Visiting the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum Thorpe Abbotts, Norfolk, England: causes a deep impression

Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
The 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum Thorpe Abbotts
The 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum Thorpe Abbotts | Source
Aerial view of Thorpe Abbotts in 1946
Aerial view of Thorpe Abbotts in 1946 | Source
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress | Source

A hub of USAAF Flying Fortresses 1943-1945 and memories of sacrifice

This museum, which I have visited more than once, is fascinating for aviation and history buffs. It is situated in the village of Thorpe Abbotts, in the parish of Brockdish, Norfolk, England. In the area of England, called East Anglia, in which Thorpe Abbotts is situated, many air bases were built during World War Two.

Some history

Built in 1942, Thorpe Abbotts air base was handed over to the United States Army Air Force in 1943 and served as a US facility until the battle against Nazi Germany was won in 1945. From June 1943 until April 1945, a total of 306 missions were flown from the base.

Thus, from this base flew large numbers of American aircraft bound for Germany and other targets in Nazi-occupied Europe. Losses during these missions were very great and conditions under which the crews worked were often severe; some of the Flying Fortresses were even rammed by German fighters in desperate attempts to limit their effectiveness.

One can ponder solemnly on the sheer extent of the bombs dropped on Germany and the destruction which they wrought, but this cannot be viewed in isolation. It is a fact of history that the United States and Great Britain were not the aggressors in the Second World War. The grimly efficient pounding of German war targets — with sometimes huge losses among the USAAF crew and aircraft — followed Hitler's Blitzkrieg in Western Europe and the Battle of Britain, and the attack on Pearl Harbor by Germany's ally, Japan. Many historical accounts show convincingly that in the United States and Great Britain throughout the 1930s there was huge reluctance to become involved in fighting Germany (or Japan). This should be remembered when considering the sombre reality of a base such as Thorpe Abbotts being used as an instrument of destruction upon Nazi German military and strategic targets, after circumstances compelled the United States, Great Britain and their Allies to engage in a relentless pursuit to its conclusion a conflict which had been forced upon them.

Some museum features

The museum is partly housed in the former control tower, with exhibition rooms on different levels. The control tower contains a large number of exhibits from the World War Two era; there was also material about military refueling, a function into which the former 100th Bomb group developed in the post-War years.

Items relating to various famous names were visible. I was interested to see a letter displayed from President Ronald Reagan, sending commemorative greetings. The letter referred to the World War Two period when Britain was what the President called 'freedom's fortress'. In its context, this phrase in President Reagan's letter was a development of the name of an aircraft type flown from Thorpe Abbotts: the Flying Fortress.

Interestingly, a prayer written by General Dwight D. Eisenhower was displayed in the control tower museum.

A commemorative plaque to General Curtis LeMay was also visible. This was unveiled in a ceremony in 1992.

Over the years since World War Two, tradition holds that the control tower is haunted. Rumours to this effect date back to World War Two, when the base commander felt forced to ban all talk of hauntings on pain of courts martial. While in principle I am sceptical of such talk, at the very least it may be said that sometimes, to some former personnel and visitors, the sheer power of historical allusion and memories of fallen aircrew have doubtless been overpowering from psychological perspectives in a place such as the museum at Thorpe Abbotts. On one of my visits I recall seeing what I thought was someone upstairs in the control tower, and subsequently discovered that the building was locked and empty. It was only years afterwards that I learned of the rumours of the tower's supposed haunting by a ghost.

So if there is a ghost, I have seen it, although in principle I don't believe in ghosts.

Also worth seeing

In Thorpe Abbotts itself, the Medieval parish church of All Saints, built of stone, has a noted round tower.

The Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum , Flixton (distance: 15 kilometres) has a collection of military and civilian aircraft, particularly dating from World War Two onwards.

2nd Air Division Memorial Library , Norwich (distance: 34 kilometres); commemorating the thousands of American aviators of the 8th Air Force who died in World War Two, this library is an excellent resource for aviation and history enthusiasts. Norwich's fine Medieval Cathedral and Castle are very worth visiting, as are other sights such as Pull's Ferry, the Old Guildhall and Elm Hill.

Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial , Madingley (distance: 94 kilometres), opened in 1956, contains the graves of thousands of American military dead from World War Two, plus details of many who went missing in action. Among the ancient colleges of nearby Cambridge (distance: 86 kilometres) are King's, Clare, Trinity, and St. John's. The oldest college is Peterhouse, dating from 1284, and among the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower was Peterhouse alumnus William Brewster. The largest college is Trinity, associated with Sir Isaac Newton, Ludwig Wittgenstein and many other outstanding scholars. Senate House and the University Church and the Round Church are important landmarks, as is the tower of the University Library. Renaissance scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam is remembered at Queens' College, where a tower is named for him. Emmanuel College is where a plaque commemorates John Harvard, founder of Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Churchill College is a national memorial to Sir Winston Churchill, containing copious archives relating to this distinguished figure. The Backs, by the Cam River, offer opportunities for boating; the punt is the usual, though slow, method of propulsion. Heffers bookstore is renowned for its huge selection of academic and other titles.

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How to get there: United Airlines flies to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. Diss (distance from Thorpe Abbotts: 14 kilometres) is served by rail from London Liverpool Street Station. Thorpe Abbotts is 214 kilometers from Heathrow Airport. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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