Time to remember the 700 forgotten heroes of RAF Downham Market who were killed in the Second World War

Chris Coverdale on the few yards of concrete which are all that remains of the runways at RAF Downham Market. Picture: Matthew Usher. Chris Coverdale on the few yards of concrete which are all that remains of the runways at RAF Downham Market. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Monday, February 17, 2014
11:15 AM

A memorial for more than 700 of Norfolk’s forgotten heroes is being held up by red tape.

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Heroism of the Pathfinders

As the traffic bustles down the A10, few realise the fields beside it once thundered with the sound of a very different type of engine.

In 1942, concrete runways were laid through the wheat fields for the RAF’s heavy bombers. from then until the end of the Second World War, five squadrons were based at Downham.

First came the Stirlings - lumbering four-engined giants, gradually replaced by the faster, more powerful Lancaster and the twin-engined plywood Mosquito.

Most air crew were aged between 18 and 24. Bomber Command had the highest loss rate of any of the armed services, with 55,000 killed in its strategic bombing campaign against Germany, which began in 1942. Few survived a “tour” of 30 missions.

RAF Downham Market became home to the RAF’s elite, the Pathfinders who flew ahead of the main bomber force, dropping flares to mark targets.

Today little remains of the station or its three mile-long runways, which were broken up in the 1970s and used for the foundations of the A10 Downham bypass.

The control tower and hangars are long-gone. Just a few crumbling, ivy-covered buildings remain next to an industrial estate on the nearby A1122.

Just two names are recorded on the plaque outside the nearby church, whose rectory was once the officers’ quarters. Both were awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry.

Flight Sgt Arthur Aaron, 24, pressed ahead with an attack on Turin, despite being mortally wounded in a fighter attack which killed most of his crew, in August 1943.

Sqn leader Ian Bazalgette, also 24, flew on and successfully marked German V1 rocket pens in August 1944, after his aircraft set alight by anti-aircraft fire. He ordered his crew to bail out before trying to land the damaged aircraft alone, dying when it exploded on touch-down.

Hundreds of young airmen, who flew from RAF Downham Market, were shot down and killed during the Second World War.

Today little remains of the base, which stood at Bexwell. And just two of the 705 air crew who lost their lives aboard the Stirlings, Mosquitoes and Lancasters which flew from it, are remembered on a modest wooden plaque outside the village church.

Author Chris Coverdale, who has written a book about the Pathfinder squadrons which flew from the base, has been campaigning to replace it with a fitting memorial for those who never came back.

A modest tribute to two RAF Downham airmen who won the Victoria Cross already stands on the site. But council officials say Mr Coverdale can’t replace it with a larger memorial, because he has been unable to find any legal record of who owns the 20yd strip of land.

“You’re talking about 705 young men,” he said. They didn’t even blink an eyelid, they just went to war, they knew the chances were slim. But after 70 years, there’s no memorial, there’s nothing.”

Searches carried out by the Land Registry have unearthed no record of who owns the plot.

“All the West Norfolk council planning people have said it’s a brilliant idea, but we’ve got to go about it the right way,” said Mr Coverdale, who lives in Peterborough.

“It’s my passion, it’s what I believe in, I’ll keep trying, but the initial hurdle is to find out who owns the land.”

The existing wooden memorial was put up in the early 1980s, by RAFA - the Royal Air Force Association - with support from the church and nearby RAF Marham.

Mr Coverdale hopes to replace it with a 15m granite and steel memorial, listing the names of all of those who died.

He also hopes to pay tribute to the ground crews who worked on the station, which was open from 1942 until 1946.

Some 10,000 people are believed to have been stationed on or to have worked on the base during the second half of the war. Many would have settled in the area and raised families around Downham afterwards.

Mr Coverdale Plans to set up a trust and place legal notices in local newspapers, formally seeking the owner of the land.

He said if no-one came forward, the trust would try to claim the site and begin raising funds for the memorial, which is expected to cost £100,000.

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