70th Anniversary Service at Grafton Underwood

Friday 22 May 2015 marks the 70th Anniversary
of the return of USAF Grafton Underwood
to the RAF.

Between 200 and 300 hundred people attended the Memorial on the Geddington Road in rather overcast, but warm weather, a very different sort to that that greeted the American Air Force in 1942. So wet was it, and for so long, that it was often called Grafton Undermud.

The morning started with a gathering of such a variety of people, some catching up on news from colleagues, others greeting familiar friends.

The ceremony commenced with County Councillor Jim Harker giving a welcome speech to all present, especially our American friends. He also praised the work of volunteer Keith Flecknor, who maintains the Memorial and surrounding area.  This was followed by a response from Colonel Mellars, the Installation Commander at RAF Croughton. He commented that the motto for the 384th BG was  ‘Keep the Show on the Road’ and that was exactly what the USAF forces did when they arrived in 1942. He was particularly pleased to see so many children there (there were two classes) because they are the future and it was important for them to know what happened in the past.  He continued: Freedom isn’t a guarantee, it has to be earned and, in some cases, fought for. That is what we did when we came here.” A short history of the airfield was given by historian, Matt Smith.

The Service of Commemoration started with prayers and a reading, before wreaths were laid on behalf of the USAF, the RAF, NCC and Boughton Estates.  The congregation consisted of many local residents, of course, but we also welcomed some American relatives of those servicemen that flew from and worked at USAF Grafton Underwood, plus one veteran, Bill Toombs, a B-17 engineer, formerly based at Ipswich. He has been visiting all 41 USAF Bases this year.

The Last Post was played by Bandleader Keith Norman of the Salvation Army, followed by a 2 minute silence and Reveille. The Lord Lieutenant, David Laing, then read out those emotive words from the poem by Robert Binyon:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

 The National Anthems were then sung, and NCC had thoughtfully provided the words of the Star Spangled Banner. Closing prayers were given by the Vicar of Grafton Underwood, The Rev Daniel Foot.

Finally it was time for the Finale – the flypast of a B-17 Bomber and it didn’t disappoint, with many loops, the dozens of photographers must have caught some exceptional footage of the flight.


B-17 The Final farewell with streaming smoke
B-17 The Final farewell with streaming smoke

384th Bomber Group
384th Bomber Group

The Grafton Underwood Airfield was built in 1941 by George Wimpey & Co Ltd and was originally designated a satellite to RAF Polebrook (where Major Clark Gable was based).

Area map of the base
Area map of the base

Changes were made in order that the Base could accommodate the USAF.  There were three runways, a perimeter track and 38 frying pan-type dispersals. Two roads had to be closed to accommodate the runways: the Geddington Road and the Brigstock Road.  The main runway was 6000ft in length, which brought it up to A Class Bomber airfield standard – a requisite for what was to come in the following years. The other two runways were 5200ft and 4200ft.

Breakfast on the Base
Breakfast on the Base

The living quarters were in Grafton Park woods along with the dining areas, officers’ club and mess, the Foxy Cinema, a hospital and other amenities.

The first Americans arrived in July 1942 with their B17 Bombers and the first raid by the 8th Air Force Heavy Bombing Group, was on 17 August 1942 in which twelve B17s took part.

Handover of the Base to the USAF
Handover of the Base to the USAF

It wasn’t until June 1943 that the 384th Bombing Group arrived,  under the command of Colonel Bud I. Peaslee, a popular figure. Formal possession of the Base by the USAF, took place on 5 July 1943.

Another popular arrival was Major William ‘Pop’ Dolan, who had served in the 1st World War as a pilot, but was now  in the Army Air Force as an Intelligence Officer, where he briefed crews before raids and questioned them when – if – they returned.

The 'P' in the tail fin was the registration letter for USAF Grafton Underwood
The ‘P’ in the tail fin was the registration letter for USAF Grafton Underwood

Crews flew by day and night over the next two years with the first bombing of Berlin undertaken by the 384th in March 1944 – their 72nd mission.  By 30 March 1945 they had undertaken 300 missions and the last bombs dropped by the 384th on enemy territory, took place on 25 April 1945.  During their two year stay, they had lost 159 aircraft and 1625 personnel.

A quote from an airfield engineer reads: “Where there’s construction, there’s mud; where there’s war, there’s mud; where there’s construction and war, there’s hell.”

By July 26 1945, the station was relinquished by the USAF and formally returned to RAF Wittering as an inactive B Class airfield.  It was eventually sold back to Boughton Estates who reverted it back to its original use as agricultural land.

The memorial is sited on the Western end of the main runway on Geddington Road. This was dedicated on 25 September 1977: two avenues of trees were planted nearby and were named Peaslee Avenue and Pop Dolan Avenue.

The B-17 that gave us a brilliant flypast, is called the Sally B, and is based at the Imperial War Museum Duxford in Cambridgeshire.  B-17 Flying Fortress G-BEDF Sally B – to give it its full name is the last remaining airworthy B-17 in Europe. It is maintained by the B-17 Preservation Group, with the help of a dedicated team of volunteers and the backing of one of the largest supporters clubs of its kind in the world.  It is maintained by Chief Engineer Peter Brown and his team of volunteers, and flown by volunteer experienced professional pilots.

The bomber attends many Air Shows and Flypasts each year continuing its main aim in life, which is to pay tribute to all those young airman who gave their lives during the 2nd World War. The Captain who was piloting the Sally B today was Peter Kuypers. He has been flying for more than 22 years and is well known as a display pilot, flying hundreds of displays in numerous countries. He is currently a Captain with KLM, the Royal Dutch Airlines, flying an Airbus A330.

Websites worth visiting:

Round the Clock ISBN 1-84188-128-7
Airfield Focus 44: Grafton Underwood ISBN –870384-84-9

2 comments on “70th Anniversary Service at Grafton Underwood

  • Excellent reporting Pam and great photos. Thank you for getting it out so promptly.
    Many thanks, too, to GVFB for the marquee, speedily erected and just as speedily taken down tonight.
    Really good effort.

  • Adetunbo Akaji says:

    I feel very honoured to have been there. A very fitting tribute to all those who gave their lives for our freedom. May their souls continue to rest in peace. Thanks for covering and sharing the event. Tunbo Akaji

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