Thursday 25 September 2014

From the Aviation files

Just for a change, a few snippets from the Sheppey's aviation history that I compiled some years ago, with the addition of a lot of photos that ex-servicemen sent to me with their memories of serving there.
By the time that WW1 started, Eastchurch was the home of Sheppey's only airfield and remained that way until it finally closed in 1946.However, throughout that time, the MOD still retained the original Leysdown landing ground and it's few buildings, that had once been the home of the Aero Club and Shorts Bros. aircraft factory. It covered most of the land that now forms Leysdown Coastal Park, the stables and out into the farmland alongside. Through the middle of the Landing Ground ran the narrow Wing Road that ran from the back of Leysdown almost to Muswell Manor. Two thirds of Wing Road is now mostly a grassy track used by dog walkers.
Charlie Ward began his Service life at Eastchurch in 1916 and after his initial training he began his service career proper by working in the Coppersmith's shop at Eastchurch airfield. When I spoke to him in 1984 he was in his 70's and still living in Kent and recalled being sent to the Leysdown ranges during WW1 in order to carry out two particular tasks. Many old and un-airworthy aircraft had been lined up on the landing strip there to form a large cross at which practising bomber aircraft would drop their dummy bombs. It was Charlie's job to briefly mark the dropped bomb with a white flag in order to give the bomb aimer or pilot an idea of his accuracy - real high tech. stuff.
Secondly, he was also responsible for a team of men who recovered pebbles and the like from the adjacent Leysdown beach to build what became Wing Road.

During 1922 an Air Armament and Gunnery School was set up at the Eastchurch airfield and a lot of their training in the use of machine guns and bombs in aircraft was to take place at the Leysdown Ranges. As a result, more buildings were quickly built there including Officers bungalows, airmens' quarters and various other ancillary buildings and there was also an attendant Ambulance and Fire Tender. These were all supervised by a Range Warden who lived in a specially built house on the Ranges. About a mile off shore there was a line of coloured buoys and these were also used as targets by the aircraft as they carried out their practice flights. These targets were maintained and patrolled by an RAF launch, the "Adstral", which was moored overnight at Harty Ferry.
These ranges were still providing the same training function to aircraft in WW2 and during 1944 saw several Typhoon squadrons attend for rocket-projectile practise.
Below you can see an ariel photo of the Leysdown Ranges prior to 1930, with the sea in the top LH corner. The large shed in the middle of the photo held a number of observation balloons at one time and in 1930 was dismantled and sent to Hendon. Unfortunately the original was of poor quality but if you click on it once it should come up marginally better.

During the late 1970's/early 1980's the foundations of most of the buildings on the farmland were dug up and the land ploughed over for crops but in 1983, on what was soon to become the Coastal Park, I found the last Stanton-type air raid shelter left there and the base of the large shed removed in 1930.

One last photo from the Leysdown Ranges was taken in 1939. Armourer Richard Moss, who was stationed at Eastchurch before and during WW2, sent it to me. It shows him at the Leysdown Ranges alongside a prototype armoured car known as the "Armadillo", which was at the ranges for tests. We clearly still had some way to go ahead of a possible German invasion!

And so, both between the wars and during WW2, the Leysdown ranges remained a busy and restricted military area as various squadrons used them for aircrew training purposes and at least two fatal accidents took place there.
On the 15th August 1933 a Jean Chesterton and some friends had rowed out among the floating targets and she was killed when a flight of aircraft began firing at the targets.On the 16th June 1938, Gloster Gladiators of No.54 Sqd had come across from Hornchurch for gunnery practise. At midday, as Sgt. Pilot R.M. Marsh approached the targets and began firing, his aircraft was seen to dive into the sea, throwing him out. By the time that rescuers had reached him he had unfortunately died and he was buried with military honours in Leysdown cemetery. An inquest later said that he had probably shot his propeller blades off himself due to faulty synchronisation.I
In 1960 Short Bros & Harland were given permission to use 77 acres just behind the old Ranges site to use as an airstrip. This was to accomodate a small flying club and during the summer months operate 15 min. tourist flights around parts of Sheppey for 12/6 a time. It soon petered out though and now, as you stand by the tea kiosk there looking at the Coastal Park and stables, it's hard to visualise it all.
And so to a few Eastchurch airfield snippets, starting with the aircraft below. Throughout WW2 aircraft crashing on and around Sheppey were a regular occurence but this one became quite a celebrity and featured in national newspapers.

It crash-landed at Eastchurch in January 1944 and Flying Officer Spencer, who was serving there at the time, begins the story.
" we first heard the early morning noise of an approaching aircraft, which was unusual for Eastchurch at that stage of the war.Soon after a Flying Fortress came into view, so low that we knew it was in trouble and would be landing quickly. When it did eventually land we noticed that it had a large part of the tail missing and no tail-gunner".
The aircraft turned out to be a B-17 Bomber nicknamed "Hang the Expense", on its way back home from the crew's 13th mission to bomb Frankfurt.It was from the American 8th Air Force's 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbot, East Anglia, piloted by Frank Valesh. Apparently, coming back over Ostend an 88mm shell from an ack-ack battery had exploded in the fuselage, opposite the escape door. The left elevator was shattered, the right one damaged and a large part of the rudder was missing. At the same time the rear gunner's compartment had been completely blown off and with it had gone the gunner, Sgt. Roy Urich. He was assumed to be dead but amazingly, turned up in a POW camp at the end of the war and was still alive in 2009! Valesh had put out a Mayday call and two American P-47's turned up and escorted him back to the nearest airfield, which turned out to be Eastchurch. To add to his problems, the grass runway was waterlogged but although the wheels sunk into the ground he and the remainder of his crew managed to land safely. The aircraft was eventually repaired and returned to operations with the 100th.

Below I have this original envelope, given to me by Bill Drayton, which contained a letter sent to him while serving at Eastchurch in 1942-3, by his brother who was serving in the Navy.

As the war came to an end in 1945, people began to relax and here we see Flt. Lt. A.C.L. Hutchinson getting the loudspeaker car ready for a fair on the airfield.

The photos below were given to me by a Philippa Butt-Gow, who was living in Oslo in 1984 but had served at Eastchurch as a WAAF during 1944-46.
This first one shows an the sides from an RAF Officers v WAAF's football match at the airfield.

This one is of the WAAF's hockey team with their PT Officer Flt. Hutchinson.

A group of WAAF's at the airfield in 1945.

Sunday 21 September 2014

A Change of Weather

Arriving at the reserve at 6.30 this morning it was soon clear that the weather had changed, there was a fresh to strong N wind blowing and it was noticeably cooler under the grey clouds, for the first time in ages a coat was needed.
Whilst I'm always loathe to see the end of guaranteed warm weather, even early mornings this last week or so have been very uncomfortable in very humid and murky conditions and being accompanied by a continuous cloud of hungry mosquitoes all the way round has been intolerable, there was none of that this morning.
Climbing on top of the sea wall I immediately noticed that the wind was bringing with it the awful stench of the reserve's stagnant ditches and fleets. Virtually no rain for several weeks has seen both the water and oxygen levels in them to drop away quite dramatically and what water that is left in them is either a puce or blue-grey colour. As you can see below, the weed is starting to decompose on the surface and sulphurous bubbles regularly come to the surface.


It typifies how the reserve is at the moment, it's very dry and pretty much devoid of bird life, one reason I imagine, that even the wildfowlers have been absent this last week, the Greylags have moved somewhere else and ducks are counted in ones or twos. So many autumns have been like this on the reserve in recent years that it's pretty much become the norm but it makes for some pretty uninspiring walks round, feeling great if you total more than ten of any particular species. Mind you I recall asking for lots of rain this time last year and it really came back to bite me as we had the wettest winter for a hundred years, it's always the same in North Kent, either too dry or too wet.

Early morning on Wednesday saw the first visit this autumn by one of the local hunts and they spent most of the morning working their way round the farmland of Harty looking for foxes. I believe at this time of the year it's called "cubbing", where the young hounds learn from the older ones how to go about fox hunting. Yes, I know that hunting with dogs is banned but that has never bothered the hunts that visit Harty a few times each year and you can hear them actively encouraging the hounds to work through the thickets and reed beds. They are also accompanied by a terrier man on a quad bike, who presumably has the terriers available should any foxes go to ground and need digging out.
Now I'm not going to turn hypocritical and say that I don't agree with killing foxes, because both the NNR's on Sheppey, control foxes throughout the year and I accept that it is a necessary fact of successful reserve management. My only real problem with the hunts is their attitude towards land that they don't have permission to be on, they quite often charge across that without a thought and even get stroppy when challenged. They also, as they did on Wednesday, regularly work the hounds through the whole length of the Capel Fleet reed beds, which have SSSI, SPA and Ramsar status and protection, in order to flush out any foxes, disturbing everything else in the process.

On a far happier note, the Kent Field Club have just published Vol.18 of their regular booklets about various aspects of Kentish flora and Fauna and it is entitled "The Natural History of the Isle of Sheppey". For anybody interested in Sheppey's geology, animals, birds, moths, butterflies, insects, flowers, ditch systems, etc. etc, it is a 270 page booklet packed with colour photographs, maps and numerous chapters written by very knowledgeable people.
It can be bought for £12 + £2 pp by sending a cheque made out to Kent Field Club to Ms. K. Friend, 2, West End Cottages, The Street, Doddington, Kent. ME9 0BZ

Friday 12 September 2014

Grass Pollen?

Further to my posting a few weeks ago where I posted a photo of one of my shoes mildly covered in orange dust from the grass on the reserve, well this morning it had increased considerably, as the photos below illustrate. It had even spread onto my trousers.

If indeed it is grass pollen, then it's no wonder that people get hay fever and a probable reason why even my eyes have been sore this year. Can anybody confirm that it is indeed pollen and not simply some kind of dust. Incidentally, my two white terriers, who are at boot height in the grass, always return home as white as they left, why are they not being stained by the dust?
N.B. I have now found out that it is a rust disease of grassland caused by poor growing conditions and the onset of cooler nights.

As for the reserve in general, well it's pretty dire bird wise at the moment as we endure our usual bone dry September conditions and lovely wet Oare is the centre of attention for local bird life. The only real activity on the Swale NNR at the moment is between the wildfowlers and the Greylag geese and Shellness Point, where a few winter birds such as Wigeon and Brent Geese are straggling in. 

Monday 1 September 2014

A New Shooting Season Begins

As is my custom every year, I was on the reserve at 5.15, just as dawn was starting to brighten the eastern sky, to see in the start of the wildfowl shooting season and make my self known and have a chat with, the wildfowlers on the first morning out there.
And what a dawn it was, the sky was split in two, with brightness just showing in the east and stars still out to the west. Gradually however the sky turned to full and blue brightness until, with some speed, a beautiful orange sun rose alongside Shellness and briefly turned the sky a blend of pinks and oranges. It was a perfect September morning.

 As I made my way across the marsh towards the sea wall in the half light, shots were already beginning to echo round the farmland with increased regularity, as the dawn light prompted the wildfowl into taking their regular flight lines between roosts and feeding areas. Unless the farmland duck shoots have released Mallard for shooting purposes, ducks are normally at a premium at this time of the year, the main shooting interest is the ever increasing number of Greylag Geese on Harty, especially while they're attracted to the corn stubbles, as below. These photos were taken yesterday on the farmland alongside the reserve and this morning two "duck shooters" were hidden up ready to ambush the geese as they dropped in as normal. Unfortunately for them somebody must of tipped off the geese because not one showed any interest in that particular field today, despite the shooters regularly using their goose call thingy which is supposed to sound like a Greylag Goose but in this case sounded like somebody standing on a cat's tail.

However, despite these two guy's bad luck, that was obviously not the case further out behind them on the marsh. The corn fed ditches and Capel Fleet below Muswell Manor were being heavily shot, something that carried on for an hour or so and at one stage some geese began to circle round and move further inland. Three however, broke away from the flock and as I climbed up on to the sea wall they headed out across the saltings to the tide where the wildfowlers, who had had no shots at all till then, bagged them.

That does tend to be the big difference between the true coastal wildfowlers and the inland "duck shooters", the wildfowlers, as you can see below, tend to prefer a solitary existence out on the saltings, often standing in deep tidal mud and getting the odd shot at what few wildfowl fly out that way.
Not for them the comfort and limited challenge of sitting round corn fed duck ponds and fleets inland, shooting large and unnecessary bags of wildfowl every visit.
When the wildfowlers eventually finished and came back to the sea wall we sat in the warm sunshine of a beautiful morning, listening to curlews and other waders out in the estuary and swapped chat about shooting, conservation and the countryside in general, it was great.