Norfolk’s US Airfields During WWII

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NORFOLK’S US AIRFIELDS DURING WWII
By Glynn Burrows

 

ON BIG BLEND RADIO: Glynn Burrows talks about the American WWII Airfields in Norfolk, England. Watch here in the YouTube player or download the podcast on Acast.

 

It is difficult to imagine that, between 1942 and 1945, at any given moment, there would have been around 50,000 US personnel serving on bases within the County boundaries of Norfolk. The County, roughly oval in shape, and 50 miles North to South and 70 miles East to West must have wondered what had hit it. 🙂

In 1942, the United States joined the European theatre sending their own Engineer Aviation Battalions to the U.K. Their task was to support British squadrons by building their own airfields ready for the huge influx of men and machines that were about to arrive.

The creation of airfields was an exact science, as trees and hedges were removed, ditches filled, and the land levelled to a maximum gradient of 1:60.

Perimeter tracks were built, to allow the delivery of heavy loads to any part of the sites, and, with such a big workforce being drafted in, accommodation for the workers had to be built. These would often be the huts that would later be used for the aircrews and other personnel on the base once active.

The Nissen huts, shaped like a tunnel, were built of corrugated steel sheets which bolted together in sections of 16, 24, or 30 feet, with brick ends and, although they were cold, they were a very easy and quickly built effective hut. They were commonplace on many airfields and were used as both accommodation and general-purpose buildings.

With the arrival of the USAAF in 1942-3, they brought with them the Quonset hut, bigger in design than the Nissen, but, with their semi-circular shape, the Quonset gave less height at the sides. The Nissen hut, with the extra curvature, gave greater use of ground space than its US counterpart.

The Class A airfield would be designed around three hard concrete runways, shaped like an ‘A’ with each runway at 60 degrees to each other where possible. The main runway would be aligned with the prevailing wind, where possible, to allow aircraft to take off and land in the wind as often as possible. Obviously, this was not always possible, so, although this design was the norm, it wasn’t always how the airfields were laid out.

The runways and other paved areas; perimeter tracks, aprons, and hardstands, were the most important parts of the airfield. The main runway would usually be 2,000 yards with the two subsidiaries being 1,400 yards. Each of these would be 50 yards wide. The perimeter track would be 50 feet wide. Alongside these runways would be hard standings to disperse the aircraft around the airfield as a form of protection in case of attack.

Whilst the general layout of airfields did not change for the remainder of the war, some runways were extended to 3,000 yards and some to 4,000 yards, to accommodate larger aircraft or to facilitate emergency landing.

The material requirements for building runways suitable for heavy bombers were approximately 18,000 tons of dry cement and 90,000 tons of aggregate. The runway thickness was between six to nine inches of concrete on a hardcore base, covered with a layer of asphalt. In areas where there was no natural rock, such as Norfolk where we only had flint, stone had to be imported for the hardcore. Trains ran daily from London to East Anglia carrying rubble from buildings that had been destroyed in Luftwaffe raids.

Hangars were massive buildings and the most common were the T-2 type metal ones which were 240 feet long by 115 feet wide by 29 feet high. There are still some of these buildings in use today!

Some of these airfields were small and some were very large, but every single one of them served their part in World War II. It was an unbelievable feat of engineering and logistics and is said to have cost £645,000,000 to build all 250 US airfields in the UK.

  • Airfield buildings in woods
    Airfield buildings in woods

 


The 8th Air Force, “The Mighty Eighth” were the umbrella for all the separate operations and, in Norfolk alone, we had the following airfields:

The 319th BG, 320th BG & 466th Bomb Group flew out of Attlebridge.

The 352nd Fighter Group flew out of Bodney.

Deopham Green is where the 452nd Bomb Group was based and was home to around 3,000 personnel.

East Wretham was home to the 359th Fighter Group.

Fersfield was where the 388th Bomb Group called home.

Hardwick had the 310th Bomb Group as well as the 93rd Bomb Group.

There were three Bomb Groups based at Hethel: 320th, 310th, and the 389th, and nearby, was the 2nd Air Division’s HQ at Ketteringham Hall.

Horsham St Faiths, now the present-day Norwich Airport, was where we would find fighters and bombers. 319th and the 458th Bomb Groups and the 56th Fighter Group.

North Pickenham was home to the 491st and the 492nd Bomb Groups.

Old Buckenham is where we would have found the 453rd Bomb Group, and is where Jimmy Stewart and Walter Matthau both served.

Oulton had the 803 RMCS.

The 467th Bomb Group was based at Rackheath.

Sculthorpe housed the 96th (803rd) Bomb Group.

The 448th Bomb Group was to be found at Seething.

Shipdham was home to the 44th and 319th Bomb Groups. 344 missions were flown and over 8,400 individual combat sorties were flown by the 44th. These missions meant that 850 young airmen were killed in action. The group lost 153 planes.

Two Bomb Groups were based at Snetterton Heath during the war, the 386th Bomb Group and the 96th Bomb Group. It is now a motor racing circuit.

Thorpe Abbotts was home to the 100th Bomb Group. Here there were 306 missions and 8,630 sorties 229 planes lost or salvaged and 785 men killed or missing in action and 894 were taken as prisoners of war.

Thruxton was home to the 366th Fighter Group.

Tibenham housed the 445th and the 320th Bomb Groups. This was another base where Jimmy Stewart served.

Watton was home to the 3rd Strategic Air Depot as well as the 25th and 802nd Bomb Groups.

The 392nd Bomb Group was at Wendling.

Several of these airfields are now gone from the maps and little trace exists, but there are many of them which are still totally recognizable today. Many old USAF buildings are found in quiet corners of Norfolk and it is still quite common to stumble across an old Nissan Hut in the long grass and brambles of many old farm yards.

The young men who gave their lives and the young men who got to return home to their loved ones are still spoken about in local villages and the memorials to those we lost are still well-kept.

We will remember them.

Glynn provides customized, private tours and also helps his clients trace their English family history. Past guests have visited and experienced stately houses and gardens, castles and churches, ruins and villages, birding and wildlife, World War II airfields, and general area taster tours too. Accommodations can be in all types of establishment, from character buildings such as windmills, thatched cottages and castles, self-catering or five star luxury –  just say what you want and it can be arranged. Nothing is too much trouble for Glynn! Visit www.Norfolk-Tours.co.uk.

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Glynn provides customized, private tours and also helps his clients trace their English family history.

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