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  • Writer's pictureHattie Hearn

‘A home away from home’: The Red Cross Aeroclub

One of the surviving murals at the former Aeroclub at Flixton

At first glance there doesn’t appear to be anything remarkable about the damp, oil-stained workshop which, for the last half century, has been the domain of the old farmer who works this rural, lonely corner of East Anglia. But it’s only as the visitor’s eyes adjust to the gloom that they realise that all is not quite as it seems. On one wall, partly concealed by a rusting fuse box, is the brazen figure of a woman riding a rearing circus elephant. A bare-breasted lady reclines next to her, a python coiled around her torso. These faded images are not glamour models framed in yellowing calendars, but life-size murals, painted on the walls of this unassuming building. A hand-painted map of the United States fills the wall in a neighbouring room, alluding to the origins of the murals’ creators. Barely legible over the peeling yellow paint are pencil-written place names - the hometowns of the men who were based here eighty years ago.

On a neighbouring wall lies another clue to the building’s former occupants. A cartoon vulture, the insignia of 704th Squadron, sits alongside a rearing Pegasus, the badge of the 706th Bomb Squadron. Both units were part of the 446th Bomb Group, based in Flixton, Suffolk, between 1942 and 1945. This building, tucked behind a poultry processing factory in the Suffolk Saints, was once home to the base’s American Red Cross (ARC) Aeroclub.

The ARC in Britain

The Flixton aeroclub was one of dozens of similar institutions operated by the Red Cross at airfields across England. Indeed, the work of the Red Cross encroached on all aspects of 8th Air Force operations, from the ‘clubmobiles’ that brought coffee and doughnuts to ground crew on the flight line, to the rest homes offering exhausted aircrew a week’s respite. In London, the ARC-operated Rainbow Corner recreated the corner drug store for men on leave in the capital, while red-stencilled care packages extended a small taste of home to Prisoners of War on the continent.

While the Red Cross’s mission to care for the wellbeing of US service personnel manifested itself in various outlets, it was at the stations’ aeroclubs that the ARC arguably did its most important work. The first Red Cross aeroclub opened in February 1943, at a time when USAAF airfields were rapidly springing up across the East Anglian landscape to house the bomber and fighter groups of the 8th and 9th Air Forces. The club was intended to be ‘neutral ground’; advertised as a place to ‘relax and enjoy yourself in your own way after a tough day’.[1] Although clubs were officially open from about 3pm until midnight, it was commonly accepted that ARC staff would welcome service personnel at any time of the day.

For Hiram Drache, a navigator with the 457th Bomb Group, aeroclubs ‘were a home away from home’.[2] Offering snacks, reading rooms, tea dances, button sewing services and an attentive ear, the ARC club served as a beacon of domesticity within the drab militaristic surroundings of the air base.

The Building

At Flixton, the aeroclub – referred to as the ‘Institute’ on RAF plans – was situated on Communal Site Four, adjacent to the Dining Room, Officers Mess and Sergeants Mess. Located within a short walk of all six living sites, the club was the closest thing to the heart of the base as the airfield’s dispersed layout allowed. The club was of a half brick construction, comprising four buildings positioned around an enclosed courtyard. Aeroclubs were also commonly housed in nissen huts, constructed from half-cylindrical skins of corrugated steel. This was the case at Wendling, where nissen huts accommodated a large snack bar with room for dancing; a games room furnished with card tables; a room with two table tennis tables; a library stocking American magazines and hometown newspapers, and a lounge with a brick fireplace.[3]

The layout of the club was intended to suit the specific needs of the group; improvements were frequent and driven largely by the men’s own suggestions. In January 1945, the 44th Bomb Group aeroclub committee voted to rearrange the club at Shipdham. The lounge was moved to the smaller, but much warmer, games room, while the snooker and ping pong tables were transferred to the former lounge. As well as giving the club ‘an aura of newness’, the ARC director hoped that the changes would ‘break the monotony of sameness that hangs over everything for the GIs, after two years in the same place’.[4]

A member of the 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Group steps out of the aeroclub at Mount Farm (American Air Museum)

Limited funds and wartime shortages meant that aeroclub staff relied on the time and ingenuity of their patrons for physical improvements to the buildings. One notable example was the production of wall art by base personnel. The prevalence of muralism at wartime bases can partly be attributed to the emergence of ‘Soldier Art’ schemes at US army training camps; experimental art departments that drew artistic talent from within the ranks to produce murals, interior design schemes, and to visually document army life. The programmes extolled to base commanders the virtues of art as a way to ‘improve the morale, happiness and bravery of the soldier’.[5] Not only would art improve the aesthetic of drab military buildings, but men would be able to stamp their individual and collective identities onto the walls of their bases.

At Deopham Green, group historian Jerome Kegel noted how ‘life around the base now was beginning to be a bit more liveable and to some degree, like home. The Aero Club Lounge had been decorated by Corporal Ferris C. Parsons, deep sea murals to add a restful atmosphere... Corporal Gerald E. Brown has painted Robin Hood scenes on the wall... All these things served to make life a bit more interesting and add to the joy of being in Merry Old England’.[6] The Robin Hood in question – a colourful depiction bearing a striking resemblance to Errol Flynn – conveyed a Hollywood version of English mythology to the room’s occupants.

Robin Hood mural at Deopham Green (Source: Martin Bowman)

While many of the murals were designed and painted by servicemen, the Red Cross staff and volunteers also contributed to the aesthetic transformation of their clubs. Marian Hall was one of New York's best known interior designers when she volunteered to join the ARC in 1942. She spent the war years designing and painting Aero Clubs across Britain and France. In fact, she personally decorated 73 of the 160 Red Cross clubs operating in England by D-Day, and supervised the decoration of the remaining 87. Her aim was to make 'a Nissen hut look like a camp in the Adirondacks or a ranch house in the desert'. To achieve this transformation, Marian begged material for curtains and used bright paints to create a 'gay and cheerful' atmosphere.

Combined with comical airfield scenes, whimsical images of American landscapes, and the familiar sight of Disney characters and Varga girls, the walls of the aeroclubs became a gallery for an emerging base culture that took its inspiration from both sides of the Atlantic.

The idiosyncrasies of the aeroclub’s location were also reflected in the choice of furnishings. At Wendling, the Ordnance Department donated bomb fins to be made into floor-stand ash trays, while discarded bomb crates were often repurposed for tables and chairs.

At Shipdham, improvements were justified by the desire to make the club ‘the show piece of the base’.[7] However, the frequent refurbishments had another motive: morale. Hanging curtains, building furniture and painting walls amounted to acts of home-making that fostered a sense of domesticity within the space of the aeroclub. While reminders of the war may have seeped into the fabric of the club, efforts were made to provide an escape from the fear, anxiety, and humdrum of army life. A posed photograph of the aeroclub lounge at Thorpe Abbotts shows personnel relaxing around a roaring hearth. Floral arrangements decorate the mantle and books fill the polished sideboard. The 8th Air Force insignia above the fireplace serves as the only reminder of the scene’s location.

Men on the 100th BG relax with ARC staff (Sorce: 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum)

‘Doughnut Dollies’

The men in the photograph are joined by two Red Cross women: one perches on the arm of a chair whilst the other waits for a chess partner. Like the overstuffed chairs and floral drapes, the presence of attentive female staff at the aeroclub played an important part in the domestic ensemble. As well as running the club, ARC workers (often nicknamed ‘Doughnut Dollies’) brought a taste of home to the men they served; a social role that the women knowingly signed up for. As one Red Cross recruit, Ruth Register, defined it: ‘Our job is to bring a little touch of America to the boys away from home’. This role was alluded to during Ruth’s Red Cross interview, when the recruiter asked how many states she’d visited. Answering that she’d been to all of them - bar Maine - she was immediately sent for her physical.[8] For the Red Cross, the ability to hold a knowledgeable conversation with a GI about his home state outweighed the academic qualifications that many of the Red Cross applicants boasted.

Conversation, whilst important, was far from the sole responsibility of the Red Cross staff. Overseen by the Club Director – responsible for the overall running of the club - and the Program Director – in charge of the club’s schedule of activities - were the assistants, whose job description ranged from compering parties to repairing uniforms.

Training took place in the States and consisted of a two-week induction period, followed by a longer assignment at a US base. Once qualified, recruits could be sent to any theatre of the war. For those destined for England, a decision on exactly where they’d serve was not made until they’d arrived on British soil. While the Red Cross denied it at the time, the organisation operated a policy of segregation, and African American Red Cross staff were sent to black-only clubs, of which there were 23 in England by February 1944.[9] The contingent of American staff was supplemented by British workers, including kitchen staff, bookkeepers, cleaners, and drivers. In a letter home, Kay Brainard, an ARC assistant at Sudbury, admitted that it is the ‘English hired help who do all the real work’.[10]

Services and Activities

While many of the everyday tasks fell at the feet of the British assistants, it was the American staff members who were sent up to the ‘front line’ on mission days. Armed with a tray of doughnuts and an urn of fresh coffee, staff would await the arrival of exhausted crews in the interrogation room.

For those returning from long, arduous missions, the refreshments were well received. The Red Cross donut, or ‘sinker’ as they were affectionately known, were much preferred to their army mess equivalent. Cooked from a special mix shipped straight from the US, they were a taste of home when the men needed it most.[11]

However, even the humble doughnut courted controversy during the war, when the ARC began charging 15 cents for them. While the charge was a token fee, aimed at appeasing other allied servicemen who paid for their Red Cross services, the principle was nevertheless resented by many.

An American Red Cross Clubmobile

For most aircrew, however, the Red Cross delivered more than simply comfort food. Whether it was seeing a friendly face after a tough mission or sharing their worries over a cup of tea in the lounge, the aeroclub took G.I.s away from the realities of war. As Jacob T. Elias (44th BG) remembered, ‘we fled to the Red Cross building when we could, basking in the warmth of that fireplace.’[12]

About three times a week, the restful ambience of the club’s lounge would be disrupted by planned entertainment. The monthly activity programs varied from base to base and were intended to reflect the tastes and interests of the men. In November 1943, Thorpe Abbotts ARC put on a Thanksgiving concert, a discussion of world affairs, and a bingo evening. In February 1945, Shipdham aeroclub hosted - among other events - three tea dances, four lectures, and one portrait sketching session. But for some base personnel, the club’s entertainment was missing one vital element: alcohol. The draw of local pubs, bars, and liberty runs to the nearest town tempted many young men away from the ‘dry’ Red Cross clubs. For Anglophiles like John T. Appleby, spending time in England was an opportunity to socialise with local people away from the sanitised offerings of ‘Little America’.[13]

A Halloween party in full swing at Flixton Aero Club (Source: Richard Torney)

But even the harshest critic of the Red Cross could find himself welcoming the hospitality of the aeroclub when hunger, or homesickness, struck. Hilda Kinder, the Club Director at Thorpe Abbotts, was thanked by one veteran at a reunion forty-four years after the war. The man had rarely visited the aeroclub, but after a hard day on the flight line, and weighed down with homesickness, he found his spirits buoyed by Hilda and her team, ‘You and another Red Cross girl were laughing…It just picked me up. I thought, ‘If these two American girls can stand it here, then I can, too’.[14]

It was through the dedicated service of the aeroclub staff – American and British - that the ARC was able to become more than just a late-night dispensary of doughnuts. Erna Torney, who ran the Aero Club at Flixton, hoped that ARC staff would be remembered alongside the WACs and WAVEs for their important and often dangerous work. ‘It was our mission to cheer things up’, argued Erna, ‘Our clubs were very important and helped them through a very tough time.’

The aeroclubs were a place to read hometown news in front of a roaring fire, somewhere to enjoy a ‘bull’ session with friends, and a refuge from the war. For many 8th Air Force personnel, the Red Cross club may not have been home, but it was the next best thing.

[1] London ARC Light (newsletter), n.d. [2] D. Lande, From Somewhere in England, (Airlife Publishing, 1991), 129 [3] ‘The American Red Cross Club at Wendling’, [4] ‘ARC Report - 3 February 1945’, Reel B0137, Maxwell Air Force Base [5] Robert E. M. Goolrick, Art and the Soldier (Special Service, 1943), 2 [6] Jerome Kagel, 452nd Bombardment Group: Pictorial History (1945) [7] ‘ARC Report - 3 February 1945’, Reel B0137, Maxwell Air Force Base [8] Woods, Register, Christianson, My War: From Bismarck to Britain and Back (Trafford Publishing, 2005), 46 [9] ARC Club Open Circular 164, Sixth Issue, Feb 1944 [10] Kevin Wilson, Blood and Fears (Weidenfield & Nicolson, 2016), 377 [11] James H. Madison, Slinging Doughnuts for the Boys: An American Woman in World War II (Indiana University Press, 2008), 45 [12] Jacob T. Elias, 44th BG, ‘Bedtime Ramblings’, Second Air Division Association Newsletter, June 1978, Vol. 16 no. 2 [13] John T. Appleby, Suffolk Summer, (East Anglian Magazine, 1948), 14 [14] Lande, From Somewhere in England, (1991), 130

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Jan 12, 2023

This is really outstanding scholarship

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