In this, the 34th trail, we go back to the northern area of Norfolk, not far from the North Sea coast, and then head south. We end up near to RAF Attlebridge found in Trail 7, west of the city of Norwich.
Our first stop was a quite unassuming airfield, but one that played an important role during the Second World War. British readers will remember the distinct voice of one Raymond Baxter OBE, the voice behind so many thrilling air show commentaries, the TV programme ‘Tomorrow’s World‘ and a wide range of outside commentaries that brought the wonders of science and technology into our homes. Baxter himself served in 602 Sqn RAF, and was stationed at the airfield in the latter stages of the war. We are of course at RAF Matlask.
RAF Matlask (Station 178)
Documented on airfield site plans and other RAF Documents as Matlask, as opposed to Matlaske the name of the village, it was a large grassed airfield hidden well into the Norfolk countryside.
The village of Matlaske separates the main airfield from the four airmen sites and sewage disposal site, which were widely spread away to the north; only site 2 (communal and WAAF area) and site 7 (Sick Quarters), were located in the village itself.
Accommodation was substantial, even taking over the large and rather grand Barningham Hall for the Officer’s Mess. The current building dates back to 1612 and stands in 150 Hectares of garden, park and lakes, a rather ‘up market’ dwelling, that is closed off to public access.
Other accommodation included a range of the usual huts, ‘Nissen’ and ‘Laing’ being the most prominent, with brick and timber featuring most.
The airfield itself stands to the south of the village, with the main entrance way off to the western side. A guard hut would have marked the main gate where a number of brick buildings would have been used for storage, technical activities, fuel storage and the like. A small road took you onto the concrete perimeter track that led all the way round the site. Dispersal was provided by 21 concrete hardstands, although a further 21 temporary hardstands were planned. One single T2 hangar was located next to the technical area, with a further 5 Blister hangers (design 12512/41) spread around the perimeter. Aircraft dispersal was also provided by the standard 6 Type B protected dispersal pens, (7151/41) with built-in air raid shelters; each shelter having a crew entrance and emergency exit. Matlask initially had one watch tower to the north of the site next to the technical area. This was later modified to a two storey design and then a further example was built slightly to the south, this being of the more common two storey ‘standard’. wartime design (343/43).
Matlask although tucked away in the Norfolk countryside would not be devoid of activity. Some 22 RAF squadrons, an Air Sea Rescue unit and an American Fighter Group would all use it at some point.
Designed initially as a satellite for Coltishall, it was dogged with drainage problems, and surprisingly never seem to warrant any form of hard runway. It was opened in 1940 as part of 12 group, destined for fighter defence of the Midlands.
In 1937, 72 Sqn (RAF) was reformed. they moved around a variety of bases eventually ending up at Matlask’s parent base, RAF Coltishall. When Coltishall was attacked in late October 1940, it was decided to move the Spitfire squadron to Matlask for protection. This merely brought the war to Matlask for on the 29th, five Dorniers attacked the airfield, inflicting damage on several dispersed aircraft and injuring a number of personnel.
After this attack, the first of two, the Spitfires would leave and Matlask would revert back to a satellite having no permanent residents of its own. This situation continued until May/June 1941, when Spitfires IIbs would arrive also from RAF Coltishall. 222 Sqn (RAF) only stayed until the following July, moving south to the large fighter base at RAF Manston, in Kent.
This would then set the tone for Matlask, a large number of short stays, most for no more than a month or so. But whilst their stays were short, the diversity of aircraft they used was not. Spitfire Is, IIbs, IX, XVI, Hurricane II, Airacobra I, Walrus, Lysanders, Westland Whirlwind, Typhoon Ia and Ib, P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’, Miles Master, Martinets, Hawker’s Henley, Tempest Vs and Mustang IIIs would all grace the skies over this region of Norfolk.
Perhaps one of the more notable examples to fly here, was the American Airacobra. 601 Sqn (RAF) moved from RAF Manston to Matlask at the end of June 1941, bringing Hurricanes with them. These were replaced by the distinctive tricycle undercarriage P-39 ‘Airacobra‘ a short time after. The first auxiliary squadron, 601 was known as the “Millionaires’ Squadron” and said to have been created by Lord Grosvenor at the gentlemen’s club “White’s“. Membership was initially very restricted, and boasted a unique initiation into the ‘club’. Whilst a determined and professional unit in the air, they acquired a reputation for flamboyance and bravado on the ground.
In looking for a new fighter, the RAF turned to the Americans. The Airacobra was trialled and whilst found to have a number of advantages over its adversaries, it was considered too poor at heights over 15,000ft. Used in only a small number of raids it was deemed inadequate and soon replaced, with many supplied models being sent on to Russia and the Far East. 601 would use these partly at Matlask and then back at the Fighter Development Unit at Duxford where they moved to on August 16th 1941.
On that same day, Spitfires arrived with 19 Sqn (RAF). They changed their Mk.IIs for Vbs before moving off to RAF Ludham (Trail 58) in December. It was during this stay though that a change was to take place for Matlask.
On October 1st 1941, 278 Sqn would be formed out of 3 Air Sea Rescue (ASR) Flight, operating Lysander IIIs. These, whilst successful in SOE missions, were considered the weak link in the Air Sea Rescue Role. Operating initially as a spotter, it would fly to the last reported position of the downed aircraft, carry out a search, drop whatever aids it could, and then pass the information on to a Walrus which would collect the airman. In theory this worked well, but due to its poor capacity (supplies were limited to what could be fitted on the bomb racks), slow speed and vulnerability, it was limited to flying no further than 40 miles from the coast. As a result, and almost immediately, the Lysanders were replaced by the Walrus, an aircraft 278 Sqn operated for some time. Performing in this vital role, they were eventually moved in April 1942 to RAF Coltishall leaving Matlask firmly behind.
Around the time 19 Sqn departed Matlask, 137 Sqn moved in. They were to be perhaps the longest-serving squadron at Matlask and perhaps also one of the most notable.
Operating in the Coastal patrol and fighter role, they brought with them the Westland Whirlwind. Potentially thought be a world-beater, they would be liked by their crews, perform well at low altitude and have a punch that matched anything in the European Theatre at that time. However, having a poor combat range, and production problems with their engines, they were only built in limited numbers and were restricted to ground attack, anti-shipping duties and low-level sorties. As such, they were only supplied to 2 operational squadrons, 137 Sqn and 263 Sqn; 137 Sqn being the second. Operations by the Whirlwind were mixed. Some great successes were reported, its concentrated fire power proving devastating not only to enemy aircraft but more heavily armoured targets including locomotives.
Despite this however, 137 Sqn was to suffer a major blow in February 1942. Whilst escorting British destroyers, they were unaware of the presence of the two German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. On diving to investigate, they were attacked from above by escorting Bf-109s and of the six Whirlwinds sent out, four were shot down and lost. Despite its good performance, it was never to enter full production and soon the Whirlwind would be declared obsolete and be destined to fall into aviation obscurity.
137 Sqn would leave Matlask in August 1942 only to return 10 days later before departing again to RAF Snailwell at the end of the month. Almost as a direct replacement, Typhoons from Snailwell’s 56 Sqn and Coltishall’s 266 Sqn took their place. 56 Sqn stayed here for almost a year, moving to Manston in July 1943 whilst 266 Sqn moved to Duxford that same month. One of the last fatalities of 56 Sqn was Flight Sergeant R.G. Gravett (s/n 1268706), flying a ‘Rhubarb‘ mission in his Typhoon JP392, who was killed when his aircraft was hit by Flak whilst attacking a locomotive at Leiden train station. The resultant crash, which hit 5 homes in Leiden, also killed one civilian and wounded five others.*1
After 56 Sqn’s departure the airfield was allocated to the Eighth Air Force and given the designation Station 178. Sadly though, it was only used for small detachments of the 56th FG flying P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’, and plans to expand the station to three runways were not carried out.
Apart from target towing activities, the early summer of 1943 was relatively quiet at Matlask; Lysanders returned along with the more unusual Masters, Henleys and Martinets of 1489 Flt.
Then came a flurry of fighter activity. The July of that year would see Matlask become a fighter base once again, with Spitfires, Tempest and Mustangs all being stationed here. Some 11 squadrons: 611, 195, 609, 3, 486, 65, 122, 229, 453, 602 and 451 all brought their own variety of fighter with them over the next year.
Due to the very poor weather, crews would be based here but be ferried to nearby RAF Swannington for operations, as Swannington had Sommerfeld tracking and was able to offer a more resilient base from which aircraft could take-off and land. Matlask became notorious as cold, wet and miserable, many crews disliking its cold accommodation and constant mud.
During 1944 Matlask would be used for operations against the dreaded V2s launched from the Hague in Holland. Flying Spitfire dive bombing and strafing missions, these were difficult to master as dropping bombs from the wrong angle could either cause the pilot to black out or the bomb to crash through the arc of the propeller.
Using both Spitfire IX and XVIs, regular patrols were put up over the Hague by 229 and 602 Sqns attacking targets associated with the V2s, but as they were portable and the risk to local civilians was high, often bombs were used on other targets or deposited neatly in the North Sea. Bill Simpson’s Book ‘Spitfire Dive-Bombers Versus the V2‘ gives a detailed account of such missions and is highly recommended as further reading.
January 1944 would bring two more ‘unusual’ visitors to Matlask, although neither would be particularly graceful. On the 11th, B-17G (s/n 42-31090) ‘Nasty Habit‘ was instructed to land at Matlask, because of poor weather at its own station, RAF Deenethorpe (Trail 6). The B17 overshot and crashed through the boundary hedges and onto the road. Flying with the 613 BS, 401 BG, it was salvaged ten days later.
Then at the end of that month, whilst returning from a mission to Berlin, Halifax III, HX239*3 ‘HD-G’ of 466 Sqn RAF Leconfield, attempted a landing at Matlask due to low fuel. On touchdown the pilot, P.O. D. Graham realised he was on a collision course for a group of workmen. In averting what could have been a major catastrophe, he ground looped and hit a partially built building, injuring three of the crew members. For the crew, a mix of Canadians and Australians, it was not the most comfortable of landings!
Almost as quickly as it all started, aircrews left and Matlask fell silent. The war came to an end and the RAF pulled out. 451 Squadron leapfrogged between here and nearby RAF Swannington, finally leaving on April 6th 1945 to RAF Lympne in Kent. The end had arrived for Matlask. A short spell as a POW camp and then it began its rapid return to agriculture and its present day form.
Matlask airfield today is very different from its heyday of the 1940s. The perimeter track is all but gone, only a small section remains as a simple farm track that leads across what was the northern section of the airfield. Half way across this part of the airfield lay the remains of the base of the T2 hanger. Today its holds farm machinery, waste and other products. On the north-western side would have been the main gate and the technical area. The two towers have left no remnants and even the last fighter pen is all but indistinguishable. Having grass runways, means the site is flat and unrecognisable as having any notable history. A memorial erected by the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust stands on what was the north-eastern section of the airfield just south of the village. From the village, heading south past this memorial takes you parallel to the airfield, the former perimeter tracks only feet from where you are driving.
In the village of Matlaske itself, you can find the former sick quarters – site 7, its distinctive roadway still evident but housing small homes and Bungalows now rather than sick bays of the 1940s. To the west there are a small number of buildings remaining on private land, shrouded in vegetation and trees, they are barely visible from the roadside. This would have been the former site 3, the location of six airmen’s barracks, five latrines, an ablutions block, drying room, fuel compound and a picket post. A small community in its own right.
Many of the accommodation sites are located within the grounds of Barningham Hall and the roadways that once took weary crews to and from the airfield now gone. Driving down the western side past the technical site, presents no sign of wartime activity. The former huts have all been removed, and even the battle headquarters, often one of the last few buildings to survive, has been removed.
Matlask has all but gone. When I visited early in 2016 it was a foggy, cold morning. The Norfolk wind has replaced the piston engines, the Merlin’s no longer resonate across the open expanse. The village is quiet. A public defibrillator in an old phone box perhaps a metaphorical gesture. The village sign acknowledges the history, a lone aircraft flying low over the village. As the fog lifts on this winter morning it reveals a wide open expanse that was once the busy and historic RAF Matlask.
Raymond Baxter commentating on some British Classics at RAF St. Athan.
After leaving Matlask airfield, we head south, a short distance to the former base at Oulton.
RAF Oulton in 1946, taken from the north. (IWM)
Although an RAF base, Oulton was also home to the heavy American bombers the B-17 and B-24. However, they were not used in their natural heavy bomber role, but a more secret and sinister one.
Initially built as a satellite for the larger bomber base at Horsham St. Faith, Oulton originally only had grass runways. It would later, in 1942, be upgraded to class ‘A’ standard, which would require the construction of three concrete runways, a new tower and bomb store and upgrading to the technical site. Runway 1 (2000 yds) ran east-west, runway 2 (1,400 yds), north-east to south-west, and runway 3 ran approximately north-south and was also 1,400 yds. All were the standard 50 yards wide and would be connected by thirty-two loop style hardstands and eleven pan style hardstands. Uncommonly, Oulton would also have four T2 hangars (three to the eastern side and one to west, two of which would later hold Horsa gliders) and a further blister hangar.
The majority of the technical area was to the eastern side of the airfield next to the main entrance and along side Oulton Street. The two bomb stores were located to the north and western sides of the airfield well away from personnel and aircraft as was common. The first of the two towers, was built to drawing 15898/40, which combined the tower and crew rooms; the second built later to drawing 12779/41 (adapted to the now common 343/43) brought the airfield in line with other Class ‘A’ airfields.
Throughout the war personnel accommodation utilised the grand and audacious Blickling Hall. A seventeenth century building that stands in a 4,777 acre estate that once belonged to the family of Anne Boleyn. Owned more recently by Lord Lothian, he famously persuaded Churchill to write to Roosevelt declaring Britain’s position and poor military strength. Lord Lothian was a great entertainer dining with many notable people including Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign Policy adviser and close friend. A number of other notable events took place at Blickling, including, in early 1945, Margaret Lockwood raising eyebrows when she and James Mason arrived to film ‘The Wicked Lady’ .
In the early 1940s, the hall was requisitioned by the RAF, officers were billeted inside the ‘wings’ whilst other ranks were put up in Nissen huts within the grounds. The lake was used for Dingy training and the upper floors allowed for baths albeit with cold water! In total some 1,780 personnel could be housed in and around the estate.
For the first two years between 1940 and 1942, Oulton airfield was the home to Blenheims, Hudsons and Beaufighters, each undertaking a light bombing or anti-shipping role as part of 2 Group.
First came 114 sqn on August 10th 1940 with Blenheim IVs. Apart from a small detachment at Hornchurch, they stayed here until the following March whereupon they moved to Thornaby. Their most notable mission was the mid-December attack on Mannheim, an attack that would signify the start of the RAF’s ‘area’ bombing campaign. A short spell of three months beginning April 1941 by 18 Sqn, preceded their return later in November and then subsequent move to Horsham St Faith.
Like many airfields during this time, units moved around and it was no different for 139 Sqn. With their Blenheims and later Hudsons, they would leapfrog between Horsham St. Faith and Oulton throughout 1941 only to disband and reform returning in 1942 with Mosquito IVs.
It was during this time in late 1941 that Hudson conversion flight 1428 would be formed at Oulton with the sole job of training crews on the Hudson III. They would remain here until the following May, at which point they were disbanded.
The re-establishment of 236 Sqn in July 1942 with Beaufighter ICs meant Oulton performed as part of Coastal Command for a short time. The success of 236 in torpedo strikes, led to a new wing being formed at North Coates with 236 leading the way, they departed taking their Beaufighters with them. This left a vacancy, that would soon be filled with a new twin-engined model, the Boston III and 88 Squadron.
88 Sqn were split over 6 different airfields before being pulled together here at Oulton. They retained two of these detachments, one at RAF Ford and the other at RAF Hurn, and their arrival and start of operations at Oulton, would be tarnished with sadness.
On October 31st 1942, a month after they arrived, ground crews were unloading a 250lb bomb from 88 Sqn Boston ‘W8297’ when it suddenly went off. The resultant explosion destroyed the Boston and killed six members*5 of the ground crew. The youngest of these, AC2 K. F. Fowler, was only 19.
After having suffered serious losses in France whilst claiming the first RAF ‘kill’ of the war, they were the first unit to fly the new Boston, and would continue to undertake dangerous daylight intruder operations. Flying daring, low-level missions, they would attack shipping and coastal targets before supporting the allied advance on D-day. Their most famous attack was the renowned bombing of the Philips works in Eindhoven, which resulted in the loss of production for six months following the raid. Ninety-three aircraft took part in the raid, all flying beyond the reach of any fighter escort, a factor that no doubt resulted in the heavy casualties sustained by 2 Group on that mission*6 .
In March 1943, the Boston IIIs left and Oulton passed to Addison’s 100 group. As with many other airfields in this part of Norfolk, 100 group were using them to fly missions investigating electronic warfare and radio counter measures. This move to 100 Group would bring a major change for Oulton.
The now satellite of Foulsham would soon be seeing larger and heavier aircraft in the form of the American Fortress I (B-17E), II (F), III (G) and Liberator VI (B-24H). This change required extensive upgrading; the construction of hard runways, updating of the accommodation, new technical buildings and a second, updated tower, along with further storage facilities. The airfield was closed throughout the operation, and with the completion in May 1944 operations could begin almost immediately.
Both USAAF and RAF crews moved in. 1699 Flight were providing conversion for crews to fly the heavy bombers for their parent Squadron 214 Sqn, whilst the American 803rd BS, 36th BG flew radio-countermeasures in their B-17s and later B24s. This move here allowed their own parent station RAF Sculthorpe, to also be extensively redeveloped.
The Americans stayed for three months whilst their work was undertaken, but the RAF units remained until the end of the war. After 1699 Flt. had completed conversions, 214 changed Fortress IIs for IIIs and flew these until disbandment on July 27th 1945.
On August 23rd 1944, 223 Sqn reformed at Oulton. Having previously been flying the twin-engined Baltimore, the new unit would have to get used to much larger aircraft very quickly, a task they commanded with relative ease. They flew the heavier Liberator IVs, and Fortress IIs and IIIs until their final disbandment a year later.
Both 214 and 223 flew the heavy bombers now bristling with electronics. Using a range of electronic gadgetry such as ‘window’ ,’H6S’ and ‘Mandrel’, they had their front turrets painted over or removed and electronic equipment added. ‘Window‘ chutes were installed in the fuselage of the aircraft and a heavy secrecy enveloped the airfield.
The winter of 1944 proved to be one of the worst for many years, crews worked hard in the snowy environment, relaxing where they could at the nearby pubs, one nicely placed next to Blickling Hall and the other directly opposite the entrance to the airfield.
Both units would participate in a number of major, high prestige operations, providing radio jamming and window curtains for the bomber formations. ‘Spoof’ operations were common, diverting enemy fighters away from the real force and playing a daring game of cat and mouse with the German radio operators. As the war drew to a close, so too did the operations from 214 and 223. Eventually in July 1945 both Squadrons were disbanded, 214 being the renumbered 614 squadron, with 223 having to wait until 1959 before being reborn as a THOR missile squadron.
With the withdrawal of the heavies, the end was near for Oulton. After being used for storage of surplus Mosquitoes for a year it was closed and sold off. The end had finally arrived and Oulton closed its gates for the last time.
Oulton airfield stands as a reminder of the bravery of the light bomber and ECM crews; today many of the original buildings still remain, used for agricultural purposes and even by the National Trust.
Whilst the general layout of the airfield has changed with the addition of farm and ‘industrial’ units, its layout can still be recognised. The majority of the runways still exist, now housing poultry sheds, and large sections can easily be seen from the roadside. Luckily, even some of the original huts from the technical area are also in existence and ‘accessible’.
Approaching from the north, the first reference point is the memorial. Standing at the crossroads on the north-eastern corner, it serves as a pointer directly in line with the centre line of the Runway 2. Behind you to your right is the former sick quarters, here would have been an ambulance station, Static water tank and sick quarters, now all gone. Turning right here, keeping the airfield to your left, you pass along the northern boundary, within a short distance of what would have been the perimeter track.
The first sign is a pillbox. This was placed next to the special signals workshop which consisted of three small buildings. Now overgrown, this maybe a Vickers Machine gun Pillbox, different to ‘standard’ pill boxes as it has a concrete ‘table’ beneath the gun port designed to support the heavier gun and tripod.
Further along this road, to your right, is the first and main bomb store. A small track being the only visible reminder, the walls having been removed long ago. The large concrete ‘pan’ being the entrance, on which farm products are now stored.
The second store and USAAF quarters were further along this road, again all trace has gone and it is purely agricultural now. Retracing your steps, go back to the memorial. At the crossroads, ahead of you, was Number 1 accommodation site, now all farm buildings, but formerly the officers, sergeants quarters and airman’s barracks.
Turn right here and as you drive down Oulton Street, there are a number of original buildings back from the road in a small enclave. The National Trust own part of these and use them to restore historic textiles, one of these buildings being the squadron offices. The main entrance to the airfield is further along this road and now an insignificant farm gate, allowed to grow and fill in, the path buried beneath the grass. Beyond this, you can see some remaining buildings across the field, truly overgrown and very dilapidated, these are possibly the crew locker and drying rooms. Continue on along this narrow road and you arrive at the pond. Behind the pond, stands a well-preserved hut and smaller buildings. These were the main workshops, rubber store and general stores, now holding agricultural products and waste material. Certainly they are some of the better preserved buildings on the site. Further along, the road crosses the main runway, here it is full width on both sides of the road. Poultry sheds stand on the main section, whilst farm waste resides on the left.
Continuing on and the road crosses the third runway, where we turn left. We can now see the site of one of the four T2s, the road at this point using the original perimeter track before it departs away to the north.
From here, we return north, head back past the airfield and return to the main road. Here we turn right and follow the road for a few miles east through the woodland where we arrive at Blickling Hall. The accommodation sites here, include the No.1 and 2 WAAF sites, NAAFI, No. 4 and 5 accommodation site and various service sites.
The east wing of the Blickling Hall is now a museum, formerly the barracks and still shows the original paintwork. A range of uniforms, photos and personal stories can be seen and read.
There are virtually no remnants of the other sites which were primarily Nissen huts. Footpaths do allow you to walk through these, now natural spaces, walking in the footsteps of former airmen and women.
Next to the Hall, is the church of St. Andrew, in here is a small collection of artefacts and a roll of honour for those who died at Oulton. Also here is the sole grave of Sergeant L. Billington, who died on March 4th 1945 at the young age of 20. He was part of a crew in a Fortress III (B-17) on window duties. As the aircraft was returning from its mission, it was attacked by a JU 88, causing it to crash on the airfield boundary. All but two of the crew were killed*7, their bodies being buried in different locations. A sad end to another young life at Oulton.
RAF Oulton housed a range of aircraft types and nationalities. Their role encompassed many important duties and missions that certainly helped defeat the Nazi tyranny. Many of these young men, led the way in today’s electronic counter measures and electronic warfare. The daring missions they led, firmly embedded in our history, and now the remnants of Oulton stand as a reminder to both their sacrifice and dedication.
Notes and Further Reading.
*1 Air War WW2 database V4.1, Jan Nieuwenhuis, Netherlands
*2 Photo IWM, Roger Freeman Collection. FRE 8078
*3 Aircrew Remembered website, accessed 4/3/16
*3 Chorley, W. R., Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, 1944, Midland Publishing
*4 Thirsk, I., de Havilland Mosquito, An Illustrated History Vol 2, Crecy Publications.
*5 The ground crew were:
E.J. Bone, Aircraftsman Ist Class
H. Bramham, Aircraftsman 2nd Class
A.C. Emery, Aircraftsman 2nd Class
K.F. Fowler, Aircraftsman, 2nd Class
F. Packard, Leading Aircraftsman
A. Torrence, Leading Aircraftsman
Source Aircrew remembered website.
*6 National Archives, RAF Bomber Command Diary 1940.
*7 The crew were:
P/O H Bennett
Sgt. L Billington
F/S H. Barnfield
W/O LJ Odgers (RAAF)
F/S W Bridden
F/S LA Hadder
F/S F Hares
Sgt. A McDirmid (injured)
W/O RW Church (injured)
Sgt. PJ Healy
Source: Chorley, W.R., RAF Bomber Command Losses 1945, Midland Counties,1998