A POPPY Cross is placed each year at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment memorial at Helensburgh’s Kidston to mark Remembrance Day — and in 2021 it had special significance.
The memorial, erected by Helensburgh Heritage Trust and the Airfields Conservation Trust, not only commemorates those killed while serving with RAF Helensburgh during World War Two, but also the hundreds of men and women who once served there.
It is thought that the last surviving man to work there was former RAF Corporal and Coxswain Eric Haynes (right), who died on December 20 2020 at the age of 101.
Eric spoke at length to MAEE researcher and author Robin Bird about his service there in the marine section, which was formed in 1942 during the escalating war against German U-Boats.
The role of the marine section included ways of improving air sea rescue methods, particularly those involving ditched aircraft. They tested emergency and smoke flares, reflective mirrors, inflatable rafts and Lindholme containers filled with life-saving supplies.
The section also serviced flying boats both at Helensburgh and those away from base, and Eric’s duties extended to RAF Prestwick, RAF Dumbarton, Loch Lomond, and the Denny shipyard in Dumbarton, all facilities used by MAEE.
Like others posted to RAF Helensburgh, Eric found the actual posting was based at Rhu. The road to Rhu would lead to Eric meeting his future wife who served with the Women’s Auxilliary Air Force.
The section comprised forty men. Eric was cox’n of the marine tender ST384 based on the Gareloch, which was also used during top secret trials on Loch Lomond.
He recalled that getting ST384 to Loch Lomond involved sailing to Dumbarton, where the tender was lifted out of the water. It was then taken by road to Balloch and launched into the River Leven.
“I climbed on board ST384 (left), started the engines and we sailed slowly up the the loch and tied up on the allocated pier,” he said. “We lived on board for the duration of the trials.”
One secret trial was of skip bombs. The theory was similar to the Highball tests conducted by MAEE on Loch Striven. The ‘skip bomb’ concept was pioneered by Lord Nelson skipping cannon balls across the sea at enemy ships.
MAEE pilots from Prestwick carried out the skip attacks at a dummy target which represented the hull of a ship. It was marked centre just above the water line where, on a ship, steel plating was thin and the engine room located.
One sunny day the scheduled aircraft did not turn up from Prestwick. Helensburgh’s flying boats were not suitable for skip bomb trials, so land based aircraft were used.
Eric was instructed to contact Rhu to find out what was wrong. He used ST384 to get to Luss Village and called at the policeman’s house to telephone Rhu. It turned out that the aircraft could not fly because of engine problems.
Another trial undertaken on Loch Lomond was the testing of anti-submarine bombs. The dummy bombs were recovered as quickly as possible, as if damaged they lost buoyancy and sank.
Radio messages to and from Loch Lomond were hit and miss reception because of the mountainous region, so kites were used to boost signals.
The most secret trial on the loch was of rocket propelled models of the proposed RS1 jet seaplane. This would be a world’s first in aviation developed by RAF Helensburgh.
Chippies at the base made some of the models, others were made in Glasgow. They were launched from the water by ST384 at various speeds. A stopwatch was used as the towing vessel did not have a speedometer. On a few occasions rocket powered flying models exploded in the sky, but successful trials recorded water and flight behaviour.
The first Saunders Roe SR1 jet seaplane was flown by the MAEE in July 1947, and it can still be seen at the Solent Museum in Southampton. Three SR1 jets were built, but two crashed. MAEE test pilot Squadron Leader K.A.Major DFC was killed flying one.
Eric conducted an inventory of the marine section for the period 1943-1945. The section had three seaplane tenders, Vosper and Brooke Marine, one B.P. fire float, one refueller, four marine tenders, one bomb scow, and one 8ft ‘dumb’ dinghy.
Warrant Officer Riches was in charge of the vessels. He was answerable to Vincent Drake, head of the section. Other names included Muir, Ramsey, McMillan, Steady, Garstange, Currey, Read, and Eric Haynes.
The section also had twenty deck hands, eight marine fitters, two carpenter boat builders, an electrician and a wireless operator from the RAF Helensburgh pool.
Duties involved trips to places like Greenock, Dunoon, Rothesay, Fairlie, Port Glasgow, Oban and as far as Tiree, known as ‘the reef’. It was not unusual for a seaplane tender to be away from base for 18 hours.
The marine section tested an experimental motor torpedo boat by Pemberton Billing, the inventor whose original company became Supermarine.
This one-off MTB was steered by rotating props allowing quick turns of 180 degrees. It was powered by two Rolls Royce engines, but the plywood hull was not up to this performance.
Eric’s fondest memories of Helensburgh and Rhu involved meeting his future wife, who was a WAAF at the officers mess, the then Royal Northern Yacht Club. Her name was Lilian and she trained in hotel silver service before the war.
Eric was summoned to the mess when officers were entertaining War Cabinet Minister Sir Stafford Cripps, and he was immediately impressed by the luxurious surroundings inside the Ardenvohr clubhouse.
“I imagined the inside of this building was not unlike Buckinghan Palace as it retained its pre-war comforts,” he said. “Sir Stafford said he wanted to inspect the marine section after the meal, so I had to quickly assemble the men.
“We were all in dirty working clothes when he inspected us. He shook hands and took time to talk about our duties.”
For Eric it was love at first sight at Ardenvohr (left) with Lilian. Romance blossomed, and they wed during September 1944 and enjoyed a week’s leave rather than a 24-hour pass.
This gave them time to visit respective relatives in different parts of the country.
They returned on the night train from Glasgow to Helensburgh. The last bus to Rhu had gone.
“It was a lovely moonlight night so we walked the two miles, dancing the last leg with our shoes and boots off,” he recalled.
The couple were demobbed in 1946 and started life with nothing more than their demob money. They had two sons, one of whom died in adulthood, but otherwise they enjoyed a long and happy marriage until Lilian died in 1990.
In his later years Eric took up painting, using artist skills learned post war with an engraving company.
After his death Teignmouth Arts Action Group paid tribute to him as its honorary president and a pillar of the local arts community, and it included mention of his war service.