Beyond the helmet of imaginings that my head is often bubbled within, Ken and I live in a subtle microclimate here. On a still morning, the mist will still be winding its long fingers round the ankles of Orgreave and Fradley, long after the view is clear to see in Lichfield. I love to lope out into it. Under muffling cover of the milky air, both I and the landscape can peacefully relive exciting old times of more violent emotion. With this century hushed, that which is inclined to, is free to emerge.
This foggy phenomenon must be related to our wealth of waters. The River Trent yarns broadly for four miles from quarried pool to quarried pool behind us; from the submerged site of Kings Bromley Hall (demolished in the 1920s), to the wildlife haven of Croxall Lakes, adjacent to the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas. Nearby, the river carries on a family conversation with its brothers Swarbourne, Tame, and Mease, contributing to a watery flux that has often inhibited the passage of pack horses and pedlars and pilgrims, and prompted the ancient village of Alrewas to grow up here in the first place. The Trent also loses itself in a canal for a short stretch near Alrewas, before its indignant, foaming departure over the weir.
It was in 1790 that the liquid thoroughfares of the Trent and Mersey Canal and the Coventry Canal finally melded on Fradley Heath, the climax of the late James Brindley’s Grand Cross Scheme to link together, for commerce’s sake, the four great English rivers.
Although its heyday for traffic was long past, Brindley’s engineering triumph was respected when work began to construct RAF Lichfield in mid 1939. The Coventry Canal was to delineate the north-eastern extent of Fradley Airfield.
The site was originally conceived to house only a large aircraft Maintenance Unit. Here, aircraft were received from manufacture, prepared for service, stored, and sometimes packed for dispatch to overseas centres of operation. As the Second World War continued, Fradley became the generator of additional, more dramatic activity. In 1941, an Operational Training Unit was formed. Its students were the astonishingly youthful rookie pilots, navigators, wireless operators and gunners gathered from some of the furthest reaches of the Empire in Canada and Australia. They had travelled all the way to damp South Staffordshire in order to team up into crews and prepare for perilous forays into enemy territory. They were trained by other, barely older, young men, the smooth cheeked veterans – against the odds – of a sufficient number of flying missions. The trainers’ job was to pass on the expertise that, over and above sheer luck, had facilitated their own survival.
New crews could have their mettle tested on “Nickel,” or leaflet raids from Fradley over Northern France, occasionally coming into contact with hostile aircraft. But demand for deployable bombers soon outstripped the supply of fully trained personnel, and OTU crews were recruited to fly into the thick of it from Fradley in the Septembers of ’42 and ’43. Fradley was the busiest war-time airfield in Staffordshire. Casualty figures increased. New recruits arrived via the London, Midland, and Scottish railway station at Alrewas to reinforce numbers, and Fradley’s considerable contribution to the war effort continued without a missed beat. The village lasses put on a brave face, along with their bright lipstick, and jolly, printed cotton frocks, and continued to laugh their waythrough the Lambeth Walk at dances. For ever and ever after though, the sound of the velvet swoop of the clarinet in Moonlight Serenade might bring to mind a certain lucite brooch at the bottom of a jewellery box, and an absent dancing partner, whose gift it had been.
More than 200 RAF personnel lost their lives as a result of service at Fradley, in battle abroad, and in local crashes, some the result of our foggy conditions. There are a dozen or so immaculately maintained airmen’s graves outside the pretty little church of St Stephen’s in Fradley village. The names on some of them have been used to christen the roads on a new housing estate that has been built in one corner of the old airfield in recent years. George Rumbold, the first casualty at RAF Lichfield during the war, has his Avenue. Seargeant Joseph Rogerson, a navigator, of the Royal Australian Air Force, has his Road. The names of their aircraft, too, are commemorated on road signs on the growing industrial estate.
Only one runway now remains where hundreds of Lancasters, Hurricanes, and Wellingtons once took off and landed, but the well constructed hangars are still put to good use for a variety of storage purposes. When we came to live here in 1991, the old airfield was remarkably unchanged from the time of its use during the war and until its eventual closure in 1958. In the early 1990s there was little more industry than Lucas’s storage and packing facility on Wood End Lane, still using the old RAF gatehouse as its entrance. Where the huge edifice of Tesco’s RDC now radiates noise and light, it was quiet and dark down Gorse Lane to the curvaceous little red-brick bridge over the canal.
I was a Transport Manager in Amington then. Tiny Golby was one of my drivers. A man of spectacular proportions, his uniform was a special order. Ringing in for his reloading details, he would boom my name, “Sowzunn!” down the line with a comfortingly familiar cadence, courtesy of his uncorrupted Willenhall accent. It was Tiny, who, on finding out where I lived, first warned me against the gruesome spectre of a headless airman in WWII uniform, that had staggered blindly into the road, to be picked out in the headlights of his brother’s lorry, as John Golby was making a nocturnal delivery of goods into one of the old hangars.
Most local people have, like me, heard a second hand account of the appearance of the Headless Airman of Fradley. Those with first hand memories of the war-time airfield are now rare to find. The children at Orgreave Farm who were shooed away from the wide, Georgian front door by their mother when a living but bloodied airman – with head firmly in place – knocked for assistance, are elderly men and women now.
Ghostly manifestations are rife where untimely deaths in extreme circumstances have occurred. Peacetime RAF personnel seem to have an empathy with the arduous careers of their wartime counterparts, and are not immune to seeing and feeling evidence of those who have passed short but intensely lived years in the service before them. Their experiences, if not the ghosts themselves, deserve our respectful credulity.
Flight Lieutenant George Robertson had served in the Royal Navy during the war, but by the 1950s was employed in a position of seniority within RAF Lichfield at Fradley. When he found himself responsible, one memorable day, for moving a young airman to hospital, suffering from shock, he related to his family what had happened. His son Andrew remembers being told: “….a young airman, who was a night guard for the base and accompanied by two powerful guard dogs….on his rounds he saw lights on in one of the hangars and thinking that maybe thieves were at work approached the building. At about 100 meters, both dogs stopped and refused to move further. The guard continued, and then claimed he saw a figure, dressed in WW2 flying clothes, but apparently headless.“
A shocking sight indeed.
The RAF Lichfield Association have been instrumental in creating a fine memorial area near to the church in Fradley, and their website includes a list of Fradley’s casualties, with details of the dates and causes of their death. Two unfortunate candidates for our restless, headless, spirit catch the eye: both met their end by inadvertently walking into the spinning propellors of their aircraft at Fradley. The war in Europe had already ended when one of them, Sergeant Richard P Withrington, was killed. His body was transported to his home in Middlesex to be buried. The rumour- a mighty thing that takes on a life of its own- has it that our ghost has Colonial origins. Flight Sergeant, Kenneth Helmsley Hewitt, from Toowong, Queensland, was just 21 years old when he died on the 15th of April 1943. About to take off, he left his aircraft to retrieve the codes he had forgotten and walked into its propellor. He is remembered in Hewitt Close on the housing estate, and lies in Fradley churchyard, from where he may, or may not, walk, in ghostly form, to the airfield where he lost his life. It can’t be right to make a cypher of him as the mere focus of our scary tales. Rather remember the real young man, 10, 000 miles from home, who was willing to give his life for our freedom.
Written with reference to “Staffordshire Airfields in the Second World War,” by Martyn Chorlton, and with the kind assistance of Andrew Robertson and Paul James.