by Peter A James
I am sure that every resident is aware that Great Massingham has its own airfield. Afterall, apart from the occasional light aircraft arriving and departing, there are also hangars on the skyline above the village. The things which probably make it unique are both its proximity to the village and also the fact that a great deal of the supporting structure was situated within the village itself.
The airfield first became operational in March 1936. It was finally closed and sold in February 1958 and was one of the first wartime airfields in Norfolk to be disposed of. The history of the establishment has been well documented, both by the Historical Society and in the book by Peter Gunn. But, what can still be seen today as you walk around our two villages? Obviously, access to the airfield itself is restricted, both as it is private property and because it is still active with aircraft movements. But, if you know where to look, a great deal still remains to the observant walker.
Starting out on Grimston Heath to the west is a solitary pillbox.
This is a standard Type 22 pillbox, built of brick with a concrete lining rendering it bullet proof. It is built on the southern edge of an old marl pit which would have aided its defence. In an emergency, it would have been manned by an N.C.O. and five soldiers armed with rifles or if they were lucky a Bren light machine gun. This is one of the most common designs of pillbox situated around or near to airfields.
Accommodation was scattered around the two villages. Very little of this now remains, but there are still clues to its locations if you care to look. One of the best is in Little Massingham at the fruit farm. Here was part of the scattered domestic site. A base for a Nissen hut is clearly visible, along with the ablution block, distinguishable by the remains of the plumbing and best of all an underground shelter.
The roof of this, once covered with soil is now revealed, whilst the interior is clean and dry. The main entrance was via brick stairs, whilst at the other end, an emergency exit was via a vertical ladder to the outside. WAAFS were accommodated separately behind the church and nothing now remains of this site. But on Station Road, there is a picket post with a blast-proof entrance as well as a small Maycrete store still standing.
Moving down Station Road and into Great Massingham, take a look at the building plot on the left between Mill Lane and the Village Hall. Here is a second personnel shelter or picket post similar to the one already mentioned.
Behind Abbey Fields, the land owner has obviously taken the opportunity to clear some of his arable land of debris. As a result, many foundations & drainage systems have been excavated from the field and are currently forming a large pile of hardcore behind Abbey Fields. This was once one of the main accommodation sites for the airfield. More hutting once existed where the two radio masts and the water towers now stand, served by the concrete road which again dates back to WWII.
On Walcups Lane there remains the largest collection of buildings. Outback Autos was once the gymnasium / chapel. It still features a wood block floor! Beyond this, many buildings, now derelict, still stand as well as the collapsed remains of air raid shelters. Here also are the remains of the squash courts. The Commanding Officers house and the sergeants mess have long disappeared though. Further on, along Mad Dog Lane, there are further wartime buildings, still in private use.
Now, return to the village centre and walk up Mill Lane to the airfield. At the top was the Watch Office or Control Tower, now sadly long gone. The two hangars, although built on the original sites, are replacements for the wartime ones. Most of the buildings and structures here have long been demolished, whilst Acorn Storage and other private firms occupy much of the site. But cross straight ahead, over the perimeter track and take a look into the edge of the woodland opposite. A few feet in, a square entrance can be discerned amongst the nettles and brambles. This is I believe a unique air-raid shelter, as it is constructed from half a steam engine boiler, buried in the ground, with brick supporting walls. If you care to fight your way into it you can make out the large boiler makers rivets in the roof!
There is also a large circle of concrete nearby. I believe that this covers the well which once served the windmill.
As you proceed down the right of way along the edge of the perimeter track, you are passing through what were once hard standings for aircraft, but many of these have now disappeared. Again, the hangar is now a modern one, but resides on the site of the original building.
When I told a friend of mine in Salisbury that I was moving to Great Massingham, he told me that he had just returned from the airfield here as he was researching his late Father’s wartime RAF service. He had found a letter, written to the lady who was to become his Mother, telling of how he was recovering from an injury caused by enemy action, sitting in the sunshine at dispersal, listening to the church choir practising. His Father had been part of the crew of a Blenheim IV.
Carrying on down to the Weasenham Road, you are passing through several more dispersal sites, but little if any evidence of these now remains.
For more of the airfield’s history, you now need to travel back out of the village along Rudham Road. Here, where the road turns sharp right and opposite the turkey farm, are more air-raid shelters. Here was the firing range as well as more hutted accommodation, but nothing of this now remains. But take a look at the hedge line on the airfield side of the road. There are three long shelters here, formed of concrete arches supported by concrete walls and covered with soil. They are long and narrow but were probably meant only to be used during the duration of an attack and not for long term shelter. At least two of them are still clean and dry, remaining fully serviceable.
But let us not forget the human cost connected with this site. In the churchyard of St. Andrew’s, Little Massingham, are the Commonwealth War Graves of seven aircrew who died during WWII.
Finally, I am sure that there is much more in the form of sites still undiscovered around the airfield. If anyone knows of these, I would be very interested to hear from you. BUT, please remember, much of this is either an active airfield or private property, so if you choose to explore, please respect both the landowners’ property and agricultural land equally.
Aerial images courtesy of Denys Winner