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BY STEVEN RUSSELL
Thursday, April 19, 2012
The ‘Friendly Invasion’ began 70 years ago this spring. By the summer of 1944 thousands of U.S. airmen were based in East Anglia, and at the heart of ‘Little America’ was Suffolk. STEVEN RUSSELL on a new book remembering those key airfields
THEY’RE still there . . . or, at least, their ghosts are – reminders of the time Suffolk played a pivotal role in combating the Nazi threat. They’re the airfields where brave souls took to the skies in Spitfires, Mustangs and other machines, not knowing if they’d return. Many of the runways and buildings still exist today, in some shape or form – symbols of how history was created and why we should remember to be grateful.
Woodbridge, for instance, has still got its huge concrete runway – built in 1942, at 3,000 yards long and 250 wide, as an emergency landing-place for heavy bombers. At Beccles, many former military buildings have been swallowed up in Ellough Industrial Estate, but a pair of hangars remains. One has taken a step back in time by hosting 1940s-style dances.
The lives and times of 28 Second World War airfields in the county – stretching from Newmarket to Felixstowe and Bungay to Martlesham Heath – are chronicled in Roderick McKenzie’s book Ghost Fields of Suffolk.
It’s a companion volume to a similar book about Norfolk and contains details of what happened, why and when at each site, along with photographs of what’s left (ranging from control towers to bomb dumps and parachute stores) and plans of the airfields.
It’s very much a labour of love, too, starting life in 2007 as a collaborative enterprise and then drifting in limbo for a couple of years when a co-author was lost.
“It took the rather peculiar combination of imminent redundancy and an off-the-cuff remark at a family gathering (largely alcohol-inspired) to put the project suddenly back on the map,” explains Rod.
That decision prompted a frantic month of fact-finding trips by train and bicycle – four weeks that encompassed baking weather at Rougham and freezing rain at Felixstowe.
Rod, who lives at King’s Lynn, explains how the so-called “Friendly Invasion” began in the spring of 1942. By D-Day in 1944 more than 400,000 American airmen were stationed in England – mostly in East Anglia.
Suffolk was its core. The county had 32 operational military airfields between 1939 and 1945, 23 of them built during the conflict. Nineteen featured a permanent or temporary American presence.
The 1930s had been a time of great uncertainty, Rod explains, and the RAF’s expansion programme added airfields to Mildenhall, Honington, Stradishall and Wattisham . . . just in time for the outbreak of hostilities.
“When George Orwell renamed Great Britain as ‘Airstrip One’ in his seminal novel, the experience of the Second World War must have been fresh in his mind. During the conflict, in excess of 400 new airfields were constructed, a building programme scarcely conceivable to the modern mind. At the peak point in 1942, a new airfield was opening every three days, with the highest concentration of these new sites being in East Anglia.”
Most were for the Americans, who officially entered the war late in 1941.
“The 8th Air Force was to be the hammer with which the USAAF (still very much an army unit) bludgeoned the enemy by day, while RAF Bomber Command did much the same at night. Thus was Germany’s military and industrial infrastructure dismantled, piece-by-piece, 24/7.”
At its peak late in 1944, Rod writes, the 8th could call on 2,800 heavy bombers and 1,400 escort fighters. “The need for escort fighters was demonstrated right from the 8th’s first missions in 1942, as the Luftwaffe proved more than reluctant to let their homeland be bombed into smithereens.
“Fighters and flak exacted an appalling toll on American bombers, and the problem of protecting them was not completely solved until the advent of the P51 Mustang, a phenomenal blending of American and British technology.”
By May, 1945, the campaign had stolen the lives of some 40,000 American airmen.
Bomber Command also endured dreadful times. Early daytime raids proved disastrous and night missions did not see the odds of tragedy greatly reduce, “as the Luftwaffe operated a sophisticated radar system of their own, guiding a lethally effective night-fighter force . . .
“Bomber Command’s eventual losses ran in excess of 10,000 aircraft, at a cost of over 50,000 lives, in a campaign whose merits have long been debated, and whose military significance has only been recognised relatively recently.”
The end of the war saw the number of airfields drop quickly, Rod says. “However, the onset of the Cold War ensured that the county’s military significance would be undiminished.”
In the 1950s the United States Air Force committed itself to the defence of the UK and eventually concentrated its muscle at the twin bases of Bentwaters and Woodbridge, and Lakenheath and Mildenhall. “The bonds forged between the Americans and the local community were celebrated and strengthened by regular air shows, the most significant being Mildenhall’s Air Fête which marked the American Bicentennial in 1976 and continued annually until the end of the millennium.
“Easily the largest event held in East Anglia, Air Fête regularly attracted crowds in excess of 300,000 to the sleepy heart of rural Suffolk.
“Sadly, the dreadful events of September 11th 2001 caused the shutters to come down at Mildenhall, and the site does not currently welcome casual visitors, although at the time of writing tentative plans are afoot to bring back some form of public event.”
And then came the untidy unravelling of the Soviet Union and the end, therefore, of the Cold War. As a result, the Americans left Bentwaters and Woodbridge nearly 20 years ago, “leaving Lakenheath (F15 fighter-bombers) and Mildenhall (KC135 tankers) as their final redoubts in Suffolk.
“The RAF presence has diminished even further, with Honington home to the RAF Regiment but no flying units. Happily, the Army Air Corps remains in strength, basing its sinister Apache helicopters at Wattisham.”
Given that he’s a Norfolk man, the author has heartfelt praise for the way its southern neighbour has honoured its past.
“Given this rich history, it is gratifying to see how the people of Suffolk have taken steps to preserve the aviation heritage of their county, in marked contrast to neighbouring Norfolk.
“There is a wealth of memorials and museums, with wartime buildings being actively restored and even some airfield sites being reactivated, albeit only occasionally.
“Whereas, in the main, these locations have quite rightly reverted to agriculture, the roar of bombers replaced by birdsong, that of fighters by the fluttering of harvest fields, there can be little doubt that memories of the past remain vibrant in Suffolk, which can only bode well for its future.”
n Ghost Fields of Suffolk (ISBN 1 904006 60 2) is published at £10 by The Larks Press. www.booksatlarkspress.co.uk
Anatomy of a wartime airfield
ROD McKenzie’s book gives some intriguing detail about the “typical wartime airfield” and how it was built.
The standard type was known as Class A – intended for heavy bombers but in practice used by all types of aircraft.
A typical site would account for 175,000 cubic yards of concrete, 32,000 square yards of Tarmac, 20 miles of drains and up to four-and-a-half-million bricks.
“The complete airfield – flying surfaces plus supporting buildings – would cost around £1 million, a ferocious sum of money in the 1940s,” says Rod.
n Three concrete runways
n The main one was 2,000 yards long and 50 wide – aligned with the prevailing wind
n Two others were 1,400 yards long and formed an ‘A’ pattern
n A three-mile-long, 50ft-wide perimeter track connecting the runways
n There was a concrete-and-brick control tower, usually a two-storey building with a balcony and a weather station on its flat roof
n There would normally be at least two substantial hangars, usually complemented by simple curved-roof hangars and prefabricated sheds
n The bomb dump was normally in nearby woodland
n There were typically two underground fuel stores, each holding 100,000 gallons of aviation spirit
n Other buildings included a mess hall, gym (often doubling as a chapel and cinema) and squash courts
“The heart of airfield activity would be the Technical Site, where could be found the operations block, bomb-sight store, MT (Motor Transport) section, parachute store and workshops, as well as various buildings dedicated to the training of pilots, bomb-aimers and air gunners,” explains Rod.
“Virtually all of these structures were of brick-faced concrete construction, and intended to last no more than ten years; that so many have survived to the present is an enduring testament to their design.”
Accommodation could be anything up to three miles from the airfield – for safety reasons – and was often little more than mass-produced concrete huts. Not palaces – especially in winter.
The author writes: “It was from these frequently bleak installations that British, Commonwealth and American flyers – plus a significant number of escapees from occupied Europe – went to war, with nothing less than the future of humanity in the balance.
“Many were destined never to return, but upon their sacrifice rests the freedom that today we all too easily take for granted.”
Case study: Rougham airfield
• For most of the Second World War it was known as Bury St Edmunds
• Douglas A20 Havocs, of the 47th Bomb Group, were briefly based there, in September, 1942
• In December came the 322nd Bomb Group and its Martin B26 Marauders
• “Rougham will be forever associated with that most classic of American bombers, the Boeing B17 Flying Fortress, as incarnated by the 94th Bomb Group who arrived in June 1943, and by their departure in December 1945 had accumulated an astonishing 324 combat missions”
• Rougham was disposed of in 1948: the flying surfaces returning to agriculture and the technical site becoming an industrial estate.
“However, against the odds, the control tower survived, and eventually became the focus of efforts to preserve the history of the area,” writes Rod McKenzie
“The Rougham Tower Association was formed in 1993 and has since performed miracles, not only restoring the tower to its former glory, and creating a museum complex around it, but also bringing Rougham back to life as an airfield. For a few weekends a year, aircraft are permitted to return, activities culminating in a major airshow every August”
• Details from Ghost Fields of Suffolk
Was one near you?
Second World War airfields featured in Rod McKenzie’s book: Newmarket, Ipswich/Nacton, Tuddenham, Horham, Stradishall, Debach, Chedburgh, Martlesham Heath, Westley, Metfield, Bury St Edmunds/Rougham, Woodbridge, Sudbury, Bungay, Lavenham, Felixstowe, Shepherd’s Grove (near Stanton), Framlingham/Parham, Great Ashfield, Bentwaters, Rattlesden, Halesworth, Knettishall, Beccles, Raydon, Leiston, Eye, Mendlesham