The whole of East Anglia, particularly during World War II had a large number of airbases from which the allied offensive was taken to Nazi Germany. Aviation had come on tremendously in a short period of time from the days of the early pioneers, notably Wilbur and Orville Wright (1903), and Alcock and Brown, who completed the first transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919.
During World War I, the aeroplane developed from a ‘spotter’ plane looking for artillery on the ground to a more defensive and offensive weapon of war. During the Zeppelin offensive, locally-based aircraft – some from Orfordness – were in the front line of defence against the terrifying German weapon. Memorably, Zeppelin L48 crashed at Theberton. The church still has in its porch some of the metal frame of the downed airship.
The development of new weapons and their testing was first carried out at a research station at Orfordness. This was subsequently transferred to a new aerodrome built at Martlesham Heath near Ipswich.
I was therefore pleased by a presentation given before the lockdown by the Martlesham Heath Aviation Society. As an experimental station, Martlesham had been at the forefront and the cutting edge of aviation innovation. As well as armaments, there was a section to design and test parachutes. In the days before health and safety those brave souls who donned the first parachutes literally took their lives in their hands!
The development of new aircraft between the wars was an almost continuous process as aviation developed apace.Variations of the Vickers Vimy (the machine used in Alcock and Brown’s transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Clifden in Ireland in 1919, crash landing in a bog) were tested, along with new generations of fighters and bombers. The largest plane ever to fly into Martlesham was the Beardmore Inflexible in 1928 – it had a length of 75 feet and a wingspan of 158 feet: a giant of a plane. The last ever Empire Air Day was held at Martlesham in 1939. The star attraction for the spectators was the largest airliner of the time: the Armstrong Whitworth Ensign and the first ever public viewing of the new Spitfire and Hurricane Fighters. It became a front-line airfield during the Battle of Britain; probably its most famous pilot was Group Captain Douglas Bader.
After the RAF, American squadrons were based at Martlesham and, as a result, a standardised control tower was built after the war. In its early formative years, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (now at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire) was located at Martlesham.
Eventually, in the early 1960s activities at Martlesham gradually reduced and finally ceased. I can recall a lot of discussion about Ipswich Airport (the first ever municipal airport in the UK) being moved from the airfield in Nacton Road to Martlesham, as even then activities at the Airport’s Nacton Road site were severely restricted. Nothing however came of it, and eventually the airfield site was developed for business uses and a new housing village, receiving a tremendous boost when the former Post Office Research Establishment (now BT’s Adastral Park) moved from London to Martlesham.
Despite all this, the heritage on the heath has not been forgotten. The dedicated members of the Aviation Society have, over many years, restored the control tower as a Museum and ensured that there are also memorials that are so important at remembrance time. The centenary of the airfield was celebrated in 2017 as ‘Martlesham 100’, to which I was one of the owners who took their classic cars to support the event. The Aviation Society was very much involved in providing the opportunity to visit the control tower and take a coach trip to other sites. However, the highlight for me was being able to scramble into the cockpit of a Hawker Hurricane. Of such things are memories made.
Despite the financial difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it is gratifying that the memories and legacy of aviation heritage on our doorstep are in safe hands indeed. Once the crisis is overcome, hopefully they will be able to carry on with their good work.