Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (4)

We have been looking at the poetry of Anthony Richardson. His second book of poetry was “These – Our Children”, published in 1943. I think it’s his best work and I have found quite a few poems in it to show you:

The copy I bought, again for just a few pounds, had an inscription inside it. It reads, in a very shaky old man’s handwriting, rather like my own: “For Jean Eve from Charlie on the 30th anniversary of our Wedding. Jan. 20 1944”:

The first poem I selected is called “Aerodrome Landscape” and is exactly that…a portrayal of the empty flat landscape of a bomber base. Only a few words of vocabulary need explaining:

An armadillo I had never heard of, but Wikipedia says that it is

“an extemporised armoured fighting vehicle produced in Britain during the invasion crisis of 1940-1941. Based on a number of standard lorry (truck) chassis, it comprised a wooden fighting compartment protected by a layer of gravel and a driver’s cab protected by mild steel plates. Armadillos were used by the RAF Regiment to protect aerodromes and by the Home Guard.”

A primrose is a yellow flower that often appears in late winter.

As regards any technical terms, the perimeter-roadway is the concrete track that runs 360° around every airbase. Each bomber was left, when not in use, on its own “dispersal” point, often shaped like a frying pan, which was connected to the “peri-track” by a short concrete road. Bofors guns were used to defend airfields against German aircraft attacks. A Hudson is a two engined light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. Wrack is seaweed that is placed on the shore by the waves, so presumably, “sky-wrack” is clouds, driven across the sky by the wind.

The same book, “These – Our Children”, contains “Aftermath”, which could equally well have been titled “Epitaph”.

The full title of the poem is “AFTERMATH (For Mac and his crew)”. It makes reference to a dead aircrew who are buried in Kristiansand, at least one of them being Scottish, or at the very least, having the Scottish name of “Mac Something”.

In today’s day and age, it is easy to trace to whom these details refer. Kristiansand is on the Skagerrak and is the fifth largest city in Norway. It lies, more or less, at the country’s southernmost tip. The Kristiansand Civil Cemetery has only twelve war casualties, just one of them being possibly “Mac”. This was Charles Peter Hope Maclaren, aged only twenty and killed on April 21st 1941. He was the pilot of an aircraft of 107 Squadron and came from Peebles, which is in the Scottish Borders region in southern Scotland. On the base of his grave is inscribed “His brave companions Sergeants Hannah and King have no known grave”:

The three men were in a Blenheim IV, Z5795, of 107 Squadron, RAF, of Leuchars in Fifeshire, operating as part of 18 Group. They took off at 1800 to perform a reconnaissance of the Norwegian coast. The Blenheim was piloted by Pilot Officer Maclaren, but they were shot down by enemy fighters and crashed into the sea. The pilot’s body was later washed ashore at Flekkero near Kristiansand, but no trace of his two comrades was ever found and their sacrifice is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial. 107 Squadron was normally part of Bomber Command but was on detachment to Coastal Command in early 1941.

Sergeant Anthony James Hannah was the observer. He was a New Zealander of only twenty and he was on his twelfth operation. The third member of the crew was Douglas Stevenson Hutcheon King, whose service number was 751304 but I could find nothing further about him, I’m afraid.

In the poem, Richardson introduces huge amounts of poetic licence. He talks as if Maclaren came from Dundee rather than Peebles. The Usk is a river, but strangely, in Wales. Fifeshire is a county near Dundee:

The question posed at the end, of course, is that if the dead men can still call to him “across two hundred miles of sea”. then how is it that they cannot “clasp our hands” across the thin veil between life and death?
I have spent the last six years researching the war casualties of the Old Nottinghamians, and a good many more, and this particular Blenheim is quite the most God-forsaken, long forgotten, aircraft, I have ever come across. Only one grave and two men lost for ever. No exact details of their mission, no exact details of who shot them down or how it happened. Nothing at all on the CWGC website about the two men who were never found. No ages. No parental details. No town of origin mentioned. The only detail I found out is that Mac was buried by some good Germans, who gave him a magnificent funeral with full military honours:

19 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Literature, Politics, Writing

19 responses to “Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (4)

  1. That inscription is worth whatever you paid for the book.

    • I know. I’m an absolute sucker for inscriptions in books. On occasion, I have deliberately bought ex-library books from the USA. just to look at the library stamps from Nevada, or Minnesota, all those places we see in films.
      A handwritten one is even better, especially when it is dated, and you realise that this book belonged to somebody who not only bought it in ignorance of D-Day, but who got married oblivious of a world war only six months or so in the future.

  2. Impressive and heartfelt, John.
    I shall be looking for this book, I know it’ll be a long shot, but I can try!

  3. Richardson’s choice of language really brings the scene to life. You can imagine him sitting on the edge of his dispersal writing these words while awaiting the order to go. It’s nice to know that Mac received a decent burial , but it’s a great shame about his two crewmen. Let’s hope they didn’t just disappear without trace into the depths of the sea.

    • It sounds crazy even as I write this, but for one of the High School’s war dead, I did have to check on what happened to corpses as they drifted around.
      Basically, they go north out of the Bay of Biscay and then go up the Channel. Sometimes they cross the Straits of Dover and finish up on the south coast of England. This happened a lot to drunken German soldiers who fell off the dockside in Calais or Boulogne. The path then follows the coast of Belgium and Holland and then across to Norway. Sometimes it was north along the Norwegian coast, but occasionally they could get moved around and finish up in the Shetlands. The corpse has only a month or at most two to do this, before it breaks up and disappears.
      Sadly, Messrs Hannah and King were never found, I suspect that they went north along the Norwegian coast where the population is minimal, or perhaps less likely for me, they set off for the Shetlands, but didn’t make it.
      It all sounds rather ghoulish, but I was amazed to find that some of the casualties of the Lancastria (sunk at St Nazaire) actually turned up on the North Sea coast of France and Belgium.

      • That’s incredible John. I knew the tides were pretty strong and that bodies often washed up a fair distance from where they entered the water, but nothing on this scale! Perhaps, (and hopefully not distasteful) it’s a bit like leaves, that gather in the forgotten corner of the garden!

    • Thanks for the link. I have used this website for its sections on RAF Cosford, RAF Duxford and RAF Hendon, but I haven’t really used the rest of it very much. The reason for that is that the IWM is reputed to guard its copyright quite fiercely and I’m a little wary of people who do that when there are so many other sites to borrow things from. And so far. that has worked, with slightly over 500 posts and only two complaints!
      The sections for the three aircraft museums are really good, especially the histories of the individual aircraft on display.

  4. Thanks John. I really like “Aftermath”. And I have just read all about the sinking of the Lancastria with 3000 lost. The largest maritime disaster in British history according to my last reading of it.

    • One of the High School war dead was killed on the Lancastria. Here’s a sneak preview of what I have found out:

      “One soldier heard Captain Sharp say to his Chief Officer, H Grattidge, that six thousand seven hundred people were on the ship. The Chief Purser said that there were more than nine thousand people aboard even though the lifesaving equipment catered for only two thousand five hundred. The total numbers remain completely unknown, but they must have been somewhere between an extremely conservative estimate of four thousand, and perhaps as many as nine to twelve thousand people. The ship was absolutely packed to capacity, and the newcomers could not even get below decks. Every single bit of cabin space had been filled. ”

      The numbers of dead were so enormous that all news of the disaster was forbidden on pain of being court martialled. Only a German ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff , sunk by the kindly Soviets exceeded the Lancastria’s total during WW2. (estimated 9,400)

      • And I have seen a note in the war cabinet files where they knew they had to keep it a secret from the British public. That was when I was researching the information for my recent story on the Jersey boats

  5. Thank you so much for this post. I feel we should know what has happened in our past. Take care, Regards

    • You are very kind, Lakshmi. Just make sure that you all stay save from harm. Our government says to wash your hands frequently, to stay two metres from people outside (this might be difficult in India!) and to stay at home as much as possible.
      We watched the poor Indian workers on TV a couple of nights ago. I felt so sorry for them. How can anybody treat people like that?

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