Text © Copyright Evelyn Simak, April 2015
The first aerodrome in Norfolk was constructed in 1911, initially as a flying school, at Snarehill on heath and scrubland to the south-east of Thetford. Four years later, in 1915, the Sedgeford aerodrome was opened as a Royal Naval Air Force (RNAS - the flying section of the Royal Navy) training base and anti-Zeppelin field, serving as a night landing ground for RNAS Great Yarmouth (on the site of the old racecourse at South Denes), which at the time was a major RNAS seaplane base. Night landing grounds offered a safe haven for pilots unable to locate or to reach their home aerodrome or who were forced to make an emergency landing. After shooting down Zeppelin LZ61 off the coast of Lowestoft on 28 November 1916, Flight Lieutenant Egbert Cadbury (flying BE2c No. 8265), Flight Sub–Lieutenant Gerard William Reginald Fane (flying RAF BE2c No. 8421) and Flight Sub–Lieutenant Edward Laston Pulling (flying BE2c, No. 8626) got lost in thick fog on the way back from their mission and found that the Sedgeford aerodrome, which by that time had already been taken over by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), was the only airfield in the area to have lit flares along its landing strip where they were able to safely put down their aircraft. According to the official records, the Q-class German airship the men had shot down had the tactical name L21 and had already made ten attacks on England, dropping a total of 14,442 kilograms of bombs before it was intercepted and destroyed. Another Q-class airship (LZ64, tactical name L22) was destroyed by a RNAS Curtis H12 flying boat piloted by Flight Commander Robert Leckie near Terschelling (one of the West Frisian Islands) on 14 May 1917 when on a reconnaissance mission. Airship L70 (production name LZ112), with Korvettenkapitän Peter Strasser (the Commander of the German Naval Airship Division) on board directing the last raid on England on 6 August 1918, was intercepted and destroyed over the North Sea near Wells-next-the-Sea, a port on the North Norfolk coast, by a British de Havilland DH4 piloted by Major Egbert Cadbury (of Cadbury chocolate fame), with Captain Robert Leckie (who in later years became Air Marshal and Chief of the Canadian Air Staff) as his gunner. Robert Leckie also served as a Wing Commander at RAF Bircham Newton.
It had been only a little more than a decade since the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright had made the world's first powered flight when WW1 broke out in 1914. The first aeroplanes used in the war were still very basic and rudimentary, with open cockpits and no navigational aids. It was by no means uncommon for pilots to land in a field in order to ask for directions. Others resorted to flying alongside railway lines in the hope of being able to read station names on the platforms to find out where exactly they were. The pilots' instructions included such practical advice as to "always take a complete set of tools and covers for your aircraft. Your clothing need not be different from usual, and will comprise helmet, goggles, leather suit, and gloves. Do not forget your handkerchief, which you frequently need to clean your goggles. The instruments needed on a cross-country flight are a compass, which should be properly adjusted before starting and the variation angle noted and a wrist watch is also necessary because ordinary dashboard clocks go wrong on account of the vibration."
The slow moving and fragile aeroplanes were however quickly developed into fast, sturdy and deadly fighters and bombers, although to begin with these aircraft were not considered to be offensive weapons but intended to be used mainly for reconnaissance purposes and for aerial photography. The pilots were not allowed to use parachutes because the hierarchy in the RFC and the Air Board were opposed to the issuing of parachutes to pilots so as not to tempt them to abandon their aircraft in an emergency rather than to continue fighting. This policy remained in place until 16 September 1918, when all single-seat aircraft were ordered to be fitted with parachutes. Until then only the men who were up in observation balloons had been equipped with parachutes, and often used them to escape an attack. (These balloons were particularly vulnerable because the hydrogen used to inflate them is extremely flammable and both sides used special incendiary bullets to exploit this.) Pilot training was often cursory, especially in the early days of the war, with many recruits receiving only a couple of hours' of flying instruction before being expected to fly solo, and they were frequently sent off to the Western Front having logged only 15 hours in the air. The aircraft types flown by these men 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.
In 1916, the RFC took over the facilities at Sedgeford, and in 1918 the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force (RAF). From 1917 until 1920, the Sedgeford aerodrome was used for the formation and training of bomber and fighter squadrons and in 1918 the No. 3 Fighting School was moved to Sedgeford from Bircham Newton, where it was later re-designated as No. 7 Training Squadron. About 1,200 personnel are reported to have been stationed there during the aerodrome's heyday, some accommodated in wooden huts and canvas tents in the fields surrounding Whin Close wood. No trace of these structures would seem to have survived, probably not surprising considering the building materials used.
Hundreds of young men lost their lives in Britain during flight training and indeed the number of pilots and observers killed in training accidents caused great alarm nationwide. The results of a survey conducted over the first six weeks of 1918 showed that 20% of training accidents were caused by stalls on climbing turns when leaving the ground, and 18% by stalls on the glide home. Remaining accidents were due to "ordinary chances that one has to expect, including the human failure to switch off engines or throttle down after looping. This is probably due rather to the pilot losing his head than to ignorance", Brigadier General Rudolph Edward Trower Hogg, the then Commander of the Eastern Training Brigade, is reported to have said. Fatalities were also caused by accidents and equipment failures, and many more men died from enemy action. The RFC nicknamed April 1917 "Bloody April" because of the losses suffered in this month: 245 aircraft were lost, more than 200 pilots and aircrew were killed in action and at least 100 men were captured and taken as German prisoners of war.
2/Lt Francis Bernard Evans of 110 Squadron was one of the unfortunate pilots who (on 17 February 1918) was killed while flying at Sedgeford when his DH4 (B9994) caught fire in the air while under instruction. He is buried in St Mary's churchyard in the village of Hunstanton. Another casualty was the fighter ace Captain Cecil Frederick King of No. 3 Fighting School, who died on 24 January 1919 when his Sopwith Camel (C8318) broke up after a mid-air collision. Captain King had recently transferred to Sedgeford as a fighting instructor, flying Sopwith Camel and Sopwith Snipe single-seat biplane fighter aircraft and teaching skills including photography "pinpointing", bomb-dropping and aerial gunnery. In the obituary his age is given as 19 years and 11 months. The aircraft Captain King had collided with was piloted by 2/Lt Hector Daniel, a South African who survived the accident unharmed and later joined the South African Air Force. Another fatality was 2/Lt Arthur Le Roy Dean, a RFC pilot from Ottawa (Canada), of 64 Squadron: badly injured the day before when his Sopwith Scout aircraft (B1788) had spun out of control at 2500ft during practice fighting and subsequently spiralled into the ground near the Sedgeford/Docking road, he died from his injuries on the following day, on 9 August 1917, aged 20. 2/Lt James Alan Pearson of 110 Squadron RFC was only 18 years old when on 9 December 1917 he lost consciousness (a phenomenon caused by the so-called G-force, subjecting pilots of military fighter jets and high performance aerobatic aircraft to forces of acceleration equivalent to many times the force of gravity) whilst pulling the Martynside (B866) aircraft he was flying out of a deep dive, and fell out of the open cockpit of his aircraft at 1500ft. The three pilots' graves can be found along the north-western boundary of St Mary's churchyard in Docking.
Another pilot who lost his life (on 29 January 1919) because he fainted in the air and consequently lost control over his aircraft (a Sopwith Camel, code F9413) was 2/Lt Percy Charles Heathers of No. 3 Fighting School. 2/Lt Henry Birkett, also of No. 3 Fighting School, was killed in his Avro (E3445) due to an error of judgement. 2/Lt Francis Brian Hallam Anderson of 64 Squadron died when his Sopwith Scout (B1787) crashed in a spinning nose-dive on 8 September 1918. The DH4 (A7793) piloted by Lieutenant HH Cotton of No. 9 Training Squadron stalled in a turn and nose-dived into the ground from 100ft in failing light, killing Private Selbil Macneill Campbell. 2/Lt John Todd, also of No. 9 Training Squadron, turned his RE8 (B5132) without sufficient speed and nose-dived into the ground on 29 July 1918. Captain Edward Gordon Hanlan, a 28-year old Canadian pilot, died on 9 August 1917 when the starboard wing of his DH5 (A9393) broke off after a loop, sending the aircraft in a steep spiral. It crashed at Docking Hall. 2/Lt Andrew Beattie Sneddon of No. 65 Training Squadron was killed on 3 October 1917 when he flew out into the North Sea and was unable to return; he is believed to have drowned.
Situated in the vicinity of a small wood known as Whin Close, about 500 metres south of the B1454 (Docking Road) and 1,500 metres to the east of the village of Sedgeford in the district of King's Lynn and West Norfolk, the aerodrome covered an area of 170 acres and at the time was under the control of the 7th Wing which was formed in November 1915 and initially based at Gosport in Hampshire. In May 1916, the Wing moved to Norwich from where it controlled the aerodromes at Mousehold Heath, Thetford, Narborough, Orfordness, Wyton and Sedgeford. Contemporary aerial views show that the buildings were aligned mainly alongside the access road leading onto the aerodrome and grouped together in the adjoining fields. The access road, still in place and in farm use today, turns off from Docking Road leading in southerly direction and looping around Whin Close wood, which at that time was only about half the size that it is at present. From 1914 (until 1918) both Thornham Marsh and Titchwell Marsh (near the village of Brancaster about six kilometres further north, as the crow flies, and now a nature reserve) were used by the RFC as a practice bombing range, flying DH8 and DH9 aircraft out of Sedgeford. The flying field consisted of grass landing strips, long since reverted to agriculture, and its exact dimensions can therefore no longer be accurately established.
The first RFC unit to be based at the aerodrome was 45 Squadron, commanded by Major William Ronald Read, originally from the 1st (King's) Dragoon Guards. The squadron claimed 258 victories and 164 aircraft destroyed during the war and it formed the nucleus of 64 Squadron, which succeeded it. 64 Squadron was formed at Sedgeford on 1 August 1916 as a training unit equipped with FE.2Bs and Farmans, and in June 1917 the squadron received Avro 504 and Sopwith Pup fighter aircraft in preparation for operations in France. By November 1917, the unit had moved to the Western Front for fighter patrol and ground attack duties for the rest of the war. One of the squadron's eleven fighter aces was Captain James Anderson Slater who is reported to have "beat up Hunstanton at 8am on Sunday mornings, buzzing his girlfriends at chimney pot height" and to have been in the habit of flying his SE5a aircraft through the aerodrome's hangars, apparently a speciality at RAF Sedgeford. On the occasion of a private display, Queen Alexandra is said to have asked Slater's Commanding Officer to order him to get down before killing himself (Sticks and Tissue No. 21, August 2008).
In mid-September 1917, 87 Squadron arrived from Upavon before moving on to Hounslow in December of the same year. 72 Squadron arrived at Sedgeford in November 1917 and departed for Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) in December. Also in November 1917, 110 Squadron arrived from Rendcombe in Gloucestershire. The squadron, which formed part of the 41st Wing comprising daylight bombing squadrons, moved to Kenley in June 1918. 53 Reserve Squadron, flying Avro 504J, DH6, RE8 and BE2e aircraft was based at Sedgeford from the end of December 1916 until it relocated to Narborough aerodrome in April 1917. Another reserve squadron based at Sedgeford was 65 Squadron, which arrived in early May 1917 and was renamed 65 Training Squadron. 65 Training Squadron left for Dover in late November 1917. 122 Squadron was formed at Sedgeford initially as a training squadron but later became a day bomber unit which did however not become operational before it was disbanded again in August 1918. 13 Squadron was formed at Gosport in January 1915 and operated BE2c aircraft in France on observation and photographic reconnaissance duties, and during the Battle of the Somme was one of the first squadrons to bomb in formation. It was disbanded at Sedgeford on 31 December 1919. One of the WW1 US Army Aero Squadrons in the UK, the 24th Aero Squadron, had a Flight based at Sedgeford from January until the end of May 1918 when it was reassembled at RAF Narborough (then the largest WW1 aerodrome in the UK, covering 900 acres).
Sedgeford is one of a very small number of WWI aerodromes to have some of the original buildings still in place. (RAF Stow Maries in Essex is the world's only complete RFC aerodrome in original form - it has been granted listed status and is now a museum.) During WW1, RAF Sedgeford was considerably larger than the nearby RAF Bircham Newton > Link and even had its own railway branch line, turning off the Heacham to Wells-next-the-Sea (Great Eastern Railway) line near East Hall. The railhead was situated about halfway down and just east of the camp road looping around Whin Close, near where the Belfast Truss hangars stood. The hangars were by far the largest structures on the aerodrome, rectangular in plan and measuring about 54 x 29 metres (177 x 95 feet), with curved profile roofs. Two are reported to still have been in place in June 1945, when many of the smaller buildings had already been removed. A third hangar was located on the western edge of the flying field. By the summer of 1946 however, all of the hangars had been demolished or dismantled. Only the steel door rails of one hangar remain in place and can still be seen today.
During the past decade, the aerodrome has been the object of study (with all the remaining buildings now recorded) for the members of the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP), a long-term archaeological research project whose primary objective is the investigation of the entire range of human settlement and land use in the Norfolk parish of Sedgeford. Established in 1996, SHARP today is one of the largest independent archaeological projects in Britain, and firmly rooted in the local community. In 2011, two excavation areas were opened on the former Technical site to the south-west of the flying field and one of the buildings (Building 8), the concrete foundations of which were unearthed, was interpreted as having been the Doping shed where aircraft wings were repaired. The foundations of another building found nearby revealed remains of what is believed to have been the Armoury (Building 10).
The Officers' mess was housed in the former Docking Union workhouse, and due to the lack of accommodation on the aerodrome sleeping facilities for some of the personnel were also provided. The old workouse was situated just outside the village of Docking on the road towards Sedgeford and Heacham, and about 1,500 metres distant from the aerodrome. Designed by John Brown and dating from 1835, it had been requisitioned by the military in 1916. In 1920, the Docking Rural District Council purchased the building and converted it into 12 council dwellings and in 2000, a private developer bought and converted the complex into private apartments. The location is still marked on the maps as "Burntstalk" but has since been renamed "Norfolk Heights".
The Officers’ living quarters were situated on the south-western edge of Whin Close, beside the camp road which linked the various buildings on the aerodrome with each other, and enjoyed a good view across the flying field which it adjoined. An aerial view taken by 65 Squadron in October 1917 shows a number of aircraft, most of them aligned in two neat rows, just south of the Officers' quarters. A partitioning wall divided the one-storied structure into two separate sections, each section comprising six rooms accessed by a narrow hallway, some containing a fireplace (now bricked up). A small toilet and an adjoining wash room were located at each end. A couple of rooms were also equipped with a storage cupboard spanning the whole width and height and containing wooden shelves. The cupboards could however have been added after the war, as all the rooms were later modified so as to suit domestic use, with most having received a coat of paint or a layer of wall-paper during the time when local farm workers used to live here. The building was finally abandoned in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
A much smaller structure is still standing about 40 metres to the east of the Officers' quarters. It was constructed from building materials described by the SHARP archaeologists as concrete, coarse bricks, flue-type blocks and slate, with a brick column at each corner supporting the walls. The columns are capped at the top with two layers of clay tile, and diagonally laid bricks provided a simple decorative effect. The remains of a louvered wooden frame on the roof is believed to be evidence of a vented superstructure in the centre of the roof. The SHARP team think that the architectural elements described above give the impression of "chapelesque" architecture, and according to local rumour the building is indeed supposed to have been the aerodrome's Mortuary, although it is apparently not shown on the 1918 aerodrome site plan. As part of their desk-based research the investigating members of SHARP however discovered that a Mortuary had been mentioned in the advert announcing the sale of the aerodrome in 1921. The building was described as consisting of two rooms with a double width doorway giving access into the room believed by the SHARP team to have been the Mortuary, because it has four round air vents (still in place) and a cement skim around the walls forming a curve towards the floor for easy cleaning. The windows in both rooms are positioned high up on the walls so as to prevent views of the interior from outside the building. Jeremy Revell, one of the SHARP volunteers, has supplied the information that "because these men were being trained and not on the frontline, when they got killed there had to be an inquest and the bodies had to be kept at minus five centigrade". Most of the units based at the aerodrome were however not in training but active squadrons. Furthermore, the fact that this particular building is situated in close proximity to the Officers' living quarters whereas Mortuaries are shown on airfield site plans to always be located near the hospital (on the Sick quarter site) leaves much room for doubt regarding its purpose.
Some of the features would seem to be similar to the Mortuary still standing on the WW1 aerodrome at Stow Maries (Essex), the largest known surviving group of RFC buildings on a WWI aerodrome which, having been abandoned in 1918 was not adapted for further military use later in its history. According to the description provided by English Heritage, Building 6 - Ambulance shed and Mortuary - is a rectangular building, aligned east-west. "The slate covered, gable roof has a louvered ridge vent, below which in the north and south walls, are long vents with iron grilles and concrete lintels, representing a simple ventilation system. The east and west walls originally had two pairs of double doors. Interior: The building was divided into two spaces; the rear formed the mortuary and the front room was used for garaging the ambulance" (National Heritage list for England). There is however no evidence of an ambulance shed having been incorporated into the structure believed to have been the Mortuary at the Sedgeford aerodrome and in fact its raised floors would have made vehicular access impossible. The "flue-type blocks" mentioned by SHARP are so-called terra cotta blocks (also known as building tile, structural terra cotta, hollow tile and clay block), commonly used because of their excellent insulation properties. They are also fire-resistant. Terra cotta blocks (abbreviated "TBC" on airfield site plans) are known to have been used in the construction of airfield buildings but examples would seem to be rare.
The only structure adjoining it (in the south-west) is what would once seem to have been an air raid shelter. Others have suggested that it could have been an ice house and served the purpose of storing the ice used for cooling the bodies stored in the adjacent Mortuary, if the latter did indeed serve this purpose. The structure is a semi-subterranean shelter constructed from red brick and has a flat concrete roof and the floor of the small room is also concreted. The brick supports for wooden seats along both its sides are still in place. It was accessed via a flight of brick steps. A wooden door as well as a small square opening at one end and at aboveground are believed to be modifications dating from some later time when the structure was probably used for other (as yet unknown) purposes.
A short distance to the north another building has also survived. It used to be a Technical store and is marked on the aerodrome site plan as building number 32. The structure is about 53 metres long and 4.5 metres wide and has apparently been extended northwards over time. After the war it was converted for agricultural use and the interior divided into a number of brick-built animal pens. The roof of the northern-most section of the structure has since collapsed, making it inaccessible. Two Motor transport sheds and a Workshop adjoined in the west; only the concreted hardstanding of one of these buildings remains in place today.
The aerodrome was closed in 1919/1920 and the site sold off in the following year, after which time it returned to agriculture until 1940, when it was once again used by the RAF - this time not as an aerodrome but as one of four decoy sites constructed for the purpose of protecting the still very active airfield at Bircham Newton > Link located about five kilometres further to the south-east. Decoy sites represented dummy airfields aimed at drawing enemy bombers away from the true target. Sedgeford was assigned the number 24b and operated by day and by night. (Sites operating at night were referred to as "Q" sites and those operating at daytime were "K" sites.) Most of the former aerodrome's huts and other small structures had long since been demolished but contemporary maps show that at least 14 buildings, including the hangars, were still in place in 1940. Now forming part of the dummy airfield the structures no doubt helped in creating a very realistic impression of a real and active aerodrome. In addition, a number of fake buildings were also constructed and search and landing lights were put in place.
The shelter housing the generator required for powering the various lights, and from where the flarepath and searchlights were controlled was situated on the edge of a field and some distance away from the dummy airfield, which after all was designed to draw enemy bombers to its location. For the crew's protection the structure, consisting of two rooms, was built completely underground. It can be accessed by a flight of brick steps and has survived in good condition, with the manufacturer's nameplate still firmly affixed to the corrugated iron roof of each room. (It reads: Joseph Westwood & Co Ltd, Napier Yard, Millwall, London E4.) The concrete plinth the generator stood on is also still in place on the floor of the generator room, and in the wall above it the ends of two large-diameter clay ware salt-glazed field drainage pipes can be seen. The pipe sections functioned as ventilation ducts, essential for extracting the lethal generator exhaust fumes. The more spacious control room is situated opposite the generator room and equipped with an emergency escape hatch incorporated into the end wall. The steel rungs for climbing it are however no longer in place and the steel doors once securing each room are also missing. A concrete slab found nearby and above ground is believed to have been used for mounting a searchlight. According to official records, the decoy site was in operation from June 1940 until August 1942.
RAF Bircham Newton's other decoy sites were located near the village of Salthouse (24c), on Coxford Heath (24a), and near Burnham Sutton (24d).
Please note that the site is located on private land and should therefore be visited only by the owner's permission. My grateful thanks go to Mr Wm Barber for kindly allowing access.
Some of the information contained in this article was taken from the book "Whin Close Warriors" (2008) by David Jacklin, which I can highly recommend for further reading.