Heroes of the skies

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AS a little lad, one of the highlights of the long summer holidays was to cycle over to the aerodrome at Cranfield, peer expectantly over the perimeter hedge, and hope to see a Lancaster bomber run up its engines, taxi out and power majestically into the Bedfordshire skies.

With a large vertical fin attached to the upper fuselage it was engaged in de-icing trials on aerofoil surfaces, but of course with schoolboy imagination it was really embarking on an heroic mission over heavily defended enemy territory.

And perhaps Guy Gibson was at the controls, for he had once been the station commander. But of course he is more famously remembered for the Dambusters, of which the village of Aspley Guise has an association through a grandson of the village rector from 1880 until 1915, the Rev James Chadwick Maltby.

As for Lancasters, the village has an association with one of the most famous that now survives, ‘S for Sugar,’ which endured numerous raids over wartime Germany.

Of the wartime crews, Frank Rutt, the rear gunner, later made his home at Mount Pleasant, Aspley Guise, and it would be at the RAF Museum at Hendon, where ‘S for Sugar’ is on display, that he and the rest of his crew had their first reunion. In fact prior to this the pilot, Jack Colpus, had come from his home at Perth, Australia, to stay with Frank and his wife, and it would be at the Wheatsheaf pub in the village that a reunion with some of the other crew members took place.

However, only when the missing complement came over from Canada was the full crew reunited, to reminisce among other experiences about a raid on Berlin on the night of November 26/27, 1943, when, having dropped the bombs, the aircraft was picked up by searchlights. The pilot took immediate evasive action but in doing so collided with another Lancaster and, with some five feet of the starboard wing sheared off, went into a dive. However, he regained control, and at 10,000 feet flew back to Waddington, only to have to divert to Linton on Ouse due to fog.

Even from the early days of aviation Aspley Guise can claim aeronautical connections, for in 1871 the Aspley Guise and Woburn Sands Gas Works had been asked to supply sufficient gas for a balloon ascent by a Mr Gaueus.

Following the advent of powered flight, in 1917 having passed low over the area an Army aeroplane landed in a local field, and the pilot and the other occupant gratefully accepted refreshment at a local farm. Soldiers from Bletchley were called to guard the aeroplane and from a suitable distance large numbers of villagers inspected the machine, which then took off the next day.

In the south aisle of Aspley Guise Parish Church is a memorial plaque on which is commemorated Observer Lieutenant Guy Owen-Jones R.N. whose home was at Aspley Guise.

He was killed aged 25 in ‘a naval flying accident’ and the memorial is even more poignant since it also commemorates his brother, who, as a midshipman, had drowned at sea in 1924.

Of a more recent tragedy, on Friday 15, 1950, reports began to reach Bletchley Fire Brigade that an RAF jet had exploded at high speed over Brickhill Woods. In the company of three other brigades they immediately rushed to the scene and, having scoured 15 sq miles of heavily wooded terrain, at Aspley Heath found the body of the pilot, 28-year-old Squadron Leader J. Muller Rowland, still strapped into the wrecked cockpit. The aircraft had been a DH108 ‘flying wing’, and the twisted remains lay scattered between Sandy Lane and Woburn Road.