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UK’s first USAAF station – Diploma Student Chris Frear

Chris Frear reveals how the first RAF station to be handed over to the USAAF has been given a new lease of life, decades after it had closed
In 1942, the Friendly Invasion of England by the nascent United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) was a trickle destined to become a torrent. Those aircrew, mechanics, and aircraft would need homes. Because airfield production was outrunning aircraft production at that moment in history, many airfields could be made available to the Americans almost overnight, and that story began in North Lincolnshire.

In 1940, Air Ministry surveyors arrived looking for land suitable to build yet another airfield for the RAF’s rapidly expanding Bomber Command. It was planned that Goxhill would become the most northerly Bomber airfield in Lincolnshire’s “Bomber County”. Construction began in October 1940, with the airfield comprising of three runways, two 1,100 yards long by 50 yards wide, the third runway would be longer at 1,600 yards. Contractors, John Laing & Son also built 25 dispersals for aircraft. However, with more airfields than aircraft, the RAF struggled to find ways to make RAF Goxhill useful and seven target-towing Lysanders were the first to arrive. Their stay was short lived and they returned to nearby Binbrook by November 10 and for a few months in May and June of 1942, Goxhill became a satellite station for nearby RAF Kirmington (now Humberside International Airport).

In February 1942, just three months after the attack on Pearl Harbour, US General, Ira Eaker and six officers dubbed ‘Eaker’s Amateurs’ (some their number were called up from the reserves) were hastily dispatched to England by way of the Azores and Portugal. Their job? To establish the USAAF’s VIII Bomber Command, which would later become what we now know as the Eighth Air Force, in the European Theatre of Operations. No mean feat when you consider it had no men, no aircraft and no airfields.

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An aerial photo of Station 345 / RAF Goxhill taken on June 8 1942 Ron Parker Collection

RAF Goxhill (soon to become Station 345 of the USAAF) was the first station to be handed over to the USAAF, but it was destined to be used for training rather than operations. Eaker decided the highest priority should be given to providing in-theater indoctrination to the thousands of newly minted pilots who had little knowledge of combat or the challenges of navigating in bad weather, and the flying control systems in a country at war. He knew that it would only lead to large losses of men and equipment if these new pilots were not given further training after arriving in the UK. Eaker’s team, discovered Goxhill, available and underutilised by the RAF, situated well to the north of the USAAFs future combat operations zone in East Anglia. It was perfect for their training requirements.

New arrivals

The first American ground units arrived on June 10 ,1942, and it was quite a culture shock. Initially housed in cold huts with no flushing toilets (normal for a new RAF station still under construction) the Americans were used to a higher standard and more amenities. Ostensibly still an RAF base, it was up to the Air Ministry to find the money for the upgrades, which they duly did.

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A P-51 Mustang leading a P-38 Lighting around the peri track, prior to take off Ron Parker Collection

The first flying unit to arrive in July 1942 was the 71st Fighter Squadron, of the 1st Fighter Group with their P-38 Lightnings. After a month-long stay the 71st FG departed for North Africa, and the 78th Fighter Group took their place. They subsequently moved to Duxford where they were become known as The Duxford Eagles; flying the P-47 Thunderbolt and latterly the P-51D Mustang. There was little formality and even less fanfare regarding the handover of Goxhill when the first detachment of Americans arrived on June 10.

Top priority

Around 3am on June 11, less than six hours before the arrival of General Eisenhower, Lord Portal, and others to welcome the latest arrivals to their new airfield, a lone Luftwaffe bomber dropped a bomb on the intersection of Goxhill’s two main runways. Failing to detonate, it dug itself into the clay beneath the runways.

Sqn Ldr Haarer and his bomb disposal team from RAF Digby arrived to find the bomb had already sunk well over 8ft deep. He told Goxhill’s CO, recovering and making the bomb safe could take over a fortnight.

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Trainee pilots on the wing of a P-51 at Goxhill during the war years Ron Parker Collection

If it was classed as a ‘Priority A’ job they would set to work straight away, if it was ‘Priority B’ they would wait 60 hours to ensure the bomb had not been fitted with a time delay fuse.

On Haarer’s instruction aircraft carrying the visiting dignitaries were allowed to land using Goxhill’s unaffected third, shorter runway.

Introduced to Eisenhower, Haarer explained the situation and Eisenhower is reportedly to have said: “That means some of your men could be killed. So, I guess under the circumstances we’ll called it a ‘Priority B’ job”.

The handover ceremony then went ahead at a safe distance and the signatories departed.

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The view from the top of the Control Tower showing three Lysanders and a Miles Magister prior to the USAAF’s arrival Ron Parker Collection

Haarer and his team returned after the 60 hours had elapsed and a week later had dug a shaft 14ft deep. Estimating by then the bomb had sunk perhaps as deep 30-40ft and that the job could take another fortnight. Haarer met with Goxhill’s Commanding Officer; advising him there was little chance of the bomb exploding, but if it did the possibility of it causing damage was minimal. Haarer was instructed to leave the bomb in place and fill in the hole. The runway surface was made good and the bomb was not recovered until 1947 – long after the USAAF had departed and flying had ceased at Goxhill.