Index of Chapters

Chapter 4 Part 2
The World War II Years - Ludham AirfieldWar memorial 
Ludham War Memorial

Chapter 4 Part 2. The World War II Years - Ludham Airfield
Squadron Leader H. H. Woolley MBE, RAF (Retired)

During the build-up towards a threatened war in Europe an airfield for air defence fighter aircraft had been established in 1939 close to the village of Coltishall and had proved to be invaluable during the Battle of Britain. After two years of operating fighter aircraft from Coltishall in a purely defensive role, the Air Ministry decided that the squadrons based there should extend their range of operations to cover the North Sea, with the aim of providing air cover for British convoys and the surveillance and attack of German coastal shipping as far away as the Dutch and Belgian coasts, and by building a satellite airfield even nearer to the coast, the extra range obtained would allow aircraft to stay longer in the operating area.

So, an area to the north east of Ludham was surveyed and work commenced in the autumn of 1941 by the main contractor, Richard Costain Ltd. Whereas Coltishall was a grass airfield, Ludham was built with concrete runways and perimeter tracks because of the marshy land around it. This led to it becoming one of the best operational fields in the area, and a favourite for the operational aircrews. Indeed it proved to be the nearest British airfield to the continent, and the first one that bombers returning from raids on Germany could land at if they were badly damaged.

Construction of the basic airfield was completed in November 1941 and, on 20th of that month, six Spitfire Mk llA aircraft of No152 Squadron were deployed to Ludham on a daily basis from RAF Swanton Morley for convoy patrols off the Norfolk coast and to provide escorts for bombers as far as Holland.

During the construction of the airfield, the Germans had two attempts to destroy it, with no success except for a few broken windows. On the first occasion three bombs were dropped in the field between Gipsies Lane and the Catfield Road, and in the second raid seven bombs were dropped at the Potter Heigham end, missing the airfield and landing close to Bethel Cottages beside what was then the A149 road.
Immediately the airfield itself was completed, work was rushed through to finish the domestic and administration accommodation, which consisted mainly of nissen and prefabricated huts, set in six groups on the western side of the airfield, whilst technical accommodation in the form of blister hangars and protective pens were situated on the south and west sides of the airfield.

To give some idea of the layout of RAF Ludham, the airfield itself consisted of three concrete runways forming an isosceles triangle, thus providing the ability for aircraft to take off and land within thirty degrees of the prevailing wind. The runways were connected by a perimeter track to which the hangers and dispersals, with their protective revetments had access. On the east side of the airfield the dominant feature was the high walls of the machine gun and cannon range, where the eight guns in the Spitfires wings were aligned, so as to provide an accurate aiming point for the pilot.

Next to this was a small shooting range for target practice by the defence force and sleeping accommodation for the guards. Around the perimeter of the airfield the army had a series of gun platforms holding searchlights and Bofors anti-aircraft guns. On the west side, next to taxiway was the Watch Office, a single storied hut from which the air activity on and around the airfield was controlled. Close to this were the Station Headquarters, the main workshops and the aircrew briefing rooms.

Further west, across the Catfield Road were six accommodation areas, one for the WAAF with its own cookhouse (dining room) and NAAFI, one for sick quarters, dental services, the Officers Mess and dining rooms for all ranks. The other sites housed the airmen and Non Commissioned Officers. Site No 8 provided the sewage works for the station and is still in use today, with updated equipment (See airfield map later in chapter).

Photograph: Courtesy of Alan J. Foster
The original Watch Office (control tower)
control tower

Very soon the airfield was fully operational to undertake its primary tasks of bomber escort and North Sea patrolling. The construction work must have been completed in record time as the first permanent Squadron, No. 19 Sqn, equipped with Spitfire Mk5b aircraft flew in from Coltishall’s other satellite airfield at Matlaske on 1st December 1941. As mentioned before, the concrete runways were greatly appreciated by the pilots and one pilot from 19Sqn. was quoted as saying that Ludham was “… mainly of a large area of mud with taxiways and runways in the middle of it, and weather which was mainly cold and damp. At least we had runways!”

No. 19 Sqn remained at Ludham until 4th April 1942. During its stay here it had shot down a number of German bombers, the first being a Dornier off the coast near the Happisburgh light ship. The squadron was replaced by No 610 (County of Cheshire) Squadron, flying Spitfire Mk5b aircraft, which took over a similar task to that of its predecessor.

Picture - Supermarine Spitfire Mk 2

Although the squadron had taken part in a number of operations, its first success whilst at Ludham was on 27th April when it intercepted and shot down a German bomber over the sea between Lowestoft and Yarmouth. On the same day the Germans started their first ‘Baedecker’ night bombing raid on Norwich and during this raid the squadron put up ten aircraft, but had no success. It must be remembered that the Spitfire was a single seat day fighter without any specialist night operating equipment. Its only assistance was from the recently opened radar station at Royal Air Force Neatishead, sited near the village of Horning. Although the radar could ‘see’ the bombers and the fighters, and the controllers could vector the fighters to within a close distance of their targets, the pilots had then to see and identify their targets, aim and fire within a matter of a few seconds. In the dark it is a very difficult task to see, let alone identify, a target.

The next German bombing raid on Norwich was on 29th April, again around midnight, and again 610 Sqn reacted, putting up eight aircraft. Enemy bombers were seen in the glare of the fires started by the German bombs, but the pilots lost them in the smoke from the fires. The following night the squadron was again scrambled to over Norwich, but no enemy was sighted. However an enemy bomber was seen in a searchlight beam and intercepted by an aircraft from RAF Coltishall.
Little air activity was then reported until the middle of May when a flight of No.610 Sqn Spitfires spotted and attacked a German bomber off the Norfolk coast and shot it down. The following evening (16th) two spitfires took off from Ludham to patrol along the Norfolk coast. They spotted a German bomber approaching a British convoy and attacked it head-on, and shot it down. In June a similar pattern emerged, occasional skirmishes with enemy bombers, with some successes but also with the loss of some allied pilots. (No 610 Sqn, like many others, was composed of pilots of many nationalities – British, Free French, Canadian, Australian, Czech and Belgian).

In October 1942, 610 Sqn was replaced by No. 167 (Gold Coast) Squadron again flying Spitfire aircraft. This squadron was well trained in escort duties, both for bombers and shipping convoys and the threat from enemy raids was now diminishing. Having said that, a German bomber did fly over Ludham at very low level on 3rd November. Unfortunately the air raid warning system was faulty, the anti-aircraft guns had their covers on because of heavy rain, and the gunners had insufficient warning. A couple of time bombs were dropped in the local area, but no damage was done.

Incidentally, Mervyn Hinton, in his excellent memoirs (A Short History and Personal Reminiscences of Royal Air Force Ludham Air Field) describes an incident when an enemy bomber was shot down by the airfield defence force. An alert came over the field telephone that a lone German bomber was returning from a daylight raid on Norwich. One gun on the Potter Heigham side of the airfield opened fire at it followed by a second gun. The army gunners were successful and the bomber crashed into the sea off Sea Palling. In another incident, this time at night, a German bomber was trapped in the beam of a Ludham searchlight, and the guns naturally opened fire. However the bomber retaliated, and the searchlight was extinguished by the rear gunner of the bomber. It was rumoured that a bullet passed through the gunner’s trouser leg, without touching his flesh. His only damage was a loss of voice for a few days!.            

control tower

Photograph by courtesy of Mervyn Hinton
The Air Traffic Control tower, now in a dilapidated state.

It was near to the end of 1942 that the old Watch Office was replaced by a new Air Traffic Control Tower, the remains of which we can see today. The airfield controllers were on the upper floor, with excellent views across the field, whilst the ground floor housed radio and communications equipment and the meteorology section.

No. 167 Sqn carried out a number of reconnaissance missions during the latter half of October and by the end of the year had participated in a series of successful low level raids over Holland, known as ‘Rhubarbs’; and also preformed escort duties for bombers.

1943 started in excellent fashion when on Thursday 28th January King George Vl and Queen Elizabeth visited RAF Ludham. Coinciding with their arrival, two Spitfires of No 167 Sqn were scrambled to intercept a German light bomber that was harassing a convoy near to the Norfolk coast. In nine minutes the fighter leader had sighted and shot down the bomber in the sea off Yarmouth, and returned to base. It was the leader’s first ‘kill’ and he celebrated it with a victory roll over the airfield. Naturally the King and Queen were delighted, and insisted on meeting the heroes of the moment in the Officers Mess where they were joined by the rest of the squadron personnel over a cup of tea.

The fist few months of 1943 were spent escorting light and medium bombers over the North Sea to give them protection from the German fighters, and the occasional aggressive strike on enemy installations in Holland. Then, in the early afternoon of 17th April, the Squadron took off to meet and escort home more than sixty B17 ‘Flying Fortress’ bombers of the United States Air Force returning from a raid on a German port and guided them safely over the Norfolk coast before landing back at Ludham. Then in the early evening they were airborne again to escort light bombers over to Holland to bomb German shipping in Zeebrugge harbour. The next day was spent escorting bombers on an attack of shipping off the Dutch coast. This was followed two days later by more escort duties to the continent. These were typical days in the lives of escort pilots, which is one reason for changing the squadrons over at regular intervals. Another reason was given too; it was to stop the handsome young pilots running off with all the young ladies of the surrounding villages!

On 13th May 1943, the squadron was redeployed to Lincolnshire and was replaced at Ludham by No 195 Squadron which flew Hawker Typhoons. This move had been necessitated by a new threat, constant hit and run raids by German fighter-bombers on the Norfolk and Suffolk coast. The Typhoons had a greater amount of firepower than the Spitfire and were therefore more lethal against the heavily armoured German raiders. This was the first time there had been no Spitfires based at Ludham. Two days after their arrival a flight of Typhoons on patrol spotted German bombers attacking a bomber airfield in North Norfolk, and shot one down as it crossed over the coast. The Typhoon was a new type of aircraft and was suffering from ‘teething troubles’. Aircraft un-serviceability was reducing No 195 Sqn’s ability to accomplish all its tasks, and so to reinforce it, No 245 Sqn, also flying Typhoons, was transferred to Ludham from Matlaske, Coltishall’s other satellite airfield, and was immediately in action, flying four patrols per day. It continued in a similar pattern, interspersed with low-level attacks on German assets in Holland and Belgium until mid July, when bomb racks were fitted under the wings of the Typhoons, and a programme of low level bombing training was commenced.

After only six weeks at RAF Ludham, on 31st July the Typhoons were sent back to Matlaske and Ludham was again home to Spitfires, this time belonging to No.611 (County of Lancaster) Sqn. They only remained for five days, but completed two missions, the second of which resulted in the bombers they were escorting sinking some enemy shipping. The squadron moved across to RAF Coltishall, and Ludham was handed over to the Ministry of Works for them to prepare the airfield for the United States Air Force, who were planning to move in a squadron of B17 bombers. As is normal in warfare, plans were changed, and work was put into abeyance. Although the airfield was non-operational, the control tower was manned by staff from Coltishall, and became a home for damaged aircraft returning from raids over Germany. In all, eight B-17’s, one P-47, one P-38 and one B-24 crash landed here. Apart from these incidents, the airfield was not used, and the Air Ministry handed it over to the Royal Navy, who christened it H.M.S. Flycatcher and established it as the Headquarters of Mobile Naval Airfields Organisation (MNAO)

During its stay, the MNAO established five mobile airbases and a transportable maintenance yard which were all shipped to Australia to participate in the war in the Far East against the Japanese. Their work completed , the Navy ‘abandoned ship’ on 16th February 1945 and the station was handed back to the Royal Air Force.

No 602 (City of Glasgow) Sqn moved in with Spitfires, followed the next day by No 603 (City of Edinburgh) Sqn., tasked with armed reconnaissance of the new V-1 and V-2 sites in Holland and dive bombing them when the opportunity occurred. A large number of sorties were flown by both squadrons and the main interest appeared to be shooting-up motor transport on the Dutch roads. On 5th April No 602 Sqn was ordered to fly to Coltishall and on 23rd No.603 also moved over at the same time. Then, on 8th April No 91 Sqn arrived, with 18 Spitfires with the task of carrying out armed reconnaissance missions and anti submarine patrols off the Dutch coast. This work was carried on until 1st May, and from then on the only flying was training sorties. No 1 Sqn was transferred from Coltishall to Ludham on 14th May, but by then the land war in Europe had moved too far east and out of operational range of the Spitfire. On 8th May VE (Victory in Europe) was announced and the airfield began to run down. The last squadron, No1, left on20th July 1945.

Ludham airfield, which for four war torn years had been home to Spitfires, perhaps the most famous fighter aircraft in the world, was silent at last. Many pilots had lost their lives during those years. They have not been mentioned here, but anyone interested can read the details of operations and general activities in Alan J. Foster’s well researched book Airfield Focus.

However, the airfield refused to die! Although much of the runways, taxiways and hard-standings were broken up and used as hardcore there was a small part of the east/west runway left. In the mid 60’s this was utilised by Mr Peter Boardman who owned a De Havilland Hornet Moth, a delightful small private plane, in which he would fly over to the Continent for pleasure. Then the North Norfolk District Council authorised it for use by the Westwick fleet of crop spraying light aircraft; they used a 600 yard strip of tarmac, and the council in its wisdom allowed them to move a wartime hanger from one of the dispersals, providing that it was re-erected on the end of the strip of tarmac! This of course was right in the path of aircraft taking off and landing –like building a garage in the middle of a motorway. Despite this hazard, the airfield was adequate for the task and when they moved out, private light aircraft owners made it a base.
<Picture> 20 spitfire.jpg

Then, to complete the circle, Spitfires came back. Towards the end of 1985 Ralph Hull, an aircraft engineer who had served with the Army Air Corp in Borneo, and with Air Canada, had a burning ambition to rebuild a wrecked Spitfire and turn it into a flying example of the great aircraft.


Spitfire TE 566 takes to the skies again

He rented part of the hangar from a four-man syndicate who had just purchased the old airfield, and started work. He had obtained the wreck of a Spitfire Mark 9 from the Israeli Air Force, (it had ended its days in a children’s playing field) who, in turn had bought it from the Czech Air Force. It had originally been in service with a Czech Air Force Squadron (No 312 Sqn) based at Coltishall, and still bore its original RAF serial number TE 566. At the end of hostilities the squadron had returned to their liberated country with their aircraft, and it had been the first Spitfire to fly over their capital. After years of patient work it was finally rolled out of the hanger. Regretfully it did not fly from Ludham, but was taken to Audley End for flight testing. In the meantime Ralph had acquired another wreck of a Spitfire, and was back to work. Eventually the work overflowed, and Ralph moved to larger premises at Catfield in 1993.

Whilst working on the airfield, Ralph encountered some strange phenomena. Whilst working in the late evenings he would smell cigarette smoke and hear occasional whistling, even on a windless night. Of the latter, he remarked that if one told the whistler to “Shut up” it stopped. Sometimes a sudden chill would sweep through the hangar. Perhaps there are some whose war has not yet ended.

Map Of Ludham Airfield