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It has been estimated that nearly 800 airmen who walked through the gates of RAF Feltwell and Methwold, between 1939-45, died in combat. An examination of the loss reports for the Station reveals no pattern but does show that some months were worse than others. Some of the early raids mounted from Feltwell seem disastrous; (one operation carried out by Wellingtons of No.37 Squadron in 1939 experienced 80% losses). The Airmen buried at St Nicholas’s Church represent the tough times experienced by the Station.
The Ventura Airmen at St Nicholas Photographs
Sixty years ago, over the winter of 1942-43, nine airmen were laid to rest at Feltwell. All, except one, were killed in flying accidents. That winter and the following spring were to become one of the blackest periods in Feltwell's history.
In the late spring of 1942, No. 21 Squadron RAF languished at their new airfield at Bodney in Norfolk. Most of their Blenheim aircraft had been shipped out to the Middle East over the previous winter and the unit was equipped with a few old Blenheims that had been passed on to them by No. 82 Squadron. They were soon to be re-equipped because the Blenheim was far too slow for the European theatre of operations, and losses had risen during 1941. Many of the other units within 2 Group had already obtained American Boston’s or Mitchell’s. the so called "Lend Lease" aircraft.
In mid-April 1942 a training unit moved onto the Station and started instructing the ground crew on the way to service their new aircraft which was to be the Lockheed Ventura. The Ventura was a twin-engined medium bomber, built at the Lockheed "Vega" factory in California. It was a military version of the Lockheed Lodestar passenger aircraft. Much faster and better armed than the "long-nosed" Blenheim, the Ventura promised great things.
Norfolkman Corporal Ralph Ram, had served as a fitter with 21 Squadron from the early war years. He recalled that the Ventura arrived complete with a set of tools for each aircraft. "The Blenheim", he said, "could be serviced with a few basic spanners, but the Ventura came with socket sets, because they had that much more to maintain". The first two aircraft arrived at Bodney on the 31st May 1942; thereafter the Pilots and ground crew were working up on the new planes.
By the late summer of 1942 the Wellington Squadrons, which had been at Feltwell and Methwold for nearly four years, departed. (Feltwell would not see the "Wimpy" again until some specials arrived in late 1944). 21 Squadron moved from Bodney to Feltwell in September and helped train two new units: No.464 (Australian) Sq. and No.487 (New Zealand) Sq. Eventually, 21 Squadron was to be Stationed at RAF Methwold whilst 464 & 487 were to stay at Feltwell. The story of B- Beer of 487 Squadron RNZAF
Don Palmer of Lodge Road, Feltwell, lived at Catsholm Farm, Methwold during the war. He remembers this sudden new influx of Australians and New Zealanders. "My dad had managed a farm in Australia before the war, and when it became common knowledge with the airmen at the camp they started visiting the farm. A lot of those men had been farm boys before they joined up. They would show up in the early hours of the morning to help my father with the milking. Sometimes there were so many of them that we did not have enough cows to go around!"
As the Ventura was to be used on daylight bombing raids, an intensive Flight training regime was started over the late summer and early autumn of 1942. To avoid enemy radar detection, the aircraft were required to fly to the target at a low altitude. In this case, low altitude meant a little over 100 feet off the ground! The Ventura had been designed as a medium-altitude aircraft, and this new use resulted in a number of casualties.
Sgt H.J. 'Johnnie' Whittingham of 21 Squadron found the Ventura tricky when he attempted a forced landing at Bodney on 21st August 1942. His aircraft, AE796, landed heavily on the airfield and had to be written off. Sgt Whittingham and his crew survived but sustained injuries. (Added by Sgt Whittingham's son in February 2023 - Dad would want me to point out that the port engine suddenly cut out at 100ft on that particular approach! Also, he had a very low opinion of the Ventura aircraft to the last. He went on to fly Sterlings, Lancasters and Yorks, survived being shot down (by the Americans) and earned a DFC along the way.)
Unfortunately on the morning of 15th October disaster struck Flight Sgt. R.D. Williams who was making a single-engined approach to Bodney in Ventura AE 760. Shortly after the aircraft had crossed the Swaffham road, near Hilborough, it stalled, dived into the ground and burst into flames killing all on board. The complete destruction of this aircraft meant that it was impossible to ascertain the exact cause of the crash.
Minor raids flown by 21 Squadron during October/November of ‘42 obtained only minor successes. It could not be established if this was due to the operational usage of the aircraft or to planning and execution defects. Only small numbers of aircraft had been sent out, but high losses had been sustained. A raid on Holland on 06.11.42 resulted in 30% of the attacking force being lost. Operational training continued during the autumn with fighter affiliation/ escort training with Hawker Typhoons from Matalask and mock bombing raids on East Anglian factories.
Practice takeoffs and landings continued to take their toll, with some lucky escapes. On 13th November Pilot Officer S. Coshall, flying Ventura AE824 EG-B, overshot the runway at Feltwell and crashed. Luckily he and his crew walked away from the aircraft unscathed. On the 18th November, Pilot Officer Miles and his crew were not so lucky. Attempting a landing at Feltwell in Ventura AE685, they too overshot the airfield, wrecking the plane and injuring the crew.
The 4th November brought 464 Squadron its first fatal loss. The weather, which had been too bad for flying during the morning, cleared about noon, enabling the unit to carry out a low level flying exercise. At 14:45 hours. Ventura AE 737 piloted by F/LT Maurice Dore of "A" Flight, was returning to Feltwell. Suddenly the aircraft dived into the ground near First Drove, Lakenheath Fen. The machine exploded on impact and burnt out, killing the crew of five. Alva Rolph, who was in the Lakenheath Home Guard, was in charge of a POW work detail on First Drove, said, "The aircraft had been past us once at low level and then came back around again. It was flying very low and suddenly it just rolled over in the air and crashed into a dyke. There was the sound of an explosion and then a ball of flame". The cause of this crash, as with the loss of Williams’s aircraft in October, largely remain undetermined.
On the 6th December the Ventura squadrons had their first real taste of combat. A mass attack by No.2 Group was made on the Phillips Valve factory at Eindhoven in Holland. The factory had been taken over by the Germans and was being used to produce night fighter radar sets. Although nine aircraft were lost on this raid, it was deemed a success. Many of the key parts of the factory were bombed and put out of action. However, a number of the aircraft which returned to Feltwell and Methwold had sustained damage caused either by light Flak or by bird strikes from low flying. (A Mallard duck, which was found in an engine of one of the aircraft when it landed at Feltwell, was given a ceremonial burial near the corner of "A" Hanger). Good news about the war was still a rarity in 1942 so a Crown Film Unit arrived at Feltwell to make a short propaganda film about the Phillips raid.
Repairing & servicing aircraft damaged on the Phillips raid took up the next few days. It was during this time that a most bizarre accident occurred.
On the morning of Thursday 10th December Ventura AE759 (Coded YH-H) of 21 Sq. arrived at Feltwell from Methwold for servicing. The aircraft’s pilot was F/Sgt Garnet H. Turcotte, a young American who had crossed over the Canadian border in 1940 and enlisted in the RCAF. A native of Detroit, Michigan, Turcotte was a quiet-spoken, exceptional pilot. He had taken part in the Phillips raid, in Ventura YH-H and as a result had just been promoted to Warrant Officer. In the late morning, it was expected that he would take his aircraft back to Methwold and a number of ground crew were offered a lift back to the station.
Two men who declined the offer were Corporal Ralph Ram and LAC "Paddy" Woods. They did not accept a lift because it was uncertain what time the aircraft would be leaving, and the bike ride back to the camp, along the Old Methwold Road, was not a difficult journey.
Just before noon, Turcotte, his crew and LAC. Rutterford and Sgt O.W. Woodhead, both fitter/mechanics from "A" Flight 21 Sq., took off from Feltwell. What happened next has never been satisfactorily explained. Corporal Ram, who by this time had arrived at the Watch Office at Methwold, was standing with F/Sgt Lucas when he heard the Ventura approaching. Turning to look they saw it suddenly start diving towards the ground. Ralph asked, "What is he doing?" Suddenly, the aircraft disappeared behind some rising ground and there was the sound of an explosion and a ball of fire rose into the air. Chiefy Lucas said, "Its lucky that there’s only one person on board," but Ralph replied, "No! Its full". Just then the phone rang in the Watch Office and flying control at Feltwell confirmed that the aircraft contained 6 people.
The following day, Corporal Ram went over to the crash site at Methwold Hythe with the Station M.O. They had the unenviable task of retrieving the remains of the crew. When they arrived they found that the aircraft and the men inside had been smashed to pieces. LAC "Jock" Rutterford, who had been given a lift on the Ventura, had only gone over to Feltwell on that fateful day to draw some new boots from the stores. The boots were found intact in the wreckage.
To this day the cause of the accident remains a mystery. A number of people who lived at Methwold Hythe reported seeing the aircraft on fire in the air just before it crashed. The official report said;
"Aircraft flew into the ground after a shallow dive. The cause is unknown and must be classed as either an error by the pilot, or left unclassified. Reports that the aircraft was on fire in the air are not proven. Possibly the Pilot closed the throttles suddenly; in which case a considerable amount of flame would have issued from the exhaust. Only theory is that the aircraft was trimmed slightly nose heavy and as the Pilot gained speed, in a shallow dive, he was unable to pull out".
1943 RAF Methwold & Disaster Over Holland
January 1943 found the units at Feltwell carrying out low-level training exercises, but yet again it was to be a bad month for No.487 (NZ) Sq. Exercises planned for 20th January were to be a mock attack on the Steelworks at Corby. Flying Officer Frederick Drake, a 25 year old Canadian, approached the Kings Forest Lodge, near West Stow, Suffolk, in Ventura AJ171, (Coded EG-D). The aircraft caught the top of some trees on slightly rising ground and crashed near the gateway of the Lodge. Drake and his crew were all killed.
Operational flying also continued. A successful attack on the steelworks at Ijmuiden made on 9th January was followed by an attack on Maupertuis airfield near Cherbourg on 22nd January. Heavy German Flak met the attacking force of 18 Ventura’s, which resulted in the loss of Ventura AE899 of 487 Sq. (Coded EG-O), piloted by Flying Officer Perryman. Ditching in the Channel on the return journey, Perryman escaped but two of his crew were lost in the aircraft and are still listed as missing to this day. Flying Officer K.W. Johns, the aircraft’s observer, was picked up alive from the sea but died of his injuries later that day. He is buried at Feltwell. Of the six aircraft from No.487 Squadron that attacked this target, only one managed to return to the station.
During the winter months the Feltwell/Methwold Ventura Squadrons continued to fly "circus" bombing operations on France and the Low Countries. "Circus" ops. were low-level bombing raids with heavy RAF Fighter cover. Bad weather in January and February gave mixed results but the situation vastly improved towards the end of March.
In late February/ early March 1943 the Ventura Squadrons were taken off bombing operations to take part in "Operation Spartan", a major training exercise for the invasion of Europe. The Feltwell Units were to make mock attacks on "enemy" positions within the UK. It was during this exercise that one of 487 Squadrons aircraft crashed at Lakenheath.
Sgt Bernard O’Donnell, 22, a young Canadian pilot flying Ventura AE 680 was on the downward leg of the Feltwell Circuit on the evening of 2nd March when the aircraft caught the top of some trees at the edge of the village and crashed alongside "The Row", near Sharps Corner, Lakenheath. Unfortunately no one survived the crash.
Thirty years later, Billy Gipp, who lived near the crash site, recalled holding one of the injured airmen, who was to die in his arms, as they waited for an ambulance. The memory of the death of this young man affected him deeply and stayed with him for the rest of his life.
The cause of the accident was never really ascertained. It was assumed that the O’Donnell may have allowed his attention to wander from both the runway lighting and his blind flying panel whilst making his approach. Vic Rutterford of Lakenheath remembers seeing the aircraft on the following day. It was damaged but in one piece. Sgt O’Donnell (Pilot), F/Sgt McCormick (Navigator) and F/Sgt Billing (Wireless Op. Air Gunner) were the last wartime airmen to be buried at Feltwell.
Due to a re-shuffle in Command stations, RAF Feltwell moved back under the control of No.3 Group RAF. At the start of April 1943 No 464 Sq. & No. 487 Sq. joined No. 21 Sq. at RAF Methwold. During the spring of 1943 the Ventura units continued flying "circus" bombing operations from Methwold, culminating in the disastrous attack on the Amsterdam power station made on 3rd May, which brought the award of the Victoria Cross to Squadron Leader Len Trent.
The operation was code-named "Ramrod 16" and was a co-ordinated low-level attack. Fighter interception and very severe Flak resulted in the loss of over 80% of the attacking force.
The target was relatively undamaged. It was not fully understood, until after the war had ended, what had really happened. In fact 464 Sq. & 487 Sq. the units which had been at Feltwell a month earlier, were effectively wiped out on this raid.
Sq. Ldr. Trent’s aircraft was so badly damaged that it exploded around him. He managed to parachute to safety but was captured. His adventures were not to end there however. As a POW he took part in the "Great Escape" from Stalag Luft III. He was the airman who disposed of the sand from the many escape tunnels.
Throughout May the Ventura Squadrons reformed with new aircraft and crews. A morale boosting Royal visit to Methwold by King George VI took place on the 26th May, but at the end of May it was decided to take the Units out of Bomber Command. They continued to fly the Ventura through the summer months but were then moved out to Sculthorpe and equipped with D.H. Mosquitos.
In the year that the Ventura operated from Feltwell & Methwold, 31 aircraft were lost on operations nine were written off because of severe battle damage and 8 were destroyed in flying accidents; a total of 48 aircraft.
Many authors have stated that the aircraft was poorly designed and under-performed in combat. Historians refer to the aircraft as "the Flying Pig".
But the Ventura had been a successful airliner and was used in the Pacific War to great effect. In hindsight, it would seem that to use an aircraft that was designed as a medium-altitude bomber at low level was a grave mistake. Also the aircraft were used in conditions where they were likely to experience heavy losses. Certainly, all of the flying accidents would reflect this. But it is also certain is that the Commanders of No.2 Group committed the Squadrons to low-level attacks in good faith. They expected that these aircraft would have a great impact on the outcome of the war. The crews who manned them expected the same.
Looking at the war graves of these Ventura airmen on a rainy December day in 2002,I know that they represent only a few of the men who were killed flying from Feltwell during WW II. Most of them, like Garnet Turcotte were in their early 20’s when they died.
Garnet is the only American citizen to be buried at Feltwell. Of French/Canadian ancestry, he had joined the RCAF just after the fall of France. He could have stayed safely in the United States, but he came to Feltwell and died here. He really was a long way from home.