The Aircrew Association – Biggin Hill Wing.
Public Relations Exercise – Autumn 1999
The Aircrew Association is an Organisation whose membership is composed of aircrew and ex-aircrew of all three armed services and all Allied nations. Not all are of 1939/45 vintage but the great majority are now over seventy years old and, in some cases, very much older. All of these people have led extremely interesting lives and very many of them have had careers in military aviation which, had they happened today, could well have been the stuff of television documentaries and even films. The thing that virtually all of them have in common is an attitude to their achievements that is modest to the point of being self-effacing.
In view of this situation the ACA’s Committee decided that there should be a central archives, an Aircrew Museum, dedicated to the achievements of its membership in general, and incorporating verbal reminiscences on tape from as many as possible. This bank of taped interviews would form a huge base of first-hand personal experience from aircrew who had participated in military aviation over several decades but particularly during the period of the second World War. Linked to this would be personal memorabilia relating to the flyers of those times, from whatever source available.
The Biggin Hill Wing of the ACA began to participate in the Archive project during the summer of 1999 and, as the Wing Archivist, I began to interview members and get their stories onto tape. Last autumn, our PR Officer, Geoff White, submitted a photograph of some of the Wing’s one hundred and eighty members to the Press and included a short piece about our project. Many of you now reading this will have seen that piece and you will be pleased to hear that it was a great success.
I received almost fifty responses from people in areas as far apart as Enfield and Reigate. Not bad for the local papers! Obviously the majority of these came from the Biggin Hill / Bromley / Orpington areas. Many were from relatives or wives of men who had flown from the local airfields, Biggin, Kenley and a couple I had never heard of which were probably small sattelite airstrips. I had offers of pilots’ log books, uniforms, medals plus photographs, newspaper cuttings, books and publications too numerous to mention. One lady kindly donated a white silk flying – scarf which had been given to her mother in 1944 by her friend who was flying on a New Zealand bomber squadron at that time. Inscribed in black ink “To Molly, All the best in your life. From Red” it carried hand-written details of every mission that he had flown over enemy territory, thirty in all, totaling some two hundred and fifty hours. What a memento, and what a splendid record of one man’s tour of duty. Sadly we have no idea who he was as we only have the name “Red” to go by. Another lady sent me her ticket, won in a local newspaper competition in 1932, for a flight in an aeroplane with Sir Allan Cobham. Not strictly a military memento, but one which must carry many memories. It is sobering to think of the acts of grim determination, bravery or even heroism which resulted in the award of some of the medals which were donated so willingly. The uniforms hold a particular poignancy, especially the flying badges, or brevets as they are properly known. Anyone who has ever qualified for one of these will remember the amount of effort, study and determination that it took to be able finally to sew that bit of embroidered cloth onto his uniform.
I received several photos of complete squadrons, mostly with only just enough information to identify one or at most two of the young men posing self-consciously for the camera. Some pictures were of a single crew, apprehensive before taking off on a raid or showing smiles of elation at being safely home again. Some bore scribbled notes on the back. “My old crew. All killed over Aachen when I was in hospital” or something equally as heart rending. On the brighter side there were also several war-time Service publications sent to me. Pilot Officer Prune seems to have stayed forever in the memory of many ex-RAF types. The only item that I had to decline, reluctantly I must say, was an incendiary bomb that one gentleman kindly offered!
Someone found a Pilot’s logbook, Certificate of Competence, photos and several personal documents in a skip in Penge and passed them on to me. I tried to trace the owner, even making a trip to the Family Records Office to track down as much information a s possible about him but the trail went cold and I had to give in at last. All of the items which were donated will be lodged with the ACA central archives under the control of Air Commodore Brian Pitchfork, each with its own back-up documents bearing the name of its donor amongst other details. I also send to every donor a letter acknowledging receipt and stating what has been handed over. I have been asked from time to time to value medals or other items but I cannot help in that respect. The ACA undertakes never to dispose of items donated and accepts all items with the sole aim of displaying them in its museum.
The most rewarding aspect of the whole exercise has been the amount of interest that the public has shown and the support we have had from people. We hope to get another piece published in the coming year in order to keep our project in the public eye. I hope that the residents of the Biggin Hill area will continue to support us as well as they have done this year and I thank everyone who contacted me for their kindness.
Bob Hinds, Hon Archivist, Biggin Hill Wing of the Aircrew Association.