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Unit History: RAF Downham Market

RAF Downham Market
Opened in the summer of 1942, Downham Market was built to Class A specification, initially to serve as a satellite for Marham. The airfield site was directly north-east of the small town of the same name, between the A10 and A1122 roads as existed at that time, with the usual technical and operational buildings adjacent to the former. The public road from Wimbotsham to Crimplesham across the north of the site was closed. Messrs W & C French were the main contractors. The lengths of the three concrete runways were 09-27 at 1,900 yards and 16-34 and 03-21 both at 1,400 yards. The 36 pan hardstandings were put down but two were lost when a Bl hangar was built in the northwest corner of the airfield, west of runway head 16. Six T2 hangars were erected during 1942-43, three being for glider storage. Two were off the north side between runway heads 21 and 27; two were on the west side between 09 and 16 and south of the Bl hangar; a single T2 lay to the south-east between runway heads 27 and 34, and another on the technical site between runway heads 03 and 34 alongside the Downham Market road. The bomb stores were in Lough Covert. The dispersed camp, consisting of seven domestic and two communal sites for 1,719 males and 326 females was to the south of Bexwell Hall, requistioned at an early date for an officers’ mess.
The first operational squadron to be stationed at Downham Market was No. 218 equipped with Stirlings which moved in from Marham in July 1942 when this airfield was transferred to the expanding No. 2 Group. This squadron remained in residence for approximately 20 months. As with many other No. 3 Group squadrons, its expanded `C’ Flight was used as a nucleus for a new squadron, No. 623, forming at Downham on August 10, 1943, and flying its first raid that night. The Stirling’s vulnerability to enemy defences, chiefly through its inability to operate at high altitudes, brought a decision to reequip No. 3 Group with Lancasters. While Stirling squadrons were employed on less exposed duties, notably minelaying, a few were transferred to Transport Command. In No. 623’s case, never having been built up to full strength, it was disbanded in early December having existed for less than four months. In 39 operations flying 150 sorties No. 623 lost ten Stirlings while at Downham.
Nos. 218 and 623 Squadron Stirlings were involved in some 300 operations from Downham Market in the course of which over 100 of their aircraft failed to return or were destroyed in crashes. On the night of August 12/13, 1943, during a raid on Turin, Stirling EF452 HA-O was shot up by a night fighter. Despite horrific wounds, the captain, Flight Sergeant Arthur Aaron, aided the crews efforts to fly and crash-land at a North African base where he died a few hours later, an exploit which brought him a posthumous Victoria Cross.
In October 1943, the airfield became the second to have a FIDO installation to disperse fog brought into operation.
In March 1944, Downham Market passed to No. 8 Group and No. 218 Squadron moved out to Woolfox Lodge. No. 8 Group immediately took steps to form another Lancaster squadron, using the `C’ Flights of Nos. 35 and 97 Squadrons from its other stations. As a result, No. 635 Squadron became operational on the night of March 22/23, 1944. In April 1944 a Mosquito squadron was formed at Downham, No. 571, but it moved the same month to Oakington. Not until August that year was No. 8 Group in a position to follow its general policy of placing one Mosquito and one Lancaster squadron on each station. No. 608 Squadron was re-formed in August and equipped with Canadian-built Mosquitos, operating as part of the Light Night Striking Force five days after its rebirth.
A second Victoria Cross was awarded posthumously to a Downham Market airman for the heroic action by Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette of No. 635 Squadron on a sortie to Trossy-St-Maxim in France on the night of August 4, 1944.
No. 608 and 635 continued to operate from Downham to the end of the war, both being disbanded in late summer of 1945. Bomber Command lost 170 aircraft, which either failed to return or crashed during the operations launched from this station, the total comprising 109 Stirlings, 40 Lancasters and 21 Mosquitos.
Although the station was retained by the RAF for another year, little flying took place. Closed in October 1946, like many of the surplus airfields it stagnated for a few years before finally being disposed of in 1957. Farming reclaimed the land and the technical site was developed as an industrial estate including a heavy goods vehicle testing centre and depots for Anglia Water and Norfolk Highways. An unmanned radio-relay tower stands in one corner.
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