The Royal International Air Tattoo, Fairford: Celebrating the stars & stripes
- Credit: Archant
From D-Day gliders to Cold War bombers, RAF Fairford has always had a special relationship with the American air force. Katie Jarvis seeks out a few memories and looks ahead to this year’s very special event
There are always stars and stripes at the annual Royal International Air Tattoo, the world’s largest military air show. Among the stars are some of the excitingly unique aircraft that take part in awesome displays; among the stripes are visiting international air force personnel. But this year, there’s an authentically American Stars and Stripes theme, as Fairford helps celebrate 70 years of the US Air Force, the USAF.
It was in 1947 that President Harry Truman signed an act establishing the US Air Force as an independent service that would take its place alongside the US Army and US the Navy.
But the Cotswolds’ relationship with American air crew goes back even further. RAF Fairford was built in 1944, to support British and American troop carriers and gliders taking part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Six years later, at the start of the Cold War, the airfield was transferred to the USAF for strategic bomber operations – and a close relationship was cemented between American personnel based there and the Fairford townsfolk who lived alongside them; a relationship that continues to this day.
To mark this significant anniversary, Katie Jarvis spoke to people both sides of the airfield fence with memories of RAF Fairford throughout those years.
The 1960s: Hitching a ride
During the early 60s, most Saturday nights, my mates and I would go to the cinema in Cirencester. Getting there was easy - we used to stand on the pavement where the Horcott Road meets the Cirencester Road, knowing the Americans would stop at the junction in their big cars (the likes of Buicks, Studebakers and Oldsmobiles). We would tap on the window and say, ‘Hey Buddy! Any chance of a lift into Cirencester?’; they always obliged.
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Very often, when we were waiting for our lift, the Passion Wagon - as we called it - would turn up. This was a coach bringing lively young women from Cheltenham and Gloucester, looking for a good time with American servicemen. The coach was full to overflowing, the women in their stilettos, beehive hairstyles and red bee-sting lips. Nearly every time, by the time the driver got to Fairford, he was stripped of his shirt and tie and covered in lipstick kisses. The guy, who would have a smile from ear to ear, had to stop by The Marlborough Arms to get dressed before entering the airbase. It was always said the coach, reeking of perfume and cigarettes, returned in the small hours half empty.
Syd Flatman, Fairford
The 1980s: Out of this world
On May 27, 1983, the American Space Shuttle arrived at RAF Fairford – its first visit outside America. We were the only base in England that had a long enough runway to take it. I was there, as Mayor of Fairford – but without a chain of office. We’d just changed from being a parish to a town council, and a new chain was being made. The Shuttle was brought in on the back of a Boeing 747; we couldn’t get close – there were barriers around it – but it was wonderful to see.
We went to the base countless times: for dinner dances, drinks parties, barbecues. Every time there was a change of command, there would be a ceremony in a hangar, followed by a drinks party.
Up until recently, we still corresponded with Colonel Jimmy Deal. He was a Mormon and didn’t drink. Once, when we were up at the base at a do, Jimmy was there with his wife, Mary-Anne, who was on the fruit punch. As soon as he left, Mary-Anne, said, ‘Well, I think I’ll have a glass of wine now!’ We looked at her in astonishment as we’d never seen her drink before! But they were a lovely couple.
They were very friendly, the Americans; very welcoming; but it was all quite formal and staid, too. I once said to the CO of the base, who was in the RAF, ‘Do you never ask any of the American wives to dance?’ And he said, ‘No, you have to be very careful because the husbands don’t like it.’
Mr David Perry, Fairford
The 1990s: Bowling them over
It could be hard for the youngsters who’d come over here from the States; Fairford is in the middle of nowhere, and it was expensive for them to go out. To be honest, you had the feeling most of them had never been out of the old US before. This one young lad, Danny, was working with me in the refuelling maintenance shop. He was from Hawaii, and he was getting a bit frustrated with life. So me and another chap – Wally – said to him, ‘Why don’t you try one of our sports?’ I knew someone who was involved with Fairford Cricket Club so I took Danny down and introduced him. They took him on, though he’d never played before – he held a cricket bat like a baseball bat. At lunchtime, we’d get a bat and bowl a few balls to him, just to show him how to play properly.
His big moment was one Monday morning when he came in really pleased with himself and said, ‘I scored 50 runs!’ ‘How did you do that?’ we asked, and he said, ‘There was a fast bowler on the other team and I thought I was playing baseball. So I stood back and hit the ball over the boundary every time!’ It really bucked him up.
When Danny finally left Fairford, Wally and I thought we’d give him a little present. So I went down to Chipping Sodbury, to Jack Russell’s studio, and there was a nice print of Gloucestershire playing cricket at Gloucester, with the Cathedral in the background. I explained to the lady in the shop what it was for, and she said, ‘Just a minute’ – and Jack Russell came out and had a chat! He took the print out of the frame and signed it ‘To Danny, with best wishes from Jack Russell, Gloucestershire and England wicketkeeper.’
When we gave it, you’d think we’d given him the crown jewels. Danny was over the moon.
Colin Moulden, Fairford
The 2000s: blankets, beer, and a betrothal
We ran Hope’s, our shop in the high street, and we were opening it early one bitterly cold January morning when the Iraq War broke out. Some Americans came down to the shop and told us they’d been put up in what sounded like empty Nissan huts on the base – thousands of them, who were there to fight the war for us – and they said they’d been given nothing. I said, ‘What do you mean, you’ve got nothing?’ And they said, ‘We are frozen up there. We haven’t got curtains at the windows; we haven’t even got blankets.’
I said, ‘Come back at teatime and I’ll see what I can do.’
I phoned five of my very strong local women – WI type – and I told them what the Americans had said; and they each phoned five more women, and so on. By teatime, the hall [in the high street] was waist high in blankets, duvets and pillows.
The Americans came down at teatime with a big pickup lorry and loaded it up – and this carried on every night. After a few days, they told us, ‘The ladies have come in as well. Any chance of some curtains?’ And then, ‘Any chance of some mirrors and some books?’
You’ve no idea of the amount we collected!
Then, after about three months, [the invasion] stopped, and they came and said to us, ‘What do we do with all this stuff? Do you want it back?’
I said, ‘You can’t throw it away! I’ll find a home for it.’ So it started coming back. We sold blankets and gave the money to Friends of Fairford Hospital; and some of the bedding went to Romania.
The whole thing got into the press in America, and they came out with a television crew and American reporters. There was even a piece in the New York Times!
Liz Hope, Fairford
Leigh and I and our four children lived in the UK many times over the past 40 years. In fact, more of my air force career was spent in the UK than anywhere else – we had a lovely run. It was in 2004 that we served at RAF Fairford for three years.
I was in a position of some authority as the deputy commander for a couple of years; and, through that office, we got to make good friends with Peter and Anne Arkell [the former chairman of Arkell’s Brewery, who died in 2010, and his wife, Anne, who died in 2014]. Never was there a more hospitable and welcoming neighbour to an air base than the Arkells.
Peter [who was chair of the Anglo-American Community Relations Committee at RAF Fairford] would often host as many Americans as we could put on a bus to come down and do a tour of the brewery. As an aficionado, I was more than happy to be associated with that tour… time and time again! Don, the brew-master, used to say, ‘Tom, would you like to give this tour? I see you again here after six of these in a row. Why don’t you just take over?’
When I met Peter, he shared with me the story of how he did his pilot-training in Tempe, Arizona, which is the same place I did mine. His time there was back in 1942, when the skies over Great Britain weren’t quite so compatible with pilot-training; so the Americans hosted the RAF and taught many of them to fly. Peter’s memory was of being very warmly welcomed; and I think that was part of his determination that no American in his neighbourhood would ever feel anything but welcome in return.
That got me thinking: Do you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to ride my bike to all 105 (at the time) Arkell’s pubs, and enjoy a pint of beer… I didn’t do it all in one day, by the way!
It was great fun. I think the furthest was probably up to Hook Norton. Leigh also participated - she was very keen on the National Trust, so she would meet me for lunch; then we’d throw the bike in the back of the car, and go and visit somewhere that was important to her.
Of all my memories, I’d say our time at the Patron’s Pavilion during RIAT – with Peter and Anne - stands out. Being around aircraft with Peter Arkell was a thrill for an airman, that’s for certain. Whenever we had an airplane that was - shall we say - a bit on the exotic side come to Fairford, we would invite Peter to take a private tour of it. He was still able to get up a ladder and actually into an aircraft, and you could just see him going straight back to 1942. Suddenly, he was young again; it was really something to witness.
Tom Gill, security assistance policy branch chief, the Pentagon
I was posted from Florida to RAF Fairford in 2004 as a civilian financial manager. At that time, my two teenage daughters were with me – the three of us thought we would take an adventure!
I immediately fell in love with the area. We lived in Clanfield to begin with, outside Lechlade, but it was too isolated for my girls; so, after a year, we moved into Fairford village and things were much better. In Florida, you had to drive everywhere. But, here, my daughters could walk to get a takeaway; I could walk to the post office or to the stores. And everywhere I went was absolutely stunning. I’ve been here 12 years now, and it still takes my breath away.
Two years into my first rotation, I met my now-husband, Ken, who’s British. He had nothing to do with the air base – we met through match.com. He lived in Fairford, but that was just coincidental; I don’t think we’d have run into each other otherwise.
My husband is a very keen fly fisherman: annually, he goes salmon-fishing up in north Scotland, and we decided that was where we were going to get married. It was very simple; basically, we got out of the river in our waders, went to the fishing hut and called all the fishermen around; we had our little wedding reception and then went back fishing!
I recently retired and I go back and forth to Florida quite a bit to spend time with my kids and grandkids. They think I’m calmer than I used to be, and that’s because of this country; it’s not such a rat-race here. When the airplane door opens and I exit in Florida, I feel the turmoil. You drive down this beautiful road near the ocean, and all you see is billboards. Whereas, here, you really protect your countryside.
Lisa MacKenzie, Fairford
With many thanks to Alison Hobson, Fairford History Society.
To find out more about the Royal International Air Tattoo, and to book tickets, visit the website here.