A year to the day I made a post about my taxi ride in ‘Just Jane’ At East Kirby. I held it for a couple of weeks because it seemed fitting to publish it on the second anniversary of Dad’s passing. Perhaps through chance, coincidence or serendipity, I find myself on the third anniversary of Bob’s death making this post – perhaps it is the second part of a triptych, we shall have to wait till this time next year to see if that’s true, but perhaps this post is the next step of my search to understand what my Father did during the war with 75(NZ) Squadron RAF.
A couple of months ago Dave passed to me a site map for RAF Mepal that he had recently obtained from RAF Hendon. What struck me instantly was the massive scale of the airfield and the degree by which its size existed beyond the airfield itself – obvious in hindsight, but as with these things, you never think about it till you see it……..
In the footsteps of Giants…….
The plan seemed simple, get some satellite maps of the area add these to the airfield plan and go for an explore –
Luckily, our expedition started off with a visit to the Memorial Garden to give us some time with Bob. Ernie turned up and after general chit chat, the matter of our visit was discussed and straightaway I realised a mistake in our intended journey – instead of making our way from the Three Pickerals parallel to the river – it was actually the old road that we needed to take…..
Walking out of the village, back to the new bypass, we took the last left and began to walk up an old asphalt track, which I guess must have been the old Mepal/ Sutton road.
At this point, I think to be honest, we weren’t actually sure where we were going exactly, other than for the hope that at some point we would hit the new bypass and by default somehow be ‘in the airfield’ – simply by the fact that the ‘new’ road bisects it. As we continued up the road, we began; inevitably perhaps, to begin to wonder whether we had yet reached the airfield. I observe this simply because of the ridiculous nature of having a map and not knowing where you are – one of Bob’s amazing skills was to be able to rattle off every single road number, in order from a start point to a destination – I have no such skill – perhaps as a designer, my world is visual – take me somewhere once and I can get there again, but I do it by looking out for things. I berate my students on a regular basis for relying too quickly on ‘digital solutions’, but I must confess that after my 2 attempts to gain my map reading badge when I was a Cub Scout, I have now happily thrown my lot in with TomTom et al.
In putting this post together, I have realised the actual physical difficulty of transposing the ‘Google world’ onto the site map that Dave sent me – I am not sure if this is the basic accuracy of the site map, the distortions of perhaps years of archival copying, enlargement and reduction, or whether in deed, satellite photography itself is subject to the inevitable distortion, relative to the curve of the planet – what ever the reason, it needed Photoshop and a fair bit of patience to achieve the image below – as I have said, I am not sure what is true and what has been stretched to fit, but it at least gives a ‘relative’ impression of then and now.
As is always the case, no doubt based on previous bad experiences, Bev was naturally suspicious of my general movement, right up until we hit the new bypass – this not only providing confirmation that we weren’t lost, but also that there was actually a way across the road to what we could now see as the Sutton side of the airfield..
On crossing the road, I was encouraged to see a long concrete path stretching ahead of us into the field. At this point as we started walking, we assumed we were on the perimeter track and it felt good to be on the edge of the airfield with the water tower to our far left.
About half way down the perimeter track, the crops on our right hand side stopped and we were suddenly aware of a field to our right with what appeared to be a series of old rusted steel ‘L’ section posts – along these posts ran what seemed to be a steel cable. Returning to our folded collection of maps, it dawned on us that in fact, we were not on the perimeter track, but had actually been walking down what remained of the main runway. Completely unnecessarily furtive glances and half strolling, half running steps took us across the field and we arrived at what we now understood to be the perimeter track – looking back to the Mepal road, we could now see the raised banking of the bomb store – despite the massive area of the space, still apparently terrifyingly close to the runways.
Now confident of where we were, we continued to walk, eventually arriving at the far end of the ‘peri track’, the No.3 runway, or what remained of it stretching out ahead of us, literally as far as the eye could see. I think certainly for me, this is the point when it struck me how bloody big this airfield was – this impression was magnified when I realised that there was still a significant portion beyond our gaze and bisected by the A142 Mepal road.
We continued round, till we walked over what we thought to be the dispersal pans on the lower left of the field, granted nothing now remaining of them. To be honest by now, we were both getting a bit thirsty and certainly in my mind a pint at ‘The Chequers’ was becoming increasingly attractive. Finally we stumbled on what perhaps is all that remains of airfield buildings on ‘this side’ of the airfield – surrounded by concrete I first thought this was a dispersal area as well, but with the building slap bang in the middle of it, it couldn’t be. Looking at the map, I think we were stood by the 2 72,000 gallon petrol storage tanks – absurdly close to the village school…..
Despite the clear description on maps, I think it took this walk to make me understand the closeness of the village of Sutton to the airfield and also the closeness of the villagers therefore to the airfield and the boys that were stationed there. Its an understood fact that the airfield was given the name ‘Mepal’ because there was already an RAF Sutton Bridge, which was the Central Gunnery School between 1942 and 1944 and also RAF Sutton on Hull, which was responsible for the Balloon Barrage defence of Kingston upon Hull and the Humber Area, later becoming the home of the RAF School of Fire Fighting and Rescue from 1943-59. I certainly don’t make this observation to in any way whatsoever question the choice of Mepal as the airfields name – but I realise the memories and fondness and respect for the Squadron is clearly split between 2 villages…….
I’d let Dave know that Bev and I would be in the area for the weekend so we arranged to meet in ‘The Chequers’. I had visited the pub last November and was keen for Bev to see it as it has a wall of photographs dedicated to 75(NZ) Squadron. In hindsight, perhaps I was a bit too casual about the visit this time – realising that as I write this post, I actually didn’t take many photographs. Dave arrived and we started talking – returning to the wall I noticed something quite astonishing. As well as the framed photographs, there was a Squadron plaque, I was momentarily speechless to realise that the name plaque on it was one I recognised – I was sure that ‘G.W. McKellow’ was ‘Mac’ McKellow – Mid Upper Gunner with Andrew MacKenzie. An email to Andrew on my return confirmed this – Andrew also said that he had many memories of drinking in ‘Chequers’ – and from what he recalled so would many of the boys of the Squadron.
If this strange coincident wasn’t enough, another was about to come. Noticing the general level of interest and discussion at the picture wall, the barman suggested I take down one of the pictures and have a look on the back of it as there were ‘a few signatures’ on it. Bev stepped up to do the honours, regarding removal from the wall and to be honest when the back of the picture was turned to me, I was speechless……………………..
I will say nothing more about this astonishing artefact in this post – suffice to say that I took a lot of close up images that I will stitch back together in Photoshop when I have a spare few days and it will be a post in itself…………
12 months ago in another post, I asked myself out loud whether after taking a taxi ride in a Lancaster bomber, I had gotten any closer to Bob and his wartime experiences and I actually thought not.
In hindsight I now realise the difference between trying to experience something through proximity rather than actuality – what little of RAF Mepal that still survives is real – it was there when the Squadron was and what now remains still contains the echos of engines, tyres and footsteps.
If I ask myself again, 12 months later, I think I must confess once again no. Though, as I said a year ago, my understanding of a bigger picture had increased and now I feel this picture – on the larger scale – is a little more informed again – and that’s fine, that’s enough for me.
I am glad that the airfield is in the sate of slow natural adsorption that it is in – It’s time and function, mercifully, are gone and it should, I think, as with the majority of World War II airfields be allowed to slip back into the land from which it came.
I came looking for Bob, but found Mac McKellow and a load of the other boys, sat in a pub…….
I think the following poem now means something else to me………..
New Zealand gave a Squadron of Planes
When Britain’s need was dire
Both countries sons made up the crews
And they flew through hell and fire.
To the Pommy lads the Kiwi’s made
A gesture that was grand
They gave them honorary citizenship
Of their own beloved land.
Under New Zealand’s flag, they proudly flew
Comrades of the air
They lived and died, as side by side
Fate’s lot they chose to share.
In Wellingtons, Stirlings, then Lancasters
To the foe, they took the flight
On wings they soared through Europe’s skies
In the darkness and the light.
But a heavy price, the Squadron paid
In five long years of strife
Of those who flew with “75”
One in three, laid down their life.
On the East Coast of Old England
The crumbling airfields stand
Where aircraft once left mother earth
Tractors till the land
The era of the Bomber war
Came, paused, then passed away
But the bond between two nations sons
Unchanged, will ever stay
Ken Moore, Waterlooville. 2.3.80
F/L Robert Douglas ‘Jock’ Sommerville, D.F.C.
Air Bomber, 75(NZ) Squadron RAF
1st November 1922 – 29th August 2011
Ake Ake Kia Kaha