Heroism at a forest airbase
Where once 100 bombers a day crash-landed, buddleia now sprouts through the giant runway of the former Sutton Heath Airbase, carved out of Rendlesham Forest.
It’s the eerie setting for early chapters of “She, You, I.” The base played an important, but little recognised, role in one of the decisive strategies of the Second World War, the bombing raids on Europe.
Three such airbases were built towards the end of the war to provide a landing place for Allied aircraft returning damaged from their raids on Europe. The other two were at Carnaby in Yorkshire and Manston in Kent, the latter serving recently as a parking place for lorries waiting in Brexit backlogs to cross the Channel.
At Sutton Heath, later named RAF Woodbridge, over 1,000,000 forest trees were felled to make way for three parallel runways. These were 3,657 metres (over two miles) long and 1,145 metres (about three quarters of a mile) wide, about five times the size of the average bomber command runway. In comparison, Heathrow’s southern runway is 3,658 long by 50 m wide. The first plane to land at Sutton Heath was an American B17 Bomber, a flying fortress. After a slow start, traffic built until at its peak, 100 planes were landing there a day.
To keep the runway open in all weather, an innovative fog dispersal system was installed with metal pipes running the length of the runways spouting jets of burning petrol. FIDO—the Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation—consumed an astonishing 450,000 litres of petrol an hour. Below is a link to an amazing contemporary Pathe news video of the FIDO system.
After the war, the base was briefly moth-balled and then brought back into use during the Cold War by the Americans. It enjoyed a moment of fame in December 1980 when it was the location of reported UFO sightings.
It was finally returned to the British in 1993 and is scheduled for closure by 2027. The control tower and remains of Nissen huts from the Second World War are in ruins, the hangars and bunkers from the Cold War are derelict, the pipes of the fog dispersal system are still visible. The size and scale of the runways remains astonishing. The forest endures. Bombers crash-landing have given way to children playing in Rendlesham’s outstanding beauty.
Below: ruins of the control tower at Sutton Heath.
“Flying Through Fire: FIDO – the Fog-buster of World War Two” by Geoffrey Williams, published by Sutton Publishing, 1995
“Through the Flak, Fog and Flame: USAFF Emergency Landings at RAF Woodbridge” by Ray Bowden, Independently published, 2021
“Twin Bases Remembered: A Personal History of the RAF and USAF at Bentwaters and Woodbridge 1943 – 1993” by Norman Rose, Woodfield Publishing, 2016
Digital records from RAF Sutton Heath and Woodbridge are available through the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum.
Bentwaters Aviation Society website has a piece on RAF Woodbridge: the link is here.
And if you want to visit the wonderful Rendlesham Forest, the website is here.