Unit History: RAF Bircham Newton
The former RAF airfield at Bircham Newton started life during the First World War. It was first used to train fighter pilots who were going to join the war in the skies over France. However, Bircham Newton was destined to become a bomber base, and it wasn’t long before two bomber squadrons were being formed there and equipped with the giant Handley Page V/1500, designed to bomb Berlin. Fortunately, the war ended before these squadrons were fully equipped and the aircraft were used in anger.
The spirit of the 1930s by David Jacklin
During the 1920s and most of the 1930s, Bircham remained as a bomber base, and many RAF units flew from the airfield using a great variety of aircraft types, including the SE5A, Vickers Vimy, DH9A, Fairey IIIA, Fairey Gordon, Hawker Hart, Hawker Hind and others. In 1936 Bircham Newton was assigned to Coastal Command and a major re-building programme was undertaken. During this period two units arrived flying Avro Anson aircraft. Also a third unit was posted in equipped with the torpedo carrying Vickers Vildebeest aircraft. Consequently, at the outbreak of war, the frontline aircraft consisted primarily of Ansons and Vilderbeests, which were slow and lightly armed.
Hawker Hind above Bircham Control Tower by David Jacklin
Nevertheless, during the Second World War, Bircham became one of the most important Coastal Command stations on the East Coast. Serving in No. 16 Group, Bircham performed a variety of critical Coastal Command operations, including reconnaissance, mine laying, anti-shipping strikes and air-sea rescue. The Anson squadron that was resident at that time, 206 Squadron, was re-equipped with the American manufactured Lockheed Hudson, and many other units arrived flying a variety of aircraft types, including, initially, the Bristol Blenheim and Hudson, and later on with the Vickers Wellington. Even Fleet Air Arm squadrons used the airfield, flying the Fairey Swordfish aircraft nicknamed the ’Stringbag’. To cope with this additional tasking, two satellite airfields were opened at nearby Docking and Langham, whose histories can be investigated by clicking on the appropriate buttons on the navigation panel.
Fairey Swordfish by David Jacklin
There were far too many visiting units flying from Bircham Newton during WW2 to mention them all by name. However, some early visitors will be mentioned because of the heroics they performed and the losses they sustained in the early years of the forgotten anti-shipping campaign conducted against enemy convoys, ports and airfields across the North Sea, particularly along the Dutch coast and Friesian Islands. This campaign was conducted by 235 Squadron (flying Blenheims), 500 Squadron (flying Ansons and Hudsons), 320 (Dutch) Squadron (flying Hudsons), 407 (Canadian) Squadron (flying Hudsons) and other squadrons.
Bristol Blenheim by david Jacklin
After World War 2, in the new jet age, there was little use for grass airfields, and Bircham’s days as a flying station were numbered. The station was briefly transferred to Flying Training Command and used as a demobilisation centre and aircrew holding unit before another change of command occured. In October 1946, Bircham came under the control of Transport Command, and training on the Blind Approach Beacon System (BABS) and other radio aids was performed using Anson and Oxford aircraft for about two years. However, in October 1948, the station was transferred to Technical Training Command, becoming the School of Administration, which included the Officers Advanced Training School (OATS). The Junior Command and Staff School and the Administrative Apprentice Training School were also based at Bircham Newton from the late 1950s until 1962. These various units employed Chipmunk aircraft for flying experience. HRH The Duke of Edinburgh made several landings at Bircham Newton in Chipmunk aircraft during the course of his flying training in 1952 and 1953 and by helicopter in later years. Bircham Newton finally closed in December 1962, ending a long and distinguished RAF service of more than 40 years involving more than 80 flying units.