Secrets and sorcery
- Credit: IAN BURT
For his sixth aviation history book, Peter Gunn has turned his attention to Sculthorpe airfield, from its construction in the Second World War, through the days of the Cold War until the US Air Force departed in 1992 and the Ministry of Defence took over the site.
In Sculthorpe Secrecy and Stealth, A Norfolk Airfield in The Cold War, Peter explores the fascinating history of the base, tells the story of the people and planes based there and how they fitted into this tense period of history.
Peter is originally from Scotland but moved to Norfolk in 1974, and now lives near Fakenham. A history graduate from Durham University, he has always been fascinated by aviation history. “I’m a historian and have a life-long interest in aircraft. In this area in particular, we are surrounded by aircraft, making it hard to get away from the history.”
Sculthorpe’s story includes being the hub of offensive operations until its closure in 1944 for upgrading as a base for heavy bombers, its runway ideal for US Strategic Air Command bombers like the B-29. By 1951, it was formally handed over to US control and became a prime front-line nuclear bomber base as well as a centre of intelligence gathering via secret surveillance flights over Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In 1992 the Americans left and handed the airbase back to the MOD.
“When the Americans left, the majority of US people went with them - there were 10,000 people involved in the operation at Sculthorpe,” says Peter. “This made it extremely hard to get material, proving that the task of unmasking Sculthorpe would be a challenge.
“I spoke to a lot of local people, and American veterans who remembered the base but they wouldn’t say what they did. The Americans have never openly discussed the nuclear weapons that they had in Norfolk, the airfield has a huge amount of secrecy about it even today. I’ve always been curious as a great deal went on there.”
Sculthorpe Secrecy and Stealth by Peter B Gunn (The History Press, £14.99) is available from bookshops around Norfolk or online from Amazon.
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A childhood of summer holidays in the county inspired writer Bruce Beckham in his latest book, The Dune, which is set on the north Norfolk coast.
The story centres on a teenager working on an isolated bird reserve in 1976, and is a tale of witchcraft, intrigue, murder and love. The author, who now lives in Scotland, still visits Norfolk as a keen bird-watcher. “I grew up in Leicestershire and nearly everybody in Leicestershire has a caravan somewhere between Heacham and Cromer - at least it seems like that,” he says. “Thus I spent most summer holidays as a child in Norfolk, and - as I became interested in wildlife - I realised what an amazing and unique place it is. I began birdwatching aged about 11, and have continued my hobby to this day. As an undergraduate I studied Natural Sciences (St Andrews) and narrowly missed having a career in this field. However, I still visit Norfolk specifically for birdwatching purposes (three or four times a year) and I never feel happier than when I’m walking out to the special sounds, scents and sights of the saltmarshes early on a Norfolk spring morning. It’s worth every minute of the eight-hour road trip down the A1.
“I spent a week with my family in Blakeney in July 2011 and it was while I was loitering with my labradoodle that the rough framework of The Dune came to me. I have long admired The Magus by John Fowles and - while I wouldn’t pretend to his great heights - I sensed there was a Norfolk story to be told.”
Bruce, who works as a creative director and advertising copywriter and who has lectured and trained on the subject in 40 countries around the world, writes across several genres, and is currently working on the third of his Detective Inspector Skelgill crime novels. “This character is based in the Lake District, however I certainly intend to set a future novel in Norfolk - if only for the excuse of extensive practical on-the-ground research!”
The Dune, Sun, Sand . . . And Sorcery by Bruce Beckham (Lucius Publishing, £7.99).