RAF Tibenham - USAAF Station 124

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

At the start of WW1 in 1914, there were only seven completed aerodromes in the whole of Great Britain but when the war ended in 1918 there were 301 airfields, all serving the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). In 1918, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was created by amalgamating the RFC and the RNAS. About thirty aerodromes had been constructed in the county of Norfolk and one of these was located near the village of Tibenham. It was known as RFC Tibenham.

The aerodrome would not seem to have seen any action during the interwar years, until in 1941/42 it was upgraded specifically for the use of the USAAF (United States Army Air Forces), receiving three concrete runways connected by a perimeter track and equipped with a number of frying-pan hardstandings and loops. The associated camp sites were dispersed mainly along the eastern edge of the aerodrome and provided accommodation for about 2900 personnel.

The Twelfth Air Force's 320th Bombardment Group (Medium) was the first unit to use the airfield, albeit only briefly. By the summer of 1943 the 2nd Bombardment Wing (which was to become the 2nd Air Division) had moved onto the airfield and in the autumn of 1943 the aircraft of the 445th Bombardment Group (Heavy) finally arrived. Their task was the precision daylight bombing of targets in Germany in support of the night bombing activities of the Royal Air Force. The group was equipped with B-24 Liberator bomber aircraft.

Its operational squadrons were:

700th Bombardment Squadron
701st Bombardment Squadron
702nd Bombardment Squadron
703rd Bombardment Squadron

The then Squadron Commander of the 703rd BS was the famous actor James "Jimmy" Maitland Stewart who served at the base for about ten months. The 445th's first mission was the bombing of U-boat installations at Kiel on 13 December 1943. In the following weeks until the end of the war, the group operated primarily as a strategic bombardment organisation, striking industries in Osnabrück, synthetic oil plants inLutzendorf, chemical works in Ludwigshafen, marshalling yards at Hamm, an airfield at Munich, an ammunition plant at Düneburg, underground oil storage facilities at Ehmen and factories at Münster. During the USAAF's so-called Big Week (20-25 February 1944) of raids against the German aircraft industry the Group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for attacking an aircraft assembly plant at Gotha. The group also participated in the preparations for the invasion of Normandy by bombing airfields, V-weapon sites, and other targets and attacked shore installations on D-Day (6 June 1944).

Other duties involved the support of ground forces at St Lo by striking enemy defences and the bombing of German communications during the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945). On 24 March 1945 they dropped food, medical supplies, and ammunition to troops that landed near Wesel during the airborne assault across the Rhine and on the afternoon of the same day flew a bombing mission to the area, hitting a landing ground at Stormede. The 445th BG also helped with dropping propaganda leaflets and hauling gasoline to France. For their efforts they were awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm by the French government.

The group flew 280 missions and 6,323 sorties from Tibenham. 576 airmen were killed in action and a total of 138 bomber aircraft were lost. The probably most deadly mission was flown on 27 September 1944 when in just over three minutes, twenty B-24 bombers with their crews of at least nine men each were shot down in a forest in central Germany, resulting in the highest loss in history for a bomb group in a single day's battle. On the same day, five more aircraft crashed in Germany, one in Belgium and two more in France, while two others managed to make emergency landings at Manston (near Dover). Only one of the 35 Liberators made it back home to the Tibenham base.

The 445th's final mission was carried out on 25 April 1945, and by 28 May 1945 the crews and their aircraft had flown back to the USA and the airfield was put under Care and Maintenance. Part of the land was sold in 1952, and the remaining airfield was closed for good in 1959 and sold off in 1964/65. The land was returned to agriculture. A stone memorial commemorating the 445th BG was erected in 1987 on a small plot near the club house of the Norfolk Gliding Club, which currently owns the airfield. Besides the parish church and a glider aircraft, a painting beside the entrance of the Tibenham Community Hall also depicts a B-24 Liberator bomber. All personnel based at Tibenham are commemorated by a plaque in All Saints' church, which also features a great number of kneelers commemorating some of the men who served at the base.

TM1489 : Tibenham airfield (Norfolk Gliding Club) - 445th Bomb Group memorial by Evelyn Simak TM1389 : The Tibenham Community Hall by Evelyn Simak TM1389 : Tibenham All Saints' church  - memorial by Evelyn Simak

TM1389 : Tibenham All Saints' church  - kneeler by Evelyn Simak TM1389 : Tibenham All Saints' church  - kneelers by Evelyn Simak TM1389 : Tibenham All Saints' church  - kneeler by Evelyn Simak TM1389 : Tibenham All Saints' church  - kneeler by Evelyn Simak TM1389 : Tibenham All Saints' church  - kneeler by Evelyn Simak

The Norfolk Gliding Club has been using the airfield since 1960 and there are plans of building a heritage centre to preserve the history of the airfield and its connection with the 445th GB. When the gliders moved in, most of the wartime airfield buildings had already been demolished, but whereas the perimeter track and many of the hardstandings were lifted to be crushed for aggregate the runways were still in place.

TM1488 : Tibenham airfield (Norfolk Gliding Club) - view along the runway by Evelyn Simak TM1489 : The clubhouse at Tibenham airfield (Norfolk Gliding Club) by Evelyn Simak TM1488 : Tibenham airfield (Norfolk Gliding Club) - runways crossing by Evelyn Simak TM1488 : Tibenham airfield (Norfolk Gliding Club) - derigged gliders in their trailers by Evelyn Simak TM1488 : Tibenham airfield (Norfolk Gliding Club) - runway 26 by Evelyn Simak

The northern part of the airfield has been returned to agriculture and the concreted tracks are used by the farmers to get to their fields. Short sections of the track to the north of Hill Road connect with public footpaths. Part of the aerodrome's drainage system, such as concrete pipes and manholes, can still occasionally be found on agricultural land.

TM1490 : Disused service road on the old Tibenham aerodrome by Evelyn Simak TM1490 : The former Tibenham aerodrome by Evelyn Simak TM1490 : This is where the runway ends by Evelyn Simak TM1489 : Fields by Tibenham airfield by Evelyn Simak TM1488 : Concrete cover by Evelyn Simak TM1488 : Drainage manhole by Evelyn Simak

The temporary huts on the dispersed accommodation sites have long since been dismantled or fallen down and the airfield's control tower was demolished a few days before it would have been listed as a preserved building by the then landowner in 1978. A small number of the original prefabricated concrete buildings as well as other structures such as blast and air raid shelters can however still be found.

The Technical site was spread out along the eastern edge of the airfield in the area which today is occupied by the sheds and offices of the Norfolk Gliding Club. Adjoining the Technical site in the north-east, the Headquarters/Admin site was situated on Sneath Common where Woodstock Farm is now located. The last original buildings which had remained on the farm were demolished several years ago in order to make way for modern farm sheds.

A little further to the north-east was the Communal site 1. It was situated immediately to the east of Plantation Road and comprised an officers' mess, bath house and latrines; a sergeants' mess, ablutions blocks and latrines; airmen's showers, ablutions and latrines; a dining room; a ration store; an institute (NAAFI); a grocery & local produce store; a gas decontamination centre; a fuel compound; a standby set house; a medical inspection hut; a picket post; and the site's own waterworks which included two borehole pump houses.

After having been unfenced and hence open to the public for many years, the site is now a private property. The owner has retained the original site entrance and all the concreted trackways which once connected the various buildings, of which the Standby set house and one of the borehole pump houses are still standing. The Filter room was demolished but its components were never removed and can hence still be found where they fell. There are also a number of blast and air raid shelters, much overgrown and inaccessible.

TM1589 : RAF Tibenham - Communal site 1 by Evelyn Simak TM1589 : RAF Tibenham - Communal site 1 by Evelyn Simak TM1589 : RAF Tibenham - Communal site 1 by Evelyn Simak TM1589 : RAF Tibenham - Communal site 1 by Evelyn Simak TM1589 : RAF Tibenham - Communal site 1 by Evelyn Simak

The Communal site 2 was only a short distance to the north-west, in an area currently occupied by the large sheds of Giltedge Farm. Not far distant was Site 1, an accommodation site located in a field immediately to the south-west of the junction of Tibenham Road and Plantation Road. It was linked with the two Communal sites and with Site 2 by a concreted road which currently serves as a public footpath. The area occupied by Site 2 is currently used as a sheep pasture. A modern aerial view shows many overgrown humps in this pasture and these can also clearly be seen from the footpath leading past here. They denote the locations of a number of (inaccessible) air raid shelters. No trace remains of the buildings which once housed some of the aerodrome's officers and airmen.

TM1589 : Old concreted track by Evelyn Simak TM1589 : Old concreted camp road on Site 2 by Evelyn Simak TM1589 : RAF Tibenham - Site 2 by Evelyn Simak TM1589 : Overgrown air raid shelters on Site 2 by Evelyn Simak TM1589 : Air raid shelter on Site 2 by Evelyn Simak

The area occupied by Site 3, situated near the southern end of Woodrow Lane not far from its junction with Moulton Road, is now Downlands Park, a static caravan site. Site 4 was located a short distance further south, immediately to the west of Moulton Road. This site has been built over and the former campsite access road is now a private road called Newport Drive.

TM1589 : A footpath no more by Evelyn Simak

Site 5 was in a field to the north of Tibenham Road. It was adjoined by Site 6, a short distance further to the north-east, just west of New House Farm. A number of buildings have survived on this site, which was one of the aerodrome's accommodation sites. The prefabricated barrack huts are today surrounded by modern farm sheds and barns, with the old concreted road still in place. The original buildings that have survived here are the sergeants' and airmen's quarters and an ablutions block of which only the brick water tower remains. Site 7 was situated nearer to Wash Lane and Bushwood Farm, which no longer exists.

TM1590 : RAF Tibenham - Site 6 by Evelyn Simak TM1590 : RAF Tibenham - Site 6 by Evelyn Simak TM1590 : RAF Tibenham - Site 6 by Evelyn Simak TM1590 : RAF Tibenham - Site 6 by Evelyn Simak TM1590 : RAF Tibenham - Site 6 by Evelyn Simak

The WAAF's Communal site and Sick quarters were located in the area adjoining Rookery Farm, to the south-east of the Tibenham Road/Plantation Road/Wash Lane junction. Nothing would seem to have survived on this site which today forms part of domestic properties.

The USAAF Sick quarters were located in the field south of the access road to the Admin and Technical sites, not far east of Woodstock Farm. This road still serves as the access drive to the airfield. Only a hardstanding remains.

TM1589 : RAF Tibenham - Sick quarters by Evelyn Simak TM1589 : RAF Tibenham - Sick quarters by Evelyn Simak TM1589 : RAF Tibenham - Sick quarters by Evelyn Simak

The station's subterranean Battle Headquarters (BHQ) has also survived. The structure is however flooded and hence inaccessible. Judging from what can be discerned on the ground it would seem to have been built to drawing 11008/41 with a standard layout comprising a messengers'/runners' room, with a doorway connecting it with the PBX room. The adjoining Defence Officer's room and the Observation room were entered from the main passageway which was accessed via a flight of brick steps. The emergency exit was at the opposite end of this passageway.

Most WW2 aerodromes were equipped with one such structure, commonly situated near the highest location in the vicinity of the flying field, offering good views across the flying field. BHQs were intended to be used for co-ordinating the defence of the airfield in the event of a land or air attack. These underground or semi-subterranean structures commonly comprise several small brick-built rooms, some with small windows in a partitioning wall for passing information between the plotting and communications rooms. The aboveground observation cupola, accessed from within the structure via a couple of concrete steps had a bombproof concrete cap and all-around viewing apertures offered good views over the surrounding terrain. At Tibenham, the concrete cupola has been removed, leaving the structure open to the elements.

TM1488 : WW2 Battle Headquarters by Evelyn Simak TM1488 : WW2 Battle Headquarters by Evelyn Simak

TM1488 : WW2 Battle Headquarters by Evelyn Simak TM1488 : WW2 Battle Headquarters by Evelyn Simak TM1488 : WW2 Battle Headquarters by Evelyn Simak TM1488 : WW2 Battle Headquarters by Evelyn Simak TM1488 : WW2 Battle Headquarters by Evelyn Simak

In February 1942, the RAF Regiment was formed and given sole responsibility for defending all RAF installations in the country. The personnel had their own messing and accommodation facilities on separate Defence Sites.

Tibenham aerodrome's Defence site was situated beside Hill Road, which during the war would in all probability have been closed to the public. The road skirts the northern perimeter track and an aerial picture taken in 1946 shows a small hutted camp in the field immediately south of the road. The official airfield site plan shows that this was the Defence site, comprising Officer and servants quarters, a number of barrack huts, latrines and a Picket post. Across the road, on the north side of Hill Road, stands a gnarly old oak tree. It has a well hidden brick-built structure, half sunk into the ground, at its base. Steel rungs are still embedded into this tree's trunk. The steps lead to about half-way up the tree, to the base of the crown where the thick branches have formed a 'nest'. A circular steel band surrounding this 'nest' is still in place, albeit with some of its elements missing. This would seem to have been the airfield's observation post, although it is not quite clear how observers would have been able to see anything much during the summer months when the tree was in leaf.

TM1489 : Wheat crop field south of Hill Road by Evelyn Simak TM1489 : Old oak tree beside Hill Road by Evelyn Simak TM1489 : WW2 brick shelter at the foot of an old oak by Evelyn Simak TM1489 : Steel rungs in tree trunk by Evelyn Simak TM1489 : Lookout post in oak tree by Evelyn Simak

The bomb and ammunition stores were located on the western edge of the airfield, well away from the flight paths, so that aircraft crashing off the runway during take-off or when landing would not accidentally cause a horrendous explosion by plunging into one of these storage areas.

A short distance further to the south-west, in a copse beside Slough Lane at Pristow Green, the twin cylinder fuel tanks of the 50000 gallon bulk fuel installation of the airfield are still standing, although one these old tanks appears to be on the verge of collapsing. The rusty old tanks can be seen from the public footpath skirting the site.

TM1388 : Big tank in a copse beside Slough Lane by Evelyn Simak TM1388 : RAF fuel tank - interior by Evelyn Simak TM1388 : RAF fuel tank - interior by Evelyn Simak TM1388 : Old RAF fuel tank by Evelyn Simak TM1388 : Two old fuel tanks on the edge of a copse by Evelyn Simak


Please note that the sites located on private land should be accessed only by permission of the respective owners. My thanks go to the staff of the Norfolk Gliding Club for their kind permission to walk over the airfield during a no-flying day. I am most grateful to the owners of Communal site 1 and Site 6 for an excellent guided tour of their properties.

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