A brief history of RAF Bircham Newton

A collage of Bircham Newton by David Jacklin

The former RAF station of Bircham Newton started life in 1918, during the First World War. The first flying unit to use the airfield was No. 3 Fighting School, which trained pilots and observers who were going to join the war in the skies over France. However, Bircham Newton was destined to become a bomber base, and it wasn't long before the fighting school moved to Sedgeford aerodrome and two bomber squadrons arrived and began to equip with the giant Handley Page V/1500, designed to bomb Berlin. Fortunately, due to delays in production and other problems, the war ended before these squadrons were fully equipped and the aircraft were able to perform this mission.Click on the following roundel to learn more about the V/1500 bomber.

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During the 1920s and most of the 1930s, Bircham operated as a peacetime bomber base. Many famous squadrons spent periods on the station, and its bumpy grass airfield became familiar to hundreds of RAF pilots. A large variety of different aircraft were seen in the skies over Bircham Newton during this period, including the Vickers Vimy, DH9A, Vickers Virginia, Boulton and Paul Sidestrand, Fairey IIIA, Fairey Gordon, Hawker Hart, Hawker Hind and others. For most of these inter-war years, Bircham operated as part of the Wessex Bombing Area, with other RAF stations operating bomber aircraft at that time. In 1936, as the RAF began a major expansion prior to the Second World War, Bircham was assigned to the newly created Coastal Command and a major re-building programme was undertaken. Click on the following roundel to learn more about Coastal Command.

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At the beginning of Coastal Command's tenure two units arrived flying Avro Anson aircraft. Later a third unit was posted in equipped with the torpedo carrying Vickers Vildebeest biplane. Consequently, at the outbreak of war, the frontline aircraft were considered obsolete, being relatively slow and lightly armed. Nevertheless, Bircham soon established itself as one of the most important Coastal Command stations on the East Coast. Serving in No. 16 Group, Bircham performed a variety of critical Coastal Command operations, including photographic and meteorological reconnaissance, mine laying, anti-shipping strikes and air-sea rescue. Click on the following roundel to learn more about air-sea rescue.

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The Anson squadron that was resident at the beginning of WW2, No. 206 Squadron, was soon re-equipped with the American manufactured Lockheed Hudson, and many other units arrived flying a variety of aircraft types, including, initially, the Bristol Blenheim and Hudson, and later with the Vickers Wellington. Even Fleet Air Arm squadrons used the airfield, flying the Fairey Swordfish aircraft nicknamed 'Stringbags'. To cope with this additional tasking, two satellite airfields were opened at nearby Docking and Langham, whose histories can be investigated by clicking on the appropriate buttons on the navigation panel.

There were far too many visiting units flying from Bircham Newton during WW2 to mention them all by name. However, some early visitors will be mentioned because of the heroics they performed and the losses they sustained in the early years of the forgotten anti-shipping campaign conducted against enemy convoys, ports and airfields across the North Sea, particularly along the Dutch coast and Friesian Islands. This campaign was conducted by No. 235 Squadron (flying Blenheims), No. 500 Squadron (flying Ansons and Hudsons), No. 320 (Dutch) Squadron (flying Hudsons), No. 407 (Canadian) Squadron (flying Hudsons) and others. Two later visitors No. 415 (Canadian) Squadron and No. 524 Squadron, flying Wellington aircraft, also gained a fierce reputation for hunting down enemy E-boats, which menaced allied shipping throughout the war.

After World War 2, in the new jet age, there was little use for grass airfields like Bircham Newton and its days as a flying station were numbered. The station was briefly transferred to Flying Training Command and was later used as a demobilisation centre and aircrew holding unit before another change of command occurred. In October 1946, Bircham came under the control of Transport Command, and training on the Blind Approach Beacon System (BABS) was performed using Anson and Oxford aircraft for about two years. Since Bircham Newton lacked concrete runways and modern airfield control facilities, much of the flying was conducted at nearby RAF Sculthorpe. In early 1947 two associated Radio Aids Training Training (RAT) flights were also transferred in, staying for a few months. Yet another unit to arrive during Transport Command's tenure was Transport Command Initial Conversion Unit (TICU) to provide introductory training for aircrew, but no aircraft were involved. Later, in October 1948, the station was transferred to Technical Training Command, becoming the RAF's School of Administration, which included the Officers Advanced Training School (OATS), which was later renamed the Junior Command and Staff School (JCSS). The Administrative Apprentice Training School (AATS) was also based at Bircham Newton from the late 1950s until 1962. Click on the following link to discover more about AATS.

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These training units employed a lone Chipmunk aircraft for flying experience. HRH The Duke of Edinburgh also made several landings at Bircham Newton in Chipmunk aircraft during the course of his flying training in 1952 and 1953, maintaing the long-standing royal links with the station due to its proximity to the royal estate at Sandringham.

Bircham Newton finally closed in December 1962, ending a long and distinguished RAF service of more than 44 years involving more than 80 flying units. A Beating Retreat ceremony was conducted by the Central Band of the Royal Air Force and the Queen's Colour Squadron. The ceremony was attended by about 300 guests, including senior officers and other dignitaries.  Two of the honoured guests were Marshals of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder and Lord Portal, who had commanded two of Bircham Newton's squadrons in the 1920s. In late 1964, the site was acquired by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) to house its Head Office and Training Centre. 

Flying briefly returned to Bircham Newton in 1965, when the Tripartite Evaluation Squadron of the Central Fighter Establishment at West Raynham used the former airfield as a landing ground while evaluating the Hawker Siddeley Kestrel V/STOL aircraft.

In September 1966, CITB opened a training centre on the site, which has become the National Construction College (East), also known as ConstructionSkills.

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