FEATURE: New memorial at Lavenham Airfield to honour American airmen who lost their lives during Second World War
Bleak and windswept on a raw winter day, it is not hard to picture how Lavenham airfield would have looked 75 years ago.
Here – in the final year of the Second World War – American bomber crews were taking off on perilous missions. Many of them never came back.
On days like this, it is easy to imagine how their comrades would have scanned the scudding clouds, and strained their ears against the roar of the wind, for a sign of planes returning home.
Later this year, the Friends of Lavenham Airfield (Fola) will unveil a memorial beside the control tower to remember those who died.
It will bear the airfield’s call sign, LV, and the name of every man who was killed.
For Fola chairman John Pawsey, the need to mark their sacrifice is also a personal one.
His family farmed the land on which the airfield was built. They forged a deep connection with the USAAF troops so far from home, and John still owns the airfield today.
American air crews began arriving in England in 1942. Eventually, they occupied around 100 bases in the east of England.
From 1944 to 1945, Lavenham airfield was home to 3,000 members of the 487th Bombardment Group.
They flew more than 180 missions and 6,000 sorties from the base in their Liberator and Flying Fortress bombers. “On average, more than one man was killed for every mission,” said John. “There were 233 people lost.
“The reason for the memorial is that, although there are plaques on the control tower and in Lavenham, there wasn’t a site on the airfield dedicated to these people.”
The airbase was built at the meeting point of three parishes – Lavenham, Alpheton and Cockfield.
While the control tower and runways were at the Alpheton end, the accommodation was closer to Lavenham.
And it was there – where the medieval streets must have felt like walking into a history book – that the troops often headed in their off-duty time.
The Swan Hotel became their local, and they are fondly remembered in the Airmen’s Bar, where their signatures and mementoes still adorn the walls.
Fola was formed in 2017. “Jane Larcombe, who worked at the Swan, was the catalyst,” said John.
“We’d been having school parties out to the airfield for a long time. So our mission was about remembrance and education.
“After the memorial is finished, we are really going to focus on education. We’re talking about starting a museum in Lavenham with a section on the 487th.
“It’s about connecting the airfield with the village and letting people come to see it, and securing its status in the history of the Lavenham.
“There is this incredible story of all these people coming from America to East Anglia, and completely changing the social dynamic.
“They were coming to places where some people had never been away from their home villages ... and some of these Americans had never left their villages in the US before, either.
“They must have been terrified and homesick, and it shouldn’t be forgotten.
“We’re so good at remembering ‘old’ history, but we have lost so many airfield buildings and control towers.
“It’s good for people to be able to come to a site like ours and try to imagine how it would have been in desolate winter time, and imagine those bombers setting off.”
John’s family probably had a closer connection to the American airmen than anyone.
His mother’s family bought Lodge Farm, Lavenham, where the airfield was built, in 1904.
By the start of the war, it had passed to his grandparents, David and Beth Alston. David was also captain of the local Home Guard.
“My grandfather negotiated to stay farming on the airfield during the war, and farmed pretty much all around the perimeter track,” said father-of-three John, who lives with this wife Alice at Shimpling Park Farm. “They were also allowed to stay in their house.
“My mother, Jean, was five when the war ended. She, her older sister, and two brothers spent part of the war living right in the middle of an American airbase, and it had quite a deep effect on them.
“It must have been extraordinary because there were 3,000 Americans living on the base for that year.
“When the airfield was being built, my grandparents were seeing cottages pulled down and hedges ripped out – but, talking to them about it, they never said it was awful. They completely understood why it had to happen.
“My grandfather and grandmother formed a very strong bond with the people there. I feel incredibly connected to it.
“I want to keep the memories alive, not just for me but for my children.
“We’ve been out to reunions in America and have kept up some of the links my grandparents had.
“Before Fola was started, we were wanting to protect the buildings we had left.
“Alice and I have met so many people over the years. It’s been an honour to meet the veterans because every single one of them are heroes, but there are very few left now.
“We’re also welcoming the children and grandchildren of veterans and, if they want to see the airfield, I’ll pick them up from the station in Sudbury and bring them to the farm for a cup of tea.”
After the war, the control tower was converted into a house. Now it is rented out as business premises.
“One of the conditions is that if any veterans or families want to look round, they will be allowed to do so,” said John.
The memorial, which will cost £16,000, is due to be officially unveiled in May, when local community groups will take part in a weekend of events attended by veterans and their families.
Airfield walks led by Fola members with extensive knowledge of the history of the base, like John Cashmore and Dennis Duffy, have been crucial to the fundraising. A series of talks are also planned.
“Within three years, we have raised almost all the money,” said John. “We have just £4.000 to go.”
- To donate, go online to www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/487th-memorial, or post a cheque made out to Friends of Lavenham Airfield to The Estate Office, Shimpling Park Farm, Shimpling, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, IP29 4HY.