RAF West Raynham
Text © Copyright Evelyn Simak, November 2014
RAF West Raynham is a classic expansion-era airfield. It was built in 1938/39 and is located near the town of Fakenham in the district of North Norfolk. In the years between WW1 and WW2, there was considerable opposition to many aspects of an independent air force based in part on arguments about the morals of air war such as the bombing of civilians, and also on concerns about the visual impact of many large airfields and associated buildings on the countryside. As a result of the latter concern, much of the construction during the expansion period was carried out in consultation with the Council for the Protection of Rural England and was of very high quality, adopting a neo-Georgian style. Expansion period airfields tended also to cluster all of their buildings into one area on the periphery of the airfield. At the start of WW2, this practice was changed because groups of buildings located in close proximity were vulnerable to bombing attacks. For this reason aerodromes constructed during the war dispersed their buildings, sometimes over quite some distance.
The minor road linking Kipton Ash (only a farm remains at this location) with the village and (long since closed) railway station of East Rudham, further to the north, was closed to the public because it traversed the western side of the airfield from south to north. Packsfield Farm (the name is spelt Paxfield on modern maps) has survived on the airfield's north-western perimeter. About one kilometre to the south, Kipton Ash Farm, which was located only about 450 metres to the south of the SW/NE runway, is also still in place today. Part of the old public road is now a farm track that comes to an abrupt end on reaching the southern perimeter track.
During 1940/41, 36 pan-type aircraft dispersals were constructed, and in the summer of 1943 the airfield was temporarily closed for the construction by Allot Ltd of two concrete runways which replaced the four old grass landing strips. The new main runway (designated 04-22) was 1,800 metres and the other (10–28) 1,300 metres long. At the same time the station's boundaries were extended to the west and further accommodation was constructed to house 2,456 airmen and 658 WAAFs (Women's Auxiliary Air Force).
The following units were based at RAF West Raynham during the 55 years it was operational:
101 Squadron / May 1939 to July 1941 (day/night bombing)
90 Squadron / May 1939 to September 1939 and May and June 1941 (bomber training)
2 Group TT Flight / February 1940 to January 1942 (target towing)
76 Squadron / April and May 1940 (bomber training)
139 Squadron / May and June 1940 (day bombing)
18 Squadron / June to September 1940 and August to November 1942 (bomber training)
90 Squadron / May and June 1941 (high altitude flights)
1420 Flight / July to November 1941 (bomber training)
114 Squadron / July 1941 to November 1942 (light day bombing)
1482 Squadron / January 1942 to December 1943 (target towing, bomber training)
614 Squadron / May to July 1942 (night intruder attacks)
18 Squadron / August to November 1942 (bomber training)
180 Squadron / September and October 1942 (medium bombing)
98 Squadron / September and October 1942 (medium bombing)
342 Squadron / April and May 1943 (bomber training)
141 Squadron / December 1943 to May 1945 (night intruder attacks)
239 Squadron / December 1943 to July 1945 (night intruder attacks)
746 Squadron / May 1945 to January 1946 (night fighter trials)
CFE / July 1943 to November 1963 (fighter trials and evaluation)
787 (NAFDU) Squadron / November 1945 to January 1956 (fighter trials and evaluation)
CFE Communications Flight / December 1945 to 1957 (communications)
CFE TT Flight / from 1946 to April 1963 (target towing)
Fighter Command Instrument Training squadron / February 1950 to December 1952
85 Squadron / September 1960 to April 1963 and January 1972 to 1988 (missile defence)
54 Squadron / August 1963 to January 1970 (ground attack/Army support)
4 Squadron / August 1963 to January 1970 (ground attack/Army support)
1 Squadron / August 1963 to July 1969 (ground attack)
Kestrel Evaluation squadron / October 1964 to December 1965 (trials of Hawker Kestrel)
41 Squadron / September 1965 to September 1970 (airfield missile defence)
38 Group Communications Flight / 1966 to 1968
100 Squadron / February 1972 to January 1976 (target facilities)
45 Squadron / August and September 1972 (ground attack)
During WW2, the squadrons of RAF Bomber Command based at West Raynham lost 86 aircraft: 56 Blenheims, 29 Mosquitos and a Bristol Beaufighter. The funds for a permanent memorial were raised during 2013. The memorial commemorates all who served at RAF West Raynham between 1939 and 1994 and is situated beside the Kiptons Hub and the former NAAFI building. Air Vice Marshall Les Phillips unveiled it on 27 September 2014. A memorial stone remembering the aircrews from 114, 98 and 342 ("Lorraine") Squadrons who lost their lives close to this spot when their aircrafts crashed on 5 June 1942, 17 October 1942 and 22 May 1943 respectively, can be seen in the small village of Weasenham St Peter, about three kilometres to the south-east of the airfield. Nos. 98 and 342 Squadrons were based at RAF Great Massingham. 114 Squadron was based at RAF West Raynham from 19 July 1941 to 15 November 1942. A memorial stained glass window in the north choir aisle of Ely cathedral is dedicated to 2, 3, 6 and 100 Groups RAF.
Initially the aerodrome was supported by two satellite stations, one being located at Great Massingham > Link - situated about five kilometres to the south-west - the other at Sculthorpe, about the same distance further to the north-east. The runway at RAF Sculthorpe is still occasionally used by Special Forces troops and hence out of bounds. Satellite stations were constructed in order to increase the effective capacity of a parent station without the expense of another fully equipped aerodrome.
One of the new features appearing on the expansion-era airfields was the Control tower, or Watch office, as the RAF prefers to call the structures. Improvements in wireless technology in the 1930s had resulted in flying control becoming more sophisticated, and for this reason the Watch office became increasingly important. The West Raynham aerodrome was initially equipped with a fort-type Watch office (still in place), to which extensions were added. In 1945, it was however replaced by a much larger building, a Watch office for Very Heavy Bomber Stations (built to drawing 294/45). Only four Watch offices of this type were ever constructed, and in June 2012 this building was Grade 2 listed.
Four huge type-C aircraft hangars are aligned in a wide semicircle along the north-western side the flying field. The type-C hangars, the largest hangar type ever constructed by the RAF, date from the late 1930s and were built during the expansion era. On the steel door supports of Hangar 1, currently in agricultural use, the damage caused by a German aircraft's gun when the aerodrome was attacked on 10 July 1940 can still be seen. The same aircraft also dropped 21 bombs on the station, setting the hangar roof on fire. The writing on the parking spaces reserved for the station commander and other personnel can still be seen in the tarmac in front of the offices of Hangar No. 4, the easternmost hangar in what is now known as Blenheim Way. This hangar was once used by 54 Squadron. Hangar 3, adjoining it in the south-west, was used by the Technical Wing and Hangar 2 was used by 1 Squadron.
The hangars are located adjacent to the buildings of the Technical site in the west, and by accommodation and barracks blocks (some later housed the Computer Training Centre) and the Parade ground (now Blenheim Square) in the north and west.
The main entrance into the site was guarded by a Guardroom, opposite which the Station Headquarters building is situated. Next to it is the station's chapel, which is dedicated to SS Michael and George. The chapel is adjoined in the east by the Sergeants' Mess. The Station Sick Quarters comprising a hospital and dental facilities were located to the south of the Guardroom and beside it stood a Roman Catholic chapel. Other buildings in the vicinity include the Sports and Social and the Windsurfing Club, Oil and Lubricants stores, the Barracks store, the Airmen's garages, a Cinema, the Supply Squadron's building, a Water tower, the Education Centre and Central Briefing Room, the Safety Equipment store and a Link trainer as well as a number of workshops. Opposite the main entrance onto the airfield and only a short distance away from the Station Headquarters is the gated entrance to the Officer's mess and its annexes in Earl of Bandon Avenue. This complex of buildings is awaiting refurbishment. Traces of wartime camouflage paint can be glimpsed still adhering to the outer walls. The adjoining Squash and Tennis courts are overgrown.
The NCOs' (non-commissioned officers) and Officers' married quarters were situated a short distance further to the south-west. Many of the houses in Stephenson Close and Atcherley Square have since been refurbished and sold off as family homes. This newly created residential area is now known as The Orchard, an apt name chosen presumably because of the mature apple trees growing on the large green at Atcherley Square which is overlooked by the station commander's and his officers' houses. Beautiful beech trees are flanking the Earl of Bandon Avenue and Stephenson Close.
During WW2, the area comprising the Officers' married quarters used to be much smaller with the houses grouped around Atcherley Square. A contractors' campsite as well as the aerodrome's wartime Gymnasium, which had a chapel annex at its eastern end, were situated on the northern edge of the adjoining meadow in which Stephenson Close and the many houses alongside it were later to be constructed.
Earl of Bandon Avenue is named after Percy Ronald Gardner, Air Chief Marshal The Earl of Bandon, who in 1941 was Officer Commanding, RAF West Raynham. Stephenson Close is named after Geoffrey Dalton Stephenson. While on an exchange tour, Air Commodore Stephenson headed a six-man team from the central fighter establishment, RAF, headquartered at RAF West Raynham, when on 8 November 1954 his plane, a USAF F-100A-10-NA Super Sabre, crashed near Auxiliary Field 2 of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. David Francis William Atcherley (later Air Vice Marshal D. F. W. Atcherley) was 85 Squadron's first 'full time' CO. He was based at RAF West Raynham from November 1938 until January 1940. David Atcherley and his identical twin brother, Richard, became a legend in the RAF.
Further to the north the disused NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institute) building can be seen next to the former Ration store and near the Airmen's married quarters, with a newly erected fence blocking access onto the adjoining barracks blocks and the Technical site. The houses comprising the Married quarters were renovated and are now private dwellings. They are situated in Felbrigg Walk, Oxburgh Square, Barsham Close, at Holkham Green, in Blickling Street and Sandringham Crescent. The Ration store, at the northern end of Blenheim Square (the former Parade ground) was converted into the community shop and a small pub. Redesignated the Kiptons Hub, it was opened in May 2014. The new housing estate is known as The Kiptons and described as "a growing community with a selection of affordable 2&3 bed homes".
At the north-western edge of the site a tall brick chimney marks the location of the station's heating plant. It is adjoined in the east by the Motor Transport section building, and to the south by several large barracks blocks and the former Airmen's Restaurant, with its faded writing now barely legible but still in place above the entrance. It housed a cinema in its upstairs rooms. The sheep which are grazing between the disused and fenced-off buildings are the only signs of life here.
The aerodrome was officially opened on 5 April 1939, and 90 and 101 Squadrons, part of No. 2 Group and flying Bristol Blenheim light bomber aircraft, were the first units to move in in May. While 2 Group continued to use the station, other units were also based here at various times until the spring of 1943, when its resident squadron and 1482 (B) G Flight moved out, the latter transferring to nearby RAF Great Massingham.
In December 1943, the station was taken over by 100 Group RAF (Bomber Support) and Nos. 141 and 239 Squadrons moved in. The score board of B Flight, 141 Squadron has survived and is currently on display at the Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum in Flixton near Bungay in Suffolk.
100 Group was created in November 1943 and tasked with all electronic and radio counter-measures. The 100 Group aerodromes included RAF Foulsham > Link and RAF Little Snoring > Link RAF North Creake > Link and RAF Oulton > Link ; RAF Sculthorpe, RAF Swanton Morley, RAF Swannington > Link and RAF Great Massingham.
No. 100 Group, based at Bylaugh Hall > Link in the Breckland district of Norfolk, was responsible for a series of secret operations involving the development and testing of more than 32 different devices. The specially equipped aircraft of this group flew within the bomber stream, using electronic jamming devices to disrupt enemy radio communications and radar. These devices were referred to under exotic code-names such "Airborne Cigar", "Jostle", "Mandrel", "Airborne Grocer", "Carpet" and "Piperack". Other aircraft were fitted with so-called Homers which intercepted the German night fighters' radar and radio emissions and allowed the RAF fighters to home in onto the enemy aircraft, and shoot them down or at least disrupt their missions aimed against the allied bomber streams.
The last wartime operation was flown from West Raynham on 2 May 1945, when eight Mosquito aircraft of 239 Squadron carried out high and low-level raids on airfields in Denmark and 141 Squadron attacked German airfields at Flensburg and Hohn with napalm bombs.
After the war the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE) moved in from Tangmere, West Sussex, and the station was transferred to No. 12 Group, Fighter Command. During the 1950s the station still had at least two operational Gloster Meteor jet fighters and a squadron of de Havilland Venoms as well as de Havilland Vampire trainer jets. The latest arrival in 1957 was a flight of Gloster Javelins, one of which was preserved and can currently be seen at the City of Norwich Aviation Museum (CNAM) at Horsford St Faith, located on the western edge of Norwich International Airport. The aircraft has the number WK654 and served with the All Weather Flying Squadron.
During 1964, a squadron comprising members of the British, German and United States Armed Forces was formed in order to evaluate the Hawker P1127 Vertical Take-off and Landing (BTOL) strike fighter aircraft. At about the same time part of the east side of the flying field was developed as a SAM rocket site where Bristol Bloodhound Mark 2 surface-to-air missiles and associated radar facilities were installed.
In January 1972, No. 85 Squadron, which had previously already been stationed at the base in the early 1960s, made their headquarters once again at West Raynham after being reformed as a Bristol Bloodhound Mk2 surface-to-air missile unit and they remained at West Raynham until their disbandment in 1988. By then the airfield had already been closed to flying.
Designed as a last line of defence for the V bomber bases to destroy any Soviet bombers that got past the defending Lightning interceptor force operating over the North Sea, the Mk2 used digital computers for fire control. In the 1970s it was replaced by the BAC Rapier system although the last Mk2 missile squadron was stood down only in July 1991. After West Raynham in 1975 became a Bloodhound missile site, with 85 Squadron flying EE (English Electric) Canberra high-altitude medium bomber aircraft, the station remained until its closure 27 years later a centre for training on the Rapier surface-to-air missile. The Rapier missile training dome is still standing beside Hangar 4 but almost all of the Bloodhound missile installations on the eastern perimeter of the flying field have in recent years been demolished to make way for a solar farm.
RAF West Raynham was closed in 1994 but retained by the Ministry of Defence as a strategic reserve until in 2004 it was decided to be surplus to requirements. The site was sold in 2006 and then resold in 2007. Many of the 170 residential properties have since been renovated and sold or rented out. In 2008, planning permission was granted for the construction of an additional 58 properties and for the conversion of the C-type hangars into twenty loft style holiday apartments. A number of buildings on the Technical site are currently in industrial use and the area is now known as the West Raynham Business Park.
A proposal to afford Grade 2 listed status to the four Type C hangars as well as a number of other buildings, including the Parachute store, Workshops, Hospital, Armoury, the Works Department and its water tower, the Central Heating plant, the Guardroom, Station headquarters and Operations block, Officers' mess and a number of Airmen's and NCOs' married quarters was withdrawn by English Heritage. The only building to have obtained Grade 2 listed status is the 1945-built Watch office.
Planning permission for the installation of a 49.9MW solar farm including plant housing on the former flying field was in 2013 obtained by 'Good Energy', resulting in the removal of much of the concrete runways and the destruction of the Bloodhound missile installations. Once complete, the solar park covering 225 acres will be one of the largest in the UK and, according to the company, generate enough renewable electricity to power more than 11,000 average homes.
The aerodrome's fortified subterranean Battle headquarters (BHQ) can still be found beside Low Street, the minor road skirting the airfield's eastern perimeter. A few concrete fence post and remains of corroded and broken barbed wire fencing that once used to secure the compound are still in place. The entrance to the BHQ has been filled in and hence made inaccessible and the site is so overgrown that the top of the concrete observation cupola and the rusty handrail at the structure's entrance can barely be discerned amindst a thicket of brambles. A Royal Observer Corps observation post is situated beside the BHQ (see below).
Most WW2 aerodromes had a Battle Headquarters - all were built to a similar design and commonly situated on the edge of the airfield - which could be used to co-ordinate the defence of the airfield in the event of a land or air attack. These underground structures commonly comprise several small brick-built rooms, some with small windows for passing information between the plotting and communications rooms. There is an above-ground observation post with all-around viewing apertures and a bomb-proof concrete cap. Instead of the more commonly found all-round observation slit the observation cupola of the BHQ at RAF West Raynham has a small loophole in each wall.
The airfield had three bulk aviation installations, each comprising six 12,000 gallon tanks. The westernmost was situated to the west of Hangar 1, near the runway, and was removed when the new runway was built. Another was situated just south of Hangar 1 and the third could be found to the south-east of Hangar 4. All three were dismantled before the RAF West Raynham was closed (source: WJT, Paul Bellamy and Paul Lloyd, Airfield Information Exchange).
The station's Sewage works were located about 500 metres to the north-west of the airfield. The pump and engine houses are still in place as are the settlement tanks but the site appears to be disused.
It was from West Raynham that Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock, a flight commander in No 1 Squadron, on 5 April 1968 as his personal 50th anniversary tribute to the Royal Air Force flew a Hawker Hunter fighter aircraft between the spans of the Tower Bridge. This unauthorised stunt manoeuvre resulted in Pollock being invalided out of the RAF on medical grounds in order to avoid a court martial.
From the early 1960s until 1982, RAF West Raynham was used by the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) for holding their annual 8-week summer training camps which were attended by up to 500 observers per week. The local ROC post was opened in August 1959 and closed in October 1968. It is situated near the eastern perimeter of the flying field, within the much overgrown compound of the airfield's Battle headquarters (BHQ) and, interestingly, there are indications that it might have originally been planned to be built inside the BHQ (source: Subterranea Britannica).
The airfield was guarded by a number of pillboxes, most of which are of an unusual circular or a unique hexagonal type-22/Air Ministry design (source: Norfolk Heritage). A polygonal pillbox located to the extreme south of Raynham Park has also been recorded. One of the two circular pillboxes is situated in a crop field, about 300 metres to the east of the BHQ compound. The second round pillbox is located within the perimeter fence of the airfield and hence inaccessible. A hexagonal brick-built pillbox with a massive reinforced concrete roof and its gun mountings still in place is situated beside the bridleway to Rudham Common. Another type-22 pillbox is situated in a hedge beside Low Street, not far from the north-eastern corner of the flying field.
The pillbox was adjoined in the east by a small camp, the hardstanding of which is still in place today, albeit much overgrown. This was the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) Communal site. Another small hutted camp, the WAAF Accommodation site, can clearly be seen in a 1946 aerial view a short distance further along the old concreted road, by the north-eastern corner of what is now known as Gravelpit Wood (source: Paul Francis, Airfield Information Exchange).
RAF West Raynham is not open to the public and can be visited on special occasions only. My grateful thanks go to Mr Harrison, NCT and Norfolk Oak.
The Kiptons housing estate including the memorial and the Kiptons Hub and pub are publicly accessible. The adjacent area, where the heating plant, some barracks blocks and the Airmen's Restaurant are located is fenced-off and out of bounds; however, the path leading along the stock fence for a couple of hundred metres is accessible and offers good views. Travelling along Low Street, the minor road skirting the eastern perimeter of the site, offers glimpses of the flying field and of the solar farm construction. The BHQ/ROC post compound is situated right beside this road and the circular pillbox can also been seen from there. A hexagonal Air Ministry-design pillbox is situated a few metres beside the bridlepath leading to Fox Covert Cottage, to the west of The Orchard. Some of the Officers' and NCOs' married quarters, currently under renovation, can be glimpsed from the minor road skirting the airfield in the north-west.