A brief history of RAF Docking

Docking collage by David Jacklin

The airfield was built as a satellite of Bircham Newton at Sunderland Farm near Docking in the early months of WW2. It began life as a decoy site, to divert enemy aircraft away from the parent airfield. To see where this satellite airfield was located in relation to the village, click on the roundel below.

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It wasn't long before some of the aircraft were being moved to Docking for protection, and flying started at the satellite. By mid 1940 Bircham Newton was making full use of Docking as an operational airfield. The first squadrons to use the airfield included No. 206 Squadron (with Hudson aircraft), No. 235 Squadron (with Blenheim aircraft) and No. 500 Squadron (using Ansons and Hudsons). To learn more about No. 206 Squadron, click on the next roundel.

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Docking was a large, flat grass airstrip, much more suitable for night flying than its parent station. Consequently, after suitable Drem lighting had been installed, Docking was developed for Bircham's night operations. Aircraft would be flown to Docking in the late afternoon in preparation for night operations and flown back to Bircham Newton in the early morning for maintenance and day-time operations. These aircraft movements continued throughout the war with a large exchange of aircraft between Docking and its parent station. For this reason, it is very difficult to differentiate between war-time operations performed from Docking with those carried out from Bircham Newton. As a general rule, if the operation was performed during the hours of darkness, the satellite airfield was used. The satellite airfield was also used as an emergency landing ground by aircraft that were lost, damaged or short of fuel when returning from operations over the continent of Europe.

Many visiting squadrons used Docking to perform mine-laying and to perform offensive operations at night against enemy convoys transporting iron ore from Sweden into captured ports such as Rotterdam. These anti-shipping operations were extremely dangerous because the enemy convoys were protected by air cover and flak ships. Losses in aircraft and crews reached a peak in 1942, when at least three aircraft were being lost for every ship sunk or seriously damaged. The Canadian No. 407 Squadron and Dutch No. 320 Squadron, who flew combined operations with their Hudson aircraft, bore the brunt of these losses in 1942. Click on the next roundel to learn more about the Canadians of No. 407 squadron.

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Heroic tactics were used in these early strike operations, attacking the ships at very low level at night, but the losses became prohibitive and things had to change. Strike Wing tactics were later developed, using large numbers of Beaufighter aircraft with fighter escorts to attack enemy convoys . Strike Wing operations were performed from North Coates and Langham, supported by Wellington aircraft from Docking's second Canadian squadron, No. 415 Squadron, who became expert at locating E-boats and dropping flares to illuminate them for the Beaufighters. No. 524 Squadron succeeded No. 415 Squadron, performing this same role

Docking is also remembered for its meteorological reconnaissance role. No. 521 (Met) Squadron operated from Docking during 1943 and 1944, gathering data required to produce weather maps so essential for Bomber Command operations. 521 Squadron was a large unit flying many different aircraft types, ranging from Gloster Gladiators for gathering local data to Lockheed Hudsons and Venturas for long-range operations across the North Sea. For more information about No. 521 Squadron, click on the next roundel.

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The long-range operations included the so-called Rhombus sorties from Docking towards the Norwegian coast and then into another satellite airfield called Skitten, near Wick in Scotland, returning on the following day. Two of these operations were performed each day, regardless of the weather and visibility. The Met squadron moved from Docking to Langham at the end of 1944, to convert to the four-engined Fortress aircraft, which could not operate from a grass air strip.

BAT Flight Oxford by David Jacklin

Another unit that operated from Docking throughout the war years was a Beam Approach Training (BAT) Flight, training pilots to use a blind landing aid, called Standard Beam Approach (SBA). This unit operated Airspeed Oxford aircraft, seen in the illustration above.

Docking closed as a flying station at the end of the war, but was used as a centre to accommodate airmen who were awaiting demobilisation. These included many cadets that were undergoing flying training in Canada and other Commonwealth countries. The future actors Richard Burton, Warren Mitchel and Robert Hardy found themselves at Docking during this period, idling away the time waiting to be released from the service.

If you wish to learn more about this former airfield, you may wish to read the book Up in all Weather , which was written by David Jacklin and published by the Larks Press in 2004. In this book, the history of this forgotten satellite airfield is vividly told by this former RAF Squadron Leader who, as a child just after the war, lived in one of the huts on the former airfield. Aspects of wartime Docking are woven into the tale, as are memories of the men and women who served there. This book will appeal equally to aviation enthusiasts and to local readers who remember or are curious about the dark days of WW2. Click on the following link to get more information about the book and how you can get a copy

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© D. Jacklin 2017. This website is owned by the RAF Bircham Newton Memorial Project.