The Christ­mas ghost story

While many peo­ple claim not to be­lieve in ghosts, it’s some­times dif­fi­cult to ig­nore or ex­plain away strange sight­ings and un­ex­pected noises

Pilot - - REGULARS -

In some parts of north­ern Europe at least, the telling of ghost sto­ries to while away the long win­ter evenings around Christ­mas­tide is a longestab­lished tra­di­tion. Over the last cen­tury this has ex­panded to in­clude tales with an avi­a­tion theme.

Any­one who has worked late into a win­ter’s night in a cold air­craft han­gar could per­haps tes­tify to hear­ing and feel­ing some pretty spooky noises and sen­sa­tions. The com­bi­na­tion of cold air, sud­den un­ex­pected drafts, dark un­lit cor­ners and the rat­tling and creak­ing of large han­gar doors as the wind out­side pushes them against their mount­ing rails, all add up to some spine tin­gling sen­sa­tions.

Air­fields, par­tic­u­larly for­mer wartime ones, are in­evitably a lo­ca­tion for past in­ci­dents — and oc­ca­sion­ally tragedies. There is a the­ory among those who be­lieve in para­nor­mal ac­tiv­i­ties that a sud­den, trau­matic end may act as a prompt to haunt­ing. Avi­a­tion ac­ci­dents may some­times, they say, cre­ate this sit­u­a­tion.

At my home air­field at Bices­ter, a wartime Bris­tol Blen­heim OTU, there were, sadly, sev­eral fa­tal ac­ci­dents dur­ing night fly­ing train­ing, which was per­haps in­evitable given the sheer vol­ume of fly­ing tak­ing place in blackout con­di­tions. In one week in Fe­bru­ary 1942 there were two fa­tal crashes on the air­field just a few nights apart. Both took place on the north-east cor­ner of the air­field.

Over the years, many who have worked at Bices­ter have told of a ‘cold, heavy, fright­en­ing pres­ence’ close to the perime­ter track on that cor­ner at cer­tain times of the night. One man, who claimed he was “scared enough to run away”, is a for­mer 16,000 hour in­struc­tor, bush pilot and crop duster — not a man you’d imag­ine scares eas­ily. The Avro Lin­coln in the RAF Mu­seum at Cos­ford has been seen, ac­cord­ing to a sur­pris­ing num­ber of visi­tors, to have a face sud­denly man­i­fest it­self at one of the cock­pit win­dows. At East Kirkby, home of Avro Lan­caster Just Jane, a man in wartime uni­form has been re­ported as be­ing seen in the Con­trol Tower and was most def­i­nitely not one of the reen­ac­tors, while at the for­mer RAF Church Fen­ton, sight­ings of a young RAF air­man have been linked to a ground crew mem­ber hav­ing been killed by a re­volv­ing pro­peller.

Lin­colnshire, Cam­bridgeshir­e and East Anglia are, not sur­pris­ingly given their wartime his­to­ries, rel­a­tively ‘thick’ with avi­a­tion ghost sto­ries.

Staff and vol­un­teers at IWM Dux­ford have re­ported the ghosts of Amer­i­can air­men and even un­ex­pected engine noises in ar­eas rang­ing from the base­ment of the for­mer mess build­ings, now used to store ar­chive ma­te­rial, to the WWII Tower. The haunt­ings are thought to be linked to the crash of a B-17 car­ry­ing sev­eral unau­tho­rised pas­sen­gers to a party at an­other base, but which hit a ra­dio mast dur­ing a low-level beat up.

From Rougham in Suf­folk, there is the story of L’il Butch, whose B-17 was shot down on a raid over Ger­many in 1945, yet for sev­eral months af­ter­wards fel­low crew mem­bers re­ported see­ing him on the air­field “just like he’d re­turned from a mis­sion”. An­other such ghost is ‘East End Charlie’, who ap­par­ently haunts the run­way thresh­old at Wood­bridge. The dif­fer­ence here is that ‘Charlie’ is said to be a Luft­waffe pilot who was at­tempt­ing to fly his badly dam­aged plane back to Ger­many. He crashed at the east end of the run­way and his reg­u­lar pres­ence be­came leg­end among USAF ground crews at the base in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mean­while, you’d ex­pect the lo­cal con­stab­u­lary to be pretty hard to con­vince. Not so at Martle­sham Heath, where the Suf­folk Po­lice head­quar­ters now oc­cu­pies a sec­tion of the for­mer 8th USAAF base. Po­lice of­fi­cers have ap­par­ently re­ported see­ing ghostly Amer­i­can air­men in what is now the head­quar­ters canteen. (I think I’d stay off the cof­fee if I were them.)

How­ever, one ghost story at least has a more log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion. A few years ago, a Tiger Moth pilot, suit­ably dressed in Irvin jacket etc, was pre­par­ing for an early morn­ing start from a wartime air­field in East Anglia. Thwarted by early morn­ing ground fog, he re­paired to the Tower, made a cup of tea and then stood on the bal­cony to drink it. Sud­denly out of the fog came the lo­cal hunt, at full cry. They ap­par­ently ‘reined in as one’, stared in hor­ror at the ‘wartime’ pilot on the old Tower, then rode off into the mist. One can only imag­ine the story they later told!

But the ul­ti­mate ghost story, in both the writing and its telling is prob­a­bly Fred­er­ick Forsyth’s The Shep­herd. It tells the tale of a pilot of a de Hav­il­land Vam­pire, fly­ing home on leave from Ger­many on Christ­mas Eve 1957 when, over the North Sea, as fog be­gins to en­ve­lope East Anglia, the air­craft suf­fers an elec­tri­cal fail­ure and loses its ra­dio and ra­dio com­pass.

‘Sud­denly’, in Forsyth’s words, ‘out of the mist ap­pears a World War II Mos­quito. It is fly­ing just be­low the Vam­pire, as if try­ing to make con­tact...’.

The story has gained a leg­endary sta­tus thanks to Canadian broad­caster CBC, which has aired the story, read by the late Alan Mait­land, ev­ery Christ­mas Eve since 1979. Fancy hear­ing it? The broad­cast can be down­loaded at ble­qmbi0 or via the CBC web­site

Air­fields... are a lo­ca­tion for past in­ci­dents, and... tragedies ’Sud­denly, out of the mist ap­pears a World War II Mos­quito...’

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