History of Andrews Field (Great Saling)
USAAF Station 485
The bombing of Pearl Harbor marked the entry of the United States of America into the Second World War and drew her into the European conflict.
With most of continental Europe under German occupation the only obvious way to take the war to the enemy was going to be by air power. To accommodate the anticipated influx of American aircraft, the already frantic wartime airfield expansion programme would need to be further extended, and so commenced the final major airfield construction period of World War Two in the United Kingdom.
In mid-1942, help with airfield building came to England in the form of the US Army’s Aviation Engineer Battalions who were to construct a total of 14 airfields as part of the programme code named “Bolero”. All were “war duration only” and built to Class `A’ bomber airfield standard. Of these 14 sites, no fewer than eight were in the county of Essex.
Airfields Constructed by U.S. Engineer Battalions in Essex
- Andrews Field 819th
- Birch 846th
- Boreham 861st
- Chipping Ongar 831st
- Gosfield 816th
- Great Dunmow 818th
- Matching 834th and 840th
- Stansted Mountfitchet 825th and 850th
The village of Great Saling is about a mile north of the A120, four miles east of Braintree. Even with the limited post-war development, the Great in the name is rather a misnomer; blink as you drive through and you’ll miss it. The impact that 800 Americans of the 819th Aviation Engineer Battalion had on the population of about 250 when they arrived in July 1942 must have been enormous. Having settled into their tented camp, the 819th commenced preliminary work almost immediately.
Before the main construction could start, the tiny lane from the A120 to the village had to be reconstructed to allow heavy vehicles access to the village from both the A120 and the railway station at Rayne. (When out searching for remains of old airfields in country areas, it is often seen that widened roads with kerbing give a clue to the whereabouts of an airfield site.) During the remainder of the war the railway station was going to handle more freight and probably more passengers than in all of its previous history.
As work on the airfield progressed familiar landmarks disappeared. Almost 23 acres of mature oak trees were felled and Muchmores Farm (marked on the plan near the southem T2 hangar) and its associated outbuildings demolished. Work went on 24 hours a day in twelve-hour shifts. Some of the local populace were inconvenienced when roads on the westem end of the airfield site were closed and access between the villages of Stebbing and Great Saling was via lengthy diversions.
On 10th March 1943 the 819th were joined by the 816th who had been actively constructing the airfield at Gosfield. For some reason not apparently recorded, it was decided that Great Saling airfield should be the first completed by the Americans in England. The airfield was opened on April 24th and although the ground echelon of the 96th Bombardment Group (8th Air Force) moved in on May 13th, the airfield did not reach operational status until a week later on the 20th. The air echelon of the 96th flew their B-17F Fortresses in from Grafton Underwood on May 27th.
The airfield assumed the familiar shape associated with all Class A airfields. The main runway was 6,300 feet in length (300 feet longer than normal) and the two subsidiary runways, 4,200 feet each. 50 loop or spectacle aircraft hardstandings were provided plus an additional pan at the firing-in butts. Hangarage consisted of two T2s. Most of the buildings on the dispersed living sites spread out to the east of the airfield (with Great Saling village sandwiched in between) were of the ubiquitous Nissen hutting, in which up to 2,800 personnel could be accommodated. The Sick Quarters Site was actually constructed right in the village.
So why Andrews Field? US Army Air Corps airfields within the United States were usually named after people with aviation connections, e.g: Wright Field was named after the Wright Brothers. (Wright Field was absorbed into the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Lt. Frank Patterson was killed during the first tests of synchronized machinegun firing in 1918.) On May 2lst, the day after being declared operational, Great Saling claimed another first; it became the only named US airfield in the United Kingdom – Andrews Field.
Lieutenant General Frank M. Andrews was a pioneer exponent of air power and was destined to become a very high ranking figure in the history of the Second World War. He had already been chosen to succeed General Eisenhower when Fate decided otherwise: On May 3rd 1943, Andrews took off in a B-24 Liberator from Bovingdon on a trip back to the United States. A weather check would have meant a landing at Prestwick, but it seems the crew were confident that this was unnecessary. By the time the aircraft reached Iceland the weather had socked in and while searching for Meeks Field, the aircraft crashed into a hillside. Only the rear gunner survived from the 15 on board. And so it was that Frank Andrews was honored in a little comer of England. (After the closure of Andrews Field an Air Force base named Pyles Field at Camp Springs, Maryland, near Washington, DC was renamed in honour of Andrews.)
The 96th BG appears to have only carried out one mission while based at Andrews Field. On May 29th, 1943 they took part in a raid on Rennes naval storage depot from which one B-17 failed to return. The group moved to their permanent home at Snetterton Heath on June l2th. On the same day the first elements of the 322nd Bombardment Group (Medium) moved in from Rougham (Bury St. Edmunds) with their twin-engine Martin B-26 Marauders. Meanwhile the two engineer battalions were still completing the airfield and its dispersed sites. They would eventually move out in August.
The 322nd BG(M) were the first outfit to use the B-26 in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) and their first mission took place on May l4th, 1943 against a power station at Ijmuiden. Most of the planes suffered damage, but all returned except one that crashed near Rougham killing the pilot. The Americans, advocates of high level bombing, went to the other extreme with the Marauder. The crews had been trained in low-level (extremely low!) bombing methods and this proved a mistake for their next mission to Ijmuiden and Haarlem. On May l7th eleven aircraft were dispatched. One aircraft aborted with generator failure and returned to Rougham. Whether this alerted the defences when the plane gained altitude to 1,000 feet for the home journey is a matter of conjecture, but the remaining ten aircraft were all brought down without bombing the target. Another factor was a navigational error which meant that the aircraft crossed the coast thirty miles too far south.
From that day low level tactics were abandoned and all the Marauders were taken out of combat, the crews being retrained in the art of medium level bombing techniques. This was the position when the 322nd’s four squadrons, “Nye’s Annihilators” (named after the new CO, Lt. Col. Glen C. Nye) arrived at Andrews Field. By now the Americans (413 officers and 2,225 other ranks and enlisted men) outnumbered the locals to a ratio of about 10 to 1, a position not unusual in many other East Anglian locations in World War Two.
The 322nd resumed operations against tactical targets such as marshalling yards, roads, bridges and airfields. With the threat of the V 1 flying bombs, “Noball” missions against the “doodlebug” launch sites were added to the group’s commitments.
Two of the 322nd’s Marauders had claims to fame. “Mild and Bitter” (serial number 41-31819) was the first allied bomber to complete one hundred missions and “Flak Bait” (41-31773) eventually achieved an incredible 202 missions.
With the availability of airfields on the continent in the late summer of 1944, the 322nd left Andrews Field for Beauvais/Tille on 25 September. On the lst October the airfield was handed to the RAF under control of No. 11 Group, ADGB. Within a week the HQ of No. I50 (Polish) Wing and an advanced party of No. 19 Squadron moved in. By the middle of the month, Nos. 19, 65 and 122 Squadrons (No. 122 Wing) had joined the Polish Wing consisting of Nos. 129, 306 and 315 Squadrons. This joining of two wings probably constituted the largest Mustang gathering on any non-American airfield in the UK.
The main task of the Andrews Field Mustangs was as escort to the increasing daylight bombing raids by the RAF’s Bomber Command Lancasters and Halifax’s. However, their home defence role continued in the role of intercepting V 1 flying bombs.
There was a new sound in the air over Great Saling at the end of February 1945 with the arrival of Meteor III jet fighters of 616 Squadron. They stayed for a month before being replaced by a detachment of Meteor IIIs from 504 Squadron.
More mundane and seemingly far from their natural environment were the Air Sea Rescue Walruses of 276 Squadron who were resident from early June. They left for foreign parts (to Kjevic, Norway) on the 23rd August. A few days after the departure of 303 Squadron in December 1945, the airfield was placed under care and maintenance. Ironically, the once busily employed Andrews Field became a satellite of the humble grass airfield of Great Sampford in 1946. The site was virtually abandoned by 1948 and soon took on an air of neglect. In common with other disused airfields, some of the buildings were taken over as temporary housing, even as late as 1953. From there on, virtually all the buildings with the exception of the two T2 hangars and most of the groundworks (runways, etc.) were removed and the land reverted to agriculture.
In 1972, aircraft again returned to Andrews Field (renamed Andrewsfield) when Clive Harvey and Robert Bucknell set out a 3,000 foot grass strip along part of the line of the original main runway. As flying increased, a clubhouse and flying control were constructed in 1975 for the Andrewsfield Flying Club. The popular airfield placed centrally in Essex was licensed by the CAA in 1976.
The Rebel Air Museum was housed in a blister hangar near the clubhouse for some time, until it moved to new premises on Earls Colne airfield several years ago.
Other than the two T2 hangars, the firing-in butts and a few Nissen huts in the dispersed sites, little remains of this once busy airfield. There are two memorials. One in the village is positioned in front of the former Sick Quarters Site and commemorates the 819th Aviation Engineer Battalion who built the airfield. The other memorial is along the lane from the A120 to Great Saling and is to the memory of the 322nd Bomb Group (M). A mural depicting a B-26 adorns an interior wall of the Andrewsfield Flying Club clubhouse. Also on display are a number of photographs showing the airfield under construction.
Sitting on the grass near the end of the strip with the summer sun low in the sky and using a little imagination, even a Cessna 150 coming home to roost, could just as easily be a Mustang or a Marauder returning home from a mission.
Chronology of RAF Squadrons based at Andrews Field
- No. 306 10 Oct 44 – 10 Aug 45 Mustang III
- No. 315 10 Oct 44 – 24 Oct 44 Mustang III
- No. 129 11 Oct 44 – 11 Dec 44 Mustang III
- No. 19 14 Oct 44 – 13 Feb 45 Mustang III
- No. 65 14 Oct 44 – 16 Jan 45 Mustang III
- No. 122 14 Oct 44 – 1 May 45 Mustang III
- No. 309 14 Dec 44 – 10 Aug 45 Mustang III
- No. 616 28 Feb 45 – 31 Mar 45 Meteor III
- No. 303 4 Apr 45 – 16 May 45 Spitfire IXc/XVI
- No. 276 6 Jun 45 – 23 Aug 45 Walrus
- No. 303 10 Aug 45 – 1 Dec 45 Mustang IV
- No. 65 6 May 45 – 15 May 45 Mustang IV
- No. 276 6 Jun 45 – 23 Aug 45 Spitfire V
- A detachment of No.504 Squadron from Colerne was also at Andrews Field in April 1945 with Meteor III.
- Detachment from No.616 to B-58/Melsbroek.
- No.303 converted to Mustang I and IV April 1945