Armed Forces Day 2017 – RMB Chivenor

It’s always nice to get out of the office and take a little of what we do along to an event and last Friday and Saturday saw us do just that. We joined forces with the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon again this year and took a display to the Armed Forces Day exhibition. Last year we were at the event run by the North Devon Veteran’s Association at Pilton College. This year the event was held at a slightly bigger venue – RMB Chivenor!


Armed Forces Day 2017

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Armed Forces Day 2017

The Marines opened up the airfield, once part of the RAF base which was in use until the mid-nineties, to exhibitors and the public in aid of Armed Forces Day on the 24th June. The event itself was held over two days with school children visiting on the Friday and families of the serving marines having a private viewing on the Saturday morning before the gates opened to the general public.



Adam and Sam from the Museum showing some of the students a victory bell made from a piece of a WWII German aircraft

We were set up in a large marquee just off the main runway alongside the North Devon Veteran’s Association and other local organisations including Torrington Museum. We were just inside the marquee which meant we had a spectacular view over the airfield and Taw estuary towards Fremington – when it wasn’t shrouded in mist!


View from the Marquee


Part of the display we put together with the Museum

Since we were at Chivenor we decided to take items from our Chivenor Collections. The Museum took along several items from the Pat Knight Collection which was once housed at Chivenor when it was home to the RAF. These included several bits of crashed aircraft, a piece of shrapnel from a WWII German bomb which came down in the parish of Beaford, an RAF jacket and items from one of the many Air Days the RAF put on during their time at Chivenor.


We took along one of the seven RAF Chivenor Albums which chart the history of Chivenor as a base together with other items including copies of WWII crash reports and accounts of the night a German JU88 mistakenly landed there in 1941 thinking they were in occupied France.

Perhaps one of the biggest highlights of the event was seeing the new search and rescue Coastguard helicopter which spent most of Saturday on the airfield – when it wasn’t called into action.


We had a lovely few days meeting lots of people, many of whom had either served or are currently serving at Chivenor as well as seeing lots of families (many of whom had brought their dog along). But perhaps one of the best parts of the event was getting the opportunity to see the airfield and driving along the runways to get to and from the display area.


You can find more about what we and the Museum got up to over the two days on our Facebook page and Twitter feeds.

For more information about our RAF Chivenor Collection and to read some of the stories and memories of Chivenor as an RAF base click on the Chivenor category or follow the links to the posts below;

The RAF Chivenor Collection

An Unusual Landing

Chivenor & the Torrey Canyon

Rescuing the Rescuers!

…Barum Athena


The RAF Chivenor Collection

One of the most popular collections in our care is the RAF Chivenor Collection. The military base next to the river Taw has been a part of North Devon life for over 70 years and many locals have fond memories of the base.

Our collection covers the history of Chivenor as an aerodrome and airport for North Devon before becoming an RAF base during the Second World War and up to the RAF’s handover of the base to the Royal Marines in 1995.

Chivenor Collection - 01

The gems of the collection are the 7 large photo albums covering Chivenor’s time as a local aerodrome and RAF base. The albums are full of fascinating images and stories including the night a German war plane landed on the runway thinking it had reached occupied France in 1940, the night one of the Search and Rescue helicopters collided with an overhead power cable and ended up in the River Torridge and the Hawker Jets’ involvement with the Torrey Canyon disaster.

The collections also contain histories of some of the various squadrons which were based there over the years, the planes they used and accounts of some of the events the base was involved with over the years. It also includes reminiscences of former personnel who were stationed there.

Chivenor Collection - 07

Another gem from the document collection is the visitor book which dates from 1941 to 1972 and includes signatures of Clement Atlee, Gracie Fields, foreign dignitaries and important locals.

Outside the Chivenor collection we have items about the base and it’s place within North Devon in our Document Collections. Our North Devon Journal Archive contains lots of stories about Chivenor and includes several images in the negative collection – including the helicopter crash, the preparation for the Torrey Canyon run and the official handover of the base to the Royal Marines in 1995. We also have images of the Chivenor and the SAR’s work in a new collection of images we received from the Beaford Archive earlier this year.

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You can also discover more about Chivenor on our shelves as we have a selections of books about Chivenor and other Devon aerodromes on our shelves. We also have books on World War Two and original pamphlets from the War including the work of Coastal Command.

For more information visit our website and search our catalogues.


Rescuing the Rescuers!

Preparing for this year’s Armed Forces exhibition I came across this story about the Air Sea Rescue Helicopter from RAF Chivenor whose crew had a lucky escape…

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Waving boys saw sudden blue flash

Four schoolboys waved to a passing helicopter above Bideford Bridge on Tuesday night, and in the same second there was a vivid blue flash. In front of their eyes the aircraft somersaulted and plunged 50 feet through the air into the River Torridge.

For the four-man crew of the R.A.F.Whirlwind Mark 10, themselves responsible for saving several lives along the North Devon Coast this summer, it was an amazing escape from death.

The aircraft, its tail completely severed by a 33,000-volt electricity cable, came to rest almost submerged in ten feet of water. But its door was facing upwards and one by one the crew scrambled clear.

As two policemen and a fisherman waded into the water to help them to the river bank near Little America hundreds of sightseers converged on the area, drawn by the flash which lit Bideford.


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A second helicopter, piloted by the Chivenor helicopter unit commanding officer, Flight-Lieut. Bob Jones, picked up the badly-shaken crew – Pilot Flight-Lieut. Roger Wain, Master Navigator Gerry Perrell, Master Signaller Dennis Gibson and Junior Technician Ralph Kadby – and flew them back to the aerodrome.

Back in their crewroom, where hot coffee was awaiting them, it was discovered that the most serious injury was merely a bruised eye. All four were on duty again yesterday. But, said Flight-Lieut. Wain: “I can tell you, we must be the luckiest people in North Devon, all four of us.”

The Helicopter had been sent to Bideford to look for a person in the river, however, no-one was found and it was believed that a log floating in the river may have been mistaken for a body. This also meant there were plenty of eyewitnesses to the crash and police officers who were searching for the man on the river bank were able to help the crew of the helicopter back to dry land…

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The fisherman who eye-witnessed the crash, Mr. Roger Davey, of Marland Terrace, Bideford, said: “After the flash the helicopter turned over and went straight into the river.”

The four Bideford schoolboys – Paul Spearman, Norman Raymont, Terry Cudmore, and Mervyn Symons – watched from the bank as Mr. Davey, with Constable Jack Lane and Det.-Consable Peter Ingram, who were helping with the “man in the river” search, raced into the Torridge…

Constable Lane, deep in the water and fully clothed, grabbed two of the crew who were floating in their Mae Wests. Another, after inflating the helicopter dinghy, was pulled ashore, and the fourth reached the river bank unaided.

The accident also, unsurprisingly, caused a blackout in Bideford…

As it snapped, the cable, carrying power from an East-the-Water substation to Clovelly, caused a blackout in that area which lasted for 45 minutes before an alternative supply could be laid on. Some parts of Bideford lost their lights only briefly, and Bideford Town Hall, where the council were in session, was one of the places plunged into darkness.

A follow-up article about the helicopter appeared a week later…

Divers help to raise crashed helicopter

IMG_1291 (3)The ripped and battered remains of the helicopter which crashed into the Torridge last week is to be taken to the R.A.F.’s maintenance command…Work on salvaging the wreckage started on Friday and by Saturday the remains were back at R.A.F. Chivenor. The principal part of the operation was performed by an Instow R.E.M.E. unit, led by Major D.F. Dudbridge. Four soldiers, five civilians, and two shallow-water divers were engaged. They were helped by an R.A.F. salvage unit from Pembroke Docks. The full extent of the damage is not yet determined. An inquiry was held on Monday.

The articles were taken from the North Devon Journal-Herald 23rd & 30th September 1965 held in our collections. We also have an RAF Chivenor Collection in our Document collection. For more information read our Chivenor and North Devon Journal posts or visit our website.

…Barum Athena

100 Years of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

On this day in 1917, a Royal Charter was given establishing what is now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The cemeteries and graves the Commission look after can found across the world.

The Commission was the brainchild of Sir Fabian Ware who, being too old to fight in World War One, commanded a British Red Cross mobile unit. Whilst serving in France he realised  the need to mark the places where the fallen were buried so they would not be forgotten. By 1915 his work and that of his unit were recognised by the War Office and in 1917 they were given a Royal Charter and the Commission was officially formed.

The Commission had identified around 587,000 graves by 1918 and nearly as many registered casualties whose graves were unknown. After the end of the war the Commission set about creating the cemeteries and memorials we most associate the Commission with today.

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Leading architects of the day were called upon to help design the cemeteries and gravestones and Rudyard Kipling was brought in as literary advisor for the inscriptions.

Twenty years after the Commission received it’s Charter, Ware wrote a book about its work called The Immortal Heritage – An Account of the Work and Policy of The Imperial War Graves Commission during the twenty years 1917-1937. The book includes a brief history of the Commission, alongside pictures of the cemeteries they created and a table showing the distribution of the cemeteries, graves and memorials in their care.

The cemeteries and memorials to the fallen can be found all over the world and include graves and memorials to servicemen and women from North Devon. Men like Jack Haysom (18) who died in India in 1915 whilst serving with the Devonshire Regiment; Serjeant Ernest George Symons of Landkey who was killed at Gallipoli and Lance Corporal Edward Brayley (31) who died during the Battle of Dujailah in Mesopotamia. All were buried in war cemeteries looked after by the Commission.

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The Commission, however, also look after graves much closer to home. In 1937 the Commission were looking after over 88,174 graves across 9,262 burial grounds within Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Barnstaple has 27 World War One graves, Bideford has 15 and Ilfracombe 21 and there are many others scattered across North Devon.

The cemeteries and graveyards of North Devon also contain the graves of those who fell in other conflicts. Barnstaple has another 22 World War Two war graves, including 2 civilian war dead. Wilfred Cater is one of those buried in Barnstaple after he died in training as an RAF Volunteer Reservist in 1941 aged 42. His Brother, Frank, had survived the First World War having seen action with the Royal North Devon Hussars at Gallipoli  before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps and subsequently the Royal Air Force.

13th January 1916 3 b-c RNDH At Gallipoli

Heanton Punchardon has the largest number of war graves in North Devon – 127 in total. The churchyard at St. Augustine is the burial-place for many of the men who were lost from RAF Chivenor during the war. Many of them were members of the Canadian and Australian Air Forces and they also include Czech servicemen who were part of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserves.

No matter where the graves and memorials are located the Commission are charged with their care.

Find Out More

Find out more about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Sir Fabian Ware by reading the following items we hold on our shelves

The Silent Cities by Sidney C Hurst [940.4411/HUR] is an illustrated guide to the war cemeteries and memorials in France and Flanders published in 1929

The Immortal Heritage by Fabian Ware [940.411/WAR] published in 1937 is an account of the first twenty years of the Commission

…Barum Athena

Chivenor & the Torrey Canyon

Today marks the 50th anniversary of RAF Chivenor’s involvement in the effort to prevent the oil pouring out of the stricken tanker, Torrey Canyon, drifting to land. In the days leading up to the Torrey Canyon’s grounding the local newspapers reported on several vessels being caught out in the rough seas and holes being punched in sea walls.

On the 18th March 1967 the Torrey Canyon ran aground near the Seven Stones off the Isles of Scilly after trying to take a short cut. The stranded ship then started to leak it’s 120,000 ton cargo of oil into the sea causing an environmental disaster.

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The editor of the North Devon Journal-Herald called it a nightmare as the councils of North Devon made plans to deal with any oil which came their way. The coastguards based at Hartland started an around-the-clock vigil looking for any sign that the oil may be heading for the North Devon coast.

On Tuesday 28th March some 26 Hawker Hunter jets from R.A.F. Chivenor were scrambled to help in a plan to sink the Torrey Canyon and deal with the oil by setting it alight. The Royal Navy had already bombed the stricken ship itself to set it alight and sink it, the jets from Chivenor were tasked with dropping 5,200 gallons of fuel on the tanker and surrounding area in a bid to keep the flames burning and burn off any oil in the area.

By the time the first pilots reached Hartland Point, they could see the flames from the Torrey Canyon in the distance. There were dozens of light aircraft and helicopters in the area around the ship, meaning their mission was in the full glare of the public eye.

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The hunters dropped their load on the already burning oil, Squadron Leader Peter Martin told the Journal-Herald “The smoke was fantastic. When we arrived it was rising to about five miles high and then leveling off. Our fuel attack seemed to be having its effect and the sea all around the tanker was on fire. But it did not spread to the oil slick further out to sea.”

On the way back from their mission they looked out for any signs the oil may be heading to the North Devon coast, but thankfully there was little or none past Newquay.

By the beginning of April the worst fears of the North Devon councils were eased as the weather station at Chivenor confirmed there had been a change in wind direction which pushed the oil away from the coast.

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The Torrey Canyon disaster was the first major oil spill from one of the new breed of oil tankers and changed the way the ships were regulated and the way in which oil was cleared up after such an incident. In a bid to return the beaches back to normal as quickly as possible before the tourist season started in earnest, detergent was used to clean the beaches in Cornwall. This, however, caused more damage to the local ecology than the oil itself. The beaches which were treated with detergent took over ten years to recover, whilst those which had the oil scraped off and/or were left just as they were to allow the oil to break down naturally took only 2 to 3 years to recover.

The councils of North Devon were prepared to use a combination of detergent in the sea to disperse the oil before it hit land and booms across harbours and river estuaries to prevent the oil from causing damage to both the local environment and the tourist trade the area depended upon. It must have come as a great relief when the wind changed, driving the oil away from North Devon.

The oil affected beaches all along the Cornish peninsula, northern France, the Islands of Scilly, Guernsey and even reached as far as Spain. There is still a reminder of the disaster in Guernsey where a quarry was used as holding tank for the oil that was cleared up from around their shores. The oil was still there in the early 2000s when attempts were made to break down the oil. Whilst it was a partial success, the oil which remains still acts as a lasting reminder of the disaster which has changed the way we deal with oil spills and inspired a generation of environmentalists.

You can find out more about the role played by RAF Chivenor and the impact the disaster had on the local area by looking through our Chivenor Collection and reading the articles published in the North Devon Journal at the time. Details of both can be found on our website.

…Barum Athena

An Unusual Landing At Chivenor

Tonight marks the 75th anniversary of a rather unusual landing at RAF Chivenor.


North Devon Journal-Herald 9th February 1964 page 6

During the Second World War, RAF Chivenor was part of Coastal Command and it was their job to find and destroy the U Boats which posed a constant threat to the naval supply lines. During a night-time training exercise on th 26th November 1941 new pilots were practicing their take-off, landing procedures when  it became apparent that an extra aircraft had joined their group in the air.

The duty Flying Control officer had noticed there was an extra set of lights amongst the group and was unable to identify it. Despite the risk it was an enemy aircraft as it had not yet fired upon the other aircraft on manoeuvres he ordered it should be allowed to land.

On landing it became clear that it was a German Junkers 88 aircraft. The Operations Room was quickly alerted and the perimeter guns put on standby to act. The pilot and crew of the enemy aircraft realised their mistake to late and after a quick burst of machine gun fire they were dissuaded from trying to escape.

The crew were taken prisoner and on interrogation it was learned the Ju88 had been on a bombing raid in the Midlands and was returning to base. They became disoriented when they strayed over Wales and seeing the Bristol Channel mistook it for the English Channel. Having assumed they had crossed the English Channel they landed at the first airfield they saw thinking it was part of Occupied France. By the time they realised their mistake they had handed the RAF an intact aircraft and crew!


Ju88 after capture – Chivenor Collection

The aircraft was later repaired and flown to Farnborough under escort to prevent “any unfortunate misunderstandings” where it became part of a flying circus of captured enemy aircraft. It returned in October 1942 to give flying and ground demonstrations as part of the circus, it had even been given a fresh paint job.

This remarkable story was well known in the local area but was not reported on in the local newspapers for another 22 years when Leslie Hunt wrote about the story in the North Devon Journal-Herald after attending a Guest Night at the base.

The story also appears in one of several albums which make up part of our RAF Chivenor Collection.

…Barum Athena