History Of Boxted Airfield: One Of The Most Important WW2 US Fighter Bases In The UK

From the bravery of fighter aces to performances by the legendary Glenn Miller, Boxted Airfield has a rich history.

With the roaring sounds of B-26 Marauders, Merlin-powered P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts overhead, the small village of Langham in Essex was once home to the top-scoring US fighter group of the Second World War.

56th Fighter Group were also joined by 354th Fighter Group who enjoyed performances at Boxted Airfield – or "Station 150" as it was also known – by artists like American big band trombonist Major Glenn Miller, who disappeared along with his aircraft over the English Channel in December 1944, and British-American comedy actor Bob Hope. 

The memories of all who flew from there are being kept alive by the Boxted Airfield Museum which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

BFBS the Forces Station broadcaster Liz Mullen was given a guided tour from the chairman of its Historical Group, Richard Turner, to discover what it was like in noisier times. He said: 

"We had the top-scoring American fighter ace in Europe, Francis Gabreski, and out of the top 10 American aces in Europe, eight of those men flew from this field." 

Boxted Airfield Museum Inside American Flag On Display Credit BFBS
Inside Boxted Airfield Museum.

Boxted Airfield History 

The airfield was originally a fruit orchard but, in 1941, was transformed for use by the Royal Air Force to become RAF Boxted because of how flat the ground was and also its proximity to the coast. Richard said: 

"The enemy was in Holland and Belgium and France, and that's where we wanted to get to, so we wanted to be ideally close." 

Boxted is famous for being the base of 'Zemke's Wolfpack', named after legendary ace Hubert Zemke, the commander of the top-scoring American fighter group in Europe – the 56th Fighter Group. 

The wolfpack could boast more American aces – a pilot who shoots down five or more enemy aircraft during aerial combat – than any other unit and, in total, shot down 1,000 enemy aircraft. 

The main runway was 6,000 feet but there were three runways altogether in what is known as a Class A airfield – the three runways crossed each other in the shape of an A.

Boxted Airfield A Class Runway Black And White Credit: www.boxted-airfield.com
Boxted Airfield from the air (Picture: boxted-airfield.com).

Richard remembers once reading Boxted was described by an 8th Air Force historian as "the most important US fighter based in the UK".

This was mainly because of the 56th Fighter Group but also thanks to the 354th Fighter Group who were the first group to fly a Mustang with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine – better known in Britain as being the same engine as in a Spitfire. 

Replacing the Allison V-1710 engine with the Merlin made the Mustang the most prominent and successful American US fighter aircraft in the Second World War. Richard said: 

"The 354th were for the first unit to get that type of aircraft and they were designated with proving whether it would be good in combat or not, and the rest, as they say, is history."

Colonel Dave Schilling Squadron Commander Credit Mark Brown Official USAAC Photographer Boxted Airfield 1944
Colonel Dave Schilling, Commander of the 56th Fighter Group from August 1944 to January 1945, pictured at Boxted Airfield in 1944 (Picture: Mark Brown, Official USAAC photographer).

Fighter Aces And GI Brides 

Lieutenant Colonel Jim Howard became the only American fighter pilot in Europe in 1944 to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour, America's highest award for military valour in action and the equivalent to Britain's Victoria Cross. 

The act of heroism earning him his medal of honour took place during a mission on 11 March 1944, when he was helping to escort bombers on a mission.

After taking off from Boxted Airfield, the then-Major Howard saw a number of enemy aircraft coming towards the bomber stream so, without any thoughts of his own safety, he flew towards the roughly 30 German fighters, firing his guns as he went. Richard said: 

"The initial firing by Jim Howard dispersed the German planes over the sky, but he continued firing until he ran out of ammunition and he knocked down three enemy aircraft and damaged another two." 

Boxted Airfield can also boast of being host to the top-scoring American fighter ace in Europe, Polish-American US Air Force pilot Francis Gabreski, and eight of the top 10 American aces in Europe flew from Boxted. 

Glenn Miller And Bob Hope – Forces Entertainers

Just four months before American swing musician Glenn Miller vanished at sea, he brought his orchestra to Boxted Airfield and played in the large hangar near Langham Lodge to entertain the troops. 

Watch: Glenn Miller and his band performing at Boxted Airfield in August 1944, four months before his disappearance (Picture: www.boxted-airfield.com).

Stand-up comedian and actor Bob Hope and American actor Adolphe Menjou also brought their shows to Boxted Airfield.

Suddenly the sleepy village of Langham, which like the rest of the country was several years into rationing and had endured the brutal Battle of Britain in 1940, was alive with American men and celebrities.

This meant local children were treated to American sweets, the pubs were more popular and suddenly local women were falling in love with US airmen and were known as GI brides. Richard said: 

"They had to stay in this country until the war had finished so their husbands or husbands-to-be might have already gone home and then two or three years after the war was over, the GI brides were literally shipped over to America." 

To this day, Boxted Airfield Museum still gets visits from the families of US veterans and their English brides who want to spend time where their father or grandfather flew from during the Second World War. 

Boxted Then And Now Archive Images On Display At Boxted Airfield Museum Credit BFBS
Then and now archive images of Boxted on display at Boxted Airfield Museum.

Mr Shorty 

The only surviving example of a B-26 Marauder in the UK is proudly on display at Boxted Airfield Museum and is affectionately known as 'Mr Shorty' because it is a section that is only about one-third of the entire aircraft.

It was saved from being scrapped in the 1970s by a B-26 Marauder enthusiast who discovered it in a scrapyard in Cheshire, not far from RAF Burtonwood. 

It is a large section of fuselage from the American twin-engined medium bomber on loan from Marks Hall, the former Head Quarters of the 9th Air Force and the Operations Room for the 323rd Bomb Group.

The plexiglass is missing, but you can see the rear section from the tail gunner up to just past the tailplane. Richard said: 

"Although Mr Shorty didn't actually fly from here, he flew from Earls Colne [Airfield], but we are proud to have it as an exhibit because it is the only surviving example of a B26 Marauder in the UK."

Watch: Mr Shorty, the only surviving example of a B-26 Marauder (Picture: www.boxted-airfield.com).

What Happened To Boxted Airfield After WW2? 

After Boxted Airfield was handed back to the Royal Air Force at the end of the Second World War,  the residents of Langham and surrounding villages were treated to the sight and sound of a variety of aircraft like Spitfires, Night Fighter Mosquitoes, Meteors, and Vampires until 1947. 

From then, the airfield was used by various flying groups including the Air Training Corps which taught its students to fly there. 

It then became the location for a crop spraying business until 1965 which is when regular flying at Boxted ended. 

If you want to discover more about Boxted Airfield visit www.boxted-airfield.com where you can find details about how to visit the museum.

Cover image: Lt Col Jim Howard, the only American fighter pilot in Europe to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour (Picture: www.boxted-airfield.com).