RAF Eye - USAAF Station 134

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Text © Copyright Evelyn Simak, June 2015
Images are under a separate Creative Commons Licence.

By the end of WW2 no fewer than 32 aerodromes had been constructed in Suffolk and all but five had been built after 1939. Up to six trains a day are reported to have been running from bombed-out London to East Anglia to bring rubble which was used as hardcore for runways and ancillary buildings. In mid-1942, the first parties of American engineers arrived to help build some of the American airfields such as Debach, Eye and Raydon and an overall workforce of 60,000 men are believed to have been engaged on airfield construction. Each airfield cost about £900,000 to build. RAF Eye covers an area of approximately 135 hectares and is located between Brome in the north, Yaxley in the south-west and Eye in the south-east, and about 18 kilometres (11 miles) to the north-east of Stowmarket in Suffolk. It is contained within the triangle formed by the A140 in the west, the B1077 in the east and Castleton Way in the south and situated on a flat plateau with only slight undulation, falling gently towards the river valleys to the east and south. The lowest point is in the south-east and the highest (some nine metres higher) to the west of the centre. These variations are however almost imperceptible.

The northern part of the airfield was built over the site of a former medieval green. The footpath which leads from New Road in the north-west and linked with what is now the B1077 road just north of the old Potash Lane in the south-east was closed, and all buildings within the aerodrome construction site were demolished. Low Barn, situated near the south-eastern edge of the flying field just within its boundary, no longer exists. Yaxley Plantation was reduced to a narrow strip and a small unnamed wood to the south of it was entirely cleared. A similar fate was met by a cluster of houses marked on the 1886 Ordnance Survey map (and still in place in 1938) as The Potash and Potash Cottages, located just south of the triangle formed between the main and the NW/SE secondary runways roughly where the Eye Power Station was later to be built. By 1943, when the RAF took an aerial view of the newly constructed runways, the hamlet had vanished without a trace but the track linking it with the B1077 road, marked on the map as Potash Lane, had become the access road into the aerodrome's Technical site. Today it is the access road into the Brome Industrial Estate. A recently constructed new road leading through the Mid Suffolk Business Park a short distance further to the south was named Potash Lane, presumably after the demolished hamlet. Potash Farm survived just outside the western perimeter, although it would no longer seem to exist today. Chestnut and Langton Grove farms in the south-east and Whitehouse Farm in the south-west are however still in the farming business.

The aerodrome, initially known as Brome Airfield, was not a standard Class A base but constructed to a less demanding standard. Station 134, as it had been designated, was one of the last wartime bases to be built in East Anglia. It was built by US Army engineers, starting in September 1942 and involving several battalions: the 829th Battalion arrived in September 1942, followed in December by the 827th Battalion, with the former being replaced by the 859th Battalion in May of the following year. The main work was reportedly carried out during the summer of 1943, when the 827th Battalion set records in pouring concrete and the 859th made their mark in building construction. British contractors were later also taken on board. Interestingly, some of the construction equipment could still be found abandoned on the site for many years after the war as is evidenced by photographs taken by airfield architect and book author Paul Francis in the mid-1980s.

In the winter of 1943 the airfield, which by then had three concreted runways with a screeded (rather than the more usual tarmac) finish and 50 aircraft dispersals (a group of eight was situated west of the main A140 road), was declared operational and consequently turned over to the Air Forces on 7 December. By 1 April 1944 the entire aerodrome had been completed and after its official opening on 1 May 1944, the USAAF's 8th Air Force's 3rd Bombardment Division's 93rd Bombardment Wing's 490th Bombardment Group (Heavy), based at Mountain Home AAF Idaho, moved in almost immediately. The operational flying squadrons of the group were:

848th Bombardment Squadron
849th Bombardment Squadron
850th Bombardment Squadron
851st Bombardment Squadron

Additional USAAF Station units assigned to RAF Eye were:

477th Sub-Depot
18th Weather Squadron
329th Station Complement Squadron
1240th Quartermaster Company
1276th Military Police Company
1448th Ordnance Supply & Maintenance Company
814th Chemical Company
2116th Engineer Fire Fighting Platoon

A memorial stone, flanked by two seats and an information board, was unveiled on 29 May 2016. The site is located on the north side of Progress Way, a new road leading into the Mid Suffolk business park. More than 100 people were present at the unveiling and 92-year old veteran Si Spiegel, who flew 35 missions from the aerodrome, came all the way from New York. The ceremony was the culmination of a two-year effort by a small group of local residents to create a permanent monument honouring the men of the 490th for their contributions during WW2.

TM1375 : 490th Bomb Group memorial (detail) by Evelyn Simak TM1375 : 490th Bomb Group memorial, RAF Eye by Evelyn Simak TM1375 : Never Forgotten - Forever Honoured by Evelyn Simak TM1375 : 490th Bomb Group memorial (detail) by Evelyn Simak TM1375 : 490th Bomb Group memorial - memorial seat by Evelyn Simak

The 490th Bombardment Group (BG) entered combat in June 1944, initially flying B-24 Consolidated Liberator bomber aircraft in mainly tactical missions in support of the ground forces fighting near Caen in July and near Brest in September 1944, and bombing airfields and coastal defences in northern France before and during the invasion of Normandy. The group also participated in missions aimed at bombing airfields and coastal defences in northern France before and during the invasion of Normandy, and in destroying V-weapons sites, bridges, railway lines, vehicles and road junctions. After their re-equipment with B-17s in September 1944, the crews were able to fly longer distances and subsequently participated in the bombing of a number of strategic industrial sites in Germany such as enemy oil plants and tank factories, marshalling yards and aerodromes in Berlin, Hamburg, Merseburg, Münster, Kassel, Hannover and Köln (Cologne), and in attacks of supply lines as well as military installations during the Battle of the Bulge (fought from December 1944 until January 1945). In early March 1945, interdictory targets were attacked and missions were again flown in support of the advancing ground forces.

In the 158 missions flown by the 490th BG only 22 aircraft were lost, and it was hence the group with the lowest loss rate of all the 8th USAAF bombardment groups. Considering that each aircraft carried a crew of ten men, a considerable number of lives were nevertheless lost. On 5 November 1944, the B-17G 43-37884 of Clarry Bridwell (pilot), Floyd Norman, Dick Colyer, Wendell Cole, Jack Provolt, Ed Longer, John Porterfield and Bob Joyce (all killed in action) and Paul Finot (POW) was damaged in a mid-air collision over Ludwigshafen, crashing at Neustadt. B-17G 43-37886 was shot down by flak over Merseburg on 25 November 1944, killing crewmember Bob Newsome. Pilot Frank Delmerico and John Fitzgerald, Everett Gille, Herman Savely, Bill Henthorn, Omar Scheidt, George Lee, Clifton Callahan were taken prisoner. The pilot of B-17G 43-39130, Bill Audette, as well as Ray Akeny, Bob Neuenschwander, Ted Chapin, Roy McGhee and Virgil Dupler were killed when on 19 December 1944 their aircraft was shot down by an enemy jet and crashed at Strehla. Crewmembers Les Harvard, George Gilbert, Chas Johnston and Bill Shipp were taken prisoner.

In addition to the losses occurring during missions, the group's operations history also documents 47 non-combat related accidents, some fatal, involving engine failures, landing, take-off and taxiing accidents as well as mid-air collisions. The probably worst accident was the collision of two of the group's aircraft which on the occasion of a training session on 5 January 1945 flew into each other in mid-air over Rougham in Suffolk, killing Harry Adelman (pilot), Chas Elder (co-pilot), Art Saye (navigator), Virgil Walton (engineer/top turret gunner), Harry Bennett (tail gunner), Don Turrle (radio operator) and Harvey Smetzer, and injuring the on-board instructors Major Ed Blum and Lt Ernie Langholz (who had to have his hand amputated) and Bombardier Lt Harry Hatrell, all flying in B-17G 43-38050. The other aircraft involved was B-17G 43-38111. Don Wood (pilot), John Smith (co-pilot), Forest Redman (navigator), Warren Allen, Chas Todt (engineer/top turret gunner), Elmer Hammond (tail gunner), Cliff Kwasigroh (radio operator), Ed Sarazewski and the on-board flying instructor Lt Paul McGee all lost their lives. Another crew had a very lucky escape when on 29 July 1944 their B-24 Liberator called "My Mama Done Told Me" crashed in front of the Swann Inn at Brome, a public house dating from the 17th century, on its approach to the aerodrome. The aircraft exploded and burned out next to the pub. Fortunately, both the crew and the building survived and the Swan Inn is still in business today.

After 8 May 1945 - Victory of Europe (V-E) Day - the 490th BG helped ferrying food supplies to flood-stricken areas of Holland and in the transport of French, Belgian and Spanish prisoners of war out of Austria and to Allied centres. The unit finally returned to Drew Field, Florida, on 3 September 1945, and was disbanded shortly afterwards. A community-led project is currently underway to fund a memorial stone which will be installed near the southern edge of the flying field. A memorial plaque commemorating all USAAF personnel serving at the aerodrome can already be seen inside St Mary's church in Brome. A memorial shelter was constructed in front of the village hall of Brome Street, bearing two commemorative plaques; the adjacent information board explains the aerodrome's history.

TM1476 : Memorial plaque in St Mary's church by Evelyn Simak TM1576 : 490th Bomb Group (USAAF) memorial plaque by Evelyn Simak TM1576 : 490th Bomb Group (USAAF) memorial shelter by Evelyn Simak TM1576 : Commemorative plaque to former personnel of RAF Eye by Evelyn Simak TM1376 : The Swan Inn in Brome by Evelyn Simak

In November 1945 the airfield was transferred to RAF Bomber Command but was subsequently run down and finally sold off by the Air Ministry during 1962/63. Over the following decades parts of the airfield including the former Technical site have been converted into a very busy industrial area, with several industrial sites including the so-called Stramit Factory (now occupied by Speeddeck) having been set up to the south of the airfield shortly after the war. A great number of new businesses and buildings have since been added. In 1992, the world's first poultry litter-fuelled generating plant was built on the site. Known as the Eye Power Station, it is owned by Energy Power Resources (EPR) and produces 12.7MW of power by processing 150,000 tonnes of chicken litter per year. There is also a natural gas pumping station situated roughly in the centre of the airfield.

At present the industrial area is divided into four sections: the Eye Airfield Industrial Estate (recently renamed Oaksmere Business Park) is spread out mainly along the eastern side of the A140 road and aligned alongside the main runway, which serves as the main access route. Further to the west, the Brome Industrial Estate is situated nearest to the village of Brome and at the northern tip of the triangle formed by the A140 and the B1077 roads, its northern boundary denoted by the course of Liberator Way and the public footpath running along it. The business units on the Airfield Industrial Park near Langton Green adjoin in the south, and the Mid Suffolk Business Park, partially funded by a grant from the EU, is located still further south between the B1077 and a new access road called Prospect Way. The industrial occupants range from small workshops to a power generation plant (the Eye Power Station), food production businesses (mainly on the eastern part of the site), many small workshop units and a Council Highway Maintenance Depot. Logistics and warehousing businesses take up most of the frontage facing the A140 and are accessed via a private road.

TM1375 : Brome Industrial Estate by Evelyn Simak TM1375 : Business on the Brome Industrial Estate by Evelyn Simak TM1375 : Brome Industrial Estate by Evelyn Simak TM1375 : Brome Industrial Estate by Evelyn Simak TM1375 : Mid Suffolk Business Park by Evelyn Simak

The industrial area continues to expand, with four wind turbines being some of the most recent additions since in February 2012 the Mid Suffolk District Council overrode the Eye Town Council by approving the construction by Wind Direct Ltd of two more 130 metres high wind turbines beside the main runway, bringing the total number of turbines currently in place up to four. The turbines, which can be seen from many miles away, are now dominating the scenery. They are the Baldwin Farm Turbines nos. 1 and 2, situated east of, and the Roy Humphries Ltd Turbines nos. 1 and 2, located to the west of the main runway.

TM1274 : The four wind turbines at Eye by Evelyn Simak TM1374 : Wind turbines in fields by the Oaksmere Business Park by Evelyn Simak TM1375 : Hangars and storage sheds on the Brome Industrial Estate by Evelyn Simak TM1274 : Wind turbines on the Oaksmere Business Park by Evelyn Simak TM1274 : Wind turbines on the Oaksmere Business Park by Evelyn Simak

The most recent enterprising project would seem to be the construction by the energy generating company Progress Power Limited (a subsidiary business of Watt Power Ltd) of a £200 million gas-fired power station, to be called the Progress Power Station, with a nominal generating capacity of up to 299 MW. The plant is described as generating sufficient power to supply the equivalent of 400,000 homes when required, and employs management and maintenance staff of up to 15 people. Subject to planning and financing, the power station is intended to enter commercial operation in 2018.

Amidst the numerous new buildings constructed over the decades, a handful of original buildings dating from WW2 have also survived and some of the new roads that now traverse the industrial estates were given airfield-related names. A Romney hut which probably once housed a workshop can still be seen on the Langton Green Council Depot site in Liberator Way. It is not shown on the airfield site plan and would seem to have been relocated after the war. The depot is located on the hardstanding of dispersal 3. One other portion of this dispersal (number 1) which once comprised three aircraft parking spaces is also still in place across the road, where it is currently used for storage. Number 2 disappeared when Liberator Way was built over it.

TM1375 : Brome Industrial Estate by Evelyn Simak TM1375 : View along Liberator Way by Evelyn Simak TM1375 : Spectacle dispersal beside Liberator Way by Evelyn Simak TM1375 : Brome Industrial Estate by Evelyn Simak TM1375 : Romney hut on the Council Depot in Liberator Way by Evelyn Simak

A short distance further south a number of buildings, including the remaining T2 aircraft sheds (hangars) and an adjacent long disused latrine, are still standing in various states of repair and industrial uses on the Airfield Business Park. The Gas clothing & respirator store, the AM Bombing Trainer and one of the aerodrome's Romney huts have been put to new uses. The former Technical site's electricity substation however still serves its originally intended purpose.


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