Royal Air Force Sutton Bridge or more simply RAF Sutton Bridge is a former found next to the village of in the south-east of . The airfield was to the south of the current , and east of the , next to in .
On 1 September 1926 the established R.A.F. Practice Camp Sutton Bridge on 289 of acquired agricultural land next to Sutton Bridge village from Guy's Hospital Agricultural Estates. It was the responsibility of the first camp commandant, Flight Lieutenant A. Mackenzie, to establish the base camp and its flying ground, to set up, operate and maintain ground and towed targets for practice machine gun firing and bomb dropping by the and squadrons. Its principal gunnery range was to be located along the coastal marshland on in close vicinity to the small village of Gedney Drove End (see ). Although an RAF aircraft gunnery practice camp from 1926, from 1 January 1932 it was officially renamed to No. 3 Armament Training Camp Sutton Bridge, subsequently No. 3 Armament Training Station Sutton Bridge, and later simply RAF Sutton Bridge.
In October 1939 reformed at RAF Sutton Bridge as a fighter squadron and from January 1940 operated the , becoming the RAF’s second Spitfire fighter Squadron after ’s .
In March 1940 No. 6 Operational Training Unit (OTU) was formed and arrived at RAF Sutton Bridge for training fighter pilots, commanded by Squadron Leader Philip Campbell Pinkham, with a complement of , and aircraft, including one , its first pilot pool came from transferring to of . No. 6 OTU RAF was re-numbered in November 1940 to No. 56 OTU RAF and remained at RAF Sutton Bridge until relocating in March 1942 to .
The single most important function of RAF Sutton Bridge was as the home for the RAF's Central Gunnery School (CGS) from April 1942 to March 1944. Here for the first time, fighter pilots of and rear gunners of were trained together so as to become Gunnery Instructors who would then be sent to airfields around the country to pass on newly acquired skills. In the words of Group Captain "the Central Gunnery School itself was the first of its kind in the world".
4,200 ft Grass , oriented North-East/South-West (NE/SW).
2,400 ft x 50 ft runway, numbered 13-31.
3,450 ft x 150 ft PSP (Pierced steel planking) runway, numbered 08/26.
Units present at Sutton Bridge
- R.A.F. Practice Camp, 1 September 1926 ― 31 December 1931
- Sutton Bridge Station Flight, April 1929 ― September 1941
- No. 3 Armament Training Camp, 1 January 1932 ― 28 February 1936
- No. 3 Armament Training Station, 1 March 1936 ― 3 September 1939
- No. 3 Recruits Sub-Depot, 3 September 1939 ― (re-designated)
- No. 3 Recruits Training Pool, September 1939 ― 16 November 1939 (unit deactivated)
- , 1 November 1939 ― 25 November 1939
- , 30 October 1939 ― 29 February 1940
- , 9 December 1936 ― 27 January 1940
- (OTU), 10 March 1940 ― 31 October 1940
- , 1 November 1940 ― 31 March 1942
- No. 1489 Technical Training (TT) Flight, September 1941 ― April 1942
- RAF Central Gunnery School (CGS), 1 April 1942 ― 23 February 1944
- No. 7 (Pilot) Advanced Flying Unit (AFU), 1 March 1944 ― 1944
- No. 16 (Pilot) Service Flying Training School (SFTS), 1944 ― August 1944
- No. 7 (French Air Force) Service Flying Training School (SFTS), September 1944 ― November 1944
- No. 1 Ground & Target Towing Flight ( USAAF), May 1944 ― November 1944
- No. 7 (Pilot) Advanced Flying Unit (AFU), 21 June 1944 ― November 1944
- No. 7 Service Flying Training School (SFTS), November 1944 ― April 1946
- (MU), 20 July 1954 ― 1 November 1957
Airfield ground defences
During , airfield ground defence at RAF Sutton Bridge consisted an array of (AA) weapons, such as cannons and or , manned by some 66 officers and men of "D" Company 1st Battalion of the , from defences and distributed around the airfield station perimeter. Two such pillboxes still stand and can be found along the former airfield perimeter (see Pillbox #1: , Pillbox #2: ). As most air raid warnings occurred during the hours of darkness, a battery operated by 10 men of the was also present.
Decoy "Q" Site
Expecting attacks by the German on RAF airfields, the Air Ministry implemented a secret plan for decoy airfields at the onset of World War II, in 1939. Designated "Q" sites were secret decoy airfield sites for night use, their opposite for day use were designated "K" sites. RAF Sutton Bridge was allocated a decoy "Q" site (location at: ), 4 miles North-East of RAF Sutton Bridge on cultivated farmland in Terrington Marsh, near the village of in Norfolk. The decoy "Q" site consisted of adjustable intensity electric night landing lights to simulate from the air a runway flare path as well as other elaborate runway lighting schemes, were also installed to stop RAF aircraft mistakenly landing on the decoy dummy airfield.
Air Raid Attacks
The German Luftwaffe took its first aerial bombing assault on RAF Sutton Bridge on the night of 30–31 August 1940, were the Terrington decoy "Q" site would prove its effectiveness. On that night, four (HE) bombs were dropped North-West of the detected "Q" site flare-path, with a further fifteen explosions minutes later. Another air raid, on 22 September 1940, saw a single German drop a further seven bombs on the "Q" site. The German Luftwaffe returned in strength on 14 February 1941, twelve German bombers unloaded 47 High Explosive bombs and approximately 1,000 , once again the decoy "Q" site proved its effectiveness, on the next night the German Luftwaffe returned.
On 16 February 1941, amidst low and afternoon , and without warning, a single German bomber appeared out of the grey sky, circuited RAF Sutton Bridge airfield, dropped nine bombs and sprayed the area with machine gun fire, before disappearing back into the cloud as quickly as it had appeared. One further air raid followed on the "Q" site when two German bombers dropped eight High Explosive bombs shortly after midnight on 17–18 February 1941. No further direct air raid attacks materialized during until the early hours of 12 May 1941 when Sutton Bridge was re-visited by the German Luftwaffe, as part of a series of countrywide air raids targeting infrastructures and RAF airfields. Between the hours of 1-2am on 12 May 1941, in addition to attacking the neighbouring town of , three German bombers conducted a separate aerial bombing assault on RAF Sutton Bridge airfield, sixteen bombs fell in total on parked Hawker Hurricanes, setting two on fire and causing severe damage to seven others.
Central Gunnery School (CGS)
The Central Gunnery School had been formed on 6 November 1939 after the RAF recognised the need for both continuing and advanced instruction, initially for air gunners in Bomber Command. Its first base was and the CGS ran its first course in April 1940, where the main focus was on turret-gunnery. On 1 April 1942 the CGS moved from near Northampton to RAF Sutton Bridge.
During the , it became apparent that while aircrew had acquired essential flying skills, they had received little or no training in aerial gunnery. This was a serious deficiency for inexperienced pilots, meaning such training and the teaching of deflection shooting had largely to be carried out or just picked up during operations, resulting in fewer combat successes. For this reason, and after repeated approaches to senior officers by Wing Commander widely known as ‘Sailor’ Malan, he finally received authority to set up a Fighter Wing at the CGS. He was a respected leader and high-scoring fighter pilot, whose Ten Rules For Air Fighting were already on many fighter squadron notice boards.
There was mutual advantage for the Bomber and Fighter wings to be based at the same location so that relevant gunnery flying exercises could be carried out together. Thus, the Central Gunnery School transferred to Sutton Bridge on 1 April 1942, with its new wider remit, and remained until February 1944. It comprised the Gunnery Leader (Bomber) Wing and the Pilot Gunnery Instructors Training Wing. Each training course lasted a month and comprised 10 fighter pilots and 32 air gunners; with a 50% overlap of courses there were always twice that number of airmen at the School.
Thus, its purpose was to give advanced training to experienced aircrew to become gunnery Instructors who were then posted to airfields around the country to use their newly acquired instructing skills. Fighter Command and Bomber Command worked together at the airfield. The two principal aircraft used were the and the respectively, although a large number of aircraft types were based at the airfield.
Pilot Gunnery Instructors Training Wing
Spitfire pilots with operational experience were given a month’s training to become gunnery Instructors who would then be posted out to APCs (Armament Practice Camps) to teach freshly trained pilots deflection shooting.
Some of the training was undertaken using wing-mounted cine-cameras, simulating attacks with machine guns and cannons. In order to learn how to attack bombers and to learn dogfighting skills, the simulated attacks were made on both Wellingtons and on other Spitfires; for some purposes the School's target towing aircraft were sufficient as targets for these attacks. The gunnery film taken during simulated attacks was subsequently evaluated to assess proficiency.
Training using live ammunition was carried out on drogue targets (similar to a windsock), towed behind a , most commonly or . were also used briefly at the School - see link for photograph of a drogue. The CGS operated its own Target Towing Flight. The ammunition of various Spitfires was painted in different colours, for example, blue green and red. Three Spitfires made attacks on one drogue, after which the target-towing aircraft dropped the drogue at a dropping zone near the airfield; it would then stream another drogue in readiness for another three pilots to make their attacks. By subsequent examination of the colour of the paint around the holes in the drogue, percentage hit rates of individual pilots could be assessed.
In 1943, the Air Ministry produced a 48-page training book for fighter pilots titled "Bag The Hun". This dealt with the estimation of range and angle off in deflection shooting, with the sub-title "Try This Series Of Exercises & Improve Your Shooting". This formed the basis of the training, and was issued to all Instructors and pilots attending fighter gunnery courses. (For modern animation of a Gunnery Training Class, see External Link).
A typical series of pilot’s logbook entries for training flights during a course at the School would include
"Ranging and line of flight on Spitfire; Range estimation on Wimpey; ¼ attack on Wimpey; Deflection practice on Spit 200mph; Deflection 250mph; Deflection 300mph; ¼ attack on Spit; Half roll attack on Master; ¼ attack and half roll from above on Wimp; Spit evading 200mph; Spit evading 300 mph; ¼ attack on Master; ¼ attack on Master with patter; Varied attacks on Wimp; Astern shots at Spit; Snap shots at Spit; Attacking Wimp taking full evasion." (Wimpey - RAF aircrew nickname for Wellington bomber).
Gunnery Leader (Bomber) Wing
During the simulated attacks by Spitfires on Wellingtons, the bomber Gunnery Leaders were also trained using cine-film rather than live ammunition. Again, the film was subsequently evaluated to assess proficiency. After passing the course, trainees were posted to Operational Training Units around the country, where they became Instructors to train bomber gunnery crews.
Officers Commanding Central Gunnery School 1942 to 1944.
Station Commanders RAF Sutton Bridge.
- 7 May 42 to 5 Sep 42 Gp. Capt. .
- 5 Sep 42 to 26 Nov 43 Gp. Capt. C St. J. Beamish.
- 26 Nov 43 to 22 Feb 44 Gp. Capt. Dwyer.
Officers Commanding Pilot Gunnery Instructor Training Wing, CGS.
- Mar 1942 to Sep 1942 Wg. Cdr.
- Sep 1942 to Dec 1942 Wg. Cdr. P.R. Walker
- Dec 1942 to Jun 1943 Wg. Cdr. J. Rankin
- Jun 1943 to Get 1943 Wg. Cdr. P.R. Walker
- Oct 1943 to (Feb 1944) Wg. Cdr.
Officers Commanding Gunnery Leader (Bomber) Wing, CGS.
- Mar 1942 to Jun 1942 Wg. Cdr. J.M. Warfieid
- Jun 1942 to Jua 1943 Wg. Cdr. J.J. Sutton
- Jun 1943 to Dec 1943 Wg. Cdr. Claydon
- Dec 1943 to (Feb 1944) Wg. Cdr. A.E. Lowe
Chief Instructors Fighter Wing, CGS.
- Mar 1942 to Sep 1942 Sqn. Ldr, A.R. Wright
- Oct 1942 to Feb 1943 Sqn. Ldr. P.W. LeFevre
- Feb 1943 to Jun 1943 Sqn. Ldr, T. Balmforth
- Jun 1943 to Sep 1943 Sqn, Ldr. R.C Dafforn (K)
- Sep 1943 to (Feb 1944) Sqn. Ldr. A. Winskill
The Central Gunnery School transferred to in March 1944.
Closure and later use
In 1958 RAF Sutton Bridge was closed, its land site sold to the Ministry of Agriculture and continues to be utilized by the as a leading UK . Small remnants of RAF Sutton Bridge airfield however, still exist, including the recladded Hinaidi type aircraft (see location at: ) built during the airfield's on-going expansion and maintenance works carried out throughout the 1930s by "The En-Tout-Cas Co. (Syston) Ltd., (Aviation Dept.)" of (Air Ministry contractors of Landing Grounds, Aerodrome Buildings and Gun Ranges). The Hinaidi type aircraft hangar replaced two of the airfield's original four during the 1930s, and is believed to be one of very few, if not the only one of this type, still existing in the UK.