RAF 100: How Marham has played a key role
PUBLISHED: 06:17 31 March 2018 | UPDATED: 15:47 02 April 2018
On April 1 2018 the RAF marks its 100th anniversary. Steve Snelling charts the remarkable story of Norfolk’s longest-serving military air base - RAF Marham.
It was a mission flown at the height of the so-called Phoney War which, unexpectedly and unintentionally, put RAF Marham on the historical map.
Twelve Wellingtons from 38 and 115 Squadrons were part of a 24-strong bomber force that took off from East Anglia on December 3, 1939 with orders to launch a daylight attack on enemy cruisers reported moored in the German island anchorage at Heligoland.
As with so many such sorties mounted in the early weeks of the Second World War, the operation did not go according to plan. Cloud obscured the target area and, despite claims to the contrary, the only vessel damaged was a minesweeper which was sunk by a bomb which penetrated its hull but failed to explode.
However, what might otherwise have seemed an almost entirely forgettable mission was rendered memorable by two incidents - one of them accidental and the other a deliberate act of cool courage under fire. In the second of these, Leading Aircraftman John Copley, a 27-year-old rear-gunner in a 38 Sqn Wellington, bravely beat off a close-range attack by a Messerschmitt 109 fighter.
Despite his own aircraft being badly damaged, with one bullet actually lodged, next to his body, in the buckle of his parachute harness, he succeeded in shooting his assailant down into the sea.
His reward was a well-deserved Distinguished Flying Medal, Marham’s first gallantry award of the war, and, decades later, a barrack block named in his honour.
Notable milestone though it was, it was the first, unplanned, action that ensured the Norfolk station’s place in RAF history.
In the course of the raid, one of the Wellingtons from 115 Sqn had inadvertently released a bomb that had ‘hung up’ over land which, at that early stage of the war, was off limits to British bombers whose crews were instructed to avoid causing civilian casualties.
The bomb which, struck an anti-aircraft gun emplacement, was the first of the many millions to fall on German soil during a war that ushered in the most costly and prolonged strategic bombing campaign in the RAF’s 100-year record of service.
For much of that time - and even for a short spell before it - Marham has been at the forefront of the force’s defensive and offensive operational strategy in war and peace. The station that started out as a grass strip landing ground in a trailblazing struggle against Zeppelin raiders during the First World War has survived conflict and cutbacks to become one of the most advanced military air bases in the world.
Norfolk’s last surviving RAF flying establishment, with a record of unparalleled service spanning two world wars, the Cold War and myriad small wars that include conflicts in Suez, the Falklands, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, pre-dated the force’s birth by at least 20 months.
Originally opened in 1916 as part of a network of primitive Home Defence Royal Flying Corps airfields that also included Harling Road, Mattishall and Thetford, Marham’s 80-acre night landing ground contained within the existing base’s far larger boundary was initially dwarfed in scale and significance by its near-neighbour at Narborough.
All of that changed, however, in the mid-1930s. Having been closed down along with many other of the county’s aerodromes in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, Marham was selected as the site for one of the new permanent air bases being constructed within the RAF’s pre-war expansion programme.
What would eventually grow into a self-contained township, boasting living quarters, vast hangars, a church, a cinema, fire station, shops and 15 acres of playing fields, was officially opened as a heavy bomber station on the 19th anniversary of the formation of the RAF.
A little less than 2½ years later Marham was once again a war establishment, though it would take a while longer for the pattern of conflict to take shape.
Not until mid-May 1940, following months of largely uneventful coastal patrols and mostly unsuccessful anti-shipping strikes, did aircraft leave the Norfolk base to attack industrial and rail targets in the Ruhr, marking the start of a five-year long aerial bombardment of Hitler’s Reich.
The raids, launched in the wake of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg which resulted in most of western Europe being occupied by German forces, provoked retaliation. During June and July, Marham was twice attacked at night by the Luftwaffe, though on each occasion the bombs failed to find their target. Such raids were rare, which was just as well given that even into 1941 the overwhelming majority of the base’s anti-aircraft defences were composed of fake guns, mounted on wooden tripods and manned by ‘dummy’ crews made out of sandbags with faces painted on them!
For the rest of the war, the focus at Marham was on offensive rather than defensive operations.
As home variously to Wellingtons, Stirlings and Mosquitos, the station’s aircrew carried the war to Nazi Germany as part of the RAF’s relentless bombing campaign.
Increasingly hazardous forays into the heart of the Reich were interrupted by no less dangerous sorties against the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst holed up in Brest harbour and the headline-grabbing first ‘Thousand Bomber’ raid on Cologne.
By the autumn of 1942, however, heavy bombers had given way to light bombers. And with the Mosquito era came some of the most remarkable sorties with which the station would forever be associated. From successful low-level strikes on the Philips factory in Eindhoven and the Gestapo HQ in Oslo to a morale-boosting attack on Berlin designed to disrupt a broadcast and parade celebrating the 10th anniversary of Hitler’s seizure of power, Marham aircrew blazed a trail and men such as Wing Cdrs Hughie Edwards, Roy Ralston, Sqd Ldrs George Parry, Reggie Reynolds and Ted Sismore acquired near legendary status.
Precision bombing attacks on railway communication hubs and important high-profile targets, such as the Stork Diesel Works in Hengelo, Holland, and the Zeiss optical lens factory at Jena in south-east Germany, gave way to ‘blind-bombing’ air strikes as Marham became home to Bomber Command’s ‘Oboe’-equipped Mosquito Pathfinders.
Guided by electronic beam technology, the Norfolk-based crews pioneered an early form of so-called ‘smart’ bombing with sometimes spectacular results before a decision to close the base while three concrete runways and associated perimeter and dispersal areas were laid brought an abrupt and unceremonious end to Marham’s distinguished war service.
By the time the transformation was complete and the newly-formed Central Bomber Establishment, with its four-engine Lancasters and Lincolns, was in place, the conflict was over and a new threat was beginning to emerge - one that would result, briefly, in the base becoming a symbol of Anglo-American resolve against perceived Soviet aggression. The Cold War, with its decades-long era of superpower tensions heightened by the risk of nuclear annihilation, had begun.
In what amounted to a prolonged stand-off interspersed with moments of real anxiety, Marham played its full part, operating Canberra medium bombers and then mighty Valiants of the nation’s potent V-bomber force which, ironically, were employed in the first instance not against the Russians but the Egyptians during the controversial Suez war of 1956.
The temporary transfer of aircraft and personnel from the base for operations in the Middle East was destined to set the template for more recent and much-reported deployments as part of Britain’s contribution to multi-national interventions in the Gulf wars, Iraq and Afghanistan and peace-keeping in the former Yugoslavia as well as the country’s most remarkable ‘go-it-alone’ campaign in the South Atlantic in 1982.
Then, airmen and aircraft from Marham had been pivotal to the liberation of the Falkland Islands from Argentine occupation. With the station’s commander, Grp Captain Gerry Price, controlling the vital ‘air bridge’ at Ascension, veteran Victor tankers from the base played a key reconnaissance and refuelling role in support of an air strike against Port Stanley airfield by a Vulcan bomber in what was, at that time, the longest-range bombing operation ever flown. In the years since, the all-weather, ground attack version of the Panavia Tornado, a modern-day successor to the magnificent twin-prop Mosquito, has come and almost gone.
Soon, the much-beloved ‘Tonka’, the RAF’s workhorse warplane in conflicts from Bosnia to Iraq, will have been replaced by the new multi-role F-35 Lightning combat aircraft as aircrew of the 617 (Dambusters) Squadron prepare to return to Marham.
It marks an astonishing change of fortune for the Norfolk base. Just seven years ago, a new Defence Review cast doubt on its very future, triggering a vigorous EDP-led campaign to save the station from closure.
Now, buoyed by a £500 million plus investment, Marham has been transformed into the operations centre for the nation’s most advanced force of fighter aircraft.
A new chapter in the base’s extraordinary history awaits to be written.
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