RAF Thorpe Abbotts

In February (2014) I was fortunate enough to get invited by Waveney Valley Community Archaeology Group with the permission of Lord Mann on a reconnaissance mission for a project they are doing on studying standing buildings on the site of Thorpe Abbotts airfield; A Second World War RAF base which was handed over to the US Eight Air Force in 1942 becoming heavy bomber Station 139.

Thorpe Abbotts sits on the Diss – Harleston Road in Norfolk near the border with Suffolk. It is a vast piece of land housing fifty aircraft hard-standings and two hangers, a hospital and accommodation areas for four squadrons, 349, 350, 351 & 418 Squadrons of the 100 Bomb Group flying B17 Flying fortresses out across Europe in the second half of the war. With a ground crew of twenty six and a flying crew of either nine or ten per aircraft, we can estimate that crew alone on the base would have numbered around 1,800, plus staff and administration, hospital, fire crews, maintenance and so on you are looking at a small town suddenly appearing in the landscape.


Thorpe Abbotts is still there, or a large percentage of it is, including standing buildings, there is a strange nature to these places, it’s confusing, you stumble across materials and building remains which don’t seem to make sense, and even with a plan of the site we found it quite difficult to work out where certain things have gone or where they should be. The obvious remnants are the control tower, which is accessible and houses a museum, parts of the runway and elements of the perimeter track intact or hidden in the road plan of the area.

The standing buildings include some of the more sturdy accommodation and administrations areas, the water towers and a pumping plant. The T2 Hangers have vanished and a lot of the Nissen huts are collapsing into whale skeletons of rusty corrugated iron and peeling tar paper skin, home comforts opened up to the elements for 70 plus years slowly vanishing in the rain.


Despite the degradation of the standing elements in these places the connections are still here; a standing wall with once bright painted stripes, now dulled by time, a washroom with faded blue paint and later graffiti scratched into the plasterboard, Dawn and Hazel were here in 1957, sneakily smoking or waiting for boyfriends in the quiet countryside. Cigarette butts and empty cans attest to the attraction of this private dilapidation to the younger nocturnal population. There’s burner marks on the walls of one block which could be a cook area, a traced shape on another wall looks like it once housed a squadron logo of some sort. concrete troughs on floors show the position of wood burners the men and women would have huddled round in their thin skinned temporary homes fighting off the cold and wet outside waiting to fly, playing cards, reading books and eating food. All the windows have gone; metal frames hang open, in one case open for so long a tree has grown up so it will never close. The floors are covered in shattered concrete, old feed and the detritus of modern farming. On the perimeter of a field edge a gun emplacement tips and powders away, an old medicine bottle discarded nearby sticks out of the plough shattered flint in the soil.


Thorpe_abbotts_IMG_3655The lower site is covered in heavy brick built blast shelters, we gave up counting these ten-a-penny lifesavers all gradually sinking into the moss and being buried by leaf mould split not by bombs but by the slow weave of tree roots and expanding trunks pulling them apart. Ice and damp, the freeze thaw slowly fractures brickwork, chipping away the edges of the remains, reducing the built back to component parts.

Soft edged drainage ditches curve off into the trees encircling the ghosts of more huts, you can trace the walls as ridges in the soil, see patches of concrete de-laminating, the vestiges sticking through the leaves, spot elements of water supply. The lower admin area sits on the edge of a once metalled drive, now covered in several inches and plenty of years of leaf fall, the huts with strange wooden wings are overgrown, piping and wiring sticks out here and there, and old brick built cooker still in place, bits of paint peel off everything in the damp. The round hood of a 1950s car rests nearby, grown over by thorn bushes slowly rusting into a metal signature in the ground.

The water pumping station is remarkably intact, still containing the imprint of wiring and fuse boards, parts of the towers re-purposed into storage for feed and fitted with owl roosts. Over towards the medical area the hospital has gone, replaced by pheasant feeders in the woodland, established trees grow in what was once a clearing, there’s no visible evidence except a toilet block leaning heavily into it’s eventual collapse, a few remnants of cracked urinals and sinks still cling to the brickwork all oddly out of kilter with the natural woodland around it.

We drove slowly along part of the perimeter past the now non-existent bomb dump and shooting butts off in the woods, stopping to stare through the descending gloom at the runway’s vanishing point.

These places are fascinating; something so huge, not just in physical size but in human significance and numbers; where so many people lived and took part in a particular series of events that shaped modern Europe and the world can visually almost cease to exist so quickly if ignored, nature and human occupation removing the past.

Thorpe Abbotts 3652 © Nick Stone




Thorpe Abbotts 3658 © Nick Stone



Thorpe Abbotts 3643 © Nick Stone





Photographs and text © Nick Stone 2014. Please email for permission to use or license.

Support Invisible works

Running Invisible works involves considerable outlay, hosting alone costs hundreds of pounds a year. It will remain free with no advertising for as long as I can manage it. If you feel like donating a few quid towards running costs to support it you can do so here.

Buy my work

You can also support the site and get something out of it for yourself by buying some of my work. I try to keep things affordable, there are plenty of options available with prints being expanded into new areas with books and posters also available.

Follow me on Instagram

I put a fair bit of my new work on instagram in various guises. My main account for photography is @nckjstn, but I can also be found mending things, restoring vintage finds and antiques, and making miniatures on my other account @typejunky.