Regulars Only

Although the success of Operation Varsity contributed greatly to the end of conflict in Europe, the war continued in the east. On the assumption that British forces would be better deployed in that theatre, they were made ready and transported back to Britain. Here they would regroup and form ‘Tiger Force’ and prepare for shipment overseas. Five RAF Construction units would form part of Tiger Force. These were sent back to Birch mainly from Belgium via a journey that included road, rail and sea. It was at Birch that 5355 Airfield Construction Wing together with it’s associate squadrons, No’s 5002, 5009, 5017 and 5205 established camp and began preparations for movement to the east.

“Three weeks after VE Day, May 8th 1945, operators were assembled in the plant depot, the disused Siemens Elect factory at Zaventum Brussels. Airmen with time to do were sent back to the UK to form Tiger Force! Will be going to Okinawa and Singapore, but first liberty ship back to Tilbury. So called secret train journey with much blowing of captured bugles. Look out train window and see Marks Tey, many residents along railway in their gardens to welcome back liberation servicemen. Secret journey will end in Colchester, will be met by transport and WAAF drivers to take us to RAF Birch and then a meal and then a Nissen hut”

(James Chainey 5205 Plant Sq – 5355 AC Wing / Excerpt taken from scrapbook)

The airfield and camps were soon bursting at the seems with RAF personnel. All accommodation was quickly filled, so local people from the surrounding villages were asked to play host to a serviceman. He would live in with the family benefiting from all the home comforts and hospitality they could offer. This would help ease the congestion on the very overcrowded aerodrome.

These units spent several weeks through the summer training and being re-kitted for tropical warfare. Men were given ’hot weather’ uniform, inoculations against disease and stern lectures of do’s and don’ts whilst in Japan. As the weeks passed, a calmer and more relaxed atmosphere was noticeable among the men at Birch. The end of the war was in sight and demob day beckoned. It was rumoured that it could all be over before they had time to pack.

Airfield construction units consisted of men who were chosen from all walks of life and with a particular skill to offer. Mechanics and bricklayers etc who until recently were working close to the front line, were now responsible for the general maintenance of the camps in the area. They filled their time with mess and accommodation repairs and in particular staff quarters. These had taken a real battering where thousands of men had passed through the station during the previous two years. Carpenters built dozens of wooden crates which would be used to transport machinery and supplies. This was a complete contrast to what they had been doing, but still a job that needed to be done. Tradesmen were paid five shillings a day and like their American predecessors had little alternative but to spend it in the local pub.

“One memory I have of my stay at Birch is beer was in short supply. On the odd occasion my mates and I tried to get a drink down at Messing village. Each time as soon as we stepped into the pub, we were met with the greeting, sorry mate regulars only!”

(Jim Tofts – 5009 Airfield Construction Sqd)

“I delivered milk to offices on the airfield with the local dairyman Jim Balls of Stanway Hall Dairy. On Saturdays and school holidays we were frequently given sweets etc by the troops. I went to a few children’s parties there and again come home with sweets, a treat indeed in those war years. I lived opposite the Angel at Heckford Bridge at the time. I remember laying in bed unable to get to sleep due to the singing and sometimes fighting of the American Service men, that’s while the beer supply lasted. This pub did not have a locals only policy, the Yanks would pay more for the beer!”

Training continued at other airfields in the area, and at Earls Colne (parent station to Birch) they widened their training area to include Birch itself. On the 30th June 1945, Halifax aircraft from 297 Sqd gave a demonstration ‘Jeep drop’ to RAF and staff who were present.

“I recall the stir we caused when we went into Colchester in Khaki battle dress with either RAF forage caps or blue berets and RAF great coat’s. We looked like RAF Regiment without the shoulder flashes and confused the redcaps on Colchester mightily. The majority of our time at Birch was spent in getting equipment ready for the Far East; rumours were rife that we were going to aim for Okinawa to put down an airstrip so the US could use it to bomb the Japanese mainland. I remember our last night before we left for Liverpool. Eastern National put three double decker buses on to get about 2000 bodies back to camp, this caused some fun!”

(R Gordon (Tiny) Hebron – Airfield Construction RAF)

By the end of August 1945, about 50% of the servicemen at Birch had departed for the Far East. This consisted of mainly the ‘younger’ lads, the more ‘mature’ men, and some men with time still to serve were de-kitted from tropical scale and re-kitted for service in western Europe. For the lads who did make it to Singapore and Hong Kong, it was all over very quickly. Upon their arrival the two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been dropped and Japan had surrendered. On the 1st of September, the ones left behind received instructions to move to Wunstorf airfield near Hanover Germany. One week later on the 8th of September, convoys left RAF Birch for RAF Hornchurch. Here they had an overnight stop and then it was on to Tilbury docks and the Royal Navy embarkation birth, sailing at 17.00hrs.

The departure of the RAF brought to an end almost three years of military occupation at Birch. Between January 1943 and September 1945 it had been home to men of all nationalities who came from every conceivable background. Only security was left to ensure that no one got in, to what many men couldn’t wait to get out of!