Melton Mowbray is a small market town nestling on the edge of Leicestershire. Famous for its racehorses, pork pies and stilton cheese, and certain buildings being part of the divorce settlement of Anne of Cleves when she managed to pick her way out of her marriage to Henry VIII with her head intact, Melton Mowbray also has a plethora of prominent military installations in the vicinity, both in use and no longer operational.
One such place is RAF Melton Mowbray. Now the site of a small industrial centre, a lorry park and occasional Bank Holiday Market, near to and on the old airfield, RAF Melton Mowbray was opened in 1942 and served as an active air base during World War 2, with several Ferry Training Units, and a Ferry Pilot Pool, Number 4 Aircraft Preparation Unit and Mark X AI Conversion Flight operating from the unit for various periods through 1944 and into 1945. Aircraft flying from RAF Melton Mowbray included Spitfires, Mosquitos, Corsairs, Vengeance, Hellcat, Dakotas and Halifax under the umbrella of RAF Transport Command.
Following the end of the War, in 1946 the base was turned over to Polish Airmen and their families, who lived in accommodation close to the airfield. This housing no longer exists and this part of the Station’s life ended in 1958, following which the unit spent four years housing three operational Thor Strategic Missiles, until its eventual closure in 1963.
Although the runway can still be seen and is utilised in the present above named ventures, the technical area of the base has fallen into disrepair. Much of it has fallen in over the years and the Nissen huts now stand derelict, a shadow of their former selves, complete with the obligatory graffiti, car tyres and beer cans, left behind by local youths, perhaps, looking for an out of the way place to hang out. They come prepared though as the strategically positioned toilet roll perched on a small pile of bricks in a corner of a demolished outhouse testifies.
As I walked around on a chilly Easter Sunday, I couldn’t help but imagine the ghostly shadows of long-dead airmen; their cheery voices as they went about the tasks at hand. I could almost hear the distant echoes of those Supermarine engines starting up across the airfield, in the distance, as I trod across the broken slates, and gazed through the broken walls, but it was just some dude flying around in his two-seater. Now the sound of birds and bored rams in the field next door are the only other noises to be heard. And it brought a lump to my throat.
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On January 31, 1957, a Douglas DC-7B collided with a United States Air Force Northrop F-89 Scorpion. The DC-7B which was earmarked for delivery to Continental Airlines, took off from the Santa Monica Airport at 10:15 a.m. on its first functional test flight, with a crew of four. Meanwhile, in Palmdale to the north, a pair of two-man F-89J fighter jets took off at 10:50 a.m. on test flights, one that involved a check of their on-board radar equipment. Both jets and the DC-7B were performing their individual tests at an altitude of 25,000 feet over the San Fernando Valley when, at about 11:18 a.m., a high-speed, near-head-on midair collision occurred.
The resulting mid-air collision caused wreckage from the crash to rain down over a schoolyard of Pacoima Junior High School located in Pacoima, a suburb in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, California. On the school playground, where some 220 boys who were just ending their outdoor activities when the wreckage came crashing down into numerous pieces and intense fires from the oil and gas. Two students, Ronnie Brann, 13, and Robert Zallan, 12, were struck and killed. A third badly injured student, Evan Elsner, 12, died two days later in a local hospital. An estimated 75 more students on the school playground suffered injuries ranging from critical to minor.
Following the collision, Curtiss Adams, the radarman aboard the eastbound twin-engine F-89J Scorpion, was able to bail out of the fighter jet and, despite incurring serious burns, parachuted to a landing onto a garage roof in Burbank, breaking his leg when he fell to the ground. The fighter jet’s pilot, Roland E. Owen, died when the aircraft plummeted in flames into La Tuna Canyon in the Verdugo Mountains.
The DC-7B, with a portion of its left wing sheared off, remained airborne for a few minutes then rolled to the left and began an uncontrollable, spiraling, high-velocity dive earthward. In doing so, it began raining debris onto the Pacoima neighborhoods below as the aircraft beg an to break apart. Some of the wreckage slammed into the Pacoima Congregational Church grounds, killing all four crewmen aboard.
The collision was blamed on pilot error and the failure of both aircraft crews to exercise proper “see and avoid” procedures regarding other aircraft while operating under visual flight rules (VFR). The crash also prompted the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) to set restrictions on all aircraft test flights, both military and civilian, requiring that they be made over open water or specifically approved sparsely populated areas.
We’ve all heard of the German Heavy Metal band Rammstein, I’m sure. Their famous offerings including ‘Ich Will’, ‘Feuer Frei’ and ‘Sonne’. But there’s a story behind their name, and that story is the Ramstein Airshow Disaster. The band initially named Rammstein-Flugschau (Ramstein Airshow- the extra ‘m’ was a spelling mistake which they kept) have since stepped away from the association, claiming the name came from the “ramming stone” of the same name – a large stone doorstop affair found on old gates but the initial addition of the ‘flugschau’ berates that story. But that’s not really the topic for today.
In the Summer of 1988, my friends and I were who were lucky enough to be raised in the warm embrace of the Royal Air Force, paid witness to our annual airshow. The Red Arrows, always a crowd pleaser, were in attendance, alongside our own display of Tornados and other invited guests performing fly-bys and other fun filled attractions. One highlight was the visiting Italian Air Force Display team, the Frecce Tricolori; a ten man display flying Aermacchi MB-339 PAN Jets. The team had been guests in the Officers Mess for several days, lovingly cared for by my own Mum, who brought home shirts to launder for them, amongst various other ‘motherly’ duties. I took some shirts up one day and was introduced to the team who were all very dashing and suave to my 17 years old sensibilities. I got a smile and a wink from ‘Pony 10’ Lieutenant-Colonel Ivo Nutarelli; Mum got a pot plant. “The Triffid”.
On the day of the airshow, we all gathered on the airfield and watched the FT put their jets through their paces. Oh boy! They were awesome. A collective of hearts in mouths and “daren’t look….yet can’t stop looking!” They were all we talked about for days. Yes we were loyal to our own Reds, but these guys….. The grande finale was the ‘pierced heart’ manouvre. Executed by nine of the team flying in split five to one side, four to the other, towards the crowd and joining to be pierced by Lt-Col Nutarelli. Spectacular. The Reds modified the same manouvre in their nine smaller jets. Watch them, you will see what I mean. So a few weeks later, on August 28th 1988, it was with horror that my friends and I, after discussing at length the significance of Nuterelli’s name being for his daring flying, that we learned the team had met with disaster at another airshow in Germany at the USAF base of Ramstein.
Whilst performing their signature manouvre, Lt-Col Nutarelli had come in too fast and at the wrong angle, too low. It is debated that he tried to slow his Jet by dropping the undercarriage however this is speculative; there are a number of different reasons why the wheels could have been down. Ivo clipped Pony 1 flown by Lt-Col Mario Naldini, smashing in the nose of his own Jet whilst simultaneously destroying the tail of Pony 1, and sending it in ricochet into Pony 2, piloted by Captain Giorgio Alessio. Naldini managed to eject as his aircraft slammed into a Taxiway to the side of the runway, hitting the emergency evacuation helicopter, and destroying it; however, his chute failed to open in time and he was killed instantly as he hit the ground. The Pilot of the helicopter was fatally injured with severe burns and died some weeks later of his injuries.
Alessio went down with his Jet, as the impact sent him straight into the side of the runway. He was killed instantly. Nutarelli’s doomed jet, severely damaged and uncontrollable, smashed into the crowd-line on the runway. Still moving at a tremendous speed, its momentum carried it through a police car, the fencing delineating the active line of the runway, spiraling uncontrollably until coming to rest on an ice-cream van. The crowd were showered with hundreds of gallons of flaming aviation fuel, and burning aircraft parts. They had less than seven seconds to run from the moment of impact between the jets and their hitting the crowd-lines. Nutarelli was also killed as his Jet disintegrated during its snowball down the flight-line. Aside from Med-Evac Pilot Captain Kim Strader, and the three Italian Pilots, 66 spectators were killed in the ensuing fireball, 27 at the scene, with the rest succumbing to their injuries in the next few days and weeks. Hundreds more injured, many severely with up to 90% third degree burns for many.
During the aftermath, there was a great deal of confusion. The only evacuation helicopter had as we know been destroyed. Due to lack of communication and resulting security hold-ups before being allowed onto the base, it took up to an hour to get German medical teams to the injured; many of whom were already being transported away by civilian transport on the backs of pick-up trucks and so on. American military helicopters were commandeered to fly the injured, but lacked facilities or supplies for treatment. German Emergency Helicopters turned up and were also employed in treatment and transport of wounded. Details of the disaster were not forwarded to nearby hospitals, who were already receiving unaccompanied, untreated wounded before the official report was received. Organisation was non-existent.
As a result of the accident, several new guidelines were introduced for future displays. The most important one being that a ban was placed on aircraft performing display manouvres over the crowd, and a minimum distance being placed between the front of the crowd line and the active runway. Emergency procedures were revised and action plans put into place to prevent future chaos in similar incidents. And a standard of medical procedures was introduced, particularly regarding intravenous lines which had shown to be carried out in different ways with different instruments by the German and American teams, causing a breech between the two when handing over patients.
The accident at Ramstein, was at its occurrence, the worst airshow disaster ever. It has however since been over-taken in number of casualties by the 2002 Sknyliv disaster in the Ukraine when one solitary jet crashed after clipping the ground during a manouvre, colliding with a static aircraft and spinning out of control back across the runway into the crowd killing 77 people including 28 children. Both Pilot and Co-Pilot were blamed for the incident and jailed for 14 and 8 years respectively. Ground crew and flight planners involved also received jail sentences.
It was 1941 and the Third Reich seemed unstoppable in its roll across Europe. Hitler and Stalin had a non-aggression pact, but Hitler threw that in the trash and turned his eyes east and invaded the Soviet Union. By November, the German Army was 19 miles from Moscow and the city of Leningrad was under siege. Three million Russians had been taken prisoner and the Soviet Air Force was grounded. Things looked bleak.
In desperation, record breaking aviatrix Marina Raskova created an all female regiment to run harassment bombing runs on the Germans. Harassment bombing targets encampments, supply depots and rear base areas. Their constant raids made rest for the troops difficult and left them feeling very insecure. What became the 588th regiment was staffed by all women- pilots, mechanics, navigators and officers. Most of the women involved in the regiment were barely 20 years old when they began training. They only had three planes, obsolete Polikarpov Po-2 wooden biplanes that were otherwise used as trainers. The small planes could only hold two bombs, so they made multiple runs a night. Most of the women who survived the war had, by the end, flown almost a thousand missions each. The Po-2 were slower than even other planes from World War I, so they were very vulnerable to enemy fighters. However, the Po-2 were extremely maneuverable, which gave them an advantage. When a German fighters in Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s tried to shoot down the Po-2, the women would go into a tight turn at an airspeed below the stalling speed of the German plane. They used this tactic over and over again until the Germans would give up.
Because the planes they were flying were old, they had to use some creative techniques to complete their runs. They would fly close to their targets then cut the engine and glide in. Because their engines were cut, the targets never heard them coming until the bombs were dropped. Then the women would restart their engines and try to get away. Sometimes the dog fights took them so low they skimmed the hedge rows. Because of their ability to slip in and out of the darkness, the Germans called them the Nachthexen or Night Witches.
Despite the risky maneuvers and poor equipment, a surprisingly small number of witches were lost.
One of the Witches, Nadya Popova, commented that it was a miracle they didn’t suffer more losses as their planes came back riddled with bullets. However, they kept flying. They had to to keep their homeland out of the hands of the enemy. The 588th was such a success, the Soviets quickly formed the 586th. However, there was still much mistrust of female pilots and the Witches suffered sexual harassment at the hands of their male counterparts. Through this and absolute exhaustion from their grueling schedule, they kept flying. They never gave up.
The 588th were assigned to bomb Stalingrad and had to develop new tactics as the Germans evolved their spotlight techniques into what was called the “flak circus”. This was where the guns and lights were positioned in concentric circles around targets. Pairs of planes flying in a straight line were destroyed by the guns. So the Witches of the 588th flew in groups of three- one plane drew the fire of the guns, leaving the other two free to flying in opposite directions to drop their payloads. It took nerves of steel and a heaping helping of courage to be the decoy, but these women did just that every night.
The Witches were so effective that the Germans offered their pilots an Iron Cross for anyone who could shoot one down. The accomplishments of the women were nothing short of miraculous. Many years later, Nadya Popova commented that she used to sometimes look up into the dark night sky, remembering when she was a young girl crouched at the controls of her bomber, and she would say to herself, “Nadya, how did you do it?” She did it because her country needed her, and I salute her and her fellow pilots.
Born in Nottingham on the 14th August 1896, Albert Ball was one of three children, two sons and a daughter, of plumber Albert Sr and his wife Harriet (nee Page). Albert Sr was later to elevate his status to that of Lord Mayor of Nottingham and received a knighthood. Young Albert was educated at a variety of schools, Lenton Church school, Grantham Grammar and Nottingham High School before going to Trent College, at the age of 14. Deeply religious, Albert was also fond of all things mechanical and electrical, spending a lot of time in his private retreat in the garden shed, fiddling about with engines and such like. He had a marvelous lack of fear, spending time steeple-jacking on tall buildings and structures, completely unconcerned about height. He was also a keen gun enthusiast, and a crack shot.
Although only an average student academically, Albert shone in all things practical. He excelled at crafts, photography and playing the violin. During his teen years at Trent, Albert was an active participant in the school’s Officer Training Corps. At the age of 17, Albert left school and with assistance from his father, was able to secure employment at Universal Engineering near his home. The following year as war broke out, Albert enlisted in the Robin Hood Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. Rising quickly through the ranks to Sergeant, by October Ball was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant, but was assigned duty training recruits. Frustrated and hoping to see some action, Ball transferred to the North Midlands Cyclist Company of Divisional Mounted, but remained in England. By February 1915, his despair was evident as he wrote to his mother that he was sending lads out to the front and remaining stuck in England himself. Desperate to find an outlet, Ball signed up for flying lessons privately with the Ruffy-Baumann School at Hendon Aerodrome, where although described only as an average pilot, his contemporaries described him as having a ruthless detachment to the frequent accidents suffered by his fellow trainee Pilots. This is all too evident in one surviving letter, “Yesterday a ripping boy had a smash, and when we got up to him he was nearly dead, he had a two-inch piece of wood right through his head and died this morning. If you would like a flight, I should be pleased to take you any time you wish”.
Ball qualified as a Pilot on 15th October 1915, and promptly requested a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps, a week later joining No. 9 Reserve Squadron at Mousehold Heath, before transferring to Upavon, where he completed his training and earned his wings on 22 January 1916. He was officially transferred to the RFC a few days later and sent to join 13 Squadron RFC at Marieux in France, where initially he flew in a two-seater B.E.2 with observer Lieutenant Villiers. He demonstrated an aggressive streak in his flying from the outset and just a few weeks later, following several engagements, earned a single seater Bristol Scout fighter. It has been suggested that due to Ball’s introverted nature, almost reclusive, coupled with his flair for the dramatic in the sky, that he was not a popular choice of companion for observers who were a little wary of his penchant for spirited flight. In short, their survival instinct ran slightly deeper than their desire to get in an aircraft with the shy but ruthless pilot. Ball however, was not as reckless as suggested, he wrote his father advising him to discourage his younger brother from following him into the RFC.
Ball’s interest in all things flight was not restricted to the actual piloting of aircraft and his early skills in engineering were still a large part of his focus. In May 1916, Ball was reassigned to 11 squadron, but was disappointed with the standard of cleanliness of his new quarters and so opted to stay near the flight-line, living in a tent until he had built a hut, complete with garden which became his billet. In quiet moments he would tend his garden, play his violin or tinker with machine and engine parts. Ball also maintained his own aircraft, resulting in his often disheveled appearance. His hair was too long and he refused to wear helmet and goggles. By July 1916, Albert had earned the title ace and his kill score was 7. He was gazetted for a Military Cross. A month later, on his 20th birthday he was promoted to temporary Captain and returned to 11 Squadron which were subsequently attached to 60 Squadron where Ball was given free rein of solos, with his own choice of aircraft and personal ground crew. By now his kills were up to 17. In one sortie he took on 6 enemy aircraft and chased them 15 miles behind their lines, before getting low on fuel, forcing him to disengage and limp back to base with extensive damage to his plane. The following month Ball went home to Nottingham on leave, and was astonished to find he was recognised in the street and was a household name.
By the end of September 1916, after returning to 60 Squadron, Ball was simultaneously awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, as well as receiving the Russian Order of St George. He had improvised both the gun and added Le Prieur Rocket capabilities to two Nieuport aircraft which he flew in tandem to enable both day and evening flights without having to stop to allow refueling and maintenance with his new extended flying time enabling to score triple victories on several occasions. Later he replaced these with a specially weighted and improvised Nieuport 17, which flew heavy on the tail to allow him easier changeover of the ammunition drum. By now his kills sat at 31 making him officially Britain’s leading Ace. A few days later, after speaking to his commanding officer regarding his nerves and exhaustion, Ball was sent home on leave, and attached to Home Establishment RFC, where responsibilities included training of recruits, dispatching both pilots and aircraft to France, and home defence. He received his MC, DSO and Bar from King George on 18th November at Buckingham Palace, and a week later he received a second Bar, making him the first person ever to have received the award three times. Two weeks later he received the substantive rank of Lieutenant.
Whilst attached to 34 (Reserve) squadron as an instructor, Ball received the honor of Freeman of Nottingham, and was asked to test the prototype of the new S.E. 5 Scout, which he declared sluggish on maneuverability, and inferior to his Nieuports. He was the only test-pilot to give negative feedback. By April, Ball had embarked on a lightning engagement with Flora Young whom he had met only days previously. He was also itching to rejoin the fight in France. Ball managed to secure a posting as flight commander with 56 Squadron back to France on April 7th 1917. Later documents would show the position was only meant to last one month. Ball was apprehensive about the move to equip the squadron with the S.E. 5 Scouts that he had recently slated. An agreement was reached whereby he would be allowed to recommence his solo missions with his Nieuport, but when flying sorties he would be in a Scout. Further compromise was given by allowing Ball to remove the Vickers gun, from his Scout and replace it with a second Lewis gun facing down through the cockpit. A larger fuel tank was also fitted.
Ball’s flight was clear to start combat, and under strict orders to stay over British lines, they flew out on 23rd April 1917. Over the course of the next few weeks Albert scored a further 12 kills, and mortally wounded a crew member of another enemy aircraft. His earlier misgivings about the Scout were proven in part with the persistent jamming of the guns. He suffered damage to his first scout to the extent where it had to be dismantled and sent away for repair. His replacement came without the modifications he had fitted to the original.
On 6th May 1917, Ball proposed to up and coming Canadian Billy Bishop, during a visit to his squadron, that they mount an attack on Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s airfield early in the morning, catching them by surprise and grounding them. They agreed to carry out the attack at the end of the month. The following evening, Ball’s flight, over Douai engaged a squadron from Jasta 11, von Richthofen’s flight. The famous Red Baron was not present however his younger brother Lothar was part of the ensuing dogfight. Visibility was poor and deteriorating fast. The aircraft scattered, each engaged in its own battle, each out of touch with the others. Von Richthofen sustained a hit to his fuel tank causing him to ground, but not before he had claimed what he later stated was a tri-plane. As the team continued to engage the enemy, Cecil Arthur Lewis later recalled last seeing Ball chasing Von Richthofen – obviously prior to the fuel tank damage. Cyril Crowe meanwhile saw Ball fly into a dark cloud. Four German observers including brothers Pilot Officer Franz Hailer and his brother Carl, from the ground noted that Ball’s S.E. 5 suddenly dropped out of the bottom of the cloud, leaving a large trail of black smoke, which could only be caused by oil leaking into the cylinders which would cause the engine to stall or seize due to flooding caused by fuel in the inlet manifold. And the only way this could happen was if the aircraft was upside-down.
The aircraft never recovered and Ball went down with his Scout. The observers rushed to the scene but he was already dead. They removed his body and took him to a nearby German field hospital where a Doctor described multiple limb fractures, a crushed chest and a broken back. It is likely death was instant. There were no gunshot wounds on his body; Nor any damage caused by bullets to his aircraft. German Propagandists attributed the death of Ball, to Lothar von Richthofen however his statement of shooting down a Sopwith Triplane casts doubt on this, as does his grounding with the fuel tank damage. A more likely cause was vertigo caused by temporary disorientation when Ball was upside down, causing him to lose control of his aircraft and fall from the cloud. A fairly common occurrence which claimed the lives of several airmen. Ball was reported as missing, and this listing became official on 18th May. At the end of the month, German pilots dropped messages behind Allied lines informing them that Ball was dead and they had buried him in Annoeullin with full military honours on the 9th May. It was later found that they had erected a cross with the inscription “In Luftkampf gefallen für sein Vaterland Engl. Flieger Hauptmann Albert Ball, Royal Flying Corps (“Fallen in air combat for his fatherland English pilot Captain Albert Ball”)
On June 7th it was announced that Ball had been awarded the Legion d’Honneur, Criox de Chevalier. A day later he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his most conspicuous and consistent bravery in actions between 25th April and 6th May. Manfred von Richthofen paid tribute to the young “English Red Baron” calling him “by far the best English flying man”. Tributes were also paid by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, and Major General Sir Hugh Trenchard in a biography released the following year, made up in part of Albert’s letters. After the war, when the British located Ball’s grave along with 23 others, his original marker was removed. Plans were made to consolidate all British and allied graves into purpose built cemeteries, however whilst the 23 other servicemen’s remains were removed for reburial, Albert Ball Sr requested that his son be allowed to remain where he lay. He later added a new marker. The original now resides in Nottingham Castle Museum, along with one of his aircraft propellers and his medals. Outside is a memorial statue; One of several dedications in the city which also include housing for families of airmen killed in action, and buildings and scholarships at his previous schools and college. Albert Sr also bought the field in which his son had crashed and died, and a memorial is also placed there.
The night before he died, Albert wrote to his father, “”I do get tired of always living to kill, and am really beginning to feel like a murderer. Shall be so pleased when I have finished”.