A tribute to my father and my mother Clarice
Bill and Clarice Grace
Photo taken at a Taplow Masonic Lodge Ladies' Night in the fifties
My father, William Grace,
was born on 11th February 1903 in Tottenham, North London - some ten months
before the Wright brothers flew.
In 1910, A V Roe was flying his AVRO Triplane over Tottenham marshes, having been evicted from Brooklands by the Clerk of the Course.
Bill watched from below - the sight making a deep impression on the 7-year old boy.
Alliot Verdon-Roe at the controls of one of the first triplanes he built.
Young William's father was
a third generation cordwainer - a master bootmaker and went to France with
as a leather worker and saddler. He was seriously injured and returned to England, but was unable to work again.
He eventually died of his injuries. With three younger sisters and a mother to support, Bill was forced to leave school and go out
to work as the family breadwinner. At the age of 13, he pushed a milk cart around the streets of London
in the early hours of the morning delivering milk. In time, he progressed through a variety of jobs,
among them working on trams at a local terminus.
In 1920, he heard that there
were jobs to be had at a nearby airfield where a new aircraft company was
This was the de Havilland Aircraft Company being established by Geoffrey de Havilland at Stag Lane, Hendon, North London.
Bill was taken on as a young apprentice.
Bill Grace's wooden tool
box - an apprentice piece made by him at Stag Lane from aircraft spruce,
brass screws and alloy aircraft penny washers. Now a precious 92-year old family heirloom.
Bill Grace with two of his younger sisters (Edna left, Dorothy right) - 1931
In the early post-war years,
orders were scarce and times were hard for the fledgling company.
On Friday lunchtimes, the managers would sometimes take aircraft grade spruce and other materials and sell them at the local
market for whatever they could get for them in order to make up the wage packets on Friday night. But by the late twenties,
the Moth had transformed all of that, and the heyday of private aviation was in full swing. Records fell to Moths and many famous pilots
were to be seen at Stag Lane. The company developed its first engine - the Gipsy 1, and in 1927, Bill worked on the first pair of these
engines on the bench. These two engines went into the two diminutive DH71 Tiger Moth monoplane experimental aircraft.
Bill remembered preparing and polishing aircraft for the annual Kings Cup Races each year.
Bill Grace's BTH magneto
spanner (BTH magnetos were fitted to DH Gipsy engines) and his step gauge,
engraved with a very early DH logo, also seen on the covers of the DH Gazettes of 1926 below.
In 1926, the de Havilland
Aircraft Company began publishing its own house magazine - the DH Gazette.
Here are the first four issues.
The above photo and the two
following photos tell the story of the rise and fall of Stag Lane aerodrome.
Above is Stag Lane around 1926, when the first Gazettes above were published. G-EBPR and G-EBRY are early DH60 Moths.
G-EBGT is a Jupiter-engined DH9C. Note the open countryside and the houses just visible at the top of the image. High resolution image here.
Stag Lane in its heyday in
March 1933, just before closure, looking east towards Stag Lane with Edgware
Road across the top of the picture
As can clearly be seen, housing was already encroaching. Compare with the previous image. In a few years, the factory had
expanded considerably, but so had suburbia, which was to precipitate the closure of the airfield in 1934,
with producton and flight operations being relocated to Hatfield. At the junction of Stag Lane with Edgware Road
can just be seen the Bald Faced Stag pub, often frequented by DH management and staff.
High resolution image here.
By 1934, the company was
booming and the Moth and other types were being exported worldwide.
But the airfield at Stag Lane was
being encroached upon by the spreading London suburban sprawl. In 1930, the company purchased land a few miles
north at Hatfield and established a new airfield. The factory was transferred there in 1934, with just the engine operation remaining
in the workshops at Stag Lane.
Stag Lane not long after
the airfield closed in 1934. Houses are competely engulfing the airfield,
but the factory remained
as the DH engine works. High resolution image here.
Bill moved to Hatfied with
the new operation. On Saturday 1st December 1934, after a busy year,
the company held its
annual dinner in the Warncliffe Rooms in London.
Bill attended the DH annual
dinner in 1934 and had his commemorative menu autographed by 'GdeH' (Geoffrey
Owen Cathcart-Jones, James Mollison (rather scratchy - he liked his drink) and Amy Mollison.
Cathcart-Jones and the Mollisons had just returned from Australia where they had flown their Comets in the
McRobertson England to Australia race. (The fifth autograph is that of Leonard Henry, the entertainer for the evening.)
The menu recorded numerous company achievements through the year in the form of newsreel frames,
including the 'great trek' from Stag Lane to Hatfield.
High resolution image here .
In the thirties, Bill had
a friend of the same name in Imperial Airways.
He sent this photo of the DH86A Express G-ADFF 'Dione' that he was flying in the Middle East.
The photo was taken at Khartoum in 1936.
The reverse of the DH86 photo
makes interesting reading. Note the reference to 'young Sisson' on
'Young Sisson' was born in 1914, served a four-year apprenticeship with Hawkers, joined DH's at Stag Lane in 1930 in the Drawing Office,
and then in the Service Department. In 1937 he joined Imperial Airways and, as we note from this photo, was sent to Africa.
Sisson's career developed (see the image below from Flight Magazine from 1952).
He joined Smiths Industries in 1955, was appointed Chief Executive, Aviation Division 1966, and Managing Director in 1973, Chairman, 1976,
and was Chief Executive between 1976 and 1981. He was knighted in 1980, made Honorary Fellow, FRAeS 1985 and died 12 February, 1993.
To complete the story of G-ADFF, here is the aircraft's history:
C/n 2328 DH.86A Srs I regd
G ADFF [CofR 5728] 7.11.35 to Imperial Airways Ltd, Croydon; named "Dione".
(Fitted with Gipsy Six #6385/6400/6401/6407).
CofA 5303 issued 13.1.36; dd 15.1.36. Initially based Croydon; to Khartoum [after 2.36]. Conv to DH.86B 4/5.37. To BOAC, Khartoum 1.4.40 and regd to them 22.8.40.
Transferred to Alexandria 5.40. Damaged Lagos 21.3.39; repaired. Regn cld by Secretary of State 15.8.41. Impressed as AX760 at RAF Cairo 15.8.41
and operated by Lydda Communications Flight. Damaged when undercarriage collapsed taxying for take off Lydda 26.11.41. Soc 30.7.42.
So the aircraft was initially
CofA'd 13.1.36, so this would have expired at midnight on 12.1.37 - hence
the need to get it to Cairo on 12th January as Bill mentions on the back
of the photograph.
This history also tells us that G-ADFF was based in Khartoum from February 1936, so the note that Bill wrote can now be dated to late 1936.
Finally, Bill's note refers to Sisson getting on alright in Lagos. It was in 1936 that Imperial Airways inaugurated their trans-Africa route from their regional base in Khartoum to Lagos.
This from Flight Magazine in January 1936:
Researching the 'Bill' who wrote this note is a little more tricky without a surname, but research is suggesting that this was William Armstrong, a pioneering pilot with Imperial Airways.
Among the DH mementos that Bill Grace kept for the rest of his life was this DH brochure, dated 1937. Some selected pages are shown below.
Hatfield in the early thirties.
In the centre of the photo are the de Havilland School of Flying hangars
and the clubhouse
and swimming pool of the London Aeroplane Club. To the right, the first factory buildings are just going up.
When war was declared, DH
decided that they could best contribute to the war effort with a wooden
fighter/bomber based on the technology of the
DH88 Comet racer and the DH91 Albatross airliner. That aircraft was the DH98 Mosquito. Tiger Moth production was handed over to Morris Motors
at Cowley, Oxford to make way for Mosquito and other production at Hatfield.
At the outbreak of war, Bill applied to the RAF to become a pilot, but he was turned down because of the critical nature of his work at DH's.
Early in the war, Bill was
taken seriously ill with a ruptured appendix, became seriously ill and
was admitted to Edgware Hospital
where he was placed on the critical list. One of his intensive care nurses was Clarice Usher. Bill recovered - and married Clarice in 1942.
Then, on the drizzly afternoon
of 3rd October, 1940, Hatfield was bombed. A lone Ju-88 attacked
the airfield at low level,
dropping four bombs at such low level that they skidded across the grass and tarmac and lobbed up into the old
94 shop which was crammed with workers and materials allocated to the production of the first fifty Mosquitos.
The damage was catastrophic, 26 workers died and many more were injured. Many died in a bomb shelter inside the building
where one of the bombs exploded.
Bill was in one of the outside
shelters, did a quick head count and discovered that onme of his female
workers was missing.
He was sprinting across the tarmac back towards the hangar to find her when the Ju-88 attacked. He was blown across the tarmac,
but survived. (Bill was to die in 1975, partly from lung damage that was attributed to the bomb blasts that day.)
The gutted 94 shop along
with most of the materials allocated to the production of the first 50
More images of the enormous damage may be found here.
The Ju-88 came around for
a second pass, and eyewitnesses stated that they were machine gunned as
they ran for cover.
Anti-aircraft guns around the airfield opened up in response and damaged the bomber's starboard engine and tail.
It staggered away, coming down at East End Green Farm at nearby Hertingfordbury. The crew survived, escaped the aircraft
but were all captured and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp in Canada.
The downed Hatfield Ju-88
being guarded at East End Green Farm, Hertingfordbury.
This book contains a very detailed account of the incident, including many contemporary eyewitness accounts.
The burnt out Ju-88 wreckage - more images may be found here
Julian Evan-Hart's daughter
at the precise location of the crash.
Julian, Britain's foremost aviation archaeologist, has recovered parts of the downed Ju-88 from the field.
23rd July 2013 - Julian Evan-Hart (right) presents yours truly with two components of the downed Ju-88 that he recovered from East End Green Farm.
Meanwhile, Clarice was waiting
for Bill to visit her after work. By late evening, there was no sign
It wasn't until then that a neighbour told her "Didn't you hear? DH's got bombed today."
Bill finally arrived home at about 3 a.m. the following morning, covered in mud and blood. There had been chaos and carnage to deal with.
The remarkable story of the
Mosquito is told in this de Havilland film.
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
After the bombing, the manufacture
of Mosquito components was dispersed. Being a relatively simple wooden
aeroplane, over four hundred
furniture factories, garages and workshops throughout the area were pressed into Mosquito component production. Bill's job was to co-ordinate
this massive effort. By the end of the war, Hatfield had rolled out over 3,000 Mosquitos - a tremendous achievement.
One perk of his job was that Bill had extra petrol rations because of the need to visit dozens of his sub-contractors. And if he
made the odd private journey and got stopped, there would always be a particular sub-contractor he was heading for!
A meeting of the Joint Production
Committee at Hatfield in 1942.
Bill Grace is seated third from left, in the pinstripe suit.
The unique design of the
Mosquito. The fuselage was made in two halves - like a model aeroplane
kit. Each half was laid down on a
massive wooden former on which was wrapped a sandwich of ply and Balsa wood, giving the Mosqiito its immense strength.
The two halves were then fitted with their internal systems (above) bevore being bonded together.
Once the fuselage halves were mated, the structure was covered in madapolam fabric
Until Bill and Clarice were
married in 1942, Bill had a room in the Stonehouse, a hotel across the
road from the main gate at Hatfield.
When they married, a small bungalow in Goodyers Avenue, Radlett was requisitioned for them.
A sheet of headed paper of
the DH Aircraft Company Second Aircraft Group, Leavesden. Bill had
arranged for Clarice to transfer to DH's
where she became an industrial nurse at Leavesden where, at the time, Halifaxes were being manufactured. (The reason why this particular
sheet of paper has survived is because Clarice wrote a recipe for chocolate cake on the reverse!)
On one occasion, Clarice
was being taken around the airfield in a Jeep. While waiting to cross
the runway threshold, the driver noticed
that the pilot of the Halifax on short finals had omitted to lower his undercarriage. The quick-thinking driver told Clarice to
run out in front of the approaching bomber and wave him off. The driver was wearing camouflage, but Clarice was in her all-white
nurse's uniform. She frantically waved the oncoming bomber off - it overshot over her head at the last moment, went round, and landed safely.
Clarice became a friend of
Geoffrey de Havilland's son John who was a test pilot for DH's. One
day he offered to take her up in a Mossie.
Before she had the opportunity, young John was killed in a Mosquito mid-air collision over St. Albans.
It was strongly suspected at the factory that the fatal accident was the disastrous result of a tail-chasing prank
that went terribly wrong. Clarice never had her Mosquito flight.
Meanwhile Bill worked on
at Hatfield under difficult conditions. The staff took turns in firewatching
He and a friend, when on the night shift in the deserted office block, sometimes relaxed in Geoffrey deH's office,
smoking his cigars and drinking his brandy!
One night there was a bad
fire in the Mosquito flight shed. One of the fire watchers was walking
through the shed
among the latest group of production Mossies when he noticed a slight fuel drip from under the wing of one of the
new aircraft. Seeing an opportunity, he decided that he could re-fill his cigarette lighter, so he opened his lighter and held it
under the drip. When it was full, he instinctively flicked the lighter to check it, and WHOOSH! Up went the wooden Mossie in flames!
At the end of the war, DH's
laid off thousands of workers. Bill and Clarice bought a local tobacconist
and confectioner's shop in nearby Fleetville.
Bill never learned to fly, but he maintained his aviation associations by joining the nearby Elstree Flying Club as a social member.
In the sixties, the hangar
at Elstree was full of civilianised war surplus types - Miles Magisters,
Messengers, Geminis, Austers,
Proctors, and Tiger Moths - not to mention Tim Davies' Mk. IX Spitfire G-ASJV (MH434).
My parents would spend their
evenings at the bar, but because of licensing laws, as a young boy of ten
I was not allowed into the bar. So I spent these summer evenings sitting on the bench outside with my Coca Cola and packet of crisps,
watching the last aircraft land and be pushed into the hangar for the night.
When the pilots had repaired to the bar, I would wander through the cavernous black hangar and commune with the old aeroplanes,
some still warm and smelling of hot oil and fuel. Naturally, I was most drawn to the Spitfire, and to Mike Fallon's red and white Tiger Moth - G-AOIM.
Mike Fallon with his Tiger
Moth at Elstree in the sixties - a frequent sight in the circuit on summer
(With thanks to David Whitworth)
It was beyond my imagination as a young boy that, one day, I would have the privilege to own a Tiger of my own.
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