During World War Two the shape of the Norfolk countryside was transformed with a multitude of airfields being built to support British and American forces operating over Europe and further afield. Whilst many of the airfields and memories may be long since gone, a few small groups of dedicated individuals work to ensure history is not forgotten and the team behind the 93rd Bomb Group museum at Hardwick are one such group. Adam Duffield takes a look at the museum along with some of the units history.
Having stood up in March 1942, the 93rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) was to become the first unit equipped with the Consolidated B-24 Liberator under the command of the Eighth Air Force following its move to RAF Alconbury, England during August 1942. Alconbury was only a temporary home, and the group was moved to RAF Hardwick in Norfolk during December 1942 which remained its permanent base until April 1945, just before the end of hostilities in the European theatre.
Comprising of four heavy bomber squadrons (the 328th, 329th, 330th and 409th), the 93rd BG have a distinguished operational history from their time based in the UK. Carrying out their first mission on 9th October 1942 (a raid against locomotive manufacturing plants at Lille, France) and their final mission on 25th April 1945, the group completed a total of 8,169 sorties during 396 missions – more than any other bomb group within the Eighth Air Force.
Whilst their home base for the majority of the war may have been RAF Hardwick, the unit spent a lot of time on detachment in North Africa in support of the Twelfth and Ninth Air Forces and, led in the early years by Colonel Edward ‘Ted’ Timberlake, the 93rd soon became known as ‘Teds Travelling Circus’. Although flying many missions against targets located around the area, their most famous mission was that against the Ploesti Oil Fields in Romania, a mission known as Operation Tidal Wave, in August 1943.
The mission itself consisted of a group of 178 B-24 Liberators that all departed from various bases around Libya, and were formed from the combined forces of the Eighth Air Force (44th, 93rd and 389th Bombardment Groups) and Ninth Air Force (98th and 376th Bombardment Groups). Targeting a number of airfields based around Ploesti, the primary objective was to destroy the oil producing facilities thereby causing a significant reduction in fuel production for Axis forces. From the very start however the mission ran into difficulties with the large formation of bombers being picked up by German detection systems – which gave enough time for defences to be prepared both on the ground and in the air. The 93rd BG element was led by Lieutenant Colonel Addison Baker who had assumed command from Col Timberlake earlier that year after his promotion to commander of the 210th Provisional Bomb Wing. After a navigational error was made by the lead formation of the group, it was down to Lt Col Baker to lead the remainder of the aircraft to the assigned target area. Against heavy defences that caused significant damage to many of the B-24s (including his own, “Hell’s Wrench”) and whilst flying at extreme low level, Lt Col Baker and his crew managed to lead the formation towards an alternative target to drop their payload. Shortly after, with the aircraft already consumed by flames from heavy attack during the bombing run, “Hell’s Wrench” crashed into a field with the loss of all on board. For their efforts in leading their group over the target despite heavy damage, Lt Col Addison Baker and co-pilot Major John Jerstad were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The mission against the Ploesti Oil Fields was to be the largest loss suffered by the USAAF during the war with 53 B-24’s failing to return and 660 personnel killed or missing in action.
The 93rd BG spent a considerable amount of time in their first year deployed to the North African area of conflict, however later years saw them stay much closer to their Hardwick base. Joining their B-17 Flying Fortress counterparts, and mostly equipped with newer B-24H and B-24J models, the 93rd saw action against the German forces across Europe with targets such as submarine pens in Poland and factories across Germany. The 329th Bomb Squadron was also to become a Pathfinder unit, helping to guide other bomber forces onto target regardless of cloud cover above. The 93rd also saw action on D-Day itself with bombing missions in support of the Allied landing forces and, later on in the push towards Berlin, during the Battle of the Bulge. Throughout this time the Group not only carried out bombing missions but a significant proportion of the fleet was carrying out transportation missions, ferrying important fuel, food and medical supplies to units on the ground.
By the end of the war, the 93rd had become a unit that had racked up a number of important milestones not least including their critical role in the Ploesti mission. Becoming the first B-24 unit in Europe when they arrived in early September 1942, aircraft assigned to the 329th Squadron were also the first USAAF bombers to enter German airspace on 2nd January 1943 during a mission attacking targets in the Ruhr Valley. On the 7th February 1943, a B-24 named ‘Hot Stuff’ belonging to the 330th Bombardment Squadron became the first heavy bomber to hit the 25 mission milestone required to complete a tour of duty. Unfortunately, on the return leg to the United States to go on a war bonds tour the aircraft crashed into a mountain near Reykjavik, Iceland due to bad weather. Killing all crew on board, Lt. General Frank M. Andrews was also on board after being recalled to Washington and, at the time, was the highest ranking US Army officer in England. Another B-24 named ‘Boomerang’ (41-23722) also became the first 8th Air Force B-24 to complete 50 missions, eventually completing 53 in total before returning to the US.
At the end of hostilities, the 93rd had not only flown more operational sorties than any other B-24 unit, it had done so whilst achieving the lowest number of casualties – something that puts into perspective losses suffered by other units. With 140 aircraft lost (40 of which through non-combat related incidents), 670 personnel of the unit were with killed or missing in action. Through the defensive actions of the crews, the 93rd claimed 93 confirmed enemy fighter kills with a further 41 probable.
With the return of the 93rd to the United States and the end of the War in Europe, the requirements for a base at Hardwick were non-existent and the RAF soon placed the airfield into care and maintenance before finally disposing of it in 1962. Since then, many of the former base buildings and taxiways have been demolished making way for private houses, farms and other uses leaving very little of the original site still in place. Some aviation related activity still takes place thanks to two private airstrips on the land, one of which is home to the Hardwick Warbirds however it is a small cluster of buildings that, today, pays homage to the former occupiers.
Spread across three original Nissen huts – prefabricated buildings with a semi-circular corrugated steel roofing that were used extensively use throughout the war – lies the collection of the 93rd Bomb Group museum. Operated by volunteers, it holds an array of history not only relating to the resident units of the base but also other units based in the Norfolk area.
As can be expected, a significant proportion of the collection centres around the Liberators and units based at the airfield. Across the ceilings are displays depicting nose art carried by the four based units along with other B-24 bases around East Anglia. Pinned on the walls are photos from the time showing aircrew going about their daily lives, squadron photocall lineups and various shots from missions flown – some of which have been donated by original members of the 93rd. Also donated are some original uniforms which are displayed on mannequins alongside other memorabilia. One particular item of note is a Ted’s Travelling Circus bomber jacket loaned to the museum by a former Squadron member.
Of course, the museum also contains many items recovered from B-24 crash sites around East Anglia. From engines to turret sections, seat backs to landing gear, numerous items are on display across the three huts. Where known, the items are also displayed with information about the fate of the airframe to which they once belonged and what happened to the unfortunate crew on board.
Displayed alongside the various B-24 parts are similar finds from other aircraft types that suffered misfortune in the local area. With the skies of East Anglia being a hive of activity during the war it should be no surprise on the variation of the types represented by artefacts recovered from the local area and beyond.
Other bomber types used by both the US forces and RAF can be found nestled amongst the hangars. Whilst still effectively a B-24, the US Navy referred to the Liberator as a PBY4-1 and a large section of panel showing the naval ‘Star and Bar’ markings on aircraft 42-41030 – recovered from the Isle of Arran – hangs on a wall. A section of tail skin from a locally based B-17G 42-97286 is also on show but some of the larger items relate to RAF examples such as the top section of a vertical stabiliser belonging to Avro Lancaster ND453, engine parts and other associated wreckage from Handley Page Hamden AT173 and Vickers Wellington Mk1c TZ802 and what is believed to be the largest surviving piece of a Short Stirling – the port stabiliser from EJ105.
There are also plenty of items representing the bombers various ‘little friends’ – the valiant fighters that helped escort them on missions as well as protect the country from Axis bombing raids. Items recovered from a number of P-51 crash sites are displayed such as a significant cockpit panel portion of P-51B 42-106638 which crashed not far away in Downham Market (although it’s identity lives on after being rebuilt as N5087F “Impatient Virgin”), a Packard Merlin engine from a P-51D and remains of 1st Lt. Thomas Ksanznak’s P-51D following a fatal crash at the start of 1945. Another ‘common’ USAF fighter around the area was the P-47 Thunderbolt and items are shown from two different airframes. Of course, the Spitfire and Mosquito are two of the most well known RAF types and items from both are displayed almost next to each other. However, possibly the most significant and poignant collection of items comes from P-38J Lightning 42-67895. Operated by the 385th Fighter Squadron, 364th Fighter Group based at RAF Honington in Suffolk, the aircraft took off for the last time in the afternoon of 29th March 1944 – less than two months after the unit had arrived in the UK. Flown by Lt Curtis A Smith, the pilot was killed instantly in the accident which was located near Tibenham airfield and, in 1988, significant remains of the aircraft were recovered. Both engines, a vast majority of the cockpit internals, numerous exterior panels and even first aid kit, parachute and dingy were recovered in remarkable condition having been buried for nearly 45 years.
This story is one of the things that is fascinating about this collection of varied artefacts – everything on display holds a story not just of how it came to be found but how it came to end up there in the first place. Whilst this more often than not reflects a tragic loss of life, it is the way that the information accompanying the items shows both sides of the tale that enables this important history to be preserved.
Museums and collections such as the 93rd Bomb Group Museum at Hardwick are vitally important in retaining the memory of those who fought in service for their country and also giving an insight into the history of the local area. Free to enter and ran entirely by volunteers, this is a venture that is deserving of support.
The 93rd Bomb Group Museum is open on the 3rd Sunday of every month between May and October. At the same time, the Hardwick Warbirds collection (located a short walk away) holds their own open day which often includes some of their aircraft flying. Further information on the museum is available on their website, www.93rd-bg-museum.org.