Royal Air Force Station Downham Market

 

Downham Market is a small market town some ten miles to the south-east of the large agricultural centre of Wisbech. Situated on the main railway line from London Kings Cross to Kings Lynn, and the A10 trunk road from London to the same Norfolk coastal town as the railway, it is a typical sleepy fenland town, save for twice a week on Friday and Saturday when the market arrives. Drive out from Downham in any direction, and within a few minutes you are in open country. Try stopping the car, and get out of it and listen. For the most part all you will hear is silence, perhaps punctuated by the occasional sound of a distant tractor or sheep. Silence. Silence upon silence. Look around you now, and you will see, stretching to the horizon, fields, the dark, almost peat-like soil, furrowed by the men of the land and their machinery. The occasional ridge in the landscape marks the dykes of one of the many drainage channels that keep this long-ago-reclaimed land from the sea. But above all, the silence. And as you take in the tranquility, save for the ever-present wind, of the landscape around you, take yourself back in time if you can, back to the middle of the greatest conflict that this century has seen.....

 

As the mighty four-engined Stirling bomber flies low over your head, you cower down close to the ground, convinced that you are about to be decapitated. The roar as the Bristol engines pass over you is deafening, the rush of air as the slip-stream of the wings passes past almost pulls you over. It passes, and you look up. It is 06.30 on a bright summer morning, and you have just popped out to your garden, checking the vegetable patch that you have cultivated to support your meagre wartime rations. The fantastic sight of the huge aircraft is receding quickly now, but you know it will be followed soon by many more, as the bombers of RAF Station Downham Market, just a couple of miles down the road, return from yet another bloody onslaught against a target somewhere in Germany. Maybe it was a target in "Happy Valley" last night, the inhabitants of the Ruhr Valley being the focus of Bomber Command's attention. You notice, as the noise of the bomber starts to recede, that smoke pours from one of the engines, its propeller spinning erratically, flames licking around the cowling. At the top of the tail, where the tip of the rudder should curve a graceful arc, is instead a jagged collection of twisted metal. You wonder to yourself how long those brave boys can carry on with the nightly attacks against Germany. But your thoughts are taken from you by the deafening roar of another Stirling roaring over your head - it misses the top of the house by what seems like just inches. No smoke coming from that one you note, but where the tail turret should be you can see only a gaping hole, and you wonder to yourself about the fate of the Tail-Gunner. As you try not to think about the horror that must have been that man's final seconds, you decide that it must indeed have been "Happy Valley" last night - the flak defences of the Ruhr were legendary, if the talk of the airmen in the local pub, "The Hare Arms", was anything to go by, and in just a few short moments you had witnessed the result of what those defences could put up when Bomber Command came to town. Later on that day you would be in "The Hare Arms" for your lunch, and in quiet whispers you heard it spoken by a couple of airmen at the end of the bar that 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron had put up 14 Stirling Bombers last night, as part of a "maximum effort" raid by Bomber Command. This morning the dispersals of five of those Downham Market Stirlings stood empty and quiet, devoid of the chatter and laughter of 35 members of Bomber Command Aircrew. Such was life at Downham Market between 1942 and 1945, indeed at any one of a large number of Bomber airfields "somewhere in Eastern England" in those turbulent war years.


Jolted back to the present day, what now remains of the airfield at Downham Market, some 54 years after the end of the greatest air battle that this world will ever see? Well, when Ginny and myself spent a few days at Downham in March 1999, we intended to find out. Fuelled on one of Ginny's Mum's legendary breakfasts, we set out on what can only be described as a very gloomy and wet day (even by Norfolk's standards!) to see what we could find remaining of the airfield. During the war, Downham was equiped with FIDO (Fog Investigation Dispersal Operations), and it was my hope that we might find a small piece of this equipment remaining, but unfortunately this was not to be.

So what DOES remain? Well, quite a lot actually, considering the rapidity of the rundown of the airfield after the war, and its inevitable return to the farmers that originally owned the land. We hope soon to have a map to put on this page to illustrate areas where buildings, etc., remain, but at the moment you'll need to imagine where the remnants fit in until such a time as I can find the time to draw one! Starting at the southern side of the airfield, just to the north of the A1122 road which runs from Downham Market to Marham, is a cluster of Nissen huts, alongside what I believe would have been the Guard Room entrance to the camp. Today, these huts are used by a local farmers' conglomerate, and are on private property, although a couple remain in use with the local Highways Department, but again, these are on private property.

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The two photographs above show some of the Nissen huts which are still extant on site. Behind these Nissen huts are some more of the original airfield buildings, behind which would have originally stood the Watch Tower, sadly no longer existant.

As you move down the A1122, you pass some more Nissen huts, and what I believe to be a T2 hangar, re-clad since the war of course, and there is a little lay-by where you can get some photos of these buildings without commiting trespass. We have some here - if you would like copies please get in touch. A few hundred yards down the A1122 again, you come to the site of what was once the FIDO installation, and where there is a little road that goes off to the left. There are some foundation works visible in the grass on the left hand side of this little back road - could these once have been buildings associated with FIDO? I examined them, and I think probably not - they appear to be too small to be buildings of any use at all, so I didn't even bother to take photos of them. We are now on the back road from Crimplesham to Wimbotsham, and this road was closed from 1942 to 1946 whilst the airfield was operational, only re-opening after the airfield had closed, although on a slightly different alignment to the original road. We passed through a curious looking gate, open to traffic when we passed, but clearly able to shut off the road to traffic if the need arose. Could this have been used when the Bombers took off from Downham during the war, to stop airfield traffic and the like crossing the main runway? We decided not, it looked slightly post-war, and we continued on our way. A little further on down the road, and a great find, part of the original perimeter track.

The car is shown on the part of the perimeter track that we managed to find, to show some scale,and for part of the road's course behind me when I took the photograph, it follows the alignment of the perimeter track, although you wouldn't be able to guess it now by driving along it. The car standing on the perimeter track gives some idea as to scale. Past the fields on the left of the car, about two or three hundred yards distant, is a large-ish wooded area, and during the war this would have concealed the bomb dump, and immediately behind me when I took the photo, another wooded area concealed the gun site. We knew by this point that very little, if anything, remained of any of the three runways, as much of them had been dug up to use for hardcore in the Downham Market by-pass. However, we resolved to try and find something of the runways if we possibly could, and we continued our drive along the little back road, passing what we thought was the track of Runway "B" judging by the contours in the adjoining field, until we came to the junction with the Downham by-pass, the A10, and turned left along it, almost certainly re-tracing the route of the eastern edge of the perimeter track and its associated dispersals. Just a few hundred yards along the road, we found the one remaining bit of Downham Markets's main runway. Not more than perhaps 75 yards in length, and used by the farmer as a dry hardstanding for his bales of hay, it is instantly recognisable as part of that runway.

By now, we were almost back to where we had started, at the Nissen huts, and as the weather was turning fouler by the minute, and it was by now lunchtime, we decided that we would make for "The Hare Arms", a local hostelry in Stow Bardolph, much used by airmen stationed at Downham during the war.

It was slightly dissapointing to find that there were no wartime photographs adorning the wall of The Hare Arms, considering how many airmen had used the pub during the war, but that was more than made up for by the food. It can only be described as excellent!! We would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is in the area, whether you are looking at the old airfield, or just passing through. When I asked the barman about photographs relating to the airfield, he was most helpful, telling me that although there were none in The Hare Arms, we should try The Crown Hotel, where he believed that there were some. So of we went, and to our delight we found that there were photos all over the walls, and the barman there also took time to point out to us the initials of some of the airmen who used to drink there, carved into a table at one end of the bar. Now that is what I call living history!! And a good pint to boot!!


For anyone who is planning a trip to Norfolk, and the surrounding areas, there are several good Bed and Breakfast hotels in the area, and one in particular that we can recommend - please email us (please replace the "AT" with an "@" before sending your email) for further details. Ordnance Survey maps are of course invaluable if you are unfamiliar with the area - Landranger Sheet 143 covers the general area in good detail, whilst Pathfinder Sheet 900 covers the Downham area in particular in very good detail. We have a good number more photographs that we took on this trip which we haven't reproduced above, which we would be happy to have copied for you. Just get in touch if you would like copies made.


Finally, and perhaps the saddest thing for us, is the general lack of knowledge locally as to the existence of the airfield at Downham. Adjacent to the A1122, not two hundred yards from the end of the runway in the photo above, is Downham Market High School, built on what was undoubtedly airfield land during the war. However, the students there are taught nothing of the history of the airfield, or indeed even of its presence. That nearly 1,000 young men died, fighting so that we may know freedom, flying from the very doorstep of the school seems to carry little truck with today's National Curriculum. We really would like to have hoped that a school so close to the airfield, any airfield, would be taught something of the reason for its existence, and where it fitted into the overall picture. We know it is not, at least in Downham. Ginny was a student at that very school. It seems that we who seek to set the record straight, have a lot of work to do yet. We will not forget, and we will continue to try and ensure that no-one else does either.
We will be following up this page with a history of the airfield at some point in the future, what squadrons flew from it, the two VC's awarded to men who flew from there, etc., but it will have to wait until we have some time to spare to compile it!! Check back soon, and hopefully it will be here.

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