Hell’s Corner

Building continued during the first few months of the year. By March 1944, the various camps and living accommodation around the airfield were virtually complete and in a suitable condition to receive men. The ‘drome’ had become a hive of activity, both on the ground and now in the air. Regular flights by transport squadrons brought troops that were to be stationed at Birch into the base.

Construction Complete
Construction Complete

“squadron transferred with team B from AAF Station 465 to AAF Station 149 Birch, Essex, 14th March 1944. Enlisted men moved by air transportation between 10.00am when first plane left Station 465 and 16.05pm when the last plane arrived at Station 149”

(494th Service Squadron – March 1944)

The roads leading to the airfield were rarely quiet. A never-ending convoy of lorries carried men to their new home. Although strange at first, it must have been a welcome relief after hours of travelling in the back of a truck. Major Bayon was the base commander and the 30th Service Group had the huge task of controlling all quartermaster activities.

“move by the Company, doing some real travelling by convoy to Birch, take over duties of base QM. Managing a base for some 2,000 men is discovered to be a very good trick by both sections. By now our own has grown from 1200 to slightly better than 1800 and more coming in every day”

(1078th Quartermaster Company, March 1944)

As well as construction, all units assigned to Birch were required to carry out a rigorous training programme. The main aim of airfield construction units was to build and maintain airstrips in the war theatre wherever it may be. With the planned invasion of Europe just weeks away, the training programme intensified to prepare all servicemen for all circumstances when the day arrived, a day that had been talked about for so long.

“27th March 1944, Battalion HQ opened at 0700 at Birch Essex. 29th March 1944 ‘C’ Company started tarring and sanding the perimeter track. Took over post switchboard (No, Marks Tey 160:Trunk 7) 30th March 1944. Also Battalion explosives moved to Birch”

(852nd Engineer Aviation Battalion – March 1944)

“1st April 1944, 925th ordered to Birch back in East Anglia known to us as Hells Corner. Birch practically complete but not operational, our job to complete drome and living sites and turn drome over to proper authorities when complete. Most of the grading has been completed by the 358th General Service Regiment, quite a bit still to be done. Runways and taxiways complete but much concrete yet to be poured to complete hard standings and roadways. Living areas needed those little touches that complete them and make them ready to receive troops. Once again Regimental work consisted of the supervision of Battalions 846th , 852nd , 861st , 862nd and in addition training the Company for it’s role on the continent. In evenings after work and on Saturdays went on ‘walks’ and trained. Night marches followed, one in particular was never to be forgotten. Started out as a routine 5 or 6 mile march, but lengthened into a long eighteen mile trudge thru a maze of unknown English countryside roads. Everyone ‘believed’ that it went to plan as explained to us by the ‘brass’ the next day”

(925th Aviation Engineer Regiment April 1944)

By now all Nissen hut accommodation was full, so more tents were erected to help ease the situation. A total of 16-18 men would share a hut and 7-8 men would share a tent. Double bunks were used to prevent overcrowding.

On the morning of the 4th April 1944, the personnel of the 410th Bomb Group, US 9th Air Force arrived at Birch. Part of the 97th Bombardment Wing, the 410th consisted of four Bombardment Squadron, 644th, 645th, 646th and 647th. Their arrival signified a continuing build up of the 9th Air Force in East Anglia. Six other Airfields welcomed bomb groups from America at the same time as Birch. Little Walden (409th), Wethersfield (416th), Stansted (344th), Rivenhall (397th), Matching (391st) and Boreham (394th) this totalled over 700 9th Air Force aircraft on Essex airfields.

Two weeks earlier, on the 21st March, the four squadrons of the 410th completed bombing and gunnery training in the USA. They set sail from New York aboard the vessel ‘Saturnia’ as part of a convoy and headed for the Firth of Clyde Scotland. Upon arrival, it took a further eighteen hours travelling to get to Birch, firstly by rail and then by road to their camp arriving in time for breakfast. The Groups Douglas A-20 Havoc Aircraft were flown in the following day, April 5th 1944.

Although the Group never flew actual combat missions from Birch, the twelve days that were spent there were used for unpacking and generally getting themselves adjusted to a completely different environment. The combat crews attended ground school on the base in preparation for what lie ahead, and officials began planning their busy schedule.

On the 16th April 1944, the 410th moved by road convoy from Birch to Gosfield Essex, the sister station to Birch. The aircrew stayed behind to ferry the aircraft to their new base over the next few days.

The 410th Bomb Group flew it’s first combat mission from Gosfield on May 4th 1944 as part of the lead up to the Normandy landings. They went on to become a very successful group and were awarded a citation in December 1944 for extraordinary heroism in armed conflict.

“April 5th 1944, 277,040 man hours estimated needed to complete station. The 356th General Service Regiment and one platoon of the 862nd Engineer Aviation Battalion are also presently engaged on work on this station”

(852nd Engineer Aviation Battalion)

The next few weeks, the lead up to what is now known as D Day, saw the airfield and surrounding camps full to capacity. Thousands of fit and highly trained men were making ready for departure overseas. There was round the clock activity of troops, transport and machinery all being prepared for movement to Great Barrington in Oxfordshire. This was a staging post, used to regroup and assess the impending task ahead. This is what everybody was anxious to be part of, the final assault that would mark the beginning to the end of the war.

“On the 29th April, unit was alerted for embarkation, but it wasn’t embarkation for home. Preparations had begun towards carrying out the primary mission in the European theatre of operation – invasion of the continent”

(925th Aviation Engineer Regiment April 1944)

“Orders were received moving us to Birch for the purpose of participating in a three month training programme by units of the 924th Aviation Engineer Regiment. It was a grand homecoming because this ironically enough was the first place we had alighted after crossing the Atlantic. Birch was our home; our first English friends were discovered there. This was ‘our baby’, the baby we had bred and nursed into being what promised to become an outstanding example of what a crack Aviation Engineer Battalion could do. It was homecoming secondly because it was the first time in many weeks that buddies were re-united”

(846th Aviation Engineer Battalion May 1944)

“A rather surprising element in the war made its appearance during this time. The flying bomb began to fall nearby in our locality. The robot plane proved to be more than just a nuisance. The closest one that fell was within one and a half miles of the camp and the concussion was felt”

(862nd Aviation Engineer Battalion May 1944)

“The Regimental Signal Section has proven itself in many instances and deserves commendation for it’s excellent work. Its job is of such importance that no unit could operate with any degree of efficiency without communication. It is this sections job to maintain constant contact with higher HQ and the attached Bttns by means of radio. Without fast and efficient communication, the work and reports of our recce teams would be valueless as far as time and speed are concerned. Telephone communications would be impossible were it not for this section. Not only is it charged with installing telephone systems between units, it is also responsible for the care and maintenance needed in addition to doing radio work. Twenty four hours a day the section crews must have been in readiness to move immediately to any spot where the Regiments communications were in need of repair of installation”

(924th Aviation Engineer Regiment May 1944)

“Period spent on Airdrome construction at AAF 149. Assignments included the completion of sewage system, water supply, power supply and distribution, drem lighting, the squadron and flight officers, free gunnery trainer, maintenance units, photographic block and serial units in the communal site. In a ten-day period allotted for construction, a concentrated effort was made to complete vital facilities 100%. All facilities in the communal site were completed except grocery and local produce store, maintenance buildings in the technical site all completed. Drem lighting, power supply and distribution were completed to the extent it can be finished by civilian labour”

(862 Aviation Engineer Battalion May 1944)

“Picture shows held weekly on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, two shows each night. Plans are under way for a Battalion Dance on 2nd June 1944 celebrating the anniversary of the units arrival overseas”

(862 Aviation Engineer Battalion May 1944)

“1st June training program continued including, training in weapons, physical fitness hardening, with each Company spending eight hours training in loading and unloading LCA craft under simulated combat conditions. Mines placed on beach at low tide and detonated when craft beached. Mines higher up the beach detonated as troops left LCA’s. On beaches troops encountered gas and barbed wire. Two Companies trained during night periods. Morale is exceedingly high, physical strength good”

(862 nd Aviation Engineer Battalion June 1944)

“Special service activities have included movies every night, one dance each week and baseball and softball games between teams of different organisations. The newest special service innovation is a daily bulletin, which contains notices of the recreational facilities and activities available and news of well-known personages in various Companies. One of the most popular features of the bulletin is a column entitled ‘Salute Your Officers’, which presents a thumbnail life history of one officer each day”

(862nd Aviation Engineer Battalion June 2nd 1944)

“The entire stay at Birch was devoted to training and physical hardening. Various men attended Camouflage School, Cryptography School, Radio School and Half Track Drivers School. Other training included marches, bivouac, aircraft identification, mine and booby trap removal and basic combat subjects. Various specialist schools were set up and training proved invaluable when the organisation landed on the continent.

It was whilst stationed at Birch that the tremendous number of our fighter and medium bombers constantly overhead, told us that the greatest military potential the world had ever seen was about to be unleashed! The night of the 5th of June and the morning of the 6th, aerial activity reached an awful pitch. The news was flashed that the Allies at that moment were storming up the beaches in France. The news electrified the men and they were all anxious to be off to Normandy”

(843rd Aviation Engineer Battalion June 1944)

“During this period the 924th AEB with attached units engaged in training. Training in loading and unloading of LCA’s, also training in camouflage, machine gun school on the anti tank range, infantry drill, marches, biverances, assault training, chemical warfare, aircraft recognition. Special schools trained in aircraft reconnaissance, placing and removal of booby traps, tank obstacles, and rifle marksmanship.

(924th Aviation Engineer Regiment June 10th 1944)

“Organisation is co-ordinating special service activities under the direction of the special services officer. Two showings of a new movie every night, volleyball, informal boxing, pick up ball games and a baseball league. Two companies are whipping into shape two baseball teams each from which to draw one team per company to represent them in a regimental league. A conversational French course began with thirty-two. Attendance at the movies was heavy”

(843rd Aviation Engineer Battalion June 1944)

“A limited amount of construction work has been carried out by Bttn. Company ‘A’ has been constructing the gas clothing and respirator store. Company ‘B’ the grocery store and local produce store. Company ‘C’ has been completing the construction and maintenance of the WAAF site and site one. H and S company worked on toning down of the hardstands and gutters of the drome. All construction equipment and vehicles are being prepared for overseas movement”

(843rd Aviation Engineer Battalion 17th June 1944)

“Continued work on the Technical site. Bomb storage area completed on 18.6.44. Company ‘C’ travelled to Stone (Essex) on 20.6.44 and participated with the aid of Royal Marines, RN Commandos and Royal Navy in troops and vehicle aboard LCT’s and LCI’s. Assault landings through mine fields, A and B Companies carried out similar training”

(846th Aviation Engineer Battalion June 1944)

“With the participation of the four Bttns and Regimental HQ and Service Co, a Regimental review was held at Birch Airdrome on the 22nd June 1944. Lt Col E Morgan Pryse Commanding Officer of the 924th AER reviewed the troops of the 843rd, 846th, 852nd, 862nd AEB and Regimental HQ and Service Co 924th AER”

(924th Aviation Engineer Regiment June 1944)

“The organisation engaged in an extensive training program, consisting of vigorous callisthenics and hardening process. Bivouacs, loading and unloading of equipment using ‘preparation for short sea voyage’ as a guide. Personnel were trained in waterproofing their equipment. During this month, this organisation helped transport the heavy equipment of the 843rd, 846th, 852nd AEB from Birch to Great Barrington (concentration area)”

(862nd Aviation Engineer Battalion June 1944)

“The 924th AER E/M softball team lost a game to the 1943 8th A/F champions. Base dance held on Monday 19th June with the 4th Infantry Depot Band furnishing the music, very well attended. The EM participated in the 9th A/F track meet, but none placed. Another dance was held on Wednesday night using the public address system with popular recordings. Movies shown every night, exclusive of Mondays”

(924th Aviation Engineer Regiment 24th June 1944)

After months of preparation, training and hard work, June 6th passed and the majority of units stationed at Birch quickly departed for Europe. Some elements of the 9th Engineer Command landed with US Forces on the Day, the remainder followed over the channel throughout the rest of June. By June 30th they had completed nine temporary airfields and had a further seven part finished. During the Normandy campaign, most of the US 9th Air Force moved from it’s base in the UK to the Continent. This left Birch almost deserted. A small pocket of men were left behind to generally ‘housekeep’ the station. The airfield changed virtually overnight. What was an extremely active, self-contained community that had been highly tuned for war was now at peace.

It was ironic that this mass exodus coincided with the completion of the airfield. Birch was now finished and in a fully operational condition with no one to occupy it. All USAAF requirements had been satisfied. For several weeks through the autumn of 1944 the airfield lay idle. The only activity was the occasional stray aircraft suffering from battle damage in need of a friendly place to land. Nearby Abberton reservoir made an ideal landmark for this, easily seen from the air and very close to the drome.

November 1944 saw the last American unit leave Birch airfield. The 308th Station Complement Squadron who had been minding the station flew out on the 18th of the month to France.

“On the first day of the month, the squadron moved to a station near Bath Somerset. After remaining there for only two weeks it again moved to a station near Colchester in Essex. Here the unit first encountered flying bombs and all personnel have developed a deep respect for the Ack-Ack, searchlight and fighter crews that operate to bring them down. The organisation made it’s first move by military aircraft on the 18th of November 1944 when it moved, less the ground echelon from Station 149 (Birch) to Airstrip A-63C, Vertus, France)”

(308th Station Complement Squadron October 1944)

One last chance of having a permanent flying presence based at Birch was missed in November 1944. The 315th Troop Carrier Group, USAAF was put on standby to move from it’s present home, Spanhoe, Northamptonshire. The group was made up of two Squadrons, 34th and 43rd that saw great success during the Normandy landings. Immediately after the cancellation of this transfer, Birch was now placed in the hands of 3 Group Bomber Command, Care and Maintenance RAF. The HQ remained at Marks Hall, which was also transferred from US to RAF control. It was from here that Sq Ldr Wilfred Aldeus RAF, was transferred to Birch. Aldeus, the stations new Commanding Officer brought with him his driver, Eric Powell and the Clerk of Works ‘Don’ Castognoli.

The new Commanding Officer and his team were responsible for the transitional period between the departure of US Forces and the arrival of RAF Units, which was just a few weeks away!