RAF Martlesham Heath (part 2) – A long and distinguished history.

In part two of this Trail, we continue looking at the history of RAF Martlesham Heath.

RAF Martlesham Heath (Station 369).

On August 15th 1944, two P-47s flying more than 200 miles off course mistakenly attacked the Ninth Air Force headquarters near to Laval. In the attack, ground gun crews managed to bring down one of the aircraft killing its pilot. The second aircraft managed to avoid the anti-aircraft fire and returned home safely.

For three days in September, the 356th attacked enemy gun emplacements at Arnhem, earning themselves a DUC for their actions. These aircraft had the unenviable task of attacking the gun emplacements defending the allied drop zones. In order to neutralise the guns, the pilots first had to find them, a move that involved presenting themselves as bait. They proved their worth, bombing and strafing with 260lb fragmentation bombs, destroying all but two of the guns.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

Martlesham Heath’s Watch Office now a museum surrounded by housing.

In November 1944 the P-47s were replaced by the P-51 ‘Mustangs’, the delight of the USAAF Fighter Groups. Early successes were good, even though they were tainted with repeated and wide-spread gun jamming.

The winter of 1944-45 was notoriously bad, one of the worst on record and many flights were cancelled at the last-minute. Maintenance on open airfields was incredibly difficult and accidents increased because of cloud, ice and snow. In mid January, five P-51s were lost, crashing on snow packed runways, being lost in cloud or suffering from taxiing accidents. By now though the war had turned and the blue and red chequered nosed fighters of the USAAF had turned to hunters and were eager for blood.

By now, Luftwaffe jets had now been in service for some time, harassing bombing formations, diving in amongst them, firing and then fleeing. Three P-51s of the 356th had the good fortune to catch an Arado-234 in the Bielefield area. After the pilot bailed out, they flew along side photographing the aircraft before finally shooting it down. It was one of a number that day that were lost to American airmen.

As the war ended the 356th had seen only eighteen months of active service, a short time that had allowed them to amass 276.5 kills in the air. Whilst being the lowest ‘score’ in the US Air Force, it doesn’t detract from the determination nor the skill of the brave pilots who flew with the 356th.

After the war’s end, the Americans departed and in November 1945, Martlesham Heath was returned to RAF ownership.

In 1946, experimental units returned with the forming of the Armament and Instrument Experimental Unit. Over the next few years they would go through several changes of name , but in essence retained their primary role. During this period, they would operate a small number of aircraft including amongst them: Mosquito NF38 (VT654); Meteor F4 (VW308); Lincoln B1 (RE242); Canberra T4 (WE189) and Comet 3B (XP915).

On November 1st 1949, the Bomb Ballistic Unit (formed May 1944 at Woodbridge) and Blind Landing Experimental Units (formed October 1945 also at Woodbridge) were amalgamated, forming one complete unit (the Bomb Ballistic and Blind Landing Experimental Unit) here at Martlesham Heath. They each operated a number of twin and four engined aircraft that would be absorbed into the Armament and Instrument Experimental Unit 15 days later. On November 1st 1955 RAF control of the unit ceased, and it was re-branded Armament and Instrument Experimental Establishment, whereupon it ran until 1st July 1957, when it was disbanded and absorbed into the Royal Aircraft Establishment.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

A number of the ‘H’ blocks have been given a new lease of life as office blocks. The parade ground, the car park.

With little operationally occurring at Martlesham, its decline was inevitable. Between 15th April 1958, and New Years Eve 1960, 11 Group Communications Flight operated: two Ansons (TX193 & WB453); a Devon (VP974); a Meteor T7 (WL378) and Chipmunk T.10 (WG465). Following their disbandment the only other flying units to use Martlesham were the then Hurricane and four Spitfires of the Battle of Britain Flight (now the legendary Battle of Britain Memorial Flight based at RAF Coningsby) between 1958 and 1961. The 612 Glider School also used the site between September 1952 and May 1963, whereupon they disbanded and the airfield then closed. Remaining intact, the airfield would continue to be used but for light private flying only, until this also finally ceased in 1979.

Following its closure, Martlesham Heath’s 600 acres were handed over to the Bradford Property Trust following the reversion of the lease from the Air Ministry, and because of its location to both the larger town of Ipswich and the major sea port at Felixstowe, it was destined for development. It was declared by the new owners that Martlesham would become a ‘village’, rather than a traditional ‘housing estate’ in which the concept of small groups of housing would be built, often around a cul-de-sac rather than in rows, thus promoting a ‘community spirit’ within each segment of the development. Planning permission was granted in 1973, ten years after the Ministry sold it off, the development was finally completed in 1990.*2

On its completion Martlesham was designated a village, and since then the original 3,500 population has grown, in 2011, the Martlesham Neighbourhood Development Plan stated the population of the Parish at 5,478.

Today Martlesham Heath is a thriving mix of private housing, industrial and retail units, reflecting this ‘Garden Village’ design. Two major employers soon moved in: the British Telecom Research Centre and Suffolk County Police – forming their headquarters on this and the adjacent land.

Beneath all this development though, elements of the ‘Heath’ do still exist, largely due to the good foresight of the developers. The parade ground (now a car park), the barrack ’H’ blocks (like West Malling are office blocks), the watch office, messes, hangars and RAF workshops all transformed into light industrial units which remain in use today.

In 1982, local people set on preserving the heritage of Martlesham Heath created the Martlesham Heath Aviation Society, and were allowed to set up their home in the former watch office. After raising funds, the office was refurbished and turned into a museum displaying many artefacts, stories and photographs of Martlesham’s history. The museum finally opened in 2000 and remains there today encircled by housing on all four sides. The spirit of Martlesham Heath also lives on in the road names. Even the Douglas Bader pub has a tenuous link to this historic place.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

The memorials to those who served at Martlesham Heath during its long and distinguished career.

Viewing the airfield remains are relatively easy as most are visible and accessible from the public highway. Finding them is another matter. The design of the streets are such that there are many paths and small side streets and ‘getting lost’ is quite easy for the visitor. The main A12 road through Martlesham dissects the airfield site in two. The museum is to the west off Eagles way, surrounded by housing – an odd remnant of a bygone era. What little remains of the runway can be seen further south off Dobbs lane, in an area of heath and scrub – a lingering reminder of this once historic airfield, how long I wonder, before this too is removed.

The hangars and barrack blocks are to the eastern side, mostly among the retail park. The three memorials are located on Barrack Road opposite the BT building and alongside the former parade ground and ‘H’ blocks.

Now listed locally and with Suffolk Coastal District Council, many of the remaining but obscure remnants (airfield markers, hangar foundations, revetments, and the last remains of the runway) all lie dormant amongst the footpaths, cycle tracks and parks of the huge Martlesham Heath conurbation that was once RAF Martlesham Heath.

Notes and further reading

*2 Ward, S.V., The Garden City, past, Present and Future,  1992, Spon Press

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RAF Martlesham Heath (Part 1) – a long and distinguished history.

On the outskirts of Ipswich close to the former Cold War bases at Woodbridge and Bentwaters, is what is perhaps a model of the future, of many of our wartime airfields. Built upon with town housing hidden in the ‘Village’ idea, it is a place with major industry and retail parks, where the few remains that exist are hidden amongst the pathways and roads of this large conurbation. However, not all is lost, a museum and modern use of many of its original structures ensure the history of this once busy airfield are not lost forever.  In Trail 40 we head to the southern reaches of East Anglia, to the the outskirts of Ipswich and the former site that was once RAF Martlesham Heath.

RAF Martlesham Heath (Station 369).

Martlesham Heath was opened in 1917, and until it closed in 1963, was the home to a very large number of military units. It was also used by a number of aircraft experimental units, each one investigating the various aspects of aircraft and weapons designs needed in a modern air force. These investigations were carried out initially by the RFC Aeroplane Experimental Station and latterly the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE). Also present at Martlesham were the Armament & Instrument Experimental Unit, the Air Sea Rescue units, and the Battle of Britain Flight (now the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight based at RAF Coningsby). In addition, a Gunnery flight was also based here, as were gliders and numerous squadrons flown by a whole range of Nationalities including: Belgian, Czech, Polish, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and American airmen. With all these units came a broad and diverse range of aircraft types. Its history is certainly long and very, very distinguished.

The dawn of aviation happened at Martlesham Heath when it officially opened on January 16th, 1917.  During that year, the Aircraft Testing Squadron would arrive here from its base at Upavon to be joined on March 16th 1920 by the Armament Experimental Station from Orfordness. The amalgamation of these two aircraft experimental units would set the foundations for Britain’s future research and development organisation. This marriage, forged the name the Aeroplane Experimental Establishment (Home) until 24th March 1924, when it disbanded to become the better known Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE), who carried out their work here, at Martlesham Heath, until the outbreak of war in 1939. 

A number of both civilian and military aircraft were tested here, one of the most notable being the enormous all-metal tri-engined transport, the Beardmore Inflexible. Designed by William Beardmore, it had a wing span of 157 feet – 16 feet longer than Boeing B-29. Other aircraft included the 4.F1 ‘Taper Wing’ Camel, a sole example was produced with simplified wing-struts in an attempt to reduce drag and improve the Camel’s performance.  Amongst others featuring at Martlesham, were the Bristol Blenheim, various Auto Gyros and the Bristol Bombay. The A&AEE would be joined in July 1923 by the reformed 22 Sqn who would undertake armament testing investigations; and then, a year later, by the reformed 15 Sqn who would carry out performance and handling trials. Both these units operated solely as trials units, flying  a notional number of aircraft including a: Boulton Paul Bugle II, Fairy Ferret, Gloster Gamecock, Vickers 161 and Hawker Horsley aircraft.

INTER WAR BRITISH AIRCRAFT

The prototype Bristol Blenheim at Martlesham Heath under evaluation. (IWM)

With the outbreak of war, all sections of the A&AEE, with one exception, was moved for its own protection, to its new base at Boscombe Down. Here its history has become renowned, and many weapons and aircraft developments have taken place since. The exception to the move, was ‘D’ Flight of the A&AEE’s Performance Testing section, who moved to Perth where it became the Royal Air Force Detachment, Perth.

Over the next few years Martlesham Heath would become a major player in the war. Some 60 or so RAF squadrons would pass through here, either permanently based here or as detachments away from their parent bases. The first of these was 64 Sqn RAF flying Hawker Demons. After a short spell abroad, they would return in 1941 with Spitfire IIAs – the first permanently based unit. Other sqn’s that would pass through in these early years included:  29 and 151 Sqn (December 1938); 110 Sqn (June 1939); 25 and 56 Sqn (October 1939);  604 Sqn (September 1939) and 236 Sqn (December 1939).

With the evacuation of the BEF and the subsequent Battle of Britain, Martlesham would become increasingly busy. During 1940 five squadrons would be based here, whilst in 1941, thirteen squadrons would pass through. This would increase to sixteen in 1942; nine in 1943 and only two in 1944; thus the number of units using Martlesham would reflect both the level of the German threat and direction that the war was moving.

Being close to London, Martlesham would play its part in the Battle of Britain. A number of gritty and determined fighter pilots would serve here, including both Group Captain Douglas Bader and Squadron Leader Bob Stanford Tuck.

Squadron Leader Stanford Tuck poses with a group of pilots of 257 Squadron, RAF © IWM (CH 1674)

On September 19th 1940, 71 Sqn was reformed at RAF Church Fenton moving to Martlesham in the following April. Made of volunteer U.S. pilots it was to be one of three ‘Eagle Squadrons’ destined to become famous before the U.S. officially entered the conflict in December 1941. (Also during this time, ‘A’ Flight of the Special Duties Flight would reside here whilst the main parent unit was located at St. Athan, until replaced by the various Radio Servicing Sections).

71 Squadron were initially provided with Brewster Buffalo MKIs, so disappointed with them were they, that it was rumoured the commanding officer ‘instructed’ his pilots to deliberately damage them so that more ‘appropriate’ aircraft would be issued*1. By the time 71 Sqn arrived at Martlesham Heath in early April 1941, these Buffaloes had been replaced and 71 Sqn  was equipped with the much superior Hurricane MKIs, followed soon afterwards, by the Hurricane MKIIA. 71 Squadron then left Martlesham in June 1941 only to return in December that year with Spitfire VBs. They finally departed in May 1942 thus ending their presence  at the ‘Heath’ for good. It wasn’t the last of the Eagle squadrons though, for a very short period of about eight days, 133 Squadron graced the grounds of this Suffolk airfield before departing to Biggin Hill and eventual amalgamation into the USAAF.

Primarily a grass stripped fighter base, Spitfires and Hurricanes were the most commonly seen aircraft here. Exceptions being the very brief visit of Tomahawks of No. 2 Sqn, Mustang MkIs of 26 and 239 Sqns, Typhoons of 198 and 182 Sqns (who were formed here in August 1942) ; Defiants of 264 Sqn; Lysander IIIA of the Air Sea Rescue Flight (formed here May 1941 and latterly 277 Sqn) and a detachment of Lysander IIs of 613 Sqn in September 1940. Thus a wide range of aircraft were to pass through Martlesham adding to the variety and diversity of its aviation history.

Many of those units to use Martlesham’s facilities were short stays, often passing through to other stations either in the U.K. or abroad. Some consisted of days whilst others were perhaps weeks.

In 1942, the airfield was designated as a U.S. Fighter base and the first real permanently stationed units would soon arrive. Following testing, they created two soil-stabilised, oil and tar mixture runways, linked together by steel pierced planking.  Also known as ‘Marston Matting’ or Perforated Steel Planking (PSP), these were strips of metal slotted together that meant no heavy excavations were needed and the tracks could be laid very quickly by small engineering teams. Once work had been undertaken, Martlesham Heath would receive the P-47s and latterly P-51s, of the 356th Fighter Group.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

Memorial to the 356th FG based at Martlesham Heath.

By the time the airfield had been developed it covered a wide area, and because of it long history, it would consist of multitude of architectural features. Many of these dated back to the First World War and included aeroplane sheds (damaged in attacks) built to various drawings (e.g. 146/16-149/16, 110/16 and 1656/18); Type A aeroplane sheds (based on 19a/24 designs); aeroplane Type B ‘Goliath’ shed (1455/27); blacksmiths and welders workshops; a range of barrack blocks; married and single officers quarters; separate RAF and USAAF latrines; workshops; blister hangars; squadron offices and a wide range of associated buildings.

Around 70 aircraft dispersals were also laid using a mix of both an unusual square, and the more common pan style hardstands.

The 356th FG, arrived here in October 1943, after a 10 month journey that began at Westover Field, Massachusetts. They arrived in England in  August 1943 transiting from Goxhill to Martlesham Heath over the following weeks. Consisting of three squadrons: the 359th, 360th and 361st FS, they would initially be equipped with P-47D ‘Thunderbolts’ lovingly referred to as ‘Jugs‘.

The main duties of the 356th FG was as fighter escort covering the heavy bombers of the American Eighth Air Force as they penetrated occupied Europe. After initial engine difficulties, the P-47 proved to be a reliable and agile workhorse, much against the stereotyped view reflected by its resemblance to a ‘flying brick’. One of the first missions the 356th carried out was to escort a mix of P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’ of the 56th FG fitted with bombs flying in conjunction with B-24 ‘Mitchells’. This new strategy became known as ‘drop-on-leader’ whereby the B-24s would sight the target, and drop their bombs as a signal to the P-47s to drop theirs. The first mission to St. Omer was to produce poor results however, the B-24 bombing mechanisms jamming which resulted in all the bombs overshooting the target.

The 356th would be active throughout the remainder of the war, initially supporting bombers until January 1944 when they took on the role of ground attack, strafing targets such as U-Boat installations, Marshalling yards, Locomotives, airfield flak units and German radar installations. In June 1944 they supported the Normandy invasion going on to assist in the allied push through France,  the low countries and on into Germany itself. With ground attack and fighter aircraft being given almost free-reign, anything that moved became a target. Avoiding civilian areas and civilian traffic was a high priority and the perceived threat of friendly fire on troops below, a distant thought in the minds of the crews. However, not everything went according to plan.

Part 2 will follow next week.

 

Notes and further reading

*1 Imperial War Museum Website

Debach Museum

On a recent trail in Suffolk, I was lucky enough to be able to visit two terrific museums both situated in the former Watch Offices of U.S.A.A.F bomber bases.

The second of these was at the former base at RAF Debach.

Like many of these sites the airfield and tower fell into disrepair after the war and remained so for many years, gradually deteriorating in the extremes of the British weather. By 1960, vegetation had taken hold and the building had become derelict.

But in the mid 1990s, the land owner decided to invest in the tower and with help from volunteers began a major restoration project that would not only restore it to its former glory, but make it into a memorial and museum to the crews and staff who lived, served and died whilst on active service at RAF Debach.

Usually open on Sunday’s, and Wednesday’s by appointment, I had the delightful opportunity to be given a personal guided tour of the site by the knowledgeable and dedicated wife of the current land owner.

Debach Airfield and Museum

1940s inside the Watch Office

The volunteers of the site were there, busy working away, and were more than happy to chat providing one of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever had the pleasure of.

The site today is a busy working farm, and any self-respecting visitor will appreciate the work, time and money that has been poured into this site. Not just the tower, but the cafe, the various buildings that remain, the enormous and varied collection of memorabilia and working vehicles hat have been collected and resorted to full working order.

The tower itself has been returned to what it would have been like during its use in the late 1940s. Each room filled with original equipment (where possible) sourced from around the world. Old photographs have been used as references and provide excellent comparisons to the current displays.

The glass house has been rebuilt, and as with other towers, provides excellent views over the former site. What a sight it must have been to stand here watching the bombers return from their daylight missions over Europe.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The ‘Glass House’ on top of the Watch Office.

The main room houses a number of dressed mannequins, radio sets and wartime artefacts set out as it would have been; whilst other rooms contain personal effects, electronic equipment, administration equipment, maps and the like. Photographs around the building tell the more personal stories of Debach airfield during the war.

Outside, one of the former huts now houses what has to be one of, if not the biggest collections of original nursing and dental equipment around. An entire dental room is on display each item having been bought by the owners over a number of years. Much of this equipment having been hidden away and not generally on show elsewhere.

Debach Airfield and Museum

Debach houses one of the finest collections of dental equipment around.

The usual array of uniforms, weapons and artefacts gathered from the airfield can also be found, along with a collection of toys and gifts made by POWs kept here post war. This collection is thought to be the biggest in the eastern region.

Also found here is an original Queen Mary trailer now converted in to a small cinema which shows films from the era, giving further insights and experiences of life in the 1940s.

Another original building, the former fire tender shed, is now a collection of household materials and artefacts depicting various rooms of a house during the Second World War. For anyone interested in domestic life in the 1940s this is a must.

Debach Airfield and Museum

One of the many rooms depicting war and post war domestic life.

Many of the original buildings on the technical site remain, the dingy shed, parachute store and stores huts, and whilst many are used for storing farm machinery, one does hold a large number of working second world war vehicles. I was lucky enough to have them start one of these up and the noise was incredible. These vehicles just ooze power!

Not being a knowledgeable vehicle buff myself, several of the volunteers gladly took timeout to explain the history and uses of each one and allowed me the freedom to wander around them.

Debach Airfield and Museum

One of the many restored vehicles that run today.

Other buildings contain further vehicles, again all restored and running. Aircraft parts and a B-17 engine recovered after 57 years are also on view, along with more Second World War artefacts that fill these rooms.

Even though the technical site is a working farm, there are no unrealistic restrictions to access and as a visitor you are warmly welcomed to wander.

Across the road, only a short walk away, is the memorial. This has been laid outside the former headquarters building, which is now used by a small industrial unit.  Again I was invited in, and allowed to peruse the photographs and record boards that adorn the walls. These photos show the building as it was during the war and make for very interesting viewing.

Debach museum is a fascinating and well run museum where a friendly welcome, excellent facilities and enormous collection of Second World War equipment is fabulously displayed, I simply cannot recommend it enough.

For further information, event listing and opening times visit the museum website.

RAF Debach – Home of Helton’s Hellcats.

As we depart Framlingham we head a short distance away to the south-west, to another U.S Bomber base also with a remarkable museum. As we head towards Ipswich we arrive at Debach, the former base of the 493rd BG(H) and a group named after its commander Col. Elbert Helton, “Helton’s Hellcats.”

RAF Debach (Station 152).

Debach was one of the last bases to be built during the war, hence its life span was relatively short. Construction began in 1943 opening in 1944 and was constructed by the 820th Engineer Battalion (Aviation) whose headquarters were at Great Barrington in the Cotswolds.

Debach Airfield and Museum

Part of the runway at Debach, cracking and breaking up, it once resounded to the roar of heavy bombers.

As a Class ‘A’ site, it had three concrete runways, the main running slightly off north/east-south/west, the second east-west, and the third slightly off north-south.  The runway patterns at Debach were slightly different to the norm in that the cross of the ‘A’ was at the base rather than part way up, but the various lengths were as per other Class ‘A’ models.

A perimeter track with 50 spectacle hardstands joined the thresholds of each runway, with the bomb store to the south-east and the accommodation, admin and technical areas all spread along the western side. The airfield site encompassed the medieval site of Thistledon Hall, a three-moated house that has historical features dating back to the late 16th and early 17th Century. A building that was demolished to make way for the airfield.

Accommodation was split over 6 officer and enlisted crewmen sites, two WAAF sites, a sick quarters and admin block that granted access to the main airfield. The majority of the buildings were Nissen huts, with some Romneys, a blister hanger for the gunnery trainer and two T2 hangars.

The watch office was of the standard wartime design, built to drawing 12779/41 later adapted to take the much smaller windows as per the updated drawing 343/43. This gave it a slightly different appearance to non-modified towers of the time.

In the technical area, Debach had the usual range of buildings, stores and supply huts, however, the parachute store was almost unique in that it had its own drying room attached – perhaps as a result of the late building of the site.

The mid war years saw a dramatic and rapid build up of the Eighth Air Force on British soil. This build up had seen huge numbers of both men and machinery arrive via Atlantic routes, many coming through the large ports at Greenock or Liverpool. The 40th, and last group to be assigned to the ‘Mighty Eighth’, would be the 493rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) and they would be assigned to RAF Debach.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The perimeter track forms access for farm vehicles.

The 493rd would be a relatively short-lived unit, moving from their training ground at McCook Army Airfield in Nebraska, to their headquarters at Elveldon Hall, and Debach airfield. They remained here until their return to Sioux Falls post war. Their entire service would last just short of 2 years. Following their activation in November 1943, they had their ground echelons assigned in early 1944 with the air echelons joining in the following May. Ground crews were pulled in from other units to form these ground echelons, with additional support coming over from the U.S arriving at Liverpool on the USS Brazil. The 493rd were initially assigned the mighty ‘Olive-Drab’ B-24H ‘Liberator’  a lumbering giant of the skies it was loved by many and loathed by some.

Their inauguration would be a baptism of fire, celebrations overshadowed by events taking place overseas. On the morning of Tuesday 6th June 1944, high spirits took the crews of the 860th, 861st, 862nd and 863rd Bombardment squadrons high above the beaches of Normandy. Joining some 11,000 other aircraft, this 3rd Air Division unit would aim to soften up German gun defences dug in along the Normandy beach head. As the allies moved inland, the 493rd would go on to target key bridges and airfields, German strongholds around St. Lo and Caen. Other strategic targets further inland would include marshalling yards, manufacturing plants and the heavily defended oil plants at Merseberg.

Cpl Kenneth E Blair

Cpl. Kenneth Blair died in a tragic accident on July 8th 1944. He is buried in the Cambridge American Cemetery, Madingley.*1

Losses in battle are often more ‘acceptable’ than losses though accidents, and Debach would have its share of both. On July 8th 1944 only a month after their first mission, Cpl. Kenneth Blair of the 18th Weather Squadron, 493rd BG would be killed in a tragic accident that involved him walking into the spinning propeller of a running B-24. Only minutes before, he had received good news that took him  to his ultimate and tragic death.

The last mission to see the 493rd using B-24s was on August 24th, when fifty-two B-24s and 383 B-17s attacked Kiel in Germany. Within two weeks crews were using the formidable B-17G ‘Flying Fortress’, an aircraft that took them back to the German Heartland. Using these aircraft they went on to support the allied push through Holland to Arnhem, and in the fight back against Von Rundstedt’s last-ditch attempt to push back the Allies in the Ardennes.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The parachute room was rare with its addition of a separate drying area.

Late 1944 was a difficult time for the crews of the Air Forces. many of the airfields in the UK were shrouded in fog, causing many operations to be cancelled at late notice. Those that did go ahead were largely ineffective until finally, the clouds lifted and the fog dispersed. The frustration for the crews must have been immense.

It was during this time that one crew had a very lucky escape in an event that was reflected on many airfields across England. On December 12th, whilst on the 493rd’s third trip to Darmstadt, B-17 #43-38219 ‘Devil’s Own‘ suffered an engine problem that resulted in an intense fire on the port wing. In an attempt to extinguish the fire, the pilot, Lt. John E. DeWitt, put the aircraft into a dive. This proved fruitless and with little choice left he decided to bring the stricken aircraft back to Debach. The fire had now become so intense that there was an almost certain chance that the wing would separate from the fuselage. The resulting crash would have most certainly led to the deaths of the crew and those on the ground below.

DeWitt flew straight in to Debach narrowly missing parked aircraft and vehicles. The crew abandoned the B-17 and within moments the entire bomb load exploded in an explosion that was so severe that the nearby hangar doors were blown completely off their rails. The aircraft was blown apart and pieces spread across a wide area.

With fires still burning, ‘Devil’s Own‘ is scattered across a wide area of Debach. (IWM)

The weather at this time was to play its own part in Debach’s history. Even though it was a relatively new airfield, the frost and cold worked its way into the runway surfaces, and with continued heavy use, it began to break up. New runways were the only answer and so as soon as the aircraft left to attack Uim on March 1st, the ground echelons and servicing units began the arduous task of moving every possible piece of machinery and all supplies over to a temporary base at Little Walden. The 493rd would fly twenty missions from this site as the runways of Debach were removed and then relaid. Remarkably the entire event went with out a single hitch.

In 1945, the 493rd went on to  support the Rhine crossing softening up defences along the German borders, but by the end of April, their bombing war was over, their last mission was carried out on the 20th April 1945 in which they attacked the marshalling yards at Nauen just 38 km west of Berlin. An event that would take their bomb load tally to 11,733 tons in 4,871 sorties. For the remainder of the war the 493rd took part in operation Mania, dropping food in six missions over Holland. Further revival flights took the 493rd to Austria on four occasions in the last days of May 1945.

In the following month the ground echelons returned via the Queen Elizabeth to New York whilst the air echelons flew back in the following July and August. Following thirty days rest and recuperation the unit was disbanded. Debach was now devoid of aircraft and the empty accommodation blocks became a site for both German and Italian Prisoners of War, and displaced persons.

Post war, Debach fell into disrepair. It was eventually sold to the current landowner after the T2s were removed and the runways largely dug up for the lucrative road hardcore. Many of the technical buildings were left and, as with the watch tower, they were in a very poor state of repair.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The Watch Office is now a superbly restored museum dedicated to those who served at Debach.

Debach is now a busy farm, the watch tower has been superbly refurbished as have many of the remaining buildings. It now forms the 493d BG museum which houses an incredible amount of memorabilia and wartime stories. It also has a remarkable collection of toys and other items made by prisoners of war and is thought to be the largest collection in the East Anglia region.

Debach is a working farm and the museum is only open at limited times. However, the curators and farm owners are happy to oblige visitors, my self having a personal guided tour of the museum during the summer of 2016. Much of the perimeter track is still there, sections of the runways are also there in part  and allow for the landing of light aircraft during special occasions; but these are amongst the farm grounds and generally off-limits to the public. Then technical area has several buildings used for storage of farm material and a wide collection of military vehicles and memorabilia. The parachute and dingy store are still present as are former motor transport shed and other stores; as a visitor you are able to wander these at will.

If you leave through via main entrance (itself the original airfield entrance) cross the road, walk along the track, on your right you will find the former headquarters building which is now a small industrial unit, this is where you will find the memorial. I was invited in to the building to browse, again freely, at the various photos and mission charts that adorned the walls. These give a fascinating insight into the lives of those at Debach.

When you leave here, head north, (left) turn right at the main road and pass the Clopton Commercial Park (the northern most end of the main and secondary runway, which is still visible beneath the many huts built upon them now). Turn right into Debach village, the village sign is on your left. Depicting a B-17 flying over the village, it has at its base a dedication to those who served and died at the base. Behind the houses to your right are where many of the hardstands upon which the B-17s would have stood. These are now gone beneath the homes of the local residents. Continue on and then turn first right, this road is the old perimeter track and takes you to the end of the secondary runway. From here you can see along its length and width which is still full width today. The decay is obvious though and large cracks filled with small bushes are a sign of its impending demise. This road, still using the perimeter track, then takes you round toward the end of the main runway and away from the site.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The Dingy Store is one of the many buildings in use today storing farm machinery.

Whilst only being around for a short period of time, Debach has, like so many of these wartime airfields, its own unique stories to tell. It has a history that is part of a time so dramatic that it has become a monument to human ingenuity, planning and suffering.

Almost forgotten and abandoned for good, Debach has been painstakingly and lovingly restored to represent a superb monument to those who fought and died from his airfield. The dedication of the owners is second to none, their passion for the site reflected in the warm welcome you receive when visiting. The small group of volunteers that work so tirelessly to keep it open, enables it to stand today as a reminder of so many events that occurred in the dreadful years leading up to end of the conflict in 1945.

Links and further reading.

Whilst in the village, the now closed church of All Saints also has a memorial in its graveyard.

The 493rd Museum website has all the details of the site and the museum opening hours.

*1 Photo from findagrave.com

M/Sgt. Hewitt Dunn – Flew 104 missions.

RAF Framlingham (Parham) otherwise known as Station 153, achieved a remarkable record, or rather one man in particular did. His name was Hewitt Dunn, a Master Sergeant in the U.S.A.A.F and later the U.S.A.F.

Known as “Buck” he would achieve the remarkable record of completing 104 missions with the 390th Bombardment Group (Heavy) – a record that astounded many as life expectancy in a heavy bomber was short, and few survived beyond one tour of 30 missions.

Hewitt Tomlinson Dunn (s/n 13065206) was born on July 14th 1920. He progressed through school to join the Air Corps where he was assigned to the 390th Bombardment Group (Heavy), 13th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division, Eighth Air Force, as a gunner in December 1943.

His first mission was with the 569th Bombardment Squadron in the following January. He completed his first gruelling tour of 30 missions by April that year, upon which he immediately applied for a further tour that he would complete by the summer of 1944. His attitude of ‘its not over until its won’, would see him accept a further remarkable third tour, virtually unheard of for a heavy bomber crew member.

On Friday, April 6th 1945, mission 930, an armada of aircraft of the U.S.A.A.F would strike at the marshalling yards in Leipzig, Germany. Inside B-17 #43-38663, ‘The Great McGinty‘, was Hewitt Dunn.

After the mission Dunn described how earlier at the morning briefing, he, like so many of his colleagues, had been a little ‘nervous’. Then, when the curtain was pulled back, their nervousness was justified, Leipzig – the 390th had been there before.

Many crews in that briefing would look to Dunn for signs of anguish, if he remained steady and relaxed, they knew it would be ‘easy’, if he sat forward, then it was going to be a difficult one. The atmosphere must have been tense.

Luckily, unlike other missions into the German heartland, this one turned out to be ‘just another mission’ a ‘milk run’. Much to the huge relief of those in command of the 390th, all aircraft returned safely.

On his arrival back at Framlingham, Dunn was greeted by cheering crowds, ground crews lifted him high in their air carrying him triumphantly away from his aircraft, it was a heroes welcome.

By the time the war had finished, Dunn had flown in 104 missions, he had been a tail gunner on twenty-six missions, twice a top-turret gunner, a waist gunner and the remainder as togglier (Bombardier). He had flown over Berlin nine times, he claimed a FW-190 shot down and had amassed an impressive array of medals for his bravery and actions, and all at just 24 years old.

Post war, he continued to fly as an Instructor Gunner for B-52s in the 328th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Strategic Bomb Wing, at Castle Air Force Base in California. Here he was described as “quiet and reserved” and never talked about his war experiences. He was “handsome man with black hair”, and only when he wore his dress uniform, did others realise how well decorated he was.

Dunn was considered a rock by those who knew him and perhaps immortal, but he was not, and on June 15th , 1961 after flying for a further 64 flights, he was killed. Details of his death are sketchy, but the man who had flown in more missions than any other person in the Eighth Air Force and had gone to train others in that very role, was highly decorated. He was looked up to and liked by those who knew him.

Following his death a service was held in Merced, California, his body was then taken to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. where he was finally laid to rest in grave number 3675, section 28.

For a man who achieved so much in his fighting career, little exists about him or his achievements. Maybe, by the end of the war, records were no longer needed, tales of dedication and bravery were no longer useful propaganda. Whatever the reason, Hewitt Dunn’s name should be heavily embossed in the history books of the Second World War.

hewiit-dunn

Hewitt Dunn on return from his 100th mission, April 1945 (IWM)

Hewitt Dunn’s medal tally:

– Air Force Longevity Service Award with 3 oak leaf clusters
– Air Medal with 13 oak leaf clusters (2 silver, 3 bronze)
– Air Medal with 7 oak leaf clusters (1 silver, 2 bronze)
– American Campaign Medal
– Distinguished Flying Cross with 1 oak leaf cluster
– Good Conduct Medal
– National Defence Service Medal
– Silver Star
– World War II Victory Medal
– European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 1 bronze star
– European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 1 silver star

Hewitt Dunn’s story is one of many featured here.

RAF Framlingham & the 390th BG – Masters of the Air

In Trail 39 we turn south once more and return to Suffolk, to the southern most regions of East Anglia, to an area known for its outstanding beauty and its stunning coastline. It is also an area rich in both Second World War and Cold War history. Perhaps better known for its fighter and light bomber stations, it was also the location for several heavy bomber bases, each one with its own fascinating story to tell.

We start off this trail at the former site of American base at RAF Framlingham.

RAF Framlingham (Station 153)

RAF Framlingham is actually closer to the village of Parham than it is the town of Framlingham, hence it was also known as RAF Parham – a name that it became synonymous with. Built as a class ‘A’ bomber station its official American designation was Station 153.

Building work commenced in 1942, and as with most large bomber stations it was designed to the Class A specification to include: three concrete runways (one of  6,400 ft and two of 4,400 feet in length), an adjoining perimeter track that linked fifty ‘pan style’ dispersals; two T-2 hangars (one to the west with the technical site and one to the south-east) and accommodation for some 3,000 personnel dispersed in 10 sites to the south-west of the airfield.  A  further sewage treatment plant dealt with the site’s waste.

The main runway ran east-west and to the eastern end sat the bomb store, a large area that included: a pyrotechnic store, fusing point, incendiary store and small arms store – all encircled by a concrete roadway.

Peri track looking north toward tech area (A)

Part of the Perimeter track at the southern end of the airfield. To the right was the crew rest rooms, locker and drying rooms.

The administration site sat between the main technical site and accommodation areas all located to the south-west side of the airfield.

Opened in 1943, the first residents were the B-17s of 95th Bomb Group which consisted of four bomb squadrons: the 334th, 335th, 336th and the 412th. Flying a tail code of a square ‘B’ they initially formed part of the 4th Bomb Wing, changing to the 13th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division of the Eighth Air Force in September 1943 following the reorganisation of the U.S. Air Force in Europe.

Following their inception and constitution on 28th January 1942 and subsequent activation in June, they moved from their training ground at Barksdale Field, Louisiana, through Oregon, Washington and eventually to Rapid City Air force Base in South Dakota. They began their move across the Atlantic in the spring of 1943, taking the southern route via Florida arriving at Alconbury and then moving on directly to Framlingham in early May/June that year. It was whilst stationed at Alconbury though that they would have their first few encounters of the war, and they would not all be plain sailing.

On May 27th, 1943 just 14 days after their first mission, ground crews were loading 500 lb bombs onto a 334th BS B-17 ’42-29685′ when the bombs inexplicably detonated, the Alconbury landscape was instantly turned to utter carnage and devastation. The blast was so severe that it killed eighteen men (another later died of his injuries), injured twenty-one seriously and fourteen others slightly.  The B-17 involved was completely destroyed and very little of its remains could be found in or around the huge crater that was left deep in the Alconbury soil. Three other aircraft, 42-29808, 42-29706 and 42-29833, all sat within 500 feet of the explosion, were severely damaged and subsequently scrapped. In total, fifteen B-17s were damaged by the blast, it was a major blow to the 95th and a terrible start to their war.

There then followed a transition period in which the group moved to Framlingham. During this time operations would continue from both airfields leaving the squadrons split between the two bases. The first few missions were relatively light in terms of numbers of aircraft lost, however, on June 13th 1943, they were part of a ‘small’ force of seventy-six B-17s targeting Kiel’s U-boat yards. This was to be no easy run for the 95th, a total of twenty-two aircraft were lost on this raid and of the eighteen aircraft who set off from Framlingham in the lead section, two aborted and only six made it back. In one of the lead planes, was the newly appointed Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest as observer. Riddled with bullet holes, his aircraft plummeted from of the sky with the majority of its tail plane missing and one of its engines ablaze. His body was never found and he became the first U.S. General causality of the war. In total, the raid resulted in 236 crewmen being listed as either missing, killed or wounded – this would be the 95th’s heaviest and most costly mission of the entire war.

A view from the tower looking East to West.

Two days after this mission the group would depart Framlingham and move to RAF Horham a few miles north-west, where they remained for the remainder of the war. The majority of the crews would probably be pleased to move away leaving behind many terrible memories and lost friends. However, the tide would turn and they would go on to gain a remarkable reputation and make a number of USAAF records. They would be the only Eighth Air Force group to achieve three Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC), and be the first group to bomb Berlin. They also claimed the highest number of enemy aircraft shot down by any bomb group and they would be the group to suffer the last aircraft loss (on a mission) of the war – all quite remarkable considering their devastating introduction to the European Theatre.

As the 95th departed Framlingham so moved in the 390th BG.

The 390th BG like the 95th and 100th were part of the 13th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division. They too were a new Group, only being formed themselves early in 1943. The 390th BG was made up of four B-17 bomb squadrons: the 568th, 569th, 570th and 571st, and at initial full strength consisted of just short of 400 personnel. They formed part of the larger second wave of USAAF influxes who were all new recruits and whose arrival in the U.K. would double the size of the USAAF’s presence overnight.

Old hands of the Mighty Eighth, took great pride in teasing these new recruits whose bravado and cockiness would soon be knocked out of them by the more experienced Luftwaffe fighter pilots.

The 390th would create quite a stir in the Suffolk countryside and not just because of their ‘smooth taking’, ‘endless supply of chocolate’ and ‘upbeat music’. Up until now, the ‘smuggling’ of pets into American airbases had been by-and-large ignored, but with the 390th came a Honey Bear, a beast that quite frequently escaped only to be confronted by rather bemused locals! There would be however, despite all this frivolity, no rest period for the crews, and operations would start the 12th August 1943, less than a month after they arrived.

B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 390th Bomb Group in flight over Framlingham. Handwritten caption on reverse: '390BG.'

B-17s of the 390th BG over RAF Framlingham (IWM)

The latter parts of 1943 saw a lot of poor weather over both the U.K. and the continent, and this combined with the heavy use of smoke screens by the Germans, prevented large numbers of bombers finding their targets. As a result, many crews sought targets of opportunity thus breaking up strong defensive formations. The eager Luftwaffe pilots made good use of this, taking advantage of broken formations and poor defences. As a result, the bombers of this new influx would receive many heavy casualties and August 12th was to become the second heaviest loss of life in the American air war so far.

1943 would be a busy time for the 390th, within a few days and on the anniversary of the U.S. VIII Air Force’s first European operation, they would attack the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg, a mission for which they would receive their first Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC).

The operation would be a blood bath. On that day 147 B-17s took off with the 390th forming the high squadron in the first formation. For over an hour and a half, multiple fighters of the Luftwaffe attacked the formations which were split by delayed arrivals, and large gaps in the formation. Compounded with this was the fact that the escorting P-47s had to return home leaving the formations largely undefended. With no fighter escort the bombers became easy prey and the numbers of blood-thirsty attacks increased. The rear and low formations of the force were decimated and departing P-47 fighter crews could only look on in horror.

Over the target, skies cleared and bombing accuracy was excellent, but it was the 390th that would excel. Of the seven groups to attack, the 390th manged to get 58% of its bombs within 1000 ft of the target and 94% within 2000 ft, a remarkable achievement for a fledgling group. Flying on, they passed over the Alps and across Italy onto North Africa where they landed – their first shuttle mission was complete. The run in to the target and subsequent journey to North Africa would create multiple records; two B-17s, one of which belonged to the 390th, sought sanctuary in neutral Switzerland, the first of any group to do so. But the journey across Europe had been difficult and it would cost the lives of six B-17 crews – it had truly been a hard-won DUC.

Two months and some 20 missions later, they would repeat this epic achievement. On October 14th 1943, they took part in the second major attack on Schweinfurt, a target whose name alone put the fear of God into many crews. The route that day would take them across some of the most notorious Flak black spots, Aachen, Frankfurt, Bad Kissingen and Schweinfurt itself. On top of that, Luftwaffe fighters would be hungry for blood, many crew members knew this would be a one way trip.

Take off was at 10:00am, and the Third Air Division would provide 154 aircraft, but again due to mechanical problems and poor weather, the formation were scattered across the sky and defences were weak. As they crossed the channel enemy aircraft were few and far between, giving false hopes to rookie crews who were cruising 20,000 feet above the ground. Eventually at around 1:00pm the escorts left and the waiting Luftwaffe crews stepped in. All hell broke loose. Rockets, timed bombs and heavy machine gun fire riddled the B-17 formations – Schweinfurt was going to live up to its reputation. After fending off relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe, the formation reached their target and all 390th aircraft managed to bomb with an accuracy of 51% of the MPI (Mean Point of Impact). For this they received their second DUC – the newbies were rapidly becoming masters of the air.

July 2016 019

The widest section of runway, now a mere fraction of its former self.

1943 would draw to a close, and the optimism of many ‘successful’ raids over the Reich would bring the dawn of 1944.  Big week in February saw the massed attacks on the German aircraft production factories, and in March, the 390th attacked Berlin. During this raid B-17 ’42-30713′ “Phyllis Marie” made an emergency landing only to be captured intact by the Luftwaffe and flown under KG200. It was later found in Bavaria.

Other major targets for the 390th this year included Frankfurt marshalling yards, Cologne, Mannheim, the navel yards at Bremen and the oil refineries at Mersburg. In 1944 the 390th softened the German defences along the Atlantic coast just fifteen minutes before the invasion force landed in June. They followed up the advance by supporting the allied break out at St. Lo.

During August 1944, the 390th flew a round mission that took them for the second time to a Russian airfield. After refuelling and rearming, they attacked the oil refineries at Trzebinia (later famed with the POW’s ‘death march’ across western Europe) and then back to Russia. Three days later they flew to North Africa, depositing high explosives in Romania, and then four days after that, the return trip to Framlingham bombing Toulouse on the way.

The cold winter of 1944 would become well-known for its snow and ice, a period in which almost as many aircraft were lost to ice as to enemy action. On December 27th, the cold would claim B-17 ’42-107010′ “Gloria-Ann II” of the 569th BS. A build up of ice would bring her down within a minute of taking off and the ensuing explosion of fuel and bombs would cause a fire from which nine crew members would perish. Houses in the vicinity of Parham were also damaged but there were no local casualties and the aircraft would be salvaged and reborn as “Close Crop“.

B-17G-35-VE #42-97849

Battle damage was often severe, here B-17G #42-97849 “Liberty Bell” of the 570th BS, shows extensive damage to her tail section. (IWM)

In the early months of 1945 the Ardennes was also gripped in this terrible fog and cold. The 390th took off in support of the paratroopers locked in the Belgium forests, bombing strategic targets beyond the Ardennes, they cut German lines preventing further supplies reaching the front.

By 1945 it was no longer a rare occurrence for bombers to have exceeded the 100 mission milestone, for the crews however, it was a target to avoid. For the 390th, April 1945 would see the first US airman to surpass the 100 mission mark achieved solely whilst operating in the European theatre. Hewitt Dunn, acting as bombardier (Togglier) was the first US Eighth AF airman to surpass 100 missions in an operational span that started in January 1944 and that had seen him in virtually every position of an operational B-17, and over virtually every high risk target in occupied Europe – he was just 24 years old.

Gradually the summer sun came and with it clear skies. Allied air operations increased and soon the end was in sight for Nazi Germany, but air accidents and US losses would still continue. On landing his B-17 “Chapel in the Sky“, Murrell Corder ground looped his aircraft to prevent crashing into other parked B-17s. In doing so, he clipped the wings of “Satan’s Second Sister” severely damaging both aircraft, thankfully though, there were no casualties.

At the end of the war the 390th left Framlingham and returned to the United States. They had received two Distinguished Unit Citations, had the highest enemy aircraft claim of any unit on one single mission and reached the first 100th mission of any aircrew member. Their tally had amounted to 300 missions in which they had dropped over 19,000 tons of bombs. They had definitely earned their place in the Framlingham history books.

On departure, Framlingham was given back to the RAF who used it as a transit camp to help with the relocation of displaced Polish people. It was then closed in the late 1940s and sold back to the local farmer, with whom it remains today.

A small consortium of volunteers have manged to rebuild the control tower into a fabulous museum, displaying a wide variety of aircraft and airfield parts, and personal stories from those at Framlingham. They have also refurbished a couple of Nissen huts, recreating life in a barrack room as it would have been during the Second World War, and displaying articles and stories from the resistance organisation.

As for the airfield, much of the perimeter track remains as do long sections of the runways as farm tracks. The public road today passes through the centre of the airfield dissecting the technical area from the bomb store. From the northern most end a footpath allows you to walk along the north-western section of the perimeter track, currently used by a road repair company for storing stone chippings and lorries. The hardstands have been removed and piles of rubble contain evidence of drainage and electrical supply pipes. From the road at this point you can also see a small section of the main runway – now holding piggery sheds – which has virtually all been removed. From the western side of the perimeter track you can look along the north-west to south-east runway, a mere fraction of its former self, it is barely wide enough for a tractor let alone a heavily laden B-17 and her crew.

Returning to the museum front takes you along the widest part of this runway. A small section at almost full width, it gives you an indication of the 150 feet of concrete that makes up these great structures, and an insight into what they would have been like during the mid 1940s.

Tower 4

The Watch office is now a refurbished museum and highly recommended.

Behind the museum stands one of the hangars, this along with the tower are the two most discernible buildings left on site. Many of the accommodation buildings are now gone, and what is left is difficult to see. A footpath does allow access across the bomb store – now a wooded area, but if walking from the north, it is virtually impossible to park a car due to the very narrow and tight roads in the area.

Like many of Britain’s airfields Framlingham holds a wealth of stories in its midsts. The near constant roar of B-17s flying daily missions over occupied Europe are now whispers in the trees. The museum, a lone statue, gazes silently over the remains of the airfield offering views of ghostly silhouettes as they lumber passed on their way to a world gradually being forgotten. Framlingham and the 390th, have definitely earned their place in the world’s history books.

Whilst in the area, take a short trip to Framlingham town, below the castle, is St Michael’s church and above the door a 390th Group Hatchment in honour of those who served at Framlingham.

From here, we travel south-west toward Ipswich and stop at another USAAF base also with a fabulous museum. We go to RAF Debach – home of the 493rd BG(H).

Notes, sources and further reading.

*Photos exist of what appears to be a Type ‘J’ or ‘K’ hangar on the site. This does not appear on the airfield drawings however and its origin is as yet unknown.

A number of sources were used to research the history of RAF Framlingham and the 390th, they are highly recommended for further information. They include:

The 390th Memorial Museum website.

Veronico. N., “Bloody Skies“, Stackpole Books, 2014

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

Freeman, R,. “The B-17 Flying Fortress Story“, Arms and Armour Press, 1998

Britain’s Airfields – What does the future hold?

There has been a recent ‘spate’ of developments with planning applications that affect Britain’s wartime heritage, and in particular the airfields that were used during the Second World War.

With land at a premium, a housing crisis that is growing, these sites are becoming more and more handsome as development opportunities. Many have a ready-made infrastructure, many are open fields and as such, prime agricultural or development land. So what does the future hold for Britain’s heritage?

We have seen applications submitted or at least interest shown, for the former: RAF Kings Cliffe, RAF Downham Market, RAF West Raynham, RAF Denethorpe and RAF Coltishall, further applications have now been seen affecting former RAF Dunsfold, RAF Bourn and RAF Wellesbourne Mountford.

We also know that the USAF have given notice of withdrawal from their major UK base at RAF Mildenhall, the smaller site at RAF Molesworth and the remaining site at RAF Alconbury. The Government has already announced it will be selling these sites for housing after the military withdrawal in 2020-23. These three sites form part of an estimated £500m sell-off that would also include: RAF Barnham (Suffolk), Kneller Hall (Twickenham), Claro and Deverell Barracks (Ripon), Lodge Hill (Kent), Craigiehall (Edinburgh), HMS Nelson Wardroom (Portsmouth), Hullavington Airfield (Wiltshire) and MOD Felton (London). Changes at RAF Lakenheath will also see job losses through streamlining of operations.

It is estimated that the 12 sites could accommodate an estimated 15,000 homes with Alconbury having 5,000 alone.

The former airfield and barracks at RAF Waterbeach is also subject to planning proposals, and the Bassingbourn barracks near Cambridge is also under the development spotlight. The recent closure of Manston (a vital Second World War airfield) has led to speculation of its future both as an airfield (possibly London’s third) and as a development opportunity. These are perhaps just a few of the prime areas of land that are now becoming the focus of planners and developers alike.

There are many variables in this heated and long-lasting debate, in fact far too many to raise and discuss here. Strong feelings exist both toward and against the idea of development and it is certainly not a new one. Employment, jobs, environment, heritage, housing etc, they all create discussion and a strong case for both arguments, but the debate here is not “should we build or not” this is quite frankly, inevitable and in many cases much-needed, no, it’s more how can we meet the needs of an ever-growing population with the needs to preserve historically important sites that form the very thread of today’s society.

We have a dynamic population, and as health care improves, social mobility increases and a growing desire to own our own home increases, the need for more housing, affordable homes and homes for rent also increases. We are an ageing population, care homes, schools for our children and hospitals for the sick are all in much greater need. Where do we build them?

Whilst housing demands have always been with us and the need for more housing an all important one, the recent developments suggest that these old airfields could become prime land to meet these future housing needs.

Many of the current Second World War airfields are now either industrial conurbations or agricultural areas. Most have little or no remnants of their former lives visible, and certainly not widely accessible. Many argue that these sites are scrub, derelict and in need of development, and some indeed are. A proportion of the more recently used sites, are ‘mothballed’ or in part operating aviation related activities. They cover huge areas and have a ready-made infrastructure such were the designs of war and post war airfields. These sites also contain extensive dereliction, primarily due to being left and allowed to decay by their owners. Vandalism and pilfering has left them rotting like carcasses of forgotten wild animals. Where industry has been operating, contaminates have seeped into the soils, damaging flora and fauna growth; some so severe that they are rendered too difficult to reclaim as ‘Green Space’. Certainly on paper, they offer good sources for today’s desperate housing stock.

However, balance this against the historical and cultural importance of these places and the argument becomes a little blurred at the seams. Had it not been for the people who came to this country from all over the world to fight the Nazi tyranny in the war years 1939-45, then Britain and Europe would probably not be the Europe we know today. Many thousands of people gave their lives during those dark days, and for many of them, these airfields were their last homes, cold, often draughty huts on the outskirts of some bleak airfield. Their dedication helped form the very society we live in today, the democracy and freedom of speech we so enjoy and relish, the open spaces where we can walk our dog without fear and in freedom. The fact that we can have this very debate, is in itself, testament to those who came here never to return. The very nature and fabric of our local communities has been built around the ‘friendly invasion’ the acceptance of others into our quaint life and idyllic life-styles. Influences from other nations and cultures grew and developed as a result of those who came here from far and wide to give up their lives.

These sites have become monuments to them, their lives and deaths, many still have no known grave; many simply ‘disappeared’ such was the ferocity of the explosion that killed them. The design of Britain’s airfields are architecturally significant to our heritage, buildings were designed to fulfil a purpose and just like our castles and stately homes, they are monuments to a significant period of not only British, but world history. Our education system, includes this very period as a subject for discussion, debate and analysis. To build over such sites without due regard to them would be a travesty, and one that we would regret in the future. To paraphrase that well-known quote; If we are to learn from our mistakes then we need to remember the past. The Second World War is still, for the moment, in living memory, the veterans and civilians who survived it are dwindling in numbers and very soon their memories will be lost for ever. Each day brings news of a lost veteran or a newly discovered story. If we don’t acknowledge the value of these places, if we don’t plan for their ‘preservation’ then both we and our future generations, will be the ones to regret it.

So where do we go from here? The plans published for RAF West Raynham and RAF Coltishall take into account the nature of these sites, they are sympathetic to their historical value and acknowledge the sacrifices made. West Raynham utilises the very buildings that were created, thus keeping the atmosphere for those who wish to visit. Small museums create a record, first hand experiences and artefacts, all valuable records for the education of future generations. But both of these are unique. Both closed in more recent history, they have retained their structures whereas many older sites have had theirs long since demolished.

It is a delicate balance, and as sad as it would be to see them go, there has to be legislation to create compromise. Sympathetic developments have to be the way forward, acknowledgement of the sacrifice has to be high on the agenda. Many of the airfields I have been too have no museum, no memorial barely even a signpost. Surely this is wrong.

If we are to preserve our fragile heritage, we need to consider the implications of the planning process, to look at the value of these sites as both suitable housing and significant historical areas, the sacrifice of the many needs to be acknowledged and it needs to be done soon.

Sources and Further Reading.

Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England ” HM Gov, November 2011

Stimulating housing supply – Government initiatives (England)” House of Commons Library, 9 December 2014

The “Get Surrey” news report issued on January 5th 2016 relating to Dunsfold can be found here.

Then latest news from “Cambridge News” December 16th 2015 can be found here.

The “Stratford-Upon-Avon Herald” January 6th 2016 front page story about Wellesbourne can be found here. (This may be a limited time link).

The latest news on RAF Mildenhall and Lakenheath published by the BBC, 18th January 2016 can be found here.

A Happy New Year!

As 2015 fades away I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you who has visited, followed, liked, reblogged, commented and generally supported “Aviation Trails” during the last year. Without you, it would not be the site it is today.

It has certainly grown over the last year and taken on a new dimension. Investment in research material has enabled much longer posts and more personal information to be included, something that I know many people like to see. Not only do ‘we’ as enthusiasts, historical ‘writers’, modellers, relations of veterans etc. preserve our common history, but openly promote and educate others through the writing we do.

I believe it is important to remember what went on, the sacrifice and dedication to freedom, and if I can go a small way to helping that then it has all been worthwhile.

I have been inspired to take up old hobbies, learnt about aspects of military and natural history that I had never heard of, found new places in the world and been a part of a group of people who share the desire to learn, educate and inform others. It has been a wonderful year.

The tally of airfields I have visited is now around 75, double what it was this time last year. I have walked in the footsteps of famous people like Guy Gibson, Glenn Miller and Joe Kennedy, stood where important and famous missions have been planned and executed, trodden the very ground where so many young men and women served their country, many thousands giving the ultimate sacrifice.

It has been a most humbling experience.

So to each and every one of you, a heartfelt thank you, and here’s to a happy, peaceful and rewarding 2016.

Heartbreak on Christmas Eve 1944

On the morning of December 24th, 1944, Brigadier General  Frederick W. Castle (s/n 0-319375), woke to the greet the day, and like most pilots facing perilous missions, he probably wondered if it would be his last. However, knowing what I know about Castle from my research, he was a calm, confident and highly competent pilot, so most likely, he had every reason to believe in the success of his next mission. Sadly though, that was not to be the case. Castle never made it back that night. On Christmas Eve of 1944, this brave pilot lost his 30th and final battle.

Lieutenant Colonel Elliott Vandevanter of the 385th Bomb Group with Colonel Frederick W Castle (centre) of the 487th Bomb Group and Brigadier General Curtis A LeMay. *1

Frederick W. Castle was born on October 14th, 1908 at Fort McKinley in Manila, the Philippines. He came from an active military family and was the son of Col. Benjamin Frederick Castle. Following the end of World War 1, he was to settle in the United States in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.

From a young age, Castle was groomed for a life of military service. He attended Boonton High School and Storm King Military Academy before moving on to the US Military Academy from where he graduated in June 1930.

His first service was with the New Jersey National Guard, where he stayed for two years  transferring to the Air Corps, March Field, California, then onto Kelly Field in Texas. Castle gained his wings in October 1931.

Serving as a pilot with the 17th Pursuit Squadron for 3 years, he eventually left the forces returning to civilian life but holding a reserve status. With the entry of the United States into the Second World War, Castle would be called upon by his good Friend Ira Eaker, and he returned in January 1942, being promoted within two months to Major and then onto Lieutenant Colonel in the following September.

With the forming of the Eighth Air Force in England, headed by General Ira Eaker, Castle was one of seven high-ranking officers selected to fly with him on the dangerous route over the Bay of Biscay, eventually arriving at Hendon wearing their civilian clothes. Joining Eaker on February 20th 1943 in the DC-3 from Lisbon were: Lt Colonel Frank Armstrong Jnr, Major Peter Beasley, Captain Beirne Lay Jnr, Lt. Harris Hull and Lt. William Cowart Jnr.

Castle desired a combat role, and this desire would lead to him taking over the command of the ailing 94th Bomb Group. His methods of command were initially considered weak, but in the face of low morale and apprehension, he personally took the 94th to some of the furthest targets yet, his first being Oschersleben in the heart of Germany; a mission that went on to inspire the film “12 o’clock High“.  Castle went on to fly in many combat missions including numerous high prestige targets, a role that took him on to Brigadier General and command of 4th Combat Wing.

On Christmas Eve 1944, following a week of poor weather, orders came though for a maximum effort mission, involving every available B-17 and B-24 in support of the troops in the Ardennes. Airfields, supply lines and troop movements were to be attacked, and good weather was at last predicted.

General Arnold with Colonel Frederick W Castle, Brigadier General Curtis LeMay, General Williams and General Anderson during a visit to Bury St Edmunds (Rougham), home of the 379th Bomb Group. Image stamped on reverse: 'Passed for publication 3 Sep 1943.' [stamp] nand '282085.' [censor no.] A printed caption was previously attached to the reverse however this has been removed. Associated news story: 'American Air Forces G.O.C. Meets The

General Arnold with Colonel Frederick W Castle, Brigadier General Curtis LeMay, General Williams and General Anderson during a visit to Bury St Edmunds (Rougham)*2

A joint effort, this would be the largest single attack to date involving 500 RAF and Ninth Air force bombers, 800 fighters and just short of 2,050 Eighth Air Force bombers. Such was the demand for aircraft, that even ‘war weary’ examples, were hastily armed and prepared, many unfit for more than assembly or training duties. Truly an armada of incredible proportions.

Taking lead position, Frederick Castle, was in B-17G-VE, ’44-8444′ “Treble Four“, an aircraft that had itself seen battle experience. Assigned to the 836BS, 487BG, and at RAF Lavenham, it was previously damaged in a raid over Darmstadt. The aircraft was salvaged in January 1945.

A veteran of 29 missions, Castle was a more than a competent leader. They set off, the weather as predicted, but with a haze that restricted ground level visibility. This haze prevented the fighters from leaving causing an all important delay. This delay was not considered a major problem at the time however, as the escorts would soon catchup and overtake the laden bombers. The Luftwaffe, making an unprecedented move, brought forward fighters into the Liege area to meet the oncoming bombers before any escorts could reach them. In the first few minutes of the battle, four of the 487th BG’s aircraft were downed and a further five forced to land in Belgium.

Castle’s lead plane, suffering problems with one of its engines (possibly due to previous battle damage) was attacked by the first wave of fighters, action was taken to leave the flight and join a formation further back. It was then attacked again, the aircraft catching fire, and the navigator wounded.

Castle took control, and even though still being attacked, refused to jettison the bombs for fear of killing civilians or allied troops below. Further attacks led to both engines on the starboard wing catching fire, which ultimately led to the fuel tank exploding sending the aircraft into an uncontrollable spin.

Through Castle’s actions, seven of the crewmen were able to leave the aircraft, sadly not all survived.

Frederick Castle died in the crash, his body is now buried in Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, Liege, Belgium, Plot D, Row 13, Grave 53.

His citation reads:

“He was air commander and leader of more than 2,000 heavy bombers in a strike against German airfields on 24 December 1944. En route to the target, the failure of 1 engine forced him to relinquish his place at the head of the formation. In order not to endanger friendly troops on the ground below, he refused to jettison his bombs to gain speed maneuverability. His lagging, unescorted aircraft became the target of numerous enemy fighters which ripped the left wing with cannon shells. set the oxygen system afire, and wounded 2 members of the crew. Repeated attacks started fires in 2 engines, leaving the Flying Fortress in imminent danger of exploding. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, the bail-out order was given. Without regard for his personal safety he gallantly remained alone at the controls to afford all other crewmembers an opportunity to escape. Still another attack exploded gasoline tanks in the right wing, and the bomber plunged earthward. carrying Gen. Castle to his death. His intrepidity and willing sacrifice of his life to save members of the crew were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service*3.”

For his action, Frederick W. Castle was awarded the Medal of Honour posthumously. In 1946, the Castle Air Force Base, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, was dedicated in his name, and on June 20th, 1981, the Castle Air Museum was officially opened on the now closed base, for the purpose of preserving the Air Force and Castle heritage. Museum details can be found here. His  name is also on a plaque in the Memorial Park, in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.

The awarding of the Medal of Honour, reflected the determination and personality of one of Eakers “Original Seven”, who chose to leave a safe position for a combat role, taking on the demoralised 94th, and leading them into some of the Second World War’s most ferocious air battles.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE9833

*2 Photo from Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE9879

*3 Congregational Medal of Honour SocietyWebsite, accessed 22/12/15

Mountain Lakes Library, Website, accessed 22/12/15

“The B-17 Flying Fortress Story”, Roger A Freeman, Arms and Armour, 1997.

Air Forces Historical Support, Division,  Website, accessed 22/12/15

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

Luftwaffe diaries – Big Week

Following on from the earlier diaries of Luftwaffe pilots during the Battle of Britain, I have found other examples, worth sharing.

These examples, were written as the Allies launched the ‘Big Week’ campaign against heavily defended German targets. In defence, the Luftwaffe were operating a wide range of aircraft, heavily armed, they were designed to destroy the big heavy bombers, both quickly and easily. The US Eighth and Fifteenth Airforces were bombing during daylight whilst the RAF were bombing at night. As a result, brutal dogfights were common place between escorting P-51s, P-47s and P-38s and the German aircraft.

Based at Wunstorf near Hanover, was III Gruppe Zerstorergeschwader 26, (part of Luftflotte 2) whose primary role was defence of the North Western Sector of Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands. Formed along with I. and II. Gruppe; III. Gruppe were to suffer badly at the hands of their superior American counterparts. During 1940, they had a total fo 33 aircraft, by the time ‘Big Week’ had come in 1944, this number was significantly lower.

The entry starts in the middle of February, with visits from Generalmajor Ibel1, re-equiping of machines and flight training. Prior to Big week, the Gruppe were also operating in support of land forces. However, as the allied forces began their operations, this role changed.

20.2.44 – At 12:03 hours the Gruppe received orders from 2. Jagddivision to take off and engage reported enemy bomber formation. At 12:13 hours, Bf 110s were airborne and assembled at radio beacon Marie, after new orders re-assembled overhead base. The Kommandeur, Major Kogler, took off late with three more BF 110s at 12.19 hours but failed to meet up with the aircraft which had taken off at 12.13. At 4,000m the first formation was surprised by enemy fighters attacking out of the sun and as a result 11 Bf 110s were shot down2. During the incursion two enemy fighters carried out a low-level attack on the airfield. As a result nine aircraft were hit and suffered up to 30% damage.3

21.2.44 – At 12:41 hours the group received orders to engage incoming enemy formations. At 12:45 ten BF 110s were airborne; assembly over radio beacon Marie.
At 13:15 hours these aircraft joined up with the escort a friendly fighters in the Rottenburg area. Our formation made contact with the enemy force, but due to poor direction failed to reach a favourable position from which to attack.4

22.2.44 – The Gruppe was ordered to take off at 12:22 hours to engage incoming enemy formations. The Gruppe scrambled eight BF 110s at 12:28 hours. Weather at take-off: Fair weather, 50km visibility, cloud base 1,000m, 2–3/10 cover. At 12:55 to 13:00 hours joined own fighter escort at 7,000m above Lake Steinhude. The Gruppe joined up behind I./ZG 26 which was operating under the control of the 2. Jagddivision. At 13:35 hours three formations of Fortress IIs were sighted. The leader of our formation (I./ZG 26) closed on the enemy formation to attack from head-on. III./ZG 26, following, was too close behind for a head-on attack, and had to turn an attack from the rear. While closing in to attack, fire was opened from about 400m. The enemy machine flying on the left outside of the formation burst into flames along its right side. It began to curve away to the left and the second attack was carried out from above and to the left, from behind. This Fortress dropped away from the formation well ablaze. There was strong defensive fire from the enemy rear gun positions. Each enemy formation numbered about 60 aircraft, flying in arrow. Weather in operational area: about 3/10 cloud cover, cloud base 500m tops 2,000m. Visability above cloud more than 50km.

During the head-on attack, the formation leader turned in too soon, so that the aircraft coming behind were unable to get into an attacking position.

Landing: Two BF 110s landed at Wunstorf, at 13:58 and at 14:10 hours. Four BF 110s made belly-landings. No landing reports received so far from two BF 110s. 5

Successes: One Fortress II shot down by Oblt. Bley.

23.2.44 – No operations. The Gruppe carried out instrument flying training missions as planned. The 7th Staffel is in the process of receiving replacement aircraft.

24.2.44 – Operational report.
Take off: Four BF 110s from Wunstorf at 12:01 hours. Order: Scramble take-off to engage incoming enemy formations. The Gruppe assembled at 7,000m over Brunswick with ten BF 110s of I./ZG 26. II./JG 11 joined up to provide the escort at 12:15 hours. Instructions received from JaFue6 during the assembly. At 13:15 hours eight formations each of about 15 liberators were seen in the area of Nordhausen, stepped up from 4,000m to 7,000m and flying on the south-easterly heading. It was noticeable that the enemy aircraft were wavering about. On the approach of our Gruppe the enemy force turned south and later south-west. Attack was carried out at 13:00 hours in the area of Holzminden, from the left and above. III./ZG 26 scored one victory7 and one Herausschuss (bomber leaving formation after attack by Major Kogler). Several liberators were observed to be on fire; others were seen to crash8. The claims of I./ZG 26 are not to hand. Landing: Two BF 110s landed at Wunstorf at 14:08 and 14:14 hours. One BF 110 suffered damage to the cabin and turned back. One BF 110: no landing report received (Gern’s aircraft).

Supplement: the enemy bombers were escorted by Thunderbolts, which flew above the formation. It was ascertained that the leading formation, which I tried to attack, always went into a turn to the right when I was in front shortly before I turned in to make my attack. It is possible that this forced the bombers away from their target.

Diary written by Major (Gruppe Kommandeur) Kogler, 1944

On February 24th 1944, there were several missions flown by the USAAF: Mission 233, (to attack targets at: Gotha, Rostock, Poznan and Schweinfurt) and 234 which occurred at night.  Mission 233 was the second largest operation to take place during ‘Big Week’ and involved 809 bombers with 767 fighters as escort.

Mission 233 took place in 3 Waves, Wave 1 – 239 B-24s were sent to Gotha; Wave 2 – 266 B-17s were sent to Schweinfurt and Wave 3, 304 B-17s were dispatched to the primary target of Poznan.

A fatal mistake by the lead aircraft in the first Wave (due to a faulty oxygen mask) led to Eisenach being bombed by mistake. The following formation also bombed by mistake, following his mark.  These are the only B-24s that flew on that day and as a result, it is probable (but not certain) that these are the Liberators mentioned in Kogler’s diary for that day. Casualties reported by the USAAF for that mission were: 3 KIA, 6 WIA and 324 MIA9.

Liberators of the 392nd BG from RAF Wendling were involed in this mission, an account is available here along with MACRs and statements from those involved.

It has been interesting to compare explantions from both sides, with limited resources, any connection is only presumed, but it does give an interesting perspective to the bomber war over Europe.

Sources:

1 – Generalmajor Ibel was the Commander of 2. Jagddivision

2 – Six pilots and five radio operators were killed in the attack. Two pilots and four radio operators were wounded.

3 – One armourer was killed along with one Radio operator and one mechanic wounded.

4 – Combat report D1

5 – Later found to have been shot down, their crews were killed.

6 – JaFue – Fighter Controller.

7 – Oblt Meltz.

8 – Lt. Gern, who was shot down during the action but bailed out of his aircraft, logged a claim for one Fortress shot down when he returned to his unit.

9 – 8th Airforce Operations, http://8thafhs.com/missions.php

The full diary entry appeared in The Luftwaffe Data Book, by Dr. Alfred Price, Published by Greenhill Books, 1936, 1977, 1997. pg197-200