Latest News as of November 2020

Trial re-opening of the Heritage Centre on Sunday, 30th of August:  This year, as usual, we had hoped to open during all bank holiday weekends and other selected Sundays throughout the year, beginning on Easter Sunday. However, in the light of the Government advice regarding the Coronavirus pandemic, we took the decision to delay the opening and keep the RAF Heritage Centre closed until the situation changed. However, after the Government allowed museums to re-open, we obtained permission from our hosts at the National Construction College to conduct a trial re-opening of the RAF Heritage Centre on Sunday, 30th of August. We opened in compliance with current Covid19 guidance. Hand sanitisation was required on entry; also face masks had to be worn when visitors were inside the Centre. We also implemented a one-way system with social distance markers, similar to that found in shops and supermarkets, and limited the number of family groups inside the centre at any one time to a maximum of three. In addition, there was a welcome desk outside where visitors cold meet the staff in the open air to discuss any specific items of interest or to ask questions. Each individual or family group had to book in and supply a name and contact telephone number to facilitate future tracing of visitors, in the unlikely event that this would be required. Forty-two adults and two children visited us over the day in about 20 separate family groups. It was a great success which passed off without any problems, thanks to the willingness of everyone to comply with our revised Covid19 procedures.

Heritage Centre opening on Sunday, the 27th of September: We had 36 visitors to the Heritage Centre on the 27th of September. A big thank you to everyone who came to see us and to the members of the team of volunteers who worked hard to make the day a great success. We were particularly impressed by visitor Mike Smith, who cycled to Bircham Newton on such a cold and blustery day. One visitor who made a long journey was Dr Jeroen 'Jay' Pinto, who lives near Hull. Jay was making a return visit, having previously visited in 2019, when he introduced us to the Gramophone Memorial Tour and donated a vintage gramophone for us to use at the Centre. Unfortunately, this gramophone stopped working correctly, so Jay brought along some possible replacement machines, which we tested by playing an old and worn record of the Dambusters march. The 'Dambusters Test' proved to be a good way of evaluating the sound produced by several candidates and added to the atmosphere of the occasion. We soon selected one which Jay generously donated as a replacement for his original gift. We hope to use it next during our opening planned for Remembrance Sunday.

Jeroen PintoAfterwards, David Jacklin joined Jay during his visit to the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at St Mary's Churchyard in Great Bircham, where he visited the graves of four Canadian crew members of a Hampden aircraft that crashed after take-off from Docking on the 18th of February 1943. Jay had researched the family backgrounds of these airmen and brought along photographs of them, which he used during a video he made of the visit. The photograph shows Jay visiting the grave of Warrant Officer Z. M. 'Zino' Niblock, a boyhood friend of another Canadian Warrant Officer, C. E. 'Carl' Caldwell, who died within 24 hours of Zino and is buried at Brandesburton (St Mary) Churchyard, near Hull, close to Jay's home. On his journey to Bircham Newton, Jay also visited Carl's grave and then stopped at Scopwick, near Lincoln to visit the grave of John Gillespie Magee, the Canadian pilot who wrote the famous poem High Flight. You can find out more about the Gramophone Memorial Tour by finding and visiting the Facebook page of the same name.

Heritage Centre Opening on Sunday, the 25th of October: We were blessed with glorious weather on the 25th of October, when forty-six visitors came along to see us. One visitor, Ralph Green, was making a return visit to the site, after his previous one 75 years ago! Ralph's father, Flight Sergeant John Harry Green, had brought Ralph to the RAF station when he was a small boy at the end of the war, in 1945. Ralph remembered going inside one of the resident aircraft and looking down at the bomb bay, but couldn't remember what type of plane it was.

A coincidence occurred when two visitors suddenly realised that they had close family members who had both flown in the same squadron and would have known each other at Bircham Newton in 1940. One of them, Paul Aslett, was visiting Norfolk from his home in Bude, Cornwall. Paul's father, Sergeant A.T.R. Aslett, was badly injured in November 1940 when his Blenheim aircraft, flown by New Zealand pilot, J. T. Daviison, crash landed at Bircham Newton with a bomb on board, which exploded after they touched down. Sergeant Aslett's life was only saved because of the heroic actions of the pilot and the navigator, who, having escaped from the aircraft, went back inside the burning wreckage to haul him out. The other visitor, John Pavitt, visiting from Yaxley, Suffolk, had an even more tragic story. His uncle, Sergeant G.C. Pavitt, was killed in February 1941, when his Blenheim was shot down during a sweep off Jutland, Denmark. These two victims were both wireless operator/air-gunners on No. 235 Squadron, and would have been close colleagues prior to Sergeant Aslett's accident and hospitalisation. Consequently, Paul and John had much to talk about.

You must come along and see us, because you never know who you might meet.

 

2020 publicity

Cancellation of opening planned for Remembrance Sunday: We were going to open for one final time this year, on Remembrance Sunday, the 8th of November, but this has had to be cancelled due to a four-week Government lockdown for England announced on the 31st of October. We hope to offer a more complete schedule in 2021, starting on Easter Sunday. In the meanwhile, we will keep you informed via this website and via our Facebook page (see below).

Facebook

Facebook: Find and follow us on Facebook: We invite you to find and follow us on Facebook, where we maintain a public group called RAF Bircham Newton Heritage Centre, which you are most welcome to join. Over the last year we have discussed many topics on Facebook, including Bircham Newton's former RAF buildings, personnel who served there and the aircraft they flew. Your participation in these discussions would be very welcome.

A recent topic on our Facebook page has been about aircrew personnel from Bircham Newton who were captured as prisoners of war (POWs) during WW2. One former pilot, who spent time in several German POW camps, was lieutenant, Peter Butterworth RN, who was serving with a Fleet Air Arm squadron, No. 826 Squadron, which was seconded to Coastal Command and based at Bircham Newton in 1940. In June of that year, he was flying a Fairey Albacore biplane on a mission to the Dutch coastline, when he was shot down over Texel and captured as a POW. A year later, he escaped from Dulag Luft with Squadron Leader Roger Bushell (Of Great Escape fame) and others, but was recaptured and sent to Stalag Luft 1 (Barth) and then on to Stalag Luft 3 (Sagan). Whilst at Stalag Luft 3, he met Talbot Rothwell, who later went on to write many of the ‘Carry On’ films in which Peter was to star.  Having never performed in public before his imprisonment, Peter formed a duo with Rothwell and sang in the camp shows. The performance was followed by some comic repartee which, according to Peter's account, provoked enough boos and hisses to have the desired effect of drowning out the sounds of an escape tunnel being dug by other prisoners. Peter was also one of the vaulters covering for escapees, later portrayed in the book and film ‘The Wooden Horse’. After the war, Peter became a familiar character actor performing in the 'Carry On' films and on children’s television. He specialised in playing very eccentric characters.

Another interesting story that has been discussed is that of a Canadian pilot Carl E. Heggtveit, who served with No. 521 Squadron at Bircham Newton. He was on a practice meteorological sortie from Bircham Newton to Ireland in a Spitfire (AB131) on the 1st of September 1942 but got lost and landed by mistake at a Luftwaffe night-fighter airfield at Sint-Truiden in Belgium. He and his Spitfire were captured and he also spent time in Stalag Luft 3. The Spitfire was subsequently flown by the Luftwaffe. If you wish to find out more about these interesting stories and others, or wish to share some stories of your own, please come and join us on Facebook.

 

Remembrance Sunday

This photograph, courtesy of Paul Hewitt, shows BBC Radio Norfolk's Julie Reinger (second from the right) at the RAF Bircham Newton memorial with some of the Heritage Centre team members and friends during a Treasure Quest visit on Remembrance Sunday in 2019.

Virtual Tour - Treasures of the Heritage Centre. Since you cannot visit the RAF Heritage Centre as much as usual, this small video will give you an insight into some of its treasures. Photographs of some of them are also displayed below. It is hoped that they will encourage you to visit us when you are able.

RAF Bircham Newton Display Board

The photograph above shows the RAF Bircham Newton Display Board, created using stunning calligraphy by a former CITB illustrator, Mr. Austin Godfrey, and donated to the Centre by CITB. It includes a brief history of RAF Bircham Newton and the names of all of the former commanding officers. It also includes all squadron commanders from its flying era and chief instructors from the time when it was the RAF School of Administration.

Painting of Hawker Hinds

This second photograph (above) shows a unique painting donated by the aviation artist Wing Commander John Stephens MBE. The painting depicts Hawker Hinds of No. 34 Squadron flying over the aerodrome in 1936.  During that year, four light bomber units (Nos 18, 21, 34 and 49 squadrons) shared the aerodrome for a short period flying Hawker Hind biplanes. This was at the end of the biplane era, just prior to the station being transferred to the new Coastal Command. Several drawings of WW2 aircraft by John Stephens are also on show in the Heritage Centre.

Photographic displays

 

This third photograph (above) is typical of photographic displays which are on show in each of the heritage rooms.This particular display contains photographs from RAF Bircham Newton’s history in chronological order, beginning with the aerodrome’s birth during the Great War, continuing through the inter-war years and World War Two and ending in the Cold War. To the right of the display panels, three photographs from the display are shown in close up:  one photograph is of an official visit by King George V and Queen Mary in 1934; and two photographs are of an official visit by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the two Princesses in 1941.

Roll of Honour

This fourth photograph (above) is of an important document, the WW2 Roll of Honour, which lists all known personnel who lost their lives during WW2 whilst they were on active duty at RAF Bircham Newton or one of its satellite airfields. Two copies of the Roll of Honour are on display in the Heritage Centre.  It was compiled from squadron operational records, aircraft accident reports, Commonwealth War Graves Commission data and other sources.  It is considered to be a work in progress. Almost 540 casualties are currently listed, but more will almost certainly come to light in the future and will be added to this document.

Apprentice Shields

This fifth photograph (above) shows RAF administrative apprentice entry shields donated by the RAF Administrative Apprentice Association and individual former apprentices. From January 1959 until December 1962 Bircham Newton was the home of the RAF Administrative Apprentices’ Training School.  This school, which transferred from RAF Hereford to Bircham Newton, trained young RAF administrative apprentices, who underwent 20 months of intense training to learn their RAF trades of Clerk Secretarial, Pay Accountants or Suppliers.  This display includes the entry shields from the 32nd to 46th entries plus a graduation shield from the 46th entry. The 32nd to 35th entries began their training at Hereford but transferred to Bircham Newton when the school moved to Norfolk. The 36th to 46th entries of apprentices commenced their training at Bircham Newton but the 43rd Entry was the last entry to complete its training in Norfolk. Following the closure of Bircham Newton, in December 1962, the school was re-located back to RAF Hereford with the 44th to 46th entries, who completed their training in Herefordshire. There are many more items of apprentice memorabilia, including entry photographs, on display in the Centre.

Memories

This sixth photograph (above) represents all of the captured personal memories we have accrued from former RAF personnel and civilians who served at Bircham Newton or one of its satellites. We have files of these memories from WWI, the inter-war period, WW2, and the post-war period. Most were obtained from diaries, press reports and family records donated by the children or grandchildren of those who served. A precious few were obtained in the Heritage Centre by talking to the veterans themselves. The illustration shows some memories obtained via the family of former Flight Lieutenant Peter Frank Hall, who had two tours of duty at Bircham Newton during WW2. In May 1943, Peter was shot down over Holland and was captured as a prisoner of war (POW). He served two years in Stalag Luft III, Sagan, where the ‘Great Escape’ was hatched. Peter’s duty in the preparation for the escape was as a cartographer, making escape maps. Lots were drawn for potential escapees and Peter was drawn as number 120. However, the tunnel was closed down before he had a chance to escape.

206 Squadron

This seventh photograph (above) is a collage of four images which are typical of many photographs we have on display of squadrons, aircraft and personnel who flew from Bircham Newton. This particular collage shows four photographs of aircraft and personnel from No. 206 Squadron, a squadron that flew from Bircham Newton from 1936 until 1941.  This famous maritime squadron was flying Lockheed Hudson aircraft at the time when these photographs were taken, but it went on to fly the Boeing Fortress, Consolidated Liberator, Hawker Siddeley Shackleton and Nimrod in its long and distinguished RAF service.

School of Admin

The visual above (photograph eigth) is used to represent the RAF's School of Administration, which was based at Bircham Newton from the late 1940s when the station was transferred to Technical Training Command. Administrative training started here when the Officers Advanced Training School (OATS) moved in from Hornchurch in late October 1948 and was quickly joined by the Secretarial and Equipment Officers schools from Digby in the spring of 1949. With effect from June 1951, the whole training establishment became known as the RAF School of Administration, responsible for training thousands of RAF officers and students from foreign and Commonwealth countries. The Officers Advanced Training School subsequently became known as the Junior Command and Staff School (JC&SS) from 1958. There is a file of course photographs on display in the Centre; this is incomplete and we are always on the lookout for more photographs like the insert above.

We hope you have enjoyed this very brief tour of some of the Heritage Centre's treasures and that you will visit us as soon as you are able.

  

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