Groups stationed at Boxted Airfield
The 386th Bomb Group of the United States Army Air Force was stationed at Boxted Airfield from June 3, 1943 to September 30, 1943.
The bomb group included four (4) squadrons of B-26 Martin Marauder medium-range bombers: the 552nd, 553rd, 554th, and 555th squadrons.
The 386th Bombardment Group (M) "The Crusaders", 8th Air Force, USAAF was activated at MacDill Field, Florida on the 1st December 1942 and comprised four Bombardment Squadrons: the 552nd, 553rd, 554th, and 555th. The Commander chosen to lead the Group was Lt. Col. Lester J. Maitland, a man well-qualified and experienced for the task.
The Group were selected to fly the relatively new Martin B-26 Marauder. Early models of this type earned a maligned reputation as it possessed some undesirable flight characteristics which contributed to several fatal accidents, but by the time the 386th received their aircraft various modifications had been incorporated and its performance greatly improved. In action it proved to have a good safety record.
Martin B-26 Marauder
On 27th April 1943 the Flight Crews were dispatched to Selfridge Field, Michigan where they collected their brand new B26-B and B26-C models which they were to fly to England by the ‘“Northern Route”. This was via Greenland and Iceland to Prestwick, Scotland. Finally on the 26th May 1943 the first crews departed for England. Most aircraft arrived at their assigned airbase at Snetterton Heath but a few late arrivals flew direct to Boxted, their first operational station.
In the meanwhile the Ground Personnel travelled to Camp Kilmer, New York and two weeks later en-trained for Pier 79 on the Hudson River and embarkation on the Queen Elizabeth now a troopship bound for the U.K. The Queen Elizabeth arrived at Gourock, Scotland on 2nd June 1943. A railway journey through the night conveyed the men to their first base at Snetterton Heath, Norfolk where they arrived by mid-afternoon on 3rd June 1943. However, within a week they were on the move again to Boxted near Colchester, Essex where they arrived on 10th June 1943. The Group's arrival at Boxted initially was one of disenchantment as the base was still under construction.
Over the following seven weeks the group embarked on an intensive training programme covering aircraft recognition, flying control procedures, enemy fighter tactics, air-sea rescue and escape and evasion techniques. During this time squadron code letters were applied to each aircraft: RG-552nd sqd; AN-553rd sqd; RU-554th sqd; and YA-555th sqd.
On the 29th June 1943, the revised National Insignia was introduced. Two white rectangles were placed on either side of the cocarde and the entire device was bordered with red.
The first combat mission undertaken by the Group occurred on Friday 30th July 1943. All necessary personnel were alerted just after midnight and the crews were breakfasting by 0230 hours. Briefing for pilots, navigators, bombardiers and gunners was scheduled for 0300 hours when at that precise moment the lighting system failed. After a slight delay emergency lighting was installed and Col. L. Maitland resumed the briefing. The target was to be the Luftwaffe fighter airfield at Woensdrecht in South Holland. The 386th would fly a 24 ship formation, six aircraft from each squadron. Route out from base to Orfordness to rendezvous with eight squadrons of RAF Spitfires, altitude 12000 ft. Known flak batteries, radio call-signs, channels and expected weather forecast details followed. Meanwhile ground crews were engaged in removing ground locks, pitot-tube covers and starting auxiliary power units to assist in engine start-up. After engine run-up and final instrument checks the B26's taxied out along the perimeter track to active runway No. 22. On a green light from the Control Tower, Col. Maitland's lead aircraft lifted off at 0525 hours. He was followed at 30 second intervals by the other twenty three aircraft. On reaching the enemy coast evasive action was commenced in order to disrupt the tracking system of the enemy gun-layers. As the bomb-run began, the lead bombardier was unable to see the target due to sun dazzle and heavy haze. Col. Maitland ordered a second run at the target. Heavy flak caused damage to several aircraft. On return to Boxted the very excited and relieved crews were interrogated and results of this first mission were described as disappointing. Although two passes were made at the target, restricted visibility and up-sun heading on the bomb-run prevented most flights from bombing. The enemy losses were two destroyed and two probable.
Whenever conditions permitted, the Group continued to pound targets in Northern France and the Low Countries which included enemy airfields, rail and road networks and supply installations. On other occasions they were perfecting their skills in formation flying and techniques of bombing from medium altitudes (10,000 - 12,000 ft).
Missions were often executed in conjunction with other B26 groups, each supplying formations in boxes of 18, 36, or even 72 aircraft. Close fighter support was provided by Spitfires of 11 Group Fighter Command of the RAF which, on a typical mission, could number eight to ten squadrons.
In late September 1943, High Command decided to concentrate the four existing B26 groups at airfields in mid-Essex, the 386th BG being allocated to Station 164 Easton Lodge, Great Dunmow, a distance of 24 miles West of their recent base at Boxted. The Group carried out 28 missions from their Boxted base, the last one being on the 24th September to the airfield of Evereux-Fauville, France. Upon their return the Group relocated to their new base, Station 164.
The 354th was one of a number of fighter groups formed to reinforce the US Army Air Force in the early days of WW2. The group was formed at Hamilton Field, California, on 15th November 1942. Its first commander was Major Kenneth Martin. On the 18th January the group moved to Tonopah, Nevada, where training began on the Bell P39 Airacobra. On the 21st October 1943 the 354th departed for England, where they would first be based at Greenham Common, Berkshire. On arrival the men speculated about which aircraft they would get, most said the P47 Thunderbolt. The commanders of the 8th and 9th Tactical Air Force had other ideas.A new fighter had just come on line, the P51 Mustang. Here was a fighter that could fly at 440 mph at 30,000 ft. The shortcomings of the P51-A Mustang having given way to the P51-B, with its Rolls Royce Merlin engine. So it was decided the 354th would be equipped with the Mustang. When the pilots were told they were very excited. They were given until 1st December to be combat ready. On November 11th, five of the new aircraft were received.
Shortly after the group moved to Boxted, the pilots and ground crews started to get accustomed to the Mustangs, more of these aircraft started to arrive, a few each day. By the last day of November 24, aircraft and crews were combat ready. They flew their first mission the very next day.
Colonel Don Blakeslee had been seconded to the 354th to lead them on their early missions because of his combat experience. On 1st December, 23 P51's led by Don Blakeslee with Col Martin as his wingman, carried out a fighter sweep over St Omer, in the Knocke area of Belgium. They watched the flak come up and all returned safely.
On the 13th December they encountered the enemy for the first time, one P51 was lost and one enemy aircraft hit. Blakeslee’s uncompromising pep-talks made the pilots wonder who they feared most. During the Winter, the pilots found themselves flying on instruments through thick fog. On the 16th December the first enemy aircraft fell to the 354th's guns. On the 5th January 1944 while supporting heavy bombers over Kiel, they were attacked by a gaggle of German fighters, 16 enemy aircraft were destroyed.
On the 11th of February, Ken Martin was involved in a mid-air collision. This was a head-on collision where neither pilot gave way, as they were trained to do. Miraculously, both pilots survived the crash and later met in a German hospital. Both pilots were taken prisoner. James Howard was consequently promoted from Squadron to Group Commander. A veteran of extensive combat against the Japanese over China and Burma, his appointment gave the group a tremendous boost. Howard’s flying skills were legendary, and he was quite a task master. He installed a flying training programme similar to the one he had used in China. This produced an aggressive, finely-tuned squadron. For the next three months, the group was on all the Eighth Air Force's major operations, and went deeper and deeper into Germany escorting B-17's on missions to Berlin, Leipzig, Strasbourg, Schweinfurt and so on.
The 354th pioneered the fighter tactics that were needed to escort large formations over Germany. On 18th April, they had flown their last escort mission for the Eighth. The 354th was the first US unit to be equipped with the P51-B Mustang, hence the "Pioneer Mustang Group". The 354th had the top number of air victories, 701, of any American FG in the ETO, as well as the only Medal of Honour recipient, Col James Howard. The 56th FG had 677 victories and the 353rd mentioned above had 320, but the 354th was the last of these groups to deploy and start operations on December 1st 1943.
The top scoring American fighter group during the war in Europe
The 56th was formed on 20th November 1940, but it was not activated until 14th January 1941 at Savannah Air Base Georgia. Three officers and 150 enlisted men were drawn from the 27th Bomb Group to man the three new squadrons: the 61st, 62nd and 63rd. At this time, there was not enough equipment within the expanding Air Corps, so in the summer of 1941 the group moved to Charlotte Air Base with three P-39 Airacobras, five P-40 Tomahawks, and a few trainers. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Habour, training was over and it was now for real. Several moves of base followed, until June 1942 they arrived at Farmingdale Airfield. This was the home of the Republic aviation factory - manufacturers of the P-47 "Thunderbolt" fighter. This began a long association with the Thunderbolt that was to last throughout the war.
Colonel Francis "Gabby" S. Gabreski - the top scoring American "Ace" in the European Theatre
Gabreski was born in Oil City, Pennsylvania of Polish stock. He was not a great academic at school, but it was decided he would follow his brother to university to study medicine. He never became a doctor but did develop an interest in aviation. He left the campus to join the Army Air Corps cadet program. When America entered the war, he was stationed at Pearl Harbour, but by the time he got into the air the Japanese had gone. A few weeks later he was ordered to England and initially flew with one of the Polish Squadrons. When he joined the 56th, he proved himself a good commander and began to run up his score. Gabreski became an "Ace" on 26th November 1943. On May 22 1944, he had a great day when he scored three kills and a probable. By D-DAY, he had scored 21 victories, and was making plans to go home to get married and to see his family. He flew his 166th mission on 20th July to Frankfurt, when he got a bit low and bounced his P-47 on a knoll and bent the propeller. After crash landing, he evaded capture for five days, but then spent the rest of the war in a Stalag. During the Korean War he was back on active duty where, after scoring two victories, he was given command of 51st Fighter Wing. Gabreski was finally credited with 34½ victories. He was a good leader and a great Fighter pilot.
Major Hubert "Hub" Zemke
On 16th September, Maj. Zemke took over as the Group commander of the 56th. He had just returned from liaison missions, where he had observed the air war at first hand. So began a rigorous training schedule. On 6th January 1943, the Group, 800 men strong, boarded the Queen Elizabeth bound for England. They arrived at Kingscliffe, followed by a move to Horsham St. Faith, and then to Halesworth and to their first combat.
April 1944 - the move to Boxted
Zemke and his staff moved into Langham Lodge and used it as an H.Q. Their first mission was on 18th April 1944. Zemke tried a new tactic called "THE FAN", in which the fighters flew ahead of the bombers to break up groups of enemy fighters. The group fanned out into a semi circle, but promptly lost two aircraft. "B" group, lead by Gabreski, came to their aid as they were now in the middle of about seventy enemy fighters. The sky was now full of flying aircraft and bullets, and the Germans lost eighteen aircraft with Capt. Robert Rankin accounting for five of these. At this time, everyone was preparing for the long talked about second front. The action at this time was strafing enemy airfields on the Continent and destroying aircraft on the ground. The 56th also provided escort when the bombing missions were concentrated on Hitler’s oil supplies. After one horrendous mission, Zemke had to dodge German fighters on a number of occasions, diving at top speed then climbing into the sun. After over four hours in the air and virtually out of fuel, he arrived safely at Boxted and then drove to his favourite club in London to get blind drunk.
The 56th patrolled the beachhead from Boulogne to north of the Seine, but saw little of the enemy. In July 1944, Dave Schilling was offered command of the 479th, which he declined because they flew P-38’s and Schilling was a definite Thunderbolt fan. So Zemke took command of command of the 479th and Schilling commanded the 56th.
The history of the 5th ERS - the "Shepherd of the Seas"
During WW2, the RAF perfected a very good system of Air-Sea Rescue (ASR) to pick up fighter and bomber crews from the English Channel. This operation relied on aircraft and shipping relaying the position of a crew in the drink back to control stations. Motor boats and Walrus seaplanes from various bases around the coast would then head to the reported position to pick up the men. When the US Army Air Corps came to England they had no such system and, when they started losing crews in the sea, decided to set about forming their own air-sea rescue operation.
With the coming of the invasion imminent, a conference was called on the 8th May 1944 at the Air Ministry between representatives of the RAF, the 8th Air Force, and the 65th Fighter Wing. It was decided that the 65th Fighter Wing would take responsibility for air-sea rescue.
Captain Bob Gerhart, a former wing controller, was appointed CO of an independent ASR spotter squadron. The controllers based at Saffron Walden would have direct contact with the spotter planes and rescue launches. The aircraft, ground crews, pilots and all the equipment necessary had to be borrowed from other fighter groups. Because Hub Zemke was a very respected fighter leader he was asked to provide “war weary” aircraft and a piece of ground at his Boxted base for them to use. Bob Gerhart started with 90 enlisted men from 16 different stations, 25 pilots and ground officers “loaned”, no hanger and virtually no tools. Fortunately Zemke and his executive officer, Dave Schilling, were fully behind the idea, and loaned and scrounged as much equipment as possible. So barely a week after the conference, detachment "B" of the 65th fighter wing had flown its first mission.
How the system worked
Whenever a bomber mission was launched, two P-47 "Thunderbolts" of the ASR would take off from Boxted. The aircraft would track the bombers over the channel listening for any distress calls. When a call for help came, one P-47 would keep circling over the spot where the incident occurred. The aircraft would also drop flares or a small dinghy, then return to base to refuel and be replaced by another P-47. The other original Thunderbolt would keep listening in case there were any further incidents. So, all the time bomber formations were over the channel, there were two P-47’s in the air keeping watch. When a pilot or crewman came down in the sea, motor launches would be alerted to pick them up.
Perfecting the art
Initially the additional weight of the flare racks and dinghies caused major problems for the P-47's on take-off. They found that by splitting the dinghy packs and putting one under each wing, then using a single 150 gallon belly fuel tank and mounting the flares behind it, the capabilities of the P-47’s was restored . The airplanes were identified by red, white and blue striped noses and yellow banded tails. The group’s radio call sign was “teamwork”. The pilots were given the nickname “seagulls”. Later the group were given Catalina flying boats to help with rescues and, as these aircraft needed hard standings, detachment "B" moved to Halesworth. It was here that they received their official unit code of the 5th Emergency Rescue Squadron.
The 5th ERS's acheivement
A total of 938 men were rescued by this unit. In a memo to Lt. General James Doolittle, Commanding General of the 8th Air Force, Jesse Auton said "Most recently as “Colegate” and earlier as “Morelight”, “Warmsun” and “Tackline” call signs, the 65th Fighter Wing has had a vital part in the control of every 8th Air Force mission since 4th July 1943. A constant phase of this control has been for air-sea rescue. The many loyal men who have laboured unceasingly to make rescue more swift and sure, deserve great credit for making what is certain to be a lasting legacy."