RAF Kimbolton and the 379th Bombardment Group (Heavy)

A few miles west of Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, between the villages of Stow Longa and Kimbolton, rests a flat, windswept area of farmland that the B-road snakes across. One can easily miss the short stretch of narrow road that cuts across the older, crumbling concrete of class-A taxiways that once carried B-17 Flying Fortresses to the main northwest-southeast runway. If you stop and trudge out across the muddy public footpath which heads due west, you will come across patches of concrete, often covered in hay bales for the local livestock. It is an eerie scene, for one cannot help but picture the heavy bombers combing back from a mission deep over Germany, and in the strong winds that blow across the flat fields, one can almost hear the engines of the bombers.

A fascinating discovery, when standing on the shoulder of the B-road which connects the villages of Stow Longa and Kimbolton, the original runway can be seen which the road was paved over in the following decades. © Brandon Wilgus, 2014.

A fascinating discovery, when standing on the shoulder of the B-road which connects the villages of Stow Longa and Kimbolton, the original runway can be seen which the road was paved over in the following decades. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2014.

These flat fields with their small patches of runway and tarmac are all that remain of Royal Air Force Station Kimbolton, a Class A airfield used by the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Eighth Air Force from 1942 through the end of the Second World War. First the 91st Bomb Group (Heavy) arrived in 1942 and began operations from RAF Kimbolton but had to move off the field quickly as the runways were determined neither strong nor long enough for the heavy bomb loads the B-17s carried. Until the runways could be improved, the 17th Bomb Group (Medium) used the field, flying the Martin B-26 Marauder, from October of 1942 until the group departed for North Africa. With 17th Bomb Group’s departure, the main runway was strengthened and extended, as is visible in this aerial photo of the base taken on 10 August 1945 shows:

RAF Kimbolton on 10 August 1945.  The village of Stow Longa is just visible on the top of the aerial photograph. The village of Kimbolton is to the south. This artistic work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain.

RAF Kimbolton on 10 August 1945. The village of Stow Longa is just visible on the top of the aerial photograph. The village of Kimbolton is to the south. This artistic work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain.

Then came the 379th Bomb Group (Heavy), with its famous “triangle-K” markings on the vertical stabilizers of the B-17s, which would operate from RAF Kimbolton until the end of the war. Four squadrons: the 524th, 525th, 526th and 527th Bombardment Squadrons comprised the 379th which flew its first combat mission on 19 May 1943. Focused on the war-making capabilities of Germany, the 379th flew raids on heavy industry, refineries, warehouses, submarine pens, airfields, marshalling yards and command and control centers across occupied Europe. They flew bombing missions against the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt and Leipzig, against synthetic oil plants at Merseburg and Gelsenkirchen, against the chemical plants at Ludwigshaven and airfields from Occupied France to Berlin.

A B-17F belly landed at RAF Kimbolton.  An amazing testament to the rugged airframe, this B-17 was repaired and returned to a flying status. U.S. National Archives, This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

A B-17F belly landed at RAF Kimbolton. An amazing testament to the rugged airframe, this B-17 was repaired and returned to a flying status. U.S. National Archives, This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

On 11 January 1944, the 379th attacked aircraft factories deep in Germany without fighter cover, earning the unit the coveted Distinguished Unit Citation. Before D-Day, the group focused on strong fixed positions, rail transfer and choke points, and gun batteries: softening up the Atlantic Wall before the greatest amphibious invasion in history.

B-17F at RAF Kimbolton.  Note the "Triangle K" tail marking.  U.S. National Archives; this image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

B-17F at RAF Kimbolton. Note the “Triangle K” tail marking. U.S. National Archives; this image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

The B-17G Serial # 42-32024, named the “Swamp Fire” famously flew 100 missions without a single abort – an unheard of accomplishment during the war from RAF Kimbolton. Forty different crews took the plane on her missions over occupied Europe and Germany. According to the Swamp Fire website, where veterans who flew on her during the war post memories and photos, a joke around the base in October 1944 was that: “After a new nose and tail section, a new ball turret, 16 engine changes, three wing replacements and over 1,000 bullet and flak hole patches, there is not much of the original plane left.” However, in a ceremony for the aircraft after her 100th mission, the Commanding Officer of the 379th, Colonel Lewis Lyle said: “No, there isn’t much of the original Swamp Fire, just the fighting spirit and tradition built into her and maintained by her ground and combat crewmen. She is an excellent criterion of the greatest bomber in the European Theatre of Operations.”

B-17 Serial #42-32024 "Swamp Fire".  This is a picture of the mission crew who flew on her 25th mission on 4 May 1945 (note 24 bombs painted on her side for completed missions). Standing, left to right: TSGT Edward J. Przybyla radio operator, 2LT Harvey "Herk" Harris bombardier, SSGT Roy E. Avery, Jr. waist gunner, 1LT Joseph L. Korstjens pilot, SSGT Andrew Stroman, Jr. ball turret, SSGT Berj G. Bejian engineer, SSGT    John  K. Rose waist gunner, 2LT Matthew J. Scianameo navigator, SSGT Elijah W. Lewis tail gunner, 2LT Byron B. Clark copilot, Lt. Scragg swamp fire's mascot.  Kneeling left to right is the ground crew: Rube Cohn, Seymour Romoff, James Abbott, Henry Gerhart and Dominick DeSalvo

B-17 Serial #42-32024 “Swamp Fire”. This is a picture of the mission crew who flew on her 25th mission on 4 May 1945 (note 24 bombs painted on her side for completed missions). Standing, left to right: TSGT Edward J. Przybyla radio operator, 2LT Harvey “Herk” Harris bombardier, SSGT Roy E. Avery, Jr. waist gunner, 1LT Joseph L. Korstjens pilot, SSGT Andrew Stroman, Jr. ball turret, SSGT Berj G. Bejian engineer, SSGT John K. Rose waist gunner, 2LT Matthew J. Scianameo navigator, SSGT Elijah W. Lewis tail gunner, 2LT Byron B. Clark copilot. The dog is “Lt Scragg” swamp fire’s mascot. Kneeling left to right is the ground crew: Rube Cohn, Seymour Romoff, James Abbott, Henry Gerhart and Dominick DeSalvo. Thanks to the Swamp Fire website for this image.

The 379th Bomb Group holds the record for the most tonnage dropped of any U.S. Army Air Force Bomb Group operating from the United Kingdom – 26,459 tons of ordnance. The 379th holds the record for most missions flown: 330 between May 1943 and May 1945. In June 1945, the 379th transferred from RAF Kimbolton and the base was closed temporarily. From the late 1940s until the early 1960s, the Royal Air Force used the base for basic training of new recruits before it was finally closed, dismantled and returned to agricultural use.

One of the concrete tarmacs of RAF Kimbolton today: broken concrete stretching towards where the control tower once stood, now all farmland. © Brandon Wilgus, 2014.

One of the concrete tarmacs of RAF Kimbolton today: broken concrete stretching towards where the control tower once stood, now all farmland. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2014.

The 379th Bomb Group (H) memorial, located on the southeast corner of where RAF Kimbolton once stood.  Of note, a book of honor stands next to the memorial listing the names of the men who died for their nation, and for the freedom of others, who flew from RAF Kimbolton. © Brandon Wilgus, 2014.

The 379th Bomb Group (H) memorial, located on the southeast corner of where RAF Kimbolton once stood. Of note, a book of honor stands next to the memorial listing the names of the men who died for their nation, and for the freedom of others, who flew from RAF Kimbolton. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2014.

The 379th Bomb Group (Heavy) maintains an excellent archive at: http://www.379thbga.org/

Thanks to the Swampfire website for research and photographs, please visit at: https://sites.google.com/site/swampfiresite/

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RAF Molesworth and the 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy)

In western Cambridgeshire, tucked away among the muddy fields, hedges and paths is a still active RAF station with a long and fascinating hisory.  Royal Air Force Station Molesworth, almost always shortened to RAF Molesworth, was first constructed in 1917 and remains in use today by the U.S. Air Force.

One can almost picture the B.E.2s of the Royal Flying Corps which operated out of Molesworth during the Great War, conducting training and preparations for flyers preparing to transfer with their aircraft to France.  The No. 75 Squadron occupied the airfield for sometime during this period. However, the airfield was abandoned after the war ended and went into disuse.  Some of the buildings which had supported the air station where incorporated into the local farms near Bington, Old Weston, and Molesworth.

Unatributed photo of a wartime Avro B.E.2c, with 'V" undercarriage, stremlined engine cowling, and the upper wing cut-out for the tail gunner to improve field of fire.  Sadly, there are no photographs of B.E.2's operating from RAF Molesworth during the war that I have been able to locate.

Unattributed photo of a wartime Avro B.E.2c, a reconnaissance plane and from the Great War, with ‘V” undercarriage, streamlined engine cowling, and the upper wing cut-out for the tail gunner to improve field of fire. Sadly, there are no photographs of B.E.2’s operating from RAF Molesworth during the war that I have been able to locate.

Despite the hopes of a generation, the horror of World War was to be experienced once again.  As the United Kingdom found itself drawn into the conflict with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, it was not long before the Air Ministry decided to recommission the abandoned aerodrome at Molesworth. Through 1940, the runways were laid and the base infrastructure constructed to support bombers. The Royal Australian Air Force flew Vickers Wellington IVs, a medium bomber, from Molesworth from November 1941 until January of 1942 under the Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 460 Squadron.  After the Australians, the RAF’s No. 159 Squadron occupied the airfied for a short time, but did not conduct flight operations from Molesworth.

It was the arrival of the U.S. Army Air Forces after America’s entry into the war that would transform Molesworth into one of the major bomber bases in England.  Upgraded to a Class ‘A’ Airfield intended for use by the “heavies” – the four-engine bombers that would take the strategic bombing campaign to occupied Europe and Germany – Molesworth was radically altered and underwent major upgrades.

The first American tenants at RAF Molesworth were the 15th Bombardment Squadron, flying the Douglas A-20 Havoc/Boston III light bomber. It was from Molesworth on 4 July 1942 that six aircraft from the 15th Bombardment Squadron joined a flight of RAF bombers to conduct a low-level attack against Luftwaffe airfields in the occupied Netherlands – the first U.S. Army Air Force bombers to attack mainland Europe. The date chosen was auspicious for President Roosevelt wanted to begin the strategic bombing campaign against Germany on the 4th of July. None of the four-engine “heavies” at the time were ready though, so the President’s intent was met with the light bombers launched from Molesworth. Sadly, three aircraft on the combined mission did not return from the bombing raid, two were A-20s from the 15th Bombardment Squadron.  One of the four that survived was pictured at a later date, amazingly in color:

This Douglas A-20C HAVOC/BOSTON III, serial number AL672, was flown on the 4 July 1942 low-level attack against Luftwaffe positions in the Netherlands at the time part of the 15th Bombardment Squadron (light).  This photograph was taken later in the war when AL672 was flying as a staff communications aircraft for the 8th USAAF out of RAF Bovingdon.  Photograph from the U.S. Army Air Forces via the National Arcives.  Thanks to Roger Freeman: "The Mighty Eighth, the Colour Record" 1991.
This Douglas A-20C HAVOC/BOSTON III, serial number AL672, was flown on the 4 July 1942 low-level attack against Luftwaffe positions in the Netherlands at the time part of the 15th Bombardment Squadron (light). This photograph was taken later in the war when AL672 was flying as a staff communications aircraft for the 8th USAAF out of RAF Bovingdon. Photograph from the U.S. Army Air Forces via the National Arcives. Thanks to Roger Freeman: “The Mighty Eighth, the Colour Record” 1991.

The 15th Bombardment Squadron departed RAF Molesworth for operations in North Africa under the 12th Air Force in September 1942.  It was at this time that the B-17 Flying Fortresses began arriving at RAF Molesworth, the four squadrons that would eventually comrpise the 303rd Bombardement Group (Heavy) which would fly from Molesworth until the end of the war.  The 303rd Bombardment Group, consisting of the 358th, 359th, 360th and 427th Bombardment Squadrons, was destined to become one of the legendary units of the Second World War under the 8th Air Force.  The first mission by the 303rd Bomb Group was flown on 17 November 1942, targeting military targets in occupied France.  On 27  January 1943, the 303rd began flying missions against Germany, taking part in the 8th Air Force’s first bombing mission against Germany proper – the U-boat facilities at Wilhelmshaven.

For the next two and a half years the 303rd would fly missions deep into German territory: to the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt, against factories and shipyards, against rail-yards and distribution centers for the Wehrmacht.  During the D-day invasion of Normandy, the 303rd bombed the Pas de Calais and then later supported the breakout from St. Lo in July 1944.  It supported the army in the Battle of the Bulge and in the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945.  On 25 April 1945, the 303rd flew its last mission from RAF Molesworth attacking the German armaments factory complex at Pilsen.

The RAF Molesworth control tower in April 1944.  On the taxiway is a B-17G, tail number 42-97284 "Ain't Misbehavin" - she would fly a total of 48 combat missions during the war.  The "Triangle-C" designator on the verticle stabilizer was the RAF Molesworth designator.  Photograph by Mr. Milton "Chic" Cantor, the photographer of the 303rd BG(H), with thanks to the 303rd "Hell's Angels" historical society.
The RAF Molesworth control tower in April 1944. On the taxiway is a B-17G, tail number 42-97284 “Ain’t Misbehavin” – she would fly a total of 48 combat missions during the war. The “Triangle-C” marking on the verticle stabilizer was the RAF Molesworth designator. The Class A Airfield imporvements: three converging airstrips with a concrete runway of at least 6,000 feet are visible in the distance. Photograph by Mr. Milton “Chic” Cantor, the photographer of the 303rd BG(H), with thanks to the 303rd “Hell’s Angels” historical society.

The 303rd Bomb Group (Heavy) flew a total of 364 missions from RAF Molesworth, comprising 10,271 sorties.  The bombers shot down a confirmed 378 aircraft with 104 additional aircraft as probables.  817 men from the 303rd were killed in action and 754 become prisioners of war.  After the war, the 303rd Bomb Group (Heavy) departed Molesworth for the United States via North Africa.

22 May 1944: 303rd B-17s on a bombing mission to Kiel, Germany taken at 25,000 feet.  Photo from the Peter M. Curry Collection.

22 May 1944: 303rd B-17s on a bombing mission to Kiel, Germany taken at 25,000 feet. Photo from the Peter M. Curry Collection.

B-17s from the 303rd flying through intense anti-aircraft fire.  Photo by Joseph Sassone with caption: "Flak so thick you could almost taxi around it."

B-17s from the 303rd flying through intense anti-aircraft fire. Photo by Joseph Sassone with caption: “Flak so thick you could almost taxi around it.”

The airfield was returned to the Royal Air Force in July 1945 where it was used for jet trainers and Gloster Meteor IIIs were operated from Molesworth for a short period.  On 10 October 1946 the training unit left and the airfield was placed in ‘care and maintenance’.

In 1951, the U.S. Air Force returned to RAF Molesworth, hosting the 582nd Air Resupply Group.  The runways, taxiways and hardstands were all improved and the airfield became a critical logistics airbase for the Cold War.  The 582nd provided air support – paratroop airdrops and resupply – to the U.S. Army’s 10th Special Forces Group which was stationed in Bad Tolz, Germany.  The 582nd Air Resupply Group flew a variety of aircraft from Molesworth, from B-29s to C-119 Flying Boxcars and HU-16 Albatrosses. At the time, the 582nd was treated as a normal resupply group; however, its support to Army Special Forces, which were trained to infiltrate the Iron Curtain if needed, must be wondered at.

On 25 October 1956, the 582nd was reorganized and called the 42nd Troop Carrier Squadron Medium (Special). They flew HU-16s Albatrosses, C-47 Dakotas, C-119 Flying Boxcars, and C-54 Skymasters from RAF Molesworth until 3 May 1957 when the aircraft moved to RAF Alconbury. However the squadron had a short life at Alconbury and was inactivated on 8 December 1957. The C-54s and C-47s were transferred to Rhein-Main AB, Germany.  The C-119s were sent to the 322nd Air Division at Evreux-Fauville AB, France.  Of personal note, my grandfather was a C-119 pilot in the 322nd Air Division in Evreux-Fauville AB France at the time, a young U.S. Air Force lieutenant.

25 October 1955: HU-16 Albatross of the 582nd Air Resupply Group at RAF Molesworth. This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

25 October 1955: HU-16 Albatross of the 582nd Air Resupply Group at RAF Molesworth. This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

RAF Molesworth went into a maintenance status for the next twenty years, finally being deactivated officially in 1973.  Only marginal maintenance was performed at Molesworth by U.S. Air Force personnel stationed a few miles away at RAF Alconbury.   That changed in June 1980 when RAF Molesworth was chosen to house nuclear weapons – the BGM-109G Ground Launched Cruise Missiles or GLCMs – under the 303rd Tactical Missile Wing.  The Ministry of Defence now worked on building the massive GLCM bunkers that have become a hallmark of the west Cambridgeshire countryside.  All the World War II runways, taxiways and hardstands were removed.  Only three large hangers from the World War II period remained. Old infrastructure from the 1950s was demolished and new buildings constructed.  By December 1986, the 303rd Tactical Missile Wing was activated but when the United States and the Soviet Union signed the INF Treaty in 1987, all nuclear weapons were removed from RAF Molesworth by October 1988.  In January 1989 the 303rd Tactical Missile Wing was deactivated.

1989: the GAMA (GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area) at RAF Molesworth is completed for the housing of short-range nuclear weapons.

1989: the GAMA (GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area) at RAF Molesworth is completed for the housing of short-range nuclear weapons. This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force AIrman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties.  As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

During the 1980s, regular protests occured at Molesworth due to the stationing of nuclear GLCMs at the facility – part of the peace camp can still be seen outside the main gates of RAF Molesworth. This was part of the European-wide effort to oppose NATO’s basing of tactical nuclear cruise missiles in Europe which was seen at the time as a dramatic escalation in the final years of the Cold War. It was only the removal of the cruise missiles that led to the end of the protests.

In 1990, the Royal Air Force announced that RAF Molesworth would house the U.S. European Command’s Joint Analysis Centre, which still operates at the base today, still controlled by the U.S. Air Force.

For more information on the 303rd Bombardment Group:

The 303rd Bomb Group (Heavy), the Hell’s Angels maintains an indepth and fascinating webpage: http://www.303rdbg.com where many more photos, additional details and stories on the brave men who flew from RAF Molesworth can be read and shared.

For an interesting article on the GLCM facility at RAF Molesworth:

Read this article: http://www.heritagedaily.com/2014/01/raf-molesworths-ground-launched-cruise-missiles-25-years-on/100785 from the Heritage Daily by Cindy Eccles.