Good Old Days

Excerpts from a transcript of the tape by Arthur Reeve (1907-1989) relating to Marsworth Airfield. The tape was produced in November 1984 by Arthur Reeve of Townfield Farm and Joan Dutton of Vicarage Road, Marsworth.

Joan Dutton of Vicarage Road, Marsworth. says, “This was the result of many interesting conversations we had had together when Mr Reeve told me various incidents of his life in Marsworth and the history of the village itself and the surrounding areas”.

When did you actually move to this bungalow, then?

Well, when they requisitioned me farm in 1940 – man name of Mr Phipps he was, ginger haired man – that took the wind out of my sails a bit – Dad died January 1940, and then of course I got the farm and they requisitioned in the June of that year – put me straight out, the whole lot. And I was down at Church Farm all during the war, as you know. I helped build it, and we had a sale – me own farm sale – sold right up – all the tractors and that – I had those on the airfield, building, putting the drains in – I know every drain on that airfield, and the size of it. Well then I was put over on Air Ministry, groundsman in charge, 16 men, keep the sites and that in order. When the Americans come they enlarged it; they built sites you see at Wilstone, and all over the place. So Wellingtons were here first, then Americans came and they held it up and built – no end to it – all up by Mary Ridpath’s.

So there were a lot of buildings – a lot of Nissen huts – well there’s one Nissen hut left opposite the garage. So all that there was campsite, was it? All Nissen huts. Was it American all the time? Was the RAF here at one time, because Brian Rix was here at one time, wasn’t he?

Yes, I know he was, but that was after the war. When it was requisitioned, they had – where Johnny Keen’s garage is – all in there, and they had opposite; they had a piece up here at Mr Pullen’s [Brian Pullen, lived at The White House, behind Marsworth School], where his garden is, and a piece opposite where Robinson’s yard used to be; Mary Ridpath’s, all down in there, and on the right, behind the church. And then you went out into Eric Mead’s fields, on the left as you’re going through to Bluebells [Long Marston Road] they had an Air Force flag there, and then they had the meadow that runs up to Gurney’s Farm – that was a big site, and then you had the road straight through, towards as if you were going to Wilstone – a concrete road put in there – a big hospital on the right there – a lovely hospital. And you went farther through, into Eric Mead’s fields out to the Wilstone road – a big dining hall there, seated over 1,000. And then you went through there – over the road you got another site in Wilstone parish.

It was a very big camp then, wasn’t it?

Yes, a lot to look after, you’d got a lot of grass; you’d got a lot of fence beside the airfield.

And how long was it before it all – if you like – disappeared?

Well, I had six months down there on me own at the finish in the Air Ministry office and then it laid idle for some time. Well then this Ordinance people came – they spoiled the … because they put the fence up all around it. When the Americans were there, there was no fence around it – it was all open, and they built the three pairs of homes that you’ve got there for their police. [Houses on Long Marston Road]

The Americans built all the bottom end – the Ministry houses. [Long Marston Road] There were no buildings there whatsoever during the war along the Cheddington Road, because the runways run out there, you see. They built that, and also extended the guardroom here – where Mr Perry used to be. When the Americans were here it was only an open entrance with just a drop bar – because Reg Plumeridge was on with me at that time, and we’d got tractors, and we’d been pulling a hedge out with a tractor, and the clutch must have been warped. Well, Reg went out one morning to fill up with petrol – because the tractors were all petrol, they wouldn’t have TVA in case they stalled on the runway – and he couldn’t stop the thing and so he went straight through this bar, broke it no end of it – shocked the blooming guards – and they always carried revolvers – frightened poor old Reg. We had to tow it back in the yard; broke his poor old stop bar to bits.

So what planes were they down there? Were there Fortresses down there?

When the RAF were there, they were Wellingtons, and they did a lot of flying, because the first part of the war was really bad – and then when the Americans came of course they had the old Fortresses and Liberators. They used to paint the Liberators – the Beast of Bourbon, and the Ramp Rooster, and the Cockerel – sort of sat on the fence with a hat on. All sorts of things to keep the morale up of the men.

Didn’t they used to have them dropping leaflets, somebody was saying?

The Leaflet Squadron. The old head one – well, he’s head one of Intelligence now, in America, Longenecker – he was a pilot. I knew him when he was a pilot here.

Of course you’ve still got a lot of very good connections with the Americans that were here. How long ago was it when we had the little memorial built down at the gates there? Was that last year or the year before?

’82. That’s right, when we unveiled the memorial. Oh yes, Longenecker, and all those were here. They came to tea not long ago, 16, the head ones. Two guards, and he’d also got a car over at the cement works, you know, in case this one broke down.

I saw them come, because you told me – in the jeep, and all very smart.

He’s been over since – took a photograph of me at the wall there.

Yes, Pat Carty, he brought quite a lot of photographs up to the church or the fete…

He really went into it, old Pat. He can tell you more about aircraft squadrons than I can, but when it come to knowing the different things on the airfield – you see, he never knew that there was a command post underground on that airfield, and there’s not many of the Americans that were here that did know it was there. Command post. It was practically as big as this bungalow – all underground, absolutely bomb-proof.

And is it still there now?

No – Hodgkiss, this last year Hodgkiss [Harvey Hodgkiss – farmed at College Farm, Marsworth] he got the top. He couldn’t blow it out. They had to go blowing it out. They couldn’t shift it, so he had to have a hammer and sort of hammer it down. I used to go down in it quite a lot – because we had to keep the grass cut all round it, because you got an observation lookout in that thing. The idea was it was stocked up with food and all that – water, lavatory and everything, and the idea was that had the base been bombed out, the head ones that had been down there giving directions to the pilots above where to go, and where to land. But it was never used. I was speaking to some Americans not long ago, and they said they never knew it was there. Old Pat didn’t. It was really a secret place. There was only one man as I could ever send round there that wouldn’t talk and that was Reg Plumeridge – he’s the only one, he and I, used to cut that grass round that command post.

And when did Brian Rix come? …

Oh, I’ve got his book. Well, he came after the war. You see, they thought Halton was going to take it

What, the airfield?

Yes, well, the camp. Where Johnny’s [John Keen] garage is now, they made that big mess room there into a dental block – fixed it out with all dental chairs to learn the people extracting teeth and all that. It was going to be run by Halton – what we called the ‘spit and polish group’ – the Twenty Four Group. And Brian Rix was in that, and that’s in his book when he was dabbling about with WAAFs and all that. He was the one that got these concerts up and all that.

Yes – people have mentioned that he was here. He never put on any plays in the village hall for you then?

No – but they’d got a good hall down there, you see – opposite the garage. Oh, a lovely hall. Stage and everything – and the stage, I helped do that. Afterwards it was brought up and it’s still in your village hall. That’s the stage. I helped them get it in pieces just so we could get them out through the doorway – they were about seven foot and you’ve got to put it at an angle and I helped take them up with a tractor.

Brian Rix could have trod that stage, couldn’t he? My goodness, the Drama Group would be pleased to hear that!

Schoolchildren used to go down there. Had a Christmas party down there once on that stage.

It must have been quite an influx of people into a small village. It must have brought a bit of life and a bit of fun into the village.

You’d got about 4,000 Americans here at that time.

And the pubs did a good trade, I bet.

Oh yes – they used to sit up on a summer’s evening up the banks there – the reservoir banks – with their bottles of beer. And when you come to think of that – we used to see the planes go out of a night, and you didn’t see them coming back. The crashes – I got two pilots – the pilot and his navigator – out of the first airplane that ever did crash there. That was a Wellington. It come so near, I jumped off me tractor, stopped me tractor and jumped off and run – I thought it was going to knock me clean over. They crashed close to me. It was all filled with smoke and all that. I nipped up on the wing – because that was on the ground, you see, and opened this – you pulled a shutter along – a thing that you could see through along the top. I got these two chaps out and dropped them down the side, and then jumped down quick and pulled them away. Ridpath, he come over – he can verify my statement.

And were they hurt?

Oh yeah – they were pretty dicky – went to the hospital. The plane never fired, fortunately. Then we had another incident on there when a bomber plane – a Wellington – was coming in and landed over the lock house here – on no. 2 runway, pointing out towards Cheddington Road, Long Marston Road – very foggy. And he couldn’t see – well he touched down, three parts way along the runway. Reg Plumeridge and I were cutting the hedge just at the bottom. So Reg run out into the road, stopped the lorry – it’d got 50 gallon drums on it – stopped the lorry and this plane come straight through over the road down and down and into the other meadow. So I said to Reg, “Let’s go down and have a look, see if there’s any trouble or anything down there”. It had gone through between some fallen trees, fortunately – it’s a wonder it didn’t catch them, or it would’ve been a worse job. Anyhow, we got there – still up on its wheels all right, and the old pilot said, “Let’s open the doors and have a look at my beauties”, and I said to Reg, “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen now”. Anyhow, he opened his old bomb bay and o’ course the old bombs were in there. And apart from that there was nothing else as I know was wrong with the thing.

What had happened? Why had be brought the bombs back?

Oh, well he had taken them to France, and couldn’t see, and he’d brought his load home, which I thought was a brave thing to do, really, because he could have dropped them in the Channel and no-one would have ever known, would they?

He took a big risk, didn’t he? Are there any other interesting things you can remember about the airfield?

Well, Churchill used to land there quite a lot. You see, when you’re down there, you’re not far from Chequers. You see, he used to land – you could always tell when he was going to land because there were two jeeps against the control tower, facing whichever way the plane was going to come in. One had got police in – you know, the old guards with revolvers and one thing and another, and the other one of course had got to pick him up. Well, the plane had only just got off the runway, just turned on the perimeter track and stopped, and they used to go down and pick him up.

Did he used to come very regularly?

At the end of the war he did – because he went to France a lot, and during the war, actually. Another reason, you see, your American headquarters were at High Wycombe, a girls’ school on the road as you come out towards Reading, on the left – I used to go there quite a bit. Had to have three passes to get in there. And then of course the English one was on the left before you get into High Wycombe going from Princes Risborough, up in the woods – all underground, and that’s still quite a big place there. But the other one, I should imagine has gone back to a school.

Then we had the old base commander, Colonel Abbott – he was ever such a nice gentleman. He’d been over to France one night, coming back in the old plane and he was shot down over the Channel – by one of ours – of course you didn’t hear much about it. They never did find him. He was a good bloke, he was.

They’d all got bicycles and that; they use to ride bicycles, and then coming along the canal of a night fall in and throw them in – they very often threw their bikes in and come in the back way. They threw them in so they could get them out the next morning. You see, they knew where they threw them in. The object was, you see, so as they didn’t have to go by the guards to get into the site, because they were after hours. They used to throw them in you see – down the Arm, there, then over the lock gate – you know, by the old lock house – and they were right in on the site. Then the next day you would see them dragging these bikes out.

Did they have the whole thing wired off, so they couldn’t get through then?

No – they used to go everywhere, all back ways. They’d got a baseball ground there where they played baseball – we had to clear part of it, where they run round like a new moon sort of business, so they could get grip, I think. I could never understand it. They were always standing about throwing a ball at one another and catching it in their left hand in a big glove and throwing it with their right glove.

And then on another occasion they dressed two up as Germans – German tunics. And they went round the camp, of all things – they had their food in the mess hall and everything. They wasn’t detected until they tried to go out on the field, and of course they were had then, straight away.

Another time I can remember – General Patton, he came in. Well, how I thought there was going to be something on, on the Saturday evening at 4.00 – we used to finish work at 4.00 – old Clark said, “You want to get some men out to headquarters Monday morning, sweep up, do the rose bushes round the flagpole – lovely garden – and I want everything tidy. Everything”, he says – “not a scrap about”. I says, “All right, I’ll see to it”. So I went, Reg Plumeridge, myself and several others – all sweeping up and everything and went round to other sites. On the Tuesday morning I says to Reg, “Let’s go along, they’ve got somebody going to come in”. So we went along and had a look – well it was General Patton, and he had some on the parade ground – these American airmen, like, on the parade ground, decorating them with medals. It was quite a colourful scene.

Extract from transcript supplied by Sandra Costello, Marsworth Archivist, August 2021.

More Airfield Links… – B-24 Liberator “Beast of Bourbon”

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