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A story by Bob Lomas
June 2013

The onset of World War Two in 1939 brought many hardships to our shores but at least for numerous small boys growing up at that time there were many excitements, especially those such as myself who lived near airfields. My local airfield was only small. It was privately owned but like all such properties that could be used in the war effort it had been requisitioned, as indeed had all the large country houses around us, as we were only a few miles inland from the south coast.

Like all boys who lived on farms at that time I was required to supplement the workforce when I was not at school which meant my free time and personal interests were limited. As I recall I never knew a boy who did not have almost a passionate interest in the warplanes that flew over, often very low and every day. At times the sky seemed filled by them and we all had postcard and cigarette packet pictures and models of them. We had our favourites of course and one of mine was the Westland Lysander, a high winged single engined aeroplane with a STOL (short take off and landing) capability. Even then it was in appearance a little old fashioned, but then so was the Fairy Swordfish which was still very much in operation.

As my local airfield was just a ten minute cycle ride away, I would spend as much time as I could sitting on the fence watching small aircraft coming and going, usually Tiger Moths, Magisters and Austers and occasionally to my delight Lysanders.

One of my duties on the farm was to help in the dairy at milking time which meant being in the cowshed at 5 am. Usually I had completed my tasks in an hour or so, it was then breakfast and off to school. In the holidays following my morning work I would be free for a few hours before the work of the day began which for me included collecting the eggs and feeding the hens and calves. In those early morning free hours I would often cycle to the airfield, rain or shine, for aeroplanes were irresistible.

On one particular morning it was quite misty when I arrived at my spot by the fence. As I arrived I could hear the deep purr of an aeroplane engine not far away and I instantly recognised it as a Mercury engine, we knew the sound of every aircraft engine, ours or enemy. Could it be a Lysander, or 'Lizzie' as they were known? I listened as it circled the airfield and as it made its approach to land it came through the mist and yes, it was to my delight a Lizzie. The airfield is somewhat bumpy so the Lizzie bounced a little as she touched down, she then rolled out and to my great surprise instead of turning right and taxiing towards the main gate she turned left and came straight towards where I was sitting, nearer and nearer she came until finally coming to a halt just a few yards from me, the sound of the engine so close simply thrilled me. The pilot cut the engine leaving the propeller blades to hiss and whistle as they slowed down.

At that point I could no longer restrain myself, I jumped off the fence and ran towards the beautiful huge bird. As I got to her and she towered above me, the top canopy behind the pilot opened and a man climbed out onto a ladder that was permanently fixed to the outside of the fuselage and descended to the ground. He looked at me and gave me a smile, he then turned to look up as at that point another passenger was climbing out. He too descended the short ladder pausing briefly as he did so to take off a Mae West type life jacket which he dropped into the aircraft, once on the ground the two men shook hands and laughed. They then said good morning to me before walking forward to speak to the pilot who stayed in the cockpit from where he gave me a salute and a smile. I was simply lost for words, it was like being in a dream and not wanting to wake up. I cannot remember what the men were saying as I was listening to the lovely creaking noises coming from the engine as it cooled down, but I vividly recall the scene and what the two men looked like.

The first man to climb down looked quite young, he was wearing a dark brown suit, a blue tie and a brown trilby hat and carrying a small brown suit case. The second man was wearing an RAF uniform over which was an open gabardine raincoat, he had no hat but he was wearing flying boots. As I stood there enthralled, and perhaps bewildered, and no doubt a smile from ear to ear, I heard the sound of a vehicle approaching, it was the airfield Hillman pickup truck. Eventually it came through the mist and stopped beside the Lizzie. An Army officer and an RAF officer got out and both shook hands with the two men. They talked for a few moments before the RAF officer went to speak to the pilot, who as I remember it seemed to be as high up as an upstairs window. The Army officer then looked down at me and in a very friendly but serious way told me that I should not be there and that I must run along and never, ever, tell any one what I had seen, adding that if I did I could be sent to prison.

Reluctantly I walked back to my bicycle. If being sent away was not bad enough I could not tell anyone about the greatest experience of my entire life. All I could do was to console myself that at least I was in possession of a very special and official secret which I had been entrusted to keep.

From the fence I continued to watch as the young man got into the passenger side of the pickup, the army officer got in behind the steering wheel, the RAF officer and the airman climbed into the back and they drove away in the direction of the main gate. The pilot started the engine and taxied off behind them, I well remember how the engine fired up and then seemed almost to stop before roaring into life. I remember also how I wished I could have sat on the tail to help keep it down while it was taxiing as I had seen it done by airmen with Spitfires on the newsreel films, not that my weight would have added much, but that would have been expecting too much.

And so ended my most perfect day, as for the rest of that day nothing else mattered and no doubt for the next few weeks also.

It was not until well after the war that I realised what I had witnessed. It was of course an SOE (Secret Operations Executive) operation. Brave and very skilled RAF pilots used to fly Lysanders and Hudsons deep into German occupied France to deliver and bring back secret agents, and sometimes they would bring back RAF aircrew who had been rescued by the French Resistance.

The Lysanders operated out of Tangmere Aerodrome near Chichester, our little airfield was just north of the South Downs. Sometimes Tangmere would be fogged in when north of the South Downs could be clear. No doubt that was the case on my memorable occasion and the pilot of my Lizzie, perhaps knowing our little field decided to divert. Often over the years I have wondered what became of my pilot and his two passengers, I even considered taking steps to try and trace them but I never got round to it.

It was perhaps inevitable that eventually I should become a pilot and not surprisingly the aeroplane I acquired was an ex-WW II. US Army Ground Forces Piper L-4. the 'L' standing for liaison but its main wartime role was spotting for artillery, as was the role of the British Auster, a very similar aircraft by the same designer C.G. Taylor and both were similar to the Lysander, albeit about three quarters of the size.


The years rolled by and as my half century loomed I decided to celebrate it by flying my L-4 to Abbeville in France to visit friends. It was a flight I had made many times and in a variety of weather conditions. I have never liked flying over water in a single engined aeroplane so I always chose to cross the channel where it is at its narrowest, or near enough at that point. I would fly along the coast to Lydd Airport in Kent and cross to Calais, then south to Abbeville.

The day of my flight dawned to glorious sunshine which was forecast to hold and with little wind so the 115 miles ahead of me usually took me just under one and a quarter hours. At 0530 hours I took off from the farm field where I kept my aeroplane, flew eastwards along the South Downs to Kent and then enjoyed the channel crossing as the sun rose above a sparkling sea, then over the French coast and another fifty minutes across the French countryside.

Coming in to land at Abbeville I scattered the sheep that were always grazing on the airfield as I usually did, they are used to aeroplanes so no lamb chops on that day either. I then taxied to the parking area, tied the joystick back to stop the tail lifting should a wind get up, tied down the wings with ropes attached to ground anchor pins, closed the windows and patting her on her nose told her not to misbehave whilst I was away, pilots do that sort of thing.

Leaving the aeroplane I walked to the reception building and telephoned my friends to announce my arrival. My friends told me they would pick me up in half to three quarters of an hour as they had to take the children to school. I did not mind waiting as I like Abbeville airfield, it is usually quiet and should it be open, and it usually is, there is an interesting aviation museum. One of the exhibits is a Piper L-4 restored back to its military livery like my own, albeit theirs has a few inaccuracies.

On that occasion I went to the airfield cafe for a coffee, a cognac, a croissant, a cigar and a newspaper as I like to look at the pictures and pretend I can read it. I had previously contacted the French customs giving them the time I would be arriving and arranged to meet them on the airfield, they didn't turn up but then they seldom if ever do. In fact the only official I ever see at the airfield seems to be the manager, shepherd and general all rounder rolled into one.

Apart from the very jolly lady who served me, there was only one person in the cafe, a young man sitting at a table with a cup of coffee. Being such a beautiful morning I put my breakfast on a tray and made my way out to enjoy the sunshine. As I passed the young man he looked up and gave me what I thought to be a knowing smile, but as I did not know him from Adam I gave him a reserved acknowledgement and walked on, I also thought him a little unusual as he was wearing a suit, tie and trilby hat which by that time was out of fashion for young men, the trilby hat at least, but despite their reputation for fashion the French tend to be more conservative in their dress then are we, indeed, sometimes old fashioned. Once outside I selected a table and sat down. I had not been there long when a voice from behind me asked, "Do you mind if I join you?" I turned my head, it was the young man.

"Please do" I replied. As he sat down I asked him if he was English for he spoke with only the slightest inflection of French, as some English people do who have lived in France for a long time.
The young man smiled and replied, "no, I am French, but my mother was English."
"Does she live here now?" I asked, to which he answered "no, my mother died".
"I am sorry" I said.
The young man then smiled and said, "it was a long time ago."

As he was a young man it struck me that his mother could not have died that long ago, but if he was a small child at the time to him it would no doubt seem so. As the young man seemed quite normal and indeed pleasant company I extended my hand to him saying as I did so "I am Charles but they call me Charlie".  "I am François" he replied and we shook hands. "I watched you land, such a nice little aeroplane, there is one in the museum here" he said.

I told him that I usually go in to see it when I visit and commented that most young men prefer more modern aeroplanes with nose wheels and electronics.

He thought for a moment before saying, "well, I am not a pilot, and there is something more romantic about the old aeroplanes, and indeed old aerodromes like this one."

His use of the word aerodrome interested me as it is a word seldom used these days, but I do know several young men who rejoice in times past and their lives centre round taking part in re-enactments.

"Where have you flown from today?" he asked.
I told him where I lived and gave him a brief description of my flight.
He then asked, "do you use the small airfield there?"
"You know the airfield " I answered rather surprised.
"Not well" he replied, adding, I visit there once in a while."
"Are you into gliding" I asked him, the airfield is now owned by a gliding club.

He looked enquiringly at me and said "no, not at all" as though he didn't understand why I asked the question. If he didn't know about the gliding how did he know the airfield? Perhaps his mother's family came from my area, I might even know them, I thought.

I was about to put that to him when a cheery voice called "Hello there Charlie". My host had arrived to collect me. He was standing by his car on the other side of the gate some thirty yards away. I stood to leave and Francois rose also, we shook hands and he wished me "bon voyage" and said that no doubt we would meet again.

Before walking off I paused to relight my cigar but my lighter had run out of gas. Francois put his hand into his pocket and produced his lighter which he passed to me, it was a Zippo. I relit my cigar and offered it back to him.

"Keep it" he said, "are you sure" I asked.
"Absolutely" he replied, adding "I never use it anyway, I only carry it to help out friends and now so few people smoke."

I thanked him and was sorry I had nothing appropriate to offer him in return. We shook hands again and I walked to the gate to greet my host. As we drove off I asked my friend, "do you know that chap?"

"What chap?" he asked,
"The chap I was talking to." I replied.
"I didn't notice anyone" he said casually. I was aware that he was some distance away at the time but not that far I thought, but it seemed unimportant so I left it at that.

My three day break with my friends was as delightful as ever, at the end of which my friends duly delivered me back to Abbeville airfield. We enjoyed a farewell drink in the cafe, I took a brief look round for Francois but he was not there. Had the same jolly lady been serving I would have asked her about him but she wasn't. The weather still held and I took off into a bright blue sky for a pleasant flight home.

While grinding along at my leisurely 64 knots I started thinking over my meeting with Francois which for some reason or another I had not mentioned to my hosts, but with a house full of children and a lot to catch up on that was not surprising. I had used the lighter he gave me several times but had not looked at it closely so I took it out of my pocket to inspect it. It had a badge on one side and the words 'The Bath Club' which by chance I happened to know a little about as my uncle had been a member.

The Bath Club was a rather posh gentleman's club in London before the war. During the war it was badly bombed and never recovered so the lighter was quite old. There was something about Francois that had not occurred to me at the time of our meeting but his smile was indeed familiar and there was something else that had not registered with me at the time, he had with him a small brown leather suitcase. That momentous morning so long ago came rushing back to me, the dark brown suit, the blue tie and the hat, the friendly smile, it was Francois.

I told myself that I was fantasizing, it was impossible, such things don't happen in real life, we all know that, was it a dream? No, it wasn't a dream, in dreams one quickly forgets the small details, every thing that happened during our meeting was crystal clear in my mind yet all was confusion. Why did Francois seem to recognise me? Why did my friend not see him? How could it have been a dream when I had his lighter in my hand? Where else could it have come from? The lighter was real and it worked. If I told anyone they would laugh at me. Perhaps better I kept it as a secret, and my mind went back to the secret I had to keep so long ago. I flew on in a very confused state of mind. When finally I reached home before landing on the farm strip I couldn't resist flying round our small airfield to take a look although quite what I was looking for or expected to see I was not sure.

Ten years passed and I was still using the lighter. Good cigars had become too expensive but I still smoked a pipe and a Zippo lighter, unlike a modern gas lighter, will work even in a strong wind. By then I had become semi-retired so I had more free time. I was still flying my small aeroplane and I enjoyed walking but a hip was beginning to play up so I took to cycling to keep fit which didn't seem to antagonise it. On fine days I enjoyed cycling round my old childhood haunts most of which had not significantly changed. Often I would stop at my viewing spot beside our small airfield and reflect on that momentous morning of so long ago, now almost as though it too had been a dream.

On one particular occasion I was cycling along the road where it passed what used to be the main airfield gate, there now being a new entrance further along the road but the old gate is still there. I slowed down and looked towards the gate which is some thirty yards from the road, there were two men standing beside it, I looked harder not knowing whether or not to believe what I was seeing. One of the men was Francois, there was no doubt about it. He looked in my direction and waved, I waved back. At that instant I heard the distant sound of a Lysander somewhere above, I looked up, searching the sky for it but could not see it, and then the sound faded away to nothing. I looked back to the gate but Francois and the other man had vanished.

Quickly cycling to the gate I looked round in all directions but there was no sign of them. I examined the ground for any indication that the men had been standing there but everything told me that the gate had not been used for a long time.

There are things in this world that we simply don't understand and perhaps never will, but they exist, I know they exist because I have seen them myself, me, just an ordinary chap. No doubt there are others who have seen them also but like me they choose to seldom, if ever, talk about them. From my experience I can say that although they are very confusing there is nothing frightening about them, in fact they can be quite endearing. The big question is, what is the barrier that prevents us from seeing them all of the time? Again perhaps we shall never know.

I have not seen my friend Francois since or heard that wonderful sound of a Mercury engine above our small airfield, but whenever I cycle past I tend to linger, just in case.