The Friendly Invasion

When large numbers of Norfolk people set out en masse, in the 17th century, for the newly created American colonies, and hundreds more made that trans-Atlantic journey two centuries later, a strong genetic tie was established.

The great, great, great, great grandfather of Abraham Lincoln – America’s 16th president (1861-1865), and national hero – was Samuel Lincoln, from the Norfolk village of Hingham. Samuel’s father, Edward, lost his inheritance to a younger brother, the favourite child of their father, Richard Lincoln, who was the churchwarden of All Saints Church in Swanton Morley from 1599 to 1620. A disgruntled and penniless Samuel Lincoln left Britain for a new life in the United States of America, where he helped to found the town of Hingham in Norfolk County (now Plymouth County), Massachusetts.

So, when Norfolk was ‘invaded’ by American airmen in 1942, reservations, suspicion, and doubt were quickly overcome, and enduring friendships were forged. At any one time, between 1942 and 1945, there were approximately 50,000 USAAF personnel in Norfolk, and the 300-year-old bonds that had stretched across ‘the pond’ were reinforced.

During these three years, there were 18 USAAF airfields in Norfolk. One of the best known was RAF Hethel, home to the 320th and the 389th Bomb Groups. Memorials are at All Saints Church, Carleton Rode Church, and the 389th BG Memorial Exhibition and Museum. The site of RAF Hethel bomber station is now the Head Quarters and factory of Locus Cars. Part of the old runway is used by Lotus as a test track.

Digressing from the subject of world wars, it’s worth mentioning the UK’s smallest nature reserve, which consists of just one plant. A 700-year-old hawthorn tree, which has been growing in Hethel Churchyard since the 13th century, is reputed to be the oldest hawthorn tree in the UK.

The USAAF (United States American Air Force) stationed the Eighth Air Force at RAF Horsham St Faith, which is now the site of Norwich International Airport. There are two memorials at the airport terminal building, and another one at the entrance to the City of Norwich Aviation Museum.

RAF Thorpe Abbotts was home to the famous 100th Bomb Group, nicknamed ‘The Bloody Hundredth’. In the late 1970s, volunteers began to restore the airbase, and the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum was established. The museum, based in the restored Control Tower, is still operated by volunteers, some of whom have been involved for over 30 years, and it has been recognised as an Accredited Museum by the Museum Libraries and Archive Council. There is a memorial at the village church.

Fersfield was the chief operational airfield for Operation Aphrodite, which was the use of stripped-down, worn-out bombers as radio-controlled flying bombs. A pilot would take off in one of these old planes, which would be packed with explosive, and then leave the plane by parachute. Personnel in another aircraft would then be in radio control of the ‘bomb’. These missions often went wrong, and one man who lost his life, when his plane exploded over Blythburgh, in Suffolk, was Joseph P Kennedy Jnr., the brother of the future President John F Kennedy.

Old Buckenham, wartime home of the USAAF 453rd Bombardment Group, is now a busy centre of civilian aviation, with plenty going on throughout the year. The annual Wings & Wheels event – a display of classic cars and aircraft – is on April 30th, and the American Fly In – celebrating everything American – happens on June 11th. There is no entry fee for American car owners – if they have their cars with them, of course!

The extension on the Old Buckenham Village Hall, containing a Roll of Honour and a plaque, is a memorial for the 453rd Bombardment Group.

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