America's 'Friendly invasion'
Norfolk writer Steve Snelling, author of Norwich – A Shattered City, the story of the infamous second world war Baedeker raids on Norwich, tells us how the Americas were 'over here' – and very welcome...
At the height of the second world war, Norfolk was the setting for a 'Friendly Invasion' which transformed the rural landscape and left a lasting legacy.
The invaders were 50,000 young Americans, part of the United States Army Air Force's vast contribution to the Allies' strategic bombing offensive being waged against Nazi-occupied Europe. By 1944, Norfolk echoed to the roar of B24 Liberators and B17 Flying Fortresses as huge aerial armadas took to the skies from a countryside so freckled with bomber bases that it became known as 'Little America'.
With them they brought the jitterbug and the music of big bands, and, for many Norfolk people, the first taste of peanut butter, chewing gum and Coca Cola.
The 2nd and 3rd Divisions of the 'Mighty Eighth' Air Force occupied no fewer than 17 bases throughout the county: Attlebridge, Bodney, Deopham Green, East Wretham, Hardwick, Hethel, Horsham St Faith, North Pickenham, Old Buckenham, Rackheath, Seething, Shipdham, Snetterton Heath, Thorpe Abbotts, Tibenham, Watton and Wendling. Their contribution to the war effort was immense, and so was their sacrifice. Around 6,300 men from the exclusively Norfolk-based 2nd Division lost their lives in the relentless bombing campaign.
But no less telling than their combat endeavours was the impact that they made on their hosts. The vitality and generosity displayed by legions of young Yanks helped forge a special relationship with the people of Norfolk that endured as one of the shining legacies of that most terrible of conflicts.
As peace returned, the ghostly bases were the scenes of countless commemorations and reunions and among the many who returned to pay homage to the men who never came back was the man known as 'the tall drawl', Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart, who flew out of Old Buckenham and Tibenham before serving as a staff officer at Ketteringham Hall. Fellow American film star Walter Matthau served as a B-24 Liberator radioman-gunner in the US Eighth Army Air Force 453rd Bombardment Group, also at Old Buckenham, where he reached the rank of sergeant.
Today, almost 70 years after the war's end, the trans-Atlantic ties remain strong and a grand alliance born of a common cause and shared sacrifice is kept alive by volunteer-run, control tower museums at Seething and Thorpe Abbotts and through the unique 'living memorial' that is the peerless 2nd Air Division Memorial Library housed in Norwich's grand central Forum.
If you have a family connection and want to know more, or are interested in finding out about the history of the US Army Air Force in Norfolk during WW2, contact the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library in Norwich.
'Friendly Invasion' airfields.
More American connections with Norfolk.