RAF Docking

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

According to information published on the RAF's Bircham Newton Memorial Project website, the location was initially used as a decoy site. David Jacklin ("Up in all Weather") confirms that whilst serving as a Q-site at night, simulating the flarepath of a permanent operational station, the field was used during the day as a K-site, displaying dummy aircraft and other structures in order to divert attention from RAF Bircham Newton by trying to make the enemy believe that Docking was a functional airfield, when at that time, it of course, was not.

Docking was however upgraded for use as a grass airfield, serving as a satellite for the RAF Coastal Command station at nearby RAF Bircham Newton. The station was locally referred to as 'Sunderland airfield' because of its close proximity to Sunderland Farm. The various sites associated with the airfield were dotted about in the fields surrounding the farm and the grass runways were situated in the fields south of the farmhouse.

The following squadrons were stationed at Docking for some time during the war:

No. 235 Squadron RAF
No. 500 Squadron RAF
No. 320 Squadron RAF
No. 521 Squadron RAF
No. 206 Squadron RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force)
No. 407 Squadron RCAF
No. 415 Squadron RCAF

Soon the airfield was deemed to be more suitable for night flying than its parent station and was subsequently developed for night operations. Aircraft would be ferried in from Bircham Newton in the late afternoon to prepare for night operations and returned to Bircham Newton in the early morning for maintenance and day-time operations. These aircraft movements continued throughout the war.

The airfield was also used for emergency landings by aircraft returning from missions on the Continent damaged or short of fuel. According to eye witnesses a number of USAAF pilots landed their B17 Flying Fortresses half-way along the runway, expecting a much larger airfield, and consequently ended up stuck in a field. Some also carried their full bomb load.

The first units to use the airfield included the 206th Squadron (flying Hudsons), the 235th Squadron (flying Blenheims) and the 500th Squadron (flying Ansons and Hudsons). The 235th flew convoy escort and anti-shipping operations in the North Sea. The Canadian 407th Squadron and the Dutch 320th Squadron participated in combined operations attacking enemy ship convoys. After heavy losses in 1942, when at least three aircraft were lost per enemy ship sunk or damaged, they were frequently protected by fighter escorts. Aircraft from Docking's second Canadian squadron, the 415th, participated in Strike Wing operations, dropping flares to illuminate the targets. The 279th Squadron took part in air-sea rescue operations, locating and dropping dinghies to ditched aircrew.

The 521st Squadron operated from Docking in 1942 and 1943. Its task was to gather weather data and to produce the weather maps which were vital for the success of RAF bombing missions. Daily sorties were flown in many different types of aircraft, to take measurements of temperature and humidity from 40,000 feet downwards in precise areas. Take-off was in all weather. Due to bad visibility, on 10 October 1943 one of the aircraft struck one of the airfield's two pillboxes during take-off, killing three crew members and seriously injuring the pilot and his navigator. The pillbox is said to still be in place. The squadron's Mosquito aircraft also penetrated deep into occupied Europe in order to take measurements over target areas. In late 1944 they moved to RAF Langham > LinkExternal link - another satellite of RAF Bircham Newton.

A Beam Approach Training Flight was also based at Docking. The task of this unit was to train pilots in the use of a blind-landing aid called Standard Beam Approach (SBA). What would seem to be a beacon plinth can be seen near the north-eastern end of the main runway in the 1946 aerial view of the airfield. There also was an Armament Practice Camp (APC) flight. Their aircraft towed target drogues for aircrew gunnery practice.

Docking closed to flying at the end of the war but continued to be used for beam approach training as well as for target-towing. Because the airfield and its accommodation were no longer required operationally, it became a holding centre for airmen and cadets undergoing flying training in Canada and other Commonwealth countries, who were awaiting demobilisation. Amongst these men were the future actors Richard Walter Jenkins (Richard Burton), Mick Misell (Warren Mitchell) and Robert Hardy (one of his roles was that of Siegfried Farnon, the senior veterinarian in James Herriot's novel "All Creatures Great and Small").

Surplus to requirements, the airfield was finally sold off in 1958. A stone memorial at the southern end of the former RAF Communal site, situated beside Brancaster Road, commemorates the personnel stationed here during the war.

TF7739 : Memorial at RAF Docking by Evelyn Simak TF7739 : Sugar beet crop north of Docking by Evelyn Simak

The land has long since returned to agriculture and fields have replaced the three grass airstrips, leaving no trace of the latter. A few of the concreted tracks which used to lead onto the airfield, connecting the various campsites with each other, are however still in place. One crosses the minor road skirting the airfield in the east a short distance to the south-west from where the beacon plinth was situated. Disconnected sections of the perimeter track can also still be found along this road.

TF7940 : Concrete farm track by Evelyn Simak TF7940 : A kink in the road by Evelyn Simak TF7940 : Minor road past Friar's Thorne Farm by Evelyn Simak

A cluster of buildings, including a few blister hangars, can be seen in an 1946 aerial photo immediately to the north of Burnham Road where a track leads north into the fields south of Sunderland Farm. The track is still in place as is a large concrete hardstanding beside it, but nothing remains of any of the buildings here. The airfield's eight blister hangars are long gone. The concrete base of the A1 hangar still exists, surrounded by fields and used for storage by the farmer.

TF7838 : Farm hardstanding beside Burnham Road by Evelyn Simak TF7838 : Track to Sunderland Farm by Evelyn Simak

The Technical site adjoined the buildings of Sunderland Farm in the south-east. The old Watch office, long since converted for agricultural use, is still standing. The original Watch office was a much smaller building designed for Bomber Satellite Stations to drawing 15898/40. This building has since been demolished. The surviving building was designed as a Watch Office for all Commands (drawing 12779/41) with lower front windows to drawing 343/43.

TF7839 : The old Watch office by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : The old Watch office by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : The old Watch office (detail) by Evelyn Simak

TF7839 : The old Watch office - interior by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : The old Watch office - interior by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : The old Watch office - interior by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : The old Watch office - interior by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : The old Watch office - interior by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : View from the old Watch office by Evelyn Simak

Nearby there is a large prefabricated concrete building, one of several that once stood here. It used to be the Squadron offices. The adjoining Beam Approach Training flight office has been demolished. A little further along the concreted track the Ambulance and Fire engine shed can be found, adjoined by a workshop.

TF7839 : WW2 barracks hut by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : WW2 barracks hut by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : WW2 barracks hut by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : Old RAF building by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : Old RAF building by Evelyn Simak

One of the aerodrome's fuel storage compounds was located nearby. The generator house remains but it is now so overgrown that it can hardly be seen. Two generator plinths can still be found on the floor inside the structure. The two air raid shelters in the vicinity would seem to have been demolished but an RAF pillbox still stands a little further along the concrete track leading past here.

TF7839 : Overgrown RAF pillbox by Evelyn Simak

TF7839 : Overgrown building in the wood by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : Overgrown building in the wood ( interior) by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : Overgrown building in the wood ( interior) by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : Overgrown building in the wood ( interior) by Evelyn Simak

The airfield's campsites were situated in the fields to the west, with four camps strung out along the Brancaster Road. The Accommodation sites associated with the airfield housed a total of 789 RAF and 92 WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) personnel and for several years after the war some of the buildings on these sites served as emergency housing for local families. A couple of former airmen's barracks hut can still be found in the garden of a dwelling house which occupies part of the southern-most of these sites (Site 1).

A second fuel compound was situated in the triangle between Brancaster Road and the minor road leading to Brancaster Staithe, forking off in a north-westerly direction, where the memorial stone is located. This was the RAF Communal site, comprising the airmen's dining room, the officers' and sergeants' mess and a NAAFI. The concrete hardstanding of the compound is now much overgrown and most of the buildings are gone. The Gas decontamination centre however is still standing and only a short distance away, near the northern edge of the site, the Standby set house can be found. There are also three air raid shelters, not of the more commonly found Stanton shelter variant but built of concrete and resembling a short tunnel section. The fir trees that are now hiding the remaining buildings were planted here after the war.

TF7739 : Small wood beside Brancaster Road by Evelyn Simak TF7739 : The Standby set house by Evelyn Simak TF7739 : The Standby set house by Evelyn Simak TF7739 : View inside an air raid shelter by Evelyn Simak

TF7739 : Lurking in the shrubbery by Evelyn Simak TF7739 : Overgrown RAF building by Evelyn Simak TF7739 : Hidden behind brambles by Evelyn Simak TF7739 : Overgrown RAF building (interior) by Evelyn Simak

The WAAF site (the WAAF girls were initially billeted at Docking Hall) and Site 2 were located further to the north and north-west. A (Braithwaite) water tower, supplying water to all the surrounding camps, used to stand in the field beside the access road to Sunderland Farm, a short distance further along the minor road leading north to the coast. Sunderland farmhouse and the farm's cottages were requisitioned and served as aircrew sleeping quarters until the house was destroyed by an enemy bomb in May 1941, killing three and seriously wounding fifteen airmen.

TF7739 : Wheat crop field by Sunderland Farm by Evelyn Simak

Site 3, another Accommodation site, was situated immediately east of Brancaster Road, roughly opposite the track leading to Ludgate Hill Farm, which remained a working farm during the war.

The airfield's defence site was situated to the north-west of the runways. The buildings accommodating the men who operated the 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns were a Handcraft hut (a rare survival) and an adjoining prefabricated concrete (Orlit) barracks hut, both still in place.

TF7839 : WW2 barracks hut by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : WW2 barracks hut by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : WW2 barracks hut by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : WW2 barracks hut by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : WW2 barracks hut by Evelyn Simak

Two Air Ministry-type pillboxes placed at strategical locations guarded the airfield's runways. The site's underground Battle headquarters has long since been destroyed and no trace remains of the airfield's bomb store which was located near the north-eastern perimeter.

TF7940 : Ripening wheat crop by Evelyn Simak TF7839 : Pillbox on a field boundary by Evelyn Simak

In the grounds of Docking Hall, situated immediately to the south of High Street, the main road through the village, two rare Norcon pillboxes can still be found guarding the entrance to the Hall, which during the war served as the headquarters of RAF Bircham Newton. Another Norcon pillbox is located nearby.

TF7636 : The road through Docking by Evelyn Simak TF7636 : Norcon pillbox by Docking Hall by Evelyn Simak TF7636 : WWII Norcon pillbox, Docking - interior by Evelyn Simak

A much rarer pillbox-type can also be found in the vicinity. Two Tett turrets, now quite overgrown and difficult to find, are still guarding one of the roads leading to the former aerodrome. Basically, Tett Turrets consisted of a length of concrete culvert pipe placed vertically into the ground and topped by a rotating turret mounted on ball mounts. These miniature pillboxes are named after their inventor, HL Tett, and they were manufactured as a private commercial venture by Burbridge Builders Ltd of Surrey. The structures were designed to defend road junctions but they turned out to be far too cramped and were soon abandoned again. Also, the steel parts required for the construction of the rotating mechanism were more urgently required elsewhere.

The very few recorded examples all have cone-shaped concrete tops with a number of spy holes and one embrasure. The two specimens at Docking do not feature a vertical concrete pipe however but they have a small manhole-type underground room instead. The pair are interconnected by a length of culvert pipe. The seat affixed to the rotating top would have been occupied by a soldier armed with a rifle or a Bren machine gun.

TF7637 : WW2 defences by Evelyn Simak TF7637 : WW2 defences by Evelyn Simak TF7637 : WW2 defences by Evelyn Simak TF7637 : WW2 defences by Evelyn Simak


Views of the area where the former airfield was located and some of the remaining concreted tracks can be seen from the surrounding minor roads. The various buildings still remaining are situated on private land and should be visited only by the respective owners' permission.

The Tony Arter Heritage Room at the Ripper Hall (village hall) is open on most Wednesday mornings between 10am and 12 noon, and members of the Docking Heritage Group are happy to help with queries and/or to show the group's collection of photos, maps and other documents.

TF7636 : Docking village hall by Evelyn Simak

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