RAF Snetterton Heath - USAAF Station 138
Text © Copyright Evelyn Simak, August 2014
The aerodrome at Snetterton was constructed by Taylor Woodrow Ltd in 1942 to the specifications required for a standard Class-A bomber airfield. Originally designed for use by the RAF the runways had to be upgraded when in 1943 the station was re-scheduled for the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) and the number of aircraft dispersals, which were situated along the southern and eastern side, was increased to 50. The main runway was 2,000 metres long. In total, an area of 530,000 square yards of concrete were poured and to accommodate the aerodrome, all the servicing utilities and buildings, 20 miles of draining pipe, 4 miles of sewer, 6 miles of water pipe and 10 miles of road and pathways were constructed.
From mid-September 1943 to mid-June 1945 Snetterton Heath also served as the headquarters for the 45th Combat Bombardment Wing of the 3rd Bomb Division. The 3rd Bomb Division was stationed at Elvedon Hall in Suffolk. which is located about three kilometres to the south-west of Thetford and about 25 kilometres distant from the aerodrome.
The first unit to arrive at Station 138 was the 386th Bombardment Group (Medium) but they stayed only for one week. It was followed by the 96th BG (Heavy) in mid-June 1943. The group formed part of the 45th Combat Wing of the 3rd Air Division which also included Knettishall (Station 136) in Suffolk and Deopham Green (Station 142) > Link in South Norfolk.
The unit comprised the following operational squadrons:
337th Bombardment Squadron
338th Bombardment Squadron
339th Bombardment Squadron
413th Bombardment Squadron
The unit, which was the first double-strength group in the Eighth Air Force, had entered combat in May 1943 and led the first shuttle mission to Regensburg in mid-August 1943, flying B-17 Flying Fortress bomber aircraft. They attacked mainly strategical industrial targets such as railway yards, airfields, oil refineries and shipyards. The 96th lead the 3rd Division on the ill-fated Schweinfurt mission on 14 October 1943. Other missions included the bombing of coastal defences, railway bridges and gun emplacements in the battle area prior to and during the invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and attacking the communications of the German armies on the western front in the early months of 1945. The 96th received two Distinguished Unit Citations, one for withstanding severe assault by enemy fighters (at Regensburg) and another for leading the 45th Wing at great distance through heavy clouds and intense anti-aircraft fire (Poland, 9 April 1944).
Group Commanding Officer, Lt Col Archie Old, was considered the father of the 96th. He took command of the newly formed 96th Bomb Group in June 1942 and flew with them on many missions, it has in fact been reported that he took part in so many missions that General LeMay had to issue direct orders for him to stay off some of them. In September 1943 he was transferred to command the newly transformed 45th Combat Wing (CBW) of the Third Air Division.
The 96th Bomb Group had a famous mascot, a donkey called Lady Moe, purchased in August 1943 in North Africa by "The Miracle Tribe", a B-17 bomber aircraft rew headed by Lt Andrew Miracle of Kentucky and flown to England on the return leg of the historc Regensburg-North Africa shuttle. She is reported to have flown a combat mission, and she participated in exhibitions of patriotism in England and substituted for the Army mule mascot at the Army-Navy football game in London in 1944. The 96th's post theatre and recreational field were named for her. Lady Moe had also received a number of awards, including the Presidential Unit Citation with one cluster, the Good Conduct Medal and the ETO (European Theatre of War) Medal. Sadly, in 1945 she was killed by a train on the railway line running through the base.
After the war, the unit ferried food supplies to the Dutch and carried out training and transport flights throughout the newly liberated Europe. In November 1945 the group's aircraft were flown back to the US and its squadrons inactivated. The ground personnel left the base in early December. By the end of the war, the 96th had lost 189 aircraft in 316 missions. This was the highest loss rate in the Eighth Air Force. After the war, the airfield was transferred to No. 262 Maintenance Unit RAF before it was closed at the end of 1948.
Prompted by a proposal made by the Board of Directors and the members of the 96th Bomb Group Association to erect a memorial monument at the former airfield, a competition regarding its design was held among the pupils of the New Eccles Hall School. The design finally chosen was submitted by art teacher Martin Rance. It depicts a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber aircraft, the type flown by the group, at the pinnacle of four triangular, stainless steel columns, each of the columns representing one of the four squadrons attached to the group. This striking monument stands on the green beside the access road, part of the former main runway, to the Snetterton motor racing circuit.
There is also a stained glass memorial window in St Andrew's church in Quidenham St Andrew's church. This memorial window, dedicated in November 1944, is unique in that it was the first 8th Air Force memorial in a British church. The New Eccles Hall School houses a Memorial Learning Centre and a Museum dedicated to the four squadrons based at Snetterton. Old photographs of the airfield are on display in the café of SP Models, a toy shop situated on Snetterton Park.
In 1952 the flying field was privately purchased and developed into a motor racing circuit, with the racing track incorporating part of the runways and perimeter track. Snetterton is one of the UK's main circuits and a popular test track, which amongst many others was used by both Team Lotus (Formula One) and Norfolk Racing Co (Le Mans) to test their racing cars. The access road follows the course of the north-south runway, the original surface of which can still be seen beside this road.
The land has long since returned to agriculture and only very few of the temporary buildings are left which once populated the various accommodation and communal sites, which were all situated to the east of the railway line which bisected the base. These were so widely dispersed and further separated by roads and a railway line that in official documents the aerodrome is being referred to as 'Snetterton Heath and Eccles'. Extensive roadworks have since further fragmented the wider area surrounding the flying field.
The aerodrome's Sick Quarters was located in the grounds of Eccles Hall, the third hall in the parish of Quidenham. The 17th century great house is however no longer a private residence but the principal building of the New Eccles Hall School, a public school which also accommodates boarders. The only building surviving here is once used to be the station's mortuary, which has since been converted into the 96th Bomb Group Museum and is open on the occasion of regular open days held at the school or by private appointment. The museum houses a collection of artefacts, photographs, film and memoirs telling the history of the 96th Bomb Group.
The museum is dedicated to the memory of over 300 servicemen from the 96th Bombardment Group (BG) who died during hostilities between May 1943 and April 1945 and it is an ongoing project of the veterans of the 96th BG, the local community and New Eccles Hall School. The building was formally opened on 23 May 1990.
The two sites designated for the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force), but never used by them since the Americans had no WAAFs, were also located in the hall's ground, one on the south-western edge and the other on the south-eastern tip of The Belt. Concrete hut platforms, brick foundations and Stanton air raid shelters can still be found here. Also in the grounds of Eccles Hall, the Motor Pool Section was located in Eccles Wood, to the north-west of the hall and not far distant from the Administrative Site, with most of the buildings having been constructed of brick and concrete. No structures would, however, appear to have survived on this site, which had originally been intended to be a Communal site but was abandoned at some stage. The concrete track leading onto the site is still in place but well covered with leaf mold, as are the concrete platforms the buildings once stood on. Nearby is the hall's 18th century and long since disused icehouse, which is Grade II listed. These three camps were the only sites which at the time were located in a wooded area.
Site 2 was situated east of the railway line and bounded by Harling Road in the south, to the west of the Administrative Site. All the air raid shelters on this site were removed, leaving only the brick entrances still in place. The remains of a few small buildings can also still be found here. This location was planted with trees after the war. A short distance away in the fields further south and reached by a concrete track, which is still in place, was Site 3. Six air raid shelters, none of them Stantons, have survived here intact, as has one of the site's two static water pools which provided a water source for fire-fighting. What appears to be a sewage manhole can be seen on the edge of the site. The sewage works, which are currently still in use, are located a short distance further to the south-west and can be seen from Site 3.
The Communal Site was situated a short distance south-east of Site 2, in a field south of Harling Road, and also covered a small area across the road where a couple of blast shelters have survived. Site 1, an accommodation site, was located in a field further to the south. The two sites were linked by a concrete track. Site 4 was situated to the south of the WAAF Site 1, also in a field, with Site 5 in a neighbouring field to the east. All the aerodrome's campsites were situated in the fields west of Quidenham Road, with the one exception being Site 6, which was located in a field adjacent to Quidenham Road in the east, between a farm which is shown as 'New Farm' on the aerodrome's site plan (but is marked as 'Manor Farm' on current OS maps) in the north and The Rectory in the south. Most of the fields on both sides of the road are currently populated by free range pigs, but not the USAAF's old camp sites, apart from Site 5 of which nothing remains, and Site 6, where a hardstanding has survived beside the road. The buildings have however long since been removed. The aerodrome's W/T site was located in a field a short distance west of the former (now closed) Post Office in Quidenham. No trace remains of this site.
On the edge of a crop field to the south of Harling Road, the Standby set house is the only building of substantial size that would seem to have survived on the Communal site. The building could house up to three diesel generators providing back-up electricity. Like most of these structures still standing it is now in farm use. Other buildings on this site included the Officers' and the Sergeants' messes and the airmen's dining room and associated baths, showers and ablutions blocks, a squash court, a ration store, an institute, a grocery and local produce store, a vegetable preparation store, a gymnasium and cinema. There were also a number of blast and air raid shelters and three static water ponds for fire-fighting. The station's commanding officer also lived on this site.
In the now wooded triangle between Harling Road and Eccles Heath, about 250 metres to the north-west, the Operations block on the former Administrative site has also survived. There were no trees at this location during the war. The site is now quite overgrown, as is the concreted road leading to it, and accessing it is obviously not encouraged. A closer look at the structure reveals that a heavy steel grille set into the doorway prevents access and all other entrances too have been blocked because the building is inhabited by bats. Disturbing bats or blocking access to their roosting place is a criminal offence, as the sign affixed to the grille advises.
The Operations block housed the radar room, the offices for the Commanding Officer and Air Executive and for the Group Bombardier as well as a drafting, a communications, a cryptographic and a teleprinter room. There was also the AC plant room which was adjoined by a boiler room. Further back were the offices for the operations officer and the group navigator as well as a statistical office. One room housed administration, another the ops line switchboard. The largest room, situated centrally, was the operations planning room. It contained a plotting table and was equipped with an overhead track for a travelling ladder and a large map board was on the wall. All the entrances into this part of the building were secured by air locks. A couple of blast shelters, one to the east and the other one west of the Operations block and designed to hold 50 people each, are still in place but difficult to find, as attempts have been made to hide the structures under tree branches, and whole fallen trees have been laid across them. One also has to look very closely indeed to spot the concreted hut platforms hidden under thick leaf mold. The other buildings on this site were the station offices, a crew briefing room and a combat crew library, as well as two latrine blocks. A small picket post guarded the site entrance.
On the other side of the still operational Norwich to London railway line, about 400 metres further to the north-west near the junction with Eccles Heath and Heath Road and adjacent to Heath Cottage, the Speech Broadcasting building is also still standing. It would appear to be in good condition. It formed part of the Technical site which was strung out along the eastern side of the flying field.
The largest number of buildings to have survived are located on the former Technical site, now the Homerton Industrial Estate, which is populated by the premises of various industrial companies situated along Heath Road. The former workshops now house Homerton Garage and the Fabric store is used by asphalt and tarmacadam specialists WhiteRod Surfacing Ltd. Fabric stores were used for storing uniforms, blankets and bedding and even the tablecloths used in the officers' mess. The buildings would seem to have been so high in order to ensure good ventilation and air circulation, as mildew was always a problem. In their midst nestles a rendered brick building which served as the Admin office. It is now the home of Elmtree Beers aka the Snetterton Brewery.
A short distance further along Heath Road the Gunnery trainer still stands, in excellent condition, on the premises of Ripblast, and pipe organs are now being built in the Crew lockers and drying room. A small disused multi-purpose hut stands on the edge of a meadow nearby.
Heath Road crosses over the A11 road and turns in westerly direction, skirting the south side of the Chalk Farm Industrial Estate before terminating on the edge of a field on the north side of the A11 road. One of the airfield's T2 hangars can be seen here, re-clad. It is located on the premises of Preva Produce, a potato packing plant. The company has also utilised a number of buildings, including several T2 hangars, on the Technical site of RAF Foulsham in North Norfolk, which they also occupy > Link.
At the end of Heath Lane three very large dilapidated Romney huts can be seen standing in a cattle pasture to the west of the A11 road. The buildings at this location included four T2 hangars and supporting workshops, and formed part of a servicing sub-depot known as the Eccles Air Depot the construction of which had never been completed.
Several large Nissen or Romney huts can still be found on the north-western edge of the Chalk Farm Industrial Estate. The buildings have since been utilised by industrial companies, with Unit 9 housing the Harkness Auto Services and MOT centre. An old transformer building still stands on a hardstanding beside the concreted road leading past here. The high-level Braithwaite water tank once supplying this site was demolished, unfortunately, only a few years ago.
A High Frequency Direction Finding station (HF/DF) was located in the parish of Shropham, in a field east of Church Road, a short distance to the south-east of Shropham Grove. No trace of its former use remains at this location.
Most of the buildings described above can be seen by travelling past the Homerton Industrial Estate on Heath Road, and from Chalk Lane, north of the A11 road. The 96th Bomb Group memorial is located beside the access road to the Snetterton motor racing circuit. My thanks go to the land owners who kindly permitted access and photography on their properties; and to the staff at The New Eccles Hall School for permitting access and photography of the 96th Bombardment Group Memorial Museum and special thanks to Dave for a guided tour.