Royal Air Force commemorations

by | 27 August 2018 | Community Focus, Heritage, Retford

With the Royal Air Force ensign flying from Retford’s Town Hall, two memorable RAF events took place on Saturday 30th June, both benefiting from the recent spell of fine sunny weather.

Firstly, a tree was planted in King’s Park on behalf of the Retford and District Branch of the Royal Air Forces Association (RAFA) by the Chairman, Wg Cdr (Retd) Adrian Sumner, to commemorate 100 years of the RAF; not only in memory of the achievements of those who have served, but also to celebrate current members and to salute future members of the Service. The tree, a Black Walnut (Juglans Nigra) was chosen as it was used to make aircraft propellers during WWI, and it was native in the US States and Canada where WWII pilots were trained under the ‘Arnold Scheme’ and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. During the ceremony, RAFA Branch members and others also scattered soil around the tree in memory of relatives and friends who were in the RAF. In conclusion, Wg Cdr Sumner read the RAFA Dedication which was followed by a minute silence.

The second event of the day was the unveiling of a Blue Plaque in Chapelgate, Retford, commemorating the life and exploits of Flt Lt James Atterby McCairns, who lived there for nine years finishing his schooling at King Edward VI Grammar School. James joined the RAFVR as a Sergeant pilot with 616 Sqn in 1940, flying Spitfires. He was shot down the following year over France and imprisoned by the Germans at Stalag IX-C Bad Sulza, from where he managed to escape in 1942 on his third attempt. For this, James was awarded the Military Medal. Helped by the Belgian ‘Comet’ organisation, James was assisted through Belgium, France and Spain and eventually to Gibraltar. On returning to the UK, James was given a commission and he joined 161 Sqn flying Westland Lysanders for the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Over 13 months, James flew 34 covert missions of which 25 were successful, a greater success rate than any other pilot, delivering and picking up intelligence agents and supplies in occupied France. For these daring and dangerous missions, James was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and 2 Bars, one of only 45 pilots to be so honoured in WWII. In 1944 James converted back to fighters flying Tempests on 3 and 56 Sqns, and, having survived the War, he transferred to the Royal Auxilliary Air Force in 1947, returning to 616 Sqn at RAF Finningley. Sadly, James was killed 70 years ago in 1948, when the Mosquito he was flying had an engine failure at low level. He is buried in Retford Cemetery.

The Blue Plaque ceremony was orchestrated by Wg Cdr (Retd) Adrian Sumner in conjunction with Stephen Brown, Head of Corporate Services at Bassetlaw District Council (BDC) and Retford’s Civic Society Chairman, Derek Turner. The dignitaries in attendance were the Chairman of BDC, David Challinor, Retford’s Deputy Mayor, Gary Clarkson, together with the Venerable Air Vice Marshal Robin Turner who led the prayers. The support of the Royal British Legion and Cadets from 1403 (Retford) Sqn Air Training Corps was also much appreciated at both events. James’s son, Chris McCairns, was invited to unveil the plaque. The occasion was made more meaningful and poignant with bugler Andrew Bevan playing the Last Post and Reveille and also the presence of a Colour Party from 56 Sqn RAF Waddington; this being the last operational squadron on which James served during WWII. Following the unveiling, invited guests returned to the Town Hall for welcome refreshments where there was a display of photographs and extracts of documents connected with James’ life. The RAF ‘Freedom Sword’ was also on display. This was presented by RAF Finningley 45 years ago in 1973, when the Station was given the Freedom of the Borough of East Retford.