West Row and The Air Base (RAF Mildenhall)
To appreciate the full effect on your village of having the RAF Mildenhall Air Base on your doorstep for more than 65 years it is best to have been posted there during your RAF or USAF service and be wise about what goes on there during your time, before your time and after it. There are many men and some women in this area who came here because, like me, they were posted here by the arm of the Government. The Station opened as a grass airfield on 16th October, 1934 with the brick hangars and associated buildings similar to other ones of the same vintage in the United Kingdom, still looking fresh and comfortable as they were some years ago.
Only a few days later on 20th October, 1934, 70,000 visitors descended upon Mildenhall as spectators of the first MacRobertson Great Air Race between Mildenhall and Australia, in which 20 aeroplanes participated. The De Havilland Company for this purpose produced 3 of the now famous 'Comet' machines, one of which, 'Grosvenor House' piloted by Scott and Campbell-Black, was the outright winner. It has now been refurbished and is in the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden. Another one which finished successfully was 'Black Magic' flown by Amy Johnson, the only female pilot of her time. As a result of this, there was once a cinema, called 'Comet' on the site now occupied by Jehovah Witnesses in Kingdom Hall opposite Ponsford's Garage in North Terrace, Mildenhall. Near to that was the De Havilland Company at Hatfield, Hertfordshire on the Great North A1 Road, was built on a corner the Public House called the 'Comet', which is still there.
Mrs Annie Bell at Worlington reported in 1934 that the first aeroplane to land at RAF Mildenhall was "monstrous'. It was a 14 seater Ford Tri-monoplane with 3 engines, which apparently had transported a shooting party from London towards the Iveagh Estate at Elveden. In its Centenary Book of 1993 the Royal Worlington & Newmarket Golf Club has a photograph of an Army aeroplane which had Landed there in 1913, having taken part in manoeuvres near Thetford. The photograph had been kindly provided by a West Row resident, the late Russell Mackender, who was 93 years old in 1993. The year after the Station had opened, it was the venue of the Annual RAF Review on 6th July, 1935, when King George V reviewed the dozens of aeroplanes representing the 38 squadrons, which were painted grey, stringy and powered by the internal combustion engine. On their way back to London some of his party spent time racing horses at Newmarket, with which they were quite familiar.
I spent only 14 months of my National Service at RAF Mildenhall in 1950-51, having been made a teacher in 6 weeks by the RAF School of Education for their Education Branch. I taught revision Mathematics to courses of Aircrew members who had served in the Second World War. In January, 1937 RAF Mildenhall had become the Headquarters of No. 3 Group of Bomber Command and although it was still there as a separate building in the Barracks Quarter in 1950, I was a member of the small Care & Maintenance Party which looked after the Station. On 11th July, 1950, during beautiful summer weather we were told that the next day 1,000 American members of the US Army Air Force were to move in, and they did. There was plenty of space and within 3 days they had established anti-aircraft emplacements around the perimeter of the base. When we enquired politely why this was so, we were told from under their helmets that "the Russians are coming to bomb us" This was the time when there was conflict in Korea and the situation was quite tense; my memories of that period include the heroism of the Gloucestershire Regiment and many days of negotiation at the end at Pyongyang.
The advent of the American Air Force at the base was not new to me as I had been stationed previously at RAF Sculthorpe in Norfolk, where they were there in strength with the B-29 Flying Fortresses. These aircraft then came to RAF Mildenhall from America, and the effect of having several thousand American 'cousins' in the area for the next 50 years, together with those already at RAF Lakenheath nearby, has been extremely beneficial to the local economy, and we have always had several of them living in the village with us at West Row since around 1950.
Living next to a major airbase, which for the Americans is 'Gateway to the United Kingdom' , as RAF Burtonwood in Lancashire used to be for some years, there is the obvious fear of having an aeroplane crash onto you or your property. Fortunately, there does not appear to have been any civilian casualties because of this, and it has happened only occasionally. I can remember getting out of the dental chair in 1950 to watch an exciting and daring attack' on the base by USAF Sabres from Germany, but one of them struck the tailfin of a parked bomber, cartwheeling along the runway into the road at Holmsey Green, Beck Row. An RAF Anson aircraft some years later crashed into the garage of Peacheys' bungalow in the Green, West Row, after taking off from what was the short runway in the North-South direction. It was a 3 Group communications aircraft.
Our American friends have now been with us for 50 years and we hope that their stay remains as enjoyable and worthwhile as it has been. The technology of their equipment has changed and improved dramatically: some of our very elderly members can remember the first Wright aeroplane flying and I can remember photographing the USAF SR Blackbird arriving at RAF Mildenhall on 28th July, 1976 after taking less than 2 hours ( 1hr 54min 56.4sec) to.fly direct from the USA to Farnborough, London at an average speed of 1806 mph. It was No. 972. What progress! And the RAF Red Arrows flight display is still to be seen to be believed
The Mildenhall Museum, opposite Bussens & Parkin's shop in King Street has an extremely interesting RAF Room upstairs, where more information about the influence of the Base since 1934 can be seen.
© Derek Eastham 6/12/99
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