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

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

RAF Waterbeach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Waterbeach 'J' Hangar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporal C. P. Eva

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

RAF Hardwick (Station 104)

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Hardwick Memorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gas Training Room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Old Buckenham – the home of film stars!

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

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

RAF Old Buckenham (Station 144)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Old Buckenham

The Blister Hangar at Old Buckenham.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Old Buckenham

The mobile ‘control tower’ at Old Buckenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Old Buckenham

Part of the runway is now used as the taxiway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Old Buckenham

RAF Old Buckenham, memorial to those who served.

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

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

RAF Old Buckenham

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

Post script

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

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

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

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

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

RAF East Wretham (Station 133)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF East Wretham 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tarck to Bomb Store

A number of tracks remain on the site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Bodney – High casualties and Heroic acts (Part 2).

After Part 1, we return to RAF Bodney to the point where the RAF had pulled out handing Bodney over to the US forces. From now on, it would be the home of the USAAF 352nd FG, its P-47s and P-51s.

Famed for the blue-noses on their P-51s, there would be high successes but there would also be many tragedies along the way.

Formed previously in September 1942, the 352nd Fighter Group (FG) composed of three Fighter Squadrons (FS): 328th FS, 486th FS (previously the 21st PS) and 487th FS (formally the 34th PS). Their journey had been both long and difficult, using elements of two squadrons who had previous battle experience in the Pacific theatre. The new 352nd would move through a series of training camps and bases across America, serving as part of the US Air Defence force before deploying overseas. From Mitchel Field, they transferred to Bradley Field (Connecticut), Westover Field (Massachusetts), Trumbull Field (Connecticut) and onto Republic Field, New York before  eventually leaving on the Queen Elizabeth arriving a week later at Bodney on July 7th 1943.

Arriving via Greenock and the Queen Elizabeth, the ground echelons of the 352nd were deposited at Watton station where they were taken by truck to RAF Watton. Pleasantly surprised by the far nicer accommodation blocks they had been used to, their joy was to be short-lived as Bodney was perhaps even worse than the original training camps they had endured back home.

Whilst the surrounding woods had been utilised for aircraft dispersal, the base was in need of an upgrade if it was to be used successfully. These improvements included the addition of steel mat and pierced-steel planking hardstands, additional taxiways and more roads constructed of both macadam and concrete. The men of the 352nd commuted daily from Watton carrying out repairs and improvements until such time as the airfield was more or less ready for occupation and they moved in.

During its time, Bodney would have two T2 hangars and five Blister hangars, accommodation would continue to be limited, allowing for around 1,700 men of mixed rank. Eleven accommodation sites were spread round the north and east of the main airfield, which included two communal sites (site 2 and 3) and two sewage works (sites 12 and 13). There were no WAAF accommodation blocks and due to initial shortages of Nissen huts, nearby Clermont Hall (originally a grand plastered brick Italian style building built by William Pilkington in 1812 as Lord Clermont’s hunting lodge*1)  was ‘requisitioned’ and flying crews moved in, it was a complete change and total luxury compared to other bases and camps used by either the RAF or USAAF. However, following a visit from an Air Inspector, the stay was short-lived and the airmen moved back to the basic hutting of Bodney, even after strong protests from Group Commander, Lt. Col. Joe Mason.

Master Mark II glider tug at Bodney, during airborne forces Exercise ‘SNAFFLE‘ © IWM (H 31737)

During this time manoeuvres regularly took place in the local area, and between August 9th and 11th 1943, one such exercise was conducted near to Newmarket, an exercise that involved both Polish and Canadian divisions opposing each other in mock attacks. During exercise ‘SNAFFLE‘, Master Mark II glider tugs used Bodney airfield whilst dropping a range of supplies such as petrol, ammunition and ordnance to illustrate both the usefulness, and importance of such activities. This made an interesting change to Bodney and something else for the crews to focus on.

It wasn’t long however, before the first P-47s were to arrive at Bodney, and at last flying could begin again with training flights started very soon afterwards. However, maintenance and flying operations were arrested by the lack of equipment, spares and aircraft – all very typical of the build up of US squadrons across the UK. As morale sunk, a special visitor arrived at Bodney, that of Capt. Clark Gable along with a film crew who were documenting the lives of American Fighter Squadrons involved in the European war.

A line up of P-47 Thunderbolts including (PZ-T,) “Little Evey” and (PZ-Z) “Pistol Packin’ Mama” at Bodney.  (IWM FRE 2795)

On September 9th 1943, some two months after their arrival, the 352nd flew their first mission. An uneventful patrol over England’s eastern coast between Southwold and Felixstowe. For the next few mission, even those into enemy territory, similar conditions were found, the enemy were not seen and flak remained low. However, this did not mean the 352nd were casualty free.

On 13th September 1943, Lt. Arthur Eaker was killed in a local flying accident, the groups first, then on the 14th, Lt. William Alm disappeared whilst in flight over the North Sea. His aircraft P-47D (#42-22531) was thought to have been lost due to mechanical failure, he was never found.

It wasn’t until the 10th October that the pilots of the 352nd got to fire their guns in anger, when they encountered a flight of Bf-109s near to Hertogenbosch, Holland. The first kills were recorded, but it was not to be all plain sailing. Four days later on the 14th (‘Black Thursday‘), the Luftwaffe changed tactics and hit the escorts as they crossed the coastline. Leaving the bombers unescorted to their targets in Germany. Once away from their ‘Little Friends’ the bomber formations were decimated by Me-110s – something need to be done.

With more mission to Germany and escort duties, the 352nd began to cut their teeth and become battle hardened. By the turn of the year they had completed 38 missions with the loss of ten aircraft. The pilots of the 352nd had now twenty-two enemy aircraft as confirmed ‘kills’, but five of their own were killed and two others had been made prisoners of war.

A new year and new directives for fighter squadrons. in order to achieve total air superiority pilots were instructed to hunt for the Luftwaffe and destroy them whenever the opportunity arose. Every aircraft destroyed on the ground now counting as a battle credit, the same as an aerial kill. In addition, fighter squadrons were now given designated ‘zones’ to protect, and once the bomber stream had passed through their zone, the fighters were free to roam at will. The gauntlet had been thrown and the US pilots were hungry for rewards.

Early 1944 saw these directives put into action. ‘kill’ rates began to rise, but along with it casualties also mounted. By February the war-weary P-47s were looking tired and the new P-51 began to appear. The Ninth Air Force taking first pickings with Don Blakeslee, (Trail 46 and Trail 50) formerly of the ‘Eagle Squadrons’ becoming the first US squadron to have the mighty Mustangs. It wasn’t until March 1st, 1944 that the 352nd would receive their first P-51s, with seven being delivered and duly handed over to the pilots of the 486th FS at Bodney.

A battled damaged P-51 Mustang (PZ-S) of the 486th FS, in a Blister hangar at Bodney. (IWM- FRE 2803)

It would take just eight days for the Bodney crews to mark their first Mustang ‘Kill’. Capt. Ed Gignac, in P-51B ‘PZ-W’ (#43-7022), shooting down a Bf-109 in battle that saw both P-51s and P-47s of the 352nd participate.

April saw more changes and new arrivals, by now there were two squadrons of P-51s at Bodney, a new sound reverberated around the grassed airfield and with it came more new directives, As many squadrons were equipped with a mix of aircraft, it was beginning difficult to tell them apart in the hectic skies. Coloured noses, wing tips and fins were rapidly becoming markings of individual squadrons and those in charge realised that a standard form of scheming was now necessary for this new and innovative way of distinguishing squadrons.

The blue nose was born, and Bodney’s Blue-nosed Mustangs were soon to be seen at low-level attacking airfields, locomotives, vehicles, troop columns and other similar ground targets.

In May, whilst acting on escort duties for a raid over Brunswick, the group shot down 27 enemy Bf-109s and FW-190s with the loss of only one aircraft. This action earned them a Distinguished Unit Citation, for taking on a “numerically superior force of German interceptors” continuing on until lack of ammunition and fuel forced their withdrawal.

The 352nd went on to support the Normandy invasion, an operation that proved to be a fatal tragedy for one pilot in particular, Lieutenant Bob Frascotti.

IMG_2210

Robert Frascotti next to his P-51B, 43-6685, named ‘Umbriago’ . At 21 years of age he was killed on his final mission before returning home. (Photo – Marc Hamel)

D-Day began early for the 352nd, the night sky was dark and to assist the take off temporary runway lights had been lit. Preceding Frascotti were his compatriots of the 486th FS. During the take off, one of the preceding aircraft struck a light causing the entire collection to extinguish. In the moments that followed, Frascotti and his wing-man, Lt. Carlton Fuhrman, were plunged into total darkness. Unable to see, the two were now committed and carried on, Fuhrman slightly behind Frascotti. Within seconds of them leaving the ground, there was a sudden and massive fireball in front of Fuhrman, a fireball that was the result of Frascotti striking the new, and as yet unfinished, watch office. His aircraft, fully armed and fully fuelled, became a fireball that lit-up the night sky, and one from which Frascotti would not survive.

Blinded temporarily by the flash, Fuhrman fought to prevent his aircraft stalling as he flew through the flames and on out into the night sky, struggling to orientate himself and  unable to register his instruments due to the blinding flash. Behind him, Frascotti’s burning wreck lit up the field, one of the 352nd’s finest had been killed in a total and needless tragedy. The only saving grace from this was that every other aircraft taking off after Frascotti was able to see, a guiding light some say, and so prevented other tragic accidents from happening that night. This was the young 21 year old’s final mission, his 89th, and on completion he would have been returning home.

During D-Day the 352nd flew 116 sorties, reigning death and destruction down on the German forces below, other casualties were to follow, but none until now, as destructive and heart rendering as that of Frascotti.

The Watch Office after being hit by Frascotti’s P-51 on the morning of D-Day. (© 352nd FG, USAAF)*2

After Normandy, the 352nd went on to support the breakout at St.Lo and the airborne assault in Holland. As autumn led into winter, the temperature dropped and the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse; with heavy snow and cold winds across the continent, as the ground forces held out on the Ardennes forest knew only too well. The 352nd, like many other squadrons, were to help support the paratroops, being moved on a short-term basis to Belgium (Asch (Y-29) and Chievres (Y-84)) to join the Ninth Air Force earning themselves the French Croix de Guerre on New Year’s Day 1945.

A week earlier, on Christmas Day 1944 a second tragedy was to befall the 352nd, one that would take the life of another one of the 352nd’s finest. The squadrons highest scoring pilot at that time, Major George Preddy, a hero to many of the airmen and ground crews at Bodney, flew into an American Flak barrage put up by the US Army’s 12th Anti-Aircraft Group. His plane was hit and whilst his canopy was seen to be ejected, no chute appeared, and his body was found still in the wreckage of his beloved P-51. The news of Preddy’s death stunned the celebrations at both Asch and Bodney, no-one could believe that such a daring and brave pilot could have been lost, let alone lost to friendly fire.

April would see the 352nd return to Bodney, where they continued operations until May 3rd 1945. Their final move on November 4th would take them home to the United States, a move that left Bodney empty and a legacy that would be hard to follow. The 352nd had flown 420 missions, losing 118 aircraft with 70 pilots killed. They had been awarded 13 DSC’s, 31 Silver Stars, 336 DFCs, 1304 Air Medals and 42 Bronze Star Medals. The Group had created 52 ‘Aces’, 28 of which had achieved the status in air-to-air combat, accounting for 505 aircraft in the air with Major George Preddy achieving 27 of these himself.

With that departure Bodney fell silent, it closed very soon after the war in Europe ended on November 26th 1945, reverting back to farmland soon after.

Today Bodney falls next to the British Army’s STANTA training ground and as such parts are a military site. Some structures can easily be seen from the main road, B1108,  with signs warning of MOD activity are everywhere.  The original water tower and pump still serve the camp, a few air raid shelters exist and some buildings on the camp. Hardstands can be seen in the woods but little from the road itself.

The watch office is accessible (on farmland) where there are also a few other buildings to be found, including  number of Type 22 pillboxes, many are derelict. The main army base is on part of the former accommodation site, with a memorial outside the gate dedicated to 352nd FG and associated units.

RAF Bodney

Bodney’s memorial to the 352nd FG.

Many of the buildings that were in existence were pulled down in 2012/13 due to increased vandalism and their heavy use for Rave parties. As a result even less now stands visible telling the incredible stories of this forgotten airfield.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Norfolk Heritage Explorer website, accessed 15/8/18

*2 Photo via www.controltowers.co.uk

Frascotti’s story is told in more detail in Heroic tales.

Preddy’s story is told in more detail in Heroic Tales.

Walton, D. “Northumberland Aviation Diary” (1999), Norav Publications

Freeman, R. “The Mighty Eighth“, (1986), Arms and Armour.

There is a website dedicated to the 352nd with a link to the superb ‘Bluenoser’ magazine.

RAF Boulmer – Sophistication and intrigue (Part 2).

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

RAF Boulmer

Boulmer’s modern watch office and hangar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Boulmer

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

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

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

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

RAF Boulmer

RAF Phantom guarding RAF Boulmer.

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Boulmer

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

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

RAF Boulmer

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

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

Sources and Further Reading.

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

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

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

RAF Boulmer – Sophistication and intrigue (Part 1).

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

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

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

RAF Boulmer (Longhoughton).

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

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

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

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

RAF Boulmer

Inside one of the remaining wartime shelters at RAF Boulmer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Bottesford (Station 481)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottesford 1945 *3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Bottesford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Bottesford

One of Bottesford’s hangars in use today.

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

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

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

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

RAF Museum Hendon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Bottesford

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

Links and sources

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

*2 Source Imperial War Museum photo ref: RAF_HLA_590_V_6004

*3 Source Imperial War Museum photo ref: RAF_106G_LA_203_RP_3093

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Barkston Heath (Station 483).

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

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

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

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

RAF Barkston Heath

Barkston Heath Watch Office.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Barkston Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and Further Reading.

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

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

 

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

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

Runways, Perimeter Tracks and Hardstands

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

Glatton (Conington) second runway markings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Charterhall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runway arrester gear

Runway arrester gear at Woodhall Spa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Milfield

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

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

Remains of Type 'B' fighter Pen

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

RAF Macmerry

A Type ‘B’ Pen at RAF Macmerry. The cranked wall can be seen to the right, with the central wall on the left. The entrance is to the bottom right.

Examples of these pens were located at Matlaske (type ‘B’ – built to design 7151/41) and Macmerry in Scotland, 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