There can be no doubt that September 1936 saw the beginning of a great new era for Watton, for it was during this month that a start was made on the construction of the R.A.F. Station. The preliminary work of purchasing the site, which took in part of the villages of Carbrooke and Griston, as well as Watton, had been completed and surveying work carried out.
Many agricultural workers who were on a lower wage rate than their industrial counterparts were quick to grasp this opportunity of improving their standard of living. The first manual work was not unlike what some of them had occasionally carried out on the farms, felling trees, removing hedges, piping and filling in ditches. Having cleared the area where the four large hangars were to be built a start was made on excavating the holes that were to take the huge iron stanchions which comprised part of the vast framework of the hangars. Surprisingly, these holes which were about 12 feet by 8 and about 7 feet deep were all dug out by hand labour and thus those workers who left the farms were able to transfer from agricultural to industrial work gradually and although the work was sometimes harder, this was compensated with a bulkier wage packet each week. The next three years saw a dramatic transformation of the site as first the hangars came into being to be followed by the Station H.Q., Guard Room, Hospital, Officers, Sergeants and Airmen's messes, living quarters and a hundred and one other buildings that went into the completion of the station. With large numbers of specialists craftsmen from far afield now living in the town and others being brought in from nearby towns and villages daily, trade in the town started to boom. Gone forever were the days when everyone knew everyone else and if a stranger was spotted he, or she, was almost certainly a holiday-maker. Now it was different, strangers were no longer holiday makers, but "workers on the camp". The building work was sufficiently advanced for the station to be opened on 4th January 1939 under Group Capt. F. J. Vincent. Officers and airmen and their families moved into married quarters and planes began to appear around the hangers and soon the throb of their engines became a familiar sound.
3rd September 1939 was a grave day, not only for Watton, but for the whole country, as at 11 a.m. war was declared. At the outbreak of war two squadrons of Blenheim Bombers, No's 21 and 82 formed No. 79 wing and made photographic reconnaissance of the north German ports and over the North Sea. After Dunkirk the most active part of R.A.F. Watton's history followed with their attacks being directed against targets in France and Belgium, the invasion ports and targets in Germany. Losses of airmen and aircraft were heavy and on two occasions in 1940 No. 82 Squadron lost 11 out of 12 Blenheims dispatched on day-light raids and it was not until mid 1941 that fighter escorts became available for day-light operations. Many heroic acts were performed by the R.A.F. from our local station and it is to be hoped that both present and all future Wattonians will remember those who lost their lives from this station with pride and thanksgiving.
Operations continued throughout 1941 and into 1942 against shipping and airfields and in October 1942 No. 82 Squadron was transferred to the Middle East. Early in 1942 Bomber Command relinquished control of Watton and for sixteen months it was used by No. 17 Advanced Flying Unit, train ing pilots on advanced flying techniques and instrument flying. Among No. 82 Squadron's Com manders were the Earl of Bandon and Sir Charles Elsworthy who was decorated three limes during his stay at Watton with the D.S.O., D.F.C. and A.F.C.
With the massive build up of the American Eighth Air Force it soon became apparent that large ser vicing Units would be needed to cope with the tremendous task of maintaining aircraft at war. It was decided to set up four such units to be known as Strategic Air Depots (S.A.D.) and the 3rd S.A.D. was established at R.A.F. Watton.
The first American airmen arrived at the Station on 23rd July 1943. Their job was to maintain, service, repair and carry out modifications on all the aircraft in the second Air Division. It was the second Air Division who occupied 14 bases in Norfolk, flying B24 Liberators. At the height of opera-lions 6,600 American personnel were at Watton. This was about three times the town’s population at this time.
A large complex was built on the Griston side of the Airfield and work went on night and day to keep the B24's flying. It has been said that the 3rd S.A.D, knew more about the B24's than did the Consolidated Aircraft Co., who manufactured them, and when reading of their exploits, this is quite believable. A telegraph pole was once used to strengthen the fragile fuselage of a Liberator, enabl ing it to be flown from Shipdham to Watton for repairs.