Lodge Park, Sherborne Park Estate and the Battle of Britain
2020 marks eighty years since the Battle of Britain, when Churchill's "few" gave their all for the many.
To those who grew up and worked on and around Lodge Park and the Sherborne Park Estate during the time it was lived in by Charles Dutton, the 7th Baron Sherborne, the 17th century deer course that ran the length of the fields from what is now the A40 to the front of Lodge Park was known as the “air strip.” To some, it is still remembered by this name today.
The Air Transport Auxiliary
The late Lord Sherborne was a volunteer with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) during the Second World War, and it was while serving with this organisation that he met the woman who was to become his wife: Joan Molesworth Jenkinson (née Dun) who was also a pilot with the ATA.
The Air Transport Auxiliary was a civilian organisation that ferried new military aircraft from the manufacturers to airfields and active service squadrons, and damaged aircraft to maintenance units and scrapyards.
Lord Sherborne was one of four pilots with the ATA to have only one arm, which was by no means unusual within its ranks. Consisting mostly of those people deemed unfit for active flying service with the RAF, whether due to age, physical condition or gender, the ATA was affectionately said to stand for “Ancient and Tattered Airmen.”
It quickly became a highly-regarded organisation and is considered to have been instrumental in the Battle of Britain for freeing up RAF pilots for combat duties and ensuring they were supplied with the constant supply of new and repaired aircraft needed for Britain to continue to resist. Many were killed while performing this service, either in accidents or shot down by enemy aircraft.
Lodge Park’s deer course, during its life as the “air strip,” was more than long enough to serve as a runway for aircraft stopping over at Lodge Park. Lord, and the future Lady, Sherborne would both serve throughout the war with the ATA. But in 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, two events which are still commemorated today took place over and on Lodge Park and the Sherborne Park Estate.
Air fields and aerial campaigns
During the summer of 1940, the skies above the British Isles were the scene of one of the most dramatic and hard-fought air campaigns of the Second World War.
In an effort to pave the way for a full-scale naval, air and land invasion of the United Kingdom the German Luftwaffe knew it would first have to defeat the Royal Air Force. As part of this endeavour, airfields across the south of England became priority targets for German bombers as they tried to destroy Britain’s fighter planes on the ground, as well as the airfields from which they flew.
Men from across Britain and the empire had answered the call for volunteers in the first months of the war, and very quickly training units were established across the country for aspiring airmen. The Cotswolds hosted a number of these, including RAF Windrush, home of 15 Service Flying Training School and 6 Service Flying Training School.
Part of RAF Windrush is today held by the National Trust as part of the Sherborne Park Estate. Although some distance from the Fighter Command-led airfields in the south-east of the country, these training bases saw men pay the ultimate sacrifice in the fight against Nazi Germany.
Tragedy strikes for Sergeant Pilots Duncan and Osbourne
Two such men who gave their lives in the service of their country were Sergeant Pilot Donald Duncan and Sergeant Pilot Eric Osbourne who flew from a nearby airfield on the 17th of August 1940 in an Avro Anson I, number L7907.
The Avro Anson was an aircraft regularly used to train pilots, and it was on just such a training flight that Sergeant Pilot Donald Duncan’s and Sergeant Pilot Eric Osborne’s aircraft collided with trees while practicing low flying over the Sherborne Park Estate. Their plane crashed in the grounds of Lodge Park, and both men were killed.
Sergeant Pilot Donald Duncan was buried nearby at Little Rissington. He was twenty years old. Sergeant Pilot Eric Osbourne was buried closer to his home in Worcester.
Tragedy strikes again
Only a day after the crash at Lodge Park, another dramatic event took place above it when a German Heinkel 111 launched an attack on RAF Windrush itself.
Having reached the skies over England during the evening, dozens of German bombers lurked through the darkness that night seeking airfields and other priority targets in the south of England.
It was the 18 August – regarded as the “Hardest Day” of the Battle of Britain. On this night, Sergeant Pilot Bruce Hancock was in another Avro Anson for his final solo night flight before qualifying as a full pilot. As this was a training flight, his aircraft was unarmed. When the Heinkel was above the airfield – lit up in the darkness by its flarepath – it unleashed its payload of ten 50kg bombs. Mercifully, these fell wide of their mark and caused no damage. But with the airfield behind it, the airmen inside the Heinkel spotted another target – Sergeant Pilot Bruce Hancock’s Avro Anson.
An unsolved mystery
What happened next will never be known with absolute certainty but from what Sergeant Pilot Hancock was reported to have said to his brother-in-law – that he would be willing to “deliberately ram an enemy aircraft” if necessary – we can surmise the thinking that led to what happened next.
Observers on the ground recorded that the Heinkel made straight for the unarmed Anson and its front gunner opened fire. The Anson’s landing lights were seen to switch off, which would have rendered the aircraft almost invisible in the darkness. Sergeant Hancock then appeared to deliberately slow his plane, allowing the Heinkel to overfly him. At the crucial moment, the Anson climbed, colliding with the underside of the German aircraft and sending both machines – and all the men inside them – hurtling towards the ground. There were no survivors.
Sergeant Pilot Bruce Hancock and the four German airmen who lost their lives – Oberfeldwebel Alfred Dreh, Unteroffizier Richard Schmidt, Unteroffizier Herbert Rave, Unteroffizier Ewald Cohrs – came down in their aircraft at Blackpitts Farm near the village of Aldsworth, a stone’s throw from Lodge Park.
Two plaques – one at Windrush church, the other at the Watch Office that still stands at Windrush Airfield – commemorate this event, which took place eighty years ago.
These events, though they happened many decades ago, are remembered in the debt of gratitude owed to the people involved by all who have come later.