In the Footsteps of the Mighty Eighth

A writer searches southern England for traces of a legendary World War II air force.

A tour of Eighth Air Force history wouldn't be complete without a visit to Duxford, which has an operational control tower and Sally B, a still-flying B-17. (Alamy)
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An American seeking the ghosts of the U.S. Army’s Eighth Air Force in eastern England can get lucky or get lost. I’d found my way to Rattlesden, a tiny village about 80 miles northeast of London, and I’d stopped at the Rattlesden post office and gotten fine directions to a nearby airfield. But within minutes of taking off in my rented car, I was lost. Miles later on a narrow farm lane, I asked the way of a man who’d pulled his car onto the grassy “verge” to let me pass. An abandoned U.S. Army Air Forces airfield? The B-17 base that launched 257 missions and lost 153 aircraft during World War II? Right-hand driver’s window to right-hand driver’s window, he set me straight. I soon went wrong.

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The day before, I did find the well-preserved remnants of an Eighth Air Force base at Thorpe Abbotts. It’s between Eye and Diss, not far from Dickleburgh, though I’m not sure I could retrace my route. Fortunately, I’d called ahead and been briefed on the Dickleburgh bypass. The all-volunteer keepers of the Eighth Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum at Thorpe Abbotts knew I was coming.

Rattlesden and Thorpe Abbotts are in Suffolk, one of five counties that make up the old Saxon kingdom of East Anglia, which juts into the North Sea. Flat, heavily agricultural, and perfectly placed for launching mass formations of propeller-driven, high-altitude heavy bombers deep into German territory, East Anglia was the cannon’s mouth for the U.S. Army’s Eighth Air Force. Sixty years on, it remains the heartland of the Eighth Air Force legend.

The U.S. military presence in the United Kingdom during World War II was immense. Between 1941 and 1945, three million U.S. servicemen and women flowed through Great Britain (with the Yanks taking 50,000 British war brides and a few war grooms in passing). By itself, the U.S. Army Air Forces contributed 500,000 personnel to this “friendly invasion,” with 350,000 of those in the Eighth Air Force alone. Compared with U.S. service personnel in other regions of England, the Eighth Air Force arrived earlier, stayed later, and settled more heavily in East Anglia. In 1944, one in seven residents of Suffolk County was American.

When I pulled up to the 100th Bomb Group Memorial, volunteers Ken Everett and Carol Batley were waiting at the far end. Batley was clutching the heavy metal lariat of keys that it takes to pass through the layers of padlocks, deadbolts, and alarm boxes that guard what remains of the Eighth at Thorpe Abbotts today. Gone are the concrete runways, hardstands, hangars, barracks, mess halls, bomb dumps, fire-fighting ponds, and, of course, big-tail Boeing B-17 bombers. What remains is the control tower, the quartermaster’s store, and a row of rescued and relocated Quonset huts (the British call them Nissen huts). In the old tower and its highly eclectic museum I began to feel what life must have been like for the young Americans who once lived here and for the English people who watched them fly off to battle every morning.

“I was 13 when they came in 1943, just the right age to be fascinated by it all,” says Everett, who points out the house just beyond the vanished perimeter fence where his family was living when the four squadrons of B-17s that made up the 100th Bomb Group began operations from Thorpe Abbotts. He vividly remembers standing outside and watching a shot-up B-17 fly by at rooftop height, popping flares, leaking fuel, and jettisoning gear as it swooped in for an emergency landing. Everett was delighted by the sound and spectacle. “At that age, you don’t appreciate the danger,” he says. Then one afternoon, while cycling home from school, Everett watched a B-17 sail across the road just in front of him, crashing about 300 yards away. Seven of the 10 aboard were killed. He also recalls the day a 100th Bomb Group gunner, standing outside his ball turret, accidentally set off the .50-caliber gun, spraying rounds at the village. “I have this recollection of hearing this sound—bing, bing, bing—overhead,” says Everett. “You weren’t aware that you were threatened until it was over.”

In 1977 Everett was one of the first volunteers that Mike Harvey, another local boy, lured into what seemed a hopeless mission to rescue the Thorpe Abbotts control tower. Harvey had been only seven in 1943, but he too had many memories of the U.S. air crews. Before his death in 1995, Harvey gave his energy and mad dreaming to preserving Thorpe Abbotts. The English farmers who took back their fields after the air station closed in 1945 stored straw for pigs in the derelict tower. The glass house on the tower roof had disappeared. Cracks and water damage were everywhere.

Demolition seemed most likely until Harvey approached the landowner with a plan to restore the tower as a museum commemorating the Eighth’s 100th Bomb Group. The owners gave Harvey a 99-year lease on the tower and a small footprint of land around it. (“We have to return the land in good condition when we finish,” says Everett.) Harvey rounded up other locals with good memories of the Yanks and those with no memories but lots of curiosity, like Ron and Carol Batley, post-war baby boomers. Ron was immediately taken with Harvey’s ideas, but Carol’s first reaction was “You must be crazy.” Then Harvey’s volunteers, including Carol’s husband and her children, descended on the Thorpe Abbotts tower with new glass, paint, and roof tar. Carol soon changed her mind: “If you can’t beat them, you had to join them. But you have to bear in mind that none of us had any experience in keeping a museum.”

Harvey knew that to get the museum going, he had to get the 100th Bomb Group veterans’ association on his side. In the late 1970s, he began cultivating Harry Crosby, the group’s former navigation officer, and Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, by then quietly practicing law in the New York City suburbs. Rosenthal had volunteered for two tours with the 100th, flown a series of wrecks to safety, and been shot down twice, the last time over Berlin.

When Crosby and Rosenthal gave the thumbs-up to Harvey’s tower museum at Thorpe Abbotts, attics across the United States opened and out came a flood of artifacts. Rosenthal sent his dress uniform and his formidable array of medals. A bombardier sent the 35 bomb tags he signed for on his 35 missions, all mounted on a map of Germany. Then came flak jackets, a Norden bombsight, a never-opened GI shaving kit, the Boeing name plate off a pilot’s control wheel, a metal rooster “acquired” from a nearby pub, and the key to the 1141st Quartermaster Company’s storeroom at Thorpe Abbotts. Along with the memorabilia came more than 2,000 pictures, bundles of letters home, and a war’s-end telegram to the mother of a 100th Bomb Group POW: “The Secretary of War desires me to inform that your son S/Sgt Affleck, John W., has returned to Military Control.”

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