Surprise garden find leads to tales of the lives lost in the region’s skies

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  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    Surprise garden find leads to tales of the lives lost in the region?s skies (From The Northern Echo)

    2:29pm Wednesday 25th August 2010


    ‘IHAVE dug that border two or three times a year for the last ten years and I have never spotted anything,” says Joe Bench.

    “Then I came out one morning and there it was, sticking up out of the soil.

    “It’s such a coincidence, with this being the 70th anniversary of the Spitfire in the Battle of Britain.”

    Joe discovered a mini- Spitfire. It’s less than 2in long and appears to be made of lead. It could be a toy; it might have been a large tiepin.

    As well as being the anniversary of the Spitfire’s heroics in keeping the Luftwaffe at bay, there’s another coincidence. Joe made the find near his shop, Catterick Village Pet Supplies in Low Green, which was once beneath the Spitfires’ flightpath… THERE are 52 airmen buried in Catterick Cemetery. Each headstone tells a different version of the same story: young men being drawn from all over the world to die in this corner of North Yorkshire fighting for freedom.

    The story begins in 1914.

    Work was just beginning on the huts for the nearby garrison which would become the largest in Europe; the military railway was being extended over the Swale from the Richmond branchline. The airfield opened on a flat, grassy strip to teach the first Royal Flying Corps’ pilots how to fly early bi-planes.

    The fatalities soon followed, the unfortunate Second Lieutenant Maurice Thornely being the first on December 3, 1916.

    The following August, another four airmen – one from Dublin, one from Melbourne, another from New Zealand and the fourth a British captain – died, probably in two accidents involving the rudimentary flying machines.

    All five deaths occured before the Royal Air Force was officially formed on April 1, 1918 – this makes RAF Catterick one of the oldest military airfields in the world.

    After the First World War, the grass was allowed to grow for a little, but as the Thirties wore on, the base was modernised, and in August 1939, the first Spitfires arrived.

    The Spitfire is the symbol of Britain’s determined and stubborn resistance in 1940 (although the less glamorous Hawker Hurricane was the true workhorse of the Battle of Britain). It was designed by Reginald Mitchell – “the first of the few” – and entered service on August 4, 1938.

    A year later, Spitfires reached Catterick, and their first kill was on October 17, 1939, when pilot Albert Harris helped bring down a Heinkel bomber 20 miles off Whitby. Two days later its pilot and observer became the first German prisoners captured on British soil, when their inflatable liferaft drifted ashore at Sandsend, near Whitby.

    But by then Sergeant Harris, a Canadian, was dead, as the following day a bomber in which he was travelling crashed. He is buried in Berkshire.

    Harris’ attack fulfilled RAF Catterick’s crucial role in providing fighter cover for the North-East. Equally important, it was a resting and re-equiping station for the fighter squadrons which had been in the heat of the Battle of Britain over the south of England.

    Catterick was important enough to have its own decoy airfield – near Kirkby Fleetham, to attract the Germans’ aerial attention – and its own satellite, at Scorton.

    SCORTON airfield opened in October 1939. Initially it was an emergency landing strip so Catterick’s planes had somewhere to land should the Germans have bombed their runways in their absence (as happened in mid- June 1940).

    Soon, Scorton had its own contingent of Blenheim bombers. In 1941, its runway was enlarged to 4,800ft so it was longer than Catterick’s 3,300ft – the Swale on one side and the Great North Road on the other preventing Catterick extending – and it had its own decoy airfield near the village of Birkby.

    Catterick and Scorton airfields were multi-national.

    In 1942, Canadian nightfighters – “we kill by night” was their motto – were stationed at Scorton followed by 422 Squadron of the American IXth Air Force, which was equipped with sinister black Black Widow planes.

    There were Canadians at Catterick, too, accompanied by a Czech squadron of Spitfires and a Norwegian squadron of Hurricanes.

    And so Catterick Cemetery is a multinational place. The majority of the 52 airmen’s graves are British, but 12 are Canadian, four are New Zealand, three Australian, one Swedish and one Czech.

    The Swede is Flight Lieutenant Ole Bechgard, 31, who died on October 7, 1943, when his 604 Squadron Beaufighter from Scorton crashed during an airtest half-a-mile south of Catterick.

    The Czech is Sergeant Josef Gutvald, 29, from 313 (Czech) Squadron, which was formed at Catterick. He died on May 27, 1941, when his Spitfire crashed into farmland at Uckerby, Scorton, and its fuel tanks exploded creating a 10ft crater.

    With peace in 1945, such stories came to an end.

    Instead, Catterick starred in a fictional war story: it was the setting for many parts of the film The Way to the Stars (see previous Memories), starring John Mills and Renee Asherson.

    Because its runway was too short for modern aircraft, Catterick became a training base, particularly for the RAF Fire Service. In 1994, it became part of the Army’s garrison complex.

    The Americans left Scorton in July 1944. The Ministry of Defence, fearful of the Cold War, kept it until 1958 but gradually agriculture and quarrying took over its land and its buildings. Now there is very little left, apart from a tall pole from which its windsock once hung.

    Later this year a plaque is going to be unveiled detailing all the squadrons which served there.

    THERE were once two more graves in Catterick Cemetery.

    They contained the bodies of the first German airmen to die on British soil during the Second World War.

    They were the victims of a Spitfire flown by Group Captain Peter Townsend – then a Flight Lieutenant – who later became noted for his doomed liaison with Princess Margaret.

    On February 3, 1940, Townsend led the attack on a Heinkel bomber which had been strafing an unarmed trawler off Whitby.

    The Heinkel crashlanded near a farm four miles north of Whitby, killing two of its four-man crew.

    The German attack on the trawler so angered the seafaring folk of Whitby that it was considered too dangerous for Observer Rudolph Lenshacke and Flight Engineer Johann Meyer to be buried in the town.

    Their bodies were sent to Catterick, as it was the nearest airbase cemetery, where they were interred on February 6, the uncomfortable funeral captured by a Northern Echo photographer.

    In 1960, the two were exhumed and taken to the Cannock Chase German War Cemetery in Staffordshire, which had just been opened.

    ANOTHER Catterick first: the first active US serviceman to die in Britain during the Second World War met his end in Catterick airspace – before his nation had even entered the war.

    Lieutenant Follett Bradley Jr is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC. The Arlington website says he was 24 when he died on June 22, 1941, “in an airplane accident near Catterick, Yorkshire, England”.

    It adds: “No details of the accident that caused the young officer’s death were made public.”

    Echo Memories understands that Lt Bradley was the son of Major-General Follett Bradley, who was a pioneering flier in the First World War and who was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal in 1944.

    Follett Jr was a junior officer observer who came to Britain surreptitiously in April 1941 – eight months before the Americans were formally bombed into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

    It is believed that Lt Bradley was taking part in a highaltitude research flight in a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. Established aerial combat tactics said that the fighters – Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmitts – should get higher than the heavier bombers and then dive at them out of the sun. The research flight was to find out how high a bomber could go.

    Lt Bradley and the six-man crew set off from a Suffolk airbase, and by the time they were over North Yorkshire, they had reached 31,000ft.

    There they flew into a terrible thunderstorm. The Flying Fortress was struck by lightning and plummeted 20,000ft, where it disintegrated.

    The only survivor was Flight Lieutenant KW Stewart, who was one of two medics on board testing airmen’s reactions at high altitude. He baled out before disintegration.

    Parts of the plane rained down on the Catterick area, scaring the residents. The Boeing’s engines crashed near Catterick Bridge. Lt Bradley’s remains were discovered near Scorton Grange.

    THERE were at least 20 air crashes over this corner of North Yorkshire during the Second World War, accounting for many young lives.

    Here’s a final war story. On June 9, 1943, bad weather prevented a Lancaster bomber from landing at its home base of RAF Thornaby. It was diverted to RAF Middleton St George but for an unknown reason the pilot, Sgt Francis Haydon, requested to land at Scorton.

    At 2.45am on his approach, he turned too steeply, stalled and crashed into farmland near East Lingy Moor Farm.

    All four aircrew – two British, two New Zealanders – perished.

    ■ With thanks to, among others, Colin Stegeman and Tony Pelton. Many thanks also to everyone who has been in touch regarding Gatherley Castle. More in a few weeks’ time.
     
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