After a short journey from Castle Camps we soon arrive at our next port of call. This airfield, although a Second World War airfield, saw little action but was used by both the U.S.A.A.F. and the R.A.F. both during and after the war. Whilst it does not generally have active flying units today, it does house the M.O.D. dog training unit and as such is classed as an active military site.
This part of the trail brings us to the former airfield RAF Wethersfield.
R.A.F. Wethersfield (Station 170).
RAF Wethersfield was originally designed and built as a Class ‘A’ bomber airfield with construction occurring during 1942. During this expansion period materials and labour were both in short supply, which delayed the completion of the airfield until late 1943. During this period, ownership of the airfield passed hands several times, initially belonging to the Eighth Air Force, it was to be loaned to the R.A.F. between December 1942 and May 1943, before returning back to American hands. However, the delay to construction meant that by the time it was completed and opened, it would not be used by the R.A.F. but passed instead directly into the hands of the ‘new’ U.S. Ninth Air Force.
Constituted in 1941, the Ninth had already been fighting in Egypt and Libya, before they were moved to England in late 1943 in preparation for the forthcoming invasion of the continent. Throughout the remainder of the war they would pave the way for the advancing forces from Normandy deep into Germany itself. As an Air force, it would be disbanded in 1945 only to be reborn post war as part of the Tactical Air Command, and latterly the Continental Air Command, at which point it was assigned to Reserve and National Guard duties.
The first units to arrive at Wethersfield did so in the February of 1944, four months before the invasion took place. The first aircraft to arrive were the A-20 ‘Havocs’ of the 416th Bombardment Group (Light). The Group, who was only a year old itself, was made up of the: 668th, 669th, 670th and 671st Bomb Squadrons, and would fall under the control of the IX Bomber Command, Ninth Air Force who had their headquarters at the rather grand stately home Marks Hall in Essex.
A journey that started at Will Rogers Airfield in Oklahoma, would take the men of the 416th from Lake Charles in Louisiana, through Laurel Airfield, Mississippi and onto Wethersfield some 28 miles to the south-east of Cambridge, in Essex.
As a Class A airfield, its three concrete runways would be standard lengths: 1 x 2,000 yards and 2 x 1,400 yards, all the normal 50 yards wide. Scattered around the perimeter were fifty hardstands for aircraft dispersal – all but one being of the spectacle style.
The 2,500 ground and air crews would be allocated standard accommodation, primarily Nissen huts, situated over several sites to the south-west of the main airfield site. Two T2 hangars were provided for aircraft maintenance, one in the technical area also to the south-west, and the second to the east. One notable building at Wethersfield was a Ctesiphon hut. An unusual, and indeed controversial design, it originated in the Middle East when a sergeant, unable to camouflage his tent, had poured concrete over it. As the pole was removed, the structure remained both intact and strong. The commanding officer, Major J.H. De W. Waller took the idea, named it after a 1,600 year old palace at Bagdad, and developed it in the UK, through the Waller Housing Corporation.
The idea behind the building is that a metal frame is constructed, similar in design to Nissen hut ribs, then covered with hessian after which concrete is poured over it. As the concrete hardens, the hessian sags giving added strength through its ‘corrugated’ shape. The ‘scaffolds’ are then removed leaving the hut’s shell standing independently. At Wethersfield there were originally fourteen of these huts built, all within the technical site, it is not currently known whether any of these still exist today, but it is extremely unlikely as most were pulled down post war.
The 416th BG were part of the 97th Combat Wing, and were among the first to receive the new ‘Havocs’, along with the 409th and 410th BG who were also under the control of the 97th. For the short period between the 416th’s arrival (February 1944) and the invasion in June, they carried out sustained training missions transferring their skills from the B-25s they had earlier used, to the new A-20s, which included operational sorties targeting V-weapons sites in northern France starting in March 1944.
During these flights, accidents would happen. A number of aircraft were damaged or written off whilst attempting landings at Wethersfield: ’43-9203′, (671st BS) piloted by George W. Cowgill crashed on 21st April 1944; ’43-9209′ piloted by Pilot Elizabeth O. Turner, crashed on 13th August 1944, and ’43-9368′ crashed two days earlier on 11th August 1944. Some of these accidents resulted in fatalities, including that of ’43-9223′ (668th BS) which crashed on a routine test flight 1.5 miles north-west of Wethersfield, on 9th May 1944. The pilot Capt. William P. Battersby (the Squadron Operations Officer) and a passenger Private First Class Charles W. Coleman (s/n 32372194) a Parachute Rigger, were both killed in the accident.
In the April, two months after the Americans had moved in, the R.A.F. officially handed over the airfield to the U.S. forces in a ceremony that unusually, saw a large number of civilians take part.
As the invasion neared, the 416th began to attack coastal defences and airfields that were supporting Luftwaffe forces. During and after the invasion they targeted rail bottlenecks, marshalling yards, road networks, bridges and other strategic targets to prevent the build up of reinforcements and troop movements into Normandy.
As the German forces retreated, the 416th attacked escape routes in the Falaise Gap to the south of Caen, destroying the many bridges that allowed the German armies to leave the encircled area. During the battle, nine aircraft were lost, and all those lucky enough to return suffered flak damage, some of it heavy. For their actions here between the 6th and 9th of August 1944, the 416th earned themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) the only one they would receive during the conflict.
By the following September, the Allies had pushed into France and the Ninth began to move across to captured airfields on the continent, the 416th being one of those to go. Leaving the leafy surroundings of Wethersfield for the Advanced Landing Ground (A.L.G.) at Melun, to the south of Paris, it would be a move that would coincide with the change to the new A-26 ‘Invader’; the 416th being the first unit to do so, another first and another distinction. During their seven month stay at Wethersfield the 416th BG would fly 141 operational sorties losing twenty-one aircraft in the process.
With their departure, Wethersfield was handed back to the R.A.F. and the First Allied Airborne Army. This would see a dramatic change from the light twin-engined A-20s to the mighty four-engined Stirlings MK.IV, the former heavy bombers turned transport and glider tugs, whose nose stood at over 20 feet from the ground.
The two squadrons operating these aircraft at Wethersfield, 196 Sqn and 299 Sqn, would both arrive on the same day, October 9th 1944 and depart within 24 hours of each other on 26th and 25th of January 1945 respectively.
The Stirling, initially a heavy bomber of Bomber Command, was pulled from front line bombing missions due to its high losses, many squadrons replacing them with the newer Lancaster. 196 Sqn however, retained the Stirling and instead transferred from Bomber Command into the Allied Expeditionary Air Force.
The Stirlings proved to be much more suited to their new role supporting resistance and S.O.E. operations in occupied Europe. But the heavy weight of the Stirling took its toll on the runways at Wethersfield, and eventually they began to break up. Now in need of repairs, the two squadrons were pulled out and sent to Shepherds Grove where they would eventually be disbanded at the war’s end.
A short stay in March of 1945 by the 316th Troop Carrier Group (T.C.G.) allowed them to participate in Operation ‘Varsity‘, transporting paratroops of the British 6th Airborne across the Rhine into Wessel, and on into northern Germany itself. An operation that saw 242 C-47 and C-53 transport aircraft leave bases in England filled with paratroops and their associated hardware. For many of these troops, it was their first drop into enemy territory – a true baptism of fire. During the take offs, paratroopers witnessed a V-1 flying bomb race across the Wethersfield sky, the Germans last-ditch effort to turn the tide that was very much against them. Immediately after the operation the 316th returned to their home station at R.A.F. Cottesmore, a move that signified the operational end of Wethersfield for the Second World War. Now unoccupied the site was put into care and maintenance, a state it remained in for a good number of years.
With the heightening threat of a soviet attack and the suggestion of the Cold War turning ‘hot’, Wethersfield was then given a new lease of life. On the 1st June 1952, the U.S. returned once more with the 20th Fighter Bomber Wing (F.B.W.), the 55th and 77th Fighter Bomber Squadrons (F.B.S.) operating the F-84G ‘Thunderjet’.
To accommodate the new jets, the main runway was extended, the original wartime buildings were removed and replaced with more modern structures. The original control tower was developed and upgraded to meet the new higher standards required of a military airfield. Accommodation and family support was also considered. Like many U.S. bases in the U.K. they had their own shops, bowling complex, basketball centre, Youth club, cinema and school. Wethersfield was to become, for a short period of time, a front line base and a major part of the U.S.’s twenty-two European bases.
Children are shown around RAF Wethersfield as part of cementing American and British relations.
The F-84G was a Tactical-fighter bomber designed to carry a 2,000 lb nuclear bomb for use on enemy airfields in the event of all out war. Operating as part of the 49th Air Division, 3rd Air Force, they would operate in conjunction with the B-45’s located at nearby R.A.F. Sculthorpe.
In June 1955, the wing, now reformed but utilising the same units, began flying the Republic F-84F ‘Thunderstreak’. The ‘F’ model was essentially a swept-wing version of the ‘G’; designed to be more powerful whilst utilising many of the tooling used by the ‘G’. Gradually the ‘G’ was phased out by the 20th with the ‘F’ becoming the standard flying air frame.
Up grading of the F-84F to the F-100 ‘Super Sabres’ occurred in 1957, during which time the unit was also re-designated the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing after a major reorganisation of the U.S. forces in Europe. The Super Sabres remaining in service here until 1970 when the nearby development of Stansted Airport led to the Wing moving to Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. Prior to this move Wethersfield would bear witness to the first demonstration of the F-111 in U.K. skies, an aircraft that would become the back-bone of the 20th after its departure to Upper Heyford in June that year.
In 1963, Wethersfield suffered a blow when an F-100F Super Sabre ’56-3991′ piloted by First Lieutenant Paul Briggs (s/n 69418A) and co-pilot Colonel Wendell Kelley (s/n 7784A) crashed at Gosfield in Essex. The aircraft experienced repeated “severe compressor stalls” and ongoing problems with oil pressure. After disposing of their fuel tanks over the sea, the aircraft was guided back towards Wethersfield. Eventually the crew decided to eject, the co-pilot asked for the canopy to be blown, and believing he had gone, the pilot ejected. It was not until afterwards that the pilot realised the co-pilot was still in the aircraft, and he was killed in the resultant crash in a farmer’s field. To commemorate the tragic accident that took the life of Colonel Kelley, a memorial stands on the village playing field*1.
With this move in 1970, Wethersfield went back into care and maintenance, used by the airport repair organisation the Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers or RED HORSE for short, who were responsible for the rapid repair of runways and other large airfield structures in times of war. This would also mean the end of operational flying at Wethersfield, and after the departure of the 20th, no further active flying units would return.
As the Americans began their European wind down, the ‘RED HORSE’ unit was also pulled out and the site returned to Ministry of Defence ownership. The R.A.F.’s M.O.D. Police units moved in during 1991, the hands of which it remains in today.
The airfield is still complete, the runways a little worn, its surfaces ‘damaged’ by experimentation with new techniques and repair practices, but it is used by visiting aircraft associated with Police and M.O.D. operations – Police Helicopters and the like. A glider training unit 614 V.G.S. also reside here utilising one of the remaining T2 hangars, keeping the aviation spirit alive if only for a short while longer.
Today it remains an active Military base, and as such access is strictly forbidden. The roads around the airfield do offer some views but these are limited. A public road and footpath is located at the north-eastern end of the site, from here the runway, parts of the perimeter track and hangar can be seen through the fencing. Passing the main entrance, there are a small number of buildings remaining derelict on adjacent farmland, these were part of the original accommodation site and are few and far between. Continuing along this road leads to a dead-end and private dwelling, but it does allow views of the current accommodation and training buildings on the former technical area, all now very modern.
Whilst Wethersfield remains an active site, plans were announced in March 2016 to dispose of it as part of the M.O.D.’s plan to sell off many of its sites to raise money and streamline its activities. If planning permission is granted, Wethersfield could see 4,850 homes being built on it and the resident units of the military being moved elsewhere. It is planned to pass Wethersfield over to the Homes and Communities Agency by 2020, for its disposal*2.
Having a short war service and limited cold war history, Wethersfield is one of those airfields that never achieved huge recognition. Despite this, it was nonetheless, one that played its part in major world history. Achieving many ‘firsts’ and seeing many new developments in aviation, it is slowly starting that decline into obscurity. If the Government have their way, Wethersfield will shortly become a housing estate, and its history will sadly become yet another of those condemned to the local library.
After leaving here, we carry on into Essex and yet another airfield that has remained active but not as a flying base. We go to the Carver Barracks and the former R.A.F. Debden.
Sources and further Reading.
*1A website dedicated to the 20th T.F.W. at Wethersfield has a number of pictures of both aircraft and people associated with Wethersfield and the 20th T.F.W. It also includes a transcript of the discussion between the pilot and the tower prior to the Sabre’s crash. There are also other documents relating to the crash located on the site.
*2 The announcement was highlighted ion the Essex Live website, March 24th 2016.