It was from Polebrook that the United States Army Air Forces Eighth Air Force carried out its first heavy bomb group (B-17) combat mission on 17 August 1942, and from which Major Clark Gable flew combat missions in 1943.
Like other airfields in the construction program at the time, Polebrook was built by George Wimpey & Co., Limited. The initial construction was of three runways, the concrete runway lengths were 08-26 at 1,280 yards, 14-32 at 1,200 yards and 02-20, 1,116 yards. In addition, thirty square hardstands most on the eastern side, were reached by very long access tracks.
The weapons store was unusual in that it lay within the perimeter track at the southern end. One Type J and two Type T-2 hangars were erected on the technical site outside the northern perimeter with the domestic sites dispersed in woodland beyond.
90 Squadron was equipped with the American B-17C, called "Fortress 1" by the RAF. Although the US Army Air Force did not consider the B-17C as being combat ready (the E-version was already under procurement as the result of combat reports from Europe), the RAF was sufficiently desperate in 1941 that these planes were immediately pressed into front-line service.
No. 90's Fortress's were used for very high-altitude attacks in daylight, the first operation from Polebrook being flown on July 8, 1941 when three Fortresses were dispatched on a raid to Wilhelmshaven. Engine trouble forced one of the planes to divert to a second target, but the other two went on to attack the naval barracks at Wilhelmshaven from an altitude of 30,000 feet. Unfortunately, the planes were not able to hit anything from such extreme altitudes. In addition, their crews found that the temperatures at this altitude were so cold that their defensive machine guns froze up when they tried to fire them. However, all planes returned safely to base.
Their last raid launched from Polebrook was on September 2, 1941. RAF Fortresses had flown 22 attacks against targets such as Bremen, Brest, Emden, Kiel, Oslo, and Rotterdam. A total of 39 planes had been dispatched, out of which eighteen planes had aborted and two had been forced to bomb secondary targets because of mechanical problems. Eight Fortresses had been destroyed in combat or lost in accidents. Discouraged by these losses, the RAF decided to abandon daylight bombing raids over Europe.
Although two Fortresses were missing from operations, the only loss resulting from a raid flown from Polebrook involved a badly battle-damaged aircraft that crash landed at a south-coast airfield.
As a result of RAF experience with the Fortress, it was determined that there was a need for vast improvements in defensive gunnery, a need for operating the Fortresses in greater numbers in tighter formations for better defensive firepower, and a need for better and more intensive crew training. Nevertheless, their British crews generally were quite pleased with the Fortress I, regarding it as easy to fly, very maneuverable, and aerodynamically stable in the bomb run.
While at Polebrook, No. 90 was then the sole operational squadron assigned to No. 8 Group and, before it was disbanded on February 12, 1942, its remaining aircraft and crews were only involved in experimentation and training.
The short runways at Polebrook were found to be quite unsatisfactory for the operation of the heavy-loaded, four-engine B-17. In 1942, the main runway was extended to 1,950 yards and the secondary runways to 1,400 yards each. In addition, additional hardstands were constructed, increasing the total number from 30 to 50. This enlargement resulted in the unusual situation that the ammunition storage area was inside the extended perimeter track. The living and communal sites were dispersed in woodlands north of the airfield. They provided accommodations to about 2,000 personnel.
Combat operations by the USAAF began on August 17, 1942, when the 97th BG flew the first Eighth Air Force heavy bomber mission of the war, attacking the Rouen-Sotteville marshalling yards in France. The lead aircraft of the group, Butcher Shop, was piloted by the Group Commander, Colonel Frank A. Armstrong, and squadron commander Major Paul W. Tibbets (who later flew the Enola Gay to Hiroshima Japan on the first atomic bomb mission). In the leading aircraft of the second flight, Yankee Doodle, flew General Ira C. Eaker, the commanding general of the Eighth Air Force Bomber Command.
The 97th BG conducted a total of 14 missions from Polebrook, attacking airfields, marshalling yards, industries, naval installations, and other targets in France and the Low Countries.
The group sortied 247 aircraft, dropped 395 tons of bombs on Nazi-controlled territory, and lost 14 aircraft. On October 21, 1942, the 97th Bomb Group was transferred to the Twelfth Air Force in the Mediterranean theater and Polebrook was unoccupied until April 1943.
The 351st's first completed combat mission took place on May 14, 1943, when 18 B-17's targeted a German Luftwaffe airfield at Kortrijk, Belgium. As the war progressed, the 351st operated primarily against strategic objectives in Germany, striking such targets as ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt, communications at Mayen, marshalling yards at Koblenz, a locomotive and tank factory at Hannover, industries at Berlin, bridges at Cologne, an armaments factory at Mannheim, and oil refineries at Hamburg.
The 351st Received a Distinguished Unit Citation for performance of 9 October 1943 when an aircraft factory in Germany was accurately bombed in spite of heavy flak and pressing enemy interceptors. It received another DUC for its part in the successful attack of 11 January 1944 on aircraft factories in central Germany. The group participated in the intensive air campaign against the German aircraft industry during Big Week, 20-25 Feb 1944.
In addition to its strategic missions, the group often operated in support of ground forces and attacked interdictory targets. Bombed in support of the Battle of Normandy in June 1944 and the St Lo breakthrough in July. The group hit enemy positions to cover the airborne attack on the Netherlands in September 1944. Struck front-line positions, communications, and airfields to help stop the German counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge, Dec 1944-Jan 1945. Flew missions in support of Operation Varsity, the airborne assault across the Rhine in March 1945.
The 351st conducted routine 8th Air Force missions from RAF Polebrook until the end of the war. The unit completed 311 combat missions from Polebrook. The 351st lost 175 B-17's and their crews. The gunners in the Group fired off 2,776,028 rounds of ammunition and were credited with destroying 303 enemy aircraft. The 509th Bomb Squadron completed 54 consecutive missions without losses between June 1943 to January 1944.
The unit returned to the US soon after V-E Day with the air element leaving May 21 and the ground echelon sailing June 25. Reassigned to Sioux Falls AAF, South Dakota during August 1945. the 391st Bomb Group was inactivated on 28 August 1945.
During the Cold War, the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command 351st Strategic Missile Wing stood alert with Minuteman I and later, Minuteman II ICBMs starting in 1963 at Whiteman AFB Missouri. The wing was bestowed the lineage, honors and history of the World War II USAAF 351st Bomb Wing upon activation.
The 351st SMW won the SAC missile combat competitions and Blanchard Trophy in 1967, 1971, and 1977. Named as SAC's "best Minuteman wing" in 1972. It stood down from alert and was deactivated in 1995.
During much of 1943, Captain Clark Gable was stationed at Polebrook to produce a recruiting film for aircraft gunners. He had trained with the 351st Bomb Group at Biggs Army Air Base, Texas, and Pueblo Army Air Base, Colorado, then accompanied it overseas in early April 1943. While with the 351st, he flew five combat missions as an observer. Much of the film was shot by former MGM cinematographer 1st Lt. Andrew McIntyre, who MGM had arranged to enlist with and accompany Gable in training, and scripting was by John Lee Mahin, a Hollywood screenwriter also in the unit.
Gable’s first combat mission occurred on 4 May 1943, when Gable accompanied 351st group commander Lt. Col. William A. Hatcher on a late afternoon familiarization mission before the 351st became operational. Flying squadron lead with Capt William R. Calhoun of the 303rd Bomb Group, RAF Molesworth, against the Ford and General Motors plants at Antwerp, Belgium, Hatcher and Gable's B-17 was nicknamed The 8 Ball MK II (s/n 41-24635). Gable fired a few rounds from a machine gun mounted in the radio room and suffered a minor case of frostbite from wearing leather gloves in the extreme cold.
Gable's second mission came 10 July 1943, flying with 2nd Lt. Theodore Argiropulos of the 351st's 508th Bomb Squadron in Argonaut III (42-29851) to bomb the airfield at Villacoublay, France. The mission was frustrating in that clouds forced the bombers to return without dropping their ordnance, but did not prevent German fighter attacks. His third combat mission occurred on 24 July 1943, again in Argonaut III as the lead aircraft of the 351st, with group executive officer Lt.Col. Robert W. Burns. The mission to bomb the Norsk Hydro chemical plants in Herøya, Norway, was unopposed, but was also the longest by the Eighth Air Force to that date and began a week-long series of intensive operations against German targets known as the "Blitz Week".
On the morning of 12 August 1943, his fourth mission was to bomb a synthetic oil plant at Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr, joining 351st operations officer Maj. Theodore "Ross" Milton and Capt. John B. Carraway's crew in Ain't It Gruesome (42-29863). Bombing Bochum, Germany, as a target of opportunity in bad weather, Gable experienced the Eighth's most dangerous mission to date, with 25 of its 330 B-17s shot down. Although none of the 351st's Fortresses went down, 11 suffered battle damage, one crash-landed on return, and the group's crews suffered one killed and seven wounded. During the mission, Gable wedged himself behind the top turret gunner for a better view as German fighters made five passes at the 351st's formation. A 20mm shell came up through Aint It Gruesome's flight deck, cut off the heel from Gable's boot, and exited one foot from his head, all without exploding. Afterward, the crew noticed the fifteen holes in the aircraft, and Gable noticed his boot. Brushing off concern with reporters, Gable claimed, "I didn't know it had happened. I didn't know anything about it until we had dropped eleven thousand feet, and could get off oxygen and look around. Only then did I see the hole in the turret."
Gable's final combat mission was an early morning strike to the port area of Nantes, France, on 23 September 1943. He flew with Lt. Col. Burns and 510th Bomb Squadron commander Maj. John Blaylock, leading the 351st in The Dutchess (42-29925). Half of the six groups assigned failed to assemble in bad weather, and intercepting fighters inflicted extensive battle damage to the other half, but no bombers were lost. Gable left his film crew in the waist of the bomber and manned a gun in the nose.
Captain Clark Gable was awarded the Air Medal on 4 October for completing five combat missions, and later the Distinguished Flying Cross. His final three missions were flown in the dangerous position of group lead, a hazard emphasized when the B-17 flown by Col. Hatcher and Major Blaylock was shot down near Cognac, France, on 31 December 1943, killing Blaylock and resulting in Hatcher's capture. Gable left the 351st on 5 November 1943, returning to the US with over 50,000 feet of 16mm color film. In 1944, the film Combat America, narrated by Gable, was shown in theaters.
The Thor missile deployment was an emergency response by the US to what was perceived as a missile gap with the Soviet Union. Launch orders were to be given jointly by UK-US officers from HQ Bomber Command, High Wycombe and USAF 7th Air Division, collocated at the same base. An RAF officer could order launch, but a USAF officer had to authenticate arming the warhead. The W-49 warhead had a yield of 1.44-megatons, and weighed 1680-lbs. It used yield, and the missile had a CEP of around 2-3 miles.
No. 130(SM) Squadron (North Luffenham Wing) was formed at what was retained for RAF use at Polebrook to operate three Thor missile emplacements which were constructed in the center of the former airfield area.
The Thor missiles were operational until August 1963, when the rockets were removed and the unit disbanded.
Today, Polebrook airfield has few reminders of its wartime past and is almost unidentifiable from the air. All of the wartime concreted areas have been removed with the exception of the deteriorating Thor missile launch pads from the early 1960s. A memorial was erected in the early 1990s and some old buildings remain scattered around in the area being used for agricultural purposes. The massive J-style Hangar still exists and the owners are very American friendly and very respectful of the hangar's place in history.