The Frozen Fens of East Anglia

Here is another story from the Cold War. RAF Alconbury is on the western edge of The Fenland, halfway between Cambridge and Peterborough. For four years I lived at RAF Mildenhall, about forty miles away, on the eastern edge of the fens.,_Pointon,_Lincolnshire,_England..jpg

A fenland drain (Rodney Burton)

The Fenland is a supremely flat expanse of brackish tidal swamp (mostly drained since the Middle Ages). Mildenhall is almost fifty miles south of the estuary of The Wash, and sixty miles from the North Sea in any direction, at an elevation of only 33ft. In winter there was rarely any snow, but the fenland fog would roll in, aided and abetted by the evil greenish-yellow smoke* from the coal-fired fireplaces that everyone used. This fog would reduce visibility to near zero and freeze to the roads, and runways, and taxiways, as black ice, which, in turn, would stick around long after the fog had lifted. Every winter, someone from the base would slide off the road and into a farmer’s field. If they were unlucky, the field would be bordered by a drain, one of the deep drainage ditches that kept the field from returning to swampland.

The U-2 was an amazing plane, essentially a powered glider.** It was so lightly constructed that it was possible for a pilot handling error to cause the engine to fail, or the tail to break off. Another way they saved weight was by using detachable wheels to hold the wings up. These pogo wheels were stuck into holes in the outer wing, and when the plane took off, they fell off. When the plane returned, they had to be stuck back on, and that’s what the airman in the back of the pickup truck was doing.

*It was this coal-smoke that was responsible for the thick London pea soup fogs, so beloved of Sherlock Holmes fans. It was also responsible for the white marble buildings turning black, and for the rotting of the statuary. When London switched to North Sea gas, the fogs went away, and the buildings stayed clean.

**One pilot flamed out over El Paso, Texas, and dead-sticked his U-2 back to a landing at his base in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

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