Tommy Hunter’s final resting place

imageIt’s a peaceful spot, Blackhall Colliery cemetery, hidden on a gentle slope of hill side behind back-to-back houses and allotments. It’s beautifully kept, and Parks Superintendant and Cemetery Supervisor Antony Peace was already waiting for me on a bench near Tommy’s grave when I arrived.

Antony had dug out documentation relating to Tommy’s grave, that show he wa buried here in October 1941, some weeks after his death at the end of September. The documents mention Mullion Cove in Cornwall, so that may be where his body was washed ashore, and there may be archive records down there relating to that, and possibly to an inquest.

His mother, Catherine Hunter, is buried in the same plot; she died aged 48 in March 1942, only six months after Tommy was killed; so here is another tragedy. Tommy’s father, John, died aged 77 in 1968 but his cremation took place in Nottinghamshire. Five years after that, a lady from Southwell in Nottinghamshire bought extra land and extended the plot and, it seems, erected the monument as it is today; so we think John’s ashes are interred here, alongside his wife and son.  It is very sad to think that John lost his wife and son in such close succession. It is touching that in death his ashes were brought back here to be with them.

Touching also to think that Tommy’s body does not after all lie lost at the bottom of the sea but lies here in his Northumberland home: his final resting place.

There is also a stone urn for flowers on the grave with the words ‘from Mary, Connie and Irene’. What I have learned today gives me new leads to follow to try and trace some of Tommy’s relatives. Thank you, Antony, for your kindness and help here today.

Antony Peace, Parks Superintendant, at Tommy Hunter's grave, Blackhall Cemetery

Antony Peace, Parks Superintendant, at Tommy Hunter’s grave, Blackhall Cemetery

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Cornwall – lost and saved at sea – Portreath, Predannack and Culdrose

Portreath4webPortreath and Predannack airfields lie towards the end of Cornwall. All wartime airfields were frontiers between the relative safety of the British Isles and the world of active war beyond, but not all of them portray this so eloquently by their position. The sea is ever present just over the edge of a cliff, the possibility of blue always sits beyond the green horizon. At Portreath my father left for North Africa with a brand-new Beaufighter in January 1943, one of many who did the same, some of whom never touched down on British soil again.  The photograph of RAF Portreath is with the ever-helpful, Cpl Jacqui Crooks, to whom many thanks for her company and welcome at the base.

PredannackEHJSwebAt Predannack I went to remember Sgt Pilot Tommy Hunter, who was lost flying back home from an intruder operation over France, 29 September 1941, some five miles out in that now-peaceful blue sea beyond the coastline. He was just 21. The memorial at the gate is very apposite: “Like a breath of wind, gone in a fleeting second, only the memories now remain.” But we honoured those memories on a June day in 2015.  I was with Julia Smith, whose father, Flt Lt Wilfred “Bob” Peasley, served here, and met and married Julia’s mother during the war. He served with my father in 46 Squadron in North Africa.

At RNAS Culdrose, just north of Predannack, the Royal Navy Air Service have been carrying out sea-to-air rescue for decades, their helicopters enabling them both to reach those in distress and hover over them and winch them to safety. For those early wartime pilots like Tommy Hunter, this was not yet possible. Once ditched in the water, they bobbed about in the cold sea in their Mae West vests, until a plane spotted them in its searching journey overhead, or a boat located them, perhaps drawn by their cries or whistle. For many, the wait was too long. It was moving for me, therefore, to be given a tour of RNAS Culdrose by the informative Lt Cmdr Watts, pictured. After the terribly high numbers of airmen drowned at sea from the early years of the war, the practice of search and rescue had to be developed quickly in order to save precious lives and get downed airmen back into the skies.

Culdrose1web771 Naval Air Squadron has been operating since 1939. In the early days it was concerned with trial and evaluation of aircraft and equipment, which continued into the 1960s as it carried out trials for Whirlwinds and Wasps, always developing the techniques and requirements of effective search and rescue. 771 Squadron became a dedicate search and rescue (SAR) unit in the 1980s, using Wessex, Whirlwind and Sea King helicopters. The SAR activity in the UK is gradually being transferred into civilian operation, so I feel privileged to have been given such a clear sense through this visit of the way in which search and rescue at sea has been improved and tested over time by such dedicated units and men as this. We have a lot to thank them for.

I am particularly pleased that on this one stop for my tour, I am able to acknowledge the huge part played in aerial warfare and peacetime rescue work by the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Naval Air Service. It should never be overlooked or forgotten.

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The Spirit of Coltishall

Dispersal

The Spirit of Coltishall Association is an aptly-named group of people whose aim is to keep alive just that. Having served at the RAF airfield, they consider it to have been one of the friendliest stations they experienced in their various RAF careers, something with which my father would  have concurred. Though he was only there for a number of weeks, the name ‘Coltishall’ was quite familiar to us, but we couldn’t think why. Having visited and met these lovely people, and seen the site, I am beginning to understand that ‘the spirit of Coltishall’ is indeed a happy one. The place is remembered with affection and pride, and now that it has been sold off, this small group of enthusiasts represents an unofficial guardian of the site and the memory of those who served here.

And it is a special site. It was finally vacated three years ago, and is now in the care of the borough and county councils, but its future is being decided carefully and gradually, and the Spirit of Colishall Association are consulted at every stage.  The wartime hangars, control tower, runways, officers and sergeants mess – in fact a whole siteful of buildings – are all intact.

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Especially impressive is the existence of wartime revetments, or aircraft dispersal bays. These were where the aircraft were scattered around the site in concrete enclosures, cleverly placed so that enemy aircraft could not hit more than one in a single run. Two aircraft would have been parked here in back-to-back double bays, with their own air raid shelter and a dispersal hut where airmen would lounge around ready to scramble. Discarded tea cups have been found in the ground here, dropped when the call came. The walls of the bays are remarkable.Coltishall1web

They made me think of the walls of Machu Pichu, as their stones are rounded and fit closely, curving into one another. These are not stones, however, but sandbags mixed with concrete, that set into each other to form this beautiful wall. I am very glad that the Spirit of Colishall Association is here to guard them for the future.

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Norfolk and Derby tour

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.

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RAF Portreath

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.

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June airfields

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!

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RAF Stratford

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RAF Stratford (Atherstone) 3.5 miles south of Stratford on Avon. Visited 6th June 2015

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.

Stratford3Further 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.

For more photographs, visit my Facebook page: www.facebook.com/wheretheyserved

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RAF Manston

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.

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Kent and Midlands tour ahead

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!

For more regular updates, snippets and photographs, you follow me on Facebook and Twitter while I am away http://www.facebook.com/wheretheyserved and twitter @wheretheyserved.

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!

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Filton – pinning the butterfly?

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.

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