Tag Archives: second world war

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

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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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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Filed under Airfields, RAF history, Second World War

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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Fly Llanbedr

FBLlanbedr

Carl, Pin, 1932 Alvis, Gary, Owen, Austin 7, Ed, Elizabeth, Chattie, Ian

What a great bunch of folks at Fly Llanbedr! They were all welcoming, and had arranged perfect weather for my tour, though it was not brilliant for flying today.  Apparently the east wind comes off the mountains having been buffeted into turbulence, and today was one of those days.

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Llanbedr Control Tower – original building

Llanbedr was re-opened last year and looks as if it has been lovingly cared for. The cafe on the first floor of the original control tower has clear views, of course, across the air field. It is light and airy and serves all-day breakfasts and light snacks. It’s a lovely place to gaze at the open view and watch the light aircraft movements. Dad landed here a couple of times, and Ian, a volunteer who knows the history of the airfield, told me that today’s cafe used to be where Dad would have come to check in and out. Two slots in the walls were where he would have posted his paperwork for his aircraft, and receive it back after it was checked and stamped.

Night Flying Equipment Store

Night Flying Equipment Store

Out of the window he pointed out another newly-painted building. ‘That’s the NFE Store,’ he said, ‘Your father was a night-fighter, right? Well, that’s the Night Fighter Equipment store, which was where he would have collected his gear and kit before coming here to clear the paperwork.’ Dad – walking in here in his flying gear ready to go – 74 years ago. That’s touching.Llanbedr_cessna

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Filed under Alvis, Austin, Singer Le Mans, vintage cars

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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Filed under Aviation history, RAF Benevolent Fund, Second World War, Singer Le Mans

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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Want to find your relative’s service record?

Want to find your relative’s service record?.  Since publishing ‘Flying Blind’, so many people have asked me how to go about finding the service record of someone in their family that I have given some information about it on my Flying Blind website: www.flyingblindnightfighter.com

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Courage

Why do we – why do I – celebrate the past so much? There is a resurgence of interest in the first and second world wars. I know that I am drawn to the fact that ordinary people endured and acted with incredible courage in the most testing of circumstances. Some had a naturally daring spirit, and those people are particularly celebrated as heroes – they seemed to have a reckless bravado which propelled them into exultant action and drew others with them. But for me, that exceptional sense of defiant daring is not what I celebrate most. The majority of people did not have that positive desire for risk, that kind of madness. Even so, they did have a sense of adventure, they did experience the thrill of risk and action and wanted to come out of it well, whether they survived it or not (I speak for my father here, as I think that’s how he felt about it). They knew they could die at any time, but pushed that fear down and got on with things, doing the best they could and believing completely that what they were doing had to be done and couldn’t be shirked. The first world war saw thousands of people facing certain death day after day, for months and years, living in the most apalling conditions while in the trenches, bearing the loss of their comrades, the ever-present trauma of that warfare, and the hellish conditions. Staving off despair in the those circumstances – all that was courage, the courage of those days, the courage they were all called to embrace.

But this week particularly I been wondering about courage today and what it means for us to be courageous. Let’s not think that courage belongs to the past, or to those who serve in the armed forces or rescue services today. It belongs to all of us. It has been shown in France this week, and wherever there is an attack on freedom, there will be the courage that rushes in to help victims, combat the threat. It’s shown in the Ebola outbreak where people continue to put their own lives on the line to work in healthcare in those areas. This, too, is easy to celebrate. There is the required courage to speak out and not be silent when something is happening that one knows to be wrong; that is encumbent on all of us.

There is also courage shown in daily life that is not so easy to celebrate because it’s harder to see, and ‘celebration’ seems a difficult word. The shining courage of someone like Kate Gross, who faced dying of cancer in her 30s with such grace and openness and authenticity. The courage of those who get on with their lives after suffering bereavement; of those with long-term illness, or paralysis, and of those who look after them every day; of those facing loneliness in old age: these also are trenches where nobody wants to be; where the endurance seems to have no end in sight, and where, often, there is a sense of loneliness. Living hopefully and positively here is also a kind of warfare: courage on a slow fuse. Let’s not forget that courage of many kinds is around us in many guises; perhaps not to be ‘celebrated’ but recognised, acknowledged, respected: let’s support it in others where we can, and live it in ourselves where we must.

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Filed under first world war, Second World War, social history

New ‘FLYING BLIND’ website

A new website for all matters relating to my father’s memoirs,
‘FLYING BLIND: THE STORY OF A SECOND WORLD WAR NIGHT-FIGHTER PILOT’FlyingBlindCoverFront by Bryan Wild and Elizabeth Halls, with Joe Bamford
is now launched.

READ ALL ABOUT IT! CHECK IT OUT HERE!

URL: www.flyingblindnightfighter.com

Short link: http://wp.me/P5zBn5-1

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Filed under Aviation history, books