Leading Aircraftman Alan Hartley - No.3011060
Unit : 271 Squadron, 46 Group
Service No. : 3011060
The following is taken from the article, "It's Only A Number", written by Alan Hartley about his period of service with 271 Squadron.
You're more than a number in my little red book - started a song, which we used to sing during the war but most numbers are lost to us. On my way to holiday I saw on a cleaning trolley the number 271 and my memory flashed back to another railway journey as a freshly trained flight mechanic, sitting on my kit bag in a crowded train corridor to join 271 Squadron in Doncaster. We were travelling from Locking in Weston-Super-Mare where for four months a group of trainees had specialised on the new Napier Sabre engine being fitted to the latest fighter, the Hawker Typhoon, so we were looking forward to joining a Typhoon Squadron to service these monster fighters.
Imagine our chagrin when reporting for duty at Doncaster to be told that the aircraft we would be servicing would be the new transport aircraft, the Douglas DC3 or Dakota as the RAF named it. So we spent the next few days familiarising ourselves with the large Pratt & Whitney radial engines and the 95' wingspan of these fat green elephants of aircraft. But on 29th February 1944 our 271 Squadron moved to an airfield in the Cotswolds near Cirencester and a little village called Down Ampney. Although we had never heard of it, apparently it was the birthplace of the well-known composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
On arrival we were briefed on our future role which was to train to fly all aspects of airborne Operations, Glider towing, paratrooper dropping, air despatch, the dropping of supplies to ground troops and air ambulance, for at Down Ampney we had a large Casualty Air Evacuation Centre fitted with a fully surgical hospital and we were told that between airborne operations we would be bringing back casualties from the European war fronts. Shortly after settling into our corrugated iron Nissen huts we were joined by another Dakota Squadron, No.48. Both Squadrons comprised three flights, A, B & C, with ten Dakotas to a flight, so we totalled sixty Dakotas in all. Later on, we were advanced in our training we had both Squadrons taking off towing the wooden Horsa gliders and circling the village - the noise was horrendous and I often felt sorry for those 280 or so villagers torn out of their rural serenity by all of these aircraft and over 3,500 airmen and WAAFS who had taken over their village, particularly when the village bakery opened at 8 am and was sold out of every crumb by 8.15 am, the long queues at the tiny Post Office and the sole telephone box, the never-ending hunt for beer in the local pub which soon became carefully husbanded by the publican for the locals, whilst we could only buy a liquid paint stripper which they called scrumpy or rough cider.
In March we soon learned a lesson about the dangers of war and flying hazards when whilst practicing close formation flying, the wing tip of one Dakota contacted the elevators of another, which plunged to the ground killing all of the aircrew and some of our mechanics who had gone up for a joy ride. By coincidence the pilot whose wing tip caused the accident was killed himself a month later when the glider he was towing got out of control and brought his Dakota down. By now it was April and training and exercises became more intense. It was most exciting to go on some of these exercises which we mechanics were encouraged to do, flying to Salisbury Plain with a plane full of heavily equipped paratroopers. We always flew without doors in the Dakotas and it was quite exciting to experience the howling rush of air from the slip stream and the noise of the throbbing Pratt & Whitney engines. Over the door aperture there were two lights, a red and a green, and as we approached Netheravon the red light would suddenly flash. Immediately five or ten paratroopers (depending on the size of the "stick" as they called it) would clip their static lines to the cable in the roof of the aircraft and then check the clip of the comrade in front. They would then close up very close to each other until the red light changed to green and then with a clatter of Army boots like a huge centipede they moved rapidly down the centre aisle, sharp turn right out of the door and the only evidence of where they had once stood were the static lines and parachute bags which we had to haul back in the aircraft before we dropped the next stick. It was quite remarkable, the speed of leaving the aircraft for not only were the paras heavily equipped with arms and ammunition pouches, entrenching tools, grenades but they also had an equipment bag which fitted on a leather side strap on their left legs. A long pin and eyelets kept this bag firm until just before the para landed, he would pull the pin and the bag would fall away on the end of a 60' length of rope. This enabled the para to keep his equipment bag handy when he landed but would not be encumbered by the weight of the bag on touch down.
Again, one of these exercises was marred by an unfortunate and avoidable lethal accident. One para's chute had become entangled in a tree whilst his bag was in another. So there he swung between the two trees, suspended about forty feet above the ground, shouting quite happily to his mates below and receiving some friendly but derisory banter. The fire brigade engine arrived from Devizes and a telescopic extending aluminium ladder was raised. A fireman climbed up the ladder to the para but unfortunately he hadn't been briefed on the para's harness, for instead of cutting the rope to the bag, thus allowing the para to swing to the tree, he pressed the release knob on the harness with the result that it dropped off and the whole weight of the heavily equipped para and the fireman were suddenly transferred to the top of this flimsy ladder and to our horror it collapsed. Both men plummeted to the ground and the fireman fell on top of the para who was killed by the impact. It was a very sombre bunch of mechanics who flew back to Down Ampney after witnessing this tragic event. On the same exercise a para became tangled in the tail wheel of his Dakota and despite frantic efforts to get him back in, they failed. So they decided to fly to Poole Harbour where they flew low and cut his strap for him to fall in the sea but he was unfortunately dead when he was recovered.
Shortly after this, I also had a salutary lesson in the dangers of glider towing. I was sitting on the grass beside the Horsa glider and chatting to the glider pilots prior to a cross country exercise called 'Balbo', when one of the glider pilots asked me if I had ever been up in a glider, when I answered negatively, he invited me to join them. Several times I had watched these black gliders swoop silently over the hedges, apply gradual flap and gently land on our airfield on the grass between our runways. So I had no hesitation in racing over to our dispersal flight hut to ask Chiefy (our Flight Sergeant) if I could go. He expressed his policy of not interfering with suicidal aspirations and acquiesced. So I stepped into the cockpit and stood between the two green tubular seats of the glider, the only sound being the thumping of my heart. We took off very smoothly, being airborne well before the Dakota became unstuck. So there we were, swaying gently from side to side or up and down in the slip stream at the end of this long thick rope entwined with the telephone cable which enabled the glider pilot to talk to the tug pilot. High tow, low tow - we went through the lot until we reached Oxford and turned for base which we reached after a short time of flying. We circled the airfield but to my surprise our glider cast off its rope at about 3-4,000 feet and our Dakota flew away trailing our rope. Suddenly the glider pilot barked "Hold tight son" and puzzled, I wondered where we were going. I soon found out for the pilots pushed the control column onto the floor of the glider and placed their Army boots on it. The nose dropped and diving vertically it plummeted earthwards. My knuckles became white as my terror stricken grip tightened on the green tubes of the seats and my eyes started to bulge as I looked at the tiny Matchbox model of the black and white control van at the end of the runway getting bigger by the second. The Horsa had been described as a Silent Sword but I can refute this for there are gaps between the separate sections of the glider and as we gathered speed a banshee wail screeched from these gaps. Thoughts tumbled through my addled brain - one, that the whole tail unit was held on by four bolts for rapid exiting, another was that I had made a terrible mistake and lastly the heap of strawberry jam that would be sent to my mother with regrets. By now all or my internal organs had assembled in the nape of my neck. If anyone has experienced this vertical rapid descent on a roller coaster or the hair raising "Krachen" ride in Disneyland in Florida, I assure them that that stomach wrenching experience pales into insignificance with this 7 ton gliders descent... Then, when I thought that all was lost, the gliders pilot shouted "right" and they both hauled the stick back and we levelled out. As we touched down, the huge barn door flaps were dropped and it was like running into a huge rubber block. As I tottered away from the glider, I had the thought that whilst I was fully fit, the experience left me mentally and physically exhausted but in battle our glider pilots would be expected to fight. When I arrived at dispersal the NAAFI wagon was serving tea "What was it like?" I was asked. "A piece of cake" I replied with my shaking hand slopping tea from my mug. From that day on, I grew a tremendous respect for the glider pilots. The next time you fly in one of our modern airliners and see the runways brightly lit, think of a glider pilot landing in pitch darkness in a plywood box and a Perspex screen, the only thing between you and perhaps a wall, a barn or tree, at up to 80 mph. So often we get people claiming compensation for stress at work. If you want a real definition of stress, ask a glider pilot or a submariner!
At the end of May an order came confining us to camp. The phone box was sealed, all letters left open for the censors and all leave cancelled. The invasion loomed near. Then came the order on June 4th to paint black and white stripes round the fuselage and wings of all our Dakotas and Horsa gliders to help our anti aircraft gunners on D Day. At about 6 am on the morning of June 6th, someone cried "Christ, look at this lot!" and marching round our perimeter track were the 3rd Canadian Parachute Regiment. They had cropped their hair to the bone leaving a tuft of hair in a V shape like the Cherokee Indians. They had black and white war paint on their faces and in addition to all of their equipment, many of them carried butchers' meat cleavers in their belts. They looked fearsome and we were all delighted that we were helping them to depart rather than have them arriving. Our Dakotas had actually flown on the night before to drop gliders and paras on crossroads, bridges and gun batteries before the actual invasion. They took off at precisely 10.35 pm on the night of June 5th, so in effect the invasion started at Down Ampney.
Four days after the invasion our Dakotas made their first landings on French soil, taking vital supplies, ammunition, petrol, tyres, food, medical supplies and personnel. Once emptied the Dakotas were then fitted with stretcher racks and we brought back our first casualties, one of which was a German prisoner of war with no boots. He had pretended to be dead whilst a Frenchman stole his boots because he claimed he had seen the Canadian paras lopping off heads with their meat cleavers. The casualties were cared for by a lone WAAF nursing orderly, who had no badges to show their trade and received 3p a day extra flying pay. They were the only WAAFS to fly operationally and were given parachutes. However, once casualties were loaded, so many on stretchers, so many walking wounded, they were forbidden to use their parachutes as their casualties did not have chutes. As our Dakotas were engaged on war duties they were not permitted to display a Red Cross so they were fair game for German fighters. Altogether these nursing orderlies on our Dakotas brought back over 100,000 casualties, many of whom would not have survived but for the rapid surgery they received in Blighty. It was not unusual for a soldier to be wounded in France and on the operating tables at Down Ampney in under three hours. This is a record that we are justly proud of but has now been forgotten in the mists of time.
For the next few months we were busy taking urgent supplies to the forward airfields, to back up our advancing armies. Then a crisis arose because PLUTO (the pipeline under the ocean) developed a fault and our armour was running out of petrol. So at the beginning of September all of our five Squadrons of 46 Group Transport Command carried jerry cans of petrol twice a day to Evere and Maelsbrook airfields near Brussels. How do you fancy flying a plane load of petrol and aviation fuel on an unarmed aircraft flying very slowly at 150 mph twice a day for a week? You may need stress counselling at the end of the week!
In the meantime life proceeded at Down Ampney and living conditions improved enormously. We had a superb gymnasium built and our Sports Officer was Flt Lt Len Harvey who used to be British Heavyweight Champion, who refereed all our boxing matches for which I had been "volunteered" into becoming the Station welterweight. We had a concert party organised by our Entertainments Officer, a Flt Lt Jimmy "the Professor" Edwards who became very famous on radio as Mr Glum and TV with Eric Sykes. Jim had a favourite RAF officer's cap which he had had since taking his commission, the peak of which had frayed and a piece of black rubber hung down over his forehead but he wouldn't change it. We also had RAFDA players the Drama Section who used to put plays on to entertain our group. Then occasionally we had visits from ENSA, the Forces Entertainments, which we quickly named "Every Night Something Awful" after their initials.
Another great source of entertainment was Billy, our Squadron dog. Billy was a black and white smooth haired terrier who was picked up as a puppy on an abandoned airfield in France, put into the blouse of one of our mechanics and flown back in the Harrows the Squadron were using then, to Doncaster. Billy became a great character and he would walk up Ellers Road where our guardroom was in Doncaster to the bus stop where he would be picked up by the bus crews who got to know Billy, and taken into Doncaster. My first introduction to Billy was at Down Ampney where Phil Niren who looked after Billy, said "Watch this" as Billy came in decidedly off white and settled by the stove in the middle of the billet. Phil picked up the fire bucket, rattled the handle and said "Bath, Billy". I have never seen such a complete change in a dog as he arose tottering, whining in pain and his legs were like rubber as he staggered slowly up the billet until he got near the open window. Then with an athletic bound he was out of the window and gone for the rest of the day! He would never walk to our dispersal which was nearly two miles from our billet. He was an expert cross bar rider and anyone going to the flights only had to say "Come on, Billy" and with a bound he was on the crossbar - paws on the handle bar. Occasionally the big police Alsatians would come down to our dispersal but as soon as they got to "B" Flight Billy was off and barred their paths effectively with growls and bristling hair until they left the site. I would mention at this stage that after fetching stones for four years, Billy had no teeth, they were all worn away. His right ear was torn and a big scar over his nose. When the NAAFI wagon came to our dispersal, there was the usual charge to get into the queue, Billy had to be first and if you tried to pass him he would snap at you with his gums. Very often when we went into the dispersal hut to drink our tea and wads, Billy would be sat on the floor with a piece of cake between his ears, absolutely motionless, until someone would say "Right, Billy" when his head would snap up and the cake caught and consumed. Billy would often go flying and went on one trip to B56 at Brussels. When the Dakota returned, Foster who was supposed to take care of Billy gave the devastating news that Billy had gone AWOL (absent without official leave) from the Brussels airfield. He was missing for about five days when he came trotting down to the apron from where our Dakotas left, pristine white with a large bow of pink ribbon. To this day we do not know where he spent those five days but he did have a smug look of a long time afterwards.
At the time we did not know that disaster loomed for our Squadron, for General Montgomery came up with this plan to overcome the stalemate of our advance into Europe. General Patten was advancing on a broad front towards Paris whilst the British and Canadians were trying to advance through Belgium and Holland and into North Germany and the Ruhr industrial centre, but Eisenhower did not have enough supplies to satisfy both Generals. Monty proposed a very daring plan for by then our 30 Corps under General Horrocks was rather static in North Belgium. This plan was to drop the 82nd American paras at Eindhoven and capture the bridges over the rivers and canals in that area and then fight on northwards towards the 101st "Screaming Eagle" paras who would be dropped at Nijmegen bridge. The 101st were to capture bridge, fight back south to link up with the 82nd and fight north to the Last objective - the bridge at Arnhem over the Rhine where the 1st Airborne Division were to be dropped. Their object was to capture the bridge and hold it for two days until the 30 Corps had rapidly advanced up the corridor of para troops and relieve the 1st Airborne Division. There was great enthusiasm for this bold plan especially by the members of the 1st Airborne Division, for the 6th Airborne Division had been used at Normandy on D Day with great success and the 1st were anxious to prove that they were their equal if not better. The Allied advance had been so swift that every objective planned for the 1st Division had been taken before the 1st could be used. They enplaned and disembarked from twelve planned operations so the whole Division was becoming very frustrated, so much so that when I asked General Sir John Hackett many years later at a reunion, he told me that if they hadn't let them go to Arnhem there would have been a riot, their feelings were so pent up. There were doubts expressed that we could be going "a bridge too far" for it had been discovered through a Spitfire reconnaissance flight that there was evidence of armour being at Arnhem whereas Browning had stated that Arnhem was only defended by third class troops.
So on September 17th 1944, the whole of our 46 Group comprising 271 and 48 at Down Ampney, 512 and 575 at Broadwell and 233 at Blakehill Farm supplemented by a newly formed Canadian Squadron, 437 RCAF, took the Horsa gliders full of troops, jeeps, guns etc, on a bright Sunday morning on Operation Market Garden. It was a very impressive sight to see all of the Dakotas towing their Horsa gliders rising under an hour, forming up in huge columns and roaring eastwards. Unfortunately we did not have enough Dakotas, Albermarles and Stirlings to drop the whole 1st Airborne Division, so a second lift had to be planned for the next day. When my skipper P/O Len Wilson returned I asked him how the operation had gone and he was most enthusiastic about the gliders going in, the paras falling in their thousands, the most spectacular sight he had ever seen.
On the Monday morning, off the squadrons went again with the second lift. When Len returned from his second lift, again I quizzed him on his reaction. Fantastic sight, again the gliders flying in, the different coloured chutes to indicate ammunition, food, clothing, medical supplies as well as the remaining thousands of paras. I couldn't contain my excitement and asked if I could accompany them on the next mission. "No problem" said Len. "When you put the pins in tomorrow, jump aboard". Again, Chiefy was agreeable for me to go as there was nothing for us to do whilst our aircraft were away. The pins which Len referred to were the locking pins on the undercarriage which prevent the undercarriage being raise whilst it is stationary on the ground. My last job when my aircraft took off was to remove the chocks from the wheels, take the pins out with their long red streamers, show them to the pilot who acknowledges the signal, then I place the pins in the box just inside the open door frame, for as I have said before we flew without any doors fitted.
The next morning I stood by our aircraft ready to go when Len came over to tell me that another Dakota on our flight had developed a trimming fault and as we needed as many aircraft as possible and as he was a senior pilot, he would be taking FZ626. However, he had had a word with the pilot who was going to take our Dakota and he agreed to take me but when the pilot came to our Dak I recognised him as a peace time officer always in full officer uniform and insisted on being saluted to at every meeting. So I backed off and told him that I wasn't allowed to go. I waved him off little knowing that he would not be returning to base, for what we didn't know was that there were two Panzer divisions at Arnhem, the 9th and 10th, who after taking a pounding in Normandy withdrew to Arnhem to refit and re-equip. They reacted very quickly to the Airborne drop and on the Monday evening captured the dropping zones where our Dakotas had been briefed on a re-supply mission, identifying the markers which had been laid out by the ground reconnaissance troops. As we were short of parachutes, wickerwork freefall baskets were used to drop non-breakable or non-explosive supplies, so our aircrews were briefed to fly in at 500 feet at 120 mph in a straight line for two minutes, broad daylight, no fighter escort. The DZs (dropping zones) were surrounded by every anti aircraft gun the Germans could get hold of, mounting hand held machine guns even on supports like piles of orange boxes.
Unsuspecting, our Squadron flew in and were met with a tremendous curtain of exploding shells and tracer bullets. Many Dakotas were shot out of the sky and Len Wilson in his FZ626 as he pulled away from the DZ over Arnhem was hit by a flak gun. Badly damaged he tried to crash his Dakota on the gun site in an attempt to wipe out the gun to make sure it did not shoot down any other following Daks. As he aimed his stricken plane, three parachutes were seen to leave. Len Gaydon, the navigator, and two Air Despatchers, the RASC soldiers who were responsible for the Army supplies we were carrying. Len must have died for at the last minute of this drama he must have slumped over the controls and the aircraft suddenly swung to port, slicing the top of a tall tree, hitting a house in Bakenbergseweg and crashing into the back garden. Their bodies were interred in the garden before being re-buried in the Airborne Cemetery at Oosterbruck.
One of our pilots, Flt Lt David Lord, was hit in the starboard fuel tank as he approached the dropping zone and whilst his wing was burning the despatchers pushed out the panniers. After his first run David asked his navigator, Harry King, to make sure all the panniers had been delivered. Harry found that the rollers in the Dak had been damaged by flak and two panniers had missed the drop, so David elected to fly in again to drop these two panniers. As he circled Arnhem with his starboard wing now enveloped in flames, the whole battle stopped on the ground and friend and foe gazed in wonder at this supreme act of courage. As the two panniers went out, the wing collapsed, the port wing reared up and threw Harry King out of the open door. Harry was the sole survivor. For this action, David Lord was posthumously awarded the only Victoria Cross of Transport Command.
"Professor" Jimmy Edwards managed to avoid the flak in KG444 and cleared the Arnhem area on his way back to base. He told his wireless operator, Bill Randall, to get the sandwiches and coffee flask then suddenly there was a tremendous noise and the aircraft shook violently. Jim thought that they had been hit by flak but looking out of his window he saw the ugly snout and yellow spinners of an FW190, who proceeded to rake them again. The engines suddenly went into fine pitch - Jim gave the order to bail out, which second pilot Alan Clarke and navigator Harry Sorensen promptly obeyed. Then Jim collected his parachute, put the automatic pilot in and raced down the aircraft to bale out through the open door. But lying near the door were the four air despatchers and Jim yelled "Why haven't you jumped." "Can't, sir" came the reply, "all wounded in the legs". So throwing his chute down, Jim went back to the cockpit but he couldn't see through the windscreen which was now covered in black soot and oil. So he knocked out the escape exit in the roof and by standing in the seat with his head in the slip stream he brought the aircraft down into a small wood where the small saplings broke his speed without breaking the aircraft up. As he landed the nose dug in and catapulted Jim out of the top hatch and on to the ground where he was joined by Bill Randall who had also stayed on board. Jim said that they felt very vulnerable lying there in the yellow Mae Wests but as the Fokker came in for the kill, he ran out of ammunition for only three rounds were fired. Jim had many burns to his face and ears, his ears shrivelled like cockleshells (the reason he wore his hair long to hide them) and for his brave action Jim received the DFC. The greatest disappointment of this gallant sacrifice by our aircrews who flew these suicidal missions for four days on the trot, was that less than 20% were received by the paras on the ground for there was no radio communication to tell our pilots that the DZs had been captured.
Back at Down Ampney we all felt very depressed by this severe setback to our Airborne operations and were appalled by the state of our battered aircraft staggering back from Arnhem with huge holes in the wings and fuselage and engines smoking through over-boosting. On the neighbouring airfield of Fairford, their Stirlings were also streaming back and one day we were horrified to see a Stirling coming in against the circuit firing red Very flares indicating a request for priority to land because of casualties on board and this Stirling crashed head on with another Stirling on the circuit. Locked together in a lethal embrace, they plummeted to earth leaving a long thick black column of smoke hanging in the sky. We, the ground crew, felt very sorry for our aircrew who carried out this re-supply mission knowing that although many of them were flying to their deaths, the supplies had to be taken to the beleaguered paras who needed them so badly. I have always maintained that this was the most courageous flying of the war. Broad daylight, no fighter escort, no guns to defend themselves at 500 feet and 120 mph into an inferno of anti aircraft gunfire was absolutely suicidal. Nevertheless, without stress counselling, work continued with our Transport duties, flying in all weathers with urgently needed supplies and the return of casualties.
Christmas came and went, memorable for the severe weather with ablutions frozen, no hot water, melting snow in the fire buckets to get shaving water. Not enough blankets to keep out the cold, not enough coke for the single stove in the Nissen huts. One of our airman had brought his racing bike back to camp and the frost shattered his frame. Then on March 22nd 1945, a list went up for about 30 flight mechanics to report to the Airmen's Mess at 3.30 pm with small personal kit. When we assembled at the Mess there were several lorries which we boarded, not knowing where we were going. Eventually after a few hours on the road eastwards we arrived at an unoccupied airfield, God knows where, where we disembarked and moved into the huts. Very few electric light bulbs so many of us were in the dark. We did have a welcoming gesture, for as we bedded down, we heard for the first time the drone of a V1 buzz bomb which exploded with a shattering roar not far from the camp.
The next morning, it was a brilliant day, sun shining and a clear blue sky. We inspected our Dakotas which had been filled with fuel on the previous night and stood by to wave them off as they towed the Horsa gliders to Germany. I stood on the airfield in absolute awe as Lancasters, Halifaxes, Stirlings also towing gliders hundreds of them at different heights, Mosquitoes, Marauders, Mitchells, Mustangs, Lightnings, Typhoons, hordes of them all roaring eastwards in all directions as far as the eye could see. High above, a lone Fortress would drop an orange flare and from all points of the compass other Fortresses formated in this flare until they build up a 12 block formation and off they would wheel towards Germany whilst another Fortress dropped another flare. This continued until mid morning. I felt very privileged to be part of this enormous demonstration of air power, as we took part in the last Airborne operation of the war Operation Varsity (the Crossing of the Rhine). About 40 years later I learned that our mystery airfield was Gosfield in Essex.
So ended the war but whilst Bomber, Fighter and Coastal Commands were standing down, as we in Transport Command became more busy than ever for there were ex-prisoners of war from Germany and Japan to bring back to the UK and for this purpose Transport Command set up a number of staging posts from the UK to India and Japan and for the next twelve months our Dakotas brought back hundreds of thousands of time expired personnel. I left 271 and Down Ampney to join 575 Squadron on this air route, stationed at Bari in Italy where I took over station sports.
So I thankfully survived the war, to organise a stained glass memorial window in the village church at Down Ampney and now have a thriving Association of ex Down Ampney personnel, but that's another story. To conclude the Down Ampney history I must record that on VJ Day 1945 when everyone was so relieved that we were not going to Japan because of the atomic bomb being dropped, there was a huge celebratory party and beer, wine and spirits flowed like water. Even our officers were in their alcofrolics and they decided to make a huge firework. So they obtained a 3' 6" clay drain pipe from a nearby builders stores, and filled it fully of Very cartridges and prepared to light it. At that moment Lt. Col. Joubert, our 271 South African Commanding Officer, who had flown every dangerous mission the Squadron had executed, and had also been a fighter pilot in the First World War, pulled his rank and claimed the right to light it. Unsteadily, for he was "in his cups", he bent down to light it when suddenly it exploded. The clay pipe shattered and a piece removed the back of Joubert's skull and he died two days later in Wroughton Hospital. So tragically ended the days of a very brave and greatly respected officer who had left his native South Africa to fight for us.
Last year our last remaining RAF building (our gymnasium) was demolished to enable a small close of houses to be built. Cirencester Council invited suggestions for naming the Close and I submitted the name: 'Joubert Close' to honour and perpetuate his name but unfortunately they decided to name it after a popular farm house. The way of life I suppose - the once busy airfield has returned to peace time agriculture and war time deeds of 'derring do' have receeded in peoples' memories.
The following is Alan Hartley's report on the beginning and conclusion of his campaign to erect a memorial to the aircrews who lost their lives at Arnhem.
The Arnhem Aircrew Memorial
On September 19th 1944 my Dakota pilot P/O Len Wilson invited me to fly with them (I was their flight mechanic) on the third day of Operation Market Garden at Arnhem and as an impressionable 20 year old I was keen to go with them. Unfortunately, or fortunately, a quirk of fate prevented me from going and they were shot down and all but one of the aircrew were killed, which turned out to be the first re-supply day. The Germans had captured the Dropping Zones on the Monday night and had recognised the colour panels set out on the DZ by the Pathfinder Paras so they brought up into the area every 88mm anti aircraft gun and quick firing pom poms, even mounting Schmeissers on orange boxes to get the correct trajectory and then waited for our Dakotas to arrive which they did in broad daylight with no fighter escort and no guns to fire back. They had to fly at 500' and at 105mph in a straight line for two minutes because we were short of parachutes and some of our supplies were dropped in freefall wicker work baskets and an accurate drop was essential. The Germans set up a tremendous curtain of bursting anti aircraft shells, incendiaries and even streams of small arms machine gun bullets, setting many of our Dakotas on fire and bringing them crashing down - in many cases too low for parachute escape. Flt Lt. David Lord DFC of 271 Squadron was hit in the starboard engine as he dropped his supplies and when he started to turn over Arnhem he enquired if all the panniers had gone and his navigator Harry King reported that because the steel rollers had been damaged with flak, two panniers remained. So, on fire with his starboard engine burning fiercely, he elected to circle and come into the dropping run again. As he circled in flames, the whole battle on the ground stopped in awe as everyone looked at this brave act of selfless airmanship. As he came round for his second run, he dropped his two panniers just as his starboard wing collapsed, throwing navigator Harry King out of the door, and plunged to the ground in a sheet of flame, killing all seven of the occupants, aircrew and air despatchers. For this gallant action, David was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the only one won for Transport Command. My own Dakota FZ626 flown by Len Wilson was shot down as he pulled away from the dropping zone having dropped his supplies. An eye witness said that Len tried to crash his aircraft into the anti aircraft gun that had shot him down but Len must have died and slumped across the control column, for the aircraft veered to port, hit a tree and crashed into a house. The crew were buried in this garden before being re-interred in the Airborne Cemetery.
Every time I go to Arnhem I have always felt that there should be a memorial to our aircrews who died o that operation because despite the heavy losses and seeing so many of their comrades shot down, they flew those re-supply missions for four consecutive days.
I was hoping that a younger man would fill this omission and raise a memorial but as the years rolled by it became obvious that it wasn't going to be done. So three years ago, I decided to grasp the nettle and launched a project. I had priced the memorial I had in mind and was set a target of £20,000, which included £1700 VAT. I was not certain that although we lost 175 aircrew, in relation to those killed in Arnhem it may have been to small a percentage to gain public sympathy so I sent out appeal letters to various corporations.
Shortly after I started the tsunami disaster happened which mopped up a great deal of appeal money but I was most fortunate that HSBC whose chairman was the father of a posthumous VC winner, Lt Grayburn, allocated £10,000 towards the memorial which gave me a great boost. I contacted a foundry company, Morris Singer, who cast the bronze eagle for me and a Dutch stonemason gave me a very favourable quote to make a black polished granite plinth. When the spread eagle was ready TNT Express, who are Dutch owned, agreed to ship it to Arnhem free of charge.
On the memorial we decided on the following inscription "To the memory of the Royal Air Force, Commonwealth Air Force and the USAAF aircrews who died on Operation Market Garden September 1944. In memoria aeterna". Then, because I felt that our airmen had deliberately sacrificed their lives in a vain attempt to get the supplies to the beleaguered Airborne on the ground, I added the biblical quotation "Greater love hath no man than this than a man lays down his life for his friend". The memorial was completed and dedicated on Friday September 15th 2006. When I first approached Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Air Force, not only did he give his approval but he allocated a Wing Commander to arrange the ceremonial side of the dedication. I also had great assistance from two Dutchmen, Arie jan van Hees, an author who wrote a superb book about Arnhem called "Green On", and Frans Ammerlaan who set up a trust "Operation Market Garden Foundation" to maintain the memorial.
Before the dedication I was approached by a Flight Sgt Ian Shackleton of RAF Rheindalen who had organised a sponsored cycle ride to Arnhem, raising 2000 Euros for the memorial fund. Ian wanted me to fly to Dusseldorf where my wife and I would be taken to RAF Rheindalen where he wanted me to talk to the airmen about our Arnhem Airborne Operations.
The next day dawned bright with warm sunshine and when we arrived in Arnhem at the Hartenstein Museum the memorial was draped in a huge Union Jack and over 300 people started to gather. The band of the Parachute Regt was playing and a flight of the Queens Colour Squadron RAF arrived and took their position either side of the memorial as Guard of Honour. We were then joined by an entourage of seven ambassadors from countries including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Holland, USA, Great Britain and Poland all with enormous wreaths. The flag was removed by Bert Tipping, a 271 wireless operator shot down at Arnhem; Ken Pattison who flew as a navigator on all of the glider and re-supply missions with 512 Squadron; Mrs Buckley who was a relative of Flt Lt David Lord VC; and finally, as I decided that as the Airborne were the main reason for our aircrews' sacrifice, it would be appropriate to have an ex Para on the remaining corner so Ray Sheriff agreed to be the fourth member on the flag. Ray was blinded on the first day at Arnhem and has since jumped for over 60 years with a parachute on the anniversaries of Operation Market Garden. The wreaths were duly laid and as we did so there was a roar of aircraft engines as a Dakota and two Havards followed by a Hercules performed a fly past tribute. One of my 271 Squadron members, Nick Crocker, had sent me a very moving poem he had written about the sheer frustration all the aircrew felt in trying to get supplies to the paras and Airborne on the ground and this poem was included in the Order of Service. Eddie Leslie, who was a pilot with 48 Squadron and flew both glider missions and re-supply flights, read the poem. After the dedication we held a small reception whilst the guests mingled to the music of the Para band and the Queens Colour Squadron performed one of their drill sequences without a word of command on the lawn.
So ended for me one of the most emotional but rewarding days of my life and I must confess that when I laid my wreath I whispered to the Aircrew "there you are, lads, we've done it!!".
The Lonsdale Memorial
Several years ago I had a phone call from Down Ampney to say that Major Dickie Lonsdale and his wife would like to visit All Saints church to see my stained glass memorial window about our Squadron No 271 and Airborne operations. So I agreed to go to Down Ampney and be his guide. He greatly admired my window and in the ensuring conversation his wife remarked that it would be nice to have a stained glass window in the Old Church at Oosterbeek where Dickie Lonsdale was sent by General Hackett to head up a Lonsdale Force comprising about 150 Airborne who were the remnants and survivors of much bigger units which had been decimated. These men had been fighting for several days and were short of all kinds of supplies and also sleep. However, this scratch force was able to keep two well equipped Panzer Divisions apart in the ground behind the church leading to the river Rhine. If these Panzer divisions had joined the whole para force left in Arnhem would have been surrounded with no way of escape. As we agreed on making the window and the church wardens at the Old Church had allocated a plain glass window space for it, I pointed out to Dickie that whilst I would do the planning I did not want to be involved with fund raising because I felt that an appeal for funds coming from a lowly ex Flight mechanic would not be well received by the Airborne ex paras so Dickie agreed that he would be responsible for fund raising.
So the project was launched and in co-operation with the architect who had guided me on the Down Ampney window I approached a maker of stained glass windows, Goddard & Gibbs of Tottenham who made my window.
In my design I placed Dickie Lonsdale with his arm in a sling for he had dislocated his fingers jumping out of the Dakota and a bandage round his head for a bullet had furrowed the side of his head, addressing his tired and weary troops who were in the pews cleaning their weapons. At the bottom of the window I put the cap badges of all the men who fought in this Lonsdale Force i.e. Para Regt, South Staffs, Reconnaissance Squadron, Royal Artillery, 7th KOSB, Glider Pilots Regt. Unfortunately after a couple of years Dickie Lonsdale died so I was left with the problem - continue and chance my luck or pack it in. I took the former choice and continued, really in deference to what Dickie Lonsdale and his Lonsdale Force had achieved. At this point I would point out that before we started we made an approach to the Church Wardens of the Old Church and they readily gave their permission to proceed and allocated a window. About a month before the window was ready for installation they also sent me a pattern of the window orifice to make sure that it would fit correctly. To my great surprise about this time I received a phone call from General Sir John Hackett to ask if I was going to place a memorial window depicting Dickie Lonsdale in the Old Church and when I confirmed this he said "I do not approve of personalised memorials and as I am going over to Arnhem for the BBC this week, I shall stop it." I protested pointing out that this was not a personalised memorial to Dickie Lonsdale but to the Lonsdale Force collectively but Hackett was adamant and he did stop it, getting the Church Wardens to deny that they gave me permission. I was devastated by this turn of events and even contacted Generals Urquhart and Frost but they backed Hackett for how could an LAC defeat three Generals? The story was in the Daily Telegraph! However, a month or so later having made aware the need of a memorial to the efforts of the Lonsdale Force, the powers that be headed by General Hackett decided to raise a memorial near the church and then he had the temerity to ask me for the money which people had sent to me for the window. I pointed out to him that the money had been donated for a memorial window and that I was only a trustee so before I could consider his request I had to go back to my donors for their decisions. The majority left it to me to decide - most of the Para Regt Assoc. Branches had their £50 returned but one donor said "I have a good idea - every time we go to the church for a visit the door is often locked and there is nowhere to sit. How about a memorial seat in the grounds dedicated to the Lonsdale Force?" I was taken with this excellent suggestion and phoned an Arnhem Dutch builder who told me that the best wooden seats in Europe were made by a Kent company. So I contacted them and they sent me a catalogue from which I selected a beautiful 12' seat and placed an order. In a place called Srinagar in the Punjab I have contact with a wood carver who carves RAF Squadron badges for me in teak. So I sent to Gulam Hussan the six patterns of their badges which were carved and sent to the wood working company in Kent who affixed them in such a way that vandals could not remove and it was shipped to the church in Oosterbeck. To my horror I received a phone call from the Church Wardens to say that they could not put it in the grounds and I immediately thought that it was because I had "To the Memory of the Lonsdale Force" carved into the top bar but apparently they thought that it was too magnificent to be left outside where it could be vandalised so they had decided to have it in the church. So when we were all gathered in Arnhem for the anniversary of the battle, to a full church the seat was dedicated and I managed to make contact with one representative of each of the six units to draw a huge Union Jack flag off the seat to dedicate it. Because of the controversy with the Wardens and Hackett I got them to say that the seat was donated by a "well wisher" in the UK.
Twelve months later I was in a pub called The White Horse with three of my Dutch friends who had spent over 30 years trying to identify "unknown graves" and the solders buried therein. They were talking in Dutch so I wandered off to look at the war pictures on the walls and sitting in a couple of chairs were two ex Servicemen wearing blazers with a white Pegasus on their pockets. I asked them which regiment they were in and they replied "The Borderers". "Do you mean the Kings Own Scottish Borderers?" I asked. They replied "We were the Border Regt from Carlisle". "Never heard of them" I admitted. "No" they said "You are not the only one for we have just come from the Old Church and there is a memorial seat with the badges of all the regiments and units which comprised The Lonsdale Force and we were not on that seat although we were with the Lonsdale Force." Naturally I did not admit that I was the miscreant responsible and afterwards I went down to the church to have another look at the seat and to my great relief there was a centre stave with no plaque or regimental badge. When I went back to England I wrote to the Border Reg HQ in Carlisle and explained the position and my ignorance, and asked for a pattern of their regimental badge. Graciously they replied sending to me not only a pattern of their badge but also a £50 cheque to cover costs. The badge duly arrived from Gulam Hussan and was fixed to the centre stave of the memorial seat which completes the exercise.
My thanks to Alan Hartley for submitting this account, and much more besides.
Alan Hartley passed away on the 25th December 2017.
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