Mepal from the air

Broadbent (22)

‘Bombing’ photo taken from 16,000 feet by S/L Dickie Broadbent’s Bomb Aimer on 20 October 1943.
Courtesy New Zealand Bomber Command Association/ © Ron Mayhill collection.

Thanks to Chris for putting together this post on the Mepal airfield and sharing with us all, more pictures from his visit to the New Zealand Bomber Command archive.

One of the frustrations I had early in my search for information about my uncle’s time at Mepal, was the lack of photos of the place during the War years. Most of the photos I came across were aircraft and crews in front of aircraft, with the occasional glimpse of Nissen huts, a few trees, fences, and flat, featureless farmland in the background.

The  three photos from the NZBCA archives give a good idea of the layout of the Base, and how it sat amongst the surrounding countryside.

RAF Mepal  was located near Ely, just north of Cambridge, between the villages of Mepal, Sutton and Witcham. You can still see the outline of the runways and taxiways on Google Earth.

75 (NZ Squadron had moved from Newmarket to Mepal in late June 1943. The June Form 540 records the transfer from Newmarket as follows;

The Squadron was moved to R.A.F. Station, Mepal (Satellite to Waterbeach). The advanced party proceeded on the 27th. June 1943, the Main Party on the 28th. June, and the Rear Party on the 29th. June 1943. This was successfully carried out with the assistance of Motor transport provided by No. 2 M.T. Coy. Cambridge.

This photo at the top of the post is oriented with North at the bottom, South at the top. Mepal village is at the bottom of photo, Sutton at the top and Witcham is out of picture, left. The twin Bedford River canals are visible at bottom right.

At least 34 Stirlings can be seen parked around the various dispersals. Aircraft were kept in the open, dispersed around the airfield, for safety reasons, and to present less of a target. A perimeter road around the outside of the three runways connected the aircraft dispersal ‘pans’ (circular concrete pads about 130 feet in diameter, accessed off the perimeter road by 50 ft-wide taxiways) – crew were delivered out to their aircraft by Bedford bus or truck.

The main runways were about 1 mile long.

Buildings were mostly “tin can” Nissen huts; two messes catered for 1,884 males and 346 females. there was a single B1 and  T2 hanger for maintenance. The photograph was taken from an aircraft piloted by S/L ‘Dickie’ Broadbent, Commanding Officer, ‘C’ Flight, in 1943

From the RAF website ‘Bomber Command Mepal’
Mepal airfield was built to Class A specification as one of the two satellite stations for the Waterbeach cluster. The site on a 20-foot rise out of the Cambridgeshire fens, was confined by the New and Old Bedford Rivers to the west; the villages of Sutton to the south, Mepal to the north and Witcham due east. As the A142 between Mepal and Sutton ran across the middle of the site it was closed off and diverted to run on the road through Withham. Construction began in July 1942 on a £810,000 contract. The concrete runways were: main 08-26 at 2,000 yards, and OS-23 and 14-32 both at 1,400 yards. Thirty-six hardstandings were provided, all being the loop type. Hangars were a T2 and a B1 positioned on the technical site between runway heads 26 and 32, the Bl being to the north, with another T2 on the north side of the airfield between runway heads 23 and 26. The bomb store lay to the north-west, between 08 and 14. The 11 dispersed sites were all to the east of the airfield around Witcham and consisted of two mess, one communal and eight domestic catering for 1,884 males and 346 females.

Officially opened in June 1943, its first occupants were the Stirlings of No. 75 Squadron, removed from the turf of Newmarket Heath, which conducted its first operation from Mepal on the night of July 3. Named the New Zealand Squadron and manned largely by citizens of that country, No. 75 was to remain in residence for a little over two years, seeing out the war from Mepal. No other squadron was based there during this period as No. 75 maintained three flights, their complements often totalling more than 30 aircraft, particularly after Lancasters replaced the Stirlings in March 1944. The squadron lost 104 bombers in operations from Mepal, 50 being Stirlings and 52 Lancasters.

No. 75 Squadron moved out in July 1945 to make way for the assembly and training of Tiger Force, the RAF bomber contingent scheduled to move to the north-east Pacific for operations against the Japanese homeland. These were Nos. 7 and 44 Squadrons, although the latter was soon replaced by No. 49 Squadron. However, the contraction of the RAF during the first year of peace provided several stations with better accommodation than the `tin can huts’ at Mepal and the Lancasters left in July 1946. Thereafter Mepal remained empty of active units for 12 years.

In 1957, the airfield was one of the sites selected to deploy Thor medium-range missiles and three emplacements were built in the north-east corner of the original airfield. When the missiles became active, the operating unit was No. 113 Squadron. By 1963 the Thors were considered obsolete and were removed, the airfield later surrendering to commercial and agricultural use.

The road between Mepal and Sutton villages had been re-opened in the 1950s and in the 1970s the A142 from Chatteris to Ely was established on a new three mile stretch of highway built right across the airfield, bypassing all three of the local villages. Today little of the airfield remains apart from odd lengths of perimeter track used as farm roads. On the south-eastern corner of the airfield site the largest agricultural machinery sale yard in the country was opened in 1997 where monthly hundreds of farm tractors echo the thunder of long-gone heavy bombers.

The photo below was taken by F/L John Aitken, probably some time in 1944, approaching the airfield from a direction equivalent to the top left of the first photo. Sutton village at left. Comparing the two, a new hangar (?) can be seen at  the right (large dark building).

Ron Mayhill (5)

Aerial view from Lancaster approaching Mepal.
Courtesy New Zealand Bomber Command Association/ © John Aitken via Ron Mayhill collection.

After the cessation of the Bombing Campaign, the Squadron was slowly re configured regarding the reformation of Tiger force, built solely around RNZAF crew. In preparation for the formation of Tiger Force, which at the time was planned to be deployed to the Far East, the Squadron left Mepal after 2 years and a month.

The Squadron moved from R.A.F. Station Mepal, No. 3 Group, to R.A.F. Station, Spilsby, No.5. Group. The journey was made by rail and the whole move was carried out very smoothly. We owe a debt of gratitude to both stations for their excellent cooperation in the movement.

Once again, many thanks to Peter Wheeler and the New Zealand Bomber Command Association for the permission to present these pictures.

4 thoughts on “Mepal from the air

  1. Adrian

    A very interesting photograph of the aerial view of Mepal, especially given the date it was taken. It may show evidence of the crash involving Stirling BK809 when it veered on take-off crashing into nearby houses in Sutton, killing 2 crew, 2 RAF personnel who went to help and 2 civilians on 8/9/43, 6 weeks earlier.
    There is a distinct and wide black line about half way along the top of the perimeter track leading directly to the houses that were hit. It may of course just be a shadow, the sun would seem to be in the right direction for this, but it is a bit strange that none of the other houses cast such a long shadow. The exception to this, just to the right, and at the same angle, may well be a smaller shadow cast from the water tower. Is it just a coincidence that this mark runs exactly from the houses hit, through the trees, to the perimeter track and no more or is it evidence of the course of BK809?


  2. lancaster1

    Hi Simon,
    I have seen the photo of the nine Lancaster’s lined up when visiting at MoTaT a few weeks ago. However I now believe it is not Mepal, it is Middleton St George, and the Lancs are about to depart on mass for Canada.
    See photo’s 6-7-8 here, (just scroll down a little).
    Do you think the photo’s confirm they are Canadian Lancs?


  3. Adrian

    At first glance the rear plane does seem to show the squadron markings AA of 75 sq, however after enlargement it now looks to be NA. NA was the marking of 428 RCAF squadron based at Middleton St George until May 1945 when they left for Canada. I agree with you Wayne, this I think, is the place and time of the photo.


  4. Chris Newey

    Hi Wayne, Adrian, thanks for pointing this out, I think you are right. I also read the code on the closest Lanc as “AA”, and in the cropped version of the photo posted here, thought I could pick the perimeter and surrounding area from the other photos. However the wider photo and extra details place the photo fairly conclusively as Middleton St George. I’ve asked Simon to remove the image before it causes any further confusion! Cheers, Chris



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