when norfolk was 'little america'
The United States 8th Army Air Force (USAAF) arrived in Norfolk in 1942. Between then and 1945 there were at any one time some 50,000 USAAF personnel station within a 30-mile radius of Norwich, mostly the crews and support staff of heavy bombers who endured daring daytime raids on Nazi-occupied Europe - the longest battle of the war.
The man who should have been President
Joe Kennedy jnr was a pilot based in Norfolk who volunteered for a secret mission - with tragic consequences. His younger brother was John F Kennedy.
Bravery of Hollywood Royalty
James Stewart served at old Buckenham and Tibenham in Norfolk. He insisted on leading his men into battle. Clark Gable and Walter Matthau were also here.
Introduction of segregation
As shocking as it is to us today, the American Air Force brought segregation with them - blacks and whites were not allowed to mix. Some Norfolk market towns were for black servicemen only.
And real Royalty came too!
Our Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, paid morale-boosting visits to the servicemen and had a B-17 named after her, 'The Rose of York'.
Our culture changed forever
The Americans brought with them popcorn, bubble gum, peanut butter, donuts, nylons, swing and the jitterbug. Norfolk would never be the same again...
They had the bear necessities
Americans had many mascots, including dogs, monkeys, coyotes, and a donkey was brought back from north Africa. There was even a bear called Roscoe Ann who would flown over on a B-17 - she liked to steal the Lord of the Manor's honey.
On the way to the moon
Chuck Yeager was a fighter ace based here in the second world war. He later became a test pilot and was the first man to break the sound barrier in 1947, and his work eventually led to the NASA moon landing.
Winston Churchill's praise for the US Air Force
Britain's Prime Minister wrote: 'For our air superiority, which by the end of 1944 was to become air supremacy, full tribute must be paid to the United States Eighth Air Force'.
the friendly invasion returns!
lasting legacy of the friendly invasion
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 thousands of 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’.
the arrival of coca cola and bubble gum
It is no exaggeration to say that the arrival of 50,000 US servicemen in Norfolk in 1942 had the biggest cultural and landscape impact of any event since the Norman Conquest.
Hundreds of miles of concrete runway laid in a matter of months, and introduction to our rationed region of peanut butter, donuts, chewing gum, popcorn and Coca Cola – all great news for dentists! Oh, and there was nylons, swing and the jitterbug too – although baseball didn’t catch on with the locals.
segregation in norfolk
Of course, this was very much a Friendly Invasion! Not only did we give the Americans a warm welcome, there was also the matter of around 40,000 women who went to the United States at the end of war! In fact, two cruise liners had to be requisitioned to sail them.
The Americans also brought with them segregation! It is shocking to us today, but Diss was a town that only black servicemen were allowed in, and in Harleston there were alternate days for black and white.
Did the fact that black servicemen were served by white people here, and were given equality by East Anglians, help ferment the American civil rights movement?
fighting for independence
February 20, 1942 was the day that the first US general, Brigadier General Ira C Eaker, arrived in the UK to form and organise the bomber command of the prospective Eighth Air Force – the guys who would be based here in what was before a very sleepy Norfolk.
If the county was monochrome when they arrived, it was soon turned technicolour – just like The Wizard of Oz!
The American Air Force’s first mission was on July 4, 1942. They were determined to go on that date for symbolic and propaganda reasons. What a message it would send - wanting to help Europe regain its independence from Nazism on their own Independence Day. Trouble is, their planes hadn’t turned up – so they had to use RAF bombers instead!
the mighty eighth's 17 bases
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.
In total, 180,000 US servicemen were in East Anglia during the war’s longest battle – 26,000 of them losing their lives.
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.
hollywood royalty in norfolk
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.
Stewart was one of the few base commanders who actually led his men into combat, stating that he wouldn’t ask the servicemen to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself. And bear in mind the Americans flew daring daytime missions.
The first film he made on his return to America was ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, featuring a decorated American flyer wearing the uniform of the Mighty Eighth!
Hollywood actors Clark Gable Walter Matthau also served here.
they brought their pets and mascots
the man who should have been president
One of the most poignant stories of the time was that of the man who should have become President of the United States, Joe Kennedy jnr. Flying out of Fersfield in Norfolk on a secret bombing mission, he was tragically killed in action over Blythburgh Church when the plane he was flying exploded mid-air.
Another plane on the mission was flown by Colonel Roosevelt, the son of the US President at the time.
Norfolk's living memorial
Today, over 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 the second world war, contact the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library in Norwich.
Recommended reading: Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany by Donald L Miller