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).

RAF Graveley and the Pathfinders (Part 1).

In Trail 29 we turn south and head to the southern end of Cambridgeshire. This area is rich in fighter stations, both RAF and USAAF. Home to Duxford and Bader’s ‘Big Wing’, Mustangs, Spitfires and Hurricanes once, and on many occasions still do, grace the blue skies of this historical part of the country.

We start off though not at a fighter station but one belonging to those other true professionals, the Pathfinders of No 8 Group RAF, and former RAF Graveley,

RAF Graveley

Village sign Graveley village sign depicts its aviation heritage.

Graveley airfield sits on the south side of Huntingdon, a few miles to the east of St. Neots in Cambridgeshire. It takes its unusual name from the nearby village. The airfield itself would see a number of changes to its infrastructure, including both upgrades and improvements and it would be home to several different squadrons during  its wartime life.

Initially built as a satellite for RAF Tempsford, Graveley opened in March 1942 when it accepted its first residents, 161 (Special Duty) Squadron.  Formed from a combination of elements from both 138 Sqn and the King’s Flight, it had been formed less than a month earlier at RAF Newmarket  and would bring with it the Lysander IIIA, the Hudson MkI and the Whitley V.

The role of the Special Duty Sqn  was to drop agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) into occupied France, a role it would perform throughout its operational wartime life.  Their stay at Graveley would however be short lived, remaining here for a mere month before departing to  Graveley’s parent airfield in Bedfordshire, before moving elsewhere once more.

By the war’s end, Graveley would have become a complete operational airfield in its own right, forming part of Air Vice Marshall Donald Bennett’s 8 Group, with the Pathfinders. After upgrading, its initial concrete runways of 1,600 yards, 1,320 yards and 1,307 yards would be transformed into the standard lengths of one 2,000 yards and two 1,400 yard runways; the measures associated with all Class ‘A’ specification airfields.

Accommodation for all personnel was spread around the north side of the airfield, across the main Offord to Graveley road. These were separated into nine separate accommodation areas, incorporating both a separate communal area and sick quarters. Graveley would, once complete, accommodate upward of 2,600 personnel, a figure that included almost 300 WAAFs.

As with all sites, the bomb store was well away from the accommodation area, to the south-west, partially enclosed by the ‘A’ frame of the three runways. The 50 foot perimeter track linked these runaways with 36 pan style hardstands, all suitable for heavy bombers (after the extension three of these were replaced by loops). The main technical area, with its range of stores, workshops and ancillary buildings lay to the north-west, where two of the three T-2 hangars were also located, the third being erected to the south-east next to the only B-1 hangar on the site.

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RAF Graveley (author unknown)

Following the immediate departure of 161 Sqn, Graveley lay operationally dormant. However, in May’s ‘1000’ bomber raid, aircraft from 26 OTU based at RAF Wing, flew from Graveley as part of the massive bombing operation. Sadly four of the Wellingtons (all Mk ICs) failed to return; WS704, DV740, DV707 and DV709. One of these, DV709 crashed some thirteen miles north-east of Cambridge whilst trying to make an emergency landing at Graveley. Unfortunately, when the aircraft came down, it overturned killing two of the crew on board: Sgt. J. Dixon the pilot, and Sgt. B. Camlin the tail gunner. Both these airmen were laid to rest in Beck Row Cemetery, at nearby Mildenhall.

St. John's Church Beck Row, Mildenhall Beck Row Cemetery, Mildenhall.

The difficulty faced by Bomber Command crews in accurately hitting targets at night had, by now, become a problem for the ‘top brass’ at High Wycombe, and by April 1942, it had been decided, much against the views of Arthur Harris, that a new special Pathfinder Force was to be set up as soon as possible. As if adding salt to the wound, Harris was then instructed to organise it, and with a mixed charge of emotions, he appointed the then Group Captain Don Bennett, a man who had proven himself to have excellent flying and navigation skills.

Bennett then took charge, and on August 15th 1942, he formally took control of the new 8 (Pathfinder) Group, consisting of a specialised group of airmen who were considered to be the cream of the crop.

With its headquarters initially at RAF Wyton, Bennett received the first five founder squadrons of which 35 Sqn was one, the very day they moved into Graveley airfield.

Castle Hill House, Huntingdon Castle Hill House, Huntingdon, headquarters of the Pathfinders 1943 – 45. (Photo Paul Cannon)

Initially arriving with Halifax IIs, 35 Sqn would upgrade to the MK III in the following October, and then to the Lancaster I and III a year later. There would be little respite for the crews arriving here however, for they would be flying their first mission from Graveley, just three days after their initial arrival.

On the night of 18th/19th August 1942, a total of 31 PFF aircraft left to mark the target at Flensburg, close to the German-Danish border. However, poor weather and strong winds, prevented accurate marking, and two Danish towns were accidentally bombed as a result. It was a rather disastrous start for 35 Sqn and the Pathfinders.

Another blow was to fall 35 Sqn a month later, when on the night of 19th September 1942, the experienced 24 year old Wing Commander James.H. Marks DSO, DFC was lost when his Halifax II (W7657) ‘TL-L’  crashed at Blesme in France. Also being lost that night with W.C. Marks, was 19 year old F.L. Alan J. Child DFC and 25 year old F.O. Richard L. Leith-Hay-Clark; the remaining three crewmen being taken prisoner by the Germans. The squadron designation for this aircraft would then be reallocated, as was the case in in all squadrons, and as if bad luck were playing its hand yet again, that aircraft, Halifax HR928, would also crash with the loss of all its crew, including the highly experienced Sqn Ldr. Alec Panton Cranswick.

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Halifax Mark II Series 1A, HR928 ‘TL-L’, 35 Sqn RAF being flown by Sqn Ldr A P Cranswick, an outstanding Pathfinder pilot who was killed on the night of 4/5 July 1944 on his 107th mission. The Cranswick coat-of-arms decorates the nose just below the cockpit.(IWM)

In October, Gravely made history when it was earmarked to become the first operational airfield to test the new and revolutionary fog clearing system, FIDO. Classified as Station II, it would be the second of only fifteen British airfields to have the system installed and whilst it had its opponents, it was generally accepted and greeted by all who used it.

Installed by contractors William Press, the system’s pipes were laid along the length of the runway, a not easy feat as operations continued in earnest. One of the initial problems found with the FIDO system, was the crossing of the intersecting runways, pipes had to be hidden to avoid aircraft catching them and an obvious disaster ensuing. Two types of pipe were laid at Graveley, initially the Four Oaks type burner, but this was later replaced by the Haigas (Mk.I) burner. A more complex system, the Haigas took considerable time to install but by January 1943 it was ready, and an aerial inspection was then carried out by Mr. A Hartley – the Technical Director of the Petroleum Warfare Dept (PWD) and Chief engineer of the Anglo-Iranian oil Co. It was Hartley who later played a major role in PLUTO, the cross channel pipeline installed for D-day. Hartley, himself a non flyer, was flown over the burning pipes in a Gypsy Major by no less than Don Bennett himself.

It was later, on February 18th, that Bennett made the first four-engined heavy bomber FIDO landing at Graveley, using a Lancaster of 156 Sqn from Oakington. Setting off from Oakington, Bennett headed towards Graveley airfield, and with the burners lit, he remarked how he was able to see them from some 60 miles distant, the fire providing a far better light than searchlights alone, the means by which aircraft had been guided home on foggy nights previously. A great success, Bennett requested that certain minor modifications be made as he thought pilots could be distracted by the cross pipes at the threshold of the runway. Hartley keen to please Bennett, duly arranged for the necessary alterations and the modification were carried out without further delay.  However, further problems were to come to light on the the first operational lighting of the system, when bushes, hedges and telegraph poles adjacent to the pipelines were ignited due to an extension of the system passing through a nearby orchard!

The installation of FIDO meant that huge oil containers had to be installed too. At Graveley, sixteen cylindrical tanks were mounted in two banks, each tank holding up to 12,000 gallons of fuel. These tanks were kept topped up by road tankers, there being no railway line nearby as was the case at other stations.

Over the next few months, FIDO was tested further, but for various reasons its benefits weren’t truly exploited. On one occasion it was prevented from being lit by a crashed Halifax on the runway, the resultant lack of FIDO after the accident, was then blamed for the loss of two more aircraft, neither being able to safely put down in the poor conditions.  On another night, poorly maintained pipes caused burning fuel to spill onto the ground rather than heating the vaporising pipes above. Bennett somewhat angry at this, once more requested modifications to be made, needless to say they were not long in coming!

With further trials, one pilot was remarked as describing flying through FIDO as “entering the jaws of hell”*1 but once crews were used to it, the benefits were by far outweighing the drawbacks.

The safety of FIDo could not assist all crews though, and a number of other experienced crews were to be lost from Graveley over the next few months. But all news was not bad. The night of 18th/19th November 1942 saw a remarkable turn of fortune.

In Part 2 we see how Graveley sees out the war, the changes that occur, the new aircraft and new squadrons that arrive.

The whole trail can be read in Trail 29 – Southern Cambridgeshire.

Help Wanted – RAF King’s Cliffe!

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

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

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

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

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

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

My sincere thanks.

Andy

Links

The BBC report can be accessed here.

RAF King’s Cliffe was visited in Trail 6

Previous reports can be found here.

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Watton (Station 376)

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

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

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

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

RAF Watton

Part of Watton’s decaying perimeter track.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Watton

A fence separates the housing estate from the airfield remains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Watton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A very Happy Christmas!

As the year draws to a close, I would like to pass on my sincere thanks to all those of you who have followed, read, commented and shared a common interest with me here at Aviation Trails. It has truly been a challenging year but with determination we will no doubt get through these difficult times and on to better ones in the months ahead.

Since starting, I have now written over 60 trails, the number of airfields I have now visited has increased to over 120 stretching from Scotland’s north west coast to Kent in the south, from the eastern regions of England to the west; a huge area but one in which there are still many, many more airfields and sites yet to visit.

As 2021 approaches I would like to take the opportunity to wish you all, wherever you are in the world, a very happy and safe Christmas and both a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Merry Christmas one and all!

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Christmas menu 324 Wing Deversoir

RAF Great Massingham – Blenheims, Bostons and Mosquitoes.

In the heart of Norfolk, some 40 miles west of Norwich and 13 miles to the east of King’s Lynn, lies a small, quaint village typical of the English stereotype. Small ponds frequented by a range of ducks, are thought originally to be fish ponds for the 11th century Augustinian Abbey, and the history of the village is believed to go back as far as the 5th Century.  Massingham boasts an excellent village pub, and a small shop along with beautiful walks that take you through some of Norfolk’s most beautiful countryside; it has to be one of Norfolk’s greatest visual assets.

Sited above this delight is the former airfield RAF Great Massingham, which during the war years was home to number of light bombers and even for a short while, the four engined heavy, the B-17. In Trail 21, we return to RAF Great Massingham.

RAF Great Massingham

Before entering Great Massingham I suggest you stop at Little Massingham and the church of St. Andrew’s. For inside this delightful but small church, is a roll of honour*1 that lists enormous amounts of information about the crews who served at the nearby base. It gives aircraft details, mission dates and crew names amongst others. It is a hugely detailed collection of information covering 1940-45, in which time 600 Massingham crews lost their lives. Seven of these crew members, are buried in the adjacent church yard: Sqn. Ldr. Hugh Lindsaye (18 Sqn), Sgt. John Wilson (RNZAF – 107 Sqn), Sgt. Thomas Poole (107 Sqn), P/O. Arthur Lockwood (107 Sqn), Flt. Sgt. Gordon Relph (107 Sqn), F/O. Charles Ronayne (RAF) and F/O. Joseph Watkins (239 Sqn), all being killed in different circumstances. This is a valuable and enlightening stop off to say the least.

RAF Great Massingham

The Roll of Honour in St. Andrew’s Church, Little Massingham.

On leaving the church turn right and you will almost straight away enter the village of Great Massingham.

The airfield is to the east behind the village holding the high ground, which makes for a very windy and open site, whilst the village nestled on the lower ground, remains calm and quiet.

Built originally as a satellite for the nearby West Raynham, Massingham opened in 1940 with grass runways initially under the command of 2 Group, Bomber Command and then latterly 100 Group, whose headquarters were at Bylaugh Hall. The distance between both RAF West Raynham and RAF Massingham was so small, that crews would cycle from one to the other each morning before operations.

RAF Great Massingham

The Officers Mess now a farm building.

There were a total of four T2 hangars and one B1 hangar built on this site. The airfield also had sixteen pan-type hardstands and twenty-one loop-type hardstands, giving a total of thirty-seven dispersal points around its perimeter.

The main accommodation and communal sites which totalled five and two respectively, were near to Little Massingham church, to the west, along with further areas to the south of the airfield . These included a communal area to the south-west of the village and sufficient accommodation for 1,197 men, consisting of Officers, Senior NCOs and ordinary ranks.  This was later upgraded to accommodate 1,778 men.

In addition, accommodation was provided for the WAAFs of the airfield, 102 in total at the outset. This was also increased in the airfield’s upgrade, taking the total number of  WAAFs to 431.

The bomb dump and ammunition stores were well to the north away from the personnel as was standard. A number of anti-aircraft sites were scattered around the perimeter offering good protection from any attacking aircraft.

The first occupants of Massingham were the Blenheim IVs of 18 Sqn RAF who arrived in the September of 1940.

18 Sqn were previously based at West Raynham, making the transition invariably very smooth. In fact, operations barely ceased during the change over, the last West Raynham sortie occurring on 7th September 1940 with a six ship formation attack on the docks and shipping at Dunkirk, and the first Great Massingham sortie on the evening of the 9th to Ostend.

Whilst at Great Massingham, 18 Sqn flew the Blenheim Mk.IV initially on short range bombing sorties to the French coast. All was fairly quiet for the first few weeks, the squadron’s first loss not occurring until November 28th 1940, when Blenheim P6934 crashed after hitting high tension wires west of the airfield. All three of the crew were injured and admitted to hospital, but Sgt. William E. Lusty (S/N: 751633) died from his injuries the following day.

18 Squadron remained at Great Massingham until April the following year (1941), performing in the low-level bombing role. Like most other RAF airfields around this area of Norfolk, it would be dominated by twin-engined aircraft like the Blenheim and its subsequent replacements.

As a reminder to those who may have got complacent about the dangers of flying in wartime, the departure of 18 Sqn was marred by the loss of Squadron Leader Hugh Lindsaye (S/N: 40235), who was killed whilst towing a drogue near to Kings Lynn a few miles away. An investigation into the crash revealed that a drogue he was pulling had become separated and fouled the port elevator. The pilot lost control as a result and all three crewmen (SgT. Stone and F/O. Holmes) were killed. Sqn. Ldr. Lindsaye is one of those seven buried in Little Massingham.

Shortly after the departure of 18 Sqn, Massingham took on another Blenheim squadron in the form of 107 Sqn, a move that was coincided with a detachment of B-17 Flying Fortresses of 90 Squadron.

The B-17 (Fortress I) squadron was formed at Watton earlier that month, they moved to West Raynham whereupon they began trials at a number of smaller airfields including Bodney and Massingham, to see if they were suitable for the B-17. These initial tests, which were undertaken by Wing Commander McDougall and Major Walshe, were a series of ‘circuits and bumps’ designed to see if the ground and available runways were suitable. It was decided that Massingham was indeed suitable, and so a decision was made on the 13th, to base the aircraft at Massingham but retain the crews at West Raynham, transport vehicles ferrying them to and from the aircraft on a daily basis.

For the next few days further tests were conducted, and engineers from Boeing came over to instruct ground crews on the B-17’s engineering and armaments. Concerns were soon raised by crews about Massingham’s grass runways, and how well they would perform with the heavier four engined B-17’s constantly pounding them.

RAF Great Massingham

Remains around the perimeter track.

On the 23rd May, H.R.H The King conducted an inspection of Bomber Command aircraft at RAF Abingdon, in Oxfordshire. Amongst the types presented with the RAF bombers was a Fortress I from Massingham. The King, Queen and two Princess’s Elizabeth and Margaret, all attended and took a great interest in the Fortress. The Royal party taking considerable time to view and discuss the heavy bomber’s merits and features.

Back at Massingham, flight tests, training and examinations of the B-17 continued until in June 1941, when 90 Sqn were ordered out of both Massingham and West Raynham, moving to RAF Polebrook in Northamptonshire. But by the October, the Fortress’s had all gone from RAF bomber service, problems with freezing equipment convincing the RAF not to use the heavies in bombing operations. By February 1942 the unit was disbanded and all its assets were absorbed into 1653 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU).

Within days of 90 Sqn’s arrival at Massingham, another more permanent squadron also arrived, again performing in the same low-level bombing role as their predecessors 18 Sqn.

The spring of 1941 saw 2 group perform some of their largest operational sorties to date, with many Blenheims continuing their daylight raids on shipping and docks in north-west Germany. It was during this hectic time, on May 11th, that 107 Sqn, would arrive at the Norfolk base at Massingham.

Being taken off operations on the 10th, the air personnel made their way down from the Scottish base at Leuchars whilst the ground staff travelled by train the following day. A number of crews were posted on detachment to bases at Luqa, Ford and Manston. After a short settling in period missions began again in earnest with their first twelve ship operation in Bomber Command taking them to Heliogoland on the 13th. Two of these Blenheims returned with engine problems, but the remainder managed to attack the target, in an operation that was considered a great success, with complete surprise being achieved. Flying at very low level was key to this operation, and whilst all aircraft returned home safely, one aircraft piloted by Sgt. Charney, flew so low he managed to strike the sea with his port engine; as a result, the airscrew was damaged and broke away leaving the aircraft flying on just one of its two powerplants!

The end of May was a difficult month for 107. On the 21st they returned to Heligoland, with nine aircraft taking off at 14:00, detailed for a daylight formation attack on the target. With  visibility of 12 – 15 miles, they pressed home their attack from as low as fifty feet, in spite of what was an ‘intense and accurate’ flak barrage. Four aircraft were hit by this flak, and in one of them, Sgt. John Wilson (S/N: 40746) was killed when shrapnel struck him in the head. Sgt. Wilson is also one of the seven in the church yard at Little Massingham.*2

On the return flight, a second aircraft also damaged by the flak, had an engine catch fire. The pilot and crew were all lost after ditching in the sea. Fl. Sgt. Douglas J. R. Craig (S/N: 903947) never having being found, whilst two other crewmen (Sgt. Ratcliffe and Sgt. Smith) were seen climbing into their life raft, later being picked up by the Germans and interned as prisoners of war.

On the 23rd the squadron was then detailed to search for shipping off France’s west coast. Due to bad weather, they were unable to make Massingham and had to land at Portsmouth instead. Continued bad weather forced them to stay there until the 27th when they were able at last to return to Massingham. No further operations were then carried out that month.

RAF Great Massingham

Gymnasium and attached Chancellery now a car repair shop.

The dawn of 1942 saw Bomber Command face its critics. High losses brought into question the viability of these small light aircraft as bombers over enemy territory, a situation that would see 2  Group, as it was, all but removed from operations by the year’s end.

But the end was not quite here, and January  of 1942 saw 107 take on the Boston III ( an American built aircraft designated the ‘Havoc’) as a replacement for the now ageing Blenheim. With the new aircraft 107 remained at Massingham, at least until the early August, where they made a short move to Annan before returning to Massingham a mere week later.

It would take only a month before the first 107 Sqn Boston would be lost. Whilst on a training flight, Boston W8319, struggled to join the formation, after turning back, it was seen to fall to the ground, the resultant fireball killing all three crewmen on board.

Despite this, losses over the coming months remained light. With the introduction of US airmen and the 15th Bomb Squadron, June / July saw a number of Massingham aircraft transfer across to the American’s hosts 226 Sqn at Swanton Morley. One of these aircraft, crewed by two US airmen; Captain S. Strachan and Lt. C. Mente, crashed near RAF Molesworth killing both on board.

By the end of 1942, 107 Sqn had lost a total of 23 aircraft on operations, and with each Boston carrying four crewmen it meant losses were increasing for the unit.

In February 1943, the Boston IIIs were replaced by the IIIa model. During May, the whole of 2 Group would begin to transfer across to the 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF) in preparations for the invasion the following year. Losses had been high for the group, the light bombers being easily cut down by both Luftwaffe fighters and flak. At the end of August 1943, it was 107 Sqn’s turn and they departed Great Massingham for Hartford Bridge and a new life within the 2nd TAF.

It was during these summer months that a Free French unit, 342 Lorraine Squadron would arrive at Massingham. A unit formed with Bostons at West Raynham, it would stay at Massingham between July and into early September before moving off to rejoin 107 Sqn at Hartford Bridge, also beginning a new life within the 2nd Tactical Air Force.

It was these postings that would lead to the end of Massingham as a day bomber station, and no further vulnerable light bombers of this nature would be stationed here again.

In April 1944 Great Massingham  was redeveloped and upgraded, more accommodation blocks were provided and three concrete runways were laid; 03/21 and 13/31 both of 1,400 yards, and the third 09/27 at  2,000 yards, this would give the site the shape it retains today.

A year-long stay by 1694 Bomber (Defence) Training Flight with amongst them, Martinets, gave the airfield a much different feel. Target towing became the order the day and non ‘operational’ flying the new style.

In the June of 1944, 169 Sqn would arrive at Massingham, operational flying was once again on the cards, with night intruder and bomber support missions being undertaken with the Wooden Wonder, the D.H. Mosquito. Between June and the cessation of conflict this would be a role the squadron would perform, and perform well, with numerous trains, ground targets and Luftwaffe night fighters falling victim to the Mosquito’s venomous attacks. Included in these are a damaged Ju 88 on the night of October 26th 1944 south of the Kiel Canal, and five trains on the night of October 29th.

RAF Great Massingham

Original high-level Braithwaite water tank.

With them, came 1692 (Bomber Support Training) Flight, to train crews in the use of radar and night interception techniques. Formed at RAF Drem in Scotland in 1942 as 1692 (Special Duties) Flight, they operated a range of aircraft including Defiants, Beaufighters and Mosquitoes.

The two units stayed here at Massingham until both departed in August 1945, at which point 12 Group Fighter Command, took over responsibility of the site.  As radar and night interception roles developed, a new unit was created at Massingham under the control of the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE), who were to trial different techniques and strategies for air interception. They later moved to West Raynham where they continued to carry out this role.

Over the years a number of  post war celebrities were stationed at Massingham, they included F.O. Keith Miller AM, MBE – the Australian Test cricketer; P.O. (later Squadron Leader) Bill Edrich DFC – the England cricketer and the BBC commentator – Flt. Sgt. Kenneth Wolstenholme DFC and Bar.

After the aircraft left, the airfield fell quiet and was very quickly closed. 1946 saw the last personnel leave, and it remained dormant until being sold in 1958. Bought by a farmer, it is now primarily agriculture, although a small private airfield has opened utilising the former runways, and flying visitors are welcomed with prior permission.

The airfield at great Massingham has a public footpath running part way through it. This is accessible at either end of the southern side of the airfield, and permits access along part of the original perimeter track.

Accessing the eastern end of the path is easiest, a gated road from the village takes you up to the airfield site. Once at the top, you can see the large expanse that was the main airfield site. Trees have since been cultivated and small coppices cover parts of it. To your right at this point the peri track continues on in an easterly direction, but this section is now private and access is not permitted. This track would have taken you toward the Watch office, the Fire Tender building and storage sheds – all these being demolished long ago. A further area to the south of here has now been cultivated, and there was, what is believed to have been a blister hangar, located at this point – this too has long since gone.

The public path turns left here and takes you round in a northerly direction. To your left is a T2 hangar, it is believed that this is not the original, but one that had been moved here from elsewhere. This however, cannot be confirmed, but there was certainly a T2 stood here originally.

The track continues round, a farm building, very much like a hangar, houses the aircraft that now fly. Sections of runway drainage are visible and piles of rubble show the location of smaller buildings. The track then takes you left again and back to the village past another dispersal site, now an industrial unit complete with blister hangar. Other foundations can been seen beneath the bushes and leaves on your right. This may have been the original entrance to the site, although Massingham was unique in that in was never fenced off, nor guarded by a main gate. Other examples of airfield architecture may be found to the north side of the airfield, indeed satellite pictures show what looks like a B1 hangar on the northern perimeter.

RAF Great Massingham

The perimeter track and T2 hanger re-sited post war.

After walking round, drive back toward Little Massingham, but turn left before leaving the village and head up toward the distant radio tower, itself a remnant from Massingham’s heyday. We pass on our left, the former accommodation site. Now a field, there is no sign of its previous existence. However, further up to the right, a small enclave utilises part of the Officers’ Mess, the squash court, and gymnasium with attached chancery. Hidden amongst the trees and bushes are remnants of the ablutions block, and other ancillary buildings.

Continue along this road, then take the left turn, toward the tower. Here is the original high-level Braithwaite water tank and pump house, still used for its original purpose and in very good condition.

Finally, a lone pill-box defensive position can also be found to the west of the village, some distance from the airfield in the centre of a farmer’s field. All small reminders of the areas once busy life.

Great Massingham is a delightful little village, set in the heart of Norfolk’s countryside. Its idyllic centre, pubs and shops surround ponds and greens. A short walk away, is the windy and open expanse that once was a bustling airfield, resounding to the noise of piston engines. All is now much quieter, their memories but a book, some dilapidated buildings and a handful of graves. Standing at the end of the runway, looking down the expanse of concrete, you can easily imagine what it must have been like all those years ago.

From Great Massingham we head east, to RAF Foulsham, before turning north and the North Norfolk coast, an area of outstanding natural beauty and some fine examples of airfield architecture.

Sources and links RAF Great Massingham

*1 A comprehensive history of RAF Massingham, including RAF material, is now under the care of the Massingham Historical Society. Contact Anthony Robinson ant@greatmassingham.net for details about the Museum or Roll of Honour, a hard copy of which can be purchased for £10.00.

*2 The ORB shows this as Sgt G, WIlson and not J.W. Wilson. National Archives AIR 27/842/10

RAF Great Massingham is remembered on the Massingham village website which includes details of the Roll of Honour.

Massingham was first visited in 2015.