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Martlesham Heath has enjoyed a long and varied aviation history, over many different periods of peace and war. We have attempted to summarise this into a number of key highlights.
For more information, facts, figures and insights please visit the MHAS Museum – We look forward to your visit!
World War 1 – Early beginnings
The Royal Flying Corps came into being on 13th March 1912 and the Central Flying School was established at Upavon in Wiltshire at around the same time.
Upavon soon began to expand its activities and in 1915 the Armament Experimental Flight of the Experimental Flying section of the Central Flying School was moved to Orfordness in Suffolk. Soon it became apparent that the Aircraft Testing Flight, which was still at Upavon, should be sited nearer to the Armament Flight.
Under the leadership of Henry Tizard, a technical officer, a survey was carried out to locate a suitable site, close to Orfordness and a railway station to London, capable of containing both the Armament Experimental Flight and the Aircraft Testing Flight.
Martlesham Heath was chosen and thus began the aviation history of this area
The new airfield was dedicated on the 16th January 1917 but prior to its dedication, in late 1916, the Aeroplane Experimental Flight moved in and the new airfield was named as the Aeroplane Experimental Station.
The Bristol Scout fighter on the upper wing of this flying boat is believed to be the first aeroplane to land on the heath at Martlesham - in 1916. It was released at a height of 1000ft over Harwich before landing at Martlesham. It is shown here on the slipway of the Royal Naval Air Service Station at Felixstowe
Between the Wars
On 1st April 1918, the RFC merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force, with Martlesham’s importance continuing to grow, eventually being renamed the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) in 1924. The A&AEE carried out the evaluation and testing of over 400 different aircraft types, both military and civilian, during the inter-war years and much of the armament and other equipment that would later be used during the Second World War tested over Orfordness.
This famously included the evaluation and approval of the Type 300 prototype, which on June 10, 1936, was renamed the Spitfire. The Hawker Hurricane had arrived earlier in April 1936, and had also been approved for operational use.
World War 2 – The Battle of Britain 1940
The A&AEE moved to RAF Boscombe Down on 9 September 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War and Martlesham then undertook a key role in the “Battle of Britain”, becoming the most northerly station of No 11 Group RAF Fighter Command.
During the course of the battle several squadrons rotated through Martlesham operating Bristol Blenheims, Boulton Paul Defiants and Hawker Hurricanes. During the latter stages of the Battle of Britain, the German Luftwaffe targeted many RAF Fighter Command airfields and Martlesham came under attack on the 15th August 1940, with the resulting extensive damage taking a full day to repair.
On 11 November 1940 shortly after the end of the Battle Of Britain, one of Martlesham’s resident Hurricane squadrons (257) were involved in air to air combat with elements of the Italian Air Force’s Regia Aeronautica over the coast near Harwich claiming a number of Fiat BR.20 bombers and CR.42 biplane fighters destroyed.
Hurricanes coming into land at Martlesham
World War 2 – On to the Offensive 1941- 42
During 1941-42 RAF Fighter Command operated a policy whereby their squadrons were regularly rotated to ensure that they did not become ‘battle weary’. This meant that often a squadron might only be based at an airfield for a few weeks and during this time Martlesham saw around 30 different units stationed there. The RAF had an international flavour to it and squadrons of Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Poles, Czechs, Belgians and Norwegians were all based there. As the Hawker Hurricane became obsolete these squadrons were primarily equipped with newer marks of the Supermarine Spitfire such as the Vb and at least four squadrons of the RAF’s new fighter bomber, the Hawker Typhoon.
In early 1941 the RAF were mainly engaged in Home Defence duties, patrolling the coast line against German raiders or protecting convoys. By early 1942 however RAF Fighter Command’s primary objective was to take the war to the enemy over occupied Europe. This new offensive saw the RAF’s fighter squadrons embarking on a variety of routine operations, each type given a specific codename.
The Eagle Squadrons
The Eagle Squadrons were three fighter squadrons of the Royal Air Force (71, 121 and 133), formed with volunteer pilots from the United States prior to America's entry into the war in December 1941. Under American law, it was illegal for United States citizens to join the armed forces of foreign nations. In doing so, they lost their citizenship. Even so many American citizens volunteered to fly with the Royal Air Force before America officially entered the war in December 1941. Although all three squadrons flew from Martlesham only 71 Squadron were based at there on a permanent basis.
Sharing the airfield with the fighter squadrons between 1942 and the end of 1944 was an Air Sea Rescue unit - 'A' Flight, of 277 Squadron. The unit flew a variety of aircraft including Supermarine Walrus flying boats, Boulton Paul Defiants, Westland Lysanders and a number of ‘war weary’ Spitfire Mk II’s & VB’s.
A number of ‘high profile’ pilots served at Martlesham Heath with the RAF, most notably were Douglas Bader, Robert Stanford Tuck, Peter Townend and John ‘Paddy’ Hemingway the last known surviving Battle Of Britain pilot.
A painting of The Eagles 71 Squadron, which hangs in the Museum:
A picture from our ASR Exhibit at the Museum of an ASR Spitfire, pictured at Martlesham:
World War 2 – Enter the USAAF 1943 - 45
In 1943, Martlesham Heath became one of a group of grass-surfaced airfields earmarked for use by fighters of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) Eighth Air Force. The airfield was assigned the USAAF designation Station 369 and subsequently ‘hardened’ through the laying of asphalt runways, on top of a base of compressed sand. The Control Tower (now the museum), a USAAF requirement, was built to centralize aircraft and vehicle movements.
During this period, the RAF jointly occupied the airfield, with 56 Squadron flying Hawker Typhoons attacking targets in Europe and shipping in the North Sea as well as 277 Squadron continuing to provide their Air Sea Rescue Role.
The airfield was first used by the P-47 Thunderbolt’s of the 356th Fighter Group, 8th USAAF in October 1943, arriving from RAF Goxhill after a period of training.
The 356th Fighter Group consisted of three squadrons:
The 356th flew combat from October 1943, initially operating as escorts for the B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators of the 8th Air Force’s Bomb Groups. From early 1944 they began undertaking bombing and strafing missions against a range of targets in occupied Europe and these intensified in the run up to the D Day landings on 6 June 1944. The 356th also played a critical role in support of Operation Market Garden (the Arnhem operation) in September 1944 to neutralize enemy gun emplacements, suffering heavy losses in the process. For this action they were awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation.
The 356th relinquished their Thunderbolts in November 1944 to be replaced by the P-51 Mustang. Unlike the P-47’s which carried no unit markings other than squadron codes, the 356th‘s Mustangs were among the most strikingly marked in the 8th AF and carried a red/blue diamond pattern on their engine cowlings as well as spinners, canopy rails and rudders in the individual squadron colours of Yellow for the 359FS, Red for the 360FS and Blue for the 361FS.
Between the first mission on 15 October 1943, and their final mission on 7 May 1945, the 356th was credited with destroying 277 enemy planes, probably destroying 23 more, and damaging a further 192. In addition, although exact numbers are unknown they were credited with the destruction of hundreds of vehicles, trains, rail cars, tanks, bridges, buildings, flak emplacements, munitions and fuel dumps, barges and a host of other ground targets.
The 356th lost 122 aircraft in action and 71 pilots made the ultimate sacrifice either in combat or due to accidents. By October 1945 the 356th had left Martlesham for home and the unit was formally deactivated on 10 November 1945.
A P-47 Thunderbolt of 361st Squadron at Martlesham
A P-51 Mustang of 359th Squadron pictured on one of the hardstands at Martlesham Airfield.
Postwar - A return to aircraft research & development role
With the departure of the USAAF, the airfield reverted to the RAF in a research and development role, although significantly scaled down from the pre-war days.
In the immediate postwar years, Fighter Command squadrons were in residence at Martlesham but the proximity to Ipswich and the physical limitations on lengthening the runways restricted jet operation. In an effort to improve the station and allow jet aircraft to operate the main runway was extended in 1955, by the addition of concrete aprons at the ends of the main runway.
The Blind Landing Experimental Unit and the Bomb Ballistics Unit both became operational in September 1945 at Martlesham. The two units eventually merged and were finally moved from Martlesham airfield to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough and Bedford.
The Battle of Britain Flight moved to the airfield in 1958 and left in 1961. It consisted of Hurricanes and Spitfires but without a Lancaster. Much later It was renamed “The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.” once the Lancaster joined the unit.
Following this, the airfield reverted to care and maintenance status, and passed the time as a Gliding and air experience unit for Air Training Corps (A.T.C), flying mainly at weekends. the Air Ministry closed the facility on 25 April 1963.
The Battle of Britain Flight warming up outside the hangars at Martlesham for what was to be their last flight over London for a few years - After the annual Flypast over Buckingham Palace the Spitfire crashed on a cricket pitch in south London with no loss of life. The players had gone in for tea!
Today - A new role and focus.
Martlesham Heath has now become a flourishing residential and industrial area, but much evidence of the airfield still remains (See the MHAS Walk). Nearby, on the old RAF parade ground, stands a memorial erected to the memory of 73 members of the 356th Fighter Group who lost their lives in World War II. Alongside is a memorial to those of the RAF (British and Commonwealth and Dominion Air Forces (French, Czech, Polish, Norwegian etc.) who flew with or worked alongside the RAF. In between the two memorials is a special one remembering the Scientists and Engineers from the British Aircraft industry, who mostly died in flying accidents whilst testing and helping develop aircraft at Martlesham Heath.
The Control Tower, built in the Second World War, has now been repurposed to become the location of the MHAS Museum since 2000 – keeping the story of the airfield alive.
RAF and USAAF Memorials, Barrack Square, Martlesham