raf debden (usaaf station 356)
During World War II, RAF Debden was home to the 4th Fighter Group, made up of the 334th, 335th and 336th Fighter Squadrons. Prior to the USA entering WWII, it was under the control of RAF Fighter Command, and was home to several fighter squadrons on rotation.
The USAAF had numbered designations for the bases it used, and once the RAF's Eagle Squadrons were transferred to the USAAF, RAF Debden was numbered as USAAF Station 356.
The former RAF Station is located 3 miles (4.8 km) southeast of the town of Saffron Walden, and approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) north of the village of Debden in North Essex, England. There is sometimes confusion over it's location, as Debden is also the name of a town located in the southern part of the same county, next to Loughton, Essex.
Construction by W L Fench Limited began in 1935 and continued through to 1940, with the base opening in 1937. It was designed as base for fighter aircraft. Initially the two landing surfaces were grass, but were replaced with concrete in 1940, and then extended at some point.
Many different RAF units were posted to Debden, including No 1, 17, 29, 65, 73, 80, 85, 87, 111, 157, 257, 418, 504 and 601 Squadrons. Debden was a Sector Airfield of No.11 Group during the Battle of Britain, and as such was provided with a Sector Operations Block and additional staff to man the facility. The Operations block is a Grade II listed building, and described by English Heritage as ...
"....the most complete example of a sector operations block associated with the critical stage (in summer 1940) of the Battle of Britain to have survived from 11 Group, which then took the brunt of the Luftwaffe assault. In contrast to the hipped-roofed single-storey operations block of the 1920s expansion of the RAF (examples at Bicester, Northolt and Duxford - the last two associated with the Battle of Britain), the new designs of 1937 (of which this is an example) were protected against incendiaries and bomb blast with a surrounding concrete wall and earth bank. Sector controllers working from these buildings retained executive authority over the aircraft they despatched until they returned to base, the sector controlled from Debden covering the hotly-contested Thames Estuary approach to London. It is thus of great importance in relationship to the command and control system that then guaranteed the survival of the RAF in one of key events of the Second World War, in addition to being a remarkably intact example of a distinctive late 1930s design, with many internal fittings including the original air filtration system and the central plotting room."
The image above is an aerial photo taken on behalf of the Royal Ordnance Survey in 1946. It has been labelled and clearly shows the airfield and technical site.
This is much how the station would have looked from 1941 onward, after the grass runways were replaced with concrete.
Image: Public Domain and Copyright Expired.
The airfield was attacked several times during the Battle of Britain. The first air-raid sounded on 18 June 1940, although the first bombs were not dropped on the airfield until seven days later. Then, on 2 August, came a heavy attack which destroyed several buildings, killing five, to be followed by another severe raid on 31 August.
During August and September, Debden fighters claimed seventy aircraft destroyed, thirty probables and forty-one damaged.
Roll of Honour for the Battle of Britain. During the battle the following units were stationed there:
No 85 Squadron from 22 May 1940,
No 17 Squadron from 19 June 1940,
No 257 Squadron from 15 August 1940,
No 601 Squadron from 19 August 1940,
No 111 Squadron from 19 August 1940,
No 17 Squadron from 2 September 1940,
No 25 Squadron from 8 October 1940
By September 1942, all three RAF Eagle Squadrons were in residence at RAF Debden, in preparation for their transfer to the USAAF.
The station was transferred to the United States army Air Force on the 12th September 1942, re-designated USAAF Station 356, and was assigned to the Eighth Air Force, under the control of Eighth Fighter Command.
Initially, the 8th Air Force lacked aircraft to give to the 4th, but a deal was struck with the British, and they retained their Spitfires. The RAF Roundels replaced with USAAF insignia.
Life settled down at Debden, and the pilots of the 4th enjoyed some luxuries that were not afforded to most of the other units in the Eighth Air Force. They were in residence at what had been built as a permanent RAF Station. Many other Eighth Air Force Units resided at newly built "temporary" air bases, so most of the buildings were not brick built and did not have such facilities as Officer's Mess buildings or Barrack blocks and Houses for the personnel to reside in.
The 4th Fighter group would remain at RAF Debden until after the cessation of hostilities in Europe. In July 1945, they transferred to RAF Steeple Morden in Hertfordshire, before being sent back to the United States.
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