Some two years ago I noted an article in the Royal Observer Corps Journal which featured members of 15 Group Lincoln raising money for a memorial plaque at Fiskerton Church, in memory of the personnel of two Bomber Command Squadrons which operated from Fiskerton airfield during the Second World War.
After reading this article, I realised that we in Northern Ireland had many former RAF stations which had contributed magnificently to the war effort and the personnel who served and gave their lives here were equally deserving of recognition. The nearest such RAF station to our 31 Group Headquarters was at Long Kesh with it satellite nearby at Maghaberry. These stations had very important careers before closing in 1946. Indeed, the late King George VI and Queen Elizabeth landed at Long Kesh in a Dakota aircraft in 1946.
When I put the idea of a memorial to some of my Crew colleagues, there was a positive response, particularly from Chief Observer Melvyn Snelgrove, whose father Albert Snelgrove had served at RAF Long Kesh during the war. This would be a magnificent way for 31 Group to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain. We had plenty of time to organise everything, and the right calibre of volunteers to make it a success.
Information about the local former RAF Stations was supplied by the Ulster Aviation Society secretary, Mr Ernie Cromie. From him we learned that there are 21 airmen of the Royal Air Force and Commonwealth Air Forces buried in the graveyard of All Saints Church, Eglantine, near Lisburn, close to Long Kesh airfield. The details of their units and, indeed, the entire history of Long Kesh, were now available to us and we intended to provide a Memorial Plaque in the church to the fallen airmen.
Chief Observer Harry Briggs of 46 Post volunteered to become fundraiser and a committee was formed, with Observer Officer Brian Fitzsimons of Crew 2 as chairman. We held all kind of fund-raising events ranging from a St Patrick’s night dance, to a “Night at the Races; from a sponsored cycle run in the Mournes by Chief Observer Don Littlewood of 60 Post and Brian Fitzsimons, to a sale of Christmas calendars all over the world. Everywhere we wrote we received ever more encouragement. Our local RAF Stations at Aldergrove and Bishopscourt set about raising funds for the project as soon as they heard of it.
Posts throughout the length and breadth of Northern Ireland and the other Crews were now holding fund raising events and donations were pouring into the account. One Post Chief Observer, George McBride, met Falklands hero Simon Weston and persuaded him to autograph photographs taken by George of Simon wing walking at an air show.
Branches of the Royal Air Force Association throughout Northern Ireland were brought into the campaign and were most generous in their donations. British Legion halls were made freely available to us and their branches were most helpful and also donated generously. Without the efforts of every member of 31 Group our task might not have been completed and we are most grateful to them and to all our friends in Britain and throughout the world.
The original idea of a Memorial Plaque had by now changed to a Rose Window, but money was accumulating quickly and the committee again revised their plans. We now decided to go for a Memorial Window, to include the Rose Window and costing approximately £5000. We toured the Province with slides of All Saints Church at Eglantine taken from the air, and the proposed West Window Memorial. Everywhere members were most interested and promised support. Unfortunately the current security situation prevented us going public on the project, thus severely limiting our scope throughout the period up to the Dedication.
The Select Vestry of All Saints Church were very interested from the outset and gave their help and support to the project. Many visits were made to the Rector, the Reverent C Bell, who gave advice and assistance on church matters, while Mrs Kelsey, secretary of the Select Vestry, was marvellous when it came to logistics and planning for the big day.
The project gathered momentum. A date was set for the Dedication – 8 September 1990. The Window had to be in place with time to spare in case of unforeseen delays. The Select Vestry decided to redecorate the Church throughout, which was an enormous task. As if this was not enough, the ladies of the Church wanted to make kneelers with the Royal Observer Corps crest on them, a wonderful compliment to the Corps. A suitable design was prepared and submitted to Headquarters for approval and now the kneelers are magnificently displayed below the Memorial Window.
Contact was made with the Beaufort Association as No5 (C) OTU operated from Long Kesh and Maghaberry in 1942/3. Some of their former colleagues lie in the Eglantine graveyard. The Association provided an excellent photograph of a Beaufort aircraft upon which the Window design is based and were represented in the Dedication Service by Mr Fraser Carlisle-Brown from near Norwich. He worked with us over the two years and made committee members most welcome at his home when they visited, whilst at ROC Camps at Watton.
Several designs for the Memorial Window were submitted for consideration by the committee, but the final choice was of two wartime scenes of Long Kesh. The Rose Window above was to incorporate the wartime emblems of the RAF, RCAF, RNZAF and RAAF and great care was needed to get the emblems correct in every way. Squadron Leader Peter Singleton of the RAF Air Historical Branch and the Commonwealth Wargraves Commission provided invaluable details.
The manufacture of the Window began. Committee members visited the factory to monitor progress and the company said they were delighted to have been selected to produce the stained glass for the Window.
The day of the Dedication arrived. The afternoon service was preceded by a parade from the Church Hall, some half a mile from the church. We were honoured to be led by the band of the 1st Battalion The Worcester and Sherwood Foresters in their brilliant red tunics. The Royal Air Force Association standards were at the front of the parade along with a new British legion standard from Poyntzpass and the Royal Naval Association standard. The 31 Group Drill Flight followed, then the local Air Training Corps Squadron. Next came the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service, who had supported many of our fund raising functions, and finally members of RAFA and the British Legion. As the parade, under the command of Observer Lieutenant M Napier, marched proudly down the main road the promised flypast came right on time. We were thrilled. The ROC was represented by Observer Chris Stanley of Crew 1 flying his Tiger Moth, then came four Bulldogs of Queen’s University Air Squadron flying in tight formation. These were followed by a Wessex of No 72 Squadron RAF Aldergrove, which made several passes trailing an RAF ensign.
More ROC members lined the route near the Church grounds and as we entered to the sound of the Royal Air Force March, we felt very proud to belong to the Royal Observer Corps.
During the service the choir gave a superb rendering of the anthem ‘O Valiant Hearts’ and then led the congregation in the singing of the hymn ‘God is our strength and refuge’ to the tune of the Dambusters March by Eric Coates. Chief Observer P Malone petitioned the Bishop to Dedicate the stained glass window and Chief Observer Harry Briggs read the Roll of Honour. Our Deputy Group Commandant, Observer Lieutenant Commander D Dempster, read the lesson.
The collection which was taken by members of 31 Group amounted to over £500 and was donated to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. Excess funds on the Memorial Window Account were donated to the Royal Observer Corps Benevolent Fund. As the congregation left the Church they were led to the airmen’s graves by a lone piper, the Pipe Major of the Ulster Defence Regiment, playing a lament….It was a poignant moment.