July 2009

 

Although there were only eight of us at our Spring re-union at Oxford, it was still very pleasant to get together with Fraser and Jane Carlisle Brown, Jenny Sheppard, Dot Harrison, and Bernard and Marian Hyde, at a very good hotel on the River Isis (Thames). Most interesting to walk along the river tow path into Oxford town centre and watch all the boating activities especially the multi oar training. The weather was kind so we all took advantage of the sightseeing topless bus service which is an all day exercise with a guide giving a commentary mainly about all of the 38 universities in Oxford. We could dismount and board at any time which is a great boon when your pins aren't as young as they used to be. Pat and I have never been to Oxford before so we found it of great interest historically. We visited Christ Church University and climbed the 95 steps to get to the top of St Michael's tower which has stood in Oxford's main street since the 11th century. Half way up the stairs is preserved the actual jail door which two Protestant bishops went through to be burned to death because they refused to give up being a Protestant in favour of the Catholic religion. I spent a very pleasant couple of hours watching a University cricket match in the sunshine beside the river. Very English, most enjoyable although the cricket wasn't of the highest order!

 

Now what has happened since our last newsletter for there have been a lot of interesting activities. If you recall a couple of years ago I was contacted by an American millionaire, Donald Soldini, who purchased a Dakota which was auctioned by the US government who had impounded this aircraft which had been abandoned in Florida by drug runners who had hijacked this DC3 to escape from Cuba. In the aircraft Donald found the log book which showed that this Dakota was ex RAF and had been issued to South East Asia command as FL510 and had ostensibly been used to drop supplies to the Chindits in Burma. Donald Soldini was so interested in this Dakota that he organised a film crew to come to England to do some filming of Dakotas here in England at North Weald and Coventry. He contacted me to see if I would get anyone who had flown Daks during the war to meet him at the RAF Club in Piccadilly where he would stay the night and recount some of their wartime activities. One of my members was Group Captain Alec Blythe, the ex CD of 233 Squadron and he also few with 48 Squadron at Down Ampney. We completed the filming and the film crew and Donald went back to the States where unfortunately the project seemed to die a death with no activity or communication. But recently I received an e-mail from a film company in Florida to say that they were now doing the production of the film and could they contact me if they wanted any further information about wartime Dakota operations. By coincidence, every couple of weeks I talk with Tom Robinson in Ottawa - Tom flew with 48 Sqdn as a Wireless Operation Air Gunner. About a couple of months ago Tom told me that one of his ex RAF colleagues, Chris Bryant, told him that his father who was in the RAF in Burma, who was a pilot and also a qualified aeronautical engineer. Chris told Tom the amazing story that his father had salvaged a Dakota which had been abandoned after crashing into a swamp, and restored the Dakota into flying condition and by sheer coincidence this Dakota's number was FL510. When I was researching this aircraft for Donald Soldini I discovered that this Dakota had been allocated to Lord Louis Mountbatten as his own personal aircraft, for I had researched all of the Dakotas flying with the Burma Dakota Squadrons (194, 31, 267, 52) and could not find any evidence that FL510 had been issued to them. Chris Bryant is currently writing up a history of FL510 for the Aeroplane magazine. Another interesting facet of this exercise is that on the nose of the Dakota is written the logo 'Sister Ann' and we were curious as to who Sister Ann could be. So I wrote to Countess Lady Patricia Mountbatten, Lord Louis' daughter, and unfortunately she couldn't help but she expressed her interest in this project and requested to be kept informed on any activity. The film company have promised to send me a DVD of our filming, rather too late for Group Captain Alec Blythe and Doug Sutcliffe (also one of ex Dakota aircrew group) who have passed away. So watch this space! Since writing this, an approach to the Imperial War Museum has produced quite a lot of valuable information which includes a very good photograph of FL510 taken on the Arakan Front, depicting Sister Ann quite clearly on the nose. There was a correspondence page from Flight Magazine in 2004 which prints a letter from G. Ann Ramsden confirming that she was indeed the Sister Ann on the nose of FL510 in which she refers to a conversation with a pilot in 1948 from East African Airways in Tanganyika to say that he had flown this particular Dakota but he thought it was no longer in service. Sister Ann's letter was followed by a Denis Powell of Nairobi who had seen previous reference in Flight of FL510 and had written in with a full history, going in service at RAF Bassingbourn to be Struck of Charge at No.8 M.U. at Little Rissington where she was credited to have flown 1,803 hours in 1954. Also in the same information pack was an obituary printed in the Independent for Gertrude Ann Ramsden which told how she joined as a nurse on P&O liners before joining the Queen Alexander's Naval Nursing Reserve where after being posted to Burma became a personal nurse to Lord Louis Mountbatten. She died in Preston, Lancs, on 30th November 2004 aged 97. So ended a search which became more interesting the deeper I dug. All of this information has been passed to the American film producers who intend to incorporate her story. Over the 35 years I have been organising our Association, I have received and dealt with many requests to research and found out what happened to my members' Dakota but this has proved to be the most challenging and the most interesting.

 

I have also been very much involved with the 65th anniversary of Operation Market Garden for the Lest We Forget foundation headed up by Tanno and Dino Pietersee, who are so anxious to get as many veterans to attend the pilgrimage that they are offering to pay their fares, train, plane or car, and find them accommodation as well with Dutch families. Also, if the veterans are in need of a carer, their fares and accommodation will be found. I have notified as many of my aircrew members who flew at Arnhem to let them know of this offer if they wish to accept this invitation. I was surprised to hear from Sqn Ldr Rex Daniells who phoned me to say that the Dutch had offered to pay his fares including his wife Betty, from Australia but having made travel arrangements he was diagnosed with a sticky heart valve and had to undergo an operation so the whole thing was cancelled. Tanno asked me if I had any connection with BBC radio to spread the word and I finished up talking either to or on about a dozen BBC stations. My two Dutch colleagues, Frans Ammerslaan and Arie jan van Hees phoned to say that they were making preparation for a wreath laying ceremony at our Arnhem Aircrew memorial for 2pm on Saturday September 19th so I have sent a letter of invitation to the private secretary of the RAF, AOC Sir Glen Torpe, to see if the Royal Air Force would like to be involved. This was more out of politeness than expectation but I do know that Warrant Officer Ian Shackleton is organising a party from his new base RAF Waddington.

 

I had a pleasant surprise one evening when Dan Gurney phoned me to say that on his TV screen BBC Bristol "Points West", there was a lady celebrating her 90th birthday and she was being presented with a statuette of Florence Nightingale which was presented last October to our Air Ambulance nurses at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, by a Group Captain WAAF nurse Commanding Officer, for this lady used to be an Air Ambulance nurse at Down Ampney. I was able to get a phone number for this lady who was in a nursing home in Weston-Super-Mare and her name is Eileen Driscoll, nee Gibbons. She told me that she was stationed at Down Ampney in CAEC as an Air Ambulance orderly. As her memory was a bit patchy (like the rest of us) she referred me to her daughter, Mrs Dianne Owen, who told me that she had seen the presentation of the Florence Nightingale statuette to our Air Ambulance nurses by the Duchess of Cornwall last October so she had written to the Ministry of Defence to point out that her mother was one of our Air Ambulance nurses at Down Ampney so the MOD made this award to her mother. I am pleased to say that both ladies have now been enrolled on our membership list. Whilst I am on the subject of our Air Ambulance nurses, the BBC One Show also saw the presentation at Chelsea so they are making arrangements with a film company Read Life Media Production and they are going to make a short film of two of our Air Ambulance nurses, Elsie Vann and Mary Lack, on board the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Dakota on 11th August. I smiled when I was talking to Mary about making this flight for she was very apprehensive about flying because "they do not maintain them as well as you RAF mechanics used to". An accolade indeed! Shake the prop, kick the wheels, sign the F700??

 

I have had a phone call this week from Mrs Julia Job who is on the committee of the Down Ampney village hall. She tells me that now the village hall has been rebuilt after the fire, they are now embarking on another ambitious project to build a much needed shop and post office on the site. So to raise money they are going to produce a Down Ampney calendar and she had decided that the September section will depict our stained glass memorial window in the church and our memorial site near the old airfield. So I have agreed to sponsor that section from our RAF Down Ampney funds for the 50 requested. The calendars will be on sale in September at our re-union at a cost of 4.50, postage paid. If anyone is unable to attend the re-union calendars may be ordered from Mrs J Job, Cranleigh House, Church Lane, Down Ampney, Glos, GL7 5QW.

 

Our next re-union will take place on the weekend of September 12th/13th. Pat has booked a number of rooms at the Blunsdon House Hotel, 01793 721701. I'm afraid that there has been a small increase in the tariff for this year, a double or twin room including dinner and breakfast will be 121 per room per night and 97.50 for a single. I tried to get the single rate reduced but they told me that the rate should be 117 on their normal tariff and they have already applied the group rate. When making a booking mention the Down Ampney Association in order to get the group rate. I am sure that those members who have been before at the Blunsdon House will agree with me that it is good value for the money and the restaurant on a serve yourself basis is excellent. The rooms have been booked with the agreement that they will be held until four weeks before our re-union and any rooms left over will be offered to the general public. In previous years, because of wedding parties at that time of year the hotel gets fully booked. A nice facility at this hotel is a 9 hole golf course from where you can see our airfield at Down Ampney. Our programme at our re-union will take the usual format. The memorial service will start in the church at 11 a.m. and I am hoping that they Rev Captain Carl Kinghan will be able to join us from Northern Ireland and also the Rev Bert Brown from the Royal Hospital Chelsea. The service ends at noon and we proceed to our memorial near the airfield for our wreath laying service. As a tribute to Flt Lt David Lord who won the only VC posthumously for Transport Command, RAF try to send a Hercules to make a fly past tribute. This, of course, depends on demands from the war zones. In any case, as it is the 65th anniversary of Arnhem, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight have agreed to send their Dakota. We then make our way to the village hall for lunch.

 

I have gone through a very sad period lately for so many of our members have passed away recently. Pat and I have attended the funeral of my old pal, Bert Tipping, and we interred his ashes in our Garden of Remembrance at the rear of the church beneath our window. It was great to see Alf Bone also in attendance; Alf was a 271 Sqdn pilot. We also lost Lorna Carlysle and Betty Digby, both Air Ambulance nurses whose relatives also wished their ashes to be interred in our Garden of Remembrance but unfortunately the stone tablets on the wall were full so it took some time to get another large tablet. At this juncture I would like to express my gratitude to the next of kin, Lorna and Charles Staff, who was I/C X Ray room at our Casualty Evacuation centre for in making the funeral arrangements they suggested no flowers but donations to our RAF Down Ampney Association and from both funerals we were sent over 350 from each. We also lost another old stalwart, David Butterworth, who was a 271 Sqd Wireless operator. David and his wife Frances were regular attendees at our re-unions. Another regular attendee was Jim Rainsford. Over the years Jim unfortunately was unable to speak clearly but still would not miss a re-union. Our sympathies go out to the widows left behind. I also had a phone call from Tommy Wrights' son to say that he called in to make sure that his dad was OK and found him in his armchair, half a cup of tea and an unfinished crossword. I will miss Tom who was a 48 Sqn fitter both at Gibraltar and Down Ampney for he was last alphabetically on my mailing list. I would ring him to say that they were all finished and 450 newsletters were on their way and he was the last. Pat and I also attended the funeral service of yet another long term member, Cliff Holt, aged 93, who was a Mosquito pilot before he flew Dakotas on 48 Squadron. Cliff could always be seen sitting on his shooting stick in front of our memorial at our wreath laying ceremony. Since my last newsletter we have also lost the following members: John Pierpoint, SHQ electrician; Joyce Taylor, Air Ambulance Nurse; Cyril Ross, a 271 navigator; Den Cason, E Sqdn Glider pilot; Percy Robbins, 233 Sqdn fitter; Lou Laking, 271 Sqdn navigator; Bert and Betty Lee, both SHQ. I dread receiving the phone calls and letters I receive to tell me that I have lost yet another member, for in 1970 when I was trying to contact people who served at Down Ampney to raise money for the memorial window it was such hard and frustrating work to trace each one of you to form our 450 membership - at one time over 600, all over the world, for over 30 years had passed since the war. But I suppose I have to be thankful that I was able to find so many to form such a superb family.

 

Since starting this newsletter I have been contacted by a WAAF friend of mine to say that in her WAAF magazine there was a letter from a lady in Perth, Australia, to say that she was also an Air Ambulance nurse. I have sent a letter to this WAAF magazine with a letter to forward to this lady to get her details for apparently in 1947 she attended the first Down Ampney re-union in the Connaught Rooms in London and by coincidence an ex Air Ambulance nurse and her husband, Mr and Mrs Paddy Joyce who live on the Gold Coast, Australia, organised that re-union. So perhaps in the near future I will be able to put them in touch with each other.

 

Referring again to the Arnhem pilgrimage I have been advised that the National Lottery is funding a Heroes Return offer to give a grant to any veteran who wishes to return to a wartime battlefield. For anyone who wishes to apply for this grant the address is Heroes Return 2, Big Lottery Fund, 2 St James Gate, Newcastle-on-Tyne NE1 4BE.

 

As well as being involved with Real Life films with making a film with three of our Air Ambulance nurses for the BBC One Show, I was approached by another film company, Blast Films, who had been commissioned by the BBC to produce a film about the Coventry Blitz in November 1940. They approached several Coventry citizens who were involved in the Blitz and I was interviewed and filmed because I was a 16 year old ARP messenger sent into Coventry at the height of the air raid in order to get an ambulance for a serious injured ARP warden. They proposed showing this film in June for apparently the BBC was unable to show it in November when it happened. So I told all my friends and colleagues to watch BBC2 Timewatch for the showing of the film called 'Coventrated' but then a week before, it was postponed until July 18th. This week they phoned me to say that it had been postponed until October. So at the moment I feel that it will be shown in November as I first suggested but it was be shown on a Saturday evening on BBC2 Timewatch.

 

I had a nice surprise last week when one of our younger supporters phoned me to say that he was travelling to Warwick from Lincoln to attend an office meeting and he would bring his neighbour Alf Bone who was a pilot with 271 Squadron and who had attended most of our re-unions. So I met Paul in Warwick and brought Alf to my home. We spent a very pleasant afternoon reminiscing about Down Ampney and our re-unions and before he left to return home he gave me a list of airfields and countries he had landed on or in during his RAF aircrew career. He had landed on 104 airfields and in 3 countries all over the world. A wonderful record of the wide ranging operations of our Transport Command aircrews.

 

I have received a letter from Sheila Burgess the Church Warden of Down Ampney church to thank you all for your generous contributions to the church roof appeal. Space does not permit repeating her letter.

 

Before I close I have just received from the Ministry of Defence a DVD of the visit of our Air Ambulance nurses when they were presented with a statuette of Florence Nightingale by the Duchess of Cornwall. If anyone would like to borrow this DVD I will circulate it amongst my members at your request.

 

Well I guess that ties up yet another newsletter and Pat and I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible at our Down Ampney re-union in September.

 

Yours aye

 

Alan and Pat