Basic Six hit the road this summer, visiting three prestigious airshows at three historic sites: RNAS Yeovilton, RAF Scampton and Old Buckenham. We met some fantastic people, saw some incredible pilots in action… and received some great feedback on our aviation-themed T-shirts and accessories. Each of these bases is well worth a visit, offering a poignant window into our past.
Old Buckenham, Norfolk
It may be a vibrant aviation centre today, but back in the 1940s Old Buckenham certainly wasn’t on the radar of the world’s flying aces. Take bomber pilot and Hollywood legend James Stewart, for example, who fought both studio bosses and the US army to be allowed to see combat. When the Oscar winner finally received the news of his deployment, he asked where his squadron was heading. They were off to Norfolk, Stewart shared with comrades, “wherever the hell that is…”
In fact, the months that the star spent in Norfolk, first at RAF Tibenham, then at Old Buckenham, were to profoundly mark the rest of his life, according to historian Robert Matzen, as did the relationships he formed with his fellow airmen. And whilst Stewart rarely spoke publicly about those wartime experiences, despite winning several medals for his missions over occupied Europe, Matzen’s book suggests a struggle with post traumatic stress disorder back in civilian life.
It was spring 1944, when the heart-throb touched down at Old Buckenham, after transferrring over from Tibenham. The airfield had been specially built between 1942-43 to house the 453rd Bomb Group and their B-24s; Stewart had been named the Group’s Executive Officer and flew as command pilot on numerous missions. There were several thousand personnel stationed on site (including another Tinseltown star, Walter Matthau, who served as a radioman-gunner). According to lists held at Old Buckenham, 366 USAAF men lost their lives whilst deployed at the base. Their group flew 259 missions against aircraft assembly plants, marshalling yards, a fuel depot and oil refineries; their stories movingly told at the 453rd Bombardment Group Museum.
In May 1945, the base was returned to Air Ministry control and eventually closed in 1960. Large parts were then demolished and a number of areas returned to agricultural use. Fortunately, some of the original buildings survived, along with a runway and two grass strips. Today, Old Buckenham is a thriving airfield, with iconic WWII hangar, a café named after Jimmy Stewart, the museum and a memorial garden. Events are held throughout the year.
For a rare recording of James Stewart speaking about his wartime years, click here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoY8Cj1larg
Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, Somerset
One of the busiest military airfields in the UK, Yeovilton is home to more than 100 aircraft, including the Maritime Lynx and Sea King helicopters, Hawk jet trainers and Jetstream communication aircraft. But this high-octane base also makes pays homage to the servicemen and women who served in the last century, housing a collection of vintage planes from the RN Historic Flight as well as the famous Fleet Air Arm Museum, which opened in 1964.
Work on Yeovilton began at the start of World War II, when the Admiralty Air Devision commandeered land from the church, completing a total of four runways within two years. It became the base for Naval Air Squadrons,
Air shows have been held since 1947, with up to 40,000 visitors flocking to see displays by some of the world’s best military and civilian pilots.
Outside the July event, the best place to watch the action is from the museum’s Airfield Viewing Area, in Hall 4, where you may catch a glimpse of some of the spectacular training procedures.
RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire
Best known as the home of the world-famous Red Arrows (official title: the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team), Scampton is also the base for the RAF’s No 1 Air Control Centre (1ACC) and the Mobile Meteorological Unit (MMU).
It first saw action during the First World War, as a landing field, but by the 1920s had been reconverted into farming land. It reopened in 1936, in response to German’s growing military might, and when war broke out was transferred to Bomber Command.
The most famous squadron to be stationed at Scampton was 617, established for the so-called Dambusters Mission, with 34 gallantry medals awarded to its members for the daring raids on the Rhur Valley dams.
Scampton’s last World War II mission came on April 25, 1945, when Lancaster bombers pumelled Hitler’s mountain retreat at Obersalzberg.
Although it’s an operational station, you can request (via the website) a visit to the Heritage Centre, as well as catch the air show in September.
Comments will be approved before showing up.