Whilst catching up on old links and updating pages, something occurred to me – “How many places have I visited since starting this journey through Britain’s past?” So, I went through the list of airfields, the list of museums and to my surprise there were 40 different airfields and 20 different aviation museums.
Hardly a scratch really on the enormous range of sites that were developed pre, during and indeed post World War 2.
But, it dawned on me. Many of these sites housed something like 1,500 men and women from all nationalities: British, Canadian, American, Australian, New Zealand, Polish, French, the range is endless, and each one coming together in a common cause – to fight the Nazi terror.
Many of these were youngsters, some as young as 18, most in the their teens or early twenties; and yet here they were, laying down their lives against a common enemy.
The life they led was not the life of a teenager. The burden of responsibilities they carried was more than most adults could even think about let alone bear, the trust, discipline and pure dedication to their cause was second to none.
Many of these young men would die horrific deaths. Witness terrible events, lose ‘buddies’ and friends on a daily basis, to the point that they quickly learnt not to make ‘friends’ at all.
They would live in tents, wooden huts or metal Nissen huts, assembled quickly to increase capacity and provide a meager shelter from the weather. Yet still, at any hour of the day or night, day after day, night after night, they would eat a slimmed down meal, climb aboard their trusty aircraft, prepare their guns, run through checks and begin the long cold and often brutal journey to foreign fields. Their aim, to kill other young men who in many cases were just as dedicated as they were. ‘To kill or be killed’
As you stand amongst the fields, watch the birds fly over vast open spaces, wander industrial units and delve amongst the weeds, you can imagine the sounds and smells of yesteryear. The voices of those so young, the roar of engines as bombers laden with death and destruction laboured to lift off the earth to blue skies above.
Wandering amongst old, drafty, run down buildings the sounds of lost voices still resonate in their walls.You can hear the voices, orders barked, jokes told, goodbyes said. To be ‘Hollywood like’, the scenes from “Memphis Belle“* or the opening of “Twelve o’clock high” whilst not factually accurate, nonetheless add meaning to these places.
Many of these places have thankfully ended up as museums and many of those I have visited, hold a morbid collection of bits of metal, twisted and charred engines, old uniforms; each one a personal memento of an individual’s fate. Each one has a history, tells a story, speaks of lives many now gone.
To return to my opening point, 40 airfields in the short time I have been recording this journey. No it doesn’t scratch the surface, but it is an enormous tale of life gone, of events now passed and of moments in time seared deep into the history books and an age of yesteryear.
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
I know that I shall meet my fate,
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
* The orignal poem was written by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats in 1918 and is believed to be about Major Robert Gregory, a friend of Yeats, and talks of his forthcoming death. It originally refers to battles between the British and Irish in the struggle for independence of Ireland. The references to Ireland were left out when the character Sgt. Danny Daly in ‘Memphis Belle’ reads the poem to his crew mates.