The secrets of Langham Dome - a Norfolk wartime landmark
PUBLISHED: 07:00 12 July 2014
Archant © 2014
As local campaigners prepare to celebrate the transformation of a wartime airfield gunnery training dome into a 'living' history centre, Steve Snelling salutes one Norfolk community's remarkable mission of remembrance close to home.
It promises to be a trip laden with pride and poignancy that marks the culmination of an epic community campaign to preserve an important piece of Norfolk’s wartime heritage.
To Bert Osborn, it seems like a journey from another life, one that began 70 years ago in desperate circumstances as his battle-scarred Beaufighter limped back to Langham quite literally on a wing and a prayer.
At 92, the memory of that fateful flight on the edge of oblivion remains vivid. “We had been hit by ‘friendly fire’ while attacking enemy shipping off the Dutch coast,” he recalls. “A 25mm shell went between my legs, splattering me with shrapnel, setting fire to some Verey light cartridges and knocking out our hydraulics.”
Unable to eject 300 gallons of surplus fuel and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, the chances of Bert and his pilot making a safe return aboard a crippled aircraft in which neither compass nor undercarriage were functioning seemed slim.
Both practising Christians, they made a point during missions of saying prayers on their way out and giving thanks on their way back. This one, however, was different. “The plane was going down covered in smoke,” says Bert, “and I remember saying, ‘It’s all yours, Lord’. And that was it…”
Thankfully, his prayers were answered.
For next Saturday, seven decades after he and his pilot crash-landed back at Langham, the former navigator who went on to become a missionary and a university lecturer will be travelling from his home in Sussex to his wartime base on a special mission of remembrance.
Together with Norfolk-born Air Marshal Dick Garwood, director general of the military aviation authority and a former station commander at RAF Marham, he will be declaring Langham Dome officially open at a ceremony ahead of the public opening which celebrates not just the building’s magnificent restoration but its remarkable renaissance as a unique visitor centre designed to keep alive memories of the vanished base’s role in war and peace.
Weather permitting, a lone Spitfire will provide a fitting salute with a display of aerobatics worthy of the dogged persistence displayed by local groups who were determined to save the Dome for future generations.
A victory roll would not be out of place to mark the fulfilment of a preservation project spanning 25 years and a collaborative effort like few others.
To the man who has spearheaded the village campaign next week’s opening represents a triumph of community spirit allied to the wider support of a small army of enthusiasts known as the Friends of Langham Dome and the guidance of the North Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust.
Patrick Allen, ex-Grenadier Guards’ officer turned farmer and parish council chairman, has been astonished by the response to local efforts to preserve the only surviving publicly-accessible wartime anti-aircraft gunnery training simulator as a ‘living’ and lasting memorial to all those who served at RAF Langham.
“The way people have rallied round to support the project and what we’re doing here has been fantastic,” he says. “That’s what has made all the work so worthwhile.”
Indeed, Malcolm Crowder, secretary and surveyor of the trust, believes it was the strength of local backing which swung the funding in their favour. “Everybody came on board once they saw the level of community support and involvement in a project that was clearly so important to them,” he says.
Once shrouded in mystery and fallen into decay, the Dome, which was gifted by Bernard Matthews Ltd to the North Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust in 2008, has been transformed into an exciting new interpretative centre that Malcolm regards as a “springboard for telling so much of East Anglia’s wartime history”.
Grants of £446,400 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £199,000 from English Heritage and further support from the Coastal Sustainable Fund, North Norfolk District Council, Norfolk County Council, the Architectural Heritage Fund and the Paul Bassham Trust, have given the Dome campaigners a chance not only to secure the building’s future but to create an historical attraction with an incredible story to tell.
Films narrated by Stephen Fry and innovative displays imaginatively arranged by Norwich-based design consultants Ugly Studios will chronicle a saga of service and sacrifice that spans the Second World War and the Cold War which followed.
The Tardis-like Dome experience will chart RAF Langham’s role as a base to thousands of British, Australian, New Zealand, Dutch, Polish and American airmen and soldiers from its beginnings as a satellite airfield to Bircham Newton via its dramatic days in the front-line of Coastal Command’s campaign against enemy shipping to its post-war swansong as home to target towing squadrons and anti-aircraft gunnery units.
“There are three main themes to explore,” explains Patrick. “We’ll be relating the story of the Dome itself, its concept, how it evolved, the man who invented it and how it linked in with the anti-aircraft firing ranges at Stiffkey and Weybourne. At the same time, we’ll be explaining all about the airfield, the squadrons that were stationed there, the sort of operations they carried out and then, finally, we’ll be looking at the base’s impact on Langham through the memories of people who were living here at the time.”
At its heart will be the myriad personal stories of the memorable and the mundane, the humdrum and the heroic, the tragic and the triumphant which together make-up what Patrick describes as “history close to home”. Included among them will be tales of bravery on the ground and in the air, from audacious and hazardous low-level attacks on enemy convoys to dramatic air-sea rescue operations and acts of life-saving gallantry on the airfield itself.
Not all of these episodes involved airmen. Patrick relates the story of Leading Aircraftwoman Ivy Cross who risked her life to help rescue the trapped crew of a crashed Wellington which had burst into flames not far from the airfield in the spring of 1945.
Such stories are guaranteed to stir the heart, but scarcely less extraordinary to my mind is the story behind the Dome’s astonishing salvation.
The journey to success has been long, arduous, even torturous and, so far as Patrick is concerned, deeply personal. His mother was brought up in a house bordering the airfield and he recalls childhood visits to his grandmother which involved waiting at guarded barriers while aircraft took off and landed.
“I can remember watching aircraft flying past with drones for anti-aircraft gunnery training and I recall two crashed Mosquitos lying at the western end of the airfield in an area known as ‘the Dump’ which we used to play in and pretend we were flying on all sorts of missions.”
Ironically, one place he did not venture inside or have any particular memories of was the slightly surreal-looking 1942-vintage Dome which has come to symbolise a vanished era but which for decades lay incongruously marooned in the north Norfolk countryside, a short walk from the former control tower, the only other significant survivor of the airfield’s closure and re-emergence as a turkey farm.
“It was always rather a mystery, something of an oddity, with an element of secrecy attached to it,” says Patrick. “Hardly anyone in the village had a clue what went on inside it. And that’s what intrigued me about it.”
Serious research, however, had to wait. Only after a seven-year career in the army followed by several more years’ focused on family life and farming was he able to turn his attention to the strangest of airfield structures, its ignominious fall from grace highlighted by a brief spell when it was used as a garage for the farm manager’s car.
“One or two people seemed to think it had been used for night navigation training by projecting stars on the dome,” says Patrick. “That may have been partially true in that it might have been used for that purpose for air cadets in the early 1960s, but that wasn’t what it had originally been built for.
“Then we went down a few blind alleys. Because the airfield had been expanded and converted into a base for Coastal Command’s anti-shipping Beaufighter strike wings, it was suggested that it had been used as a torpedo-attack trainer.”
The truth eventually emerged via the author of a book on military airfield architecture who showed beyond question that the Dome - one of only about 40 such structures - had been specially designed by naval officer Henry Stephens as a means of training anti-aircraft gunners with the aid of a replica gun ‘shooting’ at images of aeroplanes projected onto the building’s curved wall.
Sound effects added a touch of realism while yellow dots, marking the aircraft’s future position and visible only to the instructor, enabled an assessment of the pupil’s accuracy.
Langham Dome, it emerged, was a rare example of a highly advanced and novel wartime gunnery training system that might have been lost but for the intervention of Patrick’s mother, Blanche Allen, who was a former wartime WAAF and parish council chairman, and Ann Wootten, local district councillor and the wife of a Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot.
It was thanks to their efforts that English Heritage recognised the building’s historical importance by giving it scheduled ancient monument status.
Protection, however, was one thing and renovation quite another. Years passed with nothing being done.
A turning point came in the mid-1990s when Patrick, who had taken over as parish council chairman, was introduced to Malcolm Crowder of the North Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust. “Together we set about deciding how we were going to raise sufficient money to renovate and preserve it,” says Patrick.
Their alliance led, via a Trust-commissioned survey, to an initial preservation grant from English Heritage, but, says Patrick, it was soon apparent that “we needed a hell of a lot more than that to do the job properly”.
A first attempt at winning a Heritage Lottery Fund grand failed, but following the widespread community support and the recruitment of hundreds of ‘Friends of the Dome’ the campaigners’ persistence paid off when they received, firstly, a grant which allowed them to develop the feasibility of their restoration plans and, before, two years later, hitting the jackpot with the award that has been instrumental in turning one village’s dream into reality.
“It’s made it all possible,” says Patrick. “We knew that to sustain the building we needed to have something special. You couldn’t just splash out 200 grand and say, there it is, an empty shell preserved for posterity. We needed to preserve a part of our history before it was too late.
“Most of the old airfield buildings have long since disappeared. Only a fragment, perhaps a third, of the main runway remains and there are trees growing up everywhere so that in 10 or 15 years’ time a visitor wouldn’t have known an airfield ever existed here.
“And on top of that, I was keen to ensure the story of what happened here endures. Over the years, the Bluebell pub has been a Mecca for ex-servicemen and their families. They’d go there, have a drink, sign the visitors’ book and recount their stories.
“Now, those stories have been recorded and can be retold to future generations so that they know what went on when this part of the country was threatened with invasion and beyond to the days of the airfield’s expansion and its role in the wider war.”
Meanwhile, for at least one nonagenarian veteran of Langham’s wartime past, the Dome represents something more. In applauding the “tremendous” effort to commemorate the airfield’s history, he hopes it will become a monument to sacrifice and peace.
“I hope,” he says, “as well as recognising all who served there, ground crew as well as aircrew, and particularly those who did not come back, it will help make people think about wars do. I’d like to think that when people visit the Dome they will say, ‘if that’s what war is like, let’s not have war again.
“It isn’t just about glory. Of course we should recognise those who went through it all, thank God for them and remember them, but hopefully we can learn the lesson that it should never be repeated.”
Langham Dome opens to the public on Sunday July 20, and then every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 11am-4pm, till the end of October. For more details visit the website: www.langhamdome.org or if you have more information about RAF Langham contact Dome development manager Kate Faire by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.