MK1 Supermarine Spitfire to be sold to benefit RAF Veterans and Wildlife Charity

MK1 Supermarine Spitfire P9374 in flight over Cambridgeshire in 2015. © BNPS

MK1 Supermarine Spitfire P9374 in flight over Cambridgeshire in 2015. © BNPS

On May 24, 1940 a Dornier 17-Z bomber got a lucky hit on a MK1 Supermarine Spitfire P9374 during an air battle over the beaches of Dunkirk. The MK1 Spitfire, flown by Flying Officer Peter Cazenove had taken off from RAF Croydon and flown over northern France to support the fighting on the beaches of Dunkirk. The Dornier brought the Spitfire down with a single bullet, which then crash-landed gear-up on the beaches near Calais. Uninjured, Flying Officer Cazenove left the aeroplane and walked to Calais where he joined a British unit fighting in the waning days of the Battle of France. Eventually he was captured and made a POW, ending up in Stalag Luft III in eastern Germany and becoming involved in the Great Escape. Flying Officer Cazenove survived the War. The Spitfire; however, stayed on the beaches of Dunkirk along with so much British military kit abandoned in the evacuation. Remarkably, a picture survives of two German servicemen sitting on the wreckage of P9374, half buried in the sand.

MK1 Spitfire P9374 on the beaches of Dunkirk in Spring 1940 with two German servicemen on her fuselage. © BNPS.

MK1 Spitfire P9374 on the beaches of Dunkirk in Spring 1940 with two German servicemen on her fuselage. © BNPS.

Flying Officer Peter Cazenove in 1940. © Mark One Partners.

Flying Officer Peter Cazenove in 1940. © Mark One Partners.

Eventually the tides coming in and out over Dunkirk buried the aeroplane where it was preserved for the next several decades until September 1980 when the fighter appeared back above the sands. Lovingly restored and reassembled by experts and now at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, the Spitfire is now one of only two flying MK1 Spitfires in their original specifications (there are many other flying Spitfires of different variants).

MKI Supermarine Spitfire P9374's cockpit.  Photograph taken at IWM Duxford, Cambridgeshire, 2015. © Getty Images.

MKI Supermarine Spitfire P9374’s cockpit. Photograph taken at IWM Duxford, Cambridgeshire, 2015. © Getty Images.

MK 1 Spitfire P9374 was built in 1939. Its Merlin III engine was completed at the Rolls-Royce Factory in Derby on October 27, 1939. The aeroplane had only 32 hours of flying time when it was brought down over France. It was one of the renowned No. 92 Squadron’s fighters based at RAF Croydon in March 1940.

MK1 Supermarine Spitfire P9374 in flight over Cambridgeshire in 2015. © John Dibbs, SWNS.com.

MK1 Supermarine Spitfire P9374 in flight over Cambridgeshire in 2015. © John Dibbs, SWNS.com.

Amazingly, this aeroplane is going on sale. On July 9, 2015 at Christie’s in London, P9374 will go on sale and is expected to fetch between £2- £2.5 million. The proceeds of the sale will be shared between two charities – the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund and Panthera Corporation, a wildlife conservation charity Mr Thomas Kaplan and his wife, Ms Dafna Kaplan, founded in 2006. Mr Kaplan, an American billionaire investor who is a world renowned conservationist, art collector, and Oxfordian, is the generous individual behind the sale. The second flying MK1 Spitfire in the world was also restored by Mr Kaplan’s experts. Numbered N3200, he has generously donated the MK1 Spitfire to the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, where it often flies and is available to all visitors to admire.

One of the greatest military aviation sites in the World is the Imperial War Museum, Duxford.  Located off the M11, south of Cambridge, on the site of historic RAF Duxford. http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-duxford

One of her sister aircraft, MK1 Supermarine Spitfire P9372. An early photo of a No. 92 Squadron Spitfire Mk1, The GR codes date it to the Spring of 1940 and the lack of an armour plated windscreen dates it to before the evacuation of Dunkirk. P9372 was shot down over Rye in September 1940. The wreck was recovered and much of the aeroplane is on display at Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar.  Unknown Photographer.

One of her sister aircraft, MK1 Supermarine Spitfire P9372. An early photo of a No. 92 Squadron Spitfire Mk1, The GR codes date it to the Spring of 1940 and the lack of an armour plated windscreen dates it to before the evacuation of Dunkirk. P9372 was shot down over Rye in September 1940. The wreck was recovered and much of the aeroplane is on display at Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar. Unknown Photographer.

Ruins of a Roman Bath and the Foundations of a Castle – Ravenglass and Muncaster

Traveling west from Hardknott Pass (and the Roman Fort I recently blogged about) down to the coast of the Irish Sea is the modern village of Ravenglass – the Roman Port of Glannaventa.  Almost two millenia ago, this was a key port in Roman Britain.  Glannaventa connected the border fortresses with the maritime supply lines essential for supporting the garrisons with food, supplies, and reinforcements.  These forts protected the northern border of the empire before Hadrian’s Wall was constructed. The port was also necessary for the export of silver and lead mined in the Lake District to mainland Europe and the greater Roman Empire.  As is often the case with important centres of trade, the port thrived and grew alongside the military encampments, eventually leisure facilities were constructed.

Column and archway of the Ravenglass Bath House.  This area connects the into the room where the Hypocaust was discovered (the underfloor plumbing system that provided heating). © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

Column and archway of the Ravenglass Bath House. This area connects from an area where the Hypocaust was discovered (the underfloor plumbing system that provided heating). © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

On the outskirts of the Roman town stood a sprawling bath house or Thermae in Latin, which is remarkably still standing and carefully preserved.  Brick walls 13 feet (4 meters) high remain, with curved arches over doorways.  Under the earth are additional foundations, visible now only under the raised ground, but clearly showing the impressive size of the bath house.  The Thermae stood next to a large fort, which is now buried in the Cumbrian landscape – some of the village, roads, and a railway all cross the archeological site.  However, the initial excavations from 1881 have been expanded in recent years and it now appears the extent of the Roman encampment is greater than once believed.  Just south of the bath house, along a public foot path which crosses the rail line, work is being conducted on the foundations of barracks which once housed the garrison of Glannaventa.

Part of the Ravenglass Bath House.  The two doorways pictured lead from the area archeologists have identified as the changing area to the bathing rooms.  © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

Part of the Ravenglass Bath House. The two doorways pictured lead from the area archeologists have identified as the changing area to the bathing rooms. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

Of note, a mile’s walk from the Bath House is Muncaster Castle, home of the Pennington Family and the Barons Muncaster.  The beautiful castle, occupied by the Pennington family for over 800 years, is built on an elevated wall which is now believed to have been a Roman fortification – the ruins of which were used as the foundations of the castle.

Muncaster Castle, a mile east of the Ravenglass Roman Bath House.  The foundations of Muncaster were built upon Roman Ruins 800 years ago.  © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

Muncaster Castle, a mile east of the Ravenglass Roman Bath House. The foundations of Muncaster were built upon Roman Ruins 800 years ago. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

The Ravenglass Roman Bath House is maintained by English Heritage, there is free access and free parking.  Muncaster Castle is a beautiful and historic Grade I property which is certainly worth a full day’s visit to enjoy the house and gardens: http://www.muncaster.co.uk.

After much traveling, I plan on returning to Cambridgeshire soon… Brandon.

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/