Video: In the final part of this series we look at Norfolk military history at sea and in the air

A Lightning jet from RAF Coltishall taken during the period when the fast jets were based in Norfolk A Lightning jet from RAF Coltishall taken during the period when the fast jets were based in Norfolk

Friday, January 17, 2014
10:33 AM

In the penultimate part of our series looking at Norfolk military history at sea and in the air ahead of the arrival of the Lightning II at RAF Marham, MARK NICHOLLS focuses on the history of military aviation in the county and the rise of the RAF.

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Places -- N / Occupations-- Armed Forces -- Airforce

Two controllers carry out development trials in the specially darkened trials cabin from which Neatishead's new ground control intercept capability is organised

Dated -- 7 May 1969

Photograph -- C8429Places -- N / Occupations-- Armed Forces -- Airforce Two controllers carry out development trials in the specially darkened trials cabin from which Neatishead's new ground control intercept capability is organised Dated -- 7 May 1969 Photograph -- C8429

Norfolk’s role as an aviation county in military terms can be traced back to the earliest years of powered flight.

In the years before the First World War aerodromes were established, which later became RAF stations with the number increasing rapidly during the Second World War when Norfolk was a county pocked with airfields.

The key components of Norfolk’s aerial response to the Nazi threat came from Bomber, Fighter and Coastal Command, supported by USAAF squadrons in the later stages of the war.

But as global conflict evolved into Cold War, the RAF footprint across Norfolk changed and as the decades wore on the number of airfields gradually closed.

RAF Swanton Morley and West Raynham were among the latter to do so, while RAF Coltishall was operational with Lightnings and then Jaguar until 2004. RAF Neatishead was downgraded soon after to a Remote Radar Head (RRH) station and now hosts the RAF Air Defence Radar Museum. That left RAF Marham as the county’s only operational RAF station and a role that has grown considerably; firstly confirmed as home for the Tornado force and now for the new Lightning II aircraft.

Across Norfolk today, what were once vibrant RAF stations alive with the roar of engines and the whiff of aviation fuel, are now ghost fields.

They consumed huge swathes of Norfolk, swallowing up the county’s farmland at places such as Old Buckenham, Deopham Green, Great Massingham, Matlask, North Creake, Sculthorpe and Shipdham.

Roderick McKenzie, author of Ghost Fields of Norfolk and its companion book Ghost Fields of Suffolk, explained that military aviation arrived in Norfolk in 1911 with the first aerodrome to open at Snarehill just south of Thetford, initially as little more than a flying school.

There was also the major airship station at Pulham and the massive hangars that were once on the site can now be seen at Cardington in Bedfordshire.

The Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) were the two strands of the main flying arms throughout the First World War before merging in 1918 to form the RAF.

They used many sites in Norfolk, some were major stations others were minor landing grounds. Two important early stations were Bircham Newton and Narborough, which was the biggest airfield in the country in the mid-years of the First World War with Marham as a satellite station and HQ for 51 Squadron, which was responsible for anti-zeppelin patrols. It had a network of landing grounds across Norfolk in places such as Bexwell and Sporle.

Mr McKenzie said: “Flying was reduced after the First World War and then from the mid-1930s it started to expand again with the situation in continental Europe becoming unstable. The RAF had to expand at a massive rate to meets its commitment.

“That terrific expansion was not just with the RAF - with the Americans arriving in 1942 there were many new airfields being built and some 400 were built across Britain during the course of the conflict.”

That expansion saw Bircham Newton redeveloped and Marham – which had closed in 1919 after its First World War role – re-open as a major air base as well as places such as Watton, Coltishall and West Raynham growing in importance.

RAF Marham had lain dormant until 1935 when construction began on the new aerodrome under the pre-war expansion plan. It reopened on April 1, 1937, with a heavy bomber unit flying Fairey Hendon aircraft and later Wellingtons as well as Short Stirlings and Mosquitos. Its wartime role ended in 1944 when it was closed for the installation of a concrete runway.

“At the height of the Second World War there were 37 airfields in Norfolk plus a whole host of satellite landing grounds and dummy airfields,” added Mr McKenzie. “Once the Germans realised they were dummy airfields they were developed into operational airfields. Docking is a good example of an airfield that started life as a decoy.”

Of the three main strands of the RAF in Norfolk during the Second World War the main base of Bomber Command was at Downham Market with Stirling and Lancasters (though the main RAF concentration of bomber bases was in Lincolnshire); Coastal Command had Bircham Newton as the major station conducting operations over the local seas such as anti-submarine, convoy protection and protecting the fishing fleet; and Fighter Command was at Coltishall with aircraft involved in Battle of Britain and a base where the legendary fighter ace Douglas Bader flew from.

This period was the heyday of the RAF in Norfolk and by 1942-43 Mr McKenzie said there were that many air stations in Norfolk that in some cases the airfields and their air space were virtually overlapping.

“Norfolk was like one large airfield,” he said.

In the aftermath of the Second World War many airfields closed down as the RAF contracted while others went into a care-and-maintenance programme with no actual flying taking place. Gradually, they were returned to their original owners, a process which spread over the best part of 20 years.

During the Cold War, RAF Marham increased in significance because as a strategic bomber base. By 1956 the V bombers arrived with the Valiant B1s and later the Victors which were to evolve into the air-to-air refuelling squadrons at Marham, which played a pivotal role in the bombing of Port Stanley airport runway by a Vulcan during the Falklands War of 1982.

Ballistic missiles were also based in Norfolk with bloodhound at West Raynham (closed in 1994) and Thor nuclear missiles at North Pickenham, while Coltishall was maintained as a fighter station with the original supersonic Lightnings poised to intercept incoming Soviet nuclear bombers while nearby RAF Neatishead operated as a radar station.

But as the Cold War came to an end, the RAF modernised and contracted further in Norfolk with the two main bases being at RAF Coltishall with the Jaguar and Marham with the Tornado. Both were involved combat missions in the Gulf War of 1991, with the Marham squadrons suffering losses. Norfolk’s Jaguars and Tornados later patrolled no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq in the aftermath of that conflict.

Within the last 15 years, Marham Tornado squadrons have operated in the Balkans conflict, the Iraq War of 2003, been deployed in Afghanistan in support of ground operations and reconnaissance missions and above Libya.

While the RAF footprint in the country has shrunk, Mr McKenzie said there is still a lot of evidence across Norfolk offering clues to the scale of the RAF presence.

“There are remains of concrete runways and taxiways still intact,” he said. “There are quite a few hangars still standing, dating from the 1930s, as they are useful for storage such as Little Snoring or Methwold. Other remnants of RAF structures survive, the control tower at North Creake famously became a house and Bircham Newton became home to National Construction College.

“I never understand why Bircham Newton survived to the Second World War and Sedgeford did not as it was more important in the First World War. But there is a very real history left.”

Snetterton Heath became a motor racing circuit and Hethel home to Lotus Cars; the runways of Downham Market were used to build the A10, Horsham St Faith was transformed into Norwich International Airport and at Seething, specially constructed for the US 8th Air Force and once home to B24s of the 448th Bomb Group, the control tower is now restored as a museum and memorial dedicated to the 448BG.

But it is Marham, with its roaring blue bull symbol and motto “deter” that has risen to become Norfolk’s last RAF station with a bright future.

A threat of closure was lifted from the base in 2011 when it emerged it would become the home of the Tornado force and in 2013 defence secretary Philip Hammond secured Marham’s long-term future by revealing it would be home to the new Joint Strike Fighter – the F-35B Lightning II – as part of combined RAF and Royal Navy operations. This will see two renowned units – 809 Naval Air Squadron and the re-formed 617 (Dambusters) Squadron – based at Marham to fly the new aircraft.

Ghost Fields of Norfolk (£8.50) and Ghost Fields of Suffolk (£10) Roderick McKenzie are published by Norfolk-based Lark’s Press.

See for Roderick McKenzie’s reflections on Norfolk’s RAF history and how archaeologists are rediscovering some of the county’s airfields. Tomorrow in Weekend magazine: In the final part of his series, Mark Nicholls looks at how RAF Marham is preparing to receive the Lightning II.