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78th Fighter Group
IWM HU 31937

Pilots of the 82nd Fighter Squadron, 78th Fighter Group at Duxford in the summer of 1944, outside what is now Duxford’s Battle of Britain exhibition. From left to right, Troy Eggleston, Roland Wolfe, Winfield Brown and Larry Nelson. Eggleston was killed later that year.

It’s 70 years since the Allies launched Operation ‘Overlord’. The landings on 6 June 1944 were the culmination of many months of meticulous planning, preparation and work, and involved tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen.

Duxford played its part in the build up, execution and aftermath of D-Day, and over the next two months we’ll be looking back to the events of May and June 1944, focusing on the Duxford-based 78th Fighter Group. We’ll be tweeting and blogging to show how the 78th spent their time at Duxford, on and off duty.

The 78th moved to Duxford in the spring of 1943. RAF blue swapped with USAAF ‘pinks and greens’, and the Stars and Stripes replaced the RAF flag on Duxford’s flagstaff.

IWM HU 51427

Duxford’s new USAAF Commanding Officer, Arman Peterson (right) with the commander of the remaining RAF personnel at Duxford, S L Matthews. Peterson, a very well-respected leader, was shot down and killed only a few months after this photo was taken.

The 78th were equipped with P-47 Thunderbolt fighters. Their job was to escort the fleets of USAAF heavy bombers – based at airfields in East Anglia and elsewhere in the UK – to their targets in occupied Europe. As the war progressed, the role of the 78th expanded to include ground attack missions, as the Allies set to work crippling the German air force in preparation for the liberation of Europe.

D-Day marked a new phase in the war for everyone engaged in the conflict in Europe. The tweets and blog posts that follow will show in ‘real time’ how the 78th contributed to what General Dwight D. Eisenhower called ‘this great and noble undertaking’. They will be a mixture of quoted sections of the 78th’s own records and our summaries of the Group’s activities.

During these two months, the 78th undertook a mixture of missions. They escorted bombers to targets  – some in the invasion area, some further afield:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBJCSeSaIPI

They also conducted fighter-bomber missions against targets such as bridges and communications centres. And they did a lot of ground-attack work, often on the way home from missions, and particularly against trains and other railway stock. This was ‘the most difficult mission of all’, as Hayden Richards told us in an interview several years ago:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQ6_gDbdwtE

Our information has been taken from a variety of sources. Looking through the 78th’s records has allowed us to pull out some interesting domestic snippets from the ‘Daily Bulletins’, which show how life at Duxford continued through May and June 1944.

An extract from the 78th Fighter Group’s records, signed by Stanley Markusen, PR Officer and Group Historian, recording activities in June 1944.

An extract from the 78th Fighter Group’s records, signed by Stanley Markusen, PR Officer and Group Historian, recording activities in June 1944.

For mission details, which form the backbone of these entries, we’ve drawn extensively on the work of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society, and from the intelligence summaries prepared by US VIII Fighter Command. Unfortunately, as the summary of 20 June 1944 reports, ‘this narrative was not issued for the operations concerning the period 5 June to 19 June 1944’, the time when the Group was at its busiest. We’ve therefore used other published sources, such as Garry Fry’s excellent Eagles of Duxford and Roger Freeman’s impressive  Mighty Eighth War Diary to help us fill in the gaps.

There are other great resources out there which have proved very useful. This web page, run by a tireless champion of the 78th Fighter Group, contains many fascinating MACRs (Missing Air Crew Reports) and other information, scanned documents and photographs. It’s possible to spend many hours reading these pages. They paint a vivid picture of the breathless dogfighting that took place over Europe in the summer of 1944. Some contain extra information. This one is particularly poignant, as it contains a letter written by the young airman’s father, as he attempted to discover how his son had died.

Little Friends is another mine of useful data with lots of fascinating photos of the Group and their aircraft.

I hope that the next few weeks of blogging and tweeting will give an insight into the 78th’s war, and show how D-Day unfolded for the ‘Duxford Eagles’.

 

 

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Sergeant F N Robertson in front of Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron on the snow-covered airfield during the harsh winter of 1939-1940. Image by permission of IWM.

Sergeant F N Robertson and Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron at Duxford in the harsh winter of 1939/1940.

As the festive season is upon us, we thought it would be a good time to look back at how Christmas was celebrated at Duxford during the Second World War.

On Christmas Day 1939, Duxford was part of the international radio link-up that preceded the king’s broadcast to Britain and the Empire. For security reasons the station was not named. ‘Squadron Leader George’ described the scene in the airmen’s mess, where ‘…the Commanding Officer himself is also lending a hand at carving the turkeys’. Then, the programme cut to a greeting from the air, as a pilot wished the listening world ‘a very merry Christmas to you all – and happy landings’ from his Spitfire. Only a select few knew that this segment had in fact been pre-recorded, as the weather on 25 December made flying impossible.

By Christmas Day 1940, in common with most of the RAF, the Duxford-based Squadrons had seen some intense fighting. Traditions were maintained, however. The station’s Operations Record Book (ORB) shows that ‘The sergeants were entertained in the Officers’ Mess at 1200 Noon after which the Officers and Sergeants visited the men’s mess and acted as waiters’ – a common RAF custom.

Little is written in the ORBs of Christmas 1941, but it was an extremely busy time for the station, with nine different flying units in residence. Christmas 1942, a time when Duxford was undergoing a change of role, similarly does not merit much attention in the station daily diary.

By December 1943, the United States Army Air Force had settled in, and on Christmas Eve a party was organised at the Guildhall in nearby Cambridge. The 78th Fighter Group’s ‘Thunderbolt’ dance band provided the music, and the whole celebration was broadcast on radio in the United States. On Christmas Day, the 78th hosted a party for local children, a tradition which they continued the following year, the group’s third festive season in succession spent overseas.

But the men of the 78th didn’t lose their Christmas spirit once the decorations came down. As the Duxford diary states, ‘Seven children who had lost one or both parents during the war were ‘adopted’ by Duxford units. The $400 for each child paid for school and two meals a day for four years’.

Merry Christmas from the Duxford team to everyone who follows the Historic Duxford blog!

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Just a quick update to post some links to some good online videos. First, Captain Burt Newmark’s presentation to an American school group. Burt flew with the 78th Fighter Group from Duxford, and has got an amazing story to tell.

Second, here’s a clip telling the story of a German raid on Duxford’s satellite station, Fowlmere, during the Battle of Britain. It’s from our Duxford: The Second World War Years DVD:

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Third, here’s a link to a piece filmed by the Museum for the recent Battle of Britain anniversary, showing our very own Steve Woolford, Project Director for the Historic Duxford project. Over to you, Steve…

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Bob Hope and Frances Langford. By permission of the Imperial War Museum, IWM HU57979

One of the photos in our Historic Duxford ‘taster’ display in AirSpace is of Bob Hope and Frances Langford visiting the American 78th Fighter Group at Duxford. The photo appears to be a morale boosting shot, but actually Bob Hope and Frances Langford visited in July 1943 only a few days after the Commanding Officer, Colonel Arman ‘Pete’ Peterson had been lost on a mission. According to the Duxford Diary, Bob Hope admitted he had had trouble getting the audience at Duxford to laugh. Not surprising when they had lost such a respected leader. I think it adds a whole new dimension to the photograph. What do you think?

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