The Trip: East Anglia

A new Apple TV series starring Austin Butler, adapted from a book by Donald L Miller, will rekindle interest in the American airmen who came to East Anglia during WWII and the bases they called home. Screenwriter Rob Ryan takes a trip round the region to explore their legacy.

I am standing next to the country road that links the villages of Steeple Morden and Litlington in Cambridgeshire. Apart from the occasional car speeding past, there is only the sound of corn buntings and skylarks coming from the pancake-flat fields that surround me. Eighty years ago, though, on this very spot, the birdsong would have been regularly drowned out by the deep thrum of Pratt & Whitney radial engines. For in July 1943, the brutish Republic P-47 Thunderbolts of the 355th Fighter Group of the American 8th Air Force arrived, ready to help win the war against Germany that had been dragging on for four long and bloody years.

Steeple Morden Memorial,

In front of me is a memorial to those men who came to a very foreign land, a curved block of five granite panels, with, in the centre, the propellor of a P-51 Mustang, the airplane which replaced the P-47 at RAF Steeple Morden (also known as USAAF Station 122). The Merlin-engined Mustang, when equipped with drop tanks, helped curtail the slaughter of US aircrew over Germany by providing long range escort of the USAAF’s B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators. Before the P-51s came in force only a quarter of air crew would live to complete the required 25 missions that made up a tour (later that number was increased to 35), after which they could be rotated home.

Masters of the Air (Apple TV+)

I am standing on this roadside, reading the engraved names of the fallen of both the RAF and USAAF, because of a TV series – Masters of the Air (Apple TV+), which comes from the same production team (Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg) as Band of Brothers and The Pacific and stars Austin Butler of Elvis fame. When it airs later this year, it is highly likely to rekindle interest in the time when 200 American bases, housing up to 6,000 men each (usually about half that, but still dwarfing the population of local villages) sprouted up across the East of England like a strange crop. 

They were built with astonishing speed and incorporated cinemas, gyms, bars and baseball diamonds, some even had ballrooms and theatres, and all needed crew and support staff accommodation, hangars, mess halls, briefing rooms, technical areas and bomb stores. There is an engraved map of the Steeple Morden base on a slab at the memorial site, and as I match the diagram to reality, I realise the station was truly massive. However, its concrete runways have been reclaimed by farmland and just three forlorn Nissen huts stand witness to the days when America’s 8th Air Force came to town. Many stations have disappeared altogether. Nevertheless, although it is eight decades since this “friendly invasion”, traces of the USAAF servicemen who crossed the Atlantic are very much in evidence even today. 

The eastern counties of England are, of course, the flattest part of this country, so were perfect for giant bomber bases and also lay within striking distance of the enemy. The stations themselves were also within striking distance of local women, meaning romance – and heartbreak – were a feature of every base’s history.

Time to move on. There is apparently another, smaller, memorial in the centre of Steeple Morden, but it’s not the one I want to see. I head down the road to Litlington, where I wander into St Catherine’s church in search of stained glass. It is in the chancel, a colourful panel dedicated to the 355th Fighter Group of the USA Air Force. It dates from 1993 and was made and donated by John Dobbertin of Woodstock, Illinois, and includes both British and German glass. In 1993 there were a considerable number of surviving vets to visit the unveiling and the church was packed with locals sharing their memories of the young airmen with their candy and Cokes who came to worship here and at Steeple Morden. Today, St Catherine’s is cold and empty, although the stained glass shines an electric blue as the sunshine hits it. My next stop will bring home just how few first-hand witnesses remain to visit such locations.

Nuthampstead Memorial

The Woodman Inn Pub

Nuthampstead is a small village in Hertfordshire that was once home to an RAF base, which was also designated USAAF Station 131. The station grew large enough to swallow the black clap board and thatched roof of The Woodman Inn pub, which still stands and serves today (woodmannuthampstead.com). Its walls carry displays of USAAF memorabilia, including a massive map showing the usual triangular layout of runways and taxiways. Apparently, the barman tells me, it was mostly the enlisted men who drank in the pub – officers had their own club serving alcohol on the base. 

This airfield was home to the 55th Fighter Group and the 398th Bombardment Group (Heavy). The former flew the twin-tailed Lockheed P-38H Lightning, which, initially at least, was prone to engine trouble and had a tricky tricycle undercarriage. It eventually switched to the more forgiving Mustang. The bombers of the 398th bomb group that flew out of Nuthampstead were the iconic B-17G Flying Fortresses.

Nuthampstead Airfield Museum

Behind the pub car park are three interlinked huts which form the museum for these two air combat units (see nuthampsteadairfieldmuseum.webs.com). There are small, intimate museums like this scattered across the region, all the way up to Norwich, housed in control towers, former ammunition stores, Nissen or Quonset huts and hospitals and nearly always run by keen volunteers. At Nuthampstead, the displays include hundreds of photographs, scale models, uniforms, logbooks, letters, artifacts found in the fields and, as is customary in these museums, aircraft parts, including a section of a B-17 wing. There are Americans visitors in there when I enter, but they tell me they have no direct links to the men who flew fighters or bombers. They are just curious tourists. These days, a volunteer explains, it is the sons, daughters or grandsons and granddaughters who make the pilgrimage to the UK. ‘I think we have five or six veterans still alive who served here,’ another volunteer tells me. ‘It was a lot more before the pandemic. The germs did what the Germans couldn’t. But even the surviving ones are mostly unable to travel this far.’

One of the most affecting aspects of the museum is the fresh faces of the boys staring out at me from photographs in the display cases. Most are in their late teens or early twenties. The USAAF had a cut-off age of 28 for pilot training, and they tended to be much younger than that, often from rural states where life (and, as many noted, the weather) was very different from that in bleak, war-bashed Britain. It is difficult at this remove to appreciate the bravery these young men showed getting into the bombers, knowing they wouldn’t all return. How brave were they? Well, I need to head north to Duxford to remind myself what guts it took to crew a B-17 or B-24.

American Air Museum, Duxford

Duxford, just off the A10, is part of the Imperial War Museum and was both an RAF base (famously of 12 Group during the Battle of Britain) and, from 1943, Station 357, home to the 78th Fighter Group, flying P-47s and later P-51s. This change, though, was not always a popular move – Thunderbolt pilots often loved their “Jugs”, which were more robust than the Mustang and could take a lot of punishment and keep flying. There’s too much to see at Duxford to explain in detail here, but it is home to Sally B (not part of IWM, but a registered charity), the only airworthy B-17 left in Europe and famous for being in the movie Memphis Belle. It still lumbers into the English skies regularly – you can see where and when here: sallyb.org.uk/flying-programme.htm

Sally B

Duxford also houses Norman Foster’s impressive American Air Museum. It looks like a squashed down Nissen hut, albeit a particularly handsome one, fashioned from concrete, steel and glass. The AAM houses, among many, many other American aircraft, a B-24 Liberator, as well as that potent symbol of a later, colder war, the B-52 bomber.

What you realise, peeping inside the WWII bombers here, is that although they might look huge from the outside, they are reverse Tardises – inside is cramped, with some aircrew, such as rear and the ball turret gunners in the B-17, having to fold themselves like pretzels to get to their seats. These planes were designed to be formidable machines of war, but little thought seems to have gone into the human dimension of flying for eight to 10 hours on end in uncomfortable conditions, on oxygen, in what is little better than a noisy tin can, with only an electrically heated flying suit (which often malfunctioned) to keep you warm in the sub-zero temperatures of 20-30,000 feet. And doing it all in daylight, the preferred strategy of the Americans, when the Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs had little trouble finding their targets.

There is a short film that you can play next to the slab-sided Liberator (or Flying Boxcar as it was dubbed) which shows some American veterans returning to the plane in late middle age and marvelling at how their whippet-thin younger selves could hop in and out of such impossible spaces. 

Then there is the Mustang. I know we are all supposed to love the Spitfire, but for me the P-51 is the most elegant Allied aircraft of the war. Although it seems like a sleek, shiny piece of all-Americana, originally it was saddled with an underpowered Allison engine, but when the British Merlin was put in there by Rolls-Royce (Packard would later go on to manufacture the engines in the US under licence), the plane was transformed into a fine fighter. And, with drop tanks, one of the “Little Friends” could accompany the bombers deep into Germany. Before that, the Luftwaffe would wait until the fighters, at the edge of their range, would turn back, and then they would pounce, illustrating on an almost daily basis the fatal flaw in the belief that a heavily armed formation of bombers bristling with .50 calibre machine guns were invincible.

When I first visited Duxford, just after the American Air Museum opened in 1997, I initially thought the glass panels at the entrance with aircraft shapes etched on them were purely decorative. But closer inspection revealed it was an installation called Counting the Cost. The 52 panels are engraved with the silhouettes of the 7,000 US planes that were lost, as a tribute to the 30,000 American airmen who died operating out of the UK. If you want to continue that doleful mood, head up to the sombre but beautiful Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, with its calm reflecting pools, 3,811 graves and the wall of the missing, inscribed with the names of 5,127 lost souls (Glenn Miller and JFK’s brother, Joe Kennedy Jr, among them). The site commemorates men and women from all the services and is a very moving place – if you haven’t been, I urge you to go – but I have visited before and have had enough of reflecting on the human cost in young lives of the air war for one day. I want to remember the good times. I am heading for The Eagle in Cambridge.

The Eagle Pub, Cambridge

The Eagle, as well as being popular with students down the decades, was where the DNA double act of Watson & Crick drank. One lunchtime in 1953 Watson announced to baffled patrons that they had ‘discovered the secret of life’. Prior to that, during WWII, it was a favoured watering hole for British and American flyers looking to let off steam between ops. In the back room (aka “The RAF Bar”), the ceiling is inscribed with names of serving aircrew and their units, some burnt into the plaster with Zippos, Dunhills and Ronsons, others written in fading lipstick or ink onto the amber of the smoke-stained, varnished ceiling. The practice of leaving one’s mark at The Eagle was apparently started by an RAF pilot in 1940, who stood on a table and used a candle to write his name up there. Soon it became a tradition, and those with good vision and strong necks can spot the inscriptions left by the likes of 199th Squadron, the 323rd, the 196th, the 58th and “The Pressure Boys”, the 448th Bombardment Group. 

In the early ’90s, retired RAF officer James Chainey decided to clean the grime off the ceiling to try and decode the by then almost illegible scrawls. He identified references to more than 60 RAF squadrons and 37 units of the USAAF – they are listed on a framed document in the bar – and led the push for the ceiling to be properly preserved (which it now is) as an important historical record. There is plenty of other memorabilia crowded on to the walls, most of which doesn’t require risking whiplash, but The Eagle is a well-frequented pub and the crush of bodies on a weekend evening can sometimes make it hard to appreciate all the displays. I have been nursing a fizzy water and I decide a return visit one quiet lunchtime with a designated driver will be in order. In the meantime, The Swan beckons. 

My final destination on this trip is the pretty half-timbered Suffolk wool village of Lavenham. Like The Eagle, The Swan, which sits in the centre of town, is famous for the signatures of the Americans who occupied the nearby base (Station 137). Now protected behind glass in the Airmen’s Bar, most signees were from the 487th Bombardment Group (Heavy) aka “The Gentlemen from Hell” (although that is a post-war nickname) which flew B-24s and, from August ’44, B-17s. 

Now that I don’t have to drive – I am staying the night as this 15th-century inn (see theswanatlavenham.co.uk) is a very comfortable hotel and spa – I can mimic those young men and indulge in a pint or two. As I do so, I browse the leaflet that is available from the bar, “The Eighth in the East” (see 8theast.org for a downloadable version) which details most of the sites I have visited and a lot more besides. I realise I must go to the home of the 100th (aka “The Bloody Hundreth”, a tag which reflected their losses), the bomb group featured in Masters of the Air. Located near Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk, it has a museum (100bgmus.org.uk) in the original control tower and Beirne Lay Jr, who co-wrote Twelve O’Clock High, the classic novel of the air war, was Commander there, although he also served in Lavenham with the 487th. 

Then there is RAF Ridgewell, just 30 minutes to the west of where I am sitting, with a memorial and a museum (rafcamuseum.co.uk). From there the 381st BG flew 296 missions with the loss of 1,290 men and 131 B-17s, although two of its aircraft completed an astonishing 100 sorties each. Being close to London, Ridgewell was popular with celebrities – James Cagney, Edward G Robinson, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier all paid promotional visits and in September 1944 Bing Crosby entertained the base.

And also on my to-do list is Tibenham, southwest of Norwich. Hollywood actor James Stewart commanded the 445th BG there, flying Liberators, and later transferred six miles west to the 453rd at Old Buckenham (he was no desk jockey – he flew 20 bombing missions over Germany). Both are still in use – Tibenham for gliding, Old Buckenham for light aircraft. Old Buckenham has a museum (453museum.com) housed in a Nissen hut, full of memories of the 453rd. There is even Jimmy’s Cafe, named after the actor, serving “tea, coffee and snacks”. But that’s all for another day. For now, before turning in to my timbered bedroom, I raise my glass to the panel of signatures on the wall, the fading testament of what were once young men, but who now form part of the phalanx of friendly ghosts that haunt this part of England.

Further Reading

Masters of the Air (Apple TV+)

Masters of the Air: How the Bomber Boys Broke Down the Nazi War Machine by Donald L. Miller (Penguin). The book that inspired the TV series and a fine, unsentimental overview of the 8th Airforce’s campaign and the men who waged it.

Big Week: The Biggest Air Battle of World War Two by James Holland. Although focussing on the events of February 1944, when Operation Argument saw an intense round-the-clock bombardment of Germany, it is also a very good account of the build-up to that contest between bombers and fighters (and fighters v fighters). As always, Holland is very good on the human side, highlighting personal stories and experiences, on both sides of the conflict. 

Aviation Trails. An entertaining blog exploring Britain’s historic airfields, which includes many USAAF ones.

Robert Ryan is the author of 25 novels, including six set during WWII. He also wrote the screenplay for Hurricane, a movie about Polish airmen in the Battle of Britain. He lives in London

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.