Over the past few months there has been ditch clearance around Chedburgh resulting in some site clearance of the RAF accommodation area, known as Site 5. It has resulted in a lot of interest and a map was put on that site to show what was there in relation to the other sites around the village. Over the course of the next year I will be taking one site each month and with the help of an index show what was on that site and eventually we will have a complete guide. Bear in mind this covers only the activity on the village side of the A143, the actual airfield on the other side of the road is not included.
This was alongside Queens Lane on the left, just before the turn for the sewage works. There are now two bungalows and two houses on that area (Landseer House is one of them) and a small wooded area. It is estimated that about 100 aircrew would have been housed here making it one of the small units. At the top edge of the map a roadway is shown (recently uncovered). The dark line below it is the ditch. The blocks marked 1 (Officers) is where the wooded area is now.
1) Two of officer quarters and latrines
2) Two of sergeants’ quarters
3) One of sergeants’ quarters
4) 14 of airmen’s quarters
5) Two of sergeants’/airmen’s quarters
6) One of fuel compound
7) One of effluent tank
8) Four of air raid shelters
9) One of guard post
The Building of Chedburgh Air Base
It was 1940. Worrying times when invasion was a real possibility. The Battle of Britain had just been won in the air, but now the bombing was to intensify. In this part of Suffolk we had an established RAF base at Stradishall. It was soon realised that the capacity there was restricted. A few miles along the road was a small village called Chedburgh. I say small as it had no industry and a population of no more than 100.
The cottages were spread thinly and mainly along the road leading towards All Saints’ Church in Bury Road. Many were tied cottages to the local farms—Hill Farm alongside Chedburgh Hall, Street Farm in The Street, Majors Farm and Porters Farm, both in Queens Lane. Chedburgh had a pub, the Marquis Cornwallis and also a school in Chevington Road. Next to the church was The Vicarage (now Touchstone House). It was not unusual to not have running water and flush toilets in the houses, and with much of the land still relying on horses to pull the ploughs, harrows, drills and harvesting equipment, life was very much as it had been for hundreds of years.
All that was about to change.
The men from the War Office look a long look at the large area of almost flat fields ranging from Depden to Rede and bordering the road to Bury. This would be ideal as a satellite station to RAF Stradishall. Much of the land area was in fact in Depden, but as there was another RAF base bearing that name in Essex they chose Chedburgh instead. Vast areas of farmland were requisitioned. The main contractor to build the airfield and the accommodation areas around the village was chosen as John Laing. Hundreds of workmen with lorries, track laying machines and diggers arrived.
The pub would have been heaving with workmen enjoying the local Greene King beer in the evenings but in the daytime the roads would have been packed with vehicles bringing materials onto the vast site. A large amount came by rail to the small town of Clare, an important rail junction for the lines between Cambridge and Colchester. Links from there would be to Long Melford and Bury St Edmunds. From the rail stations the materials relied on road transport to Chedburgh. Bearing in mind that all the roads were narrow twisting country lanes at that time, and some not benefiting from a tarmac surface, progress would have been heavy going, especially in the harsh winters.
However, the target date of opening in 1942 had to be met. And so it was. Although some of the accommodation areas were not fully finished which meant an uncomfortable first winter for the air crews, the airfield was ready to join the war effort.
Wellingtons and Stirlings
Initially twin engined Wellington bombers and four engined Stirling bombers were assigned to Chedburgh. The Wellington was a reliable aircraft but being a pre-war design was not suitable for long distances and had a limited payload. The Stirling was a very well built aircraft, but was also very heavy and slow. Although it was quickly found that it could withstand a lot of damage, it was an easy target and this resulted in extremely heavy losses of both aircraft and crews, earning it the nickname Widow Maker.
The airfield was a three runway design which enabled take off and landings to be made in most weather and wind conditions. Approach visibility was also very good as it was on the highest part of Suffolk. A good landmark for approaching aircraft would have been All Saints’ Church at the northern end of the airfield, a welcome site for the aircrew returning from missions. At the southern end of the airfield the equally welcome site of the Marquis Cornwallis pub would have been visible.
All the flying activity was on the eastern side of Bury Road, while on the western side was the administration area and accommodation and communal area. The main area, opposite the airfield, was offices, workshops, grocery store, NAAFI, social meeting and entertainment.
Towards the rear of that area was the main WAAF accommodation area. (This area is now Mulberry Park). Further back from that area was more accommodation for aircrew in what is now Chestnut Crescent.
Along Queens Lane, just past Porters Farm, was more accommodation in an area which is now grassland and only accessed by a private driveway marked as The Nook. A former generator room remains, tucked away in some trees.
Further along Queens Lane in what is now Tudor Close and Elizabeth Drive was more accommodation, and also the Gymnasium, Squash Court and Cinema, in fact a recreational area.
Almost opposite in today’s Kings Park, was a ground crew barrack section with boiler room, laundry and drying rooms.
Yet further along Queens Lane on the left was more accommodation for the flying crews — Landseer House is now at the front of that area. The lane opposite is where the military put in the first sewage plant, and all the sites around the village were eventually connected.
A roadway was constructed from Queens Lane, behind Landseer House, which joined another accommodation area for air crew. This roadway was to transport air crew to the airfield and bring in supplies. There was also a major fuel store here, so that if the airfield fuel store was attacked fuel could still be pumped in. This area has recently been the subject of some excavation and gives a much clearer idea of the layout of these sites with Officers’ Quarters, Sergeants’ Quarters, Airmen’s Quarters, a fuel store, toilet and washing rooms, office, mess rooms for socialising, air raid shelters and a guard post.
Some of these sites would have held as many as 180 personnel. That site was the furthest point from the airfield, the next was at Vendas Lane.
Some original buildings still remain, and some storage huts are still used, both in rear gardens and on the area alongside Bob Brown’s workshop.
The area of Majors Close, on the map (opposite) referred to as the Sick Quarters, contained a hospital, mortuary and ambulance station. Across the road where we now have Lancaster Close there was yet more accommodation and air raid shelters, one just visible from the field behind the houses. The only building along Chevington Road is the former school.
1) Laing type Officers’ Quarters
2) A type Officers’ Quarters
3) B type Officers’ Quarters
4) C type Officers’ Quarters
5) Laing type Sergeants’ Quarters
6) A type Sergeants’ Quarters
7) B type Sergeants’ Quarters
8) B type Airmen’s Quarters
9) Officers’ Ablutions
10) Officers’ Latrines
11) Officers’ Latrines
12) Sergeants’ and Airmen’s Ablutions
13) Sergeants’ Latrines
14) Sergeants’ Latrines
15) Airmen’s Latrines
16) Airmen’s Latrines
17) Sergeants’ Drying Room
18) Drying Room
19) Drying Room
20) Air Raid Shelters
21) Effluent Tank
22) Picket Post
SICK QUARTERS, MAJORS CLOSE
1) Sick Quarters
2) WAAF Wing
3) Orderlies’ Quarters
4) Sick Annexe
5) Ambulance Garage and Mortuary
6) Sergeants’ Quarters
7) Sergeants’ Quarters
8) Picket Post
The February article mainly related to the building of the airfield. Some of the early arrivals at Chedburgh were transferred from R.A.F. Stradishall, an airfield which was built mainly in peacetime as a permanent site. The accommodation was brick built and had decent insulation. There were recreation areas, a football pitch and officers had houses with a garden. Compare this to Chedburgh. Flimsy asbestos clad units on a concrete and brick base, steel window frames, communal coal fired heater, and of course all washing and toilet facilities were a distance away. No outside lighting, and we all know what the surface area in Chedburgh is like after rain. Muddy! It was well known that Chedburgh was not a site that they relished. The first winter, 1942, was harsh with long periods of snow and ice. Then of course there were the hundreds of young men and women who had joined up and after initial training this would have been their first posting. They were in for a shock. Much of the accommodation was not finished and some of the showers were not connected, especially in the WAAF area. They would have been particularly distressed to find no doors on the toilets, which resulted in them having to use the male facilities. Hardly a good idea. Now, I have already mentioned the Chedburgh clay mud. The airfield was hastily constructed and you can imagine this sticky mud was everywhere. Some machinery was still on the runway and there were occasions when aircraft hit this machinery causing them to lose control, and if this meant veering off the runway onto the soft clay alongside it inevitably meant the undercarriage collapsing and the aircraft nosediving into the ground. The Stirling was a very high aeroplane and the undercarriage was a weak point, so there were numerous incidents. Similarly if the aeroplane was taking off or landing and met a sharp cross wind the soft area was waiting.
There are many stories also of the aeroplane on full acceleration to take off having an engine failure on one engine causing it to veer off the runway or, as it failed to gain height, it would clip trees at the end of the runway and crash. Rede Hall Farm saw one crash nearby. Another crashed across the A143 towards Depden 400 yards from the Marquis Cornwallis pub. This was on 2nd July 1943 and six aircrew were killed. A Lancaster crashed near Depden Church on 20th April 1945 killing all eight crew. Four days later another Lancaster crashed on Bury Road killing eight airmen. On 24th April 1945 another fully-loaded Lancaster lost control and crashed onto the area behind what is now Mulberry Park. This was a WAAF area and some were trapped in the shower area and many more in the cinema while the fire was dealt with. Fortunately the bombs did not explode, but the eight aircrew were killed. Even walking along the road wasn’t that safe; an airman was run over by a lorry in a military convoy near Chedburgh Church on 8th August 1943. Near to Chedburgh Hall was Hall Farm and it was here that an early crash occurred when a Stirling lost control soon after the airfield opened. That was on 24th October 1942; the crew survived but were badly burnt. A good test for the fire crews and the R.A.F. Hospital in Majors Close. A similar incident with a Stirling was on 17th February 1943 when it crashed at the front of Tan Office Farm in Chevington. Some of the pilots made amazing attempts to return the aircraft to the airfield, or at least to avoid crashing onto housing. I can only imagine the terror trying to control an unresponsive aircraft full of fuel and high explosive bombs. Like the Stirling that crashed near Hargrave Hall on 20th January 1944 killing all nine crew. And a month later on 22nd April 1944 when five were killed at Barrow and a month later at Banstead Green, another Stirling, when two more killed. Remember again, the average age of these airmen was 22. Quite an adventure for them. At that age adventure would have diluted much of the fear, but coming back to an accommodation block and finding eight empty beds must have played on their minds no matter how hardened they had become.
This is the area now known as Kings Park, originally designated Site 6. The reference to the buildings, below, uses the terminology Barracks rather than Quarters for all the accommodation units except the one Officers’ Quarters. Noting also that there was a boiler room and a drying room and the proximity to the airfield, this area was for ground crew and airfield workers rather than airmen. They would be clothed in boiler suits rather than uniforms which would have required regular washing. It looks as though the current entrance driveway is built on the same Site 6 entrance drive.
The proximity with the area opposite was well thought out with the leisure facilities a short walk away.
SITE NO. 6 - KINGS PARK
1. 1 Officers’ Quarters and latrines
2. 1 Boiler Room
3. 1 Ablutions
4. 1 Drying Room
5. 1 Fuel Compound
6. 1 Effluent Tank
7. 2 Latrines
8. 9 Nissen Barrack Huts
9. 8 Everite Barrack Huts
10. 3 Barrack Huts
11. 3 Air Raid Shelters
12. 1 Picket Post
In the next instalment of our trip around Chedburgh as it was in 1942 we arrive in what is now Elizabeth Drive and Tudor Close. Interestingly, as in previous sites along Queens Lane, the roadway built by the RAF has become the current roadway. This area had no living quarters as it was a communal site for socialising, dining, obtaining extra food items and exercising. There were numerous paths built linking other accommodation areas to the communal site (I have marked two of them).
The Public Footpath at the top of Elizabeth Drive and through the gate is in line with that path. Remains can be seen alongside the stable, and this lead to the recently uncovered Site 5. A further path went to Vendas Lane, Site 3.
Socialising and group exercise was essential to let off steam. There was a NAAFI here where aircrew could sit and chat informally over tea and light food. Noticeably on this map there are several outside catering huts provided by the NAAFI—nine in fact. These would have supplied tea (rarely coffee) and snacks. A tailor, shoemaker and barbers shop would have provided a chance to smarten up before heading into town.
For the younger generation let me explain the NAAFI. This was Navy, Army, Air Force Institute. Staffed largely by the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) it provided “fast food” and comfort for the aircrews before and after missions, and on this site various eating opportunities. Also a good meeting place for possible romances.
1) NAAFI main building plus nine small units close by
2) Officers’ Mess
3) Sergeants’ Mess
4) Grocers and Local Produce Store (2 of)
5) Dining Room
6) Ration Store (2 of)
7) Officers’ Shower Block (3 of)
8) Sergeants’ Shower Block (2 of)
9) Boiler Room (2 of)
10) Airmen’s Ablutions and
12) Squash Court
13) Tailor, Shoemaker and Barber Shop
14) Fuel Compound
15) Airmen’s Latrines
16) Effluent Tank
18) Education Block (Library)
19) Picket Post
(Note. 17) is shown on the map index as 14 blast shelters but they are not shown on the map)