RAF Fersfield - USAAF Station 554

Text © Copyright Evelyn Simak, July 2014
Images are under a separate Creative Commons Licence.


Initially the airfield, constructed in 1942/43 to Class A bomber specifications, served as a satellite of RAF Knettishall (USAAF Station 136) > LinkExternal link near Thetford in Suffolk. Its main runway was 1,800 metres (6,000 feet) long and the dispersed campsites provided accommodation for about 2,000 personnel. To begin with, the field was known as RAF Winfarthing and had the USAAF station number 140 but was later redesignated RAF Fersfield/USAAF Station 554.

Although for some time during the war the aerodrome had played an important role, in comparison with other WW2 airfields not much information is available regarding RAF Fersfield. The reason would seem to be that it was used for highly secret operations.

Unusual also the absence of a memorial commemorating the aerodrome's history and the people stationed here during the war. Were it not for a couple of old road signs which still point in the direction of an airfield which has long since ceased to exist, and the name of Airfield Road - the road leading past the former Administrative site and terminating at the former Technical site - only the people who live in the area would know of the existence of a WW2 airfield in the vicinity. It is difficult to understand why an airfield with such an iconic history as Fersfield never made it to the status of so many others as it was here that aviation history was made and American politics changed forever.


TM0784 : Old direction signs at Fersfield Common by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : View along Airfield Road by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : Airfield Road (sign) by Evelyn Simak


From July 1944 until January 1945, approximately 25 aircraft were assigned to the 560th Bombardment Squadron of the 388th Bomb Group (Heavy), an Eighth US Army Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress unit based at RAF Knettishall. The squadron also had at its disposal two B-24 Consolidated Liberator bombers belonging to the United States Navy. Said aircraft were intended to be used in the so-called "Aphrodite" missions. "Aphrodite", named after a plan approved by Major General James Doolittle in 1944 and code-named "PROJECT A" or "Project Aphrodite", was the code name for secret operations which involved the use of remote-controlled aircraft against German V-1 and V-2 weapons sites, submarine pens and other fortifications that had resisted conventional bombing.

A number of aircraft were subsequently fitted with a radio-controlled flight system and a television camera on the flight deck so that an image of the main instrument panel could be seen by the crew of the controlling aircraft. A second TV camera was installed inside the plexiglass nose, providing views of the scenery below so that the "flying bomb" could be directed on to the target. Once modified, the aircraft/drones were hidden under trees in order to prevent them from being seen from the air. A volunteer two-man crew (they volunteered for a "secret and dangerous" mission) flew the aircraft off the ground and up to an operational altitude of 600 metres (2,000 feet), pointed it in the general direction of the target, armed the explosives for an on-impact detonation and handed over control to the monitoring aircraft, referred to as the mother ship, before baling out and parachuting to safety whilst still over England. In order to facilitate a quick and easy exit, the canopy was removed, creating an open cockpit. The controlling aircraft would then direct the "drone", as it was called, to the target area and lock its controls into a crash course before turning back to escape.

On more than one occasion however, the mother ships lost control over the pilotless drones and the project was an abject failure, causing the loss of many lives including that of Lieutenant Joseph P Kennedy Jr (the brother of the future US president, John F Kennedy), whose aircraft exploded over the village of Blythburgh in Suffolk, killing him and Lieutenant Wilford J Willy, the radio control engineer who was also on board. The first mission, undertaken on 4 August 1944, involved four mother ships and an equal number of drones on their way to a V-1 site in the Pas the Calais. One of the drones spun out of control and crashed; no further information is available. The second drone crashed, due to radio problems, in Sudbourne Park near Woodbridge in Suffolk, where it left a crater measuring 30 metres (100 feet) across. One of the crewmen baled out safely, the body of the pilot was never found. Radio problems also caused the crash of the third drone near Orford (Suffolk); it exploded on impact, killing the flight engineer and devastating two acres of land. The fourth drone proceeded successfully to its intended target at Watten, Wizernes, only to crash 500 metres (1,500 feet) short, presumably shot down by flak. A second attempt was made two days later, involving three mother ships and three drones. After the crews had parachuted to safety, the first drone went out of control and fortunately crashed into the North Sea. The second drone however began to circle uncontrollably over the port town of Ipswich until finally it too headed out to sea, where it was shot down by a Mustang fighter aircraft on escort duty. The third drone is presumed to have been shot down by flak at Gravelines. On another mission an escorting Mosquito was lost when the drone exploded. Despite the near disaster at Ipswich causing serious concern, the project continued.

A week later, on 12 August 1944, Lt Joseph Kennedy and Lt Wilford John Willy were killed en route to their target, the German V3 Supergun site at Mimoyecques near Landrethun-le-Nord in the Pas-de-Calais region of France Mimoyecques, when the Liberator bomber drone they were flying exploded, with 24,240 pounds (over nine tonnes) of Torpex on board, over New Delight Wood near the village of Blythburgh in Suffolk. Both men were instantly killed and no bodies could be recovered. The wreckage was scattered over an area measuring approximately five kilometres (3 miles) long and three kilometres (2 miles) wide. Five square kilometres of heathland were set on fire, 147 properties, some up to 25 kilometres (16 miles) distant, were damaged, and hundreds of trees in New Delight Wood were felled as a result of the blast. Thankfully, no civilians were killed. (The details of this mission were classified until 1966 and the names of the crew members were not disclosed until 1970.) Twelve more attempts were to follow before Operation "Aphrodite" was eventually terminated by the personal order of General Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, the USAAF commander of the Strategic Air Forces in Europe.

In the course of another secret operation, code-named "BATTY", operational tests with guided bombs (GB-4), flying bombs weighing 2000lbs (907kg) and radio-controlled with a TV in the nose, were undertaken. Like "Aphrodite", the operation encountered numerous problems of interference, low resolution in the TV equipment, and poor radio equipment. The first mission targeted the port of Le Havre, but the bombs fell well short of the target and the controlling aircraft was hit by shrapnel and subsequently crashed. The second mission was flown a week later with the U-boat base at Pallice being the target. However, the television on one of the bombs broke down, ending in another failure. The third attempt had to be aborted due to thick cloud cover over the target and the "Batty" missions were suspended because of the poor equipment available at the time. Other operations involving radio-controlled drones followed, again with little success.

Fersfield airfield was passed on to RAF No 2 Group, which used it as a training centre for aircrew, and for one of its own secret operations: Operation Carthage. This operation targeted the Danish Gestapo headquarters, the Shell House in Copenhagen, known to hold the records of the Danish resistance movement. The object was to set the building on fire and destroy all records. The mission was deemed successful despite many civilian casualties, most of them children.

After the war Fersfield airfield was closed to flying in February 1946. During the 1950s, it was for a short period used for motor racing. In April 1951 the Eastern Counties Motor Club (ECMC) held its first motor car race meeting at Fersfield and further race meetings took place in 1953. By 1954 the club had moved on to the race track at Snetterton.

The land had by then reverted to agriculture and the runways were removed and crushed for aggregate. The perimeter track is still in place, used by the farmers to get to their fields. Many original buildings, Nissen huts as well as prefabricated concrete barrack huts and smaller structures, including a number of blast shelters, can still be found on some of the former Communal and Accommodation sites, all of which were located to the south of the airfield. Many of the old concreted roads linking the various sites with each other are also still in place and some are now public footpaths.


TM0784 : View along the perimeter track by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : Footpath to Stone Lane by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : Ripening barley on the old airfield by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : Stonecrop growing along the old perimeter track by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : Hardstanding beside the perimeter track by Evelyn Simak


One of the two T2 hangars has survived on the Technical site 2 where it is used for storage. Along the eastern edge of this site which is currently owned by Simpsons Malt Ltd there are four original Nissen huts once housing the airfield's main stores and main workshops. The huts are adjoined by a prefabricated concrete building which was the Gas clothing & respirator store. On the green to the south of the T2 hangar a brick-built blast shelter can be seen in good condition. A short distance away the Flight offices and two adjacent buildings have also survived. The Technical site 1, where Hangar 2 was located, was situated further north and across the flying field, west of Kenninghall Lodge. No buildings have survived there.


TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Technical site by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Technical site by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Technical site by Evelyn Simak

TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Technical site by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Technical site by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Technical site by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Technical site by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Technical site by Evelyn Simak


A couple of hundred metres further along Airfield Road the Operations block and a small hut adjoining it are the only two buildings of the Administrative/HQ site (Site 2) still standing. They are now part of Holmliegh Row Farm. Besides the Ops block, the airfield's Administrative site consisted of Ops and Station offices and a Crew briefing room. There were also latrines for the RAF and the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) personnel. The site was guarded by a Picket post.


TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Administrative site by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Administrative site by Evelyn Simak


Site 3, a short distance further to the south-west, was a Communal site. It is currently occupied by workshops and the only surviving building is the former Gymnasium. In the 1940s aerial view it can be seen on the south-eastern corner of the site, which comprised a Picket post; a Taylor's, barber's and shoemaker's shop; a NAAFI and a Grocery and local produce store. Other buildings on this site were a Standby set house (housing up to three generators) and a Squash court. The site had its own fuel compound as well as the usual assortment of latrines and shower and ablutions blocks. No trace remains of any of the other buildings on this site but the gymnasium was restored and currently forms part of the buildings housing a car body shop. The original parquet floors were removed but one small interior feature has survived - on the ceiling several hooks can be seen from which gym equipment would once have hung.

A concrete track linked Site 3 (Communal) with Sites 4 (Mess) and 5 (Sick quarters), situated a short distance further to the east from here, north-west of Poplar Tree Farm.


TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 3 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 3 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : Public footpath to Stone Lane by Evelyn Simak


Sites 4 and 5 were separated from each other by a field. Nothing remains of the Sick quarters in the north and the road leading to it has also disappeared. A public footpath off Stone Lane leads past Site 4, following the old concreted road from there to Site 3 and connecting with Airfield Road further to the north-west. Considering that none of these structures was ever meant to last for very long, a surprisingly large number of buildings have survived here. They comprise prefabricated concrete barrack huts and smaller, brick-built huts, interspersed by the odd boiler house and water tower. A few rusty old boilers and old cars are lurking in the undergrowth.


TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak

TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak

TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak

TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Blast shelter on Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Blast shelter on Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Blast shelter on Site 4 by Evelyn Simak


A 1940s aerial view shows many brick-built blast shelters. They were either filled in or removed, or perhaps the dense vegetation has hidden them so well that they can no longer be seen. Concrete platforms mark the locations where the camp's Nissen huts and dining halls used to stand. Unlike on some of the other camps, where these buildings can still be found in place, all Nissen huts on Site 4 would seem to have been dismantled a long time ago. Having served as the Mess site, the by far largest buildings were the dining halls. They are all long gone, leaving hardly any trace. The site plan also lists a Ration store (including a meat store) and the usual assortment of latrines and showers. The Commanding Officer's quarters can still be found near the south-western corner of the site.


TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak

TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak

TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 4 by Evelyn Simak


No trace remains of Site 6, an Accommodation site located in what is now a crop field to the east of Stone Lane. Site 7 however is still populated by a number of brick-built structures and quite a few Nissen huts. Some of these buildings were the sergeants' and officers' quarters and there were also airmen's barrack huts and a drying room, adjoined by the respective shower and ablutions blocks and latrines. Interestingly, this is the only site known to have had a Transmitting station.


TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak


Site 7 was located to the south-east of the crossroads where Stone Lane, Kenninghall Road and Algar Road meet, a short distance north of Clay Hall Farm, extending southwards along Algar Road right up to the then Clay Hall, as well as eastwards along Kenninghall Road. Most of the blast shelters seen on the site in a 1940s aerial view appear to have since been removed.


TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak

TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 7 by Evelyn Simak


Site 8 was located in fields across the road from Crown Farm, near the south-eastern end of Wood Lane. This site was cleared not so long ago, and has since been incorporated into the crop fields located opposite the road from Crown Farm. The grouping of buildings was similar to the one found on other Accommodation sites.


TM0783 : Wheat crop field by Crown Farm by Evelyn Simak


Sites 9 and 10 were camps housing the WAAF. They were both situated in Wood Lane, roughly opposite each other. Site 9 was located in the area currently occupied by a poultry farm, north of Wood Lane, and Site 10 was just across the road from there in what is now a crop field.

Another Accommodation site was located only a short distance along the road from there. Several Nissen huts are still standing on the L-shaped hutted camp of Site 11, immediately west of the junction of Wood Lane and The Street, across the road from Wood Lane farmhouse. Some of the huts are standing right beside the road.


TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 11 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 11 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 11 by Evelyn Simak


This site would seem to be looked after because the grass surrounding the huts closest to the road is kept short. The huts located further back amongst the trees are quite overgrown and some would seem to be on the verge of collapsing. Blast shelters are lurking in the undergrowth.


TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 11 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 11 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 11 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 11 by Evelyn Simak TM0783 : RAF Fersfield - Site 11 by Evelyn Simak


The remains of Site 12 can still be found on Fersfield Common. The site extended to both sides of Airfield Road, with the area east of the road now being a garden surrounding a dwelling house. A number of small brick buildings and brick-built blast shelters can be seen to the north-west of the Airfield Road/Fersfield Road junction. Site 12 was an Accommodation site comprising Officers' and Sergeants' quarters and Airmen's barrack huts, a drying room and, of course, the usual assortment of associated buildings such as ablutions blocks, showers and latrines.


TM0784 : Concreted track on Fersfield Common by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 12 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 12 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 12 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : Silage bales on hardstanding by Evelyn Simak


The last two remaining Nissen huts on this site were removed only a few years ago. The concrete platforms they stood on are still in place. The three remaining blast shelters are quite overgrown. The concrete road leading through this site and connecting the various buildings is also still in place but the area to the west of this road is now a field where no trace of the camp remains. The farmer uses the hardstanding to the north as a storage area.


TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 12 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 12 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 12 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 12 by Evelyn Simak TM0784 : RAF Fersfield - Site 12 by Evelyn Simak


The airfield's Sewage works (Site 13) were located a short distance to the north of Fersfield village, about 200 metres west of the pump house in The Street. Nothing remains of the works, the site of which is now occupied by a dwelling house.

The HF/DF Station (Site 14) was located in a field to the north of Fersfield Road. HF/DF stands for high-frequency direction finding, a type of radio direction finding used during WW2. No installations can be discerned in an aerial view taken in 1946.

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Please note that many of the sites described above are located on private property and should be accessed only by permission of the respective owners. My thanks go to Simpsons Malt Ltd and to all the other landowners who very kindly permitted access to the old airfield sites in their ownership.

A number of small fragments recovered from Lieutenant Joseph P Kennedy's aircraft are on display at the Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum in Flixton > LinkExternal link.


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