Living with the 'Wolf Pack'
Norman Wells speaks to the renowned East Anglian Aviation author Roger Freeman, whose books will be on many enthusiasts' Christmas lists every year
"War is hell," said the American Civil War's General William Sherman - a descendant of a Dedham, Essex family. But eighty years later, in World War II, a Dedham farmer's young son found that war could have its compensations. Particularly if you liked aircraft.
Roger Freeman's passion for planes, which got him into trouble with the authorities, eventually led to his writing a seminal series of books about the US Eighth Air Force. The largest airborne armada ever sent to war, it could put more than 3,000 bombers and fighters into the sky. Based locally during 1942 to 1945, it is firmly established in East Anglia's folklore.
His 'Mighty Eighth' books have established Roger as the world's leading authority on the American flyers and groundcrew, and their 'friendly invasion' which began in 1942. Now retired from a life of farming, Roger deflects the accolades, saying his writing is 'simply an extension of his enthusiasm for the memory of a unique period of history'.
Unique it was. Within a matter of months, the East Anglian countryside saw more disruption than ever before, or since, as hundreds of concrete runways were laid to form airfields across the region. Costing more than £1 million each to build (in 1940s money), the bases were earmarked for bombers of the US Army Air Forces (USAAF).
At this time, the young Roger Freeman was used to the daily sights of RAF planes overhead. It was a dangerous time, even in the countryside. Roger recalled: "One night a Halifax bomber crashed across the fields from the farm. The pilot had obviously stalled the plane and opened the throttles to try and recover - I remember the scream of the engines. But it went in, and all on board were killed."
With RAF bases already established in Essex and Suffolk, there was enough going on in the skies to keep Roger and his pals busy with their notebooks. But more was to follow: the Yanks were coming. "Like most people at the time, we thought they'd be all talk and no do," he said.
Roger's opinion was reinforced when his uncle, an RAF officer, invited him and his cousin to the new airfield at Horham in Suffolk, of which he was in temporary charge. "There was one American Havoc bomber left there, the rest having flown off to North Africa," Roger explained. "We climbed into the gunner's compartment, the sides of which were packed with tinned food, sweets and toilet rolls. "Later, we told our mates the Yanks went to war with toilet paper. We had no idea the plane was stocked up for life in Africa."
More American planes began appearing over Dedham - but it wasn't until the nearby airfield known officially as Boxted (actually located in the parish of Langham) was first used in June 1943 that "Everything brightened for us plane-nuts. I remember being in school in Colchester and seeing lots of planes overhead," said Roger. "They were American Marauder bombers, and had their wheels down, so we knew they were landing at Boxted. After school I cycled to the airfield. There was a Marauder, parked close to the road, with 'Sad Ass' painted on its nose. We boys crowded round the plane, giving the lone guard no chance.
"I remember that all the planes had names painted on them, with three accompanied by the forms of naked females. I also recall the commanding officer's Marauder was nicknamed 'Texas Tarantula' while its identification letters were R-UM. Apparently, he liked a drop, too."
Building Boxted airfield, like the hundred or so others in 'greater' East Anglia, had been an astonishing feat of engineering. "It wasn't safe to be on the roads," said Roger. "The contractors' men drove four-ton trucks like maniacs because they were paid by the load. The airfield was in service months before the accommodation huts were finished, so the Marauder guys had to live in tents. From then on there was always activity. We'd also cycle to other airfields. We knew where they were thanks to schoolboys' word of mouth - Hitler didn't need any spies."
Roger once cycled more than 100 miles, crossing into Norfolk to glimpse the many airfields and planes along the route. But his enthusiasm and growing expertise led him into trouble. "My cousin and I used to exchange letters. One from him listed details of planes at Horham. I left it in a jacket which my mother took to the cleaners. She recalled there'd been a GI chatting up the girl behind the counter. Presumably the girl went through my pockets and thought she'd uncovered a spy. The first I knew of it was when my headmaster ordered me to his study where I was confronted by two RAF officers. They grilled me for about two hours, thinking my uncle might be involved, and confiscated all my notebooks. I was punished for bringing my school into disrepute. But it didn't stop me."
Boxted airfield remained the focus of Roger's interest. Leaving school in 1944, his father set him to work, aged fifteen, as a farm labourer. But there was a bonus when Freeman senior won permission to cut grass from between the airfield's runways. This was a golden opportunity for Roger, who admits that he was still more interested in planes than girls. "There I was, ostensibly raking hay but actually wandering between the planes," he said. By then, these were the hefty P-47 Thunderbolt fighters of the 56th Fighter Group. Known as the 'Wolf Pack', its three squadrons escorted bombers into enemy territory. It was destined to become the top-scoring US fighter group in Europe.
The Americans' stay at Boxted had a marked effect on the locals. The base was effectively a town of more than 2,000 men imposed on a village of a few hundred residents. One of the locals' gripes was that the GIs drank the pubs dry. However, some of the local girls had few complaints, remembers Roger. "And there was one enterprising young lady who used to take a taxi from Colchester several times a week to ply her trade in fields close to the base."
Anecdotes abound, as in all such villages invaded by the Americans. Roger recounts: "One evening, I was with my father in his old Talbot car on the side of the base near The Fox pub. Through the hedge this huge American sergeant appeared. 'Hey, Pops,' he said. 'Going near the main gate?' When my father offered him a ride, the sergeant called over his shoulder: 'Fellas - we got a lift!' Through the hedge came a dozen more men who insisted they could all fit in. They were pretty merry after their pub session. Some squeezed inside while others hung on the back or stood on the running-boards. The car crept around the airfield to the main gate, with me sitting on the sergeant's lap in the front. He'd been given a yellow rose by the pub landlady, insisting I smell it by shoving it up my nose. As we dropped them off, he asked what he owed my father, who declined payment. 'Come on, fellas,' said the sergeant, and they started throwing coins into the car. There was more than £2 - a hell of a lot of money when a boy like me was on 2/6d [12.5p] a week."
Another evening, farmer Freeman took his workers to the nearby Ardleigh Crown pub after a day's work. Arriving with an empty haycart, the men started talking to some GIs drinking outside. "One said he'd been a cowboy," said Roger. "So I asked if he could use a lasso. He took a rope from the cart and started twirling it above his head, just like in the films. Then someone asked if he could lasso anybody. One of our old boys, Horry Ellis, who was in his 70s, was walking towards the pub. With one cast the American lassoed him. And old Horry didn't think much of it."
By the autumn of 1944 the Eighth Air Force dominated the daytime skies over Germany. Across East Anglia, their huge formations took time to build safely, leaving hundreds of white condensation trails (contrails) in their wake. "My most memorable sight was in February 1945," said Roger. "It was a freezing morning with excellent visibility. Two columns of bombers were going out; one overhead and the other over Suffolk, which I could see by the contrails. I counted twenty-eight formations, and knew there'd be about forty planes in each. So I was looking at more than a thousand planes - ten thousand men - going to war." It was a spectacle that made the sixteen-year-old farmhand decide that, one day, he would try to write a book about what he'd seen.
The colours, too, made the spectacle. Eighth Air Force planes arriving after the spring of 1944 were left in their shiny metal finish but for areas of bright colours and patterns for unit identification. "They looked like knights in armour - the same sort of heraldry was there," said Roger.
Then they were gone. With victory in Europe, most of the US Eighth Air Force packed its kitbags, deserted the airfields and took its planes to be scrapped. The men who had survived wanted to go home and get on with their young lives. Roger Freeman, too, was setting out on a career on the family farm, taking it over in 1959. But his ambition to chronicle the Americans remained. He started writing for a local paper on features and agricultural issues and, in the 1950s, became a regular name in aviation magazines. He contributed to his first book in 1961.
All this time he had been collating material for his book, stealing time from farming to research at the Imperial War Museum in London and corresponding with veterans in the States. Aided by his wife, Jean, he also scoured archives sent over by the US authorities.
By the late 1960s the book was ready. Roger's UK publishers, not confident of its success here, insisted it also have an American publisher. With the presses ready to roll first in the US, a message reached Dedham from across the Atlantic - the publishers were not happy with its long title. Roger recalls he had an hour to come up with something shorter. "All I could manage was The Mighty Eighth," he said. Thirty-plus years and 100,000 copies of the book later, the term is widely used. Even the current US Eighth Air Force - America's primary air strike force - prefixes itself as 'Mighty'.
"From then on I've been turning them out," said Roger, referring to his more than fifty books, most of them about World War II American and British aviation. "One of the best things about The Mighty Eighth is that it helped to bring the veterans out of the woodwork. In turn that led to their organising national associations."
Other Mighty Eighth titles followed, including books illustrated with original colour photographs. Many GIs brought early 35mm colour films to Britain during the war, photographing the countryside and historic sites. But other slides record the Eighth Air Force, hundreds of which Roger had been able to secure and preserve.
Roger was in demand for his knowledge both sides of the Atlantic. He has contributed to scores of TV documentaries, was technical adviser for the 1989 David Puttnam film Memphis Belle and was a consultant for the Imperial War Museum at Duxford.
Asked if he'd had a good war, Roger said: "For me and my pals it was an exciting, if sometimes frightening, war. But I would never say a 'good' war. Too many people were killed for that." The US Eighth Air Force alone lost around twenty-six thousand aircrew in the thousand days it flew from East Anglia.
This article first appeared in The Essex Magazine and East Anglian Journal in July 2002.