British Sky Tours

                  

THE MIGHTY EIGHTH

 

 

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When war broke out in September 1939 there were only 15 active military airfields and 5 satellite landing grounds in East Anglia, that ear-shaped bulge of flat land into the North Sea. By May 1945 there were 107 airfields and although most are long ploughed over the region remains the busiest for military flying in Britain. Despite the end of the Cold War aircraft of the USAF remain a familiar sight in the wide coastal sky.

Once those runways throbbed to dozens of B 17s - today the sheds along the old runways are home for several thousand chickens.

Relatives of wartime aircrew, enthusiasts and tourists spend hours trying to find these abandoned fields. A few are looked after by conservation groups, often local farmers, who have turned the old control towers into museums and offer a warm welcome to visitors from across the Atlantic. Most are hard to find on the ground. Sometimes a whole day is consumed just to find a single airfield and then it's not easy to gain access and walk on the concrete runways.

Many wartime airfields provide homes for private flying clubs - both the clubs we visit keep half the original main runway built for B 17s in excellent condition and visitors from across the 'pond' are warmly welcomed.

The best way to understand the effort and sacrifice involved is from the air. For practised eyes most - though not all - the old Eighth USAAF bases are comparatively straight forward to pick out with their distinctive T bone steak perimeter tracks crossed by the remains of massive runways. Flying at low altitude you soon realise that the whole of East Anglia was once a gigantic airbase - the legendary unsinkable aircraft carrier anchored off continental Europe.

What's more, it's amazing how much you can see in a day. We land at two or three airfields. You savour the atmosphere and enjoy some beautiful landscapes. This part of England is known as Constable country after the famous nineteenth century artist. 

 

Film star airborne - the last flying B 17 in the British Isles along with many other veteran aircraft are all displayed at the Imperial war Museum, Duxford, just outside Cambridge. We drop into Duxford, once the RAF's first Spitfire base, as part of our tour.

The first American B17 bombers and P38 fighters with their crews arrived in Britain during July 1942. By summer of 1944 the Eighth Air Force had grown to become the biggest military air fleet ever seen with 122 bases, 200,000 personnel, 2,000 four engine bombers and 1,000 fighters.

The heavy bombardment groups were split into three air divisions. The 1st Air Division's bases spread across Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. Their aircraft were identified by a triangle on the tail. The 2nd Air Division was mainly based in Norfolk and predominantly flew B24 Liberators wearing a circle identification on their tails. The 3rd Air Division flew B17 Flying Fortresses out of bases across Suffolk, but included some B17 bases in the next door county, Norfolk. Some 3rd Air Division units spent brief periods flying B24's. The Division's identification was a square on the tail.

At the peak over 5000 flights a day were taking place and the RAF and USAAF each normally had 2000 heavy bombers on readiness every day. For all too many of these aircrew the flat grain fields of Eastern England was the last friendly landscape they saw in brief lives. Some 47,000 casualties were suffered by the 8th Air Force of whom 26,000 lost their lives. Another 28,000 became prisoners of war. Over 5000 aircraft were lost against 11,000 victories and nearly 700,000 tons of bombs dropped during 440,000 sorties. Seventeen members of the 8th Air Force won the Medal of Honor.

Madingley American Cemetery near Cambridge adorned with flowers and flags early on a summer morning after devoted work by American boy and girl scouts living in England. The cemetery is resting place for 3800 young Americans, mostly USAAF aircrew, and on a wall are recorded a further 5000 young Americans, mainly aircrew though some lost serving at sea, who have no known grave.

Adrian's family kept in touch for many years with the families of the crew of his cousin's Lancaster bomber - most of them Canadian - who were lost during June 1944.

Throughout the Cold War these same airfields once more served as the frontline of the free world.

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On the way you will see places of great historical interest. Tilbury Fort built by Henry VIII where his daughter, Elizabeth the First gave her famous speech, rallying her small army in 1588 when the Spanish Armada prepared to embark Parma's many thousands of troops at Gravelines and invade England. At that moment she did not know that the Royal Navy and a gale would save her defiant protestant kingdom. This same stretch of the Thames would serve as a navigation aid when on 7 September 1940 over 1000 bombers and fighters of Goering's Luftwaffe attacked London in broad daylight.

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                       Framlingham, Suffolk, with its famous castle and church.

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