RAF Newmarket Heath
Military aviation was first established around the Suffolk horse-racing town of Newmarket during the first World War, when two night-flying training squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps were based on the racecourse from autumn of 1917 to the end of 1918, by which time the RFC had become the Royal Air Force.
A precedent having been set, the RAF in 1939 saw the benefit of using the Heath again, and consequently a large part of the racecourse, which lies on the western edge of the town, was earmarked for use should hostilities be unavoidable. By the end of August 1939 it was obvious that this would happen, and on 2 Sept. 1939, the day before the outbreak of the Second World War, Wellingtons of 99 (Madras Presidency) Squadron arrived on the Heath from Mildenhall. There seems to have been no prior consultation with the owners of the Heath, the Stewards of the Jockey Club, before the RAF took over. Bill Garnham, the Sgt, W.Garnham, a passenger in the second aircraft to land, recalls the Clerk of the Course, Mr Marriott, coming from his house, Portland Cottage (later the CO's house), waving his walking stick in protest at the intrusion. Nevertheless, occupy it the RAF did, and for the next 51/4 years it was an active airfield.
For a long time, however, little action was taken to convert the Heath into a fully-equipped airfield. The aircrews were accommodated in the Grandstand, but at first even proper beds were in short supply. Sgt. Jack Casselden, an observer on 99 Squadron for example, slept on a mattress under the counter of the racecourse Post Office. Eventually, beds were set up on the covered steps and in the Long Bar and meals were taken in a canteen in the basement. A few buildings for use as sleeping quarters had been built by the end of 1940, but major construction work was not started until 1943.
In the Autumn of 1940, enemy activity began to make itself felt on the Heath.
Apart from an invasion scare, when all personnel were confined to camp for 24 hours, slight damage was caused when bombs were dropped on the airfield on 27 and 29 Oct. 1940. An enemy aircraft made three attacks on 7 Jan. 1941, dropping two HEs on the July Course on each run, and near Group HO at Exning. The next attempt, on 3 Feb. 1941, was more successful: nine HEs were dropped, causing two casualties and damage to two Wellingtons and a visiting Whitley. By far the serious raid of the War in the area took place on 18 Feb. 1941, when a Do.17z attacked a convoy of military vehicles in Newmarket High Street. The Post Office and White Hart Hotel received direct hits, the hotel being almost destroyed. 22 people were killed and over a hundred injured and rubble and glass covered the road. Eighteen-year-old Sgt. J.R.Goodman of 99 Squadron, taking off on an air-test at the time, saw the German aircraft and brought his Wellington up to fly alongside it. As soon as they were close enough, Sgt. Goodman's front and rear gunners opened fire and the Dornier quickly climbed into cloud. Sgt. Goodman gave chase, but lost the German aircraft in the murk. Later it was learnt that a Dornier had crashed in the Thetford area and had been claimed as a 'kill' by Army gunners, but Sgt. Goodman, who eventually rose to the rank of Group Captain, was given permission to claim half a kill. This may have been the only time that a Wellington bomber was used as a fighter.
99 Squadron moved to Waterbeach, just north of Cambridge, on 18 March 1941, leaving Newmarket Heath to the newly-arrived Stirlings and to a motley collection of aircraft used by 3 Group Communications Flight.
RAF Newmarket Heath - Infrastructure
When the RAF commandeered the racecourse in September 1939 they took possession of all the existing buildings. Very few new buildings were erected during the first part of the War. An aerial photograph in the possession of the Jockey Club, dating from the end of 1940 but unfortunately water damaged, shows new construction consisting only of Buildings 1 (Guardroom), 87, 88, 136 and 137 (sleeping quarters) and the Bulk Fuel installation.
The same photograph shows craters caused by bombs dropped on the airfield on 27 and 29 October 1940 and imitation hedges painted on the grass surface, creating the impression of small fields. Thirteen Wellington aircraft can also be seen dispersed around the airfield, one of them immediately behind the Grandstand. There are signs of some newly-dug air-raid shelters and a barbed-wire fence installed on the south and west sides of the airfield, in conjunction with a number of pill-boxes, one of which commanded a view of the Guardroom. A simple Watch Office was provided at a fairly early date,-later being turned into Bldg. 98 and used as a flight Office.
The Wellington aircraft of 99 Squadron, the sole occupants of the airfield for the first 16 months or so, were parked in the open, 'A' Flight's aircraft along the racecourse approach road and 'B' Flight's along the eastern boundary. When major servicing became necessary, the aircraft were flown to Mildenhall. The original bomb dump was near the machine-gun and cannon butts, on the eastern side; the larger bomb dump over the Old Swaffham Road was built on land absorbed later in the War.
After the initial period of living in the Grandstand, aircrews were billeted in rather more comfortable surroundings. NCOs moved to Singers House, a 'racing box' since demolished, which stood on the corner of Falmouth Avenue, Newmarket, while officers went to Sefton Lodge, in Bury Road. In both cases the men had to go to the Grandstand for their meals.
Article drawn from “The Royal Air Force at Newmarket, 1939 – 1947” by John F. Hamlin, loaned by Norman Didwell, 99 Squadron Association.
Squadrons known to have operated from Newmarket Heath: