Secrets Of The (Not So) Deep.

By Mitch Peeke.

This latest chapter in the story of B17 44-6133, which crashed in shallow water at Allhallows, Kent, in June of 1944, came about during a visit I made to The Kent Battle Of Britain Museum at Hawkinge; which ordinarily, is not perhaps the sort of of venue one might expect to find anything related to The Mighty Eighth.

I have been to this excellent museum a few times. They very graciously stocked the promotional leaflets for my own Battle Of Britain E-Book; 1940: The Battles To Stop Hitler when it came out in 2015. Four years later, in the Summer of 2019, I had organized the creation of a memorial at Allhallows, commemorating the lost crew of B17 44-6133 and later that same Summer, there I was, talking to Dave Brocklehurst MBE, Curator of the museum at Hawkinge, about my project, the memorial day we’d just held there and how there was going to be a new museum at nearby Slough Fort, which would include a display relating to the crash. The Fort has a small piece of wreckage from the B17 that had washed up on the beach front at Allhallows. It was then that Dave told me that he also had a genuine piece of that B17 in storage and he offered it to me, for inclusion in the Fort’s display. It is a fair-sized but broken piece of armour plate, thought to be a section of armour from either of the Pilots’ chairs, though Dave was by no means certain of that. We arranged for him to retrieve it from his storage section and for me to return to the museum to collect it. Then came the Covid pandemic of course!

Successive lockdowns meant I couldn’t collect it. Dave was kept extremely busy, not only with the general upkeep but also the museum’s newest acquisition; a Spanish-built Heinkel 111 that had been used in the 1969 film The Battle Of Britain, which of course had seen Hawkinge used as a filming location. Each time we made our arrangements, another lockdown put paid to our plans, then finally, we were able to make a definite date, in May of 2021, nearly two years after first discussing the idea, for me to collect the B17 artefact.

Dave Brocklehurst MBE, (right) Curator of The Kent Battle Of Britain Museum at Hawkinge, Presents Mitch Peeke with the salvaged armour plate. (Photo: Mitch Peeke.)

The first thing that struck me when Dave handed the plate to me, was the sheer weight of it. The plate measures a mere 17 by 19 inches. It is a quarter of an inch thick, but it weighs an incredible 22.6 pounds: 10 kg. No wonder Dave told me not to come to collect it on my Harley! I used my wife’s SUV instead.

Once I got it safely home, I photographed it from several angles and set about the task of trying to positively identify it. To that end, I emailed the Museum of aviation at Robins Air Force Base in America, as they are currently in the process of restoring a B17 to its former glory. Their Curator, a former US Air Force officer by the name of Arthur Sullivan, replied to my enquiry with 24 hours, expressing a great interest in the the plate and the story behind it. Despite casting their expert eyes over the photos I sent them, we are still not 100% certain; but it would seem likely, given its curved edges and obvious mounting bolts underneath, that it is seat base armour from either of the Pilot’s seats; the two angled slots most likely to have been for the lap straps to pass through.

Underside of the plate, showing the mounting bolts and possible Lap Strap slots. (Photo: Mitch Peeke.)

The plate was salvaged from the wreck site, a muddy, watery crater some 500 yards off the beach at Allhallows, in the late 1970’s. By then, some nefarious low tide salvage attempts had already been made, most notably by slightly drunk members of the Allhallows Yacht Club. One such foray had resulted in the Police being called to the club when the returning “Trophy Hunters” had brought a quantity of .50 caliber machine gun bullets back with them and decided to try “firing” them from a vice on a workbench, using a hammer and the pointed end of a six inch nail. Luckily for those concerned, the bullets had deteriorated to such an extent after laying on the muddy bottom of the Thames Estuary for 32 years, that they merely fizzled and smoked. The Police confiscated them. The Trophy Hunters had also retrieved one of the bombers Browning machine guns, probably one of the waist guns, but that had been hidden from the Police. That gun was apparently later taken apart and smuggled into Canada. To discourage any further foolhardy amateur salvage operations, the Royal Engineers were called in to demolish the wreck with explosives. Nobody seemed to consider the possibility of that wreck being a War Grave. The body of Staff Sergeant Cecil Tognazzini, the bomber’s Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner, has never been found. He is the only member of 44-6133’s crew who is still unaccounted for.

Today, the crater is still visible at low tide, as are the fragmented remains of the B17. The tidal mud holds a lot of the wreckage in suspension, so every now and again, more of it becomes visible, sticking up out of the muddy floor of the crater, when the tide goes out. Tempting though it still is for some to venture out there, the oozing mud makes such an expedition a dangerously foolish pursuit. Letting that sleeping B17 rest in peace is a far more noble and worthy aim.

In the meantime, we do now have two tangible pieces of 44-6133; one is the small piece of wreckage that washed ashore in 2017 and the other is the newly re-discovered armour plate. Both are now on display in the Slough Fort Museum. Thanks to Jeanne Cronis-Campbell, we also now have photographs of some of 44-6133’s young crew, taken by her late Father, Teddy; who was the plane’s Bombardier and the sole survivor of 6133’s crew, which I added to the memorial last year. And of course, we finally have that permanent memorial to those men, overlooking the place where they fell. We will, remember them.

My thanks to Mitch for the update.

The full story of 44-6133 can be found in ‘A Long way from Home‘,

July 11th 1945 – Last B-24 leaves the U.K.

As the war drew to a close, encircled German troops, took to flooding the fields of western Holland, forcing the local Dutch people down to starvation levels. In an attempt to help them, Allied operational bombing missions turned to mercy missions. Operations  ‘Manna‘  and ‘Chow Hound’  involved Allied bombers flying low-level to drop supplies of food and other provisions to these people.  They would fly aircraft along mutually agreed routes  to dropping points at the Hague and other sites around Rotterdam.

The first of these RAF operations occurred at the end of April into the early days of May, followed by the USAAF between the 1st and 8th of May 1945. On this first operation, 396 B-17s flew from their bases in East Anglia to unload some 700 tons of provisions over the affected area. Over the next few days similar flights would also take place, which would in total provide some 11,000 tons of food to the starving population. During one of these missions on May 7th, B-17G  #44- 8640 of the 95th BG, 334th BS, was believed to have been hit by ground fire over Ijmuiden,  The aircraft, engine ablaze, ditched in the North Sea. Rescue efforts were mounted to recover the crewmen and observers, but only two survived – eleven were lost. It is believed to be last combat casualty of 8th Air Force in World War 2.

Also during this time, ‘Trolley runs‘ began in which around 10,000 ground crew and other personnel, were given the opportunity to see first hand, the destruction caused by the relentless allied bombing campaign of the previous years. Many were shocked to see the extent of the damage having lived in the relative safety of their airfields back home.

Whilst some crews enjoyed the ‘sight seeing tours’ others were involved in ‘Revival‘ flights, bringing home the many thousands of Allied prisoners of war and displaced persons interned in camps as far away as Austria.

Gradually even these missions began to slow. Squadrons and airfields were wound down, and eyes began to turn to the Pacific. An American force consisting of three P-51 and nine B-17 groups would remain in Europe, the rest of the Eighth  Air force would return home for rest or training and eventual posting to the Pacific.

In the third week of May 1945, the huge operation began, the first B-24 left the U.K. for American shores, a flight that would begin seven weeks of flights across the Atlantic routes. In total some 41,500 men and 2,118 aircraft would depart the U.K. for home, most through either Prestwick in Scotland, or Valley in Wales.

Valley airfield became known as “Happy Valley”, and would see about 90% of the returning aircraft leave from here. Each of the aircraft leaving would carry its crew and 10 passengers, along with sacks of mail for home.

On July 11th 1945, 1st Lt. Gean (or Gene) Williams climbed aboard his B-24, started its engines and pulled off the runway at Valley; the last B-24 the leave the U.K, and with it began the slow demise of Britain’s wartime airfields.

The ‘New York Times’ Published a report on the last Liberator to leave the U.K. on July 12th 1945.

2nd Lt. John Walter Crago (RAF Kings Cliffe)

I was recently contacted by Mike Herring and Trevor Danks, regarding the story of 2nd Lt. John Crago who was based at RAF Kings Cliffe in Northamptonshire during World War 2.

It was sad tale of how this young man died in a tragic accident not long after arriving in the UK from the United States.

Mike and Trevor have allowed me to reproduce the entire text with photos to share with you, my sincere thanks go to them both. Here is John Crago’s story.

This is the story of 2nd Lt. John Walter Crago who tragically lost his life in an aircraft crash on 31st December 1943 whilst operating from Kings Cliffe airfield.

Firstly, however, let us look at his origins.

His grandparents were Harry and Bessie Crago who were born and lived in Cornwall on the SW tip of England. Harry was born in Liskeard in November 1858 and Bessie in Duloe in May 1862.

The surname “Crago” is quite common in that area. Cornwall had been a major source of tin and lead for many years and there were extensive mine works around the county.

After leaving school Harry worked in the mines from about the age of 12.

In 1878 Harry and Bessie, still unmarried, moved to the coal mining village of Wingate, near Durham, in the North East of England, where Harry worked as a coal miner.

In the early part of 1879 Harry and Bessie married at Wingate and by 1881 they were living at 13, Emily Street, Wheatley Hill, Wingate and had a one year old son with them – William.

As an aside the village of Wingate is well known to some people in Kings Cliffe. It was the home of the writer’s wife’s parents until their recent death and  brothers and sisters still live there.

The coincidence increases as it is also the place where friends, Rodger Barker, living in Kings Cliffe, and Jim Vinales, managed to crash a Vulcan bomber in 1971, that had lost two engines. The crew fortunately survived. (see chapter one of “Vulcan 607” Corgi books).

In 1882 Harry and Bessie emigrated to the USA, by now having two children , and it is no co-incidence that they settled in Pennsylvania which was a significant coal mining area, Harry working there as a miner.

Their third child, Walter P Crago, was born at Houtzvale, P.A. on 16th August 1893. He is the father of the subject of this story.

In the US Census of 1910 16 year old Walter is shown as having no occupation, although his father and elder brother are working as miners.

In the 1920 US Census, Walter is married to Margaret K Crago and they have a one year old son, John Walter, born 5th April 1917 who is the subject of our story. His father’s marriage to Margaret does not seem to have lasted as by 1930 Walter has married Lorena C Crago (nee’ Curtis).

John Walter Crago is brought up in Philipsburg, PA, a small town of about 3000 people (twice as big as Kings Cliffe) which is situated about 200 miles due west of New York.

Philisburg main street via Mike Herring

A view of modern Philipsburg main street.

Our next glimpse of John W is in his High school Year book in 1934 when he was 17 years old.

John Walter Crago via Mike Herring

Johnnie did one year in high school and was clearly keen on his sport as well as the local girls!

Six year later in the US Census of 1940 John’s father, Walter, is by then the part owner and bar tender of a restaurant/tap room in Philipsburg and John W is working for him.

In Europe WW2 is in full flow and clearly the US is preparing for its possible involvement as John is signed on in the draft on 16th October 1940.

He is described on his draft form as 5’-8 ½” (1.74m) tall, weighing 135 pounds (61kg) with hazel eyes, light completion and brown hair.

draft via Mike Herring

John’s Draft paper.

draft 2 via Mike Herring

John trained to be an Army Air force pilot and joined the 55th fighter squadron, part of the 20th fighter group.

They arrived at Clyde in Scotland in August 1943, then travelled to their new base at Kings Cliffe in Northamptonshire, England. The 20th fighter group consisted of three squadrons of about 14 planes each – 55th, 77th and 79th.

The group was the first to fly the new P-38 Lightning escort, fighter ground attack air craft in combat in Europe.

P-38 via Mike Herring

P-38 Lightning

There was insufficient room at Kings Cliffe for all of three squadrons and therefore 55 Fighter Squadron , of which John Crago was a member, were based at RAF Wittering, just two miles North of Kings Cliffe.

The P-38 Lightning had a somewhat chequered history in its’ early days. It had several recognised problems, but because of the needs in Europe for a powerful, high flying escort aircraft, the early ones were shipped out without those problems being resolved. They suffered from many engine failures, and instability in certain circumstances.

Of significance to our story is part of the Wikipedia article on the development of the P-38 which reads –

“Another issue of the P-38 arose from its unique design feature of outwardly rotating, counter rotating propellers. Losing one of the two engines in any two engine non centre line thrust aircraft on take-off creates sudden drag, yawing the nose towards the dead engine and rolling the wing tip down on the side of the dead engine. Normal training in flying twin engine aircraft when losing one engine on take-off is to push the remaining engine to full throttle to maintain airspeed. If the pilot did this on a P-38, regardless of which engine had failed, the resulting engine torque produces an uncontrollable yawing roll and the aircraft would flip over and hit the ground.”

Crago with P-38 via Mike Herring

John Crago with his P- 38J Lightning – 1943

 

Crago at Kings Cliffe 1943 via Mike Herring

John W Crago in 1943 at Kings Cliffe

The first mission for 55 squadron was on 28th  December 1943 consisting of a sweep across the Dutch coast without encountering enemy aircraft. The mission summary report for that day reads –

28th December 1943

  1. 55th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Group, Captain McAuley leading.
  2. 12 up at 1308 Down Wittering 1510
  3. Nil
  4. O 4 SWEEP
  5. To N. Nil
  6. Altitude over English coast mid-channel R/T jammed and remained so until mid-channel return trip. Landfall in, Wooderhoodf, at 1402. Altitude 20,000 feet. Light to moderate flak accurate for altitude over Flushing. Left turn and proceeded from Walchern to Noordwal 18 to 20,000 feet.
  7. Landfall out 1416 Noordwal. Weather clear all the way.

The second mission on the 30th December was more serious, escorting B-17 and B-24 bombers on an attack on a chemical plant near Ludwigshafen. The mission report for that day reads –

30th December 1943

  1. 55th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Group
  2. 14 up 1121 at Kings Cliffe. Down 1500 Wittering.
  3. 3 aborts. Captain Jackson, Lt. Col. Jenkins – Radio. Lt. Sarros, gas siphoning.
  4. Bomber escort. Field order No. 210
  5. Nil
  6. Nil
  7. Nil
  8. Nil
  9. Landfall Ostend 24,000 feet at 1212. Climbed to 25,000 feet Brussels circled area 15 minutes. Proceeded to R/v with bombers. St. Menechoulde 25,000 feet at 1312. Reims 2 Me 109’s seen diving through bomber formation. Squadron left Bombers Compegiegne 1346. Encountered light flak Boulogne. Landfall out 1407, 24,000 feet. Clouds 6/10 over channel. 10/10 just inland. R/t ok.

The third mission was scheduled for 31st December and involved escorting bombers on an attack on a ball bearing factory at Bordeaux. John Crago was one of the 14 pilots of 55 squadron scheduled to be on this trip. He was temporarily based at RAF Wittering whilst suitable accommodation was built at Kings Cliffe and was flying from Wittering to Kings Cliffe to be briefed on the mission with the other pilots of 55, 77 and 79 Squadron who made up 20 Group. On arriving at Kings Cliffe he reported problems with his landing gear and did a low level fly past the control tower so that they could observe any obvious problem. As he approached the tower smoke was seen coming from his left hand engine.

He would have been flying slowly, close to stall speed, so that the tower had more time to observe any problem. Bearing in mind the reported problem with the P-38 flying on one engine the plane probably became uncontrollable. He clearly achieved some height as his eventual crash site was about two miles away at the village of Woodnewton. He did not survive the crash.

map via Mike Herring

 

location of crash via Mike Herring

Map of Woodnewton – crash site marked in red.

Lt. Crago's crash site

Lt. Crago’s crash site. (Photo courtesy Trevor Dank)

Lt. Crago's crash site

Lt. Crago’s crash site. (Photo courtesy Trevor Dank)

John Crago is buried at the Cambridge American Cemetery; plot A/5/22.

Commemoration Plaque

Plaque to commemorate Lt. Crago. (Photo courtesy Trevor Dank)

His was one of the bodies of American servicemen whose next of kin decided not to repatriate.  One could conjecture that he was left to rest in the land where many generations of his forefathers had lived.

Grave via Mike Herring

 

Kings Cliffe old blokes via Mike Herring

‘Kings Cliffe Old Blokes Club’ at the grave of John Crago.

Mike Herring
Kings Cliffe Heritage

Sources:

Vulcan 607 by Rowland White, Corgi Books.
US Census 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940.
UK Census 1861, 1871,and 1881
Ancestry.com
Ancestry.co.uk
The American Air Museum – Duxford  www.iwm.org.uk/duxford
2nd Air Division Memorial Library – Norwich www.2ndair.org.uk

Report from Woodnewton Heritage Group

New Year’s Eve this year marks the 75th anniversary of a tragic accident in Woodnewton which resulted in the death of an American pilot and brought the realities of the Second World War closer to the inhabitants of our village.

JOHN WALTER CRAGO

John Walter Crago held the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army Air Force. He died instantly in an accident on 31st December 1943 when his aircraft crash landed in Woodnewton, in the field known as Stepping End just beyond Conegar Farm.

Lieutenant Crago was born on 5th April 1917 in Phillipsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of Walter P Crago and Margaret K Jones. He had enlisted in March 1942 and was a member of the 55th Fighter Squadron of the 20th Fighter Group.  This Group was under the command of the 67th Fighter Wing of the Vlll Fighter Command of the USAAF. When he died he was 26 years old.

The circumstances leading to the accident on 31st December are recorded here in general terms only as told by former and existing residents of Woodnewton and supported by information from the Internet. It is not meant to be definitive.

The USAAF was assigned RAF Kings Cliffe in early 1943 and it was re-designated as Station 367. It was the most northerly and westerly of all US Army Air Force fighter stations. At that time RAF Kings Cliffe was a very primitive base, lacking accommodation and other basic facilities, so the Americans undertook an extensive building programme at the base during 1943. The 20th Fighter Group arrived on 26th August 1943 from its training base in California having crossed the USA by railway and then the Atlantic aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth on a five-day unescorted trip. The Group comprised three Fighter Squadrons; two of those Squadrons were based at Station 367 whilst the third, the 55th Fighter Squadron (Lieutenant Crago’s), was based at RAF Wittering whilst additional accommodation was being built at Kings Cliffe. The Group did not come back together at Station 367 until April 1944. Up to December 1943 the Group flew Republic P-47 Thunderbolt planes. With the arrival of their new Lockheed P-38 Lightening planes in late December 1943 the 20th Fighter Group entered fully into operational combat and was engaged in providing escort and fighter support to heavy and medium bombers to targets on the continent.

In the early morning of 31st December 1943 Lieutenant Crago was to fly from RAF Wittering to Station 367 to be briefed on his first combat mission – to provide escort protection on a bombing mission to attack an aircraft assembly factory at Bordeaux and an airfield at La Rochelle. This was to be just the 3rd mission by the fully-operational Group flying P-38’s. The planes of the 55th Squadron took off from RAF Wittering three abreast but unfortunately the right wing-tip of Lieutenant Crago’s plane struck the top of a search light tower on take-off.  Lieutenant Crago must have lost some control of the aircraft but not it would appear the total control of the plane. He flew it from Wittering and was trying to get to Station 367. Unfortunately, he only got as far as Woodnewton.

The plane approached the village from the north-east, flying very low over Back Lane (Orchard Lane) and St Mary’s Church but crash landed in the field known as Stepping End just beyond Conegar Farm. Eyewitnesses said that the pilot discharged his guns to warn people on the ground that he had lost control of the plane and was about to crash. Wreckage from the plane was still visible in Stepping End in the 1950’s and a “drop tank” (for additional fuel) could also be seen in the hedge between King’s Ground and Checkers. A brief reconnoitre in November 2018 however found no recognisable evidence of the plane in the hedgerows around the fields.

Stepping End is the first open field – no hedges or fencing – on the right-hand side of the track from Woodnewton to Southwick. From Mill Lane, cross the bridge over the Willowbrook, and continue until the land begins to rise at the start of the hill. King’s Ground and Checkers are the next two fields on the right along the same track.

It is understood that 2nd Lieutenant Crago, whilst no doubt a qualified and proficient pilot, had had only 7 hours flying experience in the Group’s new P-38 Lightning at the time of the accident.

A memorial plaque to Lieutenant Crago was put up in St Mary’s Church to commemorate his death. The wording on this memorial faded over time however, and the plaque was replaced in 2001, although the wording on the two plaques is the same.

2nd Lieutenant John Crago is buried and commemorated at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial (Plot A Row 5 Grave 22). His photograph can be seen at “www/20thfightergroup.com/kiakita”.

 

My sincere thanks go to Mike and Trevor for sending the text and pictures and for allowing me to share the sad story of Lt. John Walter Crago. 

RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 3)

In Part 2, a number of twin engined models frequented Leuchars performing anti shipping roles and U Boat hunts out in the North Sea. BOAC had begun its clandestine role and shipping ball-bearings back from neutral Sweden. We now see a change to these flights and as the war ends, a new much larger breed begin to appear here are Leuchars.

Throughout all these changes at Leuchars, the BOAC company had been continually running its clandestine operations to Sweden. But by now it was clear that a new, faster more agile aircraft was needed. Even though they were marked with civilian markings and flown by Swedish crews, the Electras were slow and cumbersome and made easy targets for both fighters and flak. Now, with the development of the Mosquito, the opportunity had finally arrived.

It was during December 1942 that the first civilian operated model of the aircraft arrived here at Leuchars. A Mosquito PR.IV ‘DZ411’,  it was assigned the civilian registration G-AGFV, and would begin flights to Stockholm on 4th February 1943, after which it was joined by six other aircraft. These MK.VIs were given the sequential registrations G-AGGC to GH, and would arrive during the April and May of that year.

By the end of April the following year, a total of nine Mosquitoes would have been modified and delivered to BOAC at Leuchars*5.

BOAC Mosqquito BAE Systems (@BAE Systems)

All these aircraft had to be changed from military status to civilian, this required the removal of all traces of armament. Modified at Hatfield – the home of the Mosquito – the resultant weight loss altered the aircraft’s centre of gravity and so additional ballast had to be added to prevent changes in the aircraft’s flying characteristics.

It was vital that the Mosquitoes remained unarmed for these operations, so as to not infringe or violate Sweden’s wartime neutrality, however, this made any aircraft on this run a potential ‘sitting duck’, even though, like their Lockheed predecessors, they carried BOAC insignia and were flown by civilian aircrew.

These operations were by now carrying more than just mail and ball-bearings though. These covert operations, took the civilian marked and unarmed Mosquito across the North Sea to Sweden, where it would drop off the mail, papers and other written material held within its bomb bay, and return with prominent scientists, special agents or allied aircrew who had been interned in Sweden as well as vital ball-bearings produced by the Swedes. The faster and far more agile Mosquito would, in most cases, be able to out run any opposing Luftwaffe fighter that should, and indeed did, try to intercept the aircraft whilst on one of these flights.

The returning ‘passenger’ on these flights had the unfortunate prospect of having to sit in a modified ventral bay for the whole duration of the flight. The prospect of further internment probably outweighing that of cramp and three hours of discomfort.

One such notable passenger who was carried back from Sweden, was the nuclear physicist Niels Bohr, whose work on atomic structures and quantum theory, had won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922.*4 He would go on to work on the Atom Bomb in the Manhattan Project, the results of which were seen at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Even though these flights were highly successful, a few aircraft were lost. In Mid August 1944, G-AGKP ‘LR296’, a former 27 MU aircraft, was lost when it crashed into the sea nine miles from Leuchars. All three on board were killed as it approached on return from Stockholm; the passenger being a BOAC Mosquito pilot himself. The crash was believed to have been caused by a structural failure, the aircraft having been repaired previously after an accident in January. By the war’s end fourteen Mosquitoes had been used in some way by BOAC, five of which crashed.*6

As the war moved on, squadron numbers at Leuchars begin to diminish. 1943 brought only two, that of 235 Sqn and 333 (Royal Norwegian Air Force) Sqn who were formed here on April 5th as ‘B’ Flight after the dividing and renumbering of 1477 (Norwegian) Flight. This was a split unit, one part flying the Catalina from Woodhaven, whilst ‘B’ Flight flew the Mosquito MK.II. An upgrade to the MK.VI then saw the unit move to join the famous Banff Strike Wing in September 1944. Whilst at Leuchars they operated as sub-hunters and convoy escorts, whilst ‘A’ flight flew more clandestine operations smuggling secret agents and supplies into occupied Norway. The Mosquito as a multi-function aircraft performed well in these duties, and by the end of the war numerous U-boats had been attacked by aircraft based at the Scottish airfield.

RAF Leuchars

One of the Hangars at Leuchars 2018

With 1944 dawning and major events happening on the continent, more changes would take place at Leuchars.

In the early months, proposals to extend and widen one of the runways was put forward, a part of which was agreed in April. This move also required the relocation of the Watch Office and widening of the perimeter tracks. A further three squadrons would pass through this year beginning with a detachment of 281 Sqn, who stayed for a year from February. A second unit 206 Sqn, stayed here for less than three weeks. But then September/October would bring a new and interesting model in the shape of the B-24 Liberator and 547 Sqn. A change to the smaller twin-engined models that had frequented Leuchars for the last four years or so, the move here was unfortunately a signal of their ending though, the squadron being disbanded in June 1945 never to appear again.

Whilst here, the Liberators would patrol the Norwegian coast in the A/U (anti-U boat) role, many of these patrols being uneventful, the U-boat threat by now greatly reduced compared to its previous Atlantic successes. However, on October 12th, Liberator MK.VI “G” did spot a U boat on the surface which it attacked with both front and rear turrets. Strikes from both guns were seen on and around the conning tower, and it was initially thought that the sub was sunk. After patrolling for a further 45 minutes, the U boat was again sighted some two miles away, but managed to escape in the poor weather. It was believed by the crew to have been a 740 ton vessel which had subsequently suffered damage from the attack.

The B-24s of the these RAF squadrons would be complemented by B-24s now flying separate runs to Sweden by the Americans. In addition to these, Leuchars also saw the reintroduction of the popular and highly successful American built Douglas DC3. The route to Stockholm now being a little less dangerous than it had been in previous years.

The arrival of the Liberator had signified a big change in direction for Leuchars,  they were to be the first of many four engined heavies to serve from the Fife base.

In 1945, 519 Sqn brought along the Halifax III, but sadly they were to go the way of 547 Sqn and disband here at Leuchars in the following May; it too would not reappear in the RAF’s inventory of operational Squadrons. 519 were a meteorological unit, collecting data for flying operations. Using both the Spitfire VII and Halifax IIIs, they would climb to altitudes of around 40,000 ft, and collect valuable meteorological data. Using Prata I, Prata II and Recipe I (Pressure And Temperature Ascent) many of these flights would take the aircraft high out over the North Sea.

With the close of the war, Leuchars had seen no less than twenty-eight operational squadrons pass through its doors, some of these merely staying for a day, whilst others were more prolonged. A range of aircraft had come and gone, mainly twin-engined models operating in the photographic reconnaissance or anti-shipping role. With its position on the north eastern coast, Leuchars had proven vital to maritime operations protecting the seas between Britain and Scandinavia, an area it had operated in, in a number of clandestine roles. But with the war now at an end, these were no longer required, and Leuchars’ role would again revert back to its original one – that of training.

The post war world was very different to the pre-war one, Britain like many other countries was rapidly trying to revert to pre-war budgets. A reduction in the armed forces was seen as essential to cutting costs, whilst rebuilding the nations cities that had been so heavily bombed in the Blitz, was paramount. As a result, the RAF as with the other forces, were having to do with what they had. A reduction in man power and machinery though would not only mean a reduction in squadrons, but the airfields that used them.

Leuchars, like so many, was now under the potential threat of closure. However, the increasing post war tensions between the east and west created the Cold War, with a strained and anxious stand off between Soviet and Western forces right across the European frontier. As had happened before, Leuchars’ position would once again be its saviour. Over the coming years it would see a wealth of operational aircraft and a broad range of front line fighters be based in this small corner of Scotland,

The coming months after the war’s end would see further four-engined models reappear, a previous resident 203 Sqn who had been here in the 1920s, returned from overseas operations in May 1946, bringing back with them the B-24 (Liberator VIII). Within two months though, this would be replaced by the Lancaster GR.3, a version of the mighty four-engined heavy that had wreaked so much devastation across Germany’s industrial cities. But by 1947, 203’s link with the Scottish airfield would finally draw to a close, and the squadron would depart for good.

160 Sqn who arrived a month later in June, also brought the Liberator, and similarly began taking on the Lancaster GR.3. By October though their demise had also arrived, they were renumbered and reformed as 120 Sqn, and by 1947 they had lost the last of their Liberators retaining only the Lancaster.

In December 1950, 120 Sqn were posted to Kinloss, where its wartime bombers were replaced with the newer Avro model, the long range maritime patrol aircraft, the Shackleton with its rare contra-rotating props.

Avro Shackleton MR.3 (WR989) of 120 Sqn RAF (@BAE Sytems)

The aircraft, built in response to the growing Soviet threat, was designed around the Lancaster,  Roy Chadwick’s dream bomber. Chadwick, like R.J. Mitchell, having sadly died before their dream had finally been put into service. Built to Air Ministry Specification R 5/46, the Shackleton was initially designed with gun turrets and two Rolls-Royce Griffon 57A engines inboard, and two Roll-Royce Griffon 57 engines outboard.

One other unit arrived here at Leuchars that year, that of 82 Sqn, initially as a Lancaster detachment and then in June 1947 as a base with its own detachments at Eastleigh, Dar-es-Salaam and Lusaka. The last of the prop driven aircraft were now making their ultimate RAF appearances, and soon Leuchars would enter in the jet age.

In Part 4 Leuchars enters the jet age. The Cold War begins and Leuchars takes on a new challenge as it moves to a new Command, that of Fighter Command.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

P.O William Davis (Eagle Sqn) – March 18th 1941

RAF Sutton Bridge, was a small airfield on the Norfolk / Lincolnshire border a few miles from the Wash off the north Norfolk coast. Before, during and after the war it served as  training camp for new pilots, training them in the art of gunnery, utilising a firing range that had been in situ since 1926.

Many airmen of the RAF passed through Sutton Bridge, many of these were Commonwealth aircrew, some from Czechoslovakia and a few from the United States.

In the church yard behind the church of St. Matthew in the village, lie almost 60 graves of those who died in the fight for freedom, they are also joined by a German airman, foe united in death.

One such airmen is that of American Airman Pilot Officer William Lee Davis s/n: 61459 (RAFVR) who joined as part of the famed ‘Eagle’ Squadron, a group of volunteer American flyers.

P.O. Davis was from St. Louis and graduated at Central High School, before going on to attend Washington University. He was the son of William J. Davis of 4500 Arsenal Street, and a salesman in a cork and insulation firm in the area, when he joined up at the age of 25.

He left his job, signing with the Clayton-Knight Committee, a recruitment company for the Canadian and British Air Forces operating in the United States.  He was initially stationed at Love Field in Dallas, where he received four weeks of intensive training in aerobatics, gunnery and combat flying. After qualifying here, he transferred to Ottawa, where he was commissioned and then sent onto England to further his training. He was the first person from St. Louis to obtain a Commission in the Royal Air Force obtaining a deferment of his draft in doing so. When asked about joining the RAF, he told reporters that it was “a matter of sentiment and heritage” citing his English grandfather’s role as an officer in the Boar war.

P.O. Davis was no stranger to flying, having been a flyer before signing up for the RAFVR, achieving a total of 223 hours flying time, a commercial pilots licence and an advanced CAA Licence.

On arrival on March 5th 1941, these pilots were generally sent to No.3 Personnel Reception Centre at Bournemouth, before posting to No.56 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Sutton Bridge. Here they completed their training and were then sent onto their respective operational squadrons. 

There were something in the region of 156 American Airmen who found their way into 56 OTU, many passed through with little or only minor mishaps. For P.O. Davis though it was to be the end of his dream, in an accident that would take his life.

On March 18th, a week after his arrival at Sutton Bridge, he took off in Hurricane P5195 on a general map reading flight across the Lincolnshire Fens. Whilst on the flight P.O. Davis became lost and decided to put down on farm land at New Leake Fen near Boston. Unfortunately, the ground in the Fens was soft causing the undercarriage to dig in and flip the Hurricane on its back. In the resultant crash, P.O. Davis broke his neck killing him instantly. He was not only the first from St. Louis to die, but the first American from Sutton Bridge to die also.

A citizen of the United States, Pilot Officer William Lee Davis is buried in the Church yard of St. Matthew’s Church, Sutton Bridge, Lincolnshire, Section P, Grave 56.

Pilot Officer William Lee Davis

Pilot Officer (Pilot) William Lee Davis

Help Wanted – RAF King’s Cliffe!

In 2014, I published Trail 6 – ‘American Ghosts’ a trail around six American bases from the Second World War, one of these, RAF King’s Cliffe, was, at the time, under threat of development.

In 2015, objections from over 300 people were received which included supporters of Glenn Miller, aviation enthusiasts, wildlife groups and local people alike, who all highlighted concerns over the proposed development of the site and the impact it may have.

At an initial meeting in September that year, the council failed to come to any overall decision as they needed to consider further reports from different interested parties.  At a second meeting held on Wednesday 14th October,  after considering all the issues raised, East Northamptonshire Council approved the plans and so planning for 55 holiday homes were passed on an area known as Jack’s Green.

This area includes a memorial to the late Glenn Miller, who performed his last ever hangar concert here at King’s Cliffe before being lost over the sea. Assurances from the land owner at that time, were that the development would be in keeping with the area and that the memorial would remain “exactly as it was”.

I have not been able to return to Jack’s Green, nor King’s Cliffe airfield to see how this development has affected the area, and was wanting to know if anyone had photos of the development taken since the development started or more so, in the years following. As it would directly affect the memorial and adjoining public footpath, I was interested in the Jack’s Green area especially. I know that many geocachers use this path as do horse riders, walkers and enthusiasts alike, and am hoping someone may have a small collection of photos I could see.

Any photos you are willing to share would be very much appreciated.

My sincere thanks.

Andy

Links

The BBC report can be accessed here.

RAF King’s Cliffe was visited in Trail 6

Previous reports can be found here.

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

RAF Tuddenham – The last of the FIDOs (Part 2)

In Part one, we saw Tuddenham’s opening to the war. A rather cold and uninspiring airfield, it housed the Stirlings of 90 Squadron. Now, the Lancasters were arriving and front line bombing missions were once again on the horizon. 

The first of these major operations was on the night of 10th/11th June, when seven Lancasters, a mix of MK.Is and MK.IIIs, left Tuddenham to bomb rail facilities at Dreux –  90 Sqn had at last returned to the ‘front line.’

Sadly it was not to be the best night for the squadron, of the seven Lancasters that departed, two never returned home. The first NE149 ‘WP-A’ and the second NE177 ‘WP-B’ (both MK.IIIs), crashing in France. Of the fourteen airmen on board, three evaded capture, one was caught, and the remaining ten were all killed – it was not the most auspicious start for the unit. 

With two more Lancasters lost that month – one on the infamous Gelsenkirchen raid in which seventeen Lancasters were lost – June had proven to be difficult, and even though Stirlings were still operating, the Lancaster had become the main type and it wasn’t going to be an easy ride to Christmas. Forty-three, 90 Sqn airmen had been posted as either ‘killed’ or ‘missing’ in June alone.

Bomber Command’s tactical support of the land based forces continued on until mid September, by which time, Harris was back in charge and Bomber Command could once again turn its attention to targets in the German heartland. As the allied forces moved ever closer, night raids turned to daylight as allied air power began to get its grip on the skies over Europe. 

In October, a new squadron would reform here at Tuddenham, 186 Squadron also flying Lancaster MK.I and IIIs. Originally having its roots on board HMS Argus in 1918, it was another unit that had had short spells of activity before being disbanded once again. In a very different guise to its original formation, this time it was born out of 90 Sqn’s ‘C’ Flight, there the differences cease and by the December,  the squadron had left Tuddenham moving to Stradishall where it remained until the war’s end, and its final disbandment once more. 

The remainder of the year was relatively quiet for the Tuddenham group, regular missions with little or no opposition meant losses were low, and results were generally considered successful. But with bad weather setting in across both the UK and the wider continent, many squadrons had days of being stood down. Tuddenham on the other hand, with their FIDO system, was able to put up more flights than many others. Indeed during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, 90 Sqn were one of the few units able to launch attacks when most others were fog bound. 

The dawn of 1945 brought hope for an end to the war as the allied war machine moved ever closer to Berlin. The German’s last ditch attempt in the Ardennes was eventually overrun, and bombing picked up as fair weather returned once more. 

On February 2nd, Wing Commander W. G. Bannister joined the squadron on attachment. On the same day as he arrived, he took off at 20:52 in Lancaster HK610 ‘WP-Z’ along with thirteen other Lancasters from the squadron. Around an hour later, the aircraft collided with Lancaster PD336 ‘WP-P’, striking the tail trapping the rear gunner, Sgt. K. Hudspeth, inside the turret by his legs. Injured, he lay slumped over his guns. The pilot turned the aircraft over the Wash and ordered the bombs dumped in the sea. The rear tyre of the aircraft was burst and the port side of the tail was badly damaged, maybe even missing, and the turret by now was hanging off the aircraft. The pilot ordered chutes to be put on, after which the mid gunner Sgt. G. Wraith, went to help Sgt. Hudspeth, pulling him back into the aircraft’s fuselage where he administered morphine. The Lancaster made its way back to Tuddenham, and with the radio knocked out, red flares were fired to inform ground staff of its difficulties. Badly damaged with injured on board, the Lancaster made a safe landing, thanks to the skill of the pilot and crew.

Bannister’s Lancaster however, did not recover from the collision. After striking ‘P’ for Peter, the aircraft fell from the sky, crashing at 21:25,  3 miles from Bury St. Edmunds;  sadly there were no survivors.   

March 1945 saw a return of the Stirling to Tuddenham with 138 Sqn*3 transferring from Tempsford with the MK.V. As soon as they arrived they began to replace these with Lancasters MK.I and IIIs. 138 Sqn had been heavily involved in clandestine operations with the SOE, dropping agents into occupied Europe. With the need for such missions now largely gone, operations were wound down and the Stirling squadron were to be upgraded to front line bomber status. The first operational mission under this new guise was planned for the 28th but postponed until the following day. Three aircraft were ordered and all returned safely after having bombed the target. 

As the war drew  to its conclusion, 90 Squadron turned their attention to Kiel with both mining and bombing to prevent a German withdrawal. By the of the month it was all but over and operation Manna was put into place. On April 30th, 90 Sqn began their part in dropping supplies to the Dutch – targeting Rotterdam. Drop zones were identified by red T.Is and / or white crosses placed on the ground. By the end of the month 23 tons of food supplies had been dropped by the one squadron alone. During May, they began flights to Juvincourt to collect and bring back prisoners of war, dropping them at various sites including Dunsfold, Tangmere, Wing and Oakley; the aircraft then returned to base before carrying out further flights. 

On the 25th, ‘Cooks tours’ began, aircrew flying ground crew to Germany to see for themselves the damage inflicted by the war on the German heartland, it was a harrowing site for many. 

RAF Tuddenham

An electrical sub station shows its original RAF paint work

With no operational flying to do, training flights took over. It was a major change for  both the air and ground crews. As bases around the country began to close, so squadrons were moved around in preparation for disbandment. In April, two more Lancaster squadrons arrived here at Tuddenham, both 149 and 207 Sqns transferring across from RAF Methwold. The number of bomber squadrons now residing at Tuddenham totalling four.

Finally, in November 1946 the death knell finally rang for Tuddenham and it too was closed, flying ceased and the aircraft were all withdrawn. All four squadrons were pulled out of Tuddenham, 90 and 186 Sqns taking their Lancasters to RAF Wyton, whilst 149 and 207 went to RAF Stradishall. In what must have been a mass exodus, Tuddenham fell suddenly silent.

The airfield stood dormant for many years  whilst remaining in RAF hands, but then in 1953 life returned once more as the USAF arrived and used it as an ammunition storage area and renovation depot for surplus WWII ammunition and equipment. The American forces remained here for four years until 1957 when they too finally withdrew.

Tuddenham itself continued to stay in RAF ownership for a short while longer. As tension rose in the early part of the Cold War, ideal because of its low population and rural location, it was earmarked as a site for the new Thor missiles. New launch pads were built and a small section of the site was redeveloped accordingly.  Then in July 1959, 107 Squadron RAF reformed here, operating three of the Thor missiles as part of the UK-USA nuclear deterrent agreement. Retaining these until July 1963, the site finally closed once and for all. At this point all military personnel moved out and the gates were finally locked.

After this, Tuddenham was earmarked for quarrying to meet the rising demand for housing. Large sections were returned to agriculture, but a quarry opened to extract the much-needed materials for house construction. This operation has continued to the present day and has been responsible for the removal of large quantities of the main airfield site.

Visiting Tuddenham, reveals little of the history of the airfield and the people who stayed here. A few buildings, primarily the gymnasium and squash court remain standing, but in a very poor state and are likely to be pulled down soon. The roof has collapsed and part of the walls are missing. Located to the south of the airfield, they stand as reminders of those days long gone.

Other technical areas and the main part of the airfield, are now the workings of the quarry. The entrance to this site, rather insignificant, is part of the original perimeter track and is marked by an electrical sub-station. The shell is intact and complete with two blast walls, even the original RAF paint work can be seen! Overgrown and hidden beneath large thorns, this lone building will no doubt soon go the way of others some distance away.

Tuddenham airfield now stands lonely, large parts excavated and gone along with the memories of those who were stationed here. A pig farm covers a large part of the southern section and very little remains other than a few dilapidated buildings whose days are also very numbered. Tuddenham’s place in history is most certainly confined to the books and the memories of those whose numbers are also rapidly diminishing.

Before leaving Tuddenham, return to the village and stop at the village green. The village sign depicts a Lancaster flying low over the Suffolk landscape. A sundial, beautifully crafted marks the history of 90 Sqn, both the aircraft flown (1917 – 1965) as well as the airfields they were stationed at throughout their life. A superb tribute to a once active airfield and the gallant heroes of 90 Squadron Royal Air Force who served here*4.

RAF Tuddenham

Beneath the sundial, all the aircraft used by 90 squadron.

In July 2021 I was contacted by Herb Zydney who was stationed at the former RAF Tuddenham in the mid 1950s, he kindly sent some photos and has since sent the original road sign ‘home’ to remind us of RAF Tuddenham. Hopefully this will be suitable displayed. 

RAF Tuddenham road sign

The original road sign to Tuddenham airfield. It has since been returned to Tuddenham for display. (Photo courtesy Herb Zydney)

On leaving Tuddenham, carry on in a south-easterly direction toward Bury St. Edmunds and follow the A14 east. Passing Bury, we arrive at an industrial area on your left. Here we discover an aviation dream world see Trail 16.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 National Archives AIR 27/731/25

*2 Grehan. J. & Mace. M. “Bomber Harris – Sir Arthur Harris’ Despatch on War Operations“, Pen & Sword, 2014

*3 No. 138 Squadron RAF went on to be the first ‘V-bomber’ squadron of the RAF, flying the Vickers Valiant between 1955 until being disbanded in 1962.

*4 Personal stories of personnel from 90 Squadron at Tuddenham can be found here on the Wartime Memories Project website.

*5 Williams, G. “Flying Through Fire – FIDO The Fogbuster of World War Two“, Alan Sutton Publishing. 1995 (An excellent book detailing the work on FIDO and its installations at each airfield).

National Archives: AIR 27/733/3; AIR 27/733/4

My thanks to Herb Zydney for the You Tube video and photos, they are very much appreciated.

RAF Tuddenham – The last of the FIDOs (Part 1).

In this trail we return to an RAF bomber airfield which opened later in the war. With a relatively quiet start, it soon became a front line base operating the four engined heavies the Lancasters of Bomber Command. Within a short time of it opening, it would become one of only a small number of airfields that would use the cleverly designed fog clearing system FIDO, a system that allowed aircraft to take-off and land in difficult weather conditions. As a result, it became a safe haven on more than one occasion. 

In Trail 16 we return to RAF Tuddenham.

RAF Tuddenham

Tuddenham (as opposed to the decoy site North Tuddenham) is one of those places that is today surrounded by large towns. To the north-east lies Thetford, to the south-east, Bury-St.-Edmunds and to the south-west that mecca of horse racing – Newmarket. As a result, the landscape of the area today is somewhat different to what it was in the 1930s and 40s.

Using land requisitioned in 1943 it was opened that same year. A standard Class ‘A’ airfield, its main runway ran south-east to north-west and was the standard 2,000 yards in length. With two secondary runways both of 1,400 yards, it would open under the control of 3 Group Bomber Command. For its protection it had its own decoy site built a short distance away at Cavenham, but even this didn’t stop attacks on the airfield, none of which thankfully caused any major damage.

Built by Taylor Woodrow, it would have two T2 and later one B1 hangar, with thirty-eight loop style hardstands and a perimeter track of the standard 50 yards width. A standard watch office for all commands (design 12779/41) was later redesigned to match the new war-time standard 343/43 design which had the smaller windows especially designed for bomber airfields.

RAF Tuddenham

Tuddenham village sign showing its links to a once active airfield.

Accommodation for air and ground crews was located on land to the south of the airfield spread across twelve sites. A mix of huts, they would accommodate around 2,000 personnel of which some 250 were WAAFs. Built as temporary buildings, these huts were unheated and unhomely, they were cramped and cold and as such, Tuddenham was not one of the most popular stations with crews posted there.

A fairly nondescript airfield, it was first frequented by the RAF’s 90 Squadron with the huge Stirling MK.III. 90 Squadron in name, had been in existence since 1917 although it had been disbanded and reformed on no less than four previous occasions, and had been at a variety of locations before arriving here at Tuddenham. This time however, it would be a much more permanent formation, and for the duration of the war it would reside at only one station, that of RAF Tuddenham.

90 Squadron had previously been recreated to test the suitability of B-17s for RAF service. Initially based at Watton, it would be less than a year before they were disbanded once more. Their more recent reincarnation led them to Wratting Common, from where they departed on their journey to Tuddenham on October 13th 1943.

According to the official records*1, this move was ‘worked out in every detail‘ and it went ‘expeditiously without incident‘ even though the airfield was still in a state of non completion. 90 Squadron’s first operational mission from Tuddenham occurred on the 17th, a return to mine laying off the Frisian Islands. Classed as ‘minor’ operations three aircraft were ordered to fly that day, one of which had to return early due to being struck by lightning and suffering damage to a number of areas including the rear turret. With only three other mining operations and an air-sea rescue search that month, the move to Tuddenham would have been uneventful had it not been for an accident involving Stirling EF497, piloted by Sgt. Wallace Jones who was aged just 21. The crew of the Stirling were on an air test when the aircraft struck trees just close to RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. As a result, all of the crew, of which three were in the RCAF, died in the ensuing crash. 

With only two other operational losses before the year was out, the Stirlings of 90 Sqn were not fairing as badly as many other units, but the days of the type were indeed now numbered as losses overall in 3 Group were high. The Stirling would soon be relegated to secondary duties completely. 

December 1943 would see a major installation take place at Tuddenham. By now, the fog dispersal system FIDO, was in place across several other British airfields and was proving to be a major breakthrough in poor weather flying.

Designed after pre-war investigations into ways of dispersing fog, it led to oil burners being laid along a mile length of the main runway at Tuddenham. Where these crossed secondary runways, the burners were entrenched and metal plates placed over the top to prevent aircraft using these runways, from having an accident. 

At Tuddenham (classed as FIDO Station XIX), the Mark IV Haigill burners were used, each burner was 40 yards in length and made of three pipes looped at the ends. Oil was fed into the burner via a feed pipe from the main pump on the southern side of the airfield. 

Supplying these burners took huge quantities of oil, this was brought in on the nearby railway which passed through the village of Higham. A special siding was constructed which could take a large number of wagons from which fuel was pumped into a small pumping station. From here, it would then cross several fields via underground pipes into one of three large storage tanks capable of holding around half a million gallons of fuel in total.

Work began at Tuddenham early in the new year 1944, and again Taylor Woodrow were charged with the task of carrying out the construction. By August, they were ready and stocks had begun arriving ready for a test burn.

Location unknown. FIDO burners alongside a runway 1945. © IWM CH 15274

FIDO amazed all those who saw it for the first time. Its ability to clear not only fog but low cloud as well, was a god send to those who were unfortunate enough to have found themselves lost in the thick of it. The first use of FIDO at Tuddenham was on August 8th 1944, when by pure accident, an American B-26 ‘Marauder’ was caught by fog. On that day, a test burn was planned, the burners were lit and the amazed onlookers watched as both fog and low cloud began to clear. Suddenly, out of the darkness and murk came the B-26, who had attempted to land elsewhere no less than eight times unsuccessfully. Seeing the bright blaze of Tuddenham’s burners, the pilot made for the airfield, flew over it to ascertain what it was, and once satisfied, made a successful wheels up landing. 

FIDO would be used regularly over the next few months, in November it provided a safe haven for both RAF and USAAF aircraft. In Geoffrey Williams’ book ‘Flying Through Fire‘, he quotes one pilot as stating he could see Tuddenham’s FIDO “from Ostend at 7,000 ft“, a point that illustrates the effectiveness of FIDO in poor conditions. 

The idea behind FIDO was to install it at a number of airfields that were located in a ‘hub’ of other airfields, thus keeping returning aircraft as close to their parent airfield as much as possible. It allowed returning aircraft to land (and take off) safely in poor or deteriorating weather conditions, but it was used ‘sparingly’, as in one day’s total of 6 hours burn, some 200,000 gallons*5 of fuel had been used. Not many sites actually had FIDO installed, just fifteen in the UK, eleven of which were Bomber Command airfields. However, FIDO was undoubtedly successful, these fifteen alone enabled somewhere in the region of 2,500 safe landings that would have no doubt led to a number of casualties or even deaths had it not been available. The airfields were very much appreciated by those who were caught out when returning from raids over Europe, the only major complaints being glare from the bright fires as aircraft came into land*2

RAF Tuddenham

South of the airfield lay the Squash court and Gymnasium.

Back in early 1944, Tuddenham’s operations continued, the Stirlings of 90 Sqn were soldiering on. More mining operations and bombing raids on the French coast dominated the months of January and February, whilst ‘special duties’ (SOE supply operations) took over as the main focus from March to May. By this time the Stirlings were starting to be replaced by the Lancaster, as it was now being relegated universally to secondary operations: supply sorties, paratroop transport and mining operations off the European coast. 

This transition began on May 11th, with pilots gaining initial experience by flying as 2nd pilot in other squadrons. New crewmen were soon being posted in, many of these from Conversion Units, whilst 90 Sqn’s Stirling crews were posted out. The continual cycle of trained crews coming in and ‘untrained’ crews going out filling the record books.

During all this operations continued on, and Stirlings continued to be lost. Four aircraft were shot down in May, three of them, on the two consecutive nights between the 8th and 10th, with many of the crewmen either being killed or captured.

The last Stirling to be lost on operations for 90 Sqn was on the night of June 2nd / 3rd when EF294 ‘WP-B’ crashed in France in the early hours of the 3rd. Of those on board, two managed to evade capture whilst the remaining five were caught and imprisoned in POW camps. 

With the invasion of Normandy on June 5th/6th, four Lancasters and fifteen Stirlings were prepared for operations in connection with the landings, but the Lancasters were withdrawn – perhaps to the annoyance of those on board. The Stirlings all took off and carried out their mission successfully, each one returning to Tuddenham safely. 

The last Stirling only operation took place on June 7th, the last two aircraft to return landing at Newmarket after completing their special operations. The Lancaster would now take over as the main aircraft and so 90 Squadron would soon return to bombing operations once more.

RAF Tuddenham

A sundial on the village green remembers the crews of 90 Squadron RAF.

In Part two the Lancaster arrive, but it is not the most auspicious of starts for the squadron. 

RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 2)

In part 1 we saw how Watton had been built as a pre-war expansion period airfield and how the Blenheims that were stationed here were decimated in the face of a superior enemy. Eventually begin withdrawn, they were simply outclassed.

Eventually, the airfield like so many in this area, was handed over to the Americans. It was re-designated and would take on a different role. Watton would now grow and develop.

The USAAF renamed the airfield Station 376, they redeveloped the accommodation blocks, added more hardstands and laid a steel mat runway. The original hangars were added to so that there were now not only the original ‘C’ types, but also the more modern ‘B1’ and ‘T2’ types, along with three smaller blisters hangars. In 1944, the steel matting was removed and a concrete runway built in its place. The airfield’s history would now become a little more complex as it officially became two sites utilising the same single runway.

The main airfield itself would house aircraft of the 802nd Reconnaissance Group (Provisional), who were later renamed the 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance). Whilst on the southern edge of the site, a new complex was built for the repair and refurbishment depot the 3rd Strategic Air Depot (SAD). This complex grew so large that it became a site in its own right, gaining the designation Neaton (Station 505). The name has been somewhat confusing however, as the site was actually closer to the village of Griston that it was to Neaton.

A collection of B-24 engines removed from their mounts. (IWM UPL 5385)

The role of the 3rd SAD was to maintain and repair the battle damaged B-24s of the 2nd Air Division, that had by now, flooded into the UK from the United States. This unenviable task required the recovery of the heavy bombers, washing them out and  perhaps removing the remains of airmen before returning them to flyable condition once more. Whilst not designed to be so, the acronym SAD certainly reflected the role perfectly.

Neaton consisted of a number of sites, 4 accommodation sites, a communal site, a sick quarters, two motor sites, a ‘miscellaneous’ site housing a Steam Jenny and then a 9AD site with tool sheds and other maintenance related buildings. The majority of these accommodation sites incorporated either the more common Laing or Nissen huts.

Watton itself would now become synonymous with reconnaissance, surveillance and electronic countermeasures (ECM). A new unit, 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance), it was constituted on 17th July 1944, and activated in England on 9th August that year. They would only serve from one UK airfield, that of Watton, where they would stay until VE day serving under the umbrella of the 8th Air Force. A visit by the famous ‘Carpetbaggers‘ (the special operations group designed to support French resistance operations) also saw the black Liberator’s fly regular missions from here during this time.

de Havilland DH98 Mosquito PR Mk XVI

The end of Mosquito PR Mk XVI “M” NS774 of the 25th BG after crashing at RAF Watton (Station 376) 25th March 1943. (IWM UPL 6964)

The role of the Watton Group was to carryout reconnaissance missions over the seas around Britain and the Azores, gathering meteorological data. Combined with flights over the continent, the information they would gather, would help in the preparation of bombing missions. They would also carryout aerial mapping and photo reconnaissance missions, identifying German troop movements both at night and during the day.  Many of these operations involved major battles, including northern France, the Rhineland and the Ardennes. Additional tasks included electronic countermeasures using ‘chaff’, and flying ahead of large formations to ascertain last minute weather reports. A varied and dangerous collections of roles, they used a number of aircraft types including: B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, B-26s and P-38 Lightnings.

When VE day did finally arrive, the American unit departed returning to Drew Field in Florida. The August of that year must have been quite surreal, as the Americans left, flying was reduced and Watton was returned back to RAF ownership.

With the war now over, flying units began to return to the UK, many being disbanded not long after. One such unit was 527 Sqn who arrived here in the November, only to be disbanded in the April of 1946.

The next four years saw no other front line ‘operational’ flying units here at Watton, but the 1950s would bring a number of units back through its gates. With the introduction of the jet engine at the end of the war, piston engines fighters were soon being replaced by newer designs.

RAF Watton

One of Watton’s many accommodation blocks in modern use.

The ECM activity initiated at Watton by the 25th Bomb Group, would continue on in these early post-war years. For some twenty years or so in fact, through a variety of aircraft including: the Mosquito, Wellington, Domine, Lincoln, Anson, Proctor, Canberra, Meteor, Sea Fury, Firefly, Venom and many others. Each of these would not only play a vital part in the development and use of ECM, but radio research and training as well. Warfare had taken on a very new twist.

This move would see Watton becoming a hub for ECM activity. A number of RAF and Naval squadrons would operate from here undertaking such tasks. At the end of the war, Watton had become home to the Radio Warfare Establishment (RWE), renamed in 1946 to  the Central Signals Establishment (CSE). It was only one of five such units operating jointly between the military and National Air Traffic Services Organisation (NATS).  The Navy and RAF would jointly use Watton at this time, albeit for only a short period of time between March and September 1947, when the Naval Air Warfare Radio Unit moved in under the disguise of 751 NAS.

The role of the CSE was very complex, for too complex to discuss here, but with a number of squadrons operating under different roles whilst at Watton, it would culminate in 1948 in the forming of three un-numbered units: a Signals Research Squadron, a Monitoring Squadron and a Radio Countermeasures (RCM) Squadron. In essence, their role was to monitor and jam Soviet electronic communications and defence systems – it was an total airborne electronic warfare operation.*1

But the use of un-numbered squadrons was short lived, by the end of the decade the CSE had reverted to using numbered squadrons once more, their role to probe the air defences along the Soviet borders. British aircraft combined with ground stations, would monitor the reaction and activity of Soviet communications, seeing how they responded to intrusions into their airspace. By knowing this detail,  countermeasures could be put in place to jam or scramble these communications, ideally rendering them useless or at least temporarily incapacitated. The first of these numbered squadrons were 192 and 199, who were originally  the calibration and training units of the CSE.

Reformed here in July 1951 flying Mosquitoes, Lincoln B.2s and then the enormous Washington (B-29), 192 Sqn would not receive their first jet until January 1953 when the Canberra B.2 arrived. 192 Sqn would also fly the Varsity and the Comet C.2 before being disbanded and renumbered as 51 Sqn in August 1958.

199 Squadron (reformed on the same day) flew both the Lincoln B.2 and the Mosquito NF.36, in the same role as 192; their stay lasting until April 1952, at which point they moved to Hemswell in Lincolnshire where they picked up their first jet engined aircraft.

The August of 1952 saw a number of other units reform, disband or pass through Watton. 116 Sqn were reformed on the 1st, another ex Calibration flight of the CSE, it stayed until August 1958 when it was disbanded and reformed as 115 Sqn. A battle hardened squadron from Bomber Command, they had since themselves been disbanded. No longer flying operational bombers, the Varsitys 115 Sqn would operate would be the new form of transport, as they were reformed and moved on within days of their inception in that August.

On that same day in late August 1958, 245 Sqn would reform, also from the renumbering of another squadron – 527 Sqn. Flying Canberras they too were gone within days of their reformation.

As 1959 began to close and 1960 dawned, Watton would become the home of a new unit, 263 Sqn, who were operating Bloodhound missiles, the RAF’s ground to air missile used to defend Britain’s airfield against attacking aircraft. The operational use of these giant weapons lasted here until June 1963.

The 1960s saw the last of the flyers, lasting only between January 1962 and May 1963, 151 Sqn operated from here as the Signals Development Squadron, bringing back the props of the Hastings, Lincoln and Varsity before being renumbered again and subsequently disbanded.

Other units at Watton included 97 Sqn from 1963 – 1967; 98 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69), 360 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69) and 361 Sqn (2/1/67 – 14/7/67) two of which were both reformed and disbanded at Watton.

As can be expected, there were a large number of subsidiary and support units based at Watton, many of these attached to the Radio Warfare Establishment, along with SAM Training units, a range of flight units and other various regiments.

RAF Watton

Part of the disused Eastern Radar complex.

By the 1970s all flying had ceased leaving Eastern, and latterly Border Radar, the only ‘operational’ activity on the site. Eventually of course, even these were moved in the early 1990s, signalling the demise of the airfield as an active base. Watton was then handed over to the British Army.

A few years later the Army also reduced it use of Watton and the accommodation areas were sold off for private housing; a move that helped retain that airfield ‘feel’ that it still maintains today. More of the site was then sold later and new housing estates were built on the land where this previously stood; the entire feel of this has now since gone, replaced instead by a rabbit warren of roads with boxes for houses. The last remaining parts of the main airfield were sold off in 2012, the runway and peri-track being retained by the farmer and used for agricultural purposes.

Neaton too was sold off and has now been replaced by HMP Wayland, a prison holding category ‘C’ prisoners at her majesty’s pleasure.  One gruesome part of history being replaced by another.

Today, the perimeter tracks, runways and hard standings support nothing more than housing. A proportion of the perimeter track remains with a small wire fence being the only defence to the continued onslaught of development. The original 4 “C” type hangars were all demolished as were the two control towers, one of which was built to support the new jet-era. Some minor buildings continue to remain surrounded by the original RAF housing, but these are few and far between, and even their future is uncertain.

Almost as lip service, many roads are named after an aircraft, Liberator, Marauder, etc., those aircraft synonymous with the operations of Watton and Neaton. Various concrete remains poke through the undergrowth and make this part of the site rather untidy. How long is it before they too disappear?

The site is split by the main road with some of the former administration buildings remaining on one side with the airfield and accommodation on the other. Some of these buildings are still in use with civilian operators and as such, have been well-preserved; others such as the technical site, have not been so fortunate and have become very rundown and in high states of disrepair.

RAF Watton

Memorial to the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs’ located on the airfield site.

As for the airfield itself, two small memorials ‘guard’ the entrance to the new development. On the one side is the bent propeller recovered from a crashed Blenheim (R3800) shot down in the loss of eleven aircraft over Aalborg on 13th August 1940; on the other side a memorial that commemorates the 25th Bomb group USAAF. On the original housing site itself, a further memorial commemorates the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs‘ who were given the task of defending Britain’s airfields against the Luftwaffe.  Owned by Stanford Training Area (STANTA) for a period of time and used for air mobile training, the odd Hercules or Army helicopter might have been seen here. However, this has now ceased and housing is creeping ever closer. I’m sure it won’t be long before many of these remaining remnants are lost to the developer’s digger.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Flintham, V., “High Stakes: Britain’s Air Arms in Action 1945-1990Pen and Sword, Oct 2008.

National Archives AIR 27/263/1: AIR 27/263/2

A website dedicated to RAF Watton has an extensive range of personal stories and information about life at Watton. It also has a video of the retrieval of Blenheim R3821 being recovered from Aalborg airport.

Further Pictures of the remains at these sites can be seen on Flckr.

NB: There is a museum commemorating the lives of the Watton personnel, open on limited days only, details can be found on their website.

Watton can be found on Trail 9.

RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 1)

Norfolk once boasted many major airfields, virtually all of which are now closed to military flying. Marham is the only major survivor spearheading the RAF’s front line fighter force, in conjunction with Lincolnshire’s RAF Coningsby and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, Scotland.

However, during the Second World War the Norfolk landscape was very different; it was littered with front line airfields, composed mainly of light bomber and fighter squadrons, all of which could be found with relative ease.

One such airfield was that of Watton. Used by a range of light and heavy aircraft, its history was chequered, bearing witness to some of the more gruesome aspects of the air-war.

Today it is a housing estate, the single runway remains and is used for storage, the hangers and technical buildings have gone and the accommodation areas have all been sold off. That said, the perimeter track remains in part, the ‘feel’ of the airfield hangs over the area and a number of memorials pay silent tribute to those who served here.

Found on the edge of the town of Watton in Norfolk, we go back to this once busy RAF base and see what has changed, and relive the life of RAF Watton.

RAF Watton (Station 376)

RAF Watton, located some 11.5 miles north-east of Thetford, opened in 1939 as a medium bomber station with the RAF. Unusually it only had one runway, a grass example, which was later extended to 2,000 yards and crossed the airfield in an east-west direction.

The late 1930s saw a massive expansion of Britain’s military might, and in particular, its airfields. With little foresight into what lay ahead, these pre-war and early war airfields were not designed, nor built, as dispersed sites. Once the realisation of what the war would bring hit home however, later examples would be dispersed, giving a new dimension to airfield design. As a result, Watton (built by the John Laing company) was constructed with much of the accommodation block, technical area, hangars and so on, all being placed closely together on one single site.

Housing for the personnel was located in the north-western corner, with the technical area just east of this. The bomb dump, an ideal target, was further to the east of this area. Four ‘C’ type hangers were constructed each having a span of 150 feet, a length of 300 feet and a height of 35 feet. Whilst Watton was a medium bomber airfield, and thus aircraft were relatively small, it was envisaged at this time that larger, heavier bombers would soon come on line, and so foresight deemed larger than necessary hangar space be provided. A 1934/35 design, these hangars would be common place across expansion period airfields.

Another architectural design found at Watton was the redesigned Watch Office, an all concrete affair built to drawing 207/36, it was one that would very quickly become inadequate, requiring either heavily modifying or, as was in many other cases, replacing altogether.

RAF Watton

Part of Watton’s decaying perimeter track.

Partially opened in 1937, the airfield wasn’t fully completed and handed over to the RAF until 1939. Being a pre-war design, building materials were in good supply, and so the  accommodation blocks were constructed using brick, and they catered well for those who would find themselves posted here.

Another aspect considered at this time was that of camouflage; airfields were enormous open expanses and could be easily seen from great distances and heights. Numerous proposals for hiding them were put forward, a move that resulted in the formation of a special unit within the Directorate of Works led by Colonel Sir John Turner. Watton came under the eyes of Sir John and his department, and this led to an ingenious camouflage pattern of fields and hedges being painted across the entire airfield,  thus disguising it from prying eyes above. Whilst not completely effective, it certainly went some way to protecting it from attack.

Watton airfield taken in 1942 by No. 8 Operational Training Unit. The four hangars can be seen in the centre of the photo with the patchwork of ‘fields’ disguising the main airfield. English Heritage (RAF Photography).

The first postings to arrive were the men and machines of 21 and 34 Squadrons RAF. Their arrivals on March 2nd 1939 saw a reuniting of both squadrons under the Command of Group Captain P. J. Vincent DFC and 6 (B) Group . On the 7th, the airfield was inspected by the Group’s AOC after which 34 Sqn performed a flypast; one such event that would be the start of many visits from numerous dignitaries including the Marshall of the Royal Air Force himself, Sir Edward Ellington  GCB, CMG, CBE.

Little flying took place by either squadron at this time however, as the aerodrome was soon unserviceable due to the very poor British weather. Grass runways soon became bogs, and as was found across many grassed airfields at this time, unsafe for aircraft to either take off or land without mishap. From April  things picked up slightly, and intensive training began in the form of station tactics and defence exercises. The weather would however, continue to be the worst enemy, repeatedly preventing or restricting flying from taking place.

In August, 34 Sqn received orders to depart Watton and  proceed to Singapore, and so on the 12th, the air and ground parties began their long transit leaving Watton and England far behind. The quiet of their departure would not last ling however, as within a few days of them leaving, their empty beds would be filled once more, when the Blenheims and crews of 82 Sqn arrived.

At 11:05 on September 3rd 1939, notification came though to Watton of Britain’s declaration of war. Within days of the announcement aircraft were being moved out under the ‘Scatter’ scheme to another airfield, Sealand, for there was a fear of imminent air attacks following the war’s declaration. The Blenheims remained at Sealand until mid September, at which point they were recalled and prepared for attacks on vessels belonging to the German Navy. These vessels were not located however, and so the order to stand by was cancelled and the crews stood down. This would sadly become a regular and frustrating occurrence for the men of 21 Sqn.

Shortly after on the 9th, the first of the new MK.IV Blenheims were collected from Rootes Ltd at Speke, with further examples arriving over the next few days. Further movements saw aircraft detached to Netheravon and then onto Bassingbourne where Blenheim L8473 was damaged as it ‘nosed over’ whilst taxiing. A minor, but unfortunate accident, it would be the first of many more serious losses for the squadron.

RAF Watton

A fence separates the housing estate from the airfield remains.

On 26th September, another order came through for aircraft of 21 Sqn to stand by to attack  the German fleet, whilst a further two Blenheims (L8734 and L8743) would fly to the Rhur to carry out a photographic reconnaissance mission. However, bad weather, industrial smoke and a faulty camera prevented both aircraft from carrying out their duties: each one returning to Watton empty handed but unscathed – crews reporting heavy flak over the target area. The whole of October and November were pretty much a wash-out. Bad weather with prolonged heavy rain prevented any substantial flying beyond the local area. Air gunnery and co-operation flights were carried out whenever  possible, but the late months of 1939 had certainly been a ‘phoney war’ for 21 Sqn.

As 1940 dawned, things on the continent began to heat up and ground attacks increased for both Watton squadrons. Low-level sorties saw them attacking troop formations and enemy hardware as its galloped its was across the low-countries. Whilst bravely flying on and escorted by fighters, overall loses for the slower Blenheims of 2 Group were beginning to rise, a pattern that would only increase in the face of a far superior enemy in the coming months.

These losses were bourne out by 82 Sqn in dramatic style on the 17th May, when twelve aircraft took off at 04:50 to attack Gembloux. They were met with heavy anti-aircraft fire and overwhelming fighter opposition – fifteen BF.109s, decimated the squadron. All but one aircraft was lost, the only survivor being P8858 crewed by Sgt. Morrison, Sgt. Carbutt and AC Cleary. Whilst not injured in the melee, the aircraft was badly damaged and as a result, was deemed unrepairable and written off. An entire squadron had all but been wiped out in one fell swoop.

This disaster would be reflected right across 2 Group, who had now suffered its greatest overall loss to date, but for 82 Sqn it would not yet be the end of this traumatic and devastating period. The burning cauldron that was now facing the light bomber was taking its toll on crews, who were all at a distinct disadvantage to their Luftwaffe counterparts. On the 21st, three more aircraft were lost from Watton, with one being forced down in France, another lost without trace and a third limping home so badly damaged it also had to be written off.

A short visit by 18 Sqn between 21st and 26th May barely interrupted proceedings at Watton. After returning from France, they had spent no less than nine days in May at five different airfields including the nearby Great Massingham.

By early June 1940 Operation Dynamo had been completed and France was lost. The British Bulldog, whilst not a spent force, had shown her teeth, been bitten hard and was now licking her heavy wounds. Preparations would now begin to protect her own shores from the impending invasion.

Fuelled by revenge, combined attacks by both 21 and 82 Sqn continued on into the summer months. But revenge alone does not protect a crew from superior fighters and heavy flak. On June 11th, three more 21 Sqn aircraft were lost whilst attacking positions around La Mare, it is thought all three fell to Luftwaffe fighters. Two days later on the 13th, another five aircraft were lost, two from 21 Sqn and three from 82 Sqn; losses were mounting for the light bombers and Watton was amongst those bearing the brunt of these. On the 24th, 21 Sqn saw a reprieve, whether to rest crews, take on a new role or simply regroup, they began a move north to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. 82 Sqn however, would remain at Watton, where they would carry on with the punishing raids over the continent.

After the arrival and departure of another short stay unit, 105 Sqn between 10th July and 31st October, Watton was now left in the lone hands of 82 Sqn, a situation that would remain until the spring of 1942.

The dramatic loss of eleven crews back in May would come back to haunt 82 Sqn in August that year. On the 12th, another twelve aircraft took off on a high altitude bombing mission to Aalborg in Denmark. The airfield they were to target was well defended, and as if history were to repeat itself, once again eleven of the twelve aircraft were lost. The only one to return, that of R3915 crewed by Sgt. Baron, Sgt. Mason and Sgt, Marriott, turned back early due to low fuel.

In the space of three months, an entire squadron has been all but wiped out not once, but twice, unsustainable losses that would surely bring the squadron to its knees.

RAF Watton

Memorial to the crews lost at Aalborg, 13th August 1940. The propeller of Blenheim R3800, that crashed that day.

It was loses like this that helped convince the authorities to eventually withdraw Blenheims from front line service during 1942 – the Blenheim being long outdated and outclassed. At this time, Watton’s 82 Sqn, would begin their transfer to the Far East, a place they would remain at until the war’s end.

A lull in operations meant that Watton was then reduced to mainly training flights, through the Advanced Flying Unit. Small single and twin-engined aircraft providing the activity over the Norfolk countryside. Many of the crews being trained here would be shipped out to the satellite airfield at Bodney, before returning here for their evening meals.

A brief interlude in the May of 1942 saw the rebirth of the former 90 Squadron, a First World War unit that had gone through this very process on a number of occasions since its inception in 1917.

Flying the American B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ or Fortress I as it was in RAF designations, 90 Sqn was set up to trial the use of the four-engined heavy for its suitability as an RAF bomber. During the first 15 days at Watton, the squadron gained personnel and received their first aircraft,  after which they moved to nearby RAF West Raynham. Here they would begin these trials which also required the use of a number of smaller airfields in the local area. These included both RAF Great Massingham and RAF Bodney, neither of which were particularly suited to the heavy bombers.

Watton then saw no further operational units, and in the mid 1943, it was handed over to the Americans who began to develop the airfield into something more suitable for their needs. It was now that Watton would take on a more sinister role.

In Part 2 we see how the Americans developed Watton, and how it became two sites rather than just one, and also, how its role in Electronic countermeasure took it into the post war years.

The full story of Watton can be found in Trail 9.