Another quite amazing re-union at Down Ampney on September 13th with over 160 in attendance in the church. I should have anticipated that we were going to have a good turn out for we had 50 members booked in at the Blunsdon House hotel on the Saturday evening and which provides a very good start to our weekend, for the hotel provides a special dining area where we dine together. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to see everyone engaged in animated conversation, no doubt reliving many of the incidents during our time spent at RAF Down Ampney.
As usual I made all the arrangements for the re-union including liaison with our new vicar (for Rev John Calvert has now retired), the Rev Annette Wallcock, our first female clergy. As usual, I phoned the Ops room at RAF Lyneham to co-ordinate time and place for the Hercules salute to David Lord VC but they apologised for the fact that because of the commitments of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars they did not have an airframe (they do not call them aeroplanes any more) to send to our re-union, for only the second time this has happened in 35 years. So I phoned Henry Labouchere at Rendcombe where he hangars his D.H. Dragonfly and told him of my problem with the Hercules and David Lord etc, to see if perchance he would be flying in our area on the Sunday lunchtime. He said that he intended flying on Saturday but to accommodate our members at the re-union he would fly a salute on the Sunday. In addition to this, I had been advised by Dan Gurney who lives in the area that he had seen in the local newspapers that there was to be a 90th anniversary observation at a wartime railway station at Blunsdon and they had arranged for the Battle of Britain Spitfire and Hurricane to do a flypast for them at virtually the same time as our re-union. So as I have a very good contact at RAF Coningsby Battle of Britain Memorial Flight through the fact that I was very involved with their Dakota which used to be in the markings of 271 Sqd and David Lord VC, I talked to Flt Lt Jack Hawkins, the administration manager of the flight, to see if the Spitfire and the Hurricane could overfly our re-union at Down Ampney. Jack was rather sceptical for as he pointed out, all the flypasts are rigidly controlled and booked months in advance, so my fortnight request was too short notice. However, in conversation I mentioned that I was coming up to Coningsby to attend a 'Brew for the Few' bash organised for 500 veterans by the Royal Air Force Association in a couple of days time. So he suggested that I bring up an Ordnance Survey map to show exactly where our lunch venue the Down Ampney football club was. This I did but unfortunately Jack was on a day off so I discussed the project with a WAAF member of his team and she advised me to get my request registered with the office at Cranwell, where all flypasts were registered. On the Friday before the re-union I phoned the Swindon Advertiser as I usually do, to give them details of our re-union and I told the female reporter that we may get the Battle of Britain Spitfire and Hurricane at our re-union and she replied, "On, no you're not" and went on to explain that there had been so much rain on Friday that the fields were so flooded that the farmer would not allow any parking so the organisers had cancelled the whole event. Immediately I phoned Jack Hawkins who did not know anything about the cancellation but went on to say "But don't worry, Alan, you have been registered and we will fly for you anyway". Wonderful news!
So our day started at Down Ampney with the usual long train of parked cars in Church Road and before our service we interred the ashes of Flt Lt Frank Diamond DFC, a 271 Sqd navigator, and in conversation with the new vicar she expressed her disapproval of making a video recording of the internment and in the church, so we started off on the wrong foot, for over the years in deference to the number of members I have all over the world, to whom I have been sending video and DVD films of our re-unions. I kept a low profile but still managed to get a filmed record. The church was very nearly full and we were greeted by our two long serving clergy, Rev Captain Carl Kinghan and Rev Bert Brown. Our lessons were read by Diane Blease, the daughter of Ron Johnson, an ex Captain Glider pilot, and Bernard Hyde, a 271 and 48 map reader, who has given me such valuable support over the years.
After the service, again in glorious sunshine, we retired to our memorial site at the old guard room island leading to the airfield. As we laid our wreaths to the various services, with a much quicker approach than a Dakota or a Hercules, the De Havilland Dragonfly flew so low that it brought down a shower of leaves from the nearby trees. Henry did us proud with three separate passes before he turned towards Circencester with a farewell wing waggle. A feature of our wreath laying ceremony is the part played by Bert Brown for although he is 96 years of age he still possesses a strong and strident voice.
After the wreath laying we retired to the Down Ampney football club where the village ladies had once again prepared an excellent buffet lunch. Round about 2.15 pm someone came into the club to say that they had seen a couple of aeroplanes over the village and as we all gathered outside we heard the roar of the Spitfire and Hurricane as they flew low over the clubhouse and again they flew three or four low level salutes. A couple of members with very moist eyes approached me to ask how I arranged for that. I understand that one of the pilots was Group Captain Atha, the Station Commander at RAF Coningsby. Everyone was so delighted by this aerial display acknowledging our re-union, I felt 10' tall and so grateful for the co-operation of Henry and the Battle of Britain Flight to fly at the request of an ex LAC to please my members.
So ended yet another successful re-union which raised £100 in a collection by our ladies in the football club towards our association funds and I had pleasure in sending a cheque for £210 to the RAF Benevolent Fund, being a half of the church collection - the other half going towards church funds. I am always so grateful to the ladies of the village who combine their efforts to lay on such a good lunch, to Sheila Burgess the church warden who is responsible for the flowers which enhance the church for our arrival, to our clergy for the service (Carl always flies over from Northern Ireland just to be with us), oh and I nearly forgot, this year we were delighted to have a childrens' choir from Beau Desert School in Stroud who sang beautifully for us. It is so encouraging that we are being supported by the younger elements, especially the younger next of kin to our members. Perhaps they will keep something going after we have all joined the higher circuit. At the conclusion of our visit we went to the site of the village hall where good progress is being made with all of the roof rafters in place and we are hopeful that it will re-open by May of next year.
The following Thursday I was on my way to Arnhem for the 64th pilgrimage but before I went I was contacted by Flt Sgt Ian Shackleton who was recently posted to RAF Valley from RAF Rheindahlen to say that he had heard of a proposed tour of the Arnhem battlefield by a group of trainees from RAF Halton. Although time was short he had sent an e-mail to Halton to see if they would swell our numbers at our wreath laying on Saturday but he wasn't certain whether his e-mail was in time before they left but to my delight when we assembled at our memorial with a small contingent from Rheindahlen they were waiting for us - a Squadron Leader, Nick Trown, a Flt Lt Ali Sandeman and a bag piper, and a group of trainees, so we had quite a good group of service people. We then went to the nearby estaminet for refreshment and Squadron Leader Trown asked me about the memorial and how it came to be, then he quizzed me about Down Ampney and how our association came about, and he handed me his visiting card and said that I would be hearing from him.
On the same morning, of course, we had attended the parachute drop at Ginkel Heath where because of the beautiful weather a very large crowd was circulating round the Dropping Zones. The first action was a fly over by a B25 Mitchell and an invasion striped Dakota which on the second circuit dropped some paratroopers. Then the Hercules followed to drop 200-300 paras. There were no veteran jumpers this year because of insurance problems and considering that all of the veterans are now in their late or mid 80s, no wonder. They have over the years raised over a million pounds for Service charities. It was great to see some 7th Kings Own Scottish veterans there including Geoff Roberts; we missed George Barton, also a KOSB, for he was unable to attend this year.
In the evening we were again invited to be guests of Arnhem Vitesse who were playing a Rotterdam team. Once again the ground was decorated with Airborne flags and they had installed two large model field guns on the pitch and I and another veteran were invited to fire these guns before the match by pressing a button which brought forth a loud bang, a cloud of smoke and a shower of paper streamers onto the crowd. After the match we were entertained by the Supporters Club with drinks and huge trays of fresh filled rolls. Their hospitality is quite overwhelming.
Our good weather continued for the Memorial Service in the Airborne Cemetery and I accompanied Kit Carson and his delightful family for Kit had agreed to lay the 46 Transport Command wreath at the wreath laying ceremony which was led this year by Glider Pilot, Brigadier Mike Dauncey, who was decorated for his supreme courage during the Arnhem battle. Kit Carson was a navigator on 512 Squadron based at Broadwell and flew on the suicidal re-supply missions.
I was fortunate this year for my Dutch hosts, Renus and Mia Voeten, had agreed to let me stay an extra day for I have always wanted to walk the escape route which the remaining troops in the surrounded perimeter in the Hartenstein Airborne Museum grounds had evacuated in the dead of night, through the woods, through the German lines, in the rain, down to the river Waal where they were met by the Royal Engineers Canadian with boats to carry them across. So on the Tuesday morning in bright sunshine, birds twittering, I set off with my Dutch host, Renus, on the 2¼ mile route which is marked with guide posts and couldn't help reflecting what an ordeal it must have been for the escapees, feet wrapped in blankets, curtain material, anything to deaden the sound of Army boots, holding onto each other's jumping smock tails, down a route marked with white tape and glider pilots at frequent intervals, expecting a burst of Schmeisser bullets at any time from the Germans in the woods, down to the queue at the river bank. Even in bright sunshine I found the experience very moving, so much so that when I returned to England I phoned Des Page who was a marker on that escape route and he gave me a very graphic description.
So ended my visit to Arnhem but not with pleasure I'm afraid for on my way home I had to change trains at Utrecht and when I arrived at Schipol I found that my suitcase had been stolen with all of my medals, memorabilia films, toilet accessories, gone! However, cutting a long boring story short, although I would mention the publicity given to the theft by the Dutch press, the suitcase was handed in and returned to me courtesy of TNT who collected in Utrecht and delivered it to my home, free of charge, after the Dutch railways had demaged £80 to return it. Everything was intact with the exception of the video film I took of my Arnhem visit and £45 English money which forgetfully I had left in the suitcase. An unpleasant incident which did not really impair my memories of a super visit to Arnhem and the Dutch people.
A few weeks after my Arnhem visit I heard on the radio news that the Ministry of Defence were going to hold an Award Ceremony at the Royal Hospital at Chelsea for either civil or military groups who had achieved results in the health field so I wrote to the MOD to see if they would consider our Air Ambulance nurses for an award in view of the fact that they had brought back over 100,000 casualties from Europe during World War II. Within a couple of days I had a phone call from the Ministry of Defence to say that they were very interested in my letter, they did not know anything about the Air Ambulance nurses and they would like to come to see my in Coventry.
A couple of days later I met these two top officials from the health side of the Ministry of Defence, Miss Caroline Fox and Miss Victoria Beacon at Coventry station, brought them home and for a couple of hours told them about our Air Ambulance nurses and what they had achieved by bringing so many casualties, many of which are still living today because of the quick medical treatment they received at our Casualty Air Evacuation Centre at Down Ampney or nearby hospitals. These brave ladies received no recognition whatsoever after the war for their achievements until I managed to get a group of 21 of them invited to a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in 1999. The ladies were duly impressed and announced their intention to include our Air Ambulance nurses in the award ceremony at the Royal Chelsea Hospital on the evening of October 23rd. They asked me to approach my nurses to see if they would be able to attend the ceremony, all expenses paid. When I approached the nurses they were all very keen to attend, Elsie Vann, Joan Crane, Lilian West, Mary Lack and a male nurse "Nick" Nicklin. Unfortunately Lorna Carlyle and Betty Digby were unable to attend.
We assembled at the Millennium Hotel in Knightsbridge and at 6.30 pm we were collected by three Naval Commanders with a coach to take us to the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. On arrival we were escorted to a row of reserved seats at the front of the Great Hall where about 200-300 guests were assembled (never seen so much gold braid and scrambled egg) and plied with drinks by our Naval escort. At 7.30 pm a fanfare of trumpets brought everyone to their feet and in walked the Duchess of Cornwall, accompanied by the Surgeon General Lt Gen Louis Lilywhite, and mounted the platform, followed by Alan Johnson, the Minister of Health, and John Hutton, the Minister of Defence, who sat just in front of us.
So the awards started and as each group came forward to receive their awards they were applauded for what they had achieved. The compere, Chief of Staff-Health Air Vice Marshall Evans, announced that now the finale would take place and there was a special lifetime award promoted by Air Chief Marshall Sir Glen Torpy and this would be to the surviving Air Ambulance nurses who had brought back 100,000 casualties to Blighty. He then went on to give a vivid description of the hardships and dangers these nurses had undergone, not least by the fact that they were issued with a parachute but not allowed to use it in the event of a fighter attack once the casualties had been loaded. They had to go down with the aeroplane in case there were any survivors of the crash who needed treatment. We lost two nurses who were shot down. The Group Captain invited the nurses to mount the platform where they would be presented with a statuette of Florence Nightingale in bronze. As they mounted the steps, the whole audience rose as one man and applauded the nurses for at least a quarter of an hour while the nurses received their statuettes from the Duchess and stood there in amazement by the wave after wave of applause. A very moving and emotional event and afterwards they were the centre of attention by both Ministers and members of the audience. A truly wonderful experience and I am so grateful to the Ministry of Defence for arranging such a wonderful presentation to our Air Ambulance nurses.
On November 11th, Remembrance Day at nearby Bedworth, they always hold their Remembrance Service on the 11th and over the last few years a Dakota from Air Atlantique dropped poppy petals on the crowd round by the memorial. This year Air Atlantique sent 3 Dakotas and they invited me to fly with them. So my Remembrance was done in a Dakota with another Dakota on each wing tip.
After returning from London, a few days later I received a phone call from Sqd Leader Trown to say that he would like me to be his guest at a passing out parade at RAF Halton on November 18th, which I accepted with alacrity at the prospect of visiting RAF Halton, the very Mecca of the apprentice college for mechanics and ancillary trades. So duly I motored to Aylesbury and after a little difficulty found my way to the very prestigious Officers Mess which used to be the country home of the Rothschild's. A Flt. Officer Chris Coopman escorted me to the parade ground, followed by two flights of the trainees who were passing out. My mind went back to Padgate 1943 when I passed as a trained airman before going on to a trades course. I was introduced to the Station Commander and had a brief chat about Down Ampney. A most enjoyable day and a great privilege.
About a couple of months ago I received a phone call from Bob Cardy who greeted me with a "Congratulations". "What for?" I asked and he said that he was reading his copy of This England and in it was an article about how I had been awarded the Silver Cross of St George. Apparently two years previously, Dan Gurney had proposed me for this award which is given every quarter to people who they think have promoted England or Englishness or have worked for the welfare of the public and apparently I had won it. A great honour but the best part was yet to come, for a week later I had a phone call from Manitoba in Canada from a Jeanette Holm who had told me that she was reading her copy of This England and when she saw Down Ampney mentioned she nearly leapt out of her chair with excitement, for she had been a war bride, married a Canadian at Down Ampney where she served as a WAAF in Passenger & Freight (or Panic and Flap as we called in) for nearly two years. She has now become a most enthusiastic member and not only that but she has put me in touch with two more widows in England who also served with her in P & F. So now I have three new members. Jeanette was LACW Taylor, the other two WAAFs were Joan Philips and Joan Willcox. If anyone thinks they know them I have their addresses and phone numbers. I was also contacted by a 92 year old ex Dakota pilot from the Middle East, a Joe Heriz-Smith who also wanted to join our association and sent £100 for our funds. Jeanette also sent £200 towards our funds. So, thanks to Dan Gurney and This England, we have gained 4 new members.
Since our last re-union sadly the following members have passed away: Len Affolter, a glider pilot; Bill Drew, a 271 pilot; Dan Pattison, 7th KOSB; Ken Hayes, a 271 fitter Doncaster & Down Ampney; Ron Morris, 48 Sqdn Wireless operator; Eric Rudd, a 48 Sqdn fitter; Lou Laking, a 271 pilot; David Hall, a glider pilot and GPR historian. David was a fountain of knowledge of the Glider Pilot Regiment and will be sorely missed.
On the brighter side we have enrolled the following new members: John Crossman, a 233 pilot; Jeanette Holm, Passenger & Freight D.A.; Joan Buckley, P & F; Joan Peacock, P & F; Joe Heriz-Smith, a Middle East Dakota pilot; John Johnson, the son of Jack Arundel, a 271 Sqdn electrician. I also salvaged another member for some months ago I received one of my newsletters back with the note "Gone Away". The member was Yvonne Walker who has been a member virtually since we started in 1974 so not wanting to lose her, I found a local newspaper in the Truro area, the Falmouth Packer, and they kindly inserted a "Where are you now?". To my delight within a couple of days I received a phone call from Yvonne to say her friends had seen the ad and told her about it. So not only did we make a reconnection but Yvonne booked in at the Blunsdon House hotel and came to our re-union and she was most enthusiastic meeting our Down Ampney members. Yvonne was the cipher officer at D.A. and worked very closely with Group Captain Gilbert Howie.
Incidentally, after our re-union we have a group photograph taken and I send prints to the attending members. This year things got a bit hectic and sent out two or three photos and then lost track of whom I'd sent them to. So if you attended the last re-union and did not receive a group photo please let me know and I will send one to you.
Recently I had a request for one of our 15" x 13" paintings of the Dakota by Keith Broomfield and found that I was down to the last one. So I have had a reprint made so they are still available. The Horsa glider paintings, the same size, are also in stock. If anyone wants one they cost £4 each (p&p extra). Also, if anyone would like to have a copy of the "This England" article about my award of the Silver Cross of St George, I can send a copy. In the post recently was a very interesting account of a "Wartime Dakota Pilot" written by Malcolm Cloutt, who was a 271 Sqdn pilot and survived a horrendous Dakota crash. Also in stock, whilst at the Down Ampney re-union, I was given a box of the booklet 'Dakotas of Down Ampney' which the Co-op had printed for us. Apparently they were salvaged from the village hall fire so if anyone wants one, send me a book of 2nd class stamps and I'll send you one. If anyone has gone onto a computer since my last newsletter, if you log onto www.pegasusarchive.org, click on Arnhem, Enter, Biographies, then 271 Squadron - you will find an article I wrote for our RAFA magazine Air Mail, which may be of interest.
For our Spring re-union we are negotiating with the Oxford Spires hotel, Abingdon Road, Oxford, tel 01865 32432, for 8 doubles and 2 singles from April 23rd for up to 5 nights. The prices quoted are £55pp per night, bed breakfast and dinner with a £20 single supplement. If you are interested, let us know and we will confirm. The next Down Ampney re-union will be Sunday September 13th. See you then or before.
We wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a healthy and happy New Year.
Alan and Pat