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D-Day sacrifice to be remembered 75 years on at Madingley

The American cemetery in Madingley is preparing to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the D-day landings by highlighting the role played by Cambridge’s US serviceman.

The cemetery will be hosting a memorial day on May 27 to pay tribute to those who gave their lives during the landings, which ultimately led to the allies winning World War II.

The wall of the missing is seen at the Cambridge American Military Cemetery, in Cambridge, England. (Photo by Warrick Page/ABMC). (11059356)
The wall of the missing is seen at the Cambridge American Military Cemetery, in Cambridge, England. (Photo by Warrick Page/ABMC). (11059356)

During the conflict the region became home to hundreds of US airmen with many RAF airfields made available for use by the USAAF.

By 1943 there were more than 100,00 US airmen in Britain and the largest concentrations were in Cambridge and the rest of the eastern region.

At the Eagle pub in Cambridge, visiting airmen left their signatures on ceiling and walls and these are still visible today.

Bassingbourn airfield in Cambridgeshire was the home of the famous B17 - Memphis Belle - the first of its type to complete her tour of duty during the war.

Sally ‘B’, the only airworthy flying fortress in the UK is based at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford which stands as a memorial to the 30,000 Americans who died flying from UK bases during the war.

Among the airfields in Cambridge were those at Alconbury; Bassingbourn; Bottisham, Duxford; Fowlmere, Glatton; Kimbolton; Little Staughton; Molesworth, where a record 364 combat missions were flown from. This is a record for any bomb group in the 8th air force; Snailwell; Steeple Morden; and Wittering.

The mid-1943 decision to launch the cross-Channel invasion at Normandy in 1944 renewed the buildup in Britain, the ‘Friendly Invasion’.

By June 6, 1944, 1.6 million Americans lived here. Within three months of D-Day, 1.2 million had surged into battle on the continent.

Cambridge American Cemetery became a symbol of the sacrifice of American servicemen and a sacred meeting place to recall the past.

The many airmen serving in Cambridgeshire played a major role in the build-up to those Normandy landings.

Suzie Harrison, interpretive guide at the cemetery, said: “The Americans realised that the British could provide nothing, so they had to bring every nut and bolt with them…and the spanner to do them up!

The US launched the strategic air war from the east of England. Unfortunately, weather in Britain was unlike the sunny skies of Arizona and California, where aircrews had trained. Fighter aircraft can take off from grass fields in dry summer weather, but heavy bombers certainly need hardstanding and a concrete runway.

“Initially, US forces were ‘lodgers’ at RAF airfields. With the 8th Air Force to the east, requiring bases from which to strike at the industrial heartlands of mainland Europe, and the troop carrier groups of the 9th Air Force to the north, preparing to drop Paratroopers on D-Day, more airfields were needed.”

The flat lands of East Anglia, were ideal for this huge construction project which provided a further 126 USAAF stations, each capable of accommodating 3,000 men.

It was the engineering battalions (Aviation), often composed of African-American soldiers serving in segregated ‘Black Units’, who built them. The courage and competence of these men, frequently living in tented camps, working in dirty and dangerous conditions, was amazing.

But plans didn’t always go as they should. Taking part in the final dry-run, Exercise Tiger on April 28, 1944, was Californian, Sgt Louis Bolton of the 607 Graves Registration Company.

He was 19 years old and married and found himself on a landing ship tank sailing up the English Channel for a rendezvous, from where the troops would assault the beach at Slapton Sands, Devon.

Training was realistic and there were often casualties, but none, so great, as on this day. His small convoy was spotted by an enemy E-boat patrol, whose torpedoes created mayhem among the unsuspecting vessels.

Louis, and 748 young Americans lost their lives and 88 remain buried in British soil at the Cambridge American Cemetery with many, many more commemorated on the ‘Wall of the Missing’. He was expecting to follow the fighting; to meticulously record the names of those who had fought and died. He was not expecting to perish in the cold waters of the English Channel, before the invasion even started.

As D-Day approached, units were concentrated in the Channel ports of southern England. During May 1944 every creek and estuary was crammed with landing craft – ‘you could walk across every inlet, without getting your feet wet’. Among those waiting to sail to northern France was a three-man team from the 531st Engineer Shore Regiment.

USAAF station 117 at Kimbolton played a major part in bombing German infantry and tanks on D-Day, a welcome change from chemical and ball-bearing factory attacks they had been used to carrying out.

The 91st bomb group at Bassingbourn also played its part in the landings by bombing gun emplacements and troop concentrations near the beach head area in June 1944.

From 1943, the USAAF 78th fighter group was stationed at RAF Duxford, flying P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs.For the next two years, it played a crucial role in the air war over Europe, acting as escorts for bomber aircraft in the strategic bombing campaign and providing air support for D-Day operations. All three squadrons of the 78th flew three missions each on D-Day itself, providing 'area support' by attacking railway and other transport targets inland of the invasion beaches in order to disrupt any German attempts at a counter-attack. These missions were in operation from 3.30am to 11.15pm on D-Day. Ground staff at RAF Duxford worked a 24-hour shift providing operational support. The group suffered one of its darkest days on June 10, 1944, when 10 pilots engaged in a bombing raid were killed after being 'bounced' by 20 German fighters.

During 1943 RAF Bassingbourn was the focus of a number of media events. The station and its locality were featured in the documentary film Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. The airfield and group were also the subject of a series of newspaper articles written by John Steinbeck during the spring and summer of 1943. Captain Clark Gable had temporary duty at Bassingbourn while producing a gunnery film for the USAAF. It also served as the location for the fictional "28th Bomb Group" in the 1950 Humphrey Bogart film Chain Lightning. Away from Hollywood, but still in the movies, RAF Bassingbourn was also the setting for the Airfield-based shots in the 1955 film, The Dambusters, featuring Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave.

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