To celebrate the release of Apple TV+'s Masters of the Air, here we explore the history that can be found within our Airmen's Bar, named after servicemen of the 'Mighty Eighth' Air Force and in particular the 487 Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Force, stationed in Lavenham between 1944 and 1945.

Our little part of history

We're proud to be a hotel with plentiful amounts of history which dons it's beams, but this particular page is to commemorate some of the specific history of our Airmen's Bar and the role it played in World War II and The 'Friendly Invasion'.

The 'Friendly Invasion' is the term which describes the arrival of servicemen from the United States to East Anglia.

The Army Air Forces Station 137, which was located near Lavenham was the base for the 487 Bombardment Group. During this time, many of those with a home in Lavenham provided their spare room for a serviceman to stay during their time here.

For many servicemen, what is known as the Airmen's Bar was there place of choice to frequent in their downtime. 

It is said that with each mission, airmen had a one in 55 per cent chance in returning from a mission. So when visiting the Airmen's Bar they would have a few drinks, rip off their badges and place them on one of our beams. A number of badges now decorate this particular beam and actually became the backdrop of the champion of our boot challenge - more on that to follow.

Since then, the badges in the background of the image above have been donated to continue the history that has been collated in the bar.

The Boot Challenge

 Visitors to the bar would take on the infamous boot challenge. The challenge was to drink the three and a half pint glass boot of ale in the quickest time and write their attempt on the walls of the bar.

The best boot time on record was 22 seconds by Mick Wilson in 1940. There is an image in the bar which depicts this moment so you can stand in the same place where history was made.

Although we now have a 3.5 pint replica which you can witness in the Bar, a very special smaller replica was also sent to The Swan from the US, as a Christmas gift from Ann and Vic van Leeuwen and also has it's home in the Airmen's Bar. Ann’s parents both signed the Airmen’s Bar wall.  Ann’s father was Sgt. O.S. Conerly and her mother was Doris ‘Dot’ Elwell, from Ellesmere Port.

Signature Walls

Next to the boot record, you will find a register of signatures on the bar's walls. There are dedicated columns for the Army (from 1940 - 1945), the US Eighth Air Force, the wider United States Air Force and the Royal Air Force. 

The signatures then continue on the adjacent walls where family members of those who served joined in this tradition to note their visit to commemorate their loved one. 

There is also a strip of signatures to the far left of the bar from servicemen who returned in the 1980s. 

The Bells of the Bar

The local Hand-bell Society held their practice sessions at The Swan for many years and would play for guests at social events and on Christmas Eve each year. When the group decided to hang up their bells for the last time, the bells were kindly donated to The Swan. The Hand-bell ringers gained some keen new recruits during the war and became a popular feature.

Commemorating Famous Commanders

Amongst many pictures on the walls of the Airmen’s Bar lies a picture and biography of both Lt. Col. Beirne Lay Jnr and Brigadier General Frederick Walker Castle.

When the Eighth US Army Air Force was activated, at the time, Captain Lay and Captain Castle were part of the original cadre of six officers sent to England in 1942 to embed the unit within East Anglia for combat. This was the start of Operation Bolero - the 'Friendly Invasion'.

Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Lay was assigned to the 100th Bomb Group in August 1943 based at Thorpe Abbotts where he flew on the infamous Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission. 

Lay returned to the United States in September 1943 to take command of his own group, the 487th Bombardment Group and they arrived at Lavenham Airfield on 11th April 1944. The following month Col.Lay flew on a mission to bomb the Chaumont marshalling yards in France. He was shot down and evaded capture for three months before being liberated by Gen. Patton's advancing army, and after returning briefly to Lavenham, went back to the United States. 

His exploits were with the 487th Bombardment Group were documented in his book 'I've Had It' later published as 'Presumed Dead'. Retiring from the Air Force in 1946, Lay returned to Hollywood where he was to co-write the novel and screenplay 'Twelve O'Clock High'. In 1949, the Academy Award winning film was released starring Hollywood great, Gregory Peck. 

His portrait in the Airmen's Bar was unveiled by his niece, Libby Lay-Wilder to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the activation of the Eighth United States Air Force.

Frederick Castle was Commander of the Fourth Combat Wing of the Eighth US Army Air Force and a veteran of 29 missions. On Christmas Eve 1944, learning that the 487th Bomb Group were to lead the Eighth USAAF's largest mission of the war, he flew with a B-17 crew from RAF Lavenham. The aircraft was shot down and five of the crew of ten lived to tell the tale but General Castle did not. His actions that day, led to him being posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest ranking member of the Eighth USAAF to receive the medal.

487th Commemorative Beer from St Peter's Brewery

In 2017, to mark 75 years since the 'friendly invasion' of Lavenham by US airmen during World War II, The Swan commissioned The 487th Commemorative Beer, which can still be enjoyed today in our Airmen's Bar. 

Made by traditional Suffolk brewer, St Peter's Brewery, the beer was named after the 487 Bombardment Group of the 8th US Air Force who were stationed in Lavenham, many of whom frequented the hotel's bar on a regular basis.

Known for being a blonde or golden ale, the beer is exclusively sold in the Airmen's Bar

Masters of the Air

Masters of the Air, which is based on Donald L Miller's book of the same name, has been made into a series by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman - the producers who also created Band of Brothers and The Pacific and is available to on Apple TV+.