The USAAF in Suffolk... from Fonthill Media

Title: The USAAF in Suffolk
Author: Roy Brazier

Publisher: Fonthill Media
ISBN: 978-1-78155-346-6

A new book from Fonthill Media which looks at the story of all the various airbases used by the USAAF in Suffolk during WW2.  It is also about the impact that had on the county and the people who lived there, just as much as the visitors who came to live, work and in some cases to die in this agricultural corner of East Anglia.  I would have called it peaceful, but thanks to the noise generated by so much aircraft activity, it wouldn't have been so quiet in those days.

Following the introduction that sets the scene there are 21 chapters, each one dealing with an individual airfield organised in alphabetical order and this is all rounded off by chapter 22 which covers the Headquarters site at Elvedon Hall.  I have to say I really like the way the book is focussed on each base, not just a simple list of missions, this is about wartime life in Suffolk.  I think most of us know about the stories of GI brides, and the relationships that built up due to influx of US servicemen into an agricultural part of the UK.  Perhaps things it covers are less frequently considered, such as the work carried out by British contractors to build many of the airfields, done as part of the way of paying the bill of the Lend Lease program.  Some were built by US Military engineers, alongside British construction teams.  Runways, hard standings (dispersals), taxiways, hangers, accommodation, fuel supplies, electricity, drainage all needed to be done.  Once the squadrons moved in and thousands of airmen, life swiftly changed in the quiet country villages.  The war had already been going on for several years in the UK, so petrol rationing limited the number of cars on the roads while food rationing also meant families having to try and make do.  So, villagers had to get used to a huge number of Jeeps and Trucks flying around the narrow country lanes.  The children loved to see the aircraft so were regular visitors to the bases, where they usually met a welcome reception and given gum and sweets by the Americans, who had plentiful supplies.  Indeed, at the end of the war it mentions how some locals hated to see the wastage when the USAAF pulled out of the bases to go home, and unused food supplies were destroyed and burnt as per orders, rather than being distributed to local families.

As well as the missions they had to undertake, the crews had to endure enemy Flak and fighters, and a suitable selection of stories are included for each base.  Losses also occurred during take-offs and landings, as well as during training flights so death was on a lot of shoulders as each day went past.  This in turn was a danger to the locals as bomb loads might explode or aircraft would simply hit houses and villages.  New crews arriving needed to learn to fly in formation, and collisions between these inexperienced crews was not unusual, resulting in the potential for yet more civilian casualties.

Throughout the book there is a good selection of photos, which fortunately have been obtained mainly from US archives, and there is a note of how sad they were unable to use others from the IWM due to their unrealistic level of charges to use their archive images in a publication.  A problem I found in the past as a reasonable cost is one thing but they are at a level that a book can be simply not a practical commercial project, very sad.  Among the many photos that are included are some famous faces who served with the USAAF during the war.  These include the actors James Stewart and Clarke Gable, along with the bandleader Glenn Miller, who performed with his orchestra at many of the bases.  That leads me to suggest that however corny it may sound, I put on a CD of Glenn Miller music while I was reading this one and goodness it gave a really atmospheric and  immersive feel to the stories as you read them.

I thought I'd leave one other aspect mentioned in the book that is often overlooked, and that is how a colour-bar was put in place in those days.  In the towns and villages pubs were restricted to either black or white servicemen.  For many of us today it is hard to imagine what that must have been like to experience, even as the publicans and villagers who had to adapt to this way of living.  Then in 1945, they all went home and peace and quite largely returned to the Suffolk countryside.  It must have been very difficult to get used to after those wartime years.  An really good book all round and one I enjoyed reading.