Monthly Archives: November 2017

The Mosquito at Hendon (1)

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Amos.”

“Amos, who?”

“A Mosquito.”

Terrible, but according to my Dad, a genuine RAF joke from World War II. Well, I suppose they had to do something while they waited for colour television to be invented:

Of all the exciting aircraft of World War Two, the De Havilland Mosquito is perhaps the most exciting. This amazing aeroplane really was the result of thinking outside the box.

Give it powerful engines. Make it more or less entirely out of wood. It will be so fast that no enemy fighter will be able to catch it. It will be one of the few bombers of any era which was regularly unarmed. No surprise that it was nicknamed “The Wooden Wonder”:

And so it came to pass, although the Mosquito could not escape the rule which says that every fast aircraft ever built always has its speed reduced by being forced to carry something extra under its wings.

The very first Mosquitos made their début in May 1942 as daylight bombers. After that, they found work with the Pathfinder Force and performed many other tasks within Bomber Command.

The Mosquito was a great success as a night fighter and an intruder aircraft, as well as an anti-shipping strike aircraft. They were used for photographic reconnaissance at both low and high level by the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force. Some Mosquitoes managed a huge number of missions, as their casualty rate was less than 0.5%.

We went to RAF Hendon in July 2010 and of course, they have a Mosquito there. According to their maze of a website, I eventually found out that TJ138 is a bomber variant, the Mosquito B 35, capable of a maximum speed of 422 mph and a cruising speed of 276 mph. I think only an Me262 jet would be able to catch that.

The B35 was the final mark of this amazing aircraft and it made its first test flight on March 12th 1945. This particular B35 was built in 1945 at Hatfield as part of a contract for 80 aircraft. It was never used in combat and indeed went into storage at No.27 MU Shawbury, Shropshire as early as August 28th 1945, with another period in storage from May 20th 1948. In October 1950, it was sent to Celle in West Germany with 98 Squadron, which means that TJ138 is the only Mosquito still in existence which actually served with a squadron. In 1953 it was converted into a target tug and eventually finished up flying THUM flights. A lovely acronym which means “Temperature and Humidity Flight”.

And to finish the first instalment, here’s a picture of this very Mosquito, TJ138, waiting patiently to go off on some more THUM flights:

One final point I would like to make is that I had a minor operation on my hand recently and for that reason I will not be able to reply to any of your comments in the immediate future. If you do want to make a comment, by all means please do so, but I will not be able to write any replies until after December 6th as a minimum. After this date, with luck, I should be back in business.

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In for a penny, In for a pound : The Adventures and Misadventures of a Wireless Operator in Bomber Command (1)

I haven’t written a book review before, but last week I was quite struck by this particular book, entitled “In for a penny, In for a pound : The Adventures and Misadventures of a Wireless Operator in Bomber Command” written by Howard Hewer. It is by no means a new book. My copy was published in 2000 and I bought a used copy from Abebooks. It was from a bookseller in Toledo, Ohio and the book had been a Library Copy from Greater Victoria Public Library at 735 Broughton St, Victoria, British Columbia, V8W 3H2, Canada.

With used library books, especially foreign ones, I always spend time wondering where the book has been, who borrowed it, what their lives were like and so on. I was most intrigued to find a till receipt still inside, detailing the book’s being taken out at precisely 10.41 am on June 16th 2001. Who read it? Did they enjoy it? And most exciting, did they get it back to the library on time by June 30th?

The book tells the story of a young Canadian who joins up and then spends the war in the RAF, mainly in Europe and the Middle East. He is in Bomber Command where casualties, of course, were enormous. There are, really, any number of such books. Some are written to be exciting, some to be poignant and some as detailed historical records. This one is a little bit different and tells the story from the point of view of a Canadian:

I just did not realise that the British would drag innocent young blokes half a world away from their homes to do their fighting and then insult them for their pains…

“We encountered the ‘colonial label’ usually with some snide remark. We grew restive and increasingly rebellious.”

Their reactions were pretty easy-going though, compared to one group. The Aussies:

“erupted in a near riot and refused to appear on parade or in class…Things reached a climax one day in the mess hall. This day the food was particularly inedible and one Aussie grabbed his plate and flung it against the wall just as an RAF air commodore walked through the door…this was not an isolated incident”.

Indeed, he speaks of the Canadian involvement in the “Cranwell Riot”, calmed only by the intervention of Canadian diplomats and Canadian officers. This may be what is being referred to in “The Cream of the Crop: Canadian Aircrew 1939-1945” by Allan D English (page 120) but I haven’t read that book yet. I could find nothing about the episode on the Internet.

We visited Cranwell in May 2010. It was a dull rainy day but here is the main building:

The gates are typical architecture of the time:

They are decorated with the superb badge of the RAF:

I read a lot about the RAF in World War Two but this book presents so much that is new to me. One intriguing footnote tells of the author’s neighbour in 1995 who told him of a fairly amazing incident. The Irish, always pretty anti-English at that time, were supposedly allowing U-boats to refuel in Cork Harbour, so, in late 1942 or early 1943, the RAF sent a force of 8 Blenheims to bomb the harbour “most bombs purposely landing in the bay.”

Well, I’ve never heard this before, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Some 20,000 Irishmen from the Republic were in the British forces, but there were a good few who were very sinister in their activities. In his book, “Clouds of Fear”, Roger Hall alleges that more than one RAF flyer was killed by Irish parachute packers who deliberately sabotaged their parachutes. The men murdered this way included a young man from the High School but that is, as they say, a story for another day.

Bombing Cork, even Blenheims would have been safe from the Irish Air Corps, who used Lysanders:

And the Fairey Battle:

Going back to Howard Hewer’s book, when he was posted to the Middle East, I was really surprised to hear for the first time, of the practice in North Africa of bombing targets which were so far away that the aircraft had to refuel both on the way there and on the way back. The book discusses the conditions at these stopover sites “situated on dried up salt lakes…We carried our bomb load from base, and had to land fully and lethally loaded…we slept on the floor of the aircraft in winter, under the wings during the summer months…we were not issued with sleeping bags…” Presumably, the advent of B-24 Liberators would have helped to phase out these stopovers which were unavoidable with the Wellingtons:

The Liberator had a much better range. Here is one of the first that the RAF received:

Next time, I’ll carry on with Howard Hewer’s adventures in Egypt. There are many more stories about the RAF officers that I had never heard, but they all have that ring of truth.

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1937: The Clouds of War (3)

Imagine that it is the height of a glorious summer, in southern Derbyshire in 1937. My Dad, Fred Knifton is only 14. One day, with his friends, Jonty Brearley, Bernard Swift and John Varty, he sets off to cycle through the Anglo-Saxon village of Hartshorne, to explore the old Stone Age trackway of Green Lane. By the time they get there, it is the late afternoon of a glorious summer’s day.

Last time, we saw the arrival of PC Bstard on his bike who forbids the four Boy Scouts to camp on common land at the side of a public footpath several miles from the nearest house. Sadly the boys did not rise up and drive off this sad servant of the bourgeoisie but instead promised that they would leave before nightfall.

Their brightly burning campfire gleamed in the dusk:fire

The boys, still filled with their spirit of youthful adventure, sat happily around the dancing flames. They roasted the sausages they had brought wrapped in grease proof paper in their saddle bags:

imagesR7PN9JPS

They toasted bread which was nothing like the bread we are told to enjoy nowadays. They made cups of scalding hot tea. And then, as night grew so dark that they could hardly see either each other or the bats which flickered through the invisible branches of the barely visible trees, they packed up all their things into the panniers on their bicycles.  Slowly but purposefully they cycled back under the stars through the warm summer darkness to the continuing years of their lives.

Fred was to say many times afterwards, that all four of those happy boys went off to the Second World War, but only two were destined to survive that awful conflict. Bernard Swift and himself.

John Varty was killed in 1943 in Tunisia, fighting ferociously against Germans who claimed every single sand dune as their own.  Corporal Varty is buried somewhere out there. Somewhere on the road to Teboursouk. Somewhere where his mother and father never had the money to go. Somewhere where nobody with any sense would dare nowadays to go. A country where only the dead are beyond killing:

Jonty Brealey was killed on June 27th 1944, in some long forgotten episode in the aftermath of D-Day. He was buried, along with more than 4,000 others, in Bayeux Cemetery in Normandy. He died to liberate France but for the first 25 years of his life, I can’t imagine that he had ever seen a Frenchman. Or a German come to that.

When I was a little boy in the 1950s, my Granny and Grandad lived two houses up the road from the Brealeys.  Jonty’s father, whose first name was Alf, was by now an old man. He spent all of the day leaning over his front gate, saying hello to passers by and keeping his eyes open for people coming down the hill from the main bus stop on High Street. I thought as a child that he was looking for anybody who might come past, but I now realise as a man, that he was waiting patiently for just one special person who, alas, would never come.

 

 

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1937: The Clouds of War (2)

Last time, it was the height of summer, in southern Derbyshire in 1937. My Dad, Fred Knifton was only 14. One day, with his friends, Jonty Brearley, Bernard Swift and John Varty, he set off to cycle through the Anglo-Saxon village of Hartshorne, to explore the old Stone Age trackway of Green Lane. By the time they got there, it was the late afternoon on a glorious summer’s day.

Even in the 1970s, this was an isolated country area, far, far away from the hustle and bustle of so-called civilisation. In the late 1930s, it must have been even quieter. Nothing except for the gentle humming of the bees, the whirr of the swallows’ wings, the buzzing of the grasshoppers and colourful butterflies fluttering by. A very peaceful, idyllic and rural place indeed. The boys duly set up their canvas tent, taking care to position all of the many guy ropes carefully. They followed their Boy Scout training and carefully cut a piece of turf from the grass at the side of the track, before they started their camp fire.

The_Hadrian's_Wall_Path_follows_a_'green_lane

It was a warm, calm, summer’s evening. Bats scythed through the still warm air. Large white and grey moths fluttered where butterflies had fluttered during the day. There was one bright star. Or was it a planet? Then a second star. And then a third. The night grew darker. The stars formed into patterns. The Plough. The Milky Way. Sparks flew up from the fire and disappeared into the darkness:

fire

I once saw a poster which said:

“Everything is going so well. Everything is perfect. But don’t worry. Some bstard will come along and spoil it.”

On this occasion the idyll was interrupted by the arrival of the local police constable on his bicycle. In later years, Fred was to wonder just why he was up there a thousand miles from the nearest police station and three light years from the nearest house. Had they stumbled upon his still? Did he have a secret girlfriend? Or a secret boyfriend? Did he like following teenage boys out to isolated areas?

Anyway, he sportingly told the four boys that despite their status as Boy Scouts and Ovaltineys they would not, under any circumstances whatsoever, be allowed to camp there overnight, as there were many, many important laws and many, many important byelaws which completely forbade such evildoing.

He sportingly told the four boys too, that they could finish their meal, just this once, before they left and went home and did not ever come back there ever again, even as old men. If they did, they would finish up in the galleys.

Will they refuse to obey him? Will they rise up and slay this bourgeois lickspittle?

We’ll see next time.

 

 

 

 

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1937: The Clouds of War (1)

What must have been among the most magical moments in my father, Fred’s, long and eventful life, came one day, or rather one evening, around 1937. In a long golden English summer, he and three of his childhood friends decided to use their knowledge from the Wolf Cubs and the Boy Scouts and to go off camping. Those three other boys were Jonty Brearley, Bernard Swift and John Varty. Here’s my Dad, with his bicycle. Behind him, there is nothing but fields. Nowadays, there is nothing but houses:

AG with bike 1930 8

The boys all went by bicycle down Hartshorne Lane, into the village of Hartshorne itself, past the Georgian coaching inn and the haunted old Elizabethan house. Look for the camouflaged orange arrow which points at Fred’s house. The boys rode into the top right hand corner of the map, towards the church with a square tower:

journey 1

They cycled resolutely past the old Saxon church of St Peter:

Hartshorne_Church_web

Then they took the road westwards out towards Repton. The next orange arrow on the map below points to Hartshorne Church.

Repton, off to the west, was the village where, in the winter of 873-874 AD, the Danish Great Heathen Army, led by the reputedly nine feet tall Ivar the Boneless, spent a few months resting up and slaughtering the locals:

Fred and the boys ignored these ruffians, though, and they turned off to the north, the top right corner of the map, towards the villages of Ticknall and Foremarke, home of Fred’s ancestors from the days of the Stuarts:

journey 2

At the very top of the hill, though, by now high up on the horizon, they turned yet again, eastwards along the yellow-marked Coal Lane, before they turned for the last time into Green Lane, indicated by the orange arrow. They followed this grassy track for a good distance until it joined the steep orangey road towards Pistern Hills:

journey 3

Just look how many features on this map refer either to types of tree, the shape of the landscape or the name of a long forgotten landowner.

Just before the road junction, they put their bikes in the hedge and made camp.

journey 5

Green Lane, originally, formed part of an ancient trackway, dating back perhaps to Stone Age times. I don’t have a photograph, but this is what it would have looked like in that more countrified era:

green 1xxxxxxx

No insecticides then, or petrol powered machines to cut back the homes of the bee, the butterfly and the wood mouse:

green-lane-narrowing-11xxxxxxxxxxxxx

In a word, it was a countryside paradise. We’ll see who plays the part of the Serpent next time.

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