20 – RAF Melton Mowbray Nuclear Missile Base

In blog No 15, I looked at the history of RAF Melton Mowbray during World War Two and its important role transporting aircraft around the world to support both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm in whatever theatre of war they were engaged in.

In this blog, I continue the story of the former RAF station and skip ahead about 13 years after the end of World War 2 to the late 1950s when the country and the RAF was at the forefront of another global war – The Cold War and RAF Melton Mowbray became part of the countries vital nuclear defence network protecting our country.

Just over a year after the end of the Second World War, in November 1946, the Air Ministry issued an Operational Requirement, known as OR230, for an advanced jet bomber capable of carrying a 10,000-pound bomb to a target 2,000 nautical miles from a base anywhere in the world. The bomber needed to fly at an altitude of between 35,000 and 50,000 feet with a cruising speed of 500 knots.

A request for designs went to most of the United Kingdom’s major aircraft manufacturing companies including Handley Page, Armstrong Whitworth, Avro, Bristol, Short Brothers and English Electric. At the same time, another aircraft company, Vickers-Armstrong had produced a swept wing design, but this had been rejected as it did not meet the required specifications.

By the time the RAF’s strength reached its post war peak in 1956, the decision had been made by the Air Ministry and three companies that had made famous bombers during World War Two had been selected to produce the new jet bombers. They were Avro, producer of the infamous Lancaster bomber, Handley Page, producer of the Halifax bomber and Vickers, producer of the Wellington bomber. The three new aircraft that finally entered service were known as the Vulcan, the Victor and the Valiant respectively, becoming commonly known as the V Force.  These aircraft were to be used as the country’s Nuclear Deterrent.

RAF V Force with Vulcan (front), Valiant (center) and Victor (rear)

October 1956 saw the outbreak of the Suez War, and RAF aircraft were heavily involved in the crisis.  The diplomatic debacle of the Suez saw a dramatic rethink in defence policy.  The first manifestation of the new defence thinking was the infamous 1957 White Paper, in which Duncan Sandys, the Minister of Defence, forecast the end of manned aircraft and their replacement by guided missiles. 

It was during he Suez crisis that the British Government began discussions with the American Government the potential for basing a nuclear missile force in the United Kingdom.

The US gained much of its rocket expertise from German scientists that had previously been involved in the V1 and V2 vengeance weapons projects run by Germany during World War Two.  Apparently, there were over 500 rocket scientists that had voluntarily gone to the USA after the war to be employed in the aviation industry.

As a result of their experience, the USA already had two intermediate range missiles under development, one project run by the US Army named Jupiter (the bringer of Jollity) and the other by the US Air Force (USAF) named Thor (the God of Thunder).

The major problem the Americans were experiencing with both of these projects was the range of the missiles, which was limited to somewhere in the region of 1500 miles.  This was nowhere near enough to strike at targets deep within the Soviet Union with missiles launched from within the US homeland.  The only way the US could make practical use of the missiles was to deploy them in friendly countries nearer to the Soviet Union.

In 1957 an initial proposal from the USA was put to Britain to deploy Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) in the UK.  The plan was to deploy four Squadrons of nuclear tipped missiles with each squadron comprising fifteen missiles at a single base.  Two squadrons were to be manned by USAF personnel and the other two by RAF personnel.

The Thor missile was an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile with a range of 1,750 miles, armed with a two megaton nuclear warhead, it stood 65ft tall with a base diameter of 8 ft and could travel at a speed 12 times faster than sound. 

The proposal was regarded favourably by Britain’s new Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Negotiations took place following concerns raised by the British Government and the original concept of having two USAF squadrons and two RAF Squadrons had now changed to all four squadrons being run by the RAF with USAF support. 

The negotiations also reconsidered the bases where the missiles would be located.  The original plan included basing a squadron of missiles at RAF Brize Norton near Oxford, but this was rejected as the authorities could not contemplate the prospect of a Thor breaking up after launch and its war head  and 100,000lbs of fuel falling on the population and historic spires of Oxford.

The advantage of basing Thor in the UK was that there were hundreds of airfields across Eastern England that had been built on land commandeered during WW2.  The authorities clearly didn’t have the same concerns for the rural towns and cities across Eastern England and eventually for sites were selected to hose the Wing HQs and each base had four satellite stations around them. 

The sites chosen for the HQ’s were RAF Feltwell, RAF Hemswell, RAF Driffield and RAF North Luffenham.  Each HQ site had to be adjacent to an active airfield that could be used as the designated airhead so that the missiles and ground support equipment could be flown in as close as possible.  The airhead sites chosen were RAF Lakenheath for Feltwell, RAF Scampton for Hemswell, RAF Leconfield for Driffield and RAF Cottesmore for North Luffenham.

Thor IRBM UK base locations

Final agreement on the deployment of Thor in Britain was reached at the Bermuda Conference in March 1957, when Macmillan and Eisenhower met to discuss key issues.

On 1 April, Macmillan reported to Parliament that: “The rockets will be the property of Her Majesty’s Government, manned by British troops who will receive their prior training from American experts. The rockets cannot be fired by any except the British personnel, but the warhead will be in the control of the United States – which is the law of the United States- and to that extent the Americans have negative control; but it is absolutely untrue to say that the President and not the British Government will decide when these missiles will be launched and at whom. So long as we rely upon the American warheads, and only so long, that will remain a matter for the two Governments”.

The emphasis was still on the Nuclear Deterrent, and with the White Papers forecast of missiles replacing the aircraft, 1958 saw the delivery of the American Thor IRBM to the RAF.  The missiles were flown into RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk in USAF Globemaster transport aircraft and then transported by road to the launch sites.

Unloading a Thor missile from a USAF C-124 Globemaster

Project Emily was then born and twenty sites were chosen to house the new missiles.  In 1958 No.144(SM) Sqn North Luffenham reformed with No 254(SM) Sqn being reformed at Melton Mowbray on 1st December 1959.  The other satellite sites being No 130(SM) Sqn Polebrook Northamptonshire, No 223(SM) Sqn Folkingham Lincolnshire and No 218(SM) Sqn Harrington Northamptonshire.  (SM stands for Strategic Missile). Each of the five stations were equipped with a Thor missile complex housing 3 missiles and came under the control of Bomber Command.

The HQ was at a permanent station, in this case North Luffenham, as well as being the HQ it was also responsible for the care and maintenance of the satellite sites and their missiles.  The dispersed sites were erected in the middle of disused wartime airfields and the contract for the construction work was given to Monks Construction Company.

No 254 Squadron was reformed as a unit of No 3 Group Bomber Command on 1st December 1959 at RAF North Lufenham and its task was to operate the Thor missile from the disused former RAF airfield at Melton Mowbray.  Following reformation, the Squadron became known as No 254 (SM) Squadron .

The crest for No 254(SM) Sqn shows a Raven, with its wings endorsed and inverted.  The motto “Fljuga vakta ok ljosto” when translated means “To fly, to watch and to strike” refers back to when the squadron was initially formed in August 1918 at a Coastal Reconnaissance station and was employed on anti-submarine patrols.

No 151(S.A.M.) Wing, Fighter Command was formed equipped with Bloodhound missiles to provide anti-aircraft defence for the Thor sites.  No 62 Sqn was reformed on 1st Feb 1960 at RAF Woolfox Lodge in Rutland, No 257 Sqn was reformed on 1st July 1960 at RAF Warboys, Hunts and the Wing HQ was based at RAF North Luffenham.  These missiles which were the first to become operational in the Western world using continuous wave radar guidance systems, were intended to operate in conjunction with the Hunter and Javelin aircraft already operated by Fighter Command in the Air Defence role.

Bloodhound Missiles at RAF Woolfox Lodge in Rutland

The squadron consisted of three Thor missiles, each on a launch emplacement and the Squadron establishment as follows: Sqn Ldr D F Liddle, Squadron Commander, and 5 Flt Lts, G A Boston, G F Craig, K G Shaw, J Waiting and W P Wallington. 

Diagram of a Thor launch emplacement

Each of the Flt Lts commanded a launch crew consisting of one Flight Sergeant or Warrant Officer Master Aircrew as the Launch Monitor Console Operator, three technicians as Missile Maintenance Technicians, one Power Production Operator, four Firemen, four Cooks, eighteen Policemen and one Clerk, all of which were RAF personnel. 

The RAF launch crews had to undertake training courses to maintain this new weapon system.  Personnel who joined the Thor force had to undertake approximately 20 separate courses which were held in different parts of America and lasted anywhere between two and twelve weeks.  The main locations were Tucsan in Arizona and Vandenberg in California. 

Following the Sqn reformation, the first task for the RAF personnel was to undertake refresher training from 18th January 1960 to 8th March 1960 at RAF North Luffenham and RAF Feltwell.  During this period, the contractors continued to install the equipment for the launch pads and where possible, Sqn personnel assisted when they weren’t on training.

Diagram of a Thor launch emplacement

The Thor sites were subject to a number of “Ban the Bomb” demonstrations by groups from the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War.  Melton was subjected to several such protests with one taking place on the 18th/19th June 1959 and another on the 27th February 1960, when a protest march was undertaken from Leicester to RAF Melton Mowbray.  It is reported that the protest was ignored by the squadron personnel on advice from the civilian police and following a few speeches made by the protesters, it terminated peacefully.

The Newcastle Evening Chronicle published the following article on the Friday 19th June 1959 edition:

Rocket site protest party stays

Miss Pat Arrowsmith and her companions of the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War were today still picketing the main gate of the rocket site near Melton Mowbray (Leicestershire) where last night they demonstrated.

After the demonstrators had been warned they would be trespassing If they attempted to break In, Miss Arrowsmith the field organiser led her followers off along the road. Half a mile away they found a second unmarked gate. 

Some of the demonstrators climbed over and with banners held aloft began marching towards the site.  Five others stayed at the gate handing out leaflets. Police picked up the unresisting demonstrators who had sat down and carried them to the perimeter.

The demonstrators then pitched tents on the roadside verge. Today four members of the committee were still there.  Miss Arrowsmith proposes to stay on until the workers knocked off at the end of the day.

The Torbay Express and South Devon Echo also published an article on the same day:

Pat stays `on duty’

Miss Pat Arrowsmith, daughter of Rev. and Mrs. G. K Arrowsmith, of Torquay, and her companions of the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, who last night demonstrated at a rocket Site near Melton Mowbray (Leics.) were to-day still picketing the main gate.

The demonstration started last might with pickets and police talking over cups of tea.

When the demonstrators started marching towards the site, Air Ministry and civil police moved round to block off their route and warned them to leave. Miss Arrowsmith and her followers promptly sat down.

Police picked up the unresisting demonstrators, and, with Miss Arrowsmith laughingly apologising for her weight, carried them to the perimeter. They then went back for the tents which the invaders had been carrying handed them over.

Local farmer Bill Johnston recalls one incident at Melton when he was in his tractor delivering a trailer full of manure to the airfield and when he arrived at the Crown Hill gate at the Great Dalby end of the airfield and protester Pat Arrowsmith was lying down in the road to prevent access to the site.  The Police had to be called to remove her and allow him access to the site. 

Bill used to help cut the grass on the airfield and remembers one day when he was a passenger on a tractor when they stopped off for a T break at the NAAFI Wagon.  As they were sat enjoying their brew, Bill recalls how he was given a bar of chocolate from a black American serviceman.

During March 1960, the squadron took partial control of the equipment from the contractors and 24 hour watch keeping began on the 8th March 1960.  The installation programme was completed by the 8th April and the RAF squadron personnel took full control.  The squadron was represented by Flt Lt Wellington, Sgt Gibson, Cpl Techs Barron and Chatfield at the official handing over ceremonial parade at RAF North Luffenham on the 5th May 1960.

In June 1960, Flt Lt Waiting organised two large fire practices on the site involving both RAF personnel based at the site along with the civilian fire brigades from Melton Mowbray and Oakham so they could be familiarised with the site fire hazards.

RAF Thor with Victor V bomber at Vandenberg Air Force Base USA

The operational capability of the system was proven by carrying out a number of “Combat Training Launches”. The procedure for this was to remove an ageing missile from its launch pad, remove the nuclear warhead and fly the missile to America.  A new missile would be positioned on the launch pad so that a full complement was always kept.  The ageing missile would be set up on a launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and fired down the Pacific Missile Range.  Three of these launches were carried out by crews from the Luffenham complex.  The first ‘North Luffenham’ Combat Training Launch was carried out in October 1960 by Flt Lt E G Shaw and his crew from 254(SM) Sqn RAF Melton Mowbray.

RAF Thor lifting off as part of a Combat Training Launch

Any launch order, simulated or otherwise, had to be authenticated by the RAF and USAF officers at Bomber Command HQ, High Wycombe, where Seventh Air Division’s HQ was also located, using a special and highly secret code. Operation of the Thor required a lengthy countdown procedure, so in time of war the system required considerable warning of impending enemy activity; on average, the sequence required something like 15 minutes from receipt of the positive launch order. At that point the RAF launch Control Officer turned a phase sequence key to initiate a fully automatic sequence of events:-

Phase 1: All equipment and targeting data checked. Countdown sequence initiated

Phase 2: Shelter retracted and missile erected. Targeting data entered.

Phase 3: Missile loaded with fuel. Target data and missile valves rechecked

Phase 4: Missile functions transferred to internal power source and missile topped up with liquid oxygen (LOX) if required.

Phase 5: Authentication launch codes received. Keys turned and engines started.

Another ‘North Luffenham’ Combat Training Launch was carried out in August 1961 and was rather unique.  Back home in the UK, a campaign was underway by ‘Rutlanders’ to try and prevent their tiny county being overtaken by its larger neighbour Leicestershire.  The launch crews were aware of this and slapped a “Hands off Rutland” sticker on the nose of the missile and as they watched the launch on TV, they saw the Rutland campaign go into orbit.  The third launch was on 19 June 1962.  All three launches were a success and proved the operational aspects of both the missile and the RAF crews.

On the 23rd November 1960, there was a security alert at the Melton Thor site when a light aircraft landed on the disused runway.  The aircraft as rapidly surrounded by the duty police patrol and security alert measures were set in motion by the duty officer Flt Lt Wallington.  The alert ceased when it transpired that the occupants of the light aircraft were two Frenchmen who were unsure of their position had landed at what they believed to be RAF Cottesmore.

At 05:30Hrs on the 4th December 1961, No 245(SM) Sqn received an issue of ‘Alert Condition 3’ from Bomber Command Operations Centre as part of the Bomber Command Exercise “Redouble”.  When the alert was received, the Squadron was engaged in carrying out periodic maintenance inspections on the launch pads.  One pad had power supply issues and a second was at Standby and brought to Exercise Ready state in seven minutes with a second following at 11:07Hrs and the third at 22:05Hrs.  During the exercise, the Squadron carried out 5 countdowns and the exercise was terminated at 12:06Hrs on the 5th December.

RAF Thor missiles raised to the vertical position

Exercise “Redouble” was a Bomber Command twice yearly exercise testing the Thor force integration within the Bomber Command alert and readiness procedures. The exercise required all launch emplacements to be placed in Exercise Ready condition, meaning off duty crews had to be called back from leave, stand-down etc as the Launch Crews were doubled up and working 12 hour shifts.

Another method of testing the Thor force and its crews was the annual Exercise Mayshot which was the IRBM component of the Exercise Mayflight series. These exercises were designed to test the Bomber Command alert and readiness procedures, similar to that undertaken in Exercise Redouble. As the Thor force was already at constant alert at T-15. the only additional thing that could be tested was the time taken to augment the launch crews. However, Mayshot was a planned exercise with the Sqns having prior knowledge of when it would be executed and as such the crews did not see this exercise as a realistic test of their procedures.

Thor missile with clouds of liquid oxygen venting off

Meltonian, Dave Page joined the RAF in June 1959 as a National Service Policeman.  After doing his basic training at RAF Bridgenorth in Shropshire and trade training at RAF Netheravon, Wiltshire he passed out as a Cpl Policeman and was posted to RAF North Luffenham.  Dave was pleased with his posting as he was born and bred in Melton. 

While stationed at North Luffenham, Dave was responsible for the security of the Thor sites, including the satellite stations.  When on duty at Melton, he lived at home with his parents. Dave recalls that the Thor sites were surrounded by two chain link fences with barbed wire tops.   These fences ran parallel around the site with a 10m ‘sterile area’ between the two high coils of barbed wire were set up against the outer fence to prevent anyone climbing the fence. 

While on duty he was armed with a .38 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver with six rounds.  As well as guard room duties, he was duties involved mobile patrols of the perimeter fence, both on foot and in a Land Rover. 

While on duty he was armed with a .38 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver with six rounds.  As well as guard room duties, he was duties involved mobile patrols of the perimeter fence, both on foot and in a Land Rover. 

One of the tasks for the RAF Police protecting the Thor sites was carrying out security checks on other sites where the police would pretend to be intruders and try and gain access to the sites. In August 1962, No 254 (SM) Sqn was subjected to one such attack and three potential ‘intruders’ were captured within the sterile area.  Some of the intruder attacks were more successful than other.  A few weeks earlier, B Crew were on duty on the 31st July when the site was attacked by the so called intruders.  They admitted that they had managed to gain entry to the site and escape detection for almost half an hour but confirmed that they were unable to penetrate onto any of the launch pads or vital points due to the general busy activity by the site personnel.

RAF police dog handler protecting a Thor launch emplacement

The Cuba crisis in 1962 saw both the V-Force and the Thor Force at operational readiness. Across East Anglia, American pilots were strapped in their nuclear-armed aircraft at ‘cockpit readiness. RAF V-bombers were loaded with thermonuclear weapons and held on heightened Quick Reaction Alert at RAF Bases across East Anglia and Lincolnshire.

In addition to the V-force being put on readiness, the 60 Thor launch pads across Eastern England, had their launch crews doubled in strength and the missiles themselves were prepared for firing. On the 27th October 1962, No 254(SM) Sqn was called to Alert Condition ‘ Phase’ 3 with all of Meltons three missiles fully loaded with fuel, their target data and missile valves were rechecked and kept on hold at the end of Phase 3 with the hangars rolled back. It would have taken only a further two or three minutes to complete Phases 4 and 5. With the easing of political tensions, Bomber Command released the missile readiness state to Alert Condition 4 on the 5th November.

A Group Captain in charge of one of the Thor HQ sites recalled some 30 years later “Perhaps the worst thing was to realise that the station and dispersed sites would be hit and destroyed shortly after we had fired our own missiles, or before, if the Russians chose to make a pre-emptive strike. Although I chose not to think too much about it, while the crises was on, it was a great relief when the Air Officer Commanding Group rang to say the heat was off.”

Meltonian Ivan Farmer recalls his days on Thor missiles, although he was based at RAF Feltwell and not Melton: “The Cuban missile crises did change the atmosphere at RAF Feltwell and the other Thor bases. It was the same for everyone at the V-bomber bases too. You took it in your stride but there was a feeling that we may not be long long for this world. WE tried to keep up with it through the radio and the newspapers. We were put on 12 hour shifts and they doubled the number of safety officers to certify the launch codes. There was one lengthy ‘operational hold’ during the confrontation. It was a very tense period. In the local village, the local landlord complained that his pub was empty as no one came in during the crisis.”

Only the most rudimentary plans existed to protect the population and these relied on days of prior notice if they were going to be implemented effectively. Many years after the crises ended, it became clear that the Home Office had done nothing to activate the Civil Defence plans. I wonder how many of the local residents of Melton Mowbray, and other villages surrounding the missile base realised just how much danger they were in?

Civil Defence Handbook

On the 25th July 1963 a party of 48 Air Training Corps cadets who were on camp at RAF Cottesmore visited the site.  During their 2 hour visit, they conducted tours of the various areas of the Weapons System with he cadets watching a countdown demonstration on emplacement 57.

The Thor’s reign as the countries nuclear deterrent was a short one, and the missiles ceased to be operational in August 1963 which led to the closure of Melton.  The Luffenham complex was the last to close when on the 15th August the site ceased to be operational and No 254 (SM) Sqn disbanded on the 23rd.

An order of the day to Thor squadrons and stations from Air Marshall Sir Kenneth Cross, AOC-in-C, Bomber Command said: “You have maintained a higher rate of readiness in peacetime than has ever been achieved before in the history of the armed forces of the Crown.”  Mr. Hugh Fraser, Secretary of State for Air, also sent a message of appreciation to Bomber Command.

When the airfield was finally vacated by the RAF in 1964, most of the facilities including the hangars were dismantled, but the Control Tower survived although derelict until about 1970 when it was demolished.

Following the retirement from service of the missiles, the majority were returned to the US to be used in the space exploration program, either as single stage boosters or in combination with various upper stages, mainly in association with the Telstar, Pioneer and Discoverer programmes.  However, you can still see two examples of the Thor here in the UK with one being on display in the Cold War display at the RAF Museum Cosford and the other can be found in the Space Centre at Leicester

The Thor missile site at the former RAF North Luffenham has been given a Grade II* listing as a reminder of the “knife-edge moment in history”.  The site is one of two of the most intact examples of Thor missile bases in England, the other is at the former RAF Harrington in Northamptonshire – now mainly farmland -– which is Grade II listed.  The concrete launch pads and blast walls still remain at the former Rutland RAF base, along with mounting bolts for the platforms that would raise the missiles into a vertical firing position.

For more information visit the Historic England site to see their listing entries for the former missile sites at North Luffenham and Harrington

Tony Calladine, English Heritage’s designation team leader for the east of England, said: “Melton Mowbray wasn’t put on the list because it didn’t survive well enough. Only those which have survived most intact were selected.

Oh Happy Days” – Melton resident Mike Mayfield has clear recollections of the missiles:

“I can clearly recall visiting my Grandma’s farm at the top of Cuckoo Hill, between Stapleford Lane and the road to Whissendine, and on many a summer’s evening whilst hay making or harvesting, looking across towards Melton Airfield from the high vantage point, and seeing all 3 missiles in an elevated position and floodlit. Quite a sight as darkness fell!

A more direct and intimate reminder happened in the summer of either 1964 or 65. I was a student at Leicester College studying Quantity Surveying, and being unable to get temporary work in the Building Industry in Melton during the summer holidays, I found employment with Mr. George Houghton of Leesthorpe, a well-known gentleman farmer and Leicestershire County Councillor.

George had the grass mowing rights at RAF North Luffenham, and for 6-8 weeks we would leave Leesthorpe every morning with about 6 or 8 Fordson Major tractors pulling either 1 or 2 four wheeled trailers- quite a sight driving over the level crossing and through the centre of Oakham with a ‘long train of trailers behind’.

Each morning we checked in at the Guardroom at the main gates, and whoever was first there would purchase the tickets for lunch in the Airmen’s Mess, at a cost of 3 shillings and 6 pence in old money!!

After a morning of mowing, turning and baling hay, followed by a huge lunch in the said Mess, half of the afternoon was spent lounging around on a stack of bales reading the Daily Mirror or similar newspaper.

To get to the point, we in fact worked round all the missile bases, dodging in and around the blast walls etc and avoiding the open duct ways. Needless to say the missiles had long gone, but there was still evidence of their former presence.

We also worked in the Airfield’s ammunition compound, where we had to open up, enter and lock ourselves in for the day.

At the end of each working day we would load up the trailers and wend our way back to Leesthorpe, needless to say 1 loaded trailer was enough to tow on the return journey. I can recall one of the drivers losing his load somewhere between leaving Langham and descending Three Step Hill.

Coming from a farming background it was a very happy and interesting experience that summer, accompanied by exceptionally hot weather as I recall.  Oh Happy Days!!”

Thor Squadron

19 – Protecting our War Memorials

WW1 & WW2 Memorial at St Mary’s Church, Marston near Grantham

You are all undoubtedly aware of the sayings/speeches that are made at times of Remembrance and these are generally referred to as The Kohima Epitaph and The Exhortation.

The Kohima Epitaph is the epitaph carved on the Memorial of the 2nd British Division in the cemetery of Kohima (North-East India). It reads:

‘When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.’

The verse is attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds (1875-1958), and is thought to have been inspired by the epitaph written by Simonides to honour the Greeks who fell at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC.

The Exhortation is an extract from a poem written in mid-September 1914, just a few weeks after the outbreak of World War One, by Robert Laurence Binyon called “For the Fallen”.

The Exhortation is read out during Remembrance Ceremonies, immediately after the Last Post is played, and leads into the Two Minute Silence.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.”

Response: “We will remember them.”

But how do we remember them? 

Away from the Remembrance Ceremonies, everyone has their own way of remembering their fallen relatives and one method, especially for the families of those who never returned was, and still is today, via the erection of war memorials.

What is a war memorial though? 

A war memorial can be any tangible object which has been erected or dedicated to commemorate war, conflict, victory or peace.  They can also commemorate casualties who served in, were affected by or killed as a result of war, conflict or peacekeeping; or those who died as a result of accident or disease whilst engaged in military service.  This can also include civilian casualties and not just service personnel.

War memorials can come in many different shapes and sizes, such as:

Sculpted figures, crosses, obelisks, cenotaphs, columns, etc

Cheltenham Boer War memorial – a fine example of a column monument with a sculpted figure on the top

Boards, plaques and tablets (inside or outside a building)

Christ Church Wesham WW2 Memorial

Roll of Honour or Book of Remembrance

Book of Remembrance displayed in Selby Abbey commemorating the fallen from WW2 and the 1982 Falklands conflict

Community halls, hospitals, bus shelters, clock towers, streets etc

Harlaxton Village Memorial Hall built to commemorate those who served in the war 1914 – 1918
Harlaxton Village Hall memorial tablet

Church fittings like bells, pews, lecterns, lighting, windows, altars, screens, candlesticks, etc

St Mary’s Church Melton Mowbray – Stained Glass Window commemorating Captain Gordon Edward Buileau Wood of the Shropshire Company Battalion Imperial Yeomanry

Trophies and relics like a preserved gun or the wreckage at an aircraft crash site

Canon captured at the Battle of Omdurman on display at the Rifles Museum Winchester

Land, including parks, gardens, playing fields and woodland

Avenue of Trees at Desford Boys School Leicestershire planted to the memory of 36 old boys of this school who fell in the Great War 1914-1919

Additions to gravestones (but not graves)

Addition to his sister’s headstone at Asfordby, Leicestershire. Commemorating 77037 Pte Thomas Williamson 1/7 DLI who died as a POW on 16 Oct 1918 in Trelon.

I suppose you could say that one of the first national war memorials in this country was The Royal Hospital at Chelsea. In 1681, responding to the need to look after these soldiers, King Charles II issued a Royal Warrant authorising the building of the Royal Hospital Chelsea to care for those ‘broken by age or war’.

RHS Hospital Chelsea

Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design and erect the building and in 1692 work was finally completed and the first Chelsea Pensioners were admitted in February 1692 and by the end of March the full complement of 476 were in residence.

RHS Hospital Chelsea WW1 & WW2 plaque

War memorials can be found in just about every town or village across the country.  There are so many First World War memorials in this country that it is easy to stop seeing them.  For the majority of people, they just walk past them as if the memorial is so much part of everyday street furniture without even giving it a second glance.  Even direct descendants of those named on them don’t pay that much attention to them.

Addition to a family gravestone at Melton Mowbray Thorpe Road Cemetery commemorating Private Alfred Octavius Wilcox KIA WW1 serving with 1st Artists Rifles Bn

Probably the most iconic war memorial in this country, and the one that most individuals are familiar with is The Cenotaph, located on Whitehall in Central London.  It is the countries national memorial to the dead of Britain and the British Empire in the First World War and conflicts that have taken place since and is the focal point of the annual service of remembrance.

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, London

The Cenotaph was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens OM, the foremost architect of his day and was responsible for many of the commemorative structures built in the years following World War One by the Imperial War Graves Commission, now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Nelsons Column, Trafalgar Square, London

Another famous war memorial that people will be aware of, but not necessarily associate it as a war memorial is another of London’s iconic landmarks, Nelsons Column in Trafalgar Square.  The monument was constructed between 1840 and 1843 to commemorate Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  It stands, 169 feet 3 inches tall from the bottom of the pedestal base to the top of Nelsons hat.

There are four bronze panels around the pedestal each cast from captured French guns.  They depict the Battle of Cape St Vincent (14th February 1797), the Battle of the Nile (1st – 3rd August 1798), the Battle of Copenhagen (2nd April 1801) and the Battle of Trafalgar (21st October 1805), all battles in which Nelson took part in.

Memorial to Colonel Edward Hawkins Cheney in St Lukes Church Gaddesby – reportedly the only equine statue of a horse in an English Church

Prior to the 1890s, the majority of war memorials across the country only commemorated aristocrats, the rich and famous who became officers of the British Army and Royal Navy. 

However, in 1899 and the outbreak of the Second Boer War (1899-1902), regular soldiers were in short supply and volunteers stepped forward into the breach by joining the local volunteers Militia. 

Thousands of these so called ‘amateur’ Militia volunteers were killed during the campaign, and those that returned home following the end of the war, were hailed as heroes as they had survived conflicts like the Sieges of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley. 

Consequently, thousands of Boer War memorials were erected up and down the country ranging from brass plaques to large elaborate sculptures in town centers.  Whatever their design, they all had the same purpose of commemorating not only those Officers from well to do families but also the ‘common’ soldier that had made the ultimate sacrifice from either being killed in action or dying of illness contracted whilst serving in South Africa. 

One such example of a Boer War memorial can be found in my local Parish Church of St Mary’s here in the market town of Melton Mowbray where I live.

On Saturday 20th December 1902, The Grantham Journal published the following article in their newspaper:

“Honour to Whom Honour is Due”—The memory of Meltonians who sacrificed their lives in the South African war is to be perpetuated by a splendid brass tablet, suitably inscribed, which is to be placed in the Parish Church, probably the nave. The names of the seven who fell, and which will appear on the tablet, are Privates John Lowe, Wm. Manchester, Wm. Redmile, and John Henry Green, Troopers Edward Dobson and Ernest Alfred Baker, and Bugler Albert Edward Peasgood, of Oakham, a member the Melton Volunteer Corps. The matter is in the hands of Mr. Willcox, who has collected most of the subscriptions for the purpose, a ready response being made in this respect. Work is in the hands of Messrs. J. Wippall and Co., of Exeter and London, and the tablet, which will be of an ornamental character, will be mounted a polished slab of black marble. The Vicar has kindly agreed to forego the fee of ten guineas which is entitled in respect of fixing of the tablet in the Church. It is expected that it will be ready towards the end of the month of February, and it will be unveiled at a special service arranged for the occasion, which will be attended by the local Volunteers and Yeomanry. A special effort is being made among the Volunteers in the matter of subscriptions the fund for memorial, and Sergt. J. Sutherland has undertaken to receive the same.

A special unveiling ceremony for the dedication of the memorial was held on Sunday 15th March 1903.

The brass plaque is described as “Containing a cross with red infill, encircled by a crown within nowy head & a cross at each corner fixing point, all infilled in black. An engraved single-line, inwardly radiused, at each corner, forms a border around inscription area, with a decorative open termination at top centre within nowy head.”

Memorial for the 1899-1902 Boer War located in St Marys Church Melton Mowbray

THIS TABLET WAS PLACED BY PUBLIC SUBSCRIPTION IN MEMORY OF THOSE FROM THIS TOWN WHO DIED SERVING THEIR COUNTRY IN SOUTH AFRICA

PRIVATE JOHN LOWE DIED OF ENTERIC AT LADYSMITH 6th MARCH 1900 AGED 23 YEARS

BUGLER ALBERT EDWARD PEASGOOD A NATIVE OF OAKHAM DIED OF ENTERIC AT KROONSTAD 27th MAY 1900 AGED 19 YEARS

PRIVATE WILLIAM MANCHESTER DIED OF THROMBOSIS AT SPRINGFONTEIN 12th DECEMBER 1900 AGED 28 YEARS

TROOPER EDWARD DOBSON KILLED IN ACTION NEAR WELVERDIERED 24th DECEMBER 1900 AGED 20 YEARS

TROOPER ERNEST ALFRED BAKER DIED OF ENTERIC AT KROONSTAD 1st JUNE 1901 AGED 18 YEARS

PRIVATE WILLIAM REDMILE DIED OF ENTERIC AT ALIWAL NORTH 14th SEPTEMBER 1902 AGED 18 YEARS

PRIVATE JOHN HENRY GREEN DIED 12th SEPEMBER 1902 UPON HIS RETURN HOME FROM DISEASE CONTRACTED IN SOUTH AFRIVA AGED 22 YEARS

“WHEN THE PEOPLE OFFERED THEMSELVES WILLINGLY”

“HONOUR TO WHOM HONOUR IS DUE”

As part of the unveiling ceremony, a parade of the Melton Mowbray volunteers took place including the Melton and Gaddesby troops of the Leicestershire Imperial Yeomanry, twenty-nine members of the Oakham detachment of “N” Company of the Leicestershire Volunteers, under Sergt. J. C. Kernick and the Church Lads Brigade and a regimental band from Leicester was also in attendance.

A large congregation assembled in the Church and the unveiling ceremony was performed by General Brocklehurst who raised a toast to the King and an appropriate dissertation was also read by the vicar, Rev R Blakeney.

After the unveiling, the Last Post, and the anthem ‘Blest are the departed’ by Spohr was sung by the choir.

Leicester Memorial for the Counties fallen from the South Africa War 1899-1902

Another example of a Boer War memorial is that which can be found in the Town Hall Square Leicester on the corner of Every Street & Horsefair Street. This memorial takes on a different for to the plaque in St Mary’s and is a low granite wall with bronze plaques containing the names of 315 of Leicestershire’s men who died in the war. It is made up of a central squat pedestal with bronze kneeling angel in flowing robes holding sword and olive branch, showing Peace. Figures of grief & war are also mounted on the end pillars.

I have been interested in war memorials for just short of 40 years now and this stems back to when I was a young cadet of around 13 or 14 years of age with No 967 Kirkham and South Fylde Sqn Air Training Corps.

I can’t remember the exact year, but as I said previously, I must have been around 13 or 14 when I was given the honour of laying a wreath on Remembrance Sunday at my local war memorial at Wesham in Lancashire. 

Believe me, it was an honour, as on that memorial is the name of my Uncle, Frank Coulburn, who was a Sapper serving with No 9 Field Company, Royal Engineers during WW2 and he was killed at Dunkirk on 2nd June 1940, last seen on the beach during the evacuation.  Sadly, his body has never been recovered, or if it was, never identified and as such he has no known grave.

Wesham War Memorial

On what I think was the same year, I was also part of the Guard of Honour at the Kirkham War Memorial, being one of four cadets, one stood on each corner of the memorial during the wreath laying ceremony.  The town Mayor and other local dignitaries laid the wreaths whilst us cadets stood there with our heads bowed and our Lee Enfield .303 rifles in the arms reversed position in an act of remembrance, a pose that is quite common with figures of military personnel on war memorials, just like the one at Wesham.

During my travels across the UK, and even overseas, when I come across a war memorial, I will always pay it a visit, read the inscription and take photographs of it.  There are plenty of the memorials that are lovingly cared for and maintained by local authorities and communities.  Sadly though, this is not always the case as it was slowly dawning on me that a lot of these memorials were either neglected or suffering from effects such as weathering, pollution, and in some cases vandalism. 

Memorial Plaque inside the Bell Centre Melton Mowbray, commemorating the return of Officers and Men of the 4th Parachute Brigade from Arnhem

Coming across quite a few memorials that, shall we say were not in the best of conditions for whatever reason, I decided several years ago to join the War Memorials Trust as a member and also as a Regional Volunteer to ‘do my bit’ and try to ensure that “We will remember them” and the individuals named on the memorial inscriptions are “Not Forgotten.”

Memorial plaque from King Edward VII Grammar School commemorating the fallen from both world wars. Now located in the Sage Cross Methodist Church.

Throughout the United Kingdom, there are estimated to be over 100,000war memorials.  They were, and still are today, erected by communities and in the majority of cases via public subscription as a means for communities to focus their grief and provide a means of Remembrance because so many who died or are classed as missing were never repatriated or have no known grave.

Memorial to Wellington Bomber LN281 that crashed in Melton Mowbray. Unveiled 2014

As I have discovered during my travels, many memorials are treasured, maintained and cared for with maintenance plans in place, but others are sadly neglected, vandalised or left to suffer the effects of ageing and weathering.

Colsterworth war memorial damage from weathering

This is where the War Memorials Trust comes in. They want to ensure that each and every memorial is preserved and the memory of the individuals recorded, whether they be from past or present conflict, civilian or service personnel, remembered.

Who are the War Memorials Trust?

Back in 1997 an ex-Royal Marine, by the name of Ian Davidson, went to one of the Committee Rooms at the House of Commons to report on the ‘scandal’ of Britain’s war memorials. 

Ian Davidson shocked those in attendance with his report that although the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was doing a magnificent job caring for the graves and memorials to our war dead abroad (post 1914), no one – and no organization – took responsibility for the care of Britain’s war memorials at home, estimated to number more than 50,000 at the time.

As a fall out from this meeting, a new organisation known originally as Friends of War Memorials was formed, changing its name to War Memorials Trust in January 2005.

The War Memorials Trust works with communities, supporting them to provide care for their war memorials which remain a shared ongoing tribute and responsibility. They encourage best conservation practice giving the greatest chance of preserving the original war memorials as they were seen by those who lost loved ones. As current custodians we are acting today not just for ourselves but for those who went before, and will come after, us.

As a charity War Memorials Trust provides advice, offers grants and works with others to achieve its objectives. But it needs help as it relies entirely on voluntary donations to enable it to protect and conserve war memorials in the UK. Gifts, subscriptions, grants and in-kind contributions all assist the charity to achieve its aims and objectives. 

Great Dalby War Memorial

The war memorial in the village of Great Dalby near Melton Mowbray commemorates 11 men of the village who died in the Great War and it was unveiled on 25 July 1920. In 2006 a project was undertaken on the memorial to restore it to its former glory. The fence surrounding the memorial needed to be repaired to ensure it was safe and the War Memorials Trust contributed £215 towards this work. 

Egerton Lodge War Memorial Gardens are part of landscaped gardens surrounding Egerton Lodge, a grade II listed residential home for the elderly in Melton Mowbray.

Egerton Memorial Gardens and VC Flower Bed

In 2008, the War Memorials Trust gave a grant of £2,500 towards the restoration of the terrace. This included cleaning the balustrade and re-pointing the structure with lime mortar.  Additionally, the tarmac surface of the upper terrace was replaced with stone paving.  The York paving slabs had originally been used on the platform of the Great Northern Station on Scalford Road, Melton, until it’s closed in 1953.  When the war memorial was restored in 2008/9, it was decided to use the stone labs on the upper terrace as it was deemed appropriate that those who gathered on the terrace to honour the towns fallen heroes would be standing on the same slabs as some of those who did not return may have stood during their embarkation when they went off to war.

The War Memorials Trust also relies on the efforts of volunteer Contributors to report on the condition of war memorials around the country.  These volunteers used to be called Regional Volunteers and they looked after the memorials in their County but that volunteering scheme has now ended as more and more members of the public are also contributing.

If you want to get involved in any way, to help protect and conserve our nation’s war memorial heritage, you can join the Trust as a member. Members donate either an annual subscription of £20 or make a one-off payment of £150 for life membership.

Alternatively, you can get involved by volunteering and reporting on the condition of our war memorials. You can do this by registering online with their War Memorials Online website and then submit photos and condition reports of any war memorials you come across.

17 – Decorated RAF Airmen killed in crash near Great Dalby

On the 13th May 1944, another fatal crash occurred near Melton this time involving an Airspeed Oxford Mk.I DF517 from No. 1655 Mosquito Training Unit (MTU), killing all four crew members, of which two had been decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross. 

No 1655 MTU (which operated Mosquito Mk. IV and Oxford Mk. I aircraft at that time) was based at RAF Warboys in Cambridgeshire and was part of No. 8 Pathfinder Force.  The purpose of 1655 MTU was to train Mosquito crews in the use of Oboe and they did this throughout 1944 and in early 1945.

Oboe training was a six week course for pilots and observers who were eventually sent on to No’s 105 and 109 Squadrons for Oboe marking duties, most were on their second tour. The Pilots at 1655 MTU had to learn how to fly a Mosquito whilst the Observers were being taught Pathfinder navigation and marking techniques.

Oboe was a British aerial blind bombing system in World War II, based on radio transponder technology. The system consisted of a pair of radio transmitters on the ground, which sent signals which were received and retransmitted by a transponder in the aircraft. By comparing the time each signal took to reach the aircraft, the distance between the aircraft and the station could be determined. The Oboe operators then sent radio signals to the aircraft to bring them onto their target and properly time the release of their bombs.

Oboe Navigation illustration

The system was first used in December 1941 in short-range attacks over France where the necessary line of sight could be maintained. To attack the valuable industrial targets in the Ruhr, only the de Havilland Mosquito flew high enough to be visible to the ground stations at that distance. Such operations began in 1942, when Pathfinder squadron Mosquitos used Oboe both to mark targets for heavy bombers, as well as for direct attacks on high-value targets.

Pathfinder Mosquito leading Lancaster heavy bombers

DF517 took off from RAF Warboys on a training flight at 14.55 hours on 13th May 1944 and after coming out of cloud cover, the aircraft was out of control and disintegrated in mid-air, crashing at 16.08 hours, near the Great Dalby railway station.

It was assumed that loss of control had occurred through icing up of instruments on the aircraft, or turbulent conditions in cloud, and that the complete structural failure was a result of severe overstressing, although this could not be proved. All four members of the crew were killed in the accident, and the bodies of the RAF personnel were taken to Melton Mowbray Mortuary. The crew of DF517 was Fg Off GH Bowen, Flt Lt AEH Cattle, Flt Lt M McIver DFC and Fg Off GG Halestrap DFC.

Fg Off Geoffrey Hugh Bowen was the 1st pilot and was commissioned as Plt Off on probation within RAF(VR) GD Branch wef 27th Oct 1943 supplement to London Gazette 21 Dec 1943.   Geoffrey was the Son of Percival and Mary A. Bowen (nee Smith), of West Cross, Swansea. He was educated at Tenby Council School and at Greenhill School prior to enlisting into the Royal Air Force. He is buried at Swansea (Oystermouth) Cemetery. Geoffrey is not commemorated on the main Tenby War Memorial, but at both his former Schools. More details about his grave can be obtained via his CWGC Casualty record.

Fg Off Geoffrey Bowen
CWGC Headstone of Fg Off Geoffrey Bowen

Flt Lt Aubrey Edward Henderson Cattle was the 2nd pilot aboard DF517.  He had previously served on No 214 (Federate Malaya States) Squadron.  He had worked his way up through the ranks as According to London Gazette 28/4/1942, awarded rank of Temp WO wef 5 Mar 42 RAFVR GD Branch.  He had completed 1,245 Flying hours across all types, of which 95.30 Hrs were on the Oxford. He is buried Sec. T. Grave 70. Southend-On-Sea (Leigh-On-Sea) Cemetery. More details about his grave can be obtained via his CWGC Casualty record.

Flt Lt Aubrey Edward Henderson Cattle

Flt Lt Malcolm McIver DFC was one of the navigators aboard DF517. He was born in Toronto on the 4th Feb 1920 and was the son of Scottish parents Murdoch McIver and his wife Mary (nee Glenn). He had two brothers, Murdoch Glenn McIver, who served as a Lieutenant in the Canadian Infantry and John Samuel McIver who was a Sgt in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He also had four sisters, Catherine Margaret, Jean, Mary and Agnes Isabel.

Malcolm enlisted on the 20th May 1941 joining the No 23 Basic TC as part of the National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA) and was allocated Regimental Number B-610642.   His occupation was listed as School teacher. On the 24th July 1941, he was struck off strength from the NRMA and transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force and allocated service number J/11107.

He completed his initial training at Victoriaville, Quebec Trained at No.3 ITS, graduating on 7th October 1941. He then completed his Air Observers course on 19th January 1942 before moving onto his Armament Training Course at the No.1 Bombing and Gunnery School located at Jarvis, Ontario, which he completed on 28th February 1942. Next was learning how t become an Air Observer and so he moved to the No.10 Air Observer School at Pannfield Ridge for Advanced Air Observer training and graduated on 30th March 1942 with the award of his Observers Badge.

Malcolm had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross – No. 106 Squadron – Award effective 4 October 1943 as per London Gazette dated 15 October 1943 and AFRO 2610/43 dated 17 December 1943.  DFC Citation “This officer has completed a tour of operational duty during which he has displayed outstanding ability and the greatest keenness and enthusiasm for his work.  He has taken part in attacks on many of the major targets in the Ruhr Valley as well as the more distant objectives in Germany and Italy.  He participated in a successful attack on Friedrichshafen and returning from North Africa materially assisted his pilot in the raid on Spezia.  Flying Officer McIver has performed his navigational duties with skill, accuracy and steadiness, setting a fine example to the other navigators in the squadron.”

McIver Casualty Record Card

Flt Lt Malcolm McIver was buried at the Brookwood Military Cemetery, at 15:00Hrs on the 19th May 1944. More details about his grave can be obtained via his CWGC Casualty record.

McIver Burial return

Fg Off Geoffrey George Halestrap DFC was also a Navigator and was the son of Fred Francis Henry and Gladys Mary Elizabeth Halestrap, of Kingswood, Tadworth, Surrey. 

His Distinguished Flying Cross award was Gazetted on 7th December 1943, there was no citation but the entry read: “Flying Officer Geoffrey George HALESTRAP (127308), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No 192 Squadron.”

Geoffrey is buried in Sec. W. Grave 4171 Thorpe Road Cemetery and his funeral took place at 15:00Hrs 18th May 1944 and according tot he RAF Melton Mowbray Operational Record Book, was attended by his next of kin. More details about his grave can be obtained via his CWGC Casualty record.

CWGC Headstone of Flt Lt G G Halestrap DFC

16 – Tragedy after Victory – Melton Singer Killed

As the Country and the rest of Europe were rejoicing in the end of fighting and their countries being liberated from Nazi Germany, tragedy struck a Melton family as they received news that their son had been killed in Holland, two days after VE Day.

The Melton Times published an article titled “MELTON SINGER KILLED“ about Private Lawrie Hart.  ‘Lawrie’ is the Great Uncle of my wife.

“Mr. and Mrs. T. K. Hart, of 14, Eastfield Avenue, Melton, this week received news that their youngest son, Pte Lawrie Hart, had been killed in Holland.

The funeral took place at Hilversum with full military honours.

Pte Hart was a popular Melton singer.  He had been a member of the Melton Operatic Society for about six years, and used to sing in the choir of Sherrard Street Methodist Church.

Sherrard Street Methodist Church

Aged 24, Pte Hart had been in the forces three years. He went to France about 10 months ago.

After leaving school, he served his apprenticeship with Messrs E Clarke and Sons, Snow Hill, Melton, until he was called up.”

Lawrence Copley Hart was born 6th March 1921 and was the youngest son of Tom Kemp Hart and his wife Alice Hart (Nee Copley).  His 3 elder brothers were Albert Ernest (b.1905), William (Bill) (b.1908) and Cecil Harry (b.1910).

As the Melton Times had reported, he served his apprenticeship with Messrs E Clarke and Sons and his trade was a bricklayer, the same as his elder brother Cecil.

On the 19th Feb 1942, Lawrie was enlisted into the Leicestershire Regiment and started his military career at No. 22 Infantry Training Centre at Warwick, used for training soldiers from both the Leicestershire Regiment and the Royal Warwick Regiment. according to his enlistment papers, his height was recorded as 6 feet and half an inch.

He stayed at the Warwick ITC until he completed his basic training when he was transferred to join the 1st Battalion the Leicestershire Regiment on 30th July 1942 at the historic and renowned Gresham School at Holt in Norfolk.

Greshams School, Holt, Norfolk

In 1942, Lawrie qualified as a Gunner by passing his Mortar training.

In early 1943, The Bn moved from Holt to Purley in Surrey taking up defence duties in London and the south of England. In April 1944 the battalion was deployed between Goodwood and Chichester organised into flying columns reinforcing RAF regiments defending sixteen airfields in the area including the famous Tangmere airfield. An additional task was to guard the cordoned area for the Mulberry Harbour construction site.

After ‘D’ Day, 6th June the battalion moved back to Purley on the 14th where a V1 rocket (buzz bomb) took out 21 vehicles including Bren-gun carriers enabled for amphibious landing. The next morning drivers reported to collect replacements vehicles.

V1 Flying Bomb

At 21:00Hrs on Saturday 1st July 1944, the Brigade Major arrived with orders for the Bn to move to France on the next day to replace the 6th Duke of Wellingtons Regiment who had received heavy casualties and had been withdrawn to the UK following heavy losses at the battles of Le Parc de Boislande and Juvigny on the Western outskirts of Fontenay-le-Pesnel.

The following day, at 14:00Hrs, the 1st Bn Leicestershire Regiment left Purley on the first part of their journey into France, Belgium, Holland and into Germany.  On leaving Purley, the troops shouted to their well-wishers “Monty has decided he cannot do without us!”.

From Southampton, they sailed on the Princess Maud a veteran of the Dunkirk evacuation. The ship was shelled in the engine room taking fatalities on 30 May 1940. On 4 June 1940 following repairs she was able to return to the evacuation rescuing 1270 in a single trip being the penultimate ship away from Dunkirk.

Troopship Princess Maud

She subsequently assisted the evacuation of British and French troops from Veules-les-Roses around 12 June 1940 at the time of the surrender of the 51st Highland Division at Saint-Valery-en-Caux, a few miles to the west, transporting 600 British and French troops of the 2,280 rescued.

She then reverted to serving the Stranraer-Larne route on behalf of the Admiralty until in 1943 when she received modifications for D-Day landing operations to turn her into an infantry assault trip capable of launching six Landing Craft Assault (LCA) boats via hand hoists.

For the D-Day landings she was attached to the US Task Force Operation Neptune Force O at Omaha beach. She is reputed to have carried 1,360,378 troops in her war service.

The 1st Bn Leicestershire Regiment was part of the 148th Brigade, 49th Division, known as the Polar Bears.  Alongside the 1st Leicesters, the 49th was also made up of units including the Durhams, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the Lincolns, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Tyneside Scottish, the Kent Yeomanry, the Loyal Suffolk Hussars, 89th LAA (the Buffs) and in August 44 were joined by the South Wales Borderers, Gloucesters and Essex Regiments.

49th Infantry Division Polar Bears emblem

On arrival in France, the 1st Bn landed on the beaches at Arromanches Mulberry Harbour on the 3rd, just a few miles from Courseulles-sue-Mer and concentrated at Carcagny on the 4th July.  Under the command of Lt Col Novis, they marched to Cristot and joined the 11th Royal Scots Fusiliers and the 7th Duke of Wellingtons Regiment of the 147th Brigade on the 6th July.  They then had 5 days when most of the officers and NCOs had a short attachment to the units in the line.  On the 13th, the Bn went fwd into the line near Fontenay having relieved the 4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers of the 53rd Welsh Division.

The Leicesters spent from 24th July to 10th August in the line at Le Poirer with a 2,000 yard front where they actively patrolled frequently under enemy shelling and mortaring.

On the 22nd August, The Leicesters played a big part in the battle to take Ouilly-le-Vicompte with their pioneer platoon setting up ropes for them to cross the 20 feet wide river Toques.  Their first battle was a success despite a fierce counter attack in the afternoon.  The rifle companies nearly ran out of PIAT and small arms ammunition and approximately half of their 20 stretcher bearers had been hit.   Despite heavy shelling which had cost the lives of 1 officer and 11 men plus wounding a further 35, the Leicesters had defended their bridgehead.

During the period 10-12 September, the Leicesters were involved in Operation Astonia, The assault on Le Havre.  At 23:00Hrs on the 10th, the 1st Leicesters attacked, the tracks and roads were still found to be heavily mined and progress was slow.  By noon on the 11th, the Bn finally captured its objective East of the Forêt de Montegon and a vital bridge leading into the port.

Taking bridge near le Havre

After a weeks rest, the Bn was re-organised near Pont Audemer and was now commanded by Lt Col F W Sandars DSO.  The key road was still heavily mined with blown up vehicles blocking it.

The 1st Leicesters were again in battle on the 29th in what was known as the Battle for Mendicité, a formidable barrack block made up of a combined prison, workhouse and lunatic asylum.  Situated in 100 acres of farmland, intersected by deep ditches, the main enemy position had been reinforced by a second battalion and was surrounded on 3 sides by a moat, 20 feet wide and 3 feet deep.

Mendicité complex

Along with the Lincolns, the Leicesters cleared the north bank of the canal, they then proceeded to attack the Mendicité from the West whilst the 7th Dukes and Glosters attacked from the South.  The Leicesters battled away throughout the day capturing the key road bridge.  By late evening, Mendicité had been captured at a cost with the Leicesters losing 70 men either killed wounded or captured.

There were many feats of gallantry and some were awards were given out, For the Leicesters, Lt V F W Bridgwood won an immediate MC, as did Lt F A Gaunt.  D Companys CO Peter Upcher who led the assault won a DSO. Pte C H Woods, Cpl W A Saunders, Sgt W Irwin and Sgt T Johnson all received the MM.  Following the capture of Mendicité, the Bn moved from Belgium into Southern Holland.

On the 28th October, the Leicesters were once again in battle, this time as part of the Battle for Roosendaal. The main attack was from the 147th Brigade from the south, the 1st Leicesters on the left and the 7th Dukes on the right with eh 4th KOYLI and 11th Royal Scots  Fusiliers to pass through and capture the town.

Churchill tanks crossing a temporary bridge in Roosendal

On their way north towards Roosendaal, the Leicesters were involved in a battle at Brembosch. Under heavy fire the Bn proceeded to Roosendal which they made by nightfall having suffered 17 casualties.

The Leicesters were involved in the Battle of Zetten took place on the 18th/19th January 1945 and during he 2 days of fighting they suffered 60 casualties whilst they accounted for 150 Germans killed wounded or captured.

Private Lawrie Hart, (on left) 1st Bn Leicestershire Regiment

From Zetton, the Leicesters made their way through Holland passing through Nijmegen and travelled down the river Neder Rijn to Arnhem using the 36th LCAs of the 552nd Flotilla.  On reaching Arnhem they made their way to the top of Westervoorsedijt near the harbour and dug in near the Elisabeth Hospital.

On the evening of the 4th May, came the news that all German troops in NW Germany, Denmark and Western Holland had unconditionaly surrendered, to take effect from 08:00Hrs on the 5th.  On the 6th, Maj Gen Rawlins met the Commander of the German 88th Corps to arrange the occupation of NW Holland and the disarming and concentration of the enemy.

The plan was for the 49th Division to disarm the three divisions holding the Grebbe Line based on Holversum and Utrecht.  The 49th ‘customers’ were the 6th German Parachute Division who they had previously engaged in battle at Nijmegen bridge.  The 1st Bn moved to Hilversum to disarm the Wermacht.

Private Lawrie Hart aboard a Bren Gun Carrier, somewhere in Europe

On Saturday 5th May 1945, the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment was located in the area around Lunteren when they were visited by their popular (former) Commander, Lieutenant Colonel PAB Wrixon. He was warmly welcomed by the soldiers who had served under him in Hinckley, Holt and Purley. On Monday 7th May they left Lunteren to arrive in Hilversum after a stop en route on 9th May. 

On arrival at Hilversum, they saw large numbers of German troops against whom they faced up earlier in their journey through the Netherlands. Their Germans transport column consisted mainly of horse-drawn wagons, rather old-fashioned compared to their own military vehicles. 

German trrops with horse and cart transport near Hilversum

During their arrival in Hilversum, they were literally surrounded by a delirious crowd. Their hospitality towards the Leicesters soon became apparent and a short time later the Bn was well quartered. 

The Support Company was housed in a school and soon the schoolyard was filled with the Leicesters  military vehicles. The Germans had robbed the population of almost everything and the people were starving. The authorities realized this well and immediately after the announcement of the armistice, trucks loaded with food drove to all corners of the Netherlands. 
 
The enemy was gathered and taken to designated areas where they had to hand over their weapons and were searched. On the 10th May, the Leicesters  started their mission: to disarm the German troops in their area. The German troops belonged to the ‘Hermann Goering Para Division, with whom they had previously fought. 

Hermann Goering Parachute Division

The disarmament area was located in a site a few kilometers outside Hilversum. After a successful start, the Battalion was soon afterwards faced with a tragedy. When the Germans arrived on the ground, they first delivered their rifles and small arms under the supervision of the Support Company and then walked on to deliver machine guns and mines. Finally, they had to go across the site to hand in their connectors and other equipment. 

German weapons being stockpiled
German weapons stockpile near Hilversum

The order for the platoon was to let the Germans do the work. A short time later, a closed horse carriage with a door at the back entered the site. The driver said he had bread rations for the German troops. He told Sgt Dixie Dean to open the door at the back and he saw that the cart was indeed half filled with bread. The driver wanted to close the door quickly again, and Dixie became suspicious and let him unload all the bread. No wonder he was so strange: under the bread a square wooden box, about 45 by 45 cm, full of pistols, mainly Lugers was found!   The box of Lugers was confiscated and he was allowed to put the bread back in the cart and continue on his journey.

Disarming the German troops

A few minutes later, a lorry with trailer came onto the site and the driver was instructed to drive to the unloading point. The truck was mainly loaded with mines and grenades. A company of soldiers had entered the site on foot when there was a huge explosion. Sgt Dixie Dean was blown upside down, together with some Germans who were stacking their guns. Fortunately, he got up unharmed and ran to the truck, blown over by the explosion, along with the trailer. The explosion had created a crater about 1.80 meters deep and 3.50 meters in diameter. 
 
The dazed survivors were put to work trying to free the injured from the debris. Unfortunately, there were only a few. After a roll call was taken, it became clear that eleven men from the Mortar platoon and two from the Antitank platoon were missing and most likely killed. A number of Germans also died in the explosion. 

When the roll call was taken after the explosion, Sgt Dixons attention was drawn to a Dutch citizen who was waving in the middle of the site next to us. A soldier was sent to ask what he wanted. When he returned, he said that a body had been found. It was undoubtedly the body of a British soldier. It turned out to be the body of soldier H. Hall, who had been added to the Mortar platoon since the Normandy landing.  The force of the explosion can be measured by the fact that his body was more than 80 to 90 meters from the crater. 

The only ones of the Mortar platoon to survive, although severely wounded, were soldier Jack Knight along with Sergeant Gosling. As far as Knight could tell, it was seen that a German who was unloading the truck threw a Teller mine (used to destroy the tracks of tanks) on a pile of mines previously unloaded . This or one of the stacked mines must have exploded. If the ignition hadn’t been in the mine, it would have been nearly impossible for it to explode.

This was confirmed by a sergeant ammunition expert, who arrived at the scene of disaster shortly after the tragedy. Since the German who threw the mine had also died, it was impossible to give a more accurate description of what happened. Whether the explosive was deliberately thrown to make casualties among the English soldiers and whether the ignition was set will never be revealed. 

This tragic event was particularly hard on everyone, especially the men of the Mortar platoon who had lost so many comrades. After the landing on the beaches of Normandy, they had all moved up without further losses and now, a few days after everything was over, lost their lives in this very tragic way. 

On 12th May, the killed soldiers were buried in the cemetery in Hilversum, where they still have their final resting place to this day. The Bn experienced genuine compassion as the trucks with the coffins aboard passed lines of the Dutchmen gathered along the route who expressed their feelings with flowers. 

Tigers Funeral at Hilversum

On Sunday, May 13, the day after the funeral, the Adjutant, Captain John Stevenson, summoned the Commander of the Anti-Tank Platoon and Sgt Dixon. He said that a report had been received from Headquarters regarding a German unit that also reported several casualties as a result of the explosion. They had taken away a body they suspected may have been one of our people. They were instructed to visit this German unit and to verify all this. 

On arrival they were taken to a place where the body had been placed, but identification proved impossible. Although a British boot, trousers and spats, were seen, these were not marked with an army number. We returned to our unit and reported to the Adjutant. Later we heard that the body was buried under the supervision of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) in the cemetery in Hilversum. 

The members of the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment killed in the explosion were: Mortar Platoon: Private TVH Atkin, Corporal J. Fisher, Private H. Hall, Private LC Hart, Lance Sergeant OW Hartshorn, Private VG Langley, Private EC Obeney, Lance Corporal S. Onion, Private DE Wain, Lance Corporal RJ Walley, Corporal LGE Whitehall and of the Antitank Platoon: Private RHC Hyde and Private R. Wood. 

German soldiers also died in the accident. The names of two of them are: Obergefreiter Franz Rauecker and Gefreiter Max Salzinger. 

After the War, the Hart family visited Lawries grave at Hilversum.

Hart Family visiting Lawries grave after the war
Post War service at Hilversum cemetery
Hilversum CWGC Graves

Grave of Pte Lawrence Copley Hart taken during our visit to his grave on 28th May 2015

For more information about his grave, visit his CWGC casualty record.

We Will Remember Them.

15 – RAF Melton Mowbray

As we celebrate the 75th Anniversary of WW2 ending in 1945 and the celebrations begin with #VEDay75, the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe (more commonly known as VE Day) on the 8th May, I take a look at the story of RAF Melton Mowbray and its role during WW2.

As you go from Melton Mowbray to Great Dalby along the B6047 road, the airfield is on your right and the road was once part of the perimeter track. The airfield was built in the early 1940s as part of the Royal Air Force expansion during the Second world War.

The original plan for RAF Melton Mowbray was for it to become a Maintenance Command Station, but by the time it opened on 1st August 1943 control had been given to No 44 Group, Transport Command. 

RAF Melton Mowbray with road at top LH leading from airfield towards Melton and Kirby Bellars would be to the left.

It was designed, with the intention of it eventually becoming an operational bomber station, as it was built with two bulk fuel installations.  This was the usual provision for fuel installations on operational bomber stations.  The two tank units, each holding the maximum 72,000 gallons was policy for operational units which had to store enough fuel for six weeks of intensive operations. 

One of the first serviceman to arrive at the new unit was Flt Lt J Milton (Equip) who performed the duties of the Senior Equipment Officer, and it was his job to arrange for the supply of stores.  Sqn Ldr R J Sanceau (G.D.) was posted in and became the first Commanding Officer of the new unit. Once the NAAFI was built and the camp had been certified fit for use by a Senior Medical Officer the Permanent Staff would be posted in.

During August 1943, the units strength of personnel increased to 12 Officers and 123 Airmen and Airwomen who were employed on routine work, preparing the station for the arrival of the aircraft.

The newly opened station was inspected on 6th August by Air Chief Marshall Sir Frederick Bowhill GBE, KCB, CMG, DSO. Back in 1941 when he was AOC in C Coastal Command, he used his knowledge of the sea and plotted the  Bismarck’s  likely course. This resulted in a Catalina being sent to search the area, successfully finding it resulting in the Bismarck sinking on the 27th May 1941.

The newly opened airfield was again inspected on 1st September, this time by The Air Officer Commanding No 44 Group, Air Commodore Kingston-McCloughly CBE, DSO & DFC.

The first unit to arrive was No 4 Overseas Aircraft Preparation Unit (OAPU) which handled various types of aircraft including Spitfires, Mosquitoes, Corsairs, Vengeances, Hellcats & Halifaxes.

No 4 OAPU personnel RAF Melton Mowbray with Spitfire and Grumman hellcat aircraft

Wing Commander B A Oakley arrived at Melton on September 4th and took over command of No 4 OAPU and the station from Sqn Ldr R J Sanceau.

John McCafferty was an airframe fitter who was posted to No 4 OAPU B Flight as an LAC after returning to the UK from a tour in West Africa.  He arrived at Melton during November 1943 and he remembers that all new arrivals spent their first 7 days on duty crash crew at the watch tower, or to use its modern name the control tower, before proceeding to their respective flights.

 As the title of the unit suggests, No 4  OAPU was responsible for prepping aircraft and dispatching them to overseas units.  A large number of modifications were required to convert a Spitfire for tropical operations.  These included the deletion of two lower engine cowling panels, the standard oil tank had to be replaced with one of a larger capacity, the air intake fairings were replaced, a tropical air filter was fitted and fixed fittings were installed to accomodate the additional fuel tanks known as either ‘overload’ tanks or ‘slipper’ tanks.

Spitfire with slipper tank installed under its belly

Slipper tanks came in various sizes, ranging from 30 gallons up to 170 gallons, and it was the 170 gallon tank that was fitted to Spitfires for ferry flights.  The advantage of the 170 gallon tank was obvious, but it did have its disadvantages.  The shear size of the tank, which was fitted to the underside of the fuselage behind the air intake caused an increase in drag, which subsequently made the aircraft very difficult to fly unless flying straight and level.  Another problem was that the guns and ammunition had to be removed due to the extra weight that the aircraft was carrying,  This subsequently meant that the ferry aircraft were prone to attack from enemy aircraft after the fighter escorts had left them at the Bay of Biscay.  The guns and ammunition would be refitted when the aircraft reached its destination.

After carrying out the modifications to the aircraft as part of the preparation for overseas tours, John remembers the codeword ‘SNAKE’ being painted on the fuselage of the aircraft. Quite often, as the aircraft stopped off on route to refuel, resident squadrons that were short of aircraft acquired the newly arrived and modified aircraft for use by themselves and the aircraft never reached its final destination. The painting of the word ‘SNAKE’ was supposedly a deterrent to ensure that the aircraft arrived at its destination in the Far East, although some aircraft were still diverted from their original destination.

Beaufighter TF.X RD758 clearly displaying the codeword SNAKE

John remembers working on numerous different types of aircraft such as: Spitfires, Grummen Martlets, Grummen Hellcats, B25 Mitchells, A20 Bostons, P51 Mustangs, Wellingtons, Lancasters, Stirlings and Liberators.  Many of the aircraft were flown into Melton by female ATA pilots who were not familier with the type of aircraft they were flying.  To get round this problem of unfamiliarity, the pilots had a pad of pilots notes strapped to their right leg, just above the knee, from which they worked out the starting procedures.  John recalls watching many aircraft perform ‘hairy’ take-offs which was another problem caused by unfamiliarity.

One incident that John remembers was when a female ATA ferry pilot had just delivered a brand new Wellington bomber from the Vickers factory.  After landing the pilot had reported to the groundcrew that the elevator controls were the heaviest she had known.  After lots of investigation by the groundcrew and various test flights, the controls were still heavy.  Eventually someone had the idea of removing the fabric from the elevator control surfaces which revealed the problem – a complete tool kit in a canvas tool bag had been left inside the elevator when it had been manufactured.

Another aircraft that John remembers stationed at Melton was a Percival Proctor MkIII serial number Z7252 and this was the Station Commanders aircraft.

Sunday 26th September was the annual Battle of Britain parade and a detachment of RAF and WAAF personnel took part in Meltons parade.

During October, various new units were formed at Melton.  Sqn Ldr I R Blair (T.Eng) arrived on 1st October on attachment from No 1 OADU to form a maintenance wing on the station.  On the 7th October, Flt Lt N H Kellitt (G.D.) reported from Long Kesh by air in connection with the movement of No 306FTU from Long Kesh to Melton.  On the 9th October Flt Lt W M Smedley (T.Eng) accompanied by Flg Off F R Mason (G.D.) and Flg Off P H C Pinnock arrived from Finmere in connection with the movement of No 307FTU to Melton.  The advance party from No 306FTU consisting of 3 Officers and 68 other ranks arrived at Melton on the 14th October, and the advance party of 12 Officers and 217 other ranks from 307 FTU arrived on the 15th.

The role of the FTU was providing the newly formed bomber crews with all the training they required prior to them being posted to operational squadrons.  The training usually lasted about 8 days in total.  The short but intensive course consisted of 4 days ground instructional and 4 days flying, after which the aircrew would proceed overseas. 

Prior to travelling overseas the aircrew should be fully innoculated, vaccinated and fit for overseas service before arriving at Melton.  Quite often the aircrew would arrive at Melton requiring Yellow Fever, Typhus and TABC innoculations and vaccinations.  This subsequently meant a frantic rush for the medical staff to get the aircrew fully fit without hindering the short flying programme and  most of all not to hold up the delivery of aircraft overseas. 

Even worse than arriving at Melton without innoculations was when aircrew reported sick immediately upon arrival at Melton with complaints, some of which they had been nursing for months.  Sometimes the complaint was serious enough to be admitted into hospital for investigation, this meant removing the crew from their training course and subsequently the flow of aircraft overseas was interrupted.  For the ‘genuine’ cases that did require investigation, the RAF Hospital at Rauceby realised the rush nature of Meltons problem and co-operated as much as they could.

Ron Acton was an Engine fitter posted to Melton during 1943 purely by chance.  Ron was posted from his current unit to the top of Scotland and on his way to get his posting details from the clerk he noticed that postings to RAF Melton Mowbray were being  advertised on the blackboard.  Ron spoke to his clerk about swapping his posting who replied that it would cost him ten bob.  Ron paid him the money which was equivalent to about a weeks wages and was posted to Melton which pleased Ron as he came from Asfordby Hill, on the outskirts of Melton.

Initially the new camp was not a good unit to be based.  Ron began to wonder what he had let himself in for, getting posted to Melton.  The first thing that he remembers about arriving at RAF Melton Mowbray was being issued with a pair of Wellington boots.  Everywhere was ankle deep in mud and sludge as the footpaths had not yet been built.  The accomodation was not that brilliant, John recalls being billeted in Nissen huts with coke stoves to provide the heating, although there was not enough coke available to heat them.  Proposals were made to the Medical Officer to have all the ventilators in the sleeping accomodation blocked up due to the excessive amount of draughts and dampness that they caused.  This was vetoed by the Medical Officer for the reason that the huts are heated by slow combustion stoves burning coke which are known to give off poisonous gases, adequate ventilation must be maintained.

The airmen had outside ablutions and the accomodation was situated miles from the dining hall, sick quarters and work.  Due to the large area that the sites were dispersed over, the bicycle was a common and popular mode of transport.  It also proved to be a popular cause of accidents, people quite often requiring minor surgery, sometimes major after having accidents with bicycles.

The water supply to the station was severely rationed following a breakdown at the pumping station on the 29th October.  The supply of water was fully restored by the 31st.

Although the country was at war, and there was lots of work to be done prepping the numerous different types of aircraft for overseas duties, Ron recalls there still being time to relax and play a game of football against the hanger doors.

A discussion group was formed on the station, and for its first meeting which was held during October, the chosen subject was ‘Post War Housing’.  An entry in the Daily Operations Record Book for Melton states that ‘most of the W.A.A.F.s appeared to be keenly interested in this subject.

This month also saw strenuous efforts being made in connection with entertainment after ‘cease work’.  An ENSA concert party and the Hurricane concert party made appearances and a recently organised Station Concert Party gave a show at the Corn Exchange in Melton.

Ron remembers working on numerous different types of aircraft such as Spitfires, Lancasters, Liberators, Flying Fortresses and lots of different American aircraft.  The aircraft would get fitted out with extra fuel tanks and painted in the appropriate colour scheme for whichever theatre of war they would be operated in.  Once ready, the aircraft took off from Melton for Redruth in Cornwall where they stopped and refuelled.  After taking off from Redruth they were joined by the fighter escorts who would escort them as far as the Bay of Biscay.  Apparently there were a lot of losses after the escorts departed.

At the end of November airmen started to arrive at the station on posting to the Maintenance Wing.

On New Years Eve a station Dance was held in the Sgts Mess and was open to all ranks.

On 13th January 1944 No 304 FTU arrived from Port Ellen operating Beaufighters, Beauforts, Bostons and Wellingtons.  By the end of January the 3 FTU’s had amalgamated and were to be known as No 304 FTU under establishment WAR/AT/134.

Jimmy Learmonth was stationed at Melton during 1944/45.  He arrived at Melton during the first week of 1944 as part of the advance party for No 304 FTU which was transferring from the Isle of Islay.  The party was flown down in Bombay aircraft which were stationed at Doncaster Racecourse. 

After an overnight stay at Doncaster they took off again in the Bombay’s and headed for Melton.  Jimmy remembers arriving at Melton and not being able to see ‘a single blade of grass’ due to the large amount of aircraft such as Halifaxes, Lancasters, Mosquitoes, Beaufighters and numerous other types that were scattered across the airfield.

On 17th January 1944 No 1 Ferry Crew Pool was transferred to Melton from Lyneham in Wiltshire, but only stayed two months and then moved on again to Pershore.

During January 1944 personnel had to frequently work overtime due to the shortage of staff through sickness.  Several much appreciated concerts took place throughout January and were held on the Communal Site.

In February 1944 the compliment of station personnel had grown to 1830 Officers, SNCOs and Airmen with 295 WAAF Officers and Airwomen and again concerts were held in the Gymnasium on the Communal Site at least once per week.

The airfield was closed on 27th February 1944 due to heavy snow falls.  The depth of the snow on the main runway varied between 6 and 12 inches and it took until 15.00hrs on the 27th to clear the main runway.  It was not until 16.00hrs the following day that the other runways were cleared of snow and the airfield became fully operational again.         

The AOC No 44 Group Air Commodore G R Beamish, CBE visited the station on the 17th/18th March and according to the resume written by G/Capt C F H Grace, the Station Commander, the AOC congratulated No 4 OAPU on their work, although he was not satisfied with much else that he saw.

Whilst at Melton, Ron remembers one of the Physical Training Officers that was posted in, it was the boxing champion Len Harvey, who arrived at Melton on March 1st.  Whilst stationed at Melton, Len consented to coach the boys from No 1279 (Melton Mowbray) Sqn Air Training Corps (A.T.C.) at boxing and these coaching sessions turned out to be popular with the boys. 

British Boxing champion Len Harvey

The following report appeared in The Melton Times on 30th June 1944. 

            ‘ATC Boxing Champions in the Making?

            The first of the boxing lessons given by F/O Len Harvey took place on Wednesday when over 40 cadets attended.  It is of course too soon to predict   whether there are any potential champions in Melton!’  

On 31st March 1944, three American aircraft diverted into Melton as the runways at their own units were still closed due to snow and Melton was the first unit to clear its runways.  Melton was quite often used as a diversion airfield for the aircraft that normally operated from places like Leicester East and Wymeswold.  If the aircraft couldn’t make it back to their own base they would divert into Melton as it was in a direct line with their unit. 

The month of March was a notable one as far as aircraft dispatches were concerned, with a record number of 105 various aircraft being dispatched from No 4 OAPU and No 304 FTU.

German and Italian Prisoners of War used to work the land on local farms around Melton.  Ron remembers one particular day when a German PoW escaped from the farm and he was found on the airfield, in the cockpit of an aircraft trying to start the engines and escape.

Personnel based at RAF Melton were invited by Lt/Col Sparling, Officer Commanding Army Remount Depot stationed in Melton to take part in horsemanship classes.  No charge was made for these classes and those personnel with experience at horse riding were allowed to ride without supervision and the classes proved very popular with all ranks.

There was a reduced number of aircraft dispatched during April.  This reduction was partly due to the record output during March and the fact that the commitments have temporarily eased off.  In spite of this No 4 OAPU managed to dispatch 53 various aircraft, their highest figure since the formation of the unit.

Even though the airfield had been open for approximately ten months, there was still a lot of building work going on around the station.  Work by McAlpine Ltd. started at the beginning of April with the filling of spaces between the spectacle hard-standings and the construction of new aprons outside No 1 & 3 hangars.

The beginning of April saw the formation of the stations National Savings Group which proved very successful with a total amount of £919/2/6d being saved, an average of 10/8d per person.

The Stations new theatre was completed  during May and fully equipped with up to date equipment.  The first show given by the Station Dramatic Society lasted for 3 successive nights and was an outstanding success.

Flt Lt Carter, who was the Catering Officer, was also kept busy during May reorganising the stations messing facilities and fitting a lot of new equipment which had been painstakingly sought out.

The month of May saw the arrival of Meltons first fully equipped crash ambulance.  It was an Albion ambulance with a crane and hook apparatus on the roof for attachment to parachute harnesses. 

It also contained a fireman’s axe and two pairs of asbestos gauntlets for fire rescue.  Inside the ambulance was an oxygen apparatus contained in a specially constructed wooden container secured to the wall, comprising an oxygen bottle, mask and flowmeter etc.

A large number of the stations airmen underwent training in stretcher bearing and loading ambulances during May.  The station was ‘gearing up’ for the reception, housing and disposal of casualties arriving at Melton by air.  The ‘Operational Record Book’ quoted that casualties could be disposed of at the rate of 28 per load per one and half hours.  Three ambulances and four lorries equipped with Flint stretcher gear were made available.  Sign posts were being erected at all prominent positions around the camp.

May ‘44 was again a quiet month as far as aircraft dispatches were concerned, approximately 60 aircraft were dispatched.  Full advantage was taken with the lull in aircraft work when a lot of ‘self help’ work was done with the cleaning up and improving the general appearance of the station.

June was another month where aircraft dispatches were at a low.  A total of 26 aircraft, of which 10 were Stirlings were prepared and dispatched.

It was becoming quite a frequent occurrence for personnel, in particular WAAFs, to report sick with complaints of nerves, rundown, insomnia and anorexia usually accompanied with emotional outbursts.  The main reason for these complaints was the lack of leave.  The best possible cure for all these complaints would be leave, but if the SMO started recommending leave then there was a great possibility of an epidemic breaking out with the illnesses, however leave was granted on compassionate grounds.  The main cause of the ‘leave sickness’ as it was called, was put down to the inequality that existed on all stations.  Personnel who lived within a reasonable distance of the station usually managed to get home during their 24 hours off duty, whereas those personnel who lived several hundreds of miles away were not able to get home at all.

 On the 26th June, WAAFs stationed at Melton started attending Melton Mowbray Senior Girls School for cookery lessons.

Another airman that was stationed at Melton was Jack Williamson.  Jack was awarded the nickname ‘Snowy’ while at Melton as his hair was jet black.  Jack remembers being asked to work late one night by his Chief as a Sqn of Fleet Air Arm Swordfishes came into Melton for an overnight stay.

Jack was a witness to the Wellington that crashed between Thorpe Arnold and Saxby Road on 13th August 1944.  Jack remembers thinking ‘Whats he doing flying away from the airfield with one prop feathered?’ when it hit a haystack and burst into flames.  Jack was one of the first people to arrive at the incident and managed to drag one of the crew members out of the flames, although to no avail as he was already dead from the fatal burns he had received. 

As the RAF Ambulance and medics arrived at the scene, Jack said to one of them ‘look after this chap a minute’ and crept away from the scene as he didn’t want any publicity for his actions.  After the accident, everybody was asking who was this brave airman was but nobody knew.  A couple of days later back at camp, all the airmen were getting inspected as it was the CO’s parade and Jack was picked up as his uniform was all burnt from rescuing the crewman.  From this they deduced that Jack must have been that airman whom they were searching for and he was subsequently awarded a citation for his heroism. 

The dispatch of aircraft during August 1944 was reported as disappointing due to a problem with the Beaufighters.  Apparently the rate of petrol consumption was too high to enable them to reach their destination in South Africa safely. A record number of aircraft were dispatched overseas during May 1944 when a total of 53 aircraft were transferred from Melton. 

On 30th Oct 1944 a single Lancaster was secretly dispatched to Australia from Melton. G for George, an Avro Lancaster Mk.I serial number W4783 AR-G, operated by No. 460 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force. The aircraft flew 96 combat missions over occupied Europe with 460 Squadron, and is the second most prolific surviving Lancaster, behind R5868 S for Sugar which flew 137 sorties with No. 83 Squadron RAF, No. 463 Squadron RAAF and No. 467 Squadron RAAF.

Lancaster G for George

On the 16th October 44, RAF Melton received another special tasking via Air Movement Order (AMO) regarding two special commitments, No’s 1075 & 1076 which had been issued by HQ No 44 Group. This AMO required both No 4 OAPU and No 304 FTU to prepare and deliver two specially modified Avro Anson aircraft. One for the King of Egypt and the other for the Regent of Iraq. Sqn Ldr Gallaway piloted Anson NK150 to Cairo for the King of Egypt and Flt Lt Smith piloted Anson NK151 to Iraq for the Regent. The aircraft were eventually dispatched in December 44 and January 45.

Bill Johnston of Ewetree Farm remembers being invited to a birthday party of an Airman’s son who lived in Gt Dalby.  After the party, the airman took his son and Bill up to the airfield and let them sit in an American Grumman Hellcat fighter. 

Grumman Hellcat

Bill recalls seeing lots of different types of aircraft such as Halifaxes, Bostons and Mosquitoes.  The thing that he remembers most about the Mosquito is that they were white or silver in colour instead of camouflage.  Another of Bills recollections is of the Airmen down in Gt Dalby village scrumping apples.

Jimmy Learmonth was a professional footballer before he joined the RAF and while stationed at Melton, naturally he was part of the RAF Melton Mowbray football team.  The station team had just won the Loughborough Charity Cup in a local tournament.  The CO at the time, Group Captain Pete Gomez, who was himself a football fan and proud of his team, invited them back to the Officers Mess for celebration drinks.  The CO was doing his party piece and drinking a pint of beer down in one go when Jimmy said to his team-mates “Where’s he putting that, has he got hollow legs?”  To Jimmy’s horror the CO heard his comment and spat out his drink in a burst of laughter and replied “Its better than that Jimmy” at the same time as tapping his leg.  To the amazement of everyone, it was a false leg as he lost his real one in a flying accident earlier in his career.  Jimmy immediately thought ‘I’ve gone and done it now’ but Gomez just laughed about it.

Back Row left to right: Andy Bramley, Bill Maclean, -?-, Fl/Lt Ames, Cenre Row: -?-. Alan Brown, Ted Sale, -?-, McKie, Oswald Destine, Roy Bentley. Front Row: Clem Stevenson, Jimmy Learmonth, Fred Moon, Group CAptain Gomez, Bert Brocklehurst, Fred Butcher, Jack Smith.

In addition to Jimmy Learmonth, the RAF Melton Mowbray FC team contained several other professional players such as Cpl Andy Bramley who was the team manager and came from Anstey, Bill Maclean was the Leics City trainer, Clem Stevenson played for Huddersfield.

Also serving at Melton was the England player Ivor Broadis, who won his first cap for his Country in 1952. He was a Flight Lieutenant navigator on Wellingtons and Lancaster bombers and had massed over 500 hours without going on a bombing mission. It is not sure if he’s on the team photograph.

Jimmy was an Armourer by trade and most of the time he worked in No 4 Hangar.  He remembers one specific day when all the Beaufighters were being put into the hangar for storage.  It was quite a common occurrence for the engineers to show people around the aircraft including the cockpit and controls.  On this particular day, the engineer was showing the visitors the controls and how the machine guns operated. 

Example of a Bristol Beaufighter

The Beaufighters gun controls was a button which was located on the control column and protected by a flap/cover.  All of a sudden, the hangar was filled with the deafening sound of machine gun fire.  It turned out to be ‘friendly fire’ and came from the Beaufighter in which Jimmy’s colleague was showing the visitors around.  Nobody was actually injured in this incident, except their pride.  Normally the aircrafts ammunition was downloaded prior to the aircraft going into the hangar, but for some reason this aircraft was missed.

Another incident that Jimmy remembers began when he was walking his girlfriend (who incidentally is now his wife) home after an evening of dancing.  At the bottom of Ankle Hill he was stopped by a couple of Service Policemen (SP’s) who questioned him about being out late at night.  It turned out that he didn’t have a late night pass, so the SP’s took his details (Name, Rank and Number) and ordered him to report to the Guardroom immediately.   Upon arriving at the Guardroom, Jimmy reported to the Orderly Corporal who told him to report back to the Guardroom at 06.30am the following morning for the Orderly Officers parade.  The following morning, Jimmy arrived at the Guardroom only to find that it had been burnt down during the night. 

 A drunken Scots airman, who was known for being drunk and rowdy had been arrested by the RAF Police (RAFP), who were trying unsuccessfully to lock him up in one of the guardrooms detention cells.  The tiny Scotsman who was only 5ft 3” tall managed to escape from the custody of the RAFP and his escorts and evict them out of the guardroom.  He then locked him self inside and built a bonfire from all the paperwork, tables and chairs.  When the fire was well ablaze, he went outside, started ringing the fire bell and shouted for assistance. 

The RAF Fire Service could not attend as they were on airfield duties so the Melton Fire Brigade were called. Subsequently, the guardroom burnt down due to the building being constructed from wood.  Upon arrival at the scene, the Scotsman was cooled down with a dowsing from a fireman’s hose and he escaped again, this time down Dalby Road towards town.  He was arrested again at the picket post and taken to a more secure cell, this time in the local police station down town.  Apparently the local police were not too keen on this as the same Scotsman had been detained in their cells on a previous occasion and had trashed them.

By 6th June 1944 No 304 FTU & No 4 Overseas APU (renamed as No 4 APU on 31st July 1944), both of No 44 Group were operating from Melton.  Both of these units amalgamated on the 9th October 1944 and became No 12 Ferry Unit whose role was ferrying aircraft from Melton to overseas units and operated various types of aircraft which included Ansons, Beaufighters, Bostons, Oxfords, Proctors, Stirlings and Wellingtons.

RAF Melton Mowbray Christmas Menu 1944
RAF Melton Mowbray Christmas Menu 1944
RAF Melton Mowbray Christmas Menu 1944

Due to the closure of the APU, the station was able to accept part of No 107 Operational Training Unit whose parent station was Leicester East.  The role of this unit was the training of Transport Command crews who were employed in glider towing and troop carrying.  No 107 OTU operated Halifaxes and Dakotas along with a fleet of Horsa and Hadrian gliders.     

No 1588 Heavy Freight Flight (HFF) was formed at Melton during September 1945 as ‘K’ Flight for service in India.  The first of 1588’s Stirling V’s arrived in Bombay/Santa Cruz India on 10 October 1945.  K flight was officially disbanded on 20 May 1946, although it actually ceased to exist in July 1946.  1588 was the last unit to operate Stirling’s and No 229 Group sent a signal on 17 July 1946 informing it that all its Stirling’s could be struck off charge and disposed of on site at Santa Cruz Bombay.

Stirling MkV PJ956 shown on the ground in India

September 28th 1945 saw the formation of No 1589 ‘J’ HFF, again operating Stirling V’s.  By 10th October 1945 all of the Stirling V’s belonging to J flight had moved to Cairo West, Egypt and the flight was disbanded on 30th April 1946.

November 1945 saw the departure of No 1333(T) SCU (formally No 107 OTU which was renamed in March earlier that year) and on the 7th No 12 Ferry Unit disbanded.

It was widely reported that there was a mass exodus from the RAF station following the Victory in Europe announcement and all duties at the camp had been suspended, dozens of bicycles were piled up at Melton railway station.

If anyone has any further recollections or photographs etc relating to RAF Melton Mowbray, please do let me know.

14 – RAF Beaufighter crash at Kirby Bellars

On the 1st May 1944, No 304 Ferry Training Unit based at RAF Melton Mowbray, dispatched Beaufighter MkVI KW199 on a fuel consumption test flight.  The pilot was 25 year old Glaswegian Sgt John Joseph Bruce and the Navigator was 23 year old Yorkshireman Flt Sgt Cyril Woolfenden.

After attempting to make a landing at Melton they overshot the runway where the pilot, Sgt Bruce attempted to take the aircraft around again for another attempt.  However, the aircraft didn’t make it as on climbing away from the airfield, one of the engines cut out after stalling, the aircraft subsequently spun out of control and crashed two miles from the airfield, near Kirby Bellars, sadly killing both crew.

RAF Melton Mowbray with road at top LH leading from airfield towards Melton and Kirby Bellars would be to the left.

Sgt Bruce was the Son of Joseph Robert and Elizebeth Bruce, of Glasgow and is buried in Section 8, Grave 109 of the Glasgow (St Kentigern’s) Roman Catholic Cemetery. For more information about his grave, visit his CWGC casualty record.

Flt Sgt Woolfenden was the Son of Allan and Evelyn Mary (Corcoran) Woolfenden, of Leeds, Yorkshire and was the youngest of 3 children with elder brother Allen and sister Dorothy. 

Cyril is buried in Section W Grave 4170 of the Melton Mowbray Thorpe Road Cemetery. For more information about his grave, visit his CWGC casualty record.

CWGC Headstone of Flt Sgt Cyril Woolfenden

Roy Beeken was a dispatch rider for the Melton Fire Station and was one of the first on the scene due to travelling the crash site on his motorcycle.

Melton Mowbray Fire Service with Roy Beeken seated front row 2nd from left.

When I spoke to Roy a few years ago, he told me that once the crews bodies were recovered from the aircraft, they were brought back to Melton in an ambulance accompanied in the back by Roy and his motorcycle as it had run out of fuel!

10 – Colonel Charles Wyndham

Colonel Charles Wyndham

Colonel Charles Wyndham was born in 1796, the 5th child and 3rd son of George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont and Elizabeth Ilive. The first four children were born illegitimately, before the Earl married Miss Ilive in 1801, so Charles and his brothers Henry  and George were illegitimate.

He married Hon.Elizabeth Anne Hepburne-Scott, daughter of Hugh Hepburne-Scott, 6th Lord Polwarth and Harriet Brühl, on 3 October 1835.

Charles Wyndham joined the Army by purchasing his commission as a Cornet in the 10th (Prince of Wales’s Own) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons (Hussars) on the 13th May 1813.  A Cornet was originally the lowest grade of commissioned officer in a British cavalry troop.  The rank was abolished along with the purchase of commissions in the Army Reform Act of 1871 when it was replaced by Second Lieutenant.

Henry, George and Charles Wyndham, 1813, by Sir William Beechey, RA.

The painting of the three brothers is by Sir William Beechey. Henry Wyndham is depicted standing on the left wearing the uniform of Aide de Campe to the Commander in Chief. The central figure is George Wyndham wearing a blue light dragoon uniform and the figure on the right is Charles Wyndham wearing a hussars uniform .

In 1813, having landed once more in Spain, the 10th Hussars fought at the Battle of Morales in June 1813.  During the battle, the regiment destroyed the 16th French Dragoons between Toro and Zamora, taking around 260 prisoners.  Later in the month, the Regiment also fought at the Battle of Vitoria while still in Spain and then, having advanced into France, fought at the Battle of Orthez in February 1814 and the Battle of Toulouse in April 1814.

As a Cornet, he saw action in the Peninsular War with the army in Portugal, Spain, and France, being present at the battles of Vitoria, Orthez and Toulouse.

The Battle of Vitoria took place on 21st Jun 1813 where a combined British, Portuguese and Spanish army under General the Marquess of Wellington broke the French army under King Joseph Bonaparte and Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan near Vitoria in Spain, eventually leading to victory in the Peninsular War.

The Battle of Vittoria

The Battle of Orthez was on the 27th Feb 1814 and saw the Anglo-Portuguese Army under Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Marquess of Wellington attack an Imperial French army led by Marshal Nicolas Soult in southern France. The outnumbered French repelled several Allied assaults on their right flank, but their center and left flank were overcome, and Soult was compelled to retreat. At first the withdrawal was conducted in good order, but it eventually ended in a scramble for safety and many French soldiers became prisoners. The engagement occurred near the end of the Peninsular War.

The Battle of Orthez

The Battle of Toulouse was one of the final battles of the Napoleonic Wars and took place on 10th Apr 1814, four days after Napoleon’s surrender of the French Empire to the nations of the Sixth Coalition. Having pushed the demoralised and disintegrating French Imperial armies out of Spain in a difficult campaign the previous autumn, the Allied British-Portuguese and Spanish army under the Duke of Wellington pursued the war into southern France in the spring of 1814.

The Battle of Tolouse

In a skirmish near Toulouse in April 1814, Charles and one trooper were wounded. The regimental history says, ‘A story was told of him, that he was a very good-looking young boy, and in one of the cavalry engagements he was at the mercy of the colonel of a French cavalry regiment, who, instead of cutting him down, lowered his sword, saying, “Allez, petit diable d’Anglais.”’

Following his service in the Peninsular War he was promoted to Lieutenant on the 4th May 1815 and served in the Battle of Waterloo as part of the 2nd (Royal North British) Regiment of Dragoons (Scots Greys) No 2 Troop, commanded by Captain Edward Payne.  During this conflict he was injured, being shot twice, once in the foot, but refused to be returned on the list of wounded.  It was during this battle that Sergeant Charles Ewart captured the Eagle and Standard of the 45th French Infantry Regiment on the 18th Jun 1815.

Standard of the 45th French Infantry Regiment
Gold Eagle and tassle of the 45th French Infantry Regiment

During the Battle of Waterloo, the Greys lost 102 men killed and 97 wounded.  No.2 Troop had a nominal strength of 77 but perhaps 15 or more of these would have been at the rear with baggage etc. with the Troop losing 22 men in the battle.

Following Waterloo, The Greys marched to Harfleur in October 1815 and remained there until the Treaty of Paris had been signed on 20 November. They embarked at Calais and left France on 10 January 1816.

For his service at the Peninsular war and Waterloo he was awarded the Army Gold Medal / Military General Service Medal, 1793-1814 with three clasps for Vittoria, Orthez, and Toulouse and the Waterloo medal 1815.

Apparently, Charles Wyndham was nicknamed – “the handsomest man in the Army” by King George IV.

After The Greys returned home to England, they spent 18 months in Canterbury. In 1817 they went to Edinburgh, then Ireland in July 1818.

On 24th June 1819, Charles was promoted to the rank of Captain and after spending 3 years in Ireland, the Regiment moved back to England in 1821, where, after a spell in the Midlands they attended the coronation of George IV.

Next they returned to Scotland where they were on hand when King George IV visited in 1822. The Regiment moved south by stages in 1823 with various postings from Carlisle to Ipswich. Charles Wyndham was promoted to Major on 12th Dec 1826.

There was another tour of duty in Ireland from 1827 to 1830, then back to southern England.  When the Reform Bill was passed by the Commons and the Lords in April 1832, it was scuppered at the committee stage.

This triggered civil unrest and the Greys who were in Birmingham at the time found themselves caught up in the turmoil. Five thousand people had forced their way into the barracks as a prelude to demonstrations and unrest. The cavalry would be needed to tackle the unruly mobs but soldiers began to write letters to the authorities stating that they would not hurt peaceful citizens.

When the politicians lost confidence in the army to keep the peace, the Bill was passed. The Duke of Wellington had a letter published in the Weekly Dispatch denying the army’s reluctance to fight the population but this was refuted by a trooper in the Scots Greys, Alexander Somerville, an articulate private soldier who also had his letter published.

Although the letter was anonymous the officers of the Greys knew who the author was. Somerville was court-martialled and sentenced by the acting CO, Major Charles Wyndham, to 200 lashes of the cat o’nine tails. Somerville’s fame spread and he became a symbol of martyrdom for the rebellious working class.

From the Midlands the Greys were posted to York, and from 1834 -35 were in Scotland. In 1836 they went to Ireland where Charles Wyndham was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel on 30th Dec 1837 when he took over command of the Scots Greys.

Colonel Charles Wyndham – detail from John Fernley Senior’s painting of the Greys in Phoenix Park, Dublin 1838.

On Friday 29 May 1840, the Dublin Morning Register reported the following “ THE ARMY The head of the Royal Scots Greys, under the Command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Wyndham, embarked the North Wall, yesterday, for Liverpool, and were relieved by the 6th Dragoon Guards, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jackson. They will be quartered in Portobello Barracks.

Colonel Charles Wyndham resigned his commission on 1st April 1841 with the Sussex Advertiser reporting on Monday 12 April 1841 “Lieut.-Colonel Charles Wyndham has retired from the 2d Regt. of Dragoons, and has been succeeded by Major Clarke, whose majority has been purchased by Captain Hobart.”

In 1840, due to his passion in fox hunting, Colonel Charles Wyndham bought Hill House and renamed it Wyndham Lodge.

Hill House, situated on Ankle Hill was the first house built in Melton that was South of the river. The former owner of Hill House was a retired leather dealer, Mr Hind, who leased the property out in 1928 to the Earl and Countess of Chesterfield.

In 1852, the Colonel left Melton due to being appointed as the Master of the Jewel Office at the Tower of London, taking over from the previous incumbent Edmund Lewis Lenthal Swifte who had been in post since 1814.

The Cork Examiner reported on Monday 02 August 1852 “Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Wyndham, formerly of the Scots Greys, has been appointed Keeper of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, vice Mr. E. Swift, who retires on full pay.”

The Stamford Mercury published the following article on Friday 09 July 1852 “Colonel Charles Wyndham, of Melton, has just been appointed to lucrative office the Tower of London. The Gallant Colonel has not been a feather-bed soldier, but was present through the Peninsular War, and received severe wound while acting Major in his regiment the Scotch Greys. He has resided at Melton for the last 12 years, and highly respected amongst the gentlemen of the hunt and the inhabitants generally”.

The office holder was responsible for running the Jewel House, which houses the Crown Jewels. This role has, at various points in history, been called Master or Treasurer of the Jewel House, Master or Keeper of the Crown Jewels, Master or Keeper of the Regalia, and Keeper of the Jewel House.

The following article published by the Berkshire Chronicle on Saturday 01 April 1854 makes mention of Colonel Wyndham as Keeper of the Jewels. “A Ghost in the Tower. The Tower of London was thrown into some confusion on Saturday night, owing to the nervousness of a young recruit. About 12 o’clock the sentry posted at the back of the Jewel house was heard screaming in a frightful manner. Colonel Wyndham, the Keeper of the Jewels, jumped out of bed. Other sentries of the guard ran immediately to the assistance of the man, whom they found nearly paralysed with fear and his firelock on the ground. He was immediately relieved and taken to the guard-house, where he gave the following story:—‘That as St. Paul’s clock was striking 12, a figure approached him, whom he instantly challenged, but receiving no answer he challenged a second time, and so it approached nearer and nearer towards him. It grew in size, until he thought it reached the moon.’ The poor fellow got into such a nervous state the sight of the monster, that it was some time before he recovered.”

In September 1852 he was appointed to the position of Deputy Lieutenant  for Sussex.

Wyndham retained his position at the Tower until his death on 18th Feb 1866.

The Dublin Evening Mail published the following on Friday 23rd Feb 1866 “Death Colonel Charles Wyndham.—We regret to learn the death of Colonel Charles Wyndham, at his seat Lodge, Sussex. Colonel Wyndham, who had attained his 69th year, was the only surviving brother of Lord Leconfield, and was for a considerable time M.P. for West Sussex. He was well known many years ago in Dublin as officer in the Scots Greys, when that corps was stationed here. He is succeeded in his estates his eldest son Hugh, born in 1836.”

His funeral was held at Petworth Friday 2nd Mar 1866.

Today, the Wyndham name lives on in Melton with a street off Craven Street being named after him – Wyndham Avenue.  A new housing estate built on the land of the former lodge is now known as Wyndham Grange.

09 – Captain Horatio Ross

Captain Horatio Ross

Horatio Ross was born at Rossie Castle, Forfarshire (near Montrose) about 35 miles northeast of Dundee, Scotland, on 5th September 1801. He was the only son of Hercules Ross, a rich landowner and his wife Henrietta (nee Parish) Ross and baptised on the 27th day of October.

Rossie Castle

His Godfathers were The Right Honourable Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (Lord Nelson), after whom he was named, and John Parish Senior, Merchant in Hamburg. His Godmothers were The Right Honourable Lady Jane Stewart and The Right Honourable Countess of North Esk.

His father Hercules Ross and Lord Horatio Nelson corresponded over the period 1780 to 1802 and their letters are in the Archives of the Royal Naval Museum.

A story developed that when Horatio was six, his father got him to present Colours to the Rossie Regiment of Yeomanry, but that when they fired a volley the boy fled in terror. Horatio’s enraged father ordered a servant to fire a musket several times over his head daily which unsurprisingly made him even more frightened. The story goes that one day, the servant made him fire the gun at a sparrow, which he hit and killed.

Following his father’s death in 1817, he inherited the large Rossie Castle estate.

The 14th Light Dragoons Regiment arrived back in England in mid-May 1815 following the previous two years fighting at the Battle of New Orleans in America. They were too late to join the army that went to face Napoleon’s return from Elba and thus missed the battle of Waterloo.

In 1816 the 14th consisted of 530 all ranks, and were posted to Ireland for 3 years. In 1819 they returned to England and sailed to Liverpool and marched to Canterbury. Their duty in England was as police to apprehend smugglers on the coast from Yarmouth to Deal. They were especially busy in Romney Marsh in 1820 but it was an unhealthy area and they suffered greatly from ‘ague and similar complaints’.

Horatio Ross joined the 14th Light Dragoons in October 1820 and in 1821 they were relieved to be posted to Brighton with detachments at Hastings, Arundel and Eastbourne. During this period a school was set up for the 110 children of the married men in the regiment. This was not officially sanctioned but paid for by the regiment.

This posting lasted a year and they were then moved to Coventry, Dorchester and Exeter.  Ross had no taste for barracks life and went on half-pay as an Infantry Ensign in November 1823.  In 1825, the 14th Light Dragoons were back in Ireland and Ross retired from the Army in 1826.

Between 1825 and 1830 he became a notable figure in the world of sport, making and usually winning matches for large sums in steeple chasing, rowing and shooting. He excelled in the last, with both pistol and rifle.  He won large sums in prizes for shooting and steeple chasing.

The Thistle – No 10 High Street Melton Mowbray

In the late 1820’s Horatio Ross took ownership of the hunting lodge at No 10 High Street, Melton Mowbray.  It was owned by Melton Solicitor Samuel Caldecott, known as Count Faddle, and the property had huge garden that stretched all the way back to Park Road.  The property was known known as “The Thistle” due to the large number of “huntsmen” from Scotland that stayed there.

In 1826 Horatio Ross bought Clinker, described as ‘the largest thoroughbred ever known’, for 1200 guineas.  In 1826, on Clinker, a direct descendant of Flying Childers, he won the famous steeplechase against Captain Douglas, on Radical, a horse owned by Lord Kennedy.

Clinker with Captain Horatio Ross up, Radical with Captain Douglas up beyond, by John Ferneley

The painting by local famous artist John Fernley shows ‘Clinker’ with Horatio Ross up, before the start of his victory over Captain Douglas riding ‘Radical’ for a wager of £525 from Barkby Holt to Billesdon Coplow.

This is the earliest recorded steeplechase and is listed as such in the first ‘Steeplechase Calendar’ published in 1845 recording a consecutive chronicle of the sport from 1826 to 1844. 

The Finish Of The Match Race Between Holyoakes Clinker with Horatio Ross Up and Lord Kennedys Radical, Ridden by Captain Douglas

From 1832 to 1834 Horatio served as Member of Parliament for Aberdeen, Montrose and Arbroath having ousted Sir James Carnegie. During this time he presented and cordially supported a petition from Aberdeen woollen manufacturers against the extension of the bill to restrict the hours worked by children in cotton factories in Scotland. If it was, it would have facilitated the introduction of Poor laws into Scotland, which were considered a curse. He did concede that some Glasgow cotton factories might need regulation. He was also involved in the Ministerial majority against the Irish union of Parishes bill.

On 26 December 1833 Ross married Justine Henrietta Macrae, the daughter of Colin Macrae of Inverinate. They had five sons, who inherited a fair share of their father’s sporting prowess. Three of whom shot with their father as four of the Scotch eight competing with the English for the international trophy, the Elcho Shield.

Ross’s way of life, though in many ways enviable and not conventionally extravagant, was not profitable and, as time went on, he found himself obliged to retrench.

Horatio Ross was so often successful and so highly regarded that the British NRA honored him with some long-range shoots at the Bisley Ranges. The firm of Holland & Holland also named a model of rook rifle for him.

In the mid-1840s Ross took up early photography. He was a Daguerrotypist from 1847 and a Calotypist from 1849. In 1856 he was a founding member of the Photographic Society of Scotland, of which he later became the President. He took numerous photographs, in particular, of Highland scenery, stalking and fishing. His work is now much sought after by collectors.

However, Ross’s greatest feats were as a marksman. He took part in many matches with the leading shots of the day, such as General Anson, and was much assisted by his extraordinary fitness and stamina, which lasted into his old age. On his 82nd birthday, he killed 82 grouse with 82 shots. On one occasion he challenged the Honourable George Vernon to a shooting match at 100 yards, which he won, despite using a pistol while Vernon used a rifle. On the same day, he won £100 from Henry Baring by hitting a hat with his pistol at one hundred yards’ distance.

Horatio Ross sold Rossie Estate in 1856 as it was rumoured there were no game left and purchased Netherley Estate near Stonehaven for £33,000, where he had a 1400 yard rifle range installed on his estate.

Col William Macdonald Farquharson Colquhoun Macdonald, of St. Martin’s Abbey at Burrelton near Perth, bought the Rossie Estate in 1856 for £64,000. He was Lieutenant-Colonel of the Perthshire Highland Rifle Volunteers, and Archer of Her Majesty’s Scottish Body Guard.

He and his sons regularly carried all before them at the most prestigious annual rifle competitions at Wimbledon, London. Perhaps his most remarkable feat with the rifle was performed in 1867. In that year he won the cup of the Cambridge Long Range Rifle Club against nearly all the best shots of the three kingdoms. The competition extended up to eleven hundred yards, a test of nerve, judgment, and, most of all, of eyesight, which it would seem wholly impossible for any man in his sixty-sixth year to stand successfully.

Between 1858 and 1862, Horatio Ross undertook a number of hunting trips to the Bengal region of India where he went on bear, wild boar and tiger hunting expeditions.  His ‘Journal of Sporting Adventures in India from 1858 to 1862,” featuring his own charming, but naive, sketches and watercolours of colonial life in India was sold by auctioneers Christie’s back in September 2000 for £4,700.00.

Indian watercolour sketches

After living a quiet laird’s life with his family for about 18 years he came again to public notice in 1862 as the captain of the Scottish rifle-shooting team which competed against England for the Elcho shield; he continued to shoot with great skill well into his old age.

It is noteworthy that Ross was in his 80th year, and the iron sights on the rifle were not user friendly to such chronologically enhanced eyes.

However, Ross had exceptionally good vision as demonstrated in his ability as a pistol shot. He killed 20 swallows one morning before breakfast, most of them on the wing. He was, in fact, known to be the best pistol shot in all of Europe.

So great was he with the use of a pistol that a Spaniard came over specially to study his methods, querying whether Ross was as proficient with the weapon as avowed. A match was arranged between the two men with dueling pistols- the distance being twenty yards, and the target a bull’s-eye, the size of a sixpence (.764 inch diameter). The Spaniard hurried off home after seeing Ross hit the bull’s-eye with twenty consecutive shots.

Ross was chosen to act as Second in 16 duels and was always successful in dissuading the combatants from carrying them out.

He ended his days in the Scottish Highlands to which he had devoted so much of his life. He died at Rossie Lodge in Inverness on 6 December 1886 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Horatio Seftenberg John Ross.

In 1899, The English Illustrated Magazine described him as “undoubtedly the deer stalker of the expiring century.”

It is believed that there were two streets named after Captain Horatio Ross in Melton Mowbray, but both were demolished in the 1980’s. As yet I’ve not manged to identify their names or locations so if anyone can provide further information, please do let me know.

08 – Seaman Gunner George Edward Flint

Seaman Gunner George Edward Flint

George Edward Flint was born on the 17th August 1888 in Kirby Bellars, Leicestershire. He was the son of James Flint a railway labourer, born 1861 in Frisby on the Wreake, Leicestershire, and his wife Emma Flint (nee Mann, married in the 4th quarter of 1885 in the Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire district), born 1863 in Long Itchington, Warwickshire.

George was educated in the British School, Melton Mowbray and upon leaving school he went to work in the office of Messrs. Sharman and Ladbury for about 12 months, then he started work for the Midland Railway Co as a booking clerk, first stationed at Ashwell then at Luffenham.

George volunteered to enlist in the Royal Navy to serve a 5 + 7 year engagement on the 12th September 1907. His medical examination recorded that he was 5 foot 6¼ inches in height and had a chest measurement of 35 inches, his hair colour was black and he had brown eyes, his complexion was described as fair, it was noted that he had moles on the left side of his chest and on his right forearm, he gave his trade or calling as clerk.

His record of service began when he joined HMS Victory, the accounting and holding Barracks for the Fleet sailing out of Portsmouth on 12th September 1907 as an Ordinary Seaman and he was allocated the service number SS/2110.

He was re-assigned from Victory to HMS Prince George on 30th October 1907 where he stayed until 31st March 1908. Prince George was recommissioned on 5th March 1907 to serve as the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth Division of the new Home Fleet which had been organised in January 1907. On 5th December 1907 she collided with the armoured cruiser Shannon at Portsmouth, sustaining significant damage to her deck plating and boat davits.

Following his assignment on the Prince George, he was re-assigned to HMS Duke of Edinburgh, joining the ships company on the 1st April 1908. The Duke of Edinburgh was assigned to the 5th Cruiser Squadron from 1906 to 1908 and was then transferred to the 1st Cruiser Squadron of the Channel Fleet.  When the Royal Navy’s cruiser squadrons were reorganized in 1909, the Duke of Edinburgh re-joined the 5th Cruiser Squadron of the Atlantic Fleet.  Whilst serving with the Duke of Edinburgh, George was promoted to Able Bodied Seaman, staying part of her company until 14th March 1910.

On the 15th March 1910, George was assigned back to HMS Victory at Portsmouth until 31st May 1910.

From the 1st June, he was assigned to HMS Jupiter.  Jupiter was the flagship of the Home Fleet Portsmouth Division from February to June 1909 and later second flagship of the 3rd Division. During this service, she underwent refits at Portsmouth in 1909–1910, during which she received fire control equipment for her main battery.

On 26th June 1910, he was allocated a new service number J/8281 and continued his service abord HMS Jupiter until 28th October 1910.

George was assigned to HMS Britannia on 29th October 1910.  Britannia was a King Edward VII-class pre-dreadnought battleship, named after the Latin name of Great Britain under Roman rule. The ship was built by Portsmouth Dockyard between 1904 and 1906. Armed with a battery of four 12-inch (305 mm) and four 9.2 in (234 mm) guns,

George’s next assignment commenced on 15th October 1912 to HMS Excellent at the Whale Island Gunnery School where he went to gain experience in gunnery.

Following his successful completion of his gunnery courses, he joined HMS Dreadnought on 1st July 1913. Dreadnought was the battleship that became synonymous with revolutionising naval power due to the advance in naval technology that her name came to be associated with and an entire generation of battleships, the “dreadnoughts” were a class of ships named after her. 

Dreadnought became flagship of the 4th Battle Squadron in December 1912 after her transfer from the 1st Battle Squadron, as the 1st Division had been renamed earlier in the year. Between September and December 1913 Dreadnought was training in the Mediterranean Sea.

George was re-assigned from Dreadnought back to HMS Victory I at Portsmouth where he stayed until 28th May 1914.

Following this stint at the shore base Victory, George was next assigned to HMS Psyche on the 29th May 1914.  HMS Psyche carried a complement of 224 and was armed with eight QF 4-inch (25 pounder) guns, eight 3 pounder guns, three machine guns, and two 18-inch (450-mm) torpedo tubes.  Psyche was part of the Pelorus class ships that displaced 2,135 tons and had a top speed of 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph). Most served in minor roles on overseas or colonial patrol work, not with the main battlefleets. 

HMS Psyche

Whilst aboard HMS Psyche, he was despatched to the naval station at New Zealand where he is involved in training the naval men of that colony.  When the outbreak of hostilities, the Psyche, along with other British Warships and units of the Japanese Navy were involved in the endeavour to round up the ‘notorious’ German raider, the Emden.

SMS Emden spent most of her career overseas in the German East Asia Squadron, based in Tsingtao, China. At the outbreak of World War I, Emden captured a Russian steamer and converted her into the commerce raider Cormoran. Emden rejoined the East Asia Squadron, then was detached for independent raiding in the Indian Ocean. The cruiser spent nearly two months operating in the region, and captured nearly two dozen ships. On 28 October 1914, Emden launched a surprise attack on Penang; in the resulting Battle of Penang, she sank the Russian cruiser Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet. On 15 August 1914 HMS Psyche, HMS Pyranus and HMNZS Philomel were escorts for the troopships Monowai and Moeraki which had been requisitioned from the Union Steam Ship Company as transports for the Samoan Expeditionary Force which departed Wellington for Apia with 1385 troops. The naval party brought about the surrender of the German occupied Samoan islands.

Two picket boats from Australia swept the channel as a precaution before the transports entered. The Union flag was hoisted at 12.45pm and the landing of the troops commenced at 1.00pm. At 8.00 am on Sunday 30th August the British Flag was hoisted over the Courthouse and a proclamation read by Colonel R. Logan ADC, NZSC, the Officer Commanding the Troops, in the presence of Naval and Military Officers and men, Native Chiefs and the residents of Apia. A salute of 21 guns was fired by Psyche.

The “Auckland Weekly News” published a pictorial about the surrender with Seaman Gunner Flint featuring in several of the images.  Flint was one of the boat’s crew that took officers of the Psyche to the landing stage at Apia on August 29th under a white flag, with a despatch to the German governor demanding surrender of the islands.  George was also shown in another image where the Union Jack was being hoisted up the flagpole of the Apia Court House on the morning of the 30th.

German surrender at Samoa

Upon the Psyche along with the Pearl Class cruiser HMNZS Philomel being handed over to the New Zealand Naval Department, the crews were taken by a P&O ship to the Suez where Seaman George Flint joined the company of HMS Swiftsure on the 9th January 1915.

Swiftsure and her crew took part in the defence of the Suez Canal when the Turks had tried to cross it.  Following this abortive attempt, George was one of her crew that assisted in the burial of over three hundred Turks.

HMS Swiftsure

From the Suez, the Swiftsure then moved onto the Gallipoli Peninsua taking part in the landings of British, Australian and New Zealand troops at the now infamous historic ANZAC cove.

The Swiftsure was firing her guns until they were red hot covering the landing troops and when a lot of wounded soldiers trying to land on the beaches were seen in difficulties in the water, George and some of his shipmates left their gun battery to assist them.

George and his shipmates were working up to their necks in the water trying to save the wounded soldiers, resulting in him contracting a sever chill which subsequently turned into pulmonary consumption (tuberculosis).

In spite of falling sick he continued to perform his duties and witnessed the sinking of the Irresistible, Ocean, Triumph, and the French ship Bouvet, his own ship the Swiftsure being only narrowly missed by a torpedo which was fired at it from a submarine.

He was initially transferred to the hospital at Malta, then transferred again to Haslar Hospital in Portsmouth where he stayed until 9th July 1915 when he was invalided from the service.

After being discharged from the Service, he was transferred to the new Leicestershire Sanatorium at Mowsley near Market Harborough.  Around the 26th January 1916, he was transferred to his parents home in Melton where he stayed until he passed away peacefully.

After being discharged from the Service, he was transferred to the new Leicestershire Sanatorium at Mowsley near Market Harborough which had recently been built during 1914-15 to hold fifty patients suffering from tuberculosis. 

Around the 26th January 1916, he was transferred to his parents home in Melton where he stayed until he passed away peacefully.

His funeral took place on Saturday 12th February 1916 where the inhabitants of Melton Mowbray turned out in thousands last Saturday afternoon to pay homage to a local sailor who had given up his life in the service of his country.

Owing to the absence of Bluejackets in the Melton neighbourhood, Mr. A. E. Mackley, one of the local civilian recruiting sergeants made the necessary arrangements for full military honours to be accorded.

By the kindness of Colonel R. S. Goward, the services of the band of the 3/5th Leicestershire Regiment were secured and the bearers, a firing party, and a bugler were supplied from the Wigston Barracks – the Headquarters of the Leicestershire Regiment.

The Melton St. John Voluntary Aid Detachment under the command of Captain S. C. Hobson, also attended, as did likewise a contingent of 16 men from the Melton Farriery School under Sergt. T. Bugg, of the Duke of Wellington’s.

A few men were drawn from each Corps to represent the R.F.A., R.G.A., A.S.C., R.E., and Infantry. Lieut. Paget attended as representing the Leicestershire Yeomanry, and Sergt. Biddle, from the local recruiting office, was in charge of the bearers, the firing party being under Sergt. Grant.

The coffin was placed on an open hearse, and was covered with the Union Jack, on top of which deceased’s white naval cap was deposited. The body was taken to the Congregational Church, where the first portion of the service was read, the Rev. E. Williams officiating.

There was a crowded congregation amongst whom were noticed Mr. Josiah Gill, J.P., and Dr. Hugh Atkinson. The service was choral, the hymn “Nearer my God to Thee,” being feelingly sung, and Mr. Riley Brown, who officiated at the organ played suitable voluntaries. As the cortege wended its way from the Church to the Thorpe-road cemetery the band played the Dead March in “Saul.”

The streets were lined with spectators, and an enormous crowd assembled at the cemetery. After the coffin had been lowered into the grave the firing party fired three volley’s, and the bugler sounded the Last Post.

Seaman Gunner George Edward Flint Gravestone

George is buried in Section J, Grave Reference 2120 at Thorpe Road Cemetery, Melton Mowbray. Even though this is a CWGC grave, the family chose to erect their own memorial in place of the CWGC headstone. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Casualty Record can be seen here.

In 1913, Georges brother David James Flint married Sarah A Gunby and on the 19th May 1917, they had a son and named him George Edward Flint.  When the 1939 register was taken, George was living at 22 Snow Hill with his parents and his brother Arthur.  George was listed as a bricklayer, the same as his father David, and Arthur as an Apprentice Joiner.

In 1940, George married Florence A Woolley and in 1942 they had a daughter Margaret. At some point after 1939, George enlisted in the army serving as a Sapper in the Royal Engineers. George died on 21 January 1944 and is also buried in Thorpe Road Cemetery, Melton Mowbray. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Casualty Record can be seen here.

CWGC Headstone for Sapper George Edward Flint

07 – Flt Lt Richard William Wicks – Tragedy at Saxelbye

Flt Lt Richard Wicks

Richard William Wicks was born on the 3rd May 1905 at the family home, No 4 Springfield Road, Preston, Nr Brighton, Sussex. His mother was Ellen Louisa (Nee Offen) and his father, whom he was named after was Richard William Wicks who was a photographer.

At the time of the 1911 census, the family were residing at 2 Manwood Road, Grafton Park, Lewisham, London SE. Richard senior was listed as a photographer and also in the household was Ellen, the mother, Nellie (aged 9), Nora (aged 8), Richard junior now aged 5 and Minnie, aged 2.

Just a few months before Richards sixteenth birthday, he joined the Royal Navy on the 10th February 1921 as a Boy II Rating serving on HMS Ganges, the Royal Naval Training Establishment at Shotley, near Ipswich, where he stayed until 11th April 1922.

Following completion of shore training, Richard was transferred to HMS Queen Elizabeth, the dreadnought battleship that was the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet as a telegraphist.

HMS Queen Elizabeth during WW2

After completing just over 2 years on the Queen Elizabeth, Richard was assigned to HMS Victory I at Portsmouth, another shore training establishment from 17th May 1924 to 30th June 1924. He was then re-assigned to HMS Champion from 1st July to 14th August 1924, after which he returned to Victory I until 1st July 1925.

On the 2nd July 1925, he was transferred to HMS Effingham, a Hawkins class heavy cruiser. He remained part of her company until 11th November 1926.

HMS Effingham

After his stint on Effingham, he returned to Victory I until the end of the month, due to being Commissioned wef 1st Dec 1926. As a trainee Officer, Richard undertook a variety of courses at HMS Victory, RN College Greenwich, HMS Vivid and HMS Defiance.

Following completion of his training in Dec 1927, he was assigned to HMS Emperor of India an Iron Duke Class battleships serving with the Atlantic Fleet. He remained part of this ships company until 29th September 1928.

On 12th July 1928, he had expressed an interest in transferring to the Fleet Air Arm and his Captain responded as follows: “C.O. states he is unable to grant W/K Best. at present owing to his small experience of upper deckwork. Has done very well and shows excellent promise. Capt W F Sells.

Whilst serving on the Emperor, Richard married Hilda Bowditch on the 28th July 1928 at the Lewisham Registrar Office.

His service records show that he passed the RAF medical test on the 3rd Sept 1928 which was followed by him being attached to the RAF, under AFO 307/28, with effect 30th September 1928 and transferred to RAF Base Gosport on 13th May 1929.

Richard remained at Gosport until 5th Jan 1930, when he was assigned to HMS Furious which was a modified Courageous Class battlecruiser converted into an aircraft carrier. Her usual compliment of aircraft consisted of one flight of Fairey Flycatcher fighters, two of Blackburn Blackburn or Avro Bison spotters, one Fairey IIID spotter reconnaissance and two flights of Blackburn Dart torpedo bombers, each usually of six aircraft.

On the 16th Jan 1930, he passed his final deck landing and became qualified as a pilot.

On the 15th April 1930, he was assigned to HMS Glorious which was recommissioned on 24 February 1930 for service with the Mediterranean Fleet, but was attached to the Home Fleet from March to June 1930.

HMS Glorious

According to his service records, he was injured in air accident on on 15th Jan 1931, his injury was recorded as not serious but there is no mention of what the aircraft was.

The Flight Magazine of 4th Jan 1934 contained the list of RAF half yearly promotions and it confirmed that Richard William Wicks (Lieut RN) was promoted from Flying Officer to Flight Lieutenant.  This is also confirmed in the Royal Navy List issued 1st Oct 1935 which shows his promotion wef 1st Jan 1934.

RN List October 1935

On the 2nd March 1937, The London Gazette contained the following entry “Lieut. Richard William WICKS, R.N., is re-attached to the Royal Air Force as a Flight Lieutenant with effect from 19th Feb.1937 and with seniority of 1st Jan. 1934.” 

On the afternoon of Monday 15th March 1937 at 4:30PM, Melton Mowbray & District was enveloped in darkness.  A severe blizzard and low, heavy clouds formed a complete blackout.  Ten minutes later it had ceased snowing and the sky was bright again.

During those ten minutes, two RAF planes, passing over Melton, lost their bearings in the storm.  They were flying low.  A few seconds later, one of the machines was a complete wreck.  The engine and cockpit were buried some eight feet in a field near Saxelbye, and the head of the pilot, who must have been killed instantly, could be seen protruding through the mass of debris.  He was bare headed and around his neck was a red, white and blue scarf.  The deceased pilot was Richard Wicks.

The aircraft were Blackburn Shark II’s from the RAF 11 Fighter Group at Gosport.  The only piece of fabric that had survived the impact bore the identification number K43453.  A wheel of the undercarriage was lying some thirty yards away while it was obvious from the stench of petrol that the tank had burst when the machine crashed.

Blackburn Shark Torpedo Bpomber

Mr T Morris, of Manor Farm, Saxelbye, heard the machines and saw that one was in difficulties.  Later he saw it nose dive into the field.  He dashed to the scene and realising that it was hopeless to make any attempt to extricate the pilot, he telephoned Supt. Fotheridge, informing him of the tragedy.  PC Neal was immediately sent out from Asfordby to investigate, being joined some fifteen minutes later by Supt Fotheridge and Sgt Jones.

The plane was a complete wreck, the engine, cockpit and pilot being embedded in a confused mass well below the surface of the ground.  Although spades were brought, digging operations were too heavy a task to be worth even attempting.  Until the arrival of suitable mechanism, all that could be done was to gaze on in despair.

The difficulties of recovering the pilot’s body were added to by darkness, thick fog, and the saturated condition of the land.  Later in the evening, a breakdown gang from the Midland Garage was brought to the scene and under considerable difficulties driven to within a few yards of the wreckage.  In the glare of its headlights and the feeble light shed by hurricane lamps brought from neighbouring farms, a twelve foot tripod, fitted with block and pulley was erected and with the assistance of some hundred villagers, attempts were begun to haul the wreckage out of the ground, to enable the pilots body to be released.  For over four hours, this herculean task was carried out.  Parts of the machine were raised with the pulley and lengthy tow ropes, manned by villagers who had flooded to the scene, pulled the wreckage clear.

When the heaviest of the debris had been removed, Sgt Jones was able to recover from the clothing of the pilot documents from which it was hoped means of identification would be obtainable.  The pilots body was eventually released on the instruction of the Melton Coroner to the Melton War Memorial Hospital mortuary with identification “Lieut. R.W.Wicks RAF Base Southampton”.

At the subsequent inquest, Herbert Walter Brook, the NCO in charge of C Flt Training Squadron RAF Station detached at Southampton said that on the morning of 15th March 1937 he instructed the mechanics to do an inspection on the aircraft K4353, Lieut Wicks machine, and it was certified as airworthy.  This was carried out and the engine ran satisfactorily on the ground test.  “I myself certified the machine as airworthy after the inspection” he said.  In reply to the coroner, he said that when the machine started at 10:10am he was satisfied that it was perfectly airworthy.  It was not a brand new machine, but had been reconditioned in October.  Corroborative evidence was given by William Shellick, an aircraftsman and one of the mechanics who examined the machine.  Evidence was given that the machine was replenished with petrol and oil at Brough in company with 5 other machines.  They left the aerodrome, one after another at about 4 o/clock.

Anthony John Trumble, Pilot Officer, Royal Air Force Base, stationed at Southampton, detached from Gosport, said that he left Brough in a similar machine about five minutes after Lieut. Wick’s machine had gone and joined it in formation over the Humber.         “About 35 minutes after leaving Brough we ran into a thick snowstorm”. “I remember passing Newark but as we were flying in formation I was not doing navigation.”  Trumble told the coroner that the snowstorm was intensely thick and that there were three of them in the first case, but they became separated. They were only flying together for a minute after entering the snowstorm- probably less.  He went on to say “I did not know there had been an accident until the next morning”.

The pilots widow, Mrs Hilda B Wicks, of Timsbury Somerset, gave evidence of identifying the body.  She told the inquest “Her husband was 31 years of age.  He was a Flt Lt in the Fleet Air Arm of the RN. I last saw him on 11th February when he was home on leave”.

Richard Wicks was given a funeral with full military honours and was buried at Thorpe Road Cemetery, Melton Mowbray.  The coffin was draped in a Union Jack and was carried to the cemetery on a Royal Air Force goods trailer.  The standard bearer party consisted of six RAF Sergeants from Grantham, and the service was conducted by Canon P. Robson, Vicar of Melton Mowbray.

The funeral was attended by the widow Mrs Hilda B Wicks, Miss M Wicks (sister), and Mr & Mrs H P Morris.  The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Coastal Command, was represented by Lieut.V.C. Grenfell, R.N.  Others present were Lieut Commander Shattock, R.N. (Gosport), Group Capt Iron and Flight Lieut. Langston of Grantham RAF Depot.