Second World War (1939-1945)
American Period 1943-1945
In February and early March 1943, there seemed to be an exodus from
Duxford. The AFDU (and NAFDU) moved to Wittering and 1426 Flight to Collyweston,
1448 Flight to Halton and 169 Squadron to Barford St John, and by mid-March
flying activity was at a minimum.
On 24 March 1943, a convoy of trucks arrived at Duxford's main gates
carrying the advance party of the 78th Fighter Group, United States Army
Air Force (USAAF), which was, it turned out to be stationed there for the
next two and a half years. With the US now firmly in the war, the USAAF
was moving into Britain, and to East Anglia in particular, in a big way.
The 8th Air Force, of which 78th FG was a part, occupied many airfields
either leased or purpose-built for them, ready to attempt daylight bombing
to complement the RAF night raids. Fighter support was an essential part
of this plan and during 1 - 8 April 1943 the 78th FG, under the command
of Lt. Col. Arman Peterson, brought in 75 of their Republic
P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft to Duxford. Having moved in, the Group began
working up the three squadrons, the 82nd, 83rd and 84th Fighter Squadrons,
to operational status.
78th Fighter Group
78th FG had been formed in the US in May 1942 and had
trained in California on P-38 Lightnings. The Group moved to Goxhill, Lincolnshire,
on 1 December 1942 and by Christmas most of the tools and equipment had
arrived, together with a few aircraft. In January 1943, while the Station
was building up to operational strength on P-38s, a handful of P-47C Thunderbolt
flew in and were assigned to squadrons. Thunderbolts were new, and pilots
tried them out, but few seriously considered operating with any aircraft
but Lightnings. Abruptly, however, the entire picture changed. Aircraft
and pilots were needed for Operation
Torch, the invasion of North Africa, and the 78th were to re-equip
with P-47s instead of P-38s. Only 15 of the Group's seasoned pilots remained
in the UK, including the CO, Lt. Col. Arman Peterson. New pilots and more
P-47Cs were rushed to Goxhill and another training period was hurried through.
Crewmen became acquainted with the simpler maintenance on Thunderbolts,
and pilots became familiar with the more complicated gunnery problems caused
by wing-mounted guns replacing nose-mounted guns. On 1 April 1943, the
entire Group, comprising some 1,700 personnel, began their move to Duxford.
78th Fighter Group insignia (right). 78th FG comprised the 82nd,
83rd and 84th Fighter Squadrons.
Twelve Duxford aircraft flew an uneventful fighter sweep with the 4th
FG from Debden on 8 April, but it was not until five days later that the
78th flew its first mission from Duxford. Just before noon on 13 April,
Lt. Col. Peterson led the P-47C Thunderbolts of 83rd FS into the air from
Duxford. The 12 aircraft of the 78th joined two squadrons from the 4th
FG in a sweep over the northeast corner of France at approximately 30,000
feet. They penetrated as far as the Luftwaffe base at St. Omer, but sighted
neither enemy aircraft nor flak. Lt. Col. Joseph L Dickman baled out northeast
of Calais on the way back but was picked up by RAF air-sea rescue. He was
awarded the Group's first Purple Heart. Less than 4.5 hours after the 83rd
landed, Lt. Col. Peterson took off again, leading 12 aircraft of the 82nd
to the St. Omer area. With the 82nd was one squadron from the 4th FG and
one from the 56th FG. Again the report read, "No enemy aircraft; no flak."
The first enemy aircraft were sighted by Duxford pilots two days later
when the 84th Fighter Squadron flew its first mission. The 84th sent up
12 aircraft, and the 82nd and 83rd put up six each to form a second squadron.
Those two squadrons and one from Debden were cruising over Belgium when
enemy planes were reported over an airfield. The pilots were eager, but
lost the enemy aircraft in cloud cover before they could be engaged. With
three missions under its belt in co-operation with other groups, the 78th
struck out by itself for the first time on 17 April, 1943. That day Lt.
Col. Peterson led two squadrons of 16 aircraft each on two missions, both
of which proved uneventful. All three squadrons furnished aircraft for
the two composite squadrons on both missions. The first flak was sighted
by the group over Rotterdam on 21 April, but no damage was reported.
As the unit's experience increased, so did its striking power, and on
29 April it sent out its first formation of three 12-aircraft squadrons.
On 3 May two squadrons put up 16 aircraft each, and the other provided
15. Just before 17:00 on the next day the 78th settled into what was to
become a familiar pattern of operations. For the first time, Lt. Col. Peterson
led three squadrons of 16 aircraft each, and for the first time the 78th
escorted bombers. The Thunderbolts cruised uneventfully over Dunkirk, Calais
and St. Omer, encountering neither enemy aircraft nor flak.
During the next two weeks the group flew two more uneventful missions.
On 14 May 1943, later considered as a turning point in the aerial war over
Europe, the 78th encountered the Luftwaffe for the first time in combat.
Leading three squadrons of 16 planes each, Col. Peterson (just promoted
to full Colonel), took the 78th up to support bombers which were to attack
targets at Antwerp. The Group encountered more than 20 Focke Wulf FW190s
and Messerschmitt Bf109s in the Antwerp area, and dogfights broke out over
the sky. Maj. James J Stone (then CO of the 83rd and later, as Lt. Col.,
Station CO) and Capt. Robert E Adamina of the 82nd achieved the first 78th
FG victories, each shooting down one FW190. Three pilots - Capt. Adamina,
Capt. Elmer E McTaggart and F/0 S R Martinek of the 83rd - were lost, but
none was killed. Capt. McTaggart lost 25 pounds in weight while becoming
the first Duxford pilot to evade capture, by working his way south-ward
across the Pyrenees into Spain. Capt. Adamina, who set his Thunderbolt
down on the water, is believed to be the first - and perhaps only - pilot
to ditch a P-47 successfully. The success of the Thunderbolts in protecting
bombers that day, although the claims were small and the losses were felt,
strengthened the belief of higher officers that the bomber escort theory
|A 78th Fighter Group Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, belonging to 83rd Fighter
Squadron. Note the chequerboard marking, the pattern of which is reminiscent
of 19 Squadron's marking some 10 years
||Men of the 84th Fighter Squadron and a P-47 Thunderbolt, June 1943
In the first two months of operations, the 78th FG had proved to be
the most successful of the three Fighter Groups and began to establish
a high reputation. Morale was high and several well-known stars of the
cinema and radio came to Duxford, including James Cagney, Bob Hope and
Bing Crosby. The 78th formed a dance band, the Duxford Thunderbolts, which
as well as playing for Station dances appeared in Cambridge and London
and at other 8th Air Force bases. Radio broadcasts were also made, and
some were relayed to the US. On 26 May, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth
visited Duxford to officially welcome the 78th FG to the station. On 15
June, the Station CO, Wg. Cdr. Matthews, formally handed over the command
of Duxford to Col. Peterson - as Station 357 of USAAF VIII Fighter
Command. From 14 May to 1 July operations followed a fairly routine programme,
bomber escort and fighter sweeps with only a little action and few losses,
and during this time the P-47D was introduced to service, which was an
improvement over the earlier version.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth welcome the 78th FG to Duxford,
May 1943 (left).
15 June 1943, Wing Commander Matthews hands over command of Duxford
to Col. Arman Peterson, CO 78th FG (right).
On 1 July, however, the 78th was dealt a severe blow. The highly respected
and popular CO, Col. Peterson, was lost. The group destroyed four FW190s,
probably got another and damaged five others for the loss of one man -
the CO, who had led the group since its formation in the US in May 1942.
Morale sagged. Comedian Bob Hope and singer Frances Langford visited the
station two days later, and even the Hollywood gagster admitted he had
trouble getting laughs out of his Duxford audience. The Fourth of July
wasn't much of a holiday, either, with an uneventful mission being flown
during the noon hour and followed by an outdoor supper on the athletic
On 12 July a new CO arrived, Lt. Col. Melvin McNickle, who had been
US liaison officer with 601 Squadron's
Bell Airacobra's the the Autumn of 1941. On 14 July a wounded Duxford
pilot, 2nd Lt. A V DeGenaro of the 82nd, risked drowning rather than let
his plane crash into a town and earned the Distinguished Service Cross,
the second highest US award for valour. While escorting bombers which attacked
an airfield at Amiens, Lt. DeGenaro destroyed two FW190s and damaged another.
During combat, however, he was severely injured in both hands, his right
knee and both ankles. Because of his injuries, he had to fly his Thunderbolt
with his forearms. His instruments were shot out, his right aileron was
gone, his right wing was badly shot up, and his tail surfaces were damaged.
Although barely able to manoeuvre the plane, he found the English Channel
and headed across, ducking into low clouds to evade three pursuing FW190s
which followed him almost to the British coast. He had planned on making
a crash landing, but after crossing the coast he discovered his safety
belt was unfastened (he had unhooked it in combat) and was unable to fasten
it again because of his wounds. Realising that baling out over land would
mean his aircraft would crash into a coastal town, he headed out to sea
again, baling out in view of a fishing boat which then rescued him.
The mission of 30 July 1943 marked several milestones in Duxford's
combat history. For the first time the fighters carried drop tanks, enabling
them to fly right into Germany (though in these early days the tanks
were not pressurised and so were dropped before the aircraft reached the
enemy coast, thereby allowing pilots to gain altitude and have more manoeuvrability
against enemy fighters). The Group was providing escorts for bombers
returning from Kassel and flew as far as Haldern. The pilots claimed 16
victories (7 Bf109s and 9 FW190s) and the 78th became the first American
unit to run its victories into two figures on one mission. Capt. Charles
P London, of the 83rd, shot down one Bf109 and one FW190 to become the
first American "ace" (five victories) in the European Theatre of
War. Maj. Eugene P Roberts, of the 84th, shot down two FW190s and one Bf109
to become the first American in the European theatre to score a "triple".
For fighting off superior numbers of enemy fighters in getting his triple,
the major won the group's second Distinguished Service Cross, and went
on to become the second "ace" that October. Lt. Quince L Brown, of the
84th, suffered engine problems and lost altitude, and whilst he was hedge-hopping
home he shot up a freight locomotive and a gun battery to the west of Rotterdam.
This was the first recorded ground-strafing by an 8th AF fighter pilot.
On a sadder note, 78th lost its second CO within a month. Station CO Lt.
Col. Melvin McNickle, who had succeeded Col. Peterson, was shot down and
became a prisoner of war. Two other pilots also were lost that day, one
evading capture. Lt. Col. James J Stone, who had been with the 78th since
its formation and who had achieved its first victory some two month previously,
became the new Station CO.
|78th FG P-47 Thunderbolts carrying drop tanks to increase range set
off from Duxford on a mission.
The rest of the year was fairly routine and the Group settled down
to escort missions and sweeps. On 4 September, General Hap Arnold Commander-in-Chief
of the US Air Forces came to Duxford. He was given a demonstration of the
latest British and American fighters and after an inspection gave a talk
on the history and future of the US Army Air Forces. Amongst US personnel
Duxford became known as "one of the finest and most comfortable of any
Army Air Force station overseas - Country Club of the European Theatre"
(of operations, ETO).
DUXFORD WAS "COUNTRY CLUB" OF THE E.T.O.
The following extract of life at Duxford during 1943-45 is taken from
Duxford Diary, first published in 1945:
"MANY of Duxford's barracks were centrally heated; all
were equipped with electric lights; some had tiled shower rooms; and, with
few exception the buildings were brick with modern casement windows. Both
'drome and living sites were beautifully landscaped with trees, flowers
and shrubs. Lawns were kept close-cropped and the flower beds were well
tended, partially because of their beauty, but also to aid aerial camouflage,
making the entire air-drome appear to be another sleepy but picturesque
English village. Paved roads and sidewalks; walls masked with inevitable
English ivy; hedges hiding the ugliness of barbed wire; garages and four
large hangars to house mobile and air equipment-all these made the base
one of the finest and most comfortable of any Army Air Force Station overseas.
From the Aeroclub to Duffy's Tavern to the mess hall was
a hop, a skip and a jump; and it wasn't much farther to the Sergeants'
Club, the base post office or station headquarters. The hangars, too, were
conveniently located, but beating your way through an English rainstorm,
with a wind sweeping across the field; or groping your way through the
mist and fog . . . so thick you could tack pin-up pictures to it when your
wall space gave out . . . you swore that someone had moved the spot to
which you were headed.
The Officers' Club housed mess and kitchens; a comfortable
lounge; card rooms; the P.M.C. office; recreational rooms and the bar.
Pilots and some ground officers lived in other rooms. The dining room became
a dance floor for parties. The front terrace and lawns were popular, when
the sun did shine, for lounging and sun bathing. The parade ground was
the site of medal presentations and formal ceremonies. Its four sides were
faced by the armament barracks, the Sergeants' Club, the service and material
squadron barracks, the Aeroclub and Duffy's Tavern.
The Aeroclub was everybody's meeting place. Coffee hour
in the morning found everyone gathered together over rolls and coffee,
swapping rumors, trading news and gripes. Downstairs was a large snack
bar and lounge, used for dances three nights each month; kitchens and staff
quarters; and a small lounge named the State Room, used by officers during
the day and for small social functions each evening. A stage opened into
the snack bar and frequent entertainment was on the Aeroclub schedules.
The second floor of the Aeroclub was devoted to library, reading and writing
rooms, lounge, barber shop and Aeroclub offices.
The Sergeants' Club, across the parade grounds, was a
popular spot for first-three-grades. A modernistic, half-circular bar;
lounge; card room and billiard room offered relaxation. A ball room was
used for the monthly dances; for ping-pong games; as additional lounge
space; and for private parties. England's coolish nights found groups of
men gathering around the several fireplaces in the club to sip their beer
and swap tales and experiences.
Duffy's Tavern was the mixing pot of the station. Over
glasses of beer (specially brewed for Duxford) many a mission was retold;
many a ball game was replayed; many a T.S. problem was aired; commented
on, and the accompanying slip dutifully punched. Captain W. L. "Duffy"
Owen (who doubled as station athletic officer) was a frequent host and
One of the large hangars was set up as a theater when
the Yanks arrived. A stage, complete with curtains and stage lighting,
filled one side. Special Service personnel went to work on this installation;
enclosed the walls in paneling removed from crates and boxes; enlarged
the seating space; built a new motion picture projection booth, added paint,
more lights and stoves and soon had a first-class theater. Many traveling
shows requested Duxford as one of their stops because of the theater's
fine dressing rooms and stage, and large seating capacity.
The mess hall was a two-storied building with four dining
bays. Two steam tables kept food hot for serving. The kitchen was one of
the few in the E.T.O. with steam cooking apparatus, and from the beginning
china plates were furnished, although enlisted personnel had to bring their
own utensils and cups.
The dispensary housed dental clinics, doctors' examination
rooms and offices, a first aid room and treatment rooms. Two miles from
the airdrome was Thriplow House, a large English mansion converted into
sick quarters and rest area for station personnel. Serious injuries and
hospital cases rode by motor ambulances to nearby general hospitals."
Escort work continued in the New Year, but by January 1944 the 78th
was ready to start a new type of mission; fighter-bombing. Improvements
in drop tank technology meant that range was increasing all the time, enabling
a bomb load to be carried to a target and dropped, followed by some strafing
(or air combat). Such low level ground attack, often on railways and airfields,
was designed as a softening up process in anticipation of the invasion.
On 25 January 1944, the Group was briefed for its first fighter-bomber
mission and took off to bomb an airfield in France, but weather caused
the aircraft to bring their bombs back. On the last day of the same month
they went out again and dropped 35 500-pound bombs on runways of an airfield
at Gilze-Rijen in Holland. A week later two flights, one from the 82nd
and the other from the 84th, made the first organised strafing attacks
undertaken by Duxford aircraft. Lt. J W Wilkinson of
the 82nd and Lt. P E Pompetti of the 84th destroyed aircraft on the ground,
and two FW190s were destroyed in the air. Addition damage included six
other aircraft hit on the ground, three freight locomotives damaged, one
tugboat damaged and three airfields strafed.
||Strafing was practised by "buzzing" the airfield - 450 mph at less
than 100 ft.
|P-47 Thunderbolts were ideal strafing fighters because they could take
considerable punishment and still get back home.
From 20-25 February, the 78th reverted to escort duty. A "Blitz Week"
was planned, aimed at ball-bearing plants and aircraft production centres,
to hinder production of the expanding German fighter force. This was considered
necessary to allow Allied bombers to pursue their strategic bombing programme
without excessive losses and to gain air supremacy for the coming invasion.
Participating were the 8th and 9th Air Forces in England and the 15th in
Italy. Duxford contributed more than 10% of the fighters for "Blitz Week",
and claimed 16 victories for the loss of one pilot. The Thunderbolts of
Duxford operated almost every day of May on fighter escort and strafing
missions. On 19 May the 78th, using large drop tanks, supported B-24 Liberators
attacking Brunswick. The Group encountered heavy opposition but shot down
ten Bf109s and two FW190s, returning to base without loss after over four
hours in the air. The day brought the Group's victory total past 200 and
was a fitting climax to the end of Col. Stone's service with the 78th.
Three days later he handed over command to Lt. Col. Frederic Gray.
At the beginning of June the build up to the invasion of Europe by
the Allies began. The 66 Fighter Wing group commanders flew into Duxford
for frequent conferences at the nearly Sawston Hall HQ and tension mounted.
Duxford became far removed from a country club as security was tightened.
Passes were hard to get, travel was restricted and carbines, gas masks
and helmets were carried constantly. On the first five days in June the
78th took part in bomber support and ground attack on coastal defences
six times. After the aircraft had returned from operations on 5 June, the
Station cut all ties with the outside world. The Newmarket to Royston road
(A505), which separates the airfield from the domestic site, was
closed, the first and only time during the war. Even official traffic was
blocked and detoured around the Station. No telephone calls went from or
came into the base and in-coming and outgoing mail was frozen. British
civilians and American Red Cross workers on or near the field were kept
where they were - those on post at the time were not allowed to leave,
and those outside were not permitted to enter. Even a visiting intelligence
officer was not allowed to leave. Officers and men crossing from the domestic
site to the airfield were stopped at the gate and asked their business,
and if they did not have any they were not allowed into the hangar area
(After the invasion began, only pilots scheduled to fly at the time were
allowed inside the briefing room before or after a briefing). Blackout
restrictions were tighter than ever, and special wardens patrolled the
station to see that they were enforced. Several aircraft were formed into
an alert flight which stayed on duty an hour before sunset until an hour
after sunrise, ready to help intercept any enemy counter thrust against
the impending invasion. In addition to the regular MPs and anti-aircraft
gunners, an increased number of guards was on duty around the dispersal
areas and a ground defence unit was kept ready to deal with any possible
enemy airborne landings. Some of these restrictions had been put into effect
several days earlier but were given special emphasis from 5 June onwards.
Work on the Station went ahead at a feverish pace. Office workers and other
personnel who normally never went near an aircraft painted black and white
invasion stripes on the wings and fuselages of the Thunderbolts, while
others were pressed into service as truck drivers and linking ammunition
belts. By midnight on 5/6 June the constant sound of aircraft flying overhead
made any sleep impossible. Transport aircraft carrying paratroops or towing
gliders full of the same were heading south. At Duxford every one of 78
FG's 89 Thunderbolts was on line. D-Day had arrived.
||The invasion alert flight stand guard ready to intercept any enemy
By 03:30 on 6 June, the 78th was ready and the first mission of the
day took off. The job was to provide cover for the seaborne landings on
Normandy. There were no major incidents, though the 83rd FS reported seeing
ground rockets being fired in the distance and the 84th FS flashes over
the coastal area. The 82nd, which had stayed behind, went out on the second
mission as relief for the earlier aircraft. On return, the Thunderbolts
were re-armed with bombs to attack rail targets ahead of the landing force
and just before 10:00, the 83rd took off again. The 83rd reported seeing
German truck convoys moving up towards the fighting zone and before that
squadron was back, the 84th was airborne again, this time heading out on
a strafing sweep against targets of opportunity in the Alcenon area. An
ammunition dump near Alcenon marshalling yard exploded and the 84th claimed
two locomotives damaged, 30 - 45 box wagons damaged, 8 - 10 coal wagons
damaged and 10 flat wagons loaded with motor vehicles damaged. The next
squadron to fly out was the 82nd, which destroyed two locomotives by bombing
and machine-gun fire. The 82nd also investigated two Luftwaffe airfields
but found them empty of aircraft. Just before the 82nd landed, the 83rd
took off again and achieved the Group's only two aerial victories of the
day. In strafing attacks, the squadron also claimed two FW190s destroyed
on the ground near Mayenne and two locomotives nearby. Duxford's last mission
of the day took off soon after the 83rd returned. Pilots of the 82nd and
84th went out on area support at 18:22 and touched down again at around
23:00. The 82nd searched for enemy aircraft reported by the controller
but could not find them in the dusk and the pilots reported seeing heavy
artillery bombardment, while the 84th damaged a few rail targets.
|An 83rd FS P-47 Thunderbolt painted with D-Day invasion
stripes for easy recognition.
The D-Day pace continued through the next two days and there was no
let-up in the missions. On 9 June however the weather, which had not been
good since the invasion began, got worse and not a single mission took
off from Duxford on that day. On 10 June, the weather improved such that
four missions were possible, ground attack again being the objective. On
the third mission of the day a strong force of Bf109s an FW190s attacked
the Group as the Thunderbolts began their bombing run. Pilots reported
that some of the Bf109s bore white stripes resembling the Allied invasion
markings, and that some even had British roundels. That day was one of
the costliest recorded by the 78th during their two years of operations.
Ten pilots, including Maj. Harold E Stump, CO of the 84th, were lost -
nine missing in action and one killed in a mid-air collision. Morale, which
had been high since Col. Frederic C Gray had taken command, sagged temporarily,
but the intensive escort and ground attack missions continued. By the end
of June, 45 missions had been flown and the general feeling was of a job
well done. Security was relaxed a little and travel restrictions were lifted
to a distance of 25 miles from the airfield.
July was very much a case of "same as before", with a rising number
of successes for the Group. On 19 July, the 78th destroyed 20 enemy aircraft
on the ground in their largest strafing claim to date. That evening, however,
tragedy struck at Duxford. A visiting B-17 from the 612th BS, 401st BG,
had come to Duxford as the pilot wanted to visit friends serving in the
84th FS. The B-17, carrying its own co-pilot and two crewmen plus two pilots
and eight enlisted men from Duxford, "buzzed" the control tower and pulled
up over the hangar. However, the aircraft failed to attain height and clipped
the obstruction light on the top of the 84th FS's hangar behind the tower.
Most of the left wing and the left horizontal stabilizer were sheared off
and the bomber rolled over, barely missing wrecking the officers' barracks
and crashed into the main barracks of the 83rd FS and part of the main
82nd barracks. All twelve men in the bomber one man in the 83rd barracks
were killed in the crash and resulting explosion of fire (the aircraft
had been fully loaded with fuel). Chaplain (Captain) William J Zink made
two unsuccessful attempts to rescue the man in the barracks. At first unable
to reach him because of fumes and smoke, Chaplain Zink, grabbed a gas mask
and helmet and re-entered the building, but falling beams and fire stopped
him. He was presented the Soldiers Medal for his actions that day, becoming
the first 8th Air Force chaplain to win that award. Most of the 83rd building
had been gutted, lesser damage had been caused by pieces which hit the
officers' barracks and the 82nd barracks. After the crash, squadrons held
formations and checked rolls carefully for men missing in the accident.
If the crash had occurred 30 minutes or an hour later, officers said the
toll of men in the barracks would have been considerably higher, because
by then crewmen would have been in off the line.
||How the B-17 crash at Duxford on 19 July 1944 is recorded in Duxford
Another tragedy also marked the summer of 1944 when Capt. James W Wilkinson
of the 82nd was killed as his Thunderbolt crashed into a mountain in Wales.
The 31-year-old airman, who had broken his back in a flying accident only
a year earlier, went down two days before D-Day on a practice strafing
flight. A few weeks later his English widow was presented with his Distinguished
Service Cross and Silver Star, second and third highest US valour awards.
The captain had earned the medals on two occasions when, single-handedly,
he had fought off and broken up entire squadrons of enemy planes attacking
US bombers. The captain's widow was found dead in London a month or two
after the presentation, a photograph of the airman was near her body.
The group carried on, and more victories were recorded. On 28 August
the 82nd FS became the first squadron, American or British, to shoot down
a Luftwaffe jet aircraft. The secret Messerschmitt Me262 was known about,
but hardly ever seen. On this day, the 78th were flying west of Brussels.
Maj. Joseph Myers of the 82nd and his wingman, Lt. Manford O Croy, noticed
the jet flying fast and low. After a long chase and some tactical moves
the jet crash-landed in a field, only for the rest of the 82nd to set it
alight by strafing.
In mid September the 78th were heavily involved in support of the Allied
airborne landings at Arnhem and Nijmegen. This was dangerous low level
work designed to draw fire from the troop carrying gliders. The hazards
of the operation were acknowledged by a Distinguished Unit Citation for
the Group and Silver Star for Col. Gray for his leadership. On one such
mission, on 23 September, 78th FG Thunderbolts were credited with saving
several scores of C-47 Dakotas and Short Stirlings from almost certain
destruction. After circling Arnhem, the 78th met a heavy barrage of both
20 and 40 mm light flak. Two squadrons destroyed concealed guns in a church
and along nearby hedgerows. A few of the flak positions shot down three
C-47 Dakotas a few minutes later, but those guns were destroyed by the
third squadron of Thunderbolts. After that, three more formations of C-47
Dakotas and Short Stirlings flew up and dropped supplies right in the middle
of what had been a heavily-defended area without drawing a single burst
|During the airborne landings in September 1944, Lt. R R Bosworth of
the 82nd caught a truck on Nijmegen bridge.
||78th FG pre-mission briefing at Duxford, 14 October 1944.
Later in the year, rain became a problem. Duxford was still a grass
field and was prone to becoming muddy and flooding after heavy rain. The
78th nicknamed Duxford "The Duckpond". At each end of the field a mat of
Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) had been laid down for Thunderbolts preparing
to take off. This helped while the aircraft were stationary but trying
to take off or land in water was no fun. It was therefore decided to lay
a PSP runway as well, 3500 ft long by 150 ft wide; when added to the mats
at either end the total length would be 4100 ft. To allow the work to proceed,
the 78th FG moved in the first week of December to Bassingbourn, about
ten miles down the Royston road to the west, the base of the 91st Bomb
Group. With the 78th gone, Army engineers laid the runway and on 11 December
the Thunderbolts returned. To allow missions to be flown from Bassingbourn,
ground crews and pilots had to be trucked there and back daily because
briefing and de-briefing was done at Duxford, so the return to Duxford
was most welcome.
Other changes were now taking place. The North American P-51 Mustang
was being introduced to virtually all 8th Air Force Fighter groups and
the 78th's turn was about to come. Several war-weary P-51Bs and Cs were
delivered for pilot training, but some of the men did not take too kindly
to them as they were pleased with the robust Thunderbolt and were concerned
that the Mustang's liquid cooled Merlin engine was too vulnerable to flak
during low level strafing. But its longer range was the decisive factor,
so the conversion went ahead. There were some teething problems and on
29 December Lt. Huie H Lamb of the 82nd, unable to bail out, set his crippled
Mustang down in the North Sea and was picked up by RAF air-sea rescue.
|P-51D Mustang "Just Hangen Around" of the 84th FS, with pilot Lt. John
On 31 December 1944 the 78th flew its last mission on Thunderbolts.
Capt. Julius P. Maxwell of the 84th, on the final sortie of his second
tour shot down a FW190, the 400th German aircraft credited to the group.
By 5 January 1945 all three squadrons of the 78th FG were flying P-51
Mustangs. The mission tally rose, but there were still set-backs and February
was the costliest month during the whole period of operations from Duxford.
Eighteen pilots were reported missing in 16 missions, and three pilots
were killed on the way home (some of the missing however, were found to
be safe at the end of the war). The tally for the whole of February's strafing
missions was 105 locomotives, 19 oil tankers and numerous other targets
destroyed. Also during February, the Station had two changes in CO. Col.
Frederic C Gray, who had taken over in May 1944, went to 8th Air Force
HQ early in the month and was replaced by Lt. Col. Olin E Gilbert. Later
in the month Lt. Col. John D Landers took command, and Lt. Col. Gilbert
became his deputy commander.
||Three 82nd FS P-51s at dispersal in February 1945. Within a few weeks
of this photograph being taken, all three were posted missing in action.
By April the Group had gone from strength to strength. On the 10 April,
52 enemy aircraft on the ground were destroyed and another 43 damaged.
All records were broken on 16 April; tasked with giving freelance support
to bombing attacks on airfields deep in Eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia,
the Group's pilots succeeded in destroying 135 enemy aircraft and damaging
89 more, for the loss of three P-51s. This became the best strafing record
for the Group and for the 8th Air Force during the war, and was achieved
some 650 mile from base! On 17 April, the 78th achieved their final claims
of the air war. After breaking escort the aircraft swooped over airfields
in the Prague area and destroyed 15 and damaged 13 enemy aircraft. Five
more uneventful missions, the last on 25 April, brought the end of combat
flying from Duxford. On their final mission, the 78th were one of the two
8th Air Force Groups selected to escort RAF Avro Lancaster bombers of 617
Squadron (The Dambuster squadron) in an attack on Hitler's Bavarian mountain
retreat at Berchtesgarden. The raid was an anti-climax as the retreat was
shrouded in snow and low cloud, so the Lancasters instead bombed the nearby
On 8 May the war in Europe ended. The next day the Victory Proclamation
was read out and there was an official Review. During the course of the
next six months, the 78th FG was gradually de-activated and the personnel
and equipment made ready for return to the US (see
Redline). On 1 August 1945 an open day was held at Duxford so that
all the local people could see the aircraft and meet the men and about
5000 visitors turned up. By November, Duxford was quiet. A small party
remained to tidy up, after which, on 1 December 1945, Duxford was officially
handed back to the RAF.
Duxford open day on 1 August 1945 attracted 5000
In two years of operations from Duxford the 78th had completed 450
missions totalling over 80,000 hours of operational flying.
|Enemy Aircraft destroyed:
In the air
On the Ground
P-47s and P-51s missing in action
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Council. The contents of this UNOFFICIAL website does not in any way reflect
the opinions or ideas of any owner or operator present or past involved
with the location popularly known as Duxford Airfield.