Last echoes of bomber heroes at RAF airfield
PUBLISHED: 15:00 04 January 2011
Wartime Watton Exhibition
A lifetime has passed since squadrons of heroes camped out in Norfolk’s battle-scarred countryside, unflinchingly awaiting the dangers of their next mission.
But the former RAF base at Watton is one of the few remaining where the drone of long-lost bombers still haunts a surviving airfield.
Now, the impending sell-off of its last remnants has prompted historians to take a final look back at the courageous station which, like so many others, dealt out wartime triumph and tragedy in equal measure.
Defence Estates has declared the 205-hectare training area surplus to requirements and announced its intention to dispose of the land, including the former runway.
Part of the aerodrome, requisitioned by the RAF before the outbreak of war in 1939, could be offered back to former owners or their successors, with the rest likely to be sold to commercial developers.
And, with hundreds of houses already being built on redundant technical areas, that could remove the last visible traces of the base which twice suffered crippling losses during the 1940s and later played an intriguing spying role during the Cold War.
Local historian Julian Horn is the co-founder of the Wartime Watton Exhibition, which occupied a former barrack block at the base between 1989 and 2000.
“The station has a long and glorious history,” he said. “When they started building the airfield here it was quite an event, because it was something which would change this town forever.
“Anybody who has served here will tell you that the base holds the most amazing pull for them. It has been my privilege to scatter on the airfield the ashes of three men who served here during the war. They asked me to do that for them because of their affection for the place.
“It has always had an enormous effect on people, so it is a great sadness for me – being an RAF buff – to see a place in such decline where heroes have served in the past.”
At the outbreak of the second world war, two squadrons of Bristol Blenheim bombers were stationed at RAF Watton. In early 1940 one of them claimed the first Nazi U-boat to be sunk during the conflict – but darker days were ahead.
On May 17 the same year, twelve aircraft from 82 Squadron took off to attack troop concentrations at Gembloux in Belgium, but were forced to proceed without their Hurricane fighter escort.
Eleven of the bombers were shot down, with the only surviving aircraft damaged beyond repair.
The squadron was immediately re-formed but suffered the same unimaginable tragedy in August when on a raid over occupied Denmark, it once again lost 11 of its 12 aircraft.
Despite the appalling scale of the losses, Mr Horn said the death toll was barely reported at the time for fear of demoralising a nation whose defiance was vital to the military effort.
“The squadron was decimated twice in a period of months,” he said. “But in the town, that was not known. The Blenheim became referred to as the ‘forgotten bomber’. It was daytime bomber and suffered enormous losses but the people in charge of the propaganda department kept it quiet because it was bad for morale. They showed the night-time raids instead.”
Notable airmen based at Watton included 82 Squadron’s commanding officer Samuel Charles Elworthy, who went on to become Marshal of the Royal Air Force.
Watton briefly became an Advanced Flying Unit training station before the US Air Force took it over in 1943, using it as a base for B-17 and Mosquito bombers. The Americans also built Watton’s concrete runway in July 1944.
Watton was returned to the RAF in August 1945 and became the home of the Central Signals Establishment.
As Cold War paranoia took hold, unmarked U-2 spy planes were stationed there in 1962 to undertake top-secret snooping missions on Soviet nuclear tests.
“When they wheeled the U-2 out of the hangars, people had to be moved off the airfield,” said Mr Horn. “It was one of those things which was not universally recognised because it was so secretive.”
Military flying ceased in 1969, but the station continued as a major air traffic control centre with Eastern Radar until the 1980s, and was handed over to the army as a training area in the 1990s.