River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Methwold Airfield

May 2009

Ron introduces our readers to the war time Methwold Airfield.

There may be some people that were unaware of the airfield at Bexwell, but there must be many more who do not know that there was another local airfield at Methwold. There may not be much evidence now, a few ruined huts, an old hangar and the remains of a mess room perhaps, but it was all there once, immediately adjacent to the village on the south side and on the west side of the B1106. Just as Bexwell started out as a satellite for the established airfield at Marham so Methwold was a satellite for Feltwell. Like Marham, Feltwell was one of the five RAF airfields that were established in Norfolk before the second world war. Feltwell was seen as a heavy bomber station from the outset, initially they were equipped with Handley Page 'Harrows', although relatively new the 'Harrows' hardly saw any action as they were replaced by the newer Vickers 'Wellingtons', the first of which arrived at Feltwell in the summer of 1939.

The Wellington was a twin engined bomber, regarded as heavy at that time but perhaps more appropriately it should be regarded as 'medium'. It was a successful aircraft, capable of withstanding considerable damage, it was quite popular with its crews, and was affectiontely referred to as Wimpy. It was made in large numbers. There were even more Wellingtons built than Lancasters. They served in many roles apart from that of a bomber, and were particularly successful with Coastal Command. For the first three years of the war Feltwell was almost exclusively a Wellington station. Early experience by Bomber Command with daylight bombing was something of a disaster with a high loss rate and the policy moved towards night raids. On May 30 1942 47 Wellingtons took off from Feltwell as part of a one thousand bomber raid on Cologne. Two days later a similar large raid was launched on Essen and on 25 June, Bremen. Overall losses were relatively low but the Wellingtons suffered more than the Lancasters and it was beginning to be recognised that perhaps the Wellington was becoming outdated as a bomber for raids over Germany. On 15 August 1942 the Wellingtons left Feltwell and Methwold.

In the early days few operations were mounted from Methwold but Feltwell aircraft sometimes took off from Methwold on missions, as they did on 23 March 1941 to bomb Berlin. Methwold finally became a station in its own right, however, the first squadron to be based there was No 21 equipped with Venturas. Venturas were a light twin engined bomber built by the American company Lockheed. 675 were ordered by Britain in the early days of the war. They were a development from the Lockheed Hudson that was used successfully by the RAF for coastal patrols and anti-submarine work. The Ventura was not popular with the RAF as a bomber, it seemed to offer little more than the Hudson and used more fuel. It had a rather tubby fuselage and carried a relatively small bomb load, it was widely known as The Flying Pig.

No 21 squadron mounted its first operation in November 1942 and went on to have a number of not very successful daylight operations escorted by Spitfires from Coltishall. In April 1943 a RNZAF squadron, No 487, also equipped with Venturas, came to Methwold from Feltwell. Their Flight Commander was Squadron Leader Leonard Trent DFC. He was a charismatic leader with a brilliant record going back to operations over France before Dunkirk. (Long after the war he returned to Norfolk in 1956 as commander of 214 squadron at Marham.)

On May 2 an Australian squadron of Venturas attacked the Royal Dutch Steel Works at Ijmuiden with only limited success. The next day Bomber Command decided to launch a follow up attack with Bostons and deployed 487 squadron from Methwold for a diversionary attack on the power station at Amsterdam. The whole operation included nine squadrons of Spitfires and Mustangs from Coltishall as escort. The planes were directed to fly at 10,000 ft to avoid anti-aircraft flak. It should have been a successful raid but they were detected by German radar and confronted by a strong force of German fighters, FW190s and Me 109s. The FW190s took on the escort and the ME 109s attacked the Venturas. In a matter of minutes eight Venturas were shot down, leaving just two others and Trent's aircraft approaching the target. Trent managed to shoot down an Me109 but another Ventura went down. He went on to bomb the target and then realised that his was the only surviving Ventura. Suddenly there was a violent explosion in the aircraft and it went out of control. Trent ordered his crew to bale out then minutes later the aircraft blew up. Trent was blown clear at a height of about 7000ft and managed to land safely by parachute on the outskirts of Amsterdam where he was quickly captured. He was reunited with his navigator who was the only other survivor of the crew.

He was sent to Stalag Luft III and became involved in the escape committee and took part in the 'Great Escape'. Fortunately for him he was quickly re-captured, otherwise he might have been executed like so many of the other escapees. It was not until after the war that he fully realised what a total disaster the raid had proved to be. All the Venturas were lost with 55 air crew. On the face of it, it would appear that the decision to replace Wellingtons with Venturas might have been a bad one. Squadron Leader Trent was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for 'his determined leadership and devotion to duty'. Soon after the tragic raid on Amsterdam the squadron was moved away from Methwold. It was not until May 1944 that Methwold saw active use again when No 149 squadron was moved to Methwold with its Stirling bombers. Stirlings by then were considered not suitable for raids over Germany and were used for mine-laying and supply drops, although the Stirlings from Methwold were used for a bombing raid on Le Havre on September 8 1944. This was the last operational mission ever to be undertaken by Stirlings. The squadron was then re-equipped with Lancasters, they were the last operational type to fly out of Methwold.

Towards the end of 1943 Feltwell was supplied with Lancasters, but they were never used for operations. Feltwell had launched its last bomber mission, it became a training station for Lancaster crews and was sometimes referred to as 'the finishing school'.

(Source - 'Norfolk Airfieds in the Second World War' Graham Smith)

Ron Watts

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