RAF North Pickenham - USAAF Station 143

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

The aerodrome at North Pickenham was constructed in 1943/44 for the use of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) Eighth Air Force and designated USAAF Station 143.

The flying field was designed to the standard Class A Heavy bomber specifications. It had three concrete runways, with the main runway being 1,900 metres long. Nearly all the aircraft dispersals were situated along the northern edge of the airfield. The dispersed campsites accommodated 3,000 personnel.

A memorial stone commemorating the two Bombardment Groups based at the aerodrome can be found at the entrance to the former Mess site (Site 4), now occupied by a new housing estate located opposite North Pickenham St Andrew's CoE primary school. No trace remains of another campsite which was located in a field on the other side of the road. The memorial was dedicated on the occasion of a 2nd Air Division veterans' reunion in 1987. A memorial bench in honour of the 491st Bombardment Group can be found next to the North Pickenham village sign.

TF8606 : 491st and 492nd Bomb Group Memorial by Evelyn Simak TF8606 : New housing in North Pickenham by Evelyn Simak

The first group to move onto the airfield was the 492nd Bombardment Group (Heavy), flying Liberator bomber aircraft. The group formed part of the 14th Combat Bombardment Wing which also included Wendling > LinkExternal link and Shipdham > LinkExternal link.

The 492 BG's operational squadrons were:

856th Bombardment Squadron
857th Bombardment Squadron
858th Bombardment Squadron
859th Bombardment Squadron

Shortly after entering service in May 1944, the group suffered tremendous losses and it was soon to become the unit with the highest loss rate of any Eighth Air Force bomb group. In the three months it was operational the unit had flown a total of 64 missions and lost 57 aircraft, 51 of these to enemy action. In August 1944 the group, which had been virtually wiped out, was hence withdrawn from combat and dispersed. One of the last casualties of the group appears to have been the Consolidated B-24H-30-CF Liberator bomber "Broad + High" (serial number 50439), which crashed in a field near the South Norfolk village of Kirby Bedon on 18 August 1944, killing 2nd Lt William M Sherrill (Tennessee), T/Sgt Darlton W Pontius (Kansas), T/Sgt George Lifschitz (New York) and S/Sgt Philip A Snyder (Pennsylvania). One crew member was injured and four others survived the crash unharmed. The aircraft, which was damaged and low on fuel, had been returning from a raid on Germany. A simple memorial on the edge of the field where the aircraft crashed commemorates the crew members who lost their lives and there is also a memorial plaque in St Andrew's church in Kirby Bedon.

TG2705 : Memorial to four USAAF airmen by Evelyn Simak TG2806 : Field by Kirby Marsh by Evelyn Simak TG2806 : Memorial to four USAAF airmen by Evelyn Simak TG2806 : Memorial to four USAAF airmen by Evelyn Simak

The ill-fated 492nd BG was replaced by the 491st BG, initially based at Metfield in Suffolk > LinkExternal link which already had a very good operational record.

The operational squadrons of the 491st BG were:

852nd Bombardment Squadron
853rd Bombardment Squadron
854th Bombardment Squadron
855th Bombardment Squadron

The unit, which was also known as "The Ringmasters", participated in attacks on strategical targets such as communication centres, oil refineries, industrial areas, shipyards and storage depots in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne and other German cities. They were awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation when during a mission to bomb an oil refinery the group was attacked by a large number of enemy fighters and although about half of their aircraft were shot down they managed to fight off the interceptors and to successfully bomb their target. The group flew a total of 187 missions, losing 47 aircraft in action along with another 23. They flew their last mission on 25 April 1945.

The USAAF left North Pickenham in August 1945 and the airfield became a satellite for No. 258 Maintenance Unit RAF (MU) at RAF Shipdham. In December 1958 however the station was re-opened in preparation for its use as a Thor missile site. Sixty Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles were supplied to twenty UK sites by the US to complement the RAF's V-bombers during their development programme ("Project Emily") and three launch pads were constructed on the northern side of the airfield which was intended to be used as a nuclear rocket base. This had resulted in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament staging a major sit-down demonstration outside the airfield in 1959. The missiles had a range of 1,500 nautical miles and were approximately 20 metres (65 ft) long and 2.5 metres (8 ft) in diameter. Developed by the United States government between 1955 and1959 they were powered by propellant rocket fuel. The rockets based in the UK were to be British property with the sites being manned by the RAF who would be trained for the task by the USAF, but the nuclear warheads would remain under US control.

The Thor compounds at the main bases had a Surveillance and Inspection Building and a Classified Storage Building, partly surrounded by earthwork banks, and this is where the warheads were inspected and stored. In addition, every main base had four satellite stations, each with their own Squadron. RAF North Pickenham came under the Feltwell Wing which also included Shepherds Grove, Tuddenham and Mepal. The Thor launch pad numbers for North Pickenham were 13 14 15.

All the launching sites were integrated into the Ordnance Survey grid so as to be able to precisely locate each missile before it was launched. A baseline was surveyed in and marked by a pair of standard OS concrete triangulation pillars installed by the Royal Engineers. The exact siting of the missiles was essential to ensure that the targets were reached and each emplacement had a theodolite shed and a separate long-range theodolite, set on a concrete pillar surrounded by brass survey points. At the opposite end of the emplacement two short-range theodolites were mounted on a metal platform near to the launcher erector which lay at the centre of each emplacement and was secured to a metal cage set in concrete. The site's Power Conversion Building and one of the concrete Theodolite pillars still exist. They can be seen at the site of Anglia Karting Centre. When the airfield was sold in 1965 this particular area became an activity camp for the scouts before being developed into a karting track. Originally designed as a figure of eight, subsequent investment was made and a second, more complex track constructed which brings the full track length up to 1,030 metres.

TF8507 : Anglia Karting Centre by Evelyn Simak TF8507 : Theodolite pillar by Evelyn Simak TF4812 : The Fenland and West Norfolk Aviation Museum by Evelyn Simak TF8507 : Anglia Karting centre  racing track by Evelyn Simak

The Thor missiles were dismantled in 1963 and the airfield was closed in the following year. Whilst negotiations leading to a sell off continued until 1967, the airfield, then still surrounded a high fence, was used for testing the Hawker Siddeley P1127 Kestrel, the forerunner of the vertical take-off Harrier aircraft.

After the sale of the field in 1967 the runways were used as bases for large poultry houses owned by Bernard Matthews Farms Ltd. In more recent years a number of wind turbines were also installed. The surrounding land had already returned to agriculture.

TF8407 : Poultry houses and wind turbines on the old airfield by Evelyn Simak TF8407 : Poultry house on the north-south runway by Evelyn Simak TF8407 : Poultry houses and wind turbines by Evelyn Simak TF8407 : View across the north-south runway by Evelyn Simak

Apart from the runways very little remains today, although fractions of the concrete tracks which used to lead to the various dispersed campsites of the airfield are still in place. The Accommodation and Communal sites were strung out along the minor road linking the villages of North and South Pickenham but no significant buildings would seem to have survived on any of them. The Watch office too has long since been demolished.

TF8505 : Warehouse in North Pickenham by Evelyn Simak TF8505 : Concrete hardstanding by Evelyn Simak TF8505 : Pasture by Houghton Carr by Evelyn Simak TF8505 : Concrete farm hardstanding by Evelyn Simak TF8506 : Remains of a concreted road by Evelyn Simak

The only structure still standing would appear to be an M&E plinth. It is situated on the former Site 11, right beside the road, but is so overgrown that it is difficult to spot even when standing right next to it. With some concentration however, the ivy-clad brick walls that once sheltered the transformer and the blast wall protecting the entrance can be identified quite clearly. A short distance to the remains of the brick walls of a building can also still be found and a Stanton air raid shelter is still standing on the edge of the campsite.

TF8505 : Overgrown M&E plinth by Evelyn Simak TF8505 : This way to South Pickenham by Evelyn Simak

The area occupied by the Technical site, situated to the east of the flying field, was planned to be turned into an industrial estate. This plan would not seem to have been very successful, as only one industrial company appears to be doing business here. Said company has utilised one of the airfield's two T2 hangars (destroyed by fire in 2014) which can hence still be found in its original place, albeit modified and re-clad and no longer recognisable.

TF8506 : The only industrial company in the industrial area by Evelyn Simak TF8506 : Former T2 hangar by Evelyn Simak TF8506 : Hangar on the former Technical site by Evelyn Simak TF8506 : T2 hangar on the former Technical site by Evelyn Simak

The Administrative/HQ site was located only a short distance further to the south-east. Although the Operations block, the Norden bombsight building and a couple of workshops have survived on this site, the buildings appear to be neglected and they are much overgrown. A heap of rubble and concrete platforms are the only remains of other structures that once stood here.

TF8505 : Office and workshop in Watton Road by Evelyn Simak TF8505 : Shed beside Watton Road by Evelyn Simak TF8505 : Shed beside Watton Road by Evelyn Simak

TF8506 : The Norden bombsight building by Evelyn Simak

TF8505 : The old Operations block by Evelyn Simak TF8505 : The old Operations block by Evelyn Simak TF8505 : The old Operations block by Evelyn Simak TF8506 : The old Operations block by Evelyn Simak


Virtually all the old buildings have long since been demolished or dismantled but most of the sites described above can be seen by following the minor road linking North and South Pickenham, and the road leading to the industrial area. Some of the poultry houses are located at the northern end of the north-south runway which can be seen from North Pickenham Road.

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