Note: This Nissen Hut is representative of those used during World War II. It is located in the museum's Air Park and depicts a briefing room and a recreation area. The building is open from noon to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday from January through March (closed Monday through Thursday) and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily April through December.
American Air Forces in England
American airpower based in England in World War II involved the 8th Air Force, providing strategic airpower with bombers and fighters, and the 9th Air Force, performing tactical ground-attack and support missions. Both organizations had many bases, and thousands of American airmen lived and worked in more or less temporary structures like the "Nissen huts" on display at the museum. These particular huts were used at Debden, near London in southeastern England.
Debden has a long association with American airmen, who flew with Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) from the base in 1941 during the Battle of Britain, before the United States entered the war. The RAF's American "Eagle Squadrons" joined the U.S. 8th Air Force in 1942 as Debden, known as "The Eagles' Nest," became the 4th Fighter Group's base.
After WWII, Debden reverted to the RAF. These huts were donated to the U.S. Air Force Museum in 1975 when the base was closed.
A Modest Dwelling
This building is called a "Nissen hut," named after Canadian engineer Lt. Col. Peter N. Nissen, who designed them in World War I. Despite being muddy, leaky and cold, they were cheap, quickly built and versatile. These simple brick and tin structures made functional homes, recreation spots and offices for thousands of soldiers and airmen in WWII. Nissen huts had concrete floors and usually a small, inefficient coke stove for warmth. Huts were either connected like the two at the museum, set up end-to-end or built singly.
Debden had a few Nissen huts, but living quarters there were comfortable brick buildings because the base was permanent. Debden's brick buildings contrasted sharply with temporary bases made mostly of huts. One veteran described Debden as an "oasis of luxury and comfort." At its most active, Debden housed about 1,700 Americans.
The Weather Factor
Weather played a large role in Allied fighter and bomber operations during WWII. At bases like Debden, a weather officer briefed flyers on local and target-area conditions. Each base's detachment of 11 weathermen observed and forecasted the weather around the clock. Every hour, they recorded cloud conditions, wind speed and direction, air pressure, temperature, dew point and barometer readings. Relaying information to a regional office via teletype allowed higher authority to issue big-picture weather forecasts.
English, and especially northern European weather, tends to be cloudy, and many airmen recalled long periods of weather too poor to fly in, obscured targets and cold, damp airfields.
Shelters like the one on display housed a psychrometer for measuring humidity, plus thermometers. The shelters sat outside near the control tower weather office. Weathermen recorded wind velocity and direction with fixed instruments and by observing and timing the flight of small hydrogen balloons.
The Eagles' Nest
The base at Debden opened as a RAF station in 1937. In 1941 during the Battle of Britain, American pilots flew with RAF units from Debden. Early in 1942 the RAF's so-called "Eagle Squadrons," based nearby and composed of American pilots, joined the Debden wing. In late 1942 the Eagle Squadrons came under U.S. command and became the 4th Fighter Group. Thereafter, Debden was known as the Eagles' Nest.
The Lighter Side
To add a humorous touch to their otherwise dreary bases, airmen often decorated with cartoons and pin-ups of movie stars. The section of brick wall on display was taken from the mess hall at the 8th Air Force base at Mildenhall, England.
A New Generation of Weapons
The Fieseler Fi 103, better known as the V-1 Buzz Bomb, was a Nazi terror weapon meant to inspire fear in civilian populations and draw military resources away from the battlefront in order to defend against it. While not especially accurate, the V-1 was advanced for its time and caused the Allies a great deal of concern.
Defenses against the V-1 included destroying its bases and manufacturing facilities, shooting them down with antiaircraft guns, placing balloon cables in their path, and intercepting them with fighters. Some aircraft simply tipped the V-1s over with their wingtips to upset the missile's gyroscopes, causing them to crash. V-1s were aimed mostly at London and Antwerp, Belgium.
An Escort Fighter Pilot's Day
An escort pilot's typical day began about 4 a.m. with a quick wash and shave, dressing and breakfast of powdered eggs, toast, coffee and juice. Flyers then gathered for a briefing on the day's mission -- assigned rendezvous with the bombers, expected enemy defenses, weather and so on. Finally, they set their watches together.
Pilots rode to their dispersed aircraft in trucks or jeeps. On the back of his hand, a pilot might have written his engine start time and the identification letters of the plane he was to follow on take-off. Soon the group, typically 48 fighters, was airborne and formed up, heading for a rendezvous with other fighter groups and huge bomber formations before crossing into enemy territory.
Fighters escorted the bombers as far as possible to and from the target (this was easier with the introduction of extra fuel tanks and long-range fighters like the P-51 Mustang). Primarily, they stuck close to the bombers to protect them, but they also aggressively engaged German fighters and ground targets such as freight and troop trains.
Returning to base, fighter pilots went directly from their aircraft to an intelligence debriefing. After snacks and perhaps a drink of whiskey to help them relax, they broke into groups of four to tell an intelligence officer how many enemy aircraft they had seen, with details of time, place, altitude and direction. They recounted the facts of aerial combat and gave details of the weather and what they had seen on the ground -- truck convoys, ships, troops or any other important observation.
Pilots who claimed aircraft shot down or damaged dictated a statement to a typist and then signed it. If they witnessed another's kill, they gave supporting statements. After debriefing, they might check the next day's flying roster and watch yesterday's gun-camera film. A brief rest usually followed, then dinner at the mess hall, and the day typically ended with a stop at the officers' club before bed.
American Strategic and Tactical Air Forces in England
In WWII, the Allies used strategic and tactical airpower to help defeat the Axis powers in Europe. Strategic airpower employed bombers with escort fighters to hit Nazi industrial and urban targets far behind the front lines, slowing war production and lowering morale. Tactical airpower supported soldiers on the ground by attacking the enemy's front lines. Tactical units moved their planes and bases forward with Allied armies as they liberated France and invaded Germany.
The 8th Air Force provided strategic airpower, while the 9th Air Force performed the tactical mission. Both of these huge organizations had many bases in England, and thousands of American airmen lived and worked in more or less temporary structures like the Nissen huts at the museum.
The 8th and 9th Air Forces' fighter groups contributed greatly to the victory of Allied air and ground forces in Europe. Overall, the 8th Air Force destroyed 9,438 enemy aircraft and lost 3,000 fighters. 9th Air Force fighters claimed 4,186 aircraft destroyed, in addition to countless ground targets, and lost 2,139 fighters.
Fighter Organization and Missions
A typical fighter group used 48 aircraft in three squadrons of 16 fighters each. Squadrons, in turn, were divided into four flights of four. Two aircraft -- a leader and wingman -- formed an element, the most basic fighting unit. On most escort missions, a few spare fighters followed the group to replace anyone who had to turn back before crossing into hostile territory. If no one aborted, the spares turned back.
Fighter formations and tactics changed according to mission needs, but general principles always applied: A formation had to be organized, controllable, and effective. On escort missions, fighter groups arranged themselves above, in front of and to each side of their bombers, with still more fighters some miles out in the direction of the sun to forestall attacks from out of the sun's glare. On large missions with hundreds of bombers, several fighter groups worked together to protect bomber formations. Fighters tried to stay with their bombers to fend off the Luftwaffe, but as the balance of power swung to the Allies, they were able to chase enemy fighters and attack ground targets.
Ground attack missions were especially dangerous because of ground fire. The most lethal target for a fighter was usually an airfield because they were well-protected by many "flak" guns. Flying as low as possible, tactical fighter pilots tried to destroy planes and vehicles on the ground and then escape. They were at their most vulnerable pulling up to gain altitude after an attack, and many planes and pilots were lost on these missions.
The Right Tools for the Job
Fighter units of the 8th and 9th Air Forces flew a variety of aircraft. Their most well-known aircraft, the P-51 Mustang and the P-47 Thunderbolt, were both used in bomber escort and ground attack roles, but their individual qualities made them especially well-suited to particular jobs.
For bomber escort, the best fighter the Allies developed was the North American P-51 Mustang. This agile plane featured an extremely long range -- enough to reach Berlin from England and return, with extra fuel tanks -- and it was more than a match in speed and maneuverability for Axis fighters. On the other hand, its complex liquid-cooled engine made it vulnerable to enemy guns. Any damage to the cooling system in combat usually spelled the end of the airplane within a few minutes.
The mainstay of ground attack fighters was the hulking, durable Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. The largest single-engine American fighter of the war, the Thunderbolt could absorb much damage and still bring its pilot home. Its air-cooled radial engine made it less vulnerable than the P-51, but it was also less agile. The P-47 could carry a large load of bombs and rockets, plus a devastating package of eight .50-cal. machine guns.
Supporting the Mission
Combat pilots made up only a small minority of the servicemen stationed at airbases like Debden. It took a team of more than a thousand people to put 48 single-seat fighters in the air consistently. Many jobs contributed to the mission and made the Debden base essentially a small town of its own. Maintenance, engineering, weather, firefighting, administration, food service, police, quartermasters, ordnance, medical, photographic, intelligence and many other functions made the base work.
On the flightline, each fighter had a three-man ground crew consisting of a crew chief, his assistant, and an armorer. This team made sure aircraft were ready to fly each mission, and they were backed up by hangar crews, propeller and engine mechanics, painters, carpenters, electricians and heavy maintenance teams. To keep aircraft constantly ready, hangar crews commonly worked 24 hours a day, rotating in 12-hour shifts.
Other vital functions around the base focused on keeping airmen paid, fed, housed, safe, healthy, organized and entertained. Each of these jobs was vital to the ultimate goal of defeating the Hitler's Luftwaffe in the air and winning the war.
The Belly Tank Bar Part of the Nissen Hut display includes the original "Belly Tank" enlisted men's bar from the Debden airbase during WWII. Typical furnishings included modest furniture, games and magazines, and decorations celebrating the squadron or group. The fuel tank above the bar gives the "Belly Tank" its name. A radio, phonograph or live music was common, and windows were blacked out at night.
Spending a "48"
American airmen in England had free time between missions to recover from the stress of combat. Parties, dates, and sightseeing were popular. London, 45 miles away from Debden, was the favorite destination for men of the 4th Fighter Group based there. With a 48-hour pass, or "48," they could take a train to the city and enjoy films, clubs and dances. Many of the 4th's pilots stayed at the Regent Palace Hotel and frequented clubs like the Red Cross' alcohol-free Eagle Club or the Crackers Club, where spirits flowed.
Debden itself also had memorable leisure moments. Military and civilian men and women came from miles around to join Debden airmen for popular monthly payday dances. The base had its own popular dance orchestra, the Flying Eagles, who performed at many bases, clubs and even on the radio. Occasionally, dignitaries visited Debden to see American fighter life firsthand, and entertainers like Bob Hope performed for the troops.