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How a Bury St Edmunds Air Base Made History

Bury St Edmunds was home for thousands of American airmen and women during WWII and a visit to Rougham Control Tower Aviation Museum is like taking a trip back in time.

Bury St Edmunds and The Friendly Invasion

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Rougham Control Tower Aviation Museum. Photo: Phil Morley

During WWII the East of England became home to thousands of American air force personnel – over 350,000 in total.

Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire would never be quite the same again. The Friendly Invasion, as it was dubbed, introduced a rural backwater to the big band music of Glenn Miller, peanut butter, chewing gum, nylons, donuts, jitterbugging, Coca Cola and much more.

A new TV series starring BAFTA-Winning Best Actor Austin Butler will be coming to Apple TV+ in 2023 based on Donald L. Miller’s non-fiction book 'Masters of The Air' and produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The book tells the true story of the bomber boys of the USAAF 8th Air Force, known as the Mighty Eighth. Over the course of 10 episodes, the TV series will tell the legendary story of the American Eighth Air Force, a bomber unit put together shortly after Pearl Harbor and sent to bases in the East of England, one of those bases was RAF Bury St Edmunds.

RAF Bury St Edmunds, now Rougham Airfield and known in WWII by the USAAF as Station 468, not only welcomed 3,000 GIs during WWII but the Glenn Miller Orchestra, legendary comedian Bob Hope and Hollywood movie star Clark Gable, who all visited to entertain the troops.

It was home for the 94th Bomb Group (and for a shorter time the 322nd and the 47th Bomb Groups) of the 8th Airforce whose contribution to the Allies’ strategic bombing offensive helped turn the tide of war against the Nazis and free occupied Europe.

The 94th Bomb Group flew the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress as part of the Eighth Air Force's strategic bombing campaign and served chiefly as a strategic bombardment organization throughout the war.

The Airfield opened in September 1942 and was specifically designed for a United States Army Airforce unit (USAAF) bomb group and housed personnel in Nissen and other temporary buildings.

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94th Bomb Group Missions

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The 94th Bombardment Group (Heavy) arrived from RAF Earls Colne on the 15th of June 1943. The 94th was assigned to the 4th Combat Bombardment Wing, and the group tail code was a "Square-A".

The group flew the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress as part of the Eighth Air Force's strategic bombing campaign and served chiefly as a strategic bombardment organization throughout the war.

The 94th flew its first mission on the 13th of June 1943, bombing an airfield at Saint Omer. After that, the group attacked such strategic objectives as the port of St Nazaire, shipyards at Kiel, an aircraft component parts factory at Kassel, a synthetic rubber plant at Hanover, a chemical factory at ludwigshafen, marshalling yards at Frankfurt, oil facilities at Mersburg, and ball-bearing works at Eberhausen.

The 94th took part in the campaign of heavy bombers against the enemy aircraft industry during Big Week, between the 20th and the 25th of February, 1944.

Prior to D - Day in June 1944, they helped to neutralize V-weapon sites, airfields, and other military installations along the coast of France.

On the 6th of June, the group bombed enemy positions in the battle area to support the invasion of Normandy. During this time it struck troops and gun batteries to aid the advance of the Allies at Saint - Lo in July and at Brest in August.

Rougham Control Tower Aviation Museum

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The Rougham Control Tower Aviation Museum, opened in 1992 and is home to a fascinating collection of memorabilia including photos, artefacts, uniforms, airplane parts, flags, letters, and photographs, which tell the story of Rougham Airfield and the US personnel stationed there.

You’ll find a collection of memorabilia from the family of Preston Clark who flew The Eric Ferry, The Eagles Wrath and the Leading Lady as pathfinder crew from Rougham.

There is also wonderful collection of photographs and original concert posters of The Skyliners, the band of the 322nd Bomb Group after whom the new Skyliner Sports Centre and Skyliner Way in Bury St Edmunds is named.

Discover the story of local girl Edith Miller who married her dashing GI B17 bomber hero Tom Miller on 12 May 1944, just after VE Day.

You can still see the hangar that the Glenn Miller Ensemble played in today and you can imagine the deep roar of the engines and the sound of the propellers of the B17 flying fortresses from the top of the control tower as you look towards the runway.

But the museum is also a stark reminder of sacrifices made in war. Of the 3,000 servicemen stationed at Rougham, more than 600 died during missions.

Among them the Commander of the 94th Bomb Group (and newly promoted to commander of the 4th Combat Bomb Wing) Brigadier General Frederick Castle. Castle, who was based at RAF Bury St Edmunds, died a hero on December 24 1944 when he flew out of Lavenham in the lead bomber of the 487th Bombardment Group and was awarded Posthumously the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Truman.

The volunteers who keep this museum going and preserve the memories of those stationed here, are on hand to show you the museum are extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the airfield, its history and the era.

Be sure to see The Flight of Peace sculpture on the Lady Miriam Way roundabout near the Museum, which commemorates the US Air Force’s arrival at Rougham Airfield. The breath-taking B17 Flying Fortress commemoration sculpture, with a dove of peace blossoming from it, is a symbolic remembrance of those gallant American servicemen who, by preparing, maintaining and flying the B17 Flying Fortress bombers, contributed to lasting peace in Europe.

Visit Rougham Control Tower Aviation Museum

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Photo: Emily Fae

Rougham Control Tower Aviation Museum is open every Sunday between 10am and 4pm from Easter to October and at other times by appointment. It is Free to visit, but the Museum relies on donations to keep going.

The Museum also hosts special events and Open Days throughout the year at which you can see volunteers dressed up in period costume, browse extra displays and stalls, these days are listed on the Rougham Control Tower Aviation Museum website.

Memories of Rougham Airfield and The 94th Bombardment Group (H) written by Cliff Hall and Masters of The Air by Donald L Miller are available to buy from The Apex Tourism Information Centre.

For more information download The Friendly Invasion souvenir publication, with forewords by HRH Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge, and Tom Hanks.

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