Balloon Repair Station

Len Bartram and the Airfields of Norfolk

Every so often little pamplets or booklets get discovered in Post Offices or behind the bar in a pub that give a very real perspective to local history. The Brief Histories of Norfolk Airfields and the 100 Group (Norfolk) RAF Bomber Command Series, written by Len Bartrum, are a perfect case in point. Norfolk is spattered with disused airfields and installations that for a short while played a vital role in the defence of Britain and the eventual outcome of the Second World War. These days little remains save for the odd derelict building or isolated hangars at the centre of rural industrial estates. The part played by many of these places is quickly becoming forgotten yet there are still plenty of people who remember the coming and going of the bombers and the frequent crashes of both enemy and allied aircraft. Naturally most of this history is never written down so eventually gets distorted or vanishes altogether. One such person that did write it all down was Len Bartram and now his little booklets have been rediscovered and are being produced again.

Born in Hindolveston in August 1929 Len Bartrum was a Norfolk person from boy to man. Growing up during the Second World War, whilst at the village school, he always sat near the window watching the bombers take off and land at nearby Foulsham Airfield. Finally, in an attempt to get him to concentrate more on his lessons, the teacher moved him to the centre of the classroom. Undeterred the young Len would be first away at end of the day and pedal away on his bike, pencil and paper in hand, to visit the local airfields going plane spotting, jotting down the incoming and outgoing aircraft and talking to the airman. As with all young boys at this time the practise of visiting crash sites and collecting bits and pieces was also high on his agenda. Len stored all his souvenirs in the garden shed but afraid that it would eventually blow up his mother started chucking his ammunition collection down the garden well! On one occasion a German bomber dropped a load of incendiary bombs on a local farm so he and his brother set about digging them up, adding them to the collection oblivious of the dangers.

Post War Len did his three years national service in the RAF as an airframe fitter becoming Leading Aircraftsman Len Bartrum and during this time met his future wife Evelynn. They married at the nearby St Peter in the Park church Melton Constable.

Fifty years on his early enthusiasm was still very much to the fore so once again Len put pencil to paper, this time in his good old shed at the bottom of the garden. Adding to all the information he’d collected as a boy he contacted ex-servicemen and researched the various squadron’s histories building up a very thorough reference library. Now a consummate expert on the local airfields, especially those that came under the No 100 Group (Norfolk) RAF Bomber Command, he gave talks all over the county. Finally, after 15 years of research he produced seven wonderfully informative booklets on Norfolk airfields. His wife Evelynn clearly remained very understanding.

Sadly in 2002 Len passed away. He lived and worked in Melton Constable for the Forestry Commission for 50 years and had planted many a tree on some of the now redundant old airfields where, years before, he’d watched bombers come and go, many never to return. It is a fitting tribute to know that his booklets, full of history, are still being read and that the name Len Bartram (just a Norfolk boy) will be with us for many years to come.

All his booklets are written from a personal point of view and include a map of the airfield along with a few pictures and a complete list of all the squadrons and the aircraft they used. In addition to Len’s recollections and records there are a number of extremely enlightening personal recollections from both pilots and groundcrew that were based at the various airfields and, as you would expect, a list of crashes.

Apart from a booklet devoted to No 100 Group (Norfolk) RAF Bomber Command 1943-1945 there are six others all covering the airfields he was familiar with.

No 100 Group (Norfolk) RAF Bomber Command 1943-1945
100 Group’s emblem is the head of Medusa and carries the motto ‘Confound and Destroy’ and confound and destroy they certainly did. Formed in November 1943 to bring together the technology in the rapidly developing business of electronic warfare and countermeasures within one organisation the Group, under the control of Bomber Command, was responsible for the development, operational trial and use of electronic warfare and countermeasures equipment supported by a very effective night fighter capability. Primarily operating from eight airfields in Norfolk they made Bylaugh Park near RAF Swanton Morley their home in January 1944. Equipped with Halifaxes, Stirlings, Fortresses, Liberators, Beaufighters and Mosquitos their role in the closing stages of the Second World War has gone relatively unnoticed but it is certain that without their involvement the losses to the large bomber raids would have been far, far higher than they already were. Their duties were complicated and diverse. Aircraft from the Group would use specially equipped aircraft to find and fix enemy transmissions of all types and then jam or confuse them using a variety of techniques including controlled dropping of Window metallic foil strips. Supporting them were Mosqitoes were used to escort them and also destroy targets identified on the ground or night fighters in the air. One of the 100 Group’s Halifaxes’ took part in the pin-point raid on the SS Barracks at the the Eagles Nest, Berchtesgaden on the 25 April 1945 and on the night of the 4/5 April 1945 no less than 136 of their aircraft supported raids on Harborg, Leuna and Lutzkendorf and the Group played a huge part in the D-Day Landings. Members of the New Zealand and Royal Canadian Airforce served with the group and No 462 Squadron was in fact a Royal Australian Airforce Squadron. The USAAF also supplied personnel and aircraft including flight training for the RAF Fortress and Liberator crews. A huge range of equipment was trialled and tested by the Group and Len’s booklet contains a list of some of those used along with a summary of the Norfolk airfields and squadrons involved. The Group and some of the squadrons were disbanded in December 1945. After the war Bylaugh Hall was badly damaged by fire and became derelict and was partially demolished in the fifties after much of the lead roofing was taken and the interior stripped. Recently parts of it have been restored and, operated as a wedding venue, it made headlines a couple of years ago in when it was reported to be heavily in debt. General information and some of the equipment used is at http://www.rafbombercommand.com/tactics_elecwarfare.html

Interesting set of current pictures of the Hall and an interesting personal view of life at the Hall written by one of the shorthand typists stationed there.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/67072953@N02/6947596630/

There is a great book out about the 100 Group called ‘Even when the sparrows are walking - The Origin and Effect of No. 100 (Bomber Support) Group, RAF 1943-45’. (ISBN 0-9542960-0-1: Librario Publishing, 2002). Email: amlawson@librario.fsnet.co.uk.

RAF Docking & Bircham Newton
RAF Docking was a grass airfield mainly used as a satellite field for RAF Bircham Newton and also served as an emergency or diversion field. Despite its seemingly lowly status it did serve as a training field for the BAT Flight (Blind Approach Training) which used Airspeed Oxfords. There is an account by one of the instructors on using the system for real and the resultant near-miss of the buildings. It is however best remembered for its meteorological reconnaissance role. 521 (Met) Squadron operated Gloster Gladiators, Hudsons and Venturas during 1943 and 1944. They flew twice a day, regardless of the weather conditions, gathering the data required to produce weather maps vital for Bomber Command operations. In 1944 the squadron converted to Flying Fortresses and moved to Langham. It is now farmland and very little remains. There is a great book called ‘Up in all Weathers’ by David Jacklin all about the Met Flight which is quite amazing.

RAF Bircham Newton was primarily a Coastal Command Station and saw a huge variety of aircraft coming and going and was also home to the target towing unit that served the Weybourne Ack-ack battery that trained up the Territorial Army units and training air-to-air gunners. Coastal Command aircraft from Bircham patrolled from the Bay of Biscay to the Baltic Coast and also served supporting air sea rescue. Largely unrecognised the role of Coastal Command was all-encompasssing and many airman owed their life to them as the airfield was on the main route for aircraft returning from raids over the Continent. Although the runways have now gone a lot of its buildings remain in use by the Construction Industry Training Board. Unfortunately the Control Tower was eventually demolished the reason being that it had become unsafe!! Until the mid-sixties it saw the coming and going of Royal Flights being quite close to Sandringham and in 1965 the Tripartite Evaluation Squadron of the Central Fighter Establishment at West Raynham used it as a landing ground whilst evaluating the Hawker Siddeley Kestrel which evolved into the hugely successful Harrier. More history on both airfields can be found on the RAF Bircham Newton Memorial Project at http://www.rafbnmp.org.uk/.

RAF Langham and a brief history of RAF Weybourne 1940-1958
Originally a grass airfield RAF Langham is best remembered in its role as the home of No1 AACU better known as target tugs using Battles and Henleys serving the target ranges of Weybourne and Stiffkey. Plans were made to operate Wellingtons from there to bomb Berlin but it was found that the strip wasn’t long enough and after a number of aircraft over-ran the strip the idea was abandoned. An occasional visitor was a Pobjoy-engined Monospar used for VIP transport. In 1942 the airfield closed for extensive rebuilding, re-opening in 1944 with the classis ‘A’ pattern runways and became home to 16 Group Coastal Command using Wellingtons and Beaufighters. After the base closed in 1961 it was purchased by Bernard Matthews and as a result of the construction of turkey sheds on the airfield most of the runways and taxiways remain. There is evidence that the airfield was equipped with the FIDO fog displacement system and some of the original pipework survives. There is still a small landing strip in use today using part of the perimeter track. Apart from turkeys it is also home to the extremely rare Langham Dome Trainer which is now being preserved and houses a small museum. Dome trainers were used to train anti-aircraft gunners and this one is now the youngest Scheduled Ancient Monument in Britain! For more information see www.friendsoflanghamdome.org/.

RAF Weybourne, a grass field having the shortest RAF runway, was on the front line and was deemed the most likely invasion point the deep Weybourne Waters being ideal for an invasion fleet so the area was heavily defended. Built right on the shoreline it was home to a secret facility which was involved in testing anti-aircraft rocket projectiles and the Ack-Ack rocket weapon. The site was equipped with a catapult for launching Queen Bees, a radio-controlled float version of the Tiger Moth, and had the use of the SS Radstock which was based at Wells quay and headed off to recover the normally intact Queen Bee after it had been shot at! Visitors to the, not always successful, demonstrations included the Duke of Gloucester and Winston Churchill. The facility was closed in July 1942 however it is rumoured to have played a role during the Cold War period and is occasionally used for Search and Rescue Exercises. Although the hardware is gone the airfield still remains as a short strip and it is now home to the Muckleburgh Military Collection. http://www.muckleburgh.co.uk/history.htm

RAF Foulsham 1942-1954
Foulsham is Len’s ‘home’ airfield where his early interest was nurtured. With concrete A-pattern runways and 37 concrete dispersal points it was a big airfield and had everything from Halifaxes to P-38 Lightnings based there. During 1943/44 many damaged Flying Fortresses returning from raids landed there and more often than not two red flares were fired from the approaching stricken bomber alerting the groundcrews that there were injured on board. When it was built in 1942, being so close to Len’s school and house, its gradual construction meant that Len became very familiar with the site and its layout. The Firemen stationed there were nearly all from Jamacia and, for most of the locals, were the first coloured people they had seen. Although treated with suspicion at first they were soon found to be kind and friendly and accepted into the community. Two squadrons of B-25 Mitchells were the first to arrive. Three aircraft were lost in the first ever RAF Mitchell raid, on an oil refinery near Gwent, on 22nd January 1943. It was a tragic start to operations. Foulsham was equipped with FIDO, the fog dispersal system in 1944 so got plenty of returning bombers when other airfields were closed. After the war it was held in reserve and finally disposed of in 1980. Two of the runways are still visible one having pig and poultry units built on part of it. A section of taxiway is now used as a landing strip. http://www.raf.mod.uk/bombercommand/s21.html.

RAF Matlaske 1940-1945
RAF Matlaske was established in 1940 as one of the satellite fields (dispersal site should the home airfield be attacked) for RAF Coltishall. It was a bit remote being built close to a small estate village close by the Barningham Park Estate, the Hall of which was used a mess. An almost square grass airfield it suffered badly from waterlogging in heavy rain despite the laying of Somerfield wire netting over the entire site. Later a concrete perimeter track was laid in an attempt to alleviate the problem. The first arrivals were Spitfire Mk1s in October 1940 but that same month it was heavily attacked by the Luftwaffe using Do17s. Amongst the squadrons that came and went it was home for a while to the City of London Squadron and their Hurricanes, which had taken part in the battle of Britain, awaiting delivery of their new Airacobras (which didn’t last long) and the Air Sea Rescue Walrus and Lysander squadrons. The most notable aircraft to operate from the airfield was the Westland Whirlwind then a top secret fighter. Most of the operations flown involved patrolling the coast acting as convoy escorts. The new Typhoon came to Matlaske which was still having teething troubles. Following an alarming number of accidents, including tailplane failures, the RAF top-brass visited en-masse. In 1943 USAAF Thunderbolts used the airfield as a base during air firing practise sorties. Prior to the invasion plans in 1944 it was home to an American Airfield Construction Group who managed to built an airstrip in 48 hours on heathland near Holt. A POW camp was established on the camp and was later used for displaced persons. Upwards of 2500 RAF personnel were stationed at the base but it was a place of constant change. The presenter Raymond Baxter was based there for a short while in the later years of the War whilst serving with 602 Squadron. Today very little remains apart from parts of the perimeter track and the many trees planted by Len during the fifties! For further information and aerial shot see http://www.abct.org.uk/airfields/matlaske

RAF Oulton 1940-47
Mention RAF Oulton and two subjects always come up, nearby Blickling Hall that became the Officer’s and NCO’s Mess and the heroic low-flying missions that went from there such as Operation Oyster. What is less known is the secret role it played later in the war. Originally a grass airfield, cleared from farmland, it was constructed to be a dispersal base for nearby RAF Horsham St Faiths and following a heavy raid on Horsham a few months later it soon became home to their Blenheims. The base almost took in the village of Oulton and during its grass phase an open public road ran across it. Les recounts frequently cycling round parked Blenheims and Beaufighters parked near the road. After it was rebuilt in 1943/44 with concrete runways the roads were shut and the base closed to the public making the village almost impossible to get to from the south, not helped by the absence of road signs! Operation Oyster was one of the larger day-light low-level raids carried out against the Philips works at Eindhoven and led by Wing Commander Pelly-Fry CO of 88squadron. 36 Bostons, 36 Venturas and 12 Mosquitoes took part in this daring raid which had to be accurate to minimise civilian casualties. 14 aircraft were lost and many others damaged in the raid including the the CO’s Boston. With reduced hydraulic pressure, a large hole in the starboard wing and a damaged barely running starboard engine, he narrowly avoided the rooftops and was unable to climb above 800 feet. Despite falling far behind the returning aircraft and being attacked by two FW190s he managed to make a successful belly-landed back at Oulton. He was awarded the DSO, the raid also resulted in the award of another DSO, two DFMs and eight DFCs. After getting its concrete runways Liberators and Fortresses arrived some forming part of 1699 Training Flight. It was around this time that a new Liberator Squadron was formed primarily as a specialist jamming using the huge Jostle transmitter which was initially used against the V2 rockets until it was determined that they were not radio-guided. These aircraft also flew on the huge bomber raids carrying radio operators fluent in German which caused enormous confusion amongst attacking enemy fighters. The most successful missions were the Window missions where strips of foil were dropped to simulate vast numbers of attacking aircraft. Many successful such ‘attacks’ were made to confuse and distract the Lufwaffe. The airfield closed in 1948 its last role being the storage and disposal of Mosquitos. The airfield still dominates the village but the roads have now re-opened and these days the runways, still substantially intact, are home to poultry sheds. There is a small museum at Blickling Hall, now a National Trust property. A book ‘Special Ops Liberators’ about the operation at Oulton is available. Published by Grubb Street it is written by Steve Bond and Richard Forder. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Special-Ops-Liberators-Squadron-Electronic/dp/1908117141. Nice map and bit more info at http://www.raf.mod.uk/bombercommand/s26.html.

RAF North Creake (Egmere Drome) 1940-1947
Officially RAF North Creake it was known locally as ‘Egmere Drome’, the name of the lost village it was built over as North Creake was ‘miles away!’ The airfield was built on the Holkam Estate in 1942/43 with the traditional ‘A’ pattern runways as a satellite field. Rumours were that it was to be a base for the new secret Vickers Windsor high altitude bombers a four-engined bomber that never got past the prototype stages, and it remained unoccupied for a while pending upgrading so that heavy bombers could use it but eventually, in early 1944, it became the home to 199 Squadron headed up by the very popular Group Captain N.A.N Bray affectionally known as Little Nan Bray on account of his initials and stature. Well liked by all the ranks and locals he lived in a cottage next to the estate workers and once put himself on fatigues for being late for PT! Equipped with new Stirlings fitted with specialist radio jamming equipment their first mission was supporting the D-Day Landings. Most of the crews had to be summoned back to base from the Wells cinema where they were watching a film. It is said a message recalling them was put up on the screen. In 1945 the Stirlings were replaced by Halifaxes and the Squadron also took part in the last raid of the war. In September 1944 171 Squadron was reformed from a wing of 199 Squadron also providing radio counter-measures and flying Window spoof missions dropping foil. It is little appreciated how dangerous these missions were as often the aircraft would fly ahead, behind or away from the main force to cause the greatest disruption to the German radar. This often meant that the aircraft would operate very close to their maximum duration despite carrying extra fuel. Len writes that he had a fine collection of all the types of foil used liberated from the storage compound at Foulsham which was used as Christmas decorations and the larger examples were hung in the vegetable garden to scare the birds. Discovered on a wall after the base closed a rather splendid mural of a Stirling Bomber was moved and is now preserved at the RAF Museum Hendon. All but a few strips of narrow trackways are left but the Control Tower has been converted into a private dwelling. Some pictures of the disbandment of 199 and 171 squadrons in 1945 and the Control Tower today at http://www.controltowers.co.uk/n/north_creake.htm

Sales of the booklets go towards the MacMillan Trust, RAF 100 Group Association, Langham Dome, Flixton and Bungay Aircraft Museum, Norwich Air Ambulance, Help the heroes and RAFA Club.

The booklets are available from Trevor Wise at trevorjameswise@tiscali.co.uk and cost £4.99 inclusive of postage to the UK Mainland.

No 100 Group (Norfolk) RAF Bomber Command 1943-1945
RAF Docking & Bircham Newton
RAF Langham 1940-1958 includes brief history of RAF Weybourne
RAF Matlaske 1940-1945
RAF Foulsham 1942-1954
RAF Oulton 1940-1947
RAF North Creake (Egmere) 1940-1947

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