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

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

The 392nd – The Highest Degree of Bombs on Target.

In the northern reaches of Norfolk lies an airfield that was the most northerly American base of the Second World War in East Anglia. Of all its crews that flew on the first mission, only four were still around to fly on the 200th a year or so later. This airfield was home to only one operational flying group, a group that was cited for its incredible bombing accuracy over occupied Europe. In this trip, we visit Station 118, otherwise known as RAF Wendling.

 RAF Wendling (Station 118)

On 15th January 1943, a new bomb Group was formed at Davis-Monthan Field in Arizona, it would be the 392nd BG and would consist of four squadrons: the 576th, 577th, 578th and 579th Bomb Squadrons. On completion of its training, the 392nd would leave the United States, and fly across the Atlantic to their new base in England. These four squadrons would be the first to operate the newly updated B-24 ‘H’ model ‘Liberators’; an improvement of the previous variants by the addition of a motorised front turret, improved waist gun positions and a new retractable belly turret. The supporting ground echelons had left the United States, sailing on the Queen Elizabeth from New York, much earlier, and before the group had received these newer models. As a result, they had neither received any training, or gained any experience with these new updated variants. The arrival of these new aircraft would therefore be met with some surprise, followed by a steep learning curve supported by additional training programmes.

The first B-24s of the 392nd arrived at Wendling, Norfolk, on 15th August 1943, and would soon be joined by the 44th at nearby Shipdham, the 389th at Hethel and the 93rd at Hardwick; four Groups that would be combined to form the Second Bombardment Wing (later 2nd Bombardment Division)*1. Battle hardened from fighting in the Mediterranean Theatre, these other three groups knew only too well the dangers of bombing missions, all having suffered some heavy losses themselves already.

Wendling’s Watch office before it was modified (see below) (IWM FRE 1670).

During September 1943,  the 392nd joined with these other three units flying missions under Operation ‘Starkey‘; probing German defences and gauging their responses to massed allied attacks on coastal regions. Largely uneventful they went on to undertake diversionary missions over the North Sea, the first three being escorted by fighters, and without incident. On the fourth however, the fighters were withheld and the bombers struck out alone.

On this particular flight, 4th October, 1943, the 392nd would gain their first real taste of war, and it would be an initiation they would rather forget. During the battle over thirty Luftwaffe fighters would shoot down four B-24s with the loss of forty-three crew members. A further eleven were injured in the remaining bombers that managed to continue flying and return home – it was not a good start for the 392nd.

Licking its wounds, they would then be combined with more experienced units, flying multiple missions as far as the Baltic regions before returning to diversionary raids again later that month. Viewed with some misgivings by crews, these ‘H’ model Liberators were soon found to be heavier, slower and less responsive at the higher altitudes these deeper missions were flown at.

The 392nd would take part in many of the Second World War’s fiercest operations; oil refineries at Gelsenkirchen, Osnabruck’s marshalling yards and factories at both Brunswick and Kassel were just some targets on the long list that entered the 392nd’s operations records book.

RAF Wendling (Beeston)

Wendling’s runway looking West.

The massive effort of ‘Big Week’ of February 20 – 25th saw the 392nd in action over Gotha, in an operation that won them a DUC for their part. Upon entering enemy airspace, the formation was relentlessly attacked by Fw-190s, Me 110s and Ju 88s using a mix of gun, rockets, air-to-air bombing and even trailing bombs to disrupt and destroy the groups. Ironically it was the very same twin-engined aircraft and component factory that was the intended target that day; a focus of the Second Bomb Division in an operation that saw the lead section, headed by aircraft of the 2nd Combat Wing, bomb in error due to the bombardier collapsing onto his bomb release as a result of oxygen starvation. Unrelenting the 392nd carried on. They realised and ignored the major error, and flew on to drop 98% of their bombs within 2,000 feet of the intended target. This highly accurate bombing came at a high cost though, Missing Air Crew Reports  (MACR) indicate seven aircraft were lost, with another thirteen sustaining battle damage.

The 392nd would carry on, with further battles taking their deadly toll on both crews and aircraft. In March that same year, the 392nd would turn their attention to Friedrichshafen – a target that would claim further lives and be the most costly yet.

Even before entering into enemy territory, losses would be incurred. Flying in close formation, two B-24s flew too close – one through the prop wash of another – which caused them to collide bringing both aircraft down.  One of those B-24s #42-109824 ‘Late Date II‘, lost half of its crew.

Despite good weather over the target the attack on Friedrichshafen in southern Germany, would have to be led by pathfinders. In an attempt to foil the attackers, the Germans released enormous quantities of smoke, enveloping the town and concealing it from the prying eyes high above. Of the forty-three bombers to fall that day, half were from the 14th Combat Wing of which fourteen came from the 392nd. Despite losses elsewhere, this would prove to be the worst mission for the 392nd, in all some 150 crew men were lost that day.

Bombing targets in Europe was never straight forward and bombs often fell well away from the intended site. On one rather unfortunate occasion at the end of March, the 392nd joined the 44th BG in mistakenly bombing Schaffhausen, a town in neutral Switzerland. The event that not only deeply upset the Swiss, but heavily fed the Nazi’s determined propaganda machine.

Eventually March, and its terrible statistics, was behind them. The 392nd would then spend the reminder of 1944 supporting ground troops, bombing coastal defences in the lead up to D-day (their 100th mission), airfields and V-weapons sites in ‘NOBALL‘ operations. Like many of their counterparts they would support the St. Lo breakout, and hit transport and supply routes during the cold weeks of the Battle of the Bulge.

It was during this time, on 12th August 1944 that heroic pilot, 2nd Lt. John D. Ellis, flying B-24H #42-95023, would manage to steer his stricken aircraft away from a residential area at Cheshunt, some 15 miles north of London,  crashing the aircraft near to what is now the A10 road. Sadly all on board were killed in the incident but undoubtedly the lives of many civilians were saved, and a memorial in their memory lies in the nearby library at Cheshunt and on the wall at Madingley, the American War Cemetery, Cambridge.

DSC_0572

The Memorial Plaque at the American War Cemetery, Madingley, Cambridgeshire.

This was not to be the only accident that the 392nd (nor any other B-24 unit) were to suffer. Crews were finding that these heavier machines were difficult to get out of if hit by flak or attacking fighters. Ferocious fires in the wing tanks and fuselage were leading to many losses, and in particular, the pilots who after fighting to keep aircraft stable long enough for crewmen to jump out, were then finding it viciously spinning the moment they let go of the controls.

On February 16th 1945 Liberator #42-95031 ‘Mary Louise‘ flown by 1st Lt. Albert J. Novik, was hit by falling bombs from another aircraft flying above him. After wrestling for some four and half hours to keep the aircraft flying, he ordered the crew out and then attempted to leave the aircraft himself. This event occurred only a month after a similar incident where he had managed to dive through the open bomb bay to safety. In this instance though, Novik was pinned to the roof as the bomber, half its tail plane missing, spun violently towards the Norfolk landscape beneath. Eventually, after a 7,000 ft fall, he was released from this centrifugal grip by a change in the aircraft’s direction. He managed to crawl down from his position and throw himself out through the bomb bay just seconds before the aircraft exploded, sending burning aircraft parts tumbling all around him. For his actions Novik was awarded the DFC, but many others were not quite so lucky, and perished in these huge lumbering giants of the sky.

On April 25th 1945, Mission 285, the 392nd BG prepared for what would be their last mission of the war. The Target, Hallein Austria. Not only would it end the 392nd’s aerial campaign, but that of the Eighth Air Force, bringing the air war in Europe to an end for the American units based in England.

By then, the 392nd had conducted some 285 missions with a high rate of loss, some 184 aircraft in total, with over 800 young men killed in action. They had dropped around 17,500 tons of bombs on some of the highest prestige targets in the German heartland. The group was cited by Major General James Hodges for its degree of accuracy for bombs on target – higher than any other unit of the 2nd Air Division over 100 consecutive missions. Operations had ranged from Norway to southern France and as far as the Baltic and advancing Russian armies at Swinemunde. Over 9,000 decorations were handed out to both air and ground crews for bravery and dedication.

Bomb dump buildings

One of several bomb dump buildings now a nature reserve.

After flying food supply missions to the starving Dutch, the 392nd departed Wendling and the site closed down, remaining dormant until it’s disposal in 1963/4.

RAF Wendling, otherwise known as Beeston from the nearby village, was classified as Station 118 by the Americans. Initially intended as an RAF Bomber base it was updated during the winter of 1942/43 opening in the summer of 1943. It would have 3 concrete runways of class ‘A’ specification, one of 2000 yards and two of 1,400 yards. The bomb dump which survives today as a nature reserve, was to the south-east, whilst the technical area is to the north-west. Two T2 hangars were located near to these sites and the watch office (drawing 5852/41) seems to have been modified in 1943 with the addition of what may have been a Uni-Seco control room (1200/43). Originally built with an adjoining Nissen hut (operations / briefing room) this is now encompassed within another more modern building, and is not visible from the outside.

Around the perimeter were a mix of ‘pan’ (28) and ‘spectacle’ (26) style hardstands, all of which have since been removed or built upon. The technical area, housing a range of: stores, workshops, huts and associated buildings, were to the north-west also. Interestingly, Wendling used Orlit huts, built by the Orlit Company of West Drayton, a mix of panel and concrete posts they were more economical than the British Concrete Foundation (BCF) huts initially ordered by the Ministry of Works.

Today, parts of two of the main runways still survive, housing turkey farms these buildings synonymous with Norfolk. The third was removed and the perimeter track has been reduced to a path. The bomb dump is part of a local nature reserve which has very limited parking, but access to the remaining buildings there is straight forward. Many of the buildings from the remaining twelve accommodation sites have been removed, however a number are still believed to be standing bound in heavy undergrowth, or used by local businesses. One currently retains a huge mural covering an entire wall, with evidence of others also within the same building.

DSC_0114

A stunning memorial now stands in memory of those who served.

Unfortunately when I visited Wendling, daylight ran out forcing me to make a retreat and head for home – a return visit is certainly planned for later. Like many other airfields in this part of the country, losses were high, and the toll on human life dramatic, both here, ‘back home’ and of course, beneath the many thousands of tons of high explosives that were dropped over occupied Europe. Now a high number of these sites house turkey farms, small industrial units or have simply been dug up, and forgotten. I hope, that we never forget and that they all get the honour and respect they deserve.

On a last note, there is a remarkable memorial in the Village of Beeston to the west of the airfield site. This is in itself worth a visit. Not only does it mention the 392nd, but all the auxiliary units stationed on the base, something we often forget when considering the Second World War. A nice and moving end to the trip.

DSC_0117

Memorial to the 392nd BG at Wendling.

Notes and further reading.

Wendling forms part of Trail 10.

*1 September 1943 saw a reorganisation of the US Eighth Air Force, and in September, the ‘Wings’ designation was changed to ‘Divisions’. Then in early 1944, a further reorganisation led to further strategic changes of the Air Force, one of which, saw the 44th and 392nd join with the 492nd to form the 14th Combat Wing, 2nd Bomb Division. Both  the 389th and the 93rd became part of the 2nd and 20th Combat Wings respectively.

A detailed website covering every mission, aircraft and most crew members offers a good deal of information and supporting photographs. It is well worth a visit for further more detailed information .

RAF North Pickenham – The Worst Record of the Eighth

There were many airfields in the eastern region of England during the Second World War, and countless crews were lost flying in combat operations. Undeterred and undaunted by these losses, many continued the brave fight to release Europe from the evil grip that was slowly strangling it. Loses were high, but at one particular airfield, the loses of one Group were the highest, and of those that came here, few were to return home alive.

In Trail 9 we visit RAF North Pickenham, an airfield with a short life, but one with a terrible tale of loss and sacrifice.

RAF North Pickenham (Station 143)

RAF North Pickenham was built in the later part of the Second World War (1943/44) and was officially handed over to the USAAF, 492nd Bomb Group (BG), on May 22nd 1944, by an RAF Officer during a ceremonial hand-over parade. This handover would see the culmination of USAAF takeovers of British Airfields – some sixty-six in all. America’s ‘friendly invasion’, would result in eighty-two major operational units moving to the UK, all of which would occupy some seventy-seven military sites in total.

RAF North Pickenham (Station 143) was built with three concrete runways, 50 ‘spectacle’ style hardstands and a substantial bomb store to the north-west. Accommodation for the crews, was divided into a: communal site (site 3), mess site (site 4), six officers’ quarters (sites 6 to 11) and a sick quarters (site 5). Three further sites, 12-14, consisted of a small sentry post, sewage disposal site and H.F.D.F station. All the accommodation areas were to the eastern side of the airfield well away from the extended bomb store to the west.

The 492nd were a new unit, only being activated in the previous October. On arrival in the UK in April, they were assigned to the 2nd Bomb Division, 14th Combat Wing and sent to RAF North Pickenham where they entered combat on May 11th 1944. The main body of the ground echelon was formed with personnel taken from units already in the U.K. whilst the air echelons were trained states-side and then ferried across the southern Atlantic route.

This first mission, which took the 492nd to marshalling yards in north-eastern France, saw 364 B-24s of the 2nd and 3rd Bomb Divisions combine with 536 fighters over occupied Europe. Whilst relatively uneventful for the 492nd, two B-24s did run out of fuel on their return journey; the first, B-24J #44-4087 “Sweet Chariot” crashing at Bury St. Edmunds, whilst the second, came to grief at West Wittering in Sussex. Thankfully, only one crewman was lost (3 were injured), but he was to be the first of the many casualties of the 492nd’s operational war.

RAF North Pickenham

Operations Block, North Pickenham

Throughout the month of May, the 492nd operated against industrial targets in Germany, and being a new unit, their loses would be high. On May 19th 1944, a week into operations, they suffered their first major casualties, eight aircraft in total, all shot down in operations over Brunswick. Loses were not only happening in air either, only two days later, on May 21st, two B-24s collided on the ground whilst taxing -‘What’s Next Doc‘ struck ‘Irishman’s Shanty‘ – causing the former to be written off. It was not a good omen for the 492nd.

In the following month, on June 20th, a massed 2nd Bomb Division formation attacked Politz, an attack that saw the 492nd lose a further fourteen aircraft, six of which managed to limp to Sweden before finally coming down.

Things then went from bad to worse for the 492nd, but undaunted and undeterred, they would continue their quest, attacking V-weapons sites, coastal batteries, and other defences along the Normandy coast. Apart from supporting the St. Lo breakout on July 25th, they continued to attack targets in the German homeland for the remainder of what would be their brief existence.

Consisting of the 856th, 857th, 858th and 859th Bomb Squadrons, they were not to fare well at all. In total, the 492nd would carry out sixty-six missions accumulating just over 1,600 sorties. During these operations, they would lose fifty-seven aircraft (including six non-operationally) which was the highest loss of any B-24 unit of the entire Eighth Air Force. Talk of ‘blame’ for these losses was rife; some blamed the aircraft’s all metal finish, saying it attracted fighter attention, others pinned loses on the Luftwaffe’s determination to bring down one single group, whilst another placed it solely at the inability of the crews to fly in neat well-structured formations. Whatever the reasons, it was certain that the 492nd were often ‘Tail-end Charlies‘ finding themselves in the weakest and most vulnerable positions of the formations – easy pickings for the now determined and desperate Luftwaffe pilots.

With loses continuing to climb and talk of a jinxed group spreading, an order came though on August 5th 1944 for the 492nd to withdraw from combat missions and take over ‘Carpetbagger‘ operations previously being performed by the 801st at RAF Harrington.  This order would not end the 492nd’s increasing casualties though. On the following day, another two B-24s would both collide on approach to the airfield. #44-4016 ‘Sugar-n-Spice‘ and #42-50719 ‘Sans Souci‘ struck each other causing them both to crash. The accident resulted in the loss of eleven crewmen with another nine injured.

RAF North Pickenham

One of many buildings now being reclaimed at North Pickenham.

Finally, on 7th August the order was put in place and after the last mission that day, the move began. This reshuffle of numbers and crews was in reality the disbandment of the 492nd, the crews and ground staff being spread far and wide and the 492nd name being transferred to an already well established unit – the 801st.

The loss of these personnel gave North Pickenham a short respite from the rigours of war. But it would only be short. Within a few days, conflict would return as yet another B-24 unit, the 491st Bomb Group, would move in.

Originally designated to reside at North Pickenham, they were instead directed to RAF Metfield, primarily due to the immense progress that the 492nd had made in their training programme. Whilst there must have been concerns around the jinxed airfield, in terms of operational records, the 491st were to be quite the reverse of the 492nd.

The 491st arrived at North Pickenham on the 15th August, and continued with their operations over occupied Europe. Like their previous counterparts, they focused on industrial targets in Germany, flying deep in to the heart of the Reich: Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne. Gelsenkirchen, Hannover and Magdeburg. It was on one of these missions, on November 26th 1944, that they were awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) for successfully bombing their target in Misburg despite very heavy loses from a prolonged and determined German counter attack. Out of the original 27 aircraft that set out from North Pickenham that day, 15 were lost to enemy action.

As 1944 turned into 1945 the appalling European weather set in. The cold snows of the 1944/45 winter were one of the worst on record, as troops in the Ardennes and ground crews of the Allied Air Forces were to find out to their discomfort.

Many bombing missions were scrubbed, often at the last-minute, but desperate attempts were regularly made to not only get supplies through, but to bomb strategic positions held by the Germans. On January 5th 1945, heavy snows fell across England and in an attempt to attack German positions, two B-24s of the 491st took off from North Pickenham with disastrous results.

The two aircraft, B-24 #44-40165 ‘Rage in Heaven‘ the unit’s assembly ship, and B-24J #42-50793, both crashed just after take off, with considerable loss of life. As a result, the decision was then made for the 491st to abandon any further attempts to get aircraft airborne, and their part in this operation was cancelled. Even though some 1,000 aircraft of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Air Divisions would get aloft that day, January 5th would become a black day and notoriously famous for a number of such incidents across the English countryside.

The remains of B-24 #42-50793 lay in the heavy snows of North Pickenham following a crash on January 5th 1945.  One of two 491st aircraft that crashed that day in snow storms. (IWM FRE 8588)

Eventually by April 1945, “The Ringmasters” as they had become known, had amassed over 5000 sorties, dropping over 12,000 tons of bombs, for the loss of only 47 aircraft on operational missions over occupied Europe. In June and July, after cessation of conflict, they began their withdrawal and a gradual return to the United States. A few days of ‘R and R’ then led to their inactivation on September 8th 1945.

After the group left North Pickenham, no other flying squadrons were based here, neither American or RAF, but a brief residency of Thor missiles operated by 220 Sqn between 22nd July 1959 and 10th July 1963, saw the site brought back to life momentarily. Finally, a last reprieve in 1965 saw testing of the Kestrel VTOL aircraft which of course became famous as the Harrier, one of the many British Jet Aircraft to see combat operations in the post war eras.

After the Kestrel trials were over, the site was closed and sold off, returning to a mix of poultry farming, and light industry. Many of the hardstands were removed, buildings left to deteriorate and the perimeter track reduced to a fraction of its former self. As time has gone on wind turbines have sprouted up across the open landscape making good use of the winds that blow across the Norfolk countryside.

RAF North Pickenham

“Stanton” shelter located at South Pickenham

Despite this decline, there are still signs of this once busy station to see. If approaching from the south, you will pass through South Pickenham first. Follow the leafy road toward the village, but keep a sharp eye open for amongst the trees are a series of “Stanton” air raid shelters of which there are five in total. Many of these are only visible by the escape hatches serving the top of the shelter. These were part of the domestic site that once served the airfield.

Some of these shelters are easily accessible being a few feet from the roadside, but as always, caution is the key word when visiting, and remember the laws of trespass! Moving further on, take a left and you pass a small collection of buildings on the right hand side.

These are the operations block and the store for the American  Norden M7 bomb sight. In a very poor state of repair, they once played a major role in the American offensive over Nazi Germany, – there must be many stories held within their crumbling and decaying walls. Continue past the buildings and you arrive at a ‘T’ junction. Turning right will take you to the airfield, now an industrial site and turkey farm. Access from here is both limited and private. Instead turn left, follow the road along, and then join the B1077. Turn right and drive for a mile or two, the airfield is on your right. A suitable parking space allows views across the field where its enormity can be truly understood. Now containing many turkey sheds along its runways, the outline is distinct and relatively clear considering its age. Up until November 2014 one of the original hangars still remained*1 fire destroying the structure, and what was left then subsequently removed. A number of ordnance huts mark the former location of the bomb dump, these can still be seen in the foreground from this high vantage point. The Watch Office, built to design 12779/41was demolished many years ago but stood opposite you and to the right.

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Views across the Airfield, propellers of the wind turbines replace the propellers of B24s.

It is also possible to view the main runway. By driving around the site via Swaffham, or retracing your steps though the village, the best view is from the northern end of the airfield on the road from Swaffham to Bradenham, close to the village where the base gets its name. Substantial is size, these runways have fared remarkably well and the sheer size of them easily discernible from the views at this end.

North Pickenham may truly fit the description of ‘ghost’ airfield, its chequered history includes not only one of the worst fatality records of the whole eighth Air Force, but it also attracted a lot of Luftwaffe attention. In excess of 200 German bombs were dropped on it during its short and rather dramatic wartime life. Handed over to the Americans in May 1944, it was the 66th and final one to be so, thus ending a remarkable chapter in world history.

RAF North Pickenham

North Pickenham’s  last remaining Hangar* before it burned down in late 2014.

A memorial to the servicemen who flew from North Pickenham, lays silently in the village on the edge of a new housing development. Wreaths from nearby RAF Lakenheath enforce the link between the current American Air Force and Norfolk’s legendary flying history.

On leaving the remnants and stories of North Pickenham, we continue south-east, toward the former RAF Watton, another now extinguished British airfield.

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Memorial dedicated to those who flew from, and never returned to, North Pickenham.

North Pickenham was originally visited in early 2014, this post has since been updated.

*1 This hangar was burnt down in November 2014. My thanks to the anonymous reader for the updates and corrections.

RAF North Witham – A Truly Historical Place

On the western fringes of Lincolnshire close to the Leicestershire border, is an airfield that is little known about, yet its part in history is perhaps one of the most important played by any airfield in Britain. Famous battles such as the Normandy invasion, the Ardennes and the crossing of the Rhine all took place because of the events that occurred here, and were it not for North Witham, many may not have been as successful as they were. For the next part of trail 3, we head west to perhaps one of Britain’s best kept secrets.

RAF North Witham (Station 479)

RAF North Witham sits quietly amongst the trees of Twyford Woods, a site originally known as Witham Wood, it is now a public space owned and maintained by the U.K.’s Forestry Commission.

Originally, North Witham was one of twelve airfields in the Leicestershire cluster intended to be an RAF bomber station for No. 7 Group, however, it was never used operationally by the Royal Air Force, instead like ten others in the area, it was handed over to the US Ninth Air Force and in particular the IX Troop Carrier Command.

North Whitham control tower

North Witham’s Tower – now a mere shell.

As it was originally designed as a bomber station it was built to the Air Ministry’s class ‘A’ specification, formed around the usual three triangular runways, perimeter track and aircraft hardstands. With construction beginning in the mid-war years 1942/43, its main runway would be 2000 yds long, with the second and third runways 1,400 yds in length and all 50 yds wide. To accommodate the aircraft, 50  ‘spectacle’ style dispersals were built, scattered around the adjoining perimeter track. As a bomber base it had a bomb store, located to the north-eastern side of the airfield, with the admin and technical site to the south-east. One feature of North Witham was its operations block, built to drawing 4891/42, it was larger than most, with ceilings of 14 feet high. Amongst the myriad of rooms were a battery room, cipher office, meteorology room, PBX, traffic office and teleprinter room, all accessed through specially designed air locks. A further feature of this design was the attachment of a Nissen hut to house plant equipment and boiler equipment, a feature not commonly seen at this time.

Aircraft maintenance could be carried out in one of two ‘T2’ hangars with additional work space provided by one of six ‘Butler’ hangars. Designed and built by the Butler Manufacturing Company of Kansas, USA, these were supplied in kit form and had to be erected on site by an Engineer Aviation Battalion. These ‘hangars’ had rigid box section girders over a canvas cladding, and once fully erected, gave a wide 40 ft span. Quite a rare feature, these types of structures were only built in limited numbers during the Second World War and only appeared on American occupied airfields. Post-war however, they were far more commonly used appearing on many American cold-war sites across the UK.

A hangar under construction at the 1st Tactical Air Depot at North Witham. Printed caption on reverse: '77877 AC - A butler hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion at North Witham, England. U.S. Air Force Photo.'

A ‘Butler’ hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion (EAB) at a very snowy North Witham (IWM479)

The Ninth Air Force was born in 1942 out of the ashes of the V Air Support Command, and then combined with units already located in the England operating under the American Eighth Air Force. Its initial activities focused on the allied push across North Africa followed by the move up into southern Europe through Italy.

Moving to England in October 1943, it then became the tactical Air Force that would support the Normandy invasion, supplying medium bombers, operating as troop support and providing supply flights. Facilitation of this massive invasion required both a huge backup, and an intricate supply and support network. North Witham would form part of this support network through both repair and maintenance of the troop carrier aircraft that were operated by the Ninth Air Force – primarily the C-47s. The main group undertaking this role at North Witham was the 1st Tactical Air Depot comprising the 29th and 33rd Air Depot Groups between January and September 1944*1. One of a number of depots, they were once described as the “backbone of Supply for the Army Air Force”, and had a complicated arrangement that encompassed numerous groups across the entire world theatre.

For such a large base, North Witham would be operationally ‘underused’, the only unit to fly from here being those of the IX Troop Carrier Command (TCC), who would primarily use C-47 ‘Skytrains’ – an established and true workhorse, and one that would go on to supply many air forces around the world.

During the Sicily campaign, it was found that many incoming aircraft were not finding the drop zones as accurately as they should and as a result, paratroops were being widely and thinly scattered. More accurate flying aided by precise target marking was therefore required and so the first Pathfinder School was set up.

North Whitham pen

Part of one of North Witham’s 50 dispersal pans.

The IX TCC Pathfinder School (incorporating the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Pathfinder Squadrons) was formed whilst the TCC was at RAF Cottesmore. Initially having only seven C-47 aircraft, it arrived at North Witham in March 1944. These aircraft were fitted with ‘modern’ Gee radar and navigation equipment, and would be used to train paratroops of the 101st and 82nd Airborne to mark targets prior to the main invasion force arriving.

These crack troops would remain at North Witham for short periods before returning to their own designated bases. The idea being a joint venture to land the troops who would then set up a ‘homing’ station using ‘Eureka’ beacons that would connect to ‘Rebecca’ receivers in the aircraft. This would allow flying to near pinpoint accuracy even in poor weather or at night; something that would be employed with relative success in the forthcoming Normandy landings.

On arrival at North Witham, the Pathfinders were accommodated in the huts originally provided for the depot’s crews – some 1,250 enlisted men and 75 officers. Many of these displaced men were rehoused in tents along the northern end of the site which only added a further strain to the already rudimentary accommodation that was already in place at the airfield. At its height, North Witham would house upward of 3,700 men in total, a figure that included an RAF detachment of 86 men and large quantities of GIs.

Pathfinders of North Witham were the first to leave the UK and enter the Normandy arena. Departing late in the evening of June 5th, men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne climbed aboard their C-47s and departed in to the night sky. North Witham based C-47A*2 ‘#42-93098’ piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch*3, led the way. Nineteen other North Witham aircraft joined Crouch that night, with only one being lost in the entire mission. The Douglas built C-47A-15-DK Skytrain, #42-92845 was lost en route due to mechanical failure – the aircraft ditching in the sea. All the crew and paratroops on-board were believed to have been rescued by the British destroyer HMS Tartar.

Image result for Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch and his crew

The Crew of C-47A #42-93098, a few hours before they left for Normandy. Including Pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch (centre), Captain Vito Pedone (copilot), Captain William Culp (Navigator), Harold Coonrod (Radio Operator), along with Dr. Ed Cannon (physician), and E. Larendeal (crew chief)

Pathfinder training continued at North Witham into the summer of 1944, training that included Polish paratroops (1st Independent Polish Airborne Brigade) who would perform a similar role to their American counterparts. These various Pathfinder groups would go on to have long and distinguished careers, supporting the battles at Arnhem, the Ardennes and participating in Operation Varsity – the Allied crossing of the Rhine.

As the Allies pushed further into enemy territory, the flying distance from England became too great and so new airfields were either constructed or captured airfields refurbished. The Pathfinder School soon moved away to Hampshire and the maintenance units, needed nearer the front lines, gradually departed to new bases on the continent.

September 1944 would see big changes in the Ninth and the knock-on was felt at North Witham. Firstly, the IX TCC transferred from the Ninth AF to the First Allied Airborne Army, and as a result, the Air Depot title was changed to IX Troop Carrier Service Wing (Provisional), which was re-assigned to aid and supply the new Troop Carrier Groups (TCG) now based in France. To accomplish this new role, groups often used borrowed or war-weary C-47s, C-46 (Commandos) or C-109s (converted B-24 Liberators) to fulfil their role. Secondly, the Pathfinder School was re-designated IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group (Provisional) and they moved away from North Witham to their new base at Chalgrove near Oxford. Now much quieter, life otherwise carried on at North Witham, but gradually the UK-based maintenance and repair work slowed down, and before long its fate was sealed and the airfield began the long wind-down that many of these unique places suffered.

By the war’s end the last American personnel had pulled out and the site was handed back to the RAF’s 40 Group who, after using it for a brief spell as a maintenance depot themselves, placed it under care and maintenance. It was used as a munitions and hardware store until 1948, and then finally, in 1956, it was closed by the Ministry and the site sold two years later.

Photograph of North Witham taken on 17th January 1947. The technical site and barrack sites are at the top left, the bomb dump is bottom left. (IWM RAF_CPE_UK_1932_FP_1221)

The site, intact as it was, was returned to the Forestry Commission who planted a range of new trees around the site, covering the vast areas of grass. The technical area was developed into a small industrial unit and perhaps most sadly the watch office left to decay and fall apart.

Today the three runways and perimeter track still exist almost in their entirety, and remarkably, in generally good condition. Largely overgrown with weeds and small trees, the remainder is well hidden obscuring what little there is in the way of buildings – most being demolished and the remains left piled up where they stood. However, a T2 hangar is now used on the industrial estate and the watch office still stands tucked away amongst the trees and undergrowth. This area is a favourite place for dog walkers, and because of its runways, it is accessible for prams and pushchairs. Whilst here, I spoke to quite a few people, remarkably none of them knew of the site’s historical significance let alone the office’s existence!

Today the watch office remains open to the elements. Surrounded by used tyres and in constant threat of the impending industrial complex over the fence, its future is uncertain. Access stairs have been removed, but an entrance has been made by piling tyres up to the door – presumably by those wishing to enter and ‘explore’ further. Little evidence of its history can be seen from the outside, even the rendering has been removed, and so, any possible personal links with the past are more than likely now gone.

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The view of the main runway from outside the tower.

Returning back to the main public entrance along the perimeter track, a number of dispersal pens can be found; overgrown but relatively intact, they are a further sign that even here, war was never very far away.

North Witham was one of those ‘backroom boys’ whose contribution, whilst extremely important, is little known about. The work carried out here not only helped to maintain a strong and reliable fighting force, but one that spearheaded the frontal invasion of Normandy. It served as a cold and perhaps uncomfortable home to many brave troops, many of whom took the fight direct to Nazi Germany.

Standing here today, it is quiet and strangely surreal – you can almost hear the roar of engines. Looking along its enormous runways you get an eerie feeling – how many troops also stood here, spending their last few hours in this quiet place. Looking around now, it is difficult to imagine the immense work that went on here, the gathering of equipment as preparations were made for the big push into Normandy on that famous June night.

North Witham is truly a remarkable place, hidden away amongst the trees as a giant time capsule, a monument to those who lived, worked and died during that turbulent time in 1944-45.

After leaving North Witham, we return to the main A1 road and head south. Any journey here can not avoid briefly mentioning RAF Wittering, its Harrier still standing proudly outside the main gate. All went quiet here following the Government cutbacks of December 2010, but flying has now returned in the form of Grob Trainers – a small reprieve for this historic site. Wittering can seen later in Trail 37.

Another view along the main runway.

Another view along the main runway.

Sadly in May 2015, Twyford Woods was the scene of a large illegal rave, over 1000 people attended the event where a number of arrests were made in the violent altercations that took place*4. A sad day that would turn the souls of those who sacrificed themselves for the freedom we take for granted so very easily today.

(North Witham was originally visited in early 2013)

Links and sources

*1 American Air Museum in Britain

*2 C-47A #42-93098 itself was later lost whilst flying with the 439th Troop Carrier Group (TCG) on September 18th 1944, whilst flying in support of Operation ‘Market Garden‘ in Holland.

*3 Superb footage of Crouch and his crew as they depart from North Witham is available on-line here, it also shows the Watch Tower in its former glory.

*4 A report of the event is available on the BBC News website.

RAF Bovingdon – The Hour that Never Was!

During the 1960s, a cult TV series hit the British Screens – ‘The Avengers’ starring  Patrick Macnee (as John Steed), and Diana Rigg (as Emma Peel).

In episode 9 of the fourth series, “The Hour That Never Was” the two characters go to an old airbase, the fictitious RAF Hamelin home to (also fictitious) 472 Squadron, where Steed had been invited to a party before the base was officially closed.

But following an accident in their car, Steed and Mrs. Peel, find things are not what they seem and so begins the investigation into what has happened.

The episode was filmed on location at the former RAF Bovingdon between the 5th July and 20th July 1965 before the site was officially closed in 1972.

The film designer used Bovingdon to cleverly achieve the illusion of abandonment, an aim successfully done through filming in the old original wartime buildings. They even manage to include a shot where Steed climbs inside a D.H. Mosquito!

Bovingdon was initially designed as a bomber airfield for the RAF, but was quickly passed over to the USAAF. Sadly it never became a true operational airbase primarily due to the three short runways. However, the 92nd BG, the only operational unit to be stationed here, are reported to have taken part in a small number of raids in both September and October 1942, before departing to Alconbury in January 1943. Bovingdon then became a training centre for bomber crews as the 11th Combat Crew Replacement Centre, training the majority of US crewmen after their arrival in the UK. It also trained and hosted a number of film stars (including Clarke Gable and James Stewart) along with reporters who were to fly over occupied Europe for reporting and making propaganda films.

As a support station for the Eighth Air Force Headquarters and the Air Technical Section, it would also see a range of aircraft types based here, the most noteworthy being General Eisenhower’s own personal B-17 stored in one of the four T2 hangars that stood on the base.

Bovingdon, now a prison, is also noted for being the location for “633 Squadron” as the fictional base RAF Sutton Craddock also with its D. H. Mosquitoes, and with “The War Lover” with Steve McQueen. Other films include: “Mosquito Squadron“, “The Battle of Britain“, and the James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun“.

Bovingdon has a remarkable and highly significant history and like so many others has earned its place in history.

A ‘You Tube’ version of “The Hour That Never Was” is not the best quality film, but it does give you good views of the airfield and the hangars before the airfield was closed for good.

My thanks go to fellow blogger and reader John Knifton  for the links!

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.

A Merry Christmas to all!

As the year draws to close and we spend time with our loved ones, I would like to just wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful new year.

Another year has passed and looking back, we realise how quickly time passes. I am amazed how my own blog has gone from strength to strength, how my own writing has developed, from early posts that were merely a couple of paragraphs to more recent ones that are 2-3000 words long – a big change for me! I must admit I have a slight cringe when I read some of those early posts; as time has gone on I have started to revisit them (and the places they are about) and make some updates.

I would like to take time to thank each and every one of you who has read, commented and stayed with me during this journey, it has certainly been an experience I don’t want to forget.

This year, the blog surpassed 21,000 visitors and 50,000 views whilst not huge in comparison to some, it is certainly far more than I ever thought it would, and I appreciate each and every one.

Some notable posts/events you may have missed:

Hearbreak on Christmas Eve – the sad loss of Brigadier General  Frederick W. Castle (posted December 2015), whose awarding of the Medal of Honour, reflected the determination and personality of one of Eakers “Original Seven”. He chose to leave a safe position for a combat role, taking on the demoralised 94th, leading them into some of the Second World War’s most ferocious air battles.

The Last Word to Guy Gibson – also posted last year, a poignant word written in Gibson’s book.

In October 2015 we saw the end of an era, with the grounding of Avro Vulcan XH558. After an eight year reign as Queen of the skies, she finally bowed out after the three main technical companies that support her, withdrew their support. In her last flight on October 28th 2015, she completed a short 15 minute flight, the culmination of 228 flights and 346 hours flying time. A landmark in British Aviation history.

A number of British airfields were earmarked for development or planning applications, amongst them are the former: RAF Kings Cliffe, RAF Downham Market, RAF West Raynham, RAF Denethorpe and RAF Coltishall, with further applications affecting former RAF Dunsfold, RAF Bourn and RAF Wellesbourne Mountford. So what does the future hold for Britain’s airfields?

Early 2016, Aviation Trails was nominated for the Liebster Award by The Aviation Site and I was honoured to accept this award and in November it was nominated by Historypresent for a further writing accolade. Sadly this slipped off the list, but I would like to offer my sincere thanks for this very kind nomination.

With the total number of Trails standing at almost 40, I have visited what must be over 100 airfields; in addition a large number of memorials, and many great museums, and there are still many, many more of each to get to.

The interactive map has been useful to many readers outside of Britain hoping to find places where loved ones served, and a few people have contacted me which has hopefully helped trace some information thus filing in some gaps.

All in all it has been a marvellous year for AviationTrails, I wish to pass on my gratitude and thanks to each and every one of you.

So without further ado, a very Merry Christmas to everyone and a peaceful and safe New Year!

Andy

Chivalry Amongst Enemies

On December 20th 1943, high above war-torn Europe, the lives of a Luftwaffe fighter pilot and the crew of an American B-17 would collide in an event that has become famous around the aviation world.

On that day, a B-17, “Ye Olde Pub“, of the 379th BG based at RAF Kimbolton (USAAF Station 117) , would be so severely damaged it would defy the laws of gravity and somehow remain airborne as it departed Bremen, Germany, having valiantly carried out its mission. In the skies over the freezing waters of the North Sea, the bomber hanging by a thread, with two engines out, all but one of its guns but the top turret empty or frozen, its rudder and left horizontal stabiliser torn to pieces, a dead crew member and several others wounded;  “The Pub”, as its crew affectionately nicknamed her, seemed destined to fall from the skies. Just then, the pilot and co-pilot watched helplessly as bullets ripped through the cockpit ceiling, wounding the pilot, and causing the oxygen system to malfunction, leaving the desperate crew destined to succumb to anoxia in mere moments. It was then that the bomber fell into a slow upside-down flat spin. It did not take long before the pilot saw his co-pilot, eyes closed due to lack of oxygen, that he too, slowly lost consciousness as he watched the farmlands of Germany far beneath them, grow closer with each passing moment. The fate appeared sealed for the badly beaten bomber and the lives of her remaining crew. “The Pub” would be easy prey for the hunters of the Luftwaffe. At that precise moment, and with hundreds of miles still to get home, a lone Bf 109 would see the stricken bomber, take off and prepare to shoot it down. The German pilot was an ace, and  his plane had 22 victory marks, and he only needed to shoot down one more bomber to earn the long coveted Knight’s Cross.

However, the loaded guns of the 109 did not rain down its fire of death upon the bomber. Instead – and against all that was meant to happen in war – they stayed silent. The 109 cautiously approached the B-17, its pilot carefully manoeuvred around the aircraft watching for any sign from the gun crews that might suggest they were about to fire.  Inside, he saw its pilot who sat stunned in disbelief at the sight before him, and from the outside of the bomber, he knew whatever crew remained were likely desperately fighting to save their wounded comrades and themselves. (As the B-17 lost altitude, the remaining crew, including the pilot and co-pilot regained consciousness, and somehow managed to right the plane and set her on a course for home.)

In the B-17, pilot 2nd Lieutenant Charlie Brown watched in amazement as the 109 piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Franz Stigler formed up against it, perhaps teasing the crew before delivering the final and devastating blow. Stigler however, a sworn enemy of the Eighth Air Force, instead of firing, gestured to the crewmen to fly to Sweden and safety. But Brown, stubborn in his determination to get his crew home, didn’t understand, and carried on flying straight and level toward the North Sea and home. Stigler flew alongside, fearing the bomber would never make it and crash into the sea, so he continued to gesture to the crew. Steadfast, they carried onward, watching the 109, waiting for him to attack the defenceless bomber. Finally, fearing he may be shot down himself, Stigler saluted the crew and departed, leaving the bomber to fly safely back to England.

The story of this brief encounter remained unknown for many years – Stigler sworn to secrecy for fear of his own life, and Brown for fear of complacency in the Air Force, were both unable to openly talk about the experience. Then, after many years and through extensive research and letter-writing, the two pilots finally met up in a meeting that was so charged with emotion that it reduced both men to tears.

Immortalised in John Shaw’s painting* and Adam Mako’s book, “A Higher Call” is the dramatic story of this strange and heartfelt encounter.

Image result for higher call

John Shaws’ painting of the two aircraft flying together.

This is not a book about one meeting though. This is a book  about two men, the people behind the guns, the characters, their experiences and their lives. It tells the story of Franz Stigler, how he, as a natural pacifist, was drawn into a vulgar fight waged by madmen and tyrants thirsty for revenge. The story is told as he progressed from flying school then onto Egypt and Sicily and eventually back to defend his homeland against the continued onslaught of heavy bomber formations reigning death and destruction upon a foe so evil, it led to the slaughter of millions of innocent people.

But why did Stigler let the bomber crew live? The book reveals his character, his determination to carry out his duty to defend his homeland, the honour that existed between friend and foe, the unwritten rules of warfare, and the distaste he had for all that Nazism stood for. When these worlds collided, he had to make a decision. His finger poised over the trigger, to squeeze it or not? That… That was the moment when Franz Stigler realized if he DID shoot, it would be no ‘victory’ for him. With that, his desire to earn the Knight’s Cross disappeared. He knew that there were more important aspirations for him.

In this well written book , Mako reveals the man behind the gesture. Through research and interviews with both crewmen, he lays out the story of Stigler delving into his character, digging deep into the memories of that night and the events that led up to and after it. He explores the events that created the man, the decisions that made him the person he was. A man to whom medals and numbers were not important, a man who would risk his own life to ensure the safety of others.

It would look at how the people of post war Germany, would turn against him and his kind, laying the blame for defeat firmly at the feet of the fighter pilot. How a once hero of the Reich would become the villain, be despised by those he protected even though he disagreed with what they stood for.

This is a fascinating and compelling book, detailed in every aspect – it is difficult to put down. It provides a fascinating insight into the man and his machine, the tragedies and traumas of war. Supplemented by original letters and photographs, this book is a fascinating read into the story behind the picture, and the events that occurred on that day, December 20th 1943.

A Higher Call is written by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander is published by Atlantic Books.

* The original painting was created by Robert Harper, the Assistant Intelligence Officer of the 448th BG at RAF Seething where Brown’s B-17 landed.

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