New exhibition tells the tale of Sculthorpe's military heritage
Organisers were overwhelmed by the response to the launch of a permanent exhibition about the history of RAF Sculthorpe at Wicken Green, near Fakenham on Sunday.
Meticulously gathered from many sources, it chronicles the near 50 years that Sculthorpe was used a major air base by both the RAF and later the United States Air Force (USAF).
Ian Brown, the originator of a plan to create a permanent Heritage Centre commemorating Sculthorpe, was inspired by books written about the base by Fakenham historian Jim Baldwin and author Peter Gunn who were at the Green Park Rural Centre to open the exhibition.
“The response showed that people are still very interested in Sculthorpe,” he said.
It was an afternoon when hundreds more visitors than expected descended on the village to find themselves stepping back 80 years to when the world was first engulfed in the Second World War and then the challenge of the Cold War that followed.
The final visitor head count was over 1,000.
The only disappointment was the non-appearance of a Dakota DC3, the Second World War’s twin-engined transport workhorse.
A planned flypast had to be cancelled because the pilot would have overrun his permitted flying hours.
The exhibition itself contains a vast array of memorabilia from the time when Sculthorpe first opened in 1943 as an RAF base and then from the beginning of the 1950’s to the early 1990’s when it became a frontline USAF base.
The exhibition is stuffed with photographs, documents, books, insignia, uniforms and models of aeroplanes that used the base.
There are even examples of Soviet servicemen’s head gear from the Cold War period.
Many people, both local and former personnel from the United States contributed items having contacted Mr Brown using social media.
One centre-piece exhibit is the tangled remains of a jet engine from an American RB66 Destroyer.
It is from a plane that took off from Sculthorpe on June 3, 1958 but developed a hydraulic failure.
The three-man crew put it on auto pilot to fly over the North Sea and baled out.
But instead it flew at 500 mph towards Norwich and finally crashed near Saxlingham. Only seven RB66 planes exist today, all in the United States.
Adding to the illusion of an era only older members of the population remember was the appearance of several local history organisations and individuals in period uniforms who had lovingly restored a wide range of contemporary vehicles and equipment.
There was an RAF Sculthorpe fire engine, a Dodge Military Police vehicle, Plymouth staff cars and a variety of hand and vehicle mounted weapons. One re-enactment group even brought along German army range finders.
The period theme was further enhanced by local actor, Richard Tree, entertaining with American songs of the war years featuring the music of such as Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole in a large hall with sprung dance floor decked out with the Stars and Stripes.
Expert Andy Garner was on hand to introduce enthusiastic dancers to some of America’s war-time favourite dances such as the Lindy Hop, the East Coast Swing, the Slow Balboa and the Shim Sham.
As the afternoon wore on dancers filled the floor to practise those and other dances that off-duty servicemen and their girlfriends would have enjoyed.
At one stage the large dance floor was so crowed that ‘People were literally bouncing off each other,’ said Mr Brown.
Jes Woodhead who works closely with Mr Brown, said the base ceased to be operational before the Second World War ended so that it could be brought up to heavy bomber standard.
“The United States air force which took it over at the beginning of the 1950’s initially based the 47 Bombardment Wing with nuclear weapons there making Sculthorpe the biggest atom bomb base outside of the United States”.
He said the reaction to the event had been absolutely tremendous. “Some visitors travelled quite a long way.
“Ian put in a tremendous amount of work getting the project off the ground.
“He’s really worked miracles. He spent months tirelessly contacting people to make today possible.”