Carefully sited in the village churchyard, the simple plaque is a record of a now distant spring day when the violence of war fell from the sky. It lists ten Americans killed on 22 April 1944 when their aircraft – a B-24 Liberator – was shot down by pursuing German aircraft. They were returning from a mission and were just 20 miles from the safety of their base at Seething in Norfolk. The plaque was dedicated in April 2010.
When I learnt of its unveiling, I just knew I had to attend. I was writing a book about how the wartime American presence in Britain had been commemorated, and this plaque brought it all so close to home.
The village in question – Kessingland, in north Suffolk – was my childhood home, the place where my fascination with the Second World War had begun. I spent many a weekend cycling to the wartime airfields located nearby, the fading outlines of which still dot the Ordnance Survey map sheets. These are evocative places of ruined runways and decaying buildings, locations haunted by history.
The Americans who flew from these airfields – members of the famed Eighth Air Force – were part of the immense aerial armada established in Britain to deliver destruction to the industry and infrastructure of Nazi Germany. Flying high in the frozen skies of Europe, the Eighth’s aircrews endured fear, frostbite, and mortal danger. They flew and fought.
And their presence in the largely rural counties of eastern England had profound consequences for local life: half a million ‘Yanks’ were based in the region by the spring of 1944. And then, in the autumn of 1945, with the war in Europe won, they left.
Yet this presence has left its mark in the form of the many memorials erected in the Eighth’s memory over the last 80 years. They take various forms, from simple plaques like that in Kessingland, to polished granite tablets, to stunning stained-glass windows. Below are my Top Ten.
In composition it is of course both selective and highly personal. But it is nonetheless suggestive of the diverse ways in which the wartime presence of the ‘Mighty Eighth’ has been commemorated in eastern England.
These memorials are signposts to a momentous history now drifting over the horizon. For anyone seeking a pilgrimage to the wartime past, they are eminently worthy destinations, places of quiet contemplation and sombre reflection.
On a crisp winter’s day when the sky is blue and the sunlight bright, the window glows. Designed by an American based at nearby Snetterton Heath – Sergeant Gerald Athey – and executed in stained glass by English artist Reginald Bell, the window features an image of an airman looking up to Christ after having made his supreme sacrifice. At the bottom is a rural landscape of fields and hedgerows together with a village scene featuring the tower of St Andrew’s Church, Quidenham, the very building within which the window itself was unveiled in November 1944.
This window – the focal point of a small memorial chapel for the 96th Bomb Group (BG) – was rededicated in May 1946 during a service of remembrance broadcast by the BBC World Service, with commentary provided by Richard Dimbleby, one of the leading war correspondents of the day.
The 96th BG had arrived in the region in June 1943, and by the war’s end over 900 of their number had been killed in action. Sergeant Athey’s window, amongst the very first of the memorials in eastern England to the US Eighth Air Force, is a powerful reminder that the idea of an Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ (a phrase popularised by Winston Churchill around the very same time) found expression in post-war commemoration.
Martlesham Heath, Norfolk
The Eighth Air Force did not just include bombers; it also had integrated fighter units, amongst the very first of which were based at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk. The airfield was originally earmarked for American use in 1942, and by 1943 the 356th Fighter Group (FG) – flying P-47 Thunderbolts – was in residence (later transitioning to P-51 Mustangs). The Group remained at Martlesham until late 1945, after which the base reverted to RAF use.
In June 1946, a memorial recording their wartime presence was unveiled, an occasion notable for the various ‘Top Brass’ who attended, including the Commander of United States Air Forces in Europe, Major-General Idwal H Edwards.
As at Quidenham, the dedication ceremony was a celebration of Anglo-American comradeship, a theme also now expressed by the memorial site itself, which features three tablets: one listing the names of the Americans killed flying from the field (unveiled in 1945); another recording the wartime service of RAF comrades (unveiled in 1990); and a third providing some details of the bases’ history (unveiled more recently).
The first tablet was a gift of a British couple – the Herveys – who had established close connections with many of the Americans based at Martlesham. It was placed on the old parade ground close to the 1930s-era administrative buildings. Above the names of those killed is an inscription recording that the monument was erected by the ‘British friends’ of the 356th FG.
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
Many of the young Americans posted to eastern England between 1942 and 1945 spent their free time on furlough in London or at dances in some of the region’s towns and cities. Such moments provided an escape from the demands of war. But for some of their number – such as Sergeant John Appleby, based near Bury St Edmunds – the region also offered other distractions.
Green and verdant in summer, cold and brisk in the winter, eastern England was (and is) a history-laden landscape dominated by the imposing ecclesiastical architecture of the medieval era. Church towers sail across the wide and expansive skies. These were the destinations to which Sergeant Appleby – keenly interested in medieval history – was frequently drawn.
During his stay he cycled to many of the churches close to his base, and later published details of his wartime wanderings as Suffolk Summer (1948), the proceeds of which he donated to local people, who used them to build and maintain a memorial garden to the American airmen killed flying from nearby bases.
This ‘English Rose Garden’, a quiet and peaceful spot amongst the ruins of Bury’s medieval monastery, later acquired a stone monument in memory of the 94th Bomb Group, based at Rougham to the east of the town. Unveiled in 1977, the monument is dedicated to those Americans ‘who gave their lives during World War II’.
Most of the memorials built in memory of the Eighth Air Force are the work of parish councils, local enthusiasts, and American veterans’ groups. But one is different: the American military cemetery at Madingley, just outside Cambridge, officially opened by the Queen in the summer of 1956.
Built and maintained by an agency of the Federal Government – the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) – Madingley is not technically a memorial to the Eighth Air Force. Rather, it is the burial ground for all those American service-personnel killed whilst based in Britain (and whose next-of-kin did not request the repatriation of their remains to the United States).
But the cemetery – the only one of its kind established in Britain after 1945 – was sited here because of the USAAF concentration in eastern England, and many of the 3,811 burials are from the Eighth Air Force. Hence why Madingley has become known as the ‘Eighth Air Force cemetery’.
The visitor enters the cemetery site near a reflecting pool reminiscent of that on the Mall in Washington, DC. It is flanked by the Wall of the Missing (inscribed with 5,127 names). At one end is a Memorial Chapel featuring art and maps detailing the Eighth Air Force’s operations.
The graves, meanwhile, radiate out in concentric semi-circles, each marked with a white marble Cross or Star of David. At the farthest point, the views – once celebrated by war poet Rupert Brook – open up towards the peaceful Cambridgeshire countryside.
The American Library, Norwich
Many Eighth Air Force memorials find inspiration in the familiar: plaques attached to the First World War monument, tablets on the old airfield, stained-glass windows in the parish church. But the officers of the Second Air Division, made up of units located in and around Norwich, thought differently.
In 1945 they decided to establish a ‘Memorial Library’. According to the subsequent appeal leaflet, this Library was to be a place in which the Division’s sacrifices would be remembered and in which the good people of Norfolk could encounter a ‘daily influence of American thought’.
£20,000 was quickly raised by the Division’s personnel, although the plans were delayed by the demands and priorities of post-war reconstruction. The Memorial Library was not finally completed and opened until 1963.
The dedication ceremony was led by the Bishop of Norwich, and in attendance was the Honor Guard of the locally based Third US Air Force as well as several hundred American veterans who had returned especially for the occasion.
Sadly, the original Library was destroyed in a fire in 1994. But it was subsequently rebuilt as a component of the city’s large new civic centre (the ‘Forum’) and rededicated in 2001. Renamed the ‘American Library’ in 2020 and boasting a substantive collection of books about US history and culture, it does indeed provide local people with the opportunity to encounter ‘American thought’.
Steeple Morden, Cambridgeshire
The critical mass of the Eighth Air Force was located in Suffolk and Norfolk. But there were also a number of bases in the neighbouring counties, including at Steeple Morden in Cambridgeshire, home to the 355th Fighter Group.
The Group arrived in mid 1943, departing for Germany (as part of the post-war army of occupation) in July 1945. But it was not until 1981 that a memorial was erected in the Group’s memory.
Amongst the first in a new wave of commemoration that swept eastern England in the 1980s and 1990s, the memorial is dominated by the nose and propeller of a P-51 Mustang, the aircraft operated by the Group from early 1944. On either side are inscriptions recording the Group’s war record as well as details of its constituent units.
On a clear summer’s day, the wide skies that so attracted airfield builders to this otherwise unusual spot – as the topography here is rather uneven – are especially apparent.
Those visiting many of the Eighth’s old bases today will likely encounter a recurring addition: a monument made of polished black granite. The one dedicated at Knettishall in 1986 is especially striking.
Dominated by an engraving of a B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ breaking the chains of Nazi tyranny, the monument was the work of veterans of the 388th Bomb Group together with their supporters in the nearby villages.
Located at what was once the main entrance to the airfield – Station 136 – the original monument was joined by further ‘flanking’ stonework in 2011. These two ‘wings’ carry the names of the 324 members of the 388th killed whilst flying from the base between June 1943 and August 1945.
Although smaller in size and scale, the monument is nonetheless reminiscent of another 3,000 miles away, on the Mall in Washington, DC: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Unveiled by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 and now amongst the most visited sites in the American capital, this memorial likewise features names inscribed upon polished black granite.
Thorpe Abbotts, Norfolk
I still remember the excited anticipation I felt on my first cycle journey to Thorpe Abbotts. From Kessingland it was a 60-mile round trip, and on the way home it rained. A lot. But it was worth it, for the museum to the 100th Bomb Group was – and still is – a moving destination.
Housed in the base’s former Control Tower, restored during the late 1970s, the museum brings together a collection of medals, models, and wartime memorabilia. It is a type of memorial that became increasingly popular in the final decades of the 20th century, with similar – and equally impressive – Control Tower museums also established at Seething, Parham, Martlesham Heath, and Bassingbourn.
From the observation platform atop the Thorpe Abbotts Tower, where operations staff once ‘sweated out’ the Group’s daylight raids, the views stretch out across the rich farming countryside of the Waveney Valley. Absent the rumbling growl of Pratt and Whitney engines revving in the dawn light, it is a peaceful spot. But on a hot summer day the old runways still seem ready for the bombers to return, especially when the music of Glenn Miller drifts through the haze.The ‘Bloody 100th’ arrived at the base in June 1943 and over the next two years flew 306 missions. The Group earned their distinctive moniker because of their high loss rates, experiences that are now central to a new television series based on Donald Miller’s book Masters of the Air (2006) and currently filming in England.
Polished black granite was the material of choice for many memorials erected in the 1990s. But at Raydon the members of the local Airfield Preservation Society opted for something rather different.
The memorial, dedicated in June 1995, consists of a small cairn (with a plan of the base), a semicircle of low wall, a large carving of the USAAF insignia, and two propellers: one from a P-47 and the other from a P-51.
The 353rd Fighter Group was based here from the spring of 1944 through to October 1945, although two other Groups also had an affiliation with the airfield: the 357th, which ended the war operating out of Leiston to the north, and the 358th, a constituent of the Ninth Air Force, which was established in late 1943 and was largely based at airfields in Essex and Kent.
Raydon’s eye-catching memorial, located close to one of the old runways, has been weathered by 25 years of East Anglian wind and rain and is to be rededicated in 2022.
This is where it all started for me: relic-hunting on the airfield home of the 446th Bomb Group, the ‘Bungay Buckaroos’, before a visit to the museum housed in the nearby grounds of the Buck Inn, one of the many pubs popular with the Americans during the war.
The museum includes a display that is dedicated to the 446th as well as a commemorative mosaic originally established outside the Second Air Division Memorial Library (relocated to Flixton following the 1994 fire). But it is up on the airfield itself, on the high plateau overlooking the Waveney Valley, that the 446th’s main monument can be found.
Built of the familiar polished black granite, the memorial features an engraving of a B-24 together with some well-chosen words from President Abraham Lincoln. The latter is a fitting choice given the Great Emancipator’s connections with the region: his family came from Hingham in Norfolk just 30 miles to the north, a fact commemorated in the parish church there with a bust of his head (unveiled in 1919). •
Sam Edwards is Reader in History, Department of History, Politics, and Philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University.
Images: Sam Edwards.