For a brief period in our history, the silence of eastern England’s picturesque counties was shattered by the dull rumble of piston engines. All day every day, these quiet farming communities were alive with the sound of war as British and American heavy bombers took off to rain havoc on targets in continental Europe. Many would never return. Here are the remnants of some American bases with very British names…
RAF Martlesham Heath
It’s hard to imagine that this 1944 photo of a squadron of P-51D fighters on the very active dispersals of Martlesham Heath is the same place as the one pictured below! As mentioned in this previous article, the patchwork of fields that is rural Britain was heavily punctuated by the typical “A-frame” layout of concrete runways, dispersals and hangars. While many appear to have been returned to farmland, almost all can still be traced on satelite imagery. Just check out Google Earth! (Click here for a list of 8th Air Force bases in Britain to scope out from above.)
While Martlesham Heath has been extensively covered by a new housing estate, the modern buildings have been very much built up around the remains of the base, adopting the sprawling site’s original layout. For that reason, the old control tower – a museum and pre-school today – can be found nestling among trees surrounded by new properties. Elsewhere on the former base, huge hangars sit amid housing, while the old main runway protrudes from the end of a culdesac. Furthermore, it looks as though the local pub carpark is also a large chunk of runway.
This image depicts one of the former wartime hangars remaining on the site today. These massive structures were built to accomodate large numbers of aircraft. In addition to the P-51 escort fighters (above), Martlesham Heath was home to P-47 Thunderbolts of the US 8th Air Force during World War Two.
If you look closely at the innocuous looking clearing above, the pleasant scene hides four hatches that lead to underground fuel tanks. Once upon a time, this spot was an aircraft dispersal teaming with activity, with this nice little clearing employed in the business of refueling planes and sending them off to war.
RAF Steeple Morden
These nissen huts nestling in an East Anglian crop field are all that remains of RAF Steeple Morden. Once upon a time, this place was also home to squadrons of P-51s and P-47s. But today the quiet tranquility has returned and the base has once again been given over to farmland. And while they once were home to US fighter crews, they now more than likely provide some storage space for the local farmer!
RAF Grafton Underwood
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The B-17 Flying Fortress pictured above was shot down on a mission over France on 26 June 1943 – one of many never to return to RAF Grafton Underwood. One strange dichotomy was that, unlike soldiers on the ground in France and Belgium, pilots lived among the pleasant English countryside, visited the local pubs and slept in proper beds. That is, of course, if they survived their missions. Doing so was difficult as the missions were extremely perilous and the mortality rate was high. To put it into perspective, the 384th Bombardement Group, of which the aircraft above was assigned to, had lost 35 of its original 36 aircraft after only the sixth mission… How would it feel to climb into the cockpit with those odds stacked against you!
Old air raid shelters like this one at Grafton Underwood can still be found in abundance today, often when an old base’s other structures have long since vanished. Being dug into the ground makes them more difficult to bulldoze and farmers who often own the land today tend to work around them, or use them as storage sheds.
The lane above leads onto what used to be the end of one of the runways at RAF Grafton Underwood. Although much of the base has been ploughed over today, satelite imagery clearly shows the remains of the massive runways that once accomodated scores of B-17 bombers.
In the picturesque village of Grafton Underwood, Northamptonshire, can be found Britain’s tribute to the American service personnel of the 384th Bombardment Group who flew from the base from 1943 until 1945.
Moving briefly to the north west, RAF Burtonwood in Cheshire is worth a mention as it was the largest air base in Europe at one point during the Second World War. Clinging to life as a mere shadow of its former self, several of the giant hangars nevertheless linger on, empty and abandoned, while the main runway serves a new role as the base for the M62 motorway, as it passes close to Warrington (this can be clearly seen in the image above).
At its peak, Burtonwood was a major servicing facility for fighters and heavy bombers, processing over 11,500 aircraft between 1943 and 1945, and providing support to the US 8th, 9th, 12th and 15 Air Forces – a massive undertaking. During this time, more than 35,000 men were under the direct control of Burtonwood, with a staggering 18,500 located on the huge base itself.
Here are some more great pics, plus the sad revelation that the remaining historic structures are due to be demolished to make way for a business park…
RAF Deopham Green
Another former B-17 Flying Fortress base; stretching out into the distance can be seen the former main runway of RAF Knettishall, now adorned with hay bales marking the agricultural change of use since the war.