Saturday, 14 September 2013

Finding The Pathfinders - At Journey's End

On Monday the 9th of September, at 09:45am I started a long anticipated journey to Lincolnshire, the genesis of which occurred many months ago.

I have been on Twitter almost 3 years, and during this time have made many close friends, despite not having met many of them in person - that is until recently.  Two such friendships are Sandy Cannings and her partner Chris Hornby.  Sandy's father Percy Cannings is a WWII Bomber Command veteran, having completed 47 sorties, and was the mid-upper gunner of an Avro Lancaster in 100 and 97 Squadrons of the RAF's Bomber Command, part of the Pathfinder Force, plus many training missions - which could be just as hazardous if not more so on occasion.  Some time ago Sandy and her sister Sharon - who runs Ermine Street Project a Community Interest Company specialising in documentaries of community interest - decided to help Percy trace any surviving members of the aircrews he flew with during World War II.  Several of their friends on Twitter and Facebook, myself included, attacked the problem like a Jack Russell terrier with a pork chop and several months later the documentary was finished.  It was then decided to have a premiere showing at the Kinema In The Woods, Woodhall Spa.

I mentioned the many friends I have made on Twitter, and several of them work for the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre in East Kirkby, Lincolnshire. A long time ago I set myself the aim of visiting there at least once.  The premiere of the documentary seemed an ideal opportunity, and so I booked a room at The Village Limits in Woodhall Spa for four days, from the 9th to 12th September.  The screening coincided - what a coincidence! ;) - with Percy's 90th birthday and so there was even more incentive to attend.

(Just had this on the radio.. Jilted John - fellow researchers will understand my collapsing laughing :))

Day 1:

So.. 09:45 I set off from home with my Mum on the 235 mile trip from Barry in South Wales to The Village Limits in Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire.

 After a couple of hours and several motorways we stopped for a(n) (Un)Welcome Break.. in aviation parlance a midair refueling, and in retrospect given the quality of the fuel provided not the best idea. Entering Lincolnshire I began to relax as we neared the end of our journey. Now I don't know, dear reader, if you are familiar with the satirical game show Mock the Week, but the essential point here is that one round 'Scenes We'd Like To See' involves stand-up comedians being given an unlikely topic and having to come up with suggestions. One such topic was 'Things You Won't Hear A SatNav Say'. I was reminded of this upon glancing down at my SatNav to see a blue arrow centred on a totally blank grey square, and the suggestion of Hugh Dennis came to mind, when he stepped up to the microphone, looked confused and said 'Where the f**k are we?' It seems my SatNav was of a similar mind; however it was a dual carriagway (the A46 if you wondered which it seems was completed after the maps in my SatNav) so I stayed on it until my SatNav finally found a road it knew about. The rest of the journey was plain sailing.  Arriving about 16:30 we found our room and settled in.

Day 2:

On Tuesday I decided to fulfil my ambition and visit the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre at East Kirkby;
Having got up at 0700, fed and watered at 0800, we left for the 12 mile drive from Woodhall Spa to East Kirkby, arriving there at just past 09:00  The LAHC is a fascinating place, home of course to Just Jane one of only two operational Lancasters in the UK, and hopefully soon to become only the third airworthy Lancaster in the world.  At present she provides the only opportunity for the public to get up close and personal with a beautiful aircraft whose reliability and ruggedness earned her the devotion of all who flew in her.  Having recently bought myself a new camera I became rather snap happy, as the previous two links will show, but I make no apologies for that as she is a beauty.

As you will see though, Just Jane is not the only attraction at the LAHC; there is a hangar full of Bomber Command related memorabilia, including the wreckage from some crashes; several vintage vehicles including a Green Goddess Auxiliary Fire Service tender, bringing to mind a memory of a story that my grandfather once had time off work in 1943 due to trapping his hand in the door of the fire engine where he volunteered on time off from his work in the coal mines. There is a museum dedicated to the Escapes from Occupied Europe and the brave men and women of the French Resistance who aided the Allied prisoners to escape captivity, this includes a fascinating display on The Great Escape; A replica of an Aircrew Billet is on display too, as is the Briefing Room where you can get a flavour of how they lived day to day and the atmosphere of the briefing room when they all learned the Target For Tonight.

The star of the day though, of course, was Just Jane herself;

We were in the Escape Museum when we suddenly heard a powerful engine roar, the unmistakable sound of four Rolls-Royce Merlins. Quickly vacating the museum we made our way back to the dispersal point where Jane was readying for a taxi run.  It is one thing to read the phrases 'exhaust crackle', 'ear splitting roar' and 'ground shaking', but quite another to experience it.  Closing your eyes you could imagine yourself transported back 70 years to when East Kirkby was an active Bomber Command station, and the sheer thunder of 56 Merlins as a squadron of 14 Lancasters made ready for another sortie.  But as the name suggests, a taxi run does not just involve firing up the engines and sitting still.  For the lucky few who have paid for the privilege it involves being onboard Just Jane as she taxis around the field where once her forebears plied their trade, and back to Dispersal.  The spectacle of her sheer size in motion is something to behold.  Yes there are many modern aircraft which are larger, and more powerful, yet I don't believe there are any which evoke such emotion and pride in those who see and hear it.

After the spine tingling spectacle of the taxi run we resumed looking around the museum, at which point I met Louise Bush who I know from Twitter who works on the management team for the centre and spent a little time chatting with her about it and Just Jane.  After visiting the Wellington Museum, Aircrew Billet, and Briefing Room we returned to the NAAFI canteen and shop where we had a bite to eat and I bought a couple of DVDs of Just Jane's story and that of the LAHC.

Following lunch we then left to visit the home of the other Lancaster operational in the UK, this time at RAF Coningsby, the home of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight;

Thumper herself, also known officially as 'The City of Lincoln'.  Again as the name suggests, the BBMF is not only centred on one aircraft, but on the flight of Avro Lancaster, Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. In addition to these three types they have a Douglas DC3 Dakota on strength as well.  We arrived at 1310 - I know this as the lady at the till told us the next guided tour was in 20 minutes at 1330 and I can add up in my head ;) - so we had a look around the museum they have of Bomber Command exploits with written personal accounts from veterans of each of the seven positions in a Lancaster.

At 1330 precisely - well it is an active military base ;) - the tour began and the guide took us into the hangar. We then spent a very interesting and informative 90 minutes as he talked to us about the history of the BBMF and each individual aircraft, whose own histories were as varied as the aircraft themselves. Who knew before then why RAF aircraft had the red centre roundels painted out in the Far East Theatre? I certainly didn't!  During the tour we were interrupted by the engine test of one of the Spitfires and we followed the guide out to watch the test. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon with an extremely well informed guide who not only gave useful information but peppered it with humour and wit.

Day 3:

This was the big day.  The premiere showing of Finding The Pathfinders at The Kinema In The Woods, and my highlight of the week. That';s not to disparage in any way the other events which I thoroughly enjoyed, but simply because I knew I would meet not only some great friends I have made over the last couple of years from Twitter, namely Sandy and Chris, Sharon, Julia, Kathryn, Amanda and Robert, Di, Dave, Sean, Chris Keltie, Simon and Stephen and Susan who were kind enough to invite us all back to their lovely Bed & Breakfast Laburnum House. It was also great to meet Kevin Bending, author of 'Achieve Your Aim' about 97 Squadron of Bomber Command, and webmaster of the 97 Squadron Association website who I had not met previously online or in person but was a pleasure to talk to.  Not forgetting for a moment the star of the show, whose 90th birthday we were also celebrating, Percy Cannings, DFM, veteran of 47 operational missions in Bomber Command during World War II, and his lovely wife Bet.

The event started with a talk given by Sean Taylor who is the Safety Officer and Guide for the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, and is thus extremely knowledgeable on the subject.

A Day In The Life Of A Bomber Command Crew

He gave us a detailed, precise, but at the same time humorous depiction of the day of a bomber mission, and the kind of problems and challenges which faced every crew.  He concluded his talk, having described in detail the myriad of ways in which something could go catastrophically wrong, by saying that having done it once, you just had to do it on average another 29 times and you would be allowed a week off. That, as he said, is also in my view, the very definition of bravery, and we owe the lives we have now to the bravery, often unassuming as in the case of Percy Cannings, to the men who did this night after night for six years from 1939 to 1945, 55,573 of whom never returned home, those who returned home damaged in body or spirit, and those who through some miracle survived the war unscathed.

We Will Remember Them.

After Sean's talk was over we trooped into the main theatre for the main event, the screening of the premiere.  For 90 minutes we sat transfixed by the story of Percy's search for any surviving members of the aircrews he flew with or their families. Even those of us who had taken part in the research couldn't fail to be impressed by the work Sharon and her fiance Martin have done to pull together all the disparate themes and threads of the story and research and simultaneously put it into an overall context of what was happening in Bomber Command at the time with the input of Kevin Bending. The narrative of the research was seamlessly weaved into the whole production running the whole gamut of emotions from laughter to tears.

Following the documentary we left the Kinema and gathered outside, for a much anticipated event. After a few minutes a thrumming was detected in the air, building rapidly into the roar I was by now familiar with having heard it only the day before at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre. Looking up through the clearing we saw the beautiful sight of Thumper, pride of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight as she passed overhead, wheeling around to pass over a total of three times.  A sight which cannot fail to fill you with pride in the men who flew them and emotion remembering those who failed to return.

Accepting Stephen and Susan's kind offer of hospitality we dispersed to gather again at Laburnum House where a pleasant afternoon was sent reliving the morning's events, enjoying the company of old friends and making new ones.

Day 4:

Waking early - yes 7am is early for me - we packed and prepared to travel back home.  However for me the trip would not have been complete without a visit to The Petwood Hotel.  This is where, when based at Woodhall Spa, 617 Squadron - the famous Dambusters - had their Officers' Mess.  At 12 years old I did my first History project on Operation Chastise - the Dams Raid - and so of course 31 years later I could not come over 200 miles and not at least visit. Although we were not guests, the staff could not have been more welcoming and helpful, inviting us to take photographs and directing us to the Squadrom Bar which holds much memorabilia of 617 Squadron.  We then left to continue our journey home - I say continue but The Petwood is less than a mile from The Village Limits where we were staying, so begin is just as valid.

Predictably the SatNav performed its little trick of forgetting the A46 existed, but we were wise to that by now and just ignored it, spotting landmarks we remembered from our inward journey. We also avoided the mistake of a meal for our Welcome(?) Break and simply had a coffee each. The biggest irony for me of the whole journey was that having completed 234 of the 235 mile journey we were brought to a standstill a mile from home - the schools were out. Eventually we reached home tired but having had a thoroughly enjoyable few days.

My sincere thanks to everyone who had a part in making it so successful and enjoyable, and hope that we may be able to do something similar again!

Monday, 2 September 2013

Crayons + Columbians = Chaos

I know what you're thinking dear reader; He's finally lost it; but no.. the following tale actually happened at a previous place of work, which shall remain nameless - to protect the gullible as well as the guilty :)

Picture the scene: The admin office of a supplies organisation. Yours truly is entering purchase orders freshly received from our clients.  I notice that Crayola crayons - a staple of our service - were going on back order, and would be for some time.  I draw the attention of the Stores and Admin Officer (SAO) to this and he charges off in the direction of the Purchasing Department to have words with the relevant purchasing officer.  I think nothing more of it and return to entering more orders.

He then returns and life takes a.. well frankly bizarre turn. Readers in the UK will probably be familiar with the Leicestershire accent (I know one of you definitely is.. Kathryn :) ), but for those who are not I will attempt to approximate it in the following:

Door opens and I hear across the office:

(LM = my Line Manager):

SAO: Mari-joo-arna Julian!
Me: Eh?
SAO: *slowly as if speaking to an imbecile* Mari--joo--arna..
Me: *thinks: Yes I understood the word just not what the... you're on about!*
LM: What the hell are you on about?
SAO: I've joost be oop to Purchasing to ask about the crayons [which we already knew].  Apparently we get them from South America [true I believe], and Coloombiun droog barons have been packing our crayons with marijooarna [possibly not as true as the last bit]. Coostoms have seized the shipment and it's waiting for them to clear it [fairly sure that bit was a fib too].

Slightly - alright very - bemused we went back to work, and after a few minutes I went to Purchasing myself to find out what was actually going on.  Turns out the PO concerned had neglected to place any order at all, and when accosted by another member of staff who had an irate client on the phone, he concocted this story on the spot.  When the SAO asked him about the same thing in earshot of the other staff member he just trotted out the same story.

Mind you, it did give rise to the comment from me; Well we'll know which schools have had deliveries from us.. the kids will be smoking the crayons!