December 2009

 

Our September re-union turned out to be most successful once again, surprising me once again with the number of cars lining the road between the village and the church. The night before we enjoyed a dinner at the splendid Blunsdon House hotel with forty members in attendance and I was very pleased to welcome so many of the younger generation who either bring their mums and dads or feel that they belong to the Down Ampney association because their parents served at Down Ampney. This gives me the hope that when I join the others in our Garden of Remembrance that someone will take up the baton and keep the tie with the church and the village going. Before the service we buried the ashes of Charles Staff who was I/C of the x-ray unit in the Casualty Air Evacuation centre and also Cliff Holt. Cliff was a particularly good friend to me. He was a Mosquito pilot and became a Dakota pilot with 48 Squadron. Several times he invited me to play golf with him in Aircrew Association competitions at a course near Saddington, Leics, where he lived. Cliff will always remain in my mind as the member who always perched on his shooting stick at the front of our memorial as we laid our wreaths. His presence will be sorely missed by me. We were pleased to be greeted by the new lady vicar, the Rev. Annette Wallcock, and of course by the Rev. Captain Carl Kinghan MBE who had officiated at the burial of the ashes. Incidentally we now have 35 members in our Garden of Remembrance. There was also an effusive welcome for the Rev. Bert Brown, whose contribution to our service is still delivered in a good strident voice. Muriel, his companion, has not been very well lately and we wish her a speedy recovery. Tony Holt read a lesson for us and confirmed how much his father, Cliff, loved coming to Down Ampney and attending the re-unions. The first lesson had been read in his clear headmaster's voice by Alf Bone. Val Griffiths gave a little appreciation of how her late father and mother, David and Doreen Lewis, thought so much of the Down Ampney re-unions. After the service we proceeded to our memorial and to my consternation was faced with a problem for our man on the spot Dan Gurney had phoned me earlier in the week to say the grass on the guardroom island, where stands our memorial, was over 2' high. So I contacted Saville's and they agreed to get it cut, which they did. Unfortunately after the farmer had cut the grass, he padlocked the gate leading to the memorial so the road leading to the site became absolutely blocked, cars trying to get in, others trying to get out. It was rather chaotic and I felt very sorry for those of our members who had difficulty in walking or had to leave their wheelchairs behind, had to walk 200 - 300 yards to our memorial. I assure them that it will not happen again. Because of service demands on the Hercules at RAF Lyneham, they were unable to fly over our memorial as we laid our wreaths but it did fly over the village hall in tribute to Flt Lt David Lord VC. The Hercules was followed by three slow circuits of the Battle of Britain Dakota from Coningsby, we even got a cheery wave from the open door! We are all so grateful to Julia Job, Marjorie and Ken Cooper and the village ladies who prepared a superb buffet lunch for us all. The village hall committee have had a special Down Ampney calendar made and these are on offer from the village hall for 5.00 which includes postage and because we had sponsored the month of September which covers our connection with the village and depicts the window, the organiser presented me with a framed picture of the page for September. A very nice and appreciated gesture. Shortly after the re-union Mr Peter Hopson, the Ex Lord Mayor of Croydon, sent me a cheque for 50 to sponsor the page in the calendar which repaid our funds. I also expressed our gratitude to Sheila Burgess who is so helpful to our association, arranging the burial of our members' ashes and keeping the church so attractive. After our lunch I was able to thank everyone who contributed to a most successful re-union, which included Carl Kinghan who flew from Northern Ireland to officiate at our service, the Rev. Annette Wallcock, the new vicar, and of course our old stalwart Bert Brown, now in his 97th year and a resident of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. We hope to have Bert with us for a few years yet when he can bring his famous telegram from you know who. So ended another memorable re-union, with such a large gathering.

 

I was contacted by Real Life films of Leeds who had been commissioned by the BBC One Show to make a film about our Air Ambulance nurses, for the producer had seen the presentation by the Duchess of Cornwall of a statuette of Florence Nightingale at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. At first they were going to film two of our Air Ambulance nurses flying in a Dakota from Air Atlantique, Coventry, but the cost proved exorbitant so the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight agreed to provide their Dakota at Coningsby. I was invited to attend and looked forward to flying in the Dakota but when I got to the hangar I was told that the Dakota had an oil pressure problem and was u/s. Lillian West and Elsie Vann were the two Air Ambulance nurses and they were filmed inside the Dak in the hangar. But despite this setback the programme came over very well and the two nurses were able to do justice to the hardships and difficulties they encountered bringing back nearly 100,000 casualties to our airfields in the Cotswolds. Whilst we were at Coningsby they wheeled the Lancaster out and it took off whilst we were there, a nostalgic sight. When they showed the film on the One Show there was a lady playing Vaughan Williams "Lark Ascending" outside Down Ampney church on her violin. In October I had a very pleasant visit to Down Ampney for no doubt you may recall that the "This England" magazine presented me with a Silver Cross of St George and a lady, Jeanette Holm, in Manitoba, Canada, phoned me to say how excited she was to read in the magazine reference to Down Ampney because she was a war bride, serving in P&F at Down Ampney. She married a Canadian pilot and went to live in Canada in 1946. Her son David went into the Canadian Navy and in 1969 sailed to Plymouth, England, in a destroyer called "Kootenay". Unfortunately they had an explosion on board which killed nine of their shipmates. Arrangements were made to hold a 40 year observation of this disaster by holding a memorial service in Plymouth and Jeanette was invited to join them. She attended the memorial service and we then arranged to meet at Down Ampney which we did. Unfortunately, really out of character, it rained and also the whole church was completely surrounded with scaffolding as the roof is being refurbished. Also inside the church all of the pews were covered in plastic and all of the kneelers were stored in the vestry. I showed her our Garden of Remembrance and then we went down to our memorial on the airfield, finishing up in the village hall. As it was Jeanette's first return to Down Ampney, she found it most emotional as her WAAF days flooded back. Jeanette has two friends living in England, Joan Buckley and Joan Peacock who were with her in Passenger & Freight, who have now joined our association. As Jeanette signed the Visitors' book on the table was a very nice corn dolly which had been made by Jennie Sheppard and Jeanette expressed her admiration with the workmanship in the making of this dolly so I gave it to her as a souvenir of her visit. This dolly has aroused a lot of interest in Manitoba so I have now put Jeanette in touch with Jennie. At the time of writing I am now told that they have had a long phone conversation and Jennie is going to make another corn dolly for Jeanette's church. So through our association we have another satisfied couple of members. This is only a small matter but it does emphasise the family spirit which pervades our association. In my last newsletter I mentioned the fact that I had taken part in a film called 'The Bombing of Coventry' which happened on 14th November 1940, for I was a 16 (repeat 16) year old messenger in the ARP. Eventually after two or three postponements the film was shown on October 6th. It gave me great satisfaction to receive so many phone calls from my members from all over England to say that they had seen the programme. The film which the BBC repeated three times went down very well in Coventry as you can appreciate so I suggested to the Lord Mayor's secretary that as all the people interviewed in the film about their personal experiences did it individually and never met, that it would be appropriate to invite them to meet at the Council House with our Lord Mayor for a small reception and this suggestion has been activated so we shall all meet at the Council House on December 19th. Incidentally if any member who did not see the film and would like to, I have a couple of DVD copies so if anyone with a DVD player would like to see the film, please let me know and I will circulate these DVDs but I must get them returned in order to circulate them. I would remind our members that the new Down Ampney calendar for 2010 is on sale; September is devoted to the RAF connection with the village and can be obtained from Mrs Sheila Bull, 4 Down Ampney Post Office, GL7 5QW. The cost is 5 which includes postage.

 

To continue the sage of Dakota FL510 which was issued to Lord Louis Mountbatten as his personal aircraft. The film company making the film about Donald Soldini's Dakota, sent me an article which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1955 which was written by Air Marshall Sir Victor Goddard who was the C.O. of the Royal New Zealand Air Force in Burma. The article commences with Sir Victor Goddard pointing out that he was time expired and was returning to New Zealand. Unfortunately the Dakota which was to fly him back to New Zealand went u/s so Victor was faced with a long sea journey. However, Lord Louis heard of Victor's problem and offered his personal Dakota as an alternative for which Victor was pleased to accept. Not only did Lord Louis offer his Dakota (FL510 Sister Ann) but he arranged a cocktail party for Victor's departure. With all of these arrangements made Victor says that on the previous night he had a strong premonition that the flight would be hazardous and would end in disaster. He says that in his lengthy flying career he has had many premonitions but never as strong as that one. When he arrived at the cocktail party he moved near to a group of aircrew being addressed by a Naval officer who was telling the group about a very vivid dream in which Air Marshall, Sir Victor Goddard's Dakota would crash on a remote Japanese island. Sir Victor tapped him on the shoulder and when he turned round he was visibly shaken when Sir Victor said "No, I am not dead". He told Sir Victor how vivid his dream was about the Dakota flying through a horrendous storm with icing coming off the propellers and crashing against the fuselage. The Dakota tried to get above the storm, even up to 18,000 feet before it came down before the storm because the fuel was becoming critical, flying against the strong head winds. Eventually they see a small island with sandy shingle and rock beach where the Dakota crashed killing all on board. Sir Victor asked him in his dream who were on board the Dakota and the naval officer told him the RAF aircrew, Sir Victor and his aide, two civilians and a woman. After the party Sir Victor, on his way back to his room, decided that the dream could not apply to him because he was not carrying any civilians. When he arrived at Singapore airfield to get on board the awaiting Sister Ann, there was a smartly dressed civilian with a letter of authority stating that he was the Consul General who had to get to Tokyo urgently and could he travel on Sir Victor's Dakota and Sir Victor agreed to take him. Then the Consul said that he needed his secretary and was there room and Sir Victor agreed. He was then told that the secretary had to take his typist - a lady. So here were the two civilians and a lady in the dream but Sir Victor could not refuse to let them fly because of a dream. So they all boarded and settled down for their long flight. Sir Victor fell asleep but awoke an hour later by the aircraft being buffeted in a severe storm. The pilot, Sqdn Ldr Don Campbell was climbing in an attempt to get above the storm, with ice from the propellers hammering against the fuselage. However, at 18,000 feet with no oxygen he was forced to go down again. As they had been flying against a strong headwind, the fuel state was giving cause for concern as well but they no longer had enough fuel to get them to Tokyo, so they decided to make a crash landing on a small island which came into view with, as Sir Victor observed, a sand shingle and rocky beach. As Sir Victor had most flying experienced he advised Don Campbell to land on the sand, wheels down and retract them as they touched which reduced the impact. The Dakota skated over the sand, the nose dug in after it rose vertically, and then settled back so they were all able to scramble out unhurt. Sir Victor was so relieved that the dream was wrong after all. The island was called Sado, south of the Japanese mainland and eventually the party, aided by local natives, managed to get to Tokyo. FL510 lay abandoned for quite a period before Chris Bryant's father turned up with a group of mechanics, dismantled it and got it back to base where he restored it to flying condition and it became their runabout. Since this story broke, I have been contacted by a Eric Tarrant, who is the historian of Eagle Airways. Eric told me that on the website he had read my newsletter about FL510, and he became very interested because Eagle Airways had bought FL510 some short time after the war and used it for a couple of years on charter and freight flights before selling it in Canada. It eventually landed up with a Cuban airline, from where on that fateful flight it was hijacked by drug runners. It would have been great to have ended this remarkable aircraft story with the news that it was still flying but unfortunately Hurricane Dennis in 2005 blew it 1,700 feet down the runway at Avon Park airfield, Florida, and finished in 3 pieces where it now lies in a hangar. Apparently the owner, Donald Soldini, wants to give it back to Cuba where it belongs because interestingly enough Donald Soldini as a young American joined Fidel Castro in their fight for freedom for the people. This account finishes with the news from the American film unit making the film about the history of FL510, that they were being held up by the Cuban authorities because they were hoping to interview the drug runner who had hijacked the Dakota in the first place in March 2003. This has proved to be one of the most interesting stories I have heard since the war although there was a very interesting story about a 48 Squadron Dakota KG389 Which was fitted with skis and did all of the aerial transport work for the Greenland Expedition which was mounted to retrieve the six P38 Lightnings which were abandoned in Greenland in 1942 on their way to Prestwick after running out of fuel as they had been given an erroneous bearing by an English speaking crew of a German U boat. If any of you have seen a P38 flying with the name 'Glacier Girl' that is one which has been restored after spending so many years under 250' of ice and snow. Of interest is the fact that when the first P38 was lifted to the surface its guns still fired. About a month ago on my email screen appeared a superb chocolate and cream Dakota still flying in California and my informant in California told me that it had been issued to 48 Squadron at Down Ampney as KG587. I made a beeline for my 48 Squadron records to see if it appeared on their operation sheets and also to see if any of our members flew it. I was delighted not only to find it on the ops sheets but saw that it was flown on the Arnhem Operation, Market Garden, by Eddie Leslie who was a co-pilot with Alford. Immediately I phoned Eddie and when he answered I simply said "KG587" and Eddie replied "Yes, that was our Dakota, what do you want to know?" He was most surprised to hear that it was still flying and in such an immaculate condition. I put Eddie in touch with my US contact, Ed Davies, and as a result Eddie and the owner of the Dak will soon be in touch with each other. Eddie has promised to keep me informed of any developments. Who knows - Eddie may end up flying it again!

 

As the years roll by and our membership slowly declines, sad to say we have lost several members since my last newsletter: Sid Swaine, a Flight Mechanic with 271 Squadron "A" Flight - Sid and I were in line with each other when we reported to Padgate at the Recruits Receiving Centre. His number was 3011059 and mine was 3011060. We went all over together. Wilf Pope and Phil Niren, also flight mechanics, 271 Squadron; Bob Gear, an "E" Squadron Glider pilot; Dennis William, a 94 FME, Ron Holiday, a 233 Squadron pilot. Ron died at his home in Australia. Doreen Lewis, the widow of David Lewis, an ex 271 pilot; John Barrington, a Stirling aircrew, the husband of Lynn Barrington, who was LACW Hartshorn, a records clerk at Blakehill Farm and Broadwell; Joan Crane, an Air Ambulance nurse; and Harry Thompson, a 271 Squadron pilot and a very regular attender at our re-unions. This is the worst part of being at the centre of operations, to lose members who have become such close friends over the 35 years that we have been in existence. So that is another newsletter put to bed and we hope that it has proved interesting. All the best for Christmas and a Happy, Healthy New Year.

 

Yours Aye

 

Alan and Pat

 

Since writing this letter I have received a couple of DVDs of our Down Ampney re-union. If anyone wishes to borrow one please let me know, on the understanding that they must be returned for circulation. PS Today I sat back with a sigh of relief that I finished writing my newsletter, 450 were printed and ready to be put into addressed envelopes, when Pat dropped the bombshell "You haven't mentioned Arnhem " and as it was the 65th anniversary of Operation Market Garden it was important for it turned out to be another memorable weekend. On the Saturday morning at Ginkel Heath where they carry out the Airborne Pageant there were an estimated 50,000 people who had gathered to watch the Hercules and Dakota drop 1,000 paratroopers with other war planes on display. Very kindly, Warrant Officer Ian Shackleton from RAF Waddington brought about 20 RAF personnel from Waddington, a piper and Group Capt. M. Lavender. The piper played a tune called "Wings" and afterwards he presented me with a glass framed copy of it as a souvenir of the occasion. I was very moved by this excellent support, paying tribute to our aircrew who died. At Ginkel Heath I met Art Anderson and Lloyd Bentley who the Lest We Forget Foundation Tanno & Dina Pieteese had funded from Canada and found them accommodation. In the afternoon I met Jack Ambler and his wife Nell at Sophie Ter Horst's house. Jack was also in this group who came from Canada. In the evening a group of us were invited to be guests of Arnhem Vitesse football club and on the coach on the way to the ground I said to the organiser how moved our group was last year when we were applauded by 18,000 supporters for 15 minutes before the game started. I felt that someone in our group should go on the big screen and address system to thank them. He looked at me and said "That's a good idea - will you do it?". I couldn't refuse having raised the subject so I had to go into the centre circle with the mike and on the big screen to say "Thank you" and from the applause we all got as I made my way back to my seat, it went down well with the supporters. On Sunday morning in the service and wreath laying ceremony Alf Bone, chaperoned by Paul Keeley pushing his wheelchair, laid the wreath for 46 Group Transport Command. It is always very moving when 1,700 schoolchildren stand behind each Airborne grave and in one concerted movement lay flowers on each grave. So ended an absolutely superb and memorable weekend.