THE LASTING LEGACY OF THE FRIENDLY INVASION
At the height of the Second World War, Suffolk was the setting for a ‘Friendly Invasion’ which transformed the rural landscape and left a lasting legacy. The invaders were thousands of young Americans, part of the United States Army Air Force’s vast contribution to the Allies’ strategic bombing offensive being waged against Nazi-occupied Europe – the longest battle of the war.
By 1944, Suffolk echoed to the roar of B24 Liberators and B17 Flying Fortresses as huge aerial armadas took to the skies from a countryside so freckled with bomber bases that it became known as ‘Little America’.
Read The Friendly Invasion e-magazine, with forewords by HRH Prince William, The Prince of Wales, and Tom Hanks.
THE ARRIVAL OF COCA COLA AND BUBBLE GUM
It is no exaggeration to say that the arrival of 50,000 US servicemen in Suffolk in 1942 had the biggest cultural and landscape impact of any event since the Norman Conquest.
Hundreds of miles of concrete runway were laid in a matter of months (it took 250,000 tonnes of concrete to build one runway), and there was the introduction to our rationed region of peanut butter, donuts, chewing gum, popcorn and Coca Cola – all great news for dentists! Oh, and there were nylons, swing and the jitterbug too – although baseball didn’t catch on with the locals.
The Americans also brought their own pets, including a grizzly bear called Roscoe Ann and a monkey!
SEGREGATION IN SUFFOLK
The Americans also brought with them segregation. It is shocking to us today, but many market towns had alternate days for black and white servicemen.
Did the fact that black servicemen were served by white people here, and were given equality by East Anglians, help ferment the American civil rights movement?
Of course, this was very much a Friendly Invasion! Not only did we give the Americans a warm welcome, there was also the matter of around 40,000 women who went to the United States at the end of war! In fact, two cruise liners had to be requisitioned to sail them.
FIGHTING FOR INDEPENDENCE
February 20, 1942 was the day that the first US general, Brigadier General Ira C Eaker, arrived in the UK to form and organise the bomber command of the prospective Eighth Air Force – the guys who would be based here in what was before a very sleepy Suffolk. If the county was monochrome when they arrived, it was soon turned technicolour – just like The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, the first year of the war!
The American Air Force’s first mission was on July 4, 1942. They were determined to go on that date for symbolic and propaganda reasons. What a message it would send – wanting to help Europe regain its independence from Nazism on their own Independence Day. Trouble is, their planes hadn’t turned up – so they had to use RAF bombers instead!
In total, 350,000 US servicemen transitioned through East Anglia during the war’s longest battle – 26,000 of them losing their lives.
THE MAN WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN AMERICAN PRESIDENT
One of the most poignant stories of the time was that of the man who should have become President of the United States, Joe Kennedy jnr. Flying out of Fersfield in Norfolk on a secret bombing mission, he was tragically killed in action over Blythburgh Church when the plane he was flying exploded mid-air. There’s a small memorial to him in the church.
Another plane on the mission was flown by Colonel Roosevelt, the son of the US President at the time.
SUFFOLK’S LIVING MEMORIAL
Today, over 70 years after the war’s end, the trans-Atlantic ties remain strong and a grand alliance born of a common cause and shared sacrifice is kept alive by volunteer-run museums and memorials.
95th Bomb Group Museum, Horham
The 95th was the first bomb group to carry out a daylight raid on Berlin. The museum is located on the site of the former NCOs’ club called the Red Feather Club. It features many personal stories and other artefacts within the museum, with original air raid shelters outside. There are two murals, along with the faithfully restored Brad’s Bar, which is used for club socials throughout the year. www.95thbg-horham.com
One of the old hangars has been refurbished at Horham
493rd Bomb Group Museum, Debach
Displays in the restored control tower show visitors how it would have looked in 1944. A number of buildings have been arranged to show medical facilities as well as life on the home front. Look out too for a number of restored military vehicles. www.493bgdebach.co.uk
The Swan at Lavenham
Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum, Flixton
Halesworth Airfield Memorial Museum
The 56th Fighter Group was the first outfit to be stationed at this newly built airfield, which opened in July 1942. It catered for up to 3,000 personnel. Later occupants included the 489th Bomb group. By 1945 a rescue emergency squadron was based at the airfield, whose mission was to rescue drowned aircrew from the nearby North Sea.
Airmen who went down into the sea had an estimated 30 seconds to get out of their aircraft. It is estimated that 35 percent of them were saved. RAF sea rescuers injected a little humour into the situation; they gave each man they rescued from the ‘drink’ a little felt insignia of a fish skipping over water as proof they had joined the ‘Goldfish Club’. www.halesworthairfieldmuseum.co.uk
Martlesham Heath Control Tower Museum
The base was home to RAF fighters during the Battle of Britain, then hosted the USAAF’s 356th Fighter Group. The restored control tower holds a number of displays recording the history of the base from pre-Second World War to the 1960s. www.mhas.org.uk
The control tower building at Martlesham is now a fascinating museum
Wattisham Station Heritage Museum
Having been an RAF bomber station, Wattisham later saw the P-38s and P-51s of the 479th Fighter Group. Robin Olds (1922-2007) was a 21-year-old fighter pilot when he was sent to RAF Wattisham in 1944. As part of the 479th Fighter Group he was plunged into the campaign to soften up German forces before the Normandy landings. He distinguished himself in action, and went on to lead a colourful career. He married Hollywood actress Ella Raines, and later went on to be acknowledged as America’s best wing commander during the Vietnam War. Colonel Olds flew his last combat mission over North Vietnam in September 1967.
Wattisham is today a British Army base, so if you wish to visit please note you need to book three days in advance via the museum website. www.wattishamstationheritage.org
Rougham Control Tower Museum, Bury St Edmunds
Rougham Control Tower Museum recalls the exploits of 322nd Bomb Group, including Brigadier General Frederick W Castle, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Christmas Eve 1944. www.rougham.org
A group of historically minded US airmen named their Flying Fortress Tom Paine in honour of the 18th Century English radical thinker – a supporter of American independence, born at nearby Thetford. Knettishall was home to the 388th Bomb Group, who flew missions into Europe from June 1943 until the end of the war. Underneath the name on the aircraft’s nose was a quote from Paine: “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered”. A well-meaning sentiment, it caused some controversy in Paine’s home town, where some still considered him a traitor to Britain! The base has now been returned to agricultural use, though there is a black granite memorial at the old entrance. http://www.americanairmuseum.com/place/203
RAF Knettishall’s memorial