Archive for November, 2016

19424599495_0ee31c05cb_cThe original Southend Transport X1 route to London was introduced in 1980; the same year as the UK coach market was de-regulated, and was operated jointly with Reading Transport. It was in the following year that Southend Transport was granted a licence for a Southend to Hammersmith route, but disputes with staff at Reading resulted in temporary withdrawls of service. It was at the time of the rail strike of early 1982 that gave the coach route a huge boost in passenger numbers, and when the joint venture with Reading ceased following irreconcilable issues over revenue allocation and service development, Southend Transport operated a reduced service to Heathrow airport as well as added double-deck duplicates to cope with the growing patronage of the routes to Green Park. By the end of the year, period return and season tickets were introduced.

In 1983, the frequency of the service to London was increased, and the fleet of (mostly) Leyland Leopards and newer Leyland Tiger/Duple Caribbeans was augmented by the arrival in April of the first three of six 80-seat Van Hool three-axle double-deck TD824 ‘Astromegas’ powered by MercedesBenz 0M422A V8 engines coupled to Allison four-speed fully-automatic gearboxes (as opposed the eight speed manual ZF gearbox). New routes had also been introduced to the London service; the X11 (direct route not calling in to Basildon) and the X21 (from Shoebury). The X31 (from Canvey Island) began in June 1985, and the following April saw the first X41 route (from Prittlewell). Additional peak-time routes were added – the X10 and X30, and in April 1986, the X1 service to Heathrow was extended to the newly opened Terminal 4.

The Astromega Fleet:

243: JEV243Y CH57/27F 4/1983

244: JEV244Y CH57/27F 4/1983

245: JEV245Y CH57/27F 4/1983

256: C256FHJ CH57/27F 11/1985

257: C257FHJ CH57/27F 12/1985

258: NDS841Y CH57/23Ft 1985 (secondhand acquisition from Stagecoach, Perth)

Van Hool Astromega (JEV243Y)

Van Hool Astromega (JEV243Y)

Van Hool was founded by Bernard Van Hool as a family business of coach body builders in Belgium in 1947, and at the time were producing one-off as well as series units for clients. In 1957, a commercial contract was entered into with Fiat, who supplied the engines and running gear for their new line of vehicles, branded under the name Van Hool-Fiat, while Van Hool still expanding their own enterprise as coach builders. The contract, which had proved to be a great success, was terminated in 1981.

In 1990, Van Hool purchased the coachbuilding business of LAG Manufacturing of Belgium, and continued producing their EOS models for about ten years. Most of the buses and coaches are built totally by Van Hool, with engines and axles sourced from Caterpillar, Cummins, DAF and MAN, with ZF or Voith gearboxes, with some of their production still consisting of building bus and coach bodies on separate bus chassis from manufacturers such as Volvo and Scania.

Van Hool established itself as the manufacturer of the broadest range of coaches on the market. Their ‘T8’ Touring Coach platform was introduced in 1979. The body was based on the Alizee bodywork that had been launched the previous year. The early models were powered by Cummins L10, and later models by M11 diesel engines. Over the course of several years, a large range of touring coaches were developed based on this platform, each distinguished by a number and a name, following a clear naming convention. For example, in ‘TD824 Astromega’: T= Touring Coach series, D= Double Deck, 8=Part of the T8 series, and 24= the theoretical number of seat rows.

An upgraded version of the T8 (the T9) was produced for the North American market, and the T8 itself was discontinued in the 1990s after the introduction of the (European) T9 platform, which became the most extensive series of motor coaches available today. In the British Isles, however, the T9 body is only available on Scania, Volvo, and VDL chassis.

Van Hool presented the TX series – the successor to the T9 series – at Busworld, Kortrijk, Belgium, in 2011.

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When Horncurch became the Sector airfield covering London and the south east of England for RAF Fighter Command’s 11 Group during the Second World War, it became policy for Hornchurch-based fighter squadrons to use the advance attack outpost RAF Rochford as a satellite airfield. 54 (Spitfire) Squadron, under Squadron Leader ‘Toby’ Pearson, moved in to Rochford on 11 August 1939, already prepared for combat as the Nazis threatened Europe.

Given its importance as a defence position, a Battle Headquarters and Control Room were erected between two aircraft pens on the eastern side of the all-grass airfield, backing onto Eastwoodbury Lane. Close to these were two large Bellman Hangars, a Gas Defence Centre, fire crew huts, oil and petrol stores, water tanks and barracks. Spread among all these were eleven Stanton shelters which provided bolt-holes during air raids, and ground defences comprising three pillboxes (sited at the boundaries and close to the LNER railway line), four Hispano 20mm machine gun posts and an anti-aircraft emplacement.

rafsndmapOn the southern side were two aircraft pens, blister hangars, flight offices, barracks, latrines and drying rooms, two pillboxes, a 12,000-gallon aviation petrol store, an anti-aircraft gun emplacement, and shelters.


A retrieved turret of a Pickett-Hamilton Fort

Three Pickett Hamilton forts were also constructed in the north-east, northwest, and south-west of the landing ground. Unlike pillboxes, which would have presented a constant danger to aircraft on the landing areas, especially at night time, these were pre-cast concrete sleeves inside which a turret could be raised or lowered when required by means of a hydraulic pump, and the gun crew inside would be in action within a few minutes. It was manned by two or three men, and was not the best environment in which to spend any length of time as they frequently filled with rain water. In the event that the aerodrome was in imminent danger of capture, it could be destroyed. Pipes filled with blasting gelignite were laid under the surface of the flying field, and four igniting points were set – one in each corner of the airfield.

There were also vulnerable targets in the vicinity of Rochford – in particular the EKCO works close to the Southend Victoria to London railway line, and the Chain Home Radar Station at Canewdon. Fifty pillboxes and machine-gun emplacements were constructed to defend the area against an airborne assault, and troops under the command of the Reserve Battalion Area Command consisting of No. 1 Infantry Battalion, a Battery of the Royal Artillery, and Rayleigh Coy, 1st Essex Battalion (HG), were on site at “Stand-To”. No.9 Platoon ‘B’ of Southend Coy (HG) Essex Regiment were posted to defend the east and south-east approaches to the aerodrome, as well as ‘Cuckoo’ Corner, Temple Farm and the Rectory, with standing patrols along Sutton Road.

From: RAF Southend 1940-1944

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Sir Winston Churchill described the convoys from ports in Scotland and Iceland to the Soviet Arctic ports of Murmansk and Archangel as being ‘the worst journey in the world’, but they were vitally important in keeping the Red Army supplied with vital military equipment and food to fight the Germans on the Eastern Front.

One of these ships, the 1920-built Shakespeare Class destroyer HMS Keppel (D84), had been in reserve since 1937, and recommissioned in August 1939 to be stationed as leader of the 13th Destroyer Flotilla. She assisted in the evacuation of forces from Dunkirk in June 1940, and in the attack on the French Fleet at Mers el Kebir. Following this, she returned to Scapa, joining 12th Destroyer Flotilla for fleet operations such as assisting in fleet escort duty, offensive sweeps in home waters, and preparations to resist the anticipated German invasion.


HMS keppel

In February 1941, HMS Keppel was deployed to the Western Approaches for Atlantic convoy duties, designated as leader of 12th Escort Group, which was stationed at Londonderry. In this role, Keppel was engaged in all the duties performed by escort ships; protecting convoys, searching for and attacking U-boats which attacked ships in convoy, and rescuing survivors.

John Macgregor Mackay, who had previously served on HMS Wolfe (F37), and HMS Highlander (H44), joined HMS Keppel on 25 February 1943 as one of two ASDIC (*see Note 1 below) operators, and worked on a four-hours-on, eight-hours-off shift pattern. When working together they would take turns, listening for one hour and then change places. There were too many men on board to be allocated a cabin, so John shared an open space on the top deck, below the stokers and signalmen, with six others, who were fortunate to have been allocated a hammock; in some other quarters men had to bunk on wooden boards.

HMS Keppel left Loch Ewe on 11 February 1943 on the arduous convoy duties with part of the Third Escort Group sailing to Russia. John said spoke of his time onboard: ‘I remember having to chip away at the ice; you could not touch the sides of the boat without gloves on or your hands would have stuck to the sides and your skin would have come off. We were lucky to get a meal if ‘action stations’ was sounded. I always remember thinking when my next meal would be. The potatoes would be frozen and we would have to try to squeeze the water out of them. The bread would be black with mould which we had to cut away.’

‘We used to travel in twos, and with the Sloop HMS Kite (U87) beside us we took up our position as Advanced Starboard Attack Party on convoy JW-59 in August 1944, and on 20th, we picked up a target on our starboard quarter. Together with HMS Kite and a Swordfish aircraft from the Nairana-class escort carrier HMS Vindex (D15), we attacked a U-boat with depth charges and hedgehogs (these were self-arming mines that were fired several hundred feet in front of the attacking vessel), and went on to deploy anti-Gnat (German Naval Acoustic Torpedo) devices (known as ‘Foxers’ – *see Note 2 below) throughout the night but without success.

The next morning, however, as HMS Kite slowed down to clear her tangled Foxers, the German submarine U-344 fired a spread of three Federapparattorpedo (FAT) torpedoes at the Sloop. The ship was struck by two of the torpedoes on the starboard side and heeled over to that side immediately. The stern broke off, floated for a few seconds, and then sank.

‘I was asleep in my hammock when I was woken by an explosion, shortly followed by a second, but as ‘action stations’ sounded, I already had my duffel coat on (the crew was instructed by the Captain to sleep fully clothed in the event that the ship was hit by a U-boat torpedo) and made my way onto the upper deck towards my station.’

‘HMS Kite was astern of us and was sinking fast, and within a minute of my reaching my post on the bridge, she was fully submerged. I carried out a sweep of the surrounding area but could not pick up a contact with the U-boat. The Keppel circled the survivors until support arrived in the shape of the Sloops HMS Mermaid (U-30) and HMS Peacock (U-96), and we then drifted among the survivors who were scattered far apart. I was ordered to go to the foc’sle with a hard line, and from there I could see a large number of men covered in thick oil and clinging to Carley rafts or pieces of wreckage.’

‘There were only nine survivors on our boat, and it was my job to bury the dead. I did this by putting them in hessian sacking, and sowed them up with a sail-maker’s needle; the last stitch was put through their nose to make absolutely sure they were dead. The Union Jack was put over them and then the officer would nod and we would tip them overboard.’

‘Our task then was to look for the U-boat that had sunk the Kite. With the help of aircraft we fired at the U-boat, damaging it. It was leaking oil and we followed it. As it got nearer to the Norwegian coast (which the Germans then occupied) we set off a Hedgehog and it blew the U-boat out of the water, nearly taking us with it. I remember rescuing a tin of beans out of the water that had come off the submarine, and we had something different to eat that night.’

HMS Keppel escorted more than thirty North Atlantic convoys, and more than a dozen Gibraltar convoys, sinking one U-boat and assisted in the destruction of two others. She escorted fifteen Arctic convoys, during which she sank a further four U-boats.

Keppel was leading the 3rd Escort Group in the Atlantic in 1943, and in September, she was involved with convoy ONS18, which saw six ships and three escorts sunk, for the destruction of three U-boats. One of these, U-229, was attacked and destroyed by Keppel. In February 1944, she attacked and destroyed U-713, and in April, she rammed and sank U-360.

In the summer of 1944, HMS Keppel was transferred to the Channel for the Normandy Landings and in August, Keppel and other units attacked and destroyed U-boats U-354 and U-394.

In June 1945, HMS Keppel was decommissioned and a month later was sold off for breaking. John Mackay was discharged from service on 3 January 1946, and returned to his trade as a painter and decorator. He was awarded the Ushakov Medal at a ceremony in Manchester on 13 October 2014.

John Mackay receiving the Ushakov medal. Photos: Iris Burgess

John Mackay receiving the Ushakov medal. Photos: Iris Burgess

Note 1: ASDIC, known to the Americans as Sonar, was the primary underwater detection device used by Allied escorts throughout the war. It was basically a transmitter-receiver that sent out a highly directional sound wave through the water. If the sound wave struck a submerged object it was reflected back and picked up by the receiver.

Note 2: (A ‘Foxer’ consisted of one or more 3,000 lb (1,360 kg) trailing lines of hollow metal pipes with holes cut in them. The pipes banging together and the water rushing through the holes created cavitation noise which was much greater than that coming from the ship’s propeller, and confused the German homing torpedoes which were tuned to home in on the sound frequencies generated by cavitation.)

Part of John Mackay’s story from my book ‘Voices From the Arctic Convoys’.

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Heston airport was the setting on Friday 10 June 1932, for a staged demonstration of a new method of landing aircraft at night. Mr. Nigel Norman, a director of Airwork Ltd, had recently returned from an extensive tour of various American airports that were already using the system, and the company, in conjunction with Chance Brothers Ltd (which was an old-established firm making lighthouse equipment), introduced runway floodlights that would become universally known as ‘Chance Lights’.

A Chance Light on its Trailer in 1930

A Chance Light on its Trailer in 1930

For the demonstration, a lamp was mounted some 15-20 feet (4.5-6m) above the ground in front of the control tower, and such elevation above the aerodrome ensured that small inequalities of the surface will not cause awkward shadows. It illuminated at approximately 800,000 candle-power, and had an optical system consisting of a dioptric lens of seventeen refracting elements having a diameter of 39½ inches (1,000mm), and covering 180 degrees in azimuth. The lens was fitted into a ventilated mild steel body (closely following lighthouse practice). Four levelling jacks on the floodlight unit enabled it to be set up with great accuracy.

Adopted practice:

Chance Floodlights were positioned at each end of a runway on the left-hand side (when viewed from approach) to illuminate the runway thresholds. They were delivered via a Fordson tractor which also towed the electric generator. The lights themselves had a focal distance of nineteen inches (c500mm), and were fitted with a single ten kilowatt lamp in a semi-automatic lamp slide with a spare lamp in the slide as a standby. A second light could be brought into use where a hump in the runway interfered with the floodlight beam. Being a hefty piece of machinery, they incorporated an obstruction light so aircraft could be alerted to the position of the ones not in use. They were maintained by Chance Light crews. Intermediate lights (250-watt gas-filled electric lamps built on the marine lighthouse principles), were placed to mark the line of an air route between the larger beacons.

Preliminary trials were carried out with great success and flying was continued from 21.00hrs until long past midnight, and it was the first opportunity that private owners had to fly by night at such an aerodrome as Heston, that is away from the officialdom of Croydon or other government aerodromes.


A Chance Runway Contact Light advert

By 1939, aerodromes had been extended to such a degree that the question of efficient runway-marking equipment for night and QBI operations (flights under Instrument Flight Rules) had become a major problem, and a position has been reached when certain types of floodlights had their limitations, and a more positive link-up with the aerodrome end of the radio approach beam was deemed imperative.

Ringway Airport, Manchester, was given the opportunity to examine a ‘runway contact light’ system – the first of its kind to be installed outside the USA – and showed promise in going a long way in assisting the pilot on to the ground at night or at any time under adverse conditions. The contact light was embedded into the tarmac to provide an illuminated runway strip (sometimes referred to as a ‘flare path’), and from there on pilot no longer had to ‘guess’ his height and attitude to the ground.

The layout was as follows: A two-foot wide concrete strip was laid down the longest runway, and at intervals of 50 feet (15m) for the 1,400 yards (1,280m). A Chance light was recessed into the ground at eight degrees to the horizontal (which was where its light reached maximum intensity and was the optimum angle for a pilot approaching down the strip), and at every quarter distance, there was a cross-strip, with lights placed at 30-feet intervals, including strips at each end. By means of colour filters, the first row of lights across the strip showed green, and following the centre strip of white lights, the pilot next encounters a cross-strip of white lights. Next comes a double cross-strip of white lights, and then red lights. All lights of the centre strip that the pilot should be following will indicate red to the end of the strip. The reverse applies if the pilot should land in the opposite direction down the strip.

Nowadays, an ALS (Approach Lighting Sytem) consisting of a series of lightbars, strobe lights (or a combination of the two) that extend outward from the runway end, and typically, they are controlled by the ATC or Flight Service Station (or another designated authority), or employ pilot-controlled lighting in uncontrolled aifields, to avoid the cost of having the lighting system on for extended periods.

A good example of this practice is seen from the 1 minute 20 second point of this clip from the end of the Robert De Niro/Al Pacino film ‘Heat’:

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Turn the clock back eighty years for an almost incredible contrast of Southend Airport as daring enthusiasts racing across the turf in home-built aircraft of wire and plywood. “Pou-de-Ciel” the French inventor dubbed them; “Flying Fleas” was the English translation, and the men who flew them just were as daring as the contraptions were dangerous.

It was in the 1930’s that M. Henri Mignet (19 October 1893 – 31 August 1965), a French radio engineer, designed and built the minimum single-seater aeroplane. There were no roll controls – it being assumed that the fuselage would continue to dangle from the main upper wing. This flea, powered by a 500 cc two stroke motorcycle engine, had neither ailerons nor rudder, and control was by tilting the joystick for up/down flight via a flexible upper wing. It couldn’t achieve very great height, and if long grass wore down the tips of the wooden propeller too much, it couldn’t take off.

Pou-Du-Ciel (G-ADXS) at Southend airport on 24 June 1972

Pou-Du-Ciel (G-ADXS) at Southend airport on 24 June 1972

Southend was a big centre for “Fleas”. Hundreds of spectators flocked to grounds at Ashingdon, Rochford and the present airport site for the thrill of watching a handful of enthusiasts risk their necks for a few seconds of flying. Four of the Flea enthusiasts were well-known figures in Southend. They were Mr. Bernard Collins, MBE, Southend’s airport commandant (and later with Channel Airways); Mr Chris Story, proprietor of the Alexandra Street garage that bore his name, Mr Alick Pearce, by day assistant sales manager with the Southend Motor and Aero Company, and by night licencee of the George and Dragon on Foulness, and finally Captain Claud Oscroft, a senior captain with Swissair.

The aerodrome, known as Canute Aero Park, was opened in 1909

Two of the four built their own Fleas in garages only a couple of hundred yards apart in the heart of Southend, each advising the other on technical points. Chris Story’s Flea took three months to construct, often working through the night. Just around the corner in Nelson Street, pilot Alick Pearce, Harry Sawyer of the Anchor, Great Wakering, and Mr. Leo Len Hendrie, were working on their machine. Their Flea was powered by a converted car engine, and the overall cost of production (£70-80) was shared between the three partners. Their Flea, the “Fleeing Fly”, came to grief almost as soon as it was completed. Chris’s flying instruction came straight from the pages of a manual, and he managed a few hops on the first occasion. About a week later he took off ‘more by accident than anything’, but then the little aircraft flipped upside down. Hanging head downwards, he released the seatbelt dropped out onto his head. The damage cost £150 to rectify, but the Fleeing Fly was never to fly again, and lay in his garage.

Bernard Collins was only twenty years old when he set up the British long-distance flying for Fleas – 87 miles from Heston to Melton Mowbray in May 1936. He knew nothing about the record until it was announced on the BBC News while he was sitting at home that evening. Flea flying was highly dangerous – a number of pilots were killed. The Airport Commandant’s first log book gives some idea of the hazards.

One entry reads: Approached Dorking at 3,000 feet, machine dived out of control to 500 feet. Floor gave way. Resolved never to fly Flea again.

In both Fleas and his Heath Robinson painted drone, bought for £42, he often visited Southend and the Canute Air Park at Ashingdon. He recalled that one Flea owner was so irate that his machine would not fly – there were many that did little more than hop – that in desperation he sawed off the propeller and let spectators race it round Canute Air Park at five shillings a go. All went well until, with the combination of a light passenger and an overheated engine, the Flea leapt into the air coming to a rest on top of a tree.

Bernard Collins’ British long-distance record was challenged by a Southend pilot. “Ossie” Oscroft, a dare-devil, who aimed to fly his Machine which was owned by the Aero 8 Club, from Ashingdon to France and back again. Rather than risk crossing the Thames at an early stage of the flight he flew up to Tilbury and then crossed the river. The “Buzzcraft”, designed and built at Ashingdon, covered fifty miles until an oil feed pipe cracked, blinding him with oil. He landed on a hillside running straight into a muck heap, the whirling propeller showering him with foul-smelling manure.

Many more stories of the Fleas remain untold. The era came ungraciously to an abrupt end when, after a long chapter of accidents, insurance companies refused to insure them against the necessary third party risks.

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