At the Remembrance Service on 11th November 2017, to commemmorate 70 years since R.A.F. Swannington closed, I gave a brief introduction to the airfield. Here’s an edited version of it.
‘I’d like to begin with an extract from a poem about this Church, by local poet and lay reader, Jack Kett:
‘Let us remember our forebears,
Who in years gone bySurveyed a scene so different,
Yet under the same great sky.
The days of the Abbey, the market,The hall and the airfield pass
Each down the road of history,
Now rubble under the grass.
Wars and rumours of wars have come
And gone, like the stately trees
And now where the noisy engines roared
We hear the hum of the bees.’
This provides a wonderful launch pad for my brief overview of RAF Swannington; mainly the place, its purpose and the planes that flew from here. However, without question, the most important aspect of this story is the people who flew from here, those who supported them and those local folk who were in some way bound up in what happened 70 plus years ago. The Service that follows will tell their story and allow us to remember, thank and celebrate them (and the many others who lost their lives in defence of this country).
For the moment, though, let us return to the airfield. In particular the impact that RAF Swannington had on the landscape. The area surrounding the church used to be heavily wooded, when back in 1942 work began on the construction of the airfield…beginning with the destruction of the woodland. Engineers blew up the stumps of what must have been, as Jack says, ‘stately trees’.
Works progressed over two years and many tons of concrete were laid to create a main runway some 2000 metres long and 50 metres wide; new structures were built to house the planes, support functions and staff. And Haveringland Hall, a rather grand Italian style mansion, was requisitioned as the Officer’s mess. The 1400 personnel based here at its peak, started to move in.
By the time it became operational the new airfield was something of a ‘tail end Charlie’ being the last airfield to be built in Norfolk and it also started life with something of an identity crisis. For though it was named RAF Swannington, it lay mainly in the parish of Brandiston and was known locally as Haveringland airfield! So we move forward to April 1944. The Battle of Britain was over and the allies were on the offensive. The new airfield was to play a part in supporting the bombing raids on Germany that were to be so important in turning the tide of the war in the allies’ favour.
At this stage of the war no one squadron was based here for very long, but three are especially important; 85 and 157 squadrons of the RAF, flying Mosquitoes, and the Royal Australian Air force with their Spitfires. It is these three squadrons we shall be especially remembering today as we complete an Avenue of Remembrance for the Airfield and all who served here.
The Mosquitoes of the two RAF squadrons are particularly interesting. The Mosquito, often called the ‘wooden wonder’ because it was made mainly of wood, was the plane that provided the all-important support to allied bombing raids. The two RAF squadrons were part of the 100 Bomber Support Group which pioneered a range of technologically advanced devices that jammed enemy radio communications and radar, gave false information to the enemy about the size and direction of bombing raids, and was able to track down enemy night fighters. The attacks on these were especially effective as the enemy planes prepared to land; leading to what the Germans nicknamed ‘mosquito panik’ amongst their pilots.
In total some 32 different devices were used with some wonderful names such as ‘Airborne cigar’, ‘Jostle’ and ‘Piperack’. By the end of the war both squadrons had destroyed 71 enemy planes, and the whole 100 Bomber Support Group claimed 258 Luftwaffe aircraft for 70 losses.The Mosquito’s biggest advantage was its speed, exceeding 400 mph through a combination of its light weight and two powerful Rolls Royce Merlin engines. This has recently been called ‘the plane that saved Britain’ and was the first truly versatile fighter come fighter- bomber.
So, after just a year of operation the war was over for RAF Swannington, but not before the airfield was itself bombed in March 1945; ‘tail end Charlie’ once more as this was one of the last airfield attacks I Britain before ‘Victory in Europe’ was declared. An RAF maintenance unit moved in and between 1945 and 1947 the airfield was home to the business of storing and modifying Mosquitoes for sale to foreign powers, though a lot were also destroyed as ‘surplus to requirements’.
This was the fate that also befell Haveringland Hall, when in 1948 it was blown up and much of the estate sold off for agriculture and other uses.
To get here today you will have driven and walked along some of the perimeter trackways and aircraft parking areas surrounding the airfield. These are the main evidence of what once stood here 70 years ago, apart of course from the Church we are now in, of which Jack Kett says:
‘Amidst it all, as on a rock,St. Peter’s church stands here,
Symbol of truths that never change,
Of a faith that never yields,
And we find the eternal peace of God
In His Church among the fields.’