Welcome to our 2019 newsletter, which will be updated regularly throughout the year. We began our season of Heritage Centre openings in glorious sunshine during 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 were believed to have 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 to RAF Cranwell.
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. More than 600 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 and Heritage Centre visitors that have come to light recently.
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.
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, it 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 Visitors: 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. This challenge was taken up by Karen and Martha, who successfully completed the quiz during their tour of the Centre.
© D. Jacklin 2019. This website is owned by the RAF Bircham Newton Memorial Project.