USAAF 356th FG at MH 1943-45

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This article is based on material published by Martlesham Heath Aviation Society on their website,
in their ‘Martlesham Memories’ booklet and the Wikipedia 356th FG article.
Visit MHAS at their control tower museum and buy the Martlesham Memories booklet!

The 356th Fighter Group of United States Army Air Force arrived at RAF Martlesham Heath in October 1943, from their training base in the southern USA.

North American P-51s of the 356 Fighter Group / 360th Fighter Squadron in protective revetments at Martlesham Heath, 1944 • Photo Courtesy of Ross Whittaker and The Little Friends Website.

The Group’s role was to escort USAAF heavy bombers on their daylight raids over Germany and the occupied countries. Initially they escorted B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers on their attacks on industrial areas, missile sites, airfields and communications. However from January 1944 onwards they escorted bombing raids on a wider range of targets, ranging from U-boat installations to railway locomotives.

P-51D Mustang 44-11564 356th Fighter Group / 359th Fighter Squadron Martlesham Heath England 1945, code OC-W • Photo Courtesy of Ross Whittaker and The Little Friends Website

For the first time RAF Martlesham Heath gained hard runways, uniquely constructed of stabilised soil, sand and bitumen. When the 356th arrived they were flying P-47 Thunderbolt fighters. These were superseded by the more well-known P-51 Mustang fighters in November 1944. With a greater flying range; they could accompany the bombers as far as Berlin. The airmen and planes travelled to the UK by sea and were bought together at RAF Coxhill in Lincolnshire, before flying down to Martlesham Heath.

The young and inexperienced airmen found the maritine climate around the UK much harder going than the clear skies experienced when training in the southern USA. Although they had radio, they were flying single-seater aircraft, navigating mostly by sight and map-reading. Even so, veterans have commented how fortunate they were they were to be posted to Martlesham Heath. “We could fly down the North Sea until we spotted the radar masts at Bawdsey. Then fly up the Deben and turn left at Woodbridge. Left again over the ‘Black Tiles’ and we knew we were safely home again!”

The 356th had the highest ratio of losses to enemy aircraft claims of all the USAAF Eighth Air Force fighter groups. It supported the D-Day Normandy landings and the Allied forces drive across France Belgium, Holland and Germany. It earned a Distinguished Unit Citation for actions in September 1944 supporting Operation Market Garden airborne forces in the Netherlands.

War Memorials, Barrack Square, Martlesham Heath • Photo: Peter Davies

Seventy-two USAAF personnel lost their lives whilst serving at Martlesham Heath. They are remembered on the Barrack Square war memorial, believed to be the first to be erected in Europe in honour of the American dead. The church of St Michael’s and All Angels in Martlesham Heath, contains the “Roll of Honour”, a book with the names of all the personnel of the 356th Fighter Group who lost their lives here.

The 356th flew its last combat mission on 7 May 1945 – VE Day. On that occasion the only ’bombing’ carried out by the B-17s was to drop propaganda leaflets. They returned to the USA soon after, to be disbanded on 10 November 1945.

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