RAF Bircham Newton
Text © Copyright Evelyn Simak, April 2015
RAF Bircham Newton was constructed in the early 1900s and can hence look back on a history which is considerably longer than that of most other airfields in Norfolk, which were opened during WW2. Covering an area of 300 acres, it was spread out along a minor road leading through agricultural land interspersed by sand and gravel pits, in the vicinity of the villages of Bircham Newton (the smallest of the three villages in the civil parish of Bircham in West Norfolk, after which it was named), Bircham Tofts and Great Bircham. The nearest railway station was at Docking, about five kilometres distant. Opened in 1916 and initially used for the training of fighter pilots, it was home to the No. 3 School of Aerial Fighting and Gunnery, but after ending up on top of a list of potential airfields, commended for its good subsoil and with the location considered by the planners to be extremely difficult for enemy night-raiders to find, it was developed into an operational aerodrome after the formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in April 1918, and its association with bomber aircraft began in the same year. As a consequence, the Fighting School was relocated to nearby RAF Sedgeford > Link.
A water supply was then not yet available but the station already had its own electrical power plant, when in November 1918 the first three huge Handley Page V/1500 bombers were delivered to 166 Squadron (formed on 13 June 1918 at RAF Bircham Newton and the first squadron to be equipped with this heavy bomber aircraft). The squadron's mission was to bomb the German capital of Berlin, fly on to Prague (the Austro-Hungarian forces had surrendered by then), refuel and re-arm and bomb the German city of Düsseldorf on their return flight. Bad weather however prevented the biplanes from taking off and by the time the weather had finally cleared the Armistice had been declared. The Handley Page V/1500 was a large British four-engined biplane night-flying heavy bomber with a wingspan of over 30 metres (100ft) and powered by four 375 horsepower (280 kW) Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engines, built by Handley Page towards the end of the First World War. Colloquially known within the RAF as the "Super Handley" it was the heaviest aircraft in use at the time.
Other aircraft types in use at the time included the Bristol M.1C Bullet (a fighter); the Martinsyde G.100/G.102 "Elephant" (a biplane fighter bomber); the Sopwith Pup and the Martinsyde F4 Buzzard (biplane fighters); the Airco DH4 (a two-seater reconnaissance and tactical bomber); the Avro 529 (a long-range bomber); the Felixstowe F.2 (a military flying boat) and the Sopwith Baby, a single-seat scout and bomber biplane seaplane the main role of which was to intercept German Zeppelin raids as far away from Britain as possible.
The training of pilots was often cursory, with the majority of recruits receiving only a couple of hours' of flying instruction before they were expected to fly solo, and the number of pilots and observers killed in training accidents was causing great alarm nationwide. 2/Lt Horace George Richard Boyt of No. 3 Fighting School was killed when his Sopwith Camel (D8226) stalled in flight and crash-landed on unsuitable ground near the Thornham practice bombing range on 31 July 1918. Boyt would seem to have been Bircham Newton's first fatality from a flying accident. His grave can be found in the churchyard of All Saints in the nearby village of Stanhoe. Pilot Officer Edward Simeon Colbeck Davies of 7 Squadron was injured when on 29 April 1924 his Vickers Vimy (F9187) stalled on landing; also injured were AJR Moss, RBJ Martin, LAC Oddy and GC McHaffie. Flying Officer Maurice William James Boxall, also of 7 Squadron, was injured when his Vickers Vimy (F8637) had collided with a hangar door two weeks earlier. Rolf Booth Hilton Jackson of 3 Squadron, a pilot officer, was lucky to remain unharmed when his Sopwith Snipe (E6839) was overturned by a gust of wind when landing. Pilot Officer Cecil Woode of 99 Squadron was killed on 27 February 1925 when his Avro 504k (E3083) became uncontrollable at 2000ft and dived into the ground, killing the pilot and seriously injuring Aircraftman E Forrester, the mechanic who had accompanied him. Pilot Officer Woode is buried in the churchyard of St Andrew's church in Fersfield.
By 1919 the aerodrome had almost ceased to function and the neglected condition of the buildings would seem to have been so bad that it had even given rise to concern expressed in the House of Commons where it was pointed out by NP Jodrell MP that the lack of weatherproofing might lead to an epidemic of pneumonia. In February 1920, No. 207 Squadron was formed at the station. In the autumn of 1922 the squadron left for Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the aerodrome was placed on a care and maintenance basis until 7 Squadron reformed in the summer of 1923. 7 Squadron was the first squadron to operate the twin-engined Vickers Vimy aircraft, confirming Bircham Newton as a bomber station. Until the spring of 1924 the unit represented the RAF's one and only home-based heavy bomber force but by 1925 the station had developed into a permanent bomber base. At the time there was still a lack of accommodation and little provision for married quarters. One of the newly married officers reportedly had to resort to living in the former Docking Union Workhouse which by then had however been converted into council flats. (Built in 1836 and located on the Heacham Road to the west of Docking, and today known as "Norfolk Heights", it had already once been taken over by the War Office when during WW1 it had served as the Officers' Mess for the Sedgeford aerodrome from 1916 until 1920.)
The station remained a bomber base under the control of the Wessex Bombing Area with its headquarters at Abingdon (Oxfordshire), flying a great variety of aircraft types which included the SE5A Vickers Vimy, Fairey IIIA and Fairey Gordon, Hawker Hart and Hawker Hind, amongst others, until 1936, when it was transferred to RAF Coastal Command and underwent a substantial redevelopment during which many of the old buildings were replaced by more modern structures. The new Station Headquarters date from 1938, and a new Officers' Mess replaced the old one dating from WW1 and located a short distance further to the north, of which only the concrete base remains today. The six hutments comprising the married airmen's quarters were also removed. On the Technical site, in 1937 three C-type hangars replaced the original aeroplane sheds situated to the east of the Watch office, built in the same year and already in use. By 1939 three Bellman aircraft sheds had also been constructed. One of the highlights of station life during the 1930s were appearances by members of the royal family who besides paying official visits also used the aerodrome as a stop-over point when travelling to their country retreat at Sandringham House.
With its strong force of anti-submarine aircraft armed with effective new weapons and the latest radar technology, RAF Coastal Command played an important part in the Allied war effort and perhaps most notably against Hitler's U-boats during the Battle of the Atlantic. Between 1940 and 1942 Hudson aircraft were used, notably by Nos. 206, 53, 59, 320, 407 and 500 squadrons. By 1943, the force also had at their disposal a small number of long-range aircraft deployed for the protection of shipping convoys as well as in a campaign against German shipping along the coast of occupied Europe, when Beaufighter and Mosquito strike wings interrupted much of Germany's traffic of raw materials.
In WW2 the base became one of the most important Coastal Command stations on the East Coast and was also a designated emergency landing ground, used by many pilots unable to reach their home aerodromes. Serving in 16 Group, a reconnaissance group formed under RAF Coastal Command in 1936 with its headquarters in Gillingham (Kent), a variety of critical Coastal Command operations such as reconnaissance, mine laying, anti-shipping strikes, shipping convoy protection and air-sea rescue were carried out. Other duties included anti-mine operations, weather reconnaissance and anti-submarine defence and the resident Anson squadron, 206 Squadron, was re-equipped with American-manufactured Lockheed Hudson aircraft. Other units by then also based at Bircham flew a variety of aircraft types including Bristol Blenheims and Hudsons, and later Vickers Wellingtons. From the evacuation of Dunkirk to the Normandy D-Day invasion, Fleet Air Arm squadrons, flying the Fairey Swordfish aircraft, operated under RAF Coastal Command, and in addition four Fleet Air Arm squadrons - No. 811, No. 815, No. 819 and No. 826 - were also stationed at RAF Bircham Newton. The No. 6 Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Unit, a target towing unit which served the Weybourne ack-ack (anti-aircraft) battery and trained the Territorial Army units as well as air-to-air gunners (the batteries stayed for about three weeks at a time and fired at either a drogue towed behind a Westlan 'Wallace' biplane from Bircham Newton or a catapult launched radio-controlled 'Queen Bee'), was stationed at Bircham from December 1942 until the end of November 1943.
The most secret aircraft flown out of Bircham Newton were the Wellington DWIs of No. 2 General Reconnaissance Unit (GRU), based at the aerodrome during May and April 1940. The letters "DWI" stood for Directional Wireless Installation, which was intentionally misleading because the unit's primary task was to find and explode the German magnetic mines that were a considerable danger to Allied shipping and their aircraft carried a 48ft diameter circular coil made from aluminium alloy strips, energised by a current generated by an internally mounted Ford V8 car engine. When successful, this caused the mine to explode after the aircraft had overflown it. On 10 May 1940, the day the German 10th Army began the invasion of France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland, the technique was used to enable the safe naval evacuation of the Dutch royal family and a cadre of the Dutch government.
In order to be able to cope with all this additional tasking, two satellite airfields were opened, one at nearby Docking > Link and the other at Langham > Link. Amongst the visiting units flying from the station during WW2 were 235 Squadron (flying Blenheims), 500 Squadron (Ansons and Hudsons), 320 (Dutch) Squadron (Hudsons) and 407 (Canadian) Squadron (Hudsons), all participating in the anti-shipping campaign conducted against enemy convoys, ports and airfields across the North Sea and particularly along the Dutch coast and Frisian Islands.
Even before the war the aerodrome had been defended by Lewis machine gun posts set up at key positions and manned by soldiers of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, supported by a unit of the Light Artillery to strengthen the anti-aircraft defences. By 1940, fake hedges had been painted on the flying field and the hangars were camouflaged. The flying field never received concrete runways, retaining its original grass landing strips for the whole duration of WW2, although in later years of the war the 820 metres (2,700ft) long north-east/south-west runway was reinforced by steel matting so as to accommodate the heavier aircraft now using them. In March 1945 however, personnel numbers were being reduced dramatically, with only 1,475 RAF and WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) members still present. The Fleet Air Arm had already moved out and after the war had ended the outdated grass landing strips were no longer heavily used. For a short time only, the station was transferred to Flying Training Command and served as a demobilisation centre and aircrew holding unit, until it came under the control of Transport Command in October 1946. Training on the Blind Approach Beacon System (BABS) and other radio aids was conducted for about two years and in October 1948 the station was transferred to Technical Training Command and became the School of Administration, with the Junior Command and Staff School and the Administrative Apprentice Training School (AATS) also being based here from the late 1950s until 1962. One of the large number of instructors in the late 1950s was Flight Lieutenant Godfrey, supported by Chief Technician Strong, Sergeant Alec Waler and Sergeant Pat Foley. The School Warrant Officer was Master Pilot Kijak who had served as a pilot during the war and originally hailed from Poland.
After a long and distinguished service which had involved more than 80 flying units, RAF Bircham Newton was finally closed in December 1962, although flying briefly returned in 1965, when the Tripartite Evaluation Squadron of the Central Fighter Establishment, formed at RAF West Raynham > Link in March 1965, used the old grass runways for evaluating the Hawker Siddeley Kestrel V/STOL (the forerunner of the legendary Harrier) aircraft's operating capabilities on rough airstrips. When the RAF station was sold by public auction in November 1964, the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) purchased it and has been using the site ever since whilst retaining many of the original buildings, with the former Operations block currently housing the head office. The National Construction College East, as it became known, has eight campuses and training centres across the UK and also provides Health and Safety, Leadership and Management and Sustainability training at more than 40 other locations across the country. Currently the college is the biggest plant training provider in the UK and believed to be the largest construction training site in the whole of Europe. The aerodrome's barrack blocks, some dating from the late 1920s, are now home to students from all over the world who are learning such skills as crane-driving, scaffolding and steeple-jacking, tunnelling and underground construction, to name only a few.
Due to the great number and the wide variety of ongoing training projects and associated activities much of what used to be the former flying field now resembles a huge construction site where students can learn how to safely operate cranes, excavators, dump trucks, diggers, lorry loaders and road rollers, how to build roads and trenches, install drainage pipes, how to install hydraulic proprietary shoring, and much more. The five kilometres long perimeter track looping around the site would however seem to be still in place, now mainly in farm use. A pillbox which once guarded the runways still stands beside the southern section of the track and at least one of the aerodrome's Picket Hamilton forts > Link has also survived in good condition.
Many of the station's aircraft never returned and many men lost their lives, especially during the first phase of the war, but others fortunately did have a lucky escape or were taken prisoner and allowed to return home after the war had ended, some later sharing their memories. American Naval Air Forces pilot Roger Kirk Hayes Johnson of 855 Squadron and 21 years old at the time and operating with RAF Coastal Command (Fleet Air Arm) on anti-shipping operations, recalls his capture after having had to bale out over the English Channel when his Avenger bomber aircraft caught fire, presumed to have been caused by incendiary shells: "After I had hit the water and emerged on the surface I struggled into the inflatable dinghy. It was pitch dark with only the searchlights visible on the Normandy shore. Later I heard an Avenger (an American torpedo bomber aircraft) pass over and with the coming of dawn I watched the Beaufighter (a British long-range heavy fighter aircraft) patrol fly over. My socks and boots had come off, I felt weak from the immersion and I had gashed my left leg. In the morning I had seen another Avenger and two air-sea rescue Spitfires out at sea so I decided that by heading out I had more chance of being seen or picked up. At 11pm a German patrol boat interrupted me. I had no chance of escaping as his course came directly for me and I was easily seen. And so I was picked up and taken into Dieppe. My watch stopped at 20 minutes past midnight so I had been in the water for 22 hours." (Experiences of an 855 Naval Air Squadron pilot operating out of Hawkinge in 1944: Link )
206 Squadron alone suffered 103 fatalities and lost at least 41 aircraft during its wartime service at Bircham Newton and many other squadrons also suffered significant losses of both aircraft and men. David Jacklin, one of the Trustees of the RAF Bircham Newton Heritage Centre, has created a Roll of Honour which contains the names of more than 530 individuals, most of them aircrew personnel involved in operations across the North Sea, who lost their lives whilst on active service at Bircham Newton during WW2. The first Allied officer to fall into German hands was a New Zealand RAF airman of 206 (General Reconnaissance) Squadron, who crashed into the North Sea on 5 September 1939. Flying Officer Laurence Hugh Edwards was on a reconnaissance flight when he was shot down by two German Bv 138 flying boats. The three other crew members, Sergeant Alexander O Heslop, Aircraftman 1st Class Geoffrey Sheffield and Leading Aircraftman John Quilter, were killed in the attack. Edwards was taken prisoner by the Germans who had landed alongside the wreckage of his aircraft, floating in the sea. The day before, navigators of 206 Squadron had guided aircraft of Bomber Command to Kiel and Brunsbüttel in the first raid of the war.
On 4 July 1940, Pilot Officer James Elmer MacKinnon (aged 21), Pilot Officer Stanley John Lester (26), wireless operator/air gunner Sergeant Leith Stephen Bushell (21) and air gunner Sergeant Kenneth Everitt Lewis (31), also of 206 Squadron, went missing during an air-sea rescue mission for the crew from a 44 Squadron Hampden. Their aircraft is believed to have been hit by flak and was reported to have crashed in the North Sea near the Dutch town of Texel. Two months earlier, on 8 May 1940, Sergeant (Pilot) Victor Allison (23), Sergeant (navigator/observer) Eric OF Schmid (27) and Leading Aircraftman (wireless operator/air gunner) Victor CE Neirynck (19), all of 235 Squadron, were killed during a night training exercise when their aircraft lost height and dived into the ground about three kilometres from the aerodrome shortly after midnight. Victor Allison is buried in Great Bircham St Mary's churchyard. On 24 May 1940, Pilot Officer (Pilot) Michael E Ryan (20), Sergeant (observer) William Martin and Leading Aircraftman Albert G Smith of 235 Squadron were killed when their aircraft was escorting Hudsons of 206 Squadron. Their aircraft was attacked by two German Me 109 fighter aircraft and finally shot down. The air gunner of a Hudson aircraft reported it to have disappeared into the sea in the vicinity of Schiermonnikoog, one of the West Frisian Islands in the North Sea off the Dutch coast.
During WW2, a plot in the south-eastern corner of the churchyard of St Mary's, the parish church of Great Bircham and about two kilometres distant from the airfield, was designated as the final resting place for some of the station's airmen and officers. The war graves plot comprises 78 graves and includes those of British and Commonwealth airmen flying in RAF squadrons as well as of 11 German airmen shot down in the Battle of Britain. In the summer of 2006 a memorial stone was erected by the RAF Bircham Newton Memorial Project in the grounds of the former Station Commander's residence, now the RAF Bircham Newton Heritage Centre and open to the public on a regular basis. (The same project also created the Heritage Centre in facilities donated by the Construction Industry Training Board - see below.) The Caithness stone monolith is the creation of the stone carver, letter cutter and designer Teucer Wilson, and it commemorates all those who served at RAF Bircham Newton and the many who lost their lives in the course of duty.
The public road which since the days of its existence had skirted the aerodrome's Technical and Administrative sites spread out alongside it immediately to the west is today known as the B1155 road. An aerial view dating from 1929 shows that at this time only a handful of buildings, including the old WW1 Officers' mess, the Married quarters and the Station commander's house, were situated on the other side of the road. Many new buildings constructed in the 1930s were however to adjoin them within a decade, most of which can still be seen in the passing. CITB has in fact retained almost all of the major buildings all still in use, resulting in the site being one of the best preserved former RAF stations in active use. This, of course, makes it particularly interesting for airfield historians and enthusiasts alike. Security is however taken very seriously, not least for health and safety reasons, and however tempting it might be to park at the former Parade Ground, now a large car park for the college's employees and students, it is certainly not advisable to stray off the public road and start wandering about to explore without first seeking permission to do so.
Most of the surviving buildings date from the so-called expansion era, that is from the years between WW1 and WW2, when there was considerable opposition to many aspects of an independent air force based in part on arguments about the morals of air war such as the bombing of civilians, and also on concerns about the visual impact of many large airfields and associated buildings on the countryside. As a result of the latter concern, much of the construction during the expansion period was carried out in consultation with the Council for the Protection of Rural England and was of very high quality, adopting a neo-Georgian style. Expansion period airfields tended also to cluster all of their buildings into one area on the periphery of the airfield. At the start of WW2, this practice was changed because groups of buildings located in close proximity were vulnerable to bombing attacks. For this reason aerodromes constructed during the war dispersed their buildings, sometimes over quite some distance.
The by far largest and most impressive structures on every airfield are the aircraft sheds (hangars), and RAF Bircham Newton is no exception. The aerodrome's three C-type hangars, the largest hangar type ever constructed by the RAF, are still in place. Measuring 45 x 95 x 11 metres (150x300x35ft) and designed to accommodate large aircraft such as heavy bombers the C-type aircraft sheds are perhaps the most famous of all hangars, and several variants in construction and appearance existed. The basic structure of these gigantic buildings comprises a steel shell, with steel stanchions supporting a steel-framed roof. The hangars at RAF Bircham Newton are currently used for a variety of training projects for the students of the Construction College, who have added their own structures such as a couple of very tall chimneys which can be seen from quite some distance away.
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