The RAF at 100: The crucial role of Suffolk's airfields
PUBLISHED: 16:41 20 April 2018 | UPDATED: 16:41 20 April 2018
Ken Delve looks at the key role Suffolk's many airfields played in the defence of the country during the early years of the Royal Air Force
Suffolk has a comprehensive military aviation history, from coastal bases in World War One flying coastal patrols, to a heavy Second World War and Cold War presence by the RAF and the Americans, all part of ‘Air Base England’. Many of the county’s airfields were primarily used by the USAAF Second World War bombers and fighters.
But Suffolk had some important locations in the First World War, such as Felixstowe, which was to be a major seaplane base for many years, initially with the RNAS and then with the RAF.
In the latter months of the war Felixstowe was incredibly busy with a large number of flights operating from its anchorages and slips. Aldeburgh was a typical temporary base, a satellite of Great Yarmouth, primarily used for training purposes. Covehithe was another Yarmouth satellite, but is main use was as a Home Defence fighter base to counter the Zeppelin threat.
Orfordness has been one of the most secretive of military installations since it began. The first airfield element of the site was opened in 1915, which started 70 years of experimental use, the majority connected with weapons testing. It was also the first demonstration site for radar, a decisive system in the Battle of Britain. Orfordness continued its radar and weapons work into the Cold War.
Felixstowe survived the closures at the end of the War and by the 1920s was home to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment (MAEE). Its task was to test all new types of flying boat and seaplane, for RAF and civil use. The RAF’s High¬speed Flight was established there in 1926 and the following year was successful in winning the Schneider Trophy.
It saw little use in the Second World War, as it was too exposed to enemy attack, but post¬war the MAEE returned and added training of flying boat crews to its tasks. Felixstowe also became home to the RAF’s Marine Craft Training School.
The last flying unit to leave was 22 Squadron, which operated search and rescue helicopters, and with the departure of the RAF Regiment in 1962, the RAF history of Felixstowe came to an end.
Martlesham Heath was another Suffolk airfield that played an important role with trials and evaluation, including the Aeroplane Experimental Establishment from 1922. There were name changes over the next 20 years, but the establishment maintained its role as an RAF centre of excellence whose pilots were responsible for evaluating the offerings of the manufacturers.
With the threat of war, the unit moved out and Martlesham became a fighter base with No12 Group. During the Battle of Britain Martlesham was subject to attack, with two raids in August 1940 causing a certain amount of damage and casualties.
Many fighter squadrons rotated through the airfield prior to an American Fighter Group taking over in 1943. There was a varied post¬war career, primarily with experimental and trials units again, prior to closure in 1963. The airfield was also home to the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight from 1958 to 1961.
Although fighters operated from several other airfields, these were mainly American fighters. The county was also home to many bomber units, increasingly from 1943 American Bomber Groups, but before that a key region for Bomber Command. Airfields such as Honington, Methwold, Mildenhall, Newmarket Heath, Stradishall and Tuddenham sent aircraft against targets in German-occupied Europe throughout the war.
Methwold had been a bomber base since it opened in 1939, initially being used as a satellite for the Wellingtons at Feltwell. It was later transferred to No. 2 Group and, from May 3 1942, a formation of 12 Venturas of 487 Squadron, led by Sqn Ldr Trent, took off to attack the power station at Amsterdam.
Of the 11 that crossed The Channel only one returned. It was only after the war that the story of this mission was revealed. Only one aircraft, flown by Sqn Ldr Trent reached and bombed the target. Trent was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross having spent the remainder of the war as a PoW.
Tuddenham joined the bomber war late, not opening until early 1943. It become home to the Lancaster of 90 Squadron, whose first mission from there was in October. It survived the post¬war closures and became one of East Anglia’s Thor missile bases from 1959 to 1963, as did Shepherds Grove and a number of other airfields.
RAF and American fighters and bombers were also stationed in Suffolk during the Cold War, with Wattisham and Honington being typical examples.
Wattisham started life as an RAF bomber base, but in the post-war period became Suffolk’s premier fighter base.
During its near 50¬year period in this role it saw all the main RAF fighter types in residence – Meteor, Hunter, Javelin, Lightning and, finally, Phantom. The RAF finally departed Wattisham on October 31 1992. However, the British Army are never slow to spot a good thing and, with a requirement for airfields in the UK for Army Air Corps units returning from Germany, the airfield housed various helicopter types. The RAF maintained a lodger unit for many years with SAR helicopters.
Honington’s career, prior to the RAF Regiment taking over, was bombers – RAF and American. The airfield duly opened on May 3 1937 and received two bomber squadrons. A change¬round of units brought 9 Squadron to the airfield and it was this unit that was to be most associated with the RAF’s wartime operations from this Suffolk base.
The Wellingtons were airborne on Day One of the war and from then until their departure to Waddington in August 1942 they suffered the highs and lows of Main Force bomber operations. During three years of ops the Squadron suffered heavy losses and participated in every major attack made by Bomber Command. Post-war, the airfield was kept busy and it housed the main RAF bomber types (except the Vulcan) – Canberra, Valiant, Victor, Buccaneer and Tornado.
The author served with IX Squadron in its post¬war period at Honington, with the Tornado. By the early 1990s the last squadron had gone, and the RAF Regiment took over.
Woodbridge is worthy of mention as it was one of the emergency airfields that were built with long and wide runways as safe havens for aircraft that were damaged, lost, short of fuel or in any other sort of difficulty. Many a crew owed their survival to Woodbridge.
The RAF also gained a bonus when a Ju.88G night fighter, whose crew had become lost and when short of fuel landed at the first airfield they saw thinking they were in Holland. This Ju88 carried the latest equipment and was of great benefit to the RAF. Its Cold War career is best¬known for the A¬10s of the USAF.
Suffolk kept its importance through the Cold War, with British and American fighter and bomber bases, as well as Thor ballistic missile sites at places such as Shepherds Grove. With the end of the Cold War this impressive network of airfields was soon being dismantled and bases closed. The RAF no longer has an operational flying base in Suffolk.
What to see
Some of the old airfields have significant traces surviving, and many have memorials to the units and people who served, especially the American bases. There are no active RAF airfields, but some airfields remain in military hands, and the Americans still fly from Suffolk.
The county has many aviation museums, such as the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum (Flixton) with its large collection of aircraft and displays, the Suffolk Aviation Heritage Museum (Kesgrave), the Rougham Control Tower Museum, and the Bentwaters Cold War Museum. There are also some themed pubs, one of the most popular being the Douglas Bader at Martlesham.
Kenneth Delve is a former RAF aircrew officer, an aviation author and a trustee of the RAF Heraldry Trust. www.rafht.co.uk He is the author of the Military Airfields of Britain series of books published by Crowood Books www.crowood.com