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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RAF Manston

I was privileged to be invited to stay at the Mess at Manston, and I have had a truly delightful stay thanks to the hospitality of Wing Commander Chris Thorpe. This photograph tells its own story: here I have learned to think about the critical importance of understanding fire and the use of fire-fighting equipment and breathing apparatus for the armed forces. Intensive training in this area is carried out here. The recruits who are further along in their training are on the left of the picture, with the dirtier clothing.

It is struck me forcibly while spending time here that I am in danger of looking back almost exclusively to the past combat period of the Second World War, as I remember my father; but I should not for a minute lose sight of the fact that soldiers, air crew and sailors have almost continually been laying their lives on the line – and laying them down in too many cases – in the service of our peace in all the 70 decades since then. They are doing that today, as I sit here writing this. The Second World War just happened to be the bit of it in which my father served.  So, to all of you serving in our armed forces today, I salute you for what you are doing.

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