New book on secret air force

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airborne-lifeboat-mk.1-wRETIRED newspaper editor Robin Bird has now nearly completed his research for a book, Secret Air Force of World War Two, about the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment based at Helensburgh between 1939-45.

MAEE was a secret wing of the Royal Air Force and tested seaplanes, radar, Leigh Lights, torpedoes and depth bombs as part of the war on U-Boats.

Robin says: “It is a fascinating story not previously told in full, and publication of the book is planned for the autumn to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two.

“It also marks MAEE'S move to Helensburgh from Felixstowe to be away from the prying eyes of Luftwaffe pilots.

“MAEE tested all types of seaplanes and flying--boats and used land-based aircraft to make drops of the Barnes Wallis Highball bomb designed to sink the German battleship Tirpitz.

“However, it emerges that MAEE was a happy, albeit oddball, bunch of men and women, RAF, WAAFs, boffins, technicians, tradesmen, civilians.”

robin-bird-wRobin's father, Bob Bird, was the MAEE photographer for a time, and his wartime diary is the inspiration for this latest book. He previously wrote ‘Top Secret War Bird of World War Two’ about his father, photographer.

MAEE Helensburgh drew on a number of local facilities, such as the seaplane base at Rhu, and the weapons testing tank at Glen Fruin.

The establishment also worked in close co-operation with the RAF's bases at Stranraer and Lough Erne, which operated flying boats, in particular, Catalinas.

“I have spoken to several people during my research — Bill Mortimer, for example, an aviation expert, who served with MAEE,” Robin (pictured left) said.

“Bill sent me a snippet about Helensburgh man Flying Officer Ian Maclachan's time at Helensburgh in which he mentions Vincent Drake (pictured below right), who carried out experiments in the Gareloch with rubber boats. He and Bob Bird are seen in one in the top picture.

“I cross-referenced this with my father’s diary when he went to the Drakes for tea and enjoyed soup, lobster and jelly.

“Bob had been filming smoke float trials from a boat, and presumably Mr Drake invited him to tea afterwards as Bob lived alone in digs at 9 William Street.

vincent-drake-w“Mr Drake, like the rest of the staff of MAEE disappeared from Helensburgh when the establishment returned to Felixstowe after the war. There he worked on life saving equipment for ditched aircraft, in charge of his section.

“When MAEE finally closed in 1956, the family that was at MAEE Helensburgh mostly scattered around the country – and with no squadron association, they did not keep in touch.

maee“At this point it is like putting the final pieces of a giant jigsaw without the benefit of a picture on the box to work from!”

Now Robin, a retired editor of Merseyside local  newspapers including the Birkenhead News and the Wirral Globe and later a Newsquest editorial director, must decide on the final format and find a way of publishing the new book, and he is confident of doing so.

Robin would love to see a memorial 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 is erected this year it could be a simple brass plaque also marking the 70th anniversary of MAEE arriving at Helensburgh in 1939.