Sunday, April 17, 2011

RAF Desborough

When writing about my walk from Desborough to Pipewell and Wilbarston, I mentioned that I cut across the corner of the disused World War II airfield RAF Desborough. That airfield is worth a post of its own.

The map suggested there should be a path from the airfield down to the village of Wilbarston. Standing on the runway, it was not obvious where the path was. The best candidate was a hedge, with the blackthorn blossom showing prominently.

When I reached it, there turned out to be two hedges either side of what was obviously an ancient lane - almost a hollow way. It had obviously once been metalled and there were what looked like the remains of wartime buildings or security precautions.

Sure enough, it took me down to Wilbarston, passing beneath the village's bypass with a bridge that was almost a tunnel.

When it reached Wilbartson my lane turned out to have the name Rushton Road. This suggests it is an ancient route - Rushton is miles away, beyond the high ground and down in the Ise valley. In the Middle Ages it was one of the most important towns in Northamptonshire: today it is only a village.

This ancient road and its hedges must have been severed when the airfield was built. A reminded of the forces that were unleashed to defeat Nazi Germany.

But I also wanted to write about RAF Desborough to pass on this anecdote from the BBC site WW2 People's War, which also brings home the realities of the era:
I was at RAF Desborough driving a crash ambulance. I was on duty one night when I heard an explosion which I knew from experience was a plane crashing. I told the medical flight sergeant who contacted the control tower and they knew nothing about it. I went outside and saw a glow in the sky from the crashed plane. The M.O. then told me to go and find the plane. We drove into Desborough and nearby was an American bomb dump. The gates were all open ready for us and right at the far end of the bomb dump we found the crashed plane. It was a Wellington bomber.

Everyone on board was killed. Searching the wreckage I found an officers cap which I knew belonged to the Chief Flying Officer of the camp. Apparently he wasn’t on a mission or anything but had gone up on a “jolly”. His body wasn’t discovered for some time, until after the debris was cleared in fact.

Hi wife stayed with his coffin all night in the church, not knowing that his body wasn’t actually in the coffin. The coffin only contained sandbags to give it weight. Indeed, the sandbags were still there when the coffin was buried at his funeral later. I don’t know if the family know to this day.

Some nights later I came across the medical officer and the flight sergeant digging a hole to bury his remains on the road junction. The site of this unmarked grave still exists today. I assume that his marked grave still contains the sandbags.


Anonymous said...

What a sad and probably not unremarkable story for a time of war.I wonder how many other bereaved people held vigils over coffins that never contained their dead because that there may have been so little to bury or that the body was in such a horrific state.

Unknown said...

I came to this blog because I recently bought a rather beat up old book called Ghost Stories and Other Queer Tales. The back endpaper had a RAF Desborough stamp dated 3rd January 1944. The airfield was active from 1944 to the mid fifties so this book was on site from its inception. I thought about all the airmen/women who read this book during that stressful period, to pass the time or to take their minds off their day-to-day lives.
It's quite tired looking but I'm a bookbinder so I shall put it together sensitively and of course keep the stamp in the back. Haunting in more ways than one...