Service Personnel Memories
The stories of service personnel who worked on or had a connection with R.A.F. Harrowbeer between 1941 and 1950
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A No.838 Fleet Air Arm Observer's Tale
In the Summer of 1997 a very interesting gentleman from Halstead, Near Sevenoaks, Kent came to see me. He was on a kind of pilgrimage where he was visiting some of the establishments and places that he served at during the 1940's.
The gentleman's name was Coleville and he served at R.A.F. Harrowbeer from April to August 1944 with No.838 Fleet Air Arm Squadron as an Observer on the Fairy Swordfish aircraft. The Squadron's Headquarters was located in ' Ravenscroft ' until it was required for an Officer's Mess, the Squadron Headquarters then moved across the road to ' Knightstone House '. The ground floor of ' Knightstone House ' was made up of five main rooms consisting of :- two small workshops for repairing radios, wireless sets and transmitters, two crew rooms and a Flight Office for No.838 F.A.A. Squadron ( where the bay-window is situated ).
The Fairey Swordfish aircraft were kept at dispersal and under Blister Hangars in the area of Moorland Court ( next to Ravenscroft ). When it was time for practice flights or operational sorties the aircraft would be wheeled out, across Crapstone Road and onto the perimeter track at the end of Runway One, the wings would be unfolded, secured and made ready for flight.
Out the back of ' Knightstone House ' No.838 F.A.A. Squadron ground crew kept their service vehicles and emergency equipment.
Mr. Colville asked if he could have a look around the old Watch Office which was still being used in 1944 inspite of a new Watch Office ( Control Tower ) that was built and opened in 1942 out towards the apex of the three tarmac runways of Harrowbeer. Mr. Colville would have to take reports and information up to the top floor of the Tower from time to time ( hence his interest ). The Watch Office changed its appearance considerably after 1962 once the Air Ministry had finished with it and a builder took over ' Knightstone House ', it then became a Tearoom / Restaurant with private living accommodation on the first floor and the top floor of the tower becoming a self contained flat. The internal of the building would bear no resemblance to when he would have been there, however he insisted that he would like to have a look around.
The ground floor of the tower is now a large modern kitchen for the Tearooms / Restaurant. The first floor is private living accommodation comprising :- a single bedroom, w.c., bathroom and a boiler room / airing cupboard. The stairs had been moved from the middle of the building to the back of the house. Nothing bore any resemblance to when he was there.
From the first floor landing a flight of stairs leads up to the self contained flat and what was the top floor of the Watch Office. As we climbed the stairs and opened the door Mr. Coleville stood just inside the doorway ( he would not go into the room ) and seemed to go back in time, he stood there like a statue and said that he could visualise and remember everything in the room as though it was yesterday. He said that the room ( approximately twenty two feet square ) was one big room with a large table in the middle of it with maps and charts and there were W.A.A.F.'s with croupier type sticks moving things about on the maps. There were charts and posters on the walls and models of aircraft dotted around. In the far corner was a ladder leading out through the ceiling and roof through a hatch where Officers would climb to watch the aircraft taking off and counting them back in after their sorties. He said that a ladder was used as stairs would have taken up too much room and been an obstruction when moving round the room. This room he recalled was known as ' The Plotting Room '. As soon as he had said his piece he said thank you very much, turned round and went back down stairs.
Mr. Coleville met his wife at R.A.F. Harrowbeer while he was stationed there, she was a W.A.A.F. They met at a concert party, started courting and in time they married. Every house they have owned they re-named ' Knightstone ' after the happy memories that they had there.
Sadly Mr. Colvilles wife died and this was considered a visit of remembrance. He was due to return in 1998 but unfortunately he too passed away and never made it.
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Mr. George Finegan
Mr. George Finegan was a member of the Royal Ulster Regiment and detailed for Airfield Defence duties at R.A.F. Harrowbeer during late 1941 to early 1942.
He was originally billeted in Barrack Huts in the area of Pound and remembers seeing the Gun Dome Trainer in that area, ( this would be in the area between the Main Gate / Guardhouse and Crapstone War Memorial ). It wasn't long before his Unit were transferred to Ravenscroft ( aquired by the Air Ministry in 1941 and before it was used by the Airmen as the Officer's Mess ) for a short time before being moved into Down Park House, off Golf Links Road.
The Royal Ulster Regiment's prime function was the defence of the airfield in the area of The Rock ( the granite outcrop ) and to the South of The Rock. Other Army Units were responsible for defending other sections of the airfield.
Mr. Finegan remembered an Anti- Aircraft Gun defence position near Whistley Down close to the road junction. ( On investigation a metal ring and a very slight earth mound was located in this area, this now makes three Alan Williams Gun Turret positions located on the airfield ).
During April 2005, Brian Salt ( Chairman of the Harrowbeer Interest Group ) and myself went with Mr. Finegan to an area next to the old bus-shelter on the corner of Golf Links Road and Crapstone Road. He showed us the remains of a Slit Trench network with Foxholes that he recalls were manned by members of the Royal Ulster Regiment ( including himself ) with Lewis Machine Guns. There are some very good examples of Slit Tench sections here, but beware a lot of this area is riddled with old open cast mine workings causing depressions and subsidence.
Another recollection Mr. Finegan had was that it was quite normal practice to walk into Plymouth and back, or to go down to the " Who'd of Thought It " Public House for entertainment / recreation.
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Unofficial Landings at R.A.F. Harrowbeer
In October 2005 a gentleman came into ' Knightstone Tearooms ' with his wife and stated that he had flown into R.A.F. Harrowbeer several time during the 1940's.
On talking to the gentleman, he told me ( the Archivist ) that yes he had flown into Harrowbeer on at least two or three occasions. He was a pilot at the time with No.99 Squadron flying Wellington bomber aircraft, and would land his aeroplane, park it up and go and visit his cousin who lived in Tavistock.
These visits were unofficial and came to an abrupt end when somebody reported him and his activities. He was duly reprimanded by his Commanding Officer.
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W.A.A.F. Corporal Pat Cobbald
In July 2004 the Archivist of R.A.F. Harrowbeer Archives had the pleasure and honour of meeting Corporal Pat Cobbald and her grand-daughter at the old Aerodrome Site where she talked about her memories and experiencies of her time at Harrowbeer.
Patricia Cobbald joined the R.A.F. as a volunteer in 1940 and trained in the Transport Corps. Her training was on motorcycles, cars, lorries and ambulances ( she learnt to drive tractors at a very early age as she came from a farming background and had grown up with them ). Pat's training was to include servicing and general maintenance of all the vehicle types that she was likely to come in contact with.
After completing her basic training Pat was assigned to R.A.F. Harrowbeer, Yelverton, Devon with the rank of Corporal in November 1941 where she remained for approximately twelve months. Pat was one of five W.A.A.F.'s who were the very first to arrive at R.A.F. Harrowbeer after it had opened in August 1941. Three of the five girls were to work in the Motor Transport area and the other two in the Cookhouse. ( The three girls were :- Patricia Cobbald, Bunty Varney and " Denny " Denman. The names of the two girls for the Cookhouse are not known ). More W.A.A.F's were arriving as more jobs were being created such as vehicle maintenance, parachute packing, armoury, etc.
When the W.A.A.F's arrived at R.A.F. Harrowbeer in 1941 and eary in 1942 the W.A.A.F. Site ( Dispersed Site No.3 ) had not been built so they were billeted with families in Yelverton village. Pat was to live in a room in the attic of the ' Devon Tors Hotel ' where she was very comfortable. The main aerodrome site was just across the road ( A386 ) so getting to work was a short walk there and back each day. The W.A.A.F. Site was built and completed around mid 1942 in the area of Longash / Pound. Once completed Pat and the other W.A.A.F.'s billeted in Yelverton moved into their new accommodation.
Pat was not assigned to a Squadron or Echelon she came under the banner of the Motor Transport Staff which was her main area for duties.
Corporal Cobbald's first duty each day was to patrol on a motorcycle around the perimeter fence ( a distance of approximately three and a half miles ) to check for any breaks in the barbed wire or anything out of the ordinary. This duty would be carried out several time throughout the day.
The Motor Transport sheds were Pat's main area for working and her duties included working in the Motor Transport Office issuing paperwork to drivers regarding collecting and delivery of spare parts, processing and filing the paperwork. Once this had been done Pat would put on a pair of overalls and carry out vehicle servicing and repair work. The concrete sleepers that can be seen today on the Motor Transport site is where the various vehicles would have been parked while being worked on. Some of the sleeper pairs had pits between them for the mechanics to go down into when working on the underside of the vehicles, others were closed in and used for vehicle parking undercover. The Motor Transport shed had it's own petrol supply which was dispensed from a pump close to the Motor Transport Offices.
One driving duty Pat was given was to collect airman from the Railway Station at the Hoe, Plymouth and take them to R.A.F. Harrowbeer. While driving along the A386 around the area between Roborough and the Moorland Links Hotel ( now the Moorland Garden Hotel ) she was overtaken by a wheel which had come off the lorry she was driving. It was thought that this was caused by either bad vehicle maintenance or that the servicemen were sitting unevenly in the back of the lorry putting too much weight on one side. Pat was blamed for the incident and was threatened with a disciplinary action. When the vehicle arrived back at the Motor Transport shed Pat got the Warrant Officer to check the wheel and axel thoroughly, the outcome was that the half-shaft had sheared off and Pat was cleared of any blame regarding sloppy maintenance.
Another scare Pat experienced during March or April 1942 was while driving a lorry load of airmen back to R.A.F. Harrowbeer from their Liberty time in Plymouth along the A386 around the Chubb Tor area. As she drove along the road towards Chubb Tor she saw in the air a German bomber heading towards her ( it was returning to Germany still with it's bomb load onboard, apparently it was heading for Bristol when it developed engine trouble so decided to abort and head for home ). Pat remembered half watching this aircraft when she saw the bomb doors open and six bombs fall from it, they hit the ground exploding close to the golf course at Chubb Tor. The lorry Pat was driving was lifted clean off the road by the blast, blown sideways by the shock and landed all wheels down on the moorland. Pat calmly drove the lorry back onto the road and carried on to Harrowbeer, nobody was injured just badly shocked. ( This was a young lady in her late teens, what courage. One of the bomb craters after the war was filled with sand and became a bunker for the golf course ).
When required Pat would be required to drive one of the ambulances. One duty she had was to collect airman from around the aerodrome and take them to the Sick Quarters for innoculations. She recalls that on arrival at the Sick Quarters these airmen full of bravado stood in line waiting for their turn and as soon as the doctor or orderly appeared with the needle they all passed out en masse. She was amazed at the reaction of grown men being affected in that way. The Sick Quarters was on the site which is now Yelverton Business Park. Only one part of the Sick Quarters remains which was the Decontamination Centre ( now Trimal House housing Yelverton Carpets, Scrimpers and a Play Group ).
I drove Pat and her grand-daughter round the Aerodrome Site starting at Knightstone House which she remembered being used as a Control / Watch Office with Officers standing on the roof watching aircraft returning from sorties.
To her recollection the Dispersal Pens were not in place in 1941 when she first arrived ( they were built early in 1942 the Aerodrome was still under quite heavy construction ) the aircraft were parked in small groups around the Dispersal areas and the aircrews waited for " scramble " in / outside of Nissen Huts. When the time to scramble came a flare was let off ( possibly a different colour depending on which Flight was to take action ). The scramble bell was sounded and the aircrews took to their aircraft, mostly Blenheims ( 78 Signals Wing ) and Spitfires. When the flight was returning from an engagement the Station anbulances were positioned around the runways being used for landing and had to stay in position until all aircraft had been accounted for. It was a sad time when the ambulance crews were stood down without all aircraft returning. On one occasion Pat remembers an aircraft ( thinks a Spitfire from No.302 Squadron ) came in badly shot up and part of one wing missing, however the pilot landed undignified but safe.
The area between Crapstone War Memorial and the main gate at Pound was virtually unknown to Pat as was the Bellman Hangars, Watch Office, Battle Headquarters, Cine Camera Gun Shop and Barrack Huts along the road. She had no reason to go to any of those buildings so therefore they did not interest her. Things were done on a need to know basis and it was best not to ask too many questions. Pat's main area of knowledge was in the Main Gates past the Guardhouse and turn into the Main Workshops, Stores, Motor Transport shed and Petrol Installations ( Pat towed petrol bowsers to the tanker standings ). The Bomb Stores area was unrecognisable ( possibly not built at that time ) but she can remember towing small bombs to a H.E. Fuzing shed but could not recall from where or to. We then drove round to the W.A.A.F.'s Site towards Longash. Driving past the Small Arms Store and turning left Pat noticed a track on the left and said " I remember this, this is where i used to go to my Barrack Hut, it's just as i remember ". I drove down this track to a gate where we had a look around at some of the old building bases.
The W.A.A.F.'s had their meals in a dining hut on the main aerodrome site ( possibly one of the Barrack Huts at the Crapstone end of the aerodrome, as far as she recalls the Communal Site with the N.A.A.F.I., Cinema, Shops, etc. had not been completed ). Pat remembers a N.A.A.F.I. van driving onto the Aerodrome to serve teas and buns, etc. plus possibly cigarettes, it's arrival was always eagerly awaited.
Pat can remember when she was not on duty going for walks and especially up a large tor. At the time she was at Harrowbeer it was difficult to know where you were or where you were going because the names and signposts were either painted out or taken down. From the Motor Transport area we looked out over the moor and Pat recognised the tor she used to climb - it was Sheepstor.
Pat also recalled a time when the Motor Transport Section were provided with transport to go to a dance at " Crownhill Barracks" with the Royal Ulster Rifles on St. Patrick's day, but the Irishmen were only interested in drinking, not dancing so Pat and her friend hitch-hiked back early to base - in relay on the back of a motorcycle.
Her local, favourite drinking place was " The Rock Inn ", Yelverton. All other entertainment such as the cinema and theatre was in Plymouth. On a forty eight hour pass Pat stayed in part of Lord and Lady Astor's home on Plymouth Hoe which had been turned into a Y.W.C.A.
Other recollections :- some of the aircrew had their own transport, several british W.A.A.F.'s married Polish airmen.
To the end of 1942 Corporal Pat Cobbald was posted to another R.A.F. Aerodrome.
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W.A.A.F. Betty Mary Hutching
Betty Hutching joined the W.A.A.F.'s by lying about her age. She got away with it by convincing the selection panel that she was seventeen years old. She then underwent her training, finally being posted to R.A.F. Harrowbeer, Yelverton, Devon. Betty arrived there in November 1941 and was assigned to the Officer's Mess as a waitress. Her main area of work was in ' Ravenscroft ' ( which is where the Officer's Mess was for a short time ) and then on the Communal Site ( Site No.2 ) once the Officer's Mess was transferred there some time in 1942. To her recollections the Officers were " Fighter Pilots ", although she thought that most of the Officers that she served were from No.276 Air Sea Rescue Squadron.
Betty was posted to another R.A.F. Station during February 1944, but remembers quite a lot of the names and faces from Nos. 302 ( Polish ), 312 ( Chech. ), 175, 193 Squadrons and also No.78 Signals Wing Calibration Flight.
When Betty arrived at R.A.F. Harrowbeer she lived in a room at the top of the ' Devon Tors Hotel ', Yelverton until the W.A.A.F. Site was constructed and opened at Pound in 1942.
Betty was very happy at Harrowbeer with plenty of recreational activities which included :- physical training, swimming, cinema shows, E.N.S.A. shows, watching the boxing and football matches and of course the many Station Dances.
Frequent walks were taken ( often accompanied by a member of the R.A.F. ) across the fields to Meavy and the surrounding area.
Betty recalls being reprimanded on one occasion for saluting a Warrant Officer in her early days on the Station.
When on ' liberty ' it was often possible to get lifts ( especially if dressed in your uniform ) by passing vehicles or motorcycle dispatch riders to Plymouth or Tavistock.
The most commonly frequented Public House was the ' Who'd Have Thought It ' at Milton Coombe. Another favourite was the ' Golden Hind ' at Mannaden - this was almost into Plymouth.
There were two horrific accidents that she still remembers quite clearly that happened while she was stationed at Harrowbeer. One was the tail breaking off from Pilot Officer Kilpatrick's Typhoon aircraft ( thankfully he survived although seriously injured ), the second was a Blenheim aircraft taking-off that collided with a Commer van of No.276 Air Sea Rescue Squadron killing the four occupants. The pilot of the Blenheim was cleared of any blame and promoted for the way in which he controlled his damaged aircraft which had to belly-land on the aerodrome and for saving the lives of his air-crew.
Being in the cook-house and waitressing had it's advantages as Betty never took part in any of the parades and ceremonies that took place on the aerodrome at R.A.F. Harrowbeer. She does remember watching some as a distant onlooker. One in particular was a visit of the Polish President and an inspection by him of No.302 ( Polish ) Squadron early in 1942.
When on duty in the Officer's Mess her shifts would often coincide with visiting dignitaries and top brass, and on one occasion to Prince Michael of Kent.
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Service Personnel Memories