Royal Air Force at Newmarket Heath,1939-1947
During the second World War Newmarket fulfilled an important military role, supporting two active RAF airfields. The town also sat astride the main road link from the west into East Anglia, where many RAF and USAF operational airfields had to be constructed and supplied.
Much has been written about the RAF bomber squadrons based on The Rowley Mile horseracing and training ground owned by The Jockey Club. It is alleged that Cecil Marriott, the Jockey Club Agent was seen charging out of his house and across the Heath remonstrating about the un-announced arrival of Wellingtons of No.99 Squadron on his patch. That was two days before the declaration of war.
The RAF also had a very active airfield at Snailwell between 1941 and 1946. Basically, a fighter station, it evolved into various other flying duties and hosted a number of RAF and USAF squadrons and also had a training role for Polish and Belgian air forces.
The excellent booklet ‘The Royal Air Force at Newmarket (third edition)’ by John F Hamlin (published 1996) covers the period in considerable detail. The booklet is still available from Amazon (as is the 2nd edition which has better photographs and some details not in the 3rd edition.
Trials of Britain’s first jet-propelled twin-engined aircraft carried out on Newmarket Heath.
One highly secret activity at the time concerned the early development of jet propulsion aircraft and in 1942 trials were carried out on Newmarket Heath of a prototype of our first jet-propelled fighter aircraft the Gloster Meteor. These trials were only taxying trials as the engines fitted were under powered for flight, but it is believed that on at least one run there was air between the wheels and the grass.
The true first flight took place at RAF Cranwell in March 1943 and on 28th.May that year, after further trials, Gloster DG206/G the 5th prototype made the first cross country flight by a jet aircraft in this country, going off to its new base at in Oxfordshire. The aircraft developed into the Meteor, which entered service in 1944 against the V1 ‘buzz bombs’.
The original Meteor later became a ‘gate guardian’ at RAF Yatesbury, after which it was refurbished and now lives in retirement at the museum at RAF Cosford.
We are indebted to John Hamlin for this detailed description from his book mentioned above.
Footnote by Rodney Vincent – I can well remember stories circulating locally in 1942 of a mystery aircraft with no propellers flying from Newmarket Heath. It was nicknamed ‘the whistler’ from the high-pitched noise it made.
RAF Command Structure
Less is known about the various command and support activities located in or around the town, but correspondence has now arrived that throws a new light on some of those behind the scenes but nevertheless vital activities. Much of the hush hush operations were transferred to RAF Tempsford.
It started with an enquiry from Roger Kirkpatrick about a house opposite the Church in Exning that he remembers as a boy during the war, occupied by him and his family when his father was a senior RAF officer.
From Rodney Vincent NLHS webmaster
An interesting contribution. Newmarket was buzzing with the military during the last war, with two local airfields and service people of many nations being accommodated in various degrees of comfort. Although I can remember wartime Newmarket, I was not aware that the big house in the park, Exning House, was taken over by the RAF.
There is also Landwade Hall, about a mile from Exning village where I understand important decisions were made to do with the D-day landings. It seems rather unlikely that any pictures of the house opposite Exning Church are available, but one never knows, the internet has proved to be a wonderful source of past records*. I will circulate your query to our committee members and history contacts. *And so it has proved again, see later postings
December 26th 2012 – a quick response from Tony Pringle.
RAF 3 Group HQ was at Exning House and I believe various subunits were about the village. Lanwade Hall was actually used for accommodation, the decisions were taken at Harraton House in the village as you crest the hill on Burwell Road, leaving the village, there is still one military building at the rear of the farm on the left, this is all that is left of the 3 Group transmitter station. Strangely enough Tom Stoneham (late organist at St Mary’s) had worked on a SWB8 high power HF transmitter there and I actually re-installed the same transmitter on an airfield at Zutendaal near Maastricht 1967.
The house mentioned would have been Manor House (in 19th C) and then became Melton House. It was renamed when Matthew Dawson* moved there in 1885 as he was winding down his career. Take a look at http://www.horseracinghistory.co.uk/hrho/action/viewImage?id=2150 and see if this was the place, I am sure it is
*Matthew Dawson was the trainer who originally took the famous jockey Fred Archer under his wing, and Archer married his niece Rose. See Personalities on our website (webmaster)
A family called BRUCKSHAW lived there in 1911 (found that doing my war memorial stuff). I think an Archibald Horswill ran a Melton House Country Club there in the 1950’s
January 2013 – A follow up email from Roger Kirkpatrick
My father – at that time Wing Commander – H. “Jimmy” Kirkpatrick was twice, between 1941 and the war’s end, Senior Air Staff Officer of the RAF Bomber Command’s 3 Group, which had its headquarters at Exning. He himself piloted many missions over Germany.
His postings at Exning were split by a year spent as Station Commander of RAF Wyton while Don Bennett was setting up the Pathfinder Force at Wyton. 3 Group was responsible for most of the RAF airfields in East Anglia, including Newmarket Heath from which secret agents were flown into France and elsewhere – and also for a time the very secret airfield of RAF Tempsford. In her eighties my mother told me that my father would sometimes go to see agents off on their missions.
I was 4-5 years old and remember my war time in Exning as though it were yesterday. My younger brother was christened in St Martin’s Church. A teenage girl called? Heather, who lived in Exning, helped my mother.
We lived in what I now – thanks to you – know to have been called Melton House: a large building with a conservatory and extensive gardens, located behind the long still-standing wall opposite St Martin’s church. Melton House has been long demolished: its large space is now occupied by St Martin’s Close and the houses built around the Close. My parents are now both dead.
I believe we were able to live in Melton House because the commanding Air Vice-Marshal (? Harrison) was at Exning without a family.
I attended Exning village school on Oxford Street, which is still there and still a school. My teacher was – I think I’m right – called Miss Mole. Oxford Street smelt agreeably of fish and chips as there was chippy next to the school. We bought paper windmills made from empty cigarette packets at a sweetshop on the other side of the school.
My mother said that while sitting on the lawn to the North of Melton House we saw what looked like tiny silver birds overhead high in the blue afternoon sky: she told me that the planes had been on their way to Arnhem. I distinctly remember that afternoon and those planes. I also remember the sound of a tractor one night over the house and my father’s coming into my bedroom to say don’t worry: I learnt later it had been a V1.
Of course, to a child of 4/5 years old life was quite calm, but a decade ago some friends of my parents told me they came to stay with us at Melton House for a weekend in 1941 or 42 and that the atmosphere was horrendous: at that stage the RAF was losing the bombing war and casualties were appalling/unsustainable. My mother said she’d dance with young pilots in the Exning officers’ mess one evening and a few days later several would not be there. Of course, at the time no one knew we’d win the war.
My mother said that after the war my father and she would sometimes be driving near Exning: she’d suggest diverting through the village, but my father wouldn’t/couldn’t bear to go back. As to my father’s career -just in case you’re interested visit http://www.rafweb.org/Biographies/Kirkpatrick.htm.
January 12th 2013 – From Les Morrow:
Further to Roger Kirkpatrick’s memories, it was definitely the Horswill family involved with Melton House & Country Club.The entrance to it was from Church Street, the gateway being opposite the gate into Exeter Stud yard, as it was then called, the yard being part of my old home – Brickfields Stud – which was then owned by Major Harry Keylock MRCVS.
You approached the house down a chestnut tree lined driveway and at the bottom on the l/h Side were Tennis Courts. To the r/h side was the stable yard that backed onto Church Lane and a gated wall that ran down to the river bridge, behind which grew walnut trees. Boys being boys we went after walnuts. PC Attwell was the village ‘bobbie’ in those days and was a regular visitor to school where Mr Sharpe dealt out the punishment after his visits.
I too can remember Miss Mowl and I think we also had a Miss Tweed.
German espionage was luckily for us not up to much. Had the German’s had the slightest inkling of the RAF’s presence in Exning, it is almost certain that the village would have been “visited” by the Luftwaffe. The importance of 3 Group H.Q. would certainly have warranted some very serious bombing raids on Exning, had they known about it,
From Roger Newman.
During the war my late father cycled every day from our house near the White Lion in Newmarket to I believe Landwade Hall where No 3 Group HQ had moved from Mildenhall as he was a clerical officer in the registry office. He finally retired on medical grounds in 1965 from RAF Mildenhall and passed away late 1966.
Father was in the RAF from 1923 to 1933, a lot of time spent in Iraq, then he worked as a civilian for the RAF at Andover and when they moved to Mildenhall in 1936, he came to East Anglia with them. He was a RAF reservist from 1933 to 1939 and was actually discharged from reserve a week before the outbreak of WW2. I obtained his service record some years ago and this info is on it.
He was not allowed to re-enlist as he worked for the RAF as a civilian, so he was in the Home Guard during the war. I can remember his tin helmet hanging on a hook in the porch of our house and after the war, it became my Dads toolbox.
I have forwarded your e-mails to John Gentleman, firstname.lastname@example.org ,(ex Nkt Grammar School and RAF) who I believe is chairman of a society to do with RAF Mildenhall and its history and asked him if he has any info he can pass on.
From John Gentleman
A quick reply which you might like to forward on! HQ 3 Group was in Harraton House, situated behind the church at Exning, not Exning House. I believe the old air raid shelter still remains. I will make further enquires in the new year.
From Tony Pringle
Harraton House, Exning House and Landwade Hall all feature on various websites as 3 Group HQ. I have never been too sure exactly which it was. The IWM though have this photo (right).
John Saville in his “Walk round Exning” website has the HQ at Exning House, and Roger Kirkpatrick who started this thread says Exning House was the “Office” for 3 Group but RAFweb.org definitely has it at Harraton House.
To cap it all, our own archivist, Bill Smith, Mr Post Office himself, confirms it as Harraton House so I reckon we can all relax and safely say Harraton House it is. Bill says Landwade Hall was used as billets for some WAAFS.
I cannot think that “Authority” did not requisition Exning House for some purpose though even if not as HQ
Exning House and Exning Church, both as they were in the early 20th c. (pictures Roger Newman)
Some more wartime flying memories collected by Tony Pringle.
From William Bates. rear gunner. 625 Sqd My log-book records:
Total operational time. – 52.45 hours (day) – 121.47 hours (night) Total non operational time. – 25.30 hours (day – 2.15 hours (night):
Total time 625 Sqn – 78.15 hours (day) – 124.12 hours (night) Total 202 hours 27 minutes Certified completion of first tour with 35 sorties.:
Despite this total of operations, I made several other special missions which deserve attention. These were not recorded in normal logbook entries due to their secret nature. Individual aircrew members would be flown to Newmarket from different units to form a complete Halifax Bomber crew. All were complete strangers to each other, and briefing was conducted in conditions of utmost secrecy.
After a final warning that the forthcoming mission should not be discussed by crews on returning to their individual squadrons, all were required to sign a security declaration document. Shortly before take-off, two French resistance agents would board the aircraft. On reaching their destination, the agents would bail out and the aircraft return to Newmarket, where the crew would disperse to their own units.:
The extreme danger of these missions may be appreciated if one thinks of the consequences of being captured with such “passengers”. In recognition of service beyond the normal order of duty, I was awarded the second highest reward bestowed by the French people – The Croix de Guerre..:
More bits and pieces:
August 1941, No. 138 Squadron was re-formed at Newmarket from the nucleus of No. 1419 Flight to do the job; it was now designated No. 138 (Special Duties) Squadron.:
For more than three and a half years the squadron ranged Europe from Norway in the north to Yugoslavia in the south and at times far into Poland. First with Whitleys and Lysanders, then with Halifaxes and later with Stirlings it flew out from Newmarket, Stradishall and Tempsford with, agents, arms, explosives, radio sets and all the other equipment of the saboteur, parachuting them down at rendezvous points where reception committees of local underground members waited.
Another, but far less frequent, type of “cloak and dagger” operation undertaken by No. 138 – beginning in September 1941 – was the “pick up” in which the aircraft (always a Lysander) landed to collect some prominent public man, or an agent, or special plans and articles. During 1942 the squadron operated with the bomber force when not required for special duties.:
Early in March 1945, after “repeated requests from Headquarters Bomber Command”, No. 138 Squadron was switched from special duties to the main force of No. 3 Group. It went to Tuddenham, re-equipped with Lancasters and, before the European war ended, flew 105 sorties on 9 bombing missions and dropped approximately 440 tons of bombs on the enemy. No. 138 also carried out food-dropping operations over Holland and POW repatriation flights during which it brought home nearly 2,500 men before VE Day.
Blue Peter was named after the winner of the 1939 Derby and was a Spitfire MK Vb which had been presented to the RAF in 1941 by the people of Newmarket, who had raised £5,100 towards the war effort.:
On May 23, 1941, Blue Peter took of from RAF Ayr at 13:00 flown by PO (Pilot Officer) David Hunter Blair to provide aerial cover to the RMS Queen Mary, then serving as a troop ship and arriving home with American personnel. PO Blair was accompanied by Flight Sergeant Gordon “Matt” Mathers in a second Spitfire, and while en route to the Queen Mary the pair was diverted to investigate a possible sighting of enemy aircraft inland.:
Flying at 20,000 feet, Blair’s aircraft was seen to behave erratically and descend – failure in his oxygen supply had rendered Blair unconscious. As he lost height, Blair recovered conciousness but was unable to regain control of the falling aircraft and baled out. Unfortunately, his parachute did not deploy fully, and the 19 year old pilot died on Cairnsmore of Carsphairn (797 m). The event was witnessed by a local farm worker.:
Pilot Officer David Hunter Blair was buried with full military honours on the family estate of Blairquhan Castle, only 15 miles from where he had lost his life.:
The wreckage of Blue Peter lay buried where it had crashed, until it was discovered 51 years to the day after the crash, by a team including members of the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Group led by Ralph Davidson, chairman of the Scottish region of The Spitfire Society.
There is now work under way to rebuild an airworthy Spitfire incorporating the remains of Blue Peter (2020). Sometime we will get round to an article about Blue Peter :
The GPO Signal Centre at Newmarket was such that without it nothing in 3 Grp BC on WW2 would have worked. I rpt ‘nothing’!: Look at:
There was also based at Harraton House Exning the headquarters of No.3 Group of Bomber Command overseeing all the many operational airfields which sprang up all over the Eastern Counties. There was a twenty-four-hour staff of P.O. Engineers there to look after the telegraph and telephone equipment. I believe 20 or more WAAF teleprinter operators were at their machines when the bomb went through the Main Distribution Frame at Newmarket Exchange leaving just one of them still working.
As a consequence, main trunk cables from Cambridge to Newmarket and Newmarket to Ely were diverted in and out of Exning to provide alternative routings. Incidentally the building specially erected in Church Lane to house communication equipment stood empty after the war until in 1952 it was pressed into service to accommodate a U.A.X. No 13, when the couple who ran the village Post Office and the last Manual Exchange to work into Newmarket, decided to retire.
This building, reckoned to be bomb-proof in those days, had walls about two feet thick, glass block window lights and a six-foot layer of sand above ceiling level. The U.A.X. survived starting with 150 lines and with old, recovered racks until converted to digital in the late 80’s.:
It was still in existence in the early 50’s when I was at Wittering, and in the 60’s when I was at Mildenhall (could tell a few stories about that!!). Have a good ‘scrounge around’ and let us see pix of what (if anything) you discover!
HTH Peter Davies
The RAF also had a Communications Centre in the town that continued well into the 1950s
This was Eastern Communications Centre, No 7909 Reserve Flight, at the camp in Dullingham Road, opposite the cemetery. Some postings about this camp are in our Correspondence (page 7, November and December 2011 and October 2012)
April 16th 2013 – Margaret Cole has sent us an account of her aunt’s service in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) during the war. This fascinating story illustrates some of the vital roles that women played alongside men in the armed forces. Of particular interest is her time at Mildenhall and Newmarket (Rowley Mile). The account can be read at WAAF Wartime (If your security settings prevent this file opening try dragging it to your Desktop and opening with Adobe Reader)
During the 1940s The Rowley Mile was home to two RAF squadrons actively involved in bombing operations against Germany and its occupied territory. The first, No. 99 squadron moved in at the outset of the war and with their Wellington aircraft commenced the first air attacks on Germany.
In November 1942 No 75 NZ squadron took over and by this time they were using four-engined Stirling heavy bomber that had come into service. Losses were heavy and many young airmen, many from New Zealand, gave up their lives while flying from Newmarket. This has been brought home with an email from New Zealand about Pilot Officer Donald McCaskill who went down with his crew while returning from a raid on Stuttgart. Please refer to our Correspondence, November 2013.
The pictures below are taken from P/O McCaskill’s logbook and the entries end poignantly with the one on April 14th 1943 when the stark entry is ‘failed to return’.
For more about No 75 NZ squadron and their operations in Cambridgeshire visit the website for the RAF Museum on the old Witchford airfield site. rafwithchfordandmepal.