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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Shipdham

Shipdam’s runway used for storage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Shipdham appears in Trail 10.

Sources and Further Reading.

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Shipdham (Station 115)

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

RAF Shipdham

One of Shipdham’s remaining Hangars.

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Shipdham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

379th BG Memorial update.

Recently I posted a guest post from Mitch Peeke regarding the collision and subsequent deaths of a number of crewmen on board two 379th BG B-17s over southern England, on 19th June 1944.

Mitch is aiming to have a memorial erected close to the site where one of the B-17s  #44-6133 fell, killing all but one of the crew. So far, he has received permission and a very positive response from the land owners on which the memorial is hoped to go, along with information, including a crew photograph, from the 379th BG Association.  Mitch has also been contact with the local TV station and newspapers hoping to generate further interest and funds to cover the cost of such a memorial.

A number of other avenues are still being pursued but the response so far has been very promising indeed!

A preliminary date has been set for the anniversary of the crash but this will of course, largely depend on progress over the coming weeks.

Mitch has set up a ‘gofundme’ fundraising account, with a target of £1000 he hopes the public will get behind the project and secure a memorial for those young men who lost their lives that tragic day. Find the account at: https://www.gofundme.com/ww2-aircrew-memorial 

Crew of Heavenly Body II: Front Row, L to R: Edward Sadler; Fred Kauffman; Jack Gray; Lloyd Burns
Back Row, L to R; Louis Schulte; Leroy Monk; Richard Andrews; Richard Billings; William Farmer; Leonard Gibbs (Photo courtesy 379th BG Association archive,  by kind permission.)

Sgt Cecil A Tognazzini

Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Staff Sergeant Cecil Tognazzini (Photo Janet Penn, via www.findagrave.com)

A Long Way From Home.

A guest post from Mitch Peeke.

June 19th, 1944: Just thirteen days after the Allied D Day Invasion. The weather that day was dry, but the late afternoon sunshine over Kent in Southern England was hazy. A formation of around 30 American B17 “Flying Fortress” bombers from the 379th BG, part of “The Mighty Eighth”, were returning home across the Kent countryside, heading due North, toward their base at Kimbolton, in Huntingdonshire. They were returning from a raid on the V1 launching site at Zudausques in Northern France.

The raiders had taken some Flak, but thankfully, no German fighters had found them. They were doubtlessly busy elsewhere, trying to stem the Allied advances. But the Flak they had encountered had been accurate and had exacted a price from the 379th for their raid. Many of those B17’s were now badly damaged and flying home on three engines rather than four. More of them than not, now had “extra ventilation”, courtesy of the German Flak Gunners, and were trailing heavy smoke from those engines that remained running. However, the B17 was known to be “a good ship”. Inherently stable, it was a remarkable aircraft for its size, able to withstand a hell of a lot of battle damage and still be capable of flying. Many a pilot had been able to “nurse” one home, despite the odds. The crews all had faith in their aircraft. It was a faith that was born from hard experience in hostile skies.

The formation crossed the South coast of England at 21,000 feet. Leading the No. 2 Section was B17 Heavenly Body II, of the 525th Squadron, Captained by 1st Lieutenant Lloyd Burns. A veteran crew, this had been their 29th mission over enemy territory. Just one more mission and the crew would have completed their tour and then they’d be going home, Stateside. The D Day Invasion had of course been keeping them busy. This mission to the V1 site at Zudausques had been their second mission of the day.

Lloyd Burns was an exceptional pilot with an enviable reputation for pulling off the smoothest of landings under any circumstances. The original Heavenly Body had been written off quite recently when the brakes failed on landing. Not even Burns could prevent that aircraft from being a runaway and as the heavy B17 simply ran out of airfield space, she rolled off the end of the runway, down a small hill and straight into a pile of scrap concrete rubble. Miraculously, Burns and his entire crew walked away from that landing. They got a new aircraft and quickly named her Heavenly Body II. (In fact, there were at least 4 other US aircraft named Heavenly Body. Two B29’s, another B17 of the 401st Squadron and at least one B25, all of which had a pin-up girl as nose art). This was now their third mission in the replacement aircraft and although they’d not yet had the time to paint the name and art on the bomber’s nose, the crew had happily settled in to their new ship.

Just after the formation crossed the South coast, Lloyd Burns swapped seats with his co-pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Fred Kauffman. Fred was hoping to get a ship of his own after they completed their tour and had asked Lloyd if he could take over for the descent and landing, as he wanted more 1st pilot experience. Lloyd saw no reason not to. Now as the formation was beginning the let down toward Kimbolton, they gradually lost their height over Kent.

At nearly 18:15, the formation was almost over Allhallows and down to 17,000 feet. Ahead of them, left to right, was the Thames Estuary; even busier than usual, with all sorts of shipping, due in no small part to the D Day invasion traffic.

At 17,000 feet, the haze grew thicker. Fred Kauffman was beginning to work hard for his 1st pilot experience. He was having to fly more by instruments as the visibility forwards was down to about 1,000 yards and the horizon was beginning to disappear into the miasma, though to the airmen flying through it, it didn’t seem to be too bad at that moment.

Flying above and slightly behind Burns’ aircraft, was his Port Side Wingman. This B17  bore the serial number 44-6133, but  no name. The pilot was 2nd Lieutenant Armand Ramacitti and he was in trouble. This was his first combat mission and his B17 had been very badly damaged by the German Flak. He’d been nursing her along since leaving France behind. He’d already lost one engine, his Port elevator and a fair piece of the Starboard one had also been blown away and he had another engine on the Port side smoking heavily and running rough. Now, that engine was making an unbearably loud whining noise, looking and sounding as if it was about to seize up too. Jockeying the throttles on his remaining engines, Ramacitti was trying to compensate for the dropping power, but the flight controls were growing sloppy and with the Port elevator gone, maintaining the crippled bomber’s height was getting harder by the minute. She was beginning to give up the unequal struggle to stay in the air.

Ramacitti’s Bombardier, 2nd Lieutenant Theodore Chronopolis, saw that having surged slightly ahead of their leader, they were now dropping back, out of formation. He called Ramacitti on the intercom, warning him to pull up, as they were now dropping very close to Heavenly Body II. Ramacitti was desperately wrestling with the dying bomber’s controls, trying to claw back some height, but it was a losing battle. Without warning, 6133 side-slipped sickeningly to Starboard, literally dropping out of Ramacitti’s hands. Chronopolis frantically buckled on his parachute, as did the Navigator, for both men now knew with absolute certainty, what was coming next.

6133’s side-slip cut across the top of Burns’ aircraft at an angle of about 35 degrees. Engine bellowing, the Starboard outer prop cut into the top of Heavenly Body II‘s flight deck, right behind the Pilot’s window, killing Fred Kauffman instantly. The two aircraft momentarily locked together in a deadly embrace.

Theodore Chronopolis knew they’d hit Burns’ aircraft. All he’d heard was a very loud, sharp bang and a terrible rending sound, as the two aircraft collided. He and the Navigator went straight for the nearest escape hatch. The Flight Engineer and a couple of the Gunners were already there, but the hatch was totally jammed. Just then, 6133 rolled off Heavenly Body II‘s back and inverted. Thrown about inside the aircraft like a small toy, Theodore didn’t know what happened next. He recalled hearing another big bang, then he blacked out.

The momentum of 6133’s continuing side-slip had separated the two planes. As 6133 rolled off Heavenly Body II‘s back and then inverted, her Flak-battered Port wing now sheared off completely, which was probably the second bang that Theodore Chronopolis had heard. As the wing came off, 6133 started to spin, pointing her nose straight down and plunging headlong toward the muddy waters of the Thames Estuary below.

When Theodore came to, he was free-falling outside of the aircraft. Instinctively, he pulled the ripcord on his parachute, which thankfully deployed. As his descent rapidly slowed, he saw a B17 going down below him, its death-plunge marked by a thick trail of black smoke. Then shock set in and he blacked out again. Unbeknown to Theodore, he was the only one who’d got out of 6133 alive.

Literally moments before, on Heavenly Body II, Lloyd Burns suddenly realised that something was horribly wrong. He was about to reach over behind Fred to pull back the curtain. He wanted to see if their rookie wingman, Ramacitti, was keeping with them, when a terrible grinding noise to his left made him duck down instinctively. The daylight through the left side windows was blocked momentarily and he felt the aircraft shudder viciously. He realised in that instant that they’d been hit by another B17, which seemed to him, to be on top of them. Then as 6133 slid off the top, he looked over at Fred. Lloyd was in no doubt at all that Fred was now dead. The first thing Lloyd tried to do was to somehow stabilise the aircraft. Grabbing the controls, he found  the ailerons completely unresponsive and he got next to no feedback from the elevators. This was not surprising as the B17’s control cables ran centrally along the top of the fuselage. 6133’s prop had undoubtedly chopped through them. Heavenly Body II was still flying as she’d been trimmed, just; but for how much longer was the question.

Lloyd noticed that the Flight Engineer was at the escape hatch, trying to open it. Realising that he’d no hope of flying the plane, Lloyd quickly reached for where his parachute was stowed, but couldn’t find it. As he climbed off the flight deck, one of the crew thrust a chute into his hands and he hurriedly strapped it on; only partially as it turned out. He assisted the Engineer in forcing the escape hatch open then literally shoved him through it, as he immediately followed the Engineer himself. As his parachute opened, Lloyd realised he was only half in the harness. Hanging on for dear life, he saw a B17 going down in a steep turn with one engine smoking badly, but was unsure which of the two aircraft it was.

The Bombardier on Burns’ aircraft, Jack Gray, later recalled that the bomber’s Plexiglas nose had been all but severed and he suddenly found himself seemingly more outside of the aircraft than inside it. Jack pulled himself back in and went for his parachute.

Heavenly Body II continued flying, though steadily losing height, even though there was only the dead co-pilot at the now useless controls. Six of her crew managed to safely escape. The Ball Turret Gunner, S/Sgt William Farmer, was one of the last to leave, noting that the aircraft looked like it was coming apart. He needed no second telling to get out and fast.

The six crew members that managed to escape were: Pilot Lloyd Burns, Bombardier Jack Gray, Top Turret Gunner Leonard Gibbs, Ball Turret Gunner William Farmer, Tail Gunner Richard Andrews and Radio Operator/Gunner Leroy Monk. All but one of those six landed in the water and were rescued by fishing boats. Tail Gunner Richard Andrews came down on dry land at Canvey. The three men who didn’t make it were: Co-pilot Fred Kauffman, Navigator Edward  Sadler and Gunner Louis Schulte.

Crew of Heavenly Body II: Front Row, L to R: Edward Sadler; Fred Kauffman; Jack Gray; Lloyd Burns
Back Row, L to R; Louis Schulte; Leroy Monk; Richard Andrews; Richard Billings; William Farmer; Leonard Gibbs
Note that Richard Billings was part of the Burns crew on arrival at Kimbolton, but was the 10th man when crew size was reduced to 9, and so was not with the crew at the time of the collision. The survivors of the Burns crew are all deceased except for Richard Andrews. (Photo courtesy 379th BG Association archive,  by kind permission.)

6133 meanwhile, had gone straight down and crashed in twenty feet of water, in what was then a minefield, about half a mile or so off the west beach at Allhallows. The Estuary bottom was and still is, soft Thames mud and the main part of the wreck undoubtedly buried itself to some extent in the mud. (What remained of the wreckage was later salvaged, probably when the minefield was cleared). She had taken most of her crew with her, trapped inside.

Sole survivor Theodore Chronopolis, landed safely by parachute. He was fished out of the water by a passing  boat. The eight men of 6133’s crew who died that day were: Pilot 2nd Lt. Armand Ramacitti, Co-pilot 2nd Lt. William Hager, Navigator 2nd Lt. Donald Watson, Gunner S/Sgt. Richard Ritter, Gunner S/Sgt. Cecil Tognazzini, Gunner S/Sgt. John  Burke, Gunner Sgt. Warren Oaks and Gunner Cpl. Paul Haynes.

Meanwhile, having been abandoned by her crew, Heavenly Body II continued flying, somewhat erratically and losing height all the time. At first, she’d turned west and seemed to be heading directly toward the oil storage tanks at ShellHaven on Canvey Island. To those watching on the ground, a disaster seemed inevitable, then; still losing height, she miraculously turned east, away from the refinery, over the town, toward Canvey Point and the mudflats. It seemed as though the pilot was still trying to find somewhere safe to put her down. She then circled once over Canvey Point before she  finally nose-dived onto the mudflats, throwing an engine forward as she crashed.

To this day, those who can remember the event have always held the pilot of that aircraft in high esteem. Trouble was, the pilot was at that moment, just landing in the water off Canvey Island by parachute! Did Fred Kauffman not die in the collision after all? Had he somehow survived his injuries, regained consciousness and taken control of the shattered aircraft? Unlikely. Burns had tried to take control just after the collision and found the controls unresponsive. It is also extremely unlikely that Fred could have come round from such traumatic head injuries as he’d received when 6133’s Starboard outer prop cut through the roof and side of the Flight deck.

The answer probably has more to do with the B17’s inherent stability. With the nose section totally open and the escape hatches gone, the sheer force of the through-rushing air was probably responsible for the apparent “steering” of the aircraft. Also of course is the fact that, though a stable design, the aircraft was literally coming apart in flight. Who knows precisely how the aerodynamics were working, but one thing is certain, she was not being actively piloted.

The semi-submerged wreckage of Heavenly Body II remained on the mudflats for decades. Every so often, the tides would uncover more of it and bury other sections. The wreck was easily accessible and so subjected to many souveniring expeditions. A local historical society salvaged some of it and put it on display in a museum, until it closed. The thrown engine was salvaged fairly recently and together with some other artefacts, is now on display at another local museum. There is also a storyboard on the seafront close to the crash site at Canvey Point and a memorial plaque, dedicated to the memory of both crews. Sadly, there is nothing of the kind at Allhallows, where 6133 crashed.

Most of the bodies, including Ramacitti’s, were recovered; some at the time, some a little later, and are interred in the American Cemetery at Madingley, Cambridge; a long way from home. One body was later sent home. The body of Gunner Louis Schulte from 6133 now rests at home in a cemetery in St. Louis. Only two are still unaccounted for: Fred Kauffman, Co-pilot of Heavenly Body II and Gunner Cecil Tognazzini from 6133, both of whom are listed on the tablets of the missing at Madingley. Their last resting places are very probably in the soft Thames mud that their aircraft crashed in. They too, are a long way from home.

The US Military Authorities naturally held an inquiry into the crashes. It was chaired by  Lieutenant-Colonel Robert S Kittel of the United States Army Air Corps. The Pilots and Co-pilots of both aircraft were charged to account. At the end of the inquiry, the official findings were that 2nd Lieutenant Armand J Ramacitti had failed to keep proper position within the formation. In trying to correct this, he had over-controlled, slid into and collided with, aircraft 42-97942 (Heavenly Body II) which was leading the second section of the formation. It was further stated that “No pecuniary or disciplinary action is contemplated”.

Comment from Mitch.

Personally, I cannot help but feel that this was a “cop out” and an extremely harsh outcome for the enquiry to have reached, to say the least.  Given the actual circumstances involved, simply blaming the collision on Pilot error seems to me to be grossly unjust. Some of the deceased crew members were awarded posthumous decorations, as indeed was Ramacitti. In my opinion though, Armand Ramacitti deserved far better than the enquiry board’s sanctimonious posthumous censure, their apparent “favour”of no official punishment and the award of what certainly looks to me to have been a “token” Purple Heart. He’d given his young life, on his first combat mission, desperately trying to get his Flak-blasted aircraft back to base; as had seven others of his equally meritorious crew, all of whom will remain forever, a long way from home.

My thanks go to Mitch for allowing me to post his write-up, it was a tragic accident that may or may not have been avoidable. Whatever the cause, I personally feel that the pilot was struggling with an aircraft that was unstable, difficult to control and likely to fall out of the sky at any moment. The fact that the aircraft had gotten as far as it had was a miracle in itself and those who lost their lives should be remembered for what they did and the sacrifice they made. To even consider that the pilot(s) were to blame for what happened to me is a travesty, they were young men fighting a war that was taking the lives of thousands.

Mitch is currently trying to have a memorial or plaque raised as close to the crash site as possible, I sincerely hope he achieves that aim and that these men are remembered in perpetuity.

Post Script.

B-17  #44-6133 was a Douglas/Long Beach B-17G-45-DL Flying Fortress delivered to Tulsa airbase, Oklahoma, May 10th, 1944. It was transferred to Hunter airbase, Savannah, Georgia, on May 19th, 1944, and then onto Dow Field on May 29th, 1944. She was assigned to the 525th BS, 379th BG as ‘FR-Y’at Kimbolton Jun 8th, 1944. The crew of #44-6133 were:

Pilot: Second Lieutenant Armand Ramacitti
Co-pilot: Second Lieutenant William ‘Bill’ Hager
Navigator: First Lieutenant Donald ‘Don’ Watson
Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Staff Sergeant Cecil Tognazzini
Radio Operator: Sergeant Richard ‘Dick’ Ritter
Ball turret gunner: Staff Sergeant John Burke
Waist gunner: Corporal Paul Haynes
Tail gunner: Sergeant Warren Oaks (his second mission)
Bombardier: Second Lieutenant Theodore Chronopolis

Sgt Cecil A Tognazzini

Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Staff Sergeant Cecil Tognazzini (Photo Janet Penn, via www.findagrave.com)

#42-97942 was a Lockheed/Vega B-17G-40-VE Flying Fortress delivered to Denver on April 11th, 1944. She then went onto Kearney air base in Nebraska on May 4th, 1944, before transferring also to Dow Field May 23rd, 1944. She was then assigned to 525th BS,  379th BG at Kimbolton as ‘FR-K’. The crew of #42-97942 were:

Pilot: First Lieutenant Lloyd Burns (just 19 years of age)
Bombardier: Second Lieutenant Jack Gray
Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Technical Sergeant Leonard Gibbs
Radio Operator: Technical Sergeant Leroy Monk
Ball turret gunner: Staff Sergeant William ‘Bill’ Farmer
Waist gunner: Staff Sergeant Richard ‘Dick’ Andrews
Co-pilot: Second Lieutenant Fred Kauffman
Navigator: Flight Officer Edward Sadler
Tail gunner: Staff Sergeant Louis Schulte

Mitch is the author of a number of books including “1940 – The Battle to Stop Hitler“the proceeds of which go to help the preservation of the Medway Queen a ‘little ship’ used in the Dunkirk evacuations.

A ‘gofundme’ fundraising account has been set up with a target of £1000, for which it is hoped the public will get behind, and secure a memorial for those young men who lost their lives that tragic day. Find the account at: https://www.gofundme.com/ww2-aircrew-memorial 

Further reading and sources:

www.canveyisland.org

www.379thbga.org

www.americanairmuseum.com

www.8thafhs.com

MACR 6984

MACR 6983

RAF Waterbeach – A period of change (Part 3).

In this last part looking at RAF Waterbeach we see how its military career finally came to a close. The jet age was had arrived but would soon pass, the curtain was about to fall on this historic airfield.

Immediately after the war, two new squadrons would take up residence at Waterbeach. During early September 1945 No. 59 Squadron would arrive followed within a few days by No. 220 Squadron, both flying the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Both these squadrons transferred from Coastal Command into the Transport Command and were used to ferry the many troops back and forth from India and the Far East. These operations would continue well into May (59 Sqn) and June (220 Sqn) 1946 whereupon both Squadrons were disbanded. The cessation of the units allowed for crews of the Squadrons to be transferred to a new unit and training on the Avro York aircraft, a model 59 Sqn would then use once reformed in 1947 at Abingdon. No. 220 Sqn would later reform flying the Shackleton, returning once more to Maritime Patrols from Kinloss in Scotland. Neither Squadron would return to Waterbeach, but whilst here, they would carry almost 19,000 troops across the world, a tremendous achievement indeed.

Whilst neither 59 nor 220 Squadrons would return, the Avro York would come to Waterbeach. In the August of 1946, No. 51 Squadron brought the C.1 York from Stradishall, continuing the India flights that both 59 and 220 had performed before her. Initially carrying freight, they the went on to carry passengers before departing themselves to Abingdon in December 1947.

RAF Waterbeach

Waterbeach seen through the fence.

The advanced party of 51 Sqn would arrive on the 16th, with the main party arriving on the 20th of August (1946). Flights would occur almost daily for the whole of August, flying to Palam (India) and back. In that month alone the Squadron would fly 1,435 hours of training flights, 355 of which were at night.

With a regular number of aircrew being posted to RAF Bourn amongst other airfields, the turnover of staff would be very high. Specific training was targeted at the long distance flights, many going to Cairo or Singapore, and many flying via RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire.

A year later, in mid November 1947, 242 Squadron joined the York group, crews gradually absorbing into 51 Sqn. Shortly after this however, notice came through that 51 Squadron was to move to Abingdon, along with the remnants of three other squadrons (242 included) to form a new long-range unit there.

After their departure, two more transport squadrons moved in to Waterbeach, taking a step backwards in terms of aircraft, both with that Second World War Veteran the  Dakota. No. 18 and 53 Squadrons stayed here, operating flights to and around the Middle East from December 1947 to early September 1948 (18 Sqn) and the end of July 1949 (53 Sqn).

With the Berlin Airlift demanding high levels of aircraft, 18 and 53 Sqns were soon ordered into the affray, and began carrying out flights under operation ‘Plainfare‘. After their withdrawal from the operations, 18 Sqn moved to Oakington for almost a year, during which time No. 24 Squadron moved into Waterbeach momentarily sharing the ramp with 53 Sqn. Yet another York unit, they also flew Avro’s Lancastrians and Dakotas, a role that involved them carry numerous dignitaries such as Field Marshall Lord Montgomery to various destinations around the globe. A short return of 18 Sqn meant that Waterbeach was again particularly busy with transport aircraft, and then for another short two month period it would get even busier.

During the New Year period, 1st December 1949 – 20th February 1950, No 206 Squadron appeared at Waterbeach, also reforming with that old favourite the C-47 Dakota. Using examples such as KN701, it was another squadron who had a long and distinguished history in Maritime patrol, eventually going on to return to this role also from Kinloss in Scotland.

Between the 25th February and the 29th February 1950, both No. 18 and 24 Squadrons departed Waterbeach, 18 Squadron disbanding and 24 Sqn moving to Oakington. During the move, the resident aircraft were disposed of, and the new Vickers Valletta was used in their place.

Quiet then reigned at Waterbeach for about three months. After which time Waterbeach took yet another turn of its page in the history books. With a combined flight of twenty-seven Meteors from both No. 56 and 63 Squadrons the silence was broken and the jet age had arrived. On May 10th 1950, the Meteors became the first major units of the RAF’s front line to be stationed at Waterbeach, two units that would remain here for a number of years operating several variants of the Meteor, Supermarine’s Swift and then the Hawker Hunter.

The initial variants of Meteor F.4 were replaced within two years by the F.8, during which time a number of accidents occurred – some incurring fatalities. Perhaps the worst blow came with the death of the Station Commander Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC when on 27th June 1951 his Meteor F.8 (WA953) rolled after take off crashing into the ground. Sqn. Ldr. Yeates was killed in the resultant crash and is buried in the local cemetery next to the airfield.

Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC

Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC killed on 27th June 1951.

Sqn. Ldr. Yeates’ death came at the end of a month that had seen four other aircraft damaged in landing accidents. These included two Station Flight Tiger Moths and two other Meteor F.8s, a decidedly bad month for the two squadrons.

A further landing accident brought home the dangers of jet aircraft on November 1st 1951, when Meteor WA940 of 63 Sqn collided with Meteor VZ497 of 56 Sqn after landing. The collision caused a fire in which both F/O. K Jones and Sgt. G Baldwin were both killed. As if through foresight, the personnel of 63 Sqn has noted on their arrival in 1950 that not only was the accommodation sub-standard but the hangarage and aircraft dispersals were insufficient for the needs of two squadrons. Highlighting the problems certainly didn’t prevent this tragedy from occurring. The terrible conflict of the Second World War may have been over, but casualties at Waterbeach would continue on for some time yet.

The work of 56 Sqn and 63 Sqn was carried out in cooperation with the US forces at nearby RAF Lakenheath, who at that  time were operating Boeing’s B-29 ‘Superfortress’ known for their devastating effect on Japan. These exercises, carried out over the skies of the UK,  were joint Anglo-American fighter affiliation exercises and included not only the B-29s but F-86 ‘Sabres’ as well.

As if history was to repeat itself, the bad weather that had brought disaster upon the bombers of the RAF’s Bomber Command on ‘Black Thursday‘ (RAF Bourn) ten years earlier also brought havoc to 56 Sqn on December 16th 1953.

With visibility down to a little as 100 yards on the Tuesday, Wednesday saw some improvements. With flying restricted to four aircraft per flight, it was going to be difficult. The Cathode Ray Direction Finding equipment (C.R.D.F.) was not working and so bearings needed to be obtained by VHF. Whilst the majority of aircraft were able to land using a Ground-Controlled Approach (G.C.A.) ‘A’ flight were not so lucky. Red Section were diverted to Duxford, but failed to achieve a landing. Being too low on fuel to continue on or try for a third time, the two aircraft climbed to 5,000 feet and the pilots, Flt/Lt. G. Hoppitt  and F/O. R. Rimmington ejected. Fuel gauges at the time were reading as little as 20 Gallons. Both aircraft came down near to each other, no damage was caused to public property and both pilots were unhurt. Yellow section, also diverted to Duxford, where they attempted G.C.A. landings also, but unable to do so, the section leader, F/O. N. Weerasinghe suffered a broken neck and fractured skull after he force landed in a field. The fourth pilot, F/O. Martin, broke his back in two places after ejecting at only 700 feet. A court of enquiry ruled that three of the pilots had difficulty in jettisoning their canopies, and F/O. Martin, even though he managed to succeed,  ejected at an all time low-level. It was well into the New Year before  F/O. Weerasinghe regained consciousness, and all four aircraft, WA769, WH510, WA930 and WH283 were written off.  In a light-hearted but perhaps tasteless ‘that’s how its done‘ demonstration, both Flt/Lt. Hoppitt  and F/O. Rimmington jumped off the bar at a Pilot’s party in the Bridge Hotel.*2

Over the next four years a number of other squadrons would arrive and depart Waterbeach. On 18th April 1955 a new night fighter squadron was formed, that of No. 253 Sqn. Operating the DH Venom NF.2A, an aircraft designed around the earlier Vampire, it was a short-lived squadron, disbanding on September 2nd 1957. 253’s reforming would however, see the beginnings of a string of Night Fighter Squadrons being stationed here at Waterbeach.

Almost simultaneously to the disbanding of 253 Sqn, was the arrival of a second Night Fighter squadron, the Meteor NF.14 of 153 Sqn from RAF West Malling absorbing the staff of the now disbanded 253 Sqn. Training crews on Meteors along with being on 24 hour standby, meant that flights were frequent, a regime that continued until July 2nd 1958 when 153 was disbanded being renumbered 25 Sqn. After having a short spell in the turmoil of the Middle East, they then began to prepare to upgrade to Gloster’s Delta wing fighter the Javelin in September. By December only a handful of aircraft had been received, but further training and upgrades saw the FAW.7 replaced by the FAW.9. Work was slow but by late 1959 the squadron was considered operational.  By the October 1961, 25 Sqn was posted north to Scotland and RAF Leuchars, where it received the FAW.7 back before being disbanded once more.

Gloster Javelin FAW.7 of No 25 Squadron RAF Waterbeach, showing its missile complement of De Havilland Firestreak infra-red homing air-to-air missiles. © IWM (RAF-T 2172)

During this time 56 Sqn who had been one of Waterbeach’s longest standing squadrons, departed to RAF Wattisham where it would receive the Lightning, the RAF’s high-speed interceptor that burnt fuel at an incredible rate of knots. No. 56 Sqn had whilst here at Waterbeach, used not only the Meteor but the Supermarine Swift (F.1 and F.2) and the Hunter F.5 and F.6. No. 63 Sqn, who also flew the Hunter F.6 was also disbanded at Waterbeach during this period (October 1958), and the loss of these Hunters would also see the end of the line for 63 Sqn RAF.

The last 5 years would see the last of the RAF’s involvement at Waterbeach. July 17th 1959 saw the arrival of No. 46 Sqn with Javelin FAW.6s. Disbanded in 1961 the nucleus would remain ferrying Javelins to the Far East. The November 1961, would then see two more squadrons arrive; No. 1 on the 7th and No. 54 on the 23rd.

Both these squadrons were Hunter FGA.9 Squadrons, both moving in from RAF Stradishall operating as Ground Attack squadrons. With successive  deployments to the Middle East, they were armed for operational flying patrolling the border along Aden.

By August 1963, both No.1 and No.54 Sqn were moved on, thus ending the RAF’s ‘front line’ flying involvement with Waterbeach. Whilst the military retained Waterbeach as an active airfield, the Royal Engineers as airfield construction and maintenance units used the site to  test numerous runway surfaces and construction methods. Testing of these surfaces used a wide variety of aircraft types, from small jets to large multi-engined aircraft such as the Hercules and BAC 111. A further ten years of intermittent flying activity ensured that the legacy of Waterbeach continued on. With various open days and flying events to raise much need money bringing crowds onto the airfield, Waterbeach’s life was extended yet further, but then in March 2013 the MOD finally pulled out, and the site has since been earmarked for development.

The post war era saw many gate guardians at Waterbeach. Spitfire Mk22 (PK664) was later moved to Binbrook, whilst the Hurricane MKIIc went to Bentley Priory. Another  Spitfire replaced both these examples, Mk XVIe (TE392) which was brought here in 1961 and remained here until 1966. A veteran of 63, 65, 126, 164, 595 and 695 Sqns, it eventually ended up in the United States flying with the Lone Star Flight Museum in Texas.

Other guardians include Westland Whirlwind HAR3  (XG577) of the Royal Air Force and a Hawker Hunter (WN904) which flew with 257 Squadron at RAF Wattisham. It was brought in to represent the Hunters, the last aircraft that flew from Waterbeach, and was present here until 2012. It was then moved to the Sywell Aviation Museum in Northampton.

Plans are already in the pipe-line to develop the 293-hectare site along with adjacent fields into a £2.5bn ‘Silicon Valley’ style township, complete with marina facilities and three schools. The barracks site alone will include 6,300 new homes with some original aspects such as the Watch Office utilised in the modern development.

At present the site is empty, entrance strictly controlled and by prior appointment only, the gate guarded by a private security firm. A fabulous museum exists in a managed building just inside the gate and can only be accessed by appointment. Whilst the site is gradually becoming overgrown, it is virtually intact, the main runway, hangars and ancillary buildings are all present. Local farmers store hay on the disused runways and an eerie silence blows across the parade ground.

Some views are possible from certain public advantage points but these are very limited and restrictive. The busy A10 allowing only occasional glimpses to the watch office and hangars, and side roads giving no more than fleeting glimpses through high fences and locked gates.

This once thriving airfield has finally met its match. The enormous hangars that once housed the heavy bombers of Bomber Command, the mighty B-24s of Transport Command and the fast jets of Fighter Command, now shells awaiting their fate. Once one of the RAF’s biggest and most important airfields, Waterbeach will soon been relegated to the history books, buried beneath the conglomeration of houses, schools and small technology businesses that thrive in today’s fast living world. Which buildings survive have yet to be finalised, the future of Waterbeach lays very much in the hands of the developer, and as a historical site of major aviation significance it is hoped that they look upon it sympathy and understanding, something that is often left out when it comes to development.

RAF Waterbeach appears in full in Trail 11 with Mepal and Witchford.

Sources and further reading.

*Aviation Trails – “The Development of Britain’s Airfields“.
*2 AIR 27/2620/1 – The National Archives
AIR 27/789/5 – The National Archives
AIR 27/792 – The National Archives
AIR 27/1977/2 – The National Archives
AIR 27/1978/11 – The National Archives

Grehan, J., & Mace. M. “Bomber Harris – Sir Arthur Harris’ Despatch on War Operations 1942-1945“, Pen & Sword. 2014

The museum website has details of opening times and access.

For details of the development of Waterbeach see the Cambridge News Live website, with links to the plans.

November 11th 2018 – At the going down of the sun…

At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month 1918, the guns on the western front fell silent. Four years of war in which millions were either killed or wounded, towns and villages wiped from the map and the environment changed forever, had finally come to an end. All along the front line, men were soon to put down their arms and leave their trenches for home.

The war to end all wars had finally come to an end. During the last four years some 40 million people had been killed or wounded, many simply disappeared in the mud that bore no preference to consuming man or machine.

Back home, virtually no city, town, village or hamlet was left unscathed by the loss of those four years. Many who returned home were changed, psychologically many were wounded beyond repair.

Sadly, twenty years later, the world slipped into the abyss of war once more. A war that saw some of the most incredible horrors, one that saw the extreme capabilities of what man can do to his fellow-man. Across the world millions of innocent people were slaughtered under the guise of an ideology. An ideology that was determined to rid the world of anyone who was willing to speak out against that very same ideology.

Young men were transported thousands of miles to fight in environments completely alien to them. Many had never been beyond their own home town and yet here they were in foreign lands fighting a foe they had never even met.

The bravery and self-sacrifice of those young men  on the seas, on the land and in the air, go beyond anything we can offer as repayment today.

For nearly 80 years, the world has been at an uneasy rest, Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, the Middle East, and the Far East, in almost every corner of the globe there has been a war in which our service men and women have been involved. The war to end all wars failed in its aim to bring peace to the world.

In this year, on the hundredth anniversary of the ending of the First World War along with the anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force, we remember those who laid down their lives in the fight for freedom. We remember those who fought for the right to free speech, for the right to be who you are and the right to live our lives in peace.

We will remember them…

War Graves Cemetery - St Mary's Great Bircham

St Mary’s Great Bircham

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

The rosette of the Commonwealth Air Forces – St. Clement Danes

Ypres 007

Tyne Cot, Ypres

DSC_0587

The American Cemetery Madingley

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen (18/3/1893 – 4/11/1914)

RAF Hardwick – Ted’s Travelling Circus. (Part 2).

In Part 1, we saw how, at the end of 1943, the 93rd BG stationed at Hardwick had been ridiculed by B-17 crews, they had been spread far and wide and had won a hard fought DUC for their action over the Polesti oil fields. As 1943 turned to 1944, was their luck about to change?

1944 brought more similar events. January saw ‘No Ball‘ missions, attacks on the V-weapon sites across northern France. A turn that pleased some of the tired crews of the USAAF but one that was considered unnecessary and unlikely to turn the tide of the war by many others. January also saw the build up to February’s ‘Big Week’ campaign, a series of RAF and USAAF operations to destroy Germany’s aircraft manufacturing plants.

A dramatic picture taken shortly after a B-24 of the 93rd BG crashes on take-off at Hardwick on March 3rd 1944. Surprisingly the crew were all able to escape before the bombs exploded. (IWM FRE 3779)

In the following month, April 1944, the US Air Force was to suffer its greatest loss ever to intruders, Luftwaffe night fighters who followed the heavy bombers home, picking them off one at a time until they reached their bases in England. The bombers, many badly damaged or low on fuel, were easy pickings as they tried to land in the early evening darkness. Illuminated by navigation lights, the bombers could do little to protect themselves as the Luftwaffe pilots waited until the most opportune moment to unleash their cannon and machine gun bullets into the bombers. The mission to Hamm in Germany would mean the bombers were arriving back later, and once it was realised that the Luftwaffe were there, runway lights were extinguished, navigation light were put out and aircraft almost left to their own devices – the risk of collision increasing ten fold as a result of these actions. Two aircraft at Hardwick were attacked that night, both sustaining minor damage but thankfully suffering little in the way of long-term harm. Whilst a number of airfields across East Anglia did suffer badly that night, Hardwick on the face of it, got off lightly, with minimal damage being inflicted by these intruders.

June saw the Allied invasion of occupied Europe. The 2nd BD sending almost 550 B24s to the Normandy area with the 93rd bombing strategic military targets such as gun emplacements and bridges around Cherbourg. They would then go on to support the breakthrough at St. Lo and drop supplies to troops as they advanced across occupied Europe.

High numbers of operations during the summer of 1944 led to many crews achieving their 200 mission mark, each one showing the strain of continuous operations over occupied France.

During the failed operations in Market Garden, the 93rd supported the airborne troops dropping supplies on the 18th September. Then over the winter of 1944-45, they would support the troops in the Ardennes, a role they continued as the allied forces pushed across the Rhine and on into Germany itself.

By April 1945, the end was in sight and the 93rd were officially withdrawn from operations, performing their last mission on 25th April 1945.

Their stay post war would not be prolonged. They departed Hardwick over May and into June 1945, at which point the airfield was handed back to the Royal Air Force. The RAF retained the site until the early 1960s when it was eventually sold off, quickly returning to agriculture, a state in which it remains in today.

By the time they left, the 93rd had conducted 330 missions (41 from North Africa) from Hardwick, which added to the 66 already carried out from Alconbury, meant this was to be the highest number of operations of any Eighth Air Force Group. They flew 8,169 sorties dropping over 19,000 tons of bombs across Europe.  They were the oldest Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, having the first bombers to fly both 25 and 50 missions – ‘Boomerang‘ and ‘Hot Stuff‘ respectively. They had also performed in numerous theatres: the Atlantic (Anti submarine theatre), Egypt-Libya, Sicily, Normandy, the Rhine, and over wide areas of central Europe making them the most travelled Group of the Eighth Air Force. They were awarded two DUCs, and post war went on to serve well into the early 1950s. This achievement made them the only USAF Group that had not been inactivated since its original formation in 1942.

Their departure from Hardwick marked the end of an era, a move that left an enduring mark on the local area. The Liberators may have moved on, but the history of the 93rd lives on to this day though the displays and actions of those who preserve Hardwick’s small number of buildings for the benefit of future generations.

While the airfield was returned to agriculture, proposals were put forward to transform part of the site into a domestic waste site. These were later withdrawn though after investigations into the geology of the site revealed that such actions could lead to toxins entering the water course below ground. A potentially lethal release with serious consequences.

RAF Hardwick

Original buildings now serve as poultry sheds.

Today there are few physical remains of the airfield, a few scattered buildings amongst the trees, a small section of runway and a smattering of Nissen huts that form the recently created 93rd BG Museum. With such a large site, all of which is on private land, it is difficult to investigate individual parts in any depth. However, this does not lead to an uninteresting visit.

The airfield is separated by the local road, to the west are the runways and the east the admin and accommodation areas. To the west, one section of the main runway still exists in good condition and for a very special reason; the local farmer (Hardwick Warbirds) uses this to fly his TWO restored P-51Ds and other ex-military aircraft! Seen over the airfield on special occasions, he performs small displays for ‘open days’ and other museum related activities.  Looking across the westerly side, one can see a lone windsock catching the morning breeze. This windsock marks the location of  the remaining runway sections part of which can be seen easily from the public road.

There are two entrances to the eastern side, both go across private land, but the landowners are happy (in my experience) to allow free passage on both. I approached from the Barondole Lane entrance and headed to the aptly named ‘Airfield Farm’. Once there, I knocked at the farm door and gave notice of my intentions to the farmer’s delightful wife. She was happy for me to wander, and even took time out to explain the layout of the remaining buildings. She took time to show me the memorial that now stands outside the farmhouse, and then pointed me toward the museum further along the farm track and suggested I take a drive down even though they were not fully open for business. A truly lovely and helpful lady!

RAF Hardwick Museum

The original Nissen huts serve as a superb Museum.

The family now own a large part of the airfield and its remaining buildings. They have utilised some of these as part of the farm many of which now house chickens. In one of them, is a small clear block with a Liberator suspended inside, marking it as an original. Behind here are further building’s remains, in particular the gas training room, condemned as unsafe it is too costly to have demolished.

Driving on, you arrive at a small collection of Nissen huts, this forms the museum. Each one is original and in very good condition. Here they hold a huge range of memorabilia, uniforms, photographs and aircraft parts. This museum is a real gem quietly hidden away in this corner of Norfolk.

One of the volunteers at the time, himself ex-USAF, (RAF Bentwaters), told me stories about the site, the history of all the parts they had gathered and then he gave an amazing personal guided tour even though they were closed. He explained how at the end of the war, as the Americans pulled out, large trenches were dug and filled with unwanted bicycles and other artefacts that they were not allowed to give away for fear of disrupting the local economy – what you wouldn’t give for a heavy-duty metal detector! He also showed me spent cartridges that were used to light the Nissen hut fires, all found in the topsoil of the adjacent field!

RAF Hardwick

A lone windsock marks the runway.

After you leave the museum, going back by the same track, turn left out onto the road and then right, you come across another one of the entrances to the original airfield, considerably smaller in size it is now only a  farm track. It looks so insignificant shrouded by tress and bushes that it is difficult to imagine what went on here all those years ago.

Hardwick once bustled with airmen and personnel, several thousand in all, but with so much gone there is little to show for it now. It is however, good to know that flying still does take place here, and that through the museum,  the dedication, sacrifice and bravery of those young men in their B-24s shall live on for many years to come.

Hardwick was originally visited in 2014, it appears in Trail 12.

Sources and further reading.

93rd BG casualty reports.

More information about Hardwick and museum details can be found on the museum website.  When visiting the museum, check opening times as they are limited, but do spend a good half-day or more here. It will be worth your while.

RAF Hardwick – Ted’s Travelling Circus. (Part 1).

There are many good museums across the country that tell the stories of heroism and sacrifice witnessed during the Second World War. In Norfolk, most reflect the lives of the ‘friendly invasion’ the lives of the US armed forces and in particular the USAAF, who flocked here in their thousands to a life that was new and very dangerous.

One such group, the 93rd BG, achieved many records and fought in many theatres, but their road was not easy nor was it any ‘milk run’.

In this trail, we return to Norfolk, revisiting the lives of those who served at the former US station 104, otherwise known as RAF Hardwick.

RAF Hardwick (Station 104)

Hardwick is a difficult place to find, primarily due to the narrow lanes and the fact that the name given to it is not the closest village! In fact, Alburgh is closer, but once found this delightful place has a lot to offer to the visitor.

Opening in September 1942, the first units to arrive were B-25 Mitchells of the 310th BG of the Eighth Air Force. Its three runways of concrete and tarmac construction, one of 2,000 yards and two of 1,400 yards, were laid out in the classic Class A style. The entire site covered an enormous area, housing eleven ‘spectacle’ (double loop) and fifty ‘frying pan’ type hardstands, it had three T2 hangars, a watch office (to design 518/40 later modified to 5966/43) and a wide range of support and ancillary buildings common to  all Class A airfields. Being a bomber base, it would require two enormous fuel stores holding a combined total of 144,000 imp Gallons of fuel.

The airfield’s construction process commenced in late 1941 with the main infrastructure being built by John Laing & Son Ltd. Completion was achieved in the autumn of 1942, when the site was officially opened. The construction process would lead to a site capable of  holding around 3,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender. There would be six male sites, two female, two communal quarters and a sick quarters, and as was common with all airfields built after the start of the war, the main public road dissected the airfield separating it from the dispersed accommodation blocks. As a result, the accommodation was to the east beyond the technical area with the bomb dump far to the north-west. Accommodation for the personnel was primarily through ‘Laing’ or ‘Nissen’ hutting, with a small number of Boulton & Paul style huts, none of which offered a great deal of protection from the cold outside.

Handed over to the US forces in 1942, the ground echelons of the 310th BG arrived by sea during the September, with the air echelons bringing their B-25 ‘Mitchells’ via the northern route during early October. The 310th were lucky enough to avoid the seasonal weather change that caused so many problems for units flying across the northern route in the winter months that followed.

Brought to the UK to train crews before they were shipped out to North Africa, the new twin-engined bomber crews would very soon leave Hardwick behind, receiving their posting and transferring abroad in three stages during November and on into December.

RAF Hardwick Memorial

Memorial to the 93rd BG (328th 329th 330th and 409th BS) RAF Hardwick.

Hardwick would take on a very different sound after that, the B-25s being replaced by the heavy four-engined B-24s of the 93rd BG. The 93rd were already a battle experienced outfit, having flown a number of missions from Alconbury since the 9th October 1942 – the day the B-24 Liberator entered into the war.

Many of the early missions performed by the 93rd would be attacks on the submarine pens along the French coast, a move discussed at great length between the two US Generals, Spaatz and Arnold. The poor successes of these missions, which were designed to support the war in the Atlantic, were borne out in an Eighth Air Force study later on. In the report, published on 8th December, it was summarised that American bombs at that time were incapable of penetrating the thick ceilings of the U-boat pens, and that little damage was being achieved by the current US bombing strategy. As a result of this, attacks soon curtailed and operations moved to other targets.

Preceding the move of the 93rd to Hardwick was the posting of a large detachment to North Africa on December 5th. It was a detachment that would see the men and machines of the Eighth transfer across to the Twelfth Air Force. It was a move that was often complained about, seen as draining valuable resources and hindering the training and future operations of the Eighth Air Force in Europe.

Those who remained in the UK began transferring over to the 2nd Bombardment Wing and a new airfield here at Hardwick, where they were trained for ‘special duties’. Gaps in the 329th Bomb Squadron (BS) were filled with crews from the other 3 squadrons of the Group (328th, 330th, 409th) and were moved to a satellite airfield at Bungay. Here, the aircraft were fitted with the British ‘Gee’ system and crews trained on its use. By December they were ready, and ‘Moling‘ mission could now begin.

Unfortunately, the weather played a major part in the operational downfall of these missions, with insufficient amounts of bad weather being found to allow Gee to be used properly. Much to the surprise of the Americans, it didn’t always rain in England!

With the other three squadrons away in North Africa, the 329th joined forces with its sister group the 44th BG at Shipdham. Here they waited in earnest for the return of their associate squadrons.

Gas Training Room.

The gas training room, one of the few remaining buildings at Hardwick.

However, it was not a harmonious relationship. With the squadrons placed in North Africa getting considerable press coverage for their successes, and the B-17 groups being regular features in the UK, the 44th were understandably aggrieved, feeling that the press were ignoring the immense effort and losses they were incurring. The cold of high altitude bombing over occupied Europe was, it would seem, little match for the delights of North Africa.

In the following February / March 1943 the four squadrons were reunited for the first time, and they returned to Hardwick. Here they would fly bombing mission to targets in France and the low countries. In the April, Hardwick was visited by both Lord Trenchard and, ten days later, by Lieutenant General Frank Andrews,  two high-ranking officials who would bring prestige and pride to the men and women of Hardwick. It was Andrews who would be so tragically killed flying across the Northern Atlantic route later on. He along with the crew of B-24 #41-23728 ‘Hot Stuff‘, the first Hardwick crew to achieve their mission quota, would die in a crash that left just one survivor, the tail gunner. The name Andrews would live on though, his name being given to the airfield in Essex, RAF Andrews Field in memory of his work.

The summer of 1943 saw a further detachment being sent out again to North Africa. Here they would earn themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (one of two), for the low-level action over the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. Further moves and detachments between Hardwick and mainly North Africa earned the unit the name ‘Ted’s Travelling Circus’, Ted being Colonel Ted Timberlake, the Group’s Commander.

During this early period of the war the Liberator groups had little in the way of operational ‘clout’ over France and Germany. With the larger operations being handled by the established B-17 Groups, the B-24s were often relegated to Air Sea Rescue missions where they would search for downed aircraft particularity over the North Sea.

By early September 1943 the bulk of the 93rd were back once more at Hardwick, small in numbers they were often overlooked for the more popular B-17s. Looked down upon by the crews of the B-17s who openly criticised the ungainly lines of the Liberator with names such as ‘banana boat’, only led in turn to jeers from B-24 crews who highlighted the short-range and lower bomb load carried by the sleeker B-17.

This short-range was a factor borne out on the 93rd’s first mission back in the UK when on the 6th September, sixty-nine B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division (BD)  were sent along with 338 B-17s of the 1st and 3rd BDs to attack Stuttgart. A disaster from start to finish, heavy cloud prevented the target being bombed, formations were separated and targets of opportunity were then chosen. With the formations broken up, defensive power was lost and the Luftwaffe made easy pickings of those aircraft left out alone. Forty-five of the B-17s were lost compared to none of the B-24s, many B-17s having to ditch in the sea or crash-land in Kent after running out of fuel.  Of the sixty-nine B-24s flown out, none dropped their bombs but all four groups returned to their respective bases safely.

For the remainder of September, the Liberators of the 2nd BD were ordered to carry out ‘STARKEY‘ operations, beginning on the 9th to airfields in France and particularly  St. Omer. With few bombs being dropped it was a poor mission and one that was followed on the 15th September by similar results at Chatres. This would be the last mission for the B-24s of the 93rd before yet another posting to North Africa in a move that left the crews both astonished and in total disbelief. During this mission on the 15th, ten airmen would be lost with at least three having been known to have been killed. All ten were from the 330th BS, a sad end to a poor series of missions.

Returning again in early October, the 93rd of Hardwick would join the recently formed 392nd at Wendling for a mission  to Vegesack, a northern district of Bremen. With heavy cloud cover, alternative targets of opportunity were chosen, with little damage being done to Vegesack itself.

The poor weather continued for much of October, preventing the Liberators flying in anything but training flights. The 93rd were able to launch a diversionary raid for the B-17s ill-fated attack on Schweinfurt on October 14th, the majority of the sixty B-24s allocated for the raid failing to even get airborne. After abandoning the mission those that had managed to get aloft headed for Emden in an aim to draw fighters away from the main body of the Schweinfurt  raid. It was hoped that this move would reduce the mauling that would occur from this deep, unprotected penetration mission.

B-24D Liberator #41-23722 ‘Boomerang‘ (GO-C) of the 328th BS, 93rd BG at Hardwick. This was the first Eighth AF Liberator to complete 50 missions. After completing 53 missions, it was flown back to the US for a War Bond tour.

With further diversionary raids on the 29th, attacks on Wilhelmshaven on the 3rd November, Munster on the 5th and Bremen the 13th; the 93rd would then turn to Norway and targets at Rjukan. An ineffectual raid, it preceded further runs back into Germany. December and the approaching Christmas would see no let up for the men of the 93rd and Hardwick, mission numbers being so high that on the 16th, B-24D #41-23722 ‘Boomerang‘ became the first Liberator of the Eighth to pass the fifty missions mark. Three mission later she would depart the UK for American shores where she would perform a war bond tour raising much-needed money for the war effort.

Five days before Christmas, December 20th 1943, would see a return trip to Bremen. Two more aircraft would be lost on this mission. The first, B-24 #42-40133 of 328th BS piloted by Captain Cleveland Hickman (s/n: 0-727870) was shot down by Lt Kard-Heinz Kapp of JG 27/5 in Bf 109G-6 with the loss of all nine men on board. The second, #42-63963 ‘Unexpected II‘ of the 329th BS collided in midair with P-47D #42-8677 and crashed into North Sea north of Den Helder, Netherlands. All nine from ‘Unexpected II’ were captured and became prisoners of war.

Two days later, T/Sgt.John Tkachuk 329th BS died of anoxia after his foot was caught between a bomb and the bomb rack. The ‘walk around bottle’ he was carrying running out of oxygen before he could be given assistance. 1943 would draw to a close with a very sad overtone.

In Part 2, we see how 1944 arrives and how the closing stages of the war produced some remarkable records for the 93rd BG. We find out what happened to Hardwick and see the museum that has emerged to remember those who served from this airfield in the heart of Norfolk.

RAF Old Buckenham – the home of film stars!

In the second part of Trail 13 we leave Tibenham behind and head to another still active airfield. Like Tibenham, the heavy bombers have all gone, replaced by small single engined aircraft, and also like Tibenham, much of the site has likewise disappeared. However, the history of this airfield remains very much alive, through fly-ins, displays and events that all remind us about those difficult days of the late 1940s.

Synonymous with film starts such as James Stewart and Walter Matthau, this airfield lives on and is thriving. Showcasing a range of facilities it is a delightful little airfield and one that keeps the spirit of flying very much alive. From Tibenham we head only a few miles north-west, where we find the former US airfield Old Buckenham.

RAF Old Buckenham (Station 144)

Old Buckenham is an airfield with a rather grand name. It was a short-lived airfield, purposely built for the USAAF late on in the Second World War. It only ever housed one group, a group that was itself a late joiner. It was initially a rather unpleasant place to be, mud and rain being the airmen’s worst enemy. But as the war progressed it became more hospitable, more lively and more inspiring. Whilst the group was never considered a major player in the war, it did achieve some remarkable results, the group going on to set some extraordinary bomber records.

Opened as a bomber airfield in 1943, it was built under the class ‘A’ specification, with three intersecting concrete and woodchip runways (1 x 2,000 and 2 x 1,400 yds) each 50 yards wide. It had fifty hardstands of the spectacle style, two T2 hangars (four were allocated initially) and a standard 1941 design watch tower (12779/41).

‘Old Buck’ as it became known, was exclusively the home to the American 453rd Bomb Group, operating a range of versions of the enormous B-24 Liberator, initially under the command of Col. Joseph A Miller.

Consisting of the standard four Bomb Squadrons: 732nd (squadron code E3), 733rd (F8), 734th (E8) and 735th (H6), the group was constituted on the 14th May 1943 and activated on 1st June that same year. It then came into physical being on June 29th, taking its officers and enlisted men from the 29th BG (H), who, under Special Order No. 180, transferred fifty-five Officers and 231 enlisted men to the 453rd. Of these, twelve officers were sent to the 732nd, twelve to the 733rd, eleven to the 734th and another twelve to the 735th. Each of the squadrons also received fifty-five enlisted men, the remainder of the workforce going to the Group’s headquarters.

Even before leaving the United States, the 453rd would suffer casualties. Its first loss was B-24E #41-29032 piloted by 2nd Lt. David MacGowan (735thBS), which crashed into a hillside near to Du Bois, Wyoming whilst on a photographic and training exercise. The accident, on August 14th 1943, resulted in the loss of all eleven crewmen on board. It was perhaps, a sign of things to come.

After passing through a number of training sites in the United States: Wendover Field, Pocatello, Idaho and March Field, the ground echelons sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on the Queen Elizabeth to England. They  arrived at Old Buckenham at the end of December into what would prove to be a cold and very unpleasant winter. Considerable rain and snow had turned Old Buckenham into a mud bath. Colds and flu spread like wildfire through the ranks, and overshoes had to be issued to help against the unending sludge.

The air echelons would fly the southern route with the first leaving in early January. On the very day of departure another aircraft was lost  – two crews were now gone before the group had even reached the U.K.

The air echelons arrived throughout January and into February, organising themselves and preparing their ‘H’ model Liberators for the forthcoming battle. When possible, they undertook training flights over the English countryside, received ground instruction and took further role specific training. They began carrying out mock missions including on the 4th, a simulated mission which turned very sour for one particular crew.

Liberator #41-28641, ‘Cee Gee‘ (referred to in some references as ‘Chee Chee‘) piloted by 2nd Lt. John R. Turner, became lost and it would seem, damaged by flak. Forced down onto an enemy airfield, it was repaired by the Germans and put back into service as A3 + KB by KG 200. The aircraft was intended to be used to ferry supplies to the island of Rhodes, and was recaptured by advancing American forces in May 1945. This was the first Luftwaffe captured Liberator and only the second to be put into service with German markings.

S/Sgt J. T. Sipkovsky, inspects B-24H #41-28641 [A5+KB] of KG200  ex 453BG /732BS, left at Salsburg by retreating German forces. (WM UPL 23019)

The next day, February 5th 1944, the Union Jack was officially lowered at Old Buckenham when, with much pomp and ceremony, Sqn. Ldr. L. Archer handed over the keys of the airfield to Col. Miller. Station 144 was now officially open for business.

There would be no break nor celebratory parties for the new Group though. On that same day, the 453rd were to take part in their first mission, a bombing raid to Tours in France.

Tours had been the focus of the invading Germans in the early part of the war. Heavily bombed with incendiaries, it was quickly turned into a fortress housing military camps  with strong fortifications. The allies then made it a focus for their air bombardments, but on this occasion, the weather would be the winner with heavy cloud causing many problems over the Continent. With the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bomb Divisions in action that day, many would drop bombs on alternative targets, reform on other divisions or return home without bombing at all.

On the 6th February, the 453rd were back in action again, and again the horrors of war would be seen at Old Buckenham, when B-24 #42-52178 ‘Little Agnes‘ crashed after take off.  After lifting off the runway, the aircraft lost power, stalled and hit the runway hard sliding along on its belly into a ditch at the end of the threshold. The aircraft then broke up, at which point one of the ten 500lb bombs exploded setting off a chain reaction that led to a fireball. Mechanical failure of the #1 and #4 engines was blamed that day when eight of the ten crew on-board were killed when the aircraft came down.

For the remainder of February, including ‘Big Week’,  the 453rd would carry out further missions to both France, Holland and also Germany. These included: Siracourt (13th & 15th); Brunswick (20th), the airfield at Achmer (21st) and the Me-110 aircraft assembly plant at Gotha (22nd & 24th). Known for its high casualties, the 453rd managed to lose only one aircraft on the two missions it carried out to Gotha, a remarkable escape considering the ferocity of the battle, and the loss of thirty-three from other groups. It was also during this mission that sixteen aircraft would come down in Switzerland, the highest number of any mission of the war.

RAF Old Buckenham

The Blister Hangar at Old Buckenham.

During March 1944, several major events would occur at Old Buckenham. Firstly, on the 6th, B-24H #42-64469 “El Flako” of the 732nd BS, whilst only on her third mission, would accidentally drop her bomb load just 3 miles from the airfield. Thankfully there were no injuries apart from a very large dent in the pride of the crew on board. Red faces aside, this mission, the USAAF’s first daylight attack on Berlin, would not be an easy ride for the 453rd.

Of the twenty-four aircraft sent out, four would fail to return, two over the target and two ditching in the channel. A fifth, piloted by Lt. Richard Holman, was badly damaged with two engines put out of action whilst over the target area. Determined to get back home, Lt. Holman dropped down to the cloud base where he was pursued by a number of FW-190s. With only two turrets operating, the crew managed to fight off the attackers, shooting down almost half of them in the process. After passing through a flak zone in Amsterdam they continued on, Lt. Holman putting the Liberator through some of the most incredible and violent turns possible, until they reached the Channel. With fuel and ammunition now critically short, the crew threw out anything and everything, in a desperate attempt to lighten the load of the failing bomber. Eventually, and only by the skill and determination of the crew, the aircraft arrived back safely at Old Buckingham. Many prayers and thanks were said on that particular day.

Then on the 18th, B-24H #41-28649, ‘Little Bryan‘, was hit by flak over Friedrichshafen, a target located close to the border with Switzerland on the banks of Lake Constance. Whilst the weather was near perfect, the target was covered with a thick smoke screen, preventing accurate visual bombing taking place. Heavy flak and fighter activity made things even worse for the bombers of the mighty Eighth.

Badly damaged, ‘Little Bryan‘ managed to continue flying but was losing fuel fast. As a result it would not make it home. On board ‘Little Bryan‘ that day was the Group’s Commanding Officer, Colonel Joseph A. Miller, along with the Group’s Navigator, Capt. Joseph O’Reilly. The aircraft crashed west of Vernon after the crew had baled out. Of the crew, ten were captured and taken prisoner, the last crewman escaping to fight another day. With the loss of a second aircraft along with three of its crew, March 18th would be a heartbreaking day for the 453rd.

The following day, Col. Ramsey Potts Jnr assumed command at Old Buckenham, a veteran of thirty-two missions he was one of the most decorated officers in the European Theatre, having been on both the Polesti and Rome bombing raids. He remained with the 453rd until mid 1944.

It was also at this time, (March 30th) that Major James “Jimmy” Stewart became the Group’s Operations Officer, Stewart who led the 733rd BS for 11 missions, went on to become a famous actor. He was promoted after the loss of Major Colfield earlier on, on February 16th.

RAF Old Buckenham

The mobile ‘control tower’ at Old Buckenham

April would see further losses for the group, but May would prove to be the worst so far. On the 8th, seven out of thirty-two aircraft would fail to return to Old Buckenham: #41-28650, #41-29571, #42-52180, #42-52185, #42-64453, #42-64464 and #42-110076, all being lost at Brunswick, a target gaining in its notoriety.

Following a move of the ground echelons on April 11th to form a new squadron at North Pickenham, the remaining staff were reshuffled to fill the gaps left behind. A small interruption to the continuing missions over Germany.

The 13th of April saw the first mission undertaken by Major Stewart, an operation that took 274 B-24s to various targets including the Dornier parts factory near Munich. The results that day were considered ‘good’.

For much of April the routine was the same, missions to France and Germany. After three months of being at Old Buckenham, the 453rd were now settling in well, improvements had been made to the living areas, more concrete had been laid to reduce the mud, and the cinema was now showing regular films. Other recreational areas were developed and morale was rising.

Throughout the conflict the 453rd would attack prestige targets: the fuel dump at Dulmen, marshalling yards, Hamm rail centres, Gelsenkirchen oil refineries, along with numerous airfields, canals and viaducts.

May would see yet another return to the dreaded Brunswick, and for the 453rd it would be another high loss mission. Using a mix of general purpose bombs and incendiaries, 307 B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division joined aircraft from the 1st and 3rd Bomb Divisions in attacking it, and other major cities across Germany. On this day, ten aircraft would fail to return to base with eight being lost as the 453rd led the large formations into the target area. In the lead plane was Capt. Andy Low, who for his exemplary leadership, later received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Bombing through 10/10 cloud using Pathfinder equipment, the group was attacked by around 200 enemy fighters, an attack that led to the area being known to the crews as ‘fighter-alley’.

RAF Old Buckenham

Part of the runway is now used as the taxiway.

By now, with mission counts mounting, crews were beginning to finish their tours of duty, the first full crew to do so, being the crew of Lt. Ward on May 31st, 1944.

Keeping morale up whilst the young men were away from home was always a challenge. Whilst undertaking training back in the States, a band was formed, a band that managed to reform itself finding space for rehearsals at Old Buckenham. The ‘GI’vers’ became one of the most successful forces bands in England, performing at dances both at Old Buckenham and at other US bases in the East Anglia area.

The morning of D-Day 6th June, brought early dawn action from the 453rd. Military sites between Le Harve and Cherbourg were targets for the day. The shore line batteries and any targets of opportunity, railways, troop concentrations and road junctions, were now well and truly in the sights of the bombers. So determined to play their part were the 453rd, that they flew four complete missions on that one day, unheard of in many Air Force heavy bomber Squadrons. For the next ten days Old Buckenham would be extremely busy, with missions being flown on all but one day, until the weather eventually brought an enforced break on the 16th.

As the war progressed the Old Buckenham group would go on to support many ground battles, including the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 – 45. A winter that would begin with the first crew loss through anoxia, when S/Sgt. Frank Mayar failed to respond to medical aid after his oxygen mask froze.

The 26th November 1944, would see tragedy strike home again for the 453rd. Mission 182 for the Old Buckenham Group, saw 350 B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division and 381 B-17s of the 3rd Bomb Division attack targets in Germany. One of these targets included the railway viaduct at Bielefeld, a viaduct that became almost illusive until later destroyed by 617 (Dambusters) Sqn of the RAF.

The Bielefeld Viaduct after the dropping of the RAF’s ‘Grand Slam’. The ground bears the scars of continuous and heavy attacks (National Archives)

During take off for the mission, Capt. Ray Conard, the mission leader, failed to gain height. In a desperate attempt to avoid nearby housing, Capt. Conard jettisoned his bombs and, it is believed, deliberately crashed his aircraft away from them, thus saving the lives of those people living inside. For his actions, Capt. Conard, aged just 25, was recommended for the DSC Posthumously.

Christmas brought a much happier cheer to the Old Buckenham crews. Permission was granted to fly a plane load of toys to Paris to deliver them to French children. Locals brought as many as they could muster to the airfield and handed them over to the Americans. After slipping off the runway, ‘Liberty Run‘ eventually made it off the ground delivering the toys just in time for Christmas day.

The notorious winter weather of 1944 would claim yet another victim before the year was out. On December 27th 1944, #42-50898 failed to rise more than a few feet after taking off from a salted and slippery runway at Old Buckenham. Lt. Roscoe Brown was heard to say, “I cannot keep her up, we have had it”, just before the aircraft slammed into the ground. In the ensuing crash, the aircraft broke up and burst into flames, the fire setting off bullets and causing the bombs to explode. There was considerable ice that day, the runway and aircraft’s pitot tube later being found to have been iced up, adding to the already difficult flying conditions. As a pathfinder, it came as a terrible blow to the 453rd whose mission that day was subsequently scrubbed. Only four of Lt. Brown’s crew managed to escape the inferno that followed – it was a sad end to 1944.

The new year started as the old had finished, with more aircraft slipping on ice and crashing into parked aircraft. After further lives were lost and sliding incidents increased, the Group’s Commanding Officer Col. Thomas, called a halt to the proceedings and another mission was also scrubbed. Those that had got off the ground continued on, joining other groups in bombing their target – the Ramagen Bridge.

Crumpled tail of B-24 #42-51865 1st January 45 Old Buckenham. Eventually after numerous crashes and aircraft sliding on ice, the mission was scrubbed. (IWM FRE 1863)

With more attacks on Germany, January would become the month when the 453rd would set a record for the most missions flown (200) by any Liberator Group in a short space of time. A record they would be proud of and celebrate at reunions for years after.

As the war drew to a close, more missions would take the group into the very heart of Germany.  Even though the war was nearly over, accidents continued to occur and aircraft continued to be lost. The last mission for the 453rd took place on March 31st 1945, bombing the rail junction at Amberg. Thankfully all aircraft sent out that day came home. With the decrease in bombing sorties the Group’s focus began to change, recreational activities taking over where flying had been lost.

The final orders to stand-down finally came through on the 12th April 1945, and with it the end of 259 missions, in which 15,800 tons of bombs had been dropped. Of the original sixty-one aircraft sent over with the 453rd, only one was left, ‘Male Call‘, a B-24 veteran of ninety-five missions.

Elsewhere, the 453rd had ten aircraft that had completed 100 or more missions, the highest being that of 120  – “My Babs” of the 733rd Bomb Squadron. Even though they had lost almost all the original aircraft, they had set another record of 82 consecutive  missions without loss; a remarkable achievement considering the losses sustained by other heavy bomber groups in the European Theatre.

In mid April the group received orders to depart European shores for home. The group had been earmarked for a role in the Pacific, but ‘R & R’ was the order of the day and even though ground crews prepared the aircraft for combat, the US was firmly on the minds of all. On the 13th May the USS Hermitage set sail for the States, and Old Buckenham fell silent as the last few men departed closing the gates behind them.

Post-war, the airfield returned to RAF ownership seeing a few aircraft from other units being placed here, but no other major service or operators. Eventually in 1960, the RAF disposed of the site and it returned primarily to agriculture. Flying does continue today though, as Old Buckenham hosts fly-ins, displays and has a thriving aero club on part of the remains of the east-west runway.

As the site is an active airfield, access to any parts other than the public areas is very limited and so there is little to see from those dark days of the 1940s. The runways do remain as small roads for local tractor access, and one small part of the east-west runways is used for light flying. A further section of the north-west/south-east runway also exists as a taxiway to access the main runway. An original blister hangar is also on site along with a Nissen hut that now houses a museum.

RAF Old Buckenham

RAF Old Buckenham, memorial to those who served.

There is a varied collection of military hardware, mainly field guns, located on the site. A further ‘famous’ attraction is the T-55 Tank used in the James Bond film ‘Golden Eye’ which greets you as you arrive. A small, well cared for memorial in the shape of a Liberator tail-fin is dedicated to those 366 crew members and staff of the 453rd BG who lost their lives, and a cafe, aptly entitled “Jimmy’s“, provides refreshments for the visitor.

A delightful place to spend a warm Sunday afternoon watching light aircraft and contemplating what life was like at Old Buckenham as the roar of B-24s filled the air over 70 years ago.

RAF Old Buckenham

The T-55 tank used in the film ‘Golden Eye’

Post script

Some rare photographs taken at Old Buckenham were found following an auction in Montana, in a box of old photographic supplies. The story was reported in the ‘Eastern Daily Press‘ on December 18th 2013.

A museum to honour the men of the 453rd BG has since opened at Old Buckenham. Their website gives details of the collection and opening times.

RAF East Wretham (P2)- From Bomber Command to USAAF

After part one of RAF East Wretham, we see how the poor fortunes of the Czech squadron of Bomber Command were left behind, a new breed of aircraft had now arrived in the form of the US fighter Group’s P-47s and P-51s. After the departure of Bomber Command, the site was turned over to the USAAF and renamed Station 133.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133)

With this change came a number of modifications to the airfield. Temporary Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) was laid, more concrete pathways added and the site accommodation improved generally. The work continued for several weeks whilst the personnel of the newly formed 359th Fighter Group (FG) were gathered together in the United States, finally shipping out across the Atlantic in the October 1943.

Only being recently manned, the 359th were truly a new group (although some pilots were drawn from other established combat units) being formed of the 368th, 369th and 370th Fighter Squadrons (FS). Arriving from Westover Field Massachusetts in the October 1943, they were one of the last units to join the Eighth Air Force with P-47 Thunderbolts; a move that bolstered fighter numbers to some 550, trebling the Eighth’s total number of fighters in only a matter of weeks.

By December they were combat ready, and their first mission took place on December 13th 1943 – an escort mission protecting  heavy bombers as they attacked airfields in France. During the mission, thirty-six aircraft of the 359th carried out fighter sweeps in the  Pas-de-Calais area without loss and without a single ‘kill’, a rather calm opening to their European war. On the 20th, they undertook their second mission, another escort of heavy bombers to Breman. Joining them were the 4th FG, 56th FG, 78th FG, 352nd FG, 353rd FG, 356th FG, and for their first time the 358th FG all flying P-47s. For the fighters it was another ‘uneventful’ mission with only minimal losses, but for the heavy bombers it was their first encounter with Me-410s, and their time-fused, aircraft launched missiles.

During March 1944 a special squadron was formed commanded by Capt. Charles E. Ettlesen of the 359th. Known as “Bill’s Buzz Boys”, the purpose of the unit was to develop ground-attack tactics as so few of these had been truly successful up until now.

The group tried many new ways of attacking enemy airfields, and in the month they were together, they succeeded in destroying or damaging numerous aircraft, blowing up several hangars, locomotives, barges and other small boats in their attacks. During one of these attacks on the airfield at Chateudun, Capt. Ettlesen hit a high tension wire which cut half way through his wing. He manged to fly the P-47 back to England landing at RAF Martlesham Heath in Suffolk, trailing a good 30 feet of wire behind him! On April 7th, the unit’s four flights returned to their respective groups, and the new tactics learned were taken to RAF Millfield, the brainchild of General Quesada to train pilots in the art of ground attack.

, 8AF USAAF.

Capt Charles C. Ettlesen 369FS, 359FG, headed the specialised ground attack unit. After returning to East Wretham he was last seen going down to strafe a Locomotive north of Gotha, 9th Feb. 1945. Classed as MIA he was never heard from again. *2

The 359th at East Wretham continued on with bomber escort operations throughout the early stages of 1944, and then in the April, they began to convert to P-51 Mustangs, a change that involved major retraining of both pilots and ground crews. Used to the air-cooled Douglas Wasp engines of the P-47s, they now had to convert to liquid cooled Merlins. To prepare mechanics for the forthcoming Mustangs, ‘sample’ P-51Bs were sent out prior to the shipment to allow for a smooth transition from one aircraft to the other.

By May, the 359th were ready with their P-51s and their first foray into enemy territory took place on the 5th. Not unlike their first mission with P-47s, it was an escort mission to attack targets in the Pas-de-Calais and Siracourt areas in ‘Noball‘ operations. Like the first, it also was uneventful, cloud cover preventing both allied bombing or Luftwaffe intervention.

Ground attacks were incredibly dangerous, and the summer of 1944 would reinforce that fact. In May pilot, Major George “Pop” Doersch, whose daring would eventually take his ‘kill’ rate into double figures, flew too low to the ground in a strafing attack on an airfield near Rheims. In the attack his propeller struck the ground causing the blades to bend at the tips. Fortunately and using all his skill and strength, he managed to nurse the aircraft (P-51B) back to Manston where it landed without further incident.

George

Major George Doersh who took his P-51B too close to the ground bending the propeller tips. (IWM)* 3

As D-Day approached, the 359th focused on strafing ground targets in and around the Normandy area; railway locomotives and communication lines were all now very high priority. During the invasion itself, the 359th escorted the heavy bombers across the channel, and whilst over France, they took the opportunity to continue with these opportunist attacks.

With the new P-51s they were now able to fly deeper into the heart of Germany and as far east as Poland. It was during these later stages of the war that the 359th really began to make their mark, participating in some of the biggest bombing missions of Germany, including those of: Ludwigshafen, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Berlin, Mersberg, and Brux.

On 11th September 1944, the green nosed Mustangs of the 359th were finally rewarded for their efforts when they received the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for their action over Mersberg. After attacking over 150 Luftwaffe fighters they also went on to destroy seven  locomotives on their way home. The detailed Citation highlights the bravery and dedication shown by the pilots of the 359th summing up with:

The conspicuous intrepidity, aggressive tactics and esprit de corps displayed by the pilots of this unit on this occasion accounted for the destruction of thirty-five enemy aircraft and contributed to the safe escort of the attacking bombardment formations. The actions of this unit reflect the highest credit upon the 359th Fighter Group and the Armed Forces of the United States.

The determination shown by the 359th resulted in many outstanding pilots. One, Maj. Raymond “X-Ray Eyes” Wetmore became the 359th’s (370th FS) top ace scoring 21 victories (plus 3 on the ground)- his last being an Me 163. Flying latterly  in P-51 #44-14733, Wetmore, like Doersch had a very lucky escape when his aircraft was hit by friendly fire during the Battle of the Bulge. By putting the Mustang into a steep dive he was able to extinguish the fire and return home safely. Flying in three aircraft all called “Daddies Girl” after his daughter, he received numerous awards and by the end of the conflict had completed 142 missions covering 563 combat hours.

RAF East Wretham 4

The old part remains cordoned off.

This attitude to the war, gave the 359th a worthy credit of 263 aircraft shot down with over 100 more being destroyed on the ground. In the 346 missions they flew, they lost a total of 106 of their own aircraft.

Along with further support operations in France and Holland, the 359th went on performing ground attack missions as the allied forces entered Germany. At the war’s end flying wound down, and the USAAF remained at East Wretham until the November of 1945 when the 359th departed, returning to the States and inactivation. With this, no further flying took place at East Wretham and the skies would fall quiet once more.

The airfield then reverted to 12 Group (RAF) ownership, then in May the following year, it was handed back once more to Bomber Command. Within a month the site was handed over to the Technical Training Command and finally East Wretham became a Polish resettlement camp for those personnel who were unable to return home. When they had all finally been moved on, the majority of the site became what it is today, used by the British Army as part of the massive Stanford Practical Training Area (STANTA) for manoeuvres and live firing training.

Bomb Store

The bombs stores blast walls are still intact – just.

Today most traces of the airfield as it was are gone. A number of buildings notably a T2 hangar and several Nissen huts survive on what is now farmland or in the military camp. The unique Watch Tower was demolished after the war as were many of the other ‘temporary’ buildings. Now used by STANTA, a mix of old and new are intertwined with the majority standing on inaccessible military ground. Parts of the perimeter track and hardstands do exist, many overgrown or broken up by the weather and weed growth.

Perhaps the best and by far most accessible examples of East Wretham’s past, is the bomb site which forms part of the East Wretham Heath Nature Heritage Trail. Access is to the south of the site just off the main A1075, Thetford Road. A two-mile walk through Heath land, it takes you right through the original bomb store. An area of natural beauty, famed for its wetland and ancient flints, you can easily find the many blast walls and small fusing buildings still there. Also traceable are the tracks that once took bomb loaded trailers to the airfield across the heath. Many now buried under the acidic soil, their existence evident in exposed patches of bare concrete.

Bomb Store

The decay is evident throughout the bomb store.

All these stores are being gradually reclaimed by nature, trees and rabbit holes have both taken their toll, the layout is still discernible and whilst much of the brickwork is ‘intact’, the warning signs are there and the wartime structures are crumbling fast.

A small airfield, East Wretham was never considered the most ‘homely’ of sites. Often wet and boggy, it was one of the less well-known and less famous places to be used. But the courage and determination of those who served here both RAF and USAAF, went a long way to helping defeat the tyranny that stood facing us across the small section of water not so far away.

Sources and further reading: (East Wretham)

For more detailed information on the Free Czechoslovak Air Force see their superb website.

No.311 ORB – AIR 27/1687/7

*1 IWM –  FRE 6117

*2 IWM – UPL 31469

*3 IWM – UPL 22685

Norfolk Wildlife Trust website.