Outside Of The Interviews

This was a life changing journey for myself personally, all three men had given me such a personal experience of their lives, it was just hard to imagine having to deal with so much truma.  I really felt the need to look more into locations where they all were based, have a good look at the Lancaster and Halifax, even visit one of the RAF museums with one of the men were something happen that was unbelievable.


Living in the east midlands previously I had been lucky enough to meet a dear friend called Kevin Widdowson.  I dont know how I have over the years managed to meet such incredible people, I have to say that this has been one of the greatest parts of my life, meeting people that are not just friends but people I look at as family today. People who do the most incredible jobs, but also people who push the boundaries of normal western life.  Were do I start with Kevin, captain of Global Marine System ships, sailor of the Cable and Wireless Adventurer, a ship that sailed the world in record time. A pilot and owner of his own Grob aircraft, and somebody who is just truly passionate about life,  the Widdowsons are family, I love them all.  I had discussed what I had been doing as I knew Kevin would be really interested, only a couple of years before Kevin asked me to fly in to the small runway where the renowned Lancaster Just Jane was based, this would be a venue we would return to document.


Kevin kindly offered to help me by flying me in his own aircraft over many of the disused runways that existed during WW2.  Many of the runways were now crop fields, very obvious though by their crop patterns of rape seed and sugar beet, but by seeing it from the air it gave me a real perspective of how many there really were during the period.  I would also use the opportunity of flying in to different airports such as the Lincolnshire Aviation Centre and RAF Elvington in Yorkshire where the archives were kept.  On the ground I wanted to document disused buildings that would have been bustling during the war, but also their distinguished looks from the period of that time.  I had a mountain of images from the Wash which was a key area for practice flights in ready for the real missions over Europe. 



Kevin was based in South Yorkshire so I traveled up from Kent on a number of occasions to document the project from the air.  RAF Sandtoft where Kev’s plane was based was also one of the bases where the Lancasters would leave from during WW2, and when you looked much closer at the ground you could easily notice the remains of an air field that was in daily use.  It was hard to think how this rural quiet airport could have been home to possibly hundreds of aircraft and many men.  As you walked around the runways you could find the D rings harnessed to the floor, these were used to secure the planes when they were static on the ground.  There would have been far more hangers and again you could find etched out in the concrete the sliding door grooves from previous hangers that had been dismantled.  This was once a very busy place, a place where pilots such as Fred, Sid and Ben would have been living and flying missions over Europe from.


The other interesting and noticeable point when driving through Lincolnshire and Yorkshire was the amount of abandoned buildings that were once used during the war.  The architecture and shapes were similar, often dotted about in fields on the horizon.  This part of the eastern seaboard of Britain was a vital cog to the success of the war, its disused remnants are now quiet reminder of what was happening during this period. Today it is a flat landscape that is used to grow crops and is a region renowned for its flower growers more so than housing many thousands of large bombing aircraft.  From the air there are also some very noticeable beacons that would have aided the pilots once back over British soil, The Boston Stump at 83 meters in height and further to the west Lincoln Cathedral, both markers that pilots used when returning.



Just Jane.

I had been in touch with the Lincolnshire Aviation Museam located near East Kirkby about visiting to document one of two Lancaster aircraft that are the only ones where you can hear the magnificent Merlin engines fire up. Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre is a privately owned and run Museum and was set up by two farming brothers, Fred and Harold Panton.

It had been built up as a memorial to Bomber Command and primarily as a tribute to their eldest brother Christopher Witton Panton; who was shot down and killed on a bombing raid over Nuremberg on 30/31 March 1944.

For a short time after the war there was interest from the brothers to visit Christopher’s grave in Germany, but their father denied them the chance as he wanted ‘nothing more to do with the war’. Until, in the 1970’s Mr Panton called Fred over and told him to ‘get off to Germany and bring me a photograph of Chrisy’s grave’ which of course Fred did as soon as he could. This reignited Fred’s interest in the War and when Avro Lancaster NX611 came up for sale it was eventually purchased by the brothers and brought to their land at East Kirkby. Even though they had planned to keep it only for their private collection it was suggested that they should make it into an exhibit for the public and this Museum was set up with the Lancaster and Control Tower as its centre pieces.

  After explaining my work they kindly invited myself and Kevin to fly into the airport during an engine fire up and taxi demonstration.  Just writing this has set off the butterflies in my stomach from the excitement in anticipation of hearing these engines in harmony together.  I was given access to the runway and was asked to stand 100ft away from the aircraft,  the rest of the viewers were at least a quarter of a mile away.  I was smiling like a Cheshire cat by having this opportunity whilst everyone else was further back so they could see the plane taxi up and down the runway.  The engines fired up one at a time, the noise was incredible and I could feel the vibration from the engines through my body, I was trying to imagine the stories told by the three men on what the noise from hundreds of these aircraft would sound like, it was one of those moments in life that I will never forget, I had been very fortunate to be able to experience this from such close quarters, more importantly not during a period of war..


RAF Elvington.


Elvington was a location I really needed to visit, the archives for the RAF were held there and some of the information I had gathered from Fred Crawley needed to be raised as the information on this issue was currently wrong.  It is also home of the Yorkshire Air Museum, housed there was one of the Halifax aircrafts and the original bouncing bomb used by the renowned Dambusters.  Elvington was originally a grass runway but was rebuilt in the 40’s and tarmac was laid, the runway was a massive 1.9 miles in length and the longest the RAF had in the north of England.  I was flying with Kevin from Sandtoft but the winds that day were a little awkward, Kevin would always remark about the fact that it took much longer for the plane to stop when landing due to my size.  It was a good job the runway was so large as the cross winds were strong and as we touched the ground we must have bounced at least a mile down the runway, all down to me be being over weight allegedly.  We both headed into the cafe for a drink whilst I got the paperwork ready to take into the archive’s, this was so I could give them the information that Fred had relayed to me.  The issue was incorrect information on one of Freds colleges during the war, later in life Fred found out that what was known about the man was incorrect so we used this opportunity to change the facts.  Once done in the archives I ventured into the hanger to view the Halifax, this plane like the Lancaster was grand to look at, named Friday the 13th she took up a huge space in the hanger dwarfing the other aircraft around her.  I started imagining the story Ben May told me about looking through the bomb window to see if their payload had left the aircraft.  The Halifax was in wonderful condition and I was pleased to think she never made her last journey to Birkenhead where many others ended their flying career.


The Wash.


The Wash is a very special place to me personally, it is where I became a photographer and somebody truly passionate about habitat and environment. The location is also significantly important for wildlife as it has miles of saltmash, tidal pools and many river systems that flow out onto its shallow bay.  Many bird species can be found there from large flocks of Dunlin, owl species such as the Short Eared Owl and raptors such as Peregrine.  Holbeach Marsh can be found in the south western corner of the Wash and on many an evening I would sit watching the wildlife, but also the fighter jets using the area to drop markers on during training, possibly flying in from Conningsby or Maram.  This was a venue that all of the men I interviewed would have flown over, maybe using the Boston stump as a marker to get them home or just a flying range for practice.



RAF Hendon.


I had been discussing a possible visit to RAF with Sidney Beaver, with Sid based in welling, south east London and having to travel around the south circular road then on to the north circular to get to the museum I wanted to make sure we could do it in good and comfortable time with him.  Sid was very keen on going, I was in admiration of his get up and go considering his age.  I had been in touch with curator Andy Simpson, he arranged for myself and Sid to be met at the front of the museum.  There were a few things on my mind that day, traffic jam’s around London being one, the other was how was Sidney going to feel walking around the museum, would it bring back any memories that may upset him. I was also excited for him, I really wanted to give him the opportunity of seeing another Lancaster, my expectations were exceeded about twenty minutes after we arrived.  On arrival I got Sids RAF jacket out and we put it on along with his medals, I was thinking to myself, this is one of the best things I have ever done.  We was welcomed in by Andy and walked through the collection after a quick refreshment brake, Andy was explaining to Sid about the planes on view and I just watched both of them walking together in conversation.  One thing that I did notice Sidney struggle with since I met him was his eyesight, at times he could clearly not see well when looking at books and photographs he would show me at his home. His eyesight was spot on at the museum and as I walked behind them both meandering down an isle between aircraft Sidney stopped looked up and stared at a plane hanging from the roof, “why have you painted my plane a different colour” he said in a stern manor.  Myself and Andy looked at each other trying to understand what the issue was,  All can remember is Andy asking Sidney what he was concerned about, neither of us would have imagined what would happen next.  “This is my aircraft from northern Africa, why has it been painted a different colour”.  It is these moments in life that you would never imagine happening, but there it was, Sidneys plane now a part of one of the biggest aircraft collections in Britain.  Sidney was spot on, it was his aircraft and when he gave all the details about the planes history I could see Andys astonishment.  The curator of RAF Hendon then went on to try and sweeten Sid’s disgust in the fact that his plane had been painted a colour that was not to his taste.


There were so many stories from that day, peoples amazement to see a pilot from WW2, personally being there to experience everything that was going on, seeing Sidney’s face when people were asking for photographs, and of course seeing Sid standing under an aircraft that he had once flown during the bombing raids of WW2. 


For me personally it was walking Sid under the Lancaster bomber, looking at a plane and a man who had both seen so much,  I am still a little lost for words about it all even as I write this.


final thoughts.


Ten years on and now finished I still cant believe that this was a journey of my own life, a project I had put together just because of the inspiration these three men had given me. It is more than that though, it has made me aware there are so many more stories that need to be understood and this is a journey that for me is still underway.  The next story is the Holocaust, people lives, experiences, fears and tears during a time when the three men above were on their own journey of the same emotions.