Lotus Hethel Site History
The Early Years
Hethel is a small village in Norfolk, England, near the historic market town of Wymondham, and approximately 10 miles (16 km) south of the city of Norwich and home to Lotus Cars since 1966.
The original purpose of the site when it was converted from agricultural use was as an airfield, constructed in 1942 for use by the USAAF, as a bomb squadron base from which to launch assaults across Europe during the second World War. It was designated as Station 114.
For nearly two years - 1943 to 1945, Hethel served as headquarters for the 2d Combat Bombardment Wing of the 2d Bombardment Division. By 1943 there were over 100,000 US airmen based in Britain, with the largest concentration being in the East of England.
The 320th Bombardment Group arrived from Florida in September 1942 to an only partially completed site. The main purpose of the site was as a transhipment post.
Later the 310th and 389th Bombardment Groups were also posted on the site.
The 389th Bomb Group nicknamed themselves the 'Green Dragons' after the local public house in nearby Wymondham.
A memorial stone in local Hethel churchyard records the 389th Bomb Group's achievements, and losses:
- June 1943 to May 1945
- Total missions 321
- Aircraft missing in action 116
- Personnel missing and killed in action 588
- Other operational losses 37
- Total bomb tonnage 17548
B-24 Liberator bombers were deployed from the site to missions all across Europe. Bombs to support these missions were transported from the factories by train to local Wymondham station, and then loaded onto trucks and taken to Hethel and Tibenham airfield bases. The last combat mission returned to Hethel airbase in April 1945. The old observation tower (pictured above right above) now a listed building, remains on the current site and has been converted to a club house.
Ketteringham Hall Estate, situated just a couple of miles away from Hethel airfield became the headquarters of the 2nd Air Division of the USA's 8th Air Force.
The estate was mentioned in the Domesday Book but the hall itself originated in the late 15th century when it was built by Sir Henry Grey. During these war years the estate housed 300-400 personnel in Nissan huts adjacent to the hall, with the main part of the hall being used as headquarters offices. The then owners, the Boileau family, remained to occupy just a small section of the hall.
With the departure of the American squadrons, the Hethel site was handed over to RAF Fighter Command for a while and became a Personnel Transit Centre, and was later taken over by the RAF Technical Training Command. With the downsizing of the RAF it closed the site in 1948.
During the post war period, when the site was not used for military purposes, it was mainly abandoned apart from short periods where if was used as temporary housing for families and some of the buildings were used for storage by the local council. The site was finally sold by the Air Ministry on 1964.
A few remnants of the military buildings still remain, including the former gynasium which was converted during the later war years into a chapel.
Colin Chapman bought the Hethel site and in 1966 Lotus manufacturing moved into a purpose-built factory unit built on the spot where the former technical site had been.
Some of the old hangars around the site were initially used for ancilliary works. The old runways were developed into a 2.5 mile test track to be used for testing the up-coming production cars and famous formula one cars, driven by some of the world's most famous drivers:
Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, Stirling Moss, Mario Andretti, Graham Hill, Ayrton Senna, Ronnie Peterson, Emerson Fittipaldi, Elio D'Angelis, Johnny Herbert, to name but a few.
Over the coming years the site was expanded to accomodate new models.
Ketteringham Hall & Lotus
Chapman also aquired Ketteringham Hall and the 40 acre estate in 1970.
The hall became Chapman's headquarters with the development of the Formula One cars taking place in the former stable block and outbuildings behind the hall.
The Hethel track was also used as a runway for the JPS plane that Chapman used to travel to and from the Formula One races.
Tragedy struck in 1982 when Colin Chapman died suddenly of a heart attack. Team Lotus struggled on - but never returned to the success it had been under Chapman's tenure and in 1994 the team was disbanded.
Ketteringham hall continued to be used by the Lotus business as a venue for marketing, events and meetings (still owned by the Chapman family), and the stable block was then converted into a factory service centre where Lotus customers could take their prized Lotus cars to be serviced until 2002, when the service centre was moved onto the Hethel site, co-housed with motorsport.
After many years of use the track was refurbished in 2011, and officially re-opened on 21 June 2011 at an historic event ....
In May 2012 the 389th Bomb Group Memorial Museum at Hethel held an Open Day at the chapel commemorating 70 years since the 'friendly invasion ' of American forces in Norfolk.