Hardknott Roman Fort – the Borders of Empire

High in the mountain passes of the Lake District in northwest England, some distance from Cambridgeshire, lies a long ruined Roman fortress that once guarded the northern borders of the Roman Empire. It is hard to imagine a time when the beauty and tranquility of Cumbria, now so often visited by hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, was a battlefield. In the early Second Century, during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, the Mediobogdum Fort was constructed along a chain of fortifications to prevent an invastion of Roman Britain (we are reasonably sure that Mediobogdum is now identified as the Hardknott Roman Fort). It was built along the mountain pass that left the port of Glannoventa (modern day Ravenglass) in the Eskdale Valley and crossed the hardknott mountain towards Windermere. Nowdays, the single-track road is notorious as the steepest and most treacherous mountain track in all of Great Britain, loved by motoring enthusiasts. One can imagine at the difficulty of garrisioning, supplying and constructing a military encampment high in the mountains of the Lake District – what is even difficult to access by auto today.

Hardknott Roman Fort, the Lake District, Cumbria. Hardknott peak is visible in the distance, and the Praetorium foundations are visible in the forground. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

Hardknott Roman Fort, the Lake District, Cumbria. Hardknott peak is visible in the distance, and the Praetorium foundations are visible in the forground. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

This fort, built and occupied before Hadrian’s Wall was constructed several miles to the North, was at its time the last outpost of Empire – almost a thousand miles from the Imperial City of Rome. The remotness of this posting would have been breathtaking for the 500 men and officers garrisioned here – who we know from extant Roman records were the Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians. These men were raised on the balmy eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea (present day Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania). They would have traveled overland across Europe and then sailed to western England to reach this hostile borderland, where conflict with Picts and other tribes from present day Scotland was a constant threat.

An overhead view of the fort, thanks to English Heritage for the photograph. © English Heritage, 2015.

An overhead view of the fort, thanks to English Heritage for the photograph. © English Heritage, 2015.

Laid out with military precision, it is still easy to walk the perfect square of Hardknott Fort, 110 meters per wall, with four gates and corner towers. The road of the day would have entered the fort via one gate and led travelers, merchants, and local peasents out through the opposite, ensuring the soldiers could maintain control of the key mountainous terrain, the movement of people and goods, and the levying of customs taxes. One nowdays can walk through the foundations of the Commanding Officer’s Praetorium, or villa. You can easily picture the wooden supports that would have comprised the barracks for the soldiers, junior officers, and auxilliaries, and think on the remoteness of this post.   The foundations of the headquarters building, the graneries, and the forementioned Praetorium occupy the central ground of the fort. Just outside the northern gate is a parade field, a testament to the Roman Empire’s reknowed discipline of its troops. A bit farther afield the ruins of a bath house remain, a reminder that not all of life in Mediobogdum would have been austere and grim.

Looking down on Hardknott Fort from the area of the parade grounds. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

Looking down on Hardknott Fort from the area near the granaries.  The foundations of the Cohort’s Headquarters are clearly visible with the Eskdale Valley stretching to the distance. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

Today, Hardknott Fort is jointly preserved by both English Heritage and the National Trust. Not easily accessible, you must navigate the Hardknott Pass and then hike to the Fort, which is perched on the middle slopes of the Hardknott peak. Visit: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/hardknott-roman-fort/ for more information on the fort.

Hardknott Pass, the Lake District, Cumbria.  The single-track B-road which crosses from the Eskdale Valley to Windermere is the access point to the Roman ruins. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

Hardknott Pass, the Lake District, Cumbria. The single-track B-road which crosses from the Eskdale Valley to Windermere is the access point to the Roman ruins. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

Bomber Command Raid on a German Town – Böblingen, 7 October 1943

I often write in this dialogue with you about the local history of Cambridgeshire, and frequently about the efforts during the Second World War which originated from the bases and airfields spread throughout southeast England.  However, this week I find myself in the small town of Böblingen, Baden-Wurttemburg, in southwest Germany. It is an ancient town which was accidentally bombed during the war, bombed and destroyed.  Here one sees the horrific reality of what 8th Air Force and Bomber Command’s strategic bombing wrought on the ground.  The level of destruction waves of heavy bombers were capable of achieving in an effort to destroy Germany’s military might is sobering.  This small town is but one example of millions of lives that were horrifically changed by the Second World War – and is not a judgment on guilt or innocence – but is simply what happened.

"Böblingen 01 1939-07-01" by Ansgar Walk - Foto erstellt von Ansgar Walk.  The town on 1 July 1939.

“Böblingen 01 1939-07-01” by Ansgar Walk – Foto erstellt von Ansgar Walk. The town on 1 July 1939.

On the night of 7 October 1943, 343 Avro Lancaster Bombers, launching from airfields in Cambridgeshire and beyond, formed up and began a major night raid on the military-industrial targets of Stuttgart.  It was overcast and dark, some of the aircraft from the 101st squadron were equipped with night-fighter jamming equipment (this was “CIGAR” first operational use in a combat mission). This allowed the bombers to conduct the raid with little resistance.  A diversionary raid on Munich further confused the German fighters and the bombers reached their targets relatively unhindered and dropped waves of ordnance, explosives followed by incendiary bombs, losing only four aircraft that night.  The mission was hailed as a success – for the industrial capacity of Stuttgart needed to be destroyed to slow the German war machine.

Things were very different in the sleepy town of Böblingen, 10 miles southwest of Stuttgart, where no military targets were located.  By mistake, one of the two pathfinders which dropped aerial markers to guide in the remaining bombers, marked Böblingen instead of the industrial facilities of Stuttgart.  Following the pathfinder’s lead, the Lancasters dropped 35 high-explosive bombs before over 400 incendiary bombs over the unsuspecting town.  The Schloβberg, church, and over 70% of the old town was destroyed.  1,735 people lost their homes, and most tragically, 44 people died including 24 women and children.  As I walked around the Schloβberg this week, which still is the central part of the rebuilt town, I found small intact pieces of the medieval castle which survived the night.  One can still see the black scorching on the medieval stones, which were burned permanently into the rock by the inferno caused by the incendiaries.  It isn’t hard to picture the horror of that night to the people of this small town, rushing about, seeking shelter and tending to the destruction.

"Zentrum von Böblingen nach dem Bombenangriff vom 7./8. Oktober 1943." Date 12 October 1943  Source Foto erstellt von Ansgar Walk. Photograph by Ansgar Walk .

“Zentrum von Böblingen nach dem Bombenangriff vom 7./8. Oktober 1943.” Date 12 October 1943
Source Foto erstellt von Ansgar Walk. Photograph by Ansgar Walk . The shell of the nave of the protestant church can be seen in the center of the photo, where the remembrance memorial now stands.

A small piece of the Boblingen castle, completely destroyed on the night of 7 October 1943.  This piece of archway lies buried in the hillside. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

A small piece of the Boblingen castle, completely destroyed on the night of 7 October 1943. This piece of archway lies buried in the hillside. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

A medieval tower remained after the bombing of the castle.  It now is perched on the highstreet, between buildings from the 1950s and beyond.  A testament to the almost complete destruction of Boblingen's center. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

A medieval tower remained after the bombing of the castle. It now is perched on the highstreet, between buildings from the 1950s and beyond. A testament to the almost complete destruction of Boblingen’s center. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

On the back of the rebuilt protestant church, which was just a shell of stone after the night’s bombing, I found a small stone marker that commemorates the loss of that night – a phoenix flies up from the ashes – and the inscription reads: “Destroyed by bombs during the night of 7/8 October 1943, rebuilt 1949/1950 for the glory of God.”

The memorial stone on the rebuilt nave of the protestant church in Boblingen. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

The memorial stone on the rebuilt nave of the protestant church in Boblingen. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

Sadly, another very similar event happened in 1944, when Böblingen was once again struck out of confusion by bombers seeking the heavy industry of Stuttgart.  More deaths, more destruction in this small town so desperately affected by the Second World War.

A check of the Statistisches Bundesamt, the Federal German Records Office, shows that in the last census before the war, Böblingen had a population in 1939 of 12,560.  In 1946, 10,809 people were counted in the town.  1,751 people had disappeared from the town.  Behind those numbers are enormous tragedies: lost civilians in the raids yes, but also lost soldiers, dispossessed families that left never to return, and even those murdered by the regime.  Time has passed now and I don’t seek to judge or to search for any more horror here. A tragedy has woven together with accidental targeting of an unimportant town, spurred by the deliberate bombing of military-industrial targets, the civilian losses, the impact of the war on these people, but also the crews of the four Lancasters which were lost that night, and the overall efforts of so many for so long during a dreadful time. The greater tragedy of the Second World War can best be found in seeking the personal stories, the human struggles of so many in the face of such horror over so long.

Writing to you from Böblingen, Germany.  Brandon.

The Palace of Buckden, fortified manor house and jail of a queen

The gatehouse of Buckden Palace, © Brandon Wilgus, 2015

The gatehouse of Buckden Palace, © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015

Along the Great North Road, traveling from London through Cambridgeshire is the small, peaceful village of Buckden. Old coaching inns now have been turned into gastro-pubs, while the picturesque houses are smartly refurbished and often owned by those who make the long commute into London by train – the lost time more than worth living in the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside. In the center of Buckden, however, an ancient fortified manor house built in the 15th Century rises over the thatched and tiled roofs of the village, the bricks and stone having replaced the wooden 12th Century Bishop’s Palace which has long since disappeared. It was here that Katharine of Aragon was imprisioned and the Bishops of Lincoln lived, surrounded by crenulated walls, moat, and outer bailey. It speaks of an age when a bishop was a wealthy feudal lord, who led the diocese but also maintained an army.

The bricked towers of the fortified manor, added n 1475 by the Bishop of Lincoln, © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

The bricked towers of the fortified manor, added in 1475 by the Bishop of Lincoln, © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

The brick towers of the fortified manor house were added in 1475, during the War of the Roses by the Bishops of Lincoln. It is during that period of conflict that the Bishop’s Palace appeared to reach the height of its defensive works – fortified manor with towers, crenulated interior wall, moat, and outer bailey. Sadly much of the defensive works were demolished during the Commonwealth in the 17th Century and in the 19th Century, but that cleared the way for some impressive later Victorian era buildings. The Bishops of Lincoln left the property in 1837. The moat was filled in 1871 as the Victorian buildings were finished and the Palace serves as a religious retreat to this day. The Claretian Missionaries now reside here, but the grounds are open for one to wander around and appreciate this ancient fortified manor house.

Many monarchs were entertained in the Bishop of Lincoln’s Palace at Buckden: Henry III stayed here in 1248, Edward I called the Longshanks and Malleus Scotorum was here for a time in 1291. Richard III visited the Palace in 1483, the first year of his short reign that would end two years later at Bosworth Field.

The Palace of Buckden is probably best known for holding Henry VIII’s first Queen, Katherine of Aragon during the King’s Great Matter, from July 1533 until May 1534 until she was transferred a few miles away to Kimbolton Castle, where she died in 1536. She would eventually be buried just north of both Buckden and Kimbolton at Peterborough Cathedral.

Miniature of Catherine Howard as Queen of England by Hans Holbein the Younger.  This image is in the public domain.

Miniature of Catherine Howard as Queen of England by Hans Holbein the Younger. This image is in the public domain.

Ironically, a few years after her death, an aging Henry VIII would stay at Buckden Palace with his fifth wife, Catherine Howard (she was 17 at their marriage; Henry was a gouty and obese 50). They stayed at the Palace in 1541, during a summer tour that the King and Queen took of England before her coronation. It was during this tour that Catherine would be accused of committing adultery with Thomas Culpeper which led to her beheading for treason in 1542. It is unknown what occurred between Henry and his penultimate wife while at Buckden Palace, but the fortified manor certainly served as a major setting for the drama of Henry’s love affairs – which ended so tragically for the two women who stayed at Buckden.

The interior of the fortified gatehouse which was once the access point to the inner courtyard of Buckden Palace. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

The interior of the fortified gatehouse which was once the access point to the inner courtyard of Buckden Palace. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

Buckden has a helpful website with a well-written and informative section on the history of the village where the palace plays a central role: http://www.buckden-village.co.uk/history/

RAF Glatton and the 457th Bomb Group (Heavy)

Between Huntingdon and Peterborough, in the west of Cambridgeshire lies the small village of Conington. With its beautiful All Saints Church, first mentioned in Domesday Book and rebuilt in the early 16th Century, and remarkably beautiful cottages and homes perched on the edge of the fens, one can hardly imagine that 70 years ago this was the home of four squadrons of B-17 Flying Fortresses, roaring into the air almost daily for targets in Germany and Occupied Europe.

The Control Tower, now demolished, of RAF Glatton, taken on 31 March 1945. In the distance, to the left of the tower, a B-17 is visible on the taxiway. US Air Force Photograph, in the public domain.

The Control Tower, now demolished, of RAF Glatton, taken on 31 March 1945. In the distance, to the left of the tower, a B-17 is visible on the taxiway. US Air Force Photograph, in the public domain.

In the Second World War, Conington was located next to Royal Air Force Station Glatton, which was constructed to Class “A” standards by engineers to support heavy bombers in 1943 with the intent of being used by the U.S. Army Air Forces in the strategic bombing campaing. The 457th Bombardment Group (Heavy) arrived on 21 January 1944, consisting of the 748th, 749th, 750th and 751st Bombardment Squadrons. The recognizable tail code of the 457th was the “triangle U” painted on the vertical stabilizers of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses which operated from the air base. The 457th Bomb Group operated RAF Glatton from January 1944 until 20 April 1945, when it completed its 237th and last combat mission at the conclusion of the war.

Before June 1944, the 457th operated on attacking stategic targets in Germany – munitions factories, ball-bearing plants, marshalling yards and oil refineries. On D-Day, the 457th flew missions against Cherbourg Peninsula, attacking German positions off the east flank of American forces landing at Utah and Omaha beaches. By July 1944, the 457th had resumed strategic bombing and would continue to focus on German targets through April 1945.  However, the 457th provided aerial bombing support to the breakout from St. Lo in northern France, the British 1st Airborne’s landings at Arnhem in the Netherlands, and in support of embattled U.S. Army forces in the Battle of the Bulge.

At the conclusion of the War, the B-17s of the 457th Bomb Group returned to the United States and the airfield was used by No. 3 Group of the RAF Bomber Command flying B-24 Liberators and Avro Lancaster heavy bombers. By 1948, it was decided that the airfield was surplus and the land was returned to agricultural use and demilitarized.

The 457th Bomb Group (H) Memorial, dedicated to the men who flew from RAF Glatton during the Second World War. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

The 457th Bomb Group (H) Memorial, dedicated to the men who flew from RAF Glatton during the Second World War. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2014

A marker placed at the foot of the watertower, which is a moving remembrance to the men who paid the ultimate sacrifice flying from RAF Glatton in the Second World War.  © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

A marker placed at the foot of the watertower, which is a moving remembrance to the men who paid the ultimate sacrifice flying from RAF Glatton in the Second World War. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

The watertower of the former airfield of RAF Glatton, the only surviving structure from the Second World War. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015

The watertower of the former airfield of RAF Glatton, the only surviving structure from the Second World War. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015

Today, one of the Class A runways remains in use as the “Peterborough Business Airport” which is a general aviation facility.  It is a testament to the strength of the runways built over 70 years ago that the field remains in limited and lighter use.  The only other structure from the Second World War is the watertower which stands near the 457th Bomb Group Memorial, off Great Ermine Street, near the village. In All Saints’ Church, Conington, is a memorial to the 457th Bomb Group which must be visited.

At the end of the Peterborough Business Airport's runway, still in use from the Second World War as a general aviation facility. A marker placed at the foot of the watertower, which is a moving remembrance to the men who paid the ultimate sacrifice flying from RAF Glatton in the Second World War.  © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

At the end of the Peterborough Business Airport’s runway, still in use from the Second World War as a general aviation facility. A marker placed at the foot of the watertower, which is a moving remembrance to the men who paid the ultimate sacrifice flying from RAF Glatton in the Second World War. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

To see RAF Glatton, travel up the A1(M) and exit at the B660, signposted to Conington. 

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/

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.

The Hedda Stone and Peterborough Abbey

Behind the main altar in Peterborough Cathedral, in an alcove of the Lady Chapel, lies an ancient stone carving: the Hedda Stone. This medieval carving of 12 monks, six on each side, commemorates the destruction of the Monastery and the death of the Abbot and Monks when the area was sacked by the Vikings in 864.

The Lady Chapel of Peterborough Cathedral, photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Lady Chapel of Peterborough Cathedral, photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

In the 7th Century, Cambridgeshire and its environs was dramatically different than we now know. The Shire was part of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia – one of the many fractured states of medieval England. Peterborough at the time was known as “Medeshamstede”, which translates loosely to “Homestead belonging to the Mede” and according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, had gained this name from the monastery which was founded there in the 7th Century. The Venerable Bede also mentioned “Medeshamstedi”, a latinized version of the area, in 670. Despite these references to the Monastery at the site, Peterborough’s history is even more ancient, with its Bronze Age Settlements and Roman history, but those are discussions for another day.

The Medeshamstede Monastery, often called Peterborough Abbey by modern historians, was an important ecclesiastical center in the Kingdom of Mercia, located along the River Nene, in a boggy area or fen. According to Bede and the Royal Charter of the Mercian King Wulfhere, the Monastery was founded by Sexwulf, who became its first Abbot, likely between 653-656. Hugh Candidus wrote many centuries later, in the 1100s, that Sexwulf built a great Monastery and “laid as its foundations some great stones, so mighty that eight yoke of oxen could scarcely draw any of them”. One can imagine the size and importance of the Monastery, which now forms much of the foundations of Peterborough Cathedral, for Candidus also wrote that Sexwulf strove “to build no commonplace structure, but a Second Rome, or a daughter of Rome in England”. The Monastery likely played a key role in the Christianization of Mercia through the establishment of daughter churches thoroughout the Kingdom. By all appearances, the Monastery thrived and was a center of christian scholarship until the Vikings came.

In 870, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Viking invasion of Mercia reached Medeshamstede and the Abbey was razed, the Monks slaughtered. The remarkable Hedda Stone, a two-sided carving that memorializes the massacre of the Abbot and Monks in 870, carved a few years after the event, is the most prominent surviving artifact from Medeshamstede. It is a haunting piece, for the eyes of the monks peer out from carved sockets, worn and weathered by time.

The Hedda Stone, Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, England. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Hedda Stone, Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, England. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

There are no contemporary recollections of the razing of the Abbey. However, the violence of Viking raids, the invasion and settlement of England which began in June 793, still shocks. The raid on the Abbey on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, in Northumbira, was called an atrocity at the time. One contemporary wrote: “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a Pagan race… The heathens poured out the the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”