The Ingrid Pitt column: Heroes of the skies

Ingrid loves vintage planes, and this week is on her way to Bomber Command to see some some relive their old antics in English skies...

The say there are old pilots and bold pilots – but there are no old, bold pilots.I was able to put that little homily to rest last weekend. I was invited to the Purfleet Heritage Centre in Essex to meet some of the oldest and boldest pilots around. A dozen or so veterans of world War 2, led by the indomitable Group Captain Tom Bennett. Tom was one of the Dambusters crew who were immortalized in the film Dambusters.

The occasion was the celebration of the 90th Anniversary of Bomber Command. Something I couldn’t miss. Anything aeronautic and propeller driven brings out the true Geek in me. My flat is practically a museum in itself. Even the bedroom walls drip with pictures of Lancasters and Spitfires. I was promised a surfeit of pilots and memorabilia plus a fly-past by the RAF Commemorative Flight. Who could ask for more? Even the weather seemed to agree. When I left home the sun was shining brightly with little white puffy clouds promising a perfect background for a sexy tribute to years gone by. By the time I reached Purfleet things had changed a bit. The puffy clouds had been replaced by dramatic looking mares-tails and the prospect to the west was beginning to look decidedly dodgy. Luckily the car stopped right outside the museum door so the fact that there was now a howling gale didn’t strike me immediately. A cup of tea and I was ready for the fray.

The Old/Bold Pilots were already in place behind a long table with their name and rank crisply printed on cards in front of them. Between them they had a wild clutch of medals. DFMs, AFCs as well as a bright arrays of campaign medals from Normandy to Seoul. I wanted to talk to them but they were busily signing autographs for the visitors who appreciated the role the gathered Brylcreem Boys had played is saving the world from the Nazi jackboot all those years ago.I hung around until Tom Bennett was free and sidled in beside him. Richard Smith, the organiser of the do, did a rapid introduction and I was relieved to see a flicker of recognition in Tom’s eye when Richard mentioned my role in Where Eagles Dare. I did feel a bit of a fraud. Here I was with a real live hero and being introduced as if I had contributed to saving the world. I wanted to talk about Tom’s exploits bombing the Ruhr Dams. I have seen the film, Dambusters at least half a dozen times and knew every move Guy Gibson, played by stocky little Richard Todd, made. I wanted more. Unfortunately Tom was being typically British and modest about his role. I thought the best ploy was to leave him with his fans and collar him when he couldn’t take evasive manoeuvres at lunch.

I had noticed that some of the people coming into the museum were looking a little damp. But by this time I had forgotten about the weather and was having a closer look at some of the exhibits from WW2 which were on display. I had just visited an Anderson Air Raid Shelter and marvelled at the stoicism of the Londoners who had to spend their nights in the primitive accommodation with the Nazi bombs raining down on them when Richard the Org sidled up and whispered apologetically in my ear that the Fly-Past had been cancelled due to the weather. Cancelled! What’s it all about Alfie? We were standing in the middle of memories from the deadly conflict of nearly seventy years ago with heroes on tap who had kept the home fires burning, whatever the elements might decide, by flying into enemy airspace, filled with flak and hostile planes trying to shoot them down, and we were being told that the promised fly-past by the RAF Commemorative Flight was being cancelled because of a few drops of rain and a bit of a blow. Richard did admit that it seemed a mite limp-wristed but explained that it wasn’t the weather, it was the just that the cloud base was so low that nobody would be able to see anything. I would have been happy just to hear the roar of the engines overhead but I had to admit that it wasn’t everybody’s cup of senna.

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Trouble is that the museum is built right on the edge of the Thames Estuary. Was built, I should say. Originally the building was an ammunitions arsenal for the forces. It had been moved to Purfleet from London when Prinny, the Prince Regent’s roistering days were curtailed when he became King. He felt a little uncomfortable at having all that gunpowder and other volatile substances so close and decreed that in future the Arsenal would be someone else when dissidents lit the blue touch paper and stood back. The Thames Estuary was considered remote enough and five buildings were hastily thrown up and filled with the black stuff. Gunpowder that is – not coal. In the sixties, when any spare piece of land was sold off by vandalising councils for property developers to disfigure, four of the original five buildings were demolished before the local residents were able to do anything about it. By the time they had got their act together four of the buildings had been reduced to rubble. The fifth became the Heritage Museum.

A bit deflated I returned to the cafe and glowered at a cup of tea. Just behind me there was a small stage. Winston Churchill. Homburg and cigar in situ, walked passed where I was sitting, followed by a bevy of ladies of a certain age dressed in clothes they had saved from the forties. Bringing up the rear was someone who looked remarkably like Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army. They took up their positions on the stage and started to belt out the nostalgic songs of the war. The White Cliffs of Dover, Roll Me Over In The Clover, Lily Marlene and many more were warbled with gusto. I must admit that most of the people who had turned out were about my age, 39 and not counting, but there was a surprising number of younger people there whose connection to the conflict of the forties was tenuous and probably film-oriented. I spoke to some of them. Many of them were ex-servicemen who had served in Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.

I never did get to have another word with Tom Bennett, to my regret. At lunch I was sitting with some of the younger elements and they told me tales of their exploits in the sands of the the Middle East and streets of Belfast. When I expressed surprise that they were wiling to spend Saturday at an exhibition which really only connected with geriatrics, they told me that in comparison with what was going on around the world at the moment they felt that WW2 was a more romantic War, Good versus Evil! I felt like arguing with them about that but for once kept my lip buttoned. If the blokes to whom I was talking are anything to go by it seems that our troops think that what they are doing in the sands is not what they signed up for. They feel that it is all a bit sordid. More about hubris and oil than patriotism. Even the way they are treated shows that the wars are more about political posturing than National necessity. Although I agreed with much of what was said I didn’t want to spoil the afternoon with politics so moved on.

Lunch was at a nearby ancillary building. I was initially perplexed when I was told I had to go to the Poofs Centre. I was still puzzled when it turned out to be the Proof Centre.This was about 100 yards away from the Museum . When I got outside I was nearly blown away. The cloud base was down to zero, the wind felt like it had had ambitions of becoming a regular hurricane and I’ve seen less water flowing over Los Missiones. It was time to call it a day. I went and said a reluctant goodbye to the Veteran Heroes and felt sad. Richard took me out into the maelstrom and saw me safely into the car. As I was driven away I looked back. The wind and rain lashed scene seemed to symbolise the chaotic years of the 1940s when the nations of the world did their best to tear themselves to pieces.

I got home just in time to watch Michael Kitchen and Honeysuckle Weeks in Foyles War.

Ingrid Pitt writes every Tuesday at Den of Geek; you can read her last column here.

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