Raydon Airfield
Raydon Airfield 1943 - 1945
A 358th P47 Thunderbolt - March 1944
Fifty five years ago the 'Yanks' arrived at Raydon. A few, at first, disembarked from the steam train after their long journey to Raydon Station. The parishes of Raydon and Gt Wenham, until then sleepy Suffolk villages, were to change dramatically. Things would never be quite the same again! Far from home, the first Americans were engineers of the 833rd and 862nd
Battalions. Most were in their late teens or early twenties and had been sent with one purpose; to construct an airfield capable of being home to the escort fighters that would one day bring Victory in Europe. The troops were never distant or over disciplined and, as work progressed, soon made many
A pilot's eye view of Raydon Airfield.
friends in the local district when they visited the nearby towns and villages. Construction work on the site that was christened 'Camp Chicago' went on throughout 1942 and into 1943 until on 3rd December Raydon's first American Squadrons arrived.

The Flyboys and their ground support of the 357th Fighter Group came to Raydon with ex RAF P-S lB Mustangs.

For the two months that they were to stay, the group was involved primarily with training flights but did manage to fly several combat missions under the protective wing of other more experienced groups. One notable member of the 357th at this time was Lt Charles 'Chuck' Yeager, famous in later life for breaking the sound barrier and holding several airspeed records.
P47 Thunderbolt SX - B
As January 1944 drew to a close the Mustangs of the 35 7th were replaced by the larger, heavier Thunderbolts of the 358th Fighter Group. A full group complement of these large aircraft brought quite a change for the local population. Again, however, they were to be a short staying group, moving south in April to give air support for the D-Day landings.
The month of April also saw the beginning of Raydon's association with the 353rd Fighter Group with their P-47Thunderbolts and later their P-51 Mustangs, which were used in the capacity of escort fighters. To the bombers they escorted these 'Little Friends' were to become a most welcome sight in the hostile skies over Europe.
Captured ME109 visiting Raydon for combat training.
Flying escort missions into enemy territory was often fraught with danger. Lt Bayard C Auchincloss tells of one particular mission.

"We were flying at about 15000ft when someone spotted an ME109 below us. Two of us went after him but he went into a cloud, the chase was on ducking from cloud to cloud.
Finally we came to a patch of clear sky and I managed to get close enough to fire a few bursts. The ME109 led me right through a flak belt over an airfield and I had to take evasive action. The time I spent dodging the flak was all he needed to make good his escape. When I got my bearings I was about a hundred miles from friendly territory and very much alone expecting the whole Luftwaffe at any minute".
Thunderbolts of 352 Sqn ready for take-off
Lt William T McGarry was on another Group escort mission, this time supporting bombers going to Paris.

"We had been flying over enemy territory for some time and the Luftwaffe seemed to give us a wide berth, today's mission seemed the same, take 'em and bring 'em back. Everything was fine for our 'Big Friends' until the bombers headed for home.
Flying at about 23000ft we spotted 20 ME109's. We screamed down in a 400 mph dive shooting at the nearest one. With a little too much speed we overshot straight into a dog fight.
A typical group briefing
With an ME109 on my tail I made a tight turn and he followed me and we ended up flying in a big circle, the old merry-go-round manoeuvre, only I unfortunately was head man. We were by this time almost at ground level and had to keep dodging trees and buildings. At last he made a mistake and started to climb so I pulled in behind him and opened up. The pilot opened his canopy and bailed Out at which point his plane dove into the ground and blew up".
The dangers of flying over long distances didn't only come from the enemy. Lt Clinton Sperry of the 35 2nd Squadron remembers one such occasion.
"On a bomber escort mission to Brunswick I noticed my P-47's oil temperature running high and climbing into the red. At 12000 ft and about 40 to 50 miles from the English coast it was clear I had to turn back. I announced on the radio 'Slybird. . .Red Leader leaving formation'. Within minutes the engine began shaking and came to a full stop".

At this point Lt Sperry was advised by the Group Leader to bail out and wait for Air Sea Rescue but he had other ideas. -"I was not ready to test the waters of the North Sea and was determined to get as close to home as I could.

A Thunderbolt's huge Pratt & Whitney Radial R2800 engine
By holding my speed up I could control the aircraft and hoped to belly in on the marshes between Orford Ness and Felixstowe.
350th Thunderbolts taxi and land.
At the coast I still had 2000ft and so saw nearby Martlesham Heath as a possibility. The runways however forced an urgent decision, all three were lined with the 356th Fighter Group ready for take off. I had time for a 90 degree positioning turn to do a parallel approach to the runway. The gear was down in seconds followed by full flaps. My aircraft dropped hard into the soft boundary turf and rolled, stopping well short of the runway where the 356th continued to take off.
A jeep pulled up and the Group Colonel lit me a cigarette and handing it to me said 'I never would have believed it', then with a simple thumbs up he drove off to his departing group".
As Spring turned to Summer, talk was of the invasion of occupied Europe. The electric atmosphere was felt by pilots and ground personnel alike. Rumours ran wild until in June all leave was cancelled and the men were confined to base. The missions for the Group were, at this time, to have the added complication of attacking the enemy on the ground. This was extremely dangerous work as the pilots faced not only hazardous flying at low level but extremely accurate ground fire. More 353rd pilots were lost on this type of mission than in the escorting of bombers.
A thundebolt loaded with fragmentation bombs.
Preparation for D-Day meant the group's Thunderbolts having black and white stripe markings painted on their wings and fuselages. All Allied fighters would carry these markings as identification for the invasion. A 350th Squadron Radio Technician Bob Ladewig remembers painting those stripes.
"It was June 5th I believe, right after noon mess, we were sent over to the main hangar and there we found a group of planes chalk striped out at intervals".

"We were given black and white paint and told to get painting inside the chalk marks. Along about evening mess we were just about finished up when along came Lt Col Rimmerman on his motorcycle.

Work underway at the main hangar to keep the aircraft flying.
He came to a sliding halt and told us to stop, the stripes were in the wrong place. He conferred with the Sergeant in charge and we were told to repaint them in the proper place. The Sergeant had better ideas and sent us to evening mess and while we were gone spray painted out the stripes. When we got back to the hangar we were given brushes and started again, finishing at midnight. The next day our guys were in the air".
On 6th June 1944 (D-Day) flying started at 3 am and was some of the most exhausting and exciting the Group had seen. As the invasion pressed on they were called to fly more and more missions to ensure success for the ground forces. Lt Gerald Devine remembered this period and the time he learnt about flak. "We had been flying 3 or 4 missions a day, hopping across the Channel and hammering the rail traffic, truck convoys, bridges and tunnels, in fact anything of a military nature.
Armourers loading 500lb bombs ready for the next mission.
On this day we had to hit a marshalling yard so we took off with two 500 pound bombs slung under our wings. The weather was bad but it was essential to knock out the yard.
352nd Squadron Thunderbolts ready for take-off.
When we got to the target they were really waiting for us. I was leading a three ship flight and as we roared down it seemed to me that an almost solid wall of steel sprang up".
"My number two was hit and his plane began to burn and then my number three crashed straight into the middle of the yard. I could feel the slugs biting into my ship and I knew I had been hit.
Later I found that two 20mm shells had gone right through my prop and had knocked three cylinders out. When I got back I counted 113 holes in my plane".

Flying over France shortly after D-Day Lt Grover McGlaughlin remembers a mission with two 500 pound bombs and orders to shoot up targets behind enemy lines.

Safely home.
"On the way we were spotted by two ME109's. I followed my element leader in a diving head on attack and watched him shoot one of the aircraft down.

His aircraft was damaged in the attack so we turned for home but ran into more ME109's. We radioed for help but we were mixing it up straight away.

I dived through the clouds and let an ME109 have it when he dropped out of the overcast. I pulled up and there, big as life, was another. I was so close I couldn't miss. When I looked round to get my bearings I discovered I was right over an airfield with four planes lined up.
CAROLENE The Thunderbolt flown by Lt Milligan (351st Sqn)
There was plenty of flak but I made six passes and managed to damage all four. Every time I made a pass I noticed the flak gunners would stop firing and run for cover. I didn't understand this until later when over the radio came the message 'One P-47 is still carrying two bombs'. I thought what a dope, no wonder the gunners ran for cover. I?d flown the whole mission with my bombs still attached, I had been a flying powder keg".
War is never one sided and the 353rd were to get a sobering reminder on June 12th when the group lost eight pilots including a Squadron Commander. Over France the Group were bounced, whilst attacking ground targets, by a gaggle of ME109's. Hopelessly outnumbered the young pilots were fighting for their lives.
Lt Geurtz flipped his Thunderbolt whilst landing.
Captain James Ruscitto remembers "We dove through some holes in the clouds and were preparing to bomb a truck when 30 109's came screaming out of the clouds. They were right on our tails and couldn't miss. I saw two P-47's hit the ground and explode. I went up through a cloud layer and ran head on into 9 more enemy planes. I headed straight into their formation and opened fire. They split every which way.
I started to head for home when I heard somebody on the radio say 'There goes a '47 with 6 on his tail'. I looked round and realised it was me they were talking about. If ever a situation called for evasive action, this was it. I did every trick in the book and finally managed to lose them".

Lt Edwin Reinhardt was flying that day with the 352nd Squadron. "My flight leader called in the bandits over the intercom so I jettisoned my bombs, belly
tanks and pulled up into a steep climb for position. I was beaten to it and when I looked back there were three 109's on my tail. I could see their noses blinking, which meant their 20mm cannons had opened up on me. I levelled off at 8000ft and began to search for help but all I heard on the radio were calls for help.

I racked around in a tight turn and when the first hits struck I felt the ship tremble as the shells slammed in. I looked at my right wing and saw that the flap was blown off, the enemy just stuck to me like glue.

Mustangs over Raydon.
Flames burst from my wings on either side of the cockpit, if they spread I?d be blown to bits. I dived so that the rushing air might put the flames out and levelled off at less than fifty feet. I played leap frog amongst the trees and high tension wires to escape.
Belly landing 20th March 1945.
The fire was out so I climbed to 9000ft and headed for home, crash landing at Wattisham. It was then that I realised how lucky I had been. After leaving the plane I felt a pain in my right side from some fragments of a 20 mm shell that had hit".

The start of July brought another great loss to the Group. While flying an escort mission on the 7th Colonel Duncan was shot down by flak.

As the Group's escort time slot ended the 351st Squadron attacked an airfield next to Steinhunder Lake in Germany. The Colonel's aircraft was hit and began to lose oil. With no hope of getting home he gave a running commentary of what was happening to the aircraft as it lost altitude. He managed to crash land and waved his Group off with the words "I'm on the ground, G'bye fellas".
Attempts were made to land but there was nowhere suitable. Colonel Duncan evaded capture and worked with the Dutch underground until he returned to the Group later in the war.

Operations continued throughout August and into September when the 353rd helped to support the ill fated Allied parachute landings in Holland. The flying was again intense, one pilot bellied in two days running, one came home with his aircraft completely covered in oil, whilst a third had flown so low that he brought home wire with a telegraph pole attached.

Mustangs of the 350th Squadron flying in formation.
At this time the Group converted to the P-51D Mustang. Whilst not as resilient as the P-47 it had greater range and was more manoeuvrable. Pilots in some cases flew missions with no prior instruction on the type, so in the words of one "It certainly became a learning experience".
Mustangs after a taxi collision.
The bad winter of 1944-45 severely limited Allied Operations, although the 353rd continued to escort the bombers over the continent. With the New Year came the hope that the war would soon end but until that day came it was business as usual. Major Blickenstaff returned from a mission with his hydraulic system shot out and remembers making a tricky one wheel landing at Raydon.
"The worst worry was that no one knew what would happen. There had been lots of one wheel landings in 47's but evidently mine was the first in a P-51. Ben (Rimmerman, then Group CO) was in the tower talking to me and gave two choices, either take it out over the water and bail out or try to land and
see what would happen. I figured I'd be a lot more comfortable dry and in the cockpit! As it happened, nothing unusual took place and it was probably the best landing I ever made".

With the war drawing to a close the Group's job was almost done. A last escort mission was flown to Berchtesgarden, Hitler's mountain retreat on the 24th March 1945. In Europe the smashed remains of a once mighty military machine finally surrendered to Allied forces on the 7th May bringing to a close six years of war.

The Group stayed at Raydon for a further five months preparing for the trip home but by September the Chequered nosed Mustangs had left Raydon with the majority of ground personnel gone by October. Raydon during its life as an operational station had been host to three different fighter groups, all who flew escort and ground attack missions, claiming a major part in bringing Victory in Europe.

Reunion visits the memorial
Below you can see pictures of the memorial being built.