Bleak Christmas at MAEE

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scot1MAEE Helensburgh was dreading the prospect of a white Christmas in 1941.

The Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment secretly moved to the Helensburgh area from Felixstowe when war broke out in 1939, with work being carried out at Rhu Hangers.

MAEE Helensburgh was one of the best kept secrets of World War Two, and it is only recently that tales of what happened at the establishment and to the men who worked there have started to come to light.

It was under intense pressure from the Ministry of Aircraft Production to devise and test weapons to sink the U-Boats that threatened to defeat Britain.

Snow, ice and freezing fog made flying conditions dangerous and often prevented aircraft from taking off on the Gareloch. Even during flight, seaplane engines could freeze and splutter to a halt, with fatal consequences for MAEE aircrew.

The winter of 1941-42 was one of the coldest on record in Scotland, says Robin Bird, author of a book about MAEE.

snowscotHis father, Bob Bird, wore RAF issue flying jacket and trousers for his duties as an airborne photographer with MAEE.

It was so cold that once, when flying in a Walrus seaplane, Bob took off a glove to change the lens on the K20 camera.

His fingers immediately stuck to the metal camera case because  of the extreme cold,  causing frost bite. Bob was in hospital for a couple of days and given a week's leave to convalesce.

Bob's wartime diary tells of a bitterly cold 1942 New Year, but he also tells of the warm hospitality extended by residents of Helensburgh.

Bob was billeted in digs in William Street, just off the seafront, and within walking distance of the MAEE headquarters at what is now the Royal Northern and Clyde Yacht Club.

He became friendly with the Drake family in Helensburgh, who welcomed the young photographer into their home on January 9 1942, for a slap up meal including soup, lobster and jelly. “It was the first decent meal since I arrived here,” Bob wrote.

At a New Year's Dance in Helensburgh on January 15, Bob met two friendly twin sisters and danced with them. Who were the Drakes? Who were the twin sisters?

Whoever they were, the kindness of the people of Helensburgh was much appreciated by the 20 year-old bachelor a long way from his London home.bob_with_thea

The weather caused several aircraft to crash, but such incidents were hush hush and subject to  the Official Secrets Act, which Bob had signed.

Highlights in Bob's diary for 1942 including his 21st birthday and marriage to childhood sweetheart Thea, and they spent their honeymoon on Loch Lomondside. The couple are pictured (right).

In the spring of 1943 Bob was posted to an airfield at Sherburn-in-Elmet, Yorkshire, to photograph rehearsals for the largest airborne invasion ever staged — D-Day.

Robin says: “My father never returned to Helensburgh, but he always remembered both the bitter cold and the warm hospitality he experienced there.”

Another tragedy took place in December 1945, when townsfolk would have been looking forward to the first peaceful festive season since the war began. By then the move back to Felixstowe was almost completed.

The flying boats had gone, but low level bomb and depth charge testing continued. MAEE operated bombers and fighter bombers from Helensburgh until the end of the year.

On December 6 Douglas Boston bomber B2332 was conducting bomb fuse trials flying just 30ft above sea level in the Firth of Clyde to drop 250 pound bombs. One explosion wrecked the aircraft, killing its crew.

Similar low level flights claimed other MAEE lives that winter at Helensburgh with the added irony that war had ended.

maeeOctober 1945 was doubly tragic. On October 17 MAEE Vickers Wellington bomber MXXNA 929 crashed in Brodick Bay after being damaged while dropping depth charges at 50ft above sea level. Among its victims were RAF and civilian MAEE crew.

A few days later on October 25 an MAEE Mosquito was dropping a Highball bomb during a 380 mph swoop along Machin Bay, just 30ft above a rough sea. Again the aircraft sustained damage, resulting in a fatal crash.

Robin Bird would love to see a memorial — even a simple brass plaque — to the men and women of the MAEE when it was in Helensburgh, perhaps at Kidston Park overlooking the Gareloch where the seaplanes took off.

“Otherwise we may forget them as unsung heroes,” he said, adding that if it had been erected in 2009 it could also have marked the 70th anniversary of MAEE arriving at Helensburgh in 1939.

Arrochar man Bill Ross, who was in the RAF during World War Two and flew Liberators, has also expressed his support for a memorial of some form at Kidston Park.

  • The two aerial pictures, of the Gareloch and Loch Long, were taken by Bob Bird.