Local Memories of R.A.F. Harrowbeer
The stories of civilians who had a connection with R.A.F. Harrowbeer, the Yelverton area or Plymouth during the 1940's
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An R.A.F. Harrowbeer ' tea-boy '
In 1940 / 41 a young lad lived in Gunnislake, Cornwall, he was aged fourteen years old and worked in the local bakers shop where he would carry out odd jobs, fetching and carrying, cleaning up, etc. for his employer. On his fifteenth birthday he asked his boss for a wage increase, which was hastily declined. He was told that he could soon get another boy to do his job so be on your way. He was most unhappy about this and that evening he was telling his mates the tale. They said to him that they were working on the ' New Aerodrome ' being built at Yelverton, Devon. They were doing odd jobs and running errands for the on site contractors who were building the runways and the wages were five shillings a week. ( £1.25 in todays decimal coinage ). A bus collected civillian workers ( and the lads ) early in the morning and returned them late in the evening after the days work. They told him to get on the bus with them the following morning and report to the Site Office foreman. This appeald to the young man, so he applied for a job and was taken on. He was to start straight away and was assigned to a group of contractors where he was to be their ' tea-boy '. He was given other duties besides making tea and coffee which were to go shopping for them for cigarettes, tobacco, sweets, etc from the local Yelverton village shops. At lunch time he had to collect hot fresh cooked meals prepared in some of the local houses along the A386 and return the empty dishes afterwards.
The contractors had passes to get on and off the Aerodrome whilst it was being built, they could not leave without permission - once they were on the Aerodrome they were to stay until their job was completed - they ate, slept and worked from sun-up to sunset. The tea-boys arrived each morning and left each evening.
He rembered in particular the runway which was constructed parallel to the A386 ( the first runway to be built and later known as Runway 3 ). He spent most of his time in this area. In addition to the main runways there were perimeter tracks to be built and hard standings for the dispersed aircraft, there were small Nissen type huts and wooden huts erected for the contractors to use which were later taken over by the Air-crews to live in so that they were close to their aircraft. ( the Dispersal Bays / Blast Pens with their earth banks and Air Raid Shelters were constructed at a later date during 1942 ). He is not sure when as he left the Aerodrome in the spring of 1942 after working approximately for one year on it and could not remember them there then.
Once the runways were completed ( Runway 2 followed by Runway 1 ) the contractors and our young lad moved on to what became the Technical Area in the direction of Pound. Once again the contractors lived in Nissen type huts in this area during it's construction. ( There were three left in the area between Crapstone and Pound ) ! The huts at the Dispersed areas were now being occupied by Air-crew, Ground-crew and used as Flight Offices .
R.A.F. Harrowbeer opened officially on the 15th August 1941.
He recalls that the Aerodrome was being used while the construction was in progress, but cannot remember clearly as to what Squadrons, aircraft types or Nationality of the Airmen. He does remember that some of the Airmen ( he thinks possibly Polish, * there was a Polish Squadron No.302 at R.A.F. Harrowbeer from 6th October 1941 until 26th April 1942 * ) were very hard, fierce flyers and when landing their aircraft would come in fast and with violent sudden braking, this resulted in tearing up the coloured rubber coating that was laid on the runway surfaces to act as camouflage. ( This coating was often repaired but evenyually discontinued as the aerial photographs of 1942 show the runways quite clearly ).
One of the pilots ( Polish ) had a pet German Shepherd dog that roamed the Aerodrome while his owner was away flying. On one such occasion the dog was hit by one of the contractors lorries, seriously injuring the dog. One of the civillian workers said that something had to be done and borrowed a pistol to shoot the dog to put it out of it's misery. He was unable to pull the trigger so another person took the gun and carried out the deed. ( The dog was buried in the area of Dispersal Pen No.109 ).The pilot who owned the dog was deeply upset over the incident.
Our young lad cannot remember seeing the buildings of the Technical Site in their finished state as he was moved with the contractor team to what sonds like the Communal Site ( Site No.2 ). One of the buildings being a Decontamination Block, he remembers this because while working with his team he was being trained in basic electrical work and fitted much of the electrics to this unit.
He was then transferred from R.A.F. Harrowbeer to another Aerodrome under construction in the South West of England.
It appears from his recollections that parts of ' Knightstone House ' were used as a Site Office and billets for Airfield defence units during the early construction period.
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Bombed out and Re-housed from Plymouth
In 2004 a customer to ' Knightstone Tearooms ' ( also R.A.F. Harrowbeer Archives ) told me how he lived with his family in Plymouth during the war years. He was seven years old in 1943 and the family house was situated in an area that was being very heavily bombed, he remembers the incendiary bombs falling, the fires and the mayhem. Things got so bad that the family were forced out of their house and were re-housed in a lodge house very close tho R.A.F. Harrowbeer for safety reasons - the area had to be evacuated.
The gentleman recollects quite clearly waving at the pilots in their planes as they took off and landed. He remembers vividly watching the aircraft returning from missions with minor and major damage ( holes in the aircraft wings and fuselages ), some landing without their undercarriage down and bumping along the ground.
At this time during the war the perimeter to the aerodrome was heavily guarded but towards the end of the aerodrome's use he remembers that he, his brother and friends would get onto the aerodrome through holes in the fences and even managed to climb into some of the aircraft ( he thought Lancasters ! ! ). He personally found them boring, dark, cold, empty and not very exciting.
He and his brother who was two years older occasionally got into the hangars where they built make-do drumkits out of Barrage Balloon material, barrels, cans, etc. He thought they sounded quite realistic, his brother carried on to learn to play drums properly and carried on for several years after the war.
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Memories of Mrs. Beryl P. Hartnup ( nee Stamp ).
Beryl was the daughter of Mr. Wilfred Harold Stamp ( known as ' Pip ' ) and was born in the ' Who'd Have Thought It ' Public House in Miton Coombe during 1937. Beryl was obviously very young during the war years but she has recollections of a German bomb landing in the orchard of the Public House.
One of the most memorable things that she remembers is of an airman known as ' Spider ' ( T. Webb ) who would read her bed-time stories of an evening when he was not on duty. There was another airman A. A. Cole ( Tony ) who used to buy her sweets.
Most of this would be about 1945 when No.691 Squadron was one of the resident Squadrons at R.A.F. Harrowbeer, ( the above airmen were from that Squadron ). There was a piano in one of the downstairs rooms that was regularly used for sing-songs.
Beryl's mother was the pub landlady and used to keep the airmen under control as this was one of their favourite drinking places.
Mr. Wilfred Stamp was too old to be called up for war service so he joined the Royal Observer Corps as an Observer in order to ' do his bit ' for the war effort. He also helped to manage the ' Who'd Have Thought It ' when not on duty. Wilfred died on January 31st 1946 at the age of forty one.
No.691 Squadron served at R.A.F. Harrowbeer from January 1945 until the end of July 1945 when they moved to R.A.F. Exeter.
When the Squadron heard about the sad bereavement of Wilfred a letter of condolence was sent to Beryl after being signed by many of the airmen from the Squadron.
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Mosquito Aircraft Crash
Talking to a gentleman in August 2006 who was on a visit to R.A.F. Harrowbeer, he told me that in 1945 he was fifteen years old and can still remember quite clearly that there was a Royal Observer Corps Post in the vicinity of the small business / warehousing complex on the Dousland Road just past the Walkhampton road junction. It was positioned in the middle of a field and had a telegraph post by the side of it so that telephone calls could be made to their Control Centre.
During 1945 the young lad would attend " Ravenscroft " which at the time was being used for Royal Observer Corps aircraft recognition training for teenagers. In late 1945 he was called up for National Service.
The gentleman remembers seeing the aftermath of a Mosquito aircraft crash he thought happened in 1945 ( the accident is borne out by a written statement in the Station Operation Record Book ) on the Airfield approximately half-way along Runway No.2. He was uncertain but he thought the Mosquito aircraft hit one of the buildings ( possibly the Flight Office closest to Ravenscroft ) killing some of the occupants ( the pilot and navigator of the aircraft were both killed, there is no record of anybody else losing their life ).
According to the gentleman's wife there was a German Prisoner of War Camp in the vicinity of Pound Corner. ( There was a German POW Camp set up at Pound Corner in the old W.A.A.F. Site in 1945 / 1946 after the liberation of the Channel Islands ).
They also told me about a German Prisoner of War Camp at Plaster Down near to the United States Army Hospital. His wife worked in some of the old Hospital buildings in the 1960's when the site was used to house Asian refugees. The remains of the POW Camp were still evident then !
The gentleman was at R.A.F. Harrowbeer's airfield perimeter fence when President Truman landed in August 1945 in his Douglas Skymaster. His aircraft was escorted by twelve Spitfire aircraft. The gentleman's wife was also at the airfield ( although they were not married at the time ) and saw the landing but said that the figures were so far away it was impossible to recognise anyone.
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The Rock Inn and George Langton
Back in 2004 when the R.A.F. Harrowbeer Archives was in it's infancy the local Public Houses around Yelverton were contacted that were recorded in the Station Rocord Books as ' watering holes ' for the airmen of R.A.F. Harrowbeer. The ' Rock Inn ' was one of those Public Houses. A reply came back from Mr. George Langton who wished to meet up with me ( The Archivist, Micael Hayes ) so that he could share his memories and photographs, etc.
Mr. George Langton was fifteen years old at the beginning of World War II and lived with his parents at ' The Rock Hotel '. The Hotel had a lift and George would often go up to the top of the lift shaft and watch the planes take-off and land from the aerodrome. His view from this position was straight down the length of one of the runways. The Spitfire aircraft would come in low, slow and graceful, close to ' The Rock Hotel '. From George's lift shaft position he almost looked into the cockpit of the passing aircraft.
Out the front of ' The Rock Hotel ' were garages where Mirrors the hairdressers and Yelverton T.V., etc. are today ( 2004 ). When the Americans were using the aerodrome some of their vehicles were garaged there. After the closure of the aerodrome an American Jeep was left in one of these garages, unfortunately George could not remember what happened to it.
The Hotel bar was used by servicemen ( mainly the aircrew ) when they were off duty. Beer was the main beverage but, apparently, owing to the shortage of beer during the war, at 1800 hours each day the only drink available was cider. The airmen would drink long into the evenings before returning to base. It was not unusual for George's parents ( the landlord and landlady ) to tell the airmen to carry on serving themselves, leave the money on the counter on leaving, turn the key in the door and put it through the letter-box. ( Such was the trust back then ).
On one occassion George remembers a bomb landing and exploding near Loverton, he recalls seeing the bright light in the air while he was sheltering behind a wardrobe in one of the bedrooms. The explosion was close to the main Plymouth water course but was not damaged.
George and his friends would go out into the fields in the Dousland area looking for incendiary bombs ( after a raid by enemy aircraft ) that had not gone off. If the ground was soft they would land without detonating. These ' live ' incendiary bombs were collected and taken back to The Rock Hotel and in one of the garages they would dismantle them, one end would unscrew and very carefully they would take out a spring affair which would assist in the detonation of the bomb. A cylinder was taken out which was filled with a liquid ( flourite ? ) under a percussion cap. Somehow with the aid of a screwdriver they could move the percussion cap and pour out the liquid into a large bowl. This bowl was taken outside down to the bottom of the garden where they would toss a coin to see who was going to throw a lighted match into the liquid, it would immediately ignite and burn furiously. The percussion cap was either taken outside or back to the garage where it was put in a vice and struck with a hammer until it exploded. ( At 15 / 16 years old they could not see the danger - it was exciting. George did say that as far as he knew his father had no knowledge of what the boys were doing otherwise the consequences could have been severe ).
On the roof of the Hotel was mounted an air-raid siren, for which at the appropriate times his parents were responsible for setting off. This continued until the National Fire Service moved it's Headquarters to where Briar Tor is today and they took over the siren duty. They had a more powerful siren. Eventually George's father removed the siren from the Hotel roof and with modifications turned it into a drilling machine.
The spire on the Rock Methodist Church was believed to have been removed at the onset of war so that aircraft would not hit it on take-off and landing. George had a photograph dated 1946 with the spire still attached. He said the spire was taken down soon after due to woodworm and dry-rot ! !
George also showed me some photographs ( 1950's ) of cars with the airfield buildings in the background, some of the buildings look as though they were being demolished, unfortunately the main topic of the photographs are the cars, not the buildings. The runways in the 1950's were used for car racing.
Another recollection of George is of the area by the Moorland Links Hotel where there was an Italian and German prisoner of war camp.
George Langton enlisted in the Army in 1944.
Sadly George is no longer with us but his memories live on in the R.A.F. Harrowbeer Archives - thank you George for your recollections and rest in peace.
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Local Memories of R.A.F. Harrowbeer