I have just uploaded my latest schedule calendar and itinerary for Norfolk and Derby, 4th – 7th July 2015. Some changes still being made, so please watch for updates.
From ‘Flying Blind':
“I was shaken awake at 4.30 in the morning of 24th January. It was dark and cold. ‘Weather’s OK,’ said a voice, as I sat up in bed. ‘You’re all off!’ We were told to go across Portugal, down the border of Portugal and Spain. ‘5/10 cloud till halfway and then clear’, the Met. said.
We were all airborne about 6.00 a.m., but shortly after leaving Lands End, our RT packed up. The IFF (Identification Friend or Foe radar signalling) blew up, and the petrol cover flew open, so we returned. The message came through later that all the rest had reached ‘Gib’ safely.
The next day we were feeling rather down. Our kite was ready to go but the Met. said a front was expected the next day so we wouldn’t be going then either. We wandered into the village. Nearly all the locals were closed, it being a Monday, and we had to be satisfied with the remaining two dives. We came back on the liberty. I was not feeling too good, and looked forward to having a hangover in the morning.
4.30 in the morning, dark and cold, and once again I was shaken awake. ‘Weather’s OK,’ said a voice, as I sat up in bed. ‘You’re off!’ I groaned and turned over. ‘Go away! Leave me alone!’ I was shaken again, more roughly this time. ‘Get up, you idiot, you’re off, I tell you! The Met. was wrong: the weather’s going to be OK today.’
Ralph shook his head when we saw me. ‘You look rough!’
‘I’ll be OK,’ I said. I looked gloomily up at the sky. ‘Which is more than I’d like to say for the weather.’
‘It doesn’t look too good, does it?’ said Ralph. ‘Low cloud and continuous rain. Not what I’d call wonderful for flying, but apparently it should get better as we go.’”
On my visit, on a lovely day in June, it was still not too difficult to imagine my father’s Beaufighter, with navigator Ralph Gibbons on board, taking off into that dreadful weather, which must have cut across this cliff-top runway like a knife. Here, I’m pictured with Julia Smith, Flt Lt Wilfred Robert ‘Bob’ Peasley’s daughter, who was stationed here at one stage during the war; it is where he met Julia’s mother. He and Dad were in 46 Squadron together in Idku, where Bob nearly died when flying and shot down with Wing Commander George Reid in the defence of the Island of Cos. Reid died; Bob scrambled out of the plane under water. You can read the full story in Flying Blind.
More photographs and information on airfields visited on my Where They Served Facebook page HERE. Please take a look there, while I play catch-up between airfield tours!
I have learned to expect something special at every single airfield. I have only been disappointed once. RAF Stratford was not one of the disappointments. Local people I had asked in nearby villages had not heard of it; tried to direct me to Long Marston nearby. This happens to the lost airfields; they tend to get subsumed in the memory into other ones which still have a visible identity.
RAF Stratford was not well placed, being across the flight path of the parent station at Wellesbourne; perhaps that is why it was finally let go. Nowadays it is agricultural land, industrial estate and quarry/aggregate; not very promising, it seemed. I had rung around all the businesses on the industrial estate; only one replied, and I spoke to John Witherford at the quarry, who gave me directions, but said there was nothing there these days.
Today, as I turned into the industrial estate,I saw a long line of dark trees crossing the nearby fields. I am learning that sometimes these were planted along the old runways – to make windbreaks to shelter the crops, or to mark out the runways so they should not be forgotten? Both, perhaps. I called at the one door in a long warehouse unit to try and get my bearings and to see if anyone there knew of the airfield. The person who came to door said, ‘Yes, that’s the airfield there, and my father served there during the war’. Hubert ‘Rickie’ – I didn’t get his surname – was ground crew here, and already this open farmland site began to feel personalised.
Further round, I drew up (tentatively) at the quarry/aggregate site and a man came out of a temporary building. It turned out to be John Witherford; he remembered my call and our telephone conversation some months back, and now we were very pleased to meet each other. John’s father was a sniper during the war, and got a mention in dispatches and an award for bravery, though John has yet to discover what he did or where. Like so many, John wishes he had asked his father more questions about it all while he was still alive. I took some photographs of the line of trees marching across the fields now covered in crops. John told me there are bunkers in the nearby woods, apparently, and footpaths going to them, as well as one or two other scattered buildings. An old iron scaffolded tower on the horizon looks as if it could once have belonged to the RAF station. It’s surprising,’ said John Witherford, ‘I don’t think about it much, but when you look for it, there’s still a lot of the airfield around, actually. It’s good to remember it’s here.’ Not much, perhaps, but enough to mark the past on this tell-tale open land where poppies blow in the whistling wind.
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I was privileged to be invited to stay at the Mess at Manston, and I have had a truly delightful stay thanks to the hospitality of Wing Commander Chris Thorpe. This photograph tells its own story: here I have learned to think about the critical importance of understanding fire and the use of fire-fighting equipment and breathing apparatus for the armed forces. Intensive training in this area is carried out here. The recruits who are further along in their training are on the left of the picture, with the dirtier clothing.
It is struck me forcibly while spending time here that I am in danger of looking back almost exclusively to the past combat period of the Second World War, as I remember my father; but I should not for a minute lose sight of the fact that soldiers, air crew and sailors have almost continually been laying their lives on the line – and laying them down in too many cases – in the service of our peace in all the 70 decades since then. They are doing that today, as I sit here writing this. The Second World War just happened to be the bit of it in which my father served. So, to all of you serving in our armed forces today, I salute you for what you are doing.
An exciting week is ahead of me, but the past exciting week still feels as if it is following me behind, and somewhere in between the two my brain is trying to keep up with things!
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Ahead of me this week is a trip to RAF Manston, one of the earliest airfields, first used in 1915 by the Royal Flying Corps. Here Barnes Wallis spent time testing the ‘dambusters’ bouncing bomb nearby. From here one of the bravest and most poignant moments of the second world war occurred when six Fairey Swordfish biplanes, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, RN, of 825 Squadron took off in a desperate mission to try and stop the passage through the Dover Straits of the two German battle cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. They were about the only unit available in the sudden emergency. Promised fighter cover of five squadrons of Spitfires did not materialise in time and with only 11 Spitfires in escort they gallantly but hopelessly flew into the fray. They were set upon by Fw190s and Bf109s, and flew through smoke screens into a tremendous barrage from destroyers, e-boats and battle cruisers. There were only five survivors. Esmonde was not one of them. The full story should be read, as it is astounding from many angles. Please have a look at this if you can: http://www.channeldash.org/swordfish17.html
The most touching, for me, is the fact that the CO at Manston, knowing that Esmonde and his crews were taking off almost certainly to their deaths, stood on the runway and saluted as they went.
The history of Manston is awaiting me, and I will be meeting Joe Bamford,(instigator of Dad’s memoirs being written) who is currently writing a series of books on that subject. I can’t go wrong! Much to look forward to!
I am struggling to start writing about my visit to the old RAF Filton. In January 1943, my father picked up a brand-new Bristol Beaufighter from the factory here and flew it to Africa. My guide in April 2015 was Oliver Deardon, a Trustee of the Bristol Aero Collection, and I was touched by his courteous, comprehensive and thoughtful tour of this complex site, personalising it specially for me along the way. “Your father’s Beaufighter,” he said, “Would have come out of the building at the top of the site up there, and been brought down that hill; the street is wide enough, as you can see, to accommodate the aircrafts’ wings. And then it would have gone across the railway tracks, the only instance of a level crossing for aircraft use. That would bring it down here where your father would have received it and finally taken it onto the runway here and taken it way with him.”
In his memoirs, my father wrote: ‘On 7th January, along with ten other crews including Joe Berry and Ian Watson, Ralph and I went by coach to Filton near Bristol to collect a brand new Beaufighter from the factory: no. V8633. It was like taking my old car to a car dealer and then part-exchanging it for a brand new one. I felt sheer delight in flying the plane back to Lyneham. However, the bad weather didn’t allow us to carry out the consumption test on it until January 13th: an all-round trip around the coast from Cornwall to Blackpool and beyond that took 5.05 hours. The results were good: petrol consumption 80 gallons per hour; air miles 2.44 per gallon; range 1,448 miles; and the full endurance of the aircraft could be 7 hours 36 minutes. All very pleasing.’
Now I stood on the side of the runway space where that exciting event in his life took place. Every airfield, I am discovering, has its own atmosphere, and this is no exception. The sense is of an industrial-scale site, where the wide runway leans upwards insistently towards the horizon. Concorde stands to the left at the far end, nose pointed to the runway like a silent sentinel, and on the sloping hill to the left of that, and running all the way in parallel to the runway, is the Airbus production site with its huge factory sheds both old and modern. Opposite me in the distance, across the wide expanse of the airfield proper, are some large old hangars, one of which is to be preserved to house the Bristol Aero Collection. Next to it a new building is to be erected to house Concorde.
This whole site and its history is surely one of the most important in the development of British aviation technology. Sir George White, the Bristol magnate and entrepreneur whose vision and business acumen founded it all before the First World War should be better known, but as he declined to give his own name to the company and to the aeroplanes it made, preferring to name them after the city of Bristol itself, his name is unknown by the general public.
This site impresses as a whole, and speaks as a whole by its visual layout and its scale. The line of connection between production and flight is clear to me as I stand here, taking it in. But already a tide of new housing appears on a rise at the far side of the airfield, beyond the designated hangar reprieved for the museum. When that tide breaks, it will overrun the grass, the concrete runways, and even that take-off point to my far left where the pilots, my Dad included, took their new aircraft into the beyond. For the future there will be an Aerospace Heritage Centre, housing an important collection of archives and exhibits. But it will be cut off by that sea of housing from the living production site on the hill. The wholeness and integrity of this site will be lost for ever. I laud the building of a new Centre to remember the past, but I can’t help lamenting the loss of the reality as it passes away.
It’s a real shame that my version of the group photograph at Great Gransden airfield, at the Cambridge Gliding Centre, have not come out. I’ll have to wait until I get home next weekend and can download the pictures from my old digital SLR. It’s a shame because I had the chance of a lifetime (for me, anyway) to go up in a glider. What a fantastic day for it. The horizon was clear from edge to edge when we first started. The land here is flat so it was like being over an ocean of land. We were towed up by Chris (thank you, Chris); the glider lifts gently before the towing aircraft leaves the ground. I’m in a Perspex bubble, in a comfortable seat at the front, so the view is spread out all around me, and my pilot, Andrew Watson, talks me through what is happening, what he is doing to catch the thermals below the clouds, and what are the different landmarks we can see dropping away below us. The towing plane departs and suddenly the speed drops, with the noise of wind against the canopy, and it is very calm up here, under the clouds as they sail past just over our heads. We climb to 3,000 feet. The land is far below us. I find it difficult to relate to it up here. The fine detail has gone and it’s the land itself that we see stretched out like a drum skin over the world. Andrew offers me the controls but as he demonstrates and the glider dips and moves I feel a bit queasy, a legacy of some ear problems left over from a flu virus back in January, so sadly I passed on this one one for now.
As we circled back towards the airfield, and the houses came back into view amidst the outline of Great Gransden village (a car ambling along a country lane like a little ant) I thought of my father and his four visits here, making this same circling approach in 1944, seeing the same view, the same villages, those far horizons encircling his vision – our vision – and rushing down towards the awaiting grass. And, not for the first or last time, I wonder what on earth he would have thought if he’d known that I would be here now; after 70 years, in his air space.
[photographs to follow]
My NEW, REVISED schedule for next week (for the whole WTS Calendar go to SCHEDULE page:
Note, this is taken from my working spreadsheet. I am still waiting to hear back from Cranfield.
I was delighted to finish off my visit to Hawarden with a meeting of Singers – a trio, in fact. Bob Francis and friend Ken arrived at the Airport in their two beautiful Singers: one a Le Mans a year older than Chattie and the other a Roadster from the 1950s, both in immaculate order. Thank you to you both so much.
With the friendly helpfulness I am constantly experiencing from vintage and classic car owners, they offered to lead me in convoy out of Hawarden and across Chester towards my next airfield, Calveley. Ken had to leave us after Chester, but Bob came with me to Calveley, and helped me find what is left. Like High Ercall, the land is claiming this one back. Unlike High Ercall, its remains linger in dishevelled neglect. A rough, rutted track leads to buildings which are instantly recogniseable as RAF Calveley, but time and chance have definitely happened to them all.