The Friendly Invasion of Hethel
The Friendly Invasion
Hethel airfield was built for the 389th Heavy Bombardment Group 2nd Air Division of the American Airforce. Today, all that remains of Station 114 (Hethel's designation) is the building that served as the gym and the chapel, the control tower, plus a few chimneys of accommodation units and some air raid shelters and blast walls. Today the gym and chapel, along with some Nissen huts, house an exhibition that is open one Sunday a month in the summer. There is a map of the airfield and information on some of the personnel and aircraft at the American Air Museum website, and more at the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library digital archive.
(Below) Operations Map preserved on the wall of what is now the 389th Museum
Memories of Mulbarton resident, Bill Alborough:
In World War Two, 122 airfields were constructed for the USAAF - mostly in East Anglia. Our nearest was Hethel. It was started in 1941 and completed in late 1942. I was involved with its construction! I was eleven at the time and used to travel with Mr Bert Bailey,a neighbour of ours, in his Bedford lorry to collect sand and gravel to take to Hethel airfield to make the runways.
There were some comings and goings by American aircrew as early as November 1942 [a 12th Air Force Group en route to North Africa] but the first permanent residents came in June 1943 when the 389th Bomber Group arrived with B24 Liberators. Their first wartime mission took place on September 7th 1943. I well remember watching them from Mulbarton School taking off for raids and forming their tight formations before setting off for their target, mainly in Germany. This would be about 10 am as the Americans were responsible for daylight raids and the RAF for the night raids. After school we would sometimes go to Hethel and watch the aircraft landing from a nearby road. We now know, from history, how hazardous these daylight raids were, but even then we knew how dangerous it was by the sight of some of the damaged aircraft staggering back. If an aircraft had injured crew on board it would fire a cartridge before landing.
Memorial to 389th Bomb Group in Hethel Churchyard
Off duty airmen, known as GIs, soon found their way to neighbouring villages... The Americans were looked on with a certain amount of envy, of course. Their uniforms were good quality; they wore ties and shoes and had lots of money. They were generous to us locals and the expression "Got any gum, chum?" was common. Most of my friends collected American gum wrappers, so to be different I collected Candy wrappers. Needless to say, this was a very romantic period in the life of this area: most girls of eligible age had an American boyfriend.
US Airmen in uniform at the back of the World's End, Mulbarton with landlord Billy Swift: Oct. 1943
The children from several schools around were invited to Hethel for a Christmas party. I assume it will have been 1944. We were well fed and got presents, and it was said that an aircraft was sent up to a great height so as to freeze the icecream!
Three Mulbarton lads beneath a B24 bomber at Hethel just before the USAAF left in 1945
In May 1945 the European War ended and the Americans left. It all seemed very sudden. I went to Hethel just before. We were allowed on the base and I was given a pair of boots which I treasured. Bill Alborough
Memories of Bracon Ash resident, Ted Moore:
During the war years, there was a great American influx at Hethel. It was just airmen and ground staff at Hethel during the war - no families lived there. The Americans were always about, people used to invite them home to their house for Sunday night tea; they got to know some of the girls. The Americans, they were great boys. If you could get them some eggs you could get anything: sweets and cigarettes. They used the Bird in Hand; the Kings Head at Ashwellthorpe; the Tradesmans Arms and the Worlds End at Mulbarton and the Swardeston Dog pub. If there was ever any trouble with the airmen in Norwich the 'Snowdrops' went through [Bracon Ash] like mad. The 'Snowdrops' were the Military Police with their white crash helmets on their motor bikes.
I remember the first black Americans coming here and they were living in huts between where the new engineering centre is now and Harvey's farm. We were told, us boys, that the 'black yanks' were there and they would cut your heads off! They were seen cutting the hedges with machetes and the rumour went round.
The state of some of the bombers when they came home! Part of a wing was gone on some of them, half the tail gone, an engine missing. It was marvellous how they got them home. But the biggest thing that ever happened here was on one Friday afternoon: American planes were practising and 5 collided. One landed by John Betts' house in Marsh Lane, one near Hapton church , one near Long Marsh, Flordon and two on the airfield. No civilians were killed but all the pilots died. I saw it happen.
The Americans stayed only a little while after the war and then one night they all went overnight and no-one knew they had gone! We went to bed and in the morning they were gone.... When they went away they didn't take anything with them. As I said, we don't know how they went - they were just gone in the morning. Ted Moore
For more information and memories go to the Wreningham history website.
The airfield had a massive impact on the landscape, with hedges removed for runways; miles of roads, drains and sewerage; hard-standing for aircraft; plus accommodation areas east of the airfield; the technical site by Potash Lane, and the bomb and ammunition dumps away from everything else in the north-west (rather close to Stanfield Hall!). In 1943 there were 395 officers and 2679 servicemen and women at the base. Hethel was one of the last new airfields to be built, and as more troops arrived each existing airfield became more crowded. By June 1944 it has more aircraft than it could handle and enlisted 200 extra plane guards. A report written in August 1944 said that Hethel's strength was double what it was designed for; extra troops were brought in just to maintain the perimeter track and runways (meaning yet more pressure on accommodation). It was a small town in a rural setting: 'Its grocery store, barber, gym and cinema attempted to make Hethel airfield a home from home, despite its alien location in a rural pocket of Norfolk.'
The main work of the 389th Bonbardment Group was to bomb German industrial sites in preparation for an invasion of France by the Allies. The Air Force called this 'Operation Pointblank'. Targets included the U-boat pens at Danzig, the dockyards at Kiel, the port areas of Ludwigshaven and Bremen, and industrial sites in Norway, Holland and France. There was 'Operation Crossbow' against the German long-range missile programme and 'Noball' missions against launching sites around Calais. In early 1944, 'Operation Argument' - later dubbed 'Big Week' - was a large-scale attack against German aircraft production. It helped turn the tide of the war, but at a cost - the group lost 7 bombers. This was followed by missions around Berlin, when the 389th hit the Daimler-Benz aero engine plant at Genshagen, south of Berlin. Then came the build-up to 'Operation Overlord', code-name for D-Day, mainly attacking German oil production and communication lines. June 1944 was their busiest month of the war, with mass attacks on Berlin, too. The group lost 6 bombers. 'Operation Goodwood' attacked German supply lines in the Caen area and 'Operation Cobra' around St Lo to help the Allies advance. Gradually the missions changed from bombing targets to carry supplies to the advancing Third Army. Then came 'the Battle of the Bulge' and finally missions against pockets of German resistance. The final mission was to hit marshalling yards in Salzburg.
War in Europe ended on 7th May 1945. One week later the 389th Bombardment Group received orders to return to the USA. They had flown 321 raids (including 14 from North Africa); a total of 588 personnel were killed in action or missing: they are listed in a Roll of Honour kept in a glass-topped case in Hethel Church.
[The above information on the Bomber Base is drawn from a detailed study of The Development of Hethel Airfield by Carola Wayne, a thesis written for the School of History, University of East Anglia which can be read here with the kind permission of the author and lecturers at UEA]
WHEN THE WAR WAS OVER....
When the Americans left the base came under the control of RAF Fighter Command and 65 and 126 Squadrons were stationed there for a short time. They were followed by a couple of Polish squadrons (303 & 316) which were kept in being because of the post-war political situation in Russian-occupied Eastern Europe. The Poles were based here to clear up the site - redeploy or safely remove ammunition and anything else that remained to make the base safe for civilian use. When these squadrons were disbanded at the end of 1946, many of the men opted to stay in Britain - a number settling in or near Mulbarton.
Hethel was closed for flying at the beginning of 1947. The land gradually returned to agriculture and for many years the hangars and other buildings were used for storage (above - Myhills' agricultural feedstuffs base) and as a sale-ground for agricultural machinery. However, the accommodation blocks were too good to lose at a time of desperate housing shortage and were taken over by the Henstead Rural District Council and became a 'new' village, often known as Hethel Camp.
The Day the USAAF returned...
'On a wet and miserable Saturday night in March 1952 we heard the sound of an aircraft overhead.... much more noisy than anything else we had experienced.... The next morning the whole camp was abuzz with stories of a plane crashing on the runway... An American B-50 Superfortress bomber had run short of fuel and the pilot had made a forced landing on the disused airfield in darkness and pouring rain without landing aids or runway lights. Nobody had been injured and the plane was virtually undamaged apart from the fact that it had ended up off the runway in the middle of a ploughed field....
For the next 2 or 3 weeks a C-47 Dakota flew in each day with working partied who recovered the plane from its muddy resting place and towed it to the corner of the airfield close to the hangars where it was to be repaired. At weekend there was normally no work being done so the plane was left in the care of a solitary American serviceman who had the unenviable job of guarding it from the local children.
Those servicemen had an extremely boring job and usually welcomed some company from the local population.... The main thing I remember is the way the guard could be totally blackmailed and it worked sometimes like this: the local ice-cream seller would arrive in his van, park next to the plane and wait there whilst all we children would demand that the American should buy ice-creams for all of us.... Any resistance was usually hopeless and he would eventually have to give in. We may have been quite young, but everybody knew that American servicemen had enormous amounts of money so we had no conscience whatsoever in making them spend a little of it for our benefit.
After a few weeks rumours spread that the plane as to finally fly out the following weekend, so a large crowd gathers on the edge of the airfield to watch. This time there were many more servicemen around than normal. the regular Dakota landed.... the men loaded all the equipment in... The pilot of the Superfortress eventually started each of his four engines and we watched in awe as he taxied to the southern end of the main runway. With an enormous noise from the four engines the plane roared down the runway and into the air. A few minutes later the Dakota followed it, leaving no trace whatsoever that the USAAF had ever been on the airfield.' (written by Michael Coates)
The Last of the Base
Eventually everyone in the Hethel 'Camp' was rehoused, and the base accommodation left to ruin. In 1964, part of the airfield - including the control tower and some hangars - was taken over by Lotus Cars, which can still be heard racing round a track partly based on the old runways!
The base is even old enough to warrant an archaeological survey as part of the 3-year Heritage Lottery funded 8th in the East project which unearthed and mapped some of the old buildings.