Overseas movement was successfully concluded on January 29, 1944 when Lt. Don Jones and crew put down in Valley, Wales. Leaving the states they had said, "This is it!" Now it had become, "We are here!" But really, where were they? What next?
The happy warriors knew they were in Britain, in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) and knew they were to become a part of the U.S. Eighth Air Force. They knew little else. Of military necessity, the location, strength and operation of all elements of the Eighth was classified secret information. Had they then had access to a map of the deployment of its forces, such as is presented here from James Hoseason's great book1 they would have been amazed. Figs. 6 and 7.
By December 1943 the Eighth Air Force had deployed 47 airbases--37 for the B-24 bombers of its 2nd Air Division and for the B-17 bombers of its 1st and 3rd Air Divisions. It also had established ten bases for the fighter planes of its VIII Fighter Command. The British Royal Air Force (RAF) operated 35 bases-- 24 for its night bombers, four fighter bases and seven training bases. These 82 bases, plus a number of administrative and service installations were packed into an area of southeast England known as East Anglia. The area was approximately 80 by 100 miles in extent--no greater than that of the state of Vermont! The bases were each scarcely five miles apart Seen from the air these airfields "looked like dozens of toy triangles tossed upon a carpet."2 See Figs. 6 and 7.
Of their situation at the time, Bradley said, "We knew only that we were a replacement crew for some heavy bombardment group flying B-24 Liberator aircraft Each group had arrived from the states with its initial complement of combat crews and had then received additional crews. After becoming operational and flying combat missions, each group added replacement crews for those lost in combat or for those that had completed their 'tours'--their required number of missions. We expected prompt assignment to a group and an early combat mission."
Such was not the case. John Milton, the poet is credited with words that applied to their situation, "They also serve who only stand and wait" That for awhile, was their role. Bradley said, "Our crew was pushed around five or more bases, but we were still unassigned. When we arrived at the first airbase (they were called 'stations' and had colorful names like Bungay, Seething, and Tibbenham), we were pretty 'high' because we had just completed our first adventure--our overseas flight We were eager to find other newly-arrived crews that had made the southern crossing. We found some of them gathered in the Officers Club, getting wound up on their stories. We swapped tales (tall tales?) about the long journey to the U.K. Each of us had stories to tell of our own experiences, or at least our versions of the stories. Hey, if a guy had enough good tales, it would keep him in free drinks at the bar for a long time!
"Incidentally, I realized later that some of the airmen in the room had little to say and weren't particularly impressed with our stories--they had perhaps returned from a mission that day or were expecting a call before dawn. They had other things on their
Bradley continued, "After being sent around to five airbases in East Anglia, we finally wound up in Northern Ireland. Apparently the brass had found the Jones crew on its list of misplaced outfits and had decided to put it into the replacement crew pipeline again.
"We were surprised to be sent to Northern Ireland--that seemed the wrong direction, seemed to be taking us away from the war. But we learned that the Eighth Air Force had established some important support faculties and services in Ireland. The 3rd Base Air Depot of the Air Service Command operated there. A place called Langford Lodge was its most important station. A variety of aircraft, including B-24s and B-17s, were modified and overhauled there."
Jones said (in 1998), "We were sent to Cluntone, near Belfast, Ireland. Cluntone and Green Castle were used for flight training. It was for a two-week period--an indoctrination in ETO methods and procedures. I rode as co-pilot on some training missions. The others of the crew were assigned to several practice missions over South Wales. All of our instructors were ex--combat crew members who had finished their tours and we received some very useful training and advice. It was from Green Castle that our crew was dispatched as replacements to Eighth Air Force Station 144, Old Buckenham--the 453rd Bombardment Group (H). At last we were assigned to a unit." See (3) for history of this Group.
So Bradley and the Jones crew took another step--they headed for Old Buckenham. Bradley said of their trip,
We crossed England by rail, went through large industrial areas, including Birmingham. Along the way there were lots of interesting sights--some were of civilian life and affairs, others were of the war. It seemed there was a contradiction: peace and war, side by side! Life went on amid preparations for war. I was impressed to see so much evidence of the American military presence. It seemed that every roadside in the country had become a storage site for an endless amount and variety of American military supplies and equipment--endless rows of vehicles, endless stacks of boxed supplies, and GIs on the move. America was called the 'Arsenal of Democracy' and its industrial might was evident. There could be no doubt that there were big things afoot--that great armies would soon be prepared to invade the continent. I was certain that I was on the winning side in this war. I was just glad to know that all of this preparation was made possible, in part, because the GAF, the Luftwaffe, was unable to carry the war to this land. They had once sent their bombers and fighters over England, and would do so again, and they would later launch their deadly V-weapons--but they could not change the inevitable--the AAF by day and the RAF by night would drive them from the sky.
At last the rail trip was concluded. They reached the village of Attleborough on the London and Northeast Railroad (LNER). This village was the railway stop for Old Buckenham. It was about two miles from the base. The railway station was a quaint one-story frame building with a wooden station platform along its entire length. Bradley said of it, "It reminded me of the Wabash Railroad station in Monticello, Illinois--my hometown on the Chicago to St. Louis route, except the station at Attleborough had a
typically English feature--chimneys and chimney pots! There were several chimneys and atop each, three or more chimney pots. Interesting! The platform had gated ends. Instead of saying, 'Exit', the British sign said, 'Way Out'--only one of many different uses of the English language we were to discover."
Bradley and his comrades arrived at Old Buckenham on February 23, 1944. The base was very new and the 453rd had become operational there about three weeks earlier. One thing he recalls is that the weather was unpleasant--cloudy, windy, damp, chilly, and with some snow blowing about, and MUD, MUD, MUD! Continuous bad weather was the norm in England. It was said the English usually tried to change the subject when the weather was discussed. They would make a remark such as, "It was such nice weather the year the war began." Bradley would soon learn that weather, both that of East Anglia and that over the European continent was an important factor in the course of the air war. Bad weather plagued the Eighth Air Force the entire first forty-four days of 1944 and delayed the current bombing campaign.
As the crew entered the Main Gate, it can be assumed they were curious about the base, itself. It is appropriate then, at this point, to digress for a description of the base.4 Old Buckenham was built in 1942-43 by the British firm of Taylor and Woodrow, Ltd. It was laid out across fertile agricultural lands. Its neighbors were farmers. Come spring, the land would again be under cultivation. Every available acre, even some within the base, itself, would be planted or lay as pasture for sheep and cattle. The American airman and the English farmer would each be "doing his own thing" and for the same reason: to win the war. Food production was of very great importance. Rationing was very severe. Pilots and their crews, when leaving Old Buckenham on combat missions deep into Germany, would see the farmer at work in his field--there very early in the morning at take-off; still there at work upon their return. Surely each waved to the other, realizing the link that bound them and their enterprise. Bradley made an interesting comment on this matter. He said that after the war he met a Monticello resident, Mr. Hardimon, who told him that, as a small boy, he had tended sheep on the very land used for Old Buckenham. Small world!
The surrounding farms, villages, and place names are of interest. Reading them now may yet bring back some memories to those who were there in 1943-45. Bury's Hall, Park Farm and Castle Farm lay along or near the southern boundaries of the airbase. Castle Farm was of particular interest as on it lay the remains of an Augustinian Priory founded in AD 1100. This and the Banks (Roman earthworks) that lay across the land just beyond the northwest end of the NW-SE runway reminds one that Britain is an ancient land! Americans of English ancestry share this heritage. Beyond Castle Farm lay the tiny village of Old Buckenham, now made famous for having given its name to this American airbase.
To the east was Double Banks Farm (a continuation of the Roman earthworks); to the west, Bank Farm and Burrough Common Farm with Burgh Common and Sherrard's Green to the north. The villages in the immediate area were Attleborough and Old Buckenham village. The residents of these villages, like those of the farms, soon became accustomed to being awakened almost every morning by a heavy rumbling that surged at intervals of less than a minute, to a bellowing thunder that rattled windows--sounds as if coming from the very back yards. Their prayers, like those of the airmen, were for the safe return of the hundreds of bombers and crews the Eighth Air Force dispatched on combat missions over the continent. Each evening they awaited the sound of returning aircraft. From sound alone, they often knew that some plane had returned badly damaged--possibly with crew members injured or killed. At times during morning take-off or evening return they witnessed crashes at or near the
Looking now at the base, itself, see the map. Fig. 6. The base encompassed some 1000 acres. Roughly one-half of the area was occupied by the three airstrips, perimeter road and hardstands (parking areas for aircraft) with adjoining fuel storage facilities and the bomb dump. The other one-half of the area was occupied by administration and service faculties, along with the scattered barrack sites, mess sites, and communal site. It is said there were some 400 buildings on the base. Many, perhaps most, were Nissen-type buildings, of which there were three sizes to serve several purposes. The complement of officers and men at the base numbered about 3,000. There were Army nurses at the base dispensary and ladies of the Red Cross met returning crews with coffee and doughnuts after every mission.
Seen from the air, the three airstrips were the most prominent feature of the base. They occupied an area of approximately 500 acres. Each airstrip was fifty feet wide. The main runway lay in a NE-SW direction and was 6,000 feet in length. The other two runways were each 4,200 feet long; one lay NNE-SSW, the other SE-NW. Each airstrip was laid out reasonably consistent with the direction of prevailing winds. Lighting was provided for the main runway from the opening of the field and perhaps was provided later for the other runways.
Newcomers to Old Buckenham, concerned with such matters as the directional layout of airstrips, i.e., pilots, co-pilots, navigators and ground crews, found there was airfield jargon to be learned. The labelling of runways was new to many but said to be simple and obvious--once you got onto it. Each runway was known by its compass-heading and had two numbers according to the direction of its use. Runway 250 thus pointed just south of due west, and 070 was the same runway looking east. The men tended to use their own shorthand and refer to them respectively as Runways 25 and 07.5
At most bases the runways were concrete; not so at Old Buckenham. Its runways were of tarmac. The fields were very muddy when the field was built. Tarmac laid on muddy fields presented problems. This was later demonstrated when bomb--laden aircraft sought to take off or to land. The mud caused problems. Then frost cracked the tarmac, causing the surfacing to lift and pot-hole. In his splendid book, Fields of Little America6 Bowman wrote: "Runways were in a constant state of disrepair. In the winter of 1943-44 they were particularly bad. British firms delivered asphalt for repair work."
A concrete perimeter track or roadway enclosed the three airstrips--a combination taxi-way for aircraft and a service road. Hardstands, parking areas for aircraft, connected to the perimeter road at irregular intervals. They were so located as to lessen losses of bombers and men if the field were to be bombed or strafed by enemy aircraft, which did occur on at least one occasion.7
The Control Tower was the hub of activity and control of operations once the bombers came to life on the hardstands in preparation for departure. It was a two--story brick building--a square block-house with a flat roof used for observation of the bombers on take-off and upon landing. There was a second observation deck--a second lower balcony or veranda on the second story level of the building. Adjacent to the Control Tower was the floodlight trailer and tractor shed, the fire truck shelter, ambulance, and on a tall pole, a wind sock. The weather station was in the lower level of the Control Tower.
As one approached the Control Tower, one saw the huge 07 Duty Runway notice (or other number on other mission days) posted conspicuously on the outside wall--a reminder to all concerned of the runway to be used for the upcoming mission. Upon entering, one found the Operations Room grim and businesslike. Red--eyed alert officers sat behind long desks. They were equipped with telephones that linked the bomb group with other groups, with wing headquarters, with division command, and with the whole complex of the day's mission. The Duty Officer sat at his table, writing notes.
To the west of the Control Tower lay a large cluster of many buildings, large and small, known over-all as the Technical Center. While a complete listing is not available, this area included the armory, fire station, photographic block, bombsight center, parachute re-packing building, crew locker and drying room, gas defense center, broadcasting building, guardhouse, squadron and flight office, gunnery teacher, Link trainer, one of the two large hangers, and a variety of workshops and other administrative and service buildings. Somewhat removed from this area was a group of buildings that included the Group Commander's offices, operations block and crew briefing buildings.
The base had two hangers. These buildings were 25 feet high, 120 feet wide, and 240 feet long--a floor area of 28,800 square feet. They were always alive with action and sound. The scene was of many men hard at work attending to the B-24 bombers. Propellers were turned slowly as starters moved them around, then suddenly, smoke boiling out of the exhaust stacks, the engines spat back angrily and the internal explosion began the work of frenzy beneath the cowlings. All manner of work was always going on: a new turret being eased into place, a new propeller being bolted into its shaft--all of this activity to ready the bombers for the missions to come.8
The ground crews included crew chiefs, line chiefs and flight chiefs and a variety of technicians: turret and gun, bomb sight, radio, propeller, electric, welders, sheet metal workers, engineering assistants, instrument technicians and others. All were dedicated to keeping the planes ready to fly. The pressure on them mounted and became quite severe in periods when the high rate of large-scale operations required almost daily flights by every available plane. The pace began to tell on ground and air crews alike. Fatigue was evident Aircraft sustained repeated flak damage. Repairing this damage and doing all the other required maintenance made life hectic for ground service personnel. The chiefs and their men had pride in their work, measured by the number of missions flown without an abort, i.e., inability to complete a mission due to mechanical failure.
There were Liberators that flew 100 missions in just 140 days after their first mission. The fifty-mission bomber was not uncommon. The crew chief kept score on each aircraft. Some planes made records of more than 100 missions without a mechanical failure. It was the crew chief that controlled the bomber and its engines sixteen hours out of twenty-four--the pilot had it the rest of the time. It was the crew chief who sweat out the return of the plane. He watched anxiously from the line for its safe return. It wasn't unusual for him to get upset with the pilot who brought back a flak-damaged plane. He would yell at the pilot, "What have you done to my plane?" Then he and his crew would go into action to repair the plane for the next day's mission. Ground crews worked all night. Old Buckenham was never quiet--it never slept There were no Sundays or holidays observed. War was a continuous day and night event, month in and month out.9
Continuing on to the southwest on the perimeter road, there were a number of
hardstands--a word probably coined by the British to whom a plane "stands," while to an American a plane is "parked." In any case there were sufficient hardstands to accommodate fifty or more bombers. The ground crews serviced the plane out where it stood (was parked)--often in very disagreeable weather. At some bases ground crews were allowed to build a "shanty" out by the hardstand. The GIs went to great length to equip their shanty and sometimes preferred it to their crowded Nissen hut accommodation.
Continuing the tour of Old Buckenham: at the southwest end of the main runway there was a beacon--surely a welcome sight to many a returning crew. Around the bend of the perimeter road were additional hardstands and an area for storage of aviation fuel. A second hanger with a number of adjacent buildings was located in this section of the field. Beyond that were more hardstands and a second aviation fuel storage location. Fuel stored at the two places totalled 144,000 imperial gallons--172,944 U.S. gallons. Each B-24 bomber normally held 2,343 U.S. gallons of fuel.
Along the perimeter road on the north side of the field there were two notable features: a quite large bomb dump and an ammunition dump, and probably a fusing point building. Firing or "shooting-in" butts were located there also, just beyond the end of a hardstand area. The B-24 bombers had the capacity to carry a considerable weight and number of bombs. It was the task of ordnance to load the bombs aboard each airplane in preparation for a mission. A number of bomb types were available. The mission planners determined the types to be carried on the basis of the nature of the target. The bomb types included the incendiary (IB), general purpose high-explosive (GP)(HE), fragmentation (FRAG), and incendiary cluster (IC) bombs. Bomb types used on a single mission often included 100, 200, 300, and 500-pound GP(HE) bombs, 100-pound (IB), 20-pound FRAG. On some missions 1000-pound GP(HE) bombs were used.
The ammunition dump held a great quantity of .50 caliber shells, as each bomber carried ten automatic weapons of this caliber for its defense against enemy fighter aircraft. These guns were manned by right and left waist gunners, tail gunner, nose gunner, top turret gunner, and when the plane had such, by the ball gunner.
On the map an additional area of the Old Buckenham airbase is seen to the west of the technical site previously described. The barrack area was an important feature here. Seven scattered sites can be identified as clusters of barracks. There may have been more that are not identified on the map. The Nissens for housing airbase personnel were structures that looked like tin cans split lengthwise--half-cylinder buildings of corrugated metal. The ends of the half-cylinder were enclosed with brick with a door at one end, a window at the other end. Perhaps as many as 135 of these buildings were provided as housing for officers and, separately, for enlisted men. The Nissen huts were sixteen feet wide, eight feet high at the center, 24 to 30 feet long. They were dark, cold when cold, hot when hot, and poorly ventilated. The concrete floors seemed always cold and usually Uttered with tracked--in mud, and mud was plentiful in these, as in all areas of the base. The occupants were crowded. The huts for officers housed eight men--the officers of two crews. The huts for enlisted men housed twelve men. These were double-bunked; the officers had single cots. Heating, such as it was, was produced by one small coke-burning stove--perhaps a bucket of water being heated on it. The coke was rationed for the military and for civilians. It was very difficult to obtain scrap wood for kindling.
There was electric lighting, although there was delay in installing it in some areas. Bradley recalled, "It was a 220-volt system. I ruined my electric shaver the first
time I shaved. After that I shaved the old-fashioned way." Occasionally a gas lamp for lighting would make its appearance, but then gas for lamps was scarce. Moreover, there were black-out rules--rules that applied to the military and to the civilians as well. The German Air Force rarely made an appearance, day or night, and black-out often seemed overdone.
Washrooms, showers (often cold), and latrines were provided. They were at a considerable distance for most personnel but even if one had a bike, the North Sea cold that embraced everything, discouraged going.
The mess halls and other communal facilities were even more distant And the food! Bradley said, "It and a lot of things were pretty bad at the beginning of my stay at Old Buckenham but after Jimmy Stewart came to our group as Operations Officer, things, including morale, improved a lot In Army mess halls, whether in the Air Force or elsewhere, some staples were served time after time: tinned meats known as Spam (but not always that brand) and sometimes from some source in Great Britain; chipped dried beef on toast (called 's_____on a shingle'; GIs hated it); powdered eggs, meant to resemble scrambled eggs, were leathery, sulphurous, and often stale; and orange marmalade. Since this was England, the mess halls served a lot of brussels sprouts and a lot of mutton. The GI wasn't accustomed to either one. A lamb roast would have been one thing, but mutton, served first as chops and recycled, even worse, as stew, was something else. And the smell! Even so, the airman had a good deal, compared with that of the Army GIs in their muddy foxholes."
When off-duty the airmen could lie on their bunks, looking up at their collection of pin-ups of movie stars like Betty Grable, and of their girl back home. Bradley remembers seeing a life-sized pin-up of a beautiful dame affixed to the ceiling over one airman's bunk, with an inscription, "Alice slept here-I wish!" Sometimes the GIs were poets, artists, or both and this was evident in what appeared on walls, inside and outside. On barracks or other walls, works of art often appeared. They often called the mess-hall the "Ptomaine Palace." They wrote inscriptions on the walls of their huts like: "Knock before entering," "Wipe your_feet" "Mabel's Room," "Sex lectures daily," or whatever. There was one bit of humor the Mess Sergeant couldn't stand--the inscription: "Joe's Place--Eat in our restaurant and die in our alley!"
On the bombers, "nose art" was the big thing--names like "UNDER EXPOSED" with an appropriate (?) pin-up painting, "BUTCHER'S DAUGHTER" with painting of a luscious gal taking a meat cleaver to Hitler and Mussolini. The Jones crew had its own "artist-in-residence," Sgt Ernest Finocchio, Jr. More will be said of his artistic talent!
More could be written about Old Buckenham, particularly about its good neighbors--the good people of England, but for now it is necessary to get on with the Bradley story.11
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