South Kesteven’s Surprising Heritage Sites – A blog series, part two: Twyford Woods!

November 7, 2023

In the second of our surprising heritage series, we are exploring the crucial role that an airfield close to the village of North Witham played in the Allied victory of World War Two.

Today visitors to Twyford Woods enjoy exploring miles of woodland paths, making the site popular with walkers and dog lovers.

But it doesn’t take long for visitors to realize that the concrete paths they are walking on are far wider and straighter than typical woodland walks, exploring further they may even come across the ghostly remains of a World War II control tower, now fenced off for safety reasons.

Indeed, Twyford Woods is one of Lincolnshire’s many former Second World War Airforce bases, which saw service for both the RAF and the US Army Airforce (USAAF).

While that would be of interest in its own right; this site, known during the war as USAAF station 479, played a key role in one of the most pivotal actions of World War II – Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy – better known as D-Day.

Built as RAF North Witham 1942, the base was handed over to the US Army Airforce the following year, becoming a base for the 1st Tactical Air Depot, whose role included modification and maintenance of existing aircraft and construction of gliders.
Conditions at the base were miserable, with thousands of men being quartered in temporary accommodation known as ‘tent city’[1], over a cold and wet Lincolnshire winter.

It was not long, however before they would be joined by the 9th Air force Troup Carrier Command Pathfinder School.

Here paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions were trained in the use of specialist signalling and transmitter equipment; their purpose would be to guide the main body of the airborne assault troops to their landing zones during the D-Day attack.

The training received was extensive, the men being rigorously drilled in drop procedure and how to operate and set up the Eureka Beacons and Helophane lights which would mark out the drop zones for the main arial assault.

The flight crews manning Dakota C-47 troop carriers received extensive training on low level flight and navigation techniques.

During the invasion on the night of the 5th of June 1944 the pilots were required fly to the heavy troop carriers at low altitudes to escape radar detection.

The planes were unarmed and loaded to the limits of their capability – surprise was crucial for success.

The unit was under the command of the 33-year-old, former commercial airline pilot, Colonel Joel Crouch.

At 9.54pm on the 5th  of June Colonel Crouch received the go signal, and taxied his plane, tail number 42-93098, down the north-south runway.  Along with his crew, he was carrying men of the 506 Paratrooper Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne, led by Captain Frank Lilliman.  Operation Overlord had begun!

That night a total of 20 planes would take off from Station 479, headed for the Cherbourg Peninsular. Shortly after midnight on the 6th of June they arrived at their assigned drop zones.  Captain Frank Lilliman, his face blackened with burnt cork, cigar clamped in his teeth, became the first man dropped over Normandy.  The men who followed did so under a barrage of fire, tracer bullets lit their descent.

The pathfinders who landed that night, as well as the main body of the air and seaborne assaults that followed would turn the tide of the war, taking part in some of the most iconic and well-remembered actions of WWII.

Today the site is owned and manged by the Forestry Commission. Visitors should be aware that heavy machinery may be in operation, and they should not attempt to enter the former control tower, as the structure is unsafe.

 

[1] Chorlton, M.  (2003) ‘Paths in the Wood, a Complete History of RAF North Witham’. Old Forge Publishing.

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