BRIEF HISTORY OF RATTLESDEN AIRFIELD
Rattlesden Airfield was built in 1942 as a Class A bomber airfield, with three runways, hardstands for 57 aircrafts and two T2 hangars. The domestic site for 2,894 people was east of the airfield.
Rattlesden was allotted to the US Army Air Force (USAAF) on 1st October 1942 and on 1st December 1942 the first Americans belonging to 451 and 452 bomb squadrons began arriving. They were there to fly some of the first B-26B Marauders to operate from Britain; these were delivered in February - March 1943.
With the 450th Bomb Squadron at Rougham, they formed the 322nd Bomb Group which became consolidated in April 1943 and formed an entity at Andrews Field to where the three squadrons all moved on 12th June 1943.
At the end of November 1943 the 447th Bomb Group arrived at Rattlesden from the USA and using B-17G’s (Flying Fortress) entered the battle arena on 24th December 1943 by making a raid on V 1 sites in France.
On 19th April 1944 the 447th took a battering from enemy fighters losing 11 of its aircraft, their heaviest losses ever sustained in one raid and at a time when the 8th Airforce bombing offensive was at a peak. The 447th sustained further heavy losses on 12th May when seven B-17’s failed to return from Leipzig.
Between December 1943 - May 1944 the group was primarily engaged in preparations for the invasion by attacking submarine pens, naval units, German industrial targets, ports and V 1 sites, as well as airfields and marshalling yards. In June 1944 they gave direct support to the Normandy invasion and then the breakout at St-Lo.
They assisted in the liberation of Brest in September 1944 and made supply drops to the French resistance.
They gave general support to the airborne landings of September before, in October, resuming their part in the strategic air offensive, concentrating on oil targets until December 1944 when they took part in the Ardennes battle by bombing marshalling yards, rail bridges and communications centres in the battle zone. Then the group resumed operations against oil, transport and communications targets until the end of hostilities.
The 447th left Rattlesden in August 1945 having flown 257 missions and lost 153 aircraft and the station was returned to the RAF on 10th October 1945. The Ministry of Food established a supply depot there before closure on 15th August 1946. In the 1950’s and 60’s Rattlesden was an emergency landing ground for the Wattisham Hunters and Lightenings but it was never needed.
During the 1950’s the threat to the UK was no longer from low flying aircraft but high flying jet bombers armed with nuclear bombs. In order to counter this threat a new system of defence was developed. Initially the proposal was for a new weapon designed to fit the mountings at the old anti aircraft gun sites but with the need to destroy incoming missiles before they crossed the coast and provide a constant deterrent against surprise attack these plans were quickly changed with a proposal to build a number of large missile sites along the east coast organised in ‘fire units’, each consisting of sixteen missiles further divided into two flights of eight missiles.
These proposals were later modified to a larger number of sites spread over a wider geographic area with two units at each site. Ten missile sites were selected at Dunholme Lodge, Watton, Marham, Rattlesden, Woolfox Lodge, Carnaby, Warboys, Breighton and Mission with a trial site at RAF North Coates. Each of these sites was equipped with the Bloodhound Mk 1 missile.
Bloodhound was part of an overall air defence system. Warning of an incoming raid would be relayed from one of the early warning radars to a tactical control centre. Four TCC’s were built at RAF Lindholme, RAF North Coates, RAF North Luffenham and RAF Watton in Norfolk. The bloodhounds at Rattlesden would have been controlled from the TCC at Watton (this has now been demolished) The TCC’s were equipped with Type 82 Orange Yeoman radars which would track the hostile aircraft and transmit data to a fire unit once it was within range of its Type 83 target illuminating radars. Target data could then be fed to the launch control post from where the missiles would be launched.
Bloodhound Mk 1 missiles were able to accelerate up to Mach 2.2 (more than twice the speed of sound) with a maximum range of about 50 miles. The missiles were not armed with a nuclear warhead although this had, at one time, been proposed.
The ten missile sites were built to a standard pattern with about fourteen buildings usually within a single compound. The buildings were split into three groups those near the entrance were administrative and technical including a guard room, station headquarters, Air Ministry works directorate building and an electricity sub station. Within this section was the large missile servicing building with plant rooms in an annexe alongside; it’s here that the missiles were assembled and tested. Other building in this section include the refueling building where the fuel tanks were filled with kerosene.
The next section of buildings was the remotely sited explosives area consisting of the arming shed, plant room, explosives store and a static water tank. The missiles were fitted with a warhead, detonators and booster.
The final area was the two fire units each with a launch control post and sixteen missile launch pads divided into two groups of eight. The pads were eight sided re-inforced hard standings with the launcher assembly in the centre.
Even before it entered service shortcomings in the Bloodhound Mk 1 were recognised. Its Type 83 radar was susceptible to jamming and its static location didn’t allow flexibility of deployment. To counter these drawbacks, trials of the Bloodhound Mk 2 started at North Coates in October 1963.
The Bloodhound Mk 1 site at Rattlesden was manned by 266 Squadron who arrived at the site on 1st December 1959 and were stood down on 30th January 1964. The site was sold off in 1966. A long section of the main runway and the control tower were bought by the Rattlesden Glider Club in 1988.
RATTLESDEN BLOODHOUND SITE TODAY
Today most part of the main runway survives and is now owned by the Rattlesden Glider Club who have their headquarters in the renovated control tower. The south & eastern parts of the perimeter track also still exist plus few of the aircraft hardstands.
The most complete part of the airfield today is the No. 1 technical site which still has around twenty buildings including one of the T2 hangars.
A number of buildings from the Bloodhound era survive alongside the old perimeter track on the south west side of the airfield. At the entrance to the Bloodhound site there are four buildings in a row with an open static water tank (EWS) between them; these are all built of brick with flat concrete roofs. The first of these is the guard room which still retains its entrance turnstile. Beyond this is the station headquarters and the last building is the missile service building, a large two bay building clad in corrugated aluminium sheeting with a gable roof. Along one side there are plant rooms in a flat roofed brick annexe. Workshops and stores butt onto the building along an outside wall, one of the workshops still contains electrical switchgear and one of the plant rooms retains two boilers and ventilation plant and trunking.
Some distance away, the large arming shed still stands, this is a tall single storey building clad in re-inforced concrete with ‘hy-rib’ walls created by applying concrete to a steel mesh. The shed is located on a loop road with an entrance at either end facilitating ‘drive through’. The building still retains its internal gantry. There is a small building in front of it which was a latrine and two small buildings at the rear one of which housed a generator and compressor (and still contains some electrical switchgear), the other was an explosives handling area. Opposite the entrance to the building there is an open static water tank still full of water.
The launch control posts and the launch pads have all been demolished and the land returned to agriculture.
The larger buildings on the site have been put to agricultural use while the smaller buildings are derelict.
- Action Stations Revisited No 1 Eastern England - by Michael J.F. Bowyer. Crecy Publishing 2000 ISBN: 0 947554 79 3
- Cold War - Building for Nuclear Confrontation - by Wayne Cocroft & Roger Thomas. English Heritage 2003 ISBN 1 873592 69 8
- Keith Ward