The 306th Bombardment Group
Although the base facilities had first been adequate for the previous occupants, a considerable expansion was necessary to accommodate an American Heavy Bombardment Group. The expansion was the primary job of the British Air Ministry Works Directorate, they had a workforce of around 700 men engaged on the construction with support from the 2nd Battalion of the 346th US Engineers were also responsible for a certain part of the work. This hive of activity had one aim, this was to have the airfield ready for what was to be the main occupants for the next 4 years.
Movements in the US
As this Frantic operation continued in Thurleigh, much was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. On the night of the 30th August at around 22:00 the movement of the 306th personnel began. The men were ferried across New York harbour to the Queen Elizabeth’s berth on the Hudson River. The 306th were a small part of the total passenger list, which was carrying four times its normal peacetime load, including 17,300 troops on board. At 04:00 they set course for a high speed dash across the North Atlantic. The big Liner made 33 knots in daylight and cut to 30 knots in the darkness, these high-speeds guaranteed to out run any of the Nazi U-Boats. On the 5th September she arrived at Greenock, two days later over 2,000 men of the 306th arrived at Thurleigh.
B17 Flying Fortreses make their Journey to Thurleigh
Meanwhile at Westover. Leave had been cancelled, flight crews where working hard on their planes to get them ready for the flight to England. On the 2nd September the 423rd took off and headed North to Gandar, following them the other squadrons and all of the 35 planes where assembled on the ground in Gandar by the 4th September.
On the 6th September the 306th and left Gandar for English, soil destination Prestwick, 2,100 miles across the waters of the North Atlantic.
An hour into the journey and as witnessed by two crews of the 423rd , a brilliant flash lit the sky up, this was the B17 of LT John Leahy (41-24473), the aircraft had blown up at the precise time the flight plan called for the 800 gallon bomb bay tank to be switched on. A suspected electrical short caused the loss of lives of those on-board. The rest of the journey was constantly checking the fuel consumption especially the last 700 miles.
On the 8th September after all landing at Prestwick with no further incidents the 306th headed out to Bedfordshire. Facilities at Thurleigh were not yet ready for an American Heavy Bomber Group, and they were diverted to Chelveston, Oakington and Grafton-Underwood.
“First Over Germany”On the 27th January 1943, the 306th with its new Commander Col Frank A Armstrong led the first mission of the Eight Air Force to Germany itself, the raid on the naval base at Wilhelmshaven, no B17’s where lost. This was featured in the movie “12 O’Clock high” which was the story of an American Heavy Bomber Group and was based on the 306th. The group went back to Germany on the 21st April 1943 where they lost Ten Aircraft, 100 Airmen. Many of these men were Veterans who had come over with the original group in September. On 1 May 1943 Sgt Maynard H Smith won the Medal of Honor for his actions when his aircraft was damaged by German fighters. The German attack started fires in the radio compartment and the waist section. Smith threw burning ammo out of the aircraft, put out the fire and helped the injured tail gunner before returning to his gun to fight off the German fighters. This was the first time the country’s highest award was given to an enlisted man. On the 14th October 1943 the group again raided the ball-bearing factory at Schweinfurt. Eighteen flying fortresses of the 306th left that day but only Eight returned, Five from the mission and Three who returned with technical issues, this was to become known as Black Thursday and claimed another Hundred crewmen, the Five that returned the Fortresses where badly damaged. One of the opening guns of the D-Day operations came in late February 1944 when the 306th participated in a series of missions that came to be known as Big Week. Big Week was aimed at crippling all aspects of Luftwaffe operations, these missions proved to be costly to the group in both men and planes. On D-Day the 6th June the group carried out Three waves to bomb the bridges over the Orne. The war continued during late 1944 with rumours it will be over by Christmas, but the Forts continued to fly and men and planes were lost. The last 306th Flying Fortress was shot down on the 10th April 1945. Finally, on the 19th April the last Aircraft of the 306th cleared the fence at the end of the Runway, for the last time on a Combat Mission. This was the 306th 341st mission.
On the 14th July 1944 something special happened, that night at Thurleigh, the American Band of the AEF mounted a make shift stage in one of the Four Hangers. 3,500 men of the 306th sat on the floor, on the wings of planes and beams overhead, as the opening theme, “Moonlight Serenade” filled the Airmen with psychological lifeblood of American music back into those youthful homesick hearts.
Peggy Albertson (nee Davis) & Joe Albertson
All personnel were pleased with the implementation of a regular bus service to and from Bedford. During their time at Thurleigh numerous men had developed close relationships with Bedford families to some it was an opportunity to get away from the Army regime for a few hours and these men found a family atmosphere soothing their nerves.
A number of men also found life partners among the English young women and despite the restrictions based on marriages by the Army many were willing to battle the paperwork and the Chaplain conducted weddings for 148 servicemen from the 306th.
306th Fact File:
Bombardment Squadrons:367th Bombardment Squadron: 1 March 1942-25 December 1946 368th Bombardment Squadron: 1 March 1942-25 December 1946 369th Bombardment Squadron: 1 March 1942-29 June 1946 423rd Bombardment Squadron: 1 March 1942-25 December 1946
Unit CitationsThe group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for its part in an attack on aircraft factories in Germany on 11 January 1944 and a second DUC for its role in the Big Week attack on the German aircraft industry on the 20-25 February 1944.
Claims to Fame:
- Oldest operational Bomb Group in the Eighth Air Force.
- Stationed in England and at a single base longer than any other Group.
- First 8th Air Force Bomb Group to complete 300 missions.
- First 8th Air Force Bomb Group to bomb Germany 27-Jan-1943 Wilhelmshaven.
- Princess Elizabeth named B-17F 41-102547 “Rose of York” at Thurleigh.
- Medal of Honour to Sgt Maynard H. Smith 1-May-1943.
- First Airman in VIII Bomber Command to complete a tour; TSgt M. Roscovich 5-Apr-43.