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Tag Archives: Alec Brew

  • Shropshire Airfields Through Time by Alec Brew

    Wander nowadays down many Shropshire country lanes near small villages like Atcham, Condover, Montford Bridge or Rednal, and you will come across silent, sightless sentinels, looking out across empty fields of corn or cows, derelict control towers watching over long forgotten airfields. High above, only soaring skylarks can be heard, where once aircraft engines filled the heavens with noise, as young men from across the World learned the necessary skills to fight the aerial battles of the Second World War.

    The Spitfires moved south in August and were replaced by the Lockheed Lightnings of the 14th Fighter Group, who flew their aircraft from California. An RAF officer greets one of the pilots. (Shropshire Airfields Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    When war clouds loomed in the late Thirties, the adjacent counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire were seen as the ideal place to site the training airfields which would be needed for an expanding air force, thought to be far enough away from Europe to be out of range of the Luftwaffe. Shropshire alone had nearly twenty airfields across its Northern plain, two of them, at Shawbury and Tern Hill, reviving First World War airfields, which had served the same function. Suddenly the skies over Shropshire were filled with aircraft, the circuits at many airfields almost touching.

    There was basic training from RAF Tern Hill, advanced training from RAF Shawbury, Bomber Operational Training Units (OTUs) at Tilstock, Sleap and Peplow, a fighter OTU at Rednal and Montford Bridge, the Fleet Air Arm used an airfield at Hinstock which they called HMS Godwit, about as far from the sea as a godwit could fly. Even the Americans came, operating a Combat Crew Replacement Unit at Atcham, and when their P.47 Thunderbolts chanced upon the Spitfires from Rednal, could they resist a mock dogfight?

    Other combats were far from mock. Night fighters operated from High Ercall and Tern Hill, stalking the Germans who came to bomb the North-West or the Black Country. Bomber OTUs joined raids on Europe, new crews testing their skills.

    Even in training accidents were many, young men let loose on powerful machines, always a recipe for disaster, and especially with the Shropshire and Welsh hills close at hand. The Americans at Atcham had a favourite sport, chock to chock races in their powerful Thunderbolts, all around the Wrekin, which loomed large just to the south. Such was its peril that they placed a warning beacon on the top, with the on/off switch in Atcham control tower, turning it off when Germans were about. After the War, when Atcham closed, the switch was moved to High Ercall, and now resides in the tower at RAF Shawbury.

    This photograph has always been attributed to Tern Hill, but shows 1456 Flight Turbinlite aircraft. In the foreground is a Handley Page Harrow transport ‘Boadicea’, sometimes called a ‘Sparrow’ without the front turret. Behind is an Airspeed Oxford of No. 286 Army Co-operation Squadron, a Havoc and two black Hurricanes of 1456 Flight. The Pontoon and Dock Company, currently make Marina equipment in this Type K hangar on No. 2 Sub Site. High Ercall has a total of three Type K hangars. (Shropshire Airfields Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    When the invasion of Europe loomed, assault gliders were assembled at RAF Cosford, and glider pilots trained at Tilstock, Peplow and Sleap, and then they went away to carry the fight to Normandy fields.

    At the end of the War the cut back was swift, airfields soon closed, those at High Ercall and Tern Hill lasting longer than most. RAF Shawbury remains today training the helicopter pilots for all three services, including, in its time, two young princes. Its runway remains a safe haven for aircraft in difficulty, in an area of the country where few remain. RAF Cosford remains the sole training base for ground based trades, and the home of the RAF’s only surviving annual Air Show. Tern Hill was turned over to the Army but the helicopters from Shawbury visit often. Sleap became Shropshire’s main general aviation airfield, and up on the Long Mynd, the one airfield closed during the War, has thrived since, as the home of the Midland Gliding Club. One other airfield is a surprising survivor, little RAF Chetwynd, a neat grass field lost down the lanes north of Newport, continues to serve as an extra landing field as it has for over 75 years, currently for the helicopters from Shawbury.

    Hopefully my book makes sense of what once was there, and what little still remains, those silent sentinels, the old control towers, those small industrial estates in surprisingly rural places, built on the old technical sites like Condover, Hinstock, Atcham or Rednal, those derelict Romney or Maycrete huts in farmyards or woods. Unsung memorials to a generation of young men now disappearing as they are reclaimed by Nature and the march of time.

    Alec Brew's book Shropshire Airfields Through Time is available for purchase now.

  • Boulton Paul Defiant by Alec Brew

    The Myths of the Boulton Paul Defiant

    The aircraft most associated with Wolverhampton’s Boulton Paul Aircraft Ltd, and the Black Country’s highest profile contribution to the Second World War, was the Defiant turret fighter. It fought over the beaches of Dunkirk, two squadrons fought in the Battle of Britain, and then, during the dark nights of the Blitz, it was our most effective night fighter, seven Defiant squadrons operating against the German raiders using its unusual characteristics.

    A rare photograph of the Defiant prototype, K8310, in the air, fitted with the turret and other modifications, including a tailwheel and ejector exhausts, but as yet without guns. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

    The Defiant was built to an official requirement for a fighter with all its guns concentrated in a power-operated turret. In the belief that bomber formations could only be broken up by fighters attacking in squadron strength, with pilots maintaining formation and gunners aiming the guns in their power operated turret. This theory had been around since the First World War, but finally came to fruition in the form of an official requirement in the mid Thirties, as bombers were becoming all metal, and much faster.

    The Defiant was born in Norwich, where the Aircraft Department of the firm of Boulton & Paul Ltd had existed since 1915. It had recently been sold off and was having a new factory built alongside Wolverhampton’s new Municipal Airport at Pendeford. The prototype was started at Norwich but its first flight was at Pendeford in August 1937, and a total of 1062 were to be built there.

    The first squadron of Defiants, No.264, went to War over Holland as the Germans invaded but it was over the beaches of Dunkirk that it had its greatest day. In two sorties over the Channel No.264 claimed 37 German aircraft shot down, for no loss of their own. The first of the myths surrounding the Defiant was created that day. It was said that the Germans mistook them for Hurricanes, attacked from the rear and were shot from the sky by the concentrated fire of 12 four-gun turrets. This hardly stands up to a second’s scrutiny, the majority of the German aircraft claimed were bombers, it was the Defiants doing the attacking. When they were attacked by Messerschmidts No.264 they adopted their practiced tactic of a defensive circle or spiral, and it didn’t matter from which direction the Germans attacked, they were met with defensive fire. These were tactics they successfully used on several other occasions over the Channel.

    A flight led by No. 264's CO, Squadron Leader Philip Hunter, which undertook the first patrol over the Netherlands together with six Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron. Between them they shot down a Junkers Ju.88. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

    The CO of No.264 was careful to explain these tactics to the second Defiant Squadron, No.141, which joined the fight over the Channel on 19th July 1940. A patrol of nine Defiants was attacked by superior numbers of Messerschmidts and was decimated, six of them shot down, another written off and ten aircrew killed. The myth arose that the Defiant was a sitting duck against single seat fighters. The truth is that No.141 did not adopt No.264’s successful tactics, but continued to fly straight and level, and the Germans, who recognised the Defiants, took advantage. Even so the heavily outnumbered Defiants claimed four of the 109s in return.

    Nevertheless the panic button was hit at Fighter Command, and No.264 Squadron who were actually in the air at the time, were ordered back to the ground. No.141 was taken out of the Battle to lick its wounds and re-equip. No.264 eventually re-joined the fight, and had many more successful days of daylight fighting. I have interviewed many Defiant aircrew from No.264, and to many they believed they could hold their own in daytime battles and did not have a bad word to say about the aircraft. It is apparently true that whenever members of the two squadrons met in bars there was trouble, because No.264 blamed No.141 for the Defiants soiled reputation.

    The next myth now arose, that because the Defiants were failures during the day, they were relegated to night fighting. The truth is that, as the nights lengthened during the Autumn of 1940, the Germans increasingly attacked at night in what has been termed the Blitz, the front line was now at night, and the Defiants which had been designed as day or night fighters from the beginning, were the best available. They were faster than the clumsy twin-engined Blenheims, and in the days before radar they had the advantage over single-seaters of two pairs of eyes. In addition their very configuration enabled them to attack unsuspecting German bombers from below, silhouetted against the stars, and their gunners were often able to carefully aim for one engine or the other from very short range.

    Early production Defiants with 'L' serial numbers, that on the right being L7009, which was to be shot down on No. 141 Squadron's sole daylight operation. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

    Seven squadrons of Defiants fought through the Winter of 1940/41, and then through the second Winter of the War, by which time twin engined heavier-armed, radar equipped fighters, like the Beaufighter and Mosquito, were becoming available. At the Wolverhampton factory, Boulton Paul workers would pin newspaper articles about Defiant successes on the noticeboard, with the words ‘Our Work’ scrawled across them.

    Even when they were withdrawn from night fighting the Defiants found new frontline roles. They equipped five air sea rescue squadrons looking for downed airmen all around the coast, and often having to defend themselves over the contested waters of the Channel and the North Sea. One unit of Defiants also equipped the World’s first electronic countermeasures squadron, No.515, jamming and spoofing German radar.

    When even these roles were taken by newer aircraft, the Defiant still had an important role to play as a target tug, towing targets for ground and air gunners in theatres right across the World, from India to the West Indies. The Defiant served right through the War and is rightly revered by the people who built them, men and women.

    At Wolverhampton’s Tettenhall Transport Heritage Centre, which has a display about the Defiant, including a restored cockpit, volunteers still have to defend the aircraft when visitors repeat the myths that beset it. They can now point to Amberley’s illustrated history of the aircraft to back them up.

    Alec Brew's new book Boulton Paul Defiant is available for purchase now.

  • Wolverhampton Through Time by Alec Brew

    It was a single image which inspired me to write this book, a friend’s photograph of a solitary Austin Seven under the railway bridge at Compton sometime in the 1930s. I knew that a modern photograph taken from the same spot at any time, day or night, would show a whole stream of traffic in both directions. Even the bridge is no longer a railway bridge but carries the words Smestow Valley LNR, which does not stand for Long Neglected Railway as you might think, but means Linear Nature Reserve.

    St. Peter's Church from the Marketplace. (Wolverhampton Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    In the end I never actually used this photograph, but chose from my own huge library of images of the City, collected over 30 years of writing about Wolverhampton’s history. What could be easier, I thought, than strolling round with a camera and learning if things had changed over the last century as much as I imagined they had changed? The very first photograph revealed a problem I had not envisaged.

    I decided to start with St. Peter’s Church, the focal point of the City atop the ridge on which it stands, with no high rise buildings allowed to block its dominance. I had an image from 1902 taken from just the other side of Lichfield Street, so I made my way to the same spot, and I couldn’t see the Church! There were too many trees in the way. Have trees recently been allowed to mature in urban churchyards to a degree they never were before?

    Nowadays, as seen above, trees have grown to obscure much of it and the Civic Centre encroaches on the right. (Wolverhampton Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    A photograph featuring just trees did not seem too interesting, despite what it might reveal about ecclesiastical fashion. In the end I found another image of St. Peter’s from the other side, where there were fewer trees. This was a problem I had to resolve many times, and any Wulfrunian to whom I mentioned how annoyingly verdant the City had become, was just as surprised as I had been.

    I had expected to find the changes in the cityscape wrought by the 1960s planners, and their preferred medium of change, brutalist concrete. The beautiful Central Arcade and Queens Arcade replaced by the concrete tunnels of the Mander Shopping Centre. The Victorian High Level Station replaced by what looks like a huge public convenience. The Victorian Retail and Wholesale Markets swept away to make room for the Civic Centre, looking like a huge bunker from Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.

    A Tilling Stevens TS6 trolleybus turns down Broad Street on its way to Wednesfield. (Wolverhampton Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Of course, I knew about the destruction wrought by the Ring Road, that wide noose thrown round the centre of Wolverhampton, which had flattened so much of it, and strangled the rest. In many cases it was hard to relate a photograph taken even as late as 1970 with what is there today. Where once there were communities, now there is just traffic.

    The other major change is the disappearance of those huge companies which dominated each area of the City; Goodyears, ECC, Bayliss Jones and Bayliss, The Sunbeam, GWR’s Stafford Road Works, and others. Where once workers walked from their terraced house just round the corner to the factory where their father and grand-father had worked, now there are new semi-detached houses, or offices, or acres of rubble, overgrown with buddleia.

    Broad Street - single-deckers had to be used on this route until the road under the railway bridge was lowered. (Wolverhampton Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Despite being of an age when I view the World through nostalgia-tinted spectacles, it was not all doom and gloom, I was often pleasantly surprised by what I came to photograph. As I have related the trees were a big revelation, but often old buildings had found new, agreeable uses. Sunbeamland becoming apartments, the Queen’s Building once more becoming the focal point of the City’s transport hub, the Molineux Hotel becoming the City’s Archives, or Butler’s Brewery becoming the University’s Faculty of Architecture, though putting students in a brewery would seem fateful.

    Actually the biggest positive impact on the City has been the monumental growth of the University. When a Polytechnic had followed the fashions of Wolverhampton’s planners and built in fifty shades of hideous.  How ironic that the College of Art had been the ugliest building in the City, and how amusing, now that it has become the Faculty of Art, that the forest of phone aerials on the roof looks so much like a modern art installation. Now the University of Wolverhampton, its new buildings seem in keeping with their surroundings, and thankfully it has found new ways of using old buildings like the Criterion Hotel or the Fox Public House, which has saved them.

    I am sure that anyone who undertakes a similar exercise in depicting their town ‘Through Time’ will have similar takes to tell. While expecting to find ‘change and decay in all around I see’, sometimes you might be pleasantly surprised.

    Alec Brew's new book Wolverhampton Through Time is available for purchase now.

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