form here at Bottesford – the death knell was beginning to ring its ghostly tones.  The RAF’s 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) formed on the 28th, brought back the heavy bomber, the Lancaster MK.I. Working with the HCU were the 1321 Bomber (Defence) Training Flight consisting of mainly Beaufighter and Spitfire aircraft, who operated here until 1st November 1944 when they were absorbed into 1668 and 1669 HCUs. The HCU used these aircraft for fighter affiliation tasks and heavy bomber training.

As a training unit there would be many accidents, either due to aircraft problems or pilot error, including the first major accident on 12th December 1944 where fire tore through the port wing of Lancaster MK.III JA908. Diverted to East Kirkby the Lancaster attempted a landing but damaged a wheel, and had to crash-land in a field near to the airfield. Whilst no-one was killed in the crash, eight aircrew were injured in the resultant fire.

In the August 1945, the HCU moved to Cottesmore and there was no longer a need for Bottesford as an operational airfield. Surplus to requirements it was placed into care and maintenance, and used to store surplus equipment including ammunition before being closed and sold to the farmer who’s been using it since 1962.

As with all RAF / USAAF airfields a number other flying units operated from Bottesford, maintenance units, RAF squadrons and Glider units all played their part in its rich tapestry of wartime history. A history that provided one of the largest numbers of hangars collectively, and one that saw many young men come and go, many not coming back at all.

Today Bottesford is a thriving industrial and agricultural park, the farmer using large parts of it but the technical site being used by a number of industrial companies. The hangars are still present and in use, as are the runways now used for storage of vehicles rather than Lancasters, Stirlings, Manchesters or C-47s. The watch office has been refurbished and is used as offices, and several of the original buildings still remain in various states of disrepair. A flag of remembrance was hoisted outside the office in May 1995 and veterans have visited the site to pay their respects.

With access to the site through a security gate, you are left with some poor views from public roads, but the local church does have a small number of graves and a memorial which includes a book of remembrance.

Bottesford may have only been in existence for a short period, but it saw many aircraft and many crews, a mix of international airmen who brought new life to this small village on the border of three counties.

RAF Bottesford

A book of remembrance sits in the local church St. Mary the Virgin along with a small number of graves.

Links and sources

*1 AIR\271930\1 Operational Record Book 467 RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) Summary of Events (National Archives).

*2 Source Imperial War Museum photo ref: RAF_HLA_590_V_6004

*3 Source Imperial War Museum photo ref: RAF_106G_LA_203_RP_3093

*4 The AVRO Heritage Museum Website has details of ‘S for Sugar’ and her journey to Hendon.

Defence of the Realm, Tony Wilkins takes a detailed look at the Avro Manchester.

The Bottesford Living History Group have a detailed website with photographs and personal accounts and is worth visiting.

RAF Barkston Heath – A little known airfield with a big history.

In the lower regions of Lincolnshire is a group of small airfields that are historically speaking, extremely important, but yet some are barely even known about. One of these is a small Relief Landing Ground (RLG), built with very few buildings and little infrastructure, it is one that is relatively unknown and in many cases even overlooked. Yet it was none the less, a thriving airfield during the hostile times of the Second World War. Whilst flying continues here today, still as a RLG, it has more than earned its place in the annuals of world history by being one of a small group of airfields that launched not one, but several of the biggest air operations the world has ever seen.

In this part of Trail 2, we take a new look at RAF Cranwell’s smaller but just as important satellite, RAF Barkston Heath.

RAF Barkston Heath (Station 483).

Barkston Heath sits on an area of Middle Jurassic Limestone, and is located about six miles south of RAF Cranwell, the parent airfield of the site siting on the edge of the Lincolnshire Cliff. It was identified as a possible location as early as 1936, and the year it opened, it used grass runways with very little infrastructure to support those using its grounds. As a satellite airfield it would have little based here, but would regularly see a number of biplanes use its grassed surfaces over a good number of years.

As a result of the focused development of Britain’s airfields during the pre-war expansion period and the early part of the war, it was then decided to upgrade Barkston Heath to the Class A standard; this earmarked it for three runways of concrete and wood chip of the standard lengths 2,000 yds and 1,400 yds by 50 yds wide. The idea behind this upgrade was to allow it to be used as  a bomber station, a satellite of RAF Swinderby. Ready to house the four engined heavy bombers of the RAF, it was a perfect location as it was found in the southern regions of Lincolnshire and within reach of Germany.

However, the development of Barkston Heath wasn’t completed for another two years, during which time it continued to be used as a satellite for RAF Cranwell. It was during this period that Cranwell was also developed, it being closed whilst runway improvement works were carried out. In order to keep the training programmes going, the aircraft from Cranwell were transferred over to Barkston Heath thus bringing a renewed flurry of activity to this airfield.

Then, during 1943, after Cranwell had re-opened, work then began which closed Barkston Heath. This work included the construction of its own hard runways along with 48 spectacle hardstands and 2 frying pan, most of which survive intact today. Aircraft repair hangars, of which there were originally four, soon totalled seven, of which six were the T2 variety and one a B1. These were located to the north-east of the site next to a public road with four of them across the road on a separate site. Unusually, the technical area was to the south of the airfield away from the hangars, the very buildings you would expect to see in the technical area of any airfield. The bombs store was located to the north-western side of the airfield and accommodation areas dispersed to the south.

RAF Barkston Heath

Barkston Heath Watch Office.

Predominant in this area of the country were the RAF’s No. 5 Group, who were tasked with the training of bomber crews for the Royal Air Force. A number of airfields including Bardney, Bottesford and Swinderby were all found around here, and Barkston Heath would soon become another name added to that list. However, a decision in January 1944, when the airfield’s upgrading was complete, was made to transfer the airfield over to the USAAF in answer to their call to accumulate airfields in the region for Troop Carrying purposes. This meant that Barkston Heath was handed over to the US Ninth Air Force early that year, renamed Station 483 whereupon it became home to the 61st Troop Carrier Group (TCG) of the Ninth Air Force.

The TCGs were units set up to train and provide Troop Carriers for the forthcoming invasion of the continent on the Normandy beaches. An operation that would see one of the largest invasion plans of the war put into place. It would require the dropping of thousands of elite paratroops on and behind enemy lines to capture, eliminate and disrupt their positions before and during the invasion on the morning of June 6th 1944.

The 61st TCG, were one of five groups making up the “Northern Troop Carrier Bases” of the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing (TCW). This wing consisted at this time, of four Troop Carrier Squadrons (TCS) the 14th,  15th, 53rd and the 59th TCS who would arrive during February 1944. Their stay would last long after the famed Normandy invasion had taken place, in fact until March 1945, almost to the war’s end. Whilst they were stationed here, the 61st would take part in a large number of major operations across the European territories.

The 61st’s journey to Barkston Heath took them from Olmsted Field in Pennsylvania, through Augusta (Georgia), Pope Field (North Carolina) and on to North Africa. By the time they left North Africa they were a an experienced Troop Carrier Group having taken part in paratroop activities whilst here. These drops had earned the 61st a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) and by the time they arrived at Barkston Heath, they had already two major invasion strikes on their books, Sicily and Italy.

On arrival at Barkston Heath, they were transferred to the Ninth Air Force, and due to their experiences required little training for the work ahead. In the days during the build-up to the invasion, paratroops of the 101st Airborne began to arrive. Their presence only added to the excitement and curiosity of the ground crews who busied themselves painting invasion stripes across the wings and round the fuselages of the C-47s, that were parked along the runways of Barkston Heath. During the invasion on June 6th 1944, and on D+1 on June 7th 1944, they dropped paratroops and supplies near to Cherbourg on the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. A major port, Cherbourg was also visited by the Titanic on its fateful voyage in April 1912, hopefully this would not be a prophecy as the area was an important place to both take and hold during the invasion.

Because of the nature of the drop and the dedication shown by the group, the 61st would receive their second DUC for this action. The awards for this brave and dedicated group of men were beginning to mount up.

Losses over Normandy were heavy however, and new recruits were brought in to replace those lost. A short period of training for the 44th TCS based at Cottesmore at the end of June, saw a six ship formation with gliders, mount a practice invasion at Barkston Heath. A smoke screen was laid down by an A-20 during which time four of the six aircraft landed safely.

After the breakout from the Normandy arena and the push north toward Holland and the Rhine, C-47s of 61st would then go on to drop British paratroops at Arnhem in Operation “Market Garden”; resupplying them by glider in the days that followed in September 1944. These troops consisted of the 1st Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers (550 men), 16th Parachute Field Ambulance (135 men), the Brigade Headquarters and the Paratroop section of the Defence Platoon consisting of 82 men. Amongst their parachutes they carried enormous quantities of kit, so much so that they had to be helped onto the aircraft by ground crew. Being ‘overweight’ parts of the kit had to be released before the paratroops hit the ground, as the extra weight forced them down faster than they should have been going. Many of these men suffered injuries from hitting the ground too hard, unable to release the harnesses in time to slow them selves down.

There were 157 paratroop filled aircraft in the sky that day, of which over 70 were from Barkston Heath – a considerable amount considering the relatively small size of the airfield. A further 358 aircraft followed all towing gliders, and so the sky that day was filled with silhouettes of aircraft as far as the eye could see. Even after this wave had passed, there were still two further waves to follow*1. In all, during operation ‘Market Garden‘, the 61st would carry out just short of 160 sorties dropping troops and supplies to the besieged ground forces around Nijmegen.

For the next few months the 61st would continue to supply the troops fighting in the lowlands of northern Europe, taking fuel, food and ammunition to the allied forces as they pushed forward toward Germany.

Then in mid March 1945, after many of the airfields in France had become secured, the 61st departed Barkston Heath, never to return. Whilst this curtailed their flying activities from this airfield, they would go on to cover other major operations including both the Rhine crossing that same month, and following the war’s end, the Berlin airlift in 1948/49. But before they departed, the Luftwaffe would have one small surprise for them. In a series of night attacks on the cluster of airfields in the area, including both RAF Cottesmore and RAF Barkston Heath, Night Fighters roamed the skies dropping anti-personnel bombs across the airfields. In the attack at Barkston Heath, the airfield was strafed and bombs were dropped, but thankfully little damage was done.

With the posting of the 61st to France, Barkston Heath would see a new group arrive, still under the ownership of the US Ninth Air Force. The new group, the 349th TCG,  operated C-46 aircraft to transport essential supplies into western Europe and then bringing  home both injured allied troops and German prisoners of war. The four squadrons based at Barkston, the 23rd, 312th, 313th and 314th, were only here for around 3 weeks before also moving off to France where they would continue their operations.

In April 1945, the withdrawal of the US forces from Barkston Heath meant that it was no longer required for their purposes, and so in June, the airfield was finally handed back to RAF control.

For a period after the war the airfield was used as a storage and disposal site before returning to the role of RLG for RAF Cranwell. Then, for the majority of the 1980s, Barkston Heath had an area within the former bomb dump developed for the siting of Bloodhound Missiles, Britain’s principle Surface-to-Air guided missile, and the first guided weapon to enter British operational service.

These missiles were manned by ‘D’ Flight from the RAF’s No. 25 Sqn on March  1st 1983, and remained here until October 1st 1989 when they were absorbed into No. 85 Sqn RAF. A year later they would be disbanded, the Bloodhound no longer being the mainstay of Britain’s last line of defence.

With the 1980s turning into the 1990s, Barkston Heath once more became a RLG for Cranwell. Since then it has continued to operate as a Training airfield for pilots of the three forces of the British Isles, recently replacing the Slingsby T67M260 Firefly with the Grob G 115 Tutor T.1.

As no large heavy aircraft had ever been assigned to Barkston Heath, it never needed developing beyond the Class A specification of its wartime role. The watch office has been updated though with the inclusion of the anti-glare glass house, but the wartime huts and technical buildings to the south of the airfield site have long gone. Fortunately the main concrete areas and hangars have survived much in thanks to their continued use by the Royal Air Force.

RAF Barkston Heath

One of Barkston’s many hangars still in use today. (Photo taken in 2013)

For a short period during 2003, the wartime aircraft of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight were stationed here whilst the runways at Coningsby were resurfaced ready for the arrival of the Eurofighter Typhoon. Barkston Heath was in fact the third choice after both  Waddington (which could not accommodate them) and Scampton (which was too large – the Spitfires possibly overheating whilst taxing and the hangars were in need of refurbishment) were discounted. After some minor modifications at Barkston Heath, the BBMF operated from here until October 5th when the majority of the aircraft returned home to Coningsby.*2

Since then Barkston Heath has remained as a satellite for Cranwell, operating as both a training facility and a Relief Landing Ground, a role that takes it back to it origins in 1936.

Today, little flying activity can be seen, but the airfield does have some reasonable viewing points. The hangers and (active) guard-house, are adjacent to the main road, and passing the airfield here parked aircraft can often be seen on the apron.

The remains of a Canberra B(1)8 ‘WT339’, an ex RAF Cranwell aircraft, rest in the dump, visible from a path leading off from the main road on the northern side of the airfield. Here also are the remains of the Bloodhound site, the launchers and missiles obviously all having been removed long ago. All the remaining hangars are visible behind the trees but those across the road are no longer used by the airfield operators. Other than this, little buildings wise, remains.

Whilst Barkston Heath has had a long life and one that looks to continue well into the future, its wartime life was relatively short. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that it was, none the less, a highly important airfield playing a major part in the Allied invasion plans, and not just Normandy itself, but beyond to the ill-fated operations around the Dutch town of Arnhem.

RAF Barkston Heath is a name that should be more widely known, seared into every tale of the Normandy Invasion plan, a name that should live for many, many years to come.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Hicks, N., “Captured at Arnhem: From Railwayman to Paratrooper“, (2013) Pen and Sword.

*2 Cotter, J., “The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight: 50 Years of Flying“, (2007) Pen and Sword.

 

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 6).

After considering the architecture of Britain’s airfields in Part 5, we turn to the hard surfaces, primarily the runways. Developed out of necessity, they created a steep learning curve for those involved in their construction. Many problems were found, many materials were tried, but ultimately they were built and even after their removal for hardcore, many have left scars in the tissue of the earth that remind us of their once massive presence.

Runways, Perimeter Tracks and Hardstands

In the pre-war years, the development of hard runways and large airfields was a new phenomena, hard surfaces being a new aspect still very much a topic of considerable controversy. In the First World War, water logging and mud was an issue even for the small biplanes that filled the skies over Britain and  France. To overcome this, ash was spread over landing surfaces and to some degree successfully, but even though many local remedies were tried, it wouldn’t be taken seriously until the Second World War loomed.

Glatton (Conington) second runway markings

Runways like this one at Glatton (Conington) remain in good condition and used by the local flying club.

At this point the typical airfield layout included up to four grass runways, one of 1,300 x 400 yards and three of 1,000 x 200 yards, many were even smaller. Bomber and Fighter Command, realising that not only would the new era of aircraft call for longer, hard runways on its airfields, but the need to maintain year round activity was essential if Britain was to defeat the Luftwaffe.

Both Fighter and Bomber Command pushed the Government to allow these to be developed, on the one hand Sir Hugh Dowding, fighting the corner for Fighter Command, pressed home the need for hard surfaces on his fighter airfields, whilst Sir Arthur Harris on the other, pushed for hard surfaces on his bomber airfields.

The entire process was lengthy and complex, and lacked in-depth, professional knowledge. The first hard ‘pavements’ later runways and taxi ways, being constructed based on road building techniques and knowledge. So before any firm decisions could be made, trials would need to be carried out to determine not only whether or not they were indeed needed, but if so, how they should be best constructed.

Initial steps in runway construction was started as early as 1937, where ‘flexible’ runways were constructed comprising layers of brick or stone covered with two further layers of tarmac and a coat of asphalt to seal the structure in. Concrete pavements, which proved to be much stronger were either 150 mm or 200 mm thick slabs laid directly onto the ground after the topsoil had been removed by heavy machinery. As would be expected, these early designs failed quite quickly under the heavy loads of the fighters and bombers that were coming into service. Rapid repairs were carried by adding a further layer of tarmac (6.5cm) and another layer (2cm) of sealant.

These early flexible constructions continued to fail whereas the concrete designs stood up to much more wear and tear and proved longer lasting. However, time was short and the learning curve would be steep.

The test to determine these needs was to take a Whitley bomber, laden to equal its full operational weight, and taxi it across a grassed surface.  A rather primitive assessment, it was intended to ascertain the effects of the aircraft on the ground beneath. Trials were first carried out at Farnborough and then Odiham, and these were generally successful, the Whitley only bogging down on recently disturbed soils. Further trials were then carried out at RAF Stradishall in March 1938, and the results were a little more mixed. Whilst no take offs or landings took place during these trials, the general agreement was that more powerful bombers would have no problems using grassed surfaces, as long as the ground was properly prepared and well maintained. All well and good when the soils were dry and well-drained.

By April 1939, the Air Ministry conceded, and agreed to lay runways at a small number of fighter and bomber airfields, of which Kenley, Biggin Hill, Debden and Stradishall were identified.  Whilst construction was slow, only two fighters airfields being completed by the outbreak of war, progress was finally being made.

These initial runways were only 800 yards long and 50 yards wide, but were extended later that year to 1,000 yards long, as aircraft were repeatedly running off the ends on to the grassed areas. Over the years Stradishall in particular, would be further developed, its longest runway eventually extending to 2,000 yards.

RAF Charterhall

The runway at Charterhall in the borders, breaking up after many years of use both by training units and as a motor racing circuit post war.

During the early war years, the demand for airfields grew. By early 1940 the requirement was for three runways as close as possible at 60o to each other, and of a minimum length of 1,000 yards with room for extension up to 1,400 yards. This then became the norm by late 1940 especially at bomber airfields, with the main runway being 1,400 yards and subsidiaries at 1,100 yards. A month later, this increased by another 200 yards with a requirement to be able to extend to 2,000 and 1,400 yards respectively.

However, these short piecemeal responses were not sufficient and it was both a continual problem and a thorn in the side for the Air Ministry. Sir Arthur Harris, in raising his concerns for airfields belonging to Bomber Command, also pushed the need to develop good, long and reliable surfaces. He voiced his frustration in a vehement letter*6 to Lord Beaverbrook in 1941, In which he states:

“For twenty years everybody on the stations and the squadrons has been screaming for runways without avail.”

and he continues stressing the need for hard surfaces particularly in winter as:

“Through not having runways our effort will be seriously detracted from in normal winter conditions and reduced very probably to zero in abnormal winter conditions.”

He then goes on to state that Britain’s views were ‘blinkered’ saying that:

“Every other nation throughout the world has long been convinced of the necessity for runways…”

By the summer of 1941, the length of runways had again increased, all stations would now have a main runway of 2,000 yards and two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards and where this was not possible, then a minimum of 1,600 and 1,100 yards (fighter and night fighter stations being shorter at 1,300 and 1,400 yards respectively).

The harsh winters were less than ideal for laying concrete (by far the best material for the job) but any delay could mean the difference between success and failure. Elaborate testing was therefore passed over, materials were laid and experience led the way. This method of trail and error, led to many instances of runways having to be dug up and relaid, this in itself led to problems as aircraft, men and machinery had to then be moved and housed elsewhere. The American Eighth Air Force suffered greatly with these problem, fully laden bombers repeatedly breaking through the surface or falling off the edges as it gave way.

Another consideration was that of training and satellite airfields. As the need for new pilots increased, the training of new recruits intensified. The harsh winters were causing major headaches for these airfields as mud, stones and other winter debris was causing continuous problems for flying. With both man power and materials being in short supply, suitable alternatives were sought.  A number of solutions were offered all very similar in their design and material.

The answer it seemed lay in steel matting – of which twelve different types were used – the more common being : Sommerfeld Track, Pierced Steel Planking (PSP – also called Marston Mat), or Square Mesh Track (SMT).

Sommerfeld track was a steel mat designed by Austrian Kurt Sommerfeld. The tracking was adapted from a First World War idea, and was a steel mat that when arrived, was rolled up in rolls 3.25 m (10 ft 8 in) wide by 23 m (75 ft 6 in) long. It was so well designed that a full track could be laid, by an unskilled force, in a matter of hours. Each section could be replaced easily if damaged, and the entire track could be lifted and transported by lorry, aeroplane or boat to another location and then reused.

Sommerfeld track (along with these other track types) were not only used commonly on training and satellite airfields, but also on Advanced and Forward Landing Grounds in Kent and later France after the Allied invasion of Normandy. In the build up to D-Day, 24 Advanced Landing Grounds in southern England were created using this form of Steel Matting,

Tracking had to be robust, it had to be able to withstand heavy landings and be non-conspicuous from the air. Sommerfeld track met both of these, and other stringent criteria very well, although it wasn’t without its problems. Crews often complained of a build up of mud after heavy rain, and concerns over both tyre and undercarriage damage were also extensively voiced; several records reporting tail wheels being ripped off after catching in the track lattice.

Because of the poor state and short length of runways, bombers were still regularly running off the ends, especially at night, or being unable to fly because the surfaces were poor or even unusable. A number of ideas were tested out to alleviate the problem, one such idea led to twenty sites testing arrester hook facilities. Several heavy bombers: Halifax, Manchester, Stirlings  and later the Lancaster,  were all modified to undertake these trials, with Woodhall Spa becoming the first airfield to have the full complement of six arrester sets.

Runway arrester gear

Runway arrester gear at Woodhall Spa.

The idea was met with scepticism, but trials went ahead and in January 1942, a list of priority airfields was sent out to the Headquarters of No. 1,3,4, and 5 Groups RAF detailing those twenty sites selected for the equipment. At the top of the list was RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, followed by Bottesford, Swinderby, Ossington, Syerston, Middleton St. George, Linton, and ending with Waterbeach and Stradishall. By late 1942 Woodhall Spa was ready and in October, five landings were made by an Avro Manchester.  A month later the decision was made to install units at all major operational airfields, but this never came to fruition and the idea was soon mothballed. By 1943, it had been forgotten about and the 120 or so units built were scrapped (many being left buried where they were laid).

It was finally during early 1942 that a standard design airfield would be put in place. Known as the Class ‘A’, it would be the standard to which all new airfields and updated older sites would be made.

A Class A airfield would be designed around three hard concrete runways, shaped like an ‘A’ with each runway at 60o  to each other where possible. The main runway would be aligned with the prevailing wind again were possible to allow aircraft to take off/land into the wind as often as possible (north-east, south-west). In several cases, due to land features and local restrictions, this was not always possible, and so many permutations of design were seen as a result.

Rapidly becoming the largest part of the airfield layout, the runways and other paved areas – perimeters tracks, aprons and hardstands – were now given high priority. The standard now called for a main runway of 2,000 yards with two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards. Each of these would be 50 yards wide whilst the connecting perimeter tracks would be 50 feet wide. Along side these runways would be an emergency landing strip, a grassed area given a landing surface of 400 and  200 yards respectively.

Dues to the high numbers of bombers returning badly damaged and unable to make safe and proper landings, a small number of emergency strips were created by extending the main runways to 4,000 yards long and 400 yards wide. One such airfield was RAF Manston in Kent. Being on of the closest airfields to the continent, it was often the first place a stricken aircraft, especially a bomber, would seek out.

Whilst the general layout of airfields did not change for the remainder of the war, some further runways were extended to 3,000 yards, one such example being RAF Sculthorpe in Norfolk which was prepared to take the heavy B29 ‘Superfortress’ and post war, the B-36 ‘Peacemaker’.

A further point worth mentioning here is that of dispersals, not required pre-war, they were also an aspect of airfield architecture that were born out of the Second World War. In the inter-war years, aircraft were housed either on a central pan (apron or ramp) or within hangars. These collections of aircraft were easy targets and even a small amount of munitions could cause huge damage. In 1939 the need for dispersals was therefore recognised and so to address the issue, hedges were removed and tracks created that took aircraft away from the main runway but kept them within easy reach of the airfield site. The initial design was that of the ‘frying pan’ a 150 ft circle connected to the perimeter track by a small concrete track.

However, by 1942, it was found that aircraft were clogging up these tracks, some even ‘falling off’ the concrete onto soft soil and so blocking following aircraft in their tracks. The answer was the ‘spectacle’ or ‘loop’ hardstand, so-called by their oval shape, generally in pairs, that allow aircraft in and out without the need to turn or block access tracks. From 1942 onward, this model became the standard hardstand for all Class A airfields, and the aim was to have 50 such hardstands placed strategically around the perimeter, with 25 at satellite airfields. As the threat of attack diminished toward the end of the war, ‘finger’ or ‘star’ dispersals began to appear, much less effective than the predecessors, they were however cheaper and easier to construct.

RAF Milfield

Unusual as many training airfields didn’t have aircraft pans, RAF Millfield, in the borders, had several

In addition to hardstands, pens were built on fighter stations. The first, an experimental pit, was dug at Feltwell, whilst overly expensive and obtrusive, it did lead the way to aircraft pens later on, pens that were developed as either type ‘B’ or ‘E’  on these fighter airfields. The main difference here is that the early type ‘B’ had cranked side walls whereas the ‘E’ had walls that were straight. The former requiring more space, was later phased out in favour of the ‘E’, named so by its shape, using side and back walls to protect the fighter or small bomber located within.

Remains of Type 'B' fighter Pen

The remains of a Type ‘B’ Fighter Pen at Matlaske.

Examples of these pens were located at Matlaske (type ‘B’ – built to design 7151/41) whilst the type ‘E’ were found on airfields especially those around London that included Biggin HiIl, Kenley and North Weald.

Kingscliffe airfield

One of the ‘E’ type pens found at Kings Cliffe. Adapted with rifle slits for additional defence.

These pens were designed to specific dimensions and were designed as either a ‘Hurricane’ or ‘Blenheim’ to accommodate either a single engined or twin-engined aircraft. Within the back wall of these pens was a shelter for up to 25 personnel, and in some cases, they had Stanton Shelters built-in to the structures. Some, for example, at Kings Cliffe in Northampton, remain with rifle slits for additional protection from ground forces.

King's Cliffe airfield

Inside the aircraft pen shelter at King’s Cliffe.

Whilst the majority of these shelters were manufactured using banks of soil, sandbags, brick or concrete, there was a least one example at RAF Drem, in Scotland which used logs cut to size and shape and built in the style of a Scandinavian house. It is these various designs of aircraft pen that paved the way to modern hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) seen on military airfields today.

From the early days of grass runways to the massive lengths of concrete that were created up to and after the mid 1940s, runways and hardstands have become a defining factor in airfield design. The sole purpose of an airfield – to get aircraft off the ground as quickly as possible, get them to their target and them get them home again – led to the development of both runway lengths and construction materials, much of which has paved the way for modern airfields today. These early leaps into runway designs have enabled larger and heavier aircraft to make those important journeys that we very much take for granted in this the modern world of air travel and general aviation.

In the next section we look at one of the buildings most associated with the airfield. An early form of aircraft storage, its role changed as it was soon realised that aircraft needed to be dispersed and not grouped together on large aprons as they were in the prewar era. Aesthetics and neatly lined up aircraft were no longer an important factor in front line flying, but safety and the ability to repair aircraft quickly and efficiently were. Here we introduce the hangar, a huge building often of a temporary or transportable nature, that became one of the more longer lasting structures of airfield architecture.

Sources and further reading. 

*6 Letter from Arthur Harris to Lord Beaverbrook, February 1941 – AIR 19/492 – National Archives

RAF Thorpe Abbotts – home to the ‘Bloody 100th’.

There are few Bomb Groups who got through the war unscathed. Some earned notable awards, many earned notable nicknames. There are none more though than that of the 100th Bomb Group of the United States Air Force, a groups of men who fought in many of Europe’s most fearsome air battles, suffering many great loses but also achieving great successes.

In this review of Trail 12 we look again at the airfield at Thorpe Abbots, and the history behind the derelict buildings and the concrete remains, we see how the 100th BG earned themselves that most unsavoury name ‘The Bloody 100th‘.

Thorpe Abbotts (Station 139).

Opened quite late in the war, (April 1943), Thorpe Abbots would only be active for a short period of time. But during these months, it would be home to one major air group, the 100th BG of the US Eighth Air Force, who would gain the unsavoury name ‘The Bloody 100th’. Their legacy would become well-known, it would be a legacy connected with death and destruction, and would be one that would live on for many years, even after the cessation of conflict in Europe.

The first units of the 100th BG would arrive in June 1943, and would operate continuously here until the cessation of conflict in 1945. The site would never see any further action after this, being returned to the RAF who retained ownership until its final closure in 1956. Now totally agricultural, it boasts a superb museum as a memorial to those who gave so tragically flying with ‘The Bloody 100th’.

Thorpe Abbotts Village sign

Thorpe Abbotts Village sign

The 100th’s name developed as a result of losses sustained by the group, which in actual fact were not significantly worse than any other Bomb Group of the US Air Force at that time. However, throughout their 306 operational missions over occupied Europe, 177 aircraft along with 700 lives were sadly lost in what were some of the most difficult and terrifying air battles of the Second World War.

Designated Station 139, Thorpe Abbots was built to Class A specification, with three concrete and woodchip runways in the form of an inverted ‘A’, with the cross of the A being the main runway running east to west. Being a bomber base it had 36 pan style hardstands and 16 spectacle hardstands around the perimeter. Maintenance was carried out in two T2 hangars (a type A to drawing 8254/40, and a standard T2). The technical area, accommodation areas and even the bomb store were very unusually all nestled close together in the south-western corner of the site, giving the whole airfield a  compact feel.

With two communal sites, six airmen sites, two WAAF sites, a sick quarters and sewage works, it was a large accommodation area capable of holding 3,000 men and women of mixed ranks. All the accommodation areas used a range of standard huts, Nissen, Romney, Seco, Thorn and Orlit, all of which appeared on site.

Being a large base, it was, like many of its counterparts, a little town in its own right, with a barber’s shop, a cobblers, grocery store, a gymnasium and squash courts. It also had an on site plumbers, a cement store and a carpenter’s shop.

Although the journey of the 100th started with the activation on June 1st 1942, little occurred until later that year, when the collection of 230 enlisted men and 26 Officers arrived at Walla Walla, Washington, under the guidance of the Group Adjutant Cpt. Karl Standish. He began to organise the cadre into something worthwhile, and as more men arrived the ranks began to swell and the 100th began to take shape. The four squadrons: 349th (led by Cpt. William Veal), 350th (Cpt. Gale Clevan), 351st (Cpt. John Kidd) and 418th (Cpt. Robert Flesher), formed bonds and very quickly, and very soon after, the air echelons would begin to arrive, bringing with them brand new ‘straight out of the factory’ B-17Fs.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

Thorpe Abbotts Control Tower now a museum to the 100th BG.

Their next move came at the end of November with a move that took them to Wendover Field, Utah, followed by, Sioux City and then Kearney Air Base in Nebraska, their final major US base before leaving for the UK in May 1943.

After the ground and air echelons split for their transition, the air echelons flew to bases in Newfoundland, where they departed across the northern route to Prestwick at the end of May. The ground echelons then  carried out ground training before departing on the “Queen Elizabeth” on the 27th May, many men being confined below decks because of the overcrowding on the upper decks.

The Queen Elizabeth finally made Greenock, and the men began unloading, the transition from the US to the UK being a shock to many as they clambered aboard the small ‘box cars’ size trains. That night they arrived at Poddington, their first base, and following a poor night’s sleep they received their initial introduction into the British way of life.

The 100th’s arrival at Thorpe Abbotts was not a pleasant one, the base was unfinished, accommodation was lacking and overcrowded, and food supplies were poor to say the least; this was not going to be an easy ride by any means.

Finally, in June, the air echelons began to arrive, the ground and air crews began to work on their machines, rehearsing, tweaking instruments and flying around the local area, until just after midnight on June 25th 1943, the order came through; they were to fly their first mission early that next morning.

The 100th were the third B-17 group to join the Mighty Eighth, as part of the new and reorganised 4th Bombardment Wing, they would join with the 379th BG (Kimbolton) and the 384th BG (Grafton Underwood), both also B-17 groups.

On that morning the aircraft would depart Thorpe Abbotts at 06:00 hrs, and whilst flying out over the North Sea, the formation would be joined by another B-17, with no top turret and the letters ‘VGY’ painted on it. No-one knew what it was, or where it had come from, and suspicions quickly arose about its authenticity. The ‘alien’ ship remained with the formation up until the target at which point it departed and “all hell broke loose”. The formation consisting of these new recruits was ragged and the experienced Luftwaffe pilots took full advantage of this. Focusing on the low squadron first, they fired a barrage of explosive shells into the fuselage’s of the B-17s. That afternoon three aircraft and thirty airmen failed to return home to Thorpe Abbotts, the war had hit home, and hit home hard.

Robert H. Wolff’s crew. L to R Back Row: Ira Bardman, Alfred Clark, William ‘Casey’ Casebolt, James Brady, Arthur ‘Eagle’ Eggleston, Willis ‘Browny’ Brown . Front Row: Charles ‘Stu’ Stuart, Fredric ‘Buzz’ White, (aiming at the enemy) Bob Wolff, Lawrence ‘Mac’ McDonell. The photo was taken after Regensburg for publicity purposes. (@IWM FRE 905)

Over the next month, there were many aborted and scrubbed missions, this continued raising and dashing of hopes set the men on edge but what few missions they did fly, they manged to get through relatively unscathed.

The end of July 1943 saw the official hand over of Thorpe Abbotts from the RAF to the USAAF, with Sqn. Ldrs. Lawson and Bloomfield representing the RAF and Col. Harding the USAAF.

On August 17th 1943, on the anniversary of the Eighth’s operations from England, the men of the 100th sat in the briefing room awaiting the revealing of the target for the day. The anticipation however, was soon replaced with trepidation as the route map revealed a line that would take them deep into the heart of southern Germany, to the Messerschmitt plant at Regensburg. This would be no ordinary mission though, they were to not return to Thorpe Abbotts that day, but instead, they were to complete the first shuttle mission by the Eighth Air Force of the war, flying on to land in North Africa.

After an initial postponement because of mist, the green light was finally given and the aircrews started their engines. One by one they departed Thorpe Abbots toward the  skies above Germany. The 100th were in the unenviable position of ‘tail end Charlie’ being the low squadron at the rear of the formation. Added to this the 100th BG found themselves unprotected due to miscalculations in timing, and as unprotected ‘tail-end Charlies’, they were easy prey for the fearsome and hunting Luftwaffe. For two whole hours the defenders attacked from every possible angle, venting their determination on the lowly B-17s. The sky was littered with downed aircraft and falling wreckage. The B-17s were subjected to harrowing attempts to bring them down, air-to-air bombing from Ju-88s, and rockets fired from BF-109s just added to the mayhem of exploding cannon shells and bullets.

During this engagement B-17 #42-30311, piloted by Lt. Tom Hummel was attacked by Rudolf Germeroth in Bf 109G-6 of J 3/1. The aircraft was seen to explode and fall from the sky. The two waist gunners Ken O’Connor and Dick Bowler were killed whilst the remainder of the crew escaped the wreck and were taken prisoner.

Bombing over the target was accurate and reports sent back to England hailed the mission as a total success, The Messerschmitt factory being totally destroyed, and along with it unbeknown to intelligence, secret jigs for the manufacture of Me 262 jets. But the price had been high, of the twenty-one aircraft sent from the Thorpe Abbotts group,  nine had been lost and ninety men were either dead, captured or missing. Of all the groups who had taken part, the 100th had suffered the most, the lead group protected by P-47s coming off much more lightly.

The Regensburg mission would be a turning point for the 100th, their luck would run out and very soon they would earn themselves the unsavoury nickname ‘The Bloody 100th‘, a name that would stick with them for the duration of the war and beyond.

For their action in this mission, the 100th (and the entire division) would earn themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) an award now becoming a regular feature amongst the brave crews of the Eighth Air Force.

In the Citation, the Secretary of War, G.C. Marshall said:

“The 3d Bombardment Division (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty on action against the enemy on 17th August 1943. This unprecedented attack against one of Germany’s most important aircraft factories was the first shuttle mission performed in the theatre of operations and entailed the longest flight over strongly defended enemy territory yet accomplished to this date. For 4.5 hours the formation was subjected to persistent, savage assaults by large forces of enemy fighters…

…The high degree of success achieved is directly attributable to the extraordinary heroism, skill and devotion to duty displayed by the members of this unit.”

During the September, the USAAF was reorganised again, the 4th Bombardment Wing now becoming the 3rd Bomb Division, 13th Combat Wing, a move that heralded little more than a change in aircraft markings. September would also be a notable month for other reasons. The mission on the 6th to Stuttgart would be a disaster for the USAAF, a deep penetration mission that saw over 400 aircraft combine in the skies over Germany. It was during this mission that B-17 #42-30088 ‘Squawkin’ Hawk II‘ would suffer from head on attacks by Luftwaffe aircraft who pounded the B-17 with 20 mm cannon shells. In the attacks the co-pilot (F/O. Harry Edeburn) was fatally wounded, the bombardier and navigator Lt. Peter Delso and Lt. Russ Engel were both severely wounded and the pilot, Lt. Summer Reeder was sprayed with metal as the nose of the B-17 shattered. With poor control and no oxygen, Reeder dropped the aircraft some 14,000 ft at an unbelievable rate of around 300 mph, before playing cat and mouse with the Luftwaffe fighters who were determined to finish off the damaged aircraft. By singing and telling jokes, the severely injured Reeder assisted by the badly wounded navigator, manged to reach England and without brakes or hydraulics, managed to put the aircraft down on a fighter airfield in England.

Squawkin Hawk II‘ would go on to become the first 100th BG aircraft to complete 50 missions covering a staggering 47,720 combat miles. She returned to the US in May 1944 where she was eventually sold for scrap.

After completing 50 missions, “Squawkin’ Hawk II” was covered with autographs before being sent back to the US for retirement and eventual scrapping.(@IWM FRE 4124)

During this disastrous mission many aircraft would run out of fuel, five made for Switzerland including ‘Raunchy‘ from the 100th BG in which Joe Moloney, the ball turret gunner, would be killed whilst trying to ditch. He would take the dubious honour of being the first US airman killed in neutral Switzerland.

It was also at this month, that the 100th would suffer another major blow and to rub salt into the wounds, they would not even get credit for it.

After a cancelled mission on September 24th 1943, the men of the 100th were raised from their beds for a practice mission over the North Sea, a ‘mission’ that would test their ability as Pathfinders. With bombs still in the aircraft from the morning’s preparations, skeleton crews and semi prepared aircraft took off from several bases across East Anglia.

They were to form up with P-47s over the Wash and then fly out over the sea and practice bombing. When a collection of aircraft appeared on the horizon it was assumed by the bomber crews that it was the friendlies arriving at last. The reality of it was sickening. Diving out of the sun Luftwaffe fighters from JG 3/II attacked the formation, rallying 20mm cannon shells in to the B-17’s wings and bodies. One aircraft, #42-30259 “Damifino II” piloted by Lt. J. Gossage crashed into the sea. Five crewmen were plucked from the water by Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB) hunting German ‘E’ boats, five men remained missing presumed dead.

Yet more difficult times lay ahead. The October raid to Munster saw only one of fourteen aircraft return home – 120 crewmen were missing in action that day. As aircraft were hit from head on, the formation split. Aircraft dodged falling debris and exploding B-17s as rockets were launched at near point-blank range in a forty-five minute frenzy of slaughter.

This disastrous mission would see the tally of lost airmen rise to 200 in just one week, the loss could not be hidden and Munster would simply add another black chapter to the already darkening book of the 100th’s war. Even the one year celebrations at the end of October failed to cover the feeling of loss shrouding the base, a feeling as thick as the autumn fogs preventing flying from taking place.

Thorpe Abbotts Emergency operations block

Ghostly reminders hidden amongst the trees. Thorpe Abbott’s Battle Headquarters.

The cold winter of 1943/44 saw more fog, rain and cold, the dismal weather allowing only a few missions to go ahead. But as spring warmed the ground, the softening of the German defences in preparation for Operation “Overlord” could begin. ‘Big Week’ of February 20th – 25th, saw the 100th in action again – Brunswick on the 21st. March saw another milestone etched in the annuals of history as the 100th took the war directly to the heart of Germany and Berlin. Over three days the 100th would target the German capital, the first on the 4th, followed by the 6th and then the 8th. The 4th would see the 100th achieve the first blood, shooting down their first German aircraft over Berlin.

Each attack brought new challenges. In the first mission the weather forced many aircraft to abandon the flight and return home, the 100th, persevering lost one aircraft that day. On the 6th, the loss was much higher, fifteen aircraft went down and then another single aircraft on the 8th; 170 men were missing from those missions.

For their action, the 100th would receive their second DUC, albeit a year later. In the General orders 3rd March 1945, No.14 it said:

“The 100th Bombardment Group (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy in connection with the initial series of successful attacks against Berlin, Germany, 4, 6, and 8 March 1944…”

For the remainder of the summer the 100th would attack oil fields. bridges, and gun positions. They would provide support at St. Lo and Brest in August. Marshalling yards would also come under the focus of the 100th, the Ardennes and the assault across the Rhine. Eventually the war would come to a close and the 100th perform their last mission on April 20th 1945. They would lick their wounds and prepare for a well-earned return to the US.

By the end of its war-time operations the 100th BG had flown nearly 9,000 sorties, in over 300 missions, dropping over 19,000 tons of bombs. They would be credited with the destruction of 261 enemy aircraft, with another 240 damaged or probable. They earned two DUCs and the French Croix de Guerre with palm. Far from being the worst in the 8th Air Force, the 100th’s reputation for accuracy, and overall low operational loses made it one of the most outstanding Bomb Groups of the Air Force.

Finally leaving in December 1945, the 100th would eventually return to serve over the skies of the UK once more as the 100th Refuelling Wing based at nearby RAF Mildenhall.

After the 100th departed, Thorpe Abbots was returned to RAF ownership, no further military flying  took place and the site remained inactive. Eventually in 1956 the airfield was closed and the site then sold off to private ownership. Many of the runways and perimeter tracks were removed for hardcore, and the buildings fell into disrepair.

Today, the site houses a museum utilising the old original control tower and a small number of other buildings. Tucked neatly away amongst the beautiful countryside of Norfolk, this museum is more than worthy of a visit.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

The Tower has Commanding Views.

Visible remains of the airfield are restricted to mainly perimeter track, but remnants can be found with a little effort. In the woods to the east of the tower, buried in amongst the undergrowth, are the remains of buildings including the Battle Headquarters  which would have commanded excellent views across the field in the case of attack.

The perimeter track has been partially utilised and turned into road, from which larger sections can be seen. A number of admin blocks, stores and a range of accommodation buildings are now engulfed by trees and vegetation but still survive and are all very much on private land.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

Remnants of the perimeter track at Thorpe Abbotts.

Whilst many buildings remain hidden away, the dedication of a few volunteers keep the memories and lives of those who gave so much alive, and enable the history of Thorpe Abbots airfield to continue on for future generations.

Sources and further reading. 

Freeman, Roger A. “The Mighty Eighth” (1986) Arms and Armour

Arnold, Henry. H., “Contrails, My War Record: A history of World War Two as recorded at U.S. Army Air Force Station #139, Thorpe Abbots, near Diss, county of Norfolk, England” (1947) World War Regimental Histories Book 194.

Further details of the 100th BG and information about the museum can be found on the museum website.

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 4).

In Part 4 of the Development of Britain’s Airfields, we take a short look at the construction process and the numerous companies that were involved in building the airfield. Once a site was found in Part 3, compulsory purchase was made and the developers moved in.

Building the airfield.

The creation of airfields was set, each plan was studied, trees, shrubs and hedges were removed, ditches filled and the land leveled to a maximum gradient of 1:60.

First of all to reduce the risk of machinery being bogged down, perimeter tracks were built. This allowed the delivery of heavy loads to any part of the site, and so were originally designed to carry support vehicles rather than aircraft. One reason why so many grassed airfields had hard perimeter tracks.

With such a big workforce being drafted in, accommodation for the workers would be needed, these would generally be the huts that would be used for the aircrews and other personnel on the base once active. Drainage and dry storage was needed as a matter of urgency, and were usually a priority even before the accommodation areas.

RAF Bury St Edmunds (Rougham)

Buildings would be built using a range of materials.

Hiding these enormous excavations was going to a headache for the authorities. How do you hide a building site covering many acres? (Average grassed stations covered 200 – 400 acres whilst those with runways were around 500 acres extending to over 1,000 by the war’s end).  Numerous strategies were tried from painting the ground to covering it with coal dust, even adding wood chip to the concrete surfaces was used all with little real impact. Any spy or reconnaissance pilot worth his salt would have spotted the works and reported back immediately.

Gradually the airfield developed. Workers worked in shifts covering a 24 hour working day, seven days a week, this meant that the construction period was relatively short and the completion rapid. By the end of the war some £200 million worth of work had been carried out involving somewhere in the region of 130,000 individuals including engineering workers, and building sub-contractors.

As the site neared completion, RAF staff would begin moving in. The stores officer or ‘Equipment manager’ would often be first, ordering the necessary supplies to accommodate the forthcoming personnel. He would usually be followed by a NAFFI and a medical officer who would officially declare the site ready for occupation. Once this had been given the ground crews would be brought in, followed by aircrews and the aircraft. Even with a newly opened site, it was rare that it was ever fully finished, often accommodation was rudimentary or cooking facilities limited. In some cases tents were the order of the day until construction was completed. Great emphasis was placed on getting the site open and operational rather than ready. In some cases ground crews, who were otherwise waiting for aircraft to arrive, would take to shovels and picks to complete or improve upon work that had been started on site.

Also the airfield needed naming. Names were usually taken from the nearest village or town, and where confusion might arise from a similar name, it could then be taken from an alternative nearby village. This is why some airfields appear to be quite distant from their respective named locations. Alternatives to this would be geographical features or alternatively local farms e.g RAF Twinwood Farm. The Americans used the system of numbering partly because (a) the American airmen were unable to pronounce accurately some of the English names and were often found getting confused by them, and (b) the American administration system made it easier to use numbers rather than names.

By now the airfield was built, or at least open, the first unit would arrive and airfield defences would be set up. Military personnel would become established and operations would soon begin. All this could occur within months, it was a massive undertaking achieved in very little time.

In the next section we look at the architecture of British airfields, how the idea of replication in design led to architectural developments, and how the demand for materials led to changes in airfield buildings.

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 3).

In Part 3 of this series, we turn from the political scene of Part 2 and look at how airfields were identified, The process and methodology of airfield selection.

Choosing a site.

Choosing an airfield site during these prewar periods was especially difficult as there were many ‘unknown’ factors to predict, a factor in itself that helped determine the needs of each of the various schemes mentioned previously. However, there were a number of airfields already in situ, some used by the military and some used by civilian aviation. As remnants of the First World War, many military sites were inadequate or inappropriate for the growing future needs of the RAF, but with some work, they could be developed into workable sites as the basic infrastructure was already there in place.

As well as these RAF sites, there were also civilian airfields, which the Government considered as potential military airfields. Because civil aviation had grown amongst the wealthier members of society, although not exclusively, this meant that in the pre-war period, there were some 90 airfields*4 owned either by local councils or under private ownership. Many of these were requisitioned by the authorities, but because many were small or located very close to built-up areas, (in 1928 the Air Ministry ‘encouraged’ towns of 20,000+ inhabitants to have a municipal airport), they were not suitable for modern fighter or bomber aircraft. As a result, many of these became training or maintenance sites, some linked to aircraft production facilities, but none were ‘operational’ for fighting units.

A further group of airfields in use at this time, were those of the AA (Automobile Association – better known as a motoring organisation). The AA Landing Grounds were often ex First World War sites located near to hotels and other places of interest to the motorist. Fuel was usually supplied at, or near to, each site, and each one was ‘tested’ by an aircraft on behalf of the AA before it was granted AA status. As these sites were registered, their locations were readily available to the Germans and so they were closed and rendered unsuitable for aircraft. However, land in close proximity was occasionally used, and so a new site would be created in a similar location.

With all these sites available, one would imagine choosing a site and developing it, would be relatively straight forward, but this is far from the truth. Many of these sites were inadequate, and the process of repairing/upgrading or rectifying it was simply not going to be sufficient. Therefore, many new sites were going to be required and the process by which a site was identified, acquired and then subsequently developed was not at all straightforward. In each case the Air Ministry Directorate (AMDGW) and Air Ministries Aerodromes Board would work in very close conjunction with numerous other Government departments and interested public bodies. These would include local Electricity Boards, Drainage Boards, the Geological Survey Department and the local War Agricultural Committee, who were concerned about flooding caused by run-off from the sudden building of large expanses of concrete.

In the first instance, using an ordnance survey map, areas that were below 50 feet above sea level or above 650 feet were generally ignored, the former being prone to flooding whilst the latter suffering high levels of low cloud or hill fog. Next a circle with a radius of 1,100 yards was marked off, this had to be flat with minimal rise in the ground layer. It also had to be free from obstructions and ideally at least three miles away from any other flying location. Next officers from the Air Ministries Aerodromes Board would walk the site, field by field, recording maximum landing distances, and noting any unidentified obstacles, trees, hedges, ditches or more permanent structures that would need removal.

By September 1939, board officials had identified, examined and recorded around 4,000 possible sites in the U.K. Many would be simply filed away never to see aviation of any kind, whilst others would become famous for years to come.

Once a suitable site had been identified and examined, the local geology had to be established where possible. In the pre-war years, no consideration was given to hard runways, they didn’t exist in any real form and were not seen as needed as any aircraft of that time could happily take off from a grass strip. However, in order to prevent aircraft wheels from bogging down, or flooding closing an airfield, well-drained soils were absolutely paramount.

Once the site had been accepted, the land was requisitioned, forcibly purchased using new powers created under the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939. This gave virtually immediate access and ownership of the land – with little notice to the land owner – to the Government. These powers also saw their way to reducing the ‘NIMBY*5 effect, protests against developments being side-lined through political clout.

The next stage in the process was to put the job out to tender. The difficulty here was that secrecy was of the utmost importance, and so little of the detail was released other than an approximate location. As the war progressed, the number of construction companies involved became fewer, and those that were involved more established, prime contractors being Wimpey, Laing, Taylor-Woodrow and McAlpine – all of whom went on to be major construction companies post war. That said, no major airfield would generally be completed by one single contractor, as the whole process required a wide range of skills based operations. As one completed their task, another would come in, sometimes dual operations would be carried out simultaneously. For example taxiways and access roads may have been built by Tarmac, whereas the runway may have been built by McAlpine. Accommodation areas often used ‘Nissen’, or in many USAAF cases, ‘Quonset’ huts, many of these and other ‘standard’ buildings were erected by buildings contractors whereas other more substantial buildings may have been built by John Laing and Co.

By the outbreak of war, 100 sites had been purchased, as the number was relatively small, the board were able to be ‘particular’ in their choice, something that was quickly disregarded as the war progressed.

Airfields are highly labour intensive projects requiring an enormous workforce and extensive heavy machinery, little of which were available in the early 1940s. Irish labour provided the backbone of the initial workforce, whilst heavy plant came in from the United States. At its peak there were some 60,000 men employed on airfield construction, all of whom were unable to spend their time rebuilding the devastated towns and cities of the UK.

As the war progressed, the Royal Air Force Airfield Construction Service began taking a greater role in airfield construction, diversifying away from their original role as repairers of damaged airfields sites. There would be an initial 20 squadrons created to carry out these tasks, with a further 6 being formed later in the war. With squadron numbers ranging from 5001 to 5026, they would be initially involved in the updating of older sites and the creation of ALGs, eventually taking on a much greater responsibility of airfield construction. These squadrons, were of course given great assistance by the well established Royal Engineers.

In 1942, the United States joined the European theatre sending their own Engineer Aviation Battalions to the U.K. Their task was to support these British squadrons by building their own airfields ready for the huge influx of men and machines that was about to arrive. The first site completed by the Americans and opened in 1943, was Great Saling (later renamed Andrews Field) by the 819th engineer Aviation Battalion. Not being experienced in U.K. soils, it was a steep learning curve fraught with a number of initial problems.

Former RAF Andrewsfield

RAF Andrews Field memorial to the 819th Engineer Aviation Battalion.

In 1939 there were only 60 military airfields in the UK, by 1940 this had increased to 280, almost tripling to over 720 by 1945. Between 1939 and 1945 444 airfields*2,4 new airfields were built by these organisations – an amazing feat by any standard. Using almost a third of Britain’s total construction labour force, they were often open and manned within a matter of months rather than years.

This whole process however was not fool-proof. In a number of situations sites were identified and requisitioned, but not developed. In several cases they were partly built, and in others like RAF Cottam, they were completely built but then never occupied. Some airfields were identified for USAAF use, only to be declined and then handed over to their RAF counterparts. Some US bases were never actually started but remained named and therefore official sites even though they remained as farmers fields!

The lead up to war led to a massive change in the British landscape. Keeping airfields secret led to many being built in remote areas and away from major towns. Little did the inhabitants of these quiet little villages know, but their population was about to increase, in some cases by thousands.

In the next section we look at how the airfield was built, the process of construction and the difficulties faced during this phase.

Sources and further reading. 

*2 Smith, D.J., “Britain’s Military Airfields 1939-1945“, Patrick Stephens Limited, 1989

*4 Francis, P., et al, “Nine Thousand Miles of Concrete, Historic England in Conjunction with the Airfield Research Group (ARG). pdf document Published 15/1/16 via website accessed 2/1/18

*5 NIMBY – Acronym used to describe the objections of local planning projects. (Not In My Back Yard).

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 1).

The development of Britain’s airfields has been both rapid and complex. The design, layout and specific requirements of airfields changing as the need for areas suitable for larger and more powerful aircraft arose. From the early days of flight through the expansion period of 1934 – 1939, and on into the cold war, Britain’s airfields have become iconic symbols not only of Britain’s defence, but also the rapid development of air travel.

The range of airfields is as wide as their developmental history: fighter; Bomber; Coastal Command; Emergency Landing Grounds (ELG); Relief Landing Ground (RLG); Satellite Landing Grounds (SLG); Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) and Cub Strips, not to mention the fake ‘Q’ sites along with the various training, glider and ATC sites.

It is a very detailed and complex subject, and one in which there have been many valuable and in-depth texts written. It is a subject that is far too detailed to cover in its entirety here, but by focusing on the main features of airfield development, we can at least shed some light on the huge undertaking that reshaped the British landscape, and whose effect has been long-lasting, becoming the widespread topic of interest it is today.

In the following series of eight posts, we look at the development of these airfields, the main structures that are associated with them and how Britain’s airfields grew from basic fields to major conurbations as a result of the direct threat of war.

We start with the build up to war and the growth of the Royal Air Force from 1918.

Britain’s Road to War.

The Royal Air Force was formed on April 1st 1918 through an act of Parliament that saw its predecessor, the Royal Flying Corp, mutate into what has become not only one of the premier fighting forces of the world, but also the oldest Air Force in the World. However, in the post-war era following the First World War, political opinion was very much against the continuation of the RAF, feeling that it was exhausting an already depleted national economy and contravening a stern non-rearmament policy. In addition, an apathetic and vehemently pacifist post war public was also hard to convince that a third force, which was seen as ‘weaker’ than its two older sisters, was really necessary.

Two men, Winston Churchill (then Minister for War) and Air Marshal Trenchard (as Chief of the Air Staff), crusaded on behalf of the RAF, seeing it as the valuable asset it had become. In the Trenchard memorandum of December 1919, Trenchard outlined the biggest re-organisation of the Royal Air Force in history, a change that included everything from insignia and uniforms, to buildings and training. It was a change that would establish the RAF as an air force capable of mobilisation and expansion at a moments notice.

To achieve these goals, Trenchard would set up a rigorous training plan, with stations specifically designed to deal with the various aspects that would be needed; an Air Force Cadet College at Cranwell, a flying training school for Air Force Staff in Andover, a further scheme for short-service commissions and a technical college at Halton (set to close in 2022) in Buckinghamshire.

RAF Cranwell

RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire remains the Officer Training College today.

This re-organisation would be a re-organisation for survival, and would involve the disbandment and demobilising of vast numbers of men and women; the subsequent rundown of the RAF being both rapid and immediate. By March 1920, in excess of 23,000 officers, 21,000 cadets and 227,000 other ranks and been demobilised and returned to ‘civvy street’. The new RAF was small, formed with just 3,280 officers and 25,000 other ranks. Assets too were stripped, airfields were sold off and hardware disposed of, but the Air Force was going to survive as an independent fighting force that would become a major peacekeeping force within the next few decades.

In the 1920s, and even though limited by the 10 Year Rule on defence expenditure, Trenchard envisaged a build up of the Air Force, incorporating both fighters and bombers, to a level that would be both powerful and dominant. He set a target of some 52 Home Defence Squadrons, but his continued battles with the Army, Royal Navy and politicians alike, meant that this figure would take many years to achieve and Britain would be poorly protected in the case of attack.

In a statement by the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Samual Hoare, at a meeting of the Imperial Conference on October 19th, 1923, Sir Samual highlighted the inadequate numbers that were present for Home Defence, he said:

“When the Navy and Army requirements were met and the squadrons provided for the Air Command in Iraq, and provision made for training in Great Britain, the machines left for home defence in Great Britain were altogether insignificant. I may give as an instance of this insignificance the fact that a few months ago at the height of the Turkish crisis, when we had sent two Royal Air Force squadrons to Constantinople, we were left with only twenty-four first-line machines actually available for home defence against air attack.”

Whilst slow, the 1920s and early 1930s did see the RAF expand, achieving 65 squadrons by January 1st 1935, mostly manned by fully trained reserves. This did however, do little to bolster the front line numbers of available fighters, and as demands for spending cuts in the world’s depression started to bite, this build up began to slow even further.

It was during these early 1930s that movements in Germany, in particular with Hitler and the rise of the Nazi Party, gave rise to an uneasy feeling across Europe; a feeling that would lead to new policies being implemented, policies that would refuel the impetus of Britain re-arming its major forces in the latter half of the 1930s.

With events like the Schneider Trophy and displays at Hendon capturing the imagination of the public, the Government saw these as a way to develop new faster and more agile aircraft, and as a pedestal on which to put both Britain and the RAF. These air displays continued until 1937, when a war with Germany became evermore likely, and the previously formed rearming policies began to take shape.

German boasting of its redevelopment was barely enough to hide the fact that it was rearming as early as 1932, and the speed at which this was happening would far outstrip the RAF’s meagre numbers in the years following the Nazi’s rise to power in 1933. In these early years, Britain’s bomber strength was as low as five night, and six-day bomber squadrons, each one operating limited, slow and cumbersome biplanes. Aircraft that were no match for even the reduced force that Germany was to front during the controversial Spanish Civil War.

Germany’s rearming was occurring at an alarming rate, and after Goring’s inauguration as head of the Reich Commission for Aviation, a formal request for the purchase of British aircraft, by Goring, was refused, but ironically not the supply of two military supercharged aero-engines that were to be built under license in Germany! Britain was not alone in this action though, the USA also sold Germany contravening merchandise during the 1930s, 19 aircraft and 569 aero-engines crossed the Atlantic, with most of these being supplied during 1934.*1 Perhaps even more astonishingly, the World War 1 German Ace Ernst Udet visited the US in the 1930s, where he developed not only ground attack and dive bombing techniques, but purchased two Curtiss Hawk II biplanes, which were taken back to Germany for evaluation for future dive bomber designs. This action eventually led to the Germans developing the Junkers Ju-87, famously known as the ‘Stuka‘, an aircraft that wreaked fear and havoc across the European continent.

Although the depression of the 1930s held German production back, the number of air-frame plants rose from 2,813 in January 1933 to almost 38,000 in 1935. This rearming was becoming so rapid, that in 1933, six new aircraft manufacturers joined the seven already established – all diversifying from other engineering areas to begin aircraft manufacture. By 1935, the total number of air-frame and aero-engine plants had risen to an astonishing 53,865, an increase of nearly 50,000 in just two years.

This massive increase was highlighted in a letter from Winston Churchill to Stanley Baldwin (three times British Prime Minister) on March 17th 1935*8, in which Churchill pointed out that:

“I believe that the Germans are already as strong as we are and possibly stronger, and that if we carry out our new programme as prescribed Germany will be 50 per cent stronger than we by the end of 1935 or the beginning of 1936.”

This increase eventually led to a number of changes in Britain. One such change was the demand for a twin-engined aircraft capable of delivering a 1,000lb bomb up to 720 miles away. Whilst not record-breaking, specification B.9/32 led to both the Wellington and the Hudson being developed, each a major step forward from the biplanes in RAF service at that time.

A further major change that the German action brought about, occurred during the mid – late years of the 1930s (1934-1939) where Britain saw, what is now commonly referred to as, “the Expansion Period”, a period in which the RAF began to increase its numbers also. It was during this period (between May and July 1936) that the idea of Trenchard’s small elite force would become four; the Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) along with No.1 Air Defence Group and other administration and command groups, would be disbanded and reformed as four new commands: Fighter Command (HQ at Stanmore), Bomber Command (HQ at Uxbridge), Coastal Command (HQ at Lee-on-Solent) and Training Command (HQ at Ternhill). In addition, new aircraft were going to be required, particularly fighters and heavy bombers, and to support these new aircraft, a massive support network:  new training facilities; aircraft and aero-engine factories; storage facilities; armaments factories; flying schools, and of course a range of new airfields would be needed.

This demand would begin the process by which Britain would develop its airfields and air force, kick starting the huge economic and technological change that would see Britain move from the simple bi-plane to jet technology, and airfields that covered not just a few, but several thousands of acres of land across the British landscape.

Britain had entered the arms race with Germany, and it would be a race to the death.

In the second part we examine the political response focusing on the expansion period 1934-1939, and how Britain’s airfields changed as a direct result.

Notes, sources and further reading.

CAB\24\164 Note from the Meeting  of the Imperial Conference on October 19th, 1923. (National Archives)

*1 Dancey, P.G., and Vajda, A-V, “German Aircraft Industry and Production, 1933-45“. 1998, Airlife Publishing Ltd

*8 Churchill, W.S., “The Second World War Volume I – The Gathering Storm“, Cassell, 1948

Disaster at RAF Tibenham.

In this post, we revisit Tibenham in Norfolk, the home of the 445th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force. Whilst here, the 445th would suffer the worst casualty rate of any Bomb Group in a single mission, a mission that virtually wiped out the entire Group. Yet they would no give up, determined they would go onto have one of the most successful bombs on target statistics of all the Eighth’s Bomb Groups, a record they can be proud of.

RAF Tibenham (Station 124)

Station 124 was one of those purpose-built airfields designed specifically for the USAAF in the mid-part of the war. Known to the locals as Tivetshall, it occupies a site previously used by the Royal Flying Corps in World War 1 (although there appears to be no record of units based here).

In preparation for the Air Force’s arrival, a Class A airfield was built, with three standard concrete and tarmac runways, the primary of 2,000 yds and two secondary each 1,400 yds long and all the standard 50 yds wide. In addition, there were thirty-five ‘frying pans’ hardstands and a further seventeen ‘spectacle’ hardstands, all dotted around the perimeter track. Aircraft maintenance was completed in two T2 hangars, one in the technical area and one other to the south side of the airfield. The bomb store was located to the north-west of the airfield, with the technical and administrative areas to the east. Beyond this, dispersed further to the north-east were the accommodation areas: two communal sites, a WAAF site, sick quarters and seven male accommodation sites. Accommodation was initially designed for 3,000 personnel, using mainly Nissen huts with some Orlit hutting on site. Most other buildings were ‘temporary’ and built of brick.

RAF Tibenham Perimeter track

Part of the perimeter track – RAF Tibenham

Built over 1941-1942 by W. and C. French Ltd, it was opened in 1942, and was the temporary residence for the ground echelons of two squadrons of the 320th BG in November that year. The plan was to send the air echelons via the northern route, but due to heavy losses of the 47th and 319th BGs, they were diverted to North Africa via the southern route. The Ground echelons would then join them departing both Tibenham and nearby Hethel on November 21st 1942.

Tibenham then remained unoccupied by operational forces until November 4th 1943, when the 700th, 701st, 702nd and 703rd Bomb Squadrons of the 445th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force arrived.

The 445th’s journey brought them from Gowen Field in Idaho, through Wendover Air Force Base in Utah, to Sioux City where they completed their training. In October the ground echelons sailed on the Queen Mary arriving in Scotland in early November. The air echelons flew the southern route, covering Florida, Puerto Rico, Brazil and West Africa before arriving shortly afterwards.

Flying B-24 Liberators, they would perform their first mission on December 13th 1943 – a month after their arrival. Their first target was the U-boat pens at Kiel. Along with other units of the 2nd Bomb Division fifteen aircraft would take off and undertake what was to be a relatively uneventful sortie, all the 445th aircraft returning with only two aircraft damaged and no casualties.

Their third mission, also in December, was less successful. A massive force of 546 bombers left England to attack Breman, arriving over the target between 11:42 and 12:14, the force was badly hit by ME-410s of the Luftwaffe. The 445th had fifteen of their aircraft damaged, with two crewmen wounded and eleven classed as ‘missing’. The realities of war were beginning to bite home.

1944 would be a more decisive year for Tibenham and the 445th. During the February ‘Big Week’ campaign against the German aircraft industry, Tibenham would suffer from accidental bombing by a returning Liberator. After being recalled, a  B-24 accidentally released a bomb whilst flying over Tibenham airfield, the resultant explosion killing two servicemen and a civilian in a nearby house.

The 445th would also suffer this year, but for their determination and action over Gotha they would be awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC), an award that reflected their bravery.

RAF Tibenham

Today’s huts and hangars

The eight groups of the 2nd Bomb Division (BD) were targeting the Me-110 factories on February 24th 1944, dropping 372 tons of high explosive bombs. During the  mission 239 aircraft would leave England in three large wing formations, the 445th in the 2nd Combat Wing (CW) were to fly in the lead, along with the 389th BG and the 453rd BG. Behind them were the 14th Combat Wing with the 20th Combat Wing bringing up the rear.

The lead group were hit hard as much as 80 minutes before the target. Flying ahead of schedule, they had failed to rendezvous with their escort and so were at a huge disadvantage. Flying at altitude, the lead aircraft of the 389th suffered oxygen problems, which caused the bomb aimer to suffer from anoxia, the condition led to him release the bombs early, over Eisenach and not the primary target. As the bombs fell toward the ground, others in the wing began to follow suit, all releasing their bombs far too early, and well away from the target area. The 445th realising there was a problem, ignored the false signal and continued on to the target alone. Being out of formation and without escort, the B-24s were ‘sitting ducks’, and unsurprisingly were given special attention by the Luftwaffe.

From then on, and for an hour after the bomb run, Luftwaffe fighters attacked the B-24s, and one by one, the heavy bombers fell from the sky as fighters picked them off. After two and a half hours of relentless attacks, thirteen of the original twenty-five aircraft had been lost and nine others were badly damaged. The mission had cost 50% of the groups aircraft, but it was a tragedy that was not to be their last, nor their worst.

The main formation who had released early, had also suffered badly, being subjected to aerial bombing, cable bombing and rockets, an attack which led to a mission tally of thirty-three aircraft being lost and 314 airmen being classed as ‘missing in action’.

March 1944 would also be a noteworthy month. It was the end of a career as Commanding Officer for Capt. James Stewart, Commander of the 703rd BS. Posted here before he was declared unfit for flying duty, he arrived as ‘Operations Officer’, before being given the Command of the 703rd. He would go onto fly ten missions with the 703rd before departing Tibenham for Old Buckenham and the 453rd BG as Group Operations Manager.

Because the 445th had flown many missions over the winter months, March would become noteworthy for another reason. Four months after their first operation, Lt. Sam Miller and the crew of B-24 #42-110037 of the 700th BS had completed twenty-five missions whilst here at Tibenham, they were the first crew of the group to do so. At last some good news had brought relief to the horrors of the previous months and in particular the disaster of ‘Big Week’.

Ground personnel of the 445th Bomb Group gather around a B-24 Liberator (I5-B+, serial number 42-110037) after its return to base on D-Day. Printed caption on reverse: '51451- Ground crew swarming around a bomber returning from a D-Day mission for information on the invasion.' Handwritten caption on reverse: 'Lt Sam Miller's B-24 returning to Tibenham, Norfolk after he and crew completed a 25 mission tour of operations. First crew in the 445th bomb Group to do so.'

The return of B-24 #42-110037 after its crew had completed 25 Missions (USAF).

In the lead up to the Normandy invasion in June, the 445th attacked airfields in the Paris area along with V-weapons sites in Northern France, and on D-Day itself, they returned and attacked the shore installations, pounding them before the land forces arrived. The 445th then went on to help with the breakout at St. Lo striking enemy defensive positions. The Tibenham group were now so successful that they led the ratings for the most accurate bombing of all the Liberator groups in Europe, these successes though, were to be short-lived, for on September 27th 1944, the 445th would suffer its own ‘day of infamy’.

On that day the group was allocated the Henschel facility in Kassel, and they were to lead 315 B-24s to the target. Navigating by GEE the 445th took a wrong turn and left the protection of the formation. The turn went unnoticed by the remainder of the group and so, all of a sudden, the 445th were now out on a limb and lacking the protection of the formation once again.

The group then all dropped their bombs, but unbeknown to them they were not over Kassel but were in fact over Gottingen some 20 miles away. After implementing the withdrawal plan, the 445th put themselves even further away from the main force, they were now alone. All of a sudden the 445th met II/JG.4, and what followed would all but wipe out the group.

Fw-190s approached the group from behind, three abreast diving down as they fired. Then followed two Me-109 Gruppen of JG.4 who picked off the damaged aircraft. With individuals falling away, the formation was spread and broken up, some 150 enemy aircraft had attacked and devastated the group.

In around five minutes, the Luftwaffe fighters had picked off and dispatched twenty-five B-24s and damaged most of those that remained flying. Only the intervention of US fighters stopped the total and complete annihilation of the group. The scene was devastating, the sky was full of smoke and debris, parachutes from both sides floated through the carnage. Three more B-24s crashed on the way, luckily in allied territory, two others managed to reach Manston’s emergency runway and one more crashed at Old Buckenham. The four remaining aircraft managed to limp back to Tibenham, but only one was able to fly again the next day.

In a written account*1, Pilot Capt. William R Dewey Jr describes the scene in his B-24 (one of those that made Manston)

“The tail turret had caught fire, from direct hits by 20 mm cannon in the first wave of FW-190s, both waist gunners were wounded and bloody along with the tail gunner. There was a huge hole in the right waist ahead of the window, the left waist window was shattered. Control cables to the tail were partially damaged, and the twin vertical rudders appeared frayed and disintegrating. Looking out the copilot’s window we could see a 3′ diameter hole in the upper surface of the wing behind the #3 engine, where 100 octane gasoline was splashing out.”

Dewey goes on to explain how the co-pilot William L. Boykin Jr, carried oxygen bottles back to the wounded crew, gave them first aid and comforted them. Dewey then decided to drop below oxygen requirement level and risk ditching. Switching channels to the emergency channel, he manged to contact air-sea rescue using the code word “Colgate“. After obtaining a radar fix, they gave him a heading for Manston.

After an hour Dewey spotted Manston and began the task of landing not knowing what condition the flaps, undercarriage or tyres were in. Thankfully all were in good order and he described it as:

“the best I ever made in a B-24 – like we were on feathers. A day we will never forget!”*1

Statistics for the day were horrendous, the efficiency of the German controllers had been spectacular, no previous efforts had yielded such incredible results; 236 men were missing, 1 was dead and 13 were injured in the resultant crashes. This loss, left only ten aircraft in the entire group, and would go down as the worst operational day of the war for any single group of ‘The Mighty Eighth’.

The 445th would regroup and return though. In December and January they supported the troops in the Battle of the Bulge by bombing German communication lines, helping the Paratroops holding up in the forests of the Ardennes.

On February 24th 1945, Ford built Liberator B-24H-1-FO #42-7619 “Bunnie” a veteran of 103 missions, took off from Tibenham’s main east-west runway. Within seconds something went wrong and the bomber crashed a few hundred yards west of the airfield. In the crash four of the crew were killed, the remaining five managed to survive.

Photo of

“Chuck” Walker & his crew being congratulated by Lt. Col. Fleming, (deputy commander) on completion of their 35th mission and “Bunnie’s” 100th.(IWM)

and then on 24th March 1945, they dropped food, ammunition and medical supplies to the troops who had made the Rhine crossing at Wesel. They returned later that day to bomb the landing grounds at Stormede.

The 445th went on to carry out a total of 282 operations building a reputation for high accuracy bombing in the face of danger. Further awards were received from the French for their support of the Resistance, in dropping food supplies, gaining them the Croix de Guerre, a highly regarded award.

The 445th flew their last mission on 25th April 1945, the last mission by the Eighth Air Force in Europe, attacking airfields and rail targets in south-east Germany and Czechoslovakia without loss. The 445th finally returned to the US at the end of hostilities leaving behind huge numbers of crews for whom home would never be back on their own soil.

After their departure in May / June, Tibenham remained ‘operational’ although no operational flying took place. The RAF then began to sell off parts of the airfield to the local farmers. A short-lived expansion of the airfield’s runway in 1955 led nowhere, as no aircraft were assigned to the airbase, and in 1959, Tibenham was finally closed as a military base. During this time, the Norfolk Gliding Club took over part of the site, paying a rent to the Ministry of Defence, remaining here even after 1964/65 when the airfield site was finally sold.

Since then the Club has fought long and hard to keep flying at Tibenham. Battles over land and attempts to curb flying have so far failed. Gradually bit-by-bit the infrastructure has been removed, sold off for hardcore and agriculture use.

Flying at Tibenham

Small piston engined aircraft keep the spirit alive

A small collection of memorabilia and photographs of the four squadrons based at Tibenham are maintained by the club, and a memorial stands as a lasting legacy to those who never returned.

Currently, large parts of two of the runways remain; the perimeter track can also be seen, being split by the main road round the airfield. Also a small number of huts are still being used and the site is in remarkable condition as a result.

Other evidence is hard to find, the majority of the accommodation, stores and works all being located to the east amongst the trees and on private land. I am reliably informed that primitive airfield defences can be found amongst the trees at the end of the runway. These amount to a ladder that would enable any defence troops to climb up and remain hidden should any German paratroopers fall.

The heavily laden bombers have long since been replaced by the grace and beauty of gliders, the control tower and other major buildings are now history, but as the summer sun and cool breeze wafts across the open skies above Norfolk, it is easy to picture these lumbering bombers, fuelled and crewed waiting for their turn to depart. With the roar of labouring engines now long gone, peace has returned once more to this quiet corner of Norfolk.

RAF Tibenham memorial

Memorial dedicated to the 445th BG.

Tibenham was initially visited in April 2014 when these photos were taken. It appears as part of Trail 13 along with Old Buckenham and East Wretham. This page is an update with additional information on the 445th’s history.

Sources and further reading.

The Norfolk Gliding Club website gives details of their activities, opening times and flying operations.

*1 A typescript memoir written by Capt. William R. Dewey ‘Disaster at Kassel’: 27th Sep 1944. Second Air Division Digital Archive . Ref: MC 371/250, USF 5/1 accessed 25/3/18.

All Saints Church in Tibenham also has a small memorial and kneelers dedicated to those who flew from Tibenham.