Airfield History

Tibenham’s Beginning – Second World War

Without the USA’s entry into the Second World War in 1941, there would have been no Tibenham airfield – and consequently no gliding club.

The American Eighth Army Air Force was formed in January 1942, but the WW2 build up in England was quite slow due to the need to construct the airfields to operate from. Ultimately the USAAF  occupied 18 Norfolk airfields, including the one constructed at Tibenham between 1942 and 1943. It wasn’t until the autumn of 1943 that the aircraft of the 445th Bomb Group finally arrived – their mission, precision daylight bombing of targets in Germany in support of the RAF’s night bombing activites.

The 445th launched it’s first daylight bombing mission on 4th November 1943. In total the 445th flew 280 missions and 6,323 sorties. 576 airmen were killed in action and a total of 138 bomber aircraft were lost. Their final mission was on 25th April 1945 and by 28th May 1945 the crews and their aircraft had flown back to the USA. The late movie star James Stewart was a wing commander at the base.

The airfield is thus a memorial to all of the US airmen of the 445th Bomb Group who lost their lives during the Second World War. It continues to be a place of pilgrimage for the relatives of those airmen who served at Tibenham and a number visit the site each year.

In July 1945 the Royal Air Force took over the airfield and in 1952 the RAF sold off parts of the airfield to local landowners. In 1955 the main runway was lengthened to take jet aircraft but no units were assigned to the base. Tibenham was finally closed as an air force base in 1959, but the Norfolk Gliding Club was formed and paid rent to the Air Ministry to use the Airfield.

©Nick Stone                  (invisibleworks.co.uk)

Ownership by Norfolk Gliding Club

In 1962 the Air Ministry sold the airfield to a local farmer. For the next 25 years there was an uneasy relationship between the club and the farmer. Rent was always paid annually in arrears and there were frequent notices to quit which were the subject of appeals. Hangars were sold and other buildings were demolished. The control tower was used as a clubhouse.

In 1974 water supplies were secured but the landlord was eroding the site by the demolition of the control tower, digging up and sale of the dispersals and perimeter track. A regular Sunday market was started on the airfield with obvious operational and safety problems. However, the club acquired a second single seat glider and placed an underground fuel store on land leased from another farmer. Efforts were made during the next few years to buy parts of the airfield but these efforts were refused.

By 1985 the use of the airfield as a Sunday market had been stopped by the local authority and planning applications to use the airfield for other purposes had all been refused. But the landlord  allowed parts of the runways to be dug up and sold for hardcore. But, in 1987, after some lengthy negotiations, the club bought 32 acres of concrete and 22 acres of arable land at a total cost, including fees and stamp duty, of £209,500. The club had, at the time, an airfield purchase fund of £72,000. The balance of the funds was raised from the local authority, from former members of the 445th Bomb Group and from club members through donations and low interest loans.

In 1990 the remainder of the airfield was offered for sale. Although not all of this land was needed for the club’s operations, purchase by a third party could have hindered flying. Buyers were found for some areas of agricultural land but the net cost of this purchase to the club was £201,000. This sum was raised by low interest loans from 2 club members, repayable over 7 years. The purchase included 2 agricultural buildings, which were dismantled and rebuilt as an additional hangar for powered aircraft and motor gliders.

Further information and for a free Tibenham airfield tour please visit www.military-tours.co.uk