Tag Archives: airfields

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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Filed under Aviation history, motoring, RAF history

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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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?’

ControlsBeau

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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Filed under Airfields, Aviation, Aviation history, RAF history, Royal Air Force, Second World War

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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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.

Portreath1web

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RAF Stratford

Stratford4web

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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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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High Ercall – graceful in retirement

G2HighErcall1

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 WhereTheyServedFBCoverSpit

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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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