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.

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The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 7).

Whilst the runway’s remains one of the biggest features of an airfield, perhaps one of the most discussed and certainly visible is the hangar. Large sheds used to maintain aircraft, many still dominate the skyline today, used by farmers and industrial companies, they are massive buildings, but yet many remain classed as temporary or even transportable!

The development of these huge buildings is another that lasted many years, and whilst similar in layout and design, they are as complicated and as varied as any other building found on Britain’s airfields.

Hangars and Aircraft Sheds.

The topic of aircraft hangars is well versed in a large number of books and internet references. They, like the runways, can explain much about the history and use of an airfield, being the largest single building on any airfield site. Distinguishing features between hangar types is often difficult to see, many now re-clad or updated with modern features, doors or materials, even the differences between some designs is so small, without technical drawings or measurements, ascertaining the type can be all but impossible.

Hangars (or aircraft sheds as they were initially called) have been fairly constant in design, however, different services used different types, Admiralty seaplane sheds for example, were primarily side opening, whereas RAF hangars were generally front opening. Design and construction was undertaken by numerous companies (Herbertson & Co. Ltd., Nortons Ltd., Teeside Bridge and Engineering Co. Ltd., and Sir William Arrol & Co.) and even Handley Page Aircraft Co. and Boulton & Paul dabbled with the idea. With so many forms being used, it is a topic both detailed and extremely wide.

This is not therefore, intended to describe each and every hangar ever built (Second World War Air Ministry designs alone covered more than 56 types!), but more a general realisation of the huge development they undertook during this expansion and wartime period on RAF / USAAF airfields. Figures quoted here are generally rounded.

In order to understand the changes in aircraft hangars we need to briefly look at those of the First World War, where aircraft were stored in ‘sheds’, often made from canvas covering a wooden frame, or as a more permanent construction, completely wooden sheds with sliding doors. Later on these were built using metal (iron in particular) and were designed to be permanent, capable of housing several aircraft at a time.

The First World War hangars were varied and often crude, some little more than glorified tents, but through development famous names such as the Bessonneau and Hervieu were created toward the end of the war. Hangars became so large that specialist units had to be created solely to transport, erect and maintain them, and their use became more widespread.

The most common hangar of this period, the Bessonneau, was the first standard transportable hangar used on Royal Air Force airfields. Modern forms of it are still in use today, using different materials, they are quick to erect and offer reasonable protection from the weather outside.

The Bessonneau was a wooden frame structure covered in canvas. It was a simplistic design, able to be erected in as little as two days by a group of 20 skilled men. Heavy canvas doors open at one end allowing aircraft to be moved in and out with relative ease. The problem with these hangars was that the canvas was prone to freezing in winter and therefore becoming difficult to use.

There were two models of the Bessonneau built, differing only in their length – either 79 feet or 118 feet – but both were 65 feet wide.

The interwar and early war years were perhaps understandably,  the years in which the greatest hangar development occurred. The Air Ministry – the body overseeing the works – decided upon a system of ‘structure type’ using names and designations such as, Type ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, Bellman, ‘T2’, etc., and just like the expansion period schemes, they progressed through this system as new developments came about.

The first type was the Type ‘A’, a permanent design, originating in 1924, it was used well into the 1930s when it was gradually replaced during the expansion period. Some examples did last well into the war and even beyond, for example, North Weald, one of the first airfields to be allocated a Type ‘A’, still uses one today.

Type A Hangar

Type A Hangar at North Weald. One of the first stations to have these types of Hangar, it has workshops attached to the Hangar side.

The Type ‘A’ is probably the first to represent the modern hangar, doors at both ends in leaves of four running on rails. Workshops are attached to the hangar side, something that was discontinued as Britain entered the war. Walls were reinforced with concrete to protect from bomb splinters, and they were built 249 feet long and 122 feet wide.

During the late 1920s, the Air Ministry published requirements for new heavy bombers, and these would require new hangars in which to maintain them. In response, the Ministry then updated the Type ‘A’ hangar to the Type ‘B’. In essence a larger version of the Type ‘A’, (160 ft span and 273 ft in length) the ‘B’ was named the ‘Goliath‘ with only three being built (each being a different length). One of these was at RAF Martlesham Heath and is still used today on what is now the industrial park. Like the Type ‘A’, the roof of the ‘B’ is possibly its most discernible feature, a series of trusses along its length crossing laterally over the roof.

With expansion period demands increasing, further developments were needed, and it was envisaged that an increasing bomber size would be needed if substantial bomb loads were to be delivered deep into the continent. The current size of hangar was now considered too restrictive and so a new buildings would be needed. The requirements of the Air Ministry was for a hangar with a span of 150 feet and length of 300 feet. With these in place, new aircraft specifications could be issued.

The Type ‘C’, (designed in 1934) as it was designated, would become the dominant building on any airfield and therefore visible from quite a distance. As airfield designs were subject to scrutiny by the Society for the Preservation of Rural England, local objections were taken into account during the design process. To appease any  objections, the steel frame was covered with local brick or stone, keeping it inline with other buildings not only on the airfield, but houses and buildings erected locally.

Most airfields during the expansion period were built with these hangars on site, and naturally went through a series of developments and improvements. This means, that there are many different forms of the Type ‘C’: gabled roof, hipped rafter and reinforced concrete. Another modified version of the ‘C’ appeared in 1938 and was designated the ‘C1’ (or ‘Protected’), this was an austerity measure development, reducing the amount of material used by lowering the roof height by 5 feet – internal metal work was also left partially exposed. Both the ‘C’ and ‘C1’, continued to be built with offices, workshops and aircrew accommodation attached to the hangar side, the idea being that it was more efficient to do so for the repair of the aircraft inside. As these were larger in width and length than their predecessors, they would have six leaf doors also sliding on top and bottom rails.

RAF Upwood

Type C at the former RAF Upwood.

1936 saw a dramatic change in hangar design, with two new requirements being issued by the Air Ministry. Firstly, storage space was now running out and so new facilities were required. These Aircraft Storage Unit Stations (ASU) would need their own hangar type, and so a requirement for these was put forward. Also at this time, the Ministry put out a demand for transportable hangars, these would replace the ageing Bessonneaus of the First World War. The response to these demands were three storage hangars and two temporary hangars.

Storage Hangars.

The Type ‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘L’ Hangars, were a development used specifically by the ASU stations, and they were not generally built on front line operational airfields. They were virtually identical in size to the Type ‘C’, but each type was marginally bigger in span 150 ft, 160 ft and 167 ft than the previous model, and all were the same length at 300 feet. The three types were different from previous hangars in that they had curved roofs, allowing the ‘E’ and ‘L’ to be covered with soil for protection and camouflage (the ‘D’ had straight side walls and therefore could not be covered). ASUs were built to assemble and disassemble aircraft for shipment to operational airfields in Britain or overseas. Aircraft were stored, in varying degrees of assembly within these units, and heavy hoists were often used to store aircraft ‘tail up’. However, with the outbreak of war, aircraft storage was thought better dispersed around the airfield and not concentrated in one space, so this method of storing aircraft was abandoned. Many of these hangars still remain today, used by small industrial units or for farm storage.

The next two types, the ‘J’ and ‘K’, were virtually identical in design, again with curved roofs, they were used for storage of aircraft. The ‘J’ can be found on many operational airfields, built in conjunction with other main hangars (Waterbeach is a very good example of this combination), whilst the ‘K’ was built on ASU stations. The design came in as a result of Expansion Scheme M, and was as a result of the call for 2,550 front line aircraft by March 1942.

The main difference between the two, (other than their location) was in the roof structure, the ‘K’ having lifting tackle rails along its width, while the ‘J’ were along its length. The ‘K’, being used for storage of aircraft, didn’t have any windows, where as the ‘J’ did as offices and workshops were in use constantly. Like previous hangars, the ‘J’ and ‘K’ both had a span of 150 ft and a length of 300 ft.

RAF Waterbeach 'J' Hangar

A ‘J’ hangar located at RAF Waterbeach.

Transportable hangars.

The 1936 transportable hangar requirement, asked for a hangar that could be easily erected and didn’t require a permanent base. It also asked for doors at both ends and needed to be simplistic in design, with parts being interchangeable. These hangers also saw the separating of the office/workshop facilities previously built onto the side of the hangars, these now being located in buildings in the technical and administrative areas. After considering numerous designs, two were chosen and ultimately built.

The first of these, and the primary choice, was the Bellman. Designed by an engineer within the Works Directorate, N.S. Bellman, they were smaller than previous hangars (88ft span and 175 ft on RAF bases) and could be built in under 500 hours by a dozen men. So successful, were they, that over 400 were built between 1938 and 1940 across a wide range of airfield types. Some of these examples even appeared in Russia.

Bellman Aircraft shed

Bellman Aircraft sheds at the former RAF Bircham Newton

The second design, was the Callender (later Callender-Hamilton with modifications) Hangar, designed by the bridge design company Callender Cable and Construction. These had a span of 90 clear feet, with a length of 185 ft, and were used on both RAF and RNAS airfields. There were only eight of these built before the outbreak of war, examples of which appear at East Fortune, further examples with lower roof clearances (17 ft) being purchased after 1940. The Callender-Hamilton are best recognised by their lattice-work on the top door rails.

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

As the war approached, 1939 – 1940 saw a transition period between ‘permanent’ and ‘temporary’ buildings, although many of these temporary buildings still stand today! Because of this change, many airfields had various hangars built, something that often gives a mix of hangar designs on one airfield which can cause confusion as to its age and origin. However, from this point on, all wartime hangars were designed as temporary hangars, designed with short lives and easily assembled / disassembled.

By 1940, the Bellman was considered too small for the RAF’s requirements and a new design was going to be needed. An agreement between the Air Ministry and Teeside Bridge & Engineering resulted in the ‘T’ series of hangars, perhaps the most well-known of the hangar designs.

The ‘T’ series covers a wide range of (temporary or transportable) hangars, each slightly different to the previous, but designed as three main types; T1 (90 ft span), T2 (113 ft) and T3 (66 ft). The length of each hangar varied depending upon local requirements and the number of additional bays added as needed. The design number e.g T2 (26) indicated the number of bays (26) and hence the length.

The ‘T’ range were a diverse and complicated range, the ‘T2’ being sub split into 5 variants (T2, T2 Heavy Duty, TFB (flying Boat), TFBHD (flying boat heavy-duty) and T2MCS (marine craft shed), so the identification of each being difficult without measuring equipment.

RAF Wratting Common

A T2 hangar at RAF Wratting Common.

On first inspection the ‘T2’ and Bellman look virtually identical, both lightweight, steel lattice frames with metal side panels. The main distinctions are that the Bellman doors are flush with the top of the side panelling whereas the ‘T2’ has an extra level of panelling and so are not flush. The other difference is the lattice frame inside the roof, the ‘T2’ has only diagonal braces whereas the Bellman has vertical braces in addition to the diagonals. Both hangars have six leaf doors on sliding rails supported both top and bottom, allowing full width access.

A final addition to the ‘T2’ were the Ministry of Aircraft Production Hangars the Type ‘A’ (A1 & A2) and Type ‘B’ (B1 & B2) built in the mid war years 1942-43 and funded by the Ministry of Aircraft Production. These hangars, not to be confused with the type ‘A’ and ‘B’ of the 1920s, were designed specifically for the repair of damaged aircraft especially operational aircraft on their own airfield. They were also erected at ASUs, and Satellite Landing Grounds (SLG).

RAF Wratting Common

A B1 at RAF Wratting Common an RAF bomber station.

The ‘B1’ and ‘B2’ were built specifically at Bomber Command airfields for the repair of damaged bombers thus eliminating the need to transport them long distances to specialist repair depots. Designed by T. Bedford Consulting Engineers they were eventually found on virtually all Bomber Command airfields by the end of the war and were manned by civilian repair organisations. Examples of both the ‘T2’ and ‘B1’ can be found in use at Wratting Common.

‘A1’ and ‘A2’ hangars on the other hand, whilst similar in design – metal cladding on metal frames – were slightly smaller and found only on aircraft factory airfields. Thus again there are virtually two identical hangars designated primarily by their location!

The last hangar to be commonly found on RAF / USAAF airfields were the blister hangar. A hangar of a temporary nature that usually used a curved metal frame covered in metal sheeting. The Blister hangar was the brainchild of architects and consulting engineers Norman & Dawbarn and William C. Inman of Miskins & Sons, and was designed to accommodate small span aircraft ideally fighters dispersed around the perimeter of airfields. Maintenance or storage could easily be carried in these hangars, and they could easily and quickly be erected, no base or foundations being required before hand.

These types of hangar came in three designs, the standard blister, (timber construction), over type (light welded steel) and Extra Over (also light welded steel), and ranged in span from 45 – 70 feet, A further type built was that of Double extra Over and Dorman Long, a separate design similar in shape but securely bolted to foundations. Many of these hangars have now gone, the majority being dismantled and sold off, only to be erected elsewhere on farmland well away from their original location. The father of a friend of mine, was employed in this very role, one day finding a Spitfire inside a blister hangar which nobody claimed to own!

By the end of the war, in excess of 900 ‘T2’ hangars were erected on British airfields including those built abroad. In 2004 it was thought there were about 100*7 left surviving on MOD property in Britain. A number have also survived on farmland used to store foodstuffs or machinery, or industrial sites. The ‘T2’ remained the main hangar in use by both the RAF and USAAF during the war, appearing on all Class ‘A’ airfields, occasionally with other models also being present. A number of other older models also continue to serve even to this day. Considering many of these were built as temporary buildings, they have survived remarkably well and are testament to the engineering design of the pre and early war years.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of those hangars that were built during the period 1918 – 1945 (other examples include the: Aeroplane Twin Shed; RFC Sheds; Seaplane Sheds; General Service Sheds; Plane Stores; Running Sheds; Lamella (a German idea built in Britain); Hinaldi; Main Hangars; Lamson Hangars; Fromson Hangars; Robins Hangars; Butler (a US design); Merton; ‘S’ type Hangars (RNAS); Pentad Hangar and Boulton & Paul Hangars and of course post war examples such as the Gaydon), but hopefully it has shone a glimmer of light on these remarkable structures that often dominated the skyline and that remain the centrepiece of many a disused airfield today.

In the next section we shall look at that other main iconic building in airfield design, the watch office.

Sources and further reading. 

*7Technical Bulletin 02/02 “World War II Hangars – Guide to Hangar Identification” Ministry of Defence (February 2002).

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Great Sampford (Station 359)

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

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

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

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

Sommerfeld track (along with a handful of other track types) were common on fighter, training and satellite airfields, especially in the early part of the war. It was also used extensively on forward landing grounds in Kent and later France after the Allied invasion of Normandy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and further reading

*1 National Archives: AIR 27/594/4 .

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

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

*4 National Archives: AIR 27/945/26

National Archives: AIR 27/945/25

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

RAF Stradishall – The early years.

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

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

RAF Stradishall.

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

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

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

In these pre-war years, the development of hard runways and large airfields was a new phenomena, hard surfaces being a new aspect still very much a topic of considerable controversy. By now, Bomber Command had realised that the new era of bombers would call for hard runways on its airfields, and so they pushed the Government on allowing these to be developed. However, before any firm decisions could be made, trials would need to be carried out to determine whether or not they were indeed needed and if so, how they should be best constructed.

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

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

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

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

RAF Stradishall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both crewmen are buried in Stradishall’s local cemetery.

St. Margaret of Antioch, Stradishall

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

St. Margaret of Antioch, Stradishall

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

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

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

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

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

St. Margaret of Antioch, Stradishall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Chedburgh – An appalling loss of life.

In this next trail, we start just a few miles to the south-west of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, where we visit a number of airfields that were associated with the heavy bombers of the RAF’s Bomber Command.

Our first stop, although a satellite, more than earned its rightful place in the history books of aviation. It is an airfield where large numbers of the ill-fated Stirling flew many missions over occupied Europe, where the staggering statistics of lost men and machines speak for themselves.

Now little more than fields and a small industrial estate, the remnants of this wartime airfield stand as reminders of those dark days in the 1940s when night after night, young men flew enormous machines over enemy territory to drop their deadly payload on heavily defended industrial targets.

We begin our next trip at the former airfield RAF Chedburgh, home to the mighty four-engined bombers of No. 3 Group Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force.

RAF Chedburgh.

Built in 1942 (by John Laing and Son Ltd) as a satellite for RAF Stradishall, Chedburgh would be built to the Class A specification, a later addition to the RAF’s war effort. Being a bomber station Chedburgh would have three runways made of concrete, the initial construction being one of 2,000 yards and two of 1,400 yards, all the standard 50 yards wide, as was the standard specification brought in during 1941. Later on, these would be extended giving Chedburgh much longer runways than many of its counterparts, i.e. one at 3,000 yards and two at 2,000 yards. Having runways this long, meant that heavy bombers could use the site when in trouble, something that Chedburgh would get used to very quickly.

With the village of Chedburgh to the north of the site, directly opposite the main gate; the technical area along the north-eastern side of the main runway, and the bomb store to the east, Chedburgh would have two T2 hangars, a B1 and later on 3 glider hangars. Dotted around the perimeter track were a number of dispersals comprising 34 pan styles and 2 looped.

RAF Chedburgh

Chedburgh village sign reflects it aviation history.

Whilst housing only two major squadrons 214 Squadron and 620 Squadron, it would also be home to a small number of other operational units, 218, 301, 304 Sqns and 1653 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU).

Opening under the control of No. 3 Group, on September 7th 1942, the first resident unit was 214 Squadron (RAF) flying the Stirling MK. I, a model they operated until as late as February 1944. The bulk of the unit arrived in the October, with operations beginning very soon after. Within four months they would begin replacing some of these models with the upgraded MK.III, also operating these until the beginning of 1944 and after transferring to RAF Downham Market in Norfolk.

As with many airfields at this time, the arrival of personnel preceded the completion of the works, development continuing well into the operational time of its residents, something that would cause a problem in the coming months.

It was in March of 1943 that the first casualties would occur, the night of March 1st/2nd being a baptism of fire for 214 Sqn. Stirling MK. I (R9143) BU-E piloted by F/S. J. Lyall (RCAF) would be hit by flak, she was badly damaged, and then abandoned by her crew. As he descended from the stricken aircraft, F/O. Hotson (RNZAF) would be hit by a splintering shell – the wounding he received as a result would be fatal. The remainder of the crew all escaped the aircraft safely but were later captured by the Germans and incarcerated. A multi-national crew, this loss was to be followed just two nights later with the loss of another Stirling, ‘BU-C’, but this time none of the seven crewmen were to survive.

Then on the next night, 5th/6th March, whilst on operations to Essen (the 100,000th sortie by RAF aircraft), Stirling BK662 ‘BU-K’ crashed into the North Sea about 30 km north-northwest of Ijmuiden. Only one of the crew, Air Gunner Sgt. William H. Trotter (s/n: 1128255) was ever found, the rest of the crew remaining ‘missing in action’. This was the first Stirling to be listed as such since the squadron’s operations began. This raid would prove devastating, taking the lives of 75 RAF airmen, but the War Office considered it a major success in terms of  industrial damage to the German war machine. The targeted Krupps factory, which sat in the centre of over 100 acres of industrialised area, was devastated by both accurate marking and then the subsequent bombing.

Throughout this month there were further loses to the squadron: Stirlings ‘BU-Q’ and  ‘BU-A’ (in which F/S. D Moore (RCAF) and Sgt. T. Wilson were both awarded the George medal for saving the life of their companion Sgt. J. Flack), along with ‘BU-M’ were all lost; ‘BU-M’ losing all but one crewman. Another aircraft, ‘BU-L’, lost all seven aircrew  on the night of March 27th/28th, and closing March off, was a collision between Stirlings BK663 and EF362, which left several more crewmen either injured or dead. Although many losses were as a direct result of flak or night fighters, the cracks were beginning to show, and the poor performance of the Stirling was becoming evermore apparent.

It was during this year on 17th June 1943, that Chedburgh’s second main operational unit would be formed, 620 Sqn (RAF), also carrying out bomber operations, again with the Stirling MK. I and later in the August, the MK. III. Also part of 3 Group Bomber Command, 620 Sqn were created through the streamlining of 214 Sqn and 149 Sqn at nearby Lakenheath. The move reduced each of the two former squadrons from three flights to two,  releasing ‘C’ Flight of 214 Sqn who were already stationed here at Chedburgh.

RAF Chedburgh

Parts of the perimeter track and runways remain as tracks used for storage.

As many of these crews were already well established and experienced, there would be no delay in commencing operations, the first sortie occurring on the night of the 19th June 1943 – two days after their formation. The first casualties occurred three days later on the night of 22nd/23rd June 1943, just a few days into their operational campaign. There then followed five months of heavy operational activity, a period in which the Stirling and its crews would be pushed to the very limit and beyond. The shortcomings of the aircraft being realised further more.

Being on a partially built airfield would be the cause of the demise of Stirling EF336 (QS-D) which swung on take off and ran into the partially constructed perimeter track. The uneven surface caused the undercarriage to collapse, and whilst there were no injuries to the crew, the aircraft was written off.

The poor service ceiling of the Stirling led to several aircraft being damaged through falling bombs from aircraft flying above. A number of Stirlings were recorded returning to bases, including Chedburgh, with damage to the air frames, damage caused by these falling ‘friendly’ bombs!  However, the extent of this damage did give great credit to the aircraft, showing both its robustness and strength in design; something that often gets forgotten when talking about the Stirling in operations.

The next few months for 620 Sqn would be filled with a mix of operational sorties, mining operations (Gardening) and training flights, including both ‘Bullseye‘ and ‘Eric‘; testing the home defence searchlight and AA batteries both at night and during the day. During a fighter affiliation exercise on July 2nd, two 620 Squadron aircraft collided, ‘EF394’ (QS-V) and BK724 (QS-Y)  killing fifteen and injuring two. One of those killed, Flight Mechanic AIC Arthur Haigh (s/n: 1768277) was only 18 years old, and one of five ground crew who were aboard the two aircraft that day.

Both 214 Sqn and 620 Sqn would go on for the next few months taking part in some of the war’s largest bomber missions including Hamburg, Essen and Remscheid. A number of aircraft would be lost and many aircrew along with them. The worst recorded night for 620 Sqn was the night operation on August 27th/28th, 1943 to Nuremberg, when three aircraft were shot down, all Stirling MK.IIIs: BF576 (QS-F) piloted by Sgt. Frank Eeles (s/n: 1531789); EE942 (QS-R) piloted by Flt. Sgt. John F. Nichols (s/n: 1318759) and EF451 (QS-D) piloted by Sgt. William H. Duroe (s/n: 658365). These three losses accounted for sixteen deaths and five taken as POWs, there were no other survivors.

The last 214 Sqn Stirling to be written off during bombing missions occurred on the night of November 22nd/23rd, 1943. Whilst on a mission to Berlin, Stirling EF445 (BU-J) was hit by flak, attacked by a FW-190 and then suffered icing. The resultant damage along with a lack of fuel, caused the pilot to ditch in the North Sea with the loss of two crewmen: pilot F/S. George A. Atkinson (s/n: 1485104) and Sgt. W. Sweeney (RCAF) (s/n: R/79844).

620’s stay at Chedburgh would be fairly short-lived, taking part in their final operation on the night of November 19th/20th, 1943 to Leverkusen. They then departed Chedburgh at the end of that month after suffering a heavy toll on their numbers and a devastating start to their war. By now the limitations of the Stirling were very well-known, and it was already being replaced by the much favoured Lancaster. In the short five months it had existed, the squadron had lost eighteen of its aircraft in operations, and a further six in accidents, statistics that are however, overshadowed by the loss of ninety-three lives. 620 Sqn left both Chedburgh and Bomber Command to join other units at RAF Leicester East and the Allied Expeditionary Air Force in November, where the unit was to perform Airborne operations along side 196 Sqn and 1665 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU). A role that 620 performed for the remainder of the war.

With their departure came the arrival of another Stirling squadron, 1653 HCU, a Stirling training unit rather than a front line operational squadron. A month later 214 Sqn would also leave Chedburgh taking their Stirlings to Downham Market and then onto Sculthorpe where they replaced them with the B-17 Flying Fortress.

A P-51 Mustang (5Q-Q, serial number 42-106672) of the 504th Fighter Squadron, 339th Fighter Group, that has crash landed at Chedburgh, 18 May 1944. (IWM FRE 2784)

1653 HCU, as a training unit, would also have it share of accidents and losses, many due to technical problems, but some due to pilot error. A number of accidents were caused by tyres blowing, and some were caused by engine failures, the bravery of these pilots in dealing with these matters being no less than exemplary. One such incident being that of F/O. Hannah and his crew, who took off at 20:50 on the evening of November 3rd 1944, on a radar training flight. Immediately after take off both port engines cut out, something that was almost fatal in a Stirling. The aircraft, virtually uncontrollable, was heading towards a row of cottages but the crew managed to turn it  away missing the houses but colliding with a row of trees instead. All of the crew were injured to varying degrees – one fatally. Sgt. Eddie (RCAF) dying in the resultant crash.

After a year of being at Chedburgh, 1653 HCU would also depart (December 1944) by which time the Lancaster was well and truly the main bomber of the RAF. This late stage of the war would not be the end of Chedburgh though, Bomber Command retaining its use, sending the Lancasters I and III of 218 (Gold Coast)*1 Squadron here from RAF Methwold.

On December 2nd 1944 the first ground units began to arrive, with flying personnel arriving on the 5th, after much-needed runway repairs were completed. The airfield reopened with the arrival of eighteen Lancasters, formed into three new flights, of which thirteen would undertake operations on the 8th, to the railway yards at Duisburg – their first from Chedburgh. Both this mission and that of the 11th to the marshalling yards at Osterfeld, were heavily restricted by thick cloud, and so G-H navigation aids were used in conjunction with ‘Oboe‘.

For the majority of the remainder of the war Bomber Command continued its strategic missions against German cities, with marshalling yards and oil refineries being other major targets. It was of course this continued use of bomber aircraft against what was now a demoralised and weakened German population, that led to the outcry over Harris’s continued attacks on German cities. A controversial action that led to his move away from the lime light at the war’s end, and the lack of recognition for bomber commands efforts throughout the conflict.

218 Sqn would continue on though. The winter of 1944 / 45 proving to be one of the worst weather wise, many missions were either scrubbed or carried out in poor weather. On the night of January 1st/2nd 1945, one hundred and forty-six aircraft of No. 3 Group were tasked with the attack on Vohwinkel railway yards. During the attack in which 218 Sqn were a part, two aircraft were hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire from American guns below. One of these was 218 Sqn Lancaster MK. I PB768 (XH-B) piloted by 20 yr old Australian F/O. Robert G. Grivell. The accuracy of these guns was ironically excellent, hitting the aircraft not once but twice, causing it to spin uncontrollably toward the ground. All but one of the crew were killed in the ensuing crash.

It was during this period that the RAF began daylight bombing missions too, such was the poor state of the defending Luftwaffe. Numerous missions over the next weeks led to attacks on the coking plants at both Datteln and Hattingen, repeated again on March 17th in attacks at Huls (and Dortmund). Hattingen was again attacked by 218 Sqn aircraft on the 18th without loss.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

Mechanics at work on an engine of Lancaster B Mk. III, (LM577) ‘HA-Q’ “Edith”, of No. 218 Squadron. On March 19th 1945, this aircraft was hit by flak over Gelsenkirchen damaging the rear turret and injuring the gunner’s eye. LM577 went on to complete more flying hours than any other Lancaster on the station.(© IWM (CH 15460))

The remainder of the war would see 218 Sqn fly from Chedburgh, completing many missions until the war’s end. During Operation ‘Manna‘ in which the German Army lifted an embargo on food transport into Holland, ten Lancasters of 218 Squadron dropped food supplies to the starving Dutch below. Understandably April had seen fewer operations than in previous months, but with May seeing many more food trips to the Hague, 218 Squadron leapt to the top of the leader board for operational tours, overtaking both 77 Sqn and 115 Sqn their closest friendly ‘competitors’. With further flights under ‘Manna‘, and then repatriation flights under both ‘Dodge‘ and ‘Exodus‘ 218 Sqn continued to operate the long haul flights into European territory.

During August the big wind down began, and the Lancasters were gradually flown out of Chedburgh for disposal. Then on the 10th, 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron was finally disbanded, and the various crews sent home to their respective territories across the globe.

On August 27th 1945, the last two Lancasters departed Chedburgh, and all was very quiet for those left behind. Then in September, two Polish bomber squadrons arrived, both 301 and 304 Sqns remaining here until they were also disbanded a year later on December 18th, 1946; their Warwicks, Wellingtons and Halifaxes being no doubt scrapped. Whilst here, the Polish squadrons flew long-range transport flights, retaining at least some link to the heavy aircraft and long-range flights that had been common only a year or so before.

Over the remaining years the airfield, like many, has reduced to both agriculture and industrial use. The watch Office has been heavily modified and lies hidden within an industrial complex that has completely taken over the former technical site. A number of these original buildings still survive and visible from the main A143 Bury St. Edmunds to Haverhill road, the road that separates the airfield from the village opposite. The runways and perimeter tracks, visible only in small parts, are mere concrete platforms, now used to store farm produce and machinery, rather than the lumbering bombers of RAF Bomber Command.

The huts used to house the 1,600 RAF personnel and 240 WAAFs, have all been removed, as have the thirty-six hardstands – the airfield site now being completely agricultural.

RAF Chedburgh

Some technical buildings remain in use today.

Whilst Chedburgh was only built as a satellite airfield, by the end of the war it had been witness to many great sacrifices. Eighty-three aircraft had been lost on operations, all but 12 being Stirlings; eighteen from 620 Sqn and fifty from 214 Sqn. For a period of only fourteen months for 214 Sqn and five for 620 Sqn, this was an appalling loss of life, and one that was sadly mirrored by many bomber squadrons across the British Isles in the 1940s.

Sources and further reading

Much of the specific detail for these loses came from the Chorley, W.R., “Bomber Command Losses series”, published by Midland Counties Publications.

*1 A number of books are available on this squadron. One written by Ron Warburton, ‘Ron’s War‘ chronicles the life of a Flight Engineer of a Lancaster in 218 (Gold Coast) Sqn whilst at Chedburgh in 1945. It is published by RW Press, and available online. ISBN-13: 978-0983178804

A second book is also available, “From St Vith to Victory: 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron and the Campaign Against Nazi Germany“, written by Stephen Smith, and published by Pen and Sword Aviation in 2010 (ISBN10 1473855403). It details the life of 218 (Gold Coast Sqn) from its inception through to its disbandment in 1945.

A blog has also been set up dedicated to those who served in 218 (Gold Coast) Sqn and it gives a detailed history from 1936-1945. It has also been created by Stephen Smith who has also published other books relating to 218 Sqn including “A Short War” and “A Stirling Effort” which relates specifically to their time at RAF Downham Market.  https://218squadron.wordpress.com/

The death of the Robson Children, 1st December 1943.

It was on Wednesday 1st December 1943, that a 75 Squadron Stirling MK.III (EH880)  piloted by F/S J. S. Kerr (s/n 1558163) would be diverted from RAF Mepal and instructed to land at RAF Acklington in Northumbria. On the final approach it undershot striking a family home in Togston near Amble. Inside the house, Cliff House Farmhouse, was the Robson family. The five children, ranging in ages from 19 months to 9 years of age, were all killed, whilst the parents who were playing cards downstairs, escaped with varying injuries. All but one of the Stirling’s crew were killed, the mid upper gunner Sgt K Hook, was pulled from the burning wreckage his burning clothes being extinguished by the local butcher, Jim Rowell.

This crash was the greatest civilian loss of life in the district,

The crew of Stirling EH880 ‘AA-J’ were:

F/S George John Stewart Kerr, RAFVR (s/n 1558163) – Pilot.
Sgt. Donald Frank Wort, RAFVR (s/n 1585034) – Navigator.
Sgt. Ronald Smith, RAFVR (s/n 1239376) – Air Bomber.
Sgt. Derek Arthur Holt, RAFVR (s/n 1217087) – Wireless Operator.
Sgt. Leonard George Copsey, RAFVR (s/n 1691471) – Flight Engineer.
Sgt. Kenneth Gordon Hook, RAFVR (s/n 1335989) – Mid Upper Gunner.
Sgt. George William Thomas Lucas, RAFVR (s/n 1250557) – Rear Gunner.

The Robson children were:

Sheila (19 months)
William (3 Years)
Margery (5 Years)
Ethel (7 Years)
Sylvia (9 Years)

The ‘Times’ Newspaper, published the story of 3rd December 1943:

Aircraft Crash on Farmhouse. Family of five young children killed.

Five children – all their family – of Mr and Mrs W. Robson were killed when an Aircraft crashed into Cliff House, a small dairy farm near Amble, Northumberland, on Wednesday night. The children’s ages ranged from one to nine years. They were sleeping in an upstairs room.

The mother and father, who with two friends Mr. and Mrs Rowell of Dilston [Terrace] Amble, were sitting in a downstairs room, were injured but not seriously. One of the crew of the aircraft, a gunner, was saved by Mr. Rowell.

Mr Rowell said last night: “We did not realise what had happened until the house collapsed above our heads. We managed to stand up, bruised and badly dazed, and, looking upward we saw the sky. Mrs Robson tried to make her way towards the stairs, which had been blown away. My wife called my attention to a burning object outside which was moving about.  We rushed over and found it was a gunner with his clothes alight. Mr Rowell rolled the airman on the ground to extinguish the burning clothes. Although badly burned, the gunner was alive.

The children’s partly charred bodies were recovered later.

Five streets on a housing estate near to the crash site in Amble have since been named after each of the Robson children. The crew are remembered on a plaque in St. John the Divine, the official church of RAF Acklington St. John.

R.A.F. Wethersfield (U.S.A.A.F. Station 170).

After a short journey from Castle Camps we soon arrive at our next port of call. This airfield, although a Second World War airfield, saw little action but was used by both the U.S.A.A.F. and the R.A.F. both during and after the war. Whilst it does not generally have active flying units today, it does house the M.O.D. dog training unit and as such is classed as an active military site.

This part of the trail brings us to the former airfield RAF Wethersfield.

R.A.F. Wethersfield (Station 170).

RAF Wethersfield was originally designed and built as a Class ‘A’ bomber airfield with construction occurring during 1942. During this expansion period materials and labour were both in short supply, which delayed the completion of the airfield until late 1943. During this period, ownership of the airfield passed hands several times, initially belonging to the Eighth Air Force, it was to be loaned to the R.A.F. between December 1942 and May 1943, before returning back to American hands. However, the delay to construction meant that by the time it was completed and opened, it would not be used by the R.A.F. but passed instead directly into the hands of the ‘new’ U.S. Ninth Air Force.

Constituted in 1941, the Ninth had already been fighting in Egypt and Libya, before they were moved to England in late 1943 in preparation for the forthcoming invasion of the continent. Throughout the remainder of the war they would pave the way for the advancing forces from Normandy deep into Germany itself. As an Air force, it would be disbanded in 1945 only to be reborn post war as part of the Tactical Air Command, and latterly the Continental Air Command, at which point it was assigned to Reserve and National Guard duties.

The first units to arrive at Wethersfield did so in the February of 1944, four months before the invasion took place. The first aircraft to arrive were the A-20 ‘Havocs’ of the 416th Bombardment Group (Light). The Group, who was only a year old itself, was made up of the: 668th, 669th, 670th and 671st Bomb Squadrons, and would fall under the control of the IX Bomber Command, Ninth Air Force who had their headquarters at the rather grand stately home Marks Hall in Essex.

A-20 Havocs, including (serial number 43-9701) of the 416th BG. 9701 was salvaged August 18th 1945. IWM (FRE 6403)

A journey that started at Will Rogers Airfield in Oklahoma, would take the men of the 416th from Lake Charles in Louisiana, through Laurel Airfield, Mississippi and onto Wethersfield some 28 miles to the south-east of Cambridge, in Essex.

As a Class A airfield, its three concrete runways would be standard lengths: 1 x 2,000 yards and 2 x 1,400 yards, all the normal 50 yards wide. Scattered around the perimeter were fifty hardstands for aircraft dispersal – all but one being of the spectacle style.

The 2,500 ground and air crews would be allocated standard accommodation, primarily Nissen huts, situated over several sites to the south-west of the main airfield site. Two T2 hangars were provided for aircraft maintenance, one in the technical area also to the south-west, and the second to the east. One notable building at Wethersfield was a Ctesiphon hut. An unusual, and indeed controversial design, it originated in the Middle East when a sergeant, unable to camouflage his tent, had poured concrete over it. As the pole was removed, the structure remained both intact and strong. The commanding officer, Major J.H. De W. Waller took the idea, named it after a 1,600 year old palace at Bagdad, and developed it in the UK, through the Waller Housing Corporation.

The idea behind the building is that a metal frame is constructed, similar in design to Nissen hut ribs, then covered with hessian after which concrete is poured over it. As the concrete hardens, the hessian sags giving added strength through its ‘corrugated’ shape. The ‘scaffolds’ are then removed leaving the hut’s shell standing independently. At Wethersfield there were originally fourteen of these huts built, all within the technical site, it is not currently known whether any of these still exist today, but it is extremely unlikely as most were pulled down post war.

The 416th BG were part of the 97th Combat Wing, and were among the first to receive the new ‘Havocs’, along with the 409th and 410th BG who were also under the control of the 97th. For the short period between the 416th’s arrival (February 1944) and the invasion in June, they carried out sustained training missions transferring their skills from the B-25s they had earlier used, to the new A-20s, which included operational sorties targeting V-weapons sites in northern France starting in March 1944.

During these flights, accidents would happen. A number of aircraft were damaged or written off whilst attempting  landings at Wethersfield: ’43-9203′, (671st BS) piloted by George W. Cowgill crashed on 21st April 1944; ’43-9209′ piloted by Pilot Elizabeth O. Turner, crashed on 13th August 1944, and ’43-9368′ crashed two days earlier on 11th August 1944. Some of these accidents resulted in fatalities, including that of ’43-9223′ (668th BS) which crashed on a routine test flight 1.5 miles north-west of Wethersfield, on 9th May 1944. The pilot Capt. William P. Battersby (the Squadron Operations Officer) and a passenger Private First Class Charles W. Coleman (s/n 32372194) a Parachute Rigger, were both killed in the accident.

In the April, two months after the Americans had moved in, the R.A.F. officially handed over the airfield to the U.S. forces in a ceremony that unusually, saw a large number of civilians take part.

As the invasion neared, the 416th began to attack coastal defences and airfields  that were supporting Luftwaffe forces. During and after the invasion they targeted rail bottlenecks, marshalling yards, road networks, bridges and other strategic targets to prevent the build up of reinforcements and troop movements into Normandy.

As the German forces retreated, the 416th attacked escape routes in the Falaise Gap to the south of Caen, destroying the many bridges that allowed the German armies to leave the encircled area. During the battle, nine aircraft were lost, and all those lucky enough to return suffered flak damage, some of it heavy. For their actions here between the 6th and 9th of August 1944, the 416th earned themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) the only one they would receive during the conflict.

By the following September, the Allies had pushed into France and the Ninth began to move across to captured airfields on the continent, the 416th being one of those to go. Leaving the leafy surroundings of Wethersfield for the Advanced Landing Ground (A.L.G.) at Melun, to the south of Paris, it would be a move that would coincide with the change to the new A-26 ‘Invader’; the 416th being the first unit to do so, another first and another distinction. During their seven month stay at Wethersfield the 416th BG would fly 141 operational sorties losing twenty-one aircraft in the process.

A-20 Havocs and A-26 Invaders of the 416th Bomb Group at Wethersfield. This picture was probably taken around the time the 416th were departing Wethersfield for the Landing Ground at Melun, France. FRE 7445 (IWM)

With their departure, Wethersfield was handed back to the R.A.F. and the First Allied Airborne Army. This would see a dramatic change from the light twin-engined A-20s to the mighty four-engined Stirlings MK.IV, the former heavy bombers turned transport and glider tugs, whose nose stood at over 20 feet from the ground.

The two squadrons operating these aircraft at Wethersfield, 196 Sqn and 299 Sqn, would both arrive on the same day, October 9th 1944 and depart within 24 hours of each other on 26th and 25th of January 1945 respectively.

The Stirling, initially a heavy bomber of Bomber Command, was pulled from front line bombing missions due to its high losses, many squadrons replacing them with the newer Lancaster. 196 Sqn however, retained the Stirling and instead transferred from Bomber Command into the Allied Expeditionary Air Force.

The Stirlings proved to be much more suited to their new role supporting resistance and S.O.E. operations in occupied Europe. But the heavy weight of the Stirling took its toll on the runways at Wethersfield, and eventually they began to break up. Now in need of repairs, the two squadrons were pulled out and sent to Shepherds Grove where they would eventually be disbanded at the war’s end.

RAF Wethersfield

One of the original T2 Hangars on the south-eastern side.

A short stay in March of 1945 by the 316th Troop Carrier Group (T.C.G.) allowed them to participate in Operation ‘Varsity‘, transporting paratroops of the British 6th Airborne across the Rhine into Wessel, and on into northern Germany itself. An operation that saw 242 C-47 and C-53 transport aircraft leave bases in England filled with paratroops and their associated hardware. For many of these troops, it was their first drop into enemy territory – a true baptism of fire. During the take offs, paratroopers witnessed a V-1 flying bomb race across the Wethersfield sky, the Germans last-ditch effort to turn the tide that was very much against them. Immediately after the operation the 316th returned to their home station at R.A.F. Cottesmore, a move that signified the operational end of Wethersfield for the Second World War. Now unoccupied the site was put into care and maintenance, a state it remained in for a good number of years.

With the heightening threat of a soviet attack and the suggestion of the Cold War turning ‘hot’, Wethersfield was then given a new lease of life. On the 1st June 1952, the U.S. returned once more with the 20th Fighter Bomber Wing (F.B.W.), the 55th and 77th Fighter Bomber Squadrons (F.B.S.) operating the F-84G ‘Thunderjet’.

To accommodate the new jets, the main runway was extended, the original wartime buildings were removed and replaced with more modern structures. The original control tower was developed and upgraded to meet the new higher standards required of a military airfield. Accommodation and family support was also considered. Like many U.S. bases in the U.K. they had their own shops, bowling complex, basketball centre, Youth club, cinema and school. Wethersfield was to become, for a short period of time, a front line base and a major part of the U.S.’s twenty-two European bases.

Children are shown around RAF Wethersfield as part of cementing American and British relations. 

The F-84G was a Tactical-fighter bomber designed to carry a 2,000 lb nuclear bomb for use on enemy airfields in the event of all out war. Operating as part of the 49th Air Division, 3rd Air Force, they would operate in conjunction with the B-45’s located at nearby R.A.F. Sculthorpe.

In June 1955, the wing, now reformed but utilising the same units, began flying the Republic F-84F ‘Thunderstreak’. The ‘F’ model was essentially a swept-wing version of the ‘G’; designed to be more powerful whilst utilising many of the tooling used by the ‘G’. Gradually the ‘G’ was phased out by the 20th with the ‘F’ becoming the standard flying air frame.

Up grading of the F-84F to the F-100 ‘Super Sabres’ occurred in 1957, during which time the unit was also re-designated the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing after a major reorganisation of the U.S. forces in Europe. The Super Sabres remaining in service here until 1970 when the nearby development of Stansted Airport led to the Wing moving to Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. Prior to this move Wethersfield would bear witness to the first demonstration of the F-111 in U.K. skies, an aircraft that would become the back-bone of the 20th after its departure to Upper Heyford in June that year.

In 1963, Wethersfield suffered a blow when  an F-100F Super Sabre ’56-3991′ piloted by First Lieutenant Paul Briggs (s/n 69418A) and co-pilot Colonel Wendell Kelley (s/n 7784A) crashed at Gosfield in Essex. The aircraft experienced repeated “severe compressor stalls” and ongoing problems with oil pressure. After disposing of their fuel tanks over the sea, the aircraft was guided back towards Wethersfield. Eventually the crew decided to eject, the co-pilot asked for the canopy to be blown, and believing he had gone, the pilot ejected. It was not until afterwards that the pilot realised the co-pilot was still in the aircraft, and he was killed in the resultant crash in a farmer’s field. To commemorate the tragic accident that took the life of Colonel Kelley, a memorial stands on the village playing field*1.

RAF Wethersfield

Cold War Shelters located on the original hardstands.

With this move in 1970, Wethersfield went back into care and maintenance, used by the airport repair organisation the Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers or RED HORSE for short, who were responsible for the rapid repair of runways and other large airfield structures in times of war. This would also mean the end of operational flying at Wethersfield, and after the departure of the 20th, no further active flying units would return.

As the Americans began their European wind down, the ‘RED HORSE’ unit was also pulled out and the site returned to Ministry of Defence ownership. The R.A.F.’s M.O.D. Police units moved in during 1991, the hands of which it remains in today.

The airfield is still complete, the runways a little worn, its surfaces ‘damaged’ by experimentation with new techniques and repair practices, but it is used by visiting aircraft associated with Police and M.O.D. operations – Police Helicopters and the like. A glider training unit 614  V.G.S. also reside here utilising one of the remaining T2 hangars, keeping the aviation spirit alive if only for a short while longer.

Today it remains an active Military base, and as such access is strictly forbidden. The roads around the airfield do offer some views but these are limited. A public road and footpath is located at the north-eastern end of the site, from here the runway, parts of the perimeter track and hangar can be seen through the fencing. Passing the main entrance, there are a small number of buildings remaining derelict on adjacent farmland, these were part of the original accommodation site and are few and far between. Continuing along this road leads to a dead-end and private dwelling, but it does allow views of the current  accommodation and training buildings on the former technical area, all now very modern.

RAF Wethersfield

There have been many of these post-war additions to the airfield,

Whilst Wethersfield remains an active site, plans were announced in March 2016 to dispose of it as part of the M.O.D.’s plan to sell off many of its sites to raise money and streamline its activities. If planning permission is granted, Wethersfield could see 4,850 homes being built on it and the resident units of the military being moved elsewhere. It is planned to pass Wethersfield over to the Homes and Communities Agency by 2020, for its disposal*2.

Having a short war service and limited cold war history, Wethersfield is one of those airfields that never achieved huge recognition. Despite this, it was nonetheless, one that played its part in major world history. Achieving many ‘firsts’ and seeing many new developments in aviation, it is slowly starting that decline into obscurity. If the Government have their way, Wethersfield will shortly become a housing estate, and its history will sadly become yet another of those condemned to the local library.

After leaving here, we carry on into Essex and yet another airfield that has remained active but not as a flying base. We go to the Carver Barracks and the former R.A.F. Debden.

Sources and further Reading.

*1A website dedicated to the 20th T.F.W. at Wethersfield has a number of pictures of both aircraft and people associated with Wethersfield and the 20th T.F.W.  It also includes a transcript of the discussion between the pilot and the tower prior to the Sabre’s crash. There are also other documents relating to the crash located on the site.

*2 The announcement was highlighted ion the Essex Live website, March 24th 2016.

Flt. Sgt. Arthur L. Aaron, V.C., D.F.M., 218 Sqn, RAF Downham Market

The Second World War produced some incredible heroes, men and women, who in he face of incredible odds, continued to carry out their duties, often going beyond those expected of anyone.

One such man was Arthur Louis Aaron, of 218 Squadron, RAF Downham Market, Norfolk.

Image result for arthur louis aaron

Arthur Louis Aaron (RAFVR) V.C., D.F.M, (source unknown)

Aaron, born 5th March, 1922, in Leeds,  who at the time that war was declared, was training to become an architect at Leeds School of Architecture. On joining the Royal Air Force on December 15th, 1941, he was sent, via Canada, to No.1 British Flying Training School (B.F.T.S.) at Terrell, Texas, where he completed his initial flying training.

Aaron like the other recruits would pass through ten weeks of biplane flying, moving onto monoplane aircraft at which point, if successful, they would receive their wings. Returning back home also via Canada, he was hoping to fly fighters but was disappointed when he was posted to bomber training, and was sent to 6 Advanced Flying Unit at Little Rissington. After further training, he was sent on to 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit (Stradishall) flying Stirling MKIs, and then on 17th April 1943, he was posted to his first operational flying unit, 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron, at RAF Downham Market.  

Whilst here at Downham Market, Aaron continued flying Short Stirling bombers, the large heavy bomber that proved to be both vulnerable to fighters and poor performing. Due to high losses it  was eventually pulled out of front line bombing duties, and used for mine laying, glider towing and parachute operations.

Aaron’s first mission would be the very next day after arriving at Downham Market. He, and his crew, would fly a ‘gardening’ mission laying mines off Biaritz, after which he would be sent on more heavily defended targets within German occupied Europe and Germany itself.

At 21:35 on the night of August 12 – 13th 1943, Flt. Sgt. Aaron and his crew: Sgt. M. M. Mitchem (Flt Eng.); Sgt. A. C. Brennan (RCAF) (Nav.); Flt. Sgt. A. W. Larden (RCAF) (Bomb Aim.); Sgt. T. Guy (Wop/AG); Sgt. J. Richmond (M.U. Gunner) and Sgt. T. M. McCabe (R. Gunner), all took off from Downham Market on their second mission of August to attack Turin, a night that featured several attacks on Italian targets.

This would be Aaron’s 20th and final mission, three as co-pilot and seventeen as pilot. He was a man known for his courage and bravery, only 12 days earlier he had struggled with his aircraft whilst his crew bravely fought fires that had broken out in the fuselage after being hit by incendiaries from aircraft flying above. Using his skill and judgement, he managed to evade both flak and searchlights by corkscrewing his aircraft whilst the crew members put out the fire that resulted from the accident. For his action on this day, he would be awarded the D.F.M.,*1 one of the highest possible awards for non-commissioned officers in the Royal Air Force, but this, like his V.C., would only come posthumously after his death on 13th August 1943.

That night, two of the thirteen 218 Sqn aircraft from RAF Downham Market in Norfolk, would be posted ‘missing’; Stirling HA-Y ‘MZ 263’ piloted by F/O J. McMallister, and that of 21-year-old Arthur Aaron – Stirling III ‘EF452’ HA-O . Whilst in the bomber stream heading toward Turin,  the aircraft was hit by gunfire from another aircraft. The navigator, (Sgt. Brennan s/n R/117605) was killed, Sgt. Mitchem and Flt. Sgt. Larden were both injured. The aircraft, now badly damaged, had been hit in three of the engines resulting in one of them being put out of action. Both front and rear turrets were immobilised, various control lines were broken and the windscreen was shattered. During the attack, Aaron received devastating blows to his face, his jaw being broken and quantities of flesh being blown away. A further bullet struck him in the chest, puncturing his lung. Now in great pain and severely injured, Aaron fell against the control column forcing the aircraft into a dive. After the Flight Engineer regained control, a course was set for North Africa, Aaron was moved to the rear of the plane where he was treated. He remained here for only a short time, insisting on returning to the cockpit where he was placed with his feet on the rudder bars. Wanting to take over, he had simply insufficient strength, and was persuaded to assist rather than fly. He wrote notes with his left hand, guiding the crew toward the airfield at Bone, in Algiers. After four failed attempts at landing, the bomb-aimer finally managed to get the aircraft down, low on fuel and with its undercarriage still raised.

The entry in the Operations Record Book for August 12th 1943, merely states “Landed in Algiers, Sergeant Brennan, Navigator Killed.”*2

At 15:00 on August 13th 1943, Arthur Aaron finally lost his determined battle to survive and died from his terrible injuries. He had fought on, overcoming severe pain and injury to guide his crewmen back to safety. Flt. Sgt. Aaron was buried alongside Sgt. Brennan in Bone War Cemetery, in Algeria.

For their action Flt. Sgt. Larden received the C.G.M., and Sgt Mitcham and Sgt. Guy, both a D.F.M.

Arthur Aaron was awarded not only his D.F.M. from his previous mission, but the V.C., the highest honour for military personnel. His V.C. was announced in the London Gazette on November 5th, 1943*3.

It reads:

Air Ministry, 5th November, 1943.

The King has been graciously pleased to confer the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned airman in recognition of most conspicuous bravery:
1458181 Acting Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, D.F.M., Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 218 Squadron (deceased).

On the night of 12 August 1943, Flight Sergeant Aaron was captain and pilot of a Stirling aircraft detailed to attack Turin. When approaching to attack, the bomber received devastating bursts of fire from an enemy fighter. Three engines were hit, the windscreen shattered, the front and rear turrets put out of action and the elevator control damaged, causing the aircraft to become unstable and difficult to control. The navigator was killed and other members of the crew were wounded.

A bullet struck Flight Sergeant Aaron in the face, breaking his jaw and tearing away part of his face. He was also wounded in the lung and his right arm was rendered useless. As he fell forward over the control column, the aircraft dived several thousand feet. Control was regained by the flight engineer at 3,000 feet. Unable to speak, Flight Sergeant Aaron urged the bomb aimer by signs to take over the controls. Course was then set southwards in an endeavour to fly the crippled bomber, with one engine out of action, to Sicily or North Africa.

Flight Sergeant Aaron was assisted to the rear of the aircraft and treated with morphia. After resting for some time he rallied and, mindful of his responsibility as captain of aircraft, insisted on returning to the pilot’s cockpit, where he was lifted into his seat and had his feet placed on the rudder bar. Twice he made determined attempts to take control and hold the aircraft to its course but his weakness was evident and with difficulty he was persuaded to desist. Though in great pain and suffering from exhaustion, he continued to help by writing directions with his left hand.

Five hours after leaving the target the petrol began to run low, but soon afterwards the flare path at Bone airfield was sighted. Flight Sergeant Aaron summoned his failing strength to direct the bomb aimer in the hazardous task of landing the damaged aircraft in the darkness with undercarriage retracted. Four attempts were made under his direction; at the fifth Flight Sergeant Aaron was so near to collapsing that he had to be restrained by the crew and the landing was completed by the bomb aimer.

Nine hours after landing, Flight Sergeant Aaron died from exhaustion. Had he been content, when grievously wounded, to lie still and conserve his failing strength, he would probably have recovered, but he saw it as his duty to exert himself to the utmost, if necessary with his last breath, to ensure that his aircraft and crew did not fall into enemy hands. In appalling conditions he showed the greatest qualities of courage, determination and leadership and, though wounded and dying, he set an example of devotion to duty which has seldom been equalled and never surpassed.

A number of memorials exist in honour of Arthur Aaron. On the site of the former accommodation blocks at Bexwell (RAF Downham Market) stands a small plaque in his honour along side that of Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, who also won the V.C. whilst at Downham Market.

There is another plaque in the main hall of Roundhay School, Leeds, Aaron’s former school; another commemoration can be found at the AJEX Jewish Military Museum in Hendon, London, and a five-metre bronze sculpture by Graham Ibbeson has been erected on a roundabout to the north of Leeds city centre. Unveiled on 24th March 2001 by the last survivor of the crew, Malcolm Mitchem, it represents the freedom Aaron’s sacrifice helped ensure.

RAF Downham Market

The Memorial Plaque at the former RAF Downham Market.

Sources and Further Reading:

RAF Downham Market appears in Trail 7.

Other Heroic tales appear in Heroic Tales of WW II.

*1 London Gazette, 15th October 1943, page 4620.

*2 Air 27/1351 – National Archives

*3 London Gazette, (supplement) 5th November 5th, 1943, page 4859

No. 218 Gold Coast Squadron, 1936-1945. A blog that has many letters, from Aaron along with the history of 218 Squadron.

A New Memorial to Honour Those Who Never Came Home.

RAF Downham Market in Norfolk, was home to 6 squadrons during the Second World War: 214, 218, 571, 608, 623 and 635 along with a number of other non-flying units. It was also home to a number of aircraft types, Short’s enormous Stirling, the famous Lancaster and of course de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder’ the Mosquito of the RAF’s Pathfinder force.

RAF Downham Market

One of the many huts still left on the airfield.

It was also the airfield that launched the last bombing mission by an RAF aircraft, a Mosquito, on May 2nd 1945, to attack retreating German forces at the Kiel canal.

Considering the strong links it has with the RAF and Bomber Command, it has never been given a fitting memorial, but maybe finally, this is about to change.

A proposal has been put forward to erect a grand memorial on a site next to where one of the former accommodation sites once stood. It will honour not only those who flew from Downham Market and never returned, but those who served and were stationed here as well.

It is hoped that the new memorial will consist of seven polished, black granite slabs with each name of the 700 crewmen who lost their lives, carved into it, in the order in which they were lost. It is hoped to raise £250,000 to cover the cost of the structure which will be grand in scale and stand next to the main A10, a road that was made using the runways for its hardcore.

Currently the only reminder of their sacrifice is a small memorial outside of Bexwell church. It is a small memorial telling the stories of the two heroic crew members, Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron and Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, two pilots who both received the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market, for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.

Today whilst none of the runways or perimeter tracks exist, a number of the original buildings are still present, used by small businesses and light industry. Recently however, a  £170m regeneration plan was announced, one that may signify the end of these buildings and Downham Market airfield for good (see here).

RAF Downham Market and especially the many crew members, who came from all across the Commonwealth, deserve great recognition for the work they did. Perhaps this, is finally a sign that it may now happen.

The full story and pictures can be accessed on the Eastern Daily Press website. There are more details and a link to the donations page on the RAF Downham Market website. 

RAF Downham Market appears on Trail 7 – North West Norfolk.