Secret Squadrons of the Eighth by Pat Carty

This is the first of a number of book reviews to be posted on Tringruralhistory.co.uk; yet another example of our desire to share local history. The reviews are intended both to share knowledge and to encourage others to read the chosen books.

Secret Squadrons of the Eighth by Pat Carty was written in 1989 and is a remarkably thorough piece of work, clearly well researched and painstakingly put together. The author mentions in his foreword that he was involved in many years of research but there is nothing in the introduction to tell us why Carty was willing to give so much of his life researching and writing on such a specialised subject. Whatever his motivation, those of us who are interested in local history should be grateful for such a valuable record of events near our villages during the second world war.

The book refers consistently to ‘Cheddington Airfield’. Those of us who are familiar with the entrance on Luke’s Lane, close to where Buckinghamshire borders Hertfordshire, are likely to name it after Long Marston or Marsworth, depending on which side of the border we live. But, from all the recollections in the book, Cheddington was clearly how the Americans referred to it, apparently having been originally named after the nearest train station.

The book has over 100 A4 pages, with probably half the space taken up with photographs. There is also an appendix with an extraordinary level of detail, including how many tons of leaflets were dropped from the aircraft and how many missions were flown. The most interesting information from a local history point of view is in the first chapter which reveals the events which led to the US Airforce taking over the site in 1943.

It started when, with war imminent, the Air Ministry formed an ‘Aerodrome Board’ to seek sites for the building of new airfields. One omission from the book is the fact that the land had already been used as an airfield during the First World War. Instead the author describes how a ministry inspector surprised the tenant farmer Arthur Reeve, who had farmed the land for many years, by announcing that he was requisitioning his farm for government use. There is a rather casual mention that poor Arthur, who had a wife and young family, lost his livelihood overnight but no news on how he coped with this personal tragedy.

The intention initially was for the site to be used by the RAF but the progress of clearing the site and building was very slow at first until a familiar large company – Wimpey – was brought in during 1941 to speed things up. The RAF took command in March 1942 and Cheddington airfield became an operational training unit for the area.

Things did not go well however. There were many more accidents than normal during training, the worst being when two airmen were killed crashing into Cheddington Hill. It was decided that there were too many hills and obstructions which made the site unsuitable for RAF training and in September 1942 the British operation was, as originally planned, moved to Wing, the airfield being handed over to the Americans. There was a four month gap while the airfield was enlarged and improved and during this period there was a tragedy when two workers were killed falling into boiling pitch, never to be seen again.

The book then moves on to the story of how the men of a new Bomb Wing were assembled and trained in the USA, prior to their arrival in Cheddington in June 1943. These were men who liked to fight hard and play hard. Their main task may have been dropping leaflets rather than bombs but they were risking – and in some cases giving – their lives to do so. The book shows numerous examples of the text of the leaflets, directed at the populations of occupied European countries. There are detailed explanations of the techniques of directing the leaflets to the right areas; one American Colonel is quoted as saying that in the initial stages many leaflets ended up in Turkey and West Africa because they were incorrectly dropped and caught by the wind!

The many photos give a good impression of life at the Cheddington camp, the sheer numbers of men and aircraft and the range of activities that they undertook, including much social contact with members of the opposite sex. In addition to members of the British Womens’ Army Corps who worked on camp facilities from 1944, there are reports of local girls being shipped in on trucks to ‘entertain’ the troops. There are pictures of airmen mixing with local families and even one wedding taking place; the caption reveals that this was only one of more than sixty airmen who married UK brides.

There are more examples of mixing with the community, for example the holding of Christmas parties for local children and regular dance evenings. A picture of less pleasant local involvement is of a crashed plane, with members of the Aylesbury fire brigade helping to clear the wreckage. It is not clear whether this is the ‘Beast of Bourbon’ which was remembered at the memorial ceremony in Long Marston in 2011, or one of several other accidents during their time here.

Though it does not directly relate to Cheddington, the most engaging part of the book is the personal description of a bombardier on a mission to Holland. His plane was shot down and he had to parachute out, landed in quicksand and was rescued by local people risking their lives. This is only one of a number of personal stories which are told in the book and which reveal the reality of what the occupants of the airfield had to endure in between the delights of socialising with local people.

The book’s final page mentions a reunion which took place in 1982 and which seems to have been the starting point of the interest which led to the book being published. An association had been formed in 1980 with the objectives of researching past events, locating those who served there and erecting a memorial. Apparently around 700 airmen who had been based in Cheddington were contacted; it seems that this had not happened before because of secrecy requirements. At the reunion a memorial stone was placed at the entrance to the airfield on Lukes Lane with a landing light from the runway set in the surrounding stones. There was a fly past and a low flying plane dropped leaflets over the memorial, each one containing the name of an airman killed during the occupation of the airfield.

This is a highly recommended book for anyone with an interest in local history, particularly of wartime in our villages. It is nicely balanced between pictures and text, though it suffers a little from the photos quite naturally only being in black and white. As mentioned above, one thing missing is background on the author and an explanation of why he took on this demanding task which he admits in the foreword took several years of his life to produce.

One final comment. In the introduction there is a particularly poignant quote from one of the GIs when based in Cheddington and this is an extract:

Will the runways and hardstands lay abandoned and untouched in tribute to the men who worked, lived and sweated out the planes during the years of war and restrictions? Will they walk through deserted kitchens wondering where their GI pals have gone?

One wonders what this GI would think about the airfield now. He might be concerned that the memorial stone on Lukes Lane is looking rather sad and neglected, with grass growing out of the edges of the landing light and the wording almost unreadable.

If you want to buy this book, it is on Amazon and Ebay in several places. If you want to borrow a copy please email Alanwarner1610@outlook.com.

POSTSCRIPT 1
From Helen Garthwaite, now living in Pennsylvania, USA.

I was a teenager living in Marsworth in 1982 and remember very well the ceremony which took place at the entrance to the airfield on Lukes Lane. There were a number of USAF veterans there and I remember the fly past. I also recall seeing the landing light placed in the ground in front of the stone.

At around the same time I came across several young men from the USA while walking near the airfield entrance. They were touring the UK and visiting former airfields used by USA airmen. The grandfather of one of them had been stationed at Cheddington. I showed them the memorial stone and, much to my parents’ surprise, invited them in for a cup of tea by an open fire. The visitors saw this as very English.

In the mid nineties, while I was then living in Long Marston, Pat Carty came to speak in Victory Hall and he gave a brilliant summary of what life was like in the airfield during the war. My recollection is that he was a British historian rather than a veteran American airman.

POSTSCRIPT 2
Helen saw this article and, despite being so far away, decided to do some research and tracked down the author Pat Carty, now living in Scarborough UK. This led to an interview with Pat which will be coming on our website soon and will contain a number of surprising revelations!

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