RAF Shipdham – The 44th BG ‘The Jinx Squadron’ (Pt. 2)

In part 1 we left the “Eightballs” in the middle of a cold and icy winter, before which, a heavy toll had been paid. The January of 1944 would not prove to be any better for the men of the 44th BG, with both further losses and the high levels of stress playing their part in the coming months at RAF Shipdham.

On January 13th, a training mission was organised for a new crew, who had only joined the group on the Christmas Eve, and were barely three weeks into their war. On this day, B-24 #42-7551 of the 68th BS piloted by 2nd Lt. Glenn Hovey, would come in on approach to Shipdham, a landing in which one of the engines was feathered to simulate one engine out. With flaps and gear down, the pilot overshot, banking to the left striking a tree causing the aircraft to crash. The ensuing fireball killed nine men instantly, the tenth 2nd Lt. Richard Sowers being taken to hospital where he died shortly after. For a rookie crew this was perhaps the worst possible cause of death.

B-24 Liberators, including a B-24 (serial number 41-29153) nicknamed

Liberators, including a B-24 (#41-29153), ‘Greenwich’ of the 506th BS, 44th BG (pilot 1st Lt. Robert Marx) conducts a raid on a German airfield near Diepholz. February 21st 1944. This aircraft was subsequently lost on April 8th 1944, all the crew were taken prisoner. (Official U.S. Air Force Photo)

The extreme pressures placed of aircrew were beyond that imaginable, and for some, it was just too much. After having joined the 44th and flown since July 1943, for one pilot it all became too great, and on January 20th he sadly took his own life. Not a unique event by any means, but his death shows the great pressure that airmen were subjected to and for some it was simply a step too far.

The end of March and into April saw the poor weather continuing, with many missions being aborted. On April 1st, a mission to Grafenhausen was yet again cancelled, but B-24s of the 44th and 392nd did continue on. Unbeknown to them, they were way of course, and when they released their bombs it was the Swiss town of Schaffhausen that was beneath them, and not the Germany city. Ten aircraft were lost that day whilst Swiss papers reported the loss of thirty residents. The Nazi propaganda machine-made good use of this most unfortunate accident.

Only eight days later the ‘Eightballs’ would suffer their greatest loss of the war, April being the month that cost more in men and machines than any other month of the conflict. This was a month that put even Ploesti and Foggia in the dark. A mission to Brunswick was scrubbed as the town was shrouded in smoke, and so a secondary target was selected Langenhagen Aerodrome near Hanover in Germany.

Now for the first time, fitted with PFF, the B-24s flew toward the target. It was a cloudless and sunny day, an escort of P-51s were with the Liberators when suddenly, out of the sun, came a whole horde of enemy fighters. They struck from above and in front making a concentrated attack that took out eleven of the 44th’s group; forty-one airmen were killed that day with almost as many being taken prisoner.

For the remainder of the war the group attacked many high prestige targets, including airfields, oil refineries, railways, V-weapon sites, aided the Normandy landings and the breakout at St. Lo. They supported the ground forces in the Battle of the Bulge and attacked railway bridges, junctions and tunnels preventing German reinforcements arriving at the front.

With their last operational bombing sortie taking place on April 25th 1945, never again would they lose as many aircraft as they did during those three major raids. Bombing turned to food supplies and transit flights bringing home POWs from camps across Europe.

Then over May / June 1945, the various echelons began to depart Shipdham returning to the U.S., they had completed 343 missions using six different marks of B24. They had flown against submarine pens, industrial complexes, airfields, harbours and shipyards. Whilst in Africa they had flown in the Ploesti raid in Romania, the raid on Foggia and had helped in the invasion of Italy.

The Unit achieved one of the highest mission records of any B24 group for the loss of 153 aircraft, the highest loss of any B-24 group. They had taken the taunting of the B-17 crews, been called ‘Jinxed’ and had lost a lot of young men in the process. The 44th had paid the price, but they had earned two DUCs, a Purple Heart and numerous other medals for gallantry and bravery in the face of adversity.

The 44th and their home at Shipdham had well and truly written itself into the history books.

Following cessation of conflict the mighty 8th left Shipdham. The airfield became a POW camp closing in 1947, it then remained in care and maintenance until finally being sold off in 1963. Over the years it has been turned into agricultural premises with an industrial complex covering the technical area of the airfield. Fortunately, flying activity has managed to keep a small part of Shipdham alive with the Shipdham Aero Club utilising one of the remaining runways.

If you drive round the site to the industrial area, you  can clearly see the remaining two hangers through the fence. Behind these are a small selection of dilapidated buildings from what was the technical site, including the control tower and operations block.

RAF Shipdham

Shipdam’s runway used for storage.

The tower is now a mere shell and in danger of demolition. For those not tempted to venture further, views of these can be seen from across the fields on the aero club side of the site. Further views reveal one runway covered in farm storage units, but the runway they sit on, remains intact.

This is a large site, much of which is now either agriculture or industrial, with what is left is in desperate need of TLC. Whilst there is a small part of this airfield alive and kicking, the more physical features cling on by their finger nails desperate for the care and attention they wholeheartedly deserve.

The club house at the aero club houses a small museum in memory of those who flew from here, with many pictures and personal stories it is one to add to the list of places to go.

I found this rare original footage of the 44BG taken at Station 115 on ‘You Tube’.  This features a number of B-24s preparing for, and returning from, the November 18th Mission to Kjeller Airfield, Oslo (not the 19th as implied on the film). It also includes B24H #42-7535 ‘Peepsight‘ of the 506th crash landing after a mission.

The latter half of the film includes footage from 1944-45 noted by the change in the tail fin Bomb Group coding (Black stripe on white background as opposed to the black ‘A’ in a white circle). It would appear therefore to be a compilation of dates, but this aside, it is very much worth watching.

Shipdham was a relatively short-lived airfield, used by only one unit, the 44th Bomb Group, it saw many crews come and go and bore witness to some incredible actions. Whilst Shipdham lives on, the future of its buildings remain in doubt, the creeping industrial strong hold gaining in strength with each passing day. How long will it be before it sinks into obscurity and the brave actions of those who never returned are forgotten.

RAF Shipdham appears in Trail 10.

Sources and Further Reading.

Lundy, W., “44th Bomb Group Roll of Honor and Casualties“, 2005, Greenharbor.com  – a detailed account of the 44th’s missions, including personal accounts of each mission and details of the losses. (Twitter @44thbgROH)

Todd, C.T., “History of the 68th Bomb Squadron 44th Bomb Group – The Flying EIghtballs“. PDF document

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RAF Shipdham – The 44th BG ‘The Jinx Squadron’ (Pt. 1)

As part of Trail 10, we revisit the first Norfolk airfield opened as a heavy bomber base for the USAAF. It is an airfield that lives on – just – and was the home to only one major bomb group. This group led the way for the B-24, they took heavy loses and bore the brunt of B-17 jokes. Their loses were so high that unofficially, they became the ‘Jinx Squadron’.

In this Trail, we go to RAF Shipdham otherwise known as Station 115.

RAF Shipdham (Station 115)

On leaving Watton, we travel north-east across the countryside to the small village of Shipdham, some 3.5 miles south of East Dereham. If you miss the turn, you will pass along the main road and a row of memorial trees dedicated to the parishioners of Shipdham who died in both World Wars. A list of those concerned is on a large board placed adjacent to the road. Turn back, return towards the village and take the left turn toward the airfield site. Opened in 1942, it was the first airfield to receive the Mighty 8th, who named it Station 115.

RAF Shipdham

One of Shipdham’s remaining Hangars.

Shipdham was built during the period 1941-42 and opened as the first US heavy bomber airfield in Norfolk. It was built as a Class A airfield having three concrete runways, one of 2,000 yards, and two of 1,400 yards, each 50 yards wide. A standard perimeter track linked all three runways, the main one of which ran east-west.

The technical and administrative area was located in the south-eastern corner, the bombs store to the south-west, and the accommodation areas dispersed off to the south, unusually, between the two aforementioned sites. There were initially 50 concrete hardstands, but this increased later on to 55 as the airfield was updated. The majority of these hardstands (37) were the single pan style, whilst the remainder were the dual spectacle style.

Accommodation was built for around 3,000 personnel using a range of temporary buildings over nine different sites, with a further two sites, both sewage works, and a wireless transmitter site, also being located here . Shipdham unusually had three communal sites, two male and a WAAF, and many buildings were temporary in nature: Laing, Nissen, Thorn and some Hall huts. A further number of buildings were brick with both temporary and permanent designs in use.

The Watch Office (built to drawing 8936/40) was part timber and part concrete, a deviation from drawing 2423/40, and still stood, albeit in a very poor condition, at the time of visiting.

The first group to arrive here were the 319th BG, a group made up of twin-engined B-26 ‘Marauders’, who flew across the northern route of the Atlantic during September 1942. Their trip across was hazardous, many aircraft suffering as a result of the cold and closing winter months. Sent to Shipdham to begin training operations, they only remained here for around one month, being moved to RAF Horsham St. Faith in October, and with it vacating Shipdham for good. In their place came the main resident unit, the 44th BG known as the ‘Flying Eight Balls‘ bringing with them the mighty B-24 Liberators.

RAF Shipdham

Shipdham’s Watch Office sites amongst the cranes and industrial buildings. (Just below the two cranes)

Activated on January 15th 1941, they were the USAAF’s first Liberator unit, becoming an operational training unit in February 1942, carrying out anti-submarine duties before making preparations for the European theatre. They moved from MacDill Field in Florida to Barkdale Field, Louisiana, and then onto Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma before setting off for England in October 1942. The three squadrons of the 44th, the 66th, 67th and 68th BS, were finally provided with aircraft and a full complement of aircrew at Will Rogers; however, this did not include the fourth and final squadron, the 404th BS, who were diverted to Alaska to protect the west coast against potential Japanese attacks. Being only three squadrons, the 44th BG would operate below full strength for almost six months until the replacement squadron, the 506th BS, would arrive. This weakened force would play its part in the 44th’s short and tragic history.

On September 4th, the ground echelons sailed on the Queen Mary, arriving in Scotland on the 11th. The first aircraft did not leave the US until later that same month, after which all personnel were gathered at their temporary base at Cheddington before moving off to Shipdham in October.

Once in England, the Liberators of the 44th were modified, flown to Langford Lodge, they were given scanning windows in the nose, the fitting of British IFF equipment, and improvement to the guns. The B-24s had been supplied with limiting ‘cans’ of ammunition rather than the much longer belt fed ammunition. Another adaptation at this point was the fitting of two .50 calibre machine guns in the nose, similar in style to those of the B-17.

On November 7th 1942, the ‘Flying Eight Balls‘ were put on limited combat status, with a small number of eight aircraft being sent on their first operational sortie. A diversionary flight, it was followed by four more sorties, of which only one involved any bombing at all. The 44th were not having a successful time though, the equipment they had been provided with was not protecting the crews from the extremely low temperatures found at high altitudes, several crewmen suffering from frostbite as a result.

By early December the last of the modified B-24s arrived back at Shipdham and the Group was back up to its three squadron strength. On the 6th December 1942, the group flew its first mission, a nineteen strong formation was sent to bomb the airfield at Abbeville-Drucat in France.

This mission would not go well. A diversionary attack, it would see the two squadrons the 66th and 67th called back, the abort signal did not however reach the 68th who unaware of the changes, carried on to the target. Being only six aircraft, they were woefully under protected, and after releasing their bombs over the target, were attacked by around thirty FW-190s. What resulted was devastating for the 68th, one aircraft was lost, Liberator #41-23786 piloted by 1st Lt. James Du Bard Jr. (s/n: 0-410225), along with its entire crew.  Witness accounts from other crews say that as the aircraft went down, its guns continued to fire, the gunners of #786 staying at their respective stations even though their fate was sealed. As the pilot struggled to regain control and get the aircraft home, they managed to bring down two enemy aircraft before crashing into the sea themselves. For their actions and bravery, the entire crew were awarded the Silver Star.

In the attack on Abbeville-Drucat , every B-24 was hit by enemy cannon fire. Following a head on attack by fourteen FW-190s in waves of three or four, an exploding 20mm shell in the cockpit of  ‘Victory Ship‘ #41-23813, badly injured both the pilot and co-pilot; but undeterred, 1st  Lt. Walter Holmes Jr (s/n: 0-437615), managed to get home and land the aircraft even though he and his copilot, 2nd Lt. Robert Ager, were badly injured. For his brave action and determination to get home, he was awarded the first DFC for the group. Holmes would also go onto receive a DSC in the mission to Ploesti in August going on to complete his tour of duty later that same month.

A medical truck and ground personnel of the 44th Bomb Group on standby as a B-24 Liberator (V, serial number 41-23813) nicknamed

A medical truck and ground personnel standby as B-24 Liberator #41-23813 “Victory Ship” returns from a mission. (IWM FRE 640)

A second attack to the same target was aborted, but during this mission one crewman suffered frostbite and had to have his arm amputated at the elbow. Then followed the  third mission, and it proved just as disastrous for the 44th. A flight of 101 aircraft, a mix of B-17s and B-24s were sent to Romilly-sur-Seine, and of the 101 aircraft sent, only seventy-two made it to the target, the remainder being lost or aborting. From the 44th, only twelve of the twenty-one sent out made it through, and of these, one suffered a head on attack by a FW -190. The pilot Cap. Algene E. Key took evasive action but cannon shells ripped through the aircraft killing gunner S/Sgt. Hilmer Lund and seriously wounding two others. Key manged to fly the aircraft to the target and then home, even though it was badly damaged and difficult to fly. For his actions he was awarded the DSC.

The start of the war was not a good one for the 44th, many of those who came over were now in a state of shock, the extremely cold temperatures and determined fighters of the Luftwaffe both taking a toll on the crews. The early days of the 44th were difficult and the crews faced a very steep learning curve.

When the 44th’s sister group the 93rd BG departed for North Africa, the 44th’s three squadrons consisting of only nine aircraft each, accounted for the entire Liberator force in the European Theatre. Performance figures for the B-24s made it difficult to fly in tight formations, the faster speed of the B-24 also meant it ended up at the rear of the large formations and slightly higher. It was a difficult aircraft to fly and crews were finding it hard to maintain flight with the slower and lighter B-17s.

To counteract these problems they were given restricted fuel levels, a restriction that proved to be fatal on the January 3rd 1943 mission to St. Nazaire. With further aircraft aborting, only 8 aircraft reached the target and able to drop their bombs. On the way back, the leading B-17s took an incorrect heading, and the flight flew up the Irish Sea as opposed to crossing over southern England. Now desperately short of fuel they split up, searching for a safe haven. Some aircraft unable to locate an airfield, ran out of fuel, and had to land in fields with the expected results. Three crewmen were killed that day and seventeen were wounded, some dying later from injuries sustained in the crashes.

1943 had started as badly as 1942 had ended. Spirits were now low and over the next few weeks several aborted missions added to the misery of the 44th. With further losses in the few missions they flew, rumours spread of a ‘hard luck’ squadron, and questions were raised as to the suitability of the B-24 as a bomber. Things got so bad that the 67th was reduced to just three aircraft, with no sign of replacements of men or machine being delivered anytime soon.

Nissen huts at Shipdham airbase, home of the 44th Bomb Group. Image via Colonel William R Cameron. This is part of the 67th BG LIVING SITE

Relaxation time at the 67th BS accommodation site (IWM FRE 670)

Then came some good news, the fourth squadron the 506th, arrived in March 1943 raising the 44th to its full complement of four squadrons for the first time since leaving the United States. Manning these aircraft was going to be another challenge though, many of the gunners were ground crews retrained as aircrew, some were drafted in from other squadrons, often being crewmen who had ‘failed’ in their previous roles. The future didn’t look any better even with the full complement of staff.

The Eighth now looked toward night flying as a possibility, the 93rd, having returned from Africa, stopped flying in order to train in their new role, leaving the 44th to ‘carry the can’ once more. Reduced to diversionary raids, the 44th were sent to Kiel on May 14th 1943, carrying a large number of incendiaries. Flying behind the higher B-17s, they were easy pickings for the FW-190s who picked off five of the twenty-one sent out before they reached the target. However, the determination of the crews saw some aircraft both get through and bomb successfully, a determination that won the group their first Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC).

With another aircraft lost on the return leg, the 44th had taken yet another beating, apart from odd crewmen who had been on leave or indisposed, the entire 67th had now been wiped out, one-quarter of the 44th was gone. Those that were left became bitter, some refused to fly, some had breakdowns but many others became stronger and more determined to see this through. The strength of those left was fuelled by both the bitter feeling toward the B-17 crews who continually mocked them, referring to them as ‘the jinx unit’, and those in command who it was felt used them for Luftwaffe bait.

There then followed a short period of good luck. A raid on the Submarine repair depot at Bordeaux on May 17th 1943 saw the loss of only one aircraft. ‘Avenger II‘ #42-40130 suffered engine problems, and being too far from England to make it back, the pilot 1st Lt. Ray Hilliard and the crew, decided to try their luck in neutral Spain. Turning south, they landed at the airfield at Alhama de Aragon where they were interned spending the next three months at the pleasure of the Spanish, before being returned to England.

There next followed an operational intermission, the B-24s swapping ‘ops’ for low flying practice over the English countryside until, on June 26th, when they departed Shipdham for the warmer climates of North Africa. Here they would carry out bombing missions over Italy and southern Europe including the famous Ploesti Oil refinery raid in August, for which they took another hammering and earned a second DUC in August 1943.

In late August, the 44th began returning  to Shipdham, with some detachments remaining in North Africa, this meant that the 44th was split between both England and North Africa, performing missions from both locations. A disastrous few months however, had taken further tolls on the crews, but camaraderie remained high and resilience strong.

The winter of 1943/44 was one of the worst for the cold, ice and snow. England like most of Europe was snowed in and temperatures dropped dramatically. For the 44th, the new year would not bring any let up, and it started on yet another terrible note!

Col. Ashley Woolridge; 106 Missions in a B-26

At the height of the war, the life expectancy of a fighter pilot was measured in weeks, for a bomber crew it was perhaps even less. With tours of duty standing at around 30 missions, it was rare to find anyone who survived these tours without at least serious injury or mental health issues. Many paid the price with their life.

Whilst aircraft could be salvaged, patched up, repaired and put back into the air, it was not  so easy for crewmen to be returned to battle so quickly. It was therefore, very rare to find anyone completing one or even two missions in a front line aircraft. Of course the subject of what constitutes a mission is in itself open for debate, ‘milk runs’ leaflet drops etc all create fractions of a mission, but this aside, for any airman to surpass 100 missions was indeed rare.

We have seen that Master Sergeant Hewitt Dunn flew 104 missions from RAF Framlingham, the highest in the European Theatre, but he was by no means the only one to surpass this incredible number.

Pilots and crews occasionally transferred across theatres, especially at the end of the war in Europe, or conveyed via the U.K. to the Middle Eastern theatre during these hostilities. One such man was Ashley E. Woolridge, initially a 2nd Lt. in the U.S.A.A.F. during the Second World War.

Woolridge was born on November 8th, 1916 in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. He graduated from school in 1934 going on to West Point Military Academy and then achieving a BSc from Lock Haven State Teachers College also in Pennsylvania. He used his numerous qualifications to teach Maths, English and Science at  Hanover High School until 1941, when, just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, he enrolled in the U.S. Aviation Cadet Detachment, graduating in July of 1942. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. and pilot of the Air Corps.

Woolridge’s first operation was to fly the northern route to England with his group the 319th Bomb Group (Medium) operating the B-26 ‘Marauder’. The 319th initially arrived at East Anglia along with three other medium bomb groups. The 319th were sent to RAF Shipdham where they regrouped before being posted to nearby Horsham St. Faith (now Norwich airport). A period of low-level training across the Norfolk countryside, saw the unit posted to their designated theatre in north Africa. A number of accidents due to poor weather saw Woolridge’s crews suffer before experiencing any battle at all.

The 319th began transferring to Africa in the Autumn of 1942, joining the Twelfth Air Force, who would attack targets in Tunisia until early 1943. After further training, Woolridge and the 319th went on to support the Sicily and Italy campaigns: Salerno, Anzio and Monte Cassino.

At the beginning of November 1944, he was awarded command of the 320th BG, a sister group of the 319th and one who had followed them across the Atlantic and onto Africa.

By early 1945 he had achieved 106 missions, accumulating in excess of 440 combat hours. He and the groups he had served in, had gained a number of distinguished awards including Unit Citations. Personally, he gained a Silver Star, a DFC with two clusters, a Presidential Unit Citation with two clusters and two Personal Croix De Guerre Avec Palms. At the end of 1945, in November, he was discharged from the Air Force with a remarkable record of achievement behind him.

In civilian life he joined a number of church groups, married Barbara Anne Leitzinger on September 16th, 1948  and raised a family many of whom preceded him in death.

Ashley Woolridge eventually died on Monday, May 3, 2004 at the age of 87. He was buried at Hillcrest Cemetery, Clearfield,
Pennsylvania. His memorial stone depicts a B-26, the aircraft he flew 106 incredible missions in and achieved so much with.

Lt. A. Woolridge in the cockpit of a B-26 Marauder, nicknamed “Hellcat.” (IWM)

His full obituary can be seen on the ‘Findagrave website.

Other remarkable achievements can be found in “Heroic Tales“.