History of Earls Colne Airfield

Flying Fortress

B-17 Flying Fortress bombers were Earls Colne's first US residents, although they stayed only a few weeks more wartime photographs

Thousands of visitors to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, near Cambridge, thrill to the sight of Sally B - the resident American B-17 'Flying Fortress' World War II bomber - taking to the skies.

Few of them will know that Earls Colne's airfield was among the first in Britain to host the famous gun-bristling, ten-man Flying Fortress, which featured in the 1990 David Puttnam film Memphis Belle. Construction of the aerodrome just south of the village began in 1941 as part of a huge bomber-airfield building programme throughout East Anglia.

It was one of 27 military airfields in Essex; many more had been planned in the county to accommodate US bomber groups which, in the event, were diverted to operations in North Africa.

Flying Fortresses of the US Army Air Force's 94th Bomb Group arrived at Earls Colne in May 1943. Part of the fledgling 'Mighty Eighth' Air Force, the group stayed only a few weeks before moving to Rougham, near Bury St Edmunds. The day of their transfer, June 13th, the B-17s set off from Earls Colne on a bombing mission, only to be pounced on by German fighter planes over the North Sea on their return leg to Rougham. Nine B-17s - 90 crewmen - were shot down.

Earls Colne's next (and longest) residents were B-26 Marauders - a smaller, 'medium' bomber with a crew of six - belonging to the USAAF's 323rd Bomb Group. The Marauders later became 'Essex's own', with others based at Stansted (now London's No.3 airport), Great Saling, Boxted, Rivenhall, Boreham, Great Dunmow, Matching and Chipping Ongar.

These and other medium bomber groups were controlled from Marks Hall, an Elizabethan mansion just south of Earls Colne airfield, which had become the headquarters of the US Ninth Air Force's Bomber Command. The building was demolished in the 1950s.

Marauders from Earls Colne, along with their partner groups across Essex, were involved in the preparations for 'D-Day' - June 6th 1944; the invasion of Europe - as well as the big day itself and its aftermath. As the Allies progressed in France, the Essex-based Marauders followed; first at bases in southern England and, later, on the continent.

The Royal Air Force's 296 and 297 Squadrons then took control at Earls Colne. Flying first twin-engined Albemarles - and, later, Handley-Page Halifaxes - the units were deployed in paratrooper drops in the Low Countries as well as supporting resistance groups in occupied Europe.

The squadrons' last major operation was on March 24th 1945, dropping British paratroopers as part of the crossing of the River Rhine.

One pilot who flew out of Earls Colne during this period was Kenneth Wolstenholme - the post-war BBC soccer commentator who, at the 1966 World Cup Final, coined the phrase: “They think it's all over.”

As he might have said on “VE-Day” - May 8th 1945: “It is now!” Earls Colne's vital contribution to the air war in Europe had ended.

Today, within the Marks Hall Estate, there is an impressive memorial to all the units that flew from Earls Colne. It stands within a grass clearing mown to represent the airfield's three runways. In May 1992, a tree was planted in St Andrew's churchyard, Earls Colne to mark the 50th anniversary of the US Army Air Forces' arrival in the UK. Many former members of the 323rd Bomb Group attended the ceremony.

This article was written by Norman Wells

Today the the Airfield is home to Earls Colne Business park, next to the Marks Hall Country Park and arboretum, although it is unrecognisable today as a wartime base. Instead it provides employment for over 1000 people in modern attractive buildings set in a true park setting.