Deep in the Essex countryside, a patch of unremarkable looking farmland can have a strange effect on visitors, particularly American ones. Richard Turner recalls one visitor, in particular. “I was about to take his photo when he said, ‘Hang on just now’.

“Then he stood there, drinking it all in. ‘I’m at the end of the runway where the 56th took off,’ he said.”

Richard recalls that moment vividly, because the US guest was a fellow spirit. Richard, too, has been possessed by the spirit of the 56th. As a result he has given a large chunk of his life to that field, the place that was once Boxted Airfield.

The 56th it remains the most celebrated US flying outfit of the Second World War. “Everyone in America knew about their exploits,” says Richard. Dubbed the Wolfpack, they boasted eight out of ten of the top US air aces of the war, and shot down 701 enemy aircraft, more than any other American fighter unit in the war.

The 56th is an American legend, with its undercarriage firmly planted this side of the pond, in the soil of Essex.

The 56th belched fire and lead across the skies of Germany, before returning to their pleasant rural base, Boxted Airfield, and its welcoming pub, the Shepherd and Dog.

Boxted Airfield was actually in the village of Langham, but given its name in order to avoid confusion with another Langham airfield, in Norfolk. The men of the 56th, and of other units which served here, returned home to the States after the war. But they would remember Boxted, and return here, for the rest of their lives.

A new DVD, The Story of Boxted Airfield, traces the history of this patch of Essex. It starts on the day in 1941 when bulldozers first moved onto the site, previously devoted to apple orchards. It ends with the recent opening of the airfield museum, three quarters of a century later, by one of the last surviving US veterans.

What was the secret of the 56th, of the awesome flying skills which set it apart from other fighter groups? Survivors pin the credit firmly on its commander, Robert Zemki. A former boxing champion, he advised his men to “use your wits, size up the opposition, keep hitting him where it hurts, and always keep the initiative”. After every combat mission flown out of Boxted, he would sit in the corner of the briefing room with a notebook, sizing up the day’s experience, and honing tactics. The fighting methods he evolved lay behind the Wolfpack’s success, and were soon adopted by other units, and by the RAF.

The 56th was the first group to be equipped with P-47 Thunderbolts. The aircraft had its problems, but Zemke, with his “climb, dive and recover” tactics, made good use of the aircraft’s ability to fly at high altitudes.

They would ascend to around 30,000 feet, then dive, giving them unbeatable speed and momentum.

The Thunderbolts spread mayhem from above before any enemy pilot knewwhat had hit him.

Boxted has other claims to fame. Before the arrival of the 56th, it was home to the 354th Fighter Group, equipped with Mustangs. On January 11, 1944, one of their pilots, Jim Howard, was escorting a group of bombers, when he observed a clutch of enemy fighters approaching. Tackling the enemy alone, he shot down six aircraft and damaged a number of others. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour, the only pilot in the European sector to receive this top award throughout the entire war.

The DVD also features the memories of a cohort of quite different veterans – the local people who were children during the war. For the boys, the American airbase was a source of huge excitement. The girls were less certain at first. “The Americans had a bit of a reputation. You had to be on your guard, as they say,” one elderly lady witness recalls. And one local man, a gardener, took it personally when a dummy bomb dropped through his greenhouse.

But many friendships were eventually formed. The airmen drank alongside the locals at the Shepherd and Dog, and were invited to English-style afternoon tea.

Join the ramblers for a walk in the RSPB Reserve, on West Canvey Marsh on Wednesday.

The walk incorporates a stroll along the creeks, seawall, fields and paths.

It’s an easy flat walk across the reserve following the seawall passing Coryton.

Echo: Not forgotten – Boxted Airfield

Bring your binoculars. For further information about this, or to join any other weekly walks call 01702 206424 or e-mail One local man recalls an airman who came to his mother’s home every day to write a letter to his wife. “It gave him some privacy, which he couldn’t get alongside all the other men at the base.” As a special mark of the Anglo- American alliance, the airman was allowed into the front room, reserved for special occasions.

Boxted Airfield had a good war, but its post-war experience was less stirring. Transferred to the RAF, it briefly served as a holding base. It was home to a successful cropspraying operation, run by former wing-commander and war hero Percy Hatfield, who played a key role in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. After he was killed in a crash at Waltham Abbey, active flying faded from Boxted.

The runway was removed to provide hardcore for the A12.

After that, and unlike other airfields, built for the needs of war – StowMaries, preserved as a heritage sight, or Stansted, now London’s third airport – Boxted reverted to its original role as orchard land. Only the perimeter outline, marked by hedges, remained to indicate that Boxted Airfield ever existed.

Then, early in this century, Richard Turner, who was already a keen student of the Second World War, discovered the old airfield site on his doorstep. “It just caught hold of me,” says Richard. “It has taken over my life. I didn’t find the airfield, it found me.”

The last part of the DVD is devoted to the creation of a museum, housed in a Nissan hut in a brambly corner of the old airfield site. The museum display tells the story of the men who flew from Boxted. It also contains many relics, from an air-raid siren to a propeller found in a hedge.

Perhaps the most moving exhibit, however, is a battered suitcase, full of minor personal possessions.

They belonged to a pilot, Bob Silva.

After he was killed on active service, the case was sent home to his mother. “It stayed on top of a cupboard until after she died, and was discovered by Bob’s nephew,”

says Richard. The case is now back where it started, at Boxted.

Bob’s address book was one of the items in the suitcase. “We found the name of a local girl, Eileen Kearton, in it,” says Richard. “We tracked her down, still living locally, and still with memories of dancing with Bob.”

The units which flew out of Boxted had an outstandingly successful strike record. Yet, as that suitcase reminds visitors, there was still a toll. The DVD is dedicated to the 98 men who lost their lives while serving at Boxted. “It is for them that we are working to keep the memory alive,” says Richard.

One name that will always be linked with the local area is that of air ace Charles Gumm, killed on a mission while testing an aircraft.

When his engine cut out, he managed to manoeuvre the plane clear of the centre of the village of Nayland, before crashing in a field.

The Yanks may long ago have flown home, but the gratitude lives on. Almost uniquely, the name of this American officer is recorded on the Nayland war memorial, alongside of local war heroes.

ýý The Story of Boxted Airfield DVD costs £9.95. It is available at the Boxted Airfield Museum. For full details, see the website.