Cambridgeshire
Aviation Heritage Trail

About the County


The UK and CambridgeshireContents

Introduction

Cambridgeshire is a county in the East of England. Cambridge is the county town and is most famously known as a University.  The county has expanded over the years, taking in smaller areas deemed administratively unsuitable to remain on their own. These include the Isle of Ely and, confusingly, Huntingdonshire. Confusing because the former independent county area is still called that.

Cambridgeshire is approximately 1,170 square miles (3,000km) in size and has a population of approximately 650,000 people. The main towns are Cambridge, Huntingdon, St Ives, Ely and Wisbech. (Confusingly – that word again – Ely is technically a city because of its cathedral).

Geographically, the County is mostly flat. The highest point, Great Chishill, is 480 feet above sea level while the lowest, Holme Fen, is 9 feet below sea level. (This also happens to be the UK’s lowest point). It was this flatness and the County’s proximity to London and the South-East of England, as well as continental Europe, that has made it an obvious location for both military and civilian airfields.

But Cambridgeshire’s aviation heritage is not just a matter of airfields. Far from it.

Pre-World War One

Prior to WW1, British aviation was in its infancy. Fields may have been used as occasional landing grounds for flying schools, but the evidence for such activity seems often so tenuous that there seems little point in making very much of the matter. However, there was one event that seems to be of justifiable importance to the history of aviation within the County.

This event was the construction of a monoplane by Alfred Grose and Neville Freary at Manor Park Farm, Oakington. The men were attempting to win a Daily Mail prize of £1,000, (approximately £100,000 at today’s prices), for the first all-British plane piloted by a Briton to fly a circular mile. In the event, they and their aircraft – the so-called Oakington Monoplane – didn’t win the prize.

In the normal way of things, all this would have disappeared into history by now. However, there is a wonderful website which gives a remarkable amount of information on the plane and the men who built it – complete with photographs and contemporary reports from the Cambridge Chronicle. Well worth a view. (http://www.oakingtonplane.co.uk).

CambridgeshireWorld War One – Landing Grounds

These landing grounds were usually no more than requisitioned fields in widely dispersed locations – the official basis for the choice of locations having long since been lost to researchers. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) temporarily parked both aircraft and tents for its personnel in these fields but constructed few buildings or permanent structures. In consequence, there is nothing left to see at these sites. They have largely returned to agriculture.

The landing grounds were most frequently used by RFC Home Defence (HD) squadrons. These were deployed to undertake aerial patrols, often at night, in the hope of intercepting German Zeppelin and Gotha bombers. It is fair to say that these patrols were undertaken without much hope of achieving successful interceptions and, in the light of results achieved, the RFC’s general pessimism was entirely justified. However, the lessons learned led eventually and directly to the development of radar as a means of accurately guiding fighters to their targets – which was the basis on which the Battle of Britain would be fought and won in the early years of World War Two.

The County’s WW1 Landing Ground sites are as follows, (current status, where known, as indicated):

Landing Ground sites

  • Bainton
    • Only in use in 1916. Current status unknown.
  • Bury (Upwood)
    • Subsumed by later airfield development.
  • Coldham (Wisbech)
    • Closed in 1919, the site seems to have reverted to agricultural use.
  • Cottenham
    • Returned to agricultural use. At least part of the site is accessible by road and public footpath.
  • Duxford
    • Subsumed by later airfield development. Some original buildings, however, remain intact and available on an occasional basis for public access.
  • Fowlmere
    • Subsumed by later airfield development. No original buildings are thought to have remained. Now a private flying club.
  • Hardwick
    • Used by the Cambridge School of Flying pre-WW1 and latterly by the RFC, the site reverted to private use after WW1. Current status unknown.
  • Horseheath
    • Closed in 1919, the site has now reverted to agricultural use.
  • Little Downham
    • The precise location is unclear. There are two possible locations. Both are undeveloped but, in both cases, no indications remain of RFC use.
  • Old Weston (Thrapston/Molesworth)
    • Closed in 1917, the site was subsequently subsumed by later airfield development.
  • Orton
    • Closed in 1919, the site has now reverted to agricultural use.
  • Portholme Meadow
    • Used as early as 1910, the site was then bought by the Earl of Sandwich for use as a combined racecourse and airfield. The Portholme Aircraft Company subsequently produced a large number of aircraft here and the site was occupied by the RFC as well. The site was eventually closed in 1922 but was briefly used by Sir Alan Cobham’s flying circus during the 1930s.
  • Stamford (Wittering)
    • Used by the RFC from 1916, the site was eventually subsumed by later airfield development.
  • Walton (Peterborough)
    • This was a manufacturer’s landing ground on the eastern side of the East Coast Main Line. The original factory was demolished a few years ago but a distinctive period water tower has been saved.
  • Wyton
    • Subsumed by later airfield development
  • Yelling
    • A small landing ground which was closed in 1917. The site has returned to agricultural use.

World War Two – Airfields

Some of the County’s WW2 airfields were constructed before the war, (eg: Bassingbourn, Duxford, Upwood), and the remainder during it, (eg: Mepal, Waterbeach, Witchford). This fact usually signifies a substantial difference in building styles. Pre-war airfields were built to generally high standards. Hangars, accommodation and office blocks, maintenance stores were brick/concrete built and generally substantial structures. Wartime airfields were quickly and relatively cheaply built, not expected to last for very long, and so it’s somewhat surprising that anything at all still remains of them. But, in some cases, it does.

The County’s WW2 airfield sites are as follows, (current status, where known, as indicated):

Airfields

  • Alconbury
    • Opened in 1938, and used throughout WW2, the airfield subsequently became a USAAF/United States Air Force Europe (USAFE) site. Now no longer used for flying, it has been partly re-developed for light industrial purposes and housing. Public access is very limited. The USAFE facility here will close fairly soon, (along with Molesworth and Mildenhall), as part of an overall reconfiguration of USAFE bases.
  • Bassingbourn
    • Opened in 1938, the airfield was used by both the RAF and USAAF during WW2. Currently a remarkably well-preserved site, with the original layout of buildings still largely intact. Part of the runways and perimeter track still remain as well. But there is currently no public access at all and no public footpaths running anywhere near the site. The real B17 bomber Memphis Belle operated from here, although most of the 1990 film of the same name was shot at Binbrook in Lincolnshire. The Control Tower remains and has been turned into a museum – although this is not currently open. (NB: The RAF originally referred to control towers as ‘Watch Offices’. Where an airfield was largely or wholly used by the RAF, this term has been used throughout the text.  Where, however, an airfield was occupied mostly by the USAAF, the term ‘control tower’ is used. It is now in common usage and the term ‘watch office’ has long since passed into history).
  • Bottisham
    • Once a USAAF fighter airfield, there is not much to be seen here now, nearly all the buildings and the Control Tower having been demolished. However, a public road runs diagonally through the site, (and across the line of one of the former runways) and so provides public access and views in all directions. A small museum is scheduled shortly to open in one of the only remaining buildings.
  • Bourn
    • Opened in 1941, Bourn is a typical example of a purely functional, wartime bomber airfield site. Most of the buildings and the control tower have disappeared but the runways survive and one is full width. Although currently used as a private flying airfield, the site is threatened by the inexorable expansion of Cambourne and seems destined finally to disappear in the next decade. There is no public access to the airfield site itself, although it is visible from nearby roads, but public access to parts of the dispersed sites is good.
  • Cambridge Airport
    • Now one of the County’s two civil airports
  • Castle Camps
    • A fighter airfield established in 1940 and in use during the Battle of Britain. The site eventually closed in 1946 and is now mostly used for agriculture. Public access is reasonably good, as there are public footpaths which traverse part of the former airfield – although no buildings now remain.
  • Caxton Gibbet
    • Used both before and after WW2 as a gliding club field, (albeit relatively briefly), this was a relief landing ground and training airfield. No concrete runways were constructed, but a few buildings were erected, including three blister hangars. There were several Luftwaffe attacks, both on the airfield itself and aircraft using it. The airfield site has now returned entirely to agricultural use.
  • Duxford
    • First used by the RFC in 1917, the airfield continued to be used as a fighter aircraft base throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The site’s long history has culminated in its latest incarnation as the IWM Duxford Museum. Duxford has also made a notable appearance in the film The Battle of Britain.
  • Fowlmere
    • Opened in 1940, Fowlmere was a fighter squadron airfield in operation during the Battle of Britain. It was taken over by the USAAF during 1944. After WW2, it became a privately-owned airfield and remains so to this day. Public access is very limited, although there is a memorial to the USAAF 339th Fighter Group next to the flying club premises.
  • Glatton
    • This was originally an RAF airfield but has now become Peterborough’s Conington Airport. Public access, as with all currently active flying sites, is very limited.
  • Gransden Lodge
    • Opened in 1942, the airfield eventually closed in 1955. Since then, the site has largely reverted to agricultural use. A gliding club presently uses what remains. Public access seems generally very limited, barring the annual air show, although the Club’s website promises a warm welcome to visitors to its club house.
  • Graveley
    • Opened in 1942, the airfield eventually closed in 1968. It is now given over to agricultural and light industrial uses. The status of public access to the site is presently unknown, but is assumed to be very limited.
  • Kimbolton
    • Opened in 1941, the airfield was first used by Bomber Command and then taken over by the USAAF in 1942. It closed in 1946 and is now used for agricultural and light industrial purposes. Access to several parts of the site is very good – because of a public road which traverses it and a public footpath which runs along part of the perimeter track. Most of the buildings, however, have disappeared.
  • Little Staughton
    • Opened in 1942 and closed in 1945. The site is now largely used for agricultural and light industrial purposes, as well as private flying. The Watch Office is still standing and some buildings remain. Public access is not encouraged but is not entirely forbidden either.
  • Mepal
    • Opened in 1943 and used exclusively by 75 (New Zealand) Squadron, the airfield remained in use after WW2 – most notably as a Thor IRBM missile base. Most of the buildings, including the Watch Office, have gone and part of the site is now occupied by light industrial units, agricultural auction premises and a biomass plant. There is, however, good public access to the majority of the site.
  • Molesworth
    • Originally the RFC station Old Weston, the airfield re-opened in 1941 and was used first by the RAF and then by the USAAF, and then again by the RAF. It was mothballed in 1946 but re-opened in 1951 and used by the USAF. In the 1980s, it was used for ground-launched cruise missile operations and has now been scheduled to close in the near future. Public access is presently assumed to be non-existent.
  • Oakington
    • Opened in 1940, Oakington was constructed to pre-WW2 standards. The airfield was in continuous service use until 2011 and it then became a Home Office reception facility. This has now closed and nearly all the buildings, including the hangars, have been demolished. The site is due to be redeveloped as a new town. Public access is presently non-existent, although some of the site is readily visible from the top deck of a bus travelling along the Cambridge-St Neots guided busway.
  • Snailwell
    • There is almost nothing left to see here. Most of the site is privately owned and used for agricultural or horse racing purposes. However, a public footpath runs north-south across the site and so provides at least some access.
  • Steeple Morden
    • First used by the RAF but mostly as a USAAF fighter base during WW2, the site has now largely reverted to agricultural use. Nearly all the buildings have gone, although a few ramshackle Nissen huts remain and the Operations Block is still standing – though not publicly accessible. Public access is reasonably good, as a public footpath traverses part of the airfield site.
  • Upwood
    • For the time being, at least, most of the site is still standing. The hangars are in best shape – being used for light industrial purposes. The Technical Site and other buildings are fast decaying. There is a public footpath along part of the perimeter track. Otherwise, the airfield site has been fenced off.
  • Warboys
    • Opened in 1941 and used until well after WW2, the site has mostly returned to agricultural use. The Watch Office was demolished years ago. However, there is good public access to some of the site as a public footpath partly follows the line of the perimeter track.
  • Waterbeach
    • Also opened in 1941, the site continued in use by the RAF until well after WW2. Eventually it was transferred to Army use and eventually closed in 2011. The site has been designated as the location for a large new housing development. There is a good museum tracing the history of the RAF and Army units here.
  • Witchford
    • Opened in 1943, the site had a brief stay of execution after the end of WW2 – for example, one of its dispersed Accommodation Sites housed a Youth Hostel. The Watch Office is long gone but the runways survive, at least in part, as does one of the hangars. The central triangle of land between the runways is currently for sale, with the assumption that there will be further light industrial development eventually. Current public access is reasonably good.
  • Wittering
    • Having been in near-continuous flying use from 1916 until 2011, flying eventually ceased for good. The future status of the site is unclear. Public access is presently almost non-existent.
  • Wratting Common (aka West Wickham)
    • Opened in 1943, the airfield closed in 1946. Parts of the site are now used for agricultural/light industrial purposes. The extent of public access is presently unknown and it is assumed that most, if not all, of the buildings have now gone.
  • Wyton
    • Opened in 1936, this remained an active RAF flying base until 2011. It has now been decommissioned and has become the site of a number of defence intelligence-related installations. Apart from appointment-only access to the Heritage Centre/Museum, public access is effectively non-existent.

Post-War/Cold War

As noted above, there are a number of relevant sites:

Alconbury, Bassingbourn, Duxford, Mepal, Molesworth, Oakington, Upwood, Warboys, Waterbeach, Wittering, Wyton

Essentially, these sites fall into two categories: sites used by RAF aircraft-based squadrons, either operationally or for training purposes; and sites used by Thor nuclear IRBM installations.

All the sites are based upon then-existing WW2 airfield sites – therefore the same conditions of access and visibility (or otherwise) of structures apply.

Cemeteries

Cambridgeshire has two aviation-related cemeteries of national importance: Cambridge City Cemetery and Madingley American Military Cemetery. Both these cemeteries contain large numbers of aviation-related service personnel who died during WW2. There are also a number of RAF-related plots in smaller cemeteries across the County. In some instances, the plots are large enough to be maintained by the CWGC. Otherwise, graves stand in small groups or on their own – most commonly because the individual(s) concerned may have died somewhere else but he or she was originally from that particular town or village.

In passing, it’s interesting to note that the arrangements for the burial of service casualties during WW2 are now entirely opaque. There is no means of understanding why, for example, an individual originally from, say, Birmingham is buried in Cambridge. In some instances, it is possible to make an informed guess. Lancaster bombers carried a crew of seven and in some cases it was decided – by whom is not clear – that all seven men should be buried together. It’s also the case that – for obvious reasons – the bodies of service personnel from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere could not be returned to their home countries during wartime.

But, still, it’s probably true to say that the majority of British graves in Cambridge City Cemetery are of men and women who had little or even no connection with Cambridge itself. The reverse is also true – that there are many graves situated all over the country of individuals who were originally from Cambridge.

Cambridge City Cemetery

There are four service-related plots in the cemetery, containing over 1,000 graves. By far the biggest of these plots is largely given over to British and Commonwealth RAF casualties. This was one of a number of large RAF regional plots/cemeteries established during the war, (the others being Brookwood, Harrogate, Oxford and Chester).

Visitors to the cemetery always seem to appreciate the immaculate work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) in maintaining the graves and their surroundings. There is an explanatory plaque providing background to all the plots and the CWGC’s work in them.

American Military Cemetery & Memorial – Madingley

Maintained by a US Federal Government agency, the American Battle Monuments Commission, Madingley is the only WW2 US military cemetery in the UK. (Brookwood contains the graves of WW1 casualties). The site is on land originally donated by Cambridge University and contains approximately 3,900 graves, as well as a monument – the Tablets of The Missing – to more than 8,000 US service personnel who have no known graves. Many of these were crew members of aircraft which had taken off from bases in Cambridgeshire.

There is an impressive Chapel and Memorial building on the site. The Visitor Centre provides some background to some of the men buried in the cemetery, as well as displays of personal and equipment artifacts. All in all, the site is laid out and maintained to a very high standard.

Other plots/cemeteries

The CWGC website provides a list of 151 separate locations across the county which have service personnel graves. Not all of these are associated with the RFC, RAF or other aerial services such as the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), or the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) but probably the majority are – because the Army and Navy conducted the vast majority of their operations abroad or at sea and those who died tend either to have no known graves or are buried as near as possible to where they fell.

The first location on the CWGC’s list for Cambridgeshire is Abington Pigotts – the Church of St Michael. There is one grave there – that of RAF Leading Aircraftman Arthur Tricker ,who died on 26 May 1946. The last location on the list is Woodditon – the Church of St Mary. There are three CWGC graves here, one being that of RAF Aircraftman 2nd Class William Pledger, who died on 18 September 1940. In between these two ends of the alphabetical scale, there are 149 other locations. Far too many to list here. However some of the larger locations are worth mentioning. (The total number of service graves is given in brackets, with the number of relevant aerial service graves following).

Plots/Cemeteries

  • Bassingbourn cum Kneesworth (47/42)
  • Cambridge
    • Histon Road (18/5)
    • Mill Road (37/3)
    • City Cemetery (1008/900+)
    • Crematorium (32/22)
    • Madingley American Cemetery (19/18)*
    • Municipal Borough (37)**
    • Cherry Hinton (17/10)
  • Ely (27/8)
  • Littleport (10/1)
  • Longstanton (10/10)
  • March – Eastwood (11/1)
  • Papworth Everard (10/2)
  • Soham (21/3)
  • Waterbeach (7/6)
  • Whittlesey (20/1)
  • Whittlesford (29/28)
  • Wisbech – Mount Pleasant* (60/6)

* These are gravestones which are the responsibility of the CWGC – even though they lie in a US military cemetery. The reason for the distinction is that 18 of these graves are mostly those of RAF, RAFVR and Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) personnel of American origin. The 19th grave is that of a Royal Armoured Corps Officer.

** This cemetery contains the graves of 37 people classed as ‘civilian war dead’. This classification invariably means that the individuals concerned died as a result of bombing or some other form of air raid.

World War Two – Decoy Sites

During the early years of WW2, decoy sites were established across Cambridgeshire and many other counties. The intention was to mislead Luftwaffe bombers – which operated largely at night – into bombing country fields rather than airfields, cities and factories. The decoy sites were built and maintained by a secret Air Ministry unit – so secret, in fact, that it had no official name and was usually referred to as ‘Colonel Turner’s Department’.

Colonel John Turner was a twice-retired Army Engineering Officer who was once more brought back into service in order to preside over a programme which was cumulatively to build and operate approximately 790 decoy sites across the whole country. These sites varied in size and function, but nearly all of them were designed to persuade night-time Luftwaffe bomber pilots and bomb aimers that they were looking down at a real city or airfield.

Sites were placed in locations likely to be overflown by bombers on their way to their intended targets. Fake aircraft were constructed at places like Shepperton Studios and transported to equally fake airfields. Decoy sites simulated airfield lights or cities on fire. In daylight, such deceptions were very hard to achieve. But at night, all accounts indicate that they were remarkably realistic. This meant that a fairly substantial tonnage of Luftwaffe bombs was unloaded where it caused no damage to anyone or anything.

Little now remains of these sites. Most of the structures were anyway flimsy and extremely rudimentary – no more than pipes to carry fuel and baskets/braziers in which material was burnt. There were also arrays of lights designed to simulate runway lighting systems. The personnel operating these sites usually worked in a brick-built bunker and some of these still survive.

Decoy Site Categories

Sites were categorized according to their purpose. Colonel Turner understood that simply lighting the same type of fire, or switching on the same row of lightbulbs, in many different locations would not fool anyone into believing that they were seeing what they were supposed to be seeing. Therefore, there were many different types of lighting effect developed and in Cambridgeshire, five individual categories of sites were deployed, (some being combined for maximum effect and/or because of a shortage of suitable sites).

  • K
    • These were day decoy airfield sites, at which fake Hurricanes, Wellingtons and Blenheims were deployed. The Luftwaffe was not often fooled by this. Their pre-war covert reconnaissance effort had been very thoroughly conducted and high-level reconnaissance continued after the war began. In the main, they knew exactly which were real airfields and which were not. Most K Sites were closed down in 1942/43 although a few were still in use in 1944.
  • Q
    • These were lighting decoys intended to simulate active airfields. RAF pilots were sometimes deceived by them as well and only pulled out of a landing at the last moment.
  • QL
    • These were small fire decoys designed to provide spots of light in the otherwise inky blackness of Britain’s wartime black-out conditions and so attract attention away from largely civil targets
  • QF
    • These were small lighting decoys fulfilling a largely similar function to the QL sites
  • Starfish
    • These were relatively large sites, designed to simulate a town or city on fire. Cambridge, for example, was guarded by such sites.

Decoy site Locations

The following list is understood to be a reasonably accurate list of all known decoys sites in the County. It can be assumed that at least some of them are visible – either from a road or a public footpath. However, anyone hoping to catch sight of a defunct fire brazier, or perhaps a line of piping, is likely to be severely disappointed. (Although it is possible to look at some sites on Google Earth and this view sometimes reveals apparently random craters in otherwise perfectly flat fields).

  • Alwalton (Q/K)
  • Babraham (QL/QF/Starfish)
    • One of the sites protecting Cambridge
  • Barley (Q)
  • Benwick (Q)
  • Boxworth (Q)
    • Intended to protect Oakington
  • Coldham (QL/QF/Starfish)
  • Colne (Q)
  • Comberton (QL/QF/Starfish)
    • Temporary site mostly used as a decoy for Cambridge.
  • Eye (QL/QF/Starfish)
  • Fulbourn (QL/QF/Starfish)
    • Temporary site mostly used as a decoy for Cambridge.
  • Great Eversden (Q)
    • Decoy site for Duxford
  • Haddenham (Q/K)
    • Decoy site for Wyton and Waterbeach.
  • Horseheath (Q/K)
    • Decoy site for Duxford
  • Littleport (Q)
    • This was one of two decoy sites designed to protect Mildenhall, the other (Q/K) site being Cavenham (TL750692).
  • Maxey (Q)
  • Rampton (Q)
    • Decoy site for Oakington.
  • Soham (Q)
    • Decoy site for Waterbeach.
  • Somersham (Q)
  • Stanground South (QL/QF/Starfish)

Memorials

It’s fair to say that Cambridgeshire is awash with war memorials of all shapes and sizes. The website roll-of-honour.com lists 259 memorials for Cambridgeshire and a further 78 for Huntingdonshire. This is not, almost certainly, the definitive total of actual memorials and the list does not include, for example, incidental memorials such as village signs which have some sort of depiction of an aircraft as part of their design, (eg: Bassingbourn, Conington, Bourn, Litlington, Steeple Morden); or streets named after something aerial, (eg: Lancaster Way in Witchford).

Leaving aside those memorials devoted to the Boer War and other conflicts, and those memorials which exclusively list the names of those who died in WW1, there are basically three categories of WW2 memorial.

  • War memorials which give the names of those – usually local men and women – who died in WW2
  • Airfield memorials sited on, or very near to, the airfield sites they commemorate
  • Squadron memorials located on or near relevant airfield sites, or within a local church

War Memorials

The classic British war memorial is a somewhat weatherbeaten Celtic-style wheel stone cross situated somewhere in a churchyard or perhaps on the village green. Around the base of the cross, the names of those who died in WW1 are inscribed. Later additions for WW2 – usually much fewer in number – and other conflicts are added on any available spare space. The style is name and initials only. Generally, no ranks or unit names are given.

None of this helps anyone trying to understand who all these people were or how and when they died. The website roll-of-honour.com has done an excellent job of transcribing names on hundred of memorials and providing, where possible, service and other details for each individuals.

Separately, there are often commemorative plaques inside churches or institutions. These tend to commemorate individuals or particular groups who came from, or worked in, the same place. Cambridge University, for example, has a number of such memorials in its colleges.

In conclusion, it’s fair to say that very few of these memorials are on such a grand or distinctive scale that it would be worth recommending them as places to warrant a specific journey. And, of course, the names given can be those of men who died anywhere in the world. For example, many men of the Cambridgeshire Regiment died in Singapore or in Japanese Prisoner of War camps. Others have no known grave and their names are also recorded on the Runnymede Memorial.

Airfield Memorials

What follows is a representative selection only. Memorial plaques in churches are not included.

  • Bassingbourn
    • There is an airfield memorial near the main entrance. However, current public access restrictions mean that it is not presently accessible
  • Castle Camps
    • There is a small memorial near one of the airfield site entrances
  • Duxford
    • There are several memorials here, the largest being one dedicated to the Royal Anglian Regiment.
  • Glatton
    • There is a memorial dedicated to 457th Bomb Group (H) and all those stationed at RAF/USAAF Glatton (Station No. 130). The memorial is situated at the junction of the B1403 and B660 roads. There is also a large stone memorial to 457th Bombardment Group (H) in the churchyard of the Church of All Saints.
  • Gransden Lodge
    • There is a memorial situated next to Gransden Mill, alongside the road to the former airfield main entrance.
  • Graveley
    • There is an airfield memorial – location presently unknown.
  • Little Staughton
    • There is a small but impressive memorial situated by the roadside and near to the airfield site entrance.
  • Mepal
    • This is a small, rather nondescript brick and marble structure on the edge of the entrance leading to the light industrial estate.
  • Steeple Morden
    • Although largely concerned with the squadrons and their personnel, this memorial is also effectively commemorating the airfield on which its stands. The memorial is described in more detail below.
  • Witchford
    • The airfield memorial is rather unusually contained in the base of the village sign and erroneously indicates that the airfield was open and operational for the entire length of the war.
  • Wratting Common
    • A granite and slate memorial is situated close to the Weston Woods Farm entrance to the airfield. Dedicated in 1989, the memorial commemorates all those who served at the airfield.

Squadron Memorials

RAF squadrons were rarely stationed wholly and exclusively in one location for the entire duration of the war. They were also composed of men who came from all over the country or much further afield. Therefore such memorials generally take a broad view of a squadron’s activities, encompassing anything and everything it may have done. Still, better that a squadron is commemorated in any way than largely forgotten.

Notable memorials in this category include:

  • Litlington – USAAF
    • In addition to a depiction of a P-51 Mustang fighter on the village sign, there is also a stained glass window in the Church of St Catherine in commemoration of the USAAF 355th Fighter Group.
  • Mepal – 75 (New Zealand) Squadron memorial garden
    • 75 Squadron was largely, but not exclusively, composed of men from New Zealand. The squadron was based at Mepal during the latter years of WW2.
  • Steeple Morden – USAAF and RAF Squadrons memorial
    • This is probably the most impressive squadron/airfield memorial in the county. It consists of a centre section describing the various squadrons making up the USAAF 355th Fighter Group. This is flanked by two columns, one giving the history of the group and the second the units assigned to the station. The outer columns name those men who died from the base; the left-most column being the American service personnel and the right-most column Commonwealth service personnel. A propeller is mounted in the centre of the memorial.
  • Warboys – 156 Squadron
    • Inside the Church of St Mary Magdalene there is a plaque commemorating Flight Lieutenant J Soper, of 156 Squadron and a roll of honour commemorating all those who served with the squadron.
  • Waterbeach – 514 Squadron
    • Inside the Church of St John the Evangelist there is a memorial plaque commemorating all those who died while serving with 514 Squadron.
  • Witchford – 115 Squadron memorial
    • Situated at what was the northern intersection of two runways, this obelisk-shaped stone memorial commemorates 115 Squadron’s record of service throughout WW2 and its stay at Witchford from November 1943 to September 1945. The memorial also notes the melancholy fact that 115 Squadron lost more aircraft than any other squadron in the RAF during WW2 – over 220 in total. Given that these aircraft were all bombers, the number of crew members lost is also considered the largest of any squadron.

Crash sites

This is a fairly problematic subject, not just because every crash site is potentially a war grave. There is also the general undesirability of anyone with a metal detector wandering about the countryside, mostly on private land and without permission, in search of digging opportunities for war souvenirs.

Equally, crashed aircraft have their own tale to tell. So describing crash sites within the County does provide another dimension to the overall story of the county’s aviation heritage. There is, at the very least, the matter of how every aircraft came to crash in the first place.

For example, on the night of 18/19 April 1944, Lancaster LL667 from 115 Squadron was returning from an attack on the railway marshalling yards at Rouen. It was approximately 02.00 hours and the Lancaster was in the final stages of its landing at Witchford when it was intercepted by a Luftwaffe intruder aircraft and shot down. The Lancaster crashed in a field just by West Fen Road, Coveney. None of the crew of seven survived. In 1995, the remains of the aircraft were excavated and three of the aircraft’s four Bristol Hercules XVI engines were recovered. One of these, the starboard inner, was thoroughly cleaned and now forms the centerpiece of the display at RAF Witchford Museum.

In passing, it’s interesting to note that two of the crew were subsequently buried in Cambridge City Cemetery. One of them was wireless operator Ernest Kerwin, from Wakefield, Yorkshire. The other was the bomb aimer, an American, Arnold Feldman, from Norwalk, Connecticut, and serving with the RCAF. Approximately half an hour after their Lancaster had been shot down, another 115 Squadron Lancaster, LL867, passed directly over the burning remains of LL667 and was itself shot down by another Luftwaffe intruder. None of the crew on LL867 survived either and two of them, pilot Charlie Eddie and air gunner Henry Bennis, are also buried in Cambridge.

One writer has made a Cambridgeshire crash site the central aspect of an entire book. Jennie Gray wrote about her father, Joe, who was the sole survivor of a Lancaster crash in extremely poor weather just as it was about to land at Bourn. The book is Fire By Night and it is an exceptionally good read. The Lancaster was from 97 Squadron, based at Bourn, and the crash occurred on the night of 16/17 December 1943. This became known as ‘Black Thursday’, because 70 returning Bomber Command aircraft crashed on this night as a direct result of the bad weather. Five of these aircraft were from 97 Squadron – the biggest single night’s loss suffered by the squadron during the war.

All these examples are, almost by chance, very well-documented. The reasons for, and locations of, a whole host of other aircraft crashes in the County are now entirely lost to view. Wartime official records were notoriously poor at documenting crash sites. Recovery teams salvaged bodies and any usable equipment, and then mostly bulldozed what was left into whatever crater had been formed in the first place. Over the years, bits and pieces have risen to the surface in various places.

The closest to a comprehensive list appears in the book War-Torn Skies of Great Britain: Cambridgeshire. The author acknowledges that his list is itself not complete. Nevertheless, he lists 166 incidents occurring between 12 August 1938 and 8 November 1945. Most of the incidents resulted in fatalities.
What follows, therefore, is a brief representative list of three incidents and locations.

Duxford

On 19 July 1944, a B17G Flying Fortress from the 612th Bomb Squadron crashed within the airfield’s perimeter after the pilot had taken 11 friends along for a joyride. No-one on board the aircraft survived and one of the airfield’s accommodation blocks was completely destroyed.

Wicken Fen

This National Trust (NT) property has a sign indicating that a Meteor fighter from Waterbeach crashed on the site during the 1950s. No confirmation of this crash has yet been obtained from official records, nor has any wreckage been found. Even the NT admits that the event may be apocryphal.

Wratting Common (aka West Wickham)

The following comes from an excellent website, (wcnhistory.org.uk): A horrific accident occurred at West Wickham on 4 July 1943, when a Stirling, BF504, which had just taken off, side-slipped from about 500 feet, hit the ground and exploded. Two airmen sitting outside the temporary Sick Quarters drinking tea after their midday meal saw it happen and raced to the scene, only about 200 years away. Screaming aircrew, their clothes alight, were rolling on the ground in agony, and the two airmen rushed from one to another putting out the flames.

Two died there and then; the other five were put in the ambulance which left in great haste for the RAF Hospital at Ely, the only facility equipped to deal with serious burns. On the way, the ambulance was held up at a railway level crossing, but when the circumstances were explained, the crossing keeper stopped a train and let the ambulance through. Three more of the aircrew had died by the time the ambulance reached the hospital, and the remaining two were carefully off-loaded. The two rescuers had suffered burnt hands, which were treated by the ward sister.

After an hour, the two men began their weary journey back to West Wickham, in the sad knowledge that the last aircrew had just died. Next day, one of the ambulance men was put on a charge for “taking an ambulance without proper authorisation”, and was awarded seven days ‘Confined to Barracks’.

March

Jim Hocking © Nambour and District Historical MuseumFinally, special mention must be made of an Australian pilot, Pilot Officer Jim Hocking, who was flying a Stirling bomber in July 1944 on a training flight when his aircraft engine caught fire. Jim ordered all his crew to bail out. He was about to follow them when he realised that the abandoned aircraft would have crashed into the town of March. Jim stayed at the controls and ensured that the aircraft crashed instead in nearby fields. In doing so, he lost his own life. Originally from Queensland, Western Australia, Jim was posthumously awarded the Star of Courage – Australia’s second highest award for bravery. A former student at his school, Joyce Milligan, had campaigned over many years for the decoration to be awarded in recognition of Jim’s outstanding bravery.

As an aside, there were also a number of Luftwaffe bombing attacks on the county during WW2 – some of which resulted in fatalities.

Bombing Raids

There were a number of Luftwaffe bombing attacks on the County during WW2 – some of which resulted in fatalities. 

Cambridge

The first significant air raid on Cambridge was on the night of 19/20 June 1940. Ten people were killed and twelve injured when two bombs fell on Vicarage Terrace.

The Perse School in Hills Road was severely damaged by bombs on the night of 16/17 January 1941. 200 incendiaries are believed to have fallen in the area.
The last attack on the city is believed to have taken place on the night of 5/6 November 1943 – when a V1 was heard to explode. Throughout WW2, five ‘doodlebugs’ were believed to have landed in the county, (at Melbourn, Burwell, Castle Camps, West Wicken and Heydon). There was only one V2 attack – at Fulbourn in 1944.

Like many other historic British towns, Cambridge was attacked as a direct result of Hitler’s instruction to the Luftwaffe to undertake reprisal raids following an RAF attack early in WW2 on the historic German town of Rostock.

Duxford

There were a number of attacks on the airfield. Probably the heaviest was on 16 August 1940 – when 220 bombs were recorded as having fallen in the area.

Heydon – Church of the Holy Trinity

The church was badly damaged during an attack in 1940.