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
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 https://youtu.be/j2_ bleqmbi0 or via the CBC website www.cbc.ca.
Airfields... are a location for past incidents, and... tragedies ’Suddenly, out of the mist appears a World War II Mosquito...’