Spitfires Galore! – RAF Ludham (Part 1)

In this second part of Trail 58, we leave Rackheath behind and head east towards the coast of East Anglia, and an area known as the ‘Broads’. A few miles across this flat and wetland we come across a small airfield, currently used by crop sprayers and small light aircraft. This private field, almost indistinguishable from the farming land around it, just hints at its past, with two rundown towers, a blister hangar and a small collection of pathways, its history is fast disappearing.

In this the last part of Trail 58 we visit the former RAF Ludham.

RAF Ludham (Station 177, H.M.S. Flycatcher, RNAS Ludham).

Ludham is a small airfield that has been in existence since September 1941, when it opened as a satellite for RAF Coltishall located a few miles to the north-west. It would change hands on more than one occasion over the next few years, being assigned to the RAF, the USAAF and the Royal Navy before returning to RAF ownership once more.

Throughout this time, it would operate as a fighter airfield seeing  range of Spitfire Marks along with a Typhoon Squadron. A number of B-17s would crash here as would a P-38 lightning and several other USAAF aircraft; part of Ludham’s history being that of an emergency landing strip for returning aircraft.

At its inception, Ludham was a grassed airfield, with a hardened perimeter track linking a number of dispersals. Being a fighter airfield the perimeter was only 40 feet wide but of concrete construction, thus it was not designed for the larger, medium or heavy bombers of the allied air forces.

Furthermore, as a satellite, Ludham lacked the design features of a major airfield, and so the accommodation and technical facilities were not up to the same standard of those found on other sites. The accommodation huts were scattered around the north-western side of the airfield, and an initial single storey watch office was also built to the west. A standard wartime design for satellite airfields (design 3156/41), it was a single-roomed structure with a pyrotechnic cupboard and limited views. A switch room was then added to the building (design 1536/42) in early 1942, before the entire building was abandoned and a new twin storey watch office built. As with most airfields of this type, the twin storey building was constructed in conjunction with the addition of the concrete runways. This new office  (design 12779/41) with lower front windows (343/43) would have many benefits over the original not least better views across the airfield site.

Ludham airfield

The much dilapidated original Watch Office.

Another interesting, but not unique feature of Ludham, was a Modified Hunt Range, a structure designed to teach aircraft recognition. The structure, built inside a Laing Hut, saw the trainee sat in front of an enormous mirror. A moving model was then placed behind the student on an elaborate turntable that could not only move in the horizontal plane, but both turn and bank. A selection of lights and a cyclorama added to the realism, with the model reflected in the mirror in front of the student. The combination of all these features provided the students with life-like conditions, thus recreating the same difficulties they were likely to find in combat situations.

For much of its early life, Ludham was used as a satellite of Coltishall, although many of its squadrons were based here from the outset. The primary aircraft seen here was Supermarine’s magnificent Spitfire, the first of which was the MK.VB of 19 Squadron.

19 Sqn had only had this mark of Spitfire since October, previously operating the MK.IIA at RAF Matlask not far from here on the north Norfolk coast. The Mk V was the most produced Spitfire of all 24 marks (and their sub variants) and was armed with a combination of machine gun and canon depending upon which wing configuration was used. The link between the Spitfire, Matlask and Ludham would be a long one, with units moving from one to the other. forging a bond that would last the entire war.

Arriving in the opening days of December 1941, 19 Sqn immediately began carrying out patrols and bomber escort duties over the North Sea, a duty they had been undertaking whilst at Matlask. On several occasions they would fly out to meet incoming Beauforts and their escorts, after they had completed their anti-shipping missions along the Dutch coast. Daily flights would take: Red, Green, Yellow, White, Black or Blue section, each containing two aircraft, over Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth and around the coastal regions of the Norfolk / Suffolk coastline.

However, most of these encounters produced little in the way of contact – even when pilots were directed onto the enemy aircraft. On the 9th, P.O. Halford and Sgt. Turner were vectored onto an intruder, but neither aircraft saw, nor encountered the ‘bandit’, and they returned empty handed. Another two scrambles that same day by ‘Green’ and ‘Black’ sections also proved fruitless, although ‘Black’ section did manage to locate the aircraft which turned out to be a friendly.

Ludham airfield

An original Blister hangar now located on the former runway.

Other duties carried out by 19 Sqn included shipping reconnaissance flights, shadowing and monitoring shipping movements across the North Sea, particularly along the Dutch coast. Taking off at 11:20 on December 18th, F.O. Edwards and P.O. Brooker flew at zero feet across the Sea to Scheveningen where they spotted a convoy of 11 ships. One of these was identified as a flak ship protecting the convoy as it left for open waters. The pair then turned north and flew along the coast to Yumiden where they encountered three more ships. No enemy aircraft were encountered and the pair returned to Ludham to file their report.

Then on Christmas Eve, P.O.s Vernon and Hindley in ‘Blue‘ Section were tasked with a ‘Rhubarb‘ mission to attack the aerodrome at Katwyk. On route, they came across a convoy and two Me. 109Es, who were acting as escort / cover for the ships. The two Spitfires engaged the 109s, Blue 1 getting a two second canon and machine gun strike on one of them at 300 yards range. Black smoke was seen coming from the fighter which dived to the sea only to pull up at the last minute and head for home. Blue 2  engaged the other enemy aircraft, but no strikes were seen and the German pilot broke off also setting a course for home. The two Spitfires then engaged the convoy attacking a number of vessels, each pilot recording strikes on the ships, claiming some as ‘damaged’. After the attack they returned home, this leg of the flight being uneventful.

These events set a general pattern for the next four months, and one that would become synonymous with Ludham. Then, on April 4th 1942, 19 Sqn would move to RAF Hutton Cranswick, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, a direct swap with 610 Sqn who had been stationed there since the January.

Also during this time a supporting squadron had also been at Ludham, 1489 (Fighter) Gunnery Flight, (formerly 1489 (Target Towing) Flight) which had moved in to help prepare fighter pilots for air-to-air combat. Around the time that 19 Sqn departed Ludham, 1489 Flt also departed, also going to Hutton Cranswick with 19 Sqn where they were disbanded in 1943.

610 Sqn were another Spitfire squadron also operating the MK.VB at this time. They too got straight back into action carrying out the patrols undertaken by 19 squadron before them. No engagements were recorded until the 8th, when what were thought to be two ‘E’ boats were sighted but not engaged.

The remainder of April was much the same, several convoy escorts, reconnaissance missions along the Dutch coast and scrambles that led to very little. On the 27th two Spitfires did encounter and Ju 88 which they shot down, the crew from the Ju 88 were not seen after the aircraft hit the water. On the next day, ten Spitfires took off between midnight and 01:05 hrs to patrol the Norwich area. Here they saw green parachute flares, and flew to intercept. Sticks of bombs were then seen exploding in the streets of the city, and various pilots engaged with Do 217 bombers. Strikes were recorded on the enemy aircraft, but they were lost in smoke and they could not be confirmed as ‘kills’. Further attacks occurred again on the 29th and again strikes were seen by the RAF pilots on the enemy intruders.

The period April to August was pretty much along similar lines, routine patrols, shipping reconnaissances and scrambles.  Then in mid August, 610 Sqn would take part in one of the Second World War’s more famous failures.

Ludham had a mainly uneventful entry to the war, sporadic scrambles, intermittent contacts and many hours of training, its future looked secure. But, there were many changes ahead and many events that would put it firmly on the map of history.

In Part 2 we see how these changes affect Ludham and its future.

The full story of RAF Ludham appears in Trail 58.

Squadron Leader Emile Fayolle: A Free, French Pilot.

June 1940: Britain’s last remaining European ally, France; was now hors de combat, and the French people began to face the gruelling prospect of an indeterminate period of time in the shadow of the Swastika, under German occupation.

As news of the ignominious armistice and the new collaborationist Vichy government under Marshal Petain spread, there were many brave and defiant French servicemen who refused to acknowledge it. Some went underground, founding the Maquis; the French Resistance movement, whilst quite a number decided to get to England, by any available means, following their chosen leader: Brigadier-General Charles de Gaulle. Once in England, they formed themselves into La France Libre, the Free French Forces, with General de Gaulle as their commanding officer.

One such Frenchman was a nearly 24 year-old, qualified Pilote de Chasse, (fighter pilot) who was then serving overseas in the Armee de l’Air at Oran in French Algeria. He was Sergeant Emile “Francois” Fayolle.

Battle of Britain London Monument - ADJ EFM FAYOLLE

Sgt. Emile “Francois” Fayolle (Photo: © Friends of the Battle of Britain Monument)

Born on 8th September 1916, at Issoire, in Central France, Emile’s father was an Admiral in the French Navy and his Grandfather was none other than Marshal Marie Emile Fayolle, the legendary French Army commander of the First World War. With such ancestry, it was little wonder that Emile refused to acknowledge the humiliating armistice of Compiegne. After much discussion, and despite the warnings of dire consequences from their Station Commander, Emile, his good friend and squadron-mate Francois De Labouchere and two other like-minded pilots, stole two of the station’s aircraft and flew to the British base at Gibraltar. There all four took ship to England, arriving in Liverpool in mid July. Emile Fayolle and his close friend Francois De Labouchere strengthened their already inseparable partnership throughout their RAF training and even made sure they were posted to the same fighter squadron later.

On August 18th 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, Emile and Francois were posted to 5 OTU, (Operational Training Unit) at Aston Down. Both men were by now commissioned as Pilot Officers and at 5 OTU, they would be learning to fly and fight with the Hurricane. Pilot Officers Fayolle and De Labouchere would join 85 Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader Peter Townsend at Church Fenton, on September 13th 1940, flying Hurricanes. They would both soon start making their presence felt with the Luftwaffe.

Emile stayed with 85 Squadron for nearly three months, being posted to 145 Squadron on December 3rd. He stayed with 145 Squadron till April 26th 1941, when he was then posted to Douglas Bader’s 242 Squadron. Although the Battle of Britain was over by then and the German night Blitz on Britain’s major towns and cities had largely petered out, every now and again the Luftwaffe could, and would, still mount a really big raid, such as the one they made on London during the night of May 10th 1941. Exactly one year to the day since they’d started the whole ball rolling by attacking the Low Countries and France, this raid would prove to be pretty much the Luftwaffe’s swansong; their final, despairing fling. Making use of the full moon in a cloudless night sky, the Luftwaffe, in that one night, seemed to drop a month’s worth of bombs and incendiaries on the British Capital. The damage they inflicted was widespread and severe.

It was on this night, during a late evening patrol, that Pilot Officer Emile Fayolle scored his first confirmed ‘kill’. Emile’s victory was one of three that night; all Heinkel 111 bombers and all scored by French pilots. Pilot Officer Demozay of 1 Squadron shot his down over East London, whilst Pilot Officer Scitivaux and Pilot Officer Emile Fayolle, both of whom were serving with 242 Squadron, had their encounters over the London Docks. All three ‘kills’ were confirmed.

On October 14th 1941, Emile was posted to 611 Squadron, flying the Hurri-bomber: a cannon-armed, bomb carrying, fighter-bomber version of the Mk IIc Hurricane. It wasn’t long before he personally took a heavy toll on enemy shipping. Despite being there for only three weeks, Emile seemed to take particularly well to 611 Squadron’s role, becoming something of a specialist in the rather risky art of fast and accurate low-level attacks. He was posted to a very special unit; 340 Squadron, at Turnhouse.

When the RAF formed 340 Squadron, it was the first, all-Free French, squadron. It was formed as part of the Ile de France fighter group and Emile, as well as his great friend Francois de Labouchere, naturally joined the unit. Promotion, as well as confirmed ‘kills’, swiftly followed. As well as the Heinkel 111 he’d shot down on 10th May 1941, he also had confirmed a FW 190 on 3rd May 1942 and a JU88 shot down into the sea on 11th May 1942. His tally of enemy shipping stood at an impressive 25 sunk by then. At the end of July 1942, Emile was further promoted; to the rank of Squadron Leader, and given command of 174 Squadron at Warmwell.

On the Dieppe operation of 19th August 1942, his first one as Commanding Officer, his Hurricane took a hit from defending German anti-aircraft fire after he’d led his squadron of Hurri-bombers fast and low into the attack. His battle-damaged aircraft lost height and crashed in the Channel on the way back to England, not far from Worthing.  Emile was still in the cockpit.

But that is not quite the end of this extraordinary Frenchman’s story. By the strange vagaries of the English Channel’s currents, Emile’s body was eventually washed ashore in his native France. The Germans recovered it and given that he was wearing what remained of the uniform of an RAF Squadron Leader, but with some French insignia, they presumed him to have been a Canadian. Emile’s body had been in the water for some time and was in no real state to be positively identified, so the Germans buried him in a grave marked “Unknown RAF Squadron Leader”.

It wasn’t till 1998, after much laborious research had been done, that Emile finally got a headstone of his own. He is buried at Hautot-sur-Mer (Dieppe Canadian) Cemetery and he is also commemorated on the London Battle of Britain memorial; with all the other gallant countrymen of his who had flown and fought with the RAF in the Battle of Britain. His fighting prowess had earned him a total of four medals, including the DFC and the Croix de Guerre. At the time of his death; the remarkable, Squadron Leader Emile Fayolle, had been just two weeks and six days short of his 26th birthday.

By Mitch Peeke

My thanks to Mitch for this story.

RAF Rackheath – The 467th BG, the highest bombing accuracy (pt2).

In Part 1 we saw how Rackheath had been developed, and how the 467th BG, the resident group had been subjected to a fierce introduction to the war.

Now, in part 2, we continue our visit to Rackheath and the bizarre event of December 1944.

On December 24th,  B-24 #42-50675 “Bold Venture III” piloted by 1st. Lt. P. Ehrlich, was one of sixty-two B-24s from the 467th taking part in a maximum effort attack on a range of targets in Germany. Hit by flak over the target, five of the  crew, including the pilot, bailed out fearing the aircraft was lost. All five were subsequently captured and incarcerated as prisoners of war. The fires in the engines then extinguished themselves allowing the remaining crew to engage the auto-pilot, taking the aircraft homeward and over allied territory. Once over France, they too bailed out as they were unable to land the heavy bomber, each of these men being safely picked up by allied forces. The plane then continued on, unmanned across the Channel, until it ran out of fuel.

RAF Rackheath

The former hangar has been completely refurbished.

At this point, the story becomes confused. Some say it landed / crashed  in a field near to  Lower House Farm, Vowchurch Common in Herefordshire. The wreck being salvaged the following day. However, there is little evidence of this event, and other sources (Freeman “The Mighty Eighth“) have it landing in a Welsh marsh a little further west. Whatever the truth is, its a remarkable, but not unique, story of  a crewless bomber flying ‘home’ coming to rest safely on British soil.

Also on that Christmas Eve, another Rackheath B-24, #42-95220, piloted by First Lieutenant William W. Truxes Jr , was hit over Pruen. The aircraft then exploded over Rettigny in Belgium, killing Sgt. Walter Walinski (TG); Sgt. Stanley P. Koly (LWG); Fl. Off. David J. Countey (Nav); Sgt. Roland L. Morehouse (BA); St. Sgt. Peter Hardick Jr (TTG); St. Sgt. John N. Ellefson (Radio Op) and Sgt. Alek Onischuk (RWG). Only the Nose Gunner St. Sgt. Robert J. Ball Jr. returned to duty the remainder being taken prisoners of war.

On the 29th the continuing appalling weather caused the loss of two more B-24s, both crashing attempting to take off from a foggy Rackheath (#42- 95115 and #42-51572). A third (#42-94881) was then abandoned over the sea, and a forth (#44- 10607) crashed at Attlebridge also after sustaining damage on its take off. The  visibility was so poor that day that the crews couldn’t even make out the edge of the runway. As a result of these crashes, the mission to Prum, was finally scrubbed, but by then fifteen airmen had already been lost.

The dawn of 1945 saw the Ardennes offensive continuing, and at Rackheath B-24 ‘Witchcraft‘ was approaching its 100th Mission an achievement it made on January 14th 1945. In just 140 days since arriving, it had reached its 70th mission an average of one mission every two days, but what made this particular achievement so remarkable was not this incredible average, but the fact that the aircraft had been mechanically sound throughout, not having to turn back from any sortie it had undertaken. A remarkable achievement, and a solid testament to the dedication of the ground crews who kept her in the air.

The Witch“, as she affectionately became known, would go on to complete a total of 130 missions without a single abort nor injury to any crewman. She became one of the most celebrated aircraft in the 8th Air force’s history. This total would surpass all other B-24s in the whole of the European theatre of operations. Like many though, ‘The Witch‘ eventually returned to the US where she was unceremoniously taken apart at Altus, Oklahoma. In memory of the aircraft, her achievements and the crews who were lost flying B-24s, she is now represented by the world’s last flying Liberator, currently owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, Massachusetts.

Ground crew of the 467th BG B-24 “Witchcraft“. Standing Crew Chief Joe Ramirez, Chamberlin. Front Row Walter Elliot, Geo Dong, Joe Vetter, Ray Betcher.’ (IWM FRE 1979)

As 1945 progressed the end of the war was near. Attempts by the Luftwaffe to curtail bomber intrusions into German airspace were becoming desperate. The introduction of the Me 262 was too little, too late, to make a major difference. But so determined to stop the bombers were the Luftwaffe pilots that many still got through and they were finding the bombers.

Other fighters more determined to bring down the enemy began ramming them. A specialist squadron the ‘Sonderkommando Elbe‘  was set up using volunteer pilots. They were instructed to strike the fuselage of the bomber between the wing and tail thus cutting the aircraft in two, a tactic that would  allow the German pilot to bail out of his aircraft whilst taking down the bomber.

On April 7th, the unit was put into action in its one and only recorded attack, as over 1,000 heavies flew towards German airfields, oil storage facilities and factories in north-west Germany. From the 2nd AD, 340 B-24s headed for Krummel, Duneburg and Neumunster. As the force approached they were targeted by a mix of over 100 Luftwaffe fighters including 109s, 190s and 262s. In this mix was the Sonderkommando Elbe. Whilst the tactic would prove to be more devastating to the rammer than the target, one of Rackheath’s B-24s #42-94931 ‘Sack Time‘ was hit in the tail severing the starboard stabiliser. The B-24’s pilot, Lt. Robert Winger, managed to keep the aircraft flying but with little control, he ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft once over allied territory. The B-24 then crewless, fell from the sky.

It is not known whether the attack was a deliberate act by the Sonderkommando Elbe, or as a result of the tail gunner Robert (Bob) Perkins’s action. Perkins in his attempt to defend the B-24, fired desperately at the attacker, Heinrich Henkel, striking the aircraft several times.

Then for three days in mid April, the heavies of the USAAF turned their attention to the gun batteries around Royan. These German strong holds were hindering the allied plans to use the port at Bordeaux, they had to be ousted.

During one of the missions, on April 15th, the 467th would make history again when three of the four squadrons released all their 2,000lb bombs within 1,000 ft of the mean point of impact, half of these being within 500 ft – a record that would not be beaten by any other USAAF unit. This was the ‘icing on the cake’ for the 467th who were building a strong reputation for consistent and accurate bombing.  So determined were the Americans to remove the defenders on the ground, that they used Napalm in 500 lb tanks, a rather horrific weapon used to great effect during the Vietnam war.

By the end of April the war was all but over, and at bases all around the UK, air and ground crews eagerly awaited the notice to cease operations. Some units were already being stood down, and very soon operations would begin to drop food rather than bombs. As the end of hostilities was announced, the figures began to be totted up. The 379th BG at Kimbolton were recorded as dropping the greatest number of bombs on a target, with the 467th BG at Rackheath achieving the greatest accuracy. This Rackheath record was due, in part, to the dedication, support and drive of its Commander, Colonel Albert Shower.

On April 25th 1945, the 467th completed its last mission, a total that amounted to 212 (5,538 sorties credited), dropping 13,333 tons of bombs. With 29 aircraft classed as ‘missing’, and a further 19 lost on operations, the war had not been cheap.

RAF Rackheath

The former runway looking north-east.

On May 13th, the 467th were to lead the Victory Flypast over High Wycombe, the headquarters of the Eighth Air Force operations, the choice of a B-24 as lead fuelling the ‘ill-feeling’ between B-24 and B-17 crews even further.

Over the next month, the aircraft and men of the 467th would return to the US, the majority of aircraft departing Rackheath on June 12th, whilst the ground echelons left via the Queen Mary from Greenock, the same port they had arrived at just over a year earlier. Eventually the 467th would be disbanded, renamed the 301st, but for Rackheath it was the end, and within a year much of the airfield was already being ripped up, the runways were disappearing and many of the accommodation buildings had been torn down. The entire site measuring just short of 4 km2  was already beginning to disappear.

Gradually agriculture has taken over, much of the main airfield site are now fields. The technical area has since been developed into an industrial estate with many of the original buildings being re clad, redeveloped, modernised or pulled down. The watch office has thankfully been refurbished and from the outside resembles a watch office typical of the time. Inside it is now offices. The one surviving T2 hangar, has had brickwork added to it, other buildings are almost indistinguishable from their modern counterparts. A memorial, dedicated to the men and Women of the 467th was unveiled on 29th July 1990, by the then 80 year old Colonel Albert J. Shower, returning for one last time to the place he had built up a reputation for hard graft whilst appreciating the need for recreation.

If approaching from the south, take the A1270 from Norwich heading north, leave at the roundabout with Salhouse Road turning right. The Holy Trinity Church is a few hundred yards along this road. Here you will find the village sign, memorial benches and numerous plaques in memory of the 467th. The two wrought iron gates at the entrance of the church were donated by the Coffey crew. Inside here (the church was closed on my visit) a collection of photographs and letters bring the Rackheath to life once more.

RAF Rackheath

The memorial gates donated by the Coffey crew.

When leaving the church, go back but turn right along Green Lane West. This takes you past the remaining hardstands and along to the industrial estate. Enter by Wendover Road, named after Wendover Field in Utah. Turning into Bidwell Road, (following the signs) you will find the main memorial on the the corner of Bidwell Road and Liberator Close.

Coming back again, turn left, follow Wendover Road to the corner with Witchcraft Way, a small road to your left. Here you will see the Watch Office. Also along here are Ramirez Road, Albert Shower Road, the T2 and other buildings of interest. A real rabbit warren, it is best explored to really discover the many buildings and plaques that remain.

The main accommodation areas were located back across the from the entrance of Wendover Road. Today a new road has been cut through this wooded area but within these woods, remains of huts still exist, some with etchings on the walls. All on private land, they are also gradually disappearing from view.

Rackheath was a short lived base, operating for just a short part of the war. But its contribution and the contribution of its crews, was nonetheless immense. With high accuracy and the determination to win, they took the war into the heart of Germany itself. The names of these young men now live on, in the road names and plaques that adorn many of the building and streets around this beautiful and now peaceful area of Norfolk.

After departing Rackheath we head a few miles east, toward the coast. Not far away, is another airfield, this time a former RAF site. Long gone it continues to use part of the original runway, two watch offices remain, and a smattering of wartime buildings lay dormant in the corner of now agricultural fields. In part 2 of Trail 58 we visit RAF Ludham.

Sources and further reading RAF Rackheath

For more detail on Mission 311 see: McLachlan, I., “Night of the Intruders” Pen and Sword (1994).

RAF Rackheath – The 467th BG, the highest bombing accuracy (Pt1).

In Trail 58 we head to the east of Norwich into an area known as the Norfolk Broads; an area created through turf extraction in medieval times. The large, shear sided pits were later flooded giving more navigable inland waterways than both Venice and Amsterdam.

Today, it attracts a wide range of wildlife, and offers a range of boating, bird watching and fishing holidays. The shear size and scope of the Broads attracting some 7 million visitors per year to enjoy the rich nature and peace of the Broads.

But in this area during the Second World War, life was very different. Overhead, the drone of aircraft engines was a constant reminder of a war being fought both across the sea and here in East Anglia.

Between Norwich and the East Anglian coast we visit two airfields, one USAAF and one RAF, both now long closed, they each played a vital part in the destruction of the Nazi tyranny across the sea in Europe.

Our first stop is a former bomber base. Now a huge industrial estate where many of the original wartime buildings have been demolished. But some still remain, refurbished, re-clad and in many cases almost indistinguishable from their original design. A memorial, located in the heart of the estate, denotes the technical area of the former base, and a local church displays a collection of wartime photographs.

Our first stop on this trail is the former US bomber base RAF Rackheath (Station 145).

Rackheath (Station 145)

Rackheath airfield lies approximately 5 miles north-east of Norwich, bordered to the east by the  East Norfolk Railway Line, and to the west by the (modern) A1270.

RAF Rackheath

Rackheath village sign denotes its history and links to the base.

Built over the period 1942-43, it was built as a Class A airfield incorporating three runways: one of  2,000 yds and two of 1,400 yds in length, each 50 yds wide and each covered with concrete.

A large number of hardstands lined the perimeter track, some 50 altogether, all being of the spectacle type; with  a bomb store to the north of the main airfield site, sitting surprisingly close to the majority of the hardstands and nearby Rackheath village.

A wide range of technical buildings, supported by two T2 hangars for aircraft maintenance, allowed for repairs and crew preparation: crew rooms, parachute stores, dingy stores, armouries, photographic blocks and so on. The watch office (design 12779/41) stood proud of the technical area located to the south-west of the site. All personnel areas – eleven accommodation and three ancillary sites – lay to the west of the airfield, dispersed around Rackheath Hall, an early 19 Century listed building with its notable architectural features and its own turbulent history. These sites, hidden amongst the woodland, were both extensive and well serviced by concrete roads that led to the main airfield site.

Rackheath was initially designed as a bomber airfield, but during the construction phase, it was re-designated as a fighter airfield. However, delays in the construction process, led to it never being operated as a fighter station, instead it was manned by the Eighth Air Force’s 467th Bombardment Group (BG) and B-24 Liberators.

The 467th BG consisted of the 788th, 789th, 790th and 791st Bomb Squadrons (BS), each flying Consolidated’s heavy bomber the B-24 Liberator. The group’s long journey to Rackheath started on 19th May 1943 at Wendover Field in Utah. After being activated on August 1st, they moved to Mountain Home Army Airfield in Idaho, then back to Utah and Kearns, from there onto Wendover Field again where they remained for fifteen weeks undertaking intensive training. On 12th February the ground echelons made their way, by train, to Camp Shanks, New York where they boarded the US ship Frederick Lykes. Their Atlantic journey brought them, like so many before them, to Greenock, a major port on the Clyde on Scotland’s west coast. From here, they boarded trains and made their way to Rackheath.

The air echelon in the meantime flew the southern route, tragically en route, they lost one of their B-24s (#42-52554 “Rangoon Rambler“) with all its crew, over the Atlas mountains in North Africa. The remainder of the group finally arrived here at Rackheath combining with the ground echelons in late March 1944, where they began to prepare for their first operation on April 10th.

Operating initially within the 2nd Bombardment Division (later the 2nd Air Division) 96th Combat Wing (CBW), they flew Liberator ‘H’, ‘J’, ‘L’ and ‘M’ models under the command of Colonel Albert J. Shower, the only US group commander to have brought and remained with the same group until the end of hostilities.

The 467th’s first mission was to bomb Bourges airfield, a relatively light target in which 730 bombers pounded aviation targets across the low countries. On the next day, they formed part of a even larger force of over 900 heavies attacking aircraft production factories in Germany, their honeymoon was well and truly over in one fell swoop.

But the first major event of the war for the 467th was to occur shortly after this on April 22nd 1944, on a day that has since become infamous in American aviation history. Mission 311, was an attack by 803 heavy bombers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bombardment Divisions on targets at Hamm, Soest and Koblenz along with targets of opportunity. The Massed formation, escorted by 859 fighters, were led by the 445th BG, 2nd Air Division from Tibbenham. The 96th CBW portion was led  by the 458th BG from Horsham St Faith, with the 466th BG from Attlebridge on the low left, and the 467th ‘The Rackheath Aggies‘  on the high right.

As teleprinters rattled across the East Anglian area, B-24s were bombed up, fuelled and checked over by mechanics who meticulously prepared their machines for war. Maps were drawn up, meteorological reports were read out and orders were strict – ‘avoid the Ruhr!’

Once in the air, brightly coloured assembly ships gathered their flocks together in tight formations, and then it was time to set off for Germany. On route, technical problems dogged the lead plane, which led to inaccurate navigation, and ultimately brought the entire force into Ruhr Valley – exactly where they did not want to be.

Dividing up, the massed formations hit a range of targets, Hamm being the focus of the 467th. Surprisingly though, results were good, especially considering the many problems the formation had suffered flying over to Germany. Pleased with their results, the 467th set course for home, blissfully unaware of the dangers that were lurking not far away as they made the return leg of their journey.

The whole operation had been meticulously planned, but it meant that many of the bombers would be arriving home in the dark, an environment alien to many American crews. Experience had told them that Luftwaffe fighters lurked in the dark, unseen and dangerously accurate in their attacks.

When approaching from the east, Rackheath and Nearby Horsham St. Faith were the first two large airfields available, a distance of just some 4 miles separating them. With navigation lights and landing lights illuminating the aircraft, airfields were lit up like christmas trees, each one inviting their bombers home to safety. These lights were also a beacon for the as yet unknown, marauding Luftwaffe night fighters. As the first Rackheath Liberator approached, the air filled with requests for landing  permission, fuel now getting critically low and crews tired from the long flight. Gun places were vacated and crews began preparing to land, everyone was starting to relax – they were home.

It was this point that all hell was unleashed over Rackheath. Canon shells ripped in to the wings and fuselage of 1st Lt. Stalie Reid’s B-24 #42-52445, setting both starboard engines on fire.  The lead Luftwaffe pilot Staffelkapitaen Hauptmann Dieter Puttfarken of II/KG51, taking his companions, in their mix of night fighters, right into the heart of the flight path of the returning bombers. Here they waited, unseen, until the moment the bombers were at their most vulnerable.

RAF Rackheath

The former Watch Office has been refurbished and used as offices.

As the Liberator began to fall uncontrollably out of the sky, four of the crewmen manged to don their parachutes and escape, the remaining six failing to vacate the aircraft in time. All six were lost in the ensuing crash when the aircraft hit the Earth near to Barsham in Suffolk. For Sgt. Edward Hoke, one of those lucky enough to escape, his troubles were not yet over, for somehow, he was pulled from his parachute, and without a means to slow his descent, he too  fell to his death. It was only the third mission of the war for the crew.

Meanwhile, other aircraft began to line up desperate to land. Near misses were now becoming a risk, aircraft suddenly appearing out of the darkness within feet of each other. Then a second B-24 went down –  struck by the terror of the night. B-24 #42-52536 piloted by 2nd Lt. James A. Roden was hit by canon fire. So severe and so accurate were the strikes, that it severed the tail of the Liberator from the fuselage. Now split in two, the aircraft went into a spin and eventual fireball. The entire crew were lost that night.

Not content with picking aircraft off in the air, the Luftwaffe night fighters then began to attack, with bombs and guns, the main airfield site, strafing ground targets almost at will. By now crews were starting to panic, some withdrew from the landing pattern and headed off away from the airfield only to run the gauntlet of friendly Anti-Aircraft guns who were not expecting to see heavy American bombers at night.  By now it was becoming clear what had happened, and to protect the airfield all lights were extinguished. Aircraft were unable to see the runways, parts of which were now only illuminated by fires of wrecks and bombs. Waiting patiently, or diverting to other bases, B-24s light on fuel, circled frantically the field trying to find some sign that it lay below. The confusion that night, repeated across numerous US airbases, tore a hole in the hearts of the American flyers as numbers of those lost across East Anglia began to filter through.

April 22nd would go down in history as the worst loss in one night to intruders alone, made even worse by the fact that once over home territory, you consider yourself to be ‘safe’. Some American gunners were able to retaliate and there are records of intruders being shot down, but the statistics clearly fell heavily in favour of the intruders.

With that, the 467th had finally cut their teeth, their war was real, and it was having an effect.

On D-Day, the 467th were assigned to bombing shore installations and bridges near to Cherbourg, then as the allies progressed through France they supported them by attacking supply lines at Montreuil. A few days after the D-Day landings, a 467th BG Liberator became the first four engined bomber to land on a beach-head airstrip. The B-24 #42-95237, ‘Normandy Queen‘ piloted by 1st Lt. Charles Grace was hit by flak and badly damaged. Unable to make the crossing back home, he ordered the crew to bail out whilst he and his co-pilot brought the aircraft down onto an allied fighter airstrip, luckily without further mishap. All the crew that day survived to tell the tale.

B-24 Liberator (4Z-U, #42-95237) 791st BS, 467th BG parked on the grass in a field in Normandy – the first four engined heavy to do so. (IWM FRE 8431)

By now the allied onslaught of occupied Europe was well under way. Continual flying began to make its mark on both air and ground crews. The summer months seeing over 28,000 sorties being flown, meaning that many crews were reaching their quotas of missions in a very short space of time.

In early August a reshuffle of command within the Eighth saw several changes at the highest levels. Lower down, in the front line units, further reshuffles saw crews and squadrons move from one unit to another. The 788th BS, who had been taken to form the 801st Group to perform ‘Carpetbagger‘ operations in the lead up to D-Day, now rejoined their original Group back at Rackheath.

The long, cold winter of 1944-45 was known for its persistent fog, snow and ice that hampered air operations, and all just as the German army was about to make its one last push through the Ardennes forest. Christmas 1944 would be sombre time for the US forces, with the loss of both Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle and the fighter ace Major George Preddy who was inadvertently shot down by friendly fire and killed.

For the 467th BG it would also be a period of misery, a period that started with one of the most bizarre events in their history. We shall revisit Rackheath again in Part 2.

Sgt. James Ward VC.- 75 (NZ) Sqn RAF Feltwell.

We have seen through the many ‘Heroic tales‘, acts of daring and valour that have astounded the average man in the street. Acts of heroism that were completed without forethought or consideration for personal safety, where the lives of fellow crewmen and their aircraft were put far beyond that of their own.

Some of these included flying an aircraft with astonishing injuries, staying with an aircraft until such times as all the crew have either left – or because they have been unable to leave – remaining at the controls to attempt a landing without help or hydraulics. There have even been cases of airmen exiting the aircraft to extinguish external fires whilst both at altitude and at speed. Indeed this is not a solitary occurrence; a number of airmen have been known to have performed such acts, some successfully others less so. But the fact that an airmen is willing to perform such an act of bravery, is in itself, incredible.

One such action occurred in July 1941 and was performed by 2nd Pilot Sgt. James Allen Ward (RNZAF) of 75 (NZ) Sqn, RAF Feltwell.

Sgt. James Allan Ward, 75 (NZ) Squadron RAF, standing in the cockpit of his Vickers Wellington Mark IC, L7818 ‘AA-V’, at Feltwell, Norfolk. (© IWM (CH 2963)

Sgt. Ward, the Son of Mr. Percy Harold Ward and Mrs. Ada May Ward, of Wanganui, Wellington, New Zealand was born on 14th June 1919, and was, following his training, posted to 75 (NZ) Sqn then at RAF Feltwell in Norfolk. The squadron were operating the new Vickers Wellington MK.Ic, or ‘Wimpey‘ as it was affectionately known, on a bombing mission to Munster in Germany.

Take off was at 23.10 on the night of July 7th 1941. On board (aircraft CNF.994/L7818) that night were: Canadian S/L. R. Widdowson (Pilot); Sgts. J. Ward (2nd Pilot); L.A. Lawton (Navigator); Mason (Wireless Op); Evans (Front Gunner) and A. Box (Rear Gunner), as part of a force of ten Wimpeys from Feltwell along with thirty-nine others from nearby bases.

The flight out was uneventful, with no interactions with either flak nor Luftwaffe night fighters. Over the target, bombs were released and several fires were seen to light, although German reports stated that little damage was done and no casualties were incurred.

The return leg took the formation over the Zuider Zee at which point the Wellington was strafed by canon fire from an Me 110 flying beneath it. As shells ripped though the fuselage, the rear gunner was injured in the foot but managed to return fire sending the attacker plummeting to Earth with heavy smoke pouring from the port engine.

Shortly after this, the Wellington’s wing, housing a fuel line damaged in the attack, itself caught fire and with the aircraft having a fabric covering, it was only a matter of time before it would also fall to Earth in a massive fireball.

With S/L Widdowson struggling to control the aircraft, which had had half its rudder shot away, its elevators severely damaged, hydraulics ruptured, flaps inoperable and bomb doors opened and damaged; a decision had to be made as to what to do next.

A bale out appeared to be the only safe and viable option. S/L. Widdowson gave the order and the crew began preparations to depart the stricken aircraft. Almost as a last minute attempt to save it, Widdowson instructed the crew to try and extinguish the fire, and they began ripping away the fabric covering the geodesic framework. Ward, grabbing a fire extinguisher, shot jets of agent through the hole toward the fire. At altitude and speed, the air stream was far too strong and the attempt had little effect on the burning engine.

At this point, and without attention to his own safety, Sgt. Ward decided to climb out and try to smother the fire with a canvas engine cover that had been used to raise S/L. Widdowson’s seat. Much to the dismay and protests of the other crewmen, Ward grabbed a parachute and attached a rope to himself and the Navigator, and began to climb out through the astrodome located between the wings in the fuselage’s ceiling. By punching holes in the aircraft’s fabric, he was able retain a foot and hand hold on to the aircraft, manoeuvring himself tight against the air frame toward the burning wing.

Once out onto the starboard wing, he approached the fire and pushed the canvas into the hole left by the flames. The fire burning furiously by now, was intense, and caused Sgt. Ward great pain forcing him to withdraw his hand several times before the slipstream finally caught the canvas tearing it from the hole and out into the dark night sky.

Being partially successful, there was little left for Sgt. Ward to do, so he began the arduous journey back toward the aircraft’s fuselage and its relative safety. By smothering the fire as he did, Ward’s attempts had made a difference, and shortly afterwards the fire extinguished itself enabling both the aircraft and crew to return to England safely making an emergency landing at RAF Newmarket Heath.

The Wellington with ‘hand-tholes’ after Sgt Ward tried to extinguish the fire.  (A) The hole caused by shell and, afterwards, by fire; (B) The Astro-Hatch through which Sergeant Ward, VC climbed; (1, 2 and 3) Holes kicked in the fabric by Sergeant Ward.(IWM CH3223)

Landing at 04:30, the Wellington came to a stop only after striking a fence on the airfield boundary, its brakes being totally unusable.

For his action, Sgt. James (Jimmy) Ward was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest honour for bravery and extraordinary courage; he was the first New Zealander to win such an award during the Second World War. S/L. Widdowson for his actions, was awarded an immediate D.F.C. whilst Sgt. Box, the D.F.M.

At the time of the incident Sgt. Ward was only 22 years of age, he would be given his own crew and would go on to complete ten missions in total before, on the eleventh, being shot down and killed in another Wellington of 75 (NZ) Sqn over Hamburg on September 15th 1941.

Sgt Ward’s death brought a severe blow to the crews of 75 (NZ) Sqn, who perhaps thinking him invincible, went on to perform with great pride and determination in the face of great adversity. With over 8,000 sorties flown, the highest of any squadron in 3 Group, came a high cost, 193 aircraft being lost, the second highest of any Bomber Command Squadron of the Second World War.

Sgt Ward’s body was recovered from the crash that killed him, and along with his three comrades was laid to rest in the Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Hamburg, CWCG Plot 5A. A1. 9.

The report of Sgt. Ward’s VC. (Auckland Library Heritage Collection : 13 August 1941 : Item ref # AWNS 19410813-23-1)

Sgt. Ward’s citation appeared in the London Gazette “No. 35238” on 5 August 1941 p. 4515 and reads:

“On the night of 7th July, 1941, Sergeant Ward was second pilot of a Wellington returning from an attack on Munster.

When flying over the Zuider Zee at 13,000 feet, the aircraft was attacked from beneath by a Messerschmitt which secured hits with cannon shell and incendiary bullets. The rear gunner was wounded in the foot but delivered a burst of fire which sent the enemy fighter down, apparently out of control.

Fire then broke out near the starboard engine and, fed by petrol from a split pipe, quickly gained an alarming hold and threatened to spread to the entire wing. The crew forced a hole in the fuselage and made strenuous efforts to reduce the fire with extinguishers, and even the coffee in their vacuum flasks, but without success. They were then warned to be ready to abandon the aircraft.

As a last resort, Sergeant Ward volunteered to make an attempt to smother the fire with an engine cover which happened to be in use as a cushion. At first he proposed to discard his parachute, to reduce wind resistance, but was finally persuaded to take it. A rope from the dingy was tied to him, though this was of little help and might have become a danger had he been blown off the aircraft. With the help of the navigator, he then climbed through the narrow astro-hatch and put on his parachute. The bomber was flying at a reduced speed but the wind pressure must have been sufficient to render the operation one of extreme difficulty.

Breaking the fabric to make hand and foot holds where necessary, and also taking advantage of existing holes in the fabric, Sergeant Ward succeeded in descending three feet to the wing and proceeding another three feet to a position behind the engine, despite the slipstream from the airscrew which nearly blew him off the wing. Lying in this precarious position, he smothered the fire in the wing fabric and tried to push the cover into the hole in the wing and on to the leaking pipe from which the fire came. As soon as he removed his hand, however, the terrific wind blew the cover out and when he tried again it was lost. Tired as he was, he was able with the navigator’s assistance, to make successfully the perilous journey back into the aircraft.

There was now no danger of fire spreading from the petrol pipe, as there was no fabric left nearby, and in due course it burnt itself out. When the aircraft was nearly home some petrol which had collected in the wing blazed up furiously but died down quite suddenly. A safe landing was then made despite the damage sustained by the aircraft.

The flight home had been made possible by the gallant action of Sergeant Ward in extinguishing the fire on the wing in circumstances of the greatest difficulty and at the risk of his life.”

Sources.

National Archives – AIR 27/645/34, AIR 27/645/33

Auckland War Memorial Museum Website.

RAF Bottisham – A small airfield that became a big player (P2)

In Part 1 of RAF Bottisham, we saw how the airfield was opened as a satellite and how it was underused for the first part of its life. With numerous short stay or training squadrons it never really  attained the level of prestige it wanted.

In part 2 we see how this struggle continued in 1943, but in 1944 things would change, and Bottisham would become a major front line airfield with a record breaking Fighter Group.

RAF Bottisham (Station 374).

Between January and mid March, 2 Squadron were stationed here, albeit briefly, after receiving their own Mustangs in the preceding April. With their parent airfield Sawbridgeworth being unusable, they needed a new place to stay. The advanced party departing, led by F.Lt. Fletcher, on the 30 January, with the main party leaving the following day. Using these Mustangs 2 Sqn would fly long range reconnaissance flights over to Holland, where they would photograph military compounds and enemy shipping.

After that, in March, came another four short-stay units; 268 Squadron who stayed for a mere 4 days; 613 Sqn who stayed for twelve days; 169 Sqn for two days and 4 Sqn who stayed here for a little longer at four months. 4 Sqn were another unit who had previously used both the Lysander and Tomahawk before converting over to the Mustang.

Their departure in July signified the end of RAF operations from Bottisham airfield, the site being all but empty for the next six months. At this point the US Eighth Air Force took over the airfield, poured engineers into it, developed the technical site and  improved the accommodation blocks. After renaming the airfield Station 374, they began to bring in a new unit and Bottisham would finally become the airfield it was so struggling to be.

At the end of November, the twelfth and last Fighter Group to fly P-47s joined the VIII Air Force here at Bottisham. The 361st FG had only been active for eleven months when they entered combat in January 1944. Their journey had taken them from Richmond AAB in Virginia, through Langley Field, Millville New Jersey, back to Richmond and then, via the Queen Elizabeth, on to Bottisham their first European stop. Here the three squadrons: 374th FS, 375th FS and 376th FS flew P-47D ‘Thunderbolts’ or ‘Jugs’ as they were affectionately known, under the command of Colonel Thomas J.J. Christian Jnr, a high ranking officer who was killed in action in August 1944.

‘The Bottisham Four’, 26th July 1944, Leader is Col. Thomas J. J. Christian Jr. Second plane ‘E2-S’ flown by Lt. Urban L. Drew; third is Major Roswell Freedman’s E2-A and the fourth is P-51B E2-H ‘Suzy G’ flown by Lt. Francis Glankler. None of these aircraft survived the war (IWM UPL 18209)

Colonel Christian led the 361st on their first combat sortie on January 21st 1944, as part of an escort of over 600 fighters, to the Pas de Calais and Cherbourg areas. Here, almost 800 B-17s and B-24s from the First, Second and Third Bomb Groups attacked thirty-six ‘V’ weapons sites, thirty-four in the Pas de Calais and two at Cherbourg. As the formation split, the 361st went to Calais, where poor weather hampered the bomb runs. However, allied air superiority meant there were little pickings for the fighters and few enemy aircraft were engaged or shot down. The group returned to Bottisham yet to draw their first blood.

Over the next few weeks, the Group would take part in further escort duties, covering bombers to Frankfurt, Watton, Wilhelmshaven and Gilze-Rijen. February saw them participate in the ‘Big Week’ campaign with further missions to Germany.

On April 27th, the Eighth Air Force undertook two missions, No. 322 and 323, both targeting areas in France and Belgium. On one of these missions was Capt. Charles H. Feller who took off with the 375th FS to escort the bombers. His P-47, ’42-75447′ was the only aircraft lost on that mission, a loss made worse by the fact that his brother Cpl. Jack Feller, was waiting to meet him at the main gate. Cpl. Feller, was informed that his brother was missing in action, and at the time his whereabouts weren’t known. It later transpired that he was killed whilst attacking the former French Air base Etampes-Mondesir which had been taken over by the Luftwaffe*1.

Back at Bottisham, the heavy weight of the Thunderbolt was playing havoc with the Sommerfeld tracking, forcing it to be replaced with Pierced Steel Planking (PSP), a feat that was achieved in a matter of just three days.

As the winter of 1944 passed and spring arrived, the 361st were told that their P-47s were to be replaced by Mustangs, the P-51 would be returning to Bottisham once more, but in a far Superior form than its original one.

In May, the first of these more agile and more powerful P-51s arrived, and under the guidance of General Arnold’s New Year message, “Destroy the enemy Air Force where ever you find them, in the air, on the ground and in the factories” they performed well achieving many high scores. Operating over the Normandy landscape during May, they attacked targets such as airfields, marshalling yards and transport systems, taking out 23 Locomotives in one day, a quarter of the entire day’s total. After Normandy, the 361st  would go on to  cover the breakout at St. Lo, and the failed airborne operation ‘Market Garden‘ in the autumn of 1944.

In late September 1944, the 361st transferred to Little Walden in Essex, but even with their belongings packed and furniture in transit, they would still be willing to perform their duty. On the 26th, they escorted over 1,100 heavy bombers to a range of targets in Germany. Whilst approaching Hamm, one of the pilots 1st Lt. Urban Drew (one of the Bottisham Four), spotted an Me 262 beneath him. After giving chase, diving at incredible speeds to catch the jet, he finally lost him, but not until after he had expelled over 1,300 rounds of ammunition, in a chase that took him from 20,000 ft to 0 ft, in a matter of minutes. The frustration of the pilots in catching these new aircraft clear in their reports back at base.

On the next day, as the move was progressing, another call came out. This time it would be a good day for the pilots of the 361st. Escorting almost 1,200 bombers to Germany again, the group spotted large numbers of enemy fighters attacking the bomber formation in a ‘company front’ attack. The P-51s dived in, splitting the 109s and 190s sending them wayward. ‘Heading for the deck’, a flight of four P-51s lead by Lt. William Beyer gave chase, and in what turned out to be a disastrous day for the Tibbenham based 455th BG (losing 25 aircraft the highest of any mission), the 361st managed to achieve the highest recorded number of kills for any fighter group to date.

After Kassel, Sept. 27, 1944: Lt. William Beyer (left), and Lt. Bocquin (right) prepare their reports. While Bocquin downed three enemy planes, Beyer got five– becoming an “Ace in a Day.” .(IWM UPL 29364)

With eighteen confirmed kills, five for Beyer who was an ‘Ace in a day’, and three for the Squadron Leader 1st. Lt. Victor Bocquin, it was an amazing achievement for the 361st, and as their last operation from Bottisham, it gave cause for great celebration.

Their time at Bottisham had now come to an end and they never returned to the airfield where they had cut their teeth. The move, instigated by a reshuffling of the Air Force’s organisation, meant that the 361st would be closer to the Bomb Groups they were to be attached to. It also signalled the end of Bottisham as an active front line airfield.

By the time the ‘Yellow Jackets‘ as they were known, had completed their tours, they had completed 441 missions, claiming 226 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air and 105 on the ground.

With the departure of the 361st, Bottisham fell operationally quiet. In the following June 1945, it was passed back to RAF control and linked once more to Snailwell, who used it as a relief airfield for Belgian pilots of the RAF (Belgian) Initial Training School. In the October, its status was reduced to satellite and the Belgian’s partially moved in. Using primarily Tiger Moths, the Belgians used Bottisham for a mere ten months, disbanding as a Royal Air Force unit in April 1946 and passing over to the Belgian Air Force. With that, Bottisham closed on May 1st, and stood empty until sold for agricultural use in October 1958.

Since then, the runways have been pulled up, the buildings on the airfield have been removed and the accommodation blocks have all been built up expanding the village that played such a great part in its life. On the corner of the airfield site a small cluster of buildings still stand, these include the former squadron offices (themselves former crew rooms), a sleeping shelter, and general purpose huts. These have been purchased and are being restored to house a small museum dedicated to those who served at the airfield.

RAF Bottisham

The former Sleeping Shelter.

The airfield itself is now cut by the main A14 dual carriageway. But by leaving this road and turning along the A1303,  you can access both the museum and the airfield quite easily. The museum sits on the corner of the A1303 and Wilbraham Road, along which, if you turn right, cuts across the airfield and the remains of the former runway. As with many former airfields the runway line has been planted with trees giving a good indication of both its location and size. Parts of the perimeter track are also visible from this road to the north end, but otherwise there is little left to see other than a small selection of concrete patches. The village has a memorial in both the British Legion club and in the village with the Thomas Christian memorial. Sadly, little else of this small but once busy airfield exists today.

Bottisham airfield was generally speaking, a minor airfield housing a number of units in its early years. However, once it became fully fledged, it became not only significant, but a leader in the stakes of war. Now all but gone, the memories of those who served here are firmly embedded in the streets of Bottisham along with a few buildings that survive to tell their story.

My sincere thanks go to the members of the Bottisham Airfield Museum who so kindly stopped their work to give me a personal guided tour of the site when I visited. I wish them luck in their venture.

Sources and Further Reading.

The full story of Bottisham can be read in Trail 55 – Around Newmarket.

The full story of Colonel Thomas Christian appears in Heroic Tales. 

National Archives – AIR 27/1465/10

National Archives – AIR 27/19/25

National Archives – AIR 27/2170/1

Bottisham Airfield Museum website.

*1 Wilson, K., “Blood and Fears – How America’s Bomber Boys and Girls in England Won Their War” Orion Books, 2016.

RAF Bottisham – A small airfield that became a big player (P1)

In Trail 55 we travel from Snailwell to Cambridge passing through Newmarket and the former bomber airfield that has become the famous horse racing circuit. From here, we continue west where we find a small airfield that has all but gone, the last remnants now a small museum that utilises a mix of original and non-original buildings.

This particular airfield was home to a number of RAF units but is perhaps more noted for its American links, and in particular the fighters of the 361st Fighter Group. On our third stop around Newmarket, we visit the former airfield RAF Bottisham.

RAF Bottisham (Station 374).

Located about 5.5 miles east of Cambridge between the villages of Little Wilbraham and Bottisham village, Bottisham airfield was initially opened in 1940 as a satellite for the new bomber base at Waterbeach, a few miles to the north of nearby Cambridge. Although designed as a satellite, it would later become a fighter airfield in its own right, with its own resident unit.

At first, the runways were grass and there were only two. However, later on, a third runway was ‘constructed’ and each of the three were then strengthened, using initially Sommerfeld Track and then Pierced Planking, both similar and both temporary methods of construction that were easy and quick to lay. Around the concrete perimeter track were fifteen concrete hardstands and a further 48 hardstands constructed with the steel matting. This gave a vast number of areas to safely disperse parked aircraft.

The longest runway was 1,435 yards long, whilst the shortest was some 300 yards shorter. The Watch office, designed to drawing 15371/41, was of brick construction with concrete slabs for the roof, which was the most common design used on World War Two airfields. Demolished in 1948, it was an off-shoot of design 12779/41 which allowed for smaller windows at the front of the tower, more commonly found where night flying regularly took place such as bomber airfields.

RAF Bottisham

On site, there were eight Blister hangars (9392/42), a fourteen bay T2 Hangar (3635/42) and a range of stores, fire tender shelters, workshops and offices, mostly brick or steel framed buildings of standard airfield designs.

Accommodation was eventually erected over ten sites both WAAF and enlisted men/officers, many of which were located in and around the village of Bottisham itself.  This huge increase would eventually lead to a massive explosion in the village’s population.

For the first seven months of its existence, from March to October 1940, Bottisham saw little activity, and as the land was little more than a field, it was totally unsuitable for anything larger than a small aircraft. As a result it was barely used, and little development occurred on the site. The only visitors being seen were the occasional Tiger Moth of the 22 Elementary Flying School (EFTS), from nearby Cambridge. 22 EFTS was set up, at Cambridge, on the declaration of war in 1939, and they used a range of small light trainers: Miles Magisters, Proctors, Tiger Moths and Hawker Demons.

For the next year or so, Bottisham airfield remained in this state, barely used and under-developed until, in July 1941, it was handed over to the Army Co-operation Command and 241 Squadron.

After being disbanded at the end of 1919, 241 Squadron was reformed in 1940 by merging two ‘A’ Flights from other units. They initially used Lysander IIs replacing them with Blackburn Rocs, a model they replaced again with Lysander IIIs before moving to Bury St. Edmunds. After that, they moved here to Bottisham, on July 1st 1941. After a matter of only weeks, the Lysanders were replaced with Tomahawk IIA (the British named P-40) which was intended to be a fighter escort aircraft for the RAF. However, its poor performance led to it being used instead for pilot training and Army cooperation work. Something that would become significant over the next year or so. Over the next few weeks, the new aircraft were collected and ‘normal flying training’ flights were the order of the day.

RAF Bottisham

The runway, marked by the treeline looking south-west.

The British saw the Tomahawk as a possible fighter aircraft during the 1940s supplementing the Spitfires and Hurricanes provided by British aircraft manufacturers. However, production problems of the P-40 led to the British seeking alternative suppliers. Realising there was a niche for a new model, the North American Company offered to design their own fighter, one which they designed, built and tested within 100 days. This new model, whilst not perfect, its Allison engine performing badly at altitude, would eventually go on to supply the American Air force and become one of the most famous aircraft ever built – the P-51 Mustang.

With detachments of aircraft based at Snailwell, Macmerry, Henlow and Docking, 241 Squadron would be spread far and wide, but continued to pursue their duties as an Army Cooperation flight. However, their job was not easy, the new Tomahawks and the poor British weather over the winter 1941-42, proved to be a major challenge for both air and ground crews here at Bottisham. The Operational Record Books for the period showing that the month of January in particular was ‘not satisfactory’, with crews struggling to keep aircraft serviceable in the poor weather. On the 20th, a new structure for the Air Force and a new section for the Squadron were brought into being. This did not however, alleviate the difficulties the crews were having. The main issue seemed to be down to generator drive problems in the P-40s, which combined with an accident in the squadron’s  Airocobra, meant flying was very much restricted to the last remaining Lysanders.

On March 15th 1942, things would begin to change. In now fine weather, the first four of the new P-51 Mustangs arrived, flown down from Speke (now Liverpool airport) by P/Os Kirkus, Clarke, Harrup and F/Lt. Coe. During the next few weeks as more P-51s arrived, the old Tomahawks were gratefully handed over to other Training units and Squadrons, and probably without a tear being shed.  Then on May 1st 1942, 241 Squadron began its departure for pastures new and Ayr in Scotland. On that day, the road party left Bottisham in 21 vehicles at 09.00hrs, whilst the rail party left in the evening at 20:00hrs. By the next day, the rail party had arrived but it would be a further 24 hours before the road party would find their new home.

Throughout the war Bottisham would develop a strong relationship with nearby RAF Snailwell, being only a few miles apart, the two frequently used each other to store and operate their aircraft. The next two squadrons to arrive were just that, both Snailwell based units that moved in to Bottisham. Bottisham was never considered a good posting in these early stages of the war, its accommodation at this point was considered primitive, cold and damp, it was certainly not the most hospitable airfield to have to stay at.

RAF Bottisham

A pot Belly stove stand now in the museum.

Some two weeks after 241’s departure the first of these squadrons arrived – 652 squadron. 652 was part of the Air Observation Post (AOP) and like all the units 651 – 666 they were manned partly by Army (pilots) and RAF (maintenance crews) personnel, they were noted for persistent and regular moves sometimes even daily. Noted as being at Bottisham between June and August 1942, 652 Sqn operated Tiger Moths in the observation role, spotting gun shots off the Hunstanton coast for field artillery units. At the end of their stay here at Bottisham they departed moving to Westley in Suffolk.

The second squadron to arrive at this time was another Tomahawk squadron, 168 Squadron, who were formed at Snailwell on 15th June 1942, moving across to Bottisham in mid July after receiving their Tomahawk IIs. Operating from Bottisham in these early days preceded a move to the fighter station at Tangmere and a more glamorous role with Mustangs and later Typhoons.

The transfer occurred in the afternoon of July 13th, with four flights amounting to twelve aircraft flying in formation across to Bottisham. The flights were led by W/Cdr. Watson-Smyth, who on their arrival realised that the AOP squadron were still using the accommodation blocks, and as the new ones were not yet finished, ‘A’ flight had to share until theirs was suitably completed. There was also insufficient room for the officers, who had to sleep in tents in the grounds around the Mess, whilst ground crews were billeted in three huts in the grounds of Bottisham Hall.

On July 19th, the squadron used the new north-south runway for the first time, it was noted that it was rather more “bumpy” and “shorter” than the east-west runway  but was considered “satisfactory” for their use.

During their stay here, 168 Sqn performed many cross country navigation and fighter affiliation exercises. However, a lack of Allison engine tool kits meant many aircraft were unserviceable for long periods. This became a frustration with the flights, restricting their flying time to a minimum. Then on 31st July, a large quantity of the specialist tool kits finally arrived, and the aircraft were able to be repaired and normal flying duties continued.

The dawn of 1943 would bring little change to Bottisham. More short stay units would mean life was a little more hectic, but Bottisham was still not the major front line airfield it so wanted to be.

In part two we see how Bottisham struggled on in the next year. But January 1944 would see big changes and a renewed impetus that would propel Bottisham to the forefront of Fighter aviation.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile) Part 2.

Part 1 of Newmarket Heath saw the rebirth of this First World War airfield. The outbreak of war and the confusion that grew from the Phoney War.

Part 2 continues the growth and development of Newmarket and its eventual demise.

The Autumn of 1941 saw the reforming of a World War 1 squadron, 138 Sqn whose re-creation on the 25th, was the result of renumbering 1419 Flight. who would operate Lysanders, Whitleys and finally Halifax IIs before they departed mid December. 138 Sqn would then go on to play a major part in the forming of yet another squadron, also here at Newmarket, in a few months time.

December 1941 heralded another First World War squadron reformation, this time the ground echelons of 215 Sqn, who would make their way to India before the air echelons – formed at Waterbeach – could join them.

The winter of 1941 – 1942 would be a time of great discord for Bomber Command even to the point where its whole future was at stake. With high losses and poor bombing accuracy, there were those in power who were seeking to reduce the Command to a fraction of its size, and with such unsustainable losses, their arguments were holding a lot of water. But Sir Charles Portal, who vehemently supported the Bomber Command dogma of carpet bombing, managed to secure the backing of Churchill, and having Churchill on your side meant you had power.

Across Bomber Command, 1942 would bring many changes. To implement this mass bombing policy, now targeting the populous rather than individual industrial targets, Portal employed Sir Arthur Harris in February 1942. Whilst not Harris’s conception, it would be his name that would become synonymous with the policy that has become so controversial ever since.

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL SIR ARTHUR HARRIS, KCB.,OBE.,AFC.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, KCB.,OBE.,AFC. © IWM (CH 13021)

Along with Harris came a restructuring of Bomber Command, including its support structure. With the heavier four-engined types all coming on line and into full squadron service, it would see the reduction on the reliance of the smaller, now outdated, twin-engined types: Whitley, Hampden and the Manchester; and whilst the numbers of Bomber Command aircraft would not significantly increase, its payload would.

These changes would include the training units designed to train crews for the new bomber aircraft, With larger aircraft, came larger and more specific roles.  Within the reshuffle came renumbering, amalgamation and reformation, making their evolution a complicated mix of numbers and bases. Newmarket was a part of this mix.

One such unit to go through these changes was No. 1483 (Target Towing and Gunnery) Flight which joined with other flights to be finally renamed No. 3 Group Air Bomber Training Flight in mid 1942. The Flight would continue on in this form until mid March 1944, whereupon it was disbanded, and its aircraft disposed of. 

The confusing reforming of training units would reflect the reshaping that Bomber Command would also go through, much of which was settled and firmly embedded by the year’s end. Much of this would be under Harris’s direction, but some by the natural evolutionary process of development and improvement.

The development of aircraft was rapid during the war years. With both the Allied and Axis powers investigating faster and more powerful aircraft, it wouldn’t be long before the jet engine would make an appearance. For the RAF, the Meteor (F.9/40 ‘GlosterWhittle’ twin-jet interceptors) would be the breakthrough. A twin engined jet aircraft, of which twelve prototypes were initially ordered by the Ministry of Aircraft Production (designated DG202 – DG213), and was unofficially known as the ‘Rampage’, would have different engines to undergo flight testing.

On July 2nd, 1942, one of these prototypes DG202, was transferred from the Gloster factory at Bentham in Gloucestershire, here to Newmarket by road. Loaded onto a low loader, its wings were removed and then reassembled for ground run and taxiing trials.

On the 10th, the aircraft was powered up and taxied by Flt. Lt. P.E.G. ‘Gerry’ Sayer, who attempted two short flights. On the second attempt, Sayers managed to get the aircraft off the ground for a few seconds before bringing it back down again. The engines fitted at the time, were not designed to be flight condition engines and so no greater duration attempts were made.

After suffering problems with the undercarriage, trials were resumed with Hawker Typhoon wheels, until mid August when the engines were removed, and the aircraft stored in one of the hangars on the airfield.

After further tests, the aircraft was transported, again by road, to RAF Barford St. John, in Banbury, Oxon where it would eventually fly for six minutes under the control of Gloster’s chief test pilot, Michael Daunt. DG202 then underwent numerous modifications and further flight tests, eventually being mothballed and refurbished, until it found its way to the RAF Museum at Hendon, London. The Meteor would of course go on the break the Air Speed Record at Herne Bay, Kent on November 7th 1945.

Meanwhile back at Newmarket, the end of October 1942 saw air and ground crews of 75 (NZ) Sqn at nearby RAF Mildenhall, begin transferring across to Oakington, an airfield that had caused so many problems with mud earlier in the war. The purpose of the move was to convert the men, initially of ‘B’ Flight and then ‘A’ Flight, over to the Stirlings they were about to receive. Once trained, they would return to Mildenhall and then transfer to Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, where they would be based for the foreseeable future.

At the end of October the transformation from Wellington to Stirling began. Thirteen Welllingtons were dispatched to other squadrons, at which point the New Zealanders began their move to Newmarket. The move, overseen by Sqn. Ldr. R. Crawford, commenced on November 1st 1942, and involved two parties, one travelling by road whilst the other travelled by air. Once at Newmarket the crews would begin settling in, and as soon as their replacement aircraft arrived, they would carry out air training flights acclimatising themselves to the intricacies of the new four-engined heavy.

With new aircraft to get used to, it would not be long before the first accident would occur, one that thankfully did not involve casualties. A wheels-up landing by Sgt. P. Buck at Holme whilst on an air-to-air firing flight to RAF Marham, marked the start of a new era.

The first operational flight from Newmarket took place on November 20th, a long distance flight to Turin. A small force comprising of only four aircraft carrying 4 lb incendiary bombs, made up 75 Sqn’s component of 232 aircraft – the largest Italian  raid of the period. Whilst the raid was successful and no losses were encountered by any squadron, two of the four No. 75 Squadron Stirlings returned early with problems; the incendiaries they were carrying being dropped over southern France or in The Wash.

Operations to Stuttgart two nights later showed similar results, this time only two aircraft were detailed of which one returned early with an unserviceable rear turret.

A pattern was beginning to emerge. On the 28th, another raid with four aircraft saw one forced to jettison its load of 1,000 lb and 500 lb bombs due to one engine cutting out, the other three aircraft bombing Turin successfully. On the return, Stirling BK608 ‘T’ ran out of fuel over Stradishall, the crew bailing out as low as 600 ft, but against the odds, they all survived unhurt. The aircraft crashed, but was eventually recovered and converted to an instructional air frame. Sadly the same could not be said for the crew of BF399, who whilst on a training flight back at Oakington, flew into the ground killing all but the mid-upper gunner instantly. Sgt. C. T. Roberts, the only crash survivor,  unfortunately succumbed to his injuries a few days later, adding another tally to the list of dead.  It later transpired that the pilot, Sgt. H. Broady, had tried to avoid a head-on collision with another Stirling possibly putting the aircraft into a stall from which he could not recover.

On the 29th, further problems dogged the Stirlings, a faulty bomb release mechanism meant an early return for BK609 ‘R’, who landed in poor weather at Bradwell Bay; the pilot overshooting the runway damaging the aircraft and injuring the Air Bomber Sgt. Broadle.

Over the October / November period, 75 Sqn received a quantity of new Stirlings, the factories at Rochester, Swindon and Birmingham each supplying examples as the last of the Wellingtons were dispatched elsewhere.

By December, the crews were all together back here at Newmarket and taking part in squadron operations over occupied Europe. The last days of 1942 would not be happy yule tides for all though, as fate would claim one last victim of 75 Sqn, that of BF400 ‘G’ which was shot down over Holland. The crew were all captured and placed in POW camps, F/O. Eric Williams being one of those whose famous escape via the Wooden Horse was immortalised on film.

As 1943 dawned and Bomber Command settled into its new form, Newmarket would see a short stay of 2 Sqn Mustang Is. Based primarily a stones throw away at RAF Bottisham, they were only a detachment and would soon depart the site. Similarly, between the 6th and 14th March of 1943, 453 Sqn flying Spitfire VBs utilised the bomber site. Another short stay unit, the Merlin engined fighter group had only been formed at Drem in Scotland, some nine months earlier.

In the preceding years, the Stirling and Wellington had remained, for a large part, the main backbone of 3 Group, with the Stirling gradually replacing the twin-engined ‘Wimpy’, until it too would be withdrawn from front line service in favour of the Lancaster.

75 Sqn suffered only a handful of losses, many aircrew being captured and taken prisoners of war. In the March, the MK.I began to be replaced by the MK.III, and with it came new hope for improved performance. Many of the teething troubles that had dogged the earlier version of the Stirling had now been resolved, but it still remained a poorly performing aircraft, even in its current form.

Initial tests of the MK.III at Boscombe Down were positive. Altitudes of 17,000 ft were achievable, and whilst still far below that of the Lancaster or Halifax, it was better than the MK.I. However, these tests failed to take account of new equipment such as new dorsal turrets and flame dampers, additional weight and drag meant that in operational form, the new model was barely better than its predecessor, and far better engines were needed if any significant improvement was going to be made. With further engine developments the first of the MK.III Stirlings came out. Fitted with Hercules MK.VI engines they could achieve a marginal 2,300 ft better altitude and a slightly faster climb rate; it was hardly anything to call home about, but with improved German flak defences it was welcomed with open arms.

In March, 75 Sqn received two of the new models, with others following not long after. One of these was lost on April 8th on a mission to Duisburg. The crew were all lost when the aircraft came down on its way home only three miles west of Diss in Norfolk.

On the RAF’s anniversary, 75 Sqn formed a new section, ‘C’Flight, an increase in crew meant an an increase in operations too. Whilst 1943 saw low casualties generally, there were three nights on which four aircraft were lost each time. On the night of 28-29th April R9290, W7513, BF4667 and BK807 were all lost whilst on ‘Gardening’ missions in the Baltics, there were no survivors. Another four aircraft were then lost over Wuppertal, with only seven of the airmen surviving – it was another huge loss. A further four aircraft were lost on the night 22-23rd June whilst on a mission to Mulheim. During this attack the four aircraft were shot down by a combination of night fighters and flak, with only five crewmen from BK810 surviving as prisoners of war.

June 1943 saw the last remaining Newmarket operations. On the 19th, fourteen aircraft were dispatched to Krefeld on the western banks of the Rhine a few miles north-west of Dusseldorf. Over the target, Stirling MK.I EH880 piloted by Flt. Lt. J. Joll, was hit by flak, breaking a fuel-cock and control cables. As a result, fuel and oil poured into the aircraft’s body, causing a fire in the fuselage, mainplane and mid-upper turret. Without thinking for his safety, the Flight Engineer Sgt. G. Falloon, cut a hole into the wing with an escape axe, and crawled through. Once inside, he located and isolated the leak enabling the aircraft to land safely back at Newmarket.

Undaunted the crew returned to Krefeld two nights later, this time safely returning without damage. As the month closed, the last Newmarket loss came on the night of 25-26th June 1943, a loss that coincided with the Sqn’s departure from Newmarket, and a move to pastures new at RAF Mepal. The Loss of Stirling BK768 ‘L’ piloted by F/O. Perrott, came as a last minute blow to the squadron, with the loss of all on board.

As the war progressed, new technologies and better methods for bombing were being investigated by both sides. Within the RAF, the Bomber Development Unit (BDU) (formally 1418 Flight) was making huge steps in this direction. A specialist unit that was set up to run trials of new technologies for the RAF’s heavy bombers included: H2S, ‘Monica’, ‘Boozer’ and ‘Fishpond‘, each one designed to improve bombing accuracy or aircraft protection.

On 13th September 1943, the BDU  moved from RAF Feltwell to Newmarket, where they continued these tests, including trials into higher altitude mine laying. The research carried out by the BDU was paramount in the introduction of ventral guns fitted in many of the RAF’s wartime heavy bombers. Under the leadership of Sqn. Ldr. (later Wing Commander) Richard ‘Dickie’ Speare DSO, DFC and bar, and Sir Lewis Hodges, they also investigated the  idea of a radar guided rear turret (AGLT) that locked onto enemy aircraft. A design feature that never really took off, and the idea was later scrapped.

A number of other units, Maintenance units, Glider Maintenance sections, Training Schools and Flights, also graced the skies over Newmarket. But by now the end was drawing closer, and operations from Newmarket began winding down until they finally ceased shortly after the end of the war. A military presence remained for a further two years, but there was little activity. Post war, the Rowley Mile racecourse was reinstated, the buildings returned to their former use and the majority of the airfield’s buildings were pulled down. Within three years the military had pulled out and Newmarket’s wartime history came to a close.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

Newmarket racecourse today. The Grandstand to the right with the Rowley Mile along the front (white fencing). The main runway was directly in front of you at this point, cutting across the airfield. (Taken from the lowered section of the Dyke)

Today the racecourse is predominant, little evidence can be seen of the former airfield, the Dyke still has the lowered section, and one original hangar remains to the north of the site next to the A14 road. The July landing strip still operates, and aircraft are permitted to land and take off up to an hour before or after racing commences/finishes, used mainly by visiting jockeys and horse owners, it is perhaps the last remaining sign of an aviation history at this once busy airfield.

The dangers of the Dyke continue to show themselves today, on June 1st 2000, a Piper Seneca carrying the Jockeys Frankie Dettori and Ray Cochrane crashed on this site both suffering serious injuries. The pilot, Patrick Mackey, was killed in the crash which took place between the July strip and Rowley mile, impacting on the Devils Dyke – yet another victim claimed by this ancient structure.

The Grandstand, the former accommodation block for aircrews, still stands but much refurbished and updated, a grand viewing platform where race-goers can watch in comfort as the horses gallop across the finish line.

Newmarket airfield started off as a rather insignificant satellite airfield growing considerably in size over its life. Although the runways were grass, (there were three officially designated) the longest stretched to around 9,000 ft (2,500 yds) – some 500 more than a standard Class A bomber airfield of the war years. The remaining two runways (1,800 yds and 1,600 yds), were also large for its size. A bomb store, much needed early on in the war, was located to the north and a small, non circular perimeter track linked the many hangers that were found on the original wartime site. Several T2s, two B1s, and various blister hangars were all located around the airfield.

The majority of the technical area was found to the north of the site, the opposite end of the Grandstand which was close to the watch office. In this technical area were located twenty-four hardstands of the spectacle style, all of which have now gone. The main A14 road now cuts across this former technical area, only one of the B1s still exists today, the second having been burnt down and replaced in recent years.

RAF Newmarket Heath saw a huge range of flying activities during its life. Primarily a bomber station, it witnessed many accidents and suffered many losses. From its inception in the First World War to its development as a substantial airfield in the second, it grew to be a remarkable site, and one which continues to be prominent today. Sadly though, this important period of history seems to have all but vanished, the slate wiped clean and replaced with something much more appealing to the general public today.

After we leave Newmarket, we head a short distance west towards Cambridge where we find another airfield that has long since gone. Through huge efforts by a small group of volunteers though, we see a museum sprouting out of the ashes, as we head to the former airfield RAF Botisham.

The full text appears in Trail 55.

Sources and further reading (Newmarket Heath)

*1The British History Online website has detailed studies of the Devil’s Dyke.

National Archives – AIR 27/788/3, AIR 27/788/8,  AIR 27/98/3, AIR 27/646/19,
AIR 27/646/21, AIR 27/646/36

Star Jockeys survive plane Crash inferno‘ story appeared in the Guardian Online Website.  June 2nd 2000.

Bowyer, M.J.F., “The Stirling Bomber“, Faber and Faber, 1980

For information about Newmarket the Newmarket Shops History website has a wealth of information about the town.

RAF Snailwell – Where life was far from Slow (Pt2)

After part 1, we return to  Snailwell, to see how the American influence played its part at Snailwell and how the build- up to D-day affected life at this small grassed airfield.

The squadron was assigned to the 350th Fighter Group (FG) who would eventually transfer to the Middle East. It would be the 347th’s sister squadron the 346th who would later convert Hurricane Mk I #LB640 target tug into a two-seat liaison plane.

Hurricane Mk I LB640, which was being operated as a target-tug with the P-39-equipped 346th Fighter Squadron, 350th Fighter Group, 12th AF USAAF in Sardinia in early 1944. It was field converted into a two-seater as a liaison plane by the unit's ground crew.

Hurricane Mk I #LB640 after being converted into a two-seat liaison plane.  IWM (UPL 17052)

As they were a new squadron the 347th would initially have no ground echelon, they were still being formed and prepared for transportation over the Atlantic from their base at Harding Field, Louisiana. They would arrive in the UK in the November and after a short period at Snailwell, the entire squadron would move out to RAF Kings Cliffe in Northamptonshire, before moving away to the warmer climate of the Middle East.

The winter of 1942/43 saw further detachments being based here at Snailwell. In conjunction with the US forces were 170 Sqn, who remained here from the end of October through the winter until February 1943. After a short spell away they made a brief one day stop over before being moved to RAF Odiham.

The January of 1943 saw yet more short stays. On the 17th 182 Sqn arrived with Typhoon IBs. Based at RAF Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, 182 Sqn were finding it hard to get in any flying at all, as the heavy winter rains had clogged up the metal PSP runways with thick mud preventing the aircraft from taking off.

Two days earlier 70 ground personnel had been dispatched from Sawbridgeworth to Snailwell in preparation for the forthcoming training operation. Operation “Shatter” as it was designated, would be a mock attack on gun emplacements on the outskirts of Thetford Forest. On the 17th, the ten aircraft were sent from RAF Sawbridgeworth led by Sqn. Ldr Pugh along with a further four from the detachment at RAF Hunsdon. On arrival they found their sister squadron, 181 Sqn also with Typhoons, already here for the Army Cooperation training operation. A large party was given that night in honour of the new 182 Sqn crews. The next day, a preliminary attack was made on the target by eleven 182 Sqn aircraft, who made runs over both the dummy and real guns in a “full frontal attack”. The following day, a complete squadron attack was made with the aircraft having to be airborne in under 4.5 minutes. For the first time since forming, all the canons on the Typhoons are fully loaded with live ammunition and a full squadron scramble was undertaken.

Aerial photograph of Snailwell airfield looking south, 26 July 1942 (IWM RAF_FNO_67_V_6032)

In the afternoon a four ship formation was loaded up with 2 x 250 lb bombs and a further attack was made. This attack ended the training session for 182 Sqn and the next day they return to the muddy runways of Sawbridgeworth.

Two months later on March 8th 1943, 181 Sqn was reunited with her other sister squadron 183 Sqn here at Snailwell. After a number of short training flights covering just four days, 183 Sqn departed the Cambridgeshire airfield leaving 181 Sqn here until the end of the month.

Throughout 1943 much of the same was to happen, short stays for training missions were the order of the day.  309 Sqn flew the Mustang MK.I and Hurricane VIs. The Polish squadron became renowned amongst the Allies when F/Lt Janusz Lewkowicz flew a Mustang I to Norway and back strafing targets at Stavanger just to prove the point that the Mustang had the range!

Another squadron, 613 Sqn also brought their Mustangs along in July, and 184 Sqn arrived with Hurricanes. 247 Sqn brought back the mighty Typhoon, each of these squadrons carrying out training flights, some for as little as two days others for more prolonged periods.

As the end of 1943 drew a line under the busy ebb and flow of visiting squadrons, 1944 would see a rather more settled year. After a single RAF squadron, 527 Sqn, moved in and then out two months later, the  build up to D-day would see big changes at Snailwell.

The invasion of Europe was destined to be the largest invasion build up the world had ever seen, and southern England was to be the primary area in which this build up would take place. With the creation of the Ninth Air Force, whose primary purpose was to provide assistance to the forth coming Normandy landings, more and more airfields were going to be required. Whilst front line units would be directly involved in operations over the Normandy coast, there would need to be a major service and maintenance support network, if the invasion were to succeed. This service was to be carried out by a series of  six Tactical Air Depots (TAD) all falling under the command of the IX Air Force Service Command, via two Advanced Air Depot Areas (AADA).

One of these depots, the 3rd Tactical Air Depot based at RAF Grove some 55 miles from London, were responsible for the maintenance and repair of Douglas A-20 ‘Havocs’ and P-61 ‘Black Widows’. Because of the increasing demand for maintenance facilities, the 3rd TAD took over the facilities at RAF Snailwell, moving in two Mobile Repair and Maintenance Squadrons, the 33rd and 41st, in preparation for maintenance operations. Their primary role was to make field modifications to the aircraft in preparation for operational roles, as a result of which the A-20s became a regular feature around the airfield. After only a short time though it was realised that the 41st would not be required here, and so they returned to RAF Grove. To replace them, a specialist team were brought in – the 51st Service Squadron. By the time D-day had passed, the pressure at Grove had subsided and so both units were able to return home from Snailwell. With that, the American connection with Snailwell ended.

As the war drew to a close so too did both operational flying and training flights. The RAF (Belgian) Initial Training School used the airfield sharing it with nearby RAF Bottisham. In March 1946, the Belgians pulled out returning to their own country now free from the Nazi tyranny that had dominated it for so long.

Snailwell then closed, standing empty and gradually returning to agricultural use. Many of the buildings were pulled down but some hung on for several years being used for agricultural purposes. The Blister hanger, sheds and training buildings remained for a number of years, certainly until the mid 1990s, but gradually even these were removed with little evidence of their existence being left today. The airfield was then dissected by a major road development in 1975, remaining parts being bought up by the British Horse Racing School who now own a large portion of the former airfield. High hedges and gated access restrict most access to the former site, (the Icknield Way long-distance route does pass along side these tracks and borders the former airfield from which remnants can be seen) leaving the last few sections of concrete hanging on as reminders of the airfields once proud and hectic existence.

With a mix of repair and maintenance units added to the pot, the war years for Snailwell were far from slow. The regular ebb and flow of detached units for training flights, and the occasional permanent flying unit, saw a wide range of aircraft types and nationalities grace the skies of this small area of Eastern Cambridgeshire. With little evidence of its existence left today, Snailwell, and its proud history, would seem to have been lost, replaced by Horse racing and the desire for the high stakes demanded by the equestrian market.

From Snailwell, we head west, deeper in to the area owned by the Horse racing fraternity. Here we see on every street corner evidence of this now popular sport, well groomed bushes that surround neatly cut turfs, on what now remains of Britain’s wartime heritage. Our next stop on Trail 55, is the pinnacle of these activities, the former RAF Newmarket Heath.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Official Directorate of Works drawing (WA7/395/41) IWM UPL 17710

British History Online (Snailwell) website.

National Archives AIR 27/1563/9

National Archives AIR 27/954/6

National Archives AIR 27/1135/1

Niall Corduroy. “Whirlwind: Westland’s Enigmatic FighterFonthill Media, 2017.

RAF Polebrook – The First USAAF Bombing mission (Pt 1).

At the top of Northants, close to the Cambridge / Huntingdon borders, lie a number of wartime airfields. Relatively high up, they can be bleak and windy, but to those interested in aviation history they offer some amazing stories and fascinating walks. Some of these sites have been covered in earlier Trails e.g. Kingscliffe, Deenethorpe, Spanhoe Lodge and Grafton Underwood, but because of their close proximity, they could all be combined with this trip.

Our visit today in Trail 19 is the former RAF Polebrook, home to the famous Clark Gable, and the site that saw the very first official Eighth Air Force Bombing mission in August 1942.

RAF Polebrook (Station 110)

To the west of Peterborough, across the A1 and through some of the most gorgeous countryside this area has to offer, is Polebrook, a small village that once bustled with the sound of military voices. Originally designed for the RAF’s Bomber Command, Polebrook opened in May 1941, as a Class II airfield built by George Wimpey and Co. Ltd. It had three runways, the main one being (08-26) 1,280 yards in length, with two further runways (14-32) of 1,200 yards and (02-20), 1,116 yards, giving the site a substantial feeling of size. To accommodate the dispersed aircraft, it was designed with thirty hardstands laid mainly to the south-west and eastern sides of the airfield. The administration and technical sites were located to the north.

Aircraft maintenance was carried out in two type T2 hangars and one J type hanger, which sat next to each other, there were in addition, a range of technical buildings, a Watch Office (with Meteorological Section to design 518/40, to which a circular addition was made to the roof) and around 20 pill boxes built to provide defensive cover of the overall site.

To the north of the site across the main road, lies an area known as Ashton Wold Woods. Within the wood is the Ashton Estate, which was purchased and developed by the banker, Lionel Rothschild in 1860. It was after this that the estate was developed into a country home for his grandson, Charles Rothschild.

Charles, a banker by trade, set about creating a formal garden on the estate along with his wife Rozsika, and later his daughter Miriam. He had the grand honour of being the country’s leading expert on fleas, as well as a naturalist and conservationist who was responsible for forming the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves in 1912.

After his death and subsequently Rozsika’s in 1940, the house passed to their daughter, but when the construction of the airfield began, the house and gardens were requisitioned for use as both as a hospital and accommodation site. During the war, the site suffered badly through neglect, and post war, Miriam set about restoring parts of the estate. Sadly it was not fully restored and parts continued to fall into disrepair*1.

RAF Polebrook, Taken August 1948*2

A year after Miriam inherited the estate, the first RAF unit arrived, No 90 squadron (28th June 1941) with Fortress Is, otherwise known as Boeing’s B-17C, who stayed until their disbandment in February 1942. Although liked by their crews, the Fortresses were dogged by high altitude problems (freezing guns) and poor bombing results. This early version of the B-17 was not to be a record breaker and had a relatively short life before being replaced later by better models. Between 8th July and September 2nd, 1941 Polebrook Fortresses made 22 daylight attacks against targets including: Wilhelmshaven, Bremen, Brest, Emden, Kiel, Oslo, and Rotterdam. The RAF eventually decided to pull out of these daylight raids and the airfield momentarily fell silent to operational activities.

B-17C #40-2079 delivered to the RAFSerial: AN518 (Mistakenly marked as AM518 at the Boeing Factory) 90 Squadron

Delivered to the RAF [AN537] as part of Lend-Lease. This was the last B-17C produced; 90 Squadron [WP-L] Polebrook 13th May 1941. The aircraft later transferred to No. 220 Squadron at Alder-grove, Northern Ireland. (IWM UPL 31070)

Polebrook airfield was then handed over to the USAAF (June 28th 1942) and re-designated Station 110. It was felt however, that the current runways were inadequate for the American’s new model B-17s, and so a period of expansion then occurred. During this time the hardstands were increased to 50, the main runway (concrete and tarmac) was extended to 2,000 yards and the two secondary runways were both extended to 1,400 yards. Accommodation blocks were increased now allowing for 2,000 personnel, and the whole site was brought up to Class A standard; all-in-all it was a major redevelopment of the entire site.

The first American units were those of the 97th BG of the 1st Combat Wing. The 97th were constituted on 28th January 1942 and activated in the following February. Passing from MacDill Field in Florida through Saratosa they would make their way across the northern route to Prestwick. On route to their departure points, elements of the group were detached and sent to the Pacific coast, whilst the remainder continued on to Europe. The first manned B-17 #41-9085, ‘Jarrin Jenny‘ arrived in the UK on 1st July 1942 touching down at Prestwick in Scotland after a 3,000 mile long flight via Greenland, with the first ground echelons arriving via the Queen Elizabeth, shortly before on 10th June. Five days after ‘Jarrin Jenny’s‘ arrival, the aircraft would reach their new base, and the Northampton countryside would become a buzz of activity, as much from the curious locals as the Americans they were in awe of.

Bill Colantoni of the 306th Bomb Group with a B-17 Flying Fortress (serial number 41-9085) nicknamed

Bill Colantoni poses in front of B-17 #41-9085 ‘Jarrin’ Jenny’ at Polebrook, the first B-17 to arrive in the UK. (IWM UPL 6830)

Almost immediately after arriving int the UK the four squadrons of the 97th were split. Between June and the end of November the Headquarters unit, along with the 340th BS and 341st BS were based here at Polebrook, whilst the 342nd and 414th BS went to the satellite airfield at nearby Grafton Underwood (Trail 6).

Within a month of arriving on August 17th, the 97th BG would enter service flying the first operational mission of the USAAF from England, under the control of the Eighth Air Force. However, hastily formed, these early groups of bombers were made up of poorly trained crews, many of the gunners never having fired their guns at moving targets, nor had pilots flown at high altitude on Oxygen or in close formation. Such was the rush to get the aircraft overseas, that basic radio, flying and gunnery skills were all lacking, and if they were not to become easy targets for the more experienced and ruthless Luftwaffe, then they were going to have to endure a very steep learning curve indeed. Thus the early part of August was to be filled with intensive flying practice, with the RAF offering their services as mock enemy fighters, trainers and advisers, supporting the Americans through the tough training regime that would hopefully save their lives in the coming weeks and months.

By the 9th August it was decided that the 97th was combat ready and orders came through for their first mission. Sadly the 10th August brought poor weather, and the mission was scrubbed much to the disappointment of the those in the Group.

Two days after this, even before a bomb was dropped in anger, the dangers of flying in cloudy European skies would become all too apparent when a 340th BS, B-17E #41-9098 ‘Big Bitch‘ (not to be confused with #41-9021 ‘The Big Bitch’, which transferred to the 390th BG at Framlingham and was renamed “Hangar Queen“), collided with mountains in Wales whilst on a navigation exercise to Burtonwood, killing all eleven on board. The 97th were now racking up many ‘firsts’ adding the first B-17 fatalities to their extending roll.

August 12th saw the next call to arms, but again the weather played a cruel joke on the men of the 97th, the mission being scrubbed yet again; it was beginning to appear that someone was playing a rather frustrating joke at the expense of the eager young men.

Their next mission, detailed on the 16th was then again called. This time was ‘third time lucky’ and the following day the first official mission of the Eighth Air Force was given the green light. At 15:12 six B-17s in two waves of three left the runway at Polebrook and history was made. After rendezvousing with their ninety-seven RAF Spitfire escorts, they headed for the French coast only to turn away and head for home when just ten miles from the enemy’s coast. This time it was not the weather at fault, the mission was a planned feint to tease the Luftwaffe away from the main force following behind – a group of Twelve B-17s from each of the 342nd, 414th and 340th BS.

This mission was not only the USAAF’s first mission, but it also saw the testing of new electronic counter-measures equipment. Flying alongside this formation were nine Boulton Paul Defiants carrying the counter-measures equipment. Code named “Moonshine“, the equipment consisted of ‘repeaters’ designed to repeat back to the German’s their own radar signals thus giving the impression of a much larger and more formidable force.  These first two Polebrook flights split, the first making their feint toward Alderney, whilst the second force flew toward Dunkirk, it was this flight that was accompanied by the nine Defiants. Before reaching the coast though, they turned and headed for home their job done. It was reported by the British that an estimated 150 Luftwaffe fighters rose up to meet the ‘massive’ force, but no interception took place and all aircraft returned to base.

Amongst the main force following on, were three of the Eighth’s most prestigious personnel; the Group’s Commander Colonel Frank Armstrong Jnr who sat beside Major Paul Tibbbets (Tibbets was to go on and drop the first Atomic bomb on Hiroshima thus ending the war with Japan) in ‘Butcher Shop‘; whilst in the second wave flew General Ira Eaker, Commanding General of the entire Eighth Air Force, in ‘Yankee Doodle‘. Bombing results were ‘good’, the clear skies proving to be the bombardiers best friend that day. All aircraft returned, the only casualty being a pigeon that hit the windshield of one of the B-17s as it approached Polebrook. The first mission was over, the ice had been broken.

This first mission, a trip to Rouen, preceded several attacks across the low countries, until in the November when the Group (previously assigned to the Eighth on September 14th) transferred to the Twelfth Air Force. They were now heading for  North Africa. Over the period 18-20th November the air echelons departed Polebrook heading for Hurn before flying on to North Africa. The Ground echelons left shortly after, a point at which the 97th’s connection with Polebrook ceased leaving nothing but a legacy behind.

Original J type hangar built to specification 5835/39

The original Type ‘J’ Hangar still in use today.

In the short time the 97th stayed at Polebrook they would complete 14 missions over occupied Europe, dropping 395 tons of bombs. They would then go on to earn themselves two Distinguished Unit Citations and complete a number of ‘firsts’ whilst operating in the Middle East. But with the 97th now gone, Polebrook airfield would enter a period of relative calm and peace.

Then in April / May 1943, Station 110 once more resonated with American voices, with the arrival of the 351st BG. Another new Group, they were initially assigned to the 1 Bombardment Wing (1 BW) of the 101 Provisional Combat Bomb Wing (101 PCBW). After the USAAF went through periods of change and renumbering, this eventually became the 94th Combat Wing, (1st Bombardment Division). The 351st operated with B-17s of the: 508th (code YB), 509th, (code (RQ), 510th, (code TU) and 511th (code DS) Bomb Squadrons, distinguished by a triangular ‘J’ on the tail.

A film taken at Polebrook showing a number of aircrew and aircraft of the 351st BG. Several views of the technical and accommodation sites give a good contrast to the views of today, especially the ‘J’ type hangar that appears above.

The 351st were only activated in the previous October, and were, as ‘rookies’, to take part in some of the most severe aerial battles in Europe. Luckily for them though, training programmes back home had improved, and the gaps that were present in the first crew selections had now been filled.

As with all units new to the theatre of war, a short time was spent on familiarisation and formation flying techniques. Shortly before the 351st were deemed combat ready they were practising formation flying over Polebrook when tragedy struck.

Former Washington Redskins player Major Keith Birlem (508th BS) was piloting B-17 #42-29865 ‘YB-X’ when the plane dropped down severing the tail of another B-17 #42-29491 (509th BS) piloted by Capt Roy Snipes. Both aircraft fell from the sky landing as burning wrecks near to the perimeter of the airfield. The accident took the lives of all twenty airmen on-board the two aircraft. Major Birlem had flown his one and only combat mission just three days earlier, on his birthday, gaining experience as a co-pilot with the 303rd BG who were stationed at Molesworth.

In part 2 we see how the 351st entered the European conflict along with the further development and subsequent rundown of Polebrook immediately after the war. We also look at how the increase in tension of the Cold War brought Polebrook back to life once more, and how it eventually closed for good leading to the condition we find it in today.