Put That Light Out

Long before the 846th Engineer Battalion of the United States Air Force had arrived at Birch, the site had been carefully chosen for it’s suitability for development as an airfield.

Five miles south west of Colchester, it would be just one of 31 airfields to be built in Essex between 1939 and 1944. The majority of airfields in the UK during the Second World War were in and around East Anglia. Geographically correct, it was the closest point to Europe, giving the shortest route both in distance and time to reach the selected target.

Eastern Counties are some of the flattest in Great Britain, which also helped to make construction that much easier.

Birch During Construction
Birch During Construction

It was official Air Ministry policy to name an airfield after the Parish in which it was located. The area that Birch Airfield covers is actually central to four villages, Easthorpe, Messing, Layer Marney and Birch itself. Each station was given it’s own number. This number was used particularly when in radio contact between ground and air, so any reference to the airfield by name was eliminated. This in turn reduced the chances of identification by the enemy who may be listening at the time.

Although the thirteen airfields were built and intended for use by American Forces, technically they remained RAF bases; each one was under the direction of an RAF Liaison Officer. This still remains practice today.

On the 10th August 1942, still five months before construction had began, the site was allocated to the United States 8th Air Force by the Air Ministry for development as a Bomber Station, Station 149.

It was at this point that many local people, in particular farmers became concerned. Up to five hundred acres of productive and fertile land would be lost to acres of concrete, at a time when land was at a premium. By this time, Britain had already been at war for nearly four years and food production was invaluable.

Despite this concern, as well as the land lost, a minor road (Blind Lane) was closed, this action severed direct links between Easthorpe village and the main Colchester road leading to Tiptree.

A wood (Norfolk Grove) was destroyed and a small farm (Lukes Farm) was demolished.

On the 7th January 1943, Earls Colne airfield was notified to act as a parent station to Birch for equipment supply during construction. Although not operational at the time, Earls Colne would later become home to B17’s of the 94th Bomb Group and B26’s of the 323rd Bomb Group opening in May 1943. Each parent station had two satellite stations, Gosfield being the other in this case.

Earls Colne Control Tower
Earls Colne Control Tower

Marks Hall would become the headquarters for Birch. Located outside Coggeshall village in Essex, it was the base for the 4th Wing Headquarters of the US Air Force, having control of twelve other Airfields within its jurisdiction.

Marks Hall mansion was part of Marks Hall estate, mentioned in the Doomsday Book it had been occupied by the Marks Hall family for 500 years. It became the Ninth Bomb Command HQ in November 1943 having been transferred from the US 8th Air Force who had occupied it until this date. Many country estates were taken over by the military during the war. Marks Hall, which was already in a run down condition, did not benefit from its new ‘family’ and was eventually demolished in the 1950’s. The grounds today can be visited as part of the National Trust.

On the 15th January 1943, the first engineers and troops arrived at Birch, setting up camp in tents near Harborough Hall farm in Messing village. They brought with them heavy plant machinery which would help to speed up construction considerably. The airfield would be built to class ‘A’ heavy bomber specifications. This was a tried and tested formula for both bomber and fighter stations. Quite simply, three runways would interconnect resembling the letter A. The main runway would be 200 yards long, facing east to benefit from the prevailing wind. The other two slightly shorter at 1,400 yards long and each one 50 yards wide. Also a total of 50 looped hard standings would adjoin the perimeter track used for the dispersal of the 48 aircraft allotted to the bomb group that was earmarked to occupy the airfield. Two giant hangars would be built, one to the north and one to the south of the airfield to the rear of Birch Holt Farm. Thirteen other locations nearby would also be developed. These were for the numerous buildings that would all play a vital role in the day to day running of a bomber station.

Most of the buildings were temporary, of the familiar Nissen hut type. This was a cheap and easily erected building that could be transformed into a variety of uses. There were two sites in Layer Wood, one in Pods Wood, two next to the main Colchester road which included a hospital, the remainder were scattered to the west of the airfield around Messing village.

All of this amassed into something that was to have an enormous effect on the community as well as the landscape.

Early on in my research it emerged that Birch Airfield had been given the nickname ‘The Unlucky One’. As its history began to unfold it became clear why. The thirteenth airfield to be built by US forces was never far from trouble.

Working On The Airfield 1943
Working On The Airfield 1943

After five months of uninterrupted work the airfield was beginning to take shape. However, on the 18th August 1943 at twelve minutes past midnight, three Focke-Wolfe FW190 fighter aircraft attacked the incomplete airfield. Each plane carried 500kg high explosive bombs. The attack began with four ‘chandelier’ flares being dropped to illuminate their intended target. The attack continued with a steep dive and the release of the bombs. One hit the main runway and the other two fell into nearby fields. Some local property was damaged but fortunately there were no casualties. Engineers were working on the runways at the time disregarding the mandated dusk till dawn blackout. This presented the German pilots with an ideal target.

“I don’t think the Americans heard the siren, so I shouted ‘ put that light out’. The light stayed on, so I grabbed my gun and gave them a shot over the hut roof thinking perhaps that would help them. Again the light stayed on, so I fired a second shot directly at the hut roof, the light went out straight away!”

Mr Cobbold – Layer Marney Home Guard

Birch Home Guard 1940-1945 (Dad's Army)
Birch Home Guard 1940-1945 (Dad’s Army)

Although the incident caused only a minor delay in construction, it demonstrated how vulnerable the airfield could be.

Two months later in October, the overall command of the airfield was transferred from the US Eighth Air Force to the US Ninth Air Force, the Eighth now having sufficient for it’s needs. In all a total of nineteen airfields were transferred from the Eighth to the Ninth Air Force, including Earls Colne, the parent station to Birch.

The US Ninth Air Force was originally set up in Egypt in the autumn of 1942, to help support the war in the Mediterranean theatre. When the planned invasion of Europe was first conceived, which would ultimately happen in the summer of 1944, it was obvious that another Air Force, as well as the Eighth would be needed to sustain the momentum that had been established so far. This ‘other’ Air Force would provide the back up that this massive operation required.

The US Ninth Air Force was disbanded a year later and reformed in the UK on the 16th October 1943. At the same time the US 9th Engineer Command was born. This was set up with the view to following the planned invasion into Europe, building temporary airstrips and maintaining roads with the advancing front line. Numerous units from the Ninth Engineer Command would be based at Birch during 1944.

On December 10th 1943, the airfield came under attack again from German bombers. Junker JU 88’s and Dornier D0117’s dropped two 250kg and two 500kg high explosive bombs with delayed fuses from below 500 feet. The bombs straddled the runway and exploded causing damage to the airfield, farm buildings and civilian houses nearby. Once again no casualties were reported.

Towards the end of 1943, the 846th Aviation Engineer Battalion left Birch temporarily to work elsewhere. Smaller maintenance units were left behind to work on the accommodation and technical buildings. After completing a year of a strict construction programme, the airfield was well advanced with much of the concrete work complete changing the landscape for all time.

The work that had been achieved during the past twelve months was set to continue and 1944 would see the completion of the airfield, the arrival of its first combat aircraft and the accommodation and mess sites full to overflowing.

But 1943 wasn’t quite over yet. Two servicemen from one of the maintenance units’ still working on the ‘drome’ were about to shock the camp and make the newspaper headlines.