Places to Visit
The United States Eighth and Ninth Army Air Forces (USAAF) arrived in Cambridgeshire in 1942. Between then and 1945 there were thousands of USAAF personnel stationed in the county. They included bomber and fighter groups.
The impact of this Friendly Invasion was enormous, and has left many lasting links between our two countries.
Here are some of the places where you can find out more – and perhaps learn about a relative who was over here...
After the American entry into the war, Bottisham, near Cambridge, was taken over by the 361st Fighter Group and it played a vital part in the Eighth Air Force’s campaign by escorting bombers on missions into occupied Europe. Bottisham Air Museum grabs the story of the fighter air war, and shares it with all. It is also devoted to the RAF and Belgian Air Forces.
Col Thomas Christian was among the distinguished airmen at Bottisham. He had a serious military pedigree, being the great-grandson of Confederate Civil War General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. Christian led the 361st Fighter Group, the ‘Yellow jackets’, to England in November, 1943, and flew more than 80 combat missions. He was killed in action on August 12, 1944, in France and is believed buried in a British cemetery at Arras Faubourg d’Amiens. Christian left behind a wife and daughter he was destined never to see. She was born in January, 1944, after he had left the USA. In Bottisham he is remembered with a road named after him – Thomas Christian Way CB25 9DX.
As well as being an important centre for airworthy historic aircraft, Imperial War Museum Duxford is also home to the American Air Museum. It has beautifully restored examples of all the major aircraft types used by the Eighth Air Force during the Second World War. Many individual stories are captured on audio and video and are presented alongside personal artefacts. Outside the museum is a glass wall representing every aircraft lost from each group. The museum’s informative website has information about airfields and traces the tales of many of the Americans who were there. The Places section of the website also has details of where some of the poignant wayside memorials to individual airmen who lost their lives can be found. Entry to American Air Museum is included in general admission to IWM Duxford.
Military cemeteries never fail to be sobering places. Built on a sloping 30-acre site, framed by ancient woodland, on land donated by the University of Cambridge, the cemetery contains the remains of 3,812 US personnel. A further 5,127 names are recorded on the Wall of the Missing. Most died in the Battle of the Atlantic, in the air campaigns over north-west Europe and in the build-up to D-Day. In an inter-faith chapel stained glass windows bear state seals and military decorations. The Visitor Centre’s interpretive exhibits incorporate personal stories, photographs, films and interactive displays.
The station, north of Royston, was home to the 91st Bomb Group. Movie fans will recall the 1990 film Memphis Belle. It was based on the true story of one Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, named after pilot Captain Robert Morgan’s girlfriend back home in the States. In June, 1943, it was among the first aircraft to complete 25 missions intact. After that the Belle and the crew went home to the USA to sell war bonds. Hollywood film director William Wyler shot a famous wartime documentary at Bassingbourn, called Memphis Belle. Gen Eisenhower visited the base on April 11, 1944. As of earlier this year, the Tower Museum was closed until further notice.
Wittering has a long and distinguished RAF history, having been in operation during the First World War in 1916. The US 55th Fighter Squadron flew P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs from there. Wittering was once home to Britain’s Harrier jump jet force, and is still an RAF base. It does not have the capacity to host visits by individual members of the public. Groups wishing to visit should email the Officer Commanding at firstname.lastname@example.org
In the run-up to the D-Day landings in Normandy, the Allies expected casualties to be severe. A number of military hospitals were set up. Wimpole Hall, south of Cambridge, had already been requisitioned by the British Army. In 1944 it was handed to the US Army Medical Department as its 163rd General Hospital. With so many airmen in the area, it was natural that injured USAAF personnel would be among the patients. The hospital was to operate until early 1946, and was the last US hospital base to close in East Anglia. Stately Wimpole Hall, complete with gardens and parkland landscaped by the great Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, is open to the public.
Much of the history of England can be found in its homely pubs – and Cambridge has so many. All those students are in need of some soul food! The Eagle dates back to the 16th century (and probably beyond) when it was bequeathed to Corpus Christi College as the Eagle and Child. Early in the Second World War British servicemen began a tradition of burning the names of their units on the walls and ceilings, using everything from cigarette lighters to candles and even lipstick. When USAAF crew arrived from 1942 onwards they found themselves relaxing at Cambridge’s American Red Cross club. It was a short hop to the pub, where they continued the tradition. in the years following the end of the war the graffiti was obscured by years of nicotine deposits until they were restored.
Hemingford Grey is a picturesque village, near Huntingdon to the west of Cambridge. Author Lucy M Boston bought this ancient house in 1939 and, after renovating it, offered the upstairs hall (Music Room) as a venue for gramophone record recitals for the RAF. Hugely popular, these recitals took place twice a week. The records, visitors books containing the signatures of hundreds of airmen and a similar gramophone remain. J Oldknow was an American airman who, with others, came regularly to the recitals. Lucy borrowed his name for her classic children's books, the Green Knowe series.
Before moving to Cambridgeshire, Lucy had lived in Austria and taken to wearing a Dirndl skirt. This 'foreign' (and worse, Germanic) attire attracted negative attention from the locals and Lucy's reputation as a spy was compounded when she twice forgot to turn out the attic light during the blackout...
Any visitor to Cambridge must surely take a punt on the river. The Cam runs through the heart of the city, giving fantastic views of the College ‘Backs’ from the comfort of a traditional punt. Scudamore’s operated throughout the war. The novel punts (and more familiar canoes and rowboats) were a great hit with the US servicemen stationed in the area. However, due to wartime requisitioning of timber supplies, the business had to make do without any punt poles, instead hiring out all craft (including punts) with paddles. A sign was displayed at Scudamore’s Mill Lane Boatyard to advise potential customers of the unfortunate situation, which simply stated: “Sorry, no poles”. This didn’t go down well with the large contingent of Polish airmen based in the area, who initially thought they were being discriminated against!
Some of the smaller museums featured here only open on selected days, but would more than likely open for a group of Americans if contacted beforehand.