New Glimpses into the Daily Lives of American Airmen in England During WWII
In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the United States began growing and mobilizing the nascent Army Air Force for war.
In mid-1942, the 8th Air Force’s “friendly invasion” of England began. By D-Day two years later, over 200,000 men of the 8th Air Force called England home base.
From 200 newly erected airbases in England, American flyboys launched bombing raids into Hitler’s Fortress Europe to break the back of the German war machine. Their goal was to liberate a foreign people and bring an end to the Nazi regime.
Such lofty aims meant there was no reprieve from war. Holidays and weekends did not put a stop to combat missions. The 4th of July was no exception.
Ironically, in both 1943 and 1944, American airmen celebrated their nation’s independence in the country their forefathers fought for freedom — England. Unlike the Revolutionary War, the bomber boys in WWII were fighting for the freedom of a foreign people. But it was the American ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice for all that drove both conflicts.
At 1 AM on July 4, 1944, Shipdham Airfield came to life as 262 airmen were jolted awake for a mission briefing. The target was a significant Luftwaffe airfield in Beaumont-le-Roger, France — 100 miles southeast of Omaha Beach where troops landed on D-Day nearly a month prior.
“We’re celebrating our national independence day with plenty of fireworks,” said the mission report. But it was flak, not fireworks, that formed the backdrop of their wartime 4th of July. Over the target, flak bursts filled the sky with black clouds of exploding shells aiming to shoot them from the sky.
75 years later, amidst a backdrop of fireworks and not flak, let us remember the ideals on which America was founded. Let us remember our forefathers who fought for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I conjure the image of my paternal grandfather Wally who was one of those bomber boys at Shipdham. He flew through flak fields on 42 missions, but never spoke of the war after it ended.
Seventy-five years after WWII ended, new traces of the war are still resurfacing. In 2020, I came across rare, never-shared Super 8 footage of the bomber boys in England while conducting archival research in England. Robert Krueger, who served as a ground mechanic at Shipdham for all 29 months of the war, recorded over an hour of wartime footage showcasing the human side of combat.
This footage sheds new light on an old conflict, illuminating the combat missions and the long stretches between, in the name of liberty and justice for all.
Getting around Base — Bikes
Like most American airbases in England during WWII, Shipdham was dispersed over 10 square miles. Living sites were several miles from the airfield, mess halls, and showers. The reason behind the design was strategic: should the Germans attack the bases, dispersing the sites would minimize the carnage.
The dispersed design of American airfields required airmen to walk 10+ miles a day for basic necessities. With gas rationed, bicycles became the predominant mode of transit.
Old, used bikes went for hefty sums. Before American airmen flooded England, bikes sold for $15 to $20. By D-Day, the price increased five-fold. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $1500 today. Even so, over one-third of the men on base had a privately-owned bike.
Accidents on bicycles were plentiful. American airmen often forgot the English drove on the left side of the road. Coupled with narrow country roads and the wartime blackout, accidents between bicycles and vehicles were common. In August 1944, a ground crewman was killed at Shipdham when he was hit by a truck while riding his bike.
Vestiges of Home — Baseball
At the communal site on an American airbase, airmen gathered to eat, shower, and socialize.
Here, myriad activities were organized for the airmen to keep their minds occupied while not flying missions. A station theater played nightly movies and hosted USO shows. The American Red Cross Aero Club featured a library, games, music, a duck pond, and snacks. Officers and Enlisted Men’s Clubs offered alcoholic beverages in the evenings.
Yet, it was organized sports that most distinctly brought a slice of home to war. Baseball tournaments were organized among the dozens of American Airbases and games drew large crowds whose allegiances were tied strictly to the base they called home.
Coveted 48-Hour Leave — London
American airbases were scattered throughout the English countryside in East Anglia, a rural landscape separated by quaint villages. There was little of interest for the airmen in these villages so small that the neighboring wartime airbases were more populous.
A 48-hour pass granting leave from East Anglia was coveted. An airman could earn a pass roughly every five missions. The most popular destination to escape to was London. Approximately 100 miles southwest of East Anglia, London was only a two-hour train ride.
Run by the American Red Cross, the Rainbow Club in the heart of Piccadilly Circus offered overnight accommodation to American troops for fifty cents a night.
The airmen packed their hours in London with famed tourist attractions, theater productions, and drinks at the eponymous Savoy Hotel.
The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace proved a favorite for American troops. During the war, the crowd gathered at the gates was distinguished only by the varying uniforms of the U.S. military branches — sailors, airmen, and infantry.
Maintaining a Fleet of B-24 Bombers — Ground Crews Working on the “Line”
Nearly 3,000 people lived on an American airbase in England at any given time during WWII. Of those, only about 700 were flyboys. The rest were “paddlefeet,” as they were affectionately nicknamed, or non-fliers.
Repairing bombers damaged by enemy flak and fighters, as well as preparing bombers for subsequent missions, required around-the-clock work. A motley group of mechanics of every flavor and ordnance/ammunitions men worked on the line.
Three massive T-2 Hangars were erected at Shipdham. Here, the most intensive B-24 repairs were completed. At 240 feet long, 121 feet wide, and 40 feet tall, the square footage of a T2 hangar was twice that of a football field. Yet, fitting just four B-24s in a T2 hangar was a tight squeeze: the bomber boasted a 110 foot wingspan and 67 foot long fuselage.
As a result, most work happened outside in the elements. Conditions were miserable thanks to the pernicious English weather. “On the line, ground crews had no shelter or protection from cold, inadequate clothing, and worked with bare hands,” recalled Lundy, a mechanic who spent 29 months at Shipdham.
In mid-1944, Shipdham Airbase had a fleet of over 60 B-24s. Ground crews were known to work 36 hours straight repairing a bomber to ready it for the next mission. Their role was no less heroic than that of the flyboys.
After the War — Trolley Missions
V-E Day marked the end of war in Europe on May 8, 1945. Trolley Missions began immediately after.
The purpose of these day-long flights was no longer the destruction of enemy targets, but viewing the results of 2.5 years of bombing. The Trolley Missions were designed to show the ground crews the results of their efforts.
Having arrived in England by ship, some ground crewmen had never been on an airplane by the war’s end. Most had not left England at all during the war, so the low-level flight over important targets along the Rhine River marked their first flight and first sight of the European continent.
Fourteen B-24 bomb groups flew Trolley Missions in early May 1945 carrying more than 24,000 passengers on the sightseeing tour over the continent.
Will Lundy, a ground crewman who spent the entire war at Shipdham, was stunned by what he saw in Europe:
“The destruction that our allied planes had rained down on these German cities was shocking; far worse than we had imagined. […] Here the nearly total destruction would go on for miles with nothing but broken walls standing. After viewing so much of it, we had to start feeling a bit of pity for them. So many had nothing left. […] We really did have a part in bringing Germany to her knees, even those of us who stayed behind on the many airfields feeling left out of the battles.”
History remembers the bomber boys during WWII for their daring in combat. They flew through flak fields and fended off fighter attacks. Fireworks displays illuminated daylight skies as exploding shells and tracer bullets brought flashes of bright light and the lingering smell of cordite.
But it was the less talked about moments between the missions of day-to-day life that shed new light on the war today. Through the herculean efforts that preceded every mission, the youthful desire to explore the foreign land of war, and the creature comforts of home, the human side of WWII continues to be exposed.