Category Archives: Second World War

Flying Blind: RAF Valley 1941

They come in threes, here, the stark boundaries.
The rim of airfield’s ringed around with dunes;
To West and North the ever-waiting seas;
South, three thousand feet of wall, the mountains.

Tripartite runways trangulate all these
Amidst the flat, safe grass. By day, the sun’s
Light spills and shows the haven, Anglesey’s
Low arms of land spread wide in welcome, home.

But you were flying blind. At night you crossed
The air without a moon too many times
To count. Three times your boundaries were lost
In landing where there were no landing lines;

Three times survived. ‘Not yet,’ but how nearly
You turned this plain into death’s dark valley.

© Elizabeth Halls 2015

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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

ControlsTyphoon

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

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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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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A soaring lesson – Great Gransden

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]

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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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RAF Valley and the start of my Where They Served tour

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. Valley_CO_T2As 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! Valley_CerysThe 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.

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Mystery airfield solved?

With a little help from various friends, including Graham and Amanda of GA Promotions (Militaria Fairs). I think I have now identified Dad’s ‘mystery’ airfield. On his list, I picked out the 60 UK airfields where he landed during the war, all except ‘Uppingdon’. There were several contenders for this, including ‘Uppingham’ north of London, suggested by several people. But this didn’t open until 1943, and it’s pretty clear (because he listed them in chronological order) that Dad’s visit to  ‘Uppingdon’ took place in 1941-2. It was in the list next to RAF Shawbury and RAF High Ercall, so I identified the nearby village of Uppington as a possibility. But…no airfield at Uppington.  However, RAF Atcham, also a US air base at one stage, was in the same parish district, only a few miles away from Uppington village.  My father wrote his airfields list neatly in the back of his log book at the end of the war, and he might well have known the airfield by the name of Uppingdon/Uppington as well as RAF Atcham. Besides, what more natural that in recording a single stop-off at Atcham, he remembered it by an evening in the pub at nearby Uppington?

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