LIVING ON THE AIR BASE

By John Gilbert, Norfolk schoolboy

© Copyright 392nd Bomb Group Memorial Association 2017 - All rights reserved

After our home at Unthank Road, Norwich, was destroyed in the heavy bombing raids on that city in April 1942, my family and I were evacuated to an old cottage at Wendling. At that time my father worked on the construction of Wendling airfield. When it was completed in 1943 he worked for Billy Butcher, a local farmer, at Manor Farm. I was 5 years old when we had to move from Norwich. I attended Wendling village school and my teachers there were Mrs. Eagle and Mrs. Rowles.

When British Air Ministry officials first surveyed the proposed airfield at Wendling before it was built in 1942 by one of this country's leading civil engineering companies, Taylor Woodrow Ltd., Jack Scott lived and worked at Canister Farm, which was located on the airfield itself.

Naturally, the Air Ministry wanted to demolish Jack's farmhouse with the adjacent buildings after relocating Jack and his farm animals elsewhere. However, Jack was a character and one of those individuals who firmly believed in the saying, "An Englishman's home is his castle." Full stop. [Period.]

According to my late father, the officials apparently tried to persuade and convince Jack with all sorts of arguments and dire warnings. But Jack was adamant: "I'm staying here.... I was here long before you arrived on the scene and I'll be here long after you've gone back to wherever you came from.... That's all I have to say. Good day, gentlemen." (Or words to that effect.)

So Wendling Airfield was actually constructed around Jack Scott's small holding. In fact, the control tower was built only 250 yards from his farmhouse, which itself was surrounded by various Technical Site buildings. Jack subsequently stayed on his farm all through the war, with his goats grazing contentedly on the grass around the control tower.

The American airmen however, quickly recognized the fact that here was an ideal source of fresh milk instead of the powdered variety served in the mess halls. Many a time Jack was up at the crack of dawn only to discover that his goats had already been milked: "Those bloody Yanks have milked my goats again," Jack grumbled to my father.

However, Jack got on very well with the American airmen. They looked after his food requirements as and when they could, as they did for our family and many other needy people in the surrounding villages. My mother used to do the laundry for the American airmen. One day my father came home and told her that he had another washing order for her which turned out to be all the muddy shirts and uniforms of the GI's baseball team.

Knowing that my mother had a sister in Manchester, northern England, the Americans told my mother that she deserved a break from all that washing and housework. They generously clubbed together and paid the return [round trip] train fares to Manchester for my mother, young brother David, Joy and myself. It was a very enjoyable holiday, and something which we could never have afforded otherwise.

When we returned to Wendling, Dad and several of the Americans were at the station to greet us. From there we went to the Rose Cottage Pub for a "welcome home" celebration.

My father was friendly with several Americans. On one occasion, one of them known as "Butch" arrived at our cottage one day somewhat bleary-eyed. He'd been to Norwich for a night "on the town," missed the last train back to Wendling and was therefore absent without leave (AWOL).

"What you want to tell them old boys in charge," advised my father, "is that you arrived at Norwich Station last night, scampering towards your train, when the loudspeaker suddenly started playing our national anthem `God Save the King.' You, being anxious not to offend, stopped running, stood at attention and saluted.... just as your train pulled out. That's how you missed your train."

Consequently, Butch, reputedly the oldest American on the base, was promoted and given a job in the cook house, which was what he'd always wanted.

But there were also very sad occasions in addition to the occasional crashes and heavy losses suffered by the 392nd Bomb Group. Tony Whales farmed at Beeston. His brother, Eddy Whales, was very friendly with a Sgt. Negus, a tail gunner on one of the Liberator bombers. On one of the missions during the very cold winter of 1944, Sgt. Negus somehow lost communication with his crew, his oxygen and heating systems having failed.

By the time his B-24 landed back at Wendling, Sgt. Negus had died. I recall the V-1 flying bomb which landed and exploded at Fransham. The blast brought one of the ceilings down at Field House Farm. Roger Warnes lived there at that time and the ceiling actually collapsed on his sister, whose injuries were treated by one of the American flight surgeons from Wendling.

The V-1 landed close to a statue of Lord Horatio Nelson, one of our great Royal Navy admirals. The statue had been erected near the site of Curd's Hall, long since gone, but Lord Nelson is said to have stayed at the Hall in days gone by. I also recall the young American airman who was killed, almost at the end of the war, when a low-flying German plane strafed one of the Liberty Run trucks he was driving, near the old council houses approaching Litcham, on its way back to the base from Kings Lynn.

Towards the end of the war, Butch kindly gave me a photograph album, the two covers and the spine of the album were cut and expertly shaped with aluminum from the B-24's bomb bay doors. We then went to several Nissen huts, taking the wartime "pin-ups" off the walls and placing them in my album, which I still have to this day as a souvenir of those dramatic days.