Category Archives: History

Battle in the Air

This entry is part 21 of 21 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

Back in 1969, when I was seven years old, the classic war film ‘Battle of Britain‘ was in the cinemas, and in this instalment of ‘Beautiful Destroyers’ I am going to showcase a superb piece of music from that film, which is an excellent example of musical storytelling.

But first, some background.

During the decades immediately following World War II, many films were made about the War. These movies told stories about the whole spectrum of the War, and depicted history – or near-history – from all theaters of the War. Films like ‘Bridge on the River Kwai‘ (1957), based on a true story of Japanese use of slave labour to build the Burma Railway. 633 Squadron (1964), from the book by Frederick E. Smith, its story loosely based on real-life exploits of crews of the incredible DeHavilland Mosquito fighter-bomber, and by which George Lucas was inspired to create his Death Star Trench attack from the final act of the movie Star Wars: A New Hope. And, of course, The Dam Busters (1955), telling the true story of the legendary 617 Squadron* and their attack on the Ruhr dams on the night of 16/17 May, 1943, using the ‘Upkeep’ mine, also known as the ‘bouncing bomb’.

This is the raid that I often simulate in my personal light aircraft flying adventures, albeit in daylight and a lot higher up than the 100ft height that 617 Sqn flew the attack at. Because they flew at 100ft in the dark. Amazing flying. And the ‘bouncing bomb’ alone weighed like five times the total weight of my Tomahawk aeroplane 😉 And of course there’s the unforgettable and iconic film The Great Escape (1963), depicting, reasonably accurately, the true story of the escape of 70 prisoners of war from the German prison camp Stalag Luft III at Zagan in Poland. Even today, the main theme tune from that film – composed by Elmer Bernstein – is sung by football crowds all across the UK during matches, and has been essentially immortalised. Such is the power of film music.

Anyway, as a young boy I was absolutely fascinated by Battle of Britain, and indeed all the war films of the time. Since my Dad is ex-RAF, and I have a deep interest in military history, and a passion for aviation in general, this is no doubt largely why I have had a lifelong interest in military aviation in all its forms. We always looked forward to Christmas because there would always be some decent war films on the telly.

But the thing about Battle of Britain that I wanted to write about is the way that the climactic battle is done almost entirely to music. In fact, the music tells the story, and it could in fact be thought of as ‘musical storytelling’. The genius of this music – a piece called ‘Battle in the Air‘ by Sir William Walton – is that it captures perfectly the desperate and fraught feel of aerial combat. The breathtaking fear, the extreme danger, the racing, speeding, swirling and chaotic nature of aerial combat; the rapidly manoeuvring fighters and the rattle of their machine guns and cannon. The menace of the German armed forces and the threat of the invasion they were planning. The triumphs, the terror and the tragedy.  It’s all there.

What I’m going to do is to let you hear the piece of music first, and then give you a clip from the film itself where the music is actually used. Get a feel for the music and the story it is telling, and then see if it matches up with what you see in the film clip.

This part of the film is narrated almost entirely by the music. Once the music starts, there is very little engine noise, gunfire or anything else, just the occasional bit of monologue from a couple of the actors, and that rarely. The visuals and the music tell the entire story, and it is sheer genius.

September 15th, 1940, the day depicted by the clip, was the height of the Battle of Britain. In the two months leading up to this day, and on the day itself, (which is nowadays celebrated as ‘Battle of Britain Day’), the course of the War in Europe was decided. The hitherto unstoppable Luftwaffe – the German air force – had been defeated for the first time. As a result of this, not long after this day, Hitler decided to ‘postpone indefinitely’ his planned invasion of Britain.

The evocative picture below shows condensation trails (contrails) generated by aircraft operating at extremely high altitudes, fighting over London during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. Yes, that’s Elizabeth Tower, colloquially known as ‘Big Ben’, although that’s actually the name of the bell in the tower, not the tower itself.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few”. – Winston Churchill, 20th August 1940

As an additional observation, I’d say that classical music, played by a full orchestra, is generally neither liked nor understood by the general populace. It’s seen as old and stuffy. But in the world of cinema, just about all of cinema music is essentially classical, and is almost always full orchestra stuff. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, there were some forays into synthesiser music – for example Vangelis’s soundtrack to the film Chariots of Fire (1981), and the soundtracks to many science fiction films of the time, such as Dark Star  – but these nowadays come across as pretty cheesy, especially the science fiction soundtracks (Chariots of Fire wasn’t too bad in my opinion; for once the synth stuff actually worked). In short, there’s nothing like a full orchestra for a cinematic score.

And the work of the legendary composer John Williams is, in my opinion, some of the finest music ever written, not just in the field of film score music. His work on so many films – Star Wars, Superman, Harry Potter, E.T., – is unsurpassed, and so is his genius.

Yes, music tells the story, usually as part of the screenplay, and usually very well. But today I just wanted to showcases the sheer genius of Battle in the Air, and how it tells the story with very few words and no sound effects audible. I hope you have enjoyed it!


*I’d like to tell a funny and interesting, if somewhat politically-incorrect, story about that film. The RAF officer who led the Dams raid was WgCdr Guy Gibson, and he had a black Labrador dog called ‘Nigger’. It’s an historical fact; deal with it.

As part of the operational planning for the Dams raid, the code word for the destruction of the Möhne dam was the word ‘Nigger’, to be transmitted in Morse code by the wireless operators in the Lancaster bombers taking part in the raid once the dam had been breached. Controversially, because of the somewhat sensitive nature of the dog’s name, some modern TV versions of the film were censored/edited to either blank out Nigger’s name entirely, or replace it with a more ‘acceptable’ name. I hate political correctness, and although I would not go out of my way to offend people, that was the dog’s name, and I am one of those people who thinks that history should be left alone and unchanged, no matter how ‘unacceptable’ something may be deemed to be in these present times.

But what’s funny is this.

Let’s say the dog’s name was redacted to ‘Blackie’. When the Möhne dam is breached in the film, the wireless operators back at base hear the Morse transmission coming in and proclaim joyously, “Blackie! It’s Blackie, sir!” and there are handshakes all around because the job’s a good ‘un and the dam has been breached. Except it’s not ‘Blackie’. Those who can read Morse (and I can) can hear clearly that the Morse message is in fact the original ‘Nigger’, just as it should be. ( _.   ..   _ _.   _ _.   .   ._. )

These censors are incorrectly assuming that no-one these days knows Morse, a point that, should I be so inclined, I could also get as equally offended about as do those who don’t like the dog’s name. But I don’t get offended…I learned Morse as part of qualifying as a Radio Amateur in 1985 and, although Morse is no longer required as part of the Amateur licence, I still know it and can read and send it proficiently. I also find it very useful when flying at night, as the radio navigation aids I use are identified by a Morse callsign, albeit using a much slower Morse than I am used to reading.

But still, I think the story is funny. A story where politically-correct censors try to find an offence that doesn’t really exist, and thereby create other insults into the bargain. History is best left alone!

Tragically, Nigger was killed by a hit-and-run driver just outside the station gate at RAF Scampton, the Dambusters’ base, on the evening of the raid, not long before the Lancasters set off on their mission. WgCdr Gibson’s wish was that Nigger be buried at midnight that same evening, and this was done while Gibson’s and the other crews were actually carrying out the attacks on the Dams.

Here’s a picture of Nigger’s grave:

…and its position next to one of the hangars at RAF Scampton:

00

Wings

This entry is part 19 of 21 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

This instalment of ‘Beautiful Destroyers’ is a little different, as I am not showcasing a particular aircraft. Instead, I’m looking at the origins of military aviation and also sharing a lovely piece of music. Enjoy!

As both a military historian and an aviator, I am of course passionately interested in the use of aircraft in military operations – or ‘military aviation’. The history of the military use of aircraft is in itself a fascinating tale of high-end technology (military aircraft have always been at the forefront of technological development), courage, technical skill, determination, tactical development, trial and error, mistakes and success. Of course, warfare is an unforgiving crucible, and because of this it is one of the major motivating factors in the development of technology of all kinds. Military aviation is a prime example of this, if not indeed the pinnacle of modern military technology. It was realised fairly early on in World War I (1914-1918)* that control of the skies was of paramount importance in tactical (and later strategic) warfare. This continues to be axiomatic in modern warfare; he who controls the skies, controls the battle.

But of course it had to start somewhere. The first recorded use of aircraft in military operations was (as far as I know) the use of manned observation kites by the Chinese in the late sixth century – about 594CE. Hot air balloons were first used decisively by the French in 1794; however, although balloons continued to be used for observation purposes for long after, these kites and balloons were of course tethered to the ground and couldn’t really go anywhere. Military aviation therefore really only came into its own during World War I, because with the advent of powered aircraft like aeroplanes and airships, people could actually go more or less where they wanted to go in the skies, rather than having to stay in the same place; this operational flexibility, of course, meant that virtually anything was possible from then onwards. But even then, fully-dirigible (that is, mobile and steerable) aircraft were still in their infancy; airships had been around for only two or three decades, and as for aeroplanes (or ‘flying machines’ as they were often called back then), the first powered aeroplane flight was only in 1903, so the technology was still very much experimental, and flying aeroplanes was very much a hit-and-miss affair (in other words, dangerous) because of this. So it was an historical period quite unlike any other as far as military aviation was concerned.

Having just finished an excellent book on British aerial combat operations in WWI, Fighter Heroes of WWI, by Joshua Levine, I bought the DVDs of the 1970s classic BBC series ‘Wings‘, which for some reason I was completely unaware of at the time (that is, in 1974-76 when it was being shown on TV) – which is a shame as it would have been right up my street. It’s an absolutely superb series with excellent characterisation, engrossing story writing, great acting, historical accuracy and (most importantly to me!) superb and authentic flying sequences. Anyone interested in the early development of military aviation will not fail to be captured by this series; it’s simply brilliant.

And the theme music is gorgeous. In fact, despite my lengthy preamble, this music was actually the main inspiration for this post today – it is simply lovely. It has a nostalgic ‘music-hall’ feel to it, with a beautiful chord structure and bass-line, and above all, a catchy and poignant melody. And I recommend you listen to it on headphones if possible, in order to catch all the lovely nuances.

So, here we are – the theme music from ‘Wings‘, composed by Alexander Faris:

Gorgeous. Hope you liked it!

[Edit]

The theme music for the series ‘Wings‘ was released as a 45rpm vinyl record in 1977, and since first writing this article, I have managed to buy one. You can pick up a copy of your own from Amazon if you like; click the cover graphic below to go to the sales page:

In case they have sold out, here is the title track as an orchestral arrangement, digitised from the A-side of the record:

During one of the early episodes in Series 1, some of the characters in the screenplay can be heard singing a military-style pub drinking song to the same tune. Since I like to have the lyrics for any songs I really like, I was delighted to find that the B-side of the record contained this vocal arrangement, entitled ‘A Sussex Lad’, which is the same song that the characters sang in the episode. The whole feel of the song is just so World War I; it’s a perfect song for the series:

And finally, here are the lyrics so you can sing along:

I’m a gentle lad from Sussex
With a heart that’s light and free
So a frown did pass across my brow
When my girl said to me
“They are fighting on the land, Jack,
And they’re fighting on the sea
Will you be a sailor-boy
Or will you join the New Army?”

I’m a loyal lad from Sussex
With a heart that’s brave and free
But the Sergeant-Major’s language, Lord!
It simply horrified me!
And I would not join the Navy
For I’ve never liked the sea
So I put my brave heart to the test
And joined the RFC

I go skimming the tops of the mountains
And soaring all over the sea
I think of my girl as I’m flying
And I know she is thinking of me

I’m an airborne lad from Sussex
With a heart that’s flying free
I’ve a pair of wings upon my chest
My girl’s so proud of me
They can keep the Royal Navy
They can […] the infantry
For the sky is now my pasture
It’s an airman’s wings for me!

I’m a daring aviator
And I fly so skilfully
But my aeroplane lacked common sense
And crashed into a tree
Now my wings are lying broken
And my girl she weeps for me
For I’ve left this world and God’s unfurled
These angels’ wings for me


The inclusion of this blog post in my series ‘Beautiful Destroyers’ was apt, I thought, because it describes the very early origins of military aviation. Without the tireless efforts of those pioneers of the past, our ‘Beautiful Destroyers’ would never have existed.


The aeroplane in the header picture is a flying replica of a Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c, the mainstay of the Royal Flying Corps in 1915, when the series ‘Wings’ is set. A very stable aeroplane, and ideal for its designed purpose of reconnaissance (being a stable camera platform), it was not really designed to fight other aircraft; the idea of aeroplanes fighting each other hadn’t really been thought of when this aeroplane was designed! The image is a direct screenshot from the opening titles of Series 1 of ‘Wings’. I’m not sure there are any replicas still flying nowadays; remember this series was made in the mid-1970s 🙂


*Hostilities in World War I, known at the time as the ‘Great War’, ceased when the Armistice was signed on the 11th November, 1918. The War was formally ended in June, 1919, with the Treaty of Versailles. This explains why the dates on some war memorials say 1914-1919.

10

Did Jesus Exist?

Well, of course I am going to answer that question in the affirmative because I claim to know Him personally. For myself, I’m in absolutely no doubt at all; I know many of my readers hold this view too and this piece is not really aimed at them, although they will find it encouraging.

But I appreciate that this faith position is not necessarily held by many people; for many today, the whole question of Jesus and His existence is irrelevant to life in today’s world. And I can understand that; I thought like that once too.

But the case for an historical Jesus is actually strong, in terms of documentary evidence. In this beautifully-balanced piece, Prof. Lawrence Mykytiuk presents the contemporary and near-contemporary evidence for the actual existence of Jesus. It’s very scholarly and you can go in as deep as you want to (with his comprehensive end-notes to the article) but it’s also easy to follow. I heartily recommend it.

Click the text/graphic below to go to the article.

(BAR referring to the ‘Biblical Archaeology Review‘ magazine)

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North American F-86 Sabre

This entry is part 18 of 21 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

The F-86 ‘Sabre’ is certainly one of the most beautiful aeroplanes from the Cold War era, and is an icon of the classic jets genre.

First used in combat in the Korean War, the Sabre soon proved itself to be the best of the fighter aircraft in the United Nations’ arsenal, and it was the only fighter capable of facing the North Koreans’ MiG-15 fighters on equal terms. Other fighters fielded by the UN were either slower piston-engined prop jobs like the F-51 Mustang, or straight-wing jets such as the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and the Gloster Meteor, which were a good deal slower than the MiG-15.

But the Sabre was fast (it was just supersonic in a shallow dive), manoeuvrable, had good visibility from its bubble canopy, and was often flown by experienced combat veterans who had fought in WWII. In many ways, the Sabre and MiG-15 were virtually equal aircraft, each with strengths and weaknesses with respect to the other, very much like the Spitfire and the Messerschmitt 109 were in the Second World War. Here are a preserved Sabre and MiG-15 seen together at an airshow in the USA (photo is clickable to magnify):

But the Sabre is just plain beautiful, and that’s one reason why I’m featuring it in ‘Beautiful Destroyers‘.  Look at those lovely clean lines, the perfect wing sweep angle, the sleekness of the curves of the fuselage…this is a beautiful aeroplane in the same league in the beauty stakes as the Hawker Hunter.

In the photo above, you can clearly see the ‘bubble’ shape of the canopy; this gave the pilot an excellent all-round field of view; this is very advantageous in close-in air combat. There is an old fighter-pilots’ adage: ‘He who sees, wins’ and the Sabre’s canopy certainly fits the bill for that purpose.

Armed with six 0.50″ machine guns, the Sabre packed quite a punch – the six 0.50-cal machine guns were a proven weapons fit from the Second World War – but they did not have quite the range of the cannon with which the Soviet fighters like the MiG-15, and jet bombers like the Ilyushin-28, were armed.

Indeed the early Sabres were in some ways some of the last of the gun-only armed aircraft; changes in the performance of jet bombers meant that there had to be new developments in air-to-air combat that would enable fighters to bring down Soviet bombers which had nearly as good speed and altitude performance as the fighters that would be trying to stop them in the event of a war.

Eventually, the ability to stop fast jet bombers was realised by the advent of air-to-air guided missiles; indeed the Sabre was one of the first aircraft to be fitted with early versions of the AIM-9 ‘Sidewinder’ heat-seeking missile. But in the meantime, other methods had to be developed to enable interceptors to attack enemy bombers without being exposed to withering cannon fire from the tail turrets of aeroplanes such as the Tu-95 ‘Bear’. (Remember that at this time in history, the ‘Cold War’, the threat of nuclear war was ever-present, and the West and the East both poured tons of money into developing effective defences against enemy nuclear-armed bombers). The temporary stop-gap measure adopted by the USA and Canada, at least, was to arm their interceptor jets with many unguided ‘folding-fin aerial rockets’ (FFARs) which had explosive warheads but which had to actually hit their targets directly in order to cause damage. A good number of these rockets were carried by various interceptors, from 24 in the F-86D (below) and F-102A, to a massive 108 FFARs in the Northrop F-89D ‘Scorpion’. The idea was to attack enemy bombers using a single head-on pass, using a specialist radar-guided attack computer which launched all the FFARs at the target in one (hopefully devastating) salvo. Hopefully, the combination of reasonably accurate aiming and the ‘shotgun’ effect of having so many FFARs in the air at the same time, would bring down the enemy bomber before it got to its target. That’s what interceptors are supposed to do.

And so was born the F-86D ‘Sabre Dog’; the FFAR-armed interceptor version of the F-86. The inclusion of the fire control radar and the retractable rocket tray meant that the airframe shape was nowhere near as graceful as the gun-armed F-86s, but I suppose it was for a reason and it did its job. The F-86D was never intended for fighting against enemy fighters, though; its entire armament for its mission was based around the single salvo of FFARs, to be used to intercept a single enemy bomber. You only got the one shot. Here is the F-86D, and another shot showing its retractable rocket tray, which was just under the cockpit:

The big black dome on the nose of the Sabre Dog (which I feel spoils its lines!) is the radome containing the fire control radar for the FFAR aiming computer. Here’s another shot of the whole FFAR salvo going off:

Impressive though that looks, this technique is of questionable value at best; it was appallingly inaccurate, and it was fortunately never really necessary to use it for real, in this role at least. (See the Wikipedia article on FFARs for more on this)

Now, this is more like it. Here is a gorgeous painting of an F-86 punching off its drop-tanks as it prepares to engage a North Korean MiG-15:

Drop tanks were an idea from the Second World War, where fighters could extend their range by carrying extra fuel in external tanks. Because these external tanks increased the weight and drag of the aeroplane, they could be dropped, or ‘punched off’, as the enemy was sighted, hence the name ‘drop tanks’.

The fighter would then be lighter and cleaner and better able to engage the enemy. The idea was that you would use the fuel from the drop tanks first, so that the tanks would hopefully be empty by the time you ran into trouble and jettisoned them. Or, if you didn’t make contact with enemy aircraft, you could just bring the tanks home empty and use them again.

The Sabre served with many nations’ air forces , including the Royal Air Force, for many years and in many operational theatres, with the last ones being retired from service in the Bolivian Air Force in 1994.

So, there she is; the F-86 Sabre. Beautiful lines, sleek, fast and deadly. A ‘Beautiful Destroyer’ for sure.

00

Boeing B-17 ‘Fortress’

This entry is part 15 of 21 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

….and the 8th Air Force Legacy

Today’s Beautiful Destroyers post is just a little bit different, because not only do I showcase the legendary Boeing B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’, but I also present a little game you might like to try.b-17e

The B-17 ‘Fortress’ was the mainstay (along with the B-24 ‘Liberator’) of the United States 8th Air Force, flying from bases in the UK during World War II. This aeroplane has long been one of my favourite American aircraft from WWII.

Here’s the mighty B-17G Fortress ‘Sally-B’, one of the (happily) many airworthy examples flying today. She’s dressed up as the legendary B-17F* ‘Memphis Belle’, which was the first Fortress to complete the required 25 missions to enable her crew to return home to the United States.

sally-b

The doctrine which inspired the design and construction of the B-17 was that ‘The Bomber Will Always Get Through’; an inter-war concept whereby bombers would be designed that were so fast and high-flying that fighters (which when the doctrine was formulated, had similar performance to the bombers) would not be able to intercept them. However, by the time the early B-17’s were designed, they knew that the fighters would most likely be able to catch the bombers. And so the Fortress was designed, basically with guns providing all-around firepower protection; defences covering every possible approach angle so that enemy fighters would have to run the gauntlet of heavy defensive fire no matter where they attacked from – hence the nickname ‘Flying Fortress’. And so, with the benefit of this all-round armament, the Fortress was supposed to have been able to make it all the way to the target (The bomber will always get through!), without fighter escort, and defend itself (and its squadron mates, with which it flew in a defensive ‘box’ formation to maximise mutual supporting firepower) all the way to the target and back.

B-17Gs flying in Combat Box formation
B-17Gs flying in Combat Box formation

Of course, however, as with all such combat doctrines, the reality did not match up with the theory. Although at first, the B-17s could indeed get through to the target without serious losses, and deliver their bombs reasonably accurately, this did not last long. On the first daylight bombing mission, on 17th August, 1942, only two bombers suffered minor damage. However, the German fighter leaders of course developed tactics which they used successfully against the Fortress formations. This is what professional soldiers do well; if there is a tactic that works (in this case, massed formations of machine-gun toting bombers), you develop a counter-tactic, and so on. One of the primary such tactics was to attack the bomber formations head-on, where a) the bombers had weaker defensive weaponry (at some angles, just a single machine gun), and b) the closing speed was so high (of the order of 600mph) that accurate fire was difficult. But still the Fortresses had to go in in daylight – the whole idea was that they could actually see the target they were dropping their bombs on, unlike the RAF night raids where the bombers relied on a combination of good navigation and luck in order to hit their targets – if indeed they did hit their targets.

And so they found that the Fortress benefited from a fighter escort almost as well as did the Germans in the Battle of Britain. Both sides had learned that unescorted bombers iin daylight are vulnerable – but still the B-17 was far more capable of defending itself than were the much more lightly-armed German Heinkels and Dorniers they used in the Battle of Britain. In fact it wasn’t until early 1944 that the Fortress got a fighter escort all the way to the target; on the notorious raids on Schweinfurt and Regensburg in August 1943, the Fortresses lost nearly ten percent of their strike force, being escorted only about 25% of the way there and for the last 25% of the flight back. In October 1943, the second Schweinfurt mission resulted in such catastrophic losses (about 20%) that these missions in fact foretold the failure of the concept of deep-penetration unescorted daylight raids over Germany, in spite of the Fortress’s heavy defensive armament, and while raids continued unabated for the rest of the War, unescorted deep-penetration raids did not. Not until late 1943 were long-range escort fighters sufficiently long-legged to make it all the way to targets deep in Germany and back.

silver

In fact, eventually, the US long-range escort fighters performed so well that some B-17 crews flew two 25-mission tours without ever seeing an enemy fighter.

The Fortress was held in high regard by its crews, because even though the bombers were regularly clobbered good and proper by both enemy fighters and flak (anti-aircraft fire), they had a reputation for being unbelievably tough.

“There were occasions where, any other airplane, took hits the way it took….wouldn’t’a brought us back…”

“God love ’em. They’d bring you home when you didn’t think you had a prayer, and, … they’d never let you down….”

“When you see what the B-17 went through, in combat, and still make it back home … it was a miracle to me”

Some Forts were indeed able to make it back home with some of the most incredible battle damage; damage that would easily have felled any other combat aircraft in the War. Some examples are given here. This Fortress, for example, was damaged in a collision with a German fighter which tracked its wingtip down across the rear fuselage and took off the left tailplane (horizontal stabiliser) too.

damaged

Or this Fort, where a Flak shell had exploded directly in front of the nose of the aircraft:

b17damaged

…and they incredibly managed to fly that aeroplane home! This, while extreme, is typical of the kinds of damage these areoplanes used to absorb and still survive.

In this picture, you can see the contrails (the white vapour trails) of escorting Allied fighters above the B-17 formation:

contrails

Here’s a lovely picture of a B-17G on its bomb run. Note the spiral contrails induced by the spiral propeller wash.

b17above

And another incredibly atmospheric shot, this time a backlit picture of the propeller tips forming their own slipstream vortices:

16

And another beautiful picture of a B-17 formation and its contrails – beautiful but deadly. These contrails made it impossible for the defending German fighters to not see the American formations approaching.

18

So, the B-17 Fortress – another Beautiful Destroyer. Loved by its crews, but suffering heavy losses until the advent of 100% fighter escort.


And now for the little game, which I appreciate will only be of interest to WWII geeks 😉 I call this little exercise the ‘8th Air Force Legacy’.

During World War II, several tens of airbases were constructed during 1942-1943, in East Anglia – roughly the area east of Cambridge/Peterborough – in the United Kingdom. These bases were to be home to the tens of thousands of American servicemen whose mission it was to launch daylight air raids into Occupied Europe in order to cripple Nazi Germany’s war machine industry.

Whereas the RAF conducted its bombing campaign at night – largely a fairly indiscriminate ‘terror campaign’ waged against Germany’s civilian population (although many raids were also sent against German industrial targets in areas like the Ruhr Valley) – the US Army Air Force doctrine called for daylight precision bombing – attacks so accurate that the targets would be hit and hit hard.

The bases were placed in East Anglia so that they would be at the nearest practical ‘jumping-off point’ for raids into Europe. Raids began in August 1942 when twelve B-17s of the 97th Bombardment Group attacked the railway marshalling yards at Rouen. Within months, it became common for the skies above East Anglia to be filled with the reverberating snarl of aircraft engines as hundreds of bombers assembled their formations before commencing their long, freezing flights out over Nazi Germany and back again. Visions of the ground crews waiting anxiously for the first sound of approaching B-17s, returning from storms of flak and rivers of bullets. The culmination of the campaign against the Nazi war machine was in August 1943, where two raids were conducted against the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt, and the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg, both deep in Germany, as already mentioned.

These air bases were absolute hives of activity. Thousands of personnel, hundreds of aircraft, thousands of vehicles, tons of ammunition, bombs, fuel, spare parts; busy hangars and repair shops, briefing and canteen facilities, chapels, stores, barracks – each airfield was a small town and was more-or-less self contained.

b-17-over-wartime-control-tower-sm

Many of these bases were closed at the end of the War, some were kept going, but now, over seventy years after the end of the War, there is in some cases little left of these once bustling places. Like navvy shanty-towns, they served their purpose, and were then left to fall into decay. Places full of memory, full of history, are now once again reverted to being farmers’ fields or other uses. Polebrook, Kimbolton, Snetterton Heath, Bassingbourn, Thorpe Abbots. Names that evoke visions of B-17s running up their engines, long grass waving behind in the prop wash, the thunder of engines as the heavily-laden B-17s rumble down the runways and lurch into the air, men playing baseball until the returning bombers could be heard, red flares on final approach to signify that the bomber had wounded aboard, wheels-up landings on one engine….

skippercomeshome

Now, here’s the game. Use Google Maps/Google Earth (satellite view) to search for the place names given below, and see if you can see the bases, or what’s left of them, nearby**. Or even just if you can see where they were. As an aid, you can type in the names of the bases into Wikipedia, and get an idea of what the shapes of the airfields were like. In Wikipedia, add RAF in front  – RAF Polebrook, for example. Clue: Most of the airfields had three intersecting runways arranged in a rough overlapping triangle pattern. And take a look at what some of them are used for now – Snetterton Heath is a good example. Also, where possible, try the Google Street View on them – at Rattlesden you can even look along one of the runways that used to be used for B-17s (it’s now a gliding airfield). Would you believe that a very few of these are still active airfields in one form or another!

Here are the names you’re looking for:

Alconbury (an easy one to begin with)
Snetterton Heath
Bury St. Edmunds
Rattlesden
Knettishall
Bassingbourn
Deopham Green
Great Ashfield
Polebrook
Thorpe Abbotts
Framlingham
Grafton Underwood
Molesworth
Deenethorpe
Glatton
Podington (I think this is a drag-racing track!)
Chelveston (a very hard one!)
Thurleigh
Kimbolton
Ridgewell
Nuthampstead

Each of these bases was near(ish) to the village from which it took its name. Thorpe Abbotts is a bit further away, but that’s part of the fun. Look at the Google Maps from different heights and try to to spot the patterns in the ground. Polebrook is a particularly difficult one, as are Knettishall and Kimbolton. Give it a go and see how you get on. And, as always, comments are welcome 🙂

Good luck!

And finally, I found on the Internet a very moving picture of an unidentified young lady (whose face I have pixellated) walking on a disused runway at one of these old airfields.

Look carefully above her head….

ghost-b-17


*The B-17F didn’t have the chin turret that the ‘G’ had (the twin-gun turret under the nose). The ‘Sally-B’ is a B-17G model.


**Because this article is about the B-17 ‘Fortress’, the bases included here are the ones that B-17s used for most of the war. There were also other bases, used by B-24 ‘Liberator’ heavy bombers, that were just as much a part of the 8th Air Force as the B-17s were.

If you would like to try the game with B-24 bases, here is a list of them:

Mendlesham
Shipdham
Hardwick
Hethel
Wendling
Tibenham
Bungay
Seething
Old Buckenham
Horsham St. Faith
Attlebridge
Rackheath
Sudbury
Lavenham
Halesworth
Eye
Metfield
North Pickenham
Debach

Again, good luck!

 

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