Moricambe Bay (with thanks to Andrew Lysser)
“Over there, that’s Hudson Bay.” We were out on the salt-marsh near Skinburness and my companion was pointing to wide expanse of mud that was Moricambe Bay at low tide.
Hudson Bay: why should one of the Firth's estuaries have been given that name? Did it derive from homesick Canadian pilots stationed here in the War? The truth is rather more macabre: the sea-bottom around Moricambe Bay is the burial ground of a large number of Lockheed Hudson aircraft and, tragically, their crews who had crashed during take-off or approach to the wartime airfield of Silloth. In the booklet "RAF Silloth" , Sep Owen is quoted as saying, "... the local fishmonger, Joe Lomas ... rescued many aircrew from ditched Hudsons. Such ditchings were so numerous that according to local folklore the fish were developing twin tails."
'Central section of a Hudson AM 771 which has been a feature of Moricambe Bay (locally renamed Hudson Bay) since 31st August 1943' (with my grateful thanks to Simon Ledingham for this photo)
It’s hard to imagine now just how busy the Solway Basin must have been during the War; then, it was ringed by airfields, for in many ways it was an ideal area – flat, with wide views and, especially in Silloth’s case, renowned for its good weather. At that time, in addition to Silloth, there were airfields at Walney Island (Barrow), Brayton (Aspatria), Anthorn, Great Orton (now Watchtree Nature Reserve, burial site of half a million animals during the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic), Longtown, Burnfoot (Metalbridge) and, on the northern side, Kirkpatrick, Annan (the site of a decommissioned nuclear power station), and Winterseugh. Thousands of aircraft, of many different types; and an influx of thousands of people – pilots, mechanics, engineers, navigators, wireless operators, gunners, electricians, cooks, photographers and many more, some of them surely feeling that they had come to the back of beyond.
In January 2005, a couple of days before the River Eden and a high tide collaborated to flood Carlisle, I met Newby Tate for the first time at the Solway Aviation Museum at Carlisle Airport. Wind was already blasting across the empty runways, and the aircraft on display had been covered with tarpaulins and secured with guy ropes. Rain battered the low building as Newby held the door to stop it getting wrenched off its hinges, but although the Museum was chilly and closed for the winter, he and his wife Margaret gave me a warm welcome and a cup of tea. Newby, a kind, soft-spoken man, with a twinkle in his eyes and a ruddy face, has been a Director of the Aviation Museum since 1996, and Margaret had at that time been the Treasurer and Secretary since 1997.
They have both had a long and extraordinary association with aircraft and flying, not just in the UK but abroad. At one stage, Margaret had gone to join Newby in Australia where, amongst other activities, he took part in air-races. “I got used to flying upside down,” Newby told me, waiting to see if I would get the joke. Formerly a pilot himself, he had trained British and foreign pilots and ATC cadets, at Kidlington in Oxfordshire, Carlisle, Sunderland and elsewhere, and had then concentrated on ground-training in simulators, and examining trainees; what is now the Museum's workshop is where the simulator once was housed. Although Newby was too young to fly from any of the Solway’s airfields during the War, he knows several of them well. ‘I’ve got a fascination with airfields,’ he explained.
After a bomb fell on the Silloth airbase in July 1940, the Kirkbride airfield was expanded and its fields were requisitioned for parking aircraft (presumably on the principle of not keeping all one’s eggs in one basket). Kirkbride was also used for night-flying training for Silloth’s infamous Hudsons. Years later, in 1983, Newby set up a training school for microlights at Kirkbride; it is now also the base for several gyroplanes.
At Great Orton, where the RAF airfield had been turned over to agriculture in the 1950s, Newby set up another small training school: he “went 50/50 with the farmer to clear the strip” of weeds and trees and hedges using a bulldozer and, in Newby's case, a spade. The concrete runway, with a scrawled date “1942”, was still good underneath and usable for small aircraft. (Although the concrete is now cracked, that date, 28/4/42, can still be seen when you walk around the Watchtree Nature Reserve today.)
Newby Tate in his mock-up of the control tower with his painted panorama behind (photo: Ann Lingard)
His fascination with airfields extends to painting them, too – as murals: landscapes, aerial views, scenes of airborne or parked aircraft, in which the reality behind the Museum’s exhibits is strikingly brought to life. I especially liked the mock-up of a desk in the control tower, a scanner turning overhead, a radar screen with a bright spot showing the “approaching aircraft”, sheets of paper recording the details of aircraft due to land or take-off or “pending”, and the microphone for radio contact. From the desk you look out on Newby’s panorama of the view from the tower, a painted airfield, a few small white aircraft on the runways, a windsock and, beyond, Brampton and the Caldbeck fells.
Flying aircraft in the War was by definition a risky business, and not just for reasons associated with the enemy. Outside the Museum's entrance is a huge propellor, black and solid, its twisted metal blades pitted by marine organisms. This was the propellor from a Lancaster bomber which crashed into the Solway down near Millom, on July 18th 1943, and which had been fished out of the sea by the trawler Girl Pat, 52 years later – near Whitehaven! A striking example of the effect of longshore drift.
Although the Solway airfields were well-placed in many respects, they also had a major hazard associated with them – the Lakeland Fells. Mountains hidden in cloud, aircraft with trainee pilots navigating using instruments without radar ... There are more than 2000 crash sites in Cumbria, and most of these are of military aircraft, from the Crosby-on-Eden (Carlisle) and Silloth airfields during the war.
“The weather is always the biggest problem,” Newby told me. “I’ve had one or two near misses myself, flying in cloud near hills is the worst scenario. We used to call them ‘clouds with solid centres’.”
All too often, watchers from the Royal Observer Corps on the ground had to alert a “friendly” aircraft of dangers ahead.
“They used to get the aircraft on the radio and shout ‘You’re too low’! Or send up flares to warn them. We were known as the eyes and ears of the RAF, we’d find them as they limped back and guide them home.” Ralph Pickering, like many former members of the Royal Observer Corps, is full of enthusiasm for the organisation’s history.
As we sat by the window of his comfortable bungalow in Silloth, looking out at gulls paddling on a quiet sea, he told me he was brought up in Allonby then, after a period as an airforce cadet, he joined the ROC in the 1960s as a watcher at the Allonby post. Later, with the rank of Lieutenant, he looked after 22 Group’s watchposts in NW Cumbria until the Corps was stood down in 1985. A burly man, balding and with bushy white whiskers, his face frequently crumples with laughter as he tells me about both his own work with the ROC during the Cold War (“We took on the nuclear role, and went underground,” he says, referring to the subterranean watchposts), and the conditions under which the Observers worked in World War II. “It was a post and that was it! A wall, and a post in a field!”
There were watchposts all along the coast as well as inland – Whitehaven, St Bees, Workington, Allonby, Silloth, and Dalston, Wigton, Caldbeck, Gilsland, to name but a few; there was never more than ten miles between posts, they formed a network across the land. Richard Edkins, who lives near Dumfries and is an expert on the history of the watchposts on the Scottish side of the Solway, told me that the watchposts in these “Back Areas” were primitive, often no more than a ring of stones, a “sangar”, with little protection from the sleet or rain and wind.
“The Government thought the attacks would be on the East and South-East and in the Midlands valley, so these posts here in the North-West had almost nothing in the way of equipment. But one of the first attacks was at Scapa Flow, and the German aircraft would come up the Irish Sea, to Glasgow.”
So it soon turned out that these Back Area posts were more important than previously imagined; eventually some became better-equipped, but generally the watchers would have a map on a plotting table, binoculars for watching for aircraft, and a telephone, plugged into a box on a pole, for contacting the nearest reporting centre. Observers were also trained to identify aircraft from their shape.
As Ralph Pickering said of the various Cold War exercises in which he took part, “The whole idea was that you knew your area inside out, you could tell what height aircraft were flying at, where they’d be going. They couldn’t hide, and we’d pass on the information from post to post.”
Until the ROC was formally stood down in 1991, the watchposts around the Solway, which had been converted during the Cold War to concrete bunkers with their own food and water supply, were used regularly for national and international exercises based on the threat of nuclear attack. These days – like the Solway’s airfields - they have mostly fallen into decay or been broken up.
“We were an anomaly,” Ralph told me. “The ordinary man in the street had no idea about us, nobody knew about us. We were all volunteers, and we were only paid when we were called out.” A few of the ROC's Cold War volunteers from the Carlisle 22 Group still meet regularly at the Aviation Museum, where they have a display of equipment.
I return to the Aviation Museum in 2010 and find it has been extended and the contents added to and moved around. While I am having a cup of coffee with Newby Tate, a woman arrives who has driven up from Exeter, bringing several memorabilia that had belonged to her father. "People bring things to us all the time," Margaret Tate tells me, and Newby points out a radio-controlled model Tiger Moth hanging from the ceiling that someone had brought in and which he has restored. There is reel-to-reel recording equipment from Carlisle's control tower; a display of pressed-aluminium aircraft parts from the former Alcan factory at Whitehaven; new photos, pictures, models and dressed mannequins, and the "Ejector Room", which includes a somewhat macabre exhibit of a shrapnel-pierced seat from from the Falklands War (luckily for the Argentinian pilot, he had escaped from the seat before it was hit.).
In the small lecture theatre there is a cleverly thought-out display of photos, advertisements for clothes and toys, and cartoons from WWII, aimed at children. Especially readable and informative are a series of illustrated folders about several of "the golden oldies", as Newby calls them - people who have memories of the War like himself and Margaret, Ken Burns, and David King.
It is David King who has made and donated the model aircraft. The three glass shelves of the display case are crammed with detailed and accurately coloured models, more than 200 of them and each identified by a small numbered card next to it - aircraft from countries like France, Germany, America, Russia, and the UK. I flip through the pages of the loose-leaf catalogue looking for ‘Lockheed Hudson’ and find it listed as No. 86. Card number 86 takes some finding, but we eventually see it in the centre of the middle shelf, by a large aeroplane with a clear dome – the gun turret – dorsally towards the rear. The aircraft is a heavy-looking beast with twin propellors and two vertical fins on its tail.
Newby remembers that when he was an air cadet, they were all taken to see an indoor mock-up of the turret and try it out; the turret had to be turned by the gunner while he trained the gun on its target.
"We took turns sitting in the turret. They had silhouettes of enemy aircraft projected on the walls, so it was like being in a big amphitheatre. The gunners would have to sit in it and practise."
The Lockheed Hudson is “chiefly associated with Silloth”, according to the notes on the wall. How many had crashed into the Solway? Anecdotal evidence has escalated the number to “dozens”, even, in one estimate, eighty-seven. But the real evidence has been gathered and summarised in the booklet "RAF Silloth" . It makes for unhappy reading. The list of “Serious crashes of Hudson Aircraft from Silloth 1940-42” totals 64. Some of these ‘stalled, hit trees’, ‘hit hill’, ‘overshot on landing, hit truck’, ‘dived into ground’, ‘hit mountains’, but 17 of them ‘ditched’, ‘crashed in sea’, ‘stalled and spun into sea’ or ‘dived into sea’ in the Solway area.
The Hudson was apparently a difficult aeroplane for an inexperienced crew to fly, and these wartime crews certainly lacked experience, being young, often hurriedly selected, and often having had minimal training on single-engined light aircraft. Crashes into the sea, and on the ground where the aeroplane inevitably turned into a fireball, led to horrendous loss of life, and the bodies of the crewmen were rarely recovered.
The Operational Training Unit (OTU) changed to using Wellington bombers when the difficulties with the Hudsons became too great -- nevertheless the display boards record 41 accidents to Wellingtons between April 1943 and May 1945.
One of the photographs is of General de Gaulle, beaky nose prominent, sitting amongst a group of Free French airmen who had been brought over to train, according to Newby Tate, “on planes that were a little bit clapped out, brought up here after the Battle of Britain.”
Silloth was the No.1 OTU, and airmen were sent here from many countries for training in navigation, bombing and night-flying. Franklin Zurbrigg, a Canadian, arrived at Silloth on November 23rd 1942 and according to his diaries was soon captivated by the colours and scenery of the countryside over which he flew, first in a twin-engined trainer and later in Lockheed Hudsons.
In early January 1943 he noted that he’d been out on a “Splash exercise using side gun and turret”, which was probably an exercise in firing on a target that was playing the role of a U-boat. But on January 13th, coming in to land at Silloth after a night-flight, the Hudson in which he was flying overshot the runway and crashed.
Franklin Zurbrigg’s grave, marked by a neat white cross, is in the Causewayhead cemetery near Silloth, next to that of another Canadian, his pilot F. Belanger. Beside them are graves of airmen from Australia, New Zealand, Poland and Czechoslovakia, all identifed by simple white crosses engraved with their names and nationalities. Ralph Pickering told me how, on Armistice Day, a “busload of poppies” is taken to Causewayhead. “We go round and plant them on the graves. It’s very moving – all the different countries of the world they came from.”
But there are also happy and amusing stories and memories too from those airfields around the Solway, some of them preserved by contributors to the U3A’s book. (See also the update about the Silloth Airfield film, below). Silloth might have been "nowhere near where any of us had applied for" (Ted Robertson, in "RAF Silloth"), but the kindness of local families, the dances, the scenery and the famous sunsets remained unforgettable. The crosses in the churchyard and the name "Hudson Bay" also remain to remind us of the young men that so many families lost.
Copyright Ann Lingard. September 2010, February 2016.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Yesterday magazine, in May 2006
SOLWAY AVIATION MUSEUM, CARLISLE AIRPORT, CROSBY-ON-EDEN, CARLISLE Tel: 01228 573823
 ‘RAF Silloth.’ A publication by the Local History Group of the Solway University of the Third Age, put together by Maggie Clowes. There is a copy at the Tourist Information Office at Silloth, all other copies have been sold.
 April 2015. There is now an excellent film, scripted by Anna Malina, about Silloth airfield (and Hudson Bay) on the Silloth Airfield website: aerial views, maps, photos, stories and reminiscences, and Tim Barker’s moving and eloquent poem about Hudson Bay and the young men who died there.