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Shipdham bomber memorial opens

PUBLISHED: 09:50 21 August 2008 | UPDATED: 14:40 07 July 2010

­ From just one of many Norfolk-based bomber groups about 1,100 American airmen lost their lives during the second world war.

On Sunday a museum and memorial garden were opened in their memory at the former Eighth Air Force airfield near Shipdham from where many made their last flight.

­ From just one of many Norfolk-based bomber groups about 1,100 American airmen lost their lives during the second world war.

On Sunday a museum and memorial garden were opened in their memory at the former Eighth Air Force airfield near Shipdham from where many made their last flight.

Based at what is now Shipdham Flying Club, the museum tells the story of 44th Bomb Group, known as the Flying Eightballs, through photographs, documents and memorabilia.

Some 150 Shipdham-based B-24 Liberator planes were lost from 1942 to 1944. They were involved in hundreds of raids across Europe, including the notorious Ploesti raids on strategic oil refineries in Romania.

George Washburn, 84, and now president of the 44th Bomb Group Veterans' Association, came over from Florida, USA, to open the garden and museum with Eileen Paterson, on whose land Shipdham Flying Club now stands.

He was in the 68th Squadron of the 44th - part of the second division of the Eighth Air Force, which had some 13 stations within 20 miles of Norwich with no air traffic control, Mr Washburn said.

“I came in June 1944 and flew in 35 missions. Early on, very few guys who came over with the group ever made it through 25 missions; they were either killed or taken prisoner of war.”

His first mission was to Arnhem, an operation later made famous by the film A Bridge Too Far.

Mr Washburn recalled that they flew in heated suits, sheepskins and flak jackets, nearing protected targets, plus their parachutes.

On one mission over Germany, when their fighter-plane escort had left them, the group behind them lost 28 of its 32 planes.

Mr Washburn flew in the Ploesti raids in 1943, which meant the group, on loan to the Ninth Air Force, had to fly out to north Africa from where they bombed oil refineries in Romania - thought to produce a third of Germany's liquid fuel requirements.

In one raid, which took place on Sunday, August 1, 1943, 54 planes and 532 airmen were lost - but damage to the target was severe.

Peter Bodle, a former chairman of the flying club and historical writer, said: “The raid was a learning curve. They were trying theory they had learned for the first time. And when one or two bits went wrong, it had an effect on others.”

But he thinks hitting the refineries had a big impact on the war. For example, the Battle of the Bulge stopped because the German tanks ran out of fuel.

The raid became infamous because a group came in from the wrong direction. The risk was high because Liberators would fly at tree-top height and often got fired at with flak.

“Near the target you would get your flak vest on; you would always get flak,” said Mr Washburn.

“We had holes in the ship on all missions. They knew where the flak spots were, sometimes they were random.

“On one mission when we went to the oil refineries there were 14 heavy guns defending the target area. You often got one of the engines knocked out.”

He said it was the ground crew who often didn't get the credit they deserved and that they had excellent leaders.

To complete the memorial garden, the flying club would like a propeller or blade off a Liberator. If anyone can help, they are asked to contact museum curator Peter Steele on 01953 883056.

Shipdham Flying Club, which has been at the site since the 1980s, is holding an open day and air display on Saturday, when people will be able to visit the museum and see displays.

It opens at 11am and there will be flying displays, military vehicles, static aircraft displays, stalls and exhibits, food and drink and lots more. Prices on the gate are adults £6; children 5-12, £2.50; under-fives free. The club is off Letton Road, Shipdham.

For more information go to www.shipdhamflyingclub.co.uk.

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