Saturday 23 April 2011


That great man Max had a wonderful post the other day concerning reporter Andy Rooney taking his place in a US B17 bomber as it flew on a mission over Germany in 1943. The beauty of such reporting, if 'beauty' is the word, is the first hand experience which nothing else can convey. A remarkable post!

This got me thinking about the many airfields that lie not far from my home. East Anglia, the region of England in which I am involved in Scottish mission work, is generally flat. This, plus its location on the east coast made it perfect for the many bomber and fighter squadrons that were required for use in the second world war. Close by are Wethersfield, used by the USAF until 1990 for a variety of operations, most concerned with the Cold War and now hosts the Ministry of Defence Police. Gosfield saw P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, Douglas 'Boston's' and 'Havoc' bombers fly on missions from there among others and closed in 1955. Rivenhall saw P 51-B Mustangs and B-26 Marauders at various times and was in use until 1956. Now it is reduced to being a mere gravel pit! Stansted was in military use until 1949 and is now very busy as London's Third Airport.

An excellent example of one such aerodrome is Andrewsfield.  Opened in 1943 as a base for bomber squadrons under the name 'Great Saling' a name change was required when Lieut. Gen.Frank Maxwell Andrews, the man in charge of all US troops in Europe was killed His plane came down in bad weather while on an inspection tour of Iceland. Great Saling changed its name to 'Andrewsfield as a mark of respect. This is the only named airfield. The airfield was used by both the US Eighth and Ninth Air Forces at times, and B17's of the 96th Bombardment Group flew one mission over Rennes, losing one aircraft, from Andrewsfield before being replaced by B-26 Marauder's of 322nd Bombardment Group. Constant missions were undertaken over enemy territory and the cost was high indeed. Only one aircraft, 'Flak Bait,' survived to the end of the war with 202 missions!

B-26 at Andrewsfield
After the B-26's moved to a base in France Mustangs flown by the Polish Wing flew escort missions and home defence sorties until early 1945. For a short time until the end of the war Gloster Meteor jet fighters were based here. Between 1948 and 1972 the airfield was allowed to degenerate. Unwanted by the RAF it slowly rotted away, apart from agricultural use, until the short grass strip was laid for the light aircraft that now use the field on a regular basis.

 Google maps comes into its own here. By inserting the town name it is easy to look around and find these, and indeed other, old airfield imprints in the land around here. Just how many were created through those turbulent years I do not know but from Norfolk down to London dozens, if not a few hundred, have left their mark on the land. I have some experience of war's leftovers as in front of our house were two huge Nissen huts that once housed anti-aircraft guns. This depot was established as defence against enemy aircraft flying up the Firth of Forth and heading for Rosyth, the Fleets base, or Glasgow, Belfast or some such area. However for the people of East Anglia they not only had the risk of bombing by German aircraft they also endured the constant noise of huge noisy bombers taking of and forming up high overhead on a daily basis. Even if their airfield did not fly that day others would and the constant noise must have had an effect on the locals. Some would say that in East Anglia many still reckoned the planes were big birds, but they are just being cruel, aren't they? 

The villages and towns round about had been used as a billeting area twenty years before during the Great War so numbers of servicemen arriving would not be a surprise. However many airmen were of course American and while movies had filled cinemas for years few had actually met someone from so far across the 'pond.' Not only that but they had money! It takes little to comprehend how a nation enduring deprivation after three years of war would be willing to accept these men into their midst. It takes less to imagine the local men's jealousy at well paid Yanks coming over here 'Over paid, over sexed  and over here!' The women flocked to them!  Nylon stockings and chewing gum could get a young man almost anything in those days!  Although it is amazing how many women appear to forget what went on during that time. Americans were welcomed in the main, and the British were well aware of how the RAF was suffering as it flew night after night on long missions deep into enemy territory. The locals knew that when those loud young men, often nineteen or twenty years of age, flew off they may well not return. 

Flying over occupied Europe was a risky business. Taking off in a heavily loaded bomber was a hard and difficult job. It took strength and courage. As the bombers crossed the enemy coast they were a target for enemy fighters, small specks in the sky closing in and five hundred miles an hour, with flashing lights on the wings. Each flash represented a bullet aimed at you!  German ack-ack was radar controlled and highly efficient. Black clouds would appear around the planes as they flew high, leaving a tell-tale vapour trail behind them. Each puff of black smoke contained shrapnel that could tear the nose of a plane, kill or maim the crew, damage an engine or bring you down. Over the target this would increase and other aircraft could at times cause risk to your own in the crowded air space. After the long steady run in to the target, when deviation from the route was impossible, the bomb filled aircraft was a sitting target, unable to defend itself. Dropping the bombs then running for home, once more under attack from air and ground forces, was equally dangerous as the run in to the target. The sight of fellow planes going down and being helpless as it twisted in the air would never leave many of these airmen. The lucky guys parachuted into prisoner of war camps, the unlucky didn't. Crossing the English coast would have brought great relief, but landing a damaged plane, often with wounded and pained men on board, was not a simple task. Many came to grief as they returned, Britain's weather not always helpful here. 

From what I can gather many made lifelong friendships and got on well except for the occasional jealous fist fight or mistake of referring to a kilted Scots soldier as 'wearing a skirt.' Such mistakes often led to Americans flying - flew through windows!  One bomber pilot spoke warmly of his attempts to integrate with the population. Mostly older men in the pub near his base. They suggested a game of 'Darts,' and he agreed. While he went to the bar for the aged, worn set kept there he noticed the locals dipping into their jackets for their own, finely honed darts. "As loser bought the drinks I reckon I kept the East Anglian economy going simply by playing darts," he later said. Around a dozen years ago it was not uncommon to see aged Americans with baseball caps encrusted with 'Eighth or Ninth Air Force' or some such flying group  wandering around revisiting old memories. No more today as these men are now in their eighties or nineties but survivors can search the web for blogs written by those who have visited, whether veterans or possibly their offspring tracing dad's story. Hmmm I wonder how many people I meet would like to meet their dad one day also? Some of course took back to Idaho or California a young woman hopeful of a life similar to the one portrayed in those movies that held them spellbound during the war. Reality was not always welcomed.

The RAF Bomber Command lost over 55,000 dead during the war. Bombing being the only way Britain could attack Germany directly until D-Day arrived in 1944. The US fliers lost around 30,000 in similar manner. Because of the accurate anti-aircraft fire the Brits decided to fly at night, in large, well spaced formations. The Americans decided their heavily armed places could do the job in the daylight with a tight formation covering each other. It did not work any better. However while some oppose the bombing of Germany, calling it a 'war crime' I can see no other action possible during the years 1939 - 1944 if Britain and her allies were to win the war. Few indeed who endured the blitz that hit so many parts of the UK thought the bombing of Germany should cease. Many did however feel compassion for those 'normal citizens' who endured as they had. When you sow the wind you do indeed reap the whirlwind!

When folks in Britain talk about the 'special relationship,' and this is mostly a media cry, they are referring in the main back to these war years. In spite of the sufferings it was surprisingly a happy time for many and the comradeship of that time has lived in their memories ever since. That is the reason many in Britain still refer to the war so often. The 'special relationship' of the locals and the US servicemen will endure in the hearts of many who lived through those days.

This video is a short version of the 'Memphis Belle' film.  It gives a good glimpse of the role of the American bomber during this time. By the way James Stewart the actor flew at least a dozen missions over enemy territory during this time. Although I have no link for this I do know he remembered his time in the UK with fondness and never forgot his service.



Anonymous said...

June 26, 1944 the plane my father's brother flew, a B-24 Liberator, was struck by flak and went down. Only four guys in the rear of the plane were able to parachute. They were imprisoned for the remainder of the war.

Relax Max said...

Well, sir, that was pretty darn cool! I especially enjoyed your description of the airfields in East Anglia, and the traces that still remain.

I wasn't born in 1943, but what a time to be young and invincible! Now when I see those old men at memorial events wearing their old uniforms and being pushed in wheelchairs, I'll see them in a different light.

Adullamite said...

Leaz, Sorry to hear about your uncle. Do you know where he flew from?

Max, Those old men saw something indeed!

Anonymous said...

They were based in Italy.

My father was in England for some time (army). He was also at Cardiff for sniper training then off to Germany.