Feature: Mission to commemorate historical D-Day runway in Twyford Wood

Pathfinders from the 82nd and 101st  US Parachute Infantry Regiments, the first to land in Normandy, took off from this, now disused, runway in North Witham on the eve of D-Day. EMN-140618-091354001
Pathfinders from the 82nd and 101st US Parachute Infantry Regiments, the first to land in Normandy, took off from this, now disused, runway in North Witham on the eve of D-Day. EMN-140618-091354001
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Deep in the heart of Twyford Wood is one of the Second World War’s forgotten stories - an airfield from where the first Americans to land in Normandy on D-Day took off.

Now there are calls to mark the neglected site with a plaque to commemorate the key contributions made by the D-Day pathfinders.

At 21.59 hours on the eve of the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 5, 30 elite troops from the 101st and 82nd US Parachute Infantry Regiments took off in 20 C-47 aircraft from RAF North Witham, near Colsterworth.

The D-Day pathfinders were the first American combat troops who were dropped in France.

Their top secret mission was to land ahead of the American Air Assault and guide that airborne invasion force to the specific drop zones. Under cover of darkness the brave men set up portable Radar Beacons in enemy territory for the main wave of paratroopers who were to follow them within hours for the main assault.

Phil Bonner, from Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire, who helps to promote Lincolnshire’s aviation heritage said:

“The American forces made a big contribution. The first Americans ever to land in Normandy took off from North Witham,

“At 15 minutes past midnight on the morning of June 6 the Dakota aircraft that took off from North Witham dropped their paratroopers, who needed to be on the ground, inland, to secure some of the vital positions and set up Radar Beacons to guide the thousands of American paratroops who would land that morning.

“What is unique about them is that they were the advance party for the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division, made famous by the TV series ‘Band of Brothers’.”

After the war the US Air Force moved out of North Witham, which was known to the Americans as Station 479, and the base was taken over by the RAF. Various military activities that followed ceased in 1948 and the land was sold off in 1960 and the 650 acre site was planted with trees by the Forestry Commission and is now known as Twyford Wood.

Large areas of the site near Colsterworth are densely populated with trees, some of which have encroached on parts of the airfield.

All that remains of the once strategic site is a dilapidated watch office and disused runway with nothing to tell the story of its role in the D-Day landings.

The Forestry Commission said there was already a “living memorial” within the site.

“It’s a group of maple trees and a bench,” a spokeswoman said, adding: “There are no definite plans at the moment for installing a plaque because we believe the living memorial is more appropriate.”

The living memorial, however, gives no indication of what it stands for.

Chairman of Colsterworth Parish Council Derrick Hamilton-Hinds said: “The airfield has been neglected for a long time. We didn’t know anything about it until recently. Since then we have been looking into getting a plaque erected there with a map of the airfield and its history.”

Mr Hamilton-Hinds said the parish council had contacted the Forestry Commission and the American Embassy but had not succeeded in getting any help for a plaque which Colsterworth parish council could not afford to fund at present.

Mr Bonner, who added his voice to calls for a plaque on the site said: It’s an important part of Lincolnshire’s heritage and we need to make sure it’s part in the history of D-Day is properly commemorated and not forgotten.”

Joanna Dunlop, of Corby Glen, who stumbled on the disused airfield while walking through Twyford Woods said: “I was amazed to learn (by researching) that the now disused airfield was used to launch the very first assault wave to Normandy in D-Day.

“Their completion of an important task had a huge bearing on the success of D-Day and it was amazing to think that these men started out their mission so close to home. Yet there was nothing there to tell me the history of the site.”

Joanna, 42, a personal assistant at Arcus Taxation Accountants in Oakham, also called for a plaque to be installed at the site so future generations can learn North Witham’s history.

South Kesteven District Council has produced a booklet, Heritage of Flights, to mark South Lincolnshire’s wartime aviation heritage, including the story of North Witham, in partnership with Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire.

A spokesman said: “We hope that ‘Heritage of Flight’ inspires imaginations and encourage people to ponder the history on our doorstep. Personal stories from local people reflect deep abiding memories from another era - and the huge debt of thanks owed to service personnel from across the globe who served here.”

It is available at Stamford Library and Burghley House or online at www.heritageofflight.co.uk

Mike’s annual tribute to the fallen

Every year on June 6, Mike Davis travels to Twyford Wood from his home in Westbourne Park, Bourne, to place crosses with poppies by the watch tower at the North Witham airfield.

A geography teacher at Casterton Business and Enterprise College, Mr Davis, 60, who has “always been interested in military history” said: “I have a strong sense of place. And this place is so fascinating. It is a forest and there’s an airfield in the middle of it. Yet there is no memorial: there’s nothing to tell anyone who comes here about the history of the place.

“I place poppies and crosses here because I am very much aware of the individual men who flew from here. This little bit of South Lincolnshire was the last bit of land that they saw before landing in France.

“There’s an atmosphere here: it’s a place that’s momentous.”

Mr Davis, whose grandfather Patrick was a prisoner of war during the First World War, wants to see at the very least a board near the car park “telling people about the history of the place”.

He added: “I take people there. When I walk through the trees and it opens into a runway, I tell them what happened here. There should be something at the site giving details of what happened there 70 years ago, for someone who stops there to walk or rest.”