Trust tribute to MAEE veteran

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“A pleasant surprise during the coronavirus lockdown. Please thank the people of Helensburgh.” So said nonagenarian Frances McLaren, who admits to now being frail of limb.

However, her mind seems as sharp as it was when she was on the scientific staff at RAF Helensburgh on Garelochside some 75 years ago.

Frances had just received a framed certificate of recognition from Helensburgh Heritage Trust, on the recommendation of retired Merseyside newspaper editor Robin Bird, author of two books about the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment.

She remembers analysing film of Barnes Wallis bouncing bomb trials with an armed guard outside the door at the MAEE HQ in what is now the Rosslea Hall Hotel at Rhu. Such was the importance of her work towards the war effort.

Frances, who was born in Old Kilpatrick in 1923, joined the MAEE boffins at Helensburgh straight from school.  As a young Frances Shedden she had gained the senior leaving certificate from Hermitage School.

She was staying in Rhu just before the outbreak of war and then permanently as an evacuee during the Clyde Blitz that destroyed the family home.

As a member of the scientific team at RAF Helensburgh she was a woman in a man’s world. There she also met and worked with James George McLaren, and they were later married for more than 70 years.

The framed certificate, written by Robin and designed by Trust website editor Donald Fullarton, reads: “This certificate of appreciation from Helensburgh Heritage Trust acknowledges the contribution made to the war effort by yourself and your late husband Jim McLaren while serving with the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment/RAF Helensburgh during World War Two.

“You were a young woman who devoted herself to serving her country while carrying out a dangerous occupation testing weapons and flying boats.

“You are a Scot that we can be proud of here in Rhu and Helensburgh.”

Frances intended to go to university and become a teacher, but a chance meeting would change all that.

While still at school Frances and three other girls were billeted in a lovely house at Faslane called Almanarre, the home of a very kind couple, Margaret and Roger Graham. They had no children and were about 55 years of age.

However this was too good to last, recalls Frances. “Mr Graham received an official letter from the Admiralty saying the house and garden were needed for a railway across docks being built near Garelochead,” she said. “This was around Christmas 1940.”

Her next home was at Armadale in Rhu, where Colonel Kenneth Barge and his family resided.

The Colonel was a deeply religious person who seemed to have an open house for local children. His home had large double iron gates directly opposite the pier where various huts were being built. Later she learned these were for the MAEE.

When the new school term started in August 1941 a school friend invited her for tea. Mary’s father was a senior scientist with the MAEE and when he learned that Frances had good exam results he said: “Why don’t you come and work for us? My boss, Mr Harry Garner, wants replacements for the young men who have gone to war.

“Your father will have to sign approval as it will be hush hush work with flying involved.”

And that is how Frances became the first scientific assistant at RAF Helensburgh. She attended evening classes to obtain qualifications in electrical science and dynamics.

She remembers going to the cinema in Helensburgh when off duty, and the long walk back to Rhu if the last bus had been missed.

Frances first worked from the scientific office on the pier with Frank O’Hara and Graham White, supervised by Bert Smith.

He was in charge too of the hull launching tank where model seaplanes and land planes were tested for ditching. They recorded hydrodynamic findings.

She then analysed the findings with a German-made Bosch machine called a metaphot, not unlike a microscope.

“I was still 18,” she said. “In the spring of 1942 I was involved in the research of rockets fired from a Sunderland. Mr Smith was in charge of these trials.

“I sat in the co-pilot’s seat to make recordings of airspeed and altitude during firing. The Sunderland flew from Rhu to the RAF station at Bowmore, Islay.”

The rockets were attached to the wings and the U-Boat target was a rubber dinghy belonging to MAEE’s marine section. Later it was discovered the aircraft wings had been under stress.

The pilot was a Canadian, Flight Lieutenant John Thomas Reed DFC, who was later promoted to squadron leader with mention of his flying skills, courage and resourcefulness. The London Gazette said he saw action at Arnhem and the Rhine crossing.

He recorded among his flying hours 306 in Sunderlands, 634 in Dakotas and 201 hours in Catalinas.

Frances with a test pilot and crew at RAF Helensburgh, possibly after her maiden flight.

Aboard the flying boat on her maiden flight the crew surprised Frances with cakes from a tea shop in Helensburgh, which they ate on the return flight.

Being a woman she had to use toilet facilities on aircraft and at the base used by men. When she went to use the ladies at the tea shop at Rhu she was told it was for customers only.

When Frances replied where she worked and that she could not afford to take tea, the owner said “go ahead then”, adding “anything for the war effort!”

Frances carried out various duties, including at sea during air sea rescue trials testing various types of inflatables. However, the highlight was seeing the most secret bouncing bomb trials.

Frances and Jim married in Edinburgh in 1946 and when the MAEE returned to Felixstowe they set up home in Suffolk and Frances remained with the MAEE, working with colleagues John Allen and James Hamilton from Helensburgh. They became lifelong friends.

Her knowledge and hands-on experience at Helensburgh was put to good use at Felixstowe. She eventually retired on health grounds, having injured her back when knocked down on the tarmac by an amphibious Seagull flying boat. Her back still hurts today.

Both John Allen and James Hamilton passed away in recent times. Before that all three visited an open day at Felixstowe after it closed in 1956 where they were re-united with many former colleagues.

She had a narrow escape during World War Two. She was due to fly in the experimental Scion on March 15 1944, but colleague H.G.White took her place in the cramped observer’s seat at the last moment.

He was killed when the Scion crashed. James Hamilton was lucky to escape with relative minor injuries.

Frances with colleagues at RAF Helensburgh.