Friday, 5 October 2012

Remembrance is alive and well

There is only one mention of a motorcycle in this story.

On Wednesday night I went to this small museum. My wife had bought us tickets to see one of their occasional film shows. This particular evening they showed 3 films, the last being about “Operation Titanic” , when American bombers were based in Russia, which was the only `officially produced` film shown.

The first two films were recently discovered and were special for a couple of reasons, the first being that they were shot in colour, most unusual for that time and the second and most special reason was that they were shot by aircrew. They were home movies, a personal record of life on a USAAF/RAF air base in the East of England. East Anglia (us English were once known as “Angles” in ancient times) was turned into one huge American airfield, predominantly bomber bases. Col. Jimmy Stewart aka George Bailey (only a couple of months before "Its a Wonderful Life" can be shown on TV once again) flew from an airfiled 10 miles to the north of where I type this and within a 5 mile radius were numerous other airfields that were the home to B24 Liberators which were gradually replaced, as action intensified, by B17 Flying Fortresses. Other bases were gradually equipped with P51 Mustangs and P47 Thunderbolts, the “Little Friends” who at last had the range to escort them all the way. Memorabilia is everywhere, if one chooses to seek it out.

The footage was as fascinating as it was poignant, with the happy faces of young Americans larking about wrestling each other and playing up to the camera, just as kids do on beaches and playing fields. Other images showed nervous but determined aircrews posing beneath their giant machines, some smiling bravely for the camera but all of them showing more than a trace of apprehension. The footage taken from the aircraft as they lifted off from the base near the small Suffolk town of Eye showed a landscape that is still recognisable today, albeit that the airfield is now an industrial estate.

What really delighted me was that the visitors centre, a typical WW2 `Nissan` hut that I was sitting in, was packed to its parabolic steel rafters. It was a `sell out`. On this chilly autumn night local people from young teens to folks in their 80′s had come along to watch the films. The couple I was sitting next to were near neighbours of mine. They were in their early teens when the Americans came. The man is now 82 and his wife a little younger. They are both fit and active. He bought himself a Harley Davidson Sportster a few years ago, encouraged by his wife – my kind of gal!

As the last film came to a close, it showed the base closing down for good and the American airmen locking up shop and flying home. The base commander had opened it up to local people and laid on refreshments so that they could bid their farewells and wave off their American neighbours for the last time, in beautiful peacetime. Local farmers,  children and pretty young women in their best dresses could be seen waving off the last aircraft and then turning to each other in the strange silence that they knew, this time, would remain.  It was not entirely a party atmosphere because losses at the base had been heavy, hence the nickname given to the group, “The Bloody Hundredth”.  We were told by the museum curator of one particular raid where fourteen B17′s left Thorpe Abbotts to `deliver iron and steel to Germany` and only one aircraft returned. A shattering statistic for one base to bear, after one raid. 130 men, gone, from just one base, in a single mission.

As the lights came up I turned to my neighbours to ask a question and noticed that tissues were out dabbing moist eyes.  I said, “I bet it was strange once they’d gone”. The man replied, “Oh yes, it really was, but lovely and quiet, we knew they weren’t going to get hurt anymore”. His wife said, “We really missed them” and her husband agreed.

May we continue to remember.


Trobairitz said...

I think it is hard for people of my generation to really comprehend what the wars were like.

I would have liked to be in the visitor's center watching those films.

TonyF said...


I live in rural 'Bomber County'. We have the honour of 9 Sqn's memorial on our village green.

The small piece of stone under the Lancaster's propeller was given by Norway in thanks for the sinking of the Tirpitz, (with the assistance of the 'Dumbastards' whose memorial is just up the road at Woodhall Spa.)

BTW, if you ever have the chance; go to East Kirky, and visit NX611. Prepare to spend more time there than you thought you would need....

Dave Pie-n-Mash said...

Great blog post, HD. I looked at the site and it's very interesting. It was a profound period of our history - especially as we still have people alive who remember it well. I went to RAF Duxford a long while ago and the day spent there flew by. I loved the place. It was like going back in time.

BTW - thank to you and QM for your comments on the maxi scooter. I'm pondering....

BillB said...

Nice write-up HD. On Jimmy Stewart - he was a star in every sense of the word.

Joined the Army Air Force but due to the contractual arrangement with his agent, felt obligated to still send him his 10% - which he did - out of his $100 paycheck (a bit lower pay from what he was used to).

After the war he was so afraid that Hollywood passed him by - Its a Wonderful Life was his first post-WW2 movie.

I think he had a son killed in Vietnam.

Seeing the move "12 O'Clock High" - the opening scene, where the crewman is revisiting that Anglian field, was so poignant. Seeing the weeds over the tarmac, the wind blowing...I read that the movie was used by the Air Force for years as a definition of leadership.

If you haven't seen the series Foyle's War I highly recommend it - the research the writers did into that time was amazing - they dealt with issues such as the friction between the locals and the new American's (including one very resentful farmer who had his many acres expropriated to be turned into one of these concrete airfields) - the usual romances (some good, some where the American knows the woman has a man overseas - they really painted a picture for the times, both during the dark days of 1940 and later with the 8th AAF.

They had one episode with Barnes Wallace working on the skip bomb that would destroy that Ruhr dam, with such terrible losses to the Lancaster squadron..

I can't imagine anything more terrifying than being in one of those at night with the flack, flashes, and tracers all around you.

I think - for the 8th AAF, your odds were one in 3 of being killed or seriously wounded before your 25 missions was up - and that is after they got the fighter escort. Before - as you mentioned - just horrible.

Quartermaster said...

You're welcome Dave. Glad to be of service.

The odds of being captured, wounded, or killed fell tremendously after the "little friends" counted the Mustang in sufficient numbers. That would have been after Doolittle assumed command of the 8th AF. The odds against you before the Mustang (the 'D' model specifically) were actually worse than 1 in 3. If the odds had worked out according to the trend seen when Eaker was CG of the 8th, the last bomber would have loaded up and flown off in much less than a year after operations started. When Eaker was told about the analysis, he told the staff officer that he, Eaker, would be on it as a member of the crew. Fortunately, it didn't work out that way.

There was one medium Bomber Group (they flew the B-26) that sent 20 aircraft using the same tactics being used in the Pacific, and not one aircraft returned. The Germans had built a far more dangerous AAA environment than the Japs.

I've wished on a number of occasions that was able to visit East Anglia and take a turn around some of the old airfields. I have a copy of 12 O'Clock High and get the urge to visit whenever I see it.

There was a guy who rented a Piper Super Cub when he visited the UK and visited a number of the old 8th AF stations and wrote an article for Flying Magazine. IT was quite interesting.

Motorcycles and Aircraft fit well together. Pilots love Motorcycles for the same reason they are pilots.

BillB said...

QM - HD - I was just reading a fact from BBC History Magazine - reviewing a program on RAF Bomber Command shown in the UK last June - anyway of the 125,000 in the command, 55,000 were killed by the end of the war. The author went on to say to put this figure in context, your odds of survival were better as an infantry officer in WW1.

You think of all those young men, forced to grow up because of the depression, facing things that the typical 20 year old of today cannot comprehend.

Hogdayafternoon said...

Try to do some touring in France someday. If ever there was a place that has `in your face` reminders of what it means to be occupied, then Normandy is that place. And there are great roads to be ridden.

TonyF: Noted, with thanks.

Dave P&M: Duxford's 80 mins ride from here. An amazing place and it really does `fly` by.

BillB: Never watched Foyle's. I will now. 50% casualty rate is nature's way of telling you you're on a dangerous mission that maybe needs a re-think?

QM: There's still plenty to see in East Anglia.
Tacticians vs Strategists, what an argument!!

Quartermaster said...

The 8th AF had the highest casualty rate of any unit in the US forces in the 2nd WW. It's amazing when you consider the Amphibious operations in the Pacific, The Med and Normandy.

Blue Eyes said...

I reckon there's mileage* for a change of title for the blog, given the intersection* of topics you write about.

How about "The Motorcycle Dairies"?

*see what I did there?

Hogdayafternoon said...

Blue: You mean things like the dangers of riding in a milking shed?

Hogdayafternoon said...

Blue: You mean things like the dangers of riding in a milking shed?

TonyF said...

That would be udderly ridiculous..

Could be mooving though.

Blue Eyes said...