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The 1st World War and its Effects on Mattishall ....
Derek Bingham, Brian Youngs, Jenny Pennell and Liz Gilding

During the First World War an Airfield was established at Mattishall. Although called Mattishall Airfield most of it was in East Tuddenham with a small part in Mattishall and an even smaller part in Welborne. The pilots used to follow the railway line to Dereham and then use Mattishall Church steeple as a landmark for the airfield.

It was early in 1916 that there was an indication of an airfield being built. Lorries turned up outside the back door of Tolgate Farm and the personnel started offloading tents much to the indignation of Mrs. Bingham, the farmer’s wife, who asked them to move away from her door, so the tents were erected in the farmhouse paddock.

The airfield was situated on the large 80 acre field behind Tolgate Farm on the left hand side of the road going towards Norwich. It was built for fighter planes to defend the Eastern Counties against the Zeppelins as there was no defence in the first two years of the war against these raiders. The other two Norfolk airfields were situated at Marham and Great Yarmouth.

The area had been used for grazing sheep so the grass was quite short. A well was bored and two long wooden huts for officers were erected on the Mattishall side of the farm. Five similar huts for the other ranks were erected on the East Tuddenham side and a further hut called the power house was situated behind the farmhouse for the generator so that electricity could be provided to pump water from the well. Other huts were erected for stores.

Within a very short time the field was soon operational with two hangers, six bi-planes and two mobile searchlights which used to travel most nights to Honingham and Yaxham. The planes were armed with one machine gun and small bombs carried in the cockpit to be dropped by hand on the Zeppelins which used to come over at night. This meant that the pilots had to take off and land at night which was very hazardous and the flight path was marked by parafin soaked rags in oil drums which were lit by the ground crews with a lighted rag on a stick.

The airforce had their own dispatch riders which used to ride between the airfield and area headquarters in Thetford.

The farmhouse was used as a canteen which was always busy. Mrs. Bingham used to sell buns, cakes, sandwiches and if requested cheese on toast. Milk and butter was produced by the farm, and cigarettes and tobacco were sold, Gold Flake being the most popular brand.

The airforce men got on well with the local population and held sports days on the field in the summer and concerts in one of the long huts in the winter which the locals took part in.

Despite several attempts to bomb the airfield the Zeppelins only managed to drop one bomb on the field although several landed nearby. The road from Tolgate Farm to East Tuddenham was lined with tall trees which were sawn down and left on the side of the road. These made a good grandstand for the hundreds of people that came to watch on a Sunday in the hope of seeing the planes take off and land. Wind direction was indicated by smoke from a fire which was kept alight all day on the edge of the field. This was later replaced by a tethered balloon.

There were frequent crashes. A Lt. Thunder crashed on the Mattishall side of Blind Lane and died from his injuries and burns in an airfield ambulance on his way to hospital.

The last attempted raid was in August 1918 when four Zeppelins were seen hovering and waiting for nightfall by a lightship 30 miles off the Norfolk coast. The lightship radioed the information to the Yarmouth Field and thirteen fighters took off in the gathering darkness armed with the latest British invention, incendiary ammunition. A Major Egbert and Capt. Leckie located the Zepp L79 and attacked it with the incendiary bullets causing it to catch alight and plunge into the sea, there were no survivors.

After the Armistice was signed, two giant German airships, the L64 and L71 were seen over Norfolk during daylight when they flew to the airship station at Pulham and surrendered in accordance with the Armistice agreement. With the war over the airmen were demobbed and the field closed down. All the huts and surplus equipment were sold at a big auction held on the site. Some huts were bought as village halls and others as farm buildings.

The only evidence of the airfield in recent years was the small green pay hut which stood beside the main road to Norwich until a year or so ago.

February 2004.

A book “Mattishall Airfield and the Zeppelins 1916 - 1919” by Derek Bingham is available from the Mattishall Society.
For more information click HERE

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