2nd Air Division – Eighth Bomber Command – Bases in Norfolk.
In America in the 1930s one of the main theories about strategic air power was that heavily armed but unescorted formations of long-range bombers could fight their way through to a target in broad daylight and destroy the objective with precision bombing. This theory was taught at the Army Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Alabama, and precision bombing was honed to perfection at ranges in California’s Mojave Desert in 1940 using the top-secret Norden bombsight. Experienced bombardiers soon found that they could place their practice bombs within yards of the target from as high as 20,000 feet which led to claims that bombs could be dropped in a pickle barrel from such heights. With America’s entry into the Second World War General Ira C. Eaker’s VIIIth Bomber Command was established in Great Britain with a few B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24D Liberator bomb groups in East Anglia. When USAAF missions began in earnest the Luftwaffe day fighters now had to drive the heavily armed and armoured American bombers from the skies by co-ordination of fighter formations and closed formation attacks.
By the end of August 1942 over 100 B-17s, enough for three groups, had arrived in the United Kingdom. On 17 August, the Eighth Air Force flew its first mission of the war when a handful of Fortresses were dispatched to north-eastern France, where they bombed a large marshalling yard. B-17 crews threw themselves headlong into a bitter war over Europe in daylight and without escort, despite opposition, particularly from the US Navy, which was convinced that America’s first objective lay in the defeat of Japan. In September 1942, plans to introduce the B-24 Liberator into Europe were fulfilled when the 2nd Bombardment Wing (which was to grow into the 2nd Bombardment Division and later the 2nd Air Division) was established in England.
The 2nd Air Division was activated at Detrick Field, Maryland, as the 2nd Bombardment Wing, on 7 June 1942. It was redesignated the 2nd Bombardment Division on 13 September 1943 and it became known as the 2nd Air Division on 1 January 1945. During its assignment to the Eighth Air Force in the European Theatre of Operations the division was commanded by Major-General James P. Hodges from 7 September 1942 until 1 August 1944, Major-General W. E. Kepner until 13 May 1945, and Brigadier-General W. H. Peck, from 13 to 31 May 1945.
After a short period of training at Detrick Field the cadre of the Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron of the 2nd Bombardment Wing moved to Fort Dix, New Jersey, then to the port of embarkation, where the liner Queen Elizabeth was boarded for the trip across the Atlantic. They arrived at their first English station, Camp Thomas, at Old Catton in Norwich, on 7 September 1942. Later the headquarters (HQ) moved, first to Horsham St Faith airfield nearby and then, in December 1943, to Ketteringham Hall, where it remained until its departure for the United States in June 1945.
The 2nd Air Division’s fourteen bomb groups were wholly equipped with the B-24 Liberator bomber throughout its tour of duty in East Anglia in the Second World War. The Liberator had resulted, early in 1939, from a request from the US Army Air Corps to design a heavy bomber of infinitely better performance than the Boeing B-17 then in production. As a result, the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation of San Diego, California, designed the Model 32 and the Liberator flew for the first time on 20 December 1939. An attempt to re-equip all England-based Liberator groups with the Fortress never materialized because not enough Fortresses were being built and in contrast, Liberator production was phenomenal. During 1942 Convair opened a second Liberator production line at Fort Worth, Texas. A third production line was brought into operation at Tulsa by the Douglas Company, and at the end of 1942 a fourth was opened by the Ford Motor Company at Willow Run. In early 1943 North American at Dallas, Texas, operated the fifth and final major factory manufacturing Liberators. The B-24 surpassed the production of every other single type of American military aircraft during the Second World War. In all, 18,188 examples were built (5,000 more than the total Fortress production).
The first mission flown by units under the command of the 2nd Bombardment Division was on 7 November 1942 and the final mission was flown on 25 April 1945. In addition to missions flown from its East Anglian bases three groups (44th, 93rd and 389th) participated in three campaigns while based in North Africa. One of these, 93rd Bomb Group had flown in two campaigns in North Africa during the previous winter. The 2nd Air Division developed into an extremely powerful striking force. In addition to its fourteen bombardment groups, it had five fighter groups. On 7 August 1944 the 492nd Bomb Group was withdrawn from combat, having lost fifty-four aircraft in May–July 1944. This was the heaviest loss for any B-24 group for a three-month period. The 491st Bomb Group moved from the 45th Combat Wing (CBW) to take the place of the 492nd in the 14th CBW. Crews were dispersed throughout the rest of the Eighth. The 491st, late of the 45th CBW, took over at North Pickenham, the 492nd’s previous base, and began operations with the 14th CBW. The 491st’s former 45th CBW partner, the 489th, was transferred to the 20th CBW. The 2nd Bombardment Division now totalled an unlucky thirteen groups and remained at that number until November 1944 when the 489th was rotated to the USA, on paper at least, for redeployment to the Pacific as a B-29 outfit.
On 28 August the 20th Wing groups were converted to a transportation role in support of the Allied ground forces in France, who were in urgent need of fuel and supplies. When the Allies launched Operation Market Garden using British and American airborne divisions against German-held Dutch towns on the Rhine in mid-September, the Liberators were once again called upon to supplement the troop carriers.
Losses continued to rise. On 27 September 1944 the 2nd Bomb Division put up 315 Liberators, including thirty-seven from the 445th, to raid the Henschel engine and vehicle assembly plants at Kassel in central Germany. For the 445th Bomb Group it was one of the most tragic and probably the most disastrous raid for a single group in the history of American air warfare. The 445th Bomb Group lost no fewer than twenty-five Liberators in the space of just six minutes, and five more crashed in France and England. Only five made it back. The plant’s destruction was well received by Eighth Bomber Command, which estimated that six to seven weeks’ production would be lost. On 26 November, when over 1,000 Fortresses and Liberators escorted by fifteen fighter groups headed for the synthetic oil plant at Misburg near Hanover, the 491st Bomb Group lost sixteen Liberators. Total B-24 losses this day were twenty-one while fifty-three returned battle damaged and with fifteen crew Killed In Action.
The 2nd Air Division’s maximum total strength was 8,870 officers and 43,884 enlisted personnel. In all, a total of 95,948 sorties were flown on 493 operational missions by the bombardment groups of 2nd Air Division. A total of 199,883 tons of bombs was dropped on enemy installations in all parts of Europe, from Norway in the north to the shores of the Mediterranean in the south and from Poland and Romania in the east to the shores of the Atlantic in the west. Its gunners claimed 1,079 enemy fighters destroyed in combat while 1,458 of its B-24s were lost on operations and 6,032 airmen killed. The division was awarded six Presidential Unit Citations and five individuals received the Medal of Honor for heroism displayed while flying in combat as members of its groups.
Between 1942 and 1945 there were, at any one time, around 50,000 USAAF personnel, including nearly 200 members of the Women’s Army Corps, stationed within a 30-mile radius of Norwich. Approximately 3,000 servicemen lived on each of the fourteen airfield bases close to village communities. Here populations were suddenly to increase from no more than 200 souls to the size of a small town. Close friendships developed and persist to this day between members of the 2nd Air Division and local people.