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.

18 – ANZAC Gt Uncle George – Defending the Suez

In this blog, I continue the story of my Gt Uncle Georges’ journey.  As mentioned in my earlier blog 11 – ANZAC Gt Uncle George – A Lancashire ‘Digger’ George was part of the rear party that was the last to be withdrawn from Gallipoli on the 19th December 1915.

The rear parties embarked on “SS Heroic” and landed back on the Greek island of Lemnos shortly after day break. 

SS Heroic

When George first went to Gallipoli back in September 1915 he and the 24th Bn departed from the Greek island of Lemnos.  The island was in fact only 50 miles from the Dardanelles and due to its close proximity, and its sheltered harbour at Mudros bay, it was chosen to be the supply point as well as the main embarkation and dis-embarkation point.

Map of the Aegean showing Lemnos, Imbros and Gallipoli

The troops that had been withdrawn from the Gallipoli peninsular were in a shabby condition and many of them were lean and worn.  High numbers were in bad health and all had lost weight and strength. Some of the earlier parties of the 24th Battalion to leave Gallipoli were conveyed on warships to Imbros with the remainder being sent to Lemnos.

In early December 1915, the Australian brigades moved into camps in the western hills of Lemnos. Between 4th and 20th of December, the 1st and 2nd Australian Division’s (comprising 5,965 and 7,209 men respectively) were based at camps at Sarpi.  George, as one of the last to leave Gallipoli went to Mudros and it is thought he and his comrades from the 24th Bn were camped at Sarpi.

Sarpi camp, Lemnos

With the irony of war, the men who were the last to leave the battlefield, men who had volunteered for what had been deemed as the forlorn hope, appeared to have been forgotten.  There packs had been left for them at Mudros harbour and after disembarking, they had to carry their packs, marching five or six miles and crawled into camp as if they had done nothing worthy of commendation.  Bully beef, bread, jam and a few questions from their pals who arrived earlier were all that greeting George and his party on their arrival.

Conditions in the troop camps were often inadequate, with General Monash actively seeking to improve the situation, in terms of the lack of tents and field kitchens.  However, mail from Australia had been held up at Mudros due to the evacuation and the abundance of parcels and letters from home provided the troops with a moral boost.

During rest periods troops would leave the camp to buy eggs, grapes and figs from the local Greek villagers. The YMCA provided entertainment facilities for the troops during their rest periods on Lemnos, including concerts attended by the Australian nurses.

ANZAC battalions are reported as having played cricket matches on the island, with nurses joining the spectators. A few miles from the camps, many troops visited the local natural hot spring bath-house at Therma. It became one of the most frequented “resorts” on the island.

HMT Minnewaska

On the 6th January 1916, the Bn left their camp at Sarpi and boarded HMT Minnewaska, departing Mudros harbour on Lemnos on the 8th and arriving at Alexandria on the 10th January 1916 where they were immediately entrained for the new Australian base at Tel El Kabir where the Battalion received considerable reinforcements and undertook further refitting and training.

Tel El Kabir camp

The troops had to undertake various training courses such as learning about artillery and the transport, setting up and firing of such guns. Other training courses covered subjects such as map reading, meteorology, and interpreting reconnaissance photos taken from aircraft.

The defence of the Suez Canal was vital to Allied shipping.  The canal was the quickest route between Britain and countries around the Indian and western Pacific oceans. Since its opening in 1869 the Suez Canal had featured prominently in British policy and concerns. The Convention of Constantinople of 1888 by the European Powers guaranteed freedom of navigation of the Suez Canal.

ANZAC training camps in Egypt

Among its great advantages were as a line of communication and also the site for a military base as the well equipped ports at Alexandria and Port Said made the region particularly useful.

The beginning of 1915 saw the action of World War One extend to Egypt and Palestine.  Between 26th January and 4th February 1915 a German-led Ottoman Army force advanced from Southern Palestine to attack the Suez Canal, marking the beginning of what became known as the Sinai and Palestine Campaign.

The 100 mile stretch of the Canal was divided into three sections for defence.

Suez to the Bitter Lakes,

Deversoir to El Ferdan,

El Ferdan to Port Said,

Plus a HQ and genera reserves at Ismalia.

These defences were augmented by the presence in the Suez Canal of HMS Swiftsure, HMS Clio, HMS Minerva, the armed merchant cruiser Himalaya and HMS Ocean near Qantara, Ballah, Sallufa, Gurka Post and Esh Shatt respectively, with the French protected cruiser D’Entrecasteaux just north of the Great Bitter Lake, HMS Proserpine at Port Said, the Royal Indian Marine Ship Hardinge south of Lake Timsah and north of Tussum, with the French coastal defence ship Requin in Lake Timsah. The canal was closed each night during the threat.

British Headquarters estimated German and Ottoman casualties at more than 2,000, while British losses amounted to 32 killed and 130 wounded. The Ottoman Suez Expeditionary Force suffered the loss of some 1,500 men including 716 prisoners.

In another of my earlier blogs I looked at the story of Seaman Gunner George Edward Flint a sailor from Melton Mowbray who was involved in the Defence of the Suez Canal whilst serving aboard HMS Swiftsure when he assisted in the burial of over three hundred Turks following their failed attempt to take control of the canal.

Seaman Gunner George Edward Flint

The British subsequently allocated a large defence to protect the canal against future attacks.

The beginning of February 1916 brought orders for a move to the desert East of the Suez Canal, which was again threatened by the Turks and on the 2nd February, the Battalion left their base at Tel El Kabir and entrained for Ismailia to take up a section of the Canal Zone Defences. 

On arrival at Ismailia, the Battalion detrained at Moascar and marched on the night 2nd/3rd February to “Ismailia Ferry Post” where it bivouacked before moving on the next day, crossing the Canal on ferries and pontoon bridges and marching across the desert in a heat of 120˚ to a spot near the hill Kataib el Kheil about 10 miles East of Ismailia where a prominent sandhill lies called the “Sphinx”.

Location of Australian trench positions in relation to Ismalia

On arrival at the “Sphinx”, the Battalion immediately took on entrenching work for its defence and the whole Battalion was engaged preparing the position which consisted of 1780 yards of trench with machine gun emplacements and wire entanglements along the whole front.  The trenches were usually in soft drift sand and had to be shoveled out by hand.  All food and water had to be carried on camels, and at times the water ration was down to ½ gallon per day.

Australian trenches along the Suez

Camels brought rations and water to them over the sand.  The troops went unwashed but lived well and healthy in the dry atmosphere of the desert.  Sports were carried out under extreme difficulties and sandstorms buried their equipment and filled in their recently dug trenches.

Camels being loaded with supplies for the 24th Bn

The health of the men remained good and Company’s not on actual digging duties were on outpost duties of 48 hours shifts so that each platoon had its turn in the advanced firing line.  The position was of great importance as it stretched across the main caravan route from El Tassa, the point from which the Turks made their attack in 1915 on Ismailia.

The work carried out the Battalion was spoken of in the highest terms by the G.O.C. who visited the position on several occasions as it was the extreme RH Flank of the 2nd Division.

When March arrived, the Battalion were told they were going to France and a new outlook filled the troops with great expectations.

On the 5th March, the Battalion handed over the Canal defences to the New Zealand Mounted Rifles which was completed by 12.00Hrs.  During their time in Egypt defending the Canal Zone, the 24th never actually came into contact with any Turkish attacking forces.

The Battalion marched or dragged their burdened frames back over the sand to the Canal.  Carrying full kits and blankets, men began to drop out before two miles had been covered.  Water bottles were emptied in the first half-hour and with no means of replenishing the supplies, the troops tramped on till the column became a line of stragglers. 

Half way on the journey, they stumbled on some horse troughs, and men stuck their heads down and drank like beasts, defying the Officers who forbade them to touch this polluted water.

When Ferry Post was reached on the night of the 5th/6th where they bivouacked, the water tanks of the other units there were besieged and emptied in defiance of all attempts to check the thirsty men. Weaker men cam drifting into camp until daylight the following morning.

Map of Egypt showing location of Moascar camp

It was reported that of all the strenuous marches accomplished by the Battalion whilst on active service, this journey over the heavy sand, on a day marked by the heat of a most oppressive nature, must have pride of place.

The next day the Battalion crossed the Canal and pushed on through Ismalia to Moascar.  On passing the ordnance store, all ‘old’ rifles were exchanged for the newer Mk VII version. 

On arrival at Moascar, they pitched camp and remained there until the evening of the 19th/20th during which preparations began for their departure for the Western Front and they carried out marching and field work.

On the afternoon of the 18th, the Battalion was inspected by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales who inspected the Brigade and the Battalion.  The Battalion, after hearing an address by Sir William Birdwood, marched passed HRH in Columns of four, afterwards, the camplines were inspected.

New orders were received on the 19th for the Battalion to entrain for Alexandria and the Battalion spent the rest of the day cleaning up and preparing for entrainment.  At 08:00 on the 20th, the Battalion embarked aboard 3 troopers and sailed from Alexandria at 16:30.

HMT Lake Michigan – 14 x Officers and 636 Other Ranks,

HMT Magdalena – 10 x Officers and 306 Other Ranks,

HMT City of Edinburgh – 1 x Officer and 50 Other Ranks

In the hold of the Magdalena was the Battalion band under the command of the bandmaster, R L Pogson practised diligently throughout the voyage.

At 09:30 on the 23rd, the Battalion received a message that the HMT Minneapolis had been torpedoed and was sinking.  Her position was reported as 12 miles due North of their current position.  The speed of their vessel was increased and course changed.  At 12:30, they received a further message that the Minneapolis was still sinking.  A further message was received at 17:00 that the submarine had been sighted 62 miles NE of Valetta this morning resulting in the convoy changing course again.

Orders were received on the 24th March from Admiral Malta that they were to proceed direct to Marseilles, where they arrived on the 26th at 15:30, disembarking at 19:00.

On arrival at Marseilles, the 24th Battalion formed up on the wharf and marched with the band playing military music to the railway station where they entrained at 23:45Hrs for the journey from Marseilles to Flanders.

24th Bn War Diary entry for 26 March 1916

According to the war diary, the Battalion numbers were made up of 14 Officers, 603 Other ranks and 9 prisoners!

In my next blog about Uncle George I will take a look at his journey after arriving at Marseilles in France.

Private George Badger

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 Iran. Sqn Ldr Gallaway piloted Anson NK150 to Cairo for the King of Egypt and Flt Lt Smith piloted Anson NK151 to Iran 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!

13 – Going Doolally

In todays current climate when people are struggling with mental health issues due to the lockdown initiated as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, I take a look at the slang phrase “Going Doolally” and its origins.

Traditionally when British soldiers struggle to pronounce foreign place names, they anglicise them or call them something simple and easy to remember, Ypres on the Western Front during WW1 was known as “Wipers” and Ploegsteert became Plugstreet.  Doolally is no exception as this was the soldiers’ name for the Deolali transit camp.

Established in 1861, the Deolali transit camp was a British Army transit camp in Maharashtra, India. It was in use throughout the time of the British Raj, the rule by the British Crown on the Indian subcontinent until they gained Independence from Britain in 1947.

The camp was located near Deolali, Maharashtra, around 100 miles North East of Bombay (or Mumbai as it is known today). The camp is situated near a prominent conical hill and the Bahula Fort. 

Map of India showing locations of WW1 military hospitals

The camp housed soldiers that were newly arrived in the country and those awaiting ships to take them back home to Britain.

For those awaiting to be shipped back home, they were disarmed and allocated light duties with little else to occupy the men.

It was said that soldiers who were waiting to be shipped back home, often had a long wait for a troop ship to take them back home. 

The camp was often full by the end of summer with soldiers awaiting troop ships. New arrivals in this period often had to sleep on the floor owing to a lack of beds and suffered from sand flea bites.

Conditions in the camp were said to be poor especially for those stationed there for long periods. As a side effect of having little to do at the camp, combined with the heat of the long Indian summers drove many a soldier a little crazy and hence the phrase “Going Doolally” was coined and the term “doolally” became a slang term associated with mental illness. It is a contraction of the original form “Doolally tap”, where the latter part is derived from “tapa”, meaning fever” in Hindustani and “heat” or “torment” in Sanskrit.

The whole phrase is perhaps best translated as “camp fever”.  The term was in use from the late 19th century and the contracted form was dominant by the First World War.

Soldiers could spend time in the nearby city of Nasik which offered numerous gin bars and brothels and consequently diseases such as venereal disease was common amongst the troops.

Also common in the Deolali area was Malaria, which can affect the brain.  This remained a major issue for the British Army right through the Second World War despite the development of anti-malarial drugs.

Suicides in the camp were not uncommon. Despite its reputation the Deolali area actually has a milder climate than nearby Mumbai (Bombay) or Pune, though it was known to be incredibly dusty in the period leading up to the monsoon.

The camp had a sanatorium (military hospital) but, despite its reputation, there was never a dedicated psychiatric hospital there. Cases of mental illness were instead confined to the military prison or sent to dedicated hospitals elsewhere in the country.

The camp was also used for training and acclimatisation for soldiers newly arrived in British India. New drafts would stay at the camp for up to several weeks carrying out route marches and close order drill to get used to the hotter climate. 

During the First World War it was used as a hospital for prisoners of war held in other camps in India, including Turks taken prisoner on the Mesopotamian campaign and German soldiers. 

Turkish PoW graves
Turkish PoW graves

The hospital complex consisted of old barracks, stone bungalows and galvanised iron huts spread over a large area nearly two and a half kilometres long by one kilometre wide. Housing over 2000 beds, the nurses cared for patients with diseases such as malaria, smallpox, Spanish influenza and cholera, in trying climatic conditions. Such conditions were too much for some nurses, such as Staff Nurse Emily Clare, who succumbed to Spanish Influenza on 17 October 1918.

Margaret Walker Bevan was born in Swansea on 22 October 1883, the elder of two daughters to John and Harriet Bevan. In May 1902 she became a trainee nurse in Coventry City Hospital. On completion of her basic training, she joined the Becket Hospital in Barnsley, rising to the position of Matron by the time she resigned in 1915.

She joined the Welsh Military Hospital, Netley (near Southampton) in July 1915, volunteering for overseas service. The hospital, maintained by voluntary contributions from Wales, had 399 beds and was treating casualties of the Great War within weeks of the British Expeditionary Force crossing the channel in 1914.

In May 1915 the Commanding Officer received orders to take the Welsh Hospital overseas to India as a complete unit with staff and equipment for 3000 beds. It was known as the 34th Welsh General Hospital, Deolali, India, and the nursing staff had to join The Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS).

34th Welsh General Hospital

En route to India the personnel had three weeks stay at Alexandria where most of the nursing staff did temporary duties at various Military Hospitals. Around 20 June they landed at Bombay and were sent up in small numbers to Deolali as hospital wards were prepared. Margaret was put in charge of a ward of 70 beds, treating troops who had served in Basra.

34th Welsh General Hospital Ward

Later wounded Turkish prisoners of war were sent to that section. This photograph was taken in May 1917 and shows Ward 11 in the hospital in Deolali, with Margaret standing on the left hand side.

Another Nurse serving at the 34th Welsh Genera Hospital was Australian Vera Agnes Margaret Paisley was born in Bunbury, Western Australia in December 1892.  She was a certified nurse on enlistment in the Australian Army Nursing Service on 8 May 1917, serving until 12 November 1919.

She had previously worked for three years at the Perth Public Hospital. Embarking for service in India from Fremantle on 5 June, with the rank of staff nurse, Paisley reached Bombay on 18 June. On arrival she was posted to 34th Welsh General Hospital at Deolali, almost 260 kilometres from Bombay.

As well as the 34th Welsh, there was also the 44th British General Hospital and there was also a RAMC depot there.

The camp had a military prison that was used for soldiers of the British Army and, during the Second World War, for captured Indian nationalists who had served in the Japanese-founded Indian National Army.

During the Second World War the camp also boasted cinemas, swimming pools, amusement parks and restaurants for the troops.

Deolali Camp billiard room

No 159 Squadron with their Liberator Mk I bombers were based at RAF Deolali from 24th May 1942 to 1st June before moving onto RAF Chakrata.

No 656 Air Observation Post (AOP) Squadron was also at Deolali the OC Denis Coyle was told he would have to find and train all his own replacement pilots, which required his setting up an AOP Training School in Deolali, India, staffed and run by his own Squadron personnel, spreading his already limited resources ever more thinly.  This school was only partially successful, providing only eight pilots from two AOP courses, before he changed tack and formed 1587 (Refresher) Flight, which instead provided jungle training and theatre familiarisation for newly-qualified pilots sent out from the AOP School in the UK. 

After the Indian Independence in 1947, the camp was transferred to the Indian Army and was used as an artillery school and depot for at least 10 artillery and service corps units. It also hosted an army records office and an aerial observation squadron.

During the period leading up to independence the camp was known as the “Homeward Bound Trooping Depot” and was used to return large numbers of British troops and their families back home as British forces withdrew from the country under the scheme known as PYTHON

In the 1970s, the BBC sitcom series It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was produced about a Royal Artillery concert party based at Deolali Camp.

It Aint Half Hot Mum

12 – Hotel Cecil – the birthplace of the Royal Air Force

As we commemorate the birth of the Royal Air Force in April 1918, let’s take a look at the Hotel Cecil, the birthplace of the world’s first independent Air Force.

Hotel Cecil was named after the former London home of the powerful Cecil family, Cecil House (also known as Salisbury House) which once occupied the site, it opened in 1896, three years before the nearby Savoy, and stretched from the Strand to the Thames.

Hotel Cecil

Designed by architects Perry & Reed in a “Wrenaissance” style, the hotel was the largest in Europe when it opened. The proprietor, Jabez Balfour, later went bankrupt and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.  It had 800 spacious rooms – a staggering number when one considers that the Savoy today has just 268. Public areas included a bright and airy courtyard, a vast Palm Court ballroom (perfect for afternoon tea during the day and dancing at night) and three restaurants capable of feeding a total of 1,150 diners.

It was, by the start of the First World War, a fashionable venue for London Society.  In 1917, the hotel was requisitioned for the war effort in 1917, and became the recruiting office for the Sportsman’s Battalion, later absorbed into the Royal Fusiliers.

The origins of the Royal Air Force lie in the increasingly-effective German air raids of 1917 and worries that the army’s Royal Flying Corps and the navy’s Royal Naval Air Service were competing for scarce resources. South African General Jan Christian Smuts was brought in by the British War Cabinet to review the nation’s air power position.

Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts statue London

In August 1917, Smuts submitted his report to Lloyd George’s war cabinet, in which it was recommended that the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service be amalgamated into one single independent force.

The report recommended, among other things, the creation of an Air Council and an air service independent of the Army and Navy.

Following the passage of the Air Force Constitution Act in November 1917 (debates on which included an unsuccessful attempt by pilot and notable scoundrel Noel Pemberton Billing to name the new force the ‘Imperial Air Force’), the new force came into being on 1 April 1918 with a strength of over 20,000 aircraft and 300,000 personnel, including the Women’s Royal Air Force.

Royal assent was received from the King on 29th November 1917, and on 1st April 1918 the Royal Air Force was officially formed at the Hotel Cecil, which served as its headquarters for the remainder of the war up to 1919.

In 2008, to mark the 90th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force, the Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy unveiled a green plaque proclaiming: The Royal Air Force was formed and had its first headquarters here in the former Hotel Cecil 1 April 1918.

The Hotel Cecil was largely demolished in Autumn 1930, and Shell Mex House was built on the site. The Strand facade of the hotel remains and is now occupied by shops and offices, with, at its centre, a grandiose arch leading to Shell Mex House.

Unveiled in 1931, Shell Mex House, the former London headquarters of Shell-Mex and BP, is an imposing masterpiece, boasting 49,900 square metres of floor space and crowned with the biggest clock face in London (wags dubbed it “Big Benzene”). 

Shell Mex building today

During World War II, the Shel Mex building became home to the Ministry of Supply, which co-ordinated the supply of equipment to the national armed forces. It was also the home of the “Petroleum Board”, which handled the distribution and rationing of petroleum products during the war. It was badly damaged by a bomb in 1940.

The building reverted to Shell-Mex and BP on 1 July 1948, with a number of floors remaining occupied by the Ministry of Aviation (latterly the Board of Trade, Civil Aviation Division) until the mid-1970s. During this time, until the department’s move to the present location in Farnborough, the building was also the headquarters for the Air Accidents Investigation Branch.

On the Thames embankment, outside of the Shell Mex you will find the Cleopatra’s Needle. This obelisk, which dates back to 1450 BC, was given to London by the ruler of Egypt and erected beside the Thames in 1877.

Either side of the obelisk, you will find the Sphinxes and if you look closely you’ll see shrapnel holes on one of the sphinxes caused by a German First World War bomb.

Sphinx with WW1 bomb damage
Sphinx Plaque

A few meters from Cleopatra’s Needle you will also find the Royal Air Force Memorial, dedicated to the memory of the casualties of the Royal Air Force in World War I (and, by extension, all subsequent conflicts).

RAF Memorial

A committee to erect an RAF memorial was first established in February 1919, and relaunched in January 1920.  Led by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard and Lord Hugh Cecil, a descendant of the Cecil family that owned the original building that stood where Hotel Cecil was located, (the eighth and youngest child of Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, three times Prime Minister of the UK). Lord Cecil served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War.

The memorial designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield was unveiled on 16 July 1923 by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII).  It became a Grade II listed structure in 1958 and was upgraded to Grade II* in 2018. It is considered to be the official memorial of the RAF and related services.

11 – ANZAC Gt Uncle George – A Lancashire ‘Digger’

Lt George Hamer Badger

In this first blog about my Gt Uncle, George Hamer Badger (the brother of my Nanna, my Dads mum), I take a look at how a Lancashire lad ended up fighting at Gallipoli with the Australian Imperial Force ANZACs.

He was born on the 20th April 1897 and he was the second child from a total of 11 for Richard and Ellen Badger.

The family lived at Worston, a peaceful little village nestled at the foot of Pendle Hill in Lancashire with one street, a welcoming hostelry, run by the Badger family. Unspoilt, this was one of the locations used in ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ and today it is still a quiet one-street village.

Ellen Hamer who was originally from Stokesay in Shropshire, was working as a Nurse at the Lancaster Lunatic Asylum when she met Richard. They were married at Christ Church, Lancaster on 30 Oct 1895.

The Badger family were still at the Calf’s Head when the 1901 Census was carried out. However, at some time during 1901/1902 the family moved from the Calf’s Head in Worston to take over the Saddle Inn at Lea near Preston where they remained throughout World War 1. 

It would appear that the advertising campaign by the Australians proved to tempting for the Badgers and in 1912, George and his father Richard emigrated to Australia with the rest of the family planning to follow later on. The motivation was, as is so often the case with emigrants, simply the hope to find a better life for their children somewhere other than in their home country.  

As part of the “Grand Plan” of moving the Badger family to Australia, Richard packed all his woodworking and carpentry tools along with many others and a vast selection of guns.

According to the PRO archives in Victoria, the immigration index lists Richard’s age as 51 and George’s age as 26.  I don’t know whether this is a transcript error with the application or whether the age annotated on the application form was incorrect.  George was born in 1897, so in 1912 when he emigrated, he would only be 15 and not 26 as listed in the index. 

The index also shows that Richard and George achieved unassisted immigration to Melbourne, Victoria, Australia and they sailed from Liverpool travelling on the SS IRISHMAN ship operated by the White Star Line.   

SS Irishman

They set sail from Liverpool on March 15th 1912 and were due to arrive at Melbourne on May 14th 1912. On Wednesday 17th April, they heard by “Wireless” that the “Titanic” had gone down on her maiden trip, with 1500 lost. 

In early May, there was an outbreak of measles on the ship and on 4th May, George had to go into the isolation hospital aboard the ship. On the 5th May, land was in sight and about 70 miles offshore, the ship took a pilot onboard.  The ship got into Melbourne early on the 6th but was not allowed to dock and unload and the passengers were put into quarantine.  They eventually disembarked on the 14th/15th May.

Richard and George had made an impression with the number of guns and tools they had brought with them.  They initially stayed with William Angliss’s family in Toorak, then they went to the wool growing Geelong/Western District Area.  Shortly after his arrival in Australia, George became a Jackaroo. 

A Jackaroo is a young man working on a sheep or cattle station, to gain practical experience in the skills needed to become an owner, overseer, manager, etc.  The skills required to be were to be an excellent horseman, skilled as a stockman with sheep, whip and droving, and learned about sheep and wool.   

George became interested in becoming a wool classer responsible for the production of uniform, predictable, low-risk lines of wool, carried out by examining the characteristics of the wool in its raw state and classing it accordingly. After a year as a Jackaroo, George became an apprentice Wool Classer in 1914 and was working with a shearing gang contracted to a sheep station near Ivanhoe in Western New South Wales. 

Following the outbreak of World War 1, recruiting committees were formed in nearly every town throughout Australia during 1915. At the outbreak of the War, there had been a great outpouring of Australian support for the ‘mother country’ England, and the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was formed from men who volunteered. 

Typical Australian Recruitment Drive

The requirements in August 1914 to join the AIF were that the volunteer had to be aged between 18–35 years, height of 5ft 6in and chest measurement of 34 inches.  During the first year of the war approximately 33 percent of all volunteers were rejected. 

On his attestation papers, George’s height was recorded as 5ft 7 in, his weight 140 lbs, chest measurement 34 1/2 – 37 inches, fair complexion, brown eyes and brown hair.   

So far so good, George met the majority of the recruitment restrictions except probably the most important one – the minimum age!  To join the AIF you had to be at least 18 years of age but George was only 17 years and 10 months!  To get around this, George lied about his age and recorded it as 21. 

Private George Badger

George Hamer Badger ‘signed on the dotted line’ on 9th March 1915 and was enlisted into the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and assigned to Broadmeadows Camp. Whilst at Broadmeadows, George celebrated his 18th birthday and following his initial training,   

George was assigned to ‘A Company’ 24th Battalion “Red and White Diamonds” of the Australian Imperial Force at Broadmeadows, Victoria with the rank of Private and the Service No of 154. 

The 24th was part of the 6th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Division along with the 21st, 22nd and 23rd Battalions.

As a result of the hasty decision to raise the battalion very little training was carried out before the battalion sailed from Melbourne. A week after being formed, the 24th Battalion, including George and his shearer mates, departed Melbourne on 8th May 1915 aboard HMAT Euripides (A14) destined for Alexandria in Egypt where the Australians had several training camps. 

HMAT A14 Euripides at Melbourne

When they arrived at Cairo, the Australians were told they were to go to a big camp at Mena, ten miles south of Cairo, close to the wonderful Pyramids and the Sphinx.  Mena was an enormous camp built to hold around 20,000 troops and had been made ready for them just a mile from the Pyramids.

Mena Camp

Following their training in Egypt, the 24th Battalion were assigned to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and 28th August 1915 they received orders from 6th Bde to entrain at Helwich on the night of 29-30 Aug to proceed to Alexandria and embark on transport “Nile”.  At 9.45pm on the 29th, George and his colleagues from A Coy, along with B Coy,Signallers and Machine Gunners entrained for Alexandria and at 5:30am on the 30th, were embarked aboard transport ship HMT Nile. 

The “Nile” set sail at 4:30pm on 30th August, with 32 Officers and 233 Other details from the 24th Battalion.  Local Routine Orders were issued to the troops along with Special Instructions to protect vessel against submarine attack. 

The “Nile”, carrying George and his shearer pals along with the 24th Battalion and well ahead, had spotted the sub and managed to outrun it.  The “Scotian” with the 22nd Battalion on board also managed to dodge it, but the first the “Southland” knew of her predicament was the approaching torpedo. 

“My God – a torpedo!” was the shout from a sentry. “We watched the line of death getting nearer until it crashed, and the whole ship reeled. Then the order was given, ‘The ship is sinking – abandon ship.’” A subaltern on board the Southland went on to say, “Without a cry or sign of fear, or more hurrying than on a brisk march, and singing ‘Australia Will Be There,’ the order was carried out.” 

The “Nile” received a further signal confirming that help had been sent and that “Southland” was making port under easy steam. 

Colonel Richard Linton, OC 6th Brigade, was in one of the first boats lowered.  Unfortunately it was soon overturned, and being a strong swimmer, Linton decided to remain in the water, allowing others to take his place in the boats. However, many hours later when he was finally taken on board the French destroyer Massuo, the shock and exposure had proved too much and his heart gave out. Surviving him was his son Richard who was rescued by the Neuralia. 

Colonel Linton was buried at East Mudros at 7am on the 3rd September.  Following his death, OC 24th Bn AIF, Lt Col William Walker Russell Watson, took over command of 6th Brigade.  His first job as OC 6th Bde, was to concentrate all of “Southland’s” surviving troops aboard transport “Transylvania”. In all, 1324 all ranks was collected from 8 different vessels in port. 

Whilst at Lemnos, George and his mates from the 24th Bn, had developed an admiration for the poetry of Rupert Brooke. One of Brooke’s famous poems was “The Soldier”.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
 
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Brooke was a Sub-Lieutenant serving with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve when he died a few months previously after developing sepsis after an infected mosquito bite. He is buried on the island of Skyros.

At 9:30pm on the 3rd September, Lt Col William Walker Russell Watson received orders to transfer troops from the “Nile” and “Scotania” to “HMT Abbasieh” for transfer to ANZAC Cove on the 4th. 

HMT Abbassieh

George Badger and his mates from the 24th Battalion served in the Lone Pine sector, taking over responsibility for the front line the on 12th September. The position was very close to the Turkish trenches and was hotly contested. The position was so tenuous, that the troops holding it had to be rotated regularly, and as a result the 24th spent the remainder of the campaign rotating with the 23rd Battalion to hold the position against determined Turkish mining operations.  

All through September, the 24th were either in Lone Pine experiencing constant sniping and bombing throughout day and night or resting in White Valley after being relieved by the 23rd Bn.  The battalion remained at Gallipoli for three months until the evacuation of Allied troops took place in December 1915. 

The 24th Bn were mainly involved in the fighting at Lone Pine. All the ground that was won by the Australians during the main battle at Lone Pine during August was actually reached within a couple of hours of the start of the attack. However, the fighting at Lone Pine continued for several weeks as the Turks counterattacked incessantly and at great cost. The 2nd and 3rd Infantry Brigades were poured in to reinforce the Australian gains.  

Family folklore has it that George was offered a King’s Commission and a promotion to 2nd Lieutenant or a MID Mentioned In Dispatches.  As George had previously agreed with the AIF to have most of his pay sent back to his Mother, Ellen, back in England, he refused the MID and accepted the Commission as it would mean he could send her more money.  There is nothing documented in his service records to show this filed promotion, but the War Diaries for the 24th Bn records on the 14th October that “6 Officers have been promoted from the ranks”. 

Another family rumour is that towards the end of the campaign, George served under the Command of Captain Stan Savige.  Savige enlisted alongside George back Melbourne on 9th March 1915.  His service number was VX13 and George’s was VX154.   

Savige was passed over for a commission due to his lack of education, but was promoted to corporal on 30 April and lance sergeant on 8 May. The 24th Infantry Battalion landed at Gallipoli on 5 September 1915 and took over part of the line at Lone Pine. Savige became company sergeant major on 20 September. There, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant on 9 November 1915. Savige was one of three officers chosen to serve with the battalion rearguard unit C3 along with Lt McIlroy and lt Brinsmead who was appointed OC C3, of which George was part of.  Rear party C3 consisting of 1 Officer and 6 Other Ranks from the 21st Bn, 2 Officers and 18 Other Ranks from the 22nd and 3 Officers and 34 Other Ranks (including George and Savige) from the 24th  left Lone Pine at 2.40am and embarked at the pier at 3.30am.

To reduce noise whilst walking down to the beach, George and his colleagues placed woolen socks over their boots in order to reduce the noise. 

The rear parties embarked on “Heroic” and landed back at Mudros shortly after day break. 

SS Heroic

Whilst at Gallipoli, George became acquainted with Phillip Schuler, a newspaper correspondent for the AGE newspaper based in Melbourne.  Schuler, covered the Gallipoli campaign alongside Charles Bean. His bravery was legendary. His dispatches were evocative and compassionate. He captured the heroism and horror for Australian newspaper readers in ways the meticulous yet dry prose of Bean never could.

After Schuler’s classic account of the campaign, Australia in Arms, was completed in early 1916, Schuler abandoned the relative safety of a correspondent’s job and joined the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) as a humble soldier. In June 1917, he was killed in Flanders. He was 27 years old. 

ANZAC Poster

In my next blog about Uncle George I will take a look at what happened to him after leaving Gallipoli.