Great Ashfield, Suffolk

Great Ashfield, Suffolk

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Great Ashfield is a village and civil parish in Suffolk, about NINE miles (14 km) east of Bury St Edmunds.

The Domesday Book of 1086 records the village's toponym as Eascefelda. It means "open land where ash-trees grow".

Eight-hundred metres west of the village is the overgrown motte of Great Ashfield Castle.

The Church of England parish church of All Saints is built of flint. The oldest parts of the building are 12th century and the south doorway is 13th century. The west tower, north aisle and current font were added in the 14th century. In the 15th century new windows were inserted in the nave and the present chancel arch was built. There are also 15th century benches in the nave. The south porch was added in the 16th century and is built of brick. The altar rails and reredos are 17th century. The church is a Grade I listed building.

The west tower has a ring of five bells. The third and fourth bells were cast at Bury St Edmunds about 1510. John Draper of Thetford cast the tenor bell in 1631. Thomas Newman of Norwich cast the treble and second bells in 1745.

Nearby is Royal Air Force Great Ashfield or more simply RAF Great Ashfield and is a former Royal Air Force station.

Great Ashfield Airfield is still in private use although much reduced in size. It was originally a Royal Flying Corps grass landing strip on this site in World War I, and before the USAAF arrived the RAF had been using it for training, during that period it was known as RAF Elmswell.

It was re-built for the USAAF in 1942 and assigned designation Station 155. The first aircraft to land on the station is believed to have been a battle-damaged B-26 Marauder returning from a raid over the Netherlands on 17 May 1943.

USAAF Station Units assigned to RAF Great Ashfield were the 455th Sub-Depot, 18th Weather Squadron and the 31st Station Complement Squadron; and Regular Army Station Units included the 1152nd Quartermaster Company, 1249th Military Police Company, 1735th Ordnance Supply & Maintenance Company, 877th Chemical Company (Air Operations), 2036th Engineer Fire Fighting Platoon and the 385th Bombardment Group (Heavy)[edit]

General Ira C Eaker and General Lee with Lieutenant-Colonel Elliot Vandevanter Jr, commanding officer of the 385th Bomb Group, during an official visit on 28 September 1943.

The airfield was opened on 19 June 1943 and was used by the United States Army Air Forces Eighth Air Force 385th Bombardment Group (Heavy). The 385th arrived from Great Falls AAF Montana and was assigned to the 93d Combat Bombardment Wing. The group tail code was a "Square-G".

Its operational squadrons were the 548th Bombardment Squadron (GX), 549th Bombardment Squadron (XA), 550th Bombardment Squadron (SG) and the 551st Bombardment Squadron (HR).

The group flew Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses as part of the Eighth Air Force's strategic bombing campaign.

The 385th BG operated primarily as a strategic bombardment organisation until the war ended, striking such targets as industrial areas, air bases, oil refineries and communications centre in Germany, France, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway. The group received a Distinguished Unit Citation for bombing an aircraft factory at Regensburg on 17 August, 1943, after a long hazardous flight over enemy territory.

The group led the 4th Bomb Wing a great distance through heavy and damaging opposition for the successful bombardment of an aircraft repair plant at Zwickau on 12 May, 1944, being awarded another DUC for this performance. Other strategic targets included aircraft factories in Oschersleben and Marienburg, battery works in Stuttgart, airfields in Beauvais and Chartres, oil refineries in Ludwigshafen and Merseburg, and marshalling yards in Munich and Oranienburg.

Sometimes supported ground forces and struck interdictory targets. Attacked coastline defences in June 1944 in preparation for the Normandy invasion and hit marshalling yards and choke points during the landing on D-Day. Bombed enemy positions in support of ground forces at Saint-Lô in July 1944. Attacked German communications and fortifications during the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944-January 1945. Bombed troop concentrations and communication centres in Germany and France, March–April 1945, to assist the final thrust into Germany.

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On 6 March, 1944, raid to Berlin (the most costly mission the Eighth ever carried out) the 3rd Division commander, Brigadier General Russell Wilson, took off from Great Ashfield in a radar-equipped B-17 in a leading group of the 385th. All of the 385th aircraft returned safely ... all that is except the one carrying General Wilson which was seen to take several hits from flak setting one engine on fire. Although four of the crew managed to parachute to safety (including Medal of Honor hero First Lieutenant John C. Morgan), eight of the others were killed when the bomber exploded.

After V-E Day, the 385th Bomb Group hauled prisoners of war from Germany to Allied centers and flew food to the Netherlands. The group returned to Sioux Falls AAF South Dakota on 28 August, 1945, and was inactivated.

During the Cold War, the United States Air Force 385th Strategic Aerospace Wing, based at Offut AFB Nebraska controlled a mixture of strategic missiles and air refueling aircraft. The wing provided airborne command post services and supported SAC's global air refueling mission.

The wing was active between 1962 and 1964 and was bestowed the World War II legacy and honours of the USAAF 385th Bomb Group upon activation.

After the war, the airfield reverted to RAF control and it came under Maintenance Command as a sub-site for bomb storage before being finally abandoned and sold in 1955.

Across the ford, steps lead up to a simple stone slab with a bronze plaque commemorating the men of the 385th Heavy Bombardment Group of the US Army Air Force who flew B17s out of the then Great Ashfield airfield.

With the end of military control, Great Ashfield was returned to agriculture. Much of the concrete has been removed and sold as aggregate, with a small section of the main runway being retained for use by light aircraft. Much of the perimeter track has been reduced to a single lane farm access road and a few wartime buildings remain in a deteriorated state.

A memorial to those of the 385th who lost their lives flying from Great Ashfield can be seen in the village church.

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