RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 5)

Part 4 revealed how FIDO proved to be a valuable asset to Foulsham. A new model of aircraft arrived along with its US crews and the war entered its final year. Now, as the war draws to a close, the future looks uncertain.

FIDO’s record at Foulsham was, like many other airfields, a great success. Only on the night of 23rd February 1945 did fatalities occur whilst using the system. With several aircraft on ops that night, fog again prevented many from returning to their own bases, and a Mosquito from 239 Sqn based at nearby RAF West Raynham, attempted a landing without permission. FIDO had just been lit but some of the pipes had burst adding smoke to the fog that had by now risen to 50 feet above the runway. The pilot, 23 year old Flt.Sgt. Leonard Twigg attempted to land Mosquito NF.30 ‘NT354’ only to miss the runway and land some 70 feet to one side, colliding with a Halifax of 192 Squadron parked at its dispersal. The pilot was killed in the incident but the navigator (Flt Sgt. Turner) managed to escape with injuries. As a result only one other aircraft, a Halifax, landed that night, the others being diverted to alternative airfields.

Two other 192 Halifaxes were lost that night, both being shot down over Germany with the loss of almost all sixteen crewmen – the only three survivors being taken prisoner. Both Halifax MK. IIIs ‘DT-T’ and ‘DT-O’ carried British, Australian and other commonwealth crews.

But the events of the 23rd February would pale into insignificance on the next night- the worst on record for the Australian 462 Sqn. Considered ‘minor operations’, they were tasked with dropping window, flying ahead of seventy-four training aircraft who were acting as a diversionary raid over northern France. Four of the squadron’s aircraft were lost that night, with the loss of twenty-six of the thirty-one lives. A further 100 group aircraft, a B-17 from RAF Oulton was also lost that night, these five accounting for the bulk of the losses of that one operation.

The late spring of April 1945 produced further poor weather, and FIDO was brought into action once more (possibly for the last time) on the night of 18th/19th. The use of FIDO that night allowed some thirteen aircraft to successfully land, providing a safe landing for crews who were no doubt by now, looking to the war’s end and a apprehensive return to peacetime,.

By August 1945 the war in Europe was over and squadrons were already beginning to disband. The FIDO system was drained and dismantled after providing a safe take-off or landing for a considerable number of aircraft. For 462 Sqn, the 24th September 1945 signified the end of its road. Eleven months after its reformation at Driffield, it ceased to exist, being removed from RAF inventory for good. Its demise also signified the coming of the end of flying operations at Foulsham and ultimately its closure.

In June 1946 the airfield was closed to all flying duties, whereupon it became the final resting ground for a large number of Mosquitoes prior to scrapping. Foulsham then remained ‘in-service’ until the mid 1950s, with a US Army Special Signals Unit, until the MOD deemed the site surplus to requirements. It was then sold off in the 1980s and its doors closed for the last and final time.

RAF Foulsham

A former workshop nestled between two refurbished T2s.

Foulsham, like many of its counterparts in this region played a major part in the electronic war, monitoring and jamming radar transmissions for larger formations of bombers. Despite this important and ground breaking role, Foulsham had only a short operational existence.

Many of Foulsham’s buildings have surprisingly withstood the test of time. Whilst the runways have all but gone, now farm tracks and tree lines, some of the buildings do still remain and even from the roadside, you can see what must have been a remarkable place during its short, but hectic life. The road passes along the eastern side of the airfield, here, you can still see a number of the original T2 hangars, three in total, now utilised by a local potato business. (‘Addison Farm’ as it is aptly named, is in recognition of Air Vice Marshall Edward Barker Addison, the only person to Command 100 Group*2 during the war). Whilst two of these hangars have been re-clad, the third is still in its original metal. Hidden amongst these structures, are some of the original technical buildings, again some refurbished, some original. The mass concrete bases signify the manoeuvring areas linking this area to the main section of the airfield to the west.

At this point, there was until recently, gates separating the dispersal area to the east (now farm dwellings) to the hangar area on your left. During the War, this road was surprisingly open to the public and aircraft would be manoeuvred across the road, traffic being halted by an RAF Policeman.

Further to the north, beyond this area passing an air raid shelter, is the original entrance and further technical area. A pill-box, marks where the main entrance was. Turn left here and follow the road west. To your right you pass the original Fire Tender shed, a B1 hangar and other minor buildings in varying states of disrepair. To your left, a further T2, partially refurbished partially original. Further along, the road crosses the original N/S runway, full width remnants to the right and a tree-lined track to the left mark clearly where the enormous concrete structure was laid. The road ahead, is the where the 08/26 runway ran as it disappears over the brow of the hill. The road then turns away north leaving the runway and airfield behind you.

As with all airfields, the accommodation blocks and bomb stores were scattered well away from the main airfield. With some searching, evidence of these may be found amongst the hedges and trees, public roads utilising the concrete sections of RAF road laid down originally.

Whilst the main layout of Foulsham is difficult to see from the road, the last remaining buildings have fared quite well and remain some of the better examples of original wartime architecture. There is a distinct ‘feel’ to the site that transforms you back in time to the days when heavy bombers and lighter twin-engined aircraft would rumble along its runways. Recent and ongoing development work by the farmer seems to be sympathetic and ‘in tune’ with the site, many buildings being reclaimed from nature and now ‘on show’ to the passing public. Whilst all are on private land, they are easily seen and it seems that there may be a winning formula here that other land owners could quite easily follow and preserve what is left of our disappearing heritage.

RAF Foulsham

The remains of the 08/26 runway.

In the nearby village of Foulsham, beneath the village sign, stands a memorial to the crews and personnel who once served at RAF Foulsham.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

Sources and Further Reading (Foulsham)

*1 Williams, G. “Flying through Fire – FIDO the Fogbuster of World War Two“. Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995.

*2 There is a 100 Group Association that keeps the memories of 100 group alive.  A number of Veterans from the group meet for reunions, coming from all over the world.

*3 The Congregational Medal of Honour Website.

*4 Bowman, M., “100 Group (Bomber Support)” 2006, Pen and Sword.

*5 National Archives: AIR 27/782/1

National Archives: AIR 27/1156/59
National Archives: AIR 27/1156/60
National Archives: AIR 27/1456/69
National Archives: AIR 27/1917/17
National Archives: AIR 27/1917/18
National Archives: AIR 27/1156/43

Sweetman. J., “Bomber Crew – Taking on the Reich“, Abacus, 2004

Janine Harrington, secretary for the Association, writes her own books based around 100 Group, read it through her blog.

Janine’s writings are inspired by her mother’s story of her wartime fiance Vic Vinnell of 192 Squadron at Foulsham, who, together with Canadian pilot Jack Fisher, never returned from a secret operation on the night of 26th / 27th November 1944.

The wartime memories project, has a section focusing on RAF Foulsham and people trying to trace crew members who served there. It is worth a look through perhaps you may know someone from there.

RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 4)

In Part 3, we saw the arrival of FIDO at Foulsham, a system yet to be fully tested. As poor weather continues to hamper operations, FIDO eventually comes into its own and proves its worth. A new aircraft arrives with its aircrew, and its an aircraft not commonly seen in UK skies.

 

On 27th April 1944 seven aircraft, a mix of three Halifaxes, two Mosquitoes and two Wellingtons, were detailed to operations performing ‘special duties’ over the continent. On their return, Mosquito DZ377 ‘DT-L’ landed first. Moments later, Halifax MZ564 ‘DT-X’ came in behind. After what appears to have been an error by the ground control staff, the Halifax landed on-top of the Mosquito without any knowledge of the heavy bomber’s crew. The situation had been made worse, not only by the poor weather, but by the fact that the Halifax appeared to have no working radio and that aircraft navigation lights had been extinguished due to an air raid warning at the airfield.

The accident occurred *4, after the Senior Control Officer had flashed a steady ‘green’ to the Mosquito pilot, who was at the wrong height and (apparently) accepted the light as permission to land. The result being, the two aircraft came in to land simultaneously with near disastrous consequences. However, there were no causalities except for the Senior Flying Control Office being posted and demoted for his misjudgement of the situation.

Meanwhile, the FIDO installation continued, with initial test burns being made in July. This first burn consumed some 16,250 gallons of fuel*1, and although results were positive, it wouldn’t be until the end of the year before the system would be put to the test and its first operational use.

Being such a ‘specialist’ unit, 192 Sqn  operated for a short time in conjunction with a detachment of P-38/F-5 Lightnings of the USAAF. It would appear that there were five aircraft, Lightning 155, 156, 479, 501 and 515, operated by ten aircrew (Lt. Zeilder, Lt. Alley, Lt. Richards, Lt. Stallcup, Flt. Off. Vasser, Lt. Kunze, Capt. Brink, Capt Adams, Capt. Dixon and Lt. Holt) rotating around each one. The P-38 being a single seat fighter had to be modified to a two-seater to take the ‘Special Operator’. The purpose of this detachment was to search over the Zuider Zee in south Holland looking for signals associated with enemy radar controlled missiles – V2s. Often these searches would occur in pairs, but occasionally singular. On October 26th, Lightning 515 piloted by Capt. F. Brink with special operator Lt. F. Kunze, sent a message stating their intention to ditch in the North Sea. Using a position 60 miles off the Norfolk coast, four aircraft, two Mosquitoes and two Halifaxes, were immediately dispatched to search the area, unfortunately no sign of the aircraft was seen nor the crew. An Air-Sea-Rescue launch was also dispatched to the area locating items of wreckage that was later identified as part of a P-38 Lightning. The crew though, were never found.

December 1944 was one of Bomber Commands busiest. On the 9th the poor weather broke sufficiently for operations to take place. Four aircraft were ordered to fly, two Mosquitoes, a Wellington and a Halifax. The Mosquitoes, flew to Germany to monitor and record R/T transmissions; the Wellington monitored Knickebein transmissions thought to be used for Flying Boat activities whilst the Halifax was sent to the Ruhr for a ‘window’ dropping exercise. Unfortunately the Wellington had to return due to the bad weather whilst the Halifax failed to get airborne and crashed beyond the runway.

The aircraft, a Halifax III piloted by  F.O. N. Irvine, had 22 operations under its belt. However, with time up at 18:28, the four engined heavy was unable to get airborne and ran off the end of the runway into an adjacent field. In the accident MZ817 ‘DT-O’, “Pete the Penguin” was badly damaged but thankfully none of the crew were injured and all walked away unhurt.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

Halifax B III, MZ817 ‘DT-O’, “Pete the Penguin” 192 Squadron, after running off the runway, 9th December 1944.  @IWM HU 60601

December was an eventful month for Foulsham. With the continuing bad weather, Bomber Command were having great difficulty getting aircraft back safely. On the night of the 18th/19th, a particularly poor night, the FIDO installation at Foulsham was finally lit and used operationally.

On that night, a large force of Lancasters were ordered to perform four operations to the Polish port of Gdynia on the Baltic coast. Along with the heavy bombers were a number of 100 Group aircraft including those from 192 Sqn based here at Foulsham. Five aircraft were ordered out on ‘Special Duties’, four Halifaxes and a Mosquito, in which ‘Window’ was dropped by three of them over the Rhur, whilst the other two monitored German radio transmissions – one 50 miles west of Stettin and the other over Gdynia.

On return to Foulsham, it was found that the airfield, as were many others in the area, was fogbound, and it had become necessary to light FIDO. The alert went out to all FIDO airfields and at Foulsham the burners were lit just after 02:00 hrs. A lack of experience and waterlogged pipes meant the system was not fully burning until some 25 minutes after the initial lighting, but just in time for the first aircraft ‘S’ Sugar to approach the runway.

The first aircraft to land was Halifax III LW623 piloted by Wing Commander D. W. Donaldson who, even after encountering strong winds caused by the fires, made a safe and successful landing. He is recorded as being the first captain to land such an aircraft at Foulsham.

Following on behind Donaldson was B-17 ‘R’ Roger from nearby RAF Oulton, who like many others, was flying on fumes. The pilot had just one chance and as he approached, he ordered the crew to take up crash positions. With visibility down to some 100 yards, he brought the B-17 in making a relatively good landing in appalling conditions between the rows of flames lining either side of the runway. Two further B-17s landed that night, one on three engines and another who missed the runway and became bogged down in the mud alongside.  By the end of the night after all aircraft had been received, the burners were extinguished and visibility over the airfield diminished  once more.

By the end of December, fifteen aircraft had benefited from the installation of FIDO at Foulsham; a system that had enabled them all to land safely in conditions that would otherwise have necessitated either finding an alternative site or bailing out. A third option was of course available, but the consequences almost final and fatal.

Whilst all this was going on, it was decided to create a new unit at Foulsham to support the electronics group. The Bomber support Development Unit (BSDU) were formed here during the April of 1944. Born out of the Special Duties (Radio) Development unit they would go on to disband at Swanton Morley in 1945 to become the Radio Warfare Establishment. Whilst here at Foulsham though, they would operate both Mosquitoes and Spitfire VBs along with the Tiger Moth and Avro Anson.

A further Halifax unit would grace the skies of Foulsham in the remaining months of the year. Also an electronics unit, 462 (RAAF) Squadron, was brought in to enable full coverage of ECM work as the war drew to its close. A former RAF Driffield unit, the squadron spent most of the last few days of the month transporting equipment to Driffield train station before departing themselves for Foulsham.

The weather over the winter of 1944 – 45 was one of the worst recorded. The Allies had reached the Ardennes where a final desperate counter attack was mounted by the Germans. Embedded in the thick woodland, troops fought both the weather and the enemy whilst much of the air cover was prevented from flying due to the continuing fog and snow.

At Foulsham some operations did occur, and on some occasions FIDO had to be lit to enable aircraft to either take off or land. January saw particularly strong winds, rain and snow, necessitating all personnel being tasked with snow clearing on January 10th. On the 15th, whilst climbing to cruising altitude the starboard outer engine caught fire. The engine was feathered and action taken to remedy the situation. However, a feathered propeller soon began windmilling causing dangerous drag and the fire spread. The bale out order was given but only two members of the crew were able to escape before the wing became detached and the aircraft came crashing to earth in a fireball. The two who escaped (Sgt. G. Sandy and F/Sgt N. Reed) were both injured in their landing, none of the others escaped with their lives.

On another occasion, an American B-24 had difficulty of its own and whilst attempting to land, crashed after over shooting the runway. The aircraft was eventually salvaged after coming to a stop on a local road.

A crashed B-24 Liberator (DC-F, serial number 42-95464) of the 577th Bomb Squadron, 392nd Bomb Group near Foulsham, 14 February 1945. Handwritten caption on reverse: '392/577. 42-95464. :F. Foulsham, 14/2/45.'

Liberator ‘DC-F’, (s/n 42-95464) of the 577th BS, 392nd BG over ran the runway at Foulsham, 14th February 1945. (IWM FRE 7993)

In Part 5, the final part, Foulsham begins the slow down of activity, the war draws to a close and the future becomes uncertain. Apprehension falls across the airfield as flights begin to reduce and personnel are posted out.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 3)

In Part 2, we reached a milestone in the life of Foulsham as it was on the brink of changing hands once more. As the new Group takes over new challenges are about to be faced, and FIDO, the fog dispersal system is desperately needed to counter the appalling weather.

By the 25th November, the move had been completed, and both 514 and 1678 HCU had now departed the airfield. With Foulsham now empty, it would undergo yet another change of ownership, this time to 100 Group, the specialists in electronic warfare. This change of ownership would, as before, bring another two new units, 192 Sqn and a supporting training unit 1508 (Blind Approach Training) Flight.

100 Group was formed that November as 100 (Special Duties) Group under the Command of Air Commodore E.B. Addison CB, CBE with its headquarters at Radlett in Hertfordshire. The aim of the move was to place all the electronic units under one single command, thus unifying its aim and bringing together all the resources of the thinly spread units. One of the main aims of the Group was to provide ‘spoof’ operations, confusing the ground operators and radar controlled night fighters, thus spreading them over wider areas. This would in turn, it was hoped, reduce the number of casualties from RAF bombers and achieve better bombing results as a consequence.

Other duties of the Group would involve the jamming of radar and radio equipment used by German aircraft and ground stations, monitoring German airways and providing incorrect orders to German crews using native speaking RAF crewmen. The war had become a battle of science.

RAF Foulsham

One of four T2 hangars.

Over November and December, airfields were taken over and aircraft supplied to the new Group. Squadrons were brought in to fill these sites and the Group grew from strength to strength.

A newly registered unit, 192 Sqn (formed a year before at RAF Gransden Lodge)  operating a mix of Wellingtons, Mosquitoes, Halifax IIs and more  recently, their newly acquired Halifax Vs, were transferred over to Foulsham, in one of the first moves to the airfield.

Formed through the renumbering of 1474 (Special Duties) Flight, 192 Sqn had been previously been monitoring the German Ruffian and Knickebein beams. In their new form they would monitor, amongst others, the western approaches to the Bay of Biscay, monitoring and recording night fighter channels.

However, the winter weather was up to its usual tricks, and it played havoc with initial flights. But despite this, within 48 hours of their arrival, 192 Sqn was classed as operational, and a memo to that effect was sent off to Headquarters 3 Group Bomber Command.

With no flying over the next three days due to the continuing bad weather, initial flights were able to begin on the 29th November, with three aircraft, all Wellingtons, performing Special Duties Flights over the Bay of Biscay. After landing at Davidstow Moor for refuelling, there was a major electrical fault at the airfield and the entire flare path and flying control facilities were put out of action. As a result, the three Wellingtons were grounded and unable to continue their flight home.

The weather continued to play havoc for the crews at Foulsham. A flight planned for a Mosquito and two Wellingtons on the 1st December had to be postponed and then finally cancelled. The next day, 2nd December 1943, three aircraft were ordered to fly to the Frisian Islands and the Dutch coast, but one had to return due to the pilot’s escape hatch blowing off, and a second overshot the runway on take off becoming bogged down in the mud. The aircraft was damaged but the crew were unhurt in the incident.

On December 7th, Foulsham officially became part of 100 Group and another unit No. 1473 (Radio Counter Measures) Flight also arrived here to assist with the ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) operations. By February 1944, it was decided to merge the Flight with 192 thus forming a ‘C’ Flight. With additional Mosquitoes and Ansons – the hardware inventory at Foulsham was now growing rapidly.

Much of December suffered the same fate as its preceding months however, poor weather rendering flying unsuitable, leaving many aircraft and their crews grounded for prolonged periods of time.

100 Group’s inaugural operation on the night of 16th / 17th December, did not however, go in their favour. On what has become known as ‘Black Thursday’ the RAF bomber force of over 480 aircraft, took heavy losses. These losses whilst high over occupied territory, were made far worse by poor weather which claimed some eight aircraft from 97 Squadron at RAF Bourn – one sixth of its strength,

The beginning of the new year, 1944, saw big changes not only in Bomber Command, but at Foulsham also. As the second phase of the ‘Battle of Berlin’ began, Stirling squadrons and now Halifax units were being pulled out of the front line bombing campaign; their shortcomings becoming all to obvious as losses in the types began to mount. The poor weather continued to cause misery across Britain’s airfields, rain and fog preventing large  continuous attacks on the German heartland.

The interminable fog was the driving force behind the new FIDO system now being installed at Foulsham. Bomber command had initially asked for eight airfields across the UK, but by the end of 1943 they were seeking twelve, and Foulsham (designated Station XXI) was identified as one suitable.

William Press were given the contract to install the system, and by mid February work had begun. Supplying the huge storage tanks was going to be a challenge though, and so a new siding was constructed at nearby Foulsham railway station. Its not known for sure whether the fuel was then piped the two mile distance to the airfield, or brought across in tankers, but whichever it was, it required a good deal of extra work.

At the airfield site, three storage tanks were assembled on Land at Low Farm, located at the northern end of the main runway. The much needed pump house and control point were also located here. Operators were kept on a 24 hr watch system, being billeted near to the equipment in two Nissen huts, one for officers and the other for ‘other ranks’.

RAF Foulsham

One of the air raid shelters used around wartime airfields.

Initial plans were for a mile of runway to be lined with the Haigill MK IV burners, with intersecting burners placed in trenches across the two intersecting runways. The placing of these burners, well out of the way of moving aircraft, initially being a difficult challenge to overcome.

Operating the burners was a tedious and dangerous job. After opening the valves and allowing petrol to fill a pool through which the operator had to walk, a match was thrown into the pool and the poor ‘Erk’ had to then run as fast as he could and throw himself into a small indentation in the ground hoping the flames would pass over and not ignite the clothes he was wearing. Once the burn had been achieved and all aircraft were down safely, the system was shut down and allowed to cool. Once the pipes were cool enough to touch, some 72,000 holes along the length of the pipes adjoining the runway had to be cleaned out to prevent a build up of soot. It was perhaps, one of the most tedious but vital jobs, RAF personnel had to perform.

Before the system could be fully tested though, a bizarre accident happened that resulted in no crew injuries, but two badly damaged aircraft and a Senior Flying Control Officer being posted and demoted.

In the next part (4) Foulsham’s  appalling weather accounts for a bizarre accident. The arrival of a new and relatively unique aircraft brings excitement to the site and FIDO really comes into its own.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 2)

In part 1 we saw how Foulsham began its life and how early squadrons suffered with bad weather and malfunctioning guns. In Part 2, we continue our journey and find out how an American pilot, who crash landed at Foulsham was awarded the Medal of honour.

On that particular day, the aircraft, “Ruthie II“, was in a mass formation heading for Hanover, when a canon shell ripped through the windscreen splitting the pilots head. In addition to this, the oxygen system to the tail, waist, and radio positions was  also inoperable, the top turret gunner had lost both arms and had major injuries to his side; the intercom system was out of action and several crew members had lost consciousness due to the lack of Oxygen.

Morgan grappled with the severely wounded pilot, who had wrapped his arms round the controls, to try and maintain level flight. Morgan decided the protection of the formation was better than heading for home alone, and so for the next two hours he flew in formation holding the pilot back with one hand whilst steering with the other. Eventually the navigator came forward and gave assistance allowing the aircraft to reach the safety of England and Foulsham.

For his actions, Morgan, of Vernon, Wilbarger County, Texas, received the Medal of Honour the following December in a ceremony presided over by Lt. General Ira C. Eaker. The story of Morgan’s bravery would form a part of the story line in the book and movie “Twelve O’Clock High”.*3

The posting of 98 and 180 Squadrons in August 1943 was no coincidence, as the airfield saw further development and new hangars added. These hangars were erected at various locations around the airfield site, ready to accommodate the forty or so Horsa gliders that would soon arrive here escorted by 12 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section. Their arrival marking the beginning of the  preparations for the invasion of Normandy the following year.

A few days later, on September 1st, 1943, the handover of Foulsham took place and 3 Group became the new owners in a move that also signified the forming of 514 Squadron with Lancaster IIs, the less common radial engined version of this famous Avro aircraft.

514 Sqn was initially headed by Acting Wing Commander A.J. Samson D.F.C., although the first to arrive at the airfield was the squadron adjutant. On first inspection, he and his small party found that the office blocks had been completely stripped of all their furniture, even shelving had annoyingly been removed from walls. As a result the offices were virtually unusable, and so a huge clean up operation began in readiness for the ground and air crews who were to shortly follow.

RAF Foulsham

One of the original T2 hangars.

Accommodation sites 2 and 5 were quickly allocated to the squadron for personnel use, and as soon as equipment began arriving, on a rainy and very wet September day, everyone was drafted in to unload and store the various much needed supplies.

To provide flying personnel for the new squadron, a support unit would also be formed at the airfield, that of 1678 Heavy Conversion Unit. The formation of this unit was achieved through the renumbering of the Flight of the same designation, a changeover that took place a month later, on October 16th 1943. The role of this unit was to convert experienced bomber crews over to the new Lancaster.

In the interim period, the new aircraft began to arrive. The first Lancaster ‘DS735’ touching down on 11th September, 1943, followed by three more (DS785, 783 and 784) over the next three days. Their arrival was met not with pomp and ceremony though, but by heavy showers and thunderstorms, the weather that had dogged earlier squadrons continued to play its terrible part in life at Foulsham. Over the next few weeks, aircraft were quickly modified and air-tested ready for flying, by the end of the month, eighteen Lancasters had been flown in and virtually all the crews had arrived ready for converting to the new type.

Over the next month, and although the weather yet again played havoc with flights, cross-countries and air tests were carried out with a high level of success. However, no one could control the weather, and the first planned operational sortie had to be cancelled due to extensive fog that blanketed the Norfolk countryside. Not until November 6th did a break allow any operational flying to take place, and that break allowed two small flights to get airborne.

A mining operation undertaken by four aircraft along with a bombing mission in which only two aircraft got off the ground, were the squadrons break into operational flying; not a major mission, but one that nevertheless broke the ice.

With the poor weather continuing, several more ‘ops’ were again cancelled allowing only the occasional ‘Bulls-eye’ or morning flight to get away. Whilst it must have been frustrating for crews, this did allow them to finally put into practice all the training they had undertaken so far.

Then on the 14th November 1943, news came through from above that 3 Group was being reorganised and that 514 Sqn would be moving from Foulsham to RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire as a result. The move, expected to be completed by the 23rd, would coincide with the first operation to Berlin, a move that also signified the first phase of the ‘Battle of Berlin’. This would also be the first time a 514 Sqn aircraft (DS784 ‘JI-C’) would not return from operations; the loss being a blow to the squadron. Of the seven-man crew, one would be taken prisoner (F/S. B. Haines (RAAF)) whilst a further (Sgt. H. Lucas) would evade capture,  successfully hiding out in Brussels until its liberation in 1944. The remaining five crewmen however, all perished in the aircraft’s crash.

In Part 3, Foulsham passes to new ownership and its life in electronic warfare begins. The new Group will bring new challenges, new aircraft and the installation of FIDO, the Fog dispersal system.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 1)

In Norfolk sits an airfield that only had a short wartime life, but it is one that is more than significant. Used in the electronic warfare role, it went on to house a small number of heavy bomber squadrons all crammed with electronics to detect, monitor and interfere with enemy transmissions.

In conjunction with this, it also saw a detachment of two-seat P-38/F-5 Lightnings, a rare aircraft in this country, and possibly the only one to do so. Dogged by bad weather it was identified as a suitable site for ‘FIDO’ the fog dispersal system, and post war it was used in both the scrapping of DH Mosquitoes and as a storage unit.

In Trail 22 we revisit the former RAF Foulsham.

RAF Foulsham

RAF Foulsham, sits approximately 8 miles north-east of the Norfolk town of Dereham. It had a short active life of just three years, lasting between May 1942 and 1945, at which point it was closed to flying and used as a storage site for military hardware. It remained in this lesser state until the 1980s when it was deemed surplus to requirements and finally closed. The land it stood on, was then sold off to local farmers.

Built over the period 1940-41 by the construction company Kirk and Kirk Ltd, RAF Foulsham occupied land some 173 feet above sea level, and opened under the control of 2 Group Bomber Command. Much of the material that was brought in to construct Foulsham came via nearby railways stations, then along local roads through the village, leaving locals facing endless mud and traffic.

As a war-time airfield, Foulsham would have three tar and wood chip runways, one of which would later be equipped with the fog dispersal system ‘FIDO’, a valuable if not bizarre system designed to dissipate fog along airfield runways.

Foulsham’s three runways were 1,900 and 1,350 yards long, with the main runway heading in a north-south direction. By the end of the war it would have thirty-seven heavy bomber hardstands, nine T2 hangars and one B1, and as such, was a formidable size. Personnel numbers were reflected in this, with accommodation spread over several sites to both the south and east, able to accommodate upward of 2,500 personnel of mixed rank and gender. The ever important technical site sat to the east, with the bomb store situated to the south-west of the airfield, just off the end of the main north-south runway.

RAF Foulsham

The original Fire Tender shed.

The watch office, now long gone, was built to design 518/40 which included and Meteorological section attached to the building. These designs were a development of earlier models using a new 9 inch rendered brick wall as opposed to timber, although timber was initially required for the floors and ceilings. Due to a shortage in wood at the time though, concrete replaced a large portion of these leaving only the balcony and control room using such material.

Whilst Foulsham opened under 2 Group, it would almost immediately – within a month of opening – be handed over to the US forces of the 8th Air Force and be renamed station B.13. However, this change never evolved into anything  more as no American personnel were stationed here, and by the October it was back in RAF hands, and 2 Group once more. The next few years would see the airfield change hands several more times, and with each change would come new aircraft, new personnel and new roles.

The first units to arrive here were those of the host unit 2 Group. Both 98 and 180 Squadron arrived in mid October 1942 after their reformation/formation at RAF West Raynham. During this time, they both began to receive their aircraft, the American built B-25 ‘Mitchell II’. Their transfer across to Foulsham gave the airfield the honour of being the first station to use the type operationally. Both squadrons would remain active in the light bomber role until 18th August 1943 at which point they would depart and the airfield would change ownership once more.

98 Squadron, a First World War unit, had been operating out of Kaldadarnes in Iceland following a terrible loss of personnel when the Lancastria was sunk in June 1940. Their reformation at West Raynham, and subsequent move to Foulsham, had been quickly met with yet more losses, when one of the Mitchells ‘FL206’, spun killing all four members of the crew on board.

After this, the squadron would be dogged by misfortune, the squadron adjutant noting in the Operational Records that excessive rain had turned the site into a “disgraceful condition”; the weather was one aspect the staff would have to put up with for some time to come. *5

For the first sixteen days of November, all but a handful of days were washed out, the despair of staff being felt through the Operational Records, each day met with ‘Lectures continue, adverse weather for flying‘. However, on the 16th, training flights did manage to take place, but it too was met with more sadness as a second set of fatalities occurred.

During the training flight, Mitchell FL179 suffered a bird strike in the carburettor of the starboard engine, this caused the engine to fail. With only one serviceable engine the pilot, Flt. Sgt. K. Williams (s/n: 1062588), tried to land at nearby RAF Attlebridge, unfortunately the aircraft stalled and went into a spin. The resultant crash killed all three aircrew on board and wrote off the Mitchell.

Things were to not get any better for the squadron either. On the 30th, a third crash took yet four more lives when FL708 collided with high tension cables near to RAF Wendling. The explosion from the collision also killed a local farmer who was ploughing his field at the time of the accident. It had been a terrible start for the fledgling unit.

The poor weather continued relentlessly, hampering the squadron’s progress, both on the ground and in the air, with training flights being cancelled on a regular basis. During the small numbers that were taking place, further problems came to light adding to the frustrations already felt by the crews.  Since taking on the initial batch of nine Mitchells on September 18th, the squadron had been having problems with the aircraft especially the guns and their turrets.

Gunners had found that extended bursts of gunfire were impossible, usually no more than a dozen rounds could be fired at any one time, a situation borne out by Wing Commander Foster, the Group Armament Officer, on the 16th December. In an attempt to remedy the situation, an American gun turret specialist visited the squadron, but by the 18th it was considered that the guns were ‘obsolete’.

RAF Foulsham

A defence ‘pill box’.

January was much the same, snow added to further problems and again the aerodrome was noted as being in a “very bad condition“, all flying being cancelled until the middle of the month when a small number of flights did get airborne.

The first battle order came through on January 21st, but due to a late delivery of bombs, it was also cancelled, meaning the squadrons first operation flight wouldn’t take place until the next day.

Six aircraft were ordered to operations, and whilst all made it to the target, one aircraft, FL693, was hit by flak and disintegrated. All on board were presumed killed.  The first months of 98 squadron had been challenging and difficult for those posted here.

180 Squadron had fared a little better, although after walking into a spinning propeller, L.A.C. J. Aspinall was killed, the only fatality of the squadron during the same period.

On July 26th 1943, an emergency landing was made at Foulsham by a B-17F #42-29802 of the 326th BS, 92nd BG, 8th AF, after a traumatic series of events that earned the co-pilot, John C. Morgan Flight Officer (later 2nd Lt.), the Medal of Honour for his valour and courage in action.

In part 2 we see how Morgan earned this prestigious award and how Foulsham continues to develop.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

RAF North Witham – Leading the way into Normandy.

If you follow the A151 towards the main A1, close to the Lincolnshire / Leicestershire border, and you come across Twyford Woods, and an airfield that is little known about, yet its part in history is perhaps one of the most important played by any airfield in Britain. Famous battles such as the Normandy invasion, the Ardennes and the crossing of the Rhine all took place because of the events that occurred here, and were it not for this airfield, many may not have been as successful as they were. In Trail 3, we head further west to perhaps one of Britain’s best kept secrets – RAF North Witham.

RAF North Witham (Station 479)

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

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

North Whitham control tower

North Witham’s Tower – now a mere shell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Whitham pen

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

The IX TCC Pathfinder School (incorporating the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Pathfinder Squadrons) was formed whilst the TCC was at RAF Cottesmore in Rutland. Initially having only seven C-47 aircraft, it arrived at North Witham on March 22nd 1944. These aircraft were fitted with, at the time, modern Gee radar and navigation equipment, along with SCR-717 navigational radar housed in a dome beneath the fuselage of the aircraft. This combination of equipment would allow the aircraft to be used as ‘Pathfinders’, and would be used to train both crews and paratroops of the 101st and 82nd Airborne to mark targets prior to the main invasion force arriving.

These crack troops would train at North Witham before returning to their own designated bases to pass on their newly acquired skills. The idea being that these troops would set up ‘homing’ stations using ‘Eureka’ beacons that would connect to ‘Rebecca’ receivers in the aircraft (distinguished from the outside by antenna protruding from the nose). This would allow flying to near pinpoint accuracy even in poor weather or at night; something that would be employed with relative success in the forthcoming Normandy landings.

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

After arrival, the crews began training for the invasion. Flying cross country flights enabled them to practise using their new radar sets, flying in all weathers, at night and during the day. By D-Day, all navigators had been using the equipment in excess of 25 hours and were considered more than competent in its operation.

With postponements of the invasion came frustration, crews and paratroops mentally prepared for war were let down, there was little for them to do to release the tension that many must have felt.

On June 5th, after the plan was finally given the go ahead, some 821 Dakotas at various sites across England were primed ready for the initial wave of the invasion. Timing was of the utmost importance. As rehearsals had shown, seconds could mean the difference between life and death – for the crews of the C-47s, the pressure was on.

Around 200 Pathfinders of North Witham were the first to leave the UK and enter the Normandy arena. Departing late in the evening of June 5th, men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne climbed aboard their twenty C-47s and rose into the night sky. North Witham based C-47A*2 ‘#42-93098’ piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch*3, led the way. Nineteen other North Witham aircraft joined Crouch that night, and remarkably only one aircraft was lost in the entire flight. Flying under mission ‘Albany‘, the Douglas built C-47A-15-DK Skytrain, #42-92845 (aircraft #4) was lost en route either due to mechanical failure, or as some sources say, following a direct hit by Anti-Aircraft fire. Either way, the aircraft lost an engine and was forced to ditch in the sea. Once down, the crew and paratroops on-board were rescued by the British destroyer HMS Tartar.

Image result for Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch and his crew

The Crew of C-47A #42-93098, a few hours before they left for Normandy. Including Pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch (centre), Captain Vito Pedone (copilot), Captain William Culp (Navigator), Harold Coonrod (Radio Operator), along with Dr. Ed Cannon (physician), and E. Larendeal (crew chief)*1

The aircraft flew in groups of three in an in-line ‘V’ formation; aircraft 1, 2, 3 followed by 4, 5, 6; 19 and 20 (added as a late decision); 7, 8, 9; 10, 11, 12; then 16, 17 and 18. The formation was finally completed with aircraft 13, 14 and 15 bringing up the rear. Each C-47 would deposit its collection of Paratroops over six drop zones (DZ) A, C, D, O, N and T between 00:20 and 02:02.

Flying alongside aircraft #19, the only pair on the flight, was C-47 #20 piloted by 1st Lt. Paul F. G. Egan, of Massachusetts. Joining him in the aircraft were: Sgt. Jack Buchannon, Crew Chief (Mass); 2nd Lt. Richard A. Young, Co-Pilot (Ohio); 2nd Lt. Fern D. Murphy, Navigator (PA);  Staff Sgt. Marvin Rosenblatt, Radio Operator (NY) along with ten Combat Engineers of the 101st Airborne who  were dropped at Sainte-Mère-Église on the Cherbourg Peninsula early in the morning 6 June 1944.

Lt. Paul Egan had a remarkable service history, serving in each of the US Army, US Army Air Force and US Air Force after the war, a service that stretched from 1939 to 1967. His remarkable record includes: Pearl Harbour in 1939 and the Japanese attack in December 1941, the Battle of Midway in 1942, followed by advanced training in 1943. This training kept Lt. Egan in military intelligence as a Pathfinder pilot flying mostly C-47s out of both North Witham and later Chalgrove. As well as dropping the paratroopers on D-Day in Operation Market Garden, he also dropped troops in Operation Varsity along with every other major airborne operation flown from England. He also flew bombing missions in B-17s and flew ‘secret’ missions in early 1945. At the signing of the Japanese surrender onboard the USS Missouri on September 2nd 1945, he was the only USAAF representative there, General McArthur wanting someone who was present at Pearl Harbour to also be present at the surrender. His record is certainly remarkable and one to admire.*5

1st Lt Paul F. G. Egan and crew (photo courtesy Jean Egan)

Photo taken at North Witham Air Base, England on June 5, 1944, the night before D-Day. C-47 #20 (note the number chalked in front of the door to ensure paratroops boarded the right aircraft, and the crudely painted invasion stripes) one of the first 20 aircraft to fly with the elite group, the Pathfinders.  Front row: Sgt. Jack Buchannon, Crew Chief; 2nd Lt. Richard A Young, Co-Pilot; 2nd Lt. Fern D. Murphy, Navigator; 1st Lt. Paul F. G. Egan, Pilot (Captain); Staff Sgt. Marvin Rosenblatt, Radio Operator along with ten 101st Airborne Combat Engineers dropped on the Cherbourg Peninsula early morning 6 June 1944, “D-Day” (Photo courtesy Jean Egan).

Pathfinder training continued at North Witham beyond D-Day, well into 1944. The scope of those trained expanding to include Polish paratroops of the 1st Independent Polish Airborne Brigade, who would perform a similar role to their American counterparts. These various Pathfinder groups would go on to have long and distinguished careers, supporting the battles at Arnhem, the Ardennes and also Operation Varsity – the Allied crossing of the Rhine.

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

September 1944 would see big changes in the Ninth and the knock-on was felt at North Witham. Firstly, the IX TCC transferred from the Ninth AF to the First Allied Airborne Army, and as a result, the Air Depot title was changed to IX Troop Carrier Service Wing (Provisional), which was re-assigned to aid and supply the new Troop Carrier Groups (TCG) now based in France. To accomplish this new role, groups often used borrowed or war-weary C-47s, C-46 (Commandos) or C-109s (converted B-24 Liberators) to fulfil their role. Secondly, the Pathfinder School was re-designated IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group (Provisional) and they moved away from North Witham to their new base at Chalgrove near Oxford. Now much quieter, life otherwise continued on at North Witham, but it wouldn’t long before the demand for UK-based maintenance and repair work would slow, and within months North Witham’s fate would be finally sealed.

As the end of the war approached, the airfield quickly became obsolete, and the long wind-down to closure, that many of these unique places suffered, began to take effect.

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

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

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

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

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

North Whitham runway

The view of the main runway from outside the tower.

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

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

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

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

North Whitham runway

Another view along the main runway.

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

(North Witham was originally visited in early 2013)

Links and sources (RAF North Witham)

*1 American Air Museum in Britain

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

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

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

*5 My sincere thanks go to Jean Egan, daughter of Lt. Paul Egan, for the information and photograph.

An excellent website contain photos of paratroops and air crew as they prepare for embarkation and advance through France.

RAF Downham Market (Part 2 – D-Day to the War’s End)

In Part 1 Downham was born, serving the Stirlings of Bomber Command before becoming part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force. A large airfield, it was often busy and as the war progressed toward D-Day, preparations began for operations over the invasion area.

On June 3rd 1944 Lancaster ND841 ‘F2-D‘ piloted by F/O. George. A. Young (s/n: 134149) RAFVR 635 Squadron, was detailed to attack Calais as part of the preparations for the forthcoming D-Day invasion. There would be eight other aircraft from RAF Downham Market also detailed for the mission, and take off would be late that evening.

The mission as a whole would involve 127 Lancasters and 8 Mosquitoes of 1, 3 and 8 Groups and the targets would be the gun batteries at both Calais and Wimerereux. It was a  diversionary raid as part of Operation “Fortitude South“, the elaborate plan to fool the Germans into believing the invasion would occur in the Pas-de-Calais region.

At 28 minutes past midnight, F/O. Young lined the Lancaster up on the runway, opened the throttles and began the long run. As the Lancaster approached take off, it began to swing striking the roof of the B1 Hangar. In an uncontrollable state the aircraft crashed just outside the airfield killing all those on board. What was left of the aircraft was salvaged, and three of the crew buried in the local cemetery in Downham Market.

Downham Market Cemetery

F.Sgt. Stanley Wharton (RAFVR) 635 Sqn. One of seven Killed 4th June 1944.

Two months later, another pilot of 635 Sqn, also flying a Lancaster III, ND811, ‘F2-T’, Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, would be awarded the second of Downham’s Victoria Crosses.

On August 4th 1944, flying Lancaster ‘T’ for Tommy, on a daylight raid to mark the V1 storage depot at Trossy St. Maximin, the aircraft was hit by flak knocking out both starboard engines and setting the aircraft on fire. Bazalgette pressed on, marked the target and then instructed the crew to bail out. Two of the crew were so badly injured they could not do so, and so Bazalgette attempted a crash landing. Unfortunately on impact with the ground the aircraft exploded, killing all three remaining crew members on board.

For his bravery and sacrifice, Ian Bazalgette was also awarded the V.C., the highest honour for military personnel. The London Gazette, of 14th August 1945, announced the award, citing: “His heroic sacrifice marked the climax of a long career of operations against the enemy. He always chose the more dangerous and exacting roles. His courage and devotion to duty were beyond praise“.

During that same month, August 1944, another squadron would appear here at Downham. Joining 635 Sqn were 608 Sqn, who had previously been operating abroad. They were reformed here on August 1st that year, also joining Bennett’s elite group. Another Mosquito squadron, they bolstered the number of aircraft and personnel present here at Downham. Flying the Mosquito XX, XXV and eventually XVI, they remained at Downham for a year whereupon they were once more disbanded. Whilst operating these aircraft, 608 Sqn would fly 1,726 operational sorties all as part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force.

608 Sqn’s primary role was to carry out night strikes as part of the Pathfinder Operations focusing on the German heartland. Targets included: Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, Essen, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Emden and Kiel. Their first operational sortie from Downham was on the night of 5th/6th August 1944, when a single Mosquito took off and bombed Wanne-Eickel.

Then, a month later, on the night of 6th November 1944, twelve aircraft from 608 Sqn took off in a diversionary attack on targets at Gelsenkirchen. The idea was to draw defences away from a much larger force attacking both Gravenhorst and Koblenz. The plan was for 608 to begin their attack five minutes ahead of the other forces, a plan that went like clockwork.

The full story of Mosquito KB364, piloted by P.O. James McLean (26) and Sgt. Mervyn Lambert Tansley (21), appears in Heroic Tales, but this was to be their final, fatal flight.

On return, the aircraft careered into All Saints’ Church, Bawdeswell, some 30 miles north-east of the airfield, setting it alight. The impact was such that parts of the aircraft struck two other homes, causing extensive damage to both properties. The resultant fire took four hours to extinguish and included crews from other nearby airfields. In honour of the two airmen, a plaque manufactured from part of the Mosquito has been mounted on the church wall inside the building.

The Christmas period of 1944 was a busy one for Downham and for the FIDO operators. With freezing fog, snow and general poor weather causing many problems for those on the continent and for those on British soil attempting to take off, FIDO crews were going to be busy. FIDO primarily designed as a landing aid, also permitted take offs during poor visibility. However, getting to the runway was a challenge in itself. Often with visibility down to just feet, ground staff would line the perimeter tracks with torches to guide each aircraft safely along. Anyone who made a mistake took the risk of running off the perimeter track, sinking into the ground along side or worse.

By the dawn of 1945 the war in Europe was all but over. Operations began to focus on troop concentrations, possible German escape routes and harbours. Both 635 and 608 Sqns continued operational flying until the war’s end. In August and early September these last two operational squadrons at Downham Market were disbanded, 608 Sqn on August 24th and 635 Sqn on September 1st. This left Downham devoid of all front line units.

last raid - Kiel canal ground & air crew photo 2 May 1945 at Downham Market found by Brian Emsley, Welwyn G, father Edward Emsley far left httpwww.bbc.co.uknewseducation-32532153

A recently discovered photograph showing a D.H. Mosquito of Downham Market, taken on May 2nd 1945. It was taken just prior to the last mission undertaken by RAF aircraft on an attack on the Kiel Canal. It shows Ground & Aircrew next to their Mosquito and ‘Cookie’. It was found by Brian Emsley,  his father Edward Emsley is far left.*

With peace now settling across Europe, focus turned to returning personnel back to ‘Civvy street’. Within 8 Group, a new scheme was set up, and personnel were encouraged to make use of it. Across the range of Pathfinder stations, EVT (Educational and Vocational Training) was introduced. These classes were designed to give personnel the much needed skills in a range of civilian areas, to help them integrate back into civil life. Classes were broad and included a range of domestic activities such as: landscape gardening, cookery, music and carpentry. Some of these such as ‘domestic science’ were designed with the WAAFs in mind, whilst others were geared more (but not exclusively) toward the men.

"CIVVY STREET COURSE" IN R.A.F. PATHFINDER GROUP

1945 – Landscape and floral gardening are subjects given in the E.V.T. classes at Downham Market. Leading Aircraftman Arthur Pickersgill [centre] is now the station instructor. (IWM CH16028)

RAF Downham Market finally closed in 1946, but in 1948 the site was used for night Helicopter flight trials by BEA – the civil air company – transporting mail using Sikorsky S-51 Helicopters. This was a short lived venture but was by the end, considered a very successful companion to the day times routes recently started between Peterborough and a number of towns between Kings Lynn and Norwich. The venture included installing a flashing Sodium Beacon at Downham Market, its precise location on the airfield is not known and it may well have been a mobile unit*4.

Eventually in 1957, the land was sold off. The site was returned to agriculture but the airfield’s runways remained intact. In the 1970s, the Downham Market by-pass was built and the concrete runways were an ideal source of local hardcore. All three were subsequently removed along with large sections of the perimeter track leaving a mere road’s width for the larger part. Many of the buildings were at this time left, and small businesses soon took them over. One of these, a kitchen sales shop, now houses a small display relating to the history of the airfield.

At ground level, the discerning eye and a general appreciation of airfield structure and layout, suggest a presence of something more interesting. Huts, whilst in very poor condition, poke through overgrown trees and bushes, and provide shelter and storage facilities for local industry. The condition of windows and brickwork suggest that time is gradually running out for this once thriving airfield, unless other businesses move in.

The main runway ran east – west and for many years a small section of this remained for the farmers use. It was this runway that utilised FIDO, the storage area (at the far end) now taken over by the car dealership.

Downham Market Runway remains

The remnants of the main runway. Sadly this has now also been removed. It was this runway that utilised FIDO.

The remaining two runways were both removed for the hardcore. The western perimeter track remains in part width, from the threshold of the second runway virtually to the top to the threshold of the northern end of the third runway. However, the A10 road now dissects this and the uppermost part has been removed also. A new track (a public track) has been built for the farmer, this cuts across the northern end of the airfield and it is here that the (flooded) Battle Headquarters can be found. Now part of a ditch, its roof forms a bridge into one of the adjoining fields, it can only be found with careful searches of this ditch!

Battle Headquarters

A flooded Battle Headquarters. Several rooms exist below ground level, but these are all flooded, some said to be very deep.

Virtually the entire length of the northern part of the peri track can be walked round to the eastern end of the main runway. Part way along, another track leads off to the former bomb store, this is private the store now a wooded area. Also along here is the ultra heavy fusing point, a shed that is now used by the local farmer. At the far end of the peri track is where the accommodation area was constructed for the FIDO installers using Laing Hutting. Across the road can be seen the car dealership built on what was the FIDO installation. None of the original buildings remain here, but the peri track widens out to full width again at this point and heads east back toward the technical area.

Across the road from the technical area is the camp entrance and Bexwell, a small collection of houses and a church. Here a small memorial is placed telling the stories of the two heroic and brave crew members Aaron and Bazalgette. This road is the old road that led to all the accommodation areas. The WAAF site being the first and one of only two sites left with buildings still in place.

RAF Downham Market

Buildings on the WAAF site.

The other sites here include the Communal Site 1, Dormitory Site 1 (A), Sick Quarters, Dormitory Sites No. 2 (B), 3 (C), 4 (K) and 5 (J). Another track leads off to a sewage works. The road eventually joins the main A10. Across from here is the Communal Site 2, the second site with buildings still in use, and currently used by an engineering firm. A First World War memorial is also located here oddly hidden away amongst the bushes. Alongside these buildings are a pathway that leads to the second sewage treatment works.  This site can also be accessed by public footpath from the main road into Downham itself.

looking back to accomodation area

The sewage site. Through the trees you can see the remains of Communal Site 2.

Downham Market is an airfield that has a remarkable history, the dedication and bravery of the crews being second to none. What is left of this historic site is continually under threat, decay and dilapidation rapidly taking over.

The town is regularly overflown by F-35s from Marham, but when I was first here, two Tornadoes flew over whilst I was reading the dedications to both Bazalgette and Aaron. A fitting tribute not only to the two brave pilots, but all the crews that served here and to a station originally built to serve as a satellite for the very same airfield.

In 2015, a £170m regeneration plan was announced, perhaps signalling the end of Downham Market airfield for good (see here) – further details of these plans were to be released in the early part of 2016, but the funding for the scheme seemed to have been withdrawn in January 2020. No more seems to have been said about this venture, but more recently, development work for a fast-food outlet and shop was started alongside the western perimeter track, hopefully this won’t lead to further loss.

In April 2017 a project was launched to raise money for a seven slab memorial to be built close to the site of the former Dormitory Site 1, adjacent to the A10 road. The project hoped to raise in the region of £250,000 to cover the cost of the memorial and provide a lasting memory of those who flew and died whilst serving at RAF Downham Market. The full story and pictures can be accessed on the Eastern Daily Press website. There are more details and a link to the donations page on the RAF Downham Market website. I have been unable to confirm latest details and it may be another victim to the pandemic of 2020/21, only time will tell.

Trail 7 next leaves Downham Market heading east towards Norwich, stopping off at RAF Marham. On the way, we pass through the Norfolk countryside and a secret that shall no doubt, forever remain just that.

Sources and further reading (Downham Market).

* Photo published by the BBC 3/5/2015.

Technical information regarding the site was obtained from official drawings 50/W/117/42 and 50/W/116/42 courtesy of RAF Museum Hendon.

*1 National Archives AIR 27/1350

*2 National Archives AIR 27/1352/5

*3 National Archives AIR 27/2155/1, AIR 27/381/5

*4 Woodley, C. “The History Of British European Airways” Pen & Sword, 2006

The RAF’s pathfinder group, 635 squadron, flew daring missions in Lancasters, and a site dedicated to the crew and personnel of the squadron can be found on the RAF pathfinders archive website. A superb collection of photographs and personal accounts bring their memories alive.

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.

RAF Downham Market (Part 1 – The beginning)

In Trail 7, we visited the northern part of Norfolk, not far from the coast where it borders Cambridgeshire to the west and the North Sea to the north and east. In this part of the trail we visit a site that was once one of Norfolk’s most prestigious airfields, where not one, but two VCs were awarded to airmen of the RAF.

Not far from RAF Marham, we return to this once busy airfield to see what is left and take another look at the incredible history that was RAF Downham Market.

RAF Downham Market (Bexwell)

Located in the corner of the A10 and A1122, 10 miles south of Kings Lynn and and 15 miles north east of Ely, RAF Downham Market (known locally as Bexwell) was only open for four years. Yet considering its relatively short life, it created for itself a unique history that was, and remains, unprecedented in military history.

Built by W. & C. French Ltd., it was primarily a bomber station serving initially with 2 Group before transferring to 3 Group and then to 8 PFF (Pathfinder) Group, Bomber Command. Opened as a satellite station to RAF Marham, it eventually became an airfield in its own right, achieving this status on 3rd March 1944, when it became a parent station itself.

RAF Downham Market

One of the several buildings surviving at Downham Market.

Downham opened in 1942 as a bomber station, a role it performed for the duration of the Second World War. To achieve this, it would require substantial runways and a number of dispersed accommodation sites. As a classic Class ‘A’ airfield, it was spread over a large area incorporating two main sites, the main airfield to the north and the accommodation to the south. It was equipped to accommodate 1,719 male and 326 female personnel at its peak. A network of small roads would link all these dispersed sites together.

Downham would have three concrete runways the main being 1,900 yards long running east-west, whilst the second and third ran north-west to south-east and north-east to south-west, each 1,400 yds long. The classic ‘A’ formed by these runways, was linked by a perimeter track with 36 original pan style hardstands. At its peak, Downham boasted seven hangers, six ‘T2’ and one ‘B1’ which replaced two of the hardstands reducing the number to 34. None of these hangars survive here today. It had the usual bomb store (to the north east), technical area (south side) and eight accommodation areas spread well to the south and south west. As with all these Class ‘A’ stations, the two areas were separated by a public road, the ‘airfield’ to the north and accommodation to the south.

Today, little remains of the actual airfield site, the runways having been removed some considerable time ago. However, on the technical site there are a number of buildings still remaining, and in the accommodation areas further buildings also exist. All of these are either used by local industry or local farmers.

On opening, Downham received its first residents, the Stirling MK.Is of 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron. Arriving on the 8th July 1942, they would retain these aircraft until February 1943, when the new updated Stirling MK.III was brought into squadron service. 218 Sqn had a history that went back to the First World War; disbanded in 1919 they had been reborn in 1936, and were posted to France where their Fairey Battles were decimated by the superior fighters of the Luftwaffe. In November 1940, prior to arriving here at Downham, the squadron joined 3 Group, it remained operational with this Group for the remainder of the war.

On July 6th, they began preparing for their move to Downham, aircraft were stood down and no operational flying took place. On the morning of the 7th, thirteen Stirlings departed RAF Marham, completing the 10 mile straight line flight they arrived at Downham fifteen minutes later. By midnight, the entire squadron had transferred over, and crews were settling into their new quarters. Over the next few days air tests, fighter affiliations and cross country flying were the order of the day, the first operational flight not taking place until the 12th. In Stirling ‘HA-N’ was P.O. Farquharson and in ‘HA-R’ was Sgt. Hartley. A ‘gardening’ mission, only two crews were assigned and briefed but records show that “The vegetables were planted in the allotted positions. 18,000lb of seed were planted during this effort“*1. With that, Downham Market had now entered the war.

Over the next few weeks operations began to build, and targets moved into Germany itself. Lubeck, Vegesack, Duisberg, Hamburg and Saarbrucken were all on the initial list of operations. Apart from early returners due to ice or poor weather, all operations were considered successful and bombing was ‘accurate’.

On 29th July, a royal party visited RAF Downham Market to see how the crews were settling in at the new station. Led by Air Vice Marshall HRH The Duke of Kent, and accompanied by Sir Louis Grieg KBE CBO (ret),  the party were given an official tour of the airfield by Wing Commander P. D. Holder DFC – the Station Commander. After talking to a number of ground crews and watching Stirlings being bombed up, the Royal party then sampled the delights of the officers mess before departing the airfield.

In February 1943, 218 began replacing their Stirling MK.Is with the upgraded MK.IIIs, the last model of the Stirling bomber before they were relegated to other duties. By June, the last of the MK.Is were gone. Although fitted with better engines, the MK.III still remained limited by both its short wingspan and poorly designed bomb-bay.

In the following month a major decision was made to install the still experimental FIDO fog dispersal system here at Downham Market. With RAF Graveley only just having hers installed, the benefits of this system were by now bearing fruits, but despite this, only fifteen British airfields were to have the system installed. FIDO used oil burnt through a series of pipes set alongside the runway. These burners were supplied from large storage tanks, which in Downham’s case, were located to the south-east just off the airfield site. Each tank was filled by road from Kings Lynn, five tankers carrying out two runs each to complete the fill. Oil from these tanks, was then fed into the system – which was installed along the main east-west runway – by large pumps. Once lit, the burners could clear extensive fog or mist in a relatively quick time. The main storage tank site is today a car dealership, all signs of the network of pipes having since been removed.

Downham’s FIDO installation was slow at first, and only covered the initial touchdown area and the first 700 yards of the main east-west runway. A number of burner types were fitted at Downham over a period of time, starting with the MK.III or Haigill burner. These were in turn were replaced y the MK.IV and eventually, when labour became more available, the MK.V which was a sturdier, longer lasting burner capable of withstanding much heavier use.  It wouldn’t be until late 1943/44 that a longer section of the system was installed, now extending to 1,362 yds, almost the entire length of the main runway. The problem with FIDO was always where runways crossed, and here the pipes had to be placed below ground level. Along side the runway they were above ground, and with difficulty in seeing, some aircraft did manage to damage the piping on more than one occasion. With experimental lighting and landings used in the autumn of 1943, the first use of the system was on the night of December 16th/17th that year, when a large number of aircraft returning from Berlin were diverted to Downham due to their own bases being fog bound.

Over 35 aircraft landed at Downham that night, the toll on crews had FIDO not been in existence would certainly have been considerably higher than the terrible price that had already been paid on that disastrous night over Berlin. FIDO with all its counter arguments, had proved its worth in one fell swoop.

The Short Stirling, the first of the heavies for Bomber Command, was liked by many crews, but its short-comings were to become apparent all too soon. One of its problems was its enormous height, created through its huge and weak, undercarriage, which sometimes made landings difficult. Another recurring problem was a significant swing to port when taking off, combine the two features, and you have a difficult aeroplane to control at the best of times, let alone when badly damaged or in very poor weather.

One of the first casualties at Downham occurred on the morning of May 14th 1943, when Stirling ‘BF480’ HA-I piloted by Sgt. W. Carney, swung on touchdown careering off the runway into the Watch Office. No injuries were sustained by those onboard, but two other crewmen on the ground, who had previously landed, were killed in the accident. Coincidentally, another 218 Sqn Stirling, ‘EF367’, HA-G had a similar landing away at RAF Chedburgh at the same time on the same night. Onboard that aircraft there were an American and a New Zealander, all but two of the crewmen were killed, the others  escaping with injuries.

With plans for the invasion of occupied Europe well in hand by mid 1943, movements across Britain were starting to take place. At Downham a number of hangars were used to store Horsa gliders (hence the large number on site) ready for the invasion the following year. Between April 1943 and March 1944 the airfield was awash with stored examples. Accompanying the gliders were No. 14 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section, who maintained and prepared the gliders ready for when they were needed.

In the August 1943, an element of 218 Sqn was extracted to create a new squadron, 623 Sqn, using the MK.III Stirlings already on site. On the very day they were formed, 10th August 1943, four crews were briefed for operations, the target Nuremberg. Unfortunately, once over the target, crews had difficulty in distinguishing any relevant ground detail, and as a result, bombs were scattered over a wide area and the operation was largely unsuccessful. With little opposition all aircraft returned to Downham safely.

RAF Downham Market

One of the many huts that were left on the airfield.

However, two days after this on the night of August 12th /13th 1943, it was a different matter. It was whilst flying a 218 Sqn Stirling over Turin, that Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, would suffer bullet strikes to his head that would break his jaw and tear away a large part of his face. Further bullets damaged his lung and right arm rendering it useless. Aaron still fought on though, despite his severe injuries, managing to assist the bomb-aimer in flying the stricken Stirling away from the enemy. Unable to speak, he communicated instructions to his bomb-aimer by writing with his left hand. Aaron attempted on four occasions to land the plane, but with failing strength, he was persuaded to vacate the cockpit; enabling the bomb-aimer to complete the belly landing on the fifth attempt. Aaron later died from exhaustion, the consequence of his determination and unparalleled allegiance to his crew, his aircraft and his duty. Aaron was the first of two pilots to receive the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market – both for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.

The new squadron 623 Sqn, like many other squadrons however, was to be a short lived one. With high demand for Stirlings in the Conversion Units, it was decided to utilise the aircraft of 623 Sqn for this role, and on December 6th 1943 the unit was officially disbanded. Some crews returned to 218 Sqn but many others were posted out to new units. Flying of a total of 150 sorties in just four months, the squadron would lose ten aircraft, a loss rate of almost 7%.

The void left by 623 Sqn would be soon filled though. Just four days later another unit would transfer in, that of 214 (Federated Malay States) Sqn from RAF Chedburgh also a Stirling MK.III unit. For the majority of December, 214 Sqn would carry out ‘gardening’ missions, dropping mines designated ‘Nectarines‘ or ‘Cinnamon‘. Other operations would see bombs dropped on ‘Special Targets‘ although the Operational Records don’t specify the identity of these targets. 214 Sqn as with 623 Sqn, would be another of these short stay units, on January 17th 1944 they would transfer to RAF Sculthorpe and 100 Group, for RCM (electronic warfare) duties and a new aircraft, the B-17 Flying Fortress or Fortress I. As crews carried out circuits, lectures and training at Sculthorpe, the remainder of the squadron continued operations from Downham. By the 24th January though, all personnel had transferred over and Downham Market was far behind them.

In March 1944, Downham’s long standing unit 218 Sqn was finally ordered out, and on the 7th the entire squadron departed, the operations books simply stating: “218 Sqn moved from Downham Market to Woolfox Lodge by road and air today“. *2 Once at Woolfox Lodge, they would begin disposing of their Stirlings to take on the new heavy bomber – the Avro Lancaster.

The dust wasn’t allowed to settle at Downham however, and before long more personnel and a new Squadron would arrive, ready to fill the skies of Norfolk. This was no ordinary squadron though. With concerns about the poor quality of bombing and the lack of accuracy, it was decided to form a new Group that went much against the wishes of Arthur Harris. Seen as ‘elitist’, Harris vehemently disagreed with the new Group and fought his corner bravely. But with little choice in the matter and lacking his own high level support, he eventually succumbed to the Air Ministry’s demands, putting in command the Australian Group Captain Donald C.T Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO.

The new group would be called 8 Group (PFF) ‘The Pathfinders’, and was designed to use the cream of Bomber Command crews whose record for bombing had been excellent. Aircraft from the Group were to fly ahead of the main bomber force and ‘mark’ the target by various means – coloured flares being the primary and main method. In principle it worked well, but as records show, it was not without its own difficulties or setbacks.

Bennett, an aggressive pilot who didn’t suffer fools gladly, quickly won the admiration of his crews. He was also highly admired by Harris, who once described him as the the “most efficient airman” he had ever met; Harris considered Bennett perfect for the role. In appointing Bennett, Harris dismissed all other possible candidates including Air Chief Marshall Basil Embry, the Air Ministry’s most likely favourite.

The Pathfinders were officially formed on 15th August 1942, with 8 Group coming into official formation in January 1943. With the arrival of the new Squadron, 635 Sqn, Downham would now be playing its part in this role. This change would also mean a change in aircraft type at this Norfolk airfield, out went the now relegated Stirlings and in came Avro’s remarkable four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.III.

RAF Downham Market

The remains of the Technical site looking toward the airfield.

635 Sqn was created under the command of Wing Commander Alan George Seymour Cousens on March 20th 1944. Using ‘C’ Flight from RAF Graveley’s 35 Sqn and ‘C’ Flight from RAF Bourn’s 97 Sqn. A total of eight aircraft and crews from each flight immediately began the move to Downham. At 09:15 the first of the road crews arrived from Bourn, with further sporadic arrivals until 11:00. The first aircraft to arrive touched down at 12:00, and within the next 20 minutes all aircraft were safely on the ground. Graveley crews began arriving soon after this, their first aircraft, along with a ground party, arriving at 15:05.

The new squadron consisted of 36 Officers, 120 NCOs and 200 ‘other ranks’. They were accommodated in Site ‘J’ whilst 20 NCOs and 40 armourers were accommodated in site ‘B’. A small number of officers were put up in the Rectory just outside the main gate of the airfield*3.

Shortly after the crews had landed, they were quickly briefed for an operation to attack Munich, but by the time the aircraft were prepared and bombs loaded, the operation was cancelled, the crews were then given the chance to settle in to their new homes.

635 Sqn would continue to use the Mk.III Lancaster for the next four months, replacing it with the Lancaster MK.VI  from March onward. This was an unusual model of the famous aircraft as it had neither a nose nor mid-upper turret, instead it was crammed with electronic radar jamming devices. Also replacing the normal three-bladed propellers were four bladed examples, aiming to improve the aircraft’s performance.

A growth in aircraft numbers and the development of Pathfinder methods soon led to a new branch of the Group, the Light Night Striking Force (LNSF) equipped with de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder‘ the Mosquito.  In response to this, 571 Sqn, a new light bomber squadron equipped with the Mosquito XVI, was born here at Downham on April 5th 1944, barely two weeks after 635 Sqn themselves arrived. As a temporary measure it was decided that on April 10th, the squadron would be reduced to one Flight instead of two leaving eight aircraft plus a ‘spare’ at Downham whilst the remainder transferred to RAF Graveley. The idea behind the move was two-fold, firstly to bolster the expansion of 105 Sqn at Graveley, and secondly, to provide experience for the ground crews on the Mosquito.

The move went well, but on the 17th, a new order would come through that would change Downham yet again.

Movement order 21 required the entire 571 squadron to transfer to RAF Oakington, effective by 24th April. With that, preparations began and the advanced party moved from Downham on the 22nd followed by the rear party on the 24th. The entire squadron including the Graveley detachment were, by the end of the day, now at Oakington. Due to the move, there were no operations flown by the squadron from Downham Market during this short period of their history.

This departure left 635 Sqn as the only operational squadron at Downham Market. Whilst somewhat quieter, it is was not to be all plane sailing.

In Part 2, we see how Downham takes part in D-Day, the end of the war approaches but operations continue and Downham remains busy. After the war, the airfield is used for other purposes, and eventually closes. We then see what remains today and ask what does the future hold?

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.

September 8th 1943 – Tragedy at RAF Mepal.

On the night of September 8/9th 1943,  a force of 257 aircraft comprising 119 Wellingtons, 112 Stirlings, 16 Mosquitoes and 10 Halifaxes took off from various bases around the U.K. to bomb the Nazi gun positions at Boulogne. Included in this force were aircraft from the RAF’s Operational Training Units, and for the first time of the war, five B-17s flown by US aircrews of the USAAF’s 422nd BS, 305th BG at Grafton Underwood. This was the first of eight such missions to test the feasibility of the USAAF carrying out night operations over Europe.  After the remaining seven missions, in which the squadron had dropped 68 tons of bombs, the idea was scrapped, the concept considered ‘uneconomical’ although the aircraft themselves proved to be more than capable of the operations.

RAF Mepal - memorial

RAF Memorial – Mepal

The Gun battery targeted, was the emplacement that housed the Germans’ long-range guns, and the target wold be marked by Oboe Mosquitoes. With good weather and clear visibility, navigation was excellent, allowing the main force to successfully drop their bombs in the target area causing several huge explosions. However, not many fires were seen burning and the mission was not recorded as a success. Reports subsequently showed that the emplacement was undamaged due to both inaccurate marking by Pathfinders, and bombing by the main force. However, as both anti-aircraft fire and night fighter activity were light, no aircraft were lost during the flight making it a rather an uneventful night.

However, the mission was not all plain sailing, and whilst all crews returned, the night was marred by some very tragic events.

Three Stirlings were to take off from their various bases that night: at 21:00 hrs from Chedburgh, Stirling MK. III, EF136, piloted by F/S. R. Bunce of 620 Sqn; at 21:30, another Stirling MK.III, from 75 Sqn at RAF Mepal, BK809 ‘JN-T*1‘ piloted by F/O I.R.Menzies of the RNZAF; and lastly at 21:58 also from Chedburgh, Stirling MK. I, R9288 ‘BU-Q’ piloted by N.J. Tutt  of 214 Sqn.  Unfortunately all three aircraft were to suffer the same and uncanny fate, swinging violently on take off. The first EF136 crashed almost immediately, the second BK809 struck a fuel bowser, and the third R9288 ended up in the bomb dump. Miraculously in both the Chedburgh incidents there were no casualties at all, all fourteen crew men surviving what must have been one of their luckiest escapes of the war! The same cannot be said for the second though.

Stirling BK809 was part of a seventeen strong force of 75 Sqn aircraft. Each aircraft was carrying its full load made up of 1,000lb and 500lb bombs. As the Stirling was running along the runway, it swung violently, striking a fuel bowser which sent it careering into houses bordering the edge of the airfield.

One of the occupants of one of the houses, Mr. P. Smith, saw the aircraft approaching and ran into the street to warn others to get clear. As the aircraft struck the rear of the houses, it burst into flames causing some of the bombs to detonate. This brought considerable rubble down on the occupants of the second house, Mr and Mrs John Randall.

Mrs Randall managed to get out, her legs injured, whereupon she was met by a local fireman, Mr. A.E. Kirby of the National Fire Service. Mr. Kirby went on to help search in the wreckage of the house until his attempts were thwarted by another explosion. His body, along with that of Mr. Randall, was found the next day.

Two other people were also killed that night trying to provide assistance, those being F/Sgt Peter Gerald Dobson, RNZAF and Section Officer Joan Marjorie Easton WAAF. F/Sgt. Dobson was later mentioned in despatches. Three members of the crew lost their lives as a result of the accident, F/O. Menzies and F/O. N. Gale both died in the actual crash whilst Sgt. A. Mellor died later from injuries sustained in the accident.

A number of others were injured in the crash and one further member of the squadron, Cpl Terence Henry King B.E.M, was awarded the British Empire Medal “for his bravery that night in giving assistance“.

The mission on the night of September 8/9th 1943 will not go down as one of the most remarkable, even though  it was unique in many respects, but it will be remembered for the sad loss of crews, serving officers and civilians alike in what was a very tragic and sad event.

The crew of Stirling BK809 were:

F/O. Ian Robert Menzies RNZAF NZ415002. (Pilot).
P/O. Derek Albert Arthur Cordery RAFVR 136360. (Nav).
P/O. Norman Hathway Gale RAFVR 849986. (B/A).
Sgt. Ralph Herbert Barker RNZAF NZ417189. (W/O).
Sgt. Albert Leslie Mellor RAFVR 943914. (Flt. Eng).
Sgt. Bullivant G RAFVR 1395379. (Upp. G)
Sgt. Stewart Donald Muir RNZAF NZ416967. (R/G).

RAF Mepal was visited in Trail 11.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Chorley, 1996 “Bomber Command Losses 1943” notes this aircraft as AA-T.

National Archives: AIR 27/646/42: 75 Sqn ORB September 1943

Chorley, W.R., “Bomber Command Losses – 1943“, Midland Counties, (1996)

Middlebrook M., & Everitt C., “The Bomber Command War Diaries”  Midland Publishing, (1996)

Further details of this accident, the crews and those involved can be found on the 75 (NZ) Sqn blog. This includes the gravestones of those killed and a newspaper report of the event.

My thanks also go to Neil Bright for the initial  information.

RAF Graveley and the Pathfinders (Part 2).

In Part 1, we saw how Graveley had been formed, its early years and the how it was drawn into Don Bennett’s Pathfinder Group. We saw the Introduction of FIDO and the benefits of this incredible fog busting system.

In this, the second and final part we see more uses of FIDO, new aircraft and new squadrons arrive, but we start on the night of 18th/19th November 1942 which saw a remarkable turn of fortune for a squadron who had suffered some devastating losses.

Halifax DT488 (TL-S) piloted by Wing Commander B.V. Robinson, caught fire when flares in the bomb bay ignited. He ordered the crew to bail out, but as the last man left, the fire extinguished itself. Robinson then decided to try and nurse the damaged bomber home. Flying single-handed, he reached the safety of RAF Colerne in Wiltshire, where he survived a crash landing. The six crew members who had bailed out also survived but were unfortunately captured and taken as prisoners of war by the Germans.  As a result of his actions, Robinson was awarded a Bar to add to his DSO. Robinson would go on to have a second lucky escape later on, after which, in May 1943, he would become the Station Commander of his home base here at Graveley.

35 Sqn would continue to carry out missions both marking and attacking strategic targets deep in the heart of Germany, but accuracy, whilst improving, was not yet 100%.

By the end of 1942 the new H2S ground scanning radar system was being introduced, and a small number of 35 Sqn aircraft were fitted with the units. The continuing missions were on the whole successful, even after the Germans developed a device able to track aircraft using it, and eventually, the whole of the PFF were fitted with it.

In April 1943, a detachment of 97 Sqn Lancasters arrived at Graveley. Based at the parent station RAF Bourn, they also had detachments at Gransden Lodge and Oakington, and they remained here for a year. After that, they moved on to RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.

A number of major operations were undertaken by 35 Sqn over the coming months, but with it came the end of good fortune for Group Captain Robinson. Fate was finally to catch up with him, and he was lost on the night of 23rd/24th August 1943. Flying in a Halifax II (HR928) ‘TL-R’, his loss that night brought a further blow to the men of Graveley and 35 Sqn. Following this, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris restricted flying operations by base Commanders as the number of these experienced men being lost was quickly becoming unsustainable.

On November 18th/19th 1943, Bomber Command began the first phase of its ‘Battle for Berlin’, and Graveley’s Pathfinders would find FIDO more than beneficial. A raid of some 266 aircraft would see light losses on the second night of operations, but on returning to England, crews would find many of their bases shrouded in heavy fog. With visibility down to as little as 100 yards on the ground, the order was given to light up FIDO. This would be FIDO’s first official wartime use, and whilst some of Graveley’s bombers were diverted elsewhere, four managed to land safely using the system. This new invention may well have saved precious lives, as others failed to survive landing at their own fog-bound bases. At debriefing, one airmen, was noted as saying he could see Graveley’s fire as he crossed the English coast, a considerable distance from where he was now safely stood.

The night of 16th/17th December of 1943 would go down as one of the worst for Bomber Command and in  particular for the Pathfinders who were all based in the area around Graveley.

In what was to become known as ‘Black Thursday’ a massed formation of almost 500 aircraft attacked targets in Berlin, and although covered in cloud, marking was reasonably accurate and bombs struck their intended targets. On return however, England was fog bound, thick fog with a layer of heavy cloud prevented the ground from being seen. Whilst not operational that night, Graveley lit up its FIDO in an attempt to guide fuel starved bombers in. With little hope for even getting in safely here, crew after crew requested landing permission in a desperate attempt to get down. Many, out of fuel, bailed out leaving their aircraft to simply fall from the night sky. Others, desperate for a landing spot, simply crashed into the ground with the expected disastrous results. At Graveley, several attempts were made by desperate crews, but even FIDO was unable to help everyone. One aircraft came in cross wind losing vital power as he realised his error and tried to pull away. Another crashed a few miles away to  the north-east and a third aircraft trying to land came down to the south-east of the airfield. Of all those lost around Graveley that night, survivors could be counted on only one hand. 97 Squadron at Bourn, Gravely’s sister Pathfinder station, had taken the brunt with seven aircraft being lost. The role call the next morning was decimated.

The new year brought new changes to Graveley. Mosquito B.IVs arrived with a newly formed 692 Squadron (RAF). Their first mission here would be on the night of February 1st/2nd 1944 in which a single aircraft would defiantly attack Berlin.

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Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb into a Mosquito. The Mosquitoes were fitted with bulged bomb-bays in order to accommodate ‘Cookies’. The tower can be seen behind. (IWM)

Some of these 692 Sqn Mosquitoes were later modified to carry the enormous 4,000 lb ‘Cookie’ bomb, This was first used by S/Ldr. Watts in Mosquito DZ647 who took off at 20.45 hours to attack Düsseldorf. The attack took place on  the night of 23rd/24th February 1944 from a height of 25,000 feet. The initial bomb was followed by two further bombs from Mosquitoes of the same squadron, DZ534 and DZ637.

The first casualties for 692 Sqn were reported only three days earlier, on the night of 19th/20th February, which also proved to be the worst night for Bomber Command casualties since the war started – even worse than ‘Black Thursday’. With 79 aircraft failing to return home, the RAF had taken another pounding and squadrons were finding themselves short of crews. These casualties including those in Mosquito DZ612 ‘P3-N’. Flown by F/L. W. Thomas (DFC) and F/L. J. Munby (DFC) the aircraft took off at 01:05 to attack Berlin. The Mosquito was subsequently shot down and both crew members killed.

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Mosquito B Mark XVIs of No. 692 Squadron RAF (PF392 ‘P3-R’ nearest), lined up at Graveley. (IWM)

35 Sqn, who were still flying their Halifaxes, suffered even worse. TL-J, TL-B, TL-N, and TL-O, all fell to the accurate guns of night fighters over the continent. In yet another devastating night of losses, neighbouring Warboys, Wyton and distant Leeming and Waterbeach all lost crews. The casualty list was so high, that barely a squadron operating that night didn’t suffer a loss.

In early April 1944, a small detachment of 571 Sqn Mosquitoes (RAF Downham Market) joined 692 passing through on their way to RAF Oakington. From there that then transferred to  RAF Warboys, where the squadron was eventually disbanded. A series of events not untypical for Graveley.

692 would go on to have another claim to fame a year later, when on January 1st 1945, in an attempt to assist in the Ardennes offensive, they attacked supply lines through a tunnel. A daring attempt it required the bomb to be dropped into the mouth of the tunnel where it would explode. These attacks were carried out between 100 and 250 feet using the ‘Cookies’ and were so successful that smoke was seen bellowing from the other end of the tunnel after the attack.

The final 692 Sqn mission would then be on the night of May 2nd/3rd 1945. As the war was coming to a close, it was feared that remaining resolute Germans would make their escape from Keil, and so 23 aircraft in 2 waves of 12 and 11 went sent to bomb the coastal town. A successful mission, all crews returned safely.

692 Squadron, would operate a variety of Mosquito types during its life including the B.IV, XIV and XVI who would prove to be highly successful and instrumental in 8 Group’s ‘Light Night Striking Force’.

692 Sqn would move to Gransden Lodge in June 1945 where they were finally disbanded; a sad end to a remarkable career. The squadron had performed well since arriving here at Graveley, and had seen many highly regarded crew members lost in operations, including both Sqn. Ldr. R. Fitzgerald and Wing Commander A. Cranswick; its record of prestige losses reflecting the nature and danger of flying as part of the elite Pathfinder Force. 35 Sqn meanwhile would go on to have a long and established career, operating as late as 1982.

The remaining buildings utilised by the farm, which no longer resembles the Control Tower it was.

Other units to grace the skies over Graveley would include detachments of 97, 115 and 227  Sqns all with Lancasters MK. I and MK.IIIs, mainly prior to thier disbandment toward the war’s end.

692 Squadron carried out 310 operations from Graveley losing 17 Mosquitoes in all. A  total of 150 aircraft were registered either missing or crashed following operations from this station: 83 Halifaxes, 32 Lancasters and 35 Mosquitoes.

As one of the many Pathfinder stations in this part of the country, Graveley is linked by the long ‘Pathfinder Walk’ a path that leads all the way to RAF Warboys in the north. Using this walk allows you to visit a number of these bases linking each one by open cross-country footpaths.

Today, Graveley is all but gone. The control tower is now very well disguised as a farm-house, its shape considerably different to the original design, the concrete huts have been pulled down and the runways mainly dug-up. A couple of buildings do still remain next to the farm-house, storing a range of modern farm equipment. The perimeter track considerably smaller in width, remains used by the local farm for lorries to transport their goods to the main road.

Perimeter Track

The perimeter track where bombers once lumbered.

A small memorial has been erected and sad to say, was poorly maintained when I was there. It stands at the entrance to the former airfield on the northern side, now the entrance to the farm site.

Graveley is typical of the sad end to many of Britain’s lost airfields. The wide open expanses that once resounded with the roar of piston engines taking brave young men to war, are now quiet and the sounds mere whispers in the wind. Lorries roll where the wheels of laden bombers once lumbered. The brave acts of those young men now laid to rest in a small stone overlooking where they once walked. As a pivotal station in 8 Group, Graveley and its crews deserve a much greater recognition for their dedication, bravery and sacrifice.

This aside, a beautiful stained glass window can be found in the local Graveley church and is worthy of a visit if time allows.

After the quiet of Graveley we head south-east, toward our next planned destination, RAF Bourn. On the way, we make a brief stop at the now extinct RAF Caxton Gibbet, a little airfield with a colourful history.

*1 Williams, G. “Flying Through Fire FIDO – The Fog Buster of World War Two“, 1995, Alan Sutton Publishing, Page 109.

(Graveley was initially visited in 2015, in Trail 29, this is an updated post).