Marham 100 Years – A Brief History

2016 will see RAF Marham reach a very special milestone as the station reaches its centenary this year. The station has always, even from the beginning been a very busy operational base with a varied history so it would take a very long article to cover it and do justice to all of the important historical details, therefore if you want to find out a bit more take a trip to the RAF Marham Aviation Heritage Centre where a timeline explains the history in much more depth. Until then, I hope this article starts to explain a little of how it all began…

Marham aerodrome was first opened in 1916 as a military night landing ground which covered 80 acres. Units of the home defence patrols were based here and the area was to cover from Marham to Tydd St Mary. 51 Squadron were based at Marham at this time and they flew with an assortment of various aircraft; FE2b, BE2c, BE2d and BE12 aircraft.

You may be thinking that the Royal Air Force itself had not been formed at this point, and you’d be correct – the RAF will reach its 100th birthday on the 1st April 1918, two years later – this base was a RFC or Royal Flying Corps base when it was formed. By 1918 51 Squadron had many other landing grounds under its control, including sites at Sporle and Tottenhill. But by mid-1919 and no longer required, the World War One aerodrome was closed down.

However, in 1935, as part of the pre-war expansion programme work began again on the new RAF Marham aerodrome, which was constructed on the present day site. The new site was impressive, with 15 acres of playing fields devoted to cricket, hockey, rugby and football, a combined church and cinema, fire station, medical facilities, shops, stores, prison cells and an exercise yard and stores. The new aerodrome site was a huge project, but it ran as planned and opened on schedule on the 1st April 1937 as a heavy bomber unit within 3 Group, Bomber Command.

On the 5th May 1937, 38 Squadron arrived with twin engine Fairey Hendon Bombers and a month later 115 Squadron re-formed at Marham and was gradually equipped with Handley Page Harrows.

During the war years 1939-1945 RAF Marham saw many changes, new squadrons arrived and existing squadrons moved, 38 Squadron were moved in November 1930 to Malta and replaced by 218 Squadron which became operational with Wellingtons in December 1940. The base remained a bomber base, until April 1943 when it came under the control of 8 Group Path Finder Force.
The base was attacked on a number of occasions by enemy aircraft, with five attacks on the 12th May alone.

As the war finished, Marham closed again for the installation of concrete runways, a perimeter track and the dispersals we see today. This closure marked the end of war time operations of the airfield. Refurbishment of the runway required vast quantities of hard core to be laid, rumour has it that rubble from the London blitz was used… when the runway is next dug out and refurbished maybe another part of history will be unearthed?

Following the war years, in January 1946, the new runway was completed. A flight of Lancasters from the Bomber Development Unit arrived from Feltwell to be integrated into the Central Bombing Establishment. Lincoln Bombers were gradually added to the strength of the unit and also additional radar equipment arrived.

The years 1947-1950 saw Project Ruby – which saw the RAF and the US Army Air Force developing a series of heavy bombs. At this time the US Army Air Force had personnel based at RAF Marham; accounts from this time speak of great camaraderie between the two organisations. United States B-29 Washington bombers were also based at Marham as part of the conversion unit; on loan they were used as a stop gap prior to the introduction of the Canberra in 1954. In 1949 the Central Bomber Establishment moved from Marham to Lindholme.

The late 1950’s saw a turn of events, with the arrival of the nuclear capability in 1957. RAF Marham was awarded its own station crest, the Blue Bull, with the motto ‘Deter’. The glaring bull symbolises the deterrent – the nuclear capability. It is also thought that it was blue, to represent, ‘Blue Danube’ which was the backbone of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

Throughout the period 1954-1982, tanking and refuelling was also added to RAF Marham’s repertoire of capabilities, and the Victor and the Valiants based at Marham as the nuclear deterrents.

In 1982 with the Falklands Crisis unfolding, a large detachment of Victor K2 tankers were deployed to Ascension Island. Later in the crisis the Victors supported the ‘Black Buck’ bombing missions, alongside Nimrods on maritime reconnaissance patrolsand the Hercules on supply drops.

In 1982 the Tornados arrived at Marham. The all-weather ground attack version the GR1 bomber was assigned to Marham and initially 2squadrons were established, 617 and 27 Squadron, and based at Marham. The aircraft still looks the same on the outside, however over the last 30 years the aircraft has undergone many modifications and remains at the forefront of the RAF’s frontline capability today.

So while we rightly recognise that the last couple of decades have been very busy, history shows that throughout its 100 year history RAF Marham has consistently been operational and at the forefront of supporting the Government when called upon to do so. Over the course of this centenary year, we will cover stories from the past, please check out the RAF Marham Facebook site for the weekly ‘on this week in history’ posts. If you have any interesting stories from memory lane, we would love to hear them so please do get in touch or send in your stories/photographs of the station from years gone by.