River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Bexwell Airfield

April 2009

Ron describes the hystory of the Bexwell airfield - RAF Downham Market

Anyone driving along the A1127 towards Downham Market and newcomers to the district would be unaware that, just before they get to the A10, on the right hand side, there was a wartime airfield that played a significant role in the air campaign against Germany.

The A10, as it is now, was not there, of course, and the main runway ran roughly parallel with the A1127 terminating just before the point where Hill Crest School is now.

In 1940 it was decided that a satellite field was required for Marham and the site near Downham Market was selected as most suitable. Because of other pressures, however, the airfield was not ready for use before July 1942. The first aircraft were Short Stirlings (Short being the manufacturer not the size) of 218 Squadron of No. 3 Group. (218 Squadron had seen operations in France before Dunkirk flying Fairey Battles, and, later, flying Wellingtons from Marham). Soon after flying started they, along with their parent field at Marham, were transferred to Group 2, but in December 1942 Bexwell achieved full station status and went back to Group 3.

Stirlings were the first of the four engined bombers designed to the same specification that produced the Halifax and Lancaster. It was the least satisfactory of the trio. It had a lower operating ceiling and it was slower, factors that made it more vulnerable.

Nevertheless it proved to be a strong aircraft that was capable of sustaining considerable damage whilst remaining airworthy, and it had the longest range capability of any at well over 2000 miles. It was used later in the war as a transport, freight carrier and glider tug.

Stirlings of 218 Squadron were used for bombing raids over Germany from Hamburg to the Ruhr, and over Italy - Milan, Genoa and Turin. They were also used for mine laying in German waters including the Kiel canal. Mine laying was difficult and required considerable skill; but it was subsequently found to be among the most useful actions undertaken by the RAF. In August 1943 another squadron was formed, No. 623 and added to the strength of No. 3 Group, flying out of Bexwell. On August 12 1943 218 and 623 Squadrons were sent to attack the Fiat works at Turin. Among the crews that night was Flight Sergeant Arthur Aaron as captain and pilot of one of the Stirlings. The story of his mission was published in the London Gazette on November 5 1943:

"When approaching to attack, the bomber received devastating bursts of fire from an enemy fighter. Three engines were hit, the windscreen was shattered, the front and rear turrets were put out of action and the elevator control was damaged, causing the aircraft to become difficult to control. The navigator was killed and other members of the crew were wounded.

A bullet truck Flight Sergeant Aaron in the face, breaking his jaw and tearing away part of his face. He was also wounded in one lung and his right arm was rendered useless. As he fell forward over the control column, the aircraft dived several thousand feet. Control was regained by the Flight Engineer at 3000 feet. Unable to speak Aaron urged the bomb-aimer by signs to take the controls. Course was set to fly southwards in an endeavour to fly the crippled bomber to Sicily. Flight Sergeant Aaron was assisted to the rear and treated with morphine. After resting for some time he rallied and mindful of his responsibility as captain, insisted on returning to the pilot's cockpit, where he was lifted into his seat. Twice he made determined attempts to take control. His weakness was evident and with difficulty he was persuaded to desist. Though in great pain he continued to help by writing directions with his left hand. Five hours after leaving the target fuel was getting low, but soon afterwards the flare path at Bone airfield was sighted. Flight Sergeant Aaron summoned his failing strength to direct the bomb-aimer in the hazardous task of landing the damaged aircraft in darkness with the undercarriage retracted. Four attempts were made under his directions; at the fifth attempt the landing was completed successfully. Nine hours later Flight Sergeant Aaron died. In appalling conditions he showed the greatest qualities of courage, determination and leadership, and though wounded and dying, he set an example of devotion to duty which has seldom been equalled and never surpassed"

Flight Sergeant Aaron was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

623 squadron was disbanded in December 1943 after 150 missions. The shortcomings of the Stirling were becoming more apparent, they suffered far heavier losses than the Lancasters and Halifaxes. This was largely due the lower operating ceiling making them more vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. On one raid to Berlin, 17 of the 106 Stirlings that took part were lost, a 16% loss rate. At that rate they would lose all 106 in about six missions. At that time Bomber Command's overall losses were 7.6%, that was regarded as too high, but it was a figure made worse by Stirling losses. Even so, it is apparent that the average life expectancy of a plane was likely to be no more than 20 missions.

In March 1944 the airfield came into No. 8 Group - the Pathfinder Force - an elite corps. The Stirlings all went and they were equipped with Lancasters to form 635 Squadron. Unfortunately because of the tactics used which often involved low flying, their losses tended to be heavier than other squadrons. The Lancaster was one of the outstanding aircraft of WWII, it had the lowest percentage loss rate, and could carry a heavier bomb load than any other WWII aircraft. In April 1944 the Lancasters were joined by a squadron of Mosquitos, a very fast twin engined bomber/fighter that was another of the outstandingly successful aircraft of the war and played a major role in pathfinding. In July and August the Squadron received four Lancaster mark VI's for operational trials. These advanced models were subsequently developed into the Lincoln.

In August 1944, on a raid on a V1 launch site in Nothern France, the Master Bomber was Squadron Leader Bazalgette DFC from 635 Squadron in a Lancaster. The aircraft was hit by flak, the bomb-aimer was badly wounded and the mid-gunner was overcome by fumes from a fire on the starboard wing and fuselage. Two engines were damaged. Bazalgette managed to regain control and flew on to successfully mark the target. He then ordered the able bodied crew members to bale out and flew on with the other two. He tried to land the plane but it exploded when it hit the ground, killing all three. Bazalgette was posthumously awarded the VC.

The last operation was on 25 April 1945. A total of 1700 missions had been flown from Bexwell. Both squadrons were disbanded by September 1945 and the airfield was closed in October.

Sadly, there is little left to remind people of the important contribution made towards the winning of the war by the very brave men and the planes that flew out of Bexwell.

(Source, 'Norfolk Airfields in the Second Wold War' Graham Smith)

Ron Watts

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