In writing this newsletter I feel that we have reached the crossroads of our RAF Down Ampney association which started around 1974 with the installation of the stained glass memorial window in the church. I honestly felt at the time that once the installation ceremony was over then that would be that. However, so many of you who attended that event expressed their pleasure by being brought together for the first time since the war that they insisted that we continue to meet. So started an arrangement to have a re-union every year in Down Ampney church on the weekend anniversary of our horrendous Arnhem operations when we lost so many of our aircrew. Then, not satisfied with this arrangement, a large group decided that they wished to meet more than once a year and so a Spring re-union was arranged with many seaside resorts as our venues. We even took 3 coach trips to Arnhem for the 40th, 45th and 50th anniversaries with 50 of our members, during one of which we tied up with Professor Jimmy Edwards DFC who was a pilot with 271 Squadron. So I feel that as an ex wartime group we have done very well to maintain the comradeship we enjoyed during the war. What surprises me, is that although the years have flown by, there is still a lot of interest being shown by the younger generations especially at our re-union service in Down Ampney church for whilst the veterans are joining the "higher circuit" their children and even grandchildren are in the congregation. I also find that I get several approaches from TV people, authors writing wartime books and other interested bodies - for instance I watched a serial called "Ice Pilots" on a free view channel and Buffalo Airways in Yellowknife, Canada, who were using a Dakota for general freighting and passenger flights in North West Territories. One episode I took a note of the Canadian registration of this Dakota and in my bible of 10,000 Dakotas it told me that this Dakota was issued to 512 Squadron at Broadwell, flew on the D Day operations (Rob Roy), then Arnhem and Operation Market Garden with 437 RCAF squadron from Blakehill. You will recall that the Canadian Government insisted on an all Canadian Transport Squadron in Europe (435 and 436 RCAF were already in service in Burma, supplying the Chindits. So the RAF took all the Canadian aircrews from our 46 Group Squadrons, 271, 48, 512, 575 and 233 and formed 435 Squadron at Blakehill Farm on September 4th 1944 and their first operation was September 17th 1944 - Operation Market Garden. Peter McGill, a director of Buffalo Airways, was so pleased to receive this history that he had it printed as a hand-out to all the passengers who fly in KG330. He then followed up by sending me the registrations of all their nine DC3s and asked if I could supply their histories. Five of them were USAAF and the other four were ex RAF. Then to my surprise a lady called Lisa Green, who was a director of the production team for making the Ice Pilots serial, contacted me to say that they intended doing a film about the Dakota and if I had two fit ex aircrew members they would be flown to the States for filming. Most of my aircrew members are rather too old to make such a journey but I was able to put her in touch with Lloyd Bentley, 512 Squadron, Jack Ambler, 48 Squadron and Col. Peter Porter, 437 RCAF who live in Canada. If there are any more Canadian aircrew who took part in European operations even on casualty evacuation, Lisa Green's phone number is 001 604 874 0300 and she is in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Whilst I am dealing with Canada, on the TV on evening there was mention of an organisation called War Amps (War Amputees) and they referred to a Canadian para hero who was a well known athlete. He dropped in Normandy, got stuck in a tree and was shot and killed. I wrote to the director of War Amps and told her that the 1st Canadian Para Battalion had left for Europe from our airfield at Down Ampney early in the morning of June 6th 1944 and they were so heavily festooned with bandoliers of machine gun bullets, hand grenades, trenching tools, water bottles and small kit that if they sat down near the aircraft we mechanics had to help them up and board the Dakotas. I received a reply from a Mrs Lorraine Cornelius who was the executive director of War Amps to say how pleased she was to be contacted by a veteran who was involved with the despatching of the 1st Canadian para. She told a gentleman called Norman Quick who is the last surviving cameraman who served with the Canadians in Italy and he sent me a set of DVDs of all the newsreels he filmed through his involvement with the Canadians in Africa, Italy and France. Also included in her letter was a message from a Bill Talbot who was one of the paras we helped onto the Dakotas. So that was a satisfying and interesting response.
Another wonderful happening took place in May when my Dutch friend Frans Ammerlaan, who had been liaising with the London Taxi Drivers Benevolent Fund, to help them organise an 80 taxi cavalcade from London to take 160 veterans to tour Holland to celebrate the Dutch Liberation Day and Frans had put my name forward as a veteran, not as a combatant involved in Holland but as a participant in the Royal Air Forces contribution towards their liberation and to my surprise and delight I was invited to join them. We rendezvoused at the Union Jack Club in London where Boris Johnson was there to see us off and at about 3.30pm we left two to a taxi to Harwich. Unfortunately my companion was a para pathfinder aged 86 who was stone deaf so from London to Harwich the journey was made in stony silence. We were escorted by dozens of yellow coated mounted policemen zooming up and down the long cavalcade on their motor cycles holding back the intersecting traffic. So on arrival at Harwich we boarded the overnight ferry where we had a most enjoyable meal and slept until early morning when after breakfast we formed up again in the Hook of Holland set off on a tour of Holland. The first stop of which was at the Bronbeck Veterans home in Arnhem. Next day we travelled to Bevrijding Museum for a Remembrance Service. On Saturday we were taken to the Hartenstein Museum where we were welcomed by the Burgomeister of Renkum. At this museum I sat next to another ex serviceman who commented that for an 87 year old I appeared very fit and I told him that I was playing golf three times a week and mentioned that often I played with Peter Bonetti, the ex Chelsea and England goalkeeper, and that I played off 21. He told me that in his hey day he played off 3 and added that he used to play with an ex pro footballer but he died recently. I went cold when he told me the name of this pro footballer for it was Larry Canning who used to play for Aston Villa. After the war ended we were posted to Bari in Italy to a staging post bringing back personnel from the Middle and Far East. Larry and I became great friends for I was in charge of Station Sports and Larry was my star inside forward. The news of his death came as a great shock. On the last day of the tour we all went to the Hartenstein Airborne museum where we took a lot of photographs standing by the Arnhem Aircrew memorial that we dedicated in 2006. I was also asked to give a little talk in the museum about the activities of our six Dakota Squadrons and their contribution to the battle. A Dutch gentleman took a video film of this talk and promised to send a DVD to me, which he did but when I tried to play it on my DVD player it would not play, for it must be on a different format. So ended an absolutely wonderful five days and I was so grateful to the organisers Paul Davis and Dick Goodwin for their invitation to me to join this fantastic cavalcade with the unforgettable memory of thousands of Dutch people waving Dutch flags as we went past.
Shortly after the Dutch tour I was invited once again to attend a book signing at the Aces High Art Gallery in Wendover. When I arrived I was delighted to see Mary Lack and Lillian West, two of our remaining Air Ambulance nurses who had been invited to join the book signing team. We spent a couple of hours signing a range of books and pictures for the customers who asked questions about our wartime activities. This was followed by an excellent lunch and another hour's signing afterwards. On departure, Colin Hudson, the Managing Director, gave me a £50 cheque for the RAF Down Ampney Association.
This was followed by some bad news for I received in the post a magazine article to say that one of the last privately owned Dakotas had been sold to Kermit Weeks for his aircraft museum in Florida and he had come to Kemble with another DC3 pilot to fly it back to Florida. There was a picture in this article of Kermit and his pilot companion and Andrew Davenport who was of course the pilot who invited some of our group to take a last flight over our three airfields we used during the war. Andrew expressed his regrets that this superb Dakota was going to spend its remaining days gathering dust in Kermit Weeks' museum when it should be still flying around England and Europe. To balance that sad news this week I had a phone call from Jim Kilbride to say that although he had left the Parachute Regt he was still continuing to restore the gate guardian following their move from Aldershot to Colchester. At Aldershot, the Dakota had really deteriorated through years of neglect but fortunately Jim took a great interest in the Dakota and has now spent over 3-4 years of his spare time restoring her to her former conditions so it looks as if another Dakota has been salvaged for posterity. Jim has set me quite a problem for he asked me if I knew anyone with a parachutists' cable which ran down the length of the ceiling on which the parachutists would clip their parachute straps. Unfortunately the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at Coningsby, Shawbury and Air Atlantique were unable to help. So if any of our members have any knowledge of a parachute cable we would love to know.
For those of you who have been following the five year old saga about the Dakota FL510 which was purchased by an American millionaire, Donald Soldini, Donald is making a film about the history of this very interesting DC3. If you recall this Dakota was involved in an occult situation when flying an Air Commodore Goddard back to New Zealand. An English Navy man had this dream whereby all the passengers died when this Dakota crashed on a Japanese Island Sudu. Everything in the dream came true except the deaths of the passengers for FL510 crash landed on the sandy beach and no-one was killed. Some time later an RAF officer called Bryant who was not only a qualified pilot but also a qualified aveo-mechanic and engineer organised a crew, went to Sadu and dismantled FL510 and got it back to their base where he restored it to flying condition and used it as their runabout. In 1955 this story attracted the attention of Ealing Studios and they made a film of the whole story in which Michael Redgrave, Sheila Sim and Denholm Elliott. Very kindly Donald Solini's secretary obtained a DVD of this film and sent it to me. Just to remind you, FL510 was the personal Dakota of Lord Louis Mountbatten of Burma and we made part of this film in the home of Countess Lady Patricia Mountbatten and I made friends with her because she was very interested in the formation of our RAF Down Ampney association.
About a couple of months ago I had a visit from a Chris Bryant from Canada who was visiting England. Chris is the son of Flt Lt Bryant who repaired the Dakota back to flying condition. The film by the way was called "The Night My Number Came Up".
Things have been happening on other fronts for Paul Martin of Flog It invited me to take part in a film they were making about a visit the programme was making in Coventry cathedral and then an auction in the Coventry motor museum the next day. The filming in the Cathedral was a background to what happened in the Coventry Blitz for as an ARP 16 year old messenger I was sent into the City centre at the height of the Blitz to get an ambulance for a severely burned warden. I took my hobby - a leather football signed by over 30 goalkeepers and Paul did a valuation of it next day at £1000. A couple of months earlier the Discovery channel asked me to do the same thing to relate the story about the Blitz. I spent the biggest part of the day with them going over the story again and again and recently they sent me a DVD of the programme which portrayed my cycle ride for two minutes sandwiched between a two part programme of digging up a wartime Spitfire shot down in 1940.
In closing I would like to pay tribute to the excellent and friendly service our Down Ampney association has received from Mrs Sheila Burgess who recently retired from the position of church warden, a post she has held for many years and during which she has given me and the association every co-operation. Thank you, Sheila, may you enjoy a happy retirement.
Now I have to close this newsletter with some sadness listing the members who have passed away since my last newsletter and I'm afraid that as the years roll by the list grows longer. John Harries, DFC pilot 271 Sqdn; Bert Smith DFC, Navigator 575 Sqdn; Eileen Driscoll, Air Ambulance nurse; Fred Brock, Flying Control; Rachael Mackie P&F WAAF; Mike Batstone, 271 Sqdn Navigator; Jimmy Cowe, 271 FME; Les Howard, E Sqdn Glider Pilot; O'Neil Berry, 7th Kings Own Scottish Borderers; Kay Smith, Sgt WAAF P & F; Rev Bert Brown, 7th KOSB; Bob Cardy, E Sqdn Glider Pilot; Major Mike Graham, E Sqdn Glider Pilot; Joy Williams, MT driver. Knowing personally of these members has enriched the lives of Pat and myself, may they rest in peace.
Hope to see some of you at Down Ampney which this year will be on September 16th at 11 am. This is a week later than usual because we are always a week before the Arnhem Anniversary which this year is on September 23rd. Those of you who wish to stay at the Blunsden Hall hotel, the number is 01793 721701 and Rose generally makes our bookings. To get the group rate please mention the Down Ampney Association.
Hope to see as many of you as possible considering our advancing years.
Alan and Pat
Addendum: Sadly, due to the decline in numbers of my original members who have passed away, I have decided that this will be my last newsletter but as I have sent out 30,400 since I started in 1974 I feel that it has served its purpose. I shall, however, continue to arrange a memorial service in Down Ampney Church every September.