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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!

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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:

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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Singers at Hawarden and Cows at RAF Calveley

I was delighted to finish off my visit to Hawarden with a meeting of Singers – a trio, in fact. Bob Francis and friend Ken arrived at the Airport in their two beautiful Singers: one a Le Mans a year older than Chattie and the other a Roadster from the 1950s, both in immaculate order. Thank you to you both so much.

Hawarden4webWith the friendly helpfulness I am constantly experiencing from vintage and classic car owners, they offered to lead me in convoy out of Hawarden and across Chester towards my next airfield, Calveley. Ken had to leave us after Chester, but Bob came with me to Calveley, and helped me find what is left. Like High Ercall, the land is claiming this one back. Unlike High Ercall, its remains linger in dishevelled neglect. A rough, rutted track leads to buildings which are instantly recogniseable as RAF Calveley, but time and chance have definitely happened to them all.



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Afternoon tea and a whale of a time at Hawarden

I met my uncle and aunt, Chris and Angie at Hawarden Airport (pronounced ‘Harden’), at the Chocks Away Cafe. What a treat! We ordered afternoon tea, and saw the sandwiches being prepared to order. A true afternoon tea with tiered cake stand with delicious crustless sandwiches at the bottom, scones with clotted cream in the middle and cakes atop the rest; pot of tea served in flowery cups and saucers and as many refills as required. All this served with a smile and a view of the airfield.

Highly recommended.


John Phipps at Cokebusters with a Rolls Royce Merlin engine

Chris is one of my father’s half-brothers, and himself spent time here at Hawarden (as also at RAF Valley) in the meteorological station here. After tea, we crossed the airport to the office of John Phipps of Cokebusters, in one of the oldest buildings on site, dating from wartime days. Cokebusters is a live engineering company but also operates a charity from the Normandy Veterans – see . The office was indeed reminiscent of wartime days, and the walls were covered with things relating to those days. Pride

of place, however, went to a Rolls Royce Merlin engine, which powered such a large part of the RAF’s total fleet of aircraft: Spitfire, Hurricane, Lancaster and the Boulton Paul Defiant being but a few on the long list.


Airbus ‘Beluga’ taxiing to runway.

Today, Hawarden is dominated by the Airbus facility. I was stunned to see the Airbus’ aptly-named ‘Beluga’ – a huge whale of an aeroplane indeed. Imagine a large jet with the top sliced off and replaced with an enormous humped back, dwarfing the original cockpit which just peeps out below. Imagine such a ponderous creature moving along the runway and slowly, smoothly pushing up improbably into the air, angling towards the clouds as if being hooked out on a line from the earth by a celestial whaler. It’s an astonishing sight. And the reason for this unlikely feat of engineering? It has all been designed and constructed to carry the wings of the Airbus to Toulouse (I believe) where they are to be fitted to the fuselage. Until today I had never considered that such large planes might be made in pieces countries apart, and if I had, I would never have thought about how such large body parts might be brought together. Now I know.

During the war? Well, the modern Airbus follows in the tradition of the shadow factories, of which there was one here. Nearly 5,500 Vickers Wellington bombers were build here, and over 200 Lancasters. It had a maintenance unit (MU), and also housed No 3 Ferry Pilot’s Pool, Air Transport Auxiliary: it was for this reason that Dad was here on 10 February 1942, in a Dominie, on his fortnight’s stint the ATA.

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RAF Wrexham (or Borras)

There is no chance of landing at Wrexham airfield (or Borras as it was also known) as it is today. It is now a quarry.

Wrexham1webAs early as 1912 the racecourse here was eyed up as somewhere to take off and land a plane. It saw service in both world wars. Its position on high ground meant it was nice and dry when nearby airfields were bogged down in wet weather, and was excellent for night landing. During world war two it served in the night-time defence of the northern cities.

Dad landed here twice while he was with 256 Squadron; once during his stint with the ATA (delivery flight – see High Ercall below) in February 1942, and later in June of that year with RO Austin in a Beaufighter. My father did not get on very well with Austin and they parted company. Dad’s remark was ‘His transfer out of the Squadron was not unexpected.’ I’m intrigued, but have been unable to find out more! The relation between pilot and gunner or radar operator was critical.


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RAF Shawbury and Squirrels in the April heat

Everything about my welcome at RAF Shawbury was warm, including the weather. Sqn Ldr Kim Leach was thoughtfulness itself in arranging this visit, from first arrival to leaving. Lunch was with reporter Toby Neal from the Shropshire Star, himself an aviation enthusiast, and Adjutant, Tim (sorry, I can’t remember your surname) in the surroundings of a panelled Officers Mess dating from the early years of the war. Kim tells me that the layout – a large block containing the Mess and reception areas with long corridors stretching out into the wings on either side – is a standard one, so that it is easy to find ones way around in a new camp. There is a sky-blue carpet, high ceiling and the room is airy. Lunch: I chose tasty mushroom soup and macaroni cheese, which I eventually managed to eat around all the talking.  I wondered what was served here when my father came.

WildBrothers004My father’s brother Frank was stationed here in 1942 with ground crew on the Maintenance Unit, and my father visited a couple of times. In October 1942 he even got a fellow pilot to drop him off so he could spend some time with Frank. Shawbury is very close to High Ercall, where Dad spent two weeks with the ATA (see previous post), so I would not be surprised if there was quite a bit of visiting to and fro during that stay. Frank is shown here on the right, with older brother Alan on the left, also ground crew. My father always had a strong admiration for those who worked to make the RAF work and get the planes airworthy, often under extremely difficult and stressful conditions, especially later when they followed the invasion force into Europe after D Day.

Shawbury’s today is home to the Defence Helicopter Flying School, the Central Flying School (Helicopter) and the Central Air Traffic Control School, and feels like a busy station with a good atmosphere. The Station Magazine, Airies, shows a place full of a wide range of activities to choose from, including barber shop singing, community support projects, ‘Football to Africa’ providing aid through football in Kenya – to mention a very few options available to those living and working here. There is also a lot to learn about Shawbury’s history.

In 1945, just after VE Day, Shawbury’s pioneering aviators, scientists and engineers launched a specially modified Lancaster, PD 328, known as Aries, on a special mission to find the Magnetic North Pole (as it had shifted since its previous discovery) among other important scientific tasks. Wing Commander McKinley subsequently wrote “Circling the Pole before the return journey we crossed all the meridians in some 80 seconds and moment later we crossed the International Date Line for the second time in less than two minutes while going in the same direction.’ Some trip for a Lancaster! (from an article in ‘Aries’ Edition 2, 2015, by Mr Michael Jones MBE (WO Rtd RAF).

Shawbury1Back in the present, out on the pale, sun-heated concrete, Chattie slid in beside a Squirrel helicopter for a photograph. Chattie’s chrome and the various points of the helicopter glinted with light, and the airfield shimmered with it. The sun was so bright here that my eyes watered while trying not to blink at the camera. Sqn Ldr Leach (shown right, before she waved me off) offered me a drink of water before I left, ‘because you’ve had to talk all morning!’ That really was very thoughtful, I can tell you. A personal thank you, then, to all at Shawbury who welcomed me; and a more serious thank you to all of you who work here to make the RAF what it is today.


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The past. Very much present.

A moving post about Cotswold airfields and their landscape legacy, with some brilliant photographs.

MMC Musings

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.

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RAF Kelmscott – closed December 1946. A few minutes walk from William Morris’ home in the village, in early…

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Welsh silver and gold

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!


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RAF Valley with my Dad

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.

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Updates to schedule

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


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