Over the past few years, I have marked Remembrance Sunday by attending, along with my wife Louise (who’s also an air traffic controller at Farnborough), the service at Runnymede Air Forces Memorial.
The memorial commemorates the airmen and women who served in the RAF and were lost on operations from bases in the UK and North and Western Europe during the Second World War, and who have no known grave.
This year the service will hold additional poignancy for both of us, due to our recent research into the service of two of Louise’s relatives.
Meurig James left rural South Wales and joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, soon learning to fly in the flimsy, wood and fabric aircraft of the time. He was posted to No.4 Squadron on 1 January 1918 as a reconnaissance pilot flying slow, large and vulnerable Royal Aircraft Factory RE.8 biplanes.
In early January his first flight on the squadron is recorded as a ‘local’ flight, not a combat operation, in order to familiarise him with the surrounding area. The outcome in the squadron records is notated as ‘Successful – One Landing’, emphasising just how dangerous flying was in those days – let alone flying in combat.
On 1 April, when the RAF was formed, he was flying from an aerodrome near Lens in France. As the German Army made its final push in Spring 1918, he was involved in artillery spotting and general reconnaissance missions during the fourth battle of Ypres, sometimes acting as pilot, and on other missions as the observer.
Radio technology was improving all the time, and some sets were fitted into large aircraft; reconnaissance aircraft were the first types to fly with these new air-to-ground radios. He may well have been among the first aircrew to use a radio to communicate with the ground.
On 17 April 1918 his aircraft was shot down and upon examining the surviving records at the National Archive in Kew, we suspect that the RAF at the time was more concerned by the fate of the aircraft than the aircrew! Reports of what was salvageable and the state of the wreck exist in considerable detail. Although injured, thankfully he survived and was invalided out of the RAF in 1920.
Cederic Minns joined the RAF in October 1940. He began training as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner on Vickers Wellingtons.
He converted to the Short Stirling, the first of the modern four-engine heavy bombers, and was posted to No.218 Squadron at RAF Downham Market in April 1943.
On the night of 22 June 1943, 6 Stirlings, including Cederic’s, were dispatched to bomb Mulheim, Germany. On the return journey, at approximately 02:29, an SOS message (probably sent by Cederic himself), was received from a location around 40 miles west of The Hague, over the North Sea. It is thought that aircraft BK572 HA-K was attacked by a Messerchmidt Me110 nightfighter. It never returned. Only Flight Sergeant Farr, the rear gunner, survived through escaping by parachute. Cederic’s body has never been found.
He updated his will two weeks before his last mission. It instructs a sum of £7 to be given to his girlfriend in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) to buy a brooch in the shape of an aircraft engine propeller for his mother, and that his prized Raleigh bicycle be given to his brother.
His last postcard to his grandparents, sent just before he was lost, reads:
“Dear Nanny and Grandad,
Just a line or two hoping you are well. I’m doing fine and hope to be home on leave in a few days’ time. The weather has been grand, real gardening weather.”
On Sunday, I will be thinking of Cederic – what he went through that night and all the nights before. I shall also be thinking of the strands that connect us all; Meurig was there at the forming of the RAF, possibly among the first to use a radio to communicate with the ground. And Cederic, another flyer, a Wireless Operator, also using a radio to communicate with HQ back in the UK, while braving the hostile skies of occupied Europe.
Now, Louise and I, as well as my brother Nigel and Louise’s sister, Foggie, are all air traffic controllers. We still use radio, in the RAF’s 100th year, as well as many other more modern forms of communication and surveillance to help ensure safety in the skies.
Cederic Minns, along with 20,277 others, is recorded on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede. On Sunday, Louise and I will place a poppy stem and a biography of Cederic by his name to remember him and honour his sacrifice, one among many.
“All that they had they gave – they gave; and they shall not return,
For these are those that have no grave where any heart may mourn.”
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