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

Advertisements

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.

50 Aviation Trails Reached!

I am pleased to announce that since starting Aviation Trails four years ago, I have now reached that magic number of 50 Trails around Britain’s wartime airfields, a feat I never thought would happen.

Each Trail covers two or more sites, in some cases six, many three, covering in total, over 100 former RAF and USAAF airfields and museums around Britain.

I can honestly say its been a terrific four years, in which I have learnt a lot about Britain’s wartime past, the men and machines that flew from these places and the tragedies that occurred at so many. The development of these airfields was staggering, the process of construction, and the subsequent decay just as eye-opening. These sites and the people who used them, have changed both the British and world landscape, leaving in many cases scars that may never heal. The buildings and stretches of concrete that remain are monuments to human endurance and sacrifice, a sacrifice that we hope may never have to be repeated.

RAF Tibenham Perimeter track

The perimeter track at the former RAF Tibbenham.

During these four years there have been several changes at many of these sites, hangars and other buildings have gone, runways are continuing to be dug up as they become prime land for development. As we speak there are numerous sites under planning proposals, whilst others are waiting in the wings to hear what their fate will be.

To compile these trails I have personally visited each and every one of these sites, even a field has a certain something when you know who stood there before you.

To all those who have visited, commented and followed me on this journey, I thank you, I hope you have enjoyed the journey back in time as much as I have writing it. I hope that through these trails, the memories of those who gave their all may live on so that future generations may know who they were and what they did, so that we may enjoy the peace we do today.

Here’s to the next 50!

Andy.

RAF Andrews Field – (Great Saling/Station 485) – Trail 33: Essex Part 1.

RAF Attlebridge  (Station 120) – Trail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF Barton BendishTrail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF Biggin Hill (Westersham) (Station 343) – Trail 4: Kent Part 1.

RAF Bircham NewtonTrail 20: North Norfolk (Part 1).

RAF Bodney (Station 141) – Trail 8: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 1 of 3).

RAF BournTrail 31: Southern Cambridgeshire (Part 2).

RAF Brenzett (ALG) – Trail 18: Kent Part 2.

RAF BruntonTrail 47: Northumberland.

RAF Bungay (Flixton) (Station 125) – Trail 14:  Central Suffolk (Part 1).

RAF Bury St. Edmunds (Rougham) (Station 468) – Trail 16: West Suffolk (part 1).

RAF Castle CampsTrail 45: Essex (Part 2).

RAF Caxton GibbetTrail 29: Southern Cambridge (Part 1).

RAF Charterhall Trail 41: The Borders of Scotland and England.

RAF ChedburghTrail 49: Bomber Command – Bury St. Edmunds to Haverhill

RAF Collyweston Trail 37: The Northern Reaches of Cambridgeshire.

RAF Coltishall – Trail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF ConingsbyTrail 1: Lower Lincolnshire.

RAF CottamTrail 40: Yorkshire (East Riding).

RAF CranwellTrail 2: Lincoln Borders and Newark.

RAF Debach (Station 152) – Trail 39: Suffolk around Ipswich (Part 1).

RAF Debden (Station 356) – Trail 46: Essex Part 3,

RAF Deenethorpe (Station 128) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF Deopham Green (Station 142) – Trail 27: Southern Norfolk (Part 3).

RAF Digby (Scopwick) – Trail 1: Lower Lincolnshire.

RAF Docking – Trail 20: North Norfolk (Part 1).

RAF Downham Market (Bexwell) – Trail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF Drem – Trail 42: Edinburgh’s Neighbours.

RAF East Fortune – Trail 42: Edinburgh’s Neighbours.

RAF East Kirkby Trail 1: Lower Lincolnshire.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133) – Trail 13: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 2).

RAF Eye (Brome) (Station 134) – Trail 14: Central Suffolk (Part 1).

RAF Fersfield – (Station 130) – Trail 28: Southern Norfolk (Part 4).

RAF FoulshamTrail 22North Norfolk (Part 3).

RAF FowlmereTrail 32Southern Cambridgeshire (Part 3).

RAF Framlingham (Parham) (Station 153)Trail 39: Suffolk around Ipswich (Part 1).

RAF Glatton (Station 130) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF Gransden Lodge – Trail 31: Southern Cambridgeshire (Part 2).

RAF Graveley – Trail 29: Southern Cambridge (Part 1).

RAF Grafton Underwood (Station 106) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF Great Dunmow (Station 164)- Trail 33: Essex (Part 1).

RAF Great MassinghamTrail 21: North Norfolk (Part 2).

RAF Great Sampford (Station 359) – Trail 50: Haverhill’s neighbours – Wratting Common and Great Sampford.

RAF Hardwick (Station 104) – Trail 12: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 1).

RAF Hawkinge – Trail 18: Kent Part 2.

RAF Hethel – Trail 38: To the West of Norwich.

RFC HinghamTrail 38: To the West of Norwich.

RAF Hunsdon – Trail 25: Hertfordshire.

RAF Kimbolton (Station 117) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF King’s Cliffe (Station 367) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF LanghamTrail 23: North Norfolk (Part 4).

RAF Lashenden (Headcorn) – Trail 18: Kent Part 2.

RAF Lavenham (Station 137) – Trail coming soon.

RAF Little Snoring – – Trail 22North Norfolk (Part 3).

RAF MarhamTrail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF Martlesham HeathTrail 48: Suffolk around Ipswich (Part 2).

RAF Matching (Station 166) – Trail 33: Essex Part 1.

RAF Matlask (Station 178) – Trail 34: North Norfolk (Part 5).

RAF MattishallTrail 36: North Norfolk (Part 6).

RAF Mendlesham (Station 156) – Trail 15: Central Suffolk (Part 2).

RAF MepalTrail 11: Around Ely.

RAF Methwold – Trail 8: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 1).

RAF Millfield –  Trail 47: Northumberland.

RAF Narborough (Narborough Aerodrome)- Trail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF North CreakeTrail 23: North Norfolk (Part 4).

RAF North Pickenham (Station 143) – Trail 9: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 2).

RAF North WealdTrail 25: Hertfordshire.

RAF North Witham (Station 479) – Trail 3: Gone But Not Forgotten.

RAF Old Buckenham (Station 144) – Trail 13: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 2).

RAF Oulton – Trail 34: North Norfolk (Part 5).

RAF Polebrook (Station 110) – Trail 19: Northamptonshire American Ghosts II.

RAF Rattlesden (Station 126) – Trail 15: (Central Suffolk (Part 2).

RAF SawbridgeworthTrail 25: Hertfordshire.

RAF ScamptonTrail 30: Scampton and the Heritage Centre.

RAF SculthorpeTrail 21: North Norfolk Part 2.

RAF Shipdham (Station 115) – Trail 10: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 3).

RAF Snetterton Heath – (Station 138) – Trail 27: Southern Norfolk (Part 3).

RAF Spanhoe Lodge (Station 493) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF Steeple Morden – Trail 32: Southern Cambridgeshire (Part 3).

RAF Stoke OrchardTrail 24: Gloucestershire.

RAF Stradishall- Trail 49: Bomber Command – Bury St. Edmunds to Haverhill

RAF Sutton BridgeTrail 3: Gone But Not Forgotten.

RAF Swannington – Trail 36: North Norfolk (Part 6) 

RAF Swanton Morley – Trail 38: To the West of Norwich.

RAF Thorpe Abbotts (Station 139) – Trail 12: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 1).

RAF Tibenham (Station 124) – Trail 13: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 2).

RAF Tuddenham – Trail 16: West Suffolk (Part 1).

RAF Tydd St. Mary – Trail 37: The Northern Reaches of Cambridgeshire.

RAF Upwood – Trail 17: The Pathfinders.

RAF Warboys – Trail 17: The Pathfinders.

RAF Watton (Station 376/Station 505) – Trail 9: Swaffham & Her Neighbours (Part 2).

RAF Wendling (Station 118) – Trail 10: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 3).

RAF West Malling Trail 4: Kent Part 1.

RAF West RaynhamTrail 21: North Norfolk Part 2.

RAF WethersfieldTrail 45: Essex (Part 2).

RAF Westley – Trail 16: West Suffolk (part 1).

RAF WinfieldTrail 41: The Borders of Scotland and England.

RAF Winthorpe Trail 2: Lincoln Borders and Newark.

RAF WitchfordTrail 11: Around Ely.

RAF Wittering  – Trail 37: The Northern Reaches of Cambridgeshire.

RAF Woodall SpaTrail 1: Lower Lincolnshire.

RAF Wratting CommonTrail 50 – Haverhill’s neighbours – Wratting Common and Great Sampford.

 

Great Sampford – A disaster for the U.S. “Eagles”.

After leaving RAF Wratting Common, we turn south and head back past Haverhill towards Finchingfield. Reputedly one of the most photographed villages in England, it has a ‘chocolate box’ appeal, its quaint houses, old tea shops and village pond, reminiscent of Britain’s long and distant past. Finchingfield and this trail, are also close to the airfield at Wethersfield, and a short detour to the east, is an added bonus and a worthy addition to the trail.

This next airfield, a small satellite airfield, lies one and a half miles to the west of Great Sampford village, and five miles south-east of Saffron Walden. It is actually quite remote, with no public roads close to the site. Footpaths do cross parts of the former airfield, which is all now  completely agricultural.

As we head south we stop  off at the former airfield RAF Great Sampford.

RAF Great Sampford (Station 359)

RAF Great Sampford was a short-lived airfield, built initially as a satellite for RAF Debden, it would be used primarily by RAF Fighter Command, and later by the US Eighth Air Force. It was also used by 38 Group for paratroop training, and by the Balloon Command.

Being a satellite it was a rudimentary airfield, and accommodation was basic; utilising wooden huts as opposed to the more pleasant brick dwellings found at its parent station RAF Debden. It was very much the poorer of the airfields in the area, although by the war’s end a wooden hut would no doubt have been preferential to a cold, metal Nissen hut!

As a satellite it would be used by a small number of squadrons, No. 65 RAF, No. 133 (Eagle Squadron) RAF and No. 616 Squadron RAF. The famous Eagle Squadrons being manned by American volunteers, 133 Sqn was later renamed 336th Fighter Squadron (FS), 4th Fighter Group (FG), after their absorption into the US Army Air Force.

There were two runways at Great Sampford, one of grass and one of steel matting (Sommerfeld track), a steel mat designed by Austrian Expatriate, 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 a handful of other track types) were common on fighter, training and satellite airfields, especially in the early part of the war. It was also used extensively on forward landing grounds in Kent and later France after the Allied invasion of Normandy.

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. Some records report tail wheels being ripped off after catching in the track lattice.

At Great Sampford the steel matting was 1600 yards long, extended later to 2,000 yards, the grass strip being much shorter at just over 1,000 yards. A concrete perimeter track circumnavigated the airfield, and due to the nature of the area the airfield took on a very odd shape indeed. With many corners and little in the way of straight sections, it may have suited the longer noses of the RAF’s Spitfires well, avoiding the need to weave continuously to see passed the long engine. However, because it was small and uneven, it caused numerous problems for pilots taking off, the hedges and trees proving difficult obstacles to clear without stalling the aircraft in an attempt to get above them.

Hangars and maintenance huts were also sparse, but four blister hangars were provided as the main structures for aircraft repair and maintenance.

Opened on 14th April 1942, the first unit to use the site was No. 65 (East India) Squadron RAF who arrived the same day that it was opened. No. 65 Sqn, being veterans of both Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, had been moved about to regroup and refit, upgrading its aircraft numerous times before settling with the Spitfire.

The Spitfire VB of 65 Sqn (who were previously based at Debden) was a modified MK.V,  the first production version of the Spitfire to have clipped wingtips, a modification that reduced the wingspan down to 32 ft but increased the roll rate and airspeed at much lower altitudes. No. 65 Squadron, would use their Spitfire VBs for low-level fighter sweeps and bomber escort duties, something that suited the clipped wing version well.

Between April and July 1942, 65 Squadron would move between Debden, Martlesham Heath and Hawkinge with short spells in between at Great Sampford. They would then have a longer spell in Kent before leaving for RAF Drem in Southern Scotland. These repeated moves were largely in response to the threat of renewed Luftwaffe attacks on the airfields of southern England, and were part of a much larger plan put into place to protect the front line squadrons.

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

The entry in the Operational Record Book for April 14th shows the first landing of Spitfires at Great Sampford. (AIR 27/594/4)

On April 14th, the move took place, a move that was achieved under some difficulty as the squadron was called upon to participate in two Rodeo (fighter sweeps) operations. After extensive searching between Cap Gris Nez and Calais, no enemy aircraft were sighted, and so the wing returned to their various bases. At 20:00 hrs, the first 65 Sqn aircraft touched down at Great Sampford – the base was now open and operational.

The next mission would be the very next day – there was no let up for the busy flyers! “Circus 125” led by Wing Commander J. Gordon, consisted of ten aircraft from Great Sampford, who after taking off at 18:10, met with the bomber formation and escorted them to an airfield target near Gravelines. The entire mission was uneventful and the aircraft arrived safely back at Great Sampford at 19:55 hrs.

This mission pretty much set the standard for the remainder of the month. Numerous Rodeo and Circus operations saw 65 Sqn repeatedly penetrate French airspace with various sighting of, but little contact with, enemy aircraft. The first real skirmish took place on the 25th, when the Boston formation they were escorting was attacked by fourteen FW-190s. One of the Bostons was hit and subsequently crashed into the sea. Flt. Sgt. Stillwell (Red 3) of 65 Sqn threw his own dingy out to the downed crewman who seemed to make no effort to reach it – he was then assumed to be already dead.

On the April 27th, “Circus 142” took place, the escort of eight Hurricane bombers who were attacking St. Omer aerodrome. Three sections ‘Red’, ‘White’ and ‘Blue’ made up 65 Squadron’s section of the Wing, and consisted of both Rhodesian, Czech and British airmen. The Wing flew across the Channel at 15,000 ft, and when on approach to the target, they were attacked by 50-60 FW-190s. In the ensuing dogfight F/O. D. Davies, in Spitfire #W3461; P/O. Tom Grantham (s/n: 80281) flying Spitfire #BL442, and P/O. Frederick Haslett (s/n: 80143) in Spitfire #AB401, were all reported missing presumed dead. It was thought that both F/O. Davies and P/O. Grantham may have collided as they were together when they went down, P/O. Grantham was just 19 years of age.

There were no further losses that month although operations continued up until the last day. In all, 21 operations had been flown in which 2 enemy aircraft were destroyed, 1 was a probable and 1 was damaged. April proved to be a record month in terms of operational flying hours for every pilot below the rank of Squadron Leader, the successes of which though, were marred by the sad events of the 27th and the loss of three colleagues.

On the 28th, their last day of this, the first of several stays at Great Sampford, a congratulatory message came though from the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group, “Well done the Debden Wing”, which went some way to lighten the atmosphere before the new month set in.*1

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

The Operational Record Book for 65 Squadron. A message of congratulations from the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group. (AIR 27/594/4)

It was three months later on July 29th 1942, that 65 Squadron would depart Great Sampford for the last time, and the next squadron would arrive, the Spitfire VIs of No. 616 Squadron RAF.

No. 616 Sqn were formed prior to the declaration of war in November 1938. An Auxiliary Air Force Unit, it too took part in supporting both the Dunkirk evacuation and the early days of the Battle of Britain. Now, at Great Sampford, it had been given the high altitude Spitfire, the MK. Vl, an attempt by Supermarine to tackle the Luftwaffe’s high altitude bombers, and quite the opposite to the VBs of 65 Sqn – these Spitfires had extended wingtips!

616 Squadron would, like 65 Sqn before them, spend July to September yo-yoing between Great Sampford and the airfields further south, Ipswich and Hawkinge, before departing Great Sampford for the final time on September 23rd 1942 for RAF Tangmere. Whilst here at Great Sampford, they would perform fighter sweeps, bomber escort and air patrols over northern France, engaging with the enemy on numerous occasions.

On the same day as 616 Sqn departed, the last operational unit would arrive at Great Sampford, the U.S. volunteer squadron, 133 Squadron known as one of the ‘Eagle Squadrons’. Being one of three squadrons manned totally by American crews, it had been on the front line serving at RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Martlesham Heath before arriving here at Great Sampford. Whilst some British RAF ground crews helped servicing and maintenance, the aircrew were entirely US, and crews were regularly changed as losses were incurred or crews were transferred out.

Many of these new recruits came in from other units. Ground crews coming into Great Sampford would have to get the train to Saffron Walden where they were met by a small truck who would take them to RAF Debden for a meal and freshen up. Afterwards they were transferred, again by truck, the few miles here to Great Sampford, the transformation was astonishing! In the words of many of those who were stationed here, “there was nothing ‘great’ about Great Sampford!”*2 Also flying Spitfire VBs, they were to quickly replace them with the MK.IX, a Spitfire that was essentially a MK.V with an updated engine. Having a higher ceiling than the FW-190 and being marginally faster, its improved performance took the Luftwaffe by complete surprise.

It would be a short-lived stay at Great Sampford though, as 133 Sqn RAF were disbanded on the 29th September, being renumbered as 336th FS, 4th FG, USAAF, and officially becoming US Air Force personnel. They were no longer volunteers of the Royal Air Force.

Just three days before this final transfer, on September 26th 1942, 133 Sqn would suffer a major disaster, and one that almost wiped out the entire squadron.

A small force of seventy-five B-17s from the 92nd BG, 97th BG and the 301st BG, were to mount raids on Cherbourg and the airfields at Maupertus and Morlaix, when the weather closed in. The 301st BG were recalled as their fighter escort failed to materialise, and the 97th BG were ineffective as cloud had prevented bombing to take place. The RAF’s 133 (Eagle) Sqn were to provide twelve aircraft (plus two spares) to escort the bombers on these raids. After refuelling and a rather vague briefing at RAF Bolt Head in Devon, they set off. Unbeknown to them at the time, the two pilots instructed to stay behind, P/O. Don Gentile and P/O. Erwin Miller, had a guardian angel watching over them that day.

During talks with P/O. Beaty, it was ascertained that the Spitfires had flown out above 10/10th cloud cover and so were unable to see any ground features, thus not being able to gain a true understanding of where they were. Added to that, a 100 mph north-easterly wind blew the aircraft far off course into the bay of Biscay. Finding the bombers after 45 minutes of searching, the flight set for home and reduced their altitude to below the cloud for bearings. Being over land they searched for the airfield, all the time getting low on fuel. Instead of being over Cornwall however, where they thought they were, they were in fact over Brest, a heavily defended port, and in the words of 2nd Lt. Erwin Miller – “all Hell broke loose.” *3

In the subsequent battle, all but one of 133 Sqn aircraft were lost, with four pilots being killed.  P/O. William H. Baker Jr (O-885113) in Spitfire #BS446; P/O. Gene Neville (O-885129) in Spitfire #BS140 – Millers replacement; P/O. Leonard Ryerson (O-885137) in Spitfire #BS275 and P/O. Dennis Smith (O-885128) in Spitfire #BS294.

Only one pilot managed to return, P/O. Robert ‘Bob’ Beatty,  who crash landing his Spitfire at Kingsbridge in Devon after he too ran out of fuel. During the crash he sustained severe injuries but luckily survived his ordeal. From his debriefing it was thought that several others managed to land either on the island of Ouissant or on the French mainland. Of these, six were known to have been captured and taken prisoners of war, one of whom, F/Lt. Edward Brettell  DFC was executed for his part in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III. A full report of the events of that day are available in an additional page.

There would be no further operational flying take place for the rest of the month for 133 Sqn – all in all it was a disastrous end for them, and to their spell as RAF aircrew.*4

Pilot Officer Gene P. Neville 133 (Eagle) Sqn RAF, stands before his MK. IX Spitfire at Great Sampford. He was Killed during the Morlaix disaster. (@IWM UPL 18912)

Because these marks of Spitfire were in short supply, the remainder of the Squadron were re-equipped with the former MK.VBs, a model they retained into 1943 before replacing them with the bigger and heavier Republic P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’.

As a result of the losses, the dynamics of the group would change. The cohesive nature of the men who had been together for so long, was now broken and the base took on a very different atmosphere.

The effect on those left behind was devastating, morale slumped, and in an attempt to raise it, Donald ‘Don’ Blakeslee ordered the remaining pilots to line up along the eastern perimeter track and take off in formation; something that had been considered virtually impossible due to its short length, uneven surface and rather awkwardly placed trees along its boundary. Blakeslee, who became a legendary fighter pilot with both 133 Sqn and later the 4th Fighter Group (FG), led the group in true American Style, getting all the aircraft off the ground without any mishaps. Heading for Debden, they formed up, and flew directly over the station at below 500 feet, shaking windows and impressing those on the ground with precision flying that took as much out of the pilots as did air to air combat.

That night, the mess hall at Debden, was awash with celebrations as 133 Squadron pilots enjoyed the limelight they had for so long deserved.

On the next day, September 29th, the crews packed their personal belongings and departed Great Sampford for the comforts of Debden, where an official handover took place. General Carl Spaatz and Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas, witnessing the official transfer of the three Eagle Squadrons to the United States Air Eighth Air Force, a move that on the whole, pleased the American airmen.

From then on, Great Sampford would remain under control of the USAAF, being used as a satellite for the 4th FG at Debden, but without any permanent residents. The occasional flight of Spitfires or P-47s would land here whilst on detachment or away pending a Luftwaffe attack. In the early stages of 1943, the Americans decided that Great Sampford (renamed Station 359 as per US designations) was no longer suitable for their needs as it wouldn’t accommodate either the  P-38s or the P-47s due to its awkward size and shape. By February 1943 they had pulled out, and Great Sampford was returned to RAF ownership. By March 1943 the airfield now surplus to flying requirements, was closed, used only by a large selection of RAF Regiments training in airfield defence, Guard of Honour duties and VIP Security. The station eventually closed in August 1944.

Airmen of the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group with a clipped wing Spitfire Mk. Vb (MD-A), 1943. Handwritten caption on reverse: '19A. KP. Fall, 1942. Great Sampford Satellite Field. 336th crew by 336th Spit Mk. Vb. Wings clipped by sawing off wing & pounding in board then carving and painting it. MD-A, red/blue wheel. Source -Bill Chick, Megura.'

Airmen of the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group with a clipped wing Spitfire Mk. Vb (MD-A), 1943. at Great Sampford. (@IWM – FRE3230)

However, this closure was not the end for Great Sampford. With paratroop operations progressing in Europe, the airfield was put back into use on 6th December 1944 by 620 Sqn in Operation ‘Vigour‘.

No. 38 Group, in need of practice areas, had acquired the airfield, and were dropping SAS paratroops into the site. This flight preceded another similar activity the following day where Horsa gliders pulled by 620 Sqn Stirlings, took part in Operation ‘Recurrent‘; a cross-country flight from RAF Dunmow in Essex. This flight culminated with the Horsas being released and landing here at Great Sampford. These activities continued throughout the appalling winter of 1944 / 45, and into the following months. In March, in the lead up to Operation ‘Varsity‘ the allied crossing of the Rhine, there was further activity in the skies of this small grass strip. Operation ‘Riff Raff‘  saw yet more paratroops and gliders at Great Sampford, whilst in November 1945, after the war’s end, Operation ‘Share-Out‘ saw the final use of Great Sampford by the paratroops. No. 620 Squadron, who had been based at RAF Dunmow, were now winding down themselves and their use of Great Sampford ceased virtually overnight.

Since then, Great Sampford has become completely agricultural, the perimeter track virtually all that remains of this small but rather interesting site. It lies in a remote area, fed only by farm tracks and small footpaths. The tracks, now a fraction of their original size, still weave their way around the airfield as they did for that short, but busy time, in the mid 1940s.

Regretfully the airfield and its unique history has all but passed into the history books, and rather sadly, no memorial marks the airfield, even though many airmen were lost during  the many sorties in those dark days of the war-torn years of the 1940s.

We depart Great Sampford heading off once more, the airfields of Essex and East Anglia beckoning. As we move off, we spare a thought for those for whom this was the last view they had of ‘home’, and of those who never came back to this quiet and remote part of the world.

Sources and further reading

*1 National Archives: AIR 27/594/4 .

*2 Goodson. J,. “Tumult in the clouds” Penguin UK, (2009) 

*3 Price. A., “Spitfire – A Complete Fighting History“, Promotional Reprint Company,  (1974).

*4 National Archives: AIR 27/945/26

National Archives: AIR 27/945/25

The “Slightly-out-of-Focuswebsite has details of a photo essay documenting the planning and execution of an airborne exercise prior to Operation Varsity. It’s a detailed document which includes gliders of 38 Group RAF landing at Great Sampford.

RAF Stradishall – Disaster for 214 Squadron

In the second part of RAF Stradishall, we carry on from part 1, looking at the terrible circumstances around 214 Squadron’s worst night. The developments of Stradishall in the later war years and the post war development with the arrival of the Cold War and the jet age.

The raid would be to Hanau railways yards located 25 km east of Frankfurt am Main. During the raid thirty-five Wellingtons and fourteen Hampdens from  both 57 Squadron (RAF Feltwell) and 214 Sqn (RAF Stradishall) would be dispatched. Take off was between 20:00 and 21:00 hrs and the attack by 214 Sqn would be carried out at heights as low as 400 feet using a mix of 250 lb and 500 lb bombs with impact fuses and some 3 hour delay fuses. During the attack, railway lines, bridges and carriages were hit, explosions were seen and the gunners strafed stationary trains and gun positions. The bomb aiming and shooting was reported as ‘good’.*3

However, of the fourteen 214 Sqn Wellingtons that left, seven were lost and a further Wellington was hit in both engines by light flak the pilot nursing it back to England. Of those seven lost, one airman, Sgt. C. Davidson was taken prisoner of war, four have no known grave and the remaining thirty-seven all died, and remain buried in graves across Belgium and Germany. Truly a terrible night for 214 Sqn. 57 Squadron fared little better, losing five aircraft with the deaths of twenty-five airmen, the remaining five being taken prisoner.

Further losses that month were restricted to just odd aircraft with the last loss being recorded on the night of 28th/29th April, with all crewmen being lost. Before the month would be out, 214 would begin the conversion to Stirlings, a new start and a new challenge.

The Stirling would prove to be a robust but under performing aircraft, its short wingspan and subsequent lack of lift, proving to be its biggest downfall. 214 Sqn would, during the conversion programme, write off nine aircraft, much of this though being as a result of operational activity, some however, due to pilot error or accidents. The first incident occurring on May 5th, 1942, approximately one week into the programme, when Stirling N6092 piloted by F/O. Gasper and Sgt. M Savage, swung on take off resulting in its undercarriage collapsing.

In the October 1942, 214 Sqn would leave for the final time, moving off to Stradishall’s satellite airfield, RAF Chedburgh, where they remained until December 1943. Following this they transferred to RAF Downham Market. The last loss of a 214 aircraft at Stradishall being on the night of September 19th/20th with the loss of Stirling ‘BU-U’ R9356 along with four of the seven crew, the remaining three being taken prisoners. By the end of 1942, 214 Sqn would have lost thirty-three Stirlings, twice that of the Wellington, all-in-all a huge loss of life.

 

RAF Stradishall

Former Married quarters are now private dwellings, but still retain that feel they had when they were first built.

The December of 1944 not only saw the departure, for the last time, of the Stirling as a heavy bomber, but it heralded the arrival of the Lancaster, the remarkable four-engined bomber that became the backbone of Bomber Command. In total 7,377 of the bombers were produced, including 430 that were constructed in Canada. A remarkable aircraft born out of the much under-powered and disliked Avro Manchester, it went on to fly over 156,000 sorties, dropping over 50 million incendiary bombs and over 608,000 tons of HE bombs.

186 Sqn would be the first unit here with the Lancaster both the MK.I and the MK.III, operating them in a number of missions over occupied Europe.

One of the saddest ends to the war and the operations of 186 Squadron was on the night of April 134th/14th. Whilst returning from bombing the U-boat yards at Kiel, two Lancasters: P8483  ‘X’ and P8488 ‘J’ collided at 02:26. Five of the crew from AP-X were killed, either instantly or as a result of injuries sustained, whilst all seven of AP-J lost their lives. This loss would account for a high proportion of the squadron’s losses, 186 Sqn only losing nine Lancasters in the six months of residency – a considerable change to the carnage suffered at Stradishall earlier on in the war. 186 Sqn would finally be disbanded here in July 1945.

Over the next four years, there would be a return of both the Stirling and the Lancaster, but this time in the transport role, as Stradishall was passed over to Transport Command. No. 51 Sqn, and No. 158 Sqn both flying Stirlings (158 Sqn being disbanded at Stradishall) 35 Sqn, 115 Sqn, 149 Sqn and 207 Sqn all operating various models of the Lancaster until February 1949.

There would then be a lull in operations at Stradishall between April and July 1949 whilst the airfield was put into care and maintenance. Following this 203 Advanced Flying School (AFS) moved in with a range of aircraft types, including the Meteor and the Vampire. Also thrown into the mix were a number of piston engined aircraft, notably the Spitfire XIV, XVI and XVIII, along with Tempests, Beaufighters and Mosquito T3s. Other training aircraft also came along covering everything from the Tiger Moth to the modern jet fighter. A new age was dawning.

On the night of August 31st and September 1st 1949, 203 AFS and 226 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) at Driffield, would both disband and reopen under each other’s titles, the new 226 OCU now operating as the training unit converting pilots to jet aircraft.

RAF Stradishall

To the left was the main airfield now covered by a solar farm, to the right would have been the hangars, the original apron concrete still visible.

The post war years of the 1950s would see Stradishall thrown back into front line operations once more, this time there would be no heavy bombers though, but there would be plenty of front line fighters.

First along were the night fighter variants of the Meteor (NF.11) and Venom (NF.3) between March 1955 and March 1957, a residency for a reformed 125 Squadron that coincided with 245 Squadron only 3 months behind them. No. 245 swapping the Meteor for the Hunter before being disbanded in June that year.

No. 89 Squadron (another unit reformed in December 1955) saw the arrival of the new delta wing Javelins FAW6 & FAW2 working alongside the ageing Venom Night Fighters. They flew these aircraft for thirteen months before being disbanded once more, and then renamed as 85 Squadron whilst here at Stradishall. After this re-branding they continued to fly the Javelins. In 1959 they too departed Stradishall for RAF West Malling and then onto RAF West Raynham, where they too disbanded once more.

1957 saw more of the same, 152 Squadron yo-yoing between Stradishall and Wattisham, finally disbanding here in July 1958 with 263 Squadron following a similar pattern, also disbanding here in the same month with their Hunter F.6s.

In July 1958, No. 1 Squadron were yet another unit to reform here, carrying on from where 263 Sqn left off. After replacing the F.6s of 263 Sqn with FGA.9s in the fighter / strike role, they finally departed to Waterbeach, eventually becoming a front line Harrier unit at Cottesmore.

Gradually operations at Stradishall were beginning to wind down. In June 1959 No. 54 Squadron also replaced the Hunter F.6s with FGA.9s before they too departed for Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire. 54 Sqn went on to fly both the Phantom and the Jaguar as front line operational units, all iconic aircraft of the Cold War. A very short spell by three Hunter squadrons led to the eventual closure of Stradishall in 1960 as a front line fighter station; 208, 111 and 43 Sqns all playing a minor part in the final operations at this famous airfield. The last flying unit No.1 Air Navigation School (ANS) finally closing the station doors as they too disbanded on August 26th 1970, being absorbed by No. 6 Flying Training School.

RAF Stradishall

Some older buildings can still be found outside the grounds of the Prison.

A considerable number of non-operational units would also operate from Stradishall throughout its operational life such as 21 Blind Approach Training Flight,  meaning just short of 50 flying units would use the facilities at Stradishall, all helping to train and prepare aircrews for the RAF and the defence of Britain.

Stradishall’s long and distinguished aviation history finally came to a close when it was sold off and handed over to HM Prison Service, becoming as it is today, HMP Highpoint Prison (North) and HMP Highpoint Prison (South). A rather ungainly ending to a remarkably historic airfield.

Stradishall is located a few miles south-west of Chedburgh, the main A143 dissects the two prison blocks, the north side being the former accommodation area, with the south block being the technical area and main airfield site. Access to the site is therefore limited, however, the former officers mess and associated buildings are available to view, as are a number of former technical buildings. A large memorial is currently displayed outside the officer’s mess building, named Stirling House  in memory of the aircraft type that flew from here, and it is open to the public. The foyer of the building, now a Prison Officer Training facility, is opened, and holds a roll of Honour, for those lost at the airfield.

RAF Stradishall

The current Prison Officers Training facility is named after the ill-fated Stirling that flew from RAF Stradishall. The Memorial being well sign posted.

Through the high security fencing, and around the site a number of buildings can still be seen, the familiar layout and design being standard of wartime and post war airfields. By turning off the A143 prior to reaching the memorial site, a small back access road allows public access to the airfield site. This is now, in part, a conservation area where the runways have all been removed, parts of the perimeter track do still remain and public access is permitted. The runways have been replaced by a solar farm, large panels cover the entire area and all are encased in high security fencing with closed circuit TV preventing you from wandering too close to the high-tech plant.

Walking along the northern side of the airfield, views can be seen of the accommodation area, again a number of former buildings can be seen through the fencing, their style typical of the expansion period design.

RAF Stradishall

The dilapidated gateway hides many original buildings and a layout that reflects airfield design of the expansion period.

Back on the main road, turning left passing the prison, a turn off gives access to the aforementioned officers mess and memorial, it is well signposted, and continuing on, brings you to the former married quarters, now private housing, again typical of airfield design. Across the road from here, a farm track still has a small number of buildings now in a very poor state, this would have been an entrance to the accommodation area behind the current north side Prison.  They are both quite well hidden by undergrowth but they are visible with a little effort.

Stradishall, like many of the early expansion period airfields, with its neo-Georgian style architecture and well designed layout, lasted well into the cold war period. These early examples which set the standard for future designs, proved to be long-lasting and robust, unlike many of their later counterparts hastily built with temporary accommodation. Whilst a rather unfitting end to a long and distinguished life, the transformation into a prison has in part, been its saviour, and one that has preserved many of its fine buildings for the foreseeable future at least.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 419 (Special Duties) Flight were initially formed at North Weald on 21st August 1940, being  disbanded and re designated 1419 (Special Duties ) Flight on 1st March 1941 at Stradishall. They in turn were disbanded on 25th August 1941 to be reformed at Newmarket as 138 Sqn. they moved back to Stradishall on 16th December 1941. In February 1942, the nucleus of 138 Sqn formed 161 Sqn at Newmarket continuing the role of SOE operations from there.

*2 Grehan, J., Mace, M., “Unearthing Churchill’s Secret Army: The Official List of SOE Casualties and Their Stories“, Pen and Sword Military, 2012

*3 ORB 214 Sqn: AIR\27\1321\8 National Archives.

RAF Stradishall – The early years.

Moving on from RAF Chedburgh, we continue south-west along the A143 to another former bomber airfield, and the parent station of Chedburgh. This next site has a history that dates back to the late 1930s and is one that has many of its original buildings still in situ, many thankfully still being used albeit by a completely different organisation.

The next stop on this trail is the historically famous airfield the former RAF Stradishall.

RAF Stradishall.

RAF Stradishall has a rather unique history, it was one of the first to be built during the expansion period of Britain’s Air Force beginning in 1935.  A series of Schemes, this programme was to develop the RAF over a period of years to prepare it for the forth coming war; a series of schemes that continued well into the war and created the basis of what we see today around Britain’s forgotten landscape.

This first scheme, Scheme ‘A’ (adopted by the Government in July 1934), set the bench mark by which all future schemes would develop, and called for a front line total of 1,544 aircraft within the following five years. Of these aircraft, 1,252 would be allocated specifically for ‘home defence’. This scheme brought military aviation back to the north of England, and to the eastern counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. Under this scheme, a number of airfields would be built or developed, of which Marham (the first completed under these schemes), Feltwell and Stradishall were among the first. These airfields were designed as “non-dispersed” airfields, where all domestic sites were located close to the main airfield site, and not spread about the surrounding area as was common practice in later airfield designs. At this stage, the dangers of an air attack were not being whole heartedly considered, and such an attack could have proven devastating if bombs had been accurately dropped.

Thus in 1938 Stradishall was born, its neo-Georgian style buildings built-in line with common agreements and local features. Within the grounds of the airfield accommodation blocks provided rooms for just over 2,500 personnel of mixed rank, and all tightly packed in within the main airfield site.

In these 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. By now, Bomber Command had realised that the new era of bombers would call for hard runways on its airfields, and so they pushed the Government on allowing these to be developed. However, before any firm decisions could be made, trials would need to be carried out to determine whether or not they were indeed needed and if so, how they should be best constructed.

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 here at 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.

However, Dowding continued to press home the need for hard surfaces, and by April 1939, it had finally been recognised by the Air Ministry that Dowding was indeed right. A number of fighter and bomber airfields were then designated to have hard runways, of which Stradishall was one. These initial runways were only 800 yards long and 50 yards wide, extended later that year to 1,000 yards long, as aircraft were repeatedly running off the ends of the runways on to the grassed areas. Over the years Stradishall would be expanded and further developed, its longest runway eventually extending to 2,000 yards.

Stradishall was also one of the first batch of airfields to have provisions for the new idea of dispersing aircraft around the perimeter. To meet this requirement, hard stands were created to take parked aircraft between sorties, thus avoiding the pre-war practice of collective storage, and so reducing the risk of damage should an attacking force arrive – a practice not necessarily extended to the accommodation! By the end of development, Stradishall would have a total of 36 hardstands of mixed types, the extension of the runway being responsible for the removal and subsequent replacement of some. For maintenance, five ‘C’ type hangars and three ‘T2’ hangars were built, again standard designs that would be later superseded as the need required.

As Stradishall was one of this first batch of new airfields, it would also be used for trials of airfield camouflaging, particularly as the now large concrete expanses would reveal the tell-tale sign of a military airfield. On wet days the sun would shine off these surfaces making the site highly visible for some considerable distance. Initial steps at Stradishall used fine coloured slag chippings added to the surface of the paved areas. Whilst generally successful, and initially adopted at many bomber stations, Fighter Command refused the idea as too many aircraft were suffering burst or damaged tyres as a result of the sharp stones being used. Something that is reflected in many casualty records of airfields around the country.

RAF Stradishall

The Type ‘B’ Officers Mess at Stradishall is now a Prison Officers Training Facility. The Officers quarters are located in wings on either side of the mess hall.

On opening Stradishall would fall under the command of 3 Group Bomber Command, and would operate as an RAF airfield until as late as 1970, being home to 27 different operational front line squadrons during this time. Many of these would be formed here and many, particularly those post-war, would be disbanded here, giving Stradishall a long and diverse history.

The first squadrons to arrive did so on March 10th 1938. No. 9 Sqn and No. 148 Sqn (RAF) arriving with Heyford III and the Vickers Wellesley respectively. 148 Sqn replaced these outdated Wellesleys with the Heyfords in November, and then again replacing these with both the Wellington and Anson before departing for Harwell on September 6th 1939. No. 9 Sqn also replaced their aircraft with Wellingtons in January 1939, themselves departing on July 7th that same year.

It was during a night training flight, on November 14th 1938, that Wing Commander Harry A. Smith MC along with his navigator Pilot Officer Aubrey W. Jackson would be killed in Heyford III K5194, when the aircraft undershot the airfield striking trees outside the airfield boundary. The crash was so forceful that the aircraft burst into flames killing both airmen.

Wing Commander Smith MC qualified as a pilot whilst in the Royal Flying Corps in 1916, and was the first of his rank to be killed since the inception of Bomber Command in July 1936. He had been awarded the Military Cross ‘for gallantry and distinguished service in the field‘ in 1918.

Pilot Officer Jackson was appointed for a Short Service Commission in January 1937, and later a Permanent Commission. He was only 20 years old at the time of his death.

Both crewmen are buried in Stradishall’s local cemetery.

St. Margaret of Antioch, Stradishall

A very much less than grand grave stone marks the plot of P.O. Aubrey W. Jackson, killed on November 14th 1938 on a night training flight.

St. Margaret of Antioch, Stradishall

Wing Commander Smith, killed alongside P.O. Jackson on a night training flight. He was the first of his rank to die since the formation of Bomber Command.

Two more squadrons arrived here in 1939. No. 75 Sqn operated the Wellington MK. I from July, departing here just after the outbreak of war in September, and 236 Sqn flying Blenheims between the end of October and December that same year. 236 Sqn were reformed here after being disbanded in 1919, and after replacing the Night-Fighter Blenheims with Beaufighters, they went on with the type until the end of the war and disbandment once more. Almost simultaneously, 254 Squadron reformed here in October 1939, also with Blenheims. They remained here building up to strength before moving to RAF Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire in December – one of many ‘short stay’ units to operate from Stradishall during its life.

This pattern would set the general precedence for the coming years, with bizarrely, 1940 seeing what must have been one of the shortest lived squadrons of the war. No. 148 Sqn being reformed on April 30th with Wellingtons only to be disbanded some twenty days later!

This year saw three further squadrons arrive at Stradishall: 150 Sqn on June 15th, with the Fairy Battle (the only single engined front line aircraft to be used here during the war), whilst on their way to RAF Newton; a detachment of Wellington MK.IC from 311 Sqn based at East Wretham (Sept); and 214 Sqn flying three variants of Wellington between 14th February 1940 and 28th April 1942. No. 214 Sqn would be the main unit to operate from here during this part of the war, and would suffer a high number of casualties whilst here.

On June 6th 1940, 214 Sqn Wellington IA ‘N2993’ piloted by F/O. John F. Nicholson (s/n 70501), would take off on a routine night flying practice flight. During the flight, it is thought that F/O. Nicholson became blinded by searchlights throwing the aircraft out of control. Unable to regain that control, the aircraft came down near to Ely, Cambridgeshire, killing the five crewmen along with an additional Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Maurice Peling who had joined them for the flight. A tragic accident that needlessly took the lives of many young men. F/O. Nicholson is buried in the local cemetery at Stradishall, whilst the remainder of the crew are buried in different cemeteries scattered around the country.

St. Margaret of Antioch, Stradishall

F/O. J. Nicholson was killed when he lost control of his Wellington on the night of June 6th 1940.

214 Sqn began operations from Stradishall on the night of June 14th/15th, the day German forces began entering Paris. This first raid was to the Black Forest region of Germany, a mission that was relatively uneventful.

Joining 214 Sqn at Stradishall was another unit, 138 Sqn*1 between December 1941 and March 1942. Flying a mix of aircraft, including the Lysander, Whitley, and later: Liberator, Stirling and Halifax, they would perform duties associated with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) carrying out clandestine missions dropping agents behind enemy lines.

It was one of these aircraft, Lysander III T1508, that crashed in January, nosing over near to the French town of Issoudun, a medieval town that bordered the regions of occupied France and ‘free’ France. The towns people protected many wanted resistance supporters, and so it was the scene of many heroic acts. From this particular accident, Squadron Leader J. Nesbit-Dufort managed to escape, evading capture and eventually returning to England where he was awarded the DSO for his actions. Needing to destroy the aircraft, locals pushed the Lysander onto nearby railway lines where it was obliterated after being hit by a passing train*2. It is believed that this was the first Lysander to be lost on these clandestine operations.

This night of January 28th/29th 1942, was a particularly bad night for Stradishall, with three aircraft being lost, two from 138 Squadron and one from 214 Squadron. Thirteen souls were lost that night none of which have any known grave.

1942 would also see a short one month stay by the Wellingtons of 101 Squadron, a detachment of 109 Squadron, and the accommodation of 215 Squadron’s ground echelon. Formed at Newmarket, the ground crews were posted to India whilst the air echelons were formed up at Waterbeach joining them with Wellingtons in April.

An updating of Wellington MK.Is with the MK.VI saw the remainder of 109 Squadron move into Stradishall, only leaving a small detachment at Upper Heyford – a residency that only lasted 4 months between April and July 1942. As 109 Sqn left, Stradishall was joined by the Heavy Conversion Unit 1657 HCU.

Formed as a bomber training unit through the merger of No. 7, 101, 149 and 218 Squadron Conversion Flights and 1427 (Training Flight), it would also operate the Stirling, and later the Lancaster along with some smaller aircraft such as the Airspeed Oxford. They would remain here until late 1944 when they too were finally disbanded. This meant that 1943 was quieter than usual, there wasn’t any sign of the previous ebbing and flowing that had taken place in the preceding years.

With a focus on training, few of these aircraft were used for ‘operational’ sorties until the closing stages of the war. That said, there were still a number of accidents and crashes that resulted in injury. A number of these were due to technical issues, engine failure, engine fires or undercarriage problems, some were due to pilot error. One of the earliest incidents here was that of Stirling MK.I W7470 which crashed, after suffering engine problems over County Durham. The accident killed two crewmen and injured a further two.

After a short spell at Honnington, 214 Sqn would join 1657 HCU, also replacing the Wellington with the ill-fated Short Stirling MK.I in April 1942. But the last flights of the Wellington would not be a good one. The night of April 1st/2nd 1942 would go down as 214 Sqn’s worst on record, and one that would prove devastating to the crews left behind.

In part two of RAF Stradishall, we look at the later war years, the terribly sad events that scarred 214 Squadron, and Stradishall’s post war development. The dawning of the jet age.