Category Archives: Aviation history

Dear Chattie

Dear ChattieChattieSpitConingsby

I just want to say how wonderful it has been travelling with you on our 7,000-mile journey. 3,181 miles of that trip have been just you and me together, and on the back of the Mercedes Sprinter you have enjoyed at least another 4,000 miles of scenery. You have been on 60 airfields, stayed with friends, made new friends, including two Battle of Britain pilots who loved you at first sight, travelled in convoy with other Singers (including many Le Mans); you have been photographed like a celebrity, and waved and tooted at by children on the streets and cars on the road (remember that grey Ferrari on the way down from Scotland?); and you have have constantly brought close to mind my lovely Dad, as if had been sitting next to me and enjoying the ride with us both. Sometimes, once or twice, it seemed we were both driving you together.

You have been an absolute joy to drive. I confess that, at the beginning, there was a time when I thought we would not get on, and the whole thing would be a difficult and rather gruelling challenge, simply from the driving point of view. How wrong I was! Once Pin had shown me how your crash gear box worked, and he and Ground Control had taught me on the road, it all fell into place, and now one of my greatest pleasures is slipping into my seat behind the wheel, starting you up with that ‘whoomp’ of the engine, and taking you out on the road, double-dee-clutching like nobody’s business and loving those moments when, coming down from fourth to third, that little ‘vroom!’ in momentary neutral clicks your gears down smoothly to take us round the bends.

We have had our moments! As when, coming back through the Welsh mountains, I came all the way down the steep pass without understanding you needed me to hold your gear stick physically in gear down the hills – a hairy moment or two, there! But you never failed me. Well, only once, and the starter-motor cable was such a minor matter, and we managed it to the garage using a piece of string. Hardly worth mentioning. The flat tyre doesn’t count, as that could have happened to anyone.

You have been a delightful faithful companion on the road –  and a complete revelation to me. Chattie, what happens now? Ah, that is the question…

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Remembering the Battle of Britain – or not?

Today is Battle of Britain remembrance day: 15th September; but when was it first celebrated as such?

As early as 1942, there were official discussions as how – and whether – this tremendous achievement of the war should be officially remembered. Already the Battle of Britain was considered to be of huge importance to morale, and the courage and sacrifice of the young men who fought in the battle was already legendary, but opinion was divided as to how it should be treated.

In the summer of 1942, Captain Bruce Ingram, OBE, MC, of the Illustrated London News, offered to present a scroll of all those who participated in the Battle to Westminster Abbey, but this was fraught with administrative difficulties. ‘It is not only a matter of looking up names in records;’ wrote The Secretary of State of Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, ‘We should have to ascertain what pilots from distant Squadrons were detached to take part in the battle and even what pilots in units concerned actually took part in the fighting. Some may have been sick, others for various reasons beyond their control may not have taken part in the actual fighting. Moreover, the labour of compilation, quite apart from the difficulties of deciding where in fairness the line is to be drawn, would be immense and would take time which at the moment can ill be spared from the conduct of war.”

In the same year, a member of the Air Council, entitled ‘Discipline, Morale and Leadership’, proposed a massive celebration in a paper entitled ‘Discipline, Morale and Leadership’ :

“The immediate object of this paper is to call attention to an opportunity of stimulating pride of service and so improving discipline and moral in the Royal Air Force. The means suggested of doing so would, it is believed, have a far reaching effect on the status of the Service after the war.”  (The writer is denoted by the initials ‘A.M.P’. If anyone can shed light on who this might be, please let me know.)

The Battle of Britain, he claims,

“is being compared in importance to Waterloo and Trafalgar; and has above them the unique value of being the first decisive battle fought in the air. It can be compared with the Armada in that it defeated the invasion of this country by an enemy which would have put an end to its existence. There is perhaps no event in history which equalled it in reviving the spirits of those throughout the whole world who until then believed that the hope of freedom was about to be finally extinguished since England was certain to be conquered.”

However, others questioned the sense of certainty about the Battle’s status in the war as a whole. “When history came to be written, battles would be seen in their true perspective, and it might well be that another day would stand out even more predominently in the history of the RAF than September 15th 1940.”

Even more forcefully W R Freeman, Vice-Chief of Air Staff wrote on 14th July 1942, ” The historical precedents for self-congratulatory celebrations in the middle of a war are not very happy. Belshazzar held a banquet whilst the enemy were outside his gates; he lost his throne the same night.” He continues, “The so-called Battle of Britain consisted of a series of successful defensive operations by Fighter Command. It is true that the R.A.F then saved this country from defeat, but in my view it is a misuse of words to refer to ‘our victory’ or ‘our deliverance’. Victories are only won by offensive action; and deliverance must be permanent to give much cause of junketing.'”

R H Melville, Private Secretary to the Secretary of State, concurred:  “I must say that I personally should feel that it was inviting Nemesis if we were to celebrate our deliverance while the war is still on…”

Freeman also complained, ‘If we once start commemorating individual successes in the war, where are we going to top?…I contemplate with dismay a future in which the active prosecution of the war is almost crowded out by prayers, thanksgivings and parades.”

The question arose again the following year, and notes of a meeting on 25th June 1943 quote “A.M.P” again as saying: “…our aim should be to consolidate in history a place for the Battle of Britain, the first great victory of the war…and the mot decisive.  There was a widespread demand, both inside the Service and outside, for the commemoration of that victory.’ The example was given that signals had been received from Air headquarters, India, asking not whether celebrations of the event would take place but what form they would take. “Last year,” the note continues, “Our omission to give official recognition to the celebrations…had led to adverse press criticism.”

Nevertheless, a purely RAF ‘Battle of Britain’ day on 15th was ruled out, and it was deemed an appropriate celebration for the Service ‘if on that one day the flag were hoisted and parades were held’ at Royal Air Force stations and the Air Training Corps. The commemoration of the Battle in 1943 was therefore incorporated into what had already been designated ‘Civil Defence Day’, and which was now to be designated as a national ‘Day of Thanksgiving’. This took place with a service on the morning of Sunday 26th September, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, with a parade in the afternoon outside Buckingham Palace at which the King would take the salute. A special hymn was written for the occasion.  The same year the Eastern Chapel in the Henry VII Chapel of Westminster Abbey was designated as a memorial to the Battle of Britain: a private rather than a public tribute, financed by funds from a public appeal.

A similar remembrance service took place in 1944, but again, on a nearby Sunday, not 15th September itself.

MossiePaintingBBwebNot until after VJ Day in August 1945 was it possible to hold the full-scale celebration of all that the Battle of Britain meant to the nation. That is why, on 15th September 1945, my father, bursting with pride, took part in the very first Battle of Britain Remembrance Day flypast over London, in his Mosquito ZK-F for 25 Squadron, with 300 other aircraft let by Douglas Bader in a Spitfire. Today, as I see the greatest memorial flypast of recent decades, I will think of him, and wish he was here.

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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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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

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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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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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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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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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Itinerary Sat 16th – Fri 22 May: Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Essex

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.

G10and11web9May15

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RIP Flight Lieutenant James “Jimmy” Ward

This was moving for me. At Landican Cemetery I laid a cross on the grave of one of my father’s great wartime friends, Jimmy Ward, on Dad’s behalf. Jimmy’s son Howard wanted to be with me on the day but couldn’t make it because he was recovering from an injury at the time.  You can read about Jimmy Ward in “Flying Blind”.

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Jimmy Ward, Canada, 1940

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Jimmy Ward – with my father in the RAF from the beginning of training in September 1940 and serving together in 456 Squadron until Nov 1941

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A proud day in Moose Jaw: ‘Wings Day’ February 1941: L to R: Dick Bastow, Dad (Bryan Wild), Bernard Wills, Jimmy Ward

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(The wording is personal, so deliberately obscured.)

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Chattie waits under the Cherry blossom.

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“To the dear memory of a beloved husband, Flt Lt JAMES WARD RAF, who died 7th November 1952 aged 52 years…”

 

 

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