A moving post about Cotswold airfields and their landscape legacy, with some brilliant photographs.
All across the Cotswolds, if you stop for just a few minutes on hilltops, you can find strips of broken concrete, grass growing in the jumbled cracks. Red brick buildings with peeling, grey render and steel framed, glassless windows. Today, they’re derelict, but these World War II RAF bases were once crammed with life as they brought Britain’s war effort to the peace of the Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire countryside.
RAF Broadwell – closed, March 1947. A few seconds off the A361 between Burford and Lechlade. Now mostly farmland (although the control tower still stands), Broadwell saw clouds of Horsa gliders take off for the D-Day beaches and Arnhem. The main runway that launched the glider fleets is now a minor road linking the A361 and Kencot. You can ride along it.
RAF Kelmscott – closed December 1946. A few minutes walk from William Morris’ home in the village, in early…
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The old infrastructure of RAF High Ercall (Shropshire) is still evident among the rapeseed and the ploughed fields. It still has an identity as a whole in the landscape, though the remaining buildings are dotted here and there, across a field, through a gate, atop a hill in the distance from the road; and in between is well-tended agricultural land. The control tower and surrounding buildings are in business use, and well cared for, visible through a wire perimeter fence. Elsewhere, you have to look, but the evidence is there blending gently into the surroundings. High Ercall today is like a widow who has lost her husband but has got on with her life, taking the memories along with her.
Dad was posted here in February 1942, as a ‘rest’ from operational flying, to help out the Air Transport Auxiliary, No 3 Delivery Flight, who were short of their usual civilian pilots. These were the teams who delivered aircraft of any type to the places where they were needed; after they had been to the maintenance units, for example, and were being returned to their squadrons. Dad agreed because it gave him a chance to fly different aircraft. There may have been an added incentive in that many of the ATA pilots were women. Here he flew his first Spitfire. I know this because he has this picture of it in his album, captioned ‘My first Spitfire’. That’s Dad on the left, ready to fly. That was on 7th May. The next day he flew a Spitfire down to Llandow near Cardiff, and nearly died through an accident with his goggles – the full story appears in his memoirs (see http://flyingblindnightfighter.com or on Amazon). For more photographs of High Ercall today, visit my Facebook page WhereTheyServed
Shropshire, like my beloved Herefordshire, is a beautiful rural county, and I counted myself blessed this morning wending my way round winding lanes lined with bright dandelions, primroses and peeping bluebells in the banks. I started out early wearing – wait while I count – 6 top layers because it was cold, and as the day wore on was left with just my light polo-neck, wishing it had been a short-sleeved T shirt.
The Uppingdon mystery now resolved into RAF Atcham, I turned into the business park there to meet Graham and Amanda Lycett of GA Promotions, and the site owner, Terry (who turned out to have lived a couple of miles away from us here). Although it looks a thoroughly recent business park, Terry took me into one of the buildings to reveal the original 1940s hangar behind a modern facade. It looks almost new; as strong-looking now as it would have done 70 years ago. ‘They built them to survive the war,’ said Terry, ‘But I reckon it’s lasted a bit longer.’
Graham and Amanda have an interest in the history of the place. They run the Malvern Militaria Fair and other similar events. In their offices they showed me an American International vehicle that looks absolutely pristine. They took it to Normandy last year. Thanks to them, I was able to understand that the road beside the business park is actually one of the old runways. So I lined Chattie up for take-off and could picture Dad doing the same, behind the joy stick instead of behind the wheel.
I left Atcham pleased to know that the history of this place is not forgotten by those who work here. It still means a lot to them.
Carl, Pin, 1932 Alvis, Gary, Owen, Austin 7, Ed, Elizabeth, Chattie, Ian
What a great bunch of folks at Fly Llanbedr! They were all welcoming, and had arranged perfect weather for my tour, though it was not brilliant for flying today. Apparently the east wind comes off the mountains having been buffeted into turbulence, and today was one of those days.
Llanbedr Control Tower – original building
Llanbedr was re-opened last year and looks as if it has been lovingly cared for. The cafe on the first floor of the original control tower has clear views, of course, across the air field. It is light and airy and serves all-day breakfasts and light snacks. It’s a lovely place to gaze at the open view and watch the light aircraft movements. Dad landed here a couple of times, and Ian, a volunteer who knows the history of the airfield, told me that today’s cafe used to be where Dad would have come to check in and out. Two slots in the walls were where he would have posted his paperwork for his aircraft, and receive it back after it was checked and stamped.
Night Flying Equipment Store
Out of the window he pointed out another newly-painted building. ‘That’s the NFE Store,’ he said, ‘Your father was a night-fighter, right? Well, that’s the Night Fighter Equipment store, which was where he would have collected his gear and kit before coming here to clear the paperwork.’ Dad – walking in here in his flying gear ready to go – 74 years ago. That’s touching.
It’s quite a feeling to drive up towards the flat horizon, knowing that beyond the little village of Valley is the airfield where Dad first flew as a night-fighter pilot in 1941 (456 Squadron). I wondered which of the older little terraced houses might be the one where a lady made a bit of extra cash by serving home-cured ham and fresh eggs in her front room, which Dad and his friends used to frequent. They kept it as secret as they could from the rest of the Squadron. It was quite a feeling to drive through the Station and then for Chattie to be lined up with a Hawk jet for our official photograph. As I shook hands with Station Commander Group Captain Peter Cracroft I couldn’t help picturing my Dad’s amazed reaction if he could have known that this would be happening. He was always proud of serving at Valley. The Station Commander told me that the highest risk at the Station was still that of vehicles straying onto the runway. Seventy-four years after Dad hit that stray cook-wagon while trying to land at 110 miles an hour, it seems that potential hazard has not changed! The lovely Cerys, who supports my efforts from the RAF Benevolent Fund, had flown up from Cardiff in the morning; my thanks go to her, and to Darren at RAF Valley who escorted and guided us throughout our stay. After leaving the Station, and I said goodbye to them both at the ‘spotters’ car park’ nearby, a jet thundered by right over our heads. ‘I would like to say I had arranged that for you!’ said Darren. From that car park, I sat a little while looking over the airfield. From here, in a way, it is easier to get a feel for it as it was in 1941. Just the grass between the runways, and a few older hangars and airforce buildings over to the right. In front of me, Darren had pointed out a red light in the grass, where the perimeter track turns in towards the live runways. ‘That is the same system your Dad would have known – that is what the cook wagon ignored when your father was landing his Defiant.’ A strange feeling to finish with, contemplating that red light nestling in the grass, and thinking how close a shave it was that day for my Dad when he crash-landed on the one remaining oleo leg and finished up in the dunes beyond my line of sight. If he had been only 11 feet off the ground when he hit the cook wagon, instead of 12 feet, he would probably not have survived. Then I wouldn’t have been here to visit RAF Valley in a 1935 Singer Le Mans, that’s for sure.
The trip along the Welsh coast from Penrhos to Llanbedr Airfield today has to be one of the most beautiful drives I have undertaken. The sunlight was glimmering of the sea, which had the deep turquoise colour more to be expected in the Mediterranean than the North Wales Coast. But today it looked as if it wore this colour every day of the year. The gorse is out, and its bright gold is set off beautifully by the silver stone that shows in ripples through the grass or lines the roads in the long dry-stone walls. With sheep-cropped grass and wind-twisted trees, the colours and textures here are truly magical. Lambs are in the fields, and the swallows are back. What a day! What a drive! Chattie, I love you!
Nearly 8500 Polish airmen ended up in Britain in 1940, after first fighting losing battles in Poland and then France. They called Britain ‘The Island of Last Hope’. My father remembers serving alongside the Polish and I remember him saying that they were good pilots and fighters; he said this with feeling.
After visiting raf Valley tomorrow I will be travelling to the site of the old RAF Penrhos, where many Polish servicemen were demobbed after the war. 2408 Polish airmen lost their lives fighting for freedom. The Polish Squadrons played a vital part in the Battle of Britain, showing tremendous valour and determination. Yet the peace they fought for, and won for the rest of Europe, didn’t come for their own country until half a century later. The Polish Housing Society, a charity set up in 1949, bought the old airfield and today it still runs a care home on the site. Here I hope to meet at least one Polish resident who served during the war. That would be a great privilege.
In his memoirs ‘Flying Blind: the Story of a Second World War Night Fighter Pilot’, my Dad writes:
“On July 10th 1941, with Jimmy Ward on the pillion of the good old motorbike, I reported to RAF Valley, near Holyhead on the coast of Anglesey, where the single-engined aircraft in residence was the Boulton Paul Defiant…As the two of us entered the main gate, we realised immediately that this brand0new aerodrome with its hastily erected buildings was situated literally on the coast. The triangular form made by the runways criss-crossed the sand dunes. The usual Nissen huts of simple brick construction looked austere and, as we discovered later, so was the food and living accommodation. But it was midsummer and the weather was fine and warm.”
On Friday, I also will be reporting to RAF Valley; not on a motorbike, but in my 1935 Singer Le Mans sports car, just like the car Dad drove and loved later in the war. It will be a moment to remember, and I know he’ll be with me in spirit.
The Tiger Moth in which my father learned to fly in 1941 is going to be coming to PreWar Prescott again this year – WEATHER PERMITTING. I am therefore CHANGING MY SCHEDULE TO MEET IT.
I will therefore now be attending the Royal International Air Tattoo on the Sunday only, 19th July.
The rest of that weekend will be as follows:
Friday 17th July – Kemble Airfield to meet Tiger Moth, (followed by pre-Prewar Prescott get-together)
Saturday 18th July – Prewar Prescott + evening Battle of Britain Victory Party and BBQ with flypast: not only ‘Dad’s’ Tiger Moth but also aerobatics display from a venerable Battle of Britain Hurricane aerobatics – see http://www.prewarprescott.com/
Last year the heavens opened for Prewar Prescott and the Tiger Moth couldn’t make the journey from Norfolk. This year it’s bound to be a beautiful weekend, and therefore all being well I look forward greatly to what will be a touching occasion for me.
This is a photograph of the actual Tiger Moth in which my father flew in 1941, now owned and flown by Paul Harvey. Amazing! I have taken it from the Prewar Prescott website – please let me know if there is a problem with my using it here.
I have just uploaded the latest updated schedule here which includes the following alterations:
Note changes (as at 9 April 2015):
Group 2 Calveley – now visiting on Friday 24th April.
Group 10 Bedfordshire
I will regretfully not now be visiting the RAF Museum in Hendon.
I am planning to visit Cranfield on Monday 18th May (TBC) and Bourn on Saturday 16th.
Note changes (as at 17 March 2015):
Group 11 – Duxford air show – not attending
Group 1 RAF Valley – dates now 16-18th April
Group 2 Shropshire and Cheshire – dates now 23rd and 24th April
Group 5 South West and Cornwall – now will be both days (Sat & Sun) at Weston Air Show – dates from 19th – 24th June