It is more than 70 years since the end of the Second World War but signs of the conflict remain across East Anglia and lots of people are making sure we do not forget the supreme sacrifice made by so many.
Whether RAF or USAAF pilots, locals took the crews to their hearts.
Every time a plane did not return, it meant the loss of several young men and it was a regular sight to see villagers lining the perimeter fence to wave off the Liberators, Fortresses, Lancasters and Wellingtons and also be there to count back ‘their’ bombers.
There were 16 airfields in use by British and American forces within a 14-mile radius of Bury St Edmunds and it was from these frequently bleak outposts that British, Commonwealth and American flyers – plus many escapees from occupied Europe – went to war, with the future of humanity at stake.
While that legacy remains strong at Honington, Lakenheath, Mildenhall and Wattisham, you have to look harder to see what is left of the other airfields.
Indeed, the short-lived RAF Westley has been wiped out completely under a housing estate on the outskirts of Bury.
But the rest do not take much detective work to uncover in the tranquil farmland.
Each airfield costs the thick end of £1million to build and would be home for up to 3,000 servicemen (and women). The distinctive ‘A-star’ scars on the landscape are easily identifiable on Ordnance Survey maps and aerial pictures.
There are many memorials scattered about the countryside paying tribute to those brave souls who took to the skies, not knowing if they would return.
Perhaps the most obvious is just east of Bury, where the Rougham Control Tower Museum pays tribute to the men who flew from what was RAF Bury St Edmunds.
Displays focus on the key figures and tell tales of heroics, heartache and humour.
The main USAAF aircraft of the time was the B-17 Flying Fortress and the pub being renovated near the former airfield carries that name, while in Bury is the Abbey Memorial Garden.
Towards the Norfolk border, another collection pays tribute to the 388th Bombardment Group based at RAF Knettishall, near Coney Weston.
Dave Sarson is one of the trustees at the collection, which is hosted in Nissen huts from the airfield on a farm near Hopton.
It contains items from the base and forces personnel based there, donated by the veterans themselves as well as local people, families of the servicemen and members of the 388th Association.
“We opened the collection in 1992 and it has doubled in size since then,” said Dave.
“Lots of the vets were still alive then and would often bring items with them or visit us and sent things on afterwards. Now it’s their descendants who visit in increasing numbers thanks to social media.”
“‘Wow’ tends to be the usual emotion when they see what we have here and they are overwhelmed that their forefathers’ memory is being kept alive in this way.”
Very little of the airfield remains. One hangar is in use by a woodchip company but the other, long since demolished, hosted the legendary Glenn Miller and his Supreme Command Band in August 1944 – less than four months before he was posted missing in action after the plane he was travelling in went missing over the English Channel.
Dave bought an airman’s personal bag at Gaze’s Auctions in Diss and when he opened it there was a jacket in it with a service number.
“It was owned by Earl Glancy and we discovered he had been killed by civilians in Germany after a crash. His body was eventually repatriated to the States and his niece has been in touch to fill in the details of his life.
“The bag was found in about 1945 in the road and the man who found it just put it in his loft. It was only when he died and the loft was cleared that it came to light about half a century later.”
The bag and jacket, as well as the story of Glancy’s life and death feature in the collection, as well as letters and diaries written by veterans, both during and after the hostilities.
The uniforms on display look exceptionally small but, as Dave explained: “The average airman had not yet turned 20 and the “old men” of the group would only be about 26.”
On the wall are pages of a diary written on a hand-drawn ‘saucy’ calendar.
“It belonged to pilot whose plane crashed,” said Dave. “He survived and 20 years later one of his colleagues handed over the calendar – he’d kept it all that time.”
The collection also has tributes to the RAF and ARP and houses parts of crashed aircraft, not just Flying Fortresses from Knettishall but also a Lancaster and a Hurricane.
Viewing of the 388th Collection is by appointment only – email email@example.com for details.
Flying Fortresses form part of the artwork on the village sign at Coney Weston and there are Lancaster bombers on one at Chedburgh, where there is also a brick memorial. The control tower is now a business office.
The control tower at RAF Lavenham is also still in use, ironically by an engineering company that designs bomb-proof buildings.
Scenes for the classic film 12 o’Clock High were filmed here and mementoes of the air base are viewable at the Swan at Lavenham, where the Airmen’s Bar pulls in visitors from around the world.
One wall is covered in signatures of US and British airmen who tried to down three-and-a-half pints of beer from a glass boot.
One RAF man managed the feat in 40 seconds!
Jane Larcombe, the hotel’s business development manager is also secretary of the Friends of Lavenham Airfield group and said: “The bar also contains pictures and a collection of cap badges and shoulders stripes, as well as a interactive history screen.
“Service staff from RAF Lavenham were regular visitors to the pub, as well as other service personnel, based nearby or at RAF Sudbury.
“It was within walking distance, although most would cycle down from their base.”
The airfield still has a few of its original buildings left but is on private land, although the Tourist Information Centre at Lavenham organises open days and the Friends group holds a 1940s event there every May.
RAF Sudbury was the sister base and there is an exhibition in the town’s Heritage Centre museum.
American bomber pilot Bernard Nolan, 91, returned to The Swan in 2013 where his signature appears alongside the names of dozens of his comrades.
Now living near Washington DC, as a 21-year-old he signed the wall in 1944 and remembers the Swan’s bar as being one of the few local sources of entertainment.
He said: “We weren’t confined to the base perimeters and we had a certain amount of freedom but there was little to do when you weren’t flying.
“Our places of escape were to go into Lavenham or to the Athenaeum in Bury St Edmunds, which had great dances where you could meet girls.”
Several of the airfields are still in use as private air strips, including Great Ashfield, where a magnificent altar and roll of honour in the village church pays tribute to the friendly ‘invaders’.
RAF Newmarket Heath was on the town’s racecourse and the grass strip that once provided a home for the iconic Wellingtons and Spitfires, now offers VIP landings for private aircraft.
RAF Rattlesden’s control tower is the clubhouse for a gliding club and was a Cold War missile base, as was RAF Shepherds Grove, near Stanton, where Thor missiles played a largely unheralded part in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Airfield buildings were demolished as recently as 2006 and an industrial estate is now on the site.
At RAF Stradishall, the former officers quarters are all that remain, now serving as training offices for the prison service of HM Prison Highpoint. No other trace of the airfield, where the last biplane bombers used by the RAF were based, remains.
Hangars of the former RAF Sudbury, near Great Waldingfield, are in use as grain stores but the only reminder of the former RAF Tuddenham is in the form of a memorial on the village green
When the Americans left the UK, they left behind much of their equipment for use by locals and tools from the USAAF still surface in farm workshops.
Most of the airfields closed at the end of the war but continued for military use for a decade before reverting to agriculture.
One man who has made a living out of clearing away waste from the airfields is Diss-based scrap merchant Pete Gillings.
He has cleared the debris from RAF Honington for decades, despite a close call with upsetting the Queen.
“I had a huge trailer with a double skin but didn’t realise water had got between the skins and it was rusting away,” said Peter.
“The base scrapyard was as far from the main gate as you could get, right out at Rymer Point.
“I knew one of the corporals who would let me out the back gate with my load to save driving it all through the base.
“However, one day when I turned up, everyone was dressed in their No. 1s and you could see your face in their shoes.
“It turned out there was a royal visit due so they quickly ushered me through and out to the back, well out of sight.
“Unfortunately, the corporal must have been involved in the big day and so I wasn’t able to get the key to sneak out the back.
“I need to come back out of the main gate, by which time they were all ready with arms ready and the entrance area fairly shone.
“Unfortunately, I hadn’t realised the rusty water had decided to pour out of the trailer and was making a right old state behind me with waves of it washing up on the pristine shoes of the parade. As I turned into the main gate, Flight Sergeant Vincent came across bellowing and telling me to get my lorry of his base PDQ – or words to that effect…
“I got out of the gate just as the motorcycle outriders appeared over the horizon.
“It wasn’t just any old royal visit – it was the Queen – so I scarpered as quick as I could, leaving behind a right old mess.
“It was a long time before I went back there.”
Pete also cleared away the missile silos at Rattlesden, realising “five bob apiece” for the paving slabs used in the ducts.
Tenders were issued by the Ministry of Works, later the Dept of the Environment, as well as the RAF and Pete would bid to take away their redundant stuff.
“It’s amazing the type of things I’ve picked up over the years; everything the armed forces need to keep them on the move.
“I’ve even scrapped some Mk IX torpedoes from the Falklands that were in the same batch that sank the Belgrano.
“At one of the bases, there was a rusty old Nissen hut that was full to the ceiling with Bengal lances!
“I’ve also had an Austin K2 ambulance, like the one the Queen drove in the war; the same model that featured in the film Ice Cold in Alex – and we also had a DUC at the yard for a while.
“This was all during the 1960s but Second World War items were still coming up because a lot had been handed down by the regular forces to the Territorial Army and we were cleaning up after them.”
“Rougham was a real gold mine. It was used as a war chest; stockpiling all manner of items in the case of war – from barbed wire to a hanger full of brand-new, unused cranes – albeit several decades old by the time they came up for tender. They were all eventually shipped abroad.
“The Americans were always very good value for money. Whenever we want to clear one of their bases they were always offering us the chance to take what we wanted as they were heading home and what was left would just be dumped – we got a lovely fork-lift on one trip that served us for many years.
It’s come full circle now.
“A lot of what today’s British armed forces take abroad stays over there when they come back home – giving it the locals who are in great need of it.”
We will remember…
A version of this feature appeared in the Bury and West Suffolk magazine