RAF Matlask - USAAF Station 178

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


[The spelling of Matlaske is confusing as it is sometimes spelled without the "e". It has been suggested that Matlaske is the village and Matlask is the parish; on the 1930 O/S map however, both are given as Matlask, which was also the RAF's preferred spelling.]


TG1434 : Village sign by Evelyn Simak


An already existing airfield located to the south of the village of Matlaske was approved for requisition by the Air Ministry in August 1939 and RAF Matlask became operational in October 1940, serving as a satellite station to RAF Coltishall > LinkExternal link. The airfield had two grass runways of 1,450 metres (1,600 yards) and 1,190 metres (1,300 yards) length respectively. RAF Matlask formed part of No.12 Group RAF Fighter Command. The group was responsible for the aerial defence of the Midlands, Norfolk, Lincolnshire and North Wales, and after No.11 Group, was the second most important group of Fighter Command during WW2.

The aerodrome's Technical site was situated in the fields to the south of the village, a short distance south-east of the village school at Matlaske Gap. The flying field adjoined in the south. Despite its close proximity to the airfield the village school was never closed. To the north of the village and the aerodrome is Barningham Park, a landscape park designed by Humphry Repton in the early 19th century surrounding Barningham Hall, where some of the RAF officers were billeted. One of the domestic sites, Site 6, adjoined the Hall in the west, south of the ruined St Mary's church.


TG1435 : St Mary's church by Evelyn Simak


Officers not billeted at Barningham Hall were accommodated at the millhouse in Itteringham, about three kilometres to the south of the aerodrome. The transport between the two villages was by bicycle. Some brave individuals are reported to have dived into the mill pond from the flat roof section between the two dormers. The swans in the mill pond were reportedly occasionally fed with bread soaked in whiskey and the drunken birds were seen swimming into the river bank. On 29 May 1942, Pilot Officer Jowitt's Westland Whirlwind no.P7118 of No. 137 Squadron caught fire over the village; the pilot baled out and landed outside the Officer's mess just in time for breakfast. The aircraft, which had flown a total of 111 hours, crashed in the watermeadows by the bridge near Bintry Farm (Bintree Farm on current O/S maps), a short distance to the south-west of the village.


TG1434 : Entrance and driveway to Barningham Hall by Evelyn Simak TG1430 : Itteringham Mill by Evelyn Simak


The aerodrome's Technical site was located a short distance to the south of Barningham Park and the village of Matlaske. The grass flying field, bordered by Wickmere Road in the east and by Itteringham Road in the west, adjoined it in the south. Most of the buildings on the Technical site would seem to have been Nissen huts. The guard house stood beside the road leading into the site, which turned off the rural lane linking Matlaske with the village of Itteringham further to the south. It had the building number 1 and was a prefabricated concrete hut with a small entrance porch at one end, Crittall windows and an asbestos roof. The Contractors' store (Building 15), the Parachute store (Building 24), the Armoury and Night Flying Equipment (NFE) store (Building 47) and the Squadron offices (Building 50) adjoined it on the north side of the track. Building 50 was a long single-storey hut constructed from prefabricated concrete segments, rendered and painted white. All these buildings were pulled down in 1978 but the concreted hardstandings remain, albeit so overgrown that they can now hardly be discerned. An air raid shelter has survived on the edge of this complex.


TG1434 : Farm track south of Matlaske Gap by Evelyn Simak TG1434 : Red valerian surrounded by a wilderness of brambles by Evelyn Simak TG1434 : Entrance into an air raid shelter by Evelyn Simak TG1434 : WW2 air raid shelter (interior) by Evelyn Simak TG1434 : WW2 air raid shelter by Evelyn Simak


A short distance further to the east a large concrete base still marks the location of the airfield's T2 hangar. Today it is used for farming purposes, with the hangar long since having been dismantled. No trace remains of the aerodrome's five Blister hangars but one of them is now the main hangar (Hangar 1) at the Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum in Flixton (Suffolk), housing fighter aircraft such as the EE Lightning, Sea Harrier and Spitfire as well as Piston Provost and Vampire training aircraft, gliders and microlights, Luftwaffe 'wreckology' and model aircraft collections.


TM3187 : The Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum in Flixton by Evelyn Simak

TG1434 : Cracked concrete surface by Evelyn Simak TG1434 : Processing this year's potato harvest by Evelyn Simak TG1434 : A T2 hangar once used to stand here by Evelyn Simak TG1434 : Processing this year's potato harvest by Evelyn Simak TG1434 : Potato harvesting time by Evelyn Simak


Nearby stood the two Watch offices - a small originally single-storey Watch office for Fighter Satellite stations and a Watch office for All Commands which was added later. Both these buildings were demolished in 1978. A rare subterranean Battle headquarters in the vicinity was destroyed in 2012 and young trees were planted over it. The location of the structure can however still be glimpsed because a shallow depression now marks the spot where its remains are now buried.


TG1434 : A wood in the making by Evelyn Simak TG1434 : Tree saplings by Evelyn Simak


The aircraft dispersal pens were distributed evenly alongside the flying field's perimeter and an aerial view taken in 1946 shows their positions beside the western, southern and eastern perimeter track. A section of the southern perimeter track now serves as a public footpath, leading past one of the last two remaining fighter pens which, sadly, was dug out and hence another piece of history destroyed in 2012. Only the concrete hardstanding remains.


TG1433 : Footpath past WW2 remains by Evelyn Simak TG1433 : WW2 remains by Evelyn Simak TG1433 : Another piece of history gone by Evelyn Simak TG1433 : Remains of a WW2 fighter pen by Evelyn Simak


The only fighter pen to have survived, including its earthen blast wall and a brick-built crew shelter, can be found beside the eastern perimeter track. The blast wall forms a semicircle around a concrete hardstanding where aircraft would once have been parked. The crew shelter has been incorporated into the blast wall. Its two entrances are on the south face. There is also a narrow entrance/exit passage on the north side with what appears to be a trench immediately in front of it.


TG1534 : WW2 fighter pen by Evelyn Simak TG1534 : WW2 fighter pen (blast wall) by Evelyn Simak TG1534 : WW2 fighter pen (crew shelter) by Evelyn Simak TG1534 : WW2 fighter pen (entrance) by Evelyn Simak

TG1534 : WW2 fighter pen (crew shelter interior) by Evelyn Simak TG1534 : WW2 fighter pen (crew shelter interior) by Evelyn Simak TG1534 : WW2 fighter pen (crew shelter interior) by Evelyn Simak TG1534 : WW2 fighter pen (crew shelter interior) by Evelyn Simak TG1534 : WW2 fighter pen (entrance/exit) by Evelyn Simak


About 2,500 RAF personnel were stationed at RAF Matlask but the station was a place of constant change and home to a large number of units flying a wide range of aircraft:

No. 3 Squadron (Hawker Tempests; from 21 September 1944)
No. 19 Squadron (Spitfires; August to December 1941)
No. 56 Squadron (Hawker Typhoons; August 1942 to July 1943)
No. 65 Squadron (Mustangs; September and October 1944, fighter escorts for Bomber Command)
No. 72 Squadron
No. 122 Squadron
No. 137 Squadron (Westland Whirlwinds; December 1941 to August 1942, convoy patrols)
No. 222 Squadron (Spitfires; November 1940 to May 1941)
No. 229 Squadron
No. 245 Squadron
No. 266 Squadron
No. 278 Squadron
No. 601 Squadron (Hurricanes; July and August 1941)
No. 602 Squadron
No. 609 Squadron (Typhoons)
No. 1489 Flight RAF(from April to May 1943)

The units mainly flew offensive fighter sweeps over occupied Europe as well as anti-shipping patrols and counter hit-and-run attacks in defence of East Anglian targets. The television presenter Raymond Baxter spent some time at Matlask in the later years of the war whilst serving with No. 602 Squadron. From October 1941 until August 1942 air-sea rescue operations were also flown from the aerodrome, using Lysander and Walrus aircraft.
Nos. 451 (Spitfires; from March 1945 until the end of WW2 the squadron participated in the hunt for V-2 rocket sites) and 453 Squadrons RAAF (Royal Australian Airforce), No. 412 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and No. 485 Squadron of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) as well as the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) 56th Fighter Group were also stationed at RAF Matlask at some time during the war. The USAAF referred to the aerodrome as 'Station 178'.


TG1534 : Crop fields beside Wickmere Road by Evelyn Simak TG1534 : The northern perimeter track by Evelyn Simak TG1534 : View across the former flying field of RAF Matlask by Evelyn Simak


The airfield was allocated to USAAF's Eighth Army Air Force as a fighter base in September 1942. Mrs EM Gray, a schoolgirl at the time, remembers that after the Battle of Britain, initially both the aerodrome and Barningham Hall and park were quiet, but soon many huts were being built in the park to accommodate American troops who had been airlifted into RAF Sculthorpe and from there transported by road to RAF Matlask (Wartime Memories Project). No structures would seem to have remained on any of these sites.

The USAAF's 56th Fighter Group (flying P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers) - perhaps better known as "Zemke's Wolf Pack", named after Colonel Hubert Zemke, the group commander - however used the base only briefly in March and April 1943. In February, whilst still stationed at RAF King's Cliffe, arrangements had been made for the 56th to undertake gunnery practice on RAF ranges, using the aerodrome at Matlask, amongst others, for this purpose. By 1 June 1943, the Air Ministry had 67 bomber aerodromes under construction for the USAAF and the construction of fighter fields was also underway. 10 out of a total of 22 of the latter were allocated to exclusive US use, with the remainder designated as emergency landing fields. In August 1943, RAF Matlask was transferred to Eighth Air Force USAAF control and rebuilt. It was however not re-opened (in September 1944) under USAAF control.

In early 1944 a runway of about 600 metres' length was constructed on Kelling Heath by the 3rd Aviation Engineers, USAAF, who were based at Matlask and training for their intended task in France after D-Day. The runway, which was never intended to be used by aircraft, was located south-west of the Kelling Heath Halt and south of the M&GN railway line. Its course, running from north-east to south-west, can still be seen in aerial views today. (Source: Norfolk and Suffolk Airfields and Airstrips, Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum, June 1989)

From July to October 1945, No. 659 (AOP) Squadron of the British Army operated liaison aircraft from Matlaske until its closure in October.

Hardly anything has survived on any of the accommodation sites which were dispersed in the fields to the south of Barningham Park. Site 2, the Communal site, adjoined in the east by the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force), was located in the fields beside a track linking the Hall with the village of Matlaske a short distance further to the south. The only building surviving on this site is an electrical substation which is still in use today. Site 3, a domestic site, was situated in a wood known as Nuttery Plantation on the western edge of Barningham Park. Several small buildings have survived at this location, and larger concrete hut bases as well as concrete tracks are also still in place. The accommodation huts are reported to have later been converted to temporary housing, used by local families who had lost their homes. The site comprised a Picket post, a Fuel compound, latrines, a drying room and a number of Airmen's barrack huts, some still in place.


TG1335 : Entrance to Site 3 by Evelyn Simak TG1435 : WW2 building on Site 3 by Evelyn Simak TG1435 : WW2 building on Site 3 by Evelyn Simak TG1435 : WW2 building on Site 3 by Evelyn Simak

TG1435 : WW2 building by Evelyn Simak TG1435 : WW2 building by Evelyn Simak TG1435 : WW2 building (interior) on Site 3 by Evelyn Simak TG1435 : WW2 building (interior) by Evelyn Simak TG1435 : WW2 building by Evelyn Simak


Site 4 was located in the grounds of Barningham Hall a short distance further to the north-east. No trace remains. Site 5 was situated to the north-west of St Mary's church and south of Dairy House. No trace of its former use remains and the site is currently a cattle pasture. Site 7, the Sick quarters, was situated on the eastern edge of the village of Matlaske, south of The Street and nestled between St Peter's church and Hall Farm. The Sewage disposal works, Site 8, was a short distance to the north-east. This site is now populated by a small wood.

The aerodrome's Technical site has also been almost completely obliterated and very little remains today, with the buildings and most other structures having long since been dismantled or destroyed. The grass runways have reverted back to agriculture and no trace remains of them. Sections of the perimeter road now serve as farm tracks and part of the southern perimeter track is currently a public footpath.


TG1434 : Crop fields south of Matlaske by Evelyn Simak TG1434 : Crop fields by Matlaske by Evelyn Simak TG1433 : Footpath through fields by Evelyn Simak TG1433 : The old perimeter track by Evelyn Simak TG1534 : A short section of perimeter track by Evelyn Simak


Most of the concrete hardstandings of the old aircraft dispersal pens have also been removed. A somewhat impersonal airfield marker stone placed there in 2012 by the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust can be found beside the entrance to the Technical site by the north-eastern corner of the flying field.


TG1534 : Airfield marker stone at RAF Matlask by Evelyn Simak

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Local resident Mrs Gray remembers that a small part of Barningham Park was transformed into a POW camp housing Italian prisoners. This is confirmed by other locals who remember a POW and transit camp in the grounds of Barningham Hall and maintained by the US Army for holding Italians and Germans. A photograph in St Mary's church depicts a group of prisoners. The inscription underneath reads:

"Protestant P.O.W.'s [sic] with their pastor, Dr Gunter Hanson. At the invitation of the Revíd Cyril Wilson of Barningham the many devoted Christians held their own services in the church, when their pastor had to go to another camp, they joined the English services. The Y.M.C.A. published Morning and Evening prayer leaflets in German, so they could follow the service and the Revíd Wilson would ask all to stand, while they said the Lordís Prayer in their own tongue. When possible we would choose hymns set to German tunes. Roman Catholicís [sic] were given transport to mass at Sheringham R.C. Church on Sunday mornings."

The authorities did not consider the prisoners dangerous and they were allowed to work in the fields, and towards the end of the war they had more or less complete freedom, moving about freely in the village selling ornate carvings and knick knacks (source: Wartime Memories Project). It is not known when the camp was closed or how many prisoners it held. Most of the prisoner of war camps were maintained until 1948 but no information is available from records, as the POW camp at Matlaske is not mentioned on relevant lists.

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Two of the four pillboxes that once guarded the aerodrome have survived. A pillbox situated in fields to the north of Dairy Farm, Itteringham, and another, located to the north-east of Little Barningham village were destroyed. An octagonal type-22 pillbox still stands on the corner of a garden beside Wickmere Road. A rare polygonal type-22 variant pillbox is located by the crossroads at Matlaske Gap, near the Old School House. Its walls are over one metre thick.


TG1434 : Type-22 variant pillbox by Evelyn Simak TG1434 : Type-22 variant pillbox (entrance) by Evelyn Simak TG1434 : Type-22 pillbox by Evelyn Simak

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An Auxiliary Unit patrol's operational base (OB) was located nearby. One of the tasks of the Matlaske patrol was to sabotage enemy aircraft, had they ever landed at the local aerodrome in the event of an invasion. The base and its ammunitions store were destroyed after the war but the locations of both can still be found, marked by depressions in the ground. Badly corroded sections of corrugated sheeting and timber remain at the site of the ammo store.

TG1531 : Remains of an Auxiliary Unit's operational base by Evelyn Simak TG1531 : Remains of an Auxiliary Unit's ammunition store by Evelyn Simak



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