One man`s lifetime passion for the airfield combined with the current need to identify and record as much of the surviving buildings , has resulted in this article being written .
The most recent over winter excavations ( Dec 2014-March 2015) have been on the field adjacent to the airfield where Lancaster D -Dog crashed in 1944. Here are the details which we hope to add to a plaque to be placed somewhere near where D-Dog crashed . The most recent finds are in the photograph below uncovered in the dormitory area of the airfield in June 2016 . They are a razor, a tiny handmade lighter from a spent bullet case and a well used Macleans toothpaste tube .
Avro Lancaster 111 : F2 , D-Dog ND 841.
Pilot : F/O George Ambrose Young. 635 Sqdn aged 24 buried Southampton.
Flight Engineer: Sgt Thomas Snowball. 635 Sqdn aged 32 buried Tynemouth.
Navigator: F/Sgt Howard Pritchard .635 Sqdn aged 22 buried Tettenhall Regis.
Bomb Aimer: F/O Walter Thomas Olyott. 635 Sqdn aged 21 (buried St Edmunds churchyard).
Wireless operator : Robert Sadler .635 Sqdn aged 23 (buried St Edmunds churchyard).
Air Gunner : F/Sgt Stanley Wharton. 635 Sqdn aged 30 (buried St Edmunds churchyard).
Air Gunner ; F/Sgt Charles Patrick Nallen . 635 Sqdn aged 20 ( from Australia) buried Cambridge City cemetery.
D-Dog took its place on the main runway , and attempted to take off at 00.27 hours 4th June 1944. Because of the variable weather, D Day had been postponed from 5th June to 6th June. Therefore D-Dog was going to bomb any German batteries on the coast of France . It swung to starboard from the main E – W runway , clipped the top of a B1 hangar , and crashed just outside the airfield boundary, near to Broomhill farm. All the aircrew were tragically killed instantly. The target for this operation was the coastal batteries around Calais in France . The remaining 8 aircraft dropped their bombs and returned safely .
The official Operations Record Book for 635 Squadron , RAF Downham Market for 1st to 10th June 1944 is as follows . ” 1.6.44. Stood down.
2.6.44. Stood down. Lecture on Master Bomber and Deputy Master Bomber . Decorations awarded to S/L Roache DFC and F/S Wrigley , DFM . Missing Personnel decorations awarded included F/L Nicholls , DFC, P/O Easson, DFC , W/O Jolly , DFM .
3.6.44. 9 Aircraft detailed to attack Calais . “S” P/O Bourrassa , “C” F/L Johnston , ” B ” P/O Hayes , “E” F/L Connolly , “J” P/O Johnson “A” P/O Vines , “D” F/O Young P/O Johnson ( Aus) “E” S/L Roache .
“D” F/O Young hit hangar after taking off and crashed on airfield when large bomb exploded and the crew all killed . 8 aircraft returned to base .
6 aircraft of B flight on night flying exercises “X” W/C Voyce “P” F/L Wheble , “M” S/L Bazalgette , “T” F/L Henson “W” F/S Griffiths , “N” F/O Swan .
4.6.44. Stand down. Defence talk to all Defence Flight Commanders by the Station Commander .
5.6.44. 9 aircraft detailed to attack Longues ( Caen) and 2nd front opened . “R” F/S Griffiths , “D” P/O Healey , “Y” F/L Henson , “H” F/L Connolly , “J ” P/O Johnson , “K” F/L Johnston , “B” S/L Henderson , “M” S/L Bazalgette , “N” F/O Swan . 6 aircraft detailed to attack Ouithrehain ( Caen) “A” P/O Vines , “W” P/O Weaver failed to get off . “C” P/O Beveridge , “G” P/O Bourrassa , “P” F/L Wheble , “S” W/C Voyce , “X” F/L Gillmore , all aircraft returned to base . S/L Roache and P/O Beveridge on practice Master and DMB flying .
6.6.44. 14 aircraft detailed but all cancelled with the exception of “Y” F/L Smith “X” F/L Gillmore , master and deputy master bomber . Aircraft attacked Lisieux Choke point. Returned to base .
Copyright of the above from the National Archive AIR 27 /2155.
What follows is the narrative and photographs of a young local man who has explored and noted the airfield for the past 40 years plus. All of this is his copyright .
” My passion for the history of RAF Downham Market or Bexwell Aerodrome as we locals called it , began around 1970.
We had moved from 50 Priory Terrace to 42 Retreat Estate , Downham Market . I was 7 years old and remember being excited by the fact that we had 2 inside toilets and a bathroom at Retreat Estate . The cottage in Priory Terrace had no bathroom and the toilet was in the garden . A proper old style `privy` , how times have changed , 7 year olds nowadays are excited by computer games and mobile phones .
I soon befriended the local estate boys of my age. They kept mentioning this place they referred to as the aerodrome. It sounded exciting to me , I wondered what it was like ? The day came when I was introduced to the aerodrome . We walked along Rabbit Lane past Lancaster Crescent and out into the fields , heading toward the reservoir which is the large grass mound that you see from Bexwell roundabout . Rabbit Lane ended and we came onto this wide expanse of tarmac with a cluster of deserted brick buildings to the right hand side , with the reservoir nearly opposite . What an exciting place to be confronted by . The reservoir was unfenced in those days and I remember scaling the side of it and running about on the top . When I look at the height and slope of it today , it is difficult to think of 7 year olds running about on it ; health and safety were not in evidence in those days .
The A10 bypass road wasn`t there then , it still ran through the town , so it was pretty remote up on the airfield. We explored the buildings that were opposite the reservoir , they were brick with asbestos sheet pitched roofs .
The war had been over for 25 years and the aerodrome was abandoned in 1946 so had become somewhat derelict since then . My new mates told me it was an old WW2 airbase , we had no knowledge then of what had gone on up there , but I was hooked , what a place !!! We explored more and more going further afield into the aerodrome . The tarmac turned out to be the perimeter track of taxiway of the airbase. It is still there now but has been narrowed down in places. . In those days it was full width about 15 yards wide . This was wider than the main road and I remember thinking what had gone on up here ? why was all this built ?
Further explorations revealed the remains of the control tower. It was a single storey building with a concrete staircase going onto the flat roof , and you could see where the upper storey had been demolished by the line of brick work . Even at that young age we worked out that this was the control tower , confirmed many years later by proper research .
At this time about three quarters of the main runway still existed ; it was 50 yards wide and about three quarters of a mile long . In those days it was still used for flying by crop spraying aircraft . We used to watch them taking off and landing from the roof of the control tower .
The other two runways had already been removed by then as well as all the perimeter track to the north of New Road. But there was so much to explore and many buildings we did not go into as they were being used by the farmers or local businesses or were fenced off . I wish I could go back to those days armed with the knowledge I have now and a digital camera .
We were too young and too inexperienced to understand the wartime usage of the buildings and to ask permission to look at them . When the A10 bypass was constructed in the late 1970s , a lot of the buildings we knew were demolished . The main runway was torn up and reduced to rubble to be used for the foundation of the new road . One small stretch of it does still exist if you are heading toward Wimbotsham on the A 10 , on your right hand side about quarter of a mile from the roundabout , you will see a pair of double metal gates . Beyond this is a short wide section of tarmac , this is the last remaining piece of the runway
Pause for a while and try to imagine the Stirling , Lancaster and Mosquito aircraft roaring down the tarmac , straining to take off with a full fuel and bomb load . Or imagine them landing with a tired possibly injured crew on board ; maybe heavily battle damaged with one or more engines not working . Such dramas happened here on a daily basis .
As I got older and into my teens , I became more and more engrossed in the history of Bomber Command , I read many books on the subject and began to understand the hardships , mental and physical , that the crews faced . It was awe inspiring to think that a small part of the bombing campaign happened here in an unremarkable part of Norfolk , and went on for 3 years . This ignited my desire to find out what the remaining buildings were and how the rest of the site was used .
RAF Downham Market was built as a result of the expansion plans which were adopted after WW2 started . The site was fairly flat and well drained and was higher than the surrounding fenland . Construction began in late 1941 ; the main contractor was W & C French Ltd. The sand and gravel pits ate Tottenhill were opened to provide the raw materials for this huge undertaking . Hundreds of Irish labourers were employed to construct the airfield . There were 3 runways which were all 50 yards wide . These were laid out in a triangular pattern , east – west , N/W – S/E , N/E – S/W . The main runway ran approximately East – West and was 2,000 yards long .
Most buildings were of single brick thickness with a 3 inch concrete render on the outside , with asbestos sheet roofs . Many other buildings were of the semi circular , corrugated iron , Nissen hut type. The three runways were linked by three miles of perimeter track with thirty five circular aircraft dispersal areas spread around . In all there were six aircraft hangars used for maintenance and storage . Miles of drainage and wiring was installed including two sewage treatment works . Bomb stores were built on the North East corner of the aerodrome . These comprised rows of bomb pits protected by brick and earth blast walls which were heavily camouflaged with netting .
The main Downham to Swaffham road bisected the aerodrome . To the north was the flying and technical side , the main entrance being where Bexwell kitchens are today . This building was once the guard room . To the south of the road were the dormitory sites , mess sites and communal sites , which included NAAFI , post office, cinema, squash courts and gym. RGD engineering on the A 10 at Stone Cross was the site of the officers mess . The whole airfield covered a huge area , in order to prevent the base being wiped out by enemy air attack . This was a base with nearly 2,000 airmen and women at its busiest . It became fully operational in June 1942.
Initially the airbase was used to land Wellington and Stirling aircraft from RAF Marham after the first thousand bomber raids . In July 1942 , 218 squadron with its Stirling aircraft arrived from Marham and they were based here until March 1944 . Marham was a WW1 airfield but as late as 1942 it still had grass runways which were obviously unsuitable for 4 engine heavy bombers like the Stirling . RAF Downham Market now came under 3 Group Bomber Command .
The Stirling bomber was a very robust and manoeuverable aircraft , much liked by its crewmen .Its main deficiency was that its wingspan of 99 feet meant that it suffered from lack of lift to get to high altitudes away from flak which made it an easy target for enemy anti-aircraft fire . The original design was made in the 1930s when hangar doors were 100ft wide , and the aircraft was built with this in mind . 218 was known as the Gold Coast Squadron as it had been sponsored by the Governor and people of the Gold Coast , now known as Ghana . It was the squadron of Flt Sgt Aaron who won the VC whilst serving at RAF Downham , and a memorial plaque is today sited beside the church at Bexwell commemorating him and Ian Bazalgette also awarded a VC .
Between July 1942 and March 1944 ,218 squadron flew 1,787 operational individual sorties from RAF Downham Market.. The first of these 438 were mine laying duties off the Frisian Islands on the north west coast of Germany. Of the squadron aircraft , 77 failed to return , and 20 squadron aircraft crashed in Britain . ( A very high attrition rate when you consider that each aircraft lost had a crew of 7 men .) In April 1943 Stirling bomber E-Easy while on route to bomb Stuttgart , flying low level , hit an electricity pylon and damaged the fuselage and electrical sparks ignited incendiary bombs on board. With remarkable bravery , the pilot managed to dump the bomb load and made a safe return to RAF Downham , a testimony to the toughness of the Stirling bomber.
But even when the aircraft had landed , the crew were not necessarily safe. In May 1943 , Stirling I-Item , damaged by flak over Germany , landed and swung off the runway up onto the banked side of the blast shelter and continued smashing into the building in the operations block where two aircrew from another flight were being debriefed . Both were killed in the impact .
623 squadron was also equipped with Stirling bombers and they were based at RAF Downham briefly from August to December 1943 . 623 was formed from 1 flight of 218 squadron and the intention was to make it 2 flight with 20 aircraft . But it never achieved more than 10 aircraft strength before being disbanded. However during its short life , it flew 137 operational sorties , mostly bombing but some mine laying . Incredibly 10 aircraft failed to return , one crashing on the airfield itself , so out of 10 strength , all were lost and had to be replaced. Not just the aircraft but all 7 crew of each of the 10 aircraft. This was a very heavy loss rate and a constant crisis for Bomber Command to lose a whole squadron strength in four months.
214 squadron of Stirling aircraft were at RAF Downham from December 1943 to January 1944 perhaps to fill the gap left by the losses of 623 squadron . In this short period they made 36 sorties , 25 to the flying bomb sites, V1 and V2 , and 11 minelaying . They subsequently were reassigned to RAF Sculthorpe .
Bomber Command in November 1943 withdrew the Stirling from main force attacks on Germany and became the attack force against the flying bomb sites in France , mining duties and air sea rescue searches . Bomber Command reorganised its forces and RAF Downham ceased to be part of 3 Bomber Command and transferred to 8 Group the Pathfinders. The war in the air had for this small airbase cost a great many lives and aircraft . The tour of duty for aircrew was 30 missions , many did many more , fighting against the odds of one in seven aircraft not returning with the loss of all 7 crew per aircraft , though some were saved to become prisoners of war , or were injured dreadfully .
From March 1944 , RAF Downham came under 8 Group RAF Pathfinder force . Although it still remains one of the most successful advances for the RAF , it was immensely dangerous and complex. In today`s world of Satnav and GPS range finding a target seems simple but then the practice was to send out aircraft with master bombers to pinpoint a target for the following bombers . But so it was that the master bomber flew round the target to assess how successful the pathfinders had been in identifying and marking their target with flares and coloured target indicators . And to gives the thumbs up by radio to go ahead with bombing or to change the target indicators to a different position . And this brought RAF Downham to the vanguard of Bomber Command`s raids .
Pathfinder crews were by the very nature of the job extremely experienced and had usually completed at least one if not two 30 operational tours of duty . The aircrew serving with the Pathfinders usually faced a 45 operational tour of duty . After the 45 tour was finished they were given the options of 6 months rest or a further 15 ops . Most chose the latter.
635 squadron were equipped with the magnificent Lancaster bombers and arrived at RAF Downham in March 1944 and remained until the war`s end in September 1945 . It was new to Downham and made up of aircrew from B flight of 35 squadron from RAF Gravely and C flight from 97 squadron RAF Bourn. Its first operation was on 22nd March 1944 to Frankfurt . The Lancaster could carry 14,000 lbs of bombs and target indicators . It was a formidable weapon unleashed against German cities and industrial areas. It had also had the latest in target finding radar equipment which sometimes required an extra member of crew to operate and to help with navigation and bomb aiming .
The squadron flew a total of 2,099 operational sorties and lost thirty four aircraft on operations , plus a further seven which crashed in Britain . For a squadron only in existence for 18 months , this is a very high rate of losses. But it existed during the final year of the war when the tide was turning and everything was thrown at the Axis powers to bring the war to an end. It was during such a raid on Dresden in February 1945 that such squadrons were used . Their CO Wing Co Sidney (Tubby) Baker, DSO and bar, DFC and bar, completed his 100th mission to Wuppertal in March 1945. He was 27 years old . 635 flew for the last time in April 1945 when it bombed Hitler`s mountain hideaway at Berchtesgaden . In the peacetime world 635 dropped food supplies to the Dutch people in an operation known as Manna . And were instrumental in repatriating allied prisoners of war known as operation Exodus .
Not generally known is that after the war , 635 squadron was engaged in happier duties between April and May 1945 when they took ground personnel over the bomb damaged German cities , so that they could see for themselves the results of the bombing campaign they had all worked tirelessly to achieve . These were known as “Cooks Tours” !!!
608 squadron has the distinction of being the last to bomb Kiel Harbour and maybe even of dropping the last bomb of the war , this aircraft returned to RAF Downham at 2.18 am 2/3rd May 1945. This last raid was sent over in two waves, with 8 aircraft in each wave , each carrying 4,000 lb bombs . 608 was equipped with the Mosquito bomber , part of 8 Group Pathfinders, Light Night Striking force . It was reformed at RAF Downham Market in August 1944 and was a fast though lightly armed bomber , despite being largely constructed of wood, it was highly versatile and fast , it carried a two man crew and between August 1944 and the last flight in May 1945 , the squadron flew 1,685 sorties from RAF Downham of which 11 aircraft failed to return and 7 others crashed in the UK . One in October returning clipped the tower of Stow Bardolph Hall and crashed in Wimbotsham , killing both crew members . All the raids were directed to the heartland of Germany , including 762 individual sorties over Berlin.
Skylarks tribute to the bomber boys : Where once there was the roar of aircraft, the skies over the aerodrome are now filled with the song of the skylark. They were there when I was a child exploring the base. They were there witnessing the wartime dramas . They were there before the airfield was constructed . Am I being too sentimental to think that their distinctive, melancholic song is a lament to the lost bomber boys ?