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RAF Thornaby in the Second World War 1939-1945 - The Wartime Memories Project -

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- RAF Thornaby during the Second World War -


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World War 2 Two II WW2 WWII

RAF Thornaby



   

Thornaby Aerodrome came into being in 1930, although the area had been used for flying since 1919. The Auxiliary Airforce 608 Bomber squadron was formed at Thornaby on 17 March 1930, flying Wapitis.

The station transferred to RAF Coastal Command in the early years of the war. It was a Lockheed Hudson Aircraft flying from Thornaby, that discovered the German Prison Ship Altmark off Norway, its position was radioed to the Navy, and the Altmark was captured and all the prisoners released.

Later in the war the runways were extended with a view to flying heavy bombers from the site. This idea was abandoned due to the high number of fogbound days. (The ICI plant less than 5 miles away was equipped with fog producing equipment to aid industrial camouflage)

In the later war years Thornaby served as an Operational Training Unit, with Hudsons taking part in the 1000 bomber raids over Germany. The "Thornaby Bag", an early development for dropping supplies to ditched aircrew was named after RAF Thornaby where it was developed. It consisted of a container of food and first aid supplies

The aerodrome finally closed in 1958 with most of the land being sold for redevelopment in 1963. For a short time the site was used as a motor racing circuit, with the delightful names of Hudson straight, Anson straight, Hawker hairpin, Hurricane corner, Gladiator bends, and Defiant corner. Today, many of the station buildings survive but the runways have vanished beneath the new Town Centre and housing developments.

Squadrons stationed at Thornaby during the Second World War:



Those known to have served at

RAF Thornaby

during the Second World War 1939-1945.

  • Allen. Ernest E .
  • Appleby-Brown DFC.. William. Sqd/Ldr.
  • Aughty Harold. Sgt.
  • Bailey. George Eric . F/Sgt
  • Barker. Atholl . LAC
  • Bartholomew J. E..
  • Bell. Beatrice Lillian .
  • Bleksley Harold F . Sgt (d.11th Feb 1940)
  • Broomhead. . Sgt (d.2nd Aug 1941 )
  • Bunker Richard . W/Cdr.
  • Cameron MID.. Norman Alister. W/O
  • Charlton Diana Mary.
  • Christie. . Sgt (d.2nd Aug 1941)
  • Coons. Willis Wylie . P/O (d.13th Nov 1943)
  • Crockett. William Vernon . F/Sgt. (d.13th Nov 1943 )
  • Dawson. Norman Frederick . P/O.
  • Downing. John Nicholas Payne . Cpl.
  • Downton . F/Lt
  • Drury. Norman R . Cpl.
  • Dryden Henry Kelso. PO (d.27th March 1942)
  • Duncan B . P/O
  • Elliott-Smith. Charles Henry . Air Commodore. (d.11th Jan 1941 )
  • Fawcett Robert. Sgt.
  • Ferguson. John . Sgt (d.10th Oct 1942)
  • Files Keith B . Sgt
  • Flounders George.
  • Fox. Basil L . P/O (d. 11th Jan 1941)
  • Fox. John Anthony . Sgt (d.10th Oct 1942)
  • Good. Edgar Andrew . S/Ldr. (d.13th Nov 1943)
  • Goodfellow MID. Elenar. Cpl.
  • Hamilton Matthew Miller . F/Sgt
  • Henry Al .
  • Hobson. Kenneth . LAC
  • Holt Arnold .
  • Kirk. Thomas Brian . Sgt
  • Law. George . Sgt (d.2nd Aug 1941)
  • Long John George Keith. F/O. (d.28th Apr 1941)
  • Lumley G E . AC.
  • MacDonald. Robert George . Sgt. (d.10th Oct 1942)
  • Mann R.. Flt.Sgt. (d.14th Jul 1941)
  • Manton Eric.
  • Martin. William Robert . Sgt (d.11th Jan 1941 )
  • Matthews. George Alexander . Sgt
  • McHugh Thomas J . Sgt (d.6th Aug 1941 )
  • McLean Don .
  • Milton. Robert .
  • Parfitt William . Sgt (d.22nd Jan 1941)
  • Parker. Tom MacKinlay . F/O (d.11th Feb 1940)
  • Pattison John. Sgt
  • Payton. Douglas Allen . F/Sgt (d.13th Nov 1943 )
  • Pederson. Varley Allen . Sqd Ldr.
  • Phillips John Sherborn Priestley.
  • Publicover. Franklyn . Ernest
  • Radley. George . Edgar
  • Richardson. Henry George . Warr Off. (d.13th Nov 1943 )
  • Robertson Donald Roy . F/Sgt. (d.10th Oct 1942 )
  • Scase. Laurence B . Sgt (d.22nd Jan 1941 )
  • Shepherd O . Sgt
  • Smith C .
  • Sparrow. Bruce Harry . Sgt. (d.10th Oct 1942)
  • Stephenson. Albert .
  • Stewart. Dennis Morris . F/O. (d.13th Nov 1943)
  • Taylor. Norman Frank . Sergeant
  • Thomas. . Sgt (d.2nd Aug 1941 )
  • Thwaite Henry . F/O (d.15th Apr 1940 )
  • Walker David F. . F/Lt.
  • Walpole Leslie B . Sgt (d.21st June 1940)
  • Walsh. William Clayton .
  • Watts Ernest Hector. F/Lt.
  • Wilson. . LAC
  • Woods Lloyd .
  • Wright Henry .
  • Wylie. John McDonald Scott . P/O (d.11th Jan 1941 )

The names on this list have been submitted by relatives, friends, neighbours and others who wish to remember them, if you have any names to add or any recollections or photos of those listed, please Add a Name to this List

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John Sherborn Priestley Phillips 608 Sqd.

I`m trying to trace wartime movements of John Sherborn Priestley Phillips, who joined 608 Sqn. at Thornaby in 1939. Can anybody help?

E. F. Webb



W/O Norman Alister "Jock" Cameron MID. Air Gunner W/Op 103 Sqd.

An extract from "Determination" the biography of 755390 W/0 Norman Alister Cameron (by his daughter, Dani Miles nee Cameron)

Norman was born in 1917 and raised in Aycliffe Village. He knew that he wanted to fly from the age of 6 and he began to work out his dreams by making excellent model aeroplanes from that early age. Apparently he was inspired by the early aviation pioneers, flying circuses and such names as Owen Cathcart Jones and Alan Cobham. His guardian encouraged him in his ambitions. He did a succession of jobs whilst he made attempts to join the RAF. Meanwhile, until he truly earned his wings, he owned Norton and Brough Superior motorbikes on which he could fly up an down the A1 and A66.

On March 1st 1936, after numerous attempts, he was accepted into the Auxiliary Air Force; 608 Squadron RAF Thornaby, where he flew in, amongst others, Westland “Wapitis”, Hawker “Harts”, Hawker “Demons” and Avro “Tutors”. As his subsequent flying career was punctuated by at least nine “near-death” recorded accidents, as well as spending hours under fire in various Bombers, his survival can truly be described by that most abused expression - as attributable to having “Nine Lives”. Soon after he started flying, he used up his first two lives with crashes in which he sustained injuries which could killed him. At Muggleswade, Consett, as a passenger with a pilot practicing aerobatics, his ‘plane crashed with engine failure, in fields full of hay and hit a hay-rick, which caused it to turn over. The occupants were left hanging upside down in their straps, and he fell on his head and cut it open. The scar gave his hair an interesting parting. The smell of petrol and fear of fire remained with him for the rest of his days.

On 11th July 1937, flying in formation with his Commanding Officer as pilot, the machine’s engine cut, and the ‘plane crashed at RAF Thornaby. He was knocked out and came round in an ambulance, suffering from concussion. Undeterred he transferred to the Volunteer Reserves on 27 June 1936.

When war broke out he was posted to Newton, Notts., where he joined the famous 103 Squadron of Bomber Command and was involved in many hair-raising operations collecting two mentions in despatches. Most notably he survived a crash landing in the mountains in Wales in January 1941 and a month later, a ditching in the North sea in February, where he floated for three days before being picked up by a Danish ship. Whilst he was missing. A wake was held for him and his crew at Newton.

As the result of frost bite and his injuries he was unift to go back to Bomber Command and he was posted to 276 Sqd Air Sea Rescue where he went on to have more spectacular exploits, being shot at in Walruses whilst rescuing others. The state of some of the bodies they pulled out of the sea, gave him nightmares for the rest of his life.

After the war he baled out of a burning Wellington that had been struck by lightening, over Pocklington on 5th November 1949. He was now a member of the Caterpillar Club as well as the Goldfish Club. About this time he gained a PPL at Middleton St. George where he gave his daughter her first flight, aged 2, in an Auster. He went on to serve in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where he bought his own Tiger moth. He survived a crash in an Anson in the Bush. On his return to England in 1955 he was posted to Watton, Norfolk with 192 Sqn, Central Signals Establishment on Radar Counter-Measures, flying in Lincolns. Its main role was to listen–in and record Warsaw Pact electronic activity.

Eventually his various war injuries caught up with him and he was "grounded" and so opted to leave the RAF in 1959. He spent many months in Roehampton and other hospitals, in great pain for the rest of his life. He became increasingly disabled and was nursed by his devoted wife, Anne, until his death aged 64.

Max Hastings articulates that which my father felt keenly, a considerable degree of bitterness and a perception of an ungrateful nation: “It is one of life’s unfairnesses that the public to this day cherishes the RAF’s war time Fighter Pilots, the defenders, with an uncomplicated enthusiasm that does not extend to the bomber crews, who showed equal courage and suffered far heavier losses. …the boys who were risking everything to frustrate Hitler’s demented ambition.” (Telegraph May 11 2003) “It is understandable that Bomber Command veterans harbour a sense of hurt and injustice. Over half their number, some 55,000 men in their teens and early twenties were killed. It’s a staggering statistic yet it rarely gets a mention. Just taking off with tons of high explosive weapons and fuel on board took incredible bravery, then to cope with memories of the screams of crew members injured or dying, of bodies so shattered they had to be hosed out of turrets, of hours of boredom, cramp and excruciating cold followed by 20 minutes of terror over the target – was superhuman.” (William Ivory, Radio Times Feb 2002).

Dani Miles



Sgt John Pattison Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards)

My Grandfather served in the Green Howards and was stationed at RAF Thornaby, I have his mess card for 1939-1940.

Paul Rose



Cpl. Elenar Goodfellow MID

My late grandmother, Corporal Elenar Goodfellow was stationed at RAF Thornaby from 1939 until 1945, we believe. I have a certificate which states she was Mentioned in Dipatches for distinguished service, whilst serving in the Women's Auxillary Air Force. The certificate is dated 14th June 1945. I have tried to locate this in the London Gazette archives, but can find no evidence.

I remember her talking of making parachutes, working in the fabric workshop. She also mentioned earning extra rations for packing some chemicals which turned her skin and urine yellow!

I would be grateful for any information or ideas where I can search further.

Nicola Clifford



Flt.Sgt. R. Mann 114  Squadron (d.14th Jul 1941)

I found this picture of the grave marker of R.Mann of 114 Squadron from RAF Thornaby in my grandfather's collection in Norway.

Staale Grude Haaland



Sqd/Ldr. William Appleby-Brown DFC. 608 Squadron

Squadron Leader William Appleby-Brown DFC OBE served with the 608 Squadron at Thornaby-on-Tees from 1938 then with 38 Squadron in Greece and Italy from 1943. William was born in Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire. He later became Station Commander 608 Squadron Aux at Thornaby in 1946 when it was reconstituted till 1950. Later he was Chairman of J. Wardman Brown & Co Limited of Middlesbrough till 1972. William was my Dad's first cousin.




F/Lt. Ernest Hector Watts 608 sqd

My father was Ernest Hector Watts from Scarborough. He was a member of the North Riding Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Airforce at Thornaby until 1957 - I have a pewter tankard of his inscribed: to Hector from the Officers & Aircrew March 1957. It also bears the squadron crest. He also flew in Burma towards the end of WWII but Im not sure in which squadron. He died in 1990.

Jennifer Heward



F/O. John George Keith Long 114 Sqd (d.28th Apr 1941)

I am researching the loss of Bristol Blenheim IV V6022 and her crew from 114 Squadron. They took of from Thornaby at 18.00hrs on the 28th of April 1941 on escort duty for Convoy FN 59 with a crew of:
  • Flying Officer John George Keith Long Pilot
  • Pilot Officer Norman Frederick Dawson Nav
  • Sergeant Norman Frank Taylor Air Gunner

The aircraft crashed 2 miles from the airfields flare path at 23.14 hrs returning from the op. Any information that anybody could provide regarding the crew, the aircraft or the actual crash would be gratefully accepted as I am trying to put something together regarding the background to the crash and the crew involved.

Jonathan Shipley



George Flounders

My father George Flounders, served at Thornaby from around 1938 to 41, at which time I was born. From there he was posted to Balley Kelly Northern Ireland. We returned to Thornaby about 1944. I remember very little of this time, but I will always remember the first time I went up in a plane. Dad had arranged to take me for a flight in a Mosquito, but that went u/s at the last minute and we went in a Airspeed Oxford instead. I sat on dads lap in the right hand seat and all went well until we ran into heavy rain with a bit of hail thrown in, this made a tremendous din! by now we were over the Tees Bridge and I was screaming take me back! take me back! I created such a fuss that we had to return to Thornaby. The pilot, bless his heart was not amused went I went quiet and enjoyed the return home happy as Larry once we were out of the rain! I joined the RAF myself many years later as an a/f mech and flew many hours through rough weather in Hastings, Vallettas, Varsitys and Pembrokes.

Peter Flounders



F/Lt. David F. Walker 608 sqd

The Norfolk cricketer David Walker who was stationed at R.A.F. Thornaby in 1941 6 OTU then 608 Squadron Early the following year he and 608 were transferred to Wick. He died early in 1942 when his plane was shot down off the Norwegian coast. He is buried in Trondhiem. If you have any information about his time at Thornaby or Wick, I would be most grateful.

Andrew Dawson



Sgt. Robert Fawcett 220 Sqd

My father, Sgt. Robert Fawcett, W/OP or T/Gun. with 220 Squadron, based at Thornaby,1940/41, was reported missing June 1941, flying out of Wick. My mother Margaret Dixon, and was originally from Halton, Lancs. I was born after Bob was lost, and would love to hear from anyone who may have come into contact with him during his service.

Ann Wright



J. E. "Bart" Bartholomew 281 Sqd

This photograph of my late father Flt. Lt. J E "Bart" Bartholomew and company taken on New Years Eve 1943. Dad is second from the left, back row in full uniform

Dad served in Coastal Command in 547 Sqdn. 281 Sqdrn. and 279 Sqdrn. He was an Australian and a navigator in RAF Coastal Command based in England, Scotland, Iceland and the Shetlands during WW2. He twice crashed in the sea and received the Air Force Cross for service and gallantry.

Blair Bartholomew



Sgt. Harold Aughty 608 Sqd

Thornaby on Tees, Yorkshire was the home of 608 squadron. Being 11 years old when war was declared, not many memories of pre war, only Bi planes [2 wings] being flown from there. I remember the night that the drome got bombed ,no information about that [theres a war on ] Sgt Harold Aughty was mentioned in dispatches for his part during the raid. He was from the Bradford area and a family friend. Dad was an old soldier from the 14/18 war and if he saw R A F men in the local fish shop [Lanehouse Road] He brought them round for supper.

608 Squadron was a Coastal Command SQ, a Lockheed Hudson spotted the Altmark [supply ship for sea raiders ] in a Norwegian fiord and this resulted in the release of a good number of Allied Merchant Seamen being taken to a German P O W camp. Living near to the drome meant that we saw the planes going out on patrol and often coming back with pieces torn out of them. Thornaby Cemetery was used for the Burial of Airmen both Allied and German [ R I P ] We often saw the corteges passing our school.

Regards to All, both Men and Women who served in the forces during the war.

Tom Carlin



Eric Manton

I arrived at Thornaby about March 1944 and it was bitterly cold with several inches of snow. We were in a long wooden hut without any kind of insulation from the cold and I don't even remember the usual coal-burning stove. We went to bed wearing several layers of clothing in order to keep warm and on top of the bed was piled things like greatcoat, towels, spare uniform, etc. and anything else one could find. In fact, we had a saying that, "in the morning we crept out of bed, took off a few clothes, and then we were dressed!"

Our unit was known as ASRTU which stood for Air Sea Rescue Training Unit. We were equipped with Vickers Warwick aircraft, a development of the famous Wellington bomber. It looked very similar to the Wellington but was even larger and our particular ones were made to carry a boat under their belly. These were dropped into the sea and used three parachutes to support them on their way down.They were dropped alongside aircrews that had come down in the water and our unit was responsible for training people to drop them correctly.

On arrival at Thornaby I had just completed my flight mechanic's course at Blackpool and it was the first time that I was ever to be let loose on a real aircraft. As an airframe mechanic, my job was to inspect 'my' particular aircraft everyday to ensure that it was airworthy and to sign to say that it was fit to fly, as far as the airframe was concerned. (The airframe was practically every bit that one can see, except the engines.) This was a rather daunting responsibility for any new 19-year-old flight mech. and so, on the first morning, when the flight sergeant told me to go and inspect C "Charlie", I was determined to do my very best.

It was just after nine o'clock when I left the crew room to do my inspection and, after looking at very nearly every rivet, etc., I returned about midday. I naturally felt very pleased with myself and walked proudly over to the flight office to sign for my aircraft. My joy was further increased to see the flight sergeant standing outside, looking keenly in my direction.

"Where the b . . . . . hell have you been, airman?" was his fiery greeting.

"Doing my daily inspection, flight sergeant."

"A likely story. You have been gone three hours and if you ever slope off like that again you'll be on a charge! I'll be watching you tomorrow, my lad". (I didn't realise that the popular time for doing the job was about 45 minutes, if everything was OK!.)

Another particular memory that I have of Thornaby was that our hut was just a few hundred yards off the end of the runway and when the training crews were on night flying exercises we used to lay in bed listening to the Warwicks thundering down the runway towards us and flying very low over our hut. One's overriding concern, of course, was . . . "I wonder if this is the one that won't make it?"

Many houses adjoined the airfield, of course, and I can share their dislike for night flying but, we were in the middle of a war. However, that didn't prevent some of the neighbours from complaining bitterly about it and their complaints were taken very seriously!

We had some good times in Stockton and Middlesboro' and I can remember the night I made a date with a local girl and to my horror she turned up in clogs. Coming from the far south of England I had never seen anything like that before, but the noise that they made walking through the empty streets was more than I could bear!

One night my mate and I called in to the first pub at the entrance to Stockton where a couple of regulars were playing darts. We were very poor players, really, but agreed to play the locals for a pint. By some strange fluke, we won the first two matches and towards the end of the third game I threw two darts into the treble 19 bed. "Three in a bed is game" shouted one of our opponents, knowing full well that we wouldn't achieve it.

I took careful aim without the slightest hope of ever getting it (I never had in the past) but to my astonishment it went straight in. Everyone was very impressed; we got our winning pints; but no one else would give us another game!




Cpl. John Nicholas Payne Downing.

John Downing served as a Wireless Operator Group 2




Air Commodore. Charles Henry Elliott-Smith. (d.11th Jan 1941 )

Charles Elliott-Smith was the Officer Commanding, No 9 Flying Training School.




LAC Kenneth Hobson.

Ken Hobson served as a HE fitter .




Diana Mary Charlton

I enrolled as No 884859 ACW2 WAAF (47 Wilts) Women’s Auxiliary Air Force on 19 September 1939 at RAF Old Sarum Called up and posted to RAF Rollestone — the RAF Anti-Gas School on October 27 1939.

Having enlisted on September 19 1939 at RAF Old Sarum, I was called back there, with about thirty others, on October 27 1939. Here we were given our service numbers, never forgotten, and issued with gas-masks, gas capes and identity discs — one red, one green, proof against fire and water, before piling into an open-backed three-ton lorry, our baggage thrown in after us, and driven out into the wilds of Salisbury Plain. I think we had been told we would be stationed at RAF Rollestone — the RAF Anti-Gas School — half-way between the Army artillery camp at Larkhill and the village of Shrewton.

Here we quite literally fell into the arms of the waiting airmen as they helped us down from the lorry, and we were officially welcomed by our WAAF Officer, Assistant Section Officer Margaret Wade, in her smartly tailored uniform. She was usually referred to at ‘Maggie’ of formally at Ma’am. We were to be housed in a row of wooden huts, previously Airmen’s Married Quarters, about six of us to a hut. You entered directly into a scullery, which had a large white china sink and a cold tap, also a copper which had to be filled with a hand basin from the tap — and a fire, literally our only means of hot water. We had a coal allowance in a large cast-iron bin, and kindling had to be foraged for. The bathroom had a cold water tap in the bath, and a lavatory led off. There was a large living-room with a coal fired range, our only source of heating. The room took three beds, and in addition there was a small single-bedded room and a twin-bedded room. The bed were cast-iron, springless ‘Macdonalds’, left over from World War I. The lower half left telescoped up under the top half. If they still exist, I hope they are in a RAF museum at ‘ancient relics’. We were instructed in the art of making them up from the three biscuits — hard mattresses about two feet square, with four brown blankets of doubtful cleanliness, two coarse narrow sheets and a sausage-shaped straw-filled pillow. Spread a blanket crosswise over the bed — place the mattresses down the centre — then the sheets and finally add the other blankets, folding them over to make a cocoon which was surprisingly snug and comfortable once you get the hang of it. All this to be made up by bedtime, dismantled and stacked before breakfast. Directed down to the cookhouse for tea, we were given tinned kidneys in gravy (never seen before or since), coarse bread with marge and mugs of sweet, Carnation milked tea, from a bucket. Following this we were assembled in a lecture room for a pep talk from Maggie and given some of our duties. After an uncomfortable night and breakfast, we were assembled on the parade ground still in our civilian clothes, high-heels and stockings, tight short skirts and hats. It was a music hall act, an absolute shambles. Our poor station Drill Sergeant! After this performance, down to the stores where we were issued with some items of equipment. Knife, fork and spoon (irons), button stick (brass), shoe-brushes (I still have mine — all stamped with our number) and a hussie (housewife — mending kit). Also, surprisingly, two officer material shirts and collars (detached, needing studs), two pairs of grey lisle thread stockings, one pair of black lace-up shoes, one black necktie, two pairs of navy-blue directoire knickers (P.K.s — passion killers) two Vedonis lock-knit vests reaching to the knees, an air-force blue cardigan, navy cotton overalls, navy blue slacks, air-force blue raincoat and a navy beret and RAF cap bridge — brass — to be highly burnished. A proud possession. We were a very mixed bunch from the Hon. Lady Lettice Ashley Cooper (immediately promoted to Corporal in charge of the Orderly Room) to a little scullery maid from the Isle of Wight who had to be forced to have a bath and supervised. However, we all settled down remarkably well. It was certainly a culture shock from our mostly comfortable houses to something approaching St Trinian’s. We had cooks, clerks, M.T. drivers and three telephonists — Ruby Elliot, a very pretty girl and a shop assistant from Weymouth, Tommy Ferguson a colourful girl and a laundress from Portsmouth (an expert on starching collars and ironing) and me who had been rather idling about at home, doing odd jobs, while waiting for the inevitable. We had a brief training session with our local GPO exchanges and could always ask politely ‘Number, please’ but whether we could ever get through was another matter.

It was a very hard winter and bitterly cold up on our windswept plain, with deep snow over Christmas and in the New Year. We had torrential rain which froze as it fell on the cold ground, encasing everything with ice. The scenery was spectacular, but tree branches came down, unable to carry the weight. So also did our telephone wires, so we were jobless. This also coincided with a bout of German measles so we were deployed to other tasks, self to the cookhouse tin room, washing up large greasy cooking tins, including a cast-iron porridge pot which took two to lift. I had only my own stove to light and stoke for hot water, shovelling coke from under the snow to fuel it. There were no detergents in those days (they had not been invented) so a large bar of hard yellow soap from which you shaved off flakes for lather with a potato peeler was the only addition to the water. I found it hard going and was thankful when our ‘phone lines were restored and we were back to our cosy sandbagged exchange hut, but still with our own stove to stoke. As the weather improved, we became more active outdoors. The old balloon hanger had been used for badminton, netball and volley ball and the airmen had a good soccer field but in that more religious age it was not encouraged to play on a Sunday, so those off duty would often, as a group, walk over the Plain, picking up mangol wurzels en route and kick them along towards Stonehenge which in those days was open to everyone with many of the top stones on the ground and in some disarray. Here we would have an impromptu game of soccer, using the stones as goal posts. Along the road, in the hedge, were cast-iron commemorative plaques to the many young Army pilots who had lost their lives attempting to fly in the lethal early aircraft. They are no longer there so I hope they are safe somewhere in a museum. This pleasant state of affairs ended abruptly with the invasion of the Low Countries and the evacuation of Dunkirk in May and June. I will never forget the endless busloads of exhausted and battered soldiers brought back on to the Plain from the Channel Ports. They just slept out on the grass in the glorious weather. One of them gave me a sixpence with a hole in it as a good luck token. It had got him through. I still have it. And so ended the Phoney War — from then on the War began in earnest.

The saddest and most stressful time of my W.A.A.F. service was the winter of 1943-1944 when stationed at R.A.F. Thornaby, on the outskirts of Stockton-on-Tees. It was a Coastal Command station training Air-Sea Rescue crews, with three squadrons of Warwick aircraft, Nos 279, 280 and 281, continually patrolling the North Sea, in the vain hope of spotting any debris and possible survivors of ‘downed’ aircraft, and to alert the nearest Marine Craft unit which would send a fast launch out to retrieve what it could. There were few survivors. Hyperthermia and sea-sickness were the killers, even if they had survived the ‘ditching’. R.A.F. stations were allocated designated areas in which they were responsible for ‘collecting’ any ‘fatalities which occurred to service personnel within these boundaries, and then making all the necessary arrangements, up to the funerals. I was the Assistant Adjutant at Thornaby and, apart from my mundane duties of postings, leave passes, ration cards etc., this distressing task fell to my lot. It was a hard winter, with freezing fog added to the hazards for bombers returning from their dangerous missions, often badly shot-up, and many crashed on landing. There was a Canadian Bomber station at nearby Middleton St George which suffered heavy casualties. They often got lost and crashed up in the Dales.

A ‘death’ from whatever reason has to be registered and signed by the Registrar in whose district it occurs. He then issues a Death Certificate, without which no funeral can take place. The Registrars had fixed routines covering their scattered villages, so in the event of our airmen landing and being killed in one of these remote villages a despatch rider had to be sent out with instructions to intercept the Registrar and obtain this essential signed Certificate. These despatch riders were the unsung heroes of the War years. They operated a network service throughout the U.K. — D.R.L.S. (Despatch Rider Letter Service) — and, like the Royal Mail, they always got through. Local undertakers (or village carpenters) would coffin the bodies which were then brought down to our mortuary. I then had to arrange with our local railway (L.N.E.R. in those days) for the coffin/coffins to be taken to Harrogate where there was a R.A.F. cemetery, or be sent back to the family. All coffins were sent by goods trains as it was considered unlucky to send them by passenger train. ‘Goods’ had no priority so were constantly shunted around and the railway clerks were always on the ‘phone telling me of the revised times when to expect ‘my coffins’ to arrive. This meant I was constantly on the ‘phone to my opposite W.A.A.F. in Harrogate who unenviable job it was to receive the coffins, arrange the funerals and welcome any family or friends who could attend.

One particularly sad crash I well remember was a British bomber, returning home, probably damaged and at the limit of human endurance, making a crash landing and bursting into flames a short distance from Thornaby. We could see it, and our Emergency Services rushed over but there were no survivors. The night sky was lit up. Our local undertaker had the difficult task of collecting what he could to put in the coffins, so I do not think the victims were separated in death, being unidentifiable. You could not become sentimental about these young men, so lately full of life, but you grieved for them and their families. I tried to look upon them as temporary postings, ensuring that all was carefully and correctly done for them when they left for their last journey.

One particular ‘personality’ who remained in my care for a while was a Sergeant Sacre — a ‘Colonial’ — washed ashore near our Marine Unit at Season Snook. There is a different procedure in such cases as the actual time, date and place of death cannot be confirmed and it often takes longer to sort out. Meanwhile the Sergeant’s identity discs, still on their grubby lengths of string, were in my safekeeping for quite a while. I have wondered since about his family, probably in Australia, because it is an unusual name.

The War finally ended. I married a R.A.F. Pilot and we had two sons. My husband’s last posting was to R.A.F. Rufforth, near York. We often went over to Harrogate as it was an excellent shopping centre, but I never visited the cemetery.

Diana Horner



Robert Milton. 220 sqd

Robert Miltibn Crash-landed his Hudson in France on 1st April 1941 he was taken POW escaped and returned to RAF in England.




Albert Stephenson.

Albert Stephenson served as an Airframes fitter.




PO Henry Kelso Dryden (d.27th March 1942)

My uncle, Pilot Officer Henry Dryden was killed on 27th March 1942 as a result of a night-time aircraft accident at Thornaby Airfield, I think in a Hudson. He is buried at Thornaby Cemetery. I am trying to find out exactly what happened. I have his wartime personal trunk and other details on war graves etc. I would be interested to hear from anyone who knows anything about this.

Brian Selby







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