Return To East Anglia

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Each base was known by the name of the nearest town with a train station. Today’s maps can take you to the towns but rarely onto the service roads that lead to the bases’ remains. For these you must ask locally. And when you find someone who knows, you may get a few stories too. At Kimbolton you might hear that Jimmy Doolittle, who led the first American bombing raid over Tokyo in 1942, was nearly killed when a B-17 almost demolished the control tower. At Polebrook you might hear that Maj. Clark Gable once filmed Combat America here for the Air Force. Or at Molesworth, which is now an active NATO base a few miles north of Kimbolton, you may learn that one of the first journalists to fly a mission with the 8th took off from here. He was a young UP man named Walter Cronkite. Three people at Tibenham told me that the actor James Stewart was based here with the 445th Bomb Group (BG).

 

The buildings that made up a heavy bomber base—workshops, barracks huts, latrines, hospital, fusing buildings—were not just slapped onto the topography. They were built into it, and for good reason. East Anglia is no White Sands outback. By some primeval snafu of geography, the most strategically located strike points to the Continent in 1942 also happened to occupy the richest, greenest, most productive farmland in England. So bomber bases and croplands coexisted, even intermingled. Each base had three 150foot-wide runways that formed a triangle. A perimeter road encircled them, although its path was anything but a circle; it rambled around barns, trees, houses, roads, slopes, even an occasional castle. Each base took only the land it needed. Farmers often worked adjacent to active runways.

Beyond the perimeter were the support buildings. They were usually widely dispersed to deny enemy planes a good target. The hangars stood only thirty-nine feet high; control towers were about half that height. They were bland and standardized, with a balcony off the second floor and sometimes a glass watch office on the roof. Barracks were organized by squadron and woven almost invisibly into the landscape. There were ten men to a crew, as many as eighteen planes to a squadron, and four squadrons to a group, plus spares and support personnel. At any given time almost thirty-two hundred men and a few women lived in these self-contained villages.

Last June I joined the members of the 390th Bomb Group when they returned to their old field outside Framlingham. Before I reached Framlingham, though, I undertook my own private search for the 8th.

Because the first two bases I visited were thoroughly adapted to new uses, they were definitely not typical. Stansted, once home of the 344th BG, is now a commercial airport thirty miles north of London just off the Mil. The old control tower is still in place and active, although several awkward add-ons partly conceal its original core. A memorial plaque had been installed in the main terminal, but during a recent revamping it was mislaid. No one knew where it was. Stansted is too busy with its present to think about its past.

Another twenty miles up the Mil is the magnificent Imperial War Museum at Duxford. An airfield during the First World War and used as a fighter base by the RAF and the 8th in the Second, in 1971 it became a museum that houses one of the largest collections of World War II aircraft in Europe.

Ten miles north of Duxford on a broad thirty-acre slope along Madingley Road lies the American Military Cemetery at Madingley, a tiny village just west of Cambridge. There are 3,811 Americans buried here, 24 of them unknown. An occasional rose lies at the base of a marble marker, though fewer now than a generation ago, as the personal links between living and dead dwindle. A 472-foot Wall of Remembrance bears the names of 5,125 men, all missing in action.

 
 

East from Cambridge on the A45 about three miles past Bury St. Edmunds is Rougham, where the 94th BG was based. Here scraps of the field remain, scattered around like ancient ruins. The base gym sits just south of the highway in a small clearing. “A bunch of hippies live there now,” a farmer told me with little pleasure. The main part of the base—or what’s left of it—is on the north side of the A45. I pulled into the parking lot of the BOCM-Silcock Company, which processes and makes building materials, and asked if anyone knew about the old 94th base.

“Sure,” said Terry Bray, the company’s administrative manager. “I used to come up after school and watch the aircraft. Saw a couple of disasters too.”

“Do a lot of people come by asking about the base?”