Eric Musgrave

Since 1980, menswear & fashion retail commentator, opinionated thought-leader,
event host & all-round top bloke. Contact me to discuss working together.

Memories of the USAAF Mighty Eighth

For anyone interested in the history of the Second World War, especially the war in the air, I can heartily recommend a special publication from Flypast magazine, which concerns itself with aviation heritage. The Mighty Eighth is a heavily illustrated 98-page listing of every British airbase used by the US Army Air Force after the arrival of the first flying Yanks on 12 May 1942. It’s a fascinating reminder of just how many USAAF personnel were stationed here – the listing runs alphabetically from Alconbury to Wyton. Both happen to be in Cambridgeshire, but the bases were all over the south of England and the Midlands and there were even a few in Northern Ireland. The US Eighth Air Force was the primary command group, but the Ninth was also very important with the Twelfth playing only a small part in the UK.

Mighty Eighth magazine 001

On the cover is Lt Al Keeler with a 95th Bomb Group Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress (and a very desirable A2 flying jacket) at Horham airbase in Suffolk in 1944. (Photo courtesy of Al Keeler via Warren Thompson).

My own connection and curiosity for this period comes from my mother, Louisa Fitzpatrick, who was in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during WW2. My childhood was full of stories of the times she had as a young twentysomething stationed on airfields in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Born in 1921, she is now 92 and her large pile of wartime photos have passed to me.

Louisa Fitzpatrick 001

These signed postcards were sent by my mother to her then-boyfriend, Harry Davies, who had been captured at Dunkirk and was a prisoner of war until 1945. On his return they married but the privations he had suffered as a PoW had weakened him and he died too young in the early 1950s. My mum married my father in 1954. Theses postcards carry on the back the stamp of the German camp Harry was in at the time he received them via the good offices of the Red Cross.

Louisa Fitzpatrick 003Louisa Fitzpatrick 004Louisa Fitzpatrick 002

Personal ephemera like this makes history come alive for me. It is amazing to reflect that we can still speak to men and women who lived through those extraordinary times, although I guess that in about 20 years there will be virtually no one living who saw active service during WW2.

Apart from the photos of my mother, my favourite from the period is this poignant line-up of the crew of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. If 10 men can stand shoulder to shoulder and still not be as long as one wing, it gives some idea of the immense size of these bombers. On a sartorial note, it is interesting to see that the uniforms were not, in fact, very uniform. I wonder if any of these guys are still with us.

Flying Fortress crew (web)   

In the Diamond Jubilee year of her coronation, it is interesting to note that HM The Queen was busy on official duties long before she was crowned. Thanks to Flypast’s Mighty Eighth magazine, I now know that the 18-year-old Princess Elizabeth visited the 306th Bomb Group at Thurleigh, near Bedford in July 1944 to name a B-17 G Flying Fortress “Rose of York”. A carefully shrouded bottle of Champagne was smashed against a panel attached to the chin turret guns. (Photo courtesy of 306th Bomb Group Museum). On a raid to Berlin on February 3, 1945, “Rose of York” was hit by flak and didn’t make it back to base. It crashed into the English Channel, killing all 10 crew. Half of the U.S. Army Air Force’s losses in World War II were suffered by the Mighty Eighth, which endured over 47,000 casualties, including more than 26,000 dead, before it flew its last wartime mission on 25 April 1945.

Mighty Eighth magazine 001

Another curiosity in my mother’s box of wartime memories is this menu from RAF Sutton Bridge in south-east Lincolnshire for Christmas dinner 1944. This was the last Christmas of World War II.

Christmas menu at RAF Sutton Bridge 1944 001

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