In my recent review of Pat Carty’s book – ‘Secret Squadrons of the Eighth’ – I made the point that there should have been more information on the author and what motivated him to give so much of his time and energy to telling the story of the men who flew from Cheddington Airfield. I had visions of a retired senior American officer who had flown there or maybe a son or daughter committed to recording the brave deeds of father’s war experiences.
The reality was much more mundane in some ways but more interesting in others. Pat Carty is an Englishman who used to live in Leighton Buzzard and who finally retired as Area Manager of the AA. That’s the (relatively) mundane bit. The interesting bit is that Pat has had a lifetime passion for researching and writing about military matters, which eventually led him to give many years of his free time to telling the story of Cheddington Airfield and the men who served and flew from there between 1942 and 1945. To quote Pat, ‘my hobby overtook my career’.
Pat moved to Leighton Buzzard in 1978 and by then he had already written a number of articles and books on the military. He also wrote the history of Burnham (Buckinghamshire) fire station, where he had been a retained fireman. His original plan was to publish a book titled ‘Fated Flights’, covering the many air crashes which took place in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire during wartime. But he had to give up this plan because in his words; “it became a grave robber’s guide”. But in doing so, discovered that there had been a remarkable number of aircraft accidents in Buckinghamshire alone, as many as 170. His research finally led him to Cheddington, but he found a barrier of secrecy; there were no mentions of the base in any aviation books.
Pat’s research then took him to America several times, where he discovered that there were also no records in the American military archives, despite the claim that they had every base covered. So he set out to trace those Americans who had been at Cheddington, only to find that they had been told at the end of the War to “go home and shut up”. This led to an even more passionate desire by Pat to ensure that their story should be told and the men and women given credit for what they had achieved. He therefore formed the Cheddington Association in 1980 and organised the reunion and memorial ceremony at the Airfield gate in October 1982.
As Pat described what happened on Memorial Day, it became clear that he had – and no doubt still has – a remarkable ability to get things done and to persuade other people to help him do so. About twenty of the veteran airmen came over to the UK and Pat’s persuasiveness enabled the following to happen:
- A local undertaker produced and donated the memorial stone for free.
- A Brigadier General, who had been NATO Commander for Europe, and a Major General who was Second In Command of the American Security Service (and who both were pilots at Cheddington) led the memorial proceedings.
- BBC, ITV and local press all covered the event.
- A trumpeter from RAF Halton played the last post and came along with a band to support him.
- The Army provided an artillery cannon which marked the start and finish of a minute’s silence.
- A vintage London double decker bus took everyone to the Swan in Cheddington for lunch.
- A request to provide a vintage jeep led to about thirty enthusiasts turning up and giving each veteran a ride from lunch to the memorial site.
- A fly past which included a low flying Phantom jet fighter (which caused Cheddington School to think that an earthquake had arrived!) and an old Piper Cub aircraft, dropped leaflets onto the memorial from a very, very low height!
- Tea at Woburn Abbey hosted by the Marquess & Marchioness of Tavistock
It was seven years later in 1989 that the book – Secret Squadrons of the Eighth – was published after a number of the Americans pressed Pat to produce a permanent record. He admits in the foreword that the time and effort required for research took over his life and it required much tolerance from his wife Shirley and children Peter and Marie. The book had two reprints in the USA and Australia and sold mainly to those with a similar interest in aviation history. Pat bought copies as gifts for those Cheddington veterans that he knew well.
Our conversation revealed how much information Pat gained during his research, adding much to our understanding of this fascinating time in our local history. For instance he revealed that both Cheddington squadrons were involved in pioneering work in radar jamming, electronic intelligence and psychological warfare involving propaganda leaflets. We also learnt that Cheddington aircraft were the first allied planes to cross the enemy beachhead during D Day. And though the airmen were initially disappointed to find that they were dropping leaflets and jamming radar rather than dropping bombs, they soon warmed to the task and realised the importance of what they were doing. They also found that the dropping and targeting of leaflets was not a simple task and the advanced techniques they developed have continued to be used in many air/ground conflicts since then, including recently in places like Syria and Afghanistan.
We also learnt that President Roosevelt’s son was stationed at Cheddington even though he actually flew from a different location, because of the dangers of him being captured and used for propaganda. And information that reflected the attitudes of the time but still leaves a nasty taste, all the Afro-American occupants were kept in separate accommodation at the Long Marston end of the camp.
Pat also challenged some of the ‘facts’ and assumptions that we have come up with from our own research. He could find no records that supported the fact the site was used as an aerodrome during the first World War as has been suggested in some publications; it was always farming land in his view, confirmed by local farmer Arthur Reeves. And the Polish Refugees camp, which we thought was on a separate site nearby, actually used one of the base living sites after the Americans moved out.
It was a pleasure and a learning experience to interview Pat Carty after reading and reviewing his book. He still has warm feelings towards our villages and has been disappointed not to be able to visit recently because of his wife’s illness and the impact of Covid restrictions. He hopes to change this before too long and is willing to repeat the talk he gave in Long Marston Village Hall in the 1990s. From this interview and reports of his previous visit, this would add much to our understanding of such an important part of our local history.