How a Bury St Edmunds Air Base Made History

Bury St Edmunds was home for thousands of American airmen and women during the Second World War and a visit to Rougham Control Tower Aviation Museum is like taking a trip back in time.

Originally known as RAF Bury St Edmunds, during WWII the airfield which is just 5 minutes from the town centre was home for the 322nd Bomb Group and the 94th Bomb Group of the USAAF 8th Airforce, known as the Mighty Eighth, whose contribution to the Allies’ strategic bombing offensive helped turn the tide of war against the Nazis and free occupied Europe. 

The 94th Bomb Group flew the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress as part of the Eighth Air Force's strategic bombing campaign and served chiefly as a strategic bombardment organization throughout the war.

The Airfield opened in September 1942 and was specifically designed for a United States Army Airforce unit (USAAF) bomb group and was home for some 3,000 personnel in Nissen and other temporary buildings.

The Rougham Control Tower Aviation Museum, which opened in 1992, houses a fascinating collection of memorabilia including photos, artefacts, uniforms, letters, and photographs, which tell the story of Rougham Airfield and the US personnel stationed there. 

You’ll find a collection of memorabilia from the family of Preston Clark who flew The Eric Ferry, The Eagles Wrath and the Leading Lady as pathfinder crew from Rougham. 

Then there’s the wedding dress of British aircraft inspector Edith Miller who married her dashing GI B17 bomber hero Tom Miller on 12 May 1944, just after VE Day. The couple’s family, along with many other generous American families, have kindly given the museum some of their family treasures to display. They include Edith’s wedding dress, photographs and love letters which provide a wonderful insight into the romance of the era.

There is also wonderful collection of photographs and original concert posters of The Skyliners, the band of the 322nd Bomb Group after whom the new Skyliner Sports Centre and Skyliner Way in Bury St Edmunds is named. The volunteers who are on hand to show you the museum are extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the airfield, its history and the era.

The Airfield, known by the USAAF as Station 468, not only welcomed 3,000 GIs but the Glenn Miller Orchestra, legendary comedian Bob Hope and Hollywood movie star Clark Gable, who all visited to entertain the troops. 

You can still see the hangar that the Glenn Miller Orchestra played in today and you can imagine the deep roar of the engines and the sound of the propellers of the B17 flying fortresses from the top of the control tower as you look towards the runway.

But the museum is also a stark reminder of sacrifices made in war. Of the 3,000 servicemen stationed at Rougham, more than 600 died during missions. 

Among them the Commander of the 94th Bomb Group (and newly promoted to commander of the 4th Combat Bomb Wing) Brigadier General Frederick Castle. Castle, who was based at Rougham, flew as co-pilot on the lead aircraft of the 487th Bomb Group from RAF Lavenham on his 30th combat mission on Christmas Eve 1944. The aircraft was attacked by German fighters over Belgium and crashed near Xhos, Belgium. Castle died in the crash but through his actions, seven of the crewmen were able to leave the aircraft, sadly not all survived. Castle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on this aircraft, the United States of America's highest and most prestigious personal military decoration. 

Rougham Control Tower Aviation Museum is open every Sunday between 10am and 4 pm from Easter to October and at other times by appointment.

The Friendly Invasion

The United States 8th Air Force, The Mighty Eighth, arrived in Suffolk in 1942. Between then and 1945 more than 350,000 US personnel transitioned through the whole region, mostly the crews and support staff of heavy bombers who endured daring daytime raids on Nazi-occupied Europe - the longest air battle of the war.

At the height of the Second World War, Suffolk was the setting for a ‘Friendly Invasion’ which transformed the rural landscape and left a lasting legacy. The invaders were thousands of young Americans, part of the United States Army Air Force’s vast contribution to the Allies’ strategic bombing offensive.

By 1944, Suffolk echoed to the roar of B24 Liberators and B17 Flying Fortresses as huge aerial armadas took to the skies from a countryside so freckled with bomber bases that it became known as ‘Little America’.

After you have visited the museum why not head back to Bury St Edmunds and visit the Appleby Rose Garden - originally an orchard, this is now a beautiful and established rose garden with over 400 rose bushes. The rose garden in the Abbey Gardens is named after John Appleby, an American serviceman who served with the 487th Bomb Group in Lavenham. John wrote a book called Suffolk Summer which tells of his time in the UK in World War 2 - as a Civil Engineer in the US Army Air Force - mainly in Suffolk and East Anglia, building massive airfields for the USAAF. He tells how he fell for the rural beauty, architecture, history and people of the county.

A bench made from the wing of a B17 Flying Fortress Bomber sits in pride of place in the Appleby Rose Garden and a memorial stone pays tribute to the many US servicemen and women stationed in Suffolk both during the Friendly Invasion and today. 

Afterwards, why not visit the World War Two Royal Observer Corps Control Centre at Bury St Edmunds Guildhall – the only surviving room of its kind in the world. From there, the Royal Observer Corps protected the skies of Suffolk and relaying vital messages to RAF crews at local air bases including Rougham and Lavenham. It is the only surviving ROC centre in the country and resonates with the buzz and tension of that dramatic era.

If you are interested in the WWII history, and in particular the 'Friendly Invasion', then we recommend a trip to Lavenham, just 20 minutes from Bury St Edmunds. There you will find the Airmen’s Bar at The Swan at Lavenham Hotel & Spa. During World War II, British and American servicemen were stationed at RAF Lavenham; many of whom frequented The Swan. Over 1,000 signatures adorn the walls of the Airmen’s Bar and there is an extensive collection of military memorabilia to view there too. 

Masters of The Air

Apple TV have announced they are to produce the long-awaited Masters of the Air drama, based on Donald L Miller’s book. Like sister series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, it will be made by Tom Hanks’ Playtone and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin. Filming is due to start in 2021.

Download The Friendly Invasion souvenir publication, with forewords by HRH Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge, and Tom Hanks.