East Anglia, the bulge sticking out of the east side of England, is made up of the counties of Suffolk, Norfolk and parts of Cambridgeshire and Essex. Its proximity to the European mainland – the Netherlands is about 225 kilometres across the North Sea – and the flatness of the landscape made the area ideal for airfields in World War II and in the lead up to the Liberation.
Over one hundred airfields were built in East Anglia for both the RAF and the USAAF. Airmen from the US began arriving in 1942 and by 1943 there were about 100,000 of them stationed in Britain. Many were based in East Anglia, including all of the Eighth Air Force and some of the Ninth. Nearly all of the airfields are commemorated in some way, and memorials to individual airmen or aircrews can often be found near where their planes crashed, but the largest resting place for US air personnel is the magnificent American Cemetery near Cambridge.
A handful of airfields are still functioning, but most have been returned to farmland or have been built on. Some stray buildings and bits of runway can also be found, and a few of these have been turned into small museums, such as the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum near former RAF Bungay, and the Parham Airfield Museum on the site of RAF Thorpe Abbotts. On a much larger scale is the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, the former site of RAF Duxford.
From April 1943, RAF Duxford was home to the US 78th Fighter Group, which escorted bombers on raids across Europe and later supported ground troops in Normandy. The airfield closed as an RAF base in 1961 and is now part of the Imperial War Museum as well as home to the American Air Museum; it is still an active airfield and there are regular air shows. There is a wide range of objects on display, but the emphasis is on aviation, with an outstanding collection of planes, many exhibited in the airfield’s original hangars. Of the permanent displays, The Battle of Britain and the 1940s Operation Room relate specifically to World War II, while the Normandy landings feature in the Land Warfare Exhibition, with Montgomery’s wartime caravan among the exhibits. The American Air Museum displays eighteen planes, including a B-17 Flying Fortress, the famed bomber that took part in many missions across Germany.
A few kilometres northwest of Cambridge is the only permanent World War II American cemetery in Britain, containing the graves of over 3800 servicemen and women, among them many who served in the airfields of East Anglia. Burials began here in 1943, but it only became an officially dedicated site in 1956. The 12-hectare grounds, donated by Cambridge University, are beautifully landscaped and the surrounding woodland adds to the tranquil atmosphere. A dignified memorial hall of pristine Portland Stone contains a chapel at one end and a large marble map at the other showing the main US areas of action in Europe and the Atlantic. A separate visitor centre provides further historical context through a permanent exhibition containing personal stories, photographs and interactive displays.
Radar was an important piece of military technology in World War II, which enabled those on the ground and in the air to detect the approach of enemy aircraft. This small museum occupies the 1942 radar operations block that was once part of RAF Neatishead. It tells the story of radar’s defensive use from the 1930s to the Cold War, with many fascinating exhibits, including much of the original equipment. It is well worth attending the talks by enthusiastic volunteers, many of whom worked here when the site was operational and highly secret.
Tucked away in a former warehouse, this museum displays an eclectic and extremely impressive collection of militaria from medieval times to the present day. There’s a good selection of material relating to World War II, with an emphasis on spying and secret operations, including the equipment used by wartime secret agents such as booby traps and sabotage gear. There’s also a display about Operation Frankton, the raid in 1942 by ten commandos (the “Cockleshell Heroes”) who planted mines on German ships docked at Bordeaux. The material includes one of the original Cockle Mk II canoes used in the raid.
Top image: IWM Duxford © Doubleclix/Shutterstock