Adventures on the road

CATNAP

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Chattie had to tackle Lincolnshire and Yorkshire on her own without the Sprinter. We did a splendid 619 miles. The weather was wonderful. It was ALL wonderful. Ah. Except for a few little hiccups on the way. We travelled the first 170 miles to Steve and Heather Hardwick’s house near Lincoln. Then Chattie refused point blank to start when I tried to put her in the garage. She was as relaxed about it as the cat, but something needed to be done.

A piece of string connected to the starter motor lever and a quick trip to MG Raw’s excellent garage, where they fixed the problem for no charge – may they prosper! – enabled me to make the three fantastic visits to RAF Scampton, Coningsby and Digby.

KWIK WHAT?!

Yorkshire2webThen to Yorkshire, where on returning from seeing Ack Greenwood’s grave with friend Roger Gill, we spotted a flat tyre.

No problem, there was a Kwik Fit garage nearby. We pumped in enough air to get her there; but this was a fast puncture and she wasn’t going to get me to Church Fenton or my evening accommodation. The wheel had to be changed, and I had no jack. “We can’t touch it” was Kwik Fit’s response. I explained that the wheel spinners could be knocked off and I had the correct copper hammer in the car, but didn’t have a jack. “We can’t do it,” was the response, “We don’t know the correct torque setting, and can’t let you go without that because the wheel might come off.”

“My understanding,” I said, “Is that the spinners tighten themselves as the car moves forward, though I haven’t done it myself.”

“Yes, but you don’t know the torque setting so we can’t touch it,” was the response

“Would you just jack it up for us so my friend here can do it?”

Again, the torque argument came again and Kwik Fit felt they would be responsible if the wheel fell off. I asked if there was perhaps an older KwikFitter who might have had some experience with wheel spinners in the past, but the present KwikFitter took it as a personal insult to his expertise and ability; which is not what I had meant at all.  In the end, he did put some air in the tyre for me so that Chattie could limp further down the road into the shade of a tree while I called out my excellent breakdown service. While we were waiting, a gentleman came out of the house behind us, offered help, gave us a cup of tea, gave a donation to the RAF BEnevolent Fund. He had served in the RAF many years ago. How nice that was.

Yorkshire1Then the breakdown van came. Callam, pictured here, was the absolute opposite of Kwik-Fitness, and said, ‘Wow! What a lovely car! I’ve never done one of these, but it’s great to have the chance.’ I offered the copper hammer, but he was already reaching for a rubber hammer in the van, and had the wheel off in no time. Turned out he had two family members in the RAF, and he also donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund before he went. (He didn’t bother about any mythical torque problem, being younger and wiser than the Kwik Fit man.) May his career prosper!

SINGING IN THE RAIN

Yorkshir5wdb Yorkshire4webSo, saying goodbye to Roger, I set out under a brilliant blue sky for Church Fenton, and thence to Jennifer and Ian’s house for the night. Jennifer is Deryk Hollinrake’s Goddaughter (Dad’s Radar Operator during the war), so I guess that makes us Godsisters. Half way there, the sky blackened and soon I was in the middle of a raging – and I mean raging – thunderstorm; lightning flashes like strobe lighting, and monstrous rain slapping and bouncing off everything; the air thick with it.  Like almost every other car on the road, I got off it as quickly as I could, taking refuge with the crowd in the doorway of the Sweet Basil restaurant at a service station (though I think I was wetter than most!). Would they serve anyone coffee while we waited out the storm? No. Though there were tables aplenty, though the conditions outside were freakishly impossible and continued so for about an hour, they would only serve those eating a meal. Thumbs down, Sweet Basil.

Yorkshire3webI only had about 20 minutes’ driving to go. I set out in a break in the rain, only for it to pound down again. My all-weather clothing didn’t cope with this and soon I was drenched. A little basin of water sat in my lap where I had draped a plastic cloth. Remembering my lovely ‘Aunt’ Monica, who was daunted by nothing the weather could possibly do, I sang my way there, working my way through rain songs and laughing at the sheer scale of the drenching. I was a drowned rat when I arrived. Jennifer set a bath running straight away and lit the bathroom with scented candles: what a fantastic greeting! It was just lovely to stay with her and Ian, and talk about our two Dad’s and their wartime friendship. The sun smiled on us: metaphorically speaking, for our evening together over a LOVELY meal; and literally in the morning.

BACK TO SCHOOL

Every airfield has its surprise, and so had the journey down to my mother’s house in Ilkeston. I set the SATNAV to avoid motorways. What a pleasant trip that was! Down country roads, old long Roman roads almost empty of traffic, through towns and villages, while occasionally I could see the motorway running parallel to my left or right, chock-a-block with cars. Negotiating Doncaster was a doddle. Along the way I had the sense of the country and its life: what was farmed in the fields, the type of villages, the different stone, the variation between rustic or industrial, the old mining towns and villages. On the motorway I would have had the monotony of that plain tarmac ribbon cut off from the world. I don’t know if I’ll ever travel that horrible stretch of M1 again after this.

BestwoodwebBut the greatest surprise was when I suddenly and completely unexpectedly found myself in Bestwood Village, and there was ‘School Lane’ and the primary school where my father was headmaster for many years before he retired. I hadn’t seen it since the 1970s. A man walking a dog was kind enough to take the picture, and for my mother and me both, this last adventure of the road brought a tear to our eyes.

Back home. Chattie, you are full of gifts and surprises. We did it, girl, and what a great journey!

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Airports and Stations – Liverpool, Lancs and Cumbria coming up!

This week’s tour of four airfields, starting tomorrow, 7th August, includes two modern, active airports and an airshow. Two of the four where my father’s serving stations in 1941-42:

Friday 7th: Liverpool John Lennon Aiport and the Crowne Plaza Liverpool – John Lennon Airport Hotel

Saturday 8th: RAF Woodvale, where my father was stationed as a night-fighter pilot from June to December 1942

Sunday 9th: RAF Silloth in Cumbria, where my father landed in January 1942 in a Boulton Paul Defiant.

Monday 10th: Blackpool Air Show – Chattie will be on display on the famous Promenade, overlooking the beach where, according to a report from the man who was in the gun turret at the time, my father in his Boulton Paul Defiant ‘hedge-hopped the piers’ below the height of the Woolworth’s clock!

Tuesday 11th Blackpool Airport (ex-RAF Squires Gate), where Dad was stationed from November 1941 to June 1952 – in the company of aviation historians Russell Brown and Joe Bamford (both extremely knowledgeable about 256 Squadron and RAF Squires Gate), and Graham Berry, who is 2nd cousin to WWII ace Joseph Berry DFC**, my father’s close friend in both 256 and 153 Squadrons.

It promises to be packed with memorable experiences.  See SCHEDULE for timings.

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RAF Lossiemouth

My overwhelming impression here is a sense of direct connection with the fighting spirit of the past in a modern world still sadly filled with uncertainty and threat. Having close-up tours of the Typhoon and Tornado brought to the fore that unbroken link of innovation and development which means that, surprisingly, I can now see as many of the similarities as differences between these fast jet fighters and the Spitfires, Hurricanes, Beaufighters, Defiants, Typhoons and Tempests of seven

Sgt Stuart Smylie, presenting me with a print of the Typhoon behind me, signed by crew of II (AC) Squadron.

Sgt Stuart Smylie, presenting me with a print of the Typhoon behind me, signed by crew of II (AC) Squadron.

decades ago. At first, it seemed to me that all had changed and the old planes were unrecogniseable in the new, but beside the computer screen displays in the Typhoons, you open a tiny flap to discover three small instruments dials, by which the pilot can bring the plane home if the computer system should fail. The glass screen that displays green-lit information between the pilot and the bubble of the cockpit canopy are showing him the old instrument information in a different visual format, generated by computer, but still the same information, albeit with loads of other stuff available at whim.

My father wrote a long description (in Flying Blind: The Story of a Second World War Night Figher Pilot, Fonthill Media) of chasing a Heinkel bomber across the English Channel, with his Radar Operator, Deryk Hollinrake, struggling to keep its ‘blip’ on his small radar scanner; and the desperation to get a visual on the aircraft, as this was the only means of shooting it down. The old Mark I Eyball, as they say. Today, suffice it to say, it’s very different indeed. As the amazing technology was explained to me (a little), I kept thinking, ‘What would Dad have said to all this?’

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Controls, Beaufighter 1943

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Controls Typhoon 2015

One thing has not changed in all the years: the RAF family here – and elsewhere – has made me feel I belong, even though I know that belonging is because of my dear father, because of those years he served in the 1940s, and for whom it really was a family in more than just name.

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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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