RAF Knettishall - USAAF Station 136

Text © Copyright Evelyn Simak, July 2015
Images are under a separate Creative Commons Licence.


RAF Knettishall (sometimes also referred to as RAF Coney Weston) is one of 19 aerodromes which were constructed in Suffolk during the Second World War. It is located roughly ten kilometres (six miles) south-east of Thetford between the villages of Knettishall and Coney Weston, on a plateau 40 metres (130 feet) above sea level on the south side of the Little Ouse Valley and bordering Knettishall Heath, now the Knettishall Heath Country Park. The aerodrome, a late design heavy bomber airfield, was constructed by W&C French Ltd to Class A specifications, comprising the standard 50-metres wide concrete and wood chips runways, with the main runway being 1,800 metres (6,000 feet) and the two intersecting secondary runways 1,280 metres (4,200 feet) each in length. A perimeter track connected the runways, equipped with MkII airfield lighting which permitted night flying, with each other. 50 "frying pan" and 14 "spectacle" aircraft dispersals, the latter concentrated along the north-western perimeter track north of Sapiston Covert, can be seen on an aerial view taken by the RAF in 1945. They have long since been removed.

Field Barn and the adjacent pump house were razed to the ground as the buildings were located on the flying field, and Long Plantation and Fir Border were clear-felled. Broom Barn, situated just outside the southern perimeter fence is still in place today, as is Broom Covert. A minor public road, its course presumed to follow the route of a Roman road between the village of Pakenham (east of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk) and the Roman town of Venta Icenorum (Caistor St Edmund in South Norfolk) which traversed the flying field and linked Knettishall in the north with Coney Weston in the south was closed, but reinstated after the aerodrome was declared surplus to requirements and the land sold off. The Roman road, officially recorded as U6404, twice crosses the perimeter track and also the course of two of the runways.

TL9578 : Coney Weston village sign (detail) by Evelyn Simak TL9577 : The Swan Inn by Keith Evans


From January until June 1943 the airfield was used by the RAF 3 Group as a satellite to RAF Honington and later RAF Halesworth > LinkExternal link but was soon handed over to the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) and designated Station 136.

During June 1943, the USAAF's 388th Bombardment Group (BG) Heavy arrived from Wendover AAF, Utah, and was initially assigned to the 45 Combat Bombardment Wing but, along with the 96th BG based at RAF Snetterton > LinkExternal link and the 452nd BG stationed at RAF Deopham Green > LinkExternal link was transferred into the 45th Combat Bomb Wing in September 1943. Colonel William B David (succeeded by Lt Col Chester Cox) took command of the station on 33 June 1943, with the first B-17 Flying Fortress bomber aircraft reportedly arriving on the same day. The ground echelon moved in on 8 July, with the men reported to have been housed in tents for the first few months until the construction of their accommodation huts was completed. The first combat mission, a raid on an aircraft factory in Amsterdam taking place on 17 July, is documented to have been heard and recorded in her diary by Anne Frank in her hideout. (Anneliese Marie "Anne" Frank is one of the most discussed Jewish victims of the Holocaust and her wartime diary, titled "The Diary of a Young Girl", has been the basis for several plays and films.)

The 388th BG comprised more than 500 crews (about 6,200 men) during the war and stayed at Knettishall for the duration of their entire service in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO), flying mainly F and G models of B-17 Flying Fortresses on missions over occupied Europe as part of the Eighth Air Force's strategic bombing campaign, with each of the squadrons having their own lead crews. Towards the end of the war all the lead crews were flying radar equipped PFF B-17s.

In response to a new phase of the conflict, signalled by the development of Hitler's V-1 flying bomb, the group's 560th Bombardment Squadron was detached and merged with an experimental US Navy unit which operated out of RAF Fersfield > LinkExternal link about ten kilometres distant. This move did however not prevent the 560th Squadron from participating in the combat missions flown from RAF Knettishall. The merged unit at Fersfield was tasked with developing remote-controlled bombers intended to be used for attacking V-1 launch sites. Under a plan approved by Major General James Doolittle in 1944 and code-named "PROJECT A" or "Project Aphrodite", worn out B-17s stripped of armour, armament and all non-essential flight gear including radios were to be packed with Torpex, a newly developed British explosive said to be 50% more powerful than TNT, and flown by remote control to V-1 rocket launch sites mainly in France.

From June 1943 until August 1945, the 388th BG's combat squadrons flew a total of 306 missions and 19 "Aphrodite" missions (read above), the latter flown from Fersfield. Altogether 191 aircraft were lost and of the combat crews, 538 men died in action; more than 112 were wounded and 742 were taken prisoner of war and 43 men are still listed as missing. All of the six aircraft of the 563rd Bombardment Squadron were shot down on the same day during a disastrous bombing mission to Stuttgart, mission #19, on 6 September 1943, which became known as Black Monday. F/O Byron Arthur Bowen's aircraft 42-5942 "Sky Shy" was hit by flak, killing DE Wiesner, the engineer, and damaging two of the aircraft's engines. The crew baled out safely but the radio operator, JH Redmond, was killed by German civilians on the ground and the copilot broke his leg and subsequently spent three months in a German hospital. The aircraft is recorded to have crashed near Ulm in southern Germany. B-17 42-3425 "In God We Trust", piloted by Lt Richard Nelson Cunningham, crashed near the town of Troyes in north-central France. Again the crew managed to bale out; all but the pilot were captured. Lt Lewis Martin Miller, flying B-17 42-30234 is documented to have left the formation for reasons unknown, with WP Iverson (copilot), HR Lakow (navigator), WG Koenig (bombardier), DA Beckwith (waist gunner) and AF Suhay (tail gunner) all killed in action. "Silver Dollar", a B-17 with the registration number 42-3378, was shot down and the crew managed to bale out safely, but the navigator broke his back on landing, recovering in a German hospital. Lt Wilkin's B-17 42-30349 was shot down near Paris. Lt Kramer, flying 42-30222 "Lone Wolf", was last seen near Troyes and is documented to have crashed with the aircraft's cockpit on fire. He returned to England two months later with the help of French resistance fighters but his ball turret gunner, JM Thomas, was killed in the crash. Of the 21 crews participating in the fateful Stuttgart mission only 13 returned.

The group's first fatal accident had occurred during training on 5 May 1943 at Soda Springs (in Caribou County, Idaho) when B-17 42-29562 crashed in bad weather, killing the pilot, Melvin H. Williams, and all nine crew members. A month later, on 20/21 June 43, another crew was lost in transit over the Atlantic Ocean when flying to England in B-17 42-30229. After picking up their new aircraft which they had named "Shooting Star", the crew made their way to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport (New York) which during the war was also used by the USAAF. From there they flew to Newfoundland and, after some delay due to a suspected break-in at the airfield, they took off for Iceland, flying single file instead of in the more usual 3-plane formation. The aircraft, however, never arrived in Iceland and the official report indicates that it was lost between Gander, Newfoundland and Prestwick, Scotland. The bodies of Marvin F Kamholz (pilot), Otis E Strobel (copilot), Leonard Fischler (navigator), Richard A May (bombardier), Paul J Orsulak (radio operator), Earl L Persyn (engineer), Roland A Metivier (ball turret gunner), Robert B Miller (waist gunner), Robert S Eggleton (waist gunner) and William Marko (tail gunner) were never recovered. Their names are engraved on the tablets of the East Coast Memorial, located in Battery Park in New York City at the southern end of Manhattan Island and commemorating the soldiers, sailors, marines, coast guardsmen, merchant marines and airmen who met their deaths in the service of their country in the western waters of the Atlantic Ocean during the Second World War. The last fatal accident occurred on 31 May 45 just after the war in Europe had ended, when members of the ground echelon were invited, as was then common practice, to take part in sight-seeing flights over Europe. Sadly, one of the aircraft (B-17 43-38919) crashed, killing all on board including Walter B Metz (pilot), Eldon L Clark (copilot), John F Williams (navigator), William D Richardson (radio operator), Warren N Billet (observer), Douglas L Keller (observer) and five ground crew members.

A black granite memorial stone was dedicated in May 1986 by the 388th Bomb Group Association, formed in 1950 and still active today. In May 2011 two granite wing stones, created by HL Perfitt Ltd Stonemasons who had also made the original memorial, were added. The wing stones are set at a 30-degree angle from the centrepiece and engraved with the names of all of the group's 623 war dead in alphabetical order, from the first crew, killed at Soda Springs to the last, who lost their lives on the occasion of a sight-seeing flight. The memorial also includes the names of men from ground crews and of pilots who died as prisoners of war. It can be found at Coney Weston crossroads, a short distance to the west of Coney Weston's St Mary's church, on the edge of the Headquarters site beside the former main entrance into the airfield. The full text reads:


UNITED STATES ARMY AIR FORCES
388th BOMB GROUP (H)
RAF KNETTISHALL STATION 136
23 JUNE 1943 5 AUGUST 1945

FORTRESS FOR FREEDOM
306 MISSIONS
191 AIRCRAFT LOST
222 ENEMY AIRCRAFT DESTROYED
8051 SORTIES
524 KILLED
2 MISSING
801 PRISONERS


A much earlier memorial plaque commemorating the airmen of 388 Group and the dead of all the United Nations was dedicated by the then still resident members of the 388th Bomb Group on 30 May 1944. It can be seen on the north nave wall of St Mary's church at Coney Weston. The group is also commemorated on the village sign which depicts several B-17 Flying Fortress bomber aircraft in the sky above St Mary's church.


TL9678 : 388th Bomb Group Memorial, Coney Weston by Evelyn Simak

TL9778 : St Mary's church, Coney Weston by Evelyn Simak TL9778 : St Mary's church, Coney Weston (interior) by Evelyn Simak


The 388th Bomb Group combat squadrons were:

560th Bomb Squadron -
commanded by Col Roy W Forrest, the squadron took part in the "Aphrodite" missions flown from RAF Fersfield

561st Bomb Squadron -
commanded by Col William LeGrande Chamberlin, the highest ranking 388th officer to be killed in combat

562nd Bomb Squadron -
commanded by Col Boardman Colwell Reed, the 562nd became the lead squadron, comprising all the group's lead crews, in November 1944

563rd Bomb Squadron -
commanded by Col Francis Joseph Henggeler; of its nine crews that had trained and arrived together in England, one was lost on the flight to England, seven were shot down six on the same mission on 6 September 1943 and only one survived to complete the mandated 25 missions after which the men could return home if they wished.


The 388th attacked many significant targets and received two Distinguished Unit Citations (DUCs), one for withstanding heavy opposition when bombing the Messerschmitt aircraft factory at Regensburg on 1 August 1943 and another for three outstanding missions an attack against a tyre and rubber factory in Hanover on 26 July 1943; the bombardment of a synthetic oil refinery in Brux, Czechoslovakia, on 12 May 1944; and a strike against an aero engine factory on the north-eastern outskirts of Berlin on 21 June 1944 whilst on a shuttle raid to the Soviet Union. After the war, the squadrons also flew a number of humanitarian missions. They participated in five so-called Chowhound missions, ie airlifting food to the starving Dutch population, and helped with repatriating Allied prisoners of war from Germany back to England.

While the air echelon flew the gruelling bombing missions, the ground echelon was responsible for the smooth running of the station and provided many of the services handled by ground units detached from a parent organisation. The 388th Bomb Group Headquarters was in charge of running the station and with keeping approximately 80 B-17 aircraft ready for combat. The 29th Station Complement, later reformed into the 434th Air Service Group, was tasked with maintaining non-combat functions such as the gun pits (for defence from enemy aircraft), the Watch office (control tower), communications, transportations and the post exchange (PX) as well as the mess, the library and various clubs, cleaning, refuelling and station utilities. The technicians of the 452nd Sub Depot serviced the sophisticated instruments on a B-17 such as the Norden Bombsight, and the 273rd Medical Dispensary ran the base hospital (Sick Quarters) and dealt with everything from a common cold to seriously injured men returning from a mission, whereas the Red Cross supplied medical assistance.

The 214th Finance Department ensured that every man was paid on time and the 587th Postal Unit provided mail service with the US whilst mail service within the country was handled by the British Post Office. The 1211th Quartermaster Company acquired basic necessities such as food and clothing and the 1284th Military Police Company maintained order on the base. The 1751st Ordnance Supply and Maintenance Company made sure that the hundreds of bombs required for missions flown on an almost daily basis were ready for use as and when required and the 2019th Engineering and Fire Fighting Platoon had to deal with burning B-17 bombers which often still carried tons of fuel, ammunition and bombs whilst the Radar Repair unit was responsible for the installation, maintenance and repair of the various types of radar used. The Weather Squadron was responsible for all of the meteorological services required by the base. (Source: LinkExternal link )

In the summer of 1945, the 388th BG returned to Sioux Falls AAF, South Dakota, where it was inactivated on 28 August 1945. RAF Knettishall was placed in the care of a Royal Air Force holding group and between 1946 and late 1948 was used by the British Army as the base of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) Depot Battalion, its various sections housed in the old airfield buildings. On 22 February 1957, the station was declared surplus to requirements and sold off, with large sections of the runways subsequently being broken up and crushed for aggregate and most of the buildings demolished.

Not much is left of Knettishall aerodrome today and due to most of the older generation having passed on and many locals having moved away from the village nothing much is known about its wartime history. In an interview conducted on 4 August 2011 by Karen Warren of the Little Ouse Headwaters Project (LOHP), John Webb of Thelnetham, a village about five kilometres distant, recalls that local residents including his father were involved in black marketeering with American soldiers based at the aerodrome and that they were often tipped off by the police so that the black market goods could be hidden in time for the Weights and Measures inspector's visit. The Americans are said to also have supplied various local pubs in the vicinity, and to have frequently swapped their rations of tinned meat, sausages and peaches for locally produced fresh farm butter. S/Sgt Eugene Thomas "Wing Ding" Carson, a tail gunner from the 560th Squadron, recalls how he had developed good relations at the mess hall in exchange for showing one of the cooks how to bake good cakes, which enabled him to get a variety of hard to get items for his friends at the pub.

Shortly after his arrival in England S/Sgt Carson purchased a necessary item of transportation: "As a bicycle it did not look much like what we had at home. The brakes were on the handlebars and it came equipped with a very uncomfortable seat. But, it beat walking. Just before dusk I pedalled my way to the local pub, not far outside of the main gate (the Swan in Thetford Road). When I walked in I was politely greeted and as I looked around the pub noticed a dart game in progress. There were no other Americans. Most of the patrons were well past middle age. I sidled up to the bar and quietly ordered a beer. It arrived in what appeared to be a large mug...I wisely withheld my comment about warm beer and soon found myself engaged in a game of darts. I lost...The patrons of the pub never seemed to change. My arrival was usually greeted with the announcement 'Cheers, our Yank is back'. They made me feel welcome. The accordion player would squeeze out the same songs night after night. I never joined the singing until after several beers...I did not realize how close our relationship had become until one evening they presented me with a set of my own darts. It was then I knew they cared. I was deeply moved."

The aerodrome's dispersed sites, where the men and women working at the station were accommodated, fed and entertained, were situated to the south of the flying field on agricultural land between the villages of Coney Weston and Barningham, with three of the sites actually located in Coney Weston, most of which lay within the aerodrome's boundary. The village is spread out along two roads, Thetford Road and The Street, and in the 1940s it had a pub, a shop and a school, and a population of about 200. Today, the Swan Inn is still open for business but the school was closed in the 1950s and the shop too is now closed. Knettishall, after which the aerodrome was named, is located three kilometres further north and had a population of about 40. The 1801 census of the parish of Knettishall included only five houses and the National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland, published in 1868, reports that "there is no village, only a few farmhouses", a description that still applies today.

The Technical areas were located along the south-western and southern perimeter and included a Radar workshop, an Armoury and a Fire tender house, a Crew locker & drying room, a Gas defence centre and a Parachute store, a Squadron and a Flight office, a Gunnery trainer and workshops, and two T2 aircraft hangars, to name only a few. The underground Battle Headquarters, which was located a short distance south of the south-western perimeter track and had for some unfathomable reason been built in a drainage ditch (and was consequently flooded), has completely disappeared in what today is a crop field, and the Watch office has also long since been demolished. One of the Technical site's two T2 aircraft hangars can however still be seen in its original position on a double loop concrete hardstanding on the western edge of the flying field. This location is currently occupied by a sawmill and the hangar is in industrial use. (The Nissen-type huts adjoining it were added at some time after the war and are not airfield-related.) The other T2 hanger, which stood on the main Technical site located on the southern edge of the flying field and south of the south-eastern perimeter track, has long since been dismantled. The concreted hardstanding it stood on is still in place and at present occupied by a timber yard, with an adjoining wood sculpture yard called "Heaven", where a small group of sculptors create artwork with chainsaws, chisels and sanders. On 25 August 1944, only a few months before he went missing over the English Channel, the famous American jazz musician, composer and bandleader Glenn Miller and his Army Air Force Band gave a concert in one of these hangars.


TL9579 : T2 aircraft hangar by Evelyn Simak TL9579 : A field of ripening barley beside Norwich Lane by Evelyn Simak TL9579 : T2 aircraft hangar by Evelyn Simak


The only structure, a Standby set (generator) house, which has survived in farm use on Site 2, which was one of two Communal Sites, can be seen, surrounded by crop fields, to the south of Fen Street. Across the road from it, a short distance further north and near Coney Weston Hall, was the location of Site 4, where the 562nd Squadron was accommodated. The Station Headquarters adjoined it in the north-east Until the 1980s, several buildings had survived here, all in farm use, but they too are now gone, and gone with them the stencilled writing on the doors and lintels and the murals on the walls. Both the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes are today flying from flagpoles aligned beside the hall driveway but none of the original buildings has survived here, the accommodation site now being a crop field. A short distance further south, Sites 11 (560th Squadron) and 5 (Sick Quarters) were spread out on agricultural land to both sides of a minor road called Hollow Lane, linking Hopton Road in the south with Fen Street. Crops are again growing at both locations today. Sites 7 (563rd Squadron) and 8 were situated on the south side of The Street in Coney Weston, the former opposite Coney Weston House and adjacent to the village hall, and the latter a short distance further east along the same road. Site 7 comprised 20 accommodation huts and associated buildings such as shower blocks and latrines. The village hall, a wooden structure dating from the First World War, was used as a cinema. The building is still in use today but Sites 7 and 8 have been thoroughly cleared, the former now being a pasture and the other forming part of a crop field. No trace remains of any buildings, including the Henggeler Barracks and the graffiti and murals adorning its walls.

Site 3, the aerodrome's second Communal Site, was located in a field a short distance to the south-west of Site 2; the Officers', Sergeants' and Airmen's messes with their dining halls, social clubs and bars all stood on this site. Breakfast at the mess hall reportedly consisted of powdered eggs, Spam and a dish referred to as "SOS" consisting of gravy and any kind of meat the cook could find, spread on toast. The concrete access road to Site 3 is still in place and now in farm use, but the land the mess halls stood on has long since reverted to agriculture. On the north side of Thetford Road, also in the village of Coney Weston, was Site 9, where the men of the 561st Squadron were billeted. Today the location forms part of a crop field with a hardstanding remaining on the other side of the road. Nearer to the flying field, Site 6 was spread out along the southern edge of a wood known as Golden Close, a short distance to the north of the Headquarters site where the 388th BG memorial now stands beside the crossroads. The concrete road leading to Site 6 is still in place but no trace remains of the Technical site adjoining it. Site 10 was located on the north-eastern edge of the village of Barningham and spread out along what is now a bridleway called Sandy Lane leading south to Hopton Road, the main road through the village. This site has been built over with new housing. A couple of fields further to the north-east was Site 12, situated on agricultural land south of Hopton Road. This location is now once again a crop field. The only site to have survived and still in use today is the sewage works, Site 13, which can be seen in a field to the south-east of St Mary's church.


TL9677 : Bindweed on the edge of a wheat crop field by Evelyn Simak TL9677 : Cast iron drain cover by Evelyn Simak TL9678 : Concreted track to Golden Close by Evelyn Simak TL9577 : Coney Weston village hall and war memorial by Evelyn Simak TL9677 : Concreted farm track beside sugar beet crop field by Evelyn Simak

TL9677 : Farm track through crop fields by Evelyn Simak TL9677 : Standby set building by Evelyn Simak TL9677 : Standby set building by Evelyn Simak TL9677 : Standby set building by Evelyn Simak TL9778 : View along Hollow Lane by Evelyn Simak


The bomb and ammunition storage areas were located at the north-eastern edge near Knettishall All Saints church which was situated just outside the perimeter fence and at that time had been derelict. The buildings on this site included a number of bomb container stores, incendiary bomb stores, a pyro store and three Fuzing Point sheds. Not one building has survived here but some small and overgrown remains are reportedly still in place in the former bomb storage area in Wall Covert, a wood on the far side of the flying field near the ruined church. The ammunition storage huts aligned along the road leading past the ruin were removed in the 1970s. The church of All Saints is still marked as derelict on modern maps but has since been restored and converted into a private dwelling.


TL9779 : Irrigation equipment on farm track by Evelyn Simak TL9780 : The former church of All Saints, Knettishall by Evelyn Simak TL9780 : Minor road past All Saints church by Evelyn Simak


Gone also are the buildings on Site 3, some of which were still in place in the late 1990s albeit in a ruinous condition, and along with them the murals in the Commanche and the Queen of Hearts bars; the map of "The Fortress Europe" painted onto one of the end walls of the Library; the depiction of the Statue of Liberty on the wall of the Liberty Lounge; the murals in the Officers' Club and in the Pool Room. Some were inspired by Roman history and others by the American West. Some depicted scenes of rural England and others, frequently to be found in male-only environments, women. It can only be hoped that at least the many paintings also adorning the rooms were removed before they too perished and that they have survived in private ownership, although no records would seem to exist.

All the artwork was created by Alva Villamor Alegre, a staff sergeant serving at the 388th Bomb Group Headquarters, who before the war had worked as a portrait sketch artist in the Phillippines Pavillion at the San Fransisco World's Fair and between seasons attended the Art Center School in Los Angeles where he also studied photography. At Knettishall he frequently used Red Cross and local Women's Army Corps girls as models. Alegre, who died in July 1973, became a much sought-after illustrator, painter and photographer after the war. A small selection of 1940s b/w photographs showing some of the murals and paintings he created at Knettishall is published on the 388th Bomb Group Association's website - LinkExternal link and a selection of Alegre's photographs taken during his time at the station can be seen on the Portraits of War blogsite - LinkExternal link.

On the former flying field, the remaining sections of the runways and of the perimeter track are today reduced to the widths of farm tracks used by farmers for accessing their crop fields as well as for storing straw bales and lime fertiliser. The south and north-eastern sections of the perimeter track serve as restricted byways which can be explored on foot although today nothing but crop fields can be seen here. A modern grass landing strip running parallel with a section of the course of the old east-west runway is used by a small number of private light aircraft and the buildings in this area, including a small aircraft shed, date from after the war.


TL9779 : The north-eastern perimeter track by Evelyn Simak TL9679 : Minor road traversing the old airfield by Evelyn Simak TL9679 : Road crossing the main runway by Evelyn Simak TL9779 : View along the north-western perimeter track by Evelyn Simak TL9778 : View along the south-eastern perimeter track by Evelyn Simak

TL9678 : The south-eastern perimeter track by Evelyn Simak TL9778 : A crop of ripening barley by Evelyn Simak TL9678 : Lime fertiliser by Evelyn Simak TL9679 : The former main runway by Evelyn Simak TL9679 : The former main runway by Evelyn Simak


Many items, including photographs, memorabilia and uniforms, donated mainly by members of the 388th Bomb Group Association, can be seen at the 388th Collection at Hillside Farm, located between the villages of Hopton and Market Weston. The collection, which can be viewed by prior arrangement only, is hosted by Mr David Sarson and housed in one of the aerodrome's original Nissen huts which was relocated to its current location after the war. It is adjoined by a Stanton-type air raid shelter (also relocated).


TL9978 : The 388th Collection by Evelyn Simak TL9978 : The 388th Collection by Evelyn Simak TL9978 : The 388th Collection by Evelyn Simak TL9978 : The 388th Collection by Evelyn Simak TL9978 : The 388th Collection by Evelyn Simak

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Almost all the locations described above can be seen from public roads and footpaths or from the restricted byways following the course of the former perimeter track.


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