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- Chepstow Drill Hall
- People in story:
- Neil Waddas-Chepstow Memories
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- Contributed on:
- 08 June 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by volunteer from The Chepstow Society on behalf of Neil Waddas and has been added to the site with his permission. Neil Waddas fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Chepstow Racecourse and the Royal Airforce 1941/42.
My late Father Flt/Lt H.F.Widdas was in command during this period. We lived at first in the Piercefield Hotel as it was at that time, this was for about 6/7 weeks before new accommodation was found at Stolegrove House at Woodcroft where we must have been for a couple of months before finally being offered fully furnished accommodation at the house of the late Major and Mrs Webb. This house was "The Shieling" on St Lawrence Road and where we remained for the remainder of Dads command at Chepstow I might add in considerable comfort, for the times, and certainly the finest house we had ever lived in up to then.
Under the circumstances, when I was not at school, firstly at Tutshill and then at Chepstow Boys, the entire racecourse was my playground. My friends were the son and daughter of Archie Syles who was the boss of the civilian contingent, one of lifes characters and if Archie could not get it then it was definitely not obtainable. His two children were Tony and Valerie and the family lived in the cottage at the walled farm over at the Big House. He and his Wife had a second son but he had been killed in a very tragic accident during the blackout when getting on or off the tail board of an Army lorry.
The racecourse was a satellite field of R.A.F .St Athan. and I seem to remember that this was
No32 M.U. The gentlemen who were Dads right hand men, during the period in question were firstly Pilot Officer F .Wagstaff and secondly Captain J .Kowalski of the Polish Air Force. I still have a Christmas present given to me by P/O Wagstaff dated Christmas 1941, a book called Heroes of the Fighting R.A.F. I also have a book which Capt Jerry Kowalski gave to my Mum and Dad which he inscribed with the following words. "Let this souvenir be a token of true Polish English friendship. Yours, very sincerely. J .Kowalski. Cpt. Chepstow 18.7.1941. The book is "Polish
The aircraft types that I well remember during this time are as follows.
Boulton Paul Defiants. These were picketed on the far side opposite the Administration Offices the ruins of which still exist by the middle lodge.
Hawker Hurricanes. I do not remember too many of these at the time and they were over in the area of the Old House.
Supermarine Spitfires were not in residence at this time as the runway was considered too rough for their under carriages. My Dad had been asked to a check out the runway for these aircraft. This he did by driving his car, a 1938 Morris canvas hood two seater down the runway at its maximum speed. It broke a spring and so the runway was taboo for Spits.
Having said this a Spitfire did come in on one occasion. Dad had a good friend at the time one Sqd/Ldr Freeman, who was one of "The Few" I remember him well. Every small boys vision of a dashing fighter pilot and I guess, in retrospect, every young ladies "DREAM". He was flying in the area and had some form of engine trouble so was able to quickly land on the racecourse although knowing of its dislike for the Spit. He was going to have to prang anyway but this solution at least gave him a chance of a decent landing.
The aircraft engine was repaired and it was Freeman who came to collect it. My Dad told me years later that while they were walking out to the aircraft Freeman did comment on the possibility of an accident during take off.
Sadly this gallant young Sqd/Ldr, for reasons of his own, transferred to Bomber Command and was killed, whilst training, when his aircraft flew into a hillside in fog.
Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Bombers. These were around at different times.
Vickers Wellington Bombers. I seem to remember that these were parked across the road at Oakgrove. A section of the wall had been removed along the Monmouth Road and likewise the hedge opposite in order for them to cross the road.
Bristol Blenheim Bombers. These were around from time to time, long and short nosed types.
Douglas Boston and Havoc Bombers. When these were in they were parked over by the house. Some of these were fitted with Turbin Lights. These were the types that were to be used as night fighter support. They were filled with batteries and were fitted with a very powerful search light. The theory was that they would fly with night fighters and when an enemy aircraft was found they would light it up in order for the attending fighter to shoot it down. This was a complete failure and the planes were sent to Chepstow so that the batteries could be removed. The batteries were
extremely heavy and there was insufficient clearance to lower them to the ground so trenches were temporarily dug beneath the aircraft to lower the batteries into.
Although Turbin Light was a failure all avenues had to be tried. Any suggestions were considered and it is recorded that one which was put forward was "Take cat up in night fighter. Aim guns where cat is looking."
Blackburn Botha Bombers. I believe that only three of these failures were ever at Chepstow. They were parked on the grass opposite the walled farm yard under purpose-produced camouflage netting. These aircraft were so under powered that they had proved to be useless for operations and were only used for training even at this early date. As with all other aircraft that remained for long periods their engines were run from time to time. Although I was invited to get up in them whilst this was being done I never did because I had a fear of them brought about by the explosion which
their engines Koffman starters gave. I was in Dads office the day they departed from Chepstow. The ferry pilots arrived, I forget in which type of aircraft on this occasion but it definitely would have been either the faithful Avro Anson or the DeHavilland Rapide better known to me at the time as a "Dominne" They asked Dad if they could borrow the Standard van, after dumping their parachutes in the comer of his office. They scrambled into it and shot out of the middle gate in the direction of St Arvans. When they returned I well remember that they were not behaving as when they left. My young mind was not able to understand why this should be. They got geared up, said goodbye and the three Botha aircraft departed safely. Dad told me years later that he was terrified that one might have an engine failure after leaving the runway because there was only one place that it could have ended up. There was no way that these aircraft could survive on one engine.
Why had these young pilots manner changed during their trip in the Standard van? They had nipped up the road to the Piercefield Hotel and prepared themselves in order to face an unwanted possible very real danger.
High Altitude Vickers Wellingtons. Three of these hush-hush high altitude bombers were on the Racecourse for a short period only. I well remember the arrival of these aircraft for at the time I was in the Lewis Gun emplacement not far from the middle Lodge. There was also one across the runway by the edge of the pond. These twin gun emplacements were manned by the R.A.F. Regiment chaps with whom I was always asking questions .On this occasion they had removed the ammunition drums, stood me on a box and I was able to follow the three aircraft in with the guns. Many years later I mentioned this to Dad who seemed to do a double take and I was left with the impression that If he had found out at the time heads would have rolled in all directions.
With regard to Spitfire aircraft there was a prang, not on the racecourse, but in a field alongside Penterry Lane. Again it was caused by engine failure. The plane was being flown by a young NewZealand pilot. After a pretty good belly landing he was just able to get out as the plane burst into flames. He was lucky to only receive a singed neck. He recalled his experience while he recovered at our house in St Lawrence road and waited for transport to arrive from St Athan. He said that he had no idea that the racecourse was a landing ground and recalled that after his crash he asked someone who was attending to the land where he was and was quite shocked to realize that who ever it was had not seen what had happened and that a Spitfire was merrily going up in smoke in the middle of the field behind him.
The aircraft whilst at their various picketing points were attached to picket blocks. The blocks were made of concrete with a cast in ring on the top and about the size of a 25 gallon drum. Now at this time the slopes in front of Piercefield House were covered in dense bracken. One day Tony Stiles and I realized that these picket blocks would make a very spectacular sight rolling down the slope through the bracken. There happened to be a couple, unused at the time, right at the top of the slope, and so we turned them over and off they went in a way even more spectacular than we could possibly imagine. Very recently it passed through my mind, I wonder? I made a point of walking down from the front of the Old House to the railings bounding the woods. I did not expect to find anything but it was with almost a shock that lying fairly close to each other were the two picket blocks which we sent on their way 60 years ago. So if any of you good walkers ever wonder? That is what they are.
Over at the Piercefield House complex the general set up was as follows. The now very derelict stable block was the accommodation block for the R.A.F. personnel of which there were dog handlers. The guard dogs at the time were Bull Terriers and Huskeys. The dog kennels were along the wall which runs between the walled farm yard and the gardeners buildings, now completely vandalized. The dogs were tethered to wire runs when off-duty. It seemed to be the Bull Terriers that would run up and down these runs with the result that the securing rings would wear out. When these dogs got loose they would immediately tear into the Huskeys causing some really nasty damage. On one occasion it was necessary to use a reversed rifle to quieten a half raged Bull Terrier. The rifle butt was broken off but the dog recovered to carry on with its appointed job.
At the end of this stable block is a room which can be looked into and it will be seen to have an elevated concrete engine bed. This is where the electric generator was housed. Below in the stables, still generally intact were showers, and various storage compartments in the stable compartments. Still can be seen, hand painted, on some of the doors, the labels for their uses. I believe we can still just see, " Armoury" " Anti-Gas " on two of the doors. In the walled yard but now demolished were buildings against the wall to the right of the main gate and these were the offices for the various different trades whilst the buildings to the left housed the transport and the Fordson half-track tractor which towed aircraft. It also contained the ambulance and fire tender .
At the village end of the course up at the high point where the two seats have been erected was the accommodation and toilet block for the engine and airframe fitters. All that is now left are the foundations. At the time various repairs and alterations were made to aircraft and certain items became redundant to requirements. These items were dumped over the cliff in the woods behind and whilst you will not find anything worth hunting for I did find, and left, two sections of aircraft panel, still with their green and black camouflage. In the woods backing the aforementioned accommodation there was what I suspect to be a general waste dumping site and I have recovered a bottle, the top of which I noticed sticking out of the soil. It is a beer bottle named ORIGINAL BREWERY Co Lt CHELTENHAM. The cap is engraved WAR GRADE.
The concrete rollers which consisted of a set of five are still on the racecourse although no longer as a complete set. These were used to roll the runway. The tractor used to pull them up to the wall at the top end and the CHAPS would pull them down. An interesting point regarding the runway is the point at which the twin-engined aircraft would lift off. These bigger aircraft would taxi up to the top end and swing around with their-tails as close to the wall as possible. At the end of their run they would be just about unstuck at a point opposite the administration office at middle lodge and at this point the run changes from one of slightly downhill to a slight rise before becoming level. They lifted off on the rise. Is this the original "Ski Jump?"
The town end of the racecourse was inhabited by The Army where, amongst other things, Hand Grenade throwing was practiced. I believe that the demise of Piercefield House was started very early on by it being used for various practice sessions with live ordnance although at this time it was, in general, very complete, and quite an exciting place for small boys to play in although we used to imagine ghostly footsteps and almost manage evacuation of the top floor without touching the stairs which were the servants stairs because the grand stairway had had its lower section blown away by the aforementioned army games.
Also at this period the woods at the town end became the quarters for, feel sure, the Indian Army complete with horse drawn guns and carriages and these were a grand sight to behold when they sometimes came out on the public roads.
Although not related to the racecourse I mention the prison camp at the end of St Lawrence road. This was across the road from Mount Pleasant and so there was the unique situation of on one side of the road the old survivors from the first conflict in their blue uniforms and on the opposite side prisoners from the second conflict both German and Italian in their uniforms which I remember as two types. The Italians seemed to be in dark brown battle dress type uniforms with coloured patches whilst the only Germans I saw at close quarters were those Officers who were allowed out for walks with generally only one army guard and in these cases I have a vivid memory of grey uniforms, polished black high boots, with in some cases decorations such as the Iron Cross. Whatever, quite often my Mum would take me walking by way of Mounton Road which adjoined the camp. She would deviously manage to throw packets of cigarettes over the wire with instructions to me that if ever I let my DAD find out my life would be barely worth living. She was a kind and understanding lady who unfortunately was taken from us when only 34.
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