“I GOT my first look at the Suffolk scene . . . the dazzling greenness of the fields and the beauty of the hedgerows . . . green beyond anything I had ever seen at home.”
So recalled John Appleby, an American from Arkansas who served in the US Air Force in Britain until November 1945.It’s bombs away for Callum Turner, left, and Austin Butler in Masters Of The Air[/caption] The grand ivy-clad Angel Hotel[/caption]
During World War Two, the east of England was home to more than 350,000 US Army Airforce (USAAF) personnel.
The Friendly Invasion, as it was dubbed, introduced a rural backwater to the big band music of Glenn Miller, peanut butter, chewing gum, doughnuts, Coca-Cola, jitterbugging and so much more.
I set off to explore their impact on a weekend tour of Bury St Edmunds, Lavenham and the last remaining airfields.
My first night was spent in the Swan at Lavenham Hotel, a 15th- century timber-framed building.
Its Airmen’s Bar is named after the British and American servicemen who used it as their local pub when stationed at nearby RAF Lavenham.
The intimate boozer is stuffed full of military memorabilia but most haunting is a wall covered in the signatures of over 1,000 servicemen.
The scribblings also name those who took up the challenge of downing a 3.5-pint boot of ale and how long it took them — the record being 22 seconds, by Mick Wilson in 1940.
The hotel has a new summer-weekend package that includes a tour of Lavenham Airfield, where the 487th Mighty Eighth bombers were based, as well as afternoon tea with a modern take on the sweet and savoury delights that would have been enjoyed in wartime Britain.
For a deeper dive into the history of the airfields, Rougham Control Tower Aviation Museum, on the outskirts of Bury St Edmunds, is a treasure trove.
One of the best-preserved military buildings in the region, it houses photos, artefacts, uniforms, letters and photographs.
You can feel the incredible weight of the flying jackets, uniforms and equipment the aviators wore.
The museum is open every Sunday from April to October and manned by a dedicated band of volunteers.
Trucks of lager
Back in Bury St Edmunds, we check in at the Angel Hotel — a gorgeous, ivy-clad Georgian inn in the city’s heart, opposite Abbey Gardens.
Here, we meet guide John Saunders for a tour of the Abbey and its grounds, as well as Bury buildings and places that contributed to the war effort or raised troop morale.
In Abbey Gardens, we visit the Appleby Rose Garden — created using royalties from John Appleby’s book.
Originally an orchard, it now has more than 400 rose bushes and a unique bench made from the wing of a USAAF B17 Flying Fortress, as well as a monument in memory of the 94th Bomb Group.The Swan at Lavenham Hotel is a 15th- century timber-framed building[/caption] The Swan has comfortable rooms[/caption]
John and his fellow guides have created new, dedicated Masters Of The Air tours, the next this Tuesday, then on March 12.
They include a visit to Bury’s Guildhall to see the country’s only surviving Royal Observer Corps Operations Room, where guides will describe its vital role in Britain’s air defence.
Also worth a visit is the Greene King Brewery, helped during the war by Oscar-winning actor Jimmy Stewart who ordered trucks of lager every week for thirsty air crews at nearby Old Buckenham Airfield.
During the £20 tour you explore the Art Deco brewery and enjoy views from its tower’s roof, as well as sampling latest beers.
Enjoy another pint at The Corn Exchange, now a wonderful Wetherspoon pub on Abbeygate Street, with its grand columned exterior and domed glass ceiling.
This was a favourite of GIs based in and around the town, and known for its dances as well — as parties for local children, paid for by US service personnel.
Bury and the surrounding villages and towns in both Suffolk and Norfolk were forever changed by the Friendly Invasion — and there’s never been a better time to explore the story of the brave souls whose war efforts were so immense.
- Masters Of The Air is on Apple TV.
STAYING THERE: Rooms at the Angel Hotel, Bury St Edmunds, are from £117 per night including breakfast.
Rooms at The Swan at Lavenham are from £170 per night, including dinner and breakfast.
OUT & ABOUT: Guided tours of Bury St Edmunds are from £12.
See burystedmundstourguides.org. Tours of Greene King Brewery from £20.
Rougham Control Tower Aviation Museum is open Sundays from April to October.
MORE INFO: See burystedmundsandbeyond.co.uk.tr.