The Great Government Aerodrome of Narborough

Apart from four airship stations, Narborough was in area (908 acres) the largest World War One (WW1) aerodrome in Britain, taking up a large part of what had for centuries been known as ‘Narborough Field’. As West Norfolk’s first aerodrome, it opened a year before the much smaller Royal Flying Corps (RFC) airfield at Marham, no more than 1½ miles to the south-west. The two aerodromes existed side by side until the end of the Great War and while the Narborough site was ignored for future military expansions, Marham reopened in 1937 and remains to this day one of Britain’s premier Royal Air Force (RAF) stations.

At the time of the Armistice several hundred personnel were stationed at Narborough and building work was still going on, but when a bearded Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) aviator landed his Avro there in August 1915 it marked the humble beginnings of the airfield as a Royal Naval Air Service Night Landing Ground. It was one of a number of satellite stations of RNAS Great Yarmouth – Aldeburgh, Covehithe, Burgh Castle, Bacton, Holt and Sedgeford being the others – established to combat the threat of Zeppelin raids. A report by a Flying Officer from Yarmouth in 1915 states that when his turn of duty came round he would fly a machine to one of these landing grounds and remain there, poised for action, for a week. Although precautionary patrols were flown, there is no record of any aircraft from RNAS Narborough being engaged in action with Zeppelin or Schutte-Lanz airships. In fact the first stage of the aerodrome’s development lasted less than six months, as the Admiralty decided to withdraw from the Narborough site. The RFC, which in early 1916 had accepted the responsibility for air defence, was quick to express an interest in the abandoned field. A letter from the War Office to the Admiralty asked ‘…….. whether Their Lordships would be willing to hand over this ground with the existing sheds for the use of the Royal Flying Corps’.

Their Lordships had no objection to the transfer, and in June 1916, 35 Squadron arrived from Thetford and pitched a number of bell-tents at the western extremity of the field, with Major B.F.Vernon-Harcourt in command. One or two resourceful airmen, determined to upgrade their living conditions, knocked together a few packing cases, stretched a tarpaulin over them and named their impressive domicile ‘ Earwig Villa’.

35 Squadron. brought with it a variety of machines and wasted no time in taking to the air. FE2bs, Avro 504s, Vickers ‘Gunbuses’ and BE2cs provided exciting displays for the locals, some of whom would walk or cycle down Chalk Lane to gaze in wonder at such activity on their doorstep. As the news spread, people from the King’s Lynn area would hire horse-brakes from the firm of Cozens, for a leisurely Sunday afternoon trip to see the planes.

After a few weeks a new squadron, 59, formed at Narborough, the CO being Lt. A.C. Horsbrugh, already a veteran of the Western Front. 59 was the first squadron to actually form in West Norfolk. RE8s and DH2s were introduced to the establishment, but not enough to go round according to one trainee pilot, who in letters home complained of ‘…. few machines and no accommodation’.He was also unhappy with the Officers’ Mess, but grateful there were none of the ‘absurd rules’ he had to endure while stationed at Thetford. He outlined the perils of learning to fly, with frequent forced landings and crashes, but unlike many of his contemparies, he lived to tell the tale.

2/AM C.V.Williams’ letters home present a similar catalogue of death and mutilation, from flying and traffic accidents, but also give an insight to life in the ranks in 1916. He was one of thirty-three Air Mechanics arriving to join 59 Squadron at the beginning of June – ‘….. six to a tent, no ground boards, no groundsheets, no blankets…. I never saw or heard or read of a more desolate God-forsaken place in the world!’He was an electrician by trade but he and his companions were soon detailed to quarry chalk for road building. In October they received ‘new hours’, so a typical day was as follows:

5:00am – Reveille
5:30am – Parade
6:30am – Work or Drill alternate mornings
7:00am – 11:45am – Work
12:00noon – Dinner
1:00pm – 5:30pm – Work
5:30pm- Tea

‘When we get up we have to light a candle and when we have finished we do likewise’.Things took a turn for the better in November, when Williams was at last able to ply his trade, wiring up the new huts for electric light, but the men still had to march to the old camp at Battle’s Farm to wash, a return trip of a mile and a half. After a while, water was piped to the huts, and coal-fired stoves were installed by the second week in December.

It may be of interest to note that in one of his letters, dated 3rd January 1917, Williams writes, ‘Captain Ball DSO, the Zeppelin strafer, is in our squadron now, we feel quite honoured.’While at Narborough, Captain Ball crashed an Avro, escaping with cuts to the face, and his passenger with a broken leg. ‘Faulty rigging was his explanation, so someone is in for a hot time.’

Narborough must have gained a reputation of sorts in its early training days. When Harold Hartney, an American serving with the RFC, was ordered to report to Narborough to join 35 Squadron, he was advised by an old Army Sergeant at Thetford not to take his wife with him, because he would either be rushed through the course ‘like a dose of salts’ and be posted overseas in a matter of days, or he wouldn’t survive the training period anyway, for ‘ That’s the place they do the real stuff’.‘Yank’ Hartney, as he was known, plunged straight into the intricacies of stunt flying, and was indeed very soon at the Front, where he served with great distinction and later became a Lt. Colonel.Before going to France he had logged just nineteen hours solo flying time. 35 and 59 Squadrons followed a similar routine of Advanced Pilot Training, and when the Armstrong-Whitworth ‘Big Acks’ arrived in October 35 Squadron was able to dispose of its other assorted craft and concentrate on serious training for its task of cavalry co-operation.Five officers from the Cavalry Corps liased with the squadron and went with it to France.

Proficiency in Morse Code (buzzing) was an important part of the course – a standard of sending and receiving six words per minute had to be achieved.Pilots remarked on the difficulty of flying with the left hand and using the Morse key with the right. Much time was also spent on the Camp’s machine gun range – a huge bank of earth had been constructed, with a trench running along each edge, and targets were fired at from parallel enclosures set well back on each side. The old ‘gun butts’ remained for many years after the war.

Expansion of the aerodrome continued as 50 Reserve Squadron (later redesigned 50 Training Squadron) formed in December 1916, with Major P.E.L. Gethin, another officer who had seen action in France, as the man in charge. By this time Boulton and Paul of Norwich had started the construction of a line of six permanent hangers (each approx. 170ft x 70ft.), three on either side of the road leading to Beechamwell. Before this a collection of small flight sheds and canvas Bessoneaux hangers had provided the aircraft with protection from the elements.

In the New Year of 1917, 35 and 59 Squadrons were mobilised and left for France. 35 Squadron was the first to go, on a bitter January day described by Capt. George McKerrow as ‘….. a dull, cheerless morning with snow still lying on the ground …. by the light of the candle and with almost freezing water a most imperfect shave is consummated and by 6:45am one is in the Mess eating a hasty breakfast and paying a more than exorbitant Mess bill …..’

After a few minor delays the convoy crawled out of the camp only to get stuck for an hour on the first hill between Narborough and Swaffham, where a trailer stand had to be tied up, and skid chains fixed on the Instrument Repair lorry. Sixteen days later 35 Squadron reached its destination – ‘Hesdin, in the land of France’.Its transport establishment consisted of the following: –

  • 20 Leyland 3 ton lorries
  • 9 Crossley tenders
  • 13 Motorcycles
  • 8 Trailers
  • 1 Plane-carrying trailer
  • 1 Water cart trailer
  • 4 Sidecars

In under two years in France 35 Squadron occupied no less than twenty three aerodromes and many heroic deeds are logged in its history. One of the most remarkable incidents was in August 1918 when a collision between two of the squadron’s aircraft at 6000ft. caused one machine to crash into Ploegstreert Wood, injuring both occupants. The other, with part of a wing carried away, was getting out of control, when ‘Lt. Perkins crawled out to the extremity of the opposite wing and by restoring balance enabled his pilot to land safely in our lines.’

59 Squadron was preparing to depart for St. Omer a month later. Of the forty pilots and observers deemed ready for duty overseas, more than half had been to France before.This time they were to sustain heavy losses and figure prominently in the Honours and Awards lists – eleven Military Crosses, twelve Distinguished Flying Crosses (and one bar), seven Military Medals and one Distinguished Conduct Medal. The squadron was employed at the Front from Arras to St. Quentin, and by the time the war ended 108 officers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. 59 Squadron also claimed a unique reputation for its excellent photographs, copies of which were continually being demanded by various units.

The replacements for 35 and 59 Squadrons were both Reserve squadrons – 53 Squadron from nearby Sedgeford and 64 Squadron from Dover. They remained at Narborough until December 1917, when they left for pastures new, along with 50 Training Squadron. In came 26 and 69 Training Squadrons to join 83 Squadron, which had transferred from Wyton, under the command of Major V.E. Albrecht. 1 Training Squadron reformed at Narborough, but moved away to Port Meadow, Oxford after ten days.

The number of pilots and observers killed in training accidents was causing great alarm nationwide. The results of a survey conducted over the first six weeks of 1918 showed that 20% of training accidents were caused by stalls on climbing turns when leaving the ground, and 18% by stalls on the glide home.Remaining accidents were due to ‘….. ordinary chances that one has to expect’, including the human failure of switch off engines or throttle down after looping – ‘This is probably due rather to the pilot losing his head than to ignorance’, pointed out Brig. Gen. R.E.T. Hogg, Commander Eastern Training Brigade, RFC. Later in the year instructors at Narborough received a ‘ticking off’ for failing to teach their pupils to distinguish between green wheat fields and grass when landing.

When Capt. W.E. Johns was flying instructor at Narborough in 1918, he was convinced of a more sinister reason for some of the crashes. Many years later he wrote ‘….. at least one or two spies were tampering with out machines – half sawing through joysticks so that they snapped off short in the air, cutting through control wires and the like. Machines broke up in the air every day …..’ His best friend, Archie Farmer, who jumped to his death after the port wing of his aircraft ‘went up like a sunshade’ is buried alongside several fellow officers in a quiet corner of Narborough churchyard.

The local vicar, The Reverend J.R. Crawford, was probably more closely involved with the tragic happenings within his parish than any other civilian. Having been appointed unofficial chaplain to the Camp, before a permanent one arrived, his duties included taking services there on Sunday mornings. The notes in his ‘Preacher’s Book’ indicate that the motor car often failed to pick him up, and when it did, there was sometimes very few attending Church Parade. He records his first visit thus:-

‘I was motored to and from the camp. When I reached it there was not a soul, not a private, still less an officer there to meet me. I was dumped like a bale of goods and left’.

On a later date he was asked to hold a service in the men’s messroom: ‘Thirty boys at the other end having breakfast! I really must protest ……. ‘

However, his relationship with personnel at the camp was generally very cordial. He was continually called upon to officiate at airmen’s funerals, and he felt very deeply about the mounting casualty list: ‘We mourn six losses in eight days…..’ he wrote in the Church magazine

In January 1918, a new squadron, 121 was formed at Narborough. Attached to this squadron were members of the 20th, 24th and 163rd United States Aero Squadrons.By the summer there were more than 20,000 American Air Service troops in Britain, almost 75% of this number training to be mechanics. At Narborough it was impressed upon all British NCO’s and men that ‘it is up to them to impart all the knowledge possible to the Americans…..’ and to train them rapidly’….. in order that sufficient British mechanics may be released to complete the new formations for service overseas’.By the end of May six aircraft had been handed over entirely to the Americans – DH6 (A9738), RE8 (E79), DH9 (D5631), RE8 (E84), DH4 (A7928) and AW (B8827)

When the 20th Aero Squadron arrived in England it was split into two detachments, one going to Stamford, the other to Narborough. The young men from Texas were in for a climatic as well as a cultural shock, arriving at Narborough and Pentney railways station to 1½ feet of snow, and no transport to met them. After a miserable delay at this rural halt, they were eventually transported to the aerodrome. Freezing huts (only one bucket of coal per day for the stove), and fairly basic rations, required some New World ingenuity to improve the situation. Carefully planned sorties to the coalyard guaranteed two or three bucketfuls every day for each hut, and a pointed stick angled through a broken pane in the potato store meant fried potatoes every night.

The British expected the Americans to live up to their quaint customs, such as standing to attention when speaking to a Flight Sergeant, but soon discovered this sort of thing would never work. According to the official history, the 20th showed great proficiency in handling aeroplanes, repairing motors, clerical work, in fact any job they had to tackle – and rapidly gained the respect of the CO Capt. Elliott. While at Narborough, the squadron also claimed a record of bringing in a crash in twenty five minutes…..’ which surprised the English very much as it generally took them from three to four hours’

When it left for France, the 20th was to become part of the ‘First Day Bombardment Group’ and was to be known as ‘The Mad Bolshevik Squadron’. The 24th was part of the First Army Observation Group, but the 163rd Aero Squadron, although ready for action with ‘The Second Army Observation Group’, carried out no major operations owing to the signing of the Armistice. At least one other American detachment trained at Narborough, having left shortly before the 20th arrived, but details of it have yet to be unearthed.

During 1918 social life at the camp was said to have improved greatly. Most weeks a concert party performed in the Mess Hall, ‘ …. sometimes so rotten they were good!’.There were dances too, and for the sports fanatics, baseball, boxing tournaments and even the odd cricket match. The officers had their own tennis court.

At the ‘Grand American Sports Day’ held at King Edward VII Grammar School in King’s Lynn, as well as the usual track and field events, baseball matches were played between teams from local aerodromes – Marham played Sedgeford and Thetford fielded a team against Narborough. Meanwhile, pilots from 121 Squadron. were undergoing a programme of bombing practice as part of their training. Narborough and Sedgeford were allocated alternate days for this activity, which was carried out over The Wash.On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays DH4s or DH9s from Narborough would land at Sedgeford and load up with eight 20lb bombs, to be dropped in eight separate flights.The following list of instructions was posted on the camp’s ‘photo board’:

1. Do not do climbing turns with bombs on.
2. Do not fly over any houses or roads.
3. Do not go over the Prohibited Area.
4. Go and look at Ground Station and see that L is out. If it is not out there it will be a T and you must return to your aerodrome.
5. Go and look at the target from 2,000ft.
6. Get your height to 6,000ft over the sea.
7. Think of the direction of the wind while you are climbing.
8. Look out for any ships and come back if you think they are within two miles.
9. Watch the shore occasionally for red lights and T.
10. Adjust your machine to fly level hands off at 90mph before bombing.
11. A bomb takes 19.4 secs to fall from 6,000ft.

School of Fighting, Bircham Newton did its target practice in Brancaster Bay. In July 1918 the CO, 121 Squadron. received a strongly worded complaint about aircraft from Narborough which had strayed along the coast and had the audacity to shoot at Bircham’s targets, ‘ …..a practice which must cease forthwith ….. ‘ emphasised the letter.

In March 1918, 83 Squadron had mobilised and departed for France. To one officer, ‘B’ Flight Commander, Capt. Davey, Narborough Camp in winter had been, ’ ….. a filthy spot, miles from anywhere ….. leaky huts with central heating that never worked. The Mess was poor ….. however we were issued with 12 bore guns and clay pigeon shooting outfits….. to improve our gunnery. They came in very handy for tackling the abundance of local hares and rabbits.We thus improved the Mess quite a lot’.He had a host of stories to tell about his time at Wyton and Narborough, some of them repeatable. The variety of planes he had to fly included, while at Wyton, the DH5 (‘a foul contrivance’) and at Narborough the RE8 (‘good for curing constipation’), the DH6 (‘the easiest machine ever to fly’), and the Maurice Farman Shorthorn (‘hated the sight of it’).

The squadron was still awaiting its promised service machines (FE2ds) to take to France at the time of mobilisation, but it was not long before it received its first decoration – the Military Cross – awarded to Lt. Jack Payne, for scoring a direct hit on a train at Etreux. Jack Payne, thought to have been stationed at Narborough prior to mobilisation, later became a household name as a popular dance band leader.

In August 1918 Narborough was upgraded to a Training Depot Station. More roads were set out, an electric main installed. Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) hostels were built, and a magnificent seventh hangar (180ft x 100ft), known as the ‘Red Hangar’ because of its reddish brick construction, graced the Battle’s Farm end of the aerodrome.

In a quarterly survey by the Royal Air Force, Narborough was described, three months before the signing of the Armistice, as an ‘Independent Force Station’. In a separate survey, conducted by a Lt. Colonel, four of Norfolk’s major airfields were considered for their suitability for use by the new 126ft wingspan Handley Page V/1500 long-range bombers. Sedgeford, Narborough and Pulham were deemed to be inferior to Bircham Newton for the purpose. The report on Narborough states that the aerodrome was well situated, with accommodation for nearly a thousand personnel, excellent workshops, a 37,000 gallon water tank (replenishable within 12 hours), an electric power station and a railway line close enough for a siding to be built to the camp. On the debit side, however, there were far too many rabbit holes, the sheds were not high enough to take the new Handley Pages, and the ground was said to hold considerable water in the winter – something which those with local knowledge find hard to accept. So Narborough was not chosen, but Handley Pages (0/400 and V/1500) did land there, possibly on a one-off visit after the war ended. Photographs show the huge machines being inspected by a small crowd of interested persons, including members of the Women’s Royal Air Force.

Many of these ladies were recruited locally, a large percentage of them travelling by rail from King’s Lynn to Narborough and then by tender to the camp. The late Alice Arrowsmith (nee Witt) signed on at a house opposite St. John’s Church in Lynn, and was stationed at Narborough for about two years, the ‘I’ for Immobile’ badge on her arm indicating she would not be posted elsewhere. The women played a vital role in the efficient running of the aerodrome, working as drivers, cooks, telephonists, waitresses, seamstresses, riggers and fitters. Alice used to ‘splice the wires’ for the planes as well as being ‘batman’ to an officer. May Newdick was the Head Waitress in the Sergeant’s Mess and remembered the chef whose speciality was a ’ …..delicious lemon tapioca pudding made in a large copper ….’ while Estella Haverson was employed doping aircraft wings.

In the late summer of 1918, 26 and 69 Training Squadrons departed for Gormanston.In the five months they were at Narborough, nine of their number had perished and many more were injured. 121 Squadron left for Bristol where it disbanded without ever becoming operational. In World War Two (WW2), however, 121 served with the RAF as one of the American Eagle squadrons. 55 TDS arrived from Manston in early September and a week before the war ended the Aeroplane Repair Section of the 3rd Training Group moved in at the ‘Red Hangar’ end of the aerodrome. On 11th November news of the signing of the Armistice sparked off some riotous behaviour in the Officers Mess, and according to Alan Cobham, who was a flying instructor there at the time, pilots from nearby RAF Marham took to the air to bomb them with bags of flour. Some of the Narborough airmen retaliated by bombing the Marham base with bags of soot.

One week later, when F/O Hugh Walmsley (later to become an Air Marshal) arrived to join 55 TDS, things were already running down. ‘Little or nothing doing…..’ he wrote in his diary, ‘…..Americans packing up.’ However, the aerodrome was not to close for over a year and it continued to fulfil a useful role. All training ceased, but Narborough became a disbandment centre for cadres of squadrons returning from active service.The cadres of 56, 60 and 64 Squadrons remained until the following autumn, when together with 55 TDS, they disbanded.

For a few months after the war, a Prisoner of War camp for up to a hundred German soldiers was situated on the aerodrome. A few local people can remember seeing the grey uniformed prisoners ambling about behind the high fence of the compound, sometimes coming up to the wire to try to communicate with passers by. There were several skilled craftsmen among their number – one of them gave a Narborough person a pair of miniature blacksmith’s anvils, which he had made out of aluminium. This example of wartime craftsmanship, which could only have been fashioned in one of the workshops, is now in the local museum at Swaffham

By the last day of 1919 the aerodrome was deserted, and although a caretaker was installed, he had the hopeless task of guarding 151 buildings spread over a wide area.With a gammy leg and just a small dog for companionship, he could do little to protect against vandalism and theft. Six months later The Norwich Mercury sent a representative out into ‘the sticks’ to investigate the ‘Derelict Drome’ and an article which when found more than sixty years later prompted research into the aerodrome’s history.Part of the report follows:

‘Passing under the railway bridge and along a fine avenue of screening trees, one comes suddenly upon this desolate Timbertown. On some huts, torn canvas is drearily flapping, in many windows panes of glass are broken by roving boys, and before one of the chief hangars, a crippled aeroplane lies rusting. In one of the workshops a huge Lang lathe, red with rust, lies idle, while in an exposed part of the camp, at the mercy of any thief, is another valuable machinery. Our representative noted a fine Drummond lathe, a band saw, planing machine, dynamos and carpenter’s benches, while in a power house are two 45hp Fielding semi-diesel oil engines. There were installed late in the war and have scarcely been used….. In another part of the aerodrome is a roomy building which was used as a hostel for the WAACs, while on another building some mirthful airmen have painted the legend ‘THE ABODE OF LOVE’…… furnishings, including pipes, doorknobs and taps are gradually disappearing, and almost every day another door is found burst open…..’

At that point no one knew what the aerodrome’s future was. It was rumoured that the buildings might remain in situ in case they were needed for another war, or that they might be used for some kind of institution. Some local people thought that in view of the critical housing shortage, Norfolk County Council should purchase the site. All speculation was soon to end however, as the ‘Great Government Aerodrome’ returned to agriculture, bought by Mr. J. Jakes of Terrington at £4 per acre, and perhaps the biggest auction this corner of the county had ever witnessed, took place over two days in February 1921. Included in the sale was some of the most modern plant and machinery as well as about 400 lots of fixtures and fittings which had not been pilfered in the months leading up to the auction. Motor charabancs full of prospective buyers left King’s Lynn (return fare four shillings) to swell the bargain-hunting crowds.

Most of the buildings were quickly sold, dismantled and later re-erected in such locations as Norwich, Cromer and Terrington St. Clement, to be used as garages, farm buildings, classrooms and dwellings. At the time of writing one of the hangars is in use as a second-hand furniture warehouse in Terrington, and part of another is incorporated into Cromer’s East Coast Motors’ garage and showroom. A few structures, however, remained on site, including the well-remembered ‘ Black Hangar’, which stood opposite the Marham Road junction until 1977 when it finally succumbed to the elements. In the Great War years, ‘Report Here’ was painted in huge white letters on its roof – a directive which at least one pilot took too literally.

As a tribute to the men and women who served at Narborough in WW1, the Narborough Local History Society has erected a memorial plaque and information board in the churchyard, close to the graves of the young men who died when their fragile machines fell to earth on or near the aerodrome.

Taken from an original article first published in the ‘Journal of the Society of First World War Aviation Historians’ (Volume 29, Number 3, Autumn 1998) Published quarterly by Cross and Cockade International.