New Heritage Lottery Fund projects in the Fenland area

Heritage Lottery FundIn East Anglia two other Heritage Lottery funded projects have started recently. As there are clear links with our work in both projects, I wanted to share this with you as well. These are Fenland Lives & Land and Eighth In The East; both projects are looking at the history of the area, with the Fenland Lives & Land looking at different aspects of life in the Fens in the past and the Eighth In The East looking at the history of the World War 2 US Airfields in East Anglia.

Fenland Lives & Land

With the Fenland Lives & Land project there are exhibitions going in a range of museums, communities and schools across the Fens, celebrating the extraordinary landscape of the area and which will be going for 3 years; its launch was last week Thursday.

The five exhibitions are focused on the following five themes:

  • Constructing the Past: Ancient Crafts and Engineering
  • The Wild Fens: A Journey back to Ancient landscapes
  • Living on Land & Water: Discover a World of Waterways
  • Trading Stories: A Century of Fenland Shops, Pubs and Trade
  • Bread or Blood

Each of these themes will be explored in different parts of the Fens, from the history of the ens to what was being sold in traditional shops and pubs throughout the centuries, to changes to Fenland farms over time with the effect of the Downham Riots of 1816 which resulted because of the hard economic hardship faced by farms, workers and soldiers who were returning from the Napoleonic Wars. These exhibitions will be going on for 3 years all across all Fenland museums.

For more information, see the project’s website (http://www.fensmuseums.org.uk/index.aspx) and this useful leaflet (http://www.fensmuseums.org.uk/documents/Fenland_Generic_Leaflet.pdf).

Eighth in the East

This project was recently awarded £575,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to record the history of East Anglia airfields used by the United States during World War 2. The project aims to work with local museums to get stories of Americans who served and the stories of local people who lived near the bases between 1942 and 1945.

The project will look at the 67 airfields in the East which provided bases for USAF bombing raids over Germany. About 200,000 US personnel served in East Anglia in what became known as the ‘friendly invasion’.

This is a 3-year project and hopefully by the end of the project there will be a large amount of information about that time in East Anglia. With this information there cycling and walking tours may be created to these sites and museums will have more information on want was happening in East Anglia during the ‘friendly invasion’ by the Americans.

USA

World War II US airfields in East Anglia project to record history. Source:http: //www.idaventry.com/pin/world-war-ii-us-airfields-in-east-anglia-project-to-record-history/

Look here (https://ousewasheslps.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/hidden-heritage-mepal-airfield/) for an earlier blog post about the WW2 use of the airfield in Mepal, which is located within the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership area.

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Hidden Heritage: Mepal Airfield Part 2

Heritage Lottery Fund

Thor Missiles at Mepal

Who realises that a modern industrial site just outside of Mepal hides so much history dating from the Second World War and that Mepal, Sutton and Witcham were in the front line of the Cold War and would have been a major Soviet target?

Project Emily

In 1957 a proposal from the USA was put to Britain to deploy Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) in the UK. The proposal was regarded favourably by Britain’s new Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Final agreement on the deployment of Thor in Britain was reached at the Bermuda Conference in March 1957, when Macmillan and Eisenhower met to discuss key issues. On 1 April, Macmillan reported to Parliament that:

“The rockets will be the property of Her Majesty’s Government, manned by British troops who will receive their prior training from American experts. The rockets cannot be fired by any except the British personnel, but the warhead will be in the control of the United States – which is the law of the United States- and to that extent the Americans have negative control; but it is absolutely untrue to say that the President and not the British Government will decide when these missiles will be launched and at whom. So long as we rely upon the American warheads, and only so long, that will remain a matter for the two Governments”.

Project Emily was then born and twenty sites were chosen to house the new missiles. Construction started at Mepal in 1958 and was declared operational on 22nd July 1959 with the reformed 113 (SM) Squadron; the SM stands for ‘Strategic Missile’. Each site had three Thor missile pads and was part of a cluster of five sites under the command of one base. Feltwell was the first base to be operational in 9th January 1959 and Mepal was under its command. The missiles themselves were kept prone and invisible in specially made shelters such as the one in the picture below.

LEl5 AIE

Thor missile shelter clearly shown. Courtesy of Paul Bellamy at Airfield Information Exchange.

When the order came to launch, whether real or simulated, it would take up to 15 minutes to get the missile ready and the sequence needed the authority of both the British and Americans. The ‘dual key’ system meant that the RAF could initiate a countdown but the missile could only be launched after the Americans had armed the warhead. In fact the warheads (1.44 Megatons) were not even kept on site but  at Faldingworth, an old wartime airfield near Scampton, Lincolnshire.

Construction of the Thor missile hangar

Construction of the Thor missile hangar. Photo courtesy of the Carpetbagger Aviation Museum, Harrington.

The layout of a Thor launch pad

The layout of a Thor launch pad. Photo courtesy of the Carpetbagger Aviation Museum, Harrington.

The missiles were only put on a high state of readiness once in their history and that was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

Thor missile in its launch position

Thor missile in its launch position. Courtesy of Paul Bellamy at Airfield Information Exchange.

Thor missile deployment to the UK was scheduled to end in November 1964; however it ended in 1963 when the US deployed its Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)
and the RAF’s own ‘V Force’ had the Blue Steel standoff weapon launched from
Valiant, Victor and Vulcan bombers.

Evidence left on the ground

There is very little evidence left of both the WW2 and Cold War heritage of Mepal airfield but if you know where to look there are some interesting relics. Part of the runways and perimeter track are still visible on the Sutton side of the A142, while the Elean Business Park and the straw burning power station cover much of the Eastern side but some elements can still be seen. In fact many of the buildings and access roads to the domestic site can be seen around Witcham and the sewage works  built for the airfield is still in use today! Martyn Chorlton’s excellent book Airfield focus 47: Mepal and Witchford has many interesting photos and maps. I took this photo on the old Sutton to Mepal road, it is actually part of the North West to South East runway!

Part of the old runway

Part of the old runway

The Thor missile bases where broken up before the power station was built but part of the southern base (LE10) can still be seen at the north-eastern edge of the Cheffins Auction site.

An aerial photo of Mepal airfield taken in January 1959

An aerial photo of Mepal airfield taken in January 1959. From Airfield Information Exchange

An overlay of the missile bases and runways on a recent aerial photo

An overlay of the missile bases and runways on a recent aerial photo. Courtesy of Paul Bellamy at the Airfield Information Exchange.

Another relic of the Cold War days is the trig point just off of the old road from Sutton to Mepal, each base had two of these built by the Royal Engineers Survey Squadron prior to construction as the missile pads had to be accurately surveyed. The second one has either been removed or more likely to be buried under the spoil dug out from the power
station when it was built.

Mepal South, Project Emily Trig Point.

Mepal South, Project Emily Trig Point.

I’m sure many people have memories or stories to tell of the history of Mepal airfield, we would be delighted to hear from you and will update the Blog with any new information. We aim to carry out a dedicated project on the history of the airfield over  the next few years, watch this space for more details.

I would like to thank the Airfield Information Exchange and the Carpetbagger Aviation Museum for helping out with pictures and information.

Hidden Heritage: Mepal Airfield

Heritage Lottery Fund

During World War 2 Mepal Airfield was an “expansion” airfield, the construction of which commenced in July 1942. It opened in April 1943 and it functioned as a sub-station for 33 Base in Waterbeach along with Witchford Airfield as part of No.3 Group Bomber Command.  Its design was the standard wartime 3 runway layout with the main runway 6000 feet long with two shorter runways approximately 4200 feet each; it had one B1 type hangar and two T2’s. The first aircraft to arrive was a DH82 Tigermoth flown by Squadron Leader G A Watt.

Aerial View of Mepal Airfield, 1943

Aerial View of Mepal Airfield, 1943

Mepal’s first unit was 1665 Heavy Conversion Unit that was originally based at Great Ashfield. It had 24 Stirling Mk1’s but only stayed for a week, before moving to Waterbeach.

75 (NZ) Squadron

The New Zealanders of 75 (NZ) Squadron Royal Air Force were the first operational occupants of Mepal Airfield in June 1943 flying Stirlings initially and then Lancasters. The Squadron was already very experienced prior to its move to Mepal and had completed almost 3500 sorties with over 100 losses. The first operational sortie was on 3rd and 4th July 1943 when 13 Stirlings attacked Cologne with no losses. The next few months were extremely busy for 75 (NZ) Squadron with missions being flown to Hamburg, Essen, Nuremburg, Turin, Munchen-Gladbach and Berlin. The last bombing missions for the Stirlings were in November 1943 when Air Chief Marshall Harris ordered that Stirlings would no longer operate over German targets. The Squadron continued flying the Stirling for another 4 months on other missions such as mine laying, attacking rocket sites and carrying out special operations.

75 (NZ) Squadron Stirling

75 (NZ) Squadron Stirling

On the night of 19th April 1944 an enemy intruder attacked Mepal dropping over 34 anti-personnel mines, but no injuries were reported. The same night 2 Lancasters were shot down in the circuit at Witchford.

The last Stirling left Mepal on 29th April 1944 which left 75 (NZ) Sqn with 26 Lancasters; at this point there were 123 Officers, 284 Senior Non Commissioned Officers and 853 Other Ranks based at the airfield. The next few months again were very busy for the Squadron included support for the allied invasion on D Day and many bombing missions with the new 8,000 and 12,000 lbs bombs. On 29th September Mepal was once again under attack, this time by a V1 ‘Doodlebug’ which missed the airfield and landed and exploded at Sutton Gault. In January 1945 Wing Commander C H Baigent DSO DFC + Bar took over command of 75 Squadron. He had been a Flight Commander in 1942 and had completed a second tour the previous November; he arrived at Mepal just before his 22nd Birthday!

Aircrew briefing for a bombing mission in 1943

Aircrew briefing for a bombing mission in 1943

The last bombing mission took off from Mepal on 24th April 1945 when 20 Lancasters left for their 739th mission to a raid on Bad Oldersloe.

From the 29th April to May 8th 1945 Operation Manna was launched from Mepal which involved 126 sorties to drop supplies to the Dutch in Western Holland; a truce was arranged with the German commander to allow the mission to take place safely. After VE day as part of ‘Tiger Force’ Nos. 7, 44 and 49 Sqns moved in to train for the war in the Pacific, but these were stood down after the Japanese surrendered on August 15th 1945.

At the end of the war 75 (NZ) Sqn were involved in the repatriation of prisoners of war. They also flew ‘sightseeing’ sorties over Germany for the ground crew and ‘Baedecker’ sorties to assess the effective of the bombing offensive. Belgium refugees were also taken home and by the end of May 1945 2,339 PoWs had been repatriated by 75 (NZ)Sqn Lancasters.

75 (NZ) Sqn flew 8,017 sorties (the highest total for the whole of RAF Bomber Command) on 739 operations, losing a total of 193 aircraft (the second highest loss rate). There is a very interesting and comprehensive website for 75 (NZ) Squadron at http://75nzsquadron.wordpress.com , well worth a look and gives lots more information than I could possibly hope to publish in this blog.

75 (NZ) Squadron and Lancaster 1945

75 (NZ) Squadron and Lancaster 1945

After WW2

 In July 1946 the last Lancaster left Mepal; the airfield was earmarked to be a Transport Command base but this never came to fruition and it was put under care and maintenance. The last ever aircraft movement at Mepal was in 1949 when a Meteor F4 from Duxford made an emergency landing; the pilot had failed to switch fuel supplies and as a result both engines flamed out followed by a ‘wheels up’ landing; he was apparently reprimanded for his carelessness!

The airfield remained closed until July 1959 when it became an important strategic base at the heart of the Cold War! There will be more about the intriguing history of the Cold War base in Mepal in a future Blog!

All photographs are courtesy of the Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network.

Creating Cycle Networks

Heritage Lottery FundWhat do the Ouse Washes, the East Cambridgeshire landscape and Bradley Wiggins have in common? The last one probably gave it away: the relative flatness of the East Cambs landscape makes this – at least in theory – ideal cycling countryside. Since last year’s Tour and Olympic Games and certainly with the weather turning for the better recently, more and more people have been getting out on their bikes.

Ely Cycling Campaign

elyCyclingLogo

Ely Cycling Campaign logo. A partner in the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership

Ely Cycling Campaign is one of the organisations active in our wider partner forum. Despite its name, it focuses on campaigning for better cycling facilities not just for Ely but also for most of East Cambridgeshire district. As such, this also includes a significant part of the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership landscape area.

Before I go on, I’d better first declare an interest here. Born in The Netherlands, I could probably cycle before I could run; Living in Ely, I thus also naturally joined the Ely Cycling Campaign as a member when some people set up this organisation over a year ago.

Strategy & Cycling Network

OK, got that out of the way. So, what does the Ely Cycling Campaign have to do with the Ouse Washes? Well, the organisation has recently published an ingenious and well-thought out strategy setting out a vision for East Cambridgeshire for cycling as a safe, enjoyable, and practical way of travelling; this strategy does explain, for instance, the types of cycle infrastructure needed for the area to help encourage more people and a wider range of people to take up cycling.

The full Cycling Strategy can be downloaded here: Ely-Cycling-Strategy-v1-Feb-2013

The Ely Cycling Campaign’s Strategy also includes an interactive map showing the ideal future cycle network. In reality, many of the lines drawn on this cycle network are currently still unsafe or even a dream. But already it has won over councillors and other people with an interest in planning: the cycle network may well guide future planning of road changes in and around Ely.

cycling network region East Cambs

Ely Cycling Strategy’s proposed cycle network for the East Cambridgeshire District. Use the link above for the interactive version.

Cycle Links with the Ouse Washes area

One of the many crucial links the Ely Cycling Campaign is campaigning for is the creation of a safe, direct, connected and segregated route between Ely and Mepal. As it happens, most of this route is already as a separate path next to the A142. There are, however, a couple of dilapidated stretches and some dangerous points along the route and – crucially – a small section is missing between Wentworth bus stop and Witcham Toll. Furthermore, there are some issues in particular with the crossings with major roads at various locations, such as those shown in the below pictures:

Cycle links within the Ouse Washes area

As you can see in the above cycle network, the Ely Cycling Campaign is also campaigning for an improved off-road cycle route between Mepal and Bates’ Drove at the border with Norfolk further north, along the Ouse Washes itself, thus also linking up with the Welney Wetland Centre. This is already a bridleway at the moment, but could be improved to make it better for cycling, to ensure that more people can enjoy the countryside in a sustainable way.

National Cycle route links

672
Part of National Cycle Network Route 11 –
between Ely and Downham Market, via Welney Wetland Centre. Source: www.cyclestreets.net

The national cycle routes 11 and 51 do also cross through the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership area. See also this previous post for part of the 51 route through Fen Drayton lakes.

Otherwise, there are surprisingly few cycle routes within the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership area as a whole.

A characteristic feature of the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership area is that there are relatively few access points and limited public access opportunities. This has also previously been discussed in this post, and is being investigated and addressed through our Audience and Access planning work.

673

Part of National Cycle Network Route 51 -between Cambridge and St Ives, via the Guided Busway. Source: www.cyclestreets.net

Nevertheless, there are some good national resources where you can find other cycle routes for the area:

Coveney habitat creation scheme: new opportunities for public access

Only a couple of weeks ago, the Environment Agency put in a planning application for the first stage of the Coveney habitat creation scheme; the plans are now out for consultation and can be found here:

http://pa.eastcambs.gov.uk/online-applications [Then type in ‘Coveney’ in the search box and it will come on at the top of the list].

An Environment Agency leaflet also gives some information about this  pic.twitter.com/aY8Bbflv94.

The scheme will see the creation of c180 hectares of new wetland, generated from former farmland.

The main aim is to address the ecological deterioration of the nearby Ouse Washes with the impact of that deterioration on the breeding waders and wintering wigeon. The Coveney scheme will provide wet grassland habitat to offset the deterioration of the Ouse Washes, thereby helping the Government’s legal obligation to address this issue. See some more on the issue of the Ouse Washes’ deterioration in this previous post.

New Green Space provision for growing population

With East Cambridgeshire having one of the fastest growing population nationally, and 2,500 new houses planned for Ely alone, there clearly is a need for further Green Space provision for local people. The new habitat creation scheme at Coveney does provide one, easily accessible area which – with the Ely Cycling Network outlined above – can also be reached by non-motorised transport means.

I will keep you informed of further developments in the area.