The Luckiest Man in the World (2)

In the previous post, I explained how the aircraft being used for training by Bomber Command were often very poor machines from the pilots’ point of view and in a very poor state:

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Poor aircraft then, and, from Old Nottinghamian, Jack Sweeney’s point of view, it had also been a very poor decision when Ashbourne in Derbyshire was selected as the place to construct the airbase where he was to do his training in 81 OTU.

In the first place, the building of RAF Ashbourne was actually against regulations as it was higher than the ceiling height for the construction of airfields:

And everyone was well aware of the prevailing weather around Ashbourne. Driving rain, rain, sleet, snow, drizzle, fog and mist. As I write now, even the tripadvisor website, trying to attract tourists to Ashbourne, offers “Stunning walks & scenery – whatever the weather”:

And the 1940s had a lot worse weather than we experience nowadays.

Ashbourne, of course, has the nickname “the Gateway to the Peak District”. And that says it all. If you have lots of peaks, you should be thinking about whether that is the best place to allow inexperienced young men to fly around, often at night, in aircraft without radar aids of any kind, and only the most rudimentary of weather forecasting.

Only two or three miles north of the airfield there are steep slopes, rising up to extensive high land masses around Fenny Bentley and Kniveton. Given how many foggy nights used to occur in that area, such countryside is just not acceptable for pilot training.
Jack Sweeney was killed on January 31st 1944. Ironically he wasn’t flying from Ashbourne but from a satellite airfield nearby called RAF Tilstock. Like so many of the hundreds of airfields constructed in Britain at this time, Tilstock has been rather neglected over the past and could do with a little light weeding perhaps:

In the notes I made during my researches, I described the countryside around Tilstock as “quite hilly country, very variable, lots of steep slopes”, so it’s not too different from the nearby Ashbourne area.
Sergeant Sweeney took off from RAF Tilstock in an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mark V, serial number LA 765:

He crashed about 30 miles away near Hardiwick between Caverswall and Dilhorne, a tiny village situated in what looks to me to be quite a hilly landscape, perhaps 7 or 8 miles north east of Blythe Bridge. When our family all settled into our 1959 Ford Anglia saloon for the long trip from Derby to Wigan in the pre-motorway years of the early 1960s, Blythe Bridge was a familiar and exciting landmark for all of us, It meant that we were a third of the way there and only had 70 miles to go, unless, of course, in those pre-motorway years, we got lost:

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22 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

22 responses to “The Luckiest Man in the World (2)

  1. It is my recollection that weather was worse in the 1940s, although I do remember tar melting in London streets – was it 1946?

  2. Weather was another drastic cause of casualties during the war But I’m finding it sad to see the condition of Tilstock. I always thought the UK preserved their history.

    • I think that for political reasons, it was decided by Churchill at the end of the war, that Bomber Command were an unacceptable bunch having killed so many poor innocent Germans over the previous few years. Bomber Command veterans received no campaign medal, for example. Connected with that sudden change of opinion about Bomber Command was the failure to preserve any bomber bases, or indeed, very many of the aircraft. Churchill just wanted them all forgotten. I suppose it’s a bit like Vietnam veterans who did their job bravely but who then returned to find a lot of American people who were hostile to them.
      That’s my own personal opinion, really. I suppose I’m with Arthur Harris, the man in charge of Bomber Command, who said in March 1945 “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.”

      • All so true, John, I am just surprised to hear someone be realistic about Churchill. For me, the Vietnam vets are a very sore subject – what they went through when they got home was unacceptable!!

  3. Pierre Lagacé

    Thanks for sharing this John. It helps in understating how dangerous training was for RAF and RCAF crews.

    • Thanks Pierre. This series of shortish posts come from my researches about the boys who left the High School and were then killed in the war. Nobody has ever bothered with them up to now, and I just feel that that is wrong .They could not have given us more than they gave.

  4. Poor weather, poor flying conditions, poor landscape and poor obsolescent aircraft. That’s a recipe for disaster in my books. Thank you for highlighting the careers of these aircrews John. The likes of Jack Sweeney should be remembered, and you do him and his comrades a great service in these posts.

    • Thanks very much. As I said above, I am currently researching the Nottingham High School boys who died in WW2 but, as you can imagine, it’s been a very long job. The first big step was to identify them. The School’s War Memorial lists 82 but I’ve got it up to 105 so far, using the trusty Old Internet.

  5. So many of these young men cut their teeth in inadequate machines, it’s a wonder any managed to get through to operational units. I think a ‘little weeding’ is definitely needed there!

  6. Were you living in Derby ? Thank you for this very interesting post and the photos. 🙂

  7. How sad to see such neglect in this historic place. Another history lesson from you, John, one that I really enjoyed. Thank you!! 🌸

    • My pleasure. Glad you enjoyed it. The Government have done very little to preserve any of these old airfields. I suppose they could argue that it was impossible because there were hundreds of them but I do think that they could have picked just half a dozen of them and made sure that they were looked after.

  8. Bomber Command veterans did get campaign medals for service in Europe. They could qualify for the Aircrew Europe Star for service before D Day and the France and Germany Star thereafter.

    Since 2013 they have been able to have a Bomber Command clasp to put on the ribbon of the 1939-45 Star too.

    • I meant a specific medal for service in Bomber Command. According to Wikipedia the Aircrew Europe Star is for anyone who participated in operational flights over Europe from bases in the United Kingdom and there has to be 60 days of operational flying which sounds an enormous amount to me. The France and Germany Star is for anybody not just Bomber Command. Granted a Bomber Command clasp was made available but only from February 26th 2013 onwards which could be interpreted by a cynic to ensure that most of them were dead and could not therefore apply.
      The biggest sticking point is the paperwork to prove all this. My Dad only had “Fit for aircrew ” written on his records after a medical examination, because the squadrons are never listed nor the bases they served at, as far as I was told. The Ministry of Defence said that “Fit for aircrew ” was no proof he had ever been in aircrew. RAF paperwork is frequently like this, although I admit, that is a different issue.

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