Airfield ..... 1916 - 1919
A book has been published
on this subject called
'Mattishall Airfield and The Zeppelins 1916-1919'
by Derek Bingham,
who's Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles lived at Tollgate Farm
which was within a few yards of the aerodrome.
The book is no longer in circulation.
|The site of the airfield was on the field
behind Tollgate Farm on the north side of the road just past
the cross roads of Blind Lane and Church Lane (Welborne) on
the road coming out of Mattishall heading to East Tuddenham.
The first Zeppelin raid occurred
on the night of 19th January 1915, when the L-3 carried out an
attack on the undefended town of Great Yarmouth, dropping eight
110 lb high explosive bombs in a line across the built-up area
and on South Denes. The two people killed in the attack were the
first British citizens to die in an air raid. Later the same night
the L-4 dropped bombs on King's Lynn, killing a woman and a child.
To combat the ever-increasing German
Zeppelin raids which were flying over England unchecked and terrorising
the civilian population a decision was made by the War Office
to build a line of airfields stretching from London to Hull, called
the Home Defence Line. Mattishall was selected as it was in the
centre of this defence line and the 80-acre field behind Tollgate
Farm was chosen.
The residents of Toll House Farm
had no warning that an Airfield was going to be built on their
field. The first indication was one morning when lorries and personnel
arrived and started putting up tents quite close to the farm's
back door. They constructed huts for officers as well as basic
facilities such as latrines, bathsheds a generator for the water
supply, hangers, workshops,stores and a cook house. The huts were
sectional and were made by Boulton & Paul of Norwich. It must
have been quite a hive of activity.
The first aircraft flown from Mattishall
was the (Bleriot Experimental) BE-2c often called the "Quirk"
it was an updated version of the BE-2b with a modified engine
for extra stability and the addition of an observer's Lewis machine
gun. The BE-2c was Britain's attempt to cope with the superior
German Fokker D-V11 and the menacing Zeppelins The pilots from
The Home Defence Line had small hand held bombs that they would
literally drop onto their targets.
When the 38 Squadron was moved to
France to fight on the western Front, they were replaced by 51
Squadron and the FE-2b biplane (Farman Experimental). Initially
it was used for reconnaissance, the 2 seater biplane was armed
with two or three .303 Lewis machine guns, the observer sat forward
in the nacelle, directly in front of the pilot.
An interesting and horrifying account is recorded
by Frederick Libby the first American ace of World War 1, on his
experience in the plane.
"When you stood up to shoot all of you
from the knees up was exposed to the elements. There was no belt
to hold you. Only your grip on the gun and the sides of the nacelle
stood between you and eternity. Towards the front of the nacelle
was a hollow steel rod with a swivel mount to which the gun was
anchored. This gun covered a huge field of fire forward. Between
the observer and the pilot a second gun was mounted, for firing
over the FE-2b's upper wing to protect the aircraft from rear
attack.... Adjusting and shooting this gun required that you stand
right up out of the nacelle with your feet on the nacelle coaming.
You had nothing to worry about except being blown out of the aircraft
by the blast of air or tossed out bodily if the pilot made a wrong
move. There were no parachutes and no belts".
These small aircraft were often taking off and
landing in total darkness and patroling the night skies over Norfolk
and its coastline.Often after flying at operational height, on
landing the pilots had to be carried from their cockpits, which
were completely open , suffering from intense cold.
There were several accidents on and around the
air field planes were frequently coming into land and finishing
up on their nose. A Lieut Thunder crashed on the Mattishall side
of Blind Lane and was immediately engulfed in flames. The pilot,
injured and severely burnt,managed to crawl to the nearside bank.
He was taken to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital but was pronounced
dead on arrival. Regular training flights were made between Mattishall
and Marham, they would follow the Dereham - King's Lynn railway
On Aug 5th 1918 the Germans attempted
what was to become the last raid on England by a Zeppelin. The
L-70 was hovering of the Norfolk coast, on board was Peter Strasser
(pictured earlier with Count von Zeppelin) )when it was spotted
by the crew of a Lightship. The Lightship radioed the information
to Yarmouth and the signal was sent to the airfields. The L-70
was located by Major Egbert and Captain Leckie who attacked the
Zeppelin with their incendiary bullets, the Zeppelin ignited and
fell into the sea. There were no Survivors.
The Armistice was signed eight months
later and the First world War was over. Two of the giant German
airships, L-64 and L-71 flew around Norwich during daylight they
were on their way to Pulham Airship Station where they surrendered
in accordance with the Armistice Agreement. It was reported that
they were clearly seen from Mattishall.
MATTISHALL AIRFIELD 1916-1919
The airfield known as Mattishall
Airfield, was situated mostly in East Tuddenham, with a smaller
part in Mattishall and a much smaller part in Welborne.
In 1916, Mattishall was a large village
with plenty of shops, public houses and a large church situated
on the Tuddenham side ofthe village. The church with its tower
was a good landmark for pilots attempting to find the nearby airfield.
The Home Defence Line
The airfield was built after a
decision by the War Office to build a line of airfields stretching
from Hull to London, called the Home Defence Line, to combat the
ever-increasing raids by German Zeppelins, which were flying over
England with impunity and terrorising the civilian population.
The massive Zeppelins, six times as long
as Mattishall Church is high, had already been seen by villagers
on starlit nights; and the noise from the airships' throbbing
diesel engines was frequently heard. The reason why Mattishall
was selected as part of the defence system, was because it was
equidistant from Hull and London and in the centre of the line
of defence. The site where the airfield was situated was a large
80-acre field behind Tollgate Farm, on the left-hand side of the
road leading to Norwich and well-positioned for fighter aircraft
to defend the centre area of Norfolk.
The two other airfield sites in Norfolk
were Marham and Great Yarmouth, the latter already a sea-plane
base that had been built to provide protection for Britain's North
Sea Fleet. This aerial defence system was built only twelve years
after the first manned flight by American Orville Wright, on December
17th, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
The Construction of Mattishall
Airfield - 1916
At this time, my grandparents,
aunts and uncles lived at Tollgate Farm and the first indication
of an airfield being built was in early 1916, when lorries and
personnel arrived one morning and started to erect tents within
a few yards from the back door of the farmhouse.
My grandmother asked what was going on and
was told that an aerodrome was to be built in close proximity
to the farm. Indignant, she insisted that they move further from
the backdoor, which they did, selecting an area at the end of
the farmhouse paddock.
The 80-acre field, known as the Great Field,
was short grass, having been previously used for sheep grazing.
The shepherd was a Mr. Basey from East Tuddenham.
The constructors used a Steam Roller (Number
4, driven by a Mr. Gambling) from Norwich Corporation, at Westwick
Depot, to make a hard roadway onto the airfield and another roadway
leading into the farm paddock. It was also used for general levelling
work around the site.
Arrival of No. 38 Squadron,
The first aircraft flown from Mattishall
Airfield belonged to the No. 38 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps,
with one Flight at Mattishall, one at Marham and a third at Tydd
St. Mary, near Wisbech in Lincolnshire.
The aircraft flown by the squadron at this period, were very slow
BE2c biplanes armed with a single Lewis gun and small bombs carried
in the cockpit. The bombs were for dropping on the Zeppelin airships
if it was possible.
The airfield soon became operational with
six biplanes and two mobile search-lights. The search-lights were
sent out most nights and positioned at Honingham and Yaxham. The
lights helped to deter the Zeppelins and also assisted the pilots
in finding the airfield at the end of a night patrol.
At first, the RFC personnel stationed at
Mattishall Airfield were billeted in tents and local buildings:
the lower ranks being in tents and the officers living at Mr.
Eason's Green Farm and at Mrs. Claxton's Barrack Yard at East
A well was bored; latrines; ablutions; bath sheds; and two long
wooden huts for officers were erected at the Mattishall side of
the farm. Four similar huts were erected for the other ranks at
the Tuddenham side. Behind the farmhouse, a hut called the Power
House was built to house a generator to provide electricity and
to pump water from the well. At the same time, a guard but was
erected at the entrance to the farm paddock.
Other huts for stores and cookhouse were
built; as well as two hangers and workshops, all to high specifications.
The huts were sectional and made at Boulton and Paul, Norwich.
Arrival of No. 51 Squadron,
Not long afterwards, No. 38 Squadron
moved to France for operations on the Western Front and were replaced
by No. 51 Squadron, operating FE 2b biplanes. These aircraft,
were a "pusher" type, that is to say, the engine was
fitted behind the pilot instead of at the front of the airframe.
They were armed with two Lewis guns and had two cockpits, the
gunner sitting in the front of the aircraft and the pilot sitting
behind. The aircraft were just one type of many different aircraft
made by Boulton and Paul at that time. The new squadron deployed
'A' Flight at Mattishall, 'B' Flight at Marham and 'C' Flight
at Tydd St. Mary.
Two cooks were employed - Beatty Basey from
East Tuddenham and Frances Mack from Hockering. One other airmen's
favourite meals was baked wild rabbit, which were easily obtained
locally. The swill from the cookhouse helped to feed the pigs
on the farm.
On one occasion, when the clocks were put
forward one hour, Frances forgot to alter her alarm clock and
did not turn up to cook the men's breakfast at the allotted time.
The airmen sent a dispatch rider to Hockering and brought her
to the cookhouse through Blind Lane, sitting on the steel carrier
on the back of his motorcycle, a rough ride indeed (Dispatch riders
were constantly plying back and forth from Thetford, the area
Head Quarters, with messages and orders).
Some of the squadron officers had their
own motorcycles and these were kept in the farm barn. A Levis
and a Harley Davidson are two of the makes remembered.
There were approximately fifty personnel
at Mattishall Airfield, commanded by a Captain Powell. The C.O.
was an enlightened man and when any of his men committed a misdemeanour
they were punished by being given a number of hours working in
the Camp garden. This ensured a good supply of fresh vegetables
for the cookhouse.
The German Zeppelins came over
at night, so the squadron pilots had to take off and land in darkness,
a hazardous operation. To assist them to pin-point the landing
strip a flare-path of paraffin-soaked rags in oil drums were lit
by one of the groundcrew running along the lines of drums with
a lighted rag on a stick. Later, the airfield was illuminated
at night by small portable searchlights.
Accidents were frequent. On one occasion, a Lieut. Thunder crashed
on the Mattishall side of Blind Lane and the plane was immediately
engulfed in flames. The pilot, injured and severely burnt, managed
to crawl to the nearside bank. He was taken to the Norfolk and
Norwich Hospital but was unfortunately pronounced dead on arrival.
Other crash sites were behind Burgh Farm and behind Crossroads
Farm. These sites are either side of Welborne Church Lane.
Accidents also happened on the Airfield, one plane coming into
land finished completely upside down and others finished up on
As the defences became more efficient the
German Zeppelin crews became more wary and began flying higher
in the night sky. On a number of occasions they made attempts
to bomb the airfield but only one bomb out of several dropped
actually landed on the field, the others landing close to the
Air Raid Precautions
The personnel at the airfield were
warned by telephone of impending raids, and they in turn notified
my grandparents and family, saying they expected the field to
be bombed. My grandmother would then take her two youngest children
to spend the night at Mattishall Heath with her parents, the Nortons.
Grandfather Bingham refused to move for the Kaiser and stayed
put with the older members of the family (he later refused to
move out for Hitler during the Second World War); and, nearby,
the Allendons of Burgh Farm, made an air-raid shelter using a
hay knife to cut a L-shaped tunnel in their haystack. At least,
they kept warm during alerts.
Several tall trees lined the road from Tollgate
Farm to East Tuddenham and were sawn down, the branches lopped
off, and left by the roadside. These made a good grandstand for
the hundreds of people who came from miles around on a Sunday
to watch activities at the airfield, hoping to catch glimpse of
the planes taking off or landing. The tops of the trees were sawn
and taken home by villagers on wheelbarrows and carts to be used
for fire-wood. The tree stumps were left and made good seats for
At the airfield, there were regular training
flights made between Mattishall and Marham. New pilots followed
the Dereham-King's Lynn railway from Dereham to Marham and returned
by following the railway lines from Marham to Dereham and then
Mattishall Church (a good landmark in the distance).
Wind direction was indicated by smoke from a fire kept alight
all day that was positioned at the end of the field, down Blind
Lane. The bonfire was later replaced by a tethered balloon and
later still, by a windsock, in the same position.
My grandmother turned the farmhouse
kitchen into a canteen, helped by Private Clamp and Private Deeye.
They fitted shelving on the wall and did other work. In appreciation
of this help she made special buns with a hollow in the centre
filled with a spoonful of jam. These she called Deeye buns and
they became very popular.
She sold biscuits five for a penny (240
pennies to a pound in those days), buns, cakes and sandwiches.
One day, an airman asked for Welsh rarebit and my grandmother
had never heard of this. When it was explained to her what it
was the airman always had his cheese on toast on request.
Milk and butter were produced on the farm. Cigarettes and pipe
tobacco were also sold, with Gold Flake being the favourite.
The airmen got on well with the local population
and held Sports days on the field in summer and Concerts in one
of the long huts in the winter. The locals attended these by purchase
of tickets, the money going to the Benevolent Fund of the day.
On dark nights, when Beatty Basey was working
late in the cookhouse the airmen used a small portable searchlight
to show Beatty the way home up the hill into East Tuddenham. The
searchlight was also used to guide the last wagon load of corn
at the end of a long day from the top of the Big Field opposite
into the Tollgate stackyard, much to the delight of the hold-gee
boy on the horse (my uncle Geoffrey).
The Last Raids
The German Zeppelins now found
they didn't have it all their own way. One was seen limping home
over the field, low, slow and badly damaged. Later, it came down
in the North Sea. All the base's aircraft were airborne at the
Sometimes, the aircraft were in the air
two or three hours; and in the wintertime, their open cockpits
were very cold and the pilots had to be lifted out of their planes
by the ground crew after returning from a patrol.
The last attempted raid by the Germans was
in August 1918, when four Zeppelins, waiting for night to fall,
were seen hovering 30 miles off the coast of Norfolk by the crew
of a Lightship.
The Lightship radioed the information to
the Yarmouth airfield and thirteen fighters took off in the gathering
darkness, armed with the latest British invention, incendiary
ammunition. Major Egbert and Captain Leckie located the Zeppelin
L-70 and attacked with their incendiary bullets. The Zeppelin
ignited and plunged into the sea, a blazing wreck. There were
The Home Defence Line had defeated the Zeppelins
and the Mattishall-Tuddenham Airfield had played its part. Ironically,
about this time the airfield had been supplied with an anti-aircraft
gun, which was sighted behind the Tollgate. This gun was never
fired in anger.
Eight months after the last attempted raid,
the Armistice was signed and the First World War was over. Two
of the giant German airships, L-64 and L-71 flew around Norwich
during daylight, and were seen from Mattishall before flying on
to Pulham Airship Station where they surrendered in accordance
with the Armistice Agreement.
The L-71, the last Zeppelin built for war
purposes, was 743 feet in length, armed with ten machine guns,
and was capable of carrying a 5 ton bomb load.
The Closure of Mattishall
The end of the Great War saw the
demise of Mattishall Airfield. The airmen were soon demobbed and
only three soldiers were left to guard the Field and its equipment.
This was a boring job for the soldiers but one day rapid firing
from a machine gun was heard in the village and it is assumed
the soldiers had found something to do to occupy their time.
A large auction was arranged and all huts
and surplus equipment was sold. Some of the huts were used as
village halls and others as farm e buildings.
The only evidence of the airfield today
is the two overgrown roadways, one leading to the old airfield
and one into the farm paddock. The small green Pay Hut where the
airmen queued for their pay is still standing in its original
position opposite the farmhouse.
The footings of some of the airfield buildings
are still there below ground and are avoided when the old airfield
is ploughed every year. A 1939-45 Second World War Pill Box can
easily be seen from halfway down Blind Lane. This appears to be
guarding the old airfield.
In 1940, a German plane dropped several bombs on the big field
opposite the Tollgate, 200 yards away. Some bombs failed to explode
and were dealt with by the Army bomb disposal squad. The road
was closed at Mattishall and East Tuddenham and everyone had to
be evacuated from nearby houses (while the squad made the bombs
harmless) except Grandad Bingham who would not move and continued
to dig his garden on the big field, 150 yards away, while the
bombs were made safe.
One American B24 bomber crashed in Mattishall
in the last war (1944) down by the side of Blind Lane, within
300 yards of Lieut. Thunder's fatal crash. The B24 caught fire
but eight of the crew escaped but unfortunately the pilot and
co-pilot were burnt to death whilst strapped in their seats.
The following document was
found in the shed of a house in East Tuddenham
ENGINEER SERVICES required at Aerodrome, Mattishall, Norfolk.
For "A" Flight No. 51 H.D. Squadron, R.F.C.
15th November 1916
The Contractor is to provide all
work labour and materials for the erection of Latrines Ablutions
and Bath Sheds as per drawing marked “A”
All timber to be sound well seasoned fir
or spruce, or similar timber of good quality all to be subject
Joinery work to be of good quality deals
wrought and free from all loose bad knots, sap, shakes &c.
Framework of wallings, floorings and roofs
to be of the sizes shown and with the timbers of the cantlings
as figured on the plans.
Concrete in foundations with screened ballast,
pit gravel or shingle and sufficient sand to fill the interstices
and in the proportion of 1 of cement to 6 of bulk of mixed dry
aggregate. Provide all casing for concrete work above ground.
Floors to be composed of approved clear porous material such as
iron slag, hard burnt bricks, etc., broken to pass a 3/4"
gauge with proper proportion of fine stuff and in the proportion
of one part of cement to four parts of aggregate and when in position
it is to be rammed with wooden beaters and steel trowelled to
a fair and smooth surface.
The tops of concrete bases to be weathered and floated to a fine
Doors, windows, frames and lourves to be
knotted primed and stopped, and painted three coats of best oil
colour finished to approved tints.
All other woodwork externally exposed, underground,
and plates bedded on concrete to have two coats of creosote.
All corrugated sheet iron to be black dipped
one coat of oxide paint at the works and painted externally one
coat approved common colour.
Steel ridging to roofs to be No.2 S.W.G.
and painted as described for sheeting.
The Contractor to inspect the Site before
making his Estimate and allow for any inequalities in the site
and removal of rubbish &c.
On completion of the work the Contractor
is to remove all surplus soil and rubbish from the War Department