Poignant history of the pioneers of East Anglian skies

Author Peter Gunn with his new book.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Author Peter Gunn with his new book.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

East Anglia's history has been interwoven with mankind's quest for flight for hundreds of years, as Trevor Heaton discovers in the latest book by a local historian.

Wintry scene at Leiston in 1944. This was the home of the ‘Yoxford Boys’ who flew P-51 Mustangs of t

Wintry scene at Leiston in 1944. This was the home of the ‘Yoxford Boys’ who flew P-51 Mustangs of the 357th Fighter Group of the USAAF. One of their number was the famous ‘Chuck’ Yeager who was credited with shooting down five enemy aircraft in one day. In 1947 he became the first pilot confirmed to have exceeded the speed of sound in level flight. (Merle Olmsted via M. J. F. Bowyer). - Credit: Archant

You can blame it on Airfix kits. You can blame it on the Douglas Bader biography Reach for the Sky. You can blame it on that stirring war film The Dambusters.

Whatever the spark was that lit Peter B Gunn's love of aviation history - and he says it was probably a combination of all three of the above - then there is no doubting it has sparked a lifetime love affair with the subject.

The historian and former college lecturer has produced a string of books exploring East Anglia's aviation heritage. And now the latest - his seventh - brings together decades of research to present a portrait of the many, many sites across the region that reflect this vital part of our history.

There are hundreds of them, and Peter must have clocked up thousands of miles travelling round the region, in the company of his wife Janet ('We've discovered some excellent B&Bs and hotels on the way,' she laughed).

The idea for the book came when Peter realised the wealth of material he had accumulated on Norfolk and Suffolk. 'Over the last 30 years I've collected so much stuff - books and the like - on the region that I began to think 'Golly what have I got here?'.

'I felt a book had to be done. It's been extraordinarily hard work over three and a half years, but I was determined to do it.'

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Although there are many aviation titles out there, Peter felt there was a real need for one that took a more of a gazetteer approach. 'If you come to a town or village and wonder 'what's the aviation history here?' then it's not always obvious,' he pointed out. 'Yet most villages will have something.'

It is down to our combination of topography (very flattish, Norfolk and Suffolk) and proximity to the Continent which sparked the rush to build airfields by the dozen in the First, and especially, the Second World Wars.

But our connection with the sky, and man's age-old desperation to reach it, actually goes back much earlier, right back to the 1780s when Norwich was one of the country's major ballooning hotspots. In Ipswich in 1889 the big attraction was Mr H Orton who completed two successful parachute jumps from a balloon.

But the real story begins in October 1909 when the first powered flight in Norfolk and Suffolk took place. Captain Haydn Sanders and his brother Hampden built their own aeroplane (the Sanders Biplane No 1) and that first flight took place at Benacre Ness on the Benacre Estate. The Sanders Biplane came to grief the following year, and Haydn rebuilt it at Beccles Common.

The book is rich in personalities as well as places to visit. People such as Biggles creator W E Johns, who flew from Narborough (one of our earliest airfields) and later interviewed T E Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia - for his RAF post. Lawrence himself served as an aircraftman first class at Felixstowe in the 1930s under the pseudonym 'T E Shaw', where he played a major part in developing RAF high-speed rescue launches which were to go on to save many lives in the conflict to come.

Earlier, there was the remarkable Edith Maud Cook of Ipswich, Britain's first female pilot and possibly the first woman in the world to fly a monoplane. Sadly, she died in 1910 in a parachute jump.

In this book you can find Zeppelin raids, visits by the 'flying circuses' for sensation-hungry crowds of the 1920s and 1930s, air shows, plane makers, Cold War research bases, record-breakers, air races... all human (aerial) life is here. As Norfolk-based Peter says: 'It isn't just airfields. It's all sorts of stories and memorials, remembering the pioneers and our rich aviation heritage.'

There is just so much to see, and so much still to discover. It's hard not to find reminders, for example, of the massive Second World War efforts to create a string of airfields across the region - probably the greatest concentrated burst of building since the early decades of the Norman Conquest.

Other sites are more elusive. It's often difficult, for example, to detect the locations of the many decoy airfields which were set up as deliberate targets to fool Nazi bombers into releasing their payloads too early. 'The Historic Environment Records have been a very good source for Norfolk and Suffolk,' he added.

But we are never likely to forget such famous locations as Leiston, home of the 'Yoxford Boys' - a nickname allegedly coined by Nazi broadcaster Lord Haw-Haw and seized on with glee by the pilots of the P-51s Mustangs based there, or at Tibenham, where film star James Stewart was CO of the 703rd Bomb Sqn.

Some of these sites are still working airfields but most have reverted to farming or industrial use. And nature, too, has had a say - 'It's interesting how much nature has reclaimed so many of the sites, such as Knettishall Heath and East Wretham. The bunkers are ideal for wildlife.'

As there are literally hundreds of aviation-linked sites across the region, it is unrealistic to expect that they will all be somehow kept in aspic. As Peter says: 'Life goes on - you can't preserve everything.' But he is enormously appreciative of those who have taken the trouble to preserve memories of the air crews, such as at historic Martlesham Heath, the site of which is now bisected by the A12.

'It was a massive air base, right back to the 1920s. There are three fascinating memorials on one side of the road and then you cross over and there's the control tower museum. The volunteers have done a fantastic amount of superb work here,' he added.

Like them, Peter has never lost touch that behind the artefacts and the concrete there's people. Real people, who in wartime struggled and fought and bled to preserve freedom and protect their loved ones.

Westleton church has a stained-glass memorial to the three Deck brothers, James Frederick, Harold Frederick and Charles George Frederick. 'Each of them was air crew, and each of them died in the war,' Peter said. James' aircraft crashed at Roudham in 1941 (he is buried at Honingham All Saints), while RAF Swanton Morley-based Harold was shot down over Germany in 1942, where he is buried. Perhaps most affecting of all, Charles brought down in a raid only a couple of weeks before the final defeat of the Nazis. His body was never found.

It's a poignant reminder - and this applies in peacetime as well as war - that is sometimes a price to pay for those who dare to reach for the skies.

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