Affectionately called by the Americans “Mudville Heights”, of the three airfields Dunkeswell is possibly the best documented.
Post-war it has also remained the most active with a flying school and club facilities that go back several decades, it is also well known within the parachuting fraternity and has a first rate parachute school, In recent years Micro light flying has also operated from the field. All these activities are surrounded by a good deal of commercial trading from the large number of industrial units, many of which are the original wartime buildings.
Constructed by Wimpey during 1941-42, Dunkeswell was intended as a 10 Group, Fighter Command station, but with the newly-built airfield at Culmhead providing additional defence for Exeter and with the repelling of the German air offensive during the Battle of Britain, the RAF’s attention turned more towards offensive operations and the need for additional bomber bases.
There was also an urgent need to bolster the strength and ability of Coastal Command because of the major disruption being caused by German U-Boats.
From their established bases, that were situated along the west coast of France and the north coast of Spain. The U-Boats were causing heavy losses to the vital shipping convoys which were carrying much-needed supplies across the Atlantic to Britain.
RAF Coastal Command was in charge of the anti submarine activities and was regularly searching the Bay of Biscay with long range aircraft with some success. But by the autumn of 1942 Germany had equipped the U-boats with devices capable of detecting long wave radar used on the aircraft, thus reducing the chance being caught on the surface. To counter this, Coastal Command sought the support of the United States Army Air Force to supplement its efforts by providing long range B-24 bombers equipped with the new microwave Radar that the enemy could not detect so easily.
The first Group arrived at St Eval in Cornwall, in February 1943 and operated over the Bay of Biscay under the general direction of the RAF Coastal Command. A second group arrived during July and carried on operations until October the first Group having left for North Africa.
Being a major centre for anti-submarine activity’s, St Eval was rather crowded and the Americans were not over impressed with the amenities and sought alternative bases for their operations. In July 1943 Dunkeswell was made ready for the Americans use, but initially with the RAF providing the majority of the ground personal needed. Temporarily deployed on anti submarine duties, the 4th and 19th Squadrons of the 479th Bomb Group USAAF arrived from St Eval during August. Within the next three weeks they were to lose three of their B-24’s. Two whilst on patrol, one was brought down by enemy aircraft over the sea, six of the ten man crew managed to get into a rubber dingy and were rescued five days later the fate of the other plane was unknown. The third crashed on take off and only three crew members survived. On the 8th of September a fourth plane was lost and a subsequent search of the patrol area found three crew members had survived adrift in a dingy and were rescued three days later.
With the phasing out of the USAAF anti-submarine squadrons a month after operations had commenced from the base and the units moving elsewhere,
Dunkeswell was then occupied by VP103 the first squadron of the US-Navy to completed their training with the RAF Coastal Command. They were soon joined by VP105 and VP110 of Flight Air Wing 7, and were soon to build up the scale of their operations.
The winter of 1943-44 proved to be particularly severe making it difficult for the US Navy squadrons to maintain their operations in addition they were also hampered by shortage of ground staff and equipment. Such were the appalling conditions, Dunkeswell acquired the dubious honour of being known by USN personnel as “Mudville Heights”!
In March 1944 Dunkeswell was handed over completely to FAW7 and all the remaining RAF personnel were posted elsewhere making it the only US Navy base in Britain. By May the three squadrons had become capable of putting up eighteen aircraft each day but to achieve this and because of the shortage of crew members it meant individual airman could be expected to flying duties every other day. The missions, sometimes lasting ten to twelve hours, were exhausting and tedious, due to the high level of concentration needed by crews whilst systematically scanning over the sea for any trace of the elusive U-Boats.
The run up to D-Day at Dunkeswell like the other airfields on the Blackdowns, Culmhead and Upottery was an immensely busy period. It was during this time that the first sighting of a U-boat fitted with the revolutionary Schnorkel tube that enabled them to remain submerged for long periods without the need to resurface to charge their batteries, was reported and on 22nd June they made eight contacts launching four attacks.
Other aircraft that were stationed at Dunkeswell included a detachment of PBY-5A Catalinas, two Vultee Vengeances plus a single NAF N3N biplane trainer. The US Navy also received six Seafires that retained their British markings although they were fitted with American VHF radios these aircraft were used for air combat training for the patrol squadrons.
In the months after D-Day, and with western France in the hands of the allies the U-boat activity in the Bay of Biscay declined. By the autumn of 1944, there were few sightings and although their job was effectively coming to a close, FAW7 still maintained its sorties and were rewarded with the surrender of a U-Boat off the Scilly Isles on May 9th 1945, a day after hostilities had ceased.
The run-down of Dunkeswell began immediately and during June 1945 the Liberators stared leaving for the United States, although many were broken up and sold for scrap on the airfield.
On 6th August 1945 Dunkeswell was officially handed back to the RAF, who finally relinquished it in February 1949, after it had spent some time as a aircraft maintenance unit and an equipment disposal depot.
Some facts about the B-24 Liberator; 19,256 planes (in several versions), were made by Consolidated Vultee, Ford Motor Company, Douglas Aircraft and North American Aircraft between 1939 and 1945. More were made and flown than any other four engine bomber in World War II. A fully armed and combat-ready B-24 had a crew of ten. Its gross weight when loaded was greater than 60,000 lbs. It had four movable turrets, each with two .50 calibre machine guns and two .50s in the waist, a total of ten. It was powered by four 1,200 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1830-43 Twin Wasp radial piston engines and had a maximum speed 303 mph. It carried 2,750 gallons of fuel and had a flight duration of 1,500 miles. Some extended ranges were near 2,000 miles.
The bomb load was usually ten 500 pound bombs or five 1,000 pounders. Depth charges were used when in the anti-submarine role. Liberators are recorded as having dropped over 630,000 tons of bombs. It’s operating environment was between 18,000 and 28,000 feet. It was not pressurised or heated; crewmen wore oxygen masks on high altitude missions and were exposed to temperatures that reached -30 degrees F and below. Some B-24’s were modified used for reconnaissance, tanker, cargo and personnel transport roles. Sir Winston Churchill used one as his own transport aircraft.
A posting by Robbert Turner who is the secretary for the Weston Zoyland museum
I spoke earlier of the time when in 1978 I was on route from Topeka to visit cousins in Iowa, stopping off at the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Kansas City. The vast cafeteria was packed as my visit coincided with lunchtime. There was just one visible seat at a table where a middle-aged man was sat puffing on a big fat cigar.
I asked if he minded if I sat with him. On hearing my accent he responded to my request by saying – ‘Say – you’re English aren’t you?’ When I confirmed he continued – ‘Do you know a place called Devon-shire? When I answered in the affirmative he continued – ‘Do you know a place called Dun-kes-well?’ At that time I lived in Honiton just down the road although I did move to Dunkeswell a few years later.
I thought – ‘of all the places he should mention’. He introduced himself as Antony Simonvich who informed he served at Dunkeswell during the American occupation. He was one of the groundcrew of the U.S. Navy Airwing 7. He didn’t seem to recall much of his time there other than pub-crawls in their free-time to Exeter. He handed me his business card which I know I have somewhere but cannot locate today. He worked for ‘The Southern Tobacco Company hence puffing on a big fat cigar.
The Honiton News which I worked for at the time published an account of this and other episodes after my return. (Robbert Turner/W.A.M. Sec.)
Out of Dunkeswell
‘Out of Dunkeswell’ describes in detail the role played by the airfield and the USAAF anti-submarine units based there during the Battle of the Atlantic and patrols in the Bay of Biscay. To reach patrol areas in the Atlantic from July 1940 until October 1943, almost a year after the USAAF ceased antisubmarine operations, most German submarines sailed from four French ports through the Bay of Biscay. The book draws on historical material from various sources under the authorship of Mike Jarrett, Bernard Stevens and David Steel.
The book is available from the Trust for only £8.50, (including P&P).