Wednesday, 26 April 2017
The US Navy at Dunkeswell
That's a US aeroplane - a B-24 Liberator - bombing a German U-boat late in the Second World War. It's a magazine illustration of a painting probably based on an actual photograph, such as this one:
And those are my fingers. I was looking through an 'official' scrapbook in Dunkeswell church, deep in the east Devon countryside, but situated in a high plateau well-suited to the building of wartime airfields. Here's a map:
As you can see, the original village of Dunkeswell (where the church is) is in a valley between the airfield (just to the west) and a housing development (a little to the south) which one might call 'Modern Dunkeswell'. Modern Dunkeswell consists mostly the type of housing you see around RAF bases. The heart of it must originally have been built for wartime service personnel, but it had clearly expanded in the decades since. It had an incongruous urban atmosphere, as if it were a suburb of Exeter, and not an island of recent housing miles from anywhere. I had a look at it, partly because of a brown tourist-type sign pointing the way to The Viceroy Restaurant. It seemed an unlikely spot for a posh-sounding eating-place worth its own road sign. It turned out to be an ordinary-looking Indian restaurant, occupying one of the units in a parade of modern shops at the very centre of the housing development. It was the kind of charmless local parade that you might find in any city suburb. I shuddered and didn't linger.
I next went to the airfield, still in commercial use, and nowadays the local centre for a cluster of specialist businesses. Its history is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkeswell_Aerodrome. The Air Museum and the Café looked worth investigation, but I really wanted to see the old village and the church, and so just drove around a bit, then moved on.
Old Dunkeswell, down in its valley, was much more traditional. I parked near the church. I suspected that inside would be some memorials to wartime events. I wasn't wrong. And I had the place entirely to myself.
All very neat and well-kept, as if often visited by non-locals. Ah, there was an American flag.
Although originally an RAF airfield, Dunkeswell was handed over first to the US Army Air Force, and then to the US Navy, both of whom operated anti-submarine air patrols from here. There were many casualties, and the church would have become a place of pilgrimage for their wives, sons and daughters, and for the contemporary aircrew who knew them. Sure enough, there was a big brass plaque with a lot of names on it:
Extraordinarily sad, when you really think about it. Each name meant a dreaded official telegram, an awkward letter of condolence from the commanding officer, a world of grief and loss that could never be undone or put right or smoothed over, whether parent or wife or child. And in some cases, of course, a sudden descent into impoverishment.
There was an official metal-covered scrapbook, much handled:
It was full of stuff about the B-24 Liberators, and the men who flew them.
Some visitors, former aircrew I'm guessing, had added their own valedictionary notes:
Ignore the evidence of poor schooling. This was from the heart, from one who had made the pilgrimage.
There were photographs on the wall of the church, showing US Navy personnel at the church on a ceremonial occasion (sorry for the unavoidable reflections):
What was this? The Union Jack with the flag of Ontario, in Canada.
It was those Simcoes again! (See my recent post on Wolford Chapel)
And there were other things on the walls that caught my eye. A brass plaque in memory of Henry Ezard, who died in 1863, clearly a devout man who did not fear death:
There was also an embroidered Parish Map of Dunkeswell and the surrounding countryside, with every place of local interest on it, made in the year 1995:
I wonder why the good ladies who made this didn't hang on until Millennium Year, the year 2000?
But I came back again to the scrapbook and its sad lists, each a tale of wartime loss. I am not a pacifist. I believe in standing up to bullies - whether individuals or regimes - as soon as they flex their muscles, and not in placating them. So some wars do have to be fought. And that means death and devastation. And I think it's a moral cop-out to let aggression go unchecked on the basis that all human life is sacrosanct. I hope that, if ever the decision to wage a justified war rested with me, I wouldn't shirk the responsibility that I'd have to face. But, like many before me, I'd be giving the necessary orders with a grim face and a heavy heart.