Memories of R.A.F. Harrowbeer

 

W.A.A.F.   Corporal Pat Cobbald

Service No.2012812

 

          In July 2004 the Archivist of R.A.F. Harrowbeer Archives had the pleasure and honour of meeting Corporal Pat Cobbald and her grand-daughter at the old Aerodrome Site where she talked about her memories and experiencies of her time at Harrowbeer.

 

          Patricia Cobbald joined the R.A.F. as a volunteer in 1940 and trained in the Transport Corps. Her training was on motorcycles, cars, lorries and ambulances       ( she learnt to drive tractors at a very early age as she came from a farming background and had grown up with them ). Pat's training was to include servicing and general maintenance of all the vehicle types that she was likely to come in contact with.

          After completing her basic training Pat was assigned to R.A.F. Harrowbeer, Yelverton, Devon with the rank of Corporal in November 1941 where she remained for approximately twelve months. Pat was one of five W.A.A.F.'s who were the very first to arrive at R.A.F. Harrowbeer after it had opened in August 1941. Three of the five girls were to work in the Motor Transport area and the other two in the Cookhouse. ( The three girls were :- Patricia Cobbald, Bunty Varney and " Denny " Denman. The names of the two girls for the Cookhouse are not known ). More W.A.A.F's were arriving as more jobs were being created such as vehicle maintenance, parachute packing, armoury, etc.

          When the W.A.A.F's arrived at R.A.F. Harrowbeer in 1941 and eary in 1942 the W.A.A.F. Site ( Dispersed Site No.3 ) had not been built so they were billeted with families in Yelverton village. Pat was to live in a room in the attic of the           ' Devon Tors Hotel ' where she was very comfortable. The main aerodrome site was just across the road ( A386 ) so getting to work was a short walk there and back each day.          The W.A.A.F. Site was built and completed around mid 1942 in the area of Longash / Pound. Once completed Pat and the other W.A.A.F.'s billeted in Yelverton moved into their new accommodation.

          Pat was not assigned to a Squadron or Echelon she came under the banner of the Motor Transport Staff which was her main area for duties.

          Corporal Cobbald's first duty each day was to patrol on a motorcycle around the perimeter fence ( a distance of approximately three and a half miles ) to check for any breaks in the barbed wire or anything out of the ordinary. This duty would be carried out several time throughout the day.

          The Motor Transport sheds were Pat's main area for working and her duties included working in the Motor Transport Office issuing paperwork to drivers regarding collecting and delivery of spare parts, processing and filing the paperwork. Once this had been done Pat would put on a pair of overalls and carry out vehicle servicing and repair work. The concrete sleepers that can be seen today on the Motor Transport site is where the various vehicles would have been parked while being worked on. Some of the sleeper pairs had pits between them for the mechanics to go down into when working on the underside of the vehicles, others were closed in and used for vehicle parking undercover. The Motor Transport shed had it's own petrol supply which was dispensed from a pump close to the Motor Transport Offices.

          One driving duty Pat was given was to collect airman from the Railway Station at the Hoe, Plymouth and take them to R.A.F. Harrowbeer. While driving along the A386 around the area between Roborough and the Moorland Links Hotel  ( now the Moorland Garden Hotel ) she was overtaken by a wheel which had come off the lorry she was driving. It was thought that this was caused by either bad vehicle maintenance or that the servicemen were sitting unevenly in the back of the lorry putting too much weight on one side. Pat was blamed for the incident and was threatened with a disciplinary action. When the vehicle arrived back at the Motor Transport shed Pat got the Warrant Officer to check the wheel and axel thoroughly, the outcome was that the half-shaft had sheared off and Pat was cleared of any blame regarding sloppy maintenance.

          Another scare Pat experienced during March or April 1942 was while driving a lorry load of airmen back to R.A.F. Harrowbeer from their Liberty time in Plymouth along the A386 around the Chubb Tor area. As she drove along the road towards Chubb Tor she saw in the air a German bomber heading towards her ( it was returning to Germany still with it's bomb load onboard, apparently it was heading for Bristol when it developed engine trouble so decided to abort and head for home ). Pat remembered half watching this aircraft when she saw the bomb doors open and six bombs fall from it, they hit the ground exploding close to the golf course at Chubb Tor. The lorry Pat was driving was lifted clean off the road by the blast, blown sideways by the shock and landed all wheels down on the moorland. Pat calmly drove the lorry back onto the road and carried on to Harrowbeer, nobody was injured just badly shocked.          ( This was a young lady in her late teens, what courage.     One of the bomb craters after the war was filled with sand and became a bunker for the golf course ).

          When required Pat would be required to drive one of the ambulances. One duty she had was to collect airman from around the aerodrome and take them to the Sick Quarters for innoculations. She recalls that on arrival at the Sick Quarters these airmen full of bravado stood in line waiting for their turn and as soon as the doctor or orderly appeared with the needle they all passed out en masse. She was amazed at the reaction of grown men being affected in that way.          The Sick Quarters was on the site which is now Yelverton Business Park. Only one part of the Sick Quarters remains which was the Decontamination Centre ( now Trimal House housing Yelverton Carpets, Scrimpers and a Play Group ).

          I drove Pat and her grand-daughter round the Aerodrome Site starting at Knightstone House which she remembered being used as a Control / Watch Office with Officers standing on the roof watching aircraft returning from sorties.

          To her recollection the Dispersal Pens were not in place in 1941 when she first arrived ( they were built early in 1942 the Aerodrome was still under quite heavy construction ) the aircraft were parked in small groups around the Dispersal areas and the aircrews waited for " scramble " in / outside of Nissen Huts. When the time to scramble came a flare was let off ( possibly a different colour depending on which Flight was to take action ). The scramble bell was sounded and the aircrews took to their aircraft, mostly Blenheims ( 78 Signals Wing ) and Spitfires. When the flight was returning from an engagement the Station anbulances were positioned around the runways being used for landing and had to stay in position until all aircraft had been accounted for. It was a sad time when the ambulance crews were stood down without all aircraft returning. On one occasion Pat remembers an aircraft ( thinks a Spitfire from No.302 Squadron ) came in badly shot up and part of one wing missing, however the pilot landed undignified but safe.

          The area between Crapstone War Memorial and the main gate at Pound was virtually unknown to Pat as was the Bellman Hangars, Watch Office, Battle Headquarters, Cine Camera Gun Shop and Barrack Huts along the road. She had no reason to go to any of those buildings so therefore they did not interest her. Things were done on a need to know basis and it was best not to ask too many questions.          Pat's main area of knowledge was in the Main Gates past the Guardhouse and turn into the Main Workshops, Stores, Motor Transport shed and Petrol Installations ( Pat towed petrol bowsers to the tanker standings ). The Bomb Stores area was unrecognisable ( possibly not built at that time ) but she can remember towing small bombs to a H.E. Fuzing shed but could not recall from where or to.          We then drove round to the W.A.A.F.'s Site towards Longash. Driving past the Small Arms Store and turning left Pat noticed a track on the left and said " I remember this, this is where i used to go to my Barrack Hut, it's just as i remember ". I drove down this track to a gate where we had a look around at some of the old building bases.

          The W.A.A.F.'s had their meals in a dining hut on the main aerodrome site    ( possibly one of the Barrack Huts at the Crapstone end of the aerodrome, as far as she recalls the Communal Site with the N.A.A.F.I., Cinema, Shops, etc. had not been completed ). Pat remembers a N.A.A.F.I. van driving onto the Aerodrome to serve teas and buns, etc. plus possibly cigarettes, it's arrival was always eagerly awaited.

          Pat can remember when she was not on duty going for walks and especially up a large tor. At the time she was at Harrowbeer it was difficult to know where you were or where you were going because the names and signposts were either painted out or taken down. From the Motor Transport area we looked out over the moor and Pat recognised the tor she used to climb - it was Sheepstor.

          Pat also recalled a time when the Motor Transport Section were provided with transport to go to a dance at " Crownhill Barracks" with the Royal Ulster Rifles on St. Patrick's day, but the Irishmen were only interested in drinking, not dancing so Pat and her friend hitch-hiked back early to base - in relay on the back of a motorcycle.

          Her local, favourite drinking place was " The Rock Inn ", Yelverton. All other entertainment such as the cinema and theatre was in Plymouth. On a forty eight hour pass Pat stayed in part of Lord and Lady Astor's home on Plymouth Hoe which had been turned into a Y.W.C.A.

          Other recollections :- some of the aircrew had their own transport,     several british W.A.A.F.'s married Polish airmen.

          To the end of 1942 Corporal Pat Cobbald was posted to another R.A.F. Aerodrome.

 

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W.A.A.F.   Betty  Mary  Hutching

 

     Betty Hutching joined the W.A.A.F.'s by lying about her age. She got away with it by convincing the selection panel that she was seventeen years old. She then underwent her training, finally being posted to R.A.F. Harrowbeer, Yelverton, Devon. Betty arrived there in November 1941 and was assigned to the Officer's Mess as a waitress.  Her main area of work was in  ' Ravenscroft ' ( which is where the Officer's Mess was for a short time ) and then on the Communal Site ( Site No.2 ) once the Officer's Mess was transferred there some time in 1942. To her recollections the Officers were " Fighter Pilots ", although she thought that most of the Officers that she served were from No.276 Air Sea Rescue Squadron.

     Betty was posted to another R.A.F. Station during February 1944, but remembers quite a lot of the names and faces from Nos. 302 ( Polish ), 312 ( Chech. ), 175, 193 Squadrons and also No.78 Signals Wing Calibration Flight.

     When Betty arrived at R.A.F. Harrowbeer she lived in a room at the top of the   ' Devon Tors Hotel ', Yelverton until the W.A.A.F. Site was constructed and opened at Pound in 1942.

     Betty was very happy at Harrowbeer with plenty of recreational activities which included :- physical training, swimming, cinema shows, E.N.S.A. shows, watching the boxing and football matches and of course the many Station Dances.

     Frequent walks were taken ( often accompanied  by a member of the R.A.F. ) across the fields to Meavy and the surrounding area.

     Betty recalls being reprimanded on one occasion for saluting a Warrant Officer in her early days on the Station.

     When on ' liberty ' it was often possible to get lifts ( especially if dressed in your uniform ) by passing vehicles or motorcycle dispatch riders to Plymouth or Tavistock.

     The most commonly frequented Public House was the ' Who'd Have Thought It ' at Milton Coombe. Another favourite was the ' Golden Hind ' at Mannaden - this was almost into Plymouth.

     There were two horrific accidents that she still remembers quite clearly that happened while she was stationed at Harrowbeer.         One was the tail breaking off from Pilot Officer Kilpatrick's Typhoon aircraft ( thankfully he survived although seriously injured ), the second was a Blenheim aircraft taking-off that collided with a Commer van of No.276 Air Sea Rescue Squadron killing the four occupants. The pilot of the Blenheim was cleared of any blame and promoted for the way in which he controlled his damaged aircraft which had to belly-land on the aerodrome and for saving the lives of his air-crew.

 

     Being in the cook-house and waitressing had it's advantages as Betty never took part in any of the parades and ceremonies that took place on the aerodrome at R.A.F. Harrowbeer. She does remember watching some as a distant onlooker. One in particular was a visit of the Polish President and an inspection by him of No.302 ( Polish ) Squadron early in 1942.

     When on duty in the Officer's Mess her shifts would often coincide with visiting dignitaries and top brass, and on one occasion to Prince Michael of Kent.

 

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The  story  of  an  R.A.F. Harrowbeer

tea-boy  from  May  1941

 

          In April 2006 a customer of ' Knightstone Tearooms ' introduced himself to the Archivist of the R.A.F. Harrowbeer Archives as knowing a little bit about R.A.F. Harrowbeer but did not think it of any great importance.

          In 1941 he lived in Gunnislake with his family and was fourteen years old at the time and worked for the local baker. He was employed to fetch and carry, run errands and general cleaning duties. On his fifteenth birthday he asked the baker for a wage increase, which was declined. He was told ' no way sonny i'll get someone else to do your job, off you go '. The young man was most unhappy about this and was telling the tale to his mates that evening. They told him that a new Aerodrome was being built at Yelverton and maybe he could get a job there. They were doing odd jobs for the contractors building the runways and the wage was twenty five shillings a week ( £1.25 in todays decimal currency ). A bus collected civilian workers in the morning and returned them in the evening after the days work. This appealed to the young man so in the morning he got on the bus with his mates and reported to the Site Office at the Aerodrome Site in Yelverton. After a short interview he was told he could start straight away and was assigned to a group of contractors as their " tea-boy ". His duties besides making tea and coffee was to go shopping in Yelverton village for cigarettes, tobacco, newspapers, sweet, etc. as required. At lunchtime he had to collect hot meals which were prepared in some of the local houses along the A386 for the contractors. After lunch the empties were returned to the respective houses.  ( The contractors had to have a special security pass to get on and off the Aerodrome. Once they were on the Aerodrome they were expected to work from sun-up to sun-set and eat and sleep in the Nissen Type Huts supplied ).

          The gentleman had very good recollections of the Runway which was parallel with the A386 ( Runway 3 ) as this was the  first Runway to be built and the one that he was assigned to. The second Runway to be built was Runway 2, followed by Runway 1. During the construction period there was Runways, Perimeter Tracks and Hard-standings only for the dispersed aircraft and there were small Nissen type huts erected for the contractors to use which were later taken over by the Air-crews to live in so that they were close to their aircraft. ( This would have been before the Dipersed Sites around Crapstone had been built for the safely of Air-crew to live in ).  The Dispersal Pens for the aircraft including banking and air raid shelters were constructed at a later date during 1942. He is unsure of the exact date as he left the Aerodrome in the Spring of 1942 after working approximately for one year on it and they were not there then.

          Once all three Runways were completed the contractors and our young man moved onto what became the Technical Site which is in the direction of Pound and the Main Gate. The contractors again lived in Nissen Type Huts in this area during construction. The huts at the Dispersed Areas at this time were being occupied by a N.A.A.F.I.,  Air-crew, Ground-crew and as Flight Offices. ( These huts were very soon replaced by temporary brick built ones, the bases of two can still be seen today ).

          Our young man recalls the Aerodrome being used while the construction was in progress but he cannot remember the Squadron Numbers, aircraft types or the nationality of the airmen. He does remember that some of the airmen ( possibly Polish ) were very hard, fierce flyers and when landing would come into land violently and fast with sudden braking, this resulted in tearing up the rubber coating that was laid on the Runway surfaces ( coloured rubber particles which acted as a form of camouflage ). This coating would be replaced frequently but probably discontinued eventually as the aerial photographs of 1942 show the Runways quite clearly.

          Note :- there was a Polish Squadron ( No.302 ) at R.A.F. Harrowbeer from the 6th October 1941 until the 26th April 1942.

          One of the pilots had a German Shepherd dog that roamed the Aerodrome while his owner was away flying. On one such occasion the dog was hit by one of the construction lorries, seriously injuring the dog. One of the civilian workers said that something had to be done as the dog was in a very bad way, so he borrowed a pistol to shoot the dog to put it out of it's misery. He was unable to pull the trigger, so another person  took the pistol and carried out the deed. The dog was buried in the area of Dispersal Pen No.109. The pilot ( who owned the dog ) needless to say was deeply upset over the incident.

          Our young man cannot remember seeing the buildings of the Technical Area finished as he was moved with the team to what sounds to be the Communal Site ( Site No.2 ). One of the buildings being a Decontamination Block, he remembers this because while working with this team he was trained in basic electrical work and fitted much of the electrics in this unit.

          Soon the young man was transferred from R.A.F. Harrowbeer to other Aerodrome Sites under construction in the South West of England.

          From what he said it would appear that ' Knightstone House ' was a Site Office and also billets for the Airfield Defence Units during the early construction period.

 

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Memories of Mrs. Beryl P. Hartnup

 

     Beryl was the daughter of Mr. Wifred Harold Stamp and was born in the ' Who'd Have Thought It ' Public House in Milton Coombe, Devon in 1937.

     Beryl was obviously very young during the war years but has recollections of a German bomb landing in the orchard of the Public House.

     Another memorable thing that she remembers is of an airman known as ' Spider ' ( Mr. T. Weaver ) who would read her bedtime stories of an evening when not on duty. There was another airman ' Tony ' ( Mr. A. A. Cole ) who would supply her with sweets.

     Most of this would be about 1945 with No.691 Squadron being one of the resident Squadrons on R.A.F. Harrowbeer at that time ( both these airmen were from that Squadron ).

     There was a piano in one of the downstairs rooms of the ' Who'd Have Thought It ' that was regularly used for sing-songs.

     Beryl's mother was the pub landlady and used to keep the airmen under control as this was one of their favourite drinking places. Wilfred Stamp ( Beryl's father ) was too old to be called up for war service so he joined the Royal Observer Corps as an Observer so as to ' do his bit ' for the war effort. He also helped to manage the ' Who'd Have Thought It ' when not on duty. Sadly Wifred died in January 1946 at the age of forty one. When No.691 Squadron got to hear of the sad bereavement they sent a letter of condolence signed by many of the airmen to Beryl.

     No.691 Squadron served at R.A.F. Harrowbeer from January 1945 until the end of July 1945 when they moved to R.A.F. Exeter.

 

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