There were literally dozens of airfields in East Anglia during the twentieth century. It is a relatively flat county, and so good for building landing strips, but more to the point it was perfectly placed for launching bombing raids into Germany in the Second World War. Although a few of the airbases were fighter stations for the RAF, most were used by the bombers of the United States Army Air Force. The Liberators and Flying Fortresses were used for daylight raids into occupied Europe. At the height of hostilities there were over 50,000 American personnel stationed in the area. There were over 25 airfields in Norfolk alone, most of these being constructed between 1942 and 1944.
This building activity produced a huge demand for sand and gravel among other things. All along the Wensum valley, at Lyng, Great Witchingham and Costessey there are a number of large and deep pits dug out during those years. They were always filled with water and these are now used as fishing lakes, Nature Reserves or to supply drinking water to the city, but they were excavated to make the concrete for the runways. The lorries made constant journeys from the pit to the construction sites. They had to get chits signed on arrival to ensure payment, but there was no corresponding check on the trucks leaving, at least to begin with. Consequently it was not unknown for the drivers to go round and round, repeatedly getting paid for the same sand! I wish to cast no aspersions on our Irish cousins, but there were many Irish labourers employed on the work, and they did not feel the same personal involvement in the war effort that we Brits did. This cannot have been a widespread problem, and all the airfields got built in record time. Compare this with the decades it has taken merely to decide whether to build a third runway at Heathrow.
Most of the airfields that had been so hurriedly built were abandoned as soon as the war ended. A few like those at Shipdam and Seething are still used for the light aircraft of local Flying Clubs. The airfield at Swanton Morley is now an Army Barracks, and that at St Faiths is Norwich International Airport; that at Attlebridge is a turkey farm. All round the county many of the runways have been taken up however, the concrete recycled and the land reclaimed for agriculture. Nissen hut and other buildings still serve as chicken sheds and some remaining structures have been restored. The dome at Langham near Holt is now regularly open as a tourist attraction after many decades of dereliction. This 1942 building was used to train air gunners from the nearby airfield. The control tower at North Creake has been similarly restored and opened as a vegetarian Bed & Breakfast. The control tower at Thorpe Abbots is now a museum, as is a Nissen hut at former RAF Hardwick.
Some RAF stations were never airfields; one thinks of the radar station at Trimingham which remains operational. Trimingham is a satellite station of RAF Neatishead. This is a much reduced establishment from the days when it housed Bloodhound missiles and a major Radar HQ, but it is still in use by the MoD and is the site of the RAF Radar Museum, although this is staffed by volunteers.
Several memorials to the fallen airmen who were based in Norfolk have been erected, both at former airfields and at crash sites. Of all the airfields that once dotted the landscape that at Marham alone remains as an RAF base. After some years during which its future appeared in doubt, it is now being extensively rebuilt for the new generation of combat aircraft. This airfield can claim to be one of the oldest in the world, having first been occupied during the First World War. There is talk of it being made fit for the next fifty years.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA