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Headcron Airfield. Part Three: activity and events 1944 onwards

by medwaylibraries

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Alan Palmer
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Headcorn Airfield, Kent
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07 October 2004

Foxen woods near Egerton House were used to store ammunition, but I'm not sure if bombs were stored there. It was known as the ordnance dump. I'm sure Smarden woods were camouflaged for bomb storage for the local airfields. Each evening five or six 6 wheeled Chevrolet trucks would leave the airfield loaded with Americans enroute for Rochester and Maidstone for clubs and dancing etc.

The Americans put up rather a large Butler hangar, metal framed covered by canvas just behind the Badgers, where Cyn and Gerry Cardno now live. One afternoon, soon after the Thunderbolts arrived, Bedlam Lane was something like the M25. All along the lane Chevrolet lorries were parked nose to tail, all had black drivers and all moved off after dark. Later we noticed the East/West runway was floodlit. In the morning we noticed that the wire netting runway had been taken up and a new metal one laid, already in use! The lorries in the lane the previous day had been loaded with metal planking for the new runway.

The Americans had an accident almost every day either taking off or landing, sometimes with tragic consequences. One afternoon, May 12th 1944 Thunderbolts were taking off three abreast from north to south when one developed a problem. Two got up but the third eventually came down the runway and tried to climb sharply to his left to catch up with the other two. He collided with the top of a large oak tree, which caused the plane to lose height across a field between Watersheet Farm and Kingsden. The plane took the top off an ash tree and came to rest in the next field- minus its' wings, tail, and engine, only the cockpit was still intact. The pilot, Lieutenant Donald Gripple broke many bones and died some days later.

On another occasion, June 7th at 4am, planes were taking off east to west heading for Normandy. One plane veered off the runway and crashed into the parked Thunderbolts. Another got off the ground but half a mile later lost height and crashed into an oast house at Southernden. The photo is there for you to see- the pilot Lieutenant Hamlin miraculously survived.

There were gun sites, anti-aircraft guns and machine guns spaced out around the airfield. I made friends with the gunners on a site on the far side of the south end of the runway from Kingsden. Most evenings I took them milk usually a gallon, in an open bucket. I also took eggs and home made butter. I carried it on my bicycle across the runway, checking first that no planes were taking off or landing. I had to cycle past dispersal of three Thunderbolts, the airmen always spoke but never questioned me!

One plane I particularly remember during this time was often taxiing to its dispersal point, crossing in front of me with its canopy slid open. The pilot would be wearing sunglasses and always gave me a wave. The squadron letters were E4P with "Lady Phyllis" painted on the side in front of the cockpit. Ever since, I have wondered what happened to this plane and pilot. Eventually, as a result of my request in the 362 Fighter Group Newsletter in the Autumn of 2000, I received a letter from Colonel Magoffen in America informing me that "Lady Phyllis" and her pilot Joe Lane, had been his wingman. "Phyllis" was Joe's wife. What a coincidence, it was Colonel Magoffen who had sat at our table in June 1998 as I will refer to later!

The Thunderbolts left for a French base in Normandy on July 19th 1944. The only personnel left were a group of auxiliary firemen, living under canvas on the edge of a pond in Tilden Hales' field, now part of Clarke Hills Farm. On the night of the 19th/20th, a doodlebug came down on the edge of the pond, the firemen were uninjured but badly shaken. It is possible that the doodlebug had been shot down by a fighter.

As I mentioned previously, when the Thunderbolts arrived, there were 84 green planes, when they left for France only 4 green planes were left. The rest consisted of replacement silver planes. By July 20th, all the Americans had left for bases in France. The airfield was just a ghostly open space.

At about lam on a very foggy Sunday morning in September 1944 a Hawker Tempest landed near Kingsden Farm and so I made it my business to inspect the plane. I met the pilot, a New Zealander wearing an RAF uniform coming out of the fog. He told me he had run short of fuel and was unable to reach his base at Manston. He had shot down two VIs the second exploding in front of him, which resulted in the plane being scratched from front to back as he flew through the debris. Out of ammunition he encountered a third V I that he destroyed by flying alongside and tipping its wing with his wing tip. The V l became unstable and crashed to the ground. He encountered two more V Is, which he disposed of in the same manner! Now short of fuel as well as being out of ammunition explained why he landed near Kingsden. The pilot telephoned Manston from the farmhouse to notify them of the situation and joined us for breakfast and lunch! The laborious task of refuelling his plane was done using 4-gallon cans carried from a lorry to the plane. Once refuelled he departed, but not before giving us an air display!

We and other farmers were able to put cattle out to graze, there were no boundary fences but the cattle seemed to know their restrictions. The War Agriculture Committee took on the job of trying to bring the land back into some useful condition. Well, they tried but left a great deal for us to do. A gentleman, Bill Smith of Headcorn operated a dragline to dig out all the ditches, originally there was one around every field. Remember these had been filled with brick rubble in the spring of 1943. This was spread over the fields. Eventually some ground was ploughed, reseeded and fenced. These fences consisted of small posts and five strands of wire, which soon rusted and fell apart.

One field in particular where the quarry waste had been dumped and spread over was ploughed for two years. We had to spend hours picking up stones and dock roots. This had to be done frequently to keep the weeds under control, but it also prevented us growing a crop. The 30-foot wide taxiing track, which ran along alongside the runway and the road that ran parallel, are still there. Another field of about seven acres had 300 hours spent on it collecting rubble by bucket, which in turn was transported by trailer to Kingsden and Burnt House Farm to provide good firm yards. We were nearly back to normal.

The wire netting used on the runways was taken up, rolled and stacked in neat rows. Later some scrap dealers, who I believe came from Croydon arrived with a lorry and a small crane. On by one they removed the rolls, unrolled them and retrieved the iron rods. The wire netting was then re-rolled and the iron rods loaded onto their lorry. The overloaded lorry carried out many journeys, departing each day at 4pm. The iron rods being the most valuable were transported first, with the less desirable wire netting being left to last.
Early in 1992 our "wing" was invited as guests of the Canadian 421 Tactical Fighter Squadron at CFB Baden-Soellingen, West Germany for their Squadrons 50th anniversary and Close Down weekend on June 1 st. We were to spend May 29th to June 2nd as special guests, accommodated within the camp. As Friday 29th May drew nearer it became obvious that I would not be able to accompany Sheila and the rest of the wing due to sheep shearing and silage making, but after discussing it with our Chairman, Sheila's friend Iris was allowed to accompany her instead. She recorded the following

"The 29th dawned and found our party flying to Frankfurt Airport where we were met and continue our journey to the camp in a rather uncomfortable, wooden seated camp bus. We were greeted by Lieutenant Colonel WM Stacey and other officers of the 421 Red Indian Squadron. We were joined by former squadron mates who were there to re-kindle old friendships. After refreshments and introductions we were shown to our billets among the pine trees.

The squadron has had a rich history spanning 50 years from its inception at Digby, Lincolnshire, England on the 9th April 1942 to its fourth disbandment on this weekend June Ist 1992. The CFI 8 era, although relatively short, saw 421 Squadron fly over 25,000 accident free hours, no easy task when training for war and maintaining a reputation as the best in NATO.
For security we were distributed with name badges, which were to be worn always while within the camp.

The following day we were taken to the nearest town, a most picturesque place. In the evening we were guests at a dinner-dance held in the base Arena,- a wonderfully friendly evening with excellent food and music. It was very late when we made our way back to our billets, with much difficulty may I say!!

Sunday morning, after a stroll around the many roads, all named after Canadian towns, Toronto, Winnipeg etc., we reported to the Ambassador Lounge for a champagne brunch. In the evening we were guests at the "Engel" in Schwarzach, another most enjoyable occasion with many speeches and exchanges of gifts. References were made to our "Wing" and its work, hostings and the memorial. Our Chairman, Dr. H Teeds gave a speech on our behalf and expressed our many thanks for our invitations and their hospitality.

Monday arrived, the most important day. Tiered seating provided us with wonderful viewing of the Centre Dispersal. Large hats and smart dress were the order of the day.

The Fall In of parade was followed by the arrival of guests and the Squadron Standards marched on. We all stood for the arrival of the Receiving Officer, Lieutenant General D Huddleston, CMM CD, Commander Air Command, followed by the General Salute. The inspection followed. The presentation of streamers and the address by the Reviewing Officer were most emotional, as was the march past and fly past of the 421 Tactical Fighter Squadron. After the march past of 4 Fighter Wing, the Advance and General salute, the Reviewing Officer departed and we left our seats for the Reception. I did my best to video this wonderful occasion, thus I have some visual record. After a free afternoon, we had supper at the 421 Squadron.

On Tuesday June 2nd, after lunch at the Mess, we left for our flight home. We were exhausted having eaten and so much delicious food and drunk so much wine and champagne. I shall never forget the sight of so many proud men, be-medalled and ribboned, wearing so much gold braid and being able to chat with so many of them."

On June 3rd 1998, Sheila and I were invited to Wormingford in Suffolk to attend the opening of the Lucash hangar by Prince Philip. Lucash had been a parachute rigger on this airfield during 1944. Wormingford is now used for civil gliding. Prince Philip arrived by helicopter in the pouring rain, promptly at l0am, to perform his duty.

During 1943 Wormingford had become a Thunderbolt base, and it was from there in 1944 that 87 thunderbolts were transferred down to our airfield.

Whilst at Wormingford, we had the pleasure of talking to five pilots who flew from Egerton. One of them, Colonel Morton Magoffen, joined us a few days later at home for lunch and to visit the Memorial. Although in his 80s he excitedly related the following event he had experienced whilst flying from here; He had led a group that had taken off at 4am on June 7th 1944, the day following "D-day". Their task was to act as escort for Dakotas towing gliders to land in Normandy. The day was memorable because one of the planes went down half a mile from the end of the runway, crashing into an oast house at Southernden. There is a photograph of this event on one of the sheets. He remembered radioing the control tower at the time to notify them one of his planes had crashed, into what he believed to be a house. He requested that they keep him informed whilst he circled the area awaiting the formation of the squadron. Shortly he was notified that the pilot was ok. Upon hearing this the Colonel informed them that this could not possibly be the one he had witnessed go down, as there was little chance of the pilot surviving at all. However, the pilot, whose name was Hamlin, had survived, suffering only a few cuts and bruises. The Colonel showed a great deal of interest in the photograph as he had no idea that one existed!

The Memorial in Bedlam Lane.
Andrew, our middle son, was serving an apprenticeship as an engineering fitter with Maidstone Corporation. During a conversation with an Inspector about airfields during the War Andrew informed him of this one. He subsequently set up a group to remember the Canadians, planning permission was granted, and the design of the Memorial accepted. Since then, the Memorial has been visited by many people, including Canadians and Americans, some of whom had served here and others have come to see where their fathers and grandfathers served.

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