Latest News as of July 2019

Welcome to our 2019 newsletter, which is being updated regularly throughout the year. This year, as usual, we are going to open during all bank holiday weekends and on other selected Sundays throughout the year. Following several requests, we have also added two additional Sunday openings during the Summer and have extended the season into October and November. The complete schedule together with opening times and travel directions can be found on this website under the same Heritage Centre pull-down menu that you used to reach this page.  Many hundreds of individuals visited (or revisited) the Heritage Centre in 2018, and we will be delighted to see you if you are able to make it this year. Our friendly volunteers will assist you and make your visit as enjoyable as possible.

In this newsletter, we will highlight some new Heritage Centre features that were implemented recently or are being introduced this year.  We will also outline some interesting stories about former Bircham Newton service personnel that have come to light recently.

WWI Montage

WWI Displays: A significant change has been made to the Heritage Centre displays first implemented in 2014 to mark the centenary of the beginning of the Great War. These displays were subsequently updated annually between 2014 and 2018 to mark the progress of the war and to highlight specific events, such as major land battles, that had occurred one hundred years previously.  Now that the centenary period has passed, we have changed these displays to focus on the local history of that period, including new information about the birth of Bircham Newton as a flying station and about some of the individuals who served here during the final year of the Great War and just afterwards.  Inevitably, some of the existing displays (such as those describing events that occurred in France) have been removed as part of this remodelling, but others that are still relevant to this local perspective have been retained.

WW2 Displays:Those who visit us regularly will have noticed new WW2 information, including donated personal memories, being added to the archive all the time. For example, several items of memorabilia were recently loaned to the Heritage Centre by Neville Hall, whose father, Peter Frank Hall, was shot down over Holland in May 1943. Peter and his observer, Bill Woodruff, were captured as prisoners of war (POWs) and served time in Stalag Luft III, Sagan, where the Great Escape was hatched. Peter was employed making escape maps and was scheduled to take his turn escaping through one of the tunnels, but it was discovered and closed down before he was able to escape. Thanks to Neville's generosity, we now have Peter's WW2 uniform - including his medals, goggles and flying helmet - on display in the Centre, together with his POW identity disks and some of the escape maps he created.

Peter served at Bircham Newton with two different squadrons, No. 235 Squadron during 1940 and 1941, and with No. 521 Squadron in early 1943.  Peter and Bill had been flying a Mosquito on a PAMPA sortie, attempting to capture meteorological data in advance of a major bombing raid over Germany, when they were shot down. These PAMPA sorties had been conducted from Bircham Newton by No. 521 Squadron until it was decided that they should be undertaken by a new Bomber Command unit, No 1409 Flight, based at RAF Oakington. Consequently, Peter and Bill were one of several Mosquito crews that were transferred from Bircham Newton to Oakington on the 1st of April 1943 to form this new PAMPA unit. Unfortunately, their Bomber Command service didn't last very long, as they were shot down in the following month.  Another former 521 Squadron pilot from Bircham Newton who transferred to Oakington and became the Commanding Officer of the new unit, Squadron Leader Philip Cunliffe-Lister, ran out of fuel when flying his Mosquito over Germany in July 1943 and had to make a forced landing. He and his observer,  Pilot Officer A.P. Kernon, were also captured and sent to Stalag Luft III. Philip Cunliffe-Lister and Peter Hall had an unexpected reunion when they were billeted in the same hut.

Prisoners of War: One of our followers, Chris Sadler, recently wrote to us and reminded us of another former pilot who was captured as a POW, spending most of the war in Stalag Luft III. He was naval lieutenant, Peter Butterworth, who was then serving with No. 826 Squadron FAA, which was seconded to Coastal Command and based at Bircham Newton in 1940. He was flying a Fairey Albacore biplane on a mission to the Dutch coastline, when he was shot down over Texel on the 21st of June 1940.  At Sagan, Peter made friends with Talbot Rothwell, who would become a writer on the 'Carry On' series of films. Peter Butterworth wrote and performed in camp shows designed to distract the prison guards away from the sounds of digging in escape tunnels.  After the war, Peter became a familiar character actor performing in the 'Carry On' films and on television. He specialised in playing very eccentric characters. His son, Tyler Butterworth,is also a well-known actor, who played the vicar in The Darling Buds of May.

We have identified more than twenty other airmen from Bircham Newton who were shot down and captured as prisoners of war during the Second World War, beginning with a New Zealander, Pilot Officer Laurence Hugh Edwards, of No. 206 Squadron, who was the only survivor from Anson K6183, which was shot down over the North Sea, near the Friesian Islands, at the beginning of the War on 5 September 1939. Laurence had the dubious distinction of being the first officer serving with the RAF to be captured by the Germans in World War Two. Ironically, it was the German float-plane that shot Laurence down that also came to his rescue, landing in the sea to pick him up, although he was badly burned as a result of this incident. He was subsequently repatriated to the UK in 1944 because of ill health, but recovered to resume his flying career with the RNZAF.

All of the POWs must have had unique experiences, which may or not be similar to those of the officers mentioned above.  It is an interesting area of study, which we are hoping to explore further this year.

Visitor Experiences: We try to give our visitors a memorable, nostalgic experience, walking through the story of this former airfield from a bygone age.  However, interesting visitor experiences sometimes occur that are totally unplanned. One interesting coincidence occurred last year, on the 1st of May, when two pairs of visitors were being shown around the Centre at the same time. Perdita Swift was making a return visit accompanied by her friend, Patricia Ladds, to further discuss her father's service at Bircham Newton. He was Flying Officer George Derrick Osmond Le Marchant Hutchesson, known as Peter Hutchesson, who had served at Bircham Newton as a pilot on No. 206 Squadron from August 1937 until he was posted missing in May 1940. Peter's CO at the time of this fatal mission was Patricia's father: Wing Commander (later Air Vice Marshal) N.H. D'Aeth, known as Jimmy on No. 206 Squadron. 

By chance, two other visitors were in the Centre at the same time. They were Glen and Jackie Nunn, who were on vacation in Norfolk from their home in Australia. Jackie's great uncle, Wing Commander Claude Dunkerley, had served at Bircham Newton on two occasions, first with No. 207 Squadron in the early 1930s, when he had learned to fly, and later as a pilot with No. 206 Squadron, from 1936 until 1940.  Jackie was being shown several items that had belonged to Claude, including his flying log books and medals, that had previously been donated to the Centre by Claude's son David, when he also visited from Australia a few years previously. 

The fact that these four visitors met by chance at Bircham Newton on the 1st of May, almost 80 years after Peter, Jimmy and Claude had served there, was coincidence enough, but when it was discovered that Peter Hutchesson and Claude Dunkerley would have been close squadron colleagues for about three years, including a period during 1939 and 1940 when they both served under Wing Commander Jimmy D'Aeth, was truly remarkable. The four visitors had lots to talk about. If you visit the Heritage Centre, you too will have lots to talk about, and you never know who you might meet.

Recent Activities and Visitors

Easter Bank Holiday: We began our season of Heritage Centre openings in glorious sunshine at Easter, when more than 120 individuals resisted the temptation to go to the beach and came to see us instead. Many of the visiters were attempting to find details of their relatives who had served at Bircham Newton in the past. Although we don't have full lists of personnel who served here, we were able to provide some details and to offer advice about obtaining copies of service records that are available on request from RAF Cranwell.

Neville Hall revisited the Centre on Easter Monday, accompanied by his wife Kim, son Justin, daughter-in-law Karen, and two grandchildren Martha and Toby. They were able to examine the various items of memorabilia which had belonged to Neville's late father, Flight Lieutenant Peter Frank Hall. These items are on loan from the family and have been on display since 2018. Visitors to the Centre are encouraged to examine the items - which include a tunic, flying helmet, goggles, POW identity tags and medals - to answer a short quiz about Peter Hall's service. This challenge was taken up by Karen and Martha, who successfully completed the quiz during their tour of the Centre.

Early May Bank Holiday Weekend: About 75 visitors came to see us over the early May bank holiday weekend, including a pre-arranged visit on the 5th of May by the Suzuki Intruder Owners Club UK,  who were holding a Meet in Norwich and riding their motor bikes around the county. One of the bikers, Ian Thain, was a former RAF apprentice, who had trained with the 149th Entry at RAF Halton between 1987 and 1990. Ian was able to compare his training with that of one of the Centre's volunteers on duty, David Jacklin, who had trained as a Halton apprentice with the 92nd Entry, thirty years earlier.

BAT Flight

Margaret Smith visited from Dersingham on the 5th of May with a photograph of her late father, former Sergeant Leslie George Smith, who had served at RAF Docking during WW2. From the photograph, we were able to establish that he had served with the Beam Approach Training (BAT) Flight at Docking. Sergeant Smith, who was an aircraft fitter, is shown sitting on the left of the above photograph, with his hands on his knees. The personnel were photographed in front of an Airspeed Oxford aircraft used for beam approach training.

Mrs. Heffer, the widow of former Corporal Derek Heffer, also visited on the 5th with her grandson Jamie.  They brought documents which established that Derek had been a National Serviceman who served as a Clerk (Equipment Accounts) in the Stores Section at Bircham Newton from 1954 to 1957.  He had been inoculated for overseas duty in response to the Suez Crisis, but he wasn't called upon to go. Derek finished his active service and was transferred onto the reserve list in May 1957. The Heritage Centre staff provided Mrs. Heffer with the forms she would need to submit to obtain a copy of her late husband's service record. Jamie returned again on the 6th of May and donated some of his grandfather's items to the Centre.

Lydia Swartz, from Framlingham, visited again on the 6th of May, accompanied by her husband. Lydia had previously visited in 2013, when she donated photographs of her late grandfather, Alexander 'Sandy' Lewis, formerly of No. 206 Squadron, meeting King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during a Royal visit to Bircham Newton in January 1941. Sandy left Bircham Newton in May 1941, when No. 200 Squadron was reformed from a nucleus of personnel and aircraft taken from 206 Squadron. He departed with the new squadron to West Africa (Zambia) a few days after it was reformed. Lydia has Sandy's flying log book, which is illustrated with various photographs and notes written by her grandfather.  The Heritage Centre staff were able to cross reference some of  the names recorded in Sandy's log book with those in Peter Gunn's book,  Naught Escapes Us, the definitive history of No. 206 Squadron.

Some of our volunteers attended Docking Local History Fair over the same weekend, to inform visitors who attended that event about the RAF Heritage Centre and to provide them with open day schedules and information brochures.

Wednesday, 22nd of May: David Jacklin delivered an illustrated talk on the history of RAF Bircham Newton to an audience of approximately 60 members of the Ipswich & District Historical Transport Society on the evening of the 22nd of May. In the audience were several members of the RAF Martlesham Heath Aviation Society, who have a museum in the former control tower, dedicated to preserving the history of this former home of aviation research and development. Also present was Mr. Geoffrey Mann, who had served at Bircham Newton in 1960, as a young national serviceman. Geoffrey worked in the station sick quarters and told David about an incident he recalled when an airman's wife went into labour in the middle of the night. He had to wake up the ambulance driver and together they drove this pregnant lady to Ely Hospital. Geoffrey remembered sitting in the ambulance with her wondering what he would do if the baby arrived. Realising that he was very nervous, she told him not to worry as it was her sixth child! 

Spring Bank Holiday Weekend: The Centre was opened over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, on the 26th and 27th of May, hosting over 50 visitors. One visitor from Nottinghamshire was Les Fenwick, a former RAF national serviceman and Rolls Royce apprentice and engineer. Les had worked at the Rolls Royce flight testing facility at Hucknall, in Nottinghamshire. Discovering that Bircham Newton had been used for the testing of the Kestrel jump jet, Les recalled that he had worked on a bizarre contraption, known as the Jet Control Research Unit or "Flying Bedstead" used for early trials of vertical take off and landing. Although now retired, Les is still involved at Hucknall, where a flight test museum has been created to bring the test facility's history to the public's attention.

Franz von Werra

Les told an interesting story about Hucknall's connection to Franz von Werra (above), a German WW2 fighter pilot who is generally regarded as the only Axis prisoner of war who ever escaped back to Germany. Werra had been shot down over Kent and was initially held in a prison camp in  that county. However, after a couple of escape attempts, he was transferred to a second camp at Swanwick, in Derbyshire, not far from Hucknall, which was then an RAF aerodrome. He escaped from Swanwick masquerading as a Dutch pilot who had been shot down and was trying to reach his unit. He convinced a local to transport him to the nearest RAF aerodrome at Hucknall, where he tried to steal a plane to fly back to Germany. He was captured at gunpoint as he was sitting in the cockpit trying to learn the controls.  Eventually, Werra was sent with other prisoners of war to Canada, but escaped back to Germany via the USA, Mexico, South America and Spain. His story was told in the book "The One That Got Away" by Kendall Burt and James Leasor, which was made into a film of the same name, starring Hardy Kruger.

Another visitor who made a return visit to the Heritage Centre over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend was former RAF administrative apprentice James Fox. James  had trained at RAF Hereford as a member of the 21st Entry, before the Administrative Apprentice Training School was transferred to Bircham Newton.

Sunday, 16th of June: Approximately thirty visitors came to the Heritage Centre on the 16th of June. We also welcomed a previous visitor, Jamie Heffer, who has become the latest recruit to the Heritage Centre's team of volunteers. In addition, a new Kids Corner was opened within the Centre, containing colouring material, quizzes and puzzles with an aviation theme. Mia Abrams, on holiday with her parents from Malden in Essex, was the first child to test things out. She quickly showed her artistic and detective skills by skillfully colouring an image of an aeroplane and by finding a miniature pilot who had been hidden in one of the display rooms.  She received an aviation colouring book and pencils for her efforts.

Former national serviceman Lionel Moore, who had served in the RAF as a wireless operator between 1956 and 1959, visited the Centre on the same day. He was accompanied by his family, who had brought him along as a Father's Day treat. During WW2, Lionel had lived in the village of Hoveton, near Wroxham. Despite Hoveton's quiet, rural setting, he recalled being in the firing line on two occasions when he narrowly avoided shells from aircraft flying overhead. Both incidents involved German Messerschmitt aircraft. The first incident occured when a Messerschmitt strafed him and his school friends as it was passing overhead.  The second was a friendly fire incident, which occured when a Spitfire inadvertantly strafed them as it was attacking another Mersserschmitt which was flying overhead. On both occasions, he and his friends were able to scramble out of the way and hide behind a solid structure, such as a wall or a bridge to avoid the incoming shells.

Tuesday, 25th of June: The Heritage Centre was opened on the 25th of June to host four visitors, including returning friends Perdita Swift and Patricia Ladds, whose fathers had both served with No. 206 Squadron at Bircham Newton at the beginning of WW2. Perdita's father was Flying Officer George Derrick Osmond Le Marchant Hutchesson, known as Peter, who had served as a pilot with No. 206 Squadron from August 1937 until he was posted missing in May 1940. Patricia's father was Peter's Commanding Officer during 1939 and 1940, Wing Commander N.A. D'Aeth, who was later promoted to Air Vice-Marshal. The previous visit to the Centre by these two ladies is recorded above under the heading Visitor Experiences.

Aries

Patricia spoke of several adventures that her father had participated in during his long RAF career. These included his involvement in a British Arctic Air Route Expedition to Greenland in 1930, which resulted in him receiving a Polar Medal.  He also participated in some record breaking flights aboard the converted Lancaster bomber “Aries” (see photograph above) including a trip across the world to New Zealand in 1946, when he was Commandant of the Empire Central Navigation School at RAF Shawbury. Aries broke three records during the trip: London to Karachi in 19 hours 14 minutes; London to Darwin in 45 hours 35 minutes; and London to Wellington in 59 hours 50 minutes. Patricia owns a beautiful model of Aries, which had been presented to her father. It was made using metal from a Lancaster bomber. 

Sunday, 30th of June: The Heritage Centre welcomed 27 visitors on the 30th of June. One of the visitors, making his first return to Bircham Newton after more than 70 years, was Mr Gordon Hart, from Castle Donington, in Derbyshire, a former national serviceman, who had served at the station in 1947. He was accompanied by his son, Michael Hart, and other family members. The photograph shows Gordon visiting the RAF Bircham Newton Memorial adjacent to the Heritage Centre.

Gordon was a carpenter who had worked in the station workshops under the supervision of Sergeant Greateux.  He repaired Oxford and Anson aircraft that were being used to monitor and photograph ice flows in the North Sea that were proving to be a menace to trawlers and other shipping during the very severe winter of 1947. Gordon recalled repairing an aircraft wing after a bird strike. It was an emergency repair that had to be completed very quickly so that the aircraft was ready to go back on patrol again by the next morning. Gordon also remembered that King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the two princesses made an unofficial visit to the station in 1947, to meet the crew and inspect the aircraft that was going to be used on the upcoming state visit to South Africa.

Another visitor was Irene McCormick, the daughter of the late Margaret B. White who had served during WW2 as a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.  Margaret had joined up in 1941 and was sent from her home in Glasgow to Gloucester for her initial training. From there she was posted to Bircham Newton, where she was initially employed charging batteries that were used on the aircraft, but after a while she was sent on a typing course at Cranwell to become a teleprinter operator, sending and receiving messages from all over the country.  Some messages were coded, which she would carefully copy and pass on to others for decryption. Margaret had told Irene that she occasionally had to run to a shelter if the sirens went off to indicate that an air raid was imminent. Overall she had enjoyed her service, making many new friends. She had also remarked that she was very well fed, as there appeared to be no rationing in the services.

Wednesday, 3rd of July: The Chairman of Trustees, David Jacklin, delivered an illustrated talk, entitled "In Khaki and Blue", to the Docking Heritage Group and others in Docking's Ripper Hall on the evening of the 3rd of July. The talk covered the birth of RAF Bircham Newton and its subsequent role during the final year of the First World War. The duties of the first flying unit, No. 3 Fighting School, were explained and some of its larger-than-life flying instructors were introduced. Also, the role of the second flying unit, a long-range bomber Group in the newly formed Independent Bombing Force, was covered together with its main protagonists. This Group was placed on standby to bomb Berlin with giant Handley Page bombers, a deadly mission that was only cancelled after the Armistice was signed. David's talk also highlighted some interesting flying adventures that occured in the immediate post-war period involving pilots from the Group and their giant bombers. One of the giant bombers made a record-breaking flight to the Indian subcontinent and dropped bombs on the Afghan capital Kabul during the 3rd Afghan War.

Sunday, 14th of July:The Heritage Centre was always going to struggle to compete with the Cricket World Cup Final, the Wimbledon Men's Single Final and Formula 1's British Grand Prix, and so we were not surprised when only 25 visitors walked through the doors on the 14th of July. However, those that came seemed to enjoy themselves, including a family from Germany, who were in Norfolk on holiday.

 

D. Jacklin 2019. This website is owned by the RAF Bircham Newton Memorial Project.