I originally wrote this in 2003. I remember the sunny, windy day when I found what I didn’t know.
Near the village where I live are small paved trackways made of pre-cast concrete. Some of them have had a layer of tarmac, but some of them are still the way the US Army Airforce laid them 65 years ago. Off one of them I found a pile of rubble in a field, where on my map an airfield should have been. The gate was open so I drove in, down a wide white concrete track, just wide enough to be a runway but nothing was going to land here now, with big piles of soil and bricks dumped on it.
The runway stopped abruptly and another concrete track ran left and right at the end of it. On the right I steered past old and rusty farm machinery along with big lorry wheels, railway sleepers and unidentified massive bits of metal. I found two low brick sheds with flaking plaster and asbestos roofs opposite each other off yet another side track.
I parked and got out of the car and looking up saw a Little Owl, a tiny thing with dark brown stripes on its head, watching me from an empty window. It flew off suddenly, not in a panic or a flurry, but still suddenly, up through a hole in the shed roof. IIn the entrance to the shed there was a pile of sturdy grey wooden cases, marked Rocket Motors, MkII, about five feet long, a foot wide. Some were open, all were empty and abandoned. The wood was thick and solid and 60 years old. There were also two smaller bright blue wooden cases, open and showing scooped rests for something, but whatever they used to hold was long gone.
The whole place felt as if everyone left in a hurry. (It turned out it had – after VE Day, May 1945, all the pilots were sent on two weeks leave pending orders they thought would ship them out to the Pacific war. Instead, they were sent to Neiubiburg. By July, they’d all gone). I knew this used to be a fighter airfield. These boxes must have held rockets for ground attack in the last days of the German war. (They weren’t in fact, these boxes were dumped there by the RAF, shortly after the USAAF left). “Buy Bonds!” was written in black on the walls of one of the sheds, all of them now empty of things from then, except for the wooden cases and the gaudy paintwork, yellow and green or blue two-tone walls.
There was some graffiti dated 1985 signed by “Andy” who would now be 32 if he was 15 then. But not a lot of it. Most of the windows were broken, some shot-out with a small hole so probably by an air rifle, but apart from that this was an abandoned place sleeping in the morning sun. I drove back down the runway and saw an old painted 5 gallon oil can, triangular, still with some painted logo on it. I always find I accelerate on a runway without meaning to. You can’t help it. There were just two or three other buildings, one in good condition, up the lane on the farm.
The gate was shut when I got back to it, but not locked, luckily. Three thousand people lived here for eighteen months. Nearly fifty people (actually it was 82) went from here and died within just a few hours. Apart from the two war memorials, both with different numbers of people listed as killed, there are very few other signs anyone ever lived here. Who do you ask?
I’d asked people in Leiston, the nearest town to where the airfield used to be. The cycle shop man had made a model P51 Mustang aircraft with his brother, one that actually flew with a motor, but said he’d not heard about the airfield. The greengrocer’s shop played swing music on a CD most days, but no-one there was anything like old enough to remember the airfield.
Only the lady in the corner grocer’s knew anything about it. She remembered playing on the empty runways in the days just after the war, before the 1950s, her brothers and friends standing on the hardstand, then spreading their arms as they ran faster and faster down the silent runways to their futures under the big Suffolk sky. And standing still, talking down the airplanes from their ghostly landing patterns, waiting until the last one was home, engine switched off, chocks under the wheels, wings tied down for the night, canvas covers over the engine and cockpit, the canopy shut.
The entire airfield was shut. By the time I found it even existed almost all of it was gone, returned as it should be to farmland. In one of the coincidences that are much more common than they seem to be, the land where the airfield had been was now owned by a German, who was not overly keen for people to tramp about his fields looking for evidence of the people who systematically destroyed anything they could see in his own country half a century before.
I wasn’t even born when all this had happened. The only way it was anything to do with me was the fact that I lived in a village called Yoxford. The first thing I did when I moved in was Google the name of the village, mostly to see if anyone there had heard of the Internet and put up a village website. The very first thing I found was a website called The Yoxford Boys. I thought it was going to be something like how I imagined the Boys Brigade, probably a boxing club or something similar, run by a keen vicar, or maybe a pub darts team with a waggish sense of humour.
Instead I found the first clue that there had been more here than I knew about, and more than it was easy to find-out. I’d already met an old lady at the bus stop who told me about the garage her husband used to have where the layby on the main road was now, and how he had made what they took for serious money repairing tyres for the American trucks running up and down the main road. I’d talked to a carpenter who lived on the main road itself, in a house 400 hundred years old, whose biggest regret he said was not having lived through the 1939-45 war. And here you’re going to have to bear with me, because I am not going to type 1939-45 every time I mention what to my generation will always just be “the war.” The big war, the one they made so many films about. The one that dominated my parents’s lives, that hung plastic Airfix kit models of Fortresses and Messerschmitts, Dorniers and Spitfires from almost every boy’s bedroom ceiling. He meant that the war was the last time anything really happened in Suffolk. I thought then that he was joking. Now I don’t think he was at all.
This is a true story. Some of it is about the war, but only in the sense that that is when it happened. This is not a story about war. It is a story about one man’s walk, when being 19 then he missed his last transport home from Ispwich. At around 6am the next morning he had orders to fly across Germany, in one of the last combat missions of the entire war. He thinks now the date was probably April 20th, 1945. Leiston Airfield, Station 373, is 26 miles from Ipswich. This is a story of how a young pilot had to walk to his temporary home, one warm night a long time ago.
This is the audio version of the story, broadcast on Radio Suffolk in 2020.