In WWII, the 384th Bomb Group was based in the UK village of Grafton Underwood’s back yard. Seventy-plus years later, most of the war-era buildings are long gone, but their foundations lie sleeping, waiting to be uncovered and made visible again by the hands and aching backs of many who seek to commemorate this important place and the lives who passed through here during the long-ago war.
As the earth attempts to reclaim her once-peaceful space and erase the existence of the use of her land for war, efforts are ongoing to save what time has not yet destroyed or man has not yet demolished so that the history of this place will be remembered by future generations, generations of sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those who served here.
We must not forget what happened here and why the people came to use this land for this purpose. We must remember their great deeds of valor, the lives lost, the lives saved, and learn a lesson about sacrifice and freedom.
The main reason for the 384th Bomb Group’s existence at Grafton Underwood revolved around the airfield’s runways, the point of take-off for mission targets and the point of return for the B-17’s and the weary crews that came home.
Take-off was normally early morning. Very early or the previous overnight, the ground crews readied the B-17’s with final repairs, filling fuel tanks, and loading bombs and ammunition.
After breakfast and briefing, the airmen arrived at their designated aircraft and performed final preparations for the day’s missions. The pilots ran through their checklists, the gunners checked the guns, and the navigators and bombardiers studied the route and coordinates for the bomb drop. Pilots started the engines and watched for the flare signalling departure.
The 384th Bomb Group’s first commander, Budd Peaslee, shared his memories of these mornings in the closing words of his 1963 book, Heritage of Valor. Commander Peaslee described not the look of the airfield, but the sound and feel of it when the 384th war machine was in full force and preparing for battle.
Commander Peaslee likened the sound of the B-17 engines to “musical thunder” and described the taxi and take-off of the flying fortresses as causing the “very earth to tremble.” He pronounced the source of the sound as “seeming to emanate from all things, visible and invisible,” and he compared the B-17’s “great deep-throated engines” to their later jet replacements’ “flat, toneless roar.”
Eighteen years after the 384th left Grafton Underwood at the end of the war, Peaslee described the runways as “ancient” and “weed-choked.” But those runways have not disappeared to this day. Fifty-six years past the publication of his book, and seventy-four years past the end of the war, the runways just north of the village can still be seen in satellite images.
After all of the B-17’s departed for the day’s mission and the business of waiting for their return began, the runway, though now silent, was the center of the group’s universe, the ultimate determiner of the mission’s success or failure.
On paper, the success of the mission was determined by how close the bombs had come to their targets and what kind of destruction the formation had brought to the enemy’s door. In reality, if one B-17 or one man had been lost and not returned to touch down on the runway or sleep in his bunk that night, the loss would be felt exponentially throughout the base, from crew mates, to cooks, to the Commander.
As soon as the last of the B-17’s wheels left the morning mist-covered ground, thoughts would turn to wonder how many would not return today. What familiar faces around the base would be no more? Eating, sleeping, socializing, and any other function of human life was secondary to the take-off and return of the B-17’s and their crews. The runway symbolized why the airmen were there, why the ground crews were there, and why the people of Grafton Underwood had to share the backyard of their pleasant village with this instrument of war.
This year’s 384th Bomb Group reunion will be the group’s eleventh junket to Grafton Underwood and other nearby WWII sites and will be my first. I will be able to see and stand upon the runways of which I have only imagined, have read about, and have seen in photos and on maps.
This map of the runways and hardstands was obtained from the archives at RAF Hendon and donated by Kevin Flecknor and Robin Dodson.
Site No. 1 Airfield – Runways and Hardstands
The runways and the fifty hardstands, where the aircraft stood ready, are detailed on the map as Site No. 1 Airfield.
The 384th Bomb Group was made up of four bombardment squadrons – 544, 545, 546, and 547. Each had a separate area of hardstands for their designated ships.
- The 544th Bomb Squad was assigned Hardstands 1 – 9, 49, and 50.
- The 545th Bomb Squad was assigned Hardstands 10 – 23.
- The 546th Bomb Squad was assigned Hardstands 24 – 35, and 41.
- The 547th Bomb Squad was assigned Hardstands 36 – 40, and 42 – 48.
Though the numbering system of division looks a little disjointed in a list, a review of where the hardstands are placed on the map will show why the division was made as it was. What’s not clear is why the number of hardstands was not more equally divided between squadrons. The 544th Bomb Squadron had the least amount, eleven, and the 545th Bomb Squad had the most, fourteen.
Thanks to Google Earth, we can see what the airfield map looks like superimposed on a map of the area today.
Note: Click on the images to open to full screen. (Then use your browser Back button to return to this post).
Special Thanks to 384th Bomb Group Volunteers
The map of the runways and hardstands was obtained from the archives at RAF Hendon and donated by Kevin Flecknor and Robin Dodson. Hardstand identifications provided by Mark Meehl.
Note: The boxed numbers indicate the runway identifiers (magnetic compass heading to nearest 10 degrees).
Friends of the 384th
To view the progress of the Grafton Underwood Airfield building preservation and site cleanup and maintenance, please join the Friends of the 384th on Facebook.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2019