By Horace Varian
Many 100th Groupers have visited the old base at Thorpe Abbotts. Only a few have written about it, always nostalgically and often with a note of disappointment because they could not orient themselves. Horace Varian made a return trip in 1972, and perhaps because he was there for the whole period of the 100th’s presence, he had some success in retracing old trails. (The following is Horace’s report to the 100th members…Paul West)
Since the Nick Harris slides and report at the Washington Reunion, “Splasher Six” has had only fragmentary reports and reactions from a few ex-100th people who have visited the old Base at Thorpe Abbotts. And so, this report is for those who ask what is still there, etc.
During a trip to England last November, I spent a day at and around the Base, in company with John Archer who, as a boy often cycled from Bungay to spend the day near the runways, watching the takeoff, and anxiously counting the planes as they returned. John, his wife, Lorna, and son, Lee, live in an attractive bungalow at Earsham, near Bungay.
I had spent the previous night at the Castle Hotel in Norwich and really remembered only the modern brick City Hall with the tower, the great Norwich Cathedral, and the Castle. On the road to the Base I remembered nothing, partly because in the ‘40’s I had traveled that road at night, usually in a covered G.I. truck, and partly because there are many houses, filling stations, and other new buildings since the War. The though the road into the Base has disappeared, I made a guess as to where it had been which, to my surprise, later proved to be substantially accurate.
John and I, however, entered the Base from the Dickelburg side and went first to the home of Mr. Draper and his sister. Many of you will remember him as the farmer who plowed all around us and who endured much from us without complaint. The Draper’s live in a lovely old brick and stone house with barns and other farm building beside it. Miss Draper served coffee before a roaring fire. Her brother has maintained contact, thru the years, with Bill Carleton, ex-351st Engineering Officer. It can now be made known that Bill used Mr. Draper’s barn for storage of certain material and equipment which might come under the heading of “surplus,” or “midnight requisition.” For this privilege, Bill lavished upon the farmer a “carton of fags” each week. I recalled that the PX price for cigarettes was 50 cents a carton, so Bill spent approximately $26 per year for illicit warehouse privileges, certainly a bargain, even by World War II standards. I told Mr. Draper, that in my considerate judgment, he had been “had.”
We looked at a badly shattered tree and the barn thru which Frank Valesh’s plane had passed thru. Mr. Draper recalls that he was standing only 100 feet away and could not believe his eyes, or ears, as the B-17 swept away most of the barn. He also recalls a rumor (certainly unfounded!!!) that there were lady passengers and that perhaps Big Frank had not been in the best possible condition when he took off. The barn was rebuilt, the B-17 and its passengers survived, but the tree, though still standing, will never be the same. A farm cart still runs on four B-17 tail-wheel tires, now 26 years old. I learned that Constable Overton, who someone described as the entire Norfolk Constabulary on a bicycle, had retired and left the area. He is reported never to have completely recovered from the two and a half years of the 100th presence.
Draper, Archer, and I set out on tour. Most of the runways and perimeter track survive. They are now used as farm roads with a barn or haymow here and there along them. A hardstand is occasionally recognizable and as I saw them I thought of Butch Rovegno. A large Nissen hut remains, apparently one of the Sub-Depot building. Several huts of what seems to be the remains of the “WAAF Site” are still there. For the information of wives. “WAAF Site” referred to the intended British use; for us it was quarters for male officers. The control tower stands just as we remember it, though it seems smaller. Nearby is a building partially below ground, which I think was Battle Headquarters the “nerve center” for the ground defense team. I do recall observing a training exercise of this “crack” defense unit on a Sunday morning in 1944. At a crucial moment, the commander, one Lt. “Hardrock” Caverly, dramatically drew his pistol and fired a flare to signal the start of the attack. The flare sputtered, limped some five feet in the air, and collapsed. At this gesture, so symbolic of the 100th, I said a small prayer that the Germans would never come!
Up to this point I recognized little, but Draper showed me where the flagpole had stood in front of Group Headquarters. The only standing building nearby was a windowless one which I think was the war room behind Hq. and Group Operations. If memory serves at all correctly, one moved from Hq. on past the Post Office, Chapel and Officers Club, which was on a slight rise. At this point the road turned right, as I recall, passed several farm buildings (I am not sure they were there 26 years ago, though they are a couple of hundred years old), turned left to the 349th area, moved past a static pool and on to the 350th area. I walked or cycled this route a thousand times, but it was longer than I remembered. In fact the whole base, surprisingly, seemed larger that it was in my recollection. I think the two buildings standing in the latter area, are the quarters in which I and most of the 350th ground officers lived, and the Squadron Orderly Room. Both were filled with hay. Continuing out the road to the entrance at the Diss road, a group of Nissen huts stands on the right. I have no recollection of them or who lived in them. If any reader can follow my route from Group Hq., and can correct or add to my hazy recollections, we’d like to hear from him. As we left, Mr. Draper proudly held an 8th Air Force emblem and displayed a sign headed. “Available Jones, Ltd.,” consisting of an edict about returning tools at night.
We stopped at the Diss railroad station, which is unchanged, including the iron railing we used to lean against while waiting for the train to London. I recalled that Red Bowman refused to make the trip because the trains were crowded and little boys peed on his leg! I don’t remember the old pub across from the station, but I didn’t drink much in those days. In Diss I remembered the church in which the 100th Choral Group sang selections from Handel’s “Messiah,” but little else.
The morning ended happily with a steak and kidney pie at the Archer’s; a look at a garage full of B-17 parts and emblems, and a series of interesting scarp books, including John ‘s boyishly detailed notations of which planes took off and the ones that failed to return from each mission. John has had several articles published, has become the leading local authority in these matters, and is now at work on a book.
True, there is not a lot left of AAF Station 139 – Thorpe Abbotts – and with snow on the ground it was a bit dismal. But I will admit to some nostalgia at seeing the places were so many of us spent nearly three years of our lives, and where we made – and too many times lost – so many good friends.