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RAF 100: Key East Anglian sites that tell stories of bravery and service

PUBLISHED: 15:45 31 March 2018 | UPDATED: 15:46 02 April 2018

A memorial was unveiled in September 2014, to mark RAF West Raynham's service as an airfield from 1939-1994. Picture: Matthew Usher.

A memorial was unveiled in September 2014, to mark RAF West Raynham's service as an airfield from 1939-1994. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© Archant Norfolk 2014

Aviation historian Peter B Gunn picks some of the key East Anglian sites linked with 100 years of the RAF.

Members of 41 Sqn with their Javelin aircraft at RAF Wattisham in December 1963.Members of 41 Sqn with their Javelin aircraft at RAF Wattisham in December 1963.

SUFFOLK

Mildenhall

This was one of the first RAF expansion period airfields opened in 1934 and the scene of the Royal Review of the RAF in 1935 as part of King George V’s Silver Jubilee. As a bomber station its Wellingtons, Stirlings and Lancasters participated in many of the heaviest and costliest raids of the war including the ‘thousand bomber’ raids and the Battle of Berlin. By the late 1940s American B-50 Superfortresses were frequent visitors until the USAF became a permanent resident in 1951. The role in air-to-air refuelling and air transport has made it a vital hub as the American gateway to Europe and part of NATO’s armour.

A Blackburn Perth flying boat at RAF Felixstowe.A Blackburn Perth flying boat at RAF Felixstowe.

As a consequence of future planning the base is scheduled to close by 2022,

Lakenheath

The site was first a decoy airfield for RAF Feltwell but by 1941 a new airfield was planned, opening as a satellite station for Mildenhall. Towards the end of the war it was redeveloped as a very heavy bomber base and from 1948 saw the first deployments of US heavy bombers, an American association which has lasted for seventy years. Fully equipped for the storage of nuclear weapons it remains today a linchpin in air defence strategy. From the 1970s a succession of the latest American aircraft have been in residence, including the F-111 and today variants of the F-15. By 2021 the airfield has been earmarked for the new F-35A fighter.

Martlesham

This is claimed to be Suffolk’s oldest airfield, established in 1916 by the RFC for home defence. After the Great War Martlesham became a centre for flight testing and evaluation. In the late 1930s trials were carried out in the development of RDF (later known as radar) in collaboration with nearby Bawdsey. With the coming of war a succession of RAF fighter squadrons moved in but by 1943 the station was occupied by a USAAF fighter group until the end of the war. Post-war the station reverted to a number of roles including the evaluation and testing of armaments in conjunction with Orford Ness, tasks which lasted until formal closure in 1963. Since then the site has been developed for business and housing but the Martlesham Heath Aviation Society has restored the former control tower as a museum of the airfield’s history.

Wattisham

Built as part of the pre-war RAF expansion scheme, the station made history when Blenheim bombers from here took part in the first bombing raid of the war against German shipping in Wilhelmshaven, resulting in five aircraft out of ten being shot down. Further raids followed but by 1942 the station was transferred to the USAAF as Station 377 and the 479th Fighter Group. After the war it was returned to RAF Fighter Command and hosted a succession of front-line fighter squadrons which included Meteors, Hunters, Lightnings

and Phantoms. Since 1993 the station has been the home of the Army Air Corps.

Felixstowe

Opened for Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) seaplanes and flying boats in 1913, from the start the station was in the forefront of aircraft development and testing. In 1918 the RAF took command and the role of flight testing and development of flying boats continued. The base was also home to the RAF High Speed Flight from 1926. During the Second World War the station was in an ideal position for air-sea rescue and the protection of coastal shipping. After the war flight testing continued until 1954 and the station passed to RAF Technical Training Command, followed by the RAF Regiment and latterly search and rescue. RAF Felixstowe closed in 1962.

NORFOLK

Narborough

Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) established the airfield in 1915 before passing it to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) for home defence. At over 900 acres it was one of the largest in the country with more than 1,000 personnel and served as a training station for squadrons before they were posted to the western front. From April 1918 the newly formed Royal Air Force took control and the first US Aero squadrons were based here. Personalities associated with Narborough included Capt W E Johns (author of the famous Biggles books). The station closed in 1920 and memorials in the local churchyard and at crossroads close to the former airfield site mark its history.

Bircham Newton

The airfield opened in May 1918 as a training station only a month after the foundation of the Royal Air Force. By the end of the war Handley Page heavy bombers were based here. It continued as a bomber station until 1936 when it passed to Coastal Command. It was upgraded with new permanent buildings and hangars (many of which can still be seen today). Throughout the war Ansons and later Hudsons carried out offensive operations over sea and land, often with heavy losses. By the late 1940s the station had become a training centre for officers and administrative apprentices. In 1962 it closed although as late as 1965 some trials took place of the Kestrel (later the famous Harrier Jump-Jet). Since 1966 the site has been a base for the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). On Saturday May 19 this year the centenary of its foundation as an RAF station will be celebrated in a ‘Veterans’ Day’.

Coltishall

The airfield was an important fighter station from 1940 and throughout the Cold War. From the start it hosted Spitfires and Hurricanes to defend against enemy bombers especially during the Battle of Britain. By 1941 the fighters were carrying out offensive ‘sweeps’ over enemy territory and night fighters were operating against raiders. Towards the end of the war Polish fighter squadrons arrived. Many distinguished fighter pilots served here, including Douglas Bader, Robert Stanford Tuck, John ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham and ‘Sailor’ Malan amongst many others. In the post-war period helicopter search and rescue units took up residence. By 1960 fast jet fighter squadrons arrived including Lightnings. The station is associated with the Jaguar squadrons from the mid-1970s until the base was finally closed in 2006. The Spirit of Coltishall Association perpetuates the memories and history of the base.

West Raynham

This opened in 1939 as a permanent station with Blenheim light bombers. Losses were heavy in the many raids carried out over occupied Europe in the early years of the war. In 1943 the Mosquitoes of 100 Group moved in, flying night intruder and bomber support operations. After the war the station became the base for the Central Fighter Establishment and later fighter squadrons included Hunters and Javelins. In 1964 the Kestrel Evaluation Squadron arrived to test the aircraft which was later to become the famous Harrier Jump-Jet. From the 1970s Bloodhound surface-to-air missiles were based here for air defence. The airfield closed in 1994 but many of the original buildings survive and testify to the building styles of the pre-war RAF expansion period. A memorial to the airfield’s service was unveiled in 2014.

Marham

The station celebrated its centenary in 2016, with a history that dates from its days as an RFC home defence and training station. After the Great War the airfield closed but reopened in 1937 as a permanent station within the RAF expansion scheme. From 1939 Wellington bombers were in action raiding German targets and in 1942 took part in the first ‘thousand bomber’ raid on Cologne. Mosquito squadrons then arrived and in 1943 carried out the first daylight raid on Berlin. By the end of the war Marham, Mildenhall, Lakenheath and Sculthorpe were equipped as forward bases for US heavy bombers, armed with nuclear strike capability. The first American B-29 bombers in RAF service (named ‘Washingtons’) were based here. During the Cold War Canberra bombers and later Valiant V-bombers were resident, signalling the role of the station as part of our nuclear strike force. From the mid-1960s Victor tankers were a common sight in the Norfolk skies until the 1990s by which time the Tornado strike wing had arrived for a stay which has lasted until the present. A fresh role beckons later this year when the station becomes the headquarters of the new high-tech F-35 Lightning.

ESSEX

Stow Maries

Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome - as it is now known - near Maldon was established in September 1916 as the base of the Royal Flying Corps 37 (Home Defence) Sqn. The airfield was closed in 1919 and not used in the Second World War, which left the airfield and its still extant buildings as something of a ‘time capsule’ of a First World War airfield. Over the past few years the Aerodrome Trust has been working to painstakingly conserve the buildings and establish a superb interactive museum, officially opened in 2016, as a tribute to the men and women who served at the site during the Great War. The site includes hangars containing late production and replica First World War planes.

CAMBRIDGESHIRE

Duxford

The airfield began life in 1918 as an RAF training station. From 1923 it was established as a fighter station and in 1938 No 19 Squadron was the first to be equipped with the Spitfire. From the start of the war the station hosted a succession of fighter squadrons until transfer to the USAAF Eighth Air Force as Station 357 in 1943. For the remainder of the war American fighter groups flew from here until the station passed back to RAF Fighter Command in December 1945. Gloster Javelins, Hunters and Meteors were among the aircraft based here until the RAF ceased operations in 1961. Since then the airfield has remained open for civilian flying and in 1968 was one of the locations for the film Battle of Britain. Today Duxford is the home of the Imperial

War Museum and the American Air Museum.

Wyton

RAF Wyton became a Joint Forces Command station in 2012, with an illustrious history going back to RFC days in 1916. The first RAF sortie of the Second War was flown from here, to photograph units of the German fleet. Later the RAF Pathfinder Force operated from here and nearby airfields like Warboys, Oakington and Graveley. The station continued in RAF service after the war and in 1994 merged with RAF Brampton in new roles which included logistics and flying training. Its present status in Joint Forces Command gives the station an assured place in the future of the defence profile of the UK.

Peter B Gunn is the author of Aviation Landmarks: Norfolk and Suffolk, published by The History Press, £19.99.


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