On Wednesday night I went to this small museum about a mile up the road. My wife had bought us tickets to see one of their occasional film shows. This particular evening they showed 3 films, the last being about “Operation Titanic” , when American bombers were based in Russia, which was the only `officially produced` film shown.
The first two films were recently discovered and were special for a couple of reasons, the first being that they were shot in colour, most unusual for that time and the second and most special reason was that they were shot by aircrew. They were home movies, a personal record of life on a USAAF/RAF air base in the East of England. East Anglia, as this area is known (for us English were once known as “Angles” in ancient times) was turned into one huge American airfield, predominantly bomber bases. Col. Jimmy Stewart flew from an airfiled 10 miles to the north of where I type this and within a 5 mile radius were numerous other airfields that were the home to B24′s which were gradually replaced, as action intensified, by B17′s. Other bases were gradually equipped with P51′s and P47′s, the “Little Friends”. Memorabilia is everywhere, if one chooses to seek it out.
The footage was as fascinating as it was poignant, with the happy faces of young Americans larking about wrestling each other and playing up to the camera, just as kids do on beaches and playing fields. Other images showed nervous but determined aircrews posing beneath their giant machines, some smiling bravely for the camera but all of them showing more than a trace of apprehension. The footage taken from the aircraft as they lifted off from the base near the small Suffolk town of Eye showed a landscape that is still recognisable today, albeit that the airfield is now an industrial estate.
But this is not what I wanted to tell you. What really delighted me was that the visitors centre, a typical WW2 `Nissan` hut that I was sitting in, was packed to its parabolic steel rafters. It was a `sell out`. On this chilly autumn night local people from young teens to folks in their 80′s had come along to watch the films. The couple I was sitting next to were near neighbours of mine. They were in their early teens when the Americans came. Glenn is now 82 and his wife a little younger. They are both fit and active. Glenn bought himself a Harley Davidson Sportster a few years ago, encouraged by his wife – my kind of gal!
As the last film came to a close, it showed the base closing down for good and the American airmen locking up shop and flying home. The base commander had opened it up to local people and laid on refreshments so that they could bid their farewells and wave off their American neighbours for the last time, in beautiful peacetime. Local farmers, children and pretty young women in their best dresses could be seen waving off the last aircraft and then turning to each other in the strange silence that they knew, this time, would remain. It was not entirely a party atmosphere because losses at the base had been heavy, hence the nickname given to the group, “The Bloody Hundredth”. We were told by the museum curator of one particular raid where fourteen B17′s left Thorpe Abbotts to `deliver iron and steel to Germany` and only one aircraft returned. A shattering statistic for one base to bear, after one raid.
As the lights came up I turned to my neighbours to ask a question and noticed that tissues were out dabbing moist eyes. I said, “I bet it was strange once they’d gone”. Glenn replied, “Oh yes, it really was, but lovely and quiet, we knew they weren’t going to get hurt anymore”. His wife said, “We really missed them” and Glenn agreed.