FARMING THE AIRBASES:WHY
MEMORIES OF THE WAR LIVE ON
It may be more than 50 years since the second world war ended, but for those
who farm on the site of former US air bases, the links with the past are still
there. Edward Long talked to some of them
THERE were more than 700 operational airfields in the UK during the war, with the highest concentration in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex, the wartime home of the USAAFs 8th and 9th airforces. In 1942 new ones were being started on requisitioned land every few days.
It was a massive undertaking. A main runway 2000m long and 50m wide was needed, as well as two secondary runways of 1400m, a three-mile-long perimeter track, 50 hard standings plus bomb dump, two hangers, a technical area, barracks and service roads. Usually eight to 10 miles of hedges plus hundreds (sometimes thousands) of trees had to be ripped out.
After the war, when the B24 and B17 bombers and P47 and P51 fighters had returned to the US, the airfields were largely abandoned by the military. The sites were let to local farmers until the requisitioned land was offered back to the original owners – a process that often took until the 1960s to complete.
Although farming has taken over, the wartime connections continue. The sites attract surviving air and ground crews, who cross the Atlantic on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see their old bases. Many are surprised that the runways have gone and that there is little sign of a once-busy base. Often the only recognisable features are the farms and village pub.
Last summer Suffolk farmer Terrence Godbold and his wife Janet entertained US veterans of the 353rd Fighter Group who visited their old base at Metfield which they now farm. During the war Terrences father had Willow Farm and his uncle Street Farm.
"They both lost land when the airfield was built in 1943 and my uncle Gurney also lost a pair of horses when a P47 crash-landed on top of them while they were ploughing," he says. "I was a child in 1943/44, but I can remember the noise of the aircraft and being taken for walks by the Americans. They had a big influence on our lives then, and we still host visiting groups."
Flight surgeon Dr Joe Canipelli has been back to Metfield twice since the war. It was whilst Mr Godbold was showing his guests a photograph of the dead horses and explaining that a high level of compensation had been paid that Dr Canipelli announced: "It was £300. I negotiated the deal, which was generous as it was Uncle Sams money."
First visit since 1944
Bill Nevitt, who as communications officer spent many hours sitting in a radio van near the end of the operational runway, was making his first visit to Metfield since leaving in 1944.
"I never thought I would return and cannot believe the hospitality of local farmers," he says. "When I first arrived here the builders were still at work and there was mud everywhere. I was amazed how bad the weather could be – it was raining when we flew in and still raining when we left the following year. The other big shock was the warm beer; it took us at least two hours to get used to it!"
Another local farmer who remembers the American airmen is Andrew Hall. He grew up at Metfield Hall, where land was requisitioned to provide accommodation blocks.
"Our farm was within the airfield perimeter," he says. "There was a barrier at the end of the road and both the family and farm staff had to show permits before being allowed in,"
Although a lot of hedges and trees were lost to the bulldozers when the airfield was constructed, its legacy provides rural employment today. The former headquarters building and living quarters now house an intensive pig enterprise, the mess hall is used by a turkey-rearing operation, the hospital site by a horse bedding manufacturer, and other buildings by a vehicle-dismantling business.
Land requisitioned from Metfield Hall, Willow and Street Farms and other smaller farms was offered back to the original owners in the mid-1960s. As some of the smaller units had been completely obliterated for the construction of the runways, their previous owners had no more use for them and Mr Godbold took them on.
He is still unearthing reminders of the lands wartime use. He has a collection of 50-calibre shells which, as a child, he used to shoot at with his air rifle. The most recent find came last May when a measuring rule with the name C Carras on it was dug up. The owner was tracked down via the groups records and was shocked to receive a transatlantic phone call to say his lost property was awaiting collection.
After the 353rd moved to Raydon near Colchester in 1944 the 491st bomber group moved in with its B24s. Towards the end of the war secret missions were flown by black B24s; Mr Godbold says these remain on the secret list today.
No such secrecy surrounds the missions flown by B17 bombers of the 95th and 390th bomb groups that operated from Framlingham (Parham), much of which is now farmed by Peter Kindred. He also hosts visiting groups of US veterans.
"It is a thrill to have them back and we still keep in touch with the widow of Colonel Moller, the former base commander," Mr Kindred of Crabbs Farm explains. "Father lost 25 acres when the land was requisitioned to build the guardhouse and surrounding buildings and we did not get it back until the 1960s. He had day-to-day contact with the Americans as his horses and tractors helped with the construction of the airfield and he took hay from the middle of it between operations."
Farming a disused airfield is a mixed blessing. The main advantage is that the pre-war mass of tiny fields has been replaced by large blocks of well drained land. But chunks of concrete are still being ploughed out, and poor-grade concrete used for roads chips badly and causes punctures.
"We do still use a lot of the old buildings," says Mr Kindred. "The headquarters site has been converted to a pig-fattening unit and we also use the old guardroom and various nissen huts."
A dangerous legacy is the regular discovery of 50-calibre shells. The B17s guns frequently jammed and in clearing them live shells were ejected onto the turret floor. Back at base these were swept out and later brushed off the concrete on to the nearest soil, where they have lain undisturbed since the war.
"Over the years we have also unearthed an old tailplane and lots of tools. There is even a rumour of a pit on the farm that contains a whole aircraft.
"Although the war is a distant memory, the old control tower is now a museum so it retains a link with the past,"explains Mr Kindred.
"Flying has not ceased as we also have an airstrip on the perimeter track where I used to fly my light aircraft. Farming an old airfield is a mixed blessing, but we do meet a lot of interesting people."
US airforce veterans check the layout of their former airbase at Metfield. Reminders of the war are still being unearthed on the farm
The old nissen huts at Willow Farm are still being used, 55 years after the end of hostilities.
Above: Suffolk farmer Terrence Godbold flanked by P51 Mustang fighter pilots Dave Inman (left) and Bill Bixby. Right: Peter Kindred uses part of the old perimeter track
as an airfield.