Seventy Years On
About six miles from where I live in Norfolk, is the village of Old Buckenham. It’s much the same as many Norfolk villages – old houses, a few lanes, a large meadow-like green at the centre of the village that’s looked the same for 600 years. I’m a governor at the local school.
There are two pubs. One, the Gamekeeper, is a traditional country pub, while across the green is another pub, the Ox and Plough. It’s a little more unusual.
Along the walls in the bar area (mind the sleeping dog by the fire), are framed photos of US airmen and B-24 Liberators. Which leads me to the subject at hand: the 453rd Bomb Group (Heavy), once stationed at Old Buckenham airfield, about two miles down a back lane from the village.
RAF Old Buckenham was built during 1942-43 for the USAAF (Eighth Air Force). It was given designation USAAF Air Station 144. The airfield was opened in late 1943 and was used by the 453rd, arriving from March Field, California on 23 December, 1943. The group tail code was a “Circle-J”. The group flew Consolidated B-24 Liberators as part of the Eighth Air Force’s strategic bombing campaign.
The 453rd BG entered combat on 5 February 1944 with an attack against an airfield at Tours. Throughout combat, the unit served chiefly as a strategic bombardment organisation. Targets included a fuel depot at Dulmen, marshalling yards at Paderborn, aircraft assembly plants at Gotha, railway centres at Hamm, an ordnance depot at Glinde, oil refineries at Gelsenkirchen, chemical works at Leverkusen, and these but a few of the mission targets.
James “Jimmy” Stewart, the Hollywood movie star, was Group Operations Officer at Old Buckenham during the spring of 1944 (You may be aware, that one of Jimmy Stewart’s favourite pastimes in later life was to visit fellow-actor Henry Fonda’s house, where the two of them would sit for hours making model airplanes). The 453rd’s last mission was in April 1945.
Today several original buildings and concrete pads remain at the site, the majority of which form part of Old Buckenham Airport, an active 126 acre airfield site with one hard runway and two grass strips. The field accommodates mostly light civilian Cessna-type private aircraft.
Each year, they organise a small airshow. The last time I went, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight made an appearance – a Lancaster, a Spitfire, a Hurricane, all vintage – throttle-up at 500 feet above these country fields.
In May 1983, during the 2nd Air Division reunion, the 453rd Bomb Group dedicated an extension to the Village Hall as a memorial to the 366 members of the Group who lost their lives serving here. The room contains various wartime artefacts and memorabilia and a large bronze plaque listing those who are remembered.
A large black granite memorial to the servicemen is at the entrance to the buildings of the modern day airfield. It’s in the form of a tailplane from a B-24. In October 2012 the stone was moved from its previous location into a specially created memorial garden.
This week, in the local paper, there’s a story about some photographs. Cinematographer and photographer Stefan Tarzan (what a great name) had bought a box of photographic supplies and equipment, cannisters labelled US Army Air Corps, at an auction in Montana USA. In these were undeveloped film and more than 90 images, depicting life at Old Buckenham airfield. After researching the images, he contacted the airfield to let them know of the find.
In a couple of days, it’s the 70th anniversary of the airfield, and its a great and remarkable coincidence that these images have been found. I’ve scanned the photos from the paper to give you an idea of the background.
There are also some images of me. When I was 60, I flew a 1941 Stearman biplane from the field. It’s a bright yellow and green aircraft that in WW2 was flown by trainee US pilots, prior to their ‘stepping up’ to mono-wing airframes.
Somewhere, there’s a video of my wife, watching me from the ground as the Stearman loops over in a 360. She’s shouting, “My God, he’s upside-down!”
8 additional images. Click to enlarge.