Ridgewell Airfield History

Today our airfield at Ridgewell is a peaceful place, nestling in the tranquil countryside of North Essex. However it was born in war. In 1942 the tide of the second world war was beginning to turn and many new airfields were being built all across England and in particular in the Eastern Counties. These were to house the squadrons that would deliver the coming bomber offensive on Germany.

One of these was Royal Air Force Station Ridgewell. Construction of the airfield started in 1941. Ridgewell was the only airfield in Essex built with the intention to serve as a base for Heavy (i.e. 4 engined) bombers.

By the end of 1942 RAF Ridgewell was complete and ready for its first operational unit to move in. This was 90 Squadron Royal Air Force who arrived with their Short Stirling Heavy Bombers in December 1942.

90 Squadron carried out 51 operations from Ridgewell between January 1943 and the end of May 1943 when the squadron departed for their new base at nearby Wratting Common. During operations from Ridgewell the squadron lost 22 of its bombers in action. 183 of their men were killed in action.

A Short Stirling of 90 Squadron takes off from Ridgewell

Following 90 Squadron’s departure RAF Ridgewell was transferred to the United States Army 8th Air Force and on 3rd June 1943 the 381st Bombardment Group (Heavy) under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Nazzaro arrived after training in America.

The 381st flew the formidable Boeing B17 Flying Fortress bombers and there were 50 of them based at Ridgewell, flown by the four squadrons that made up the group.

Each of the B17s had a ten man crew, Pilot, Co-Pilot, Bombardier/Nose Gunner, Navigator, Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner, Radio Operator, Ball Turret Gunner, Two Waist Gunners and the Tail Gunner. Each aircraft had 13 guns and could carry up to 8000lbs of bombs.

Insignia of the 381st Bomb Group and the four squadrons that formed it.

N.B. The ‘Bombs Dropped’ figure should read ‘tons’ not ‘lbs

The 381st flew their first mission on 22nd June 1943, bombing the Ford works at Antwerp. They also suffered their first losses. Three B17s were lost and 10 crewmen killed in action.

All USAAF groups had a unique tail marking and that for the 381st was an L within a triangle. They also had red painted tail and wing markings. So any aircraft with those markings was from Ridgewell.

A formation of B17 Flying Fortress bombers

Note the red markings and the ‘Triangle L’ on the tail fin.

These indicate that the aircraft were part of the 381st Bomb Group and were from Ridgewell

Shortly after arriving at Ridgewell a terrible accident occurred. On June 23rd 1943 a B17 exploded whilst being loaded with bombs. 23 American servicemen and a passing British civilian were killed. As a result for a very short period ground crew losses exceeded air crew losses.

Today a memorial on the road between Ashen and Ovington marks the spot where this happened.

B17s on a taxiway at Ridgewell.

This taxiway is now part of the road between Ashen and Ovington and the lead bomber is just turning onto the runway which now forms the airfield of the Essex Gliding Club.

B17s of the 381st on a mission

The 381st remained at Ridgewell for the rest of the war.

Between June 1943 and May 1945 the 381st flew 297 missions and lost 131 of their aircraft in action.

Nearly 1300 of their men were killed in action and many more injured or taken prisoner.

Part of the high price paid for the eventual victory

Ridgewell’s most costly mission was on August 17th 1943 when the 26 aircraft of the 381st took part in an attack on the ball bearing factory at Schweinfurt in Bavaria. Ten of these B17s were shot down over Germany and an eleventh ditched in the English Channel on the way back. Twelve of the remaining B17s returned to Ridgewell with battle damage.

The 381st fly through anti aircraft fire over Schweinfurt

The last wartime mission from Ridgewell took place on April 25th 1945 against the Skoda Works at Pilsen in Czechoslovakia. The 381st left Ridgewell in early June 1945 and flew home to the USA.

 

The service of the Ridgewell airmen has not been forgotten. Two memorials exist at what was the main entrance to the airfield. This lies on the road between Ridgewell and Great Yeldham. One of the memorials is to the 381st Bomb Group and the other to the RAF units that served at Ridgewell. This is also the site of a small museum dedicated to RAF Ridgewell.

After the war ended Ridgewell served as a base for No’s 94 and 95 Maintenance Units of the RAF whose purpose was the storage and destruction of unused wartime bombs and explosives. This task was completed by 1955 and from then the airfield continued as a storage facility until the 1980s, used by the US Air Force units based at RAF Wethersfield and RAF Alconbury.

Most of the wartime buildings including the hangers had been demolished by the late 1980s. Much of the old airfield was returned to agriculture. The runways were all taken up and the rubble used as hardcore in road building projects.

During the late 1970’s and 1980’s the Ridgewell Oatly Gliding Club operated from Ridgewell (the Oatly part of the name representing the nearby villages of Ovington, Ashen, Tilbury and Little Yeldham).

In 1991 the northern part of the airfield was purchased by the Essex Gliding Club to replace their previous base at North Weald (which had become unsuitable for gliding). Essex Gliding Club has operated at Ridgewell continuously since then.

One of the Essex Gliding Club gliders has been painted in the colours of the 381st Bomb Group as a tribute to their service at Ridgewell.