Early history -1

Recollections by Norman Whyte, President DSGC 1957 - 1974

Brian Masters of Wellington, Somerset, with a few friends, met in a small room in the Market House, Fore Street, Taunton in December, 1952, to consider forming a gliding club in the area - no assets, no money - only determination.

A club was formed in name - the Taunton Vale Gliding Club. Brian Masters was made chairman and a committee elected. At that time I was away on business but wrote to Brian giving my support and was made a founder member. Since only a few persons were present, it was decided to hold another meeting early in 1953 to consolidate the foundation. Air Vice Marshal Malcolm Taylor of Ilminster was appointed our first president, a position he held until 1957 when he left Somerset to live in Oxford. He had had an outstanding career in the Royal Air Force, having joined up in 1914 and served in the first World War in the Royal Engineers, the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force. In 1918 he was awarded the C.B.E. and A.F.C. and was made an Hon. Freeman of the City of London. His service continued in the inter-war years and in the second World War he gave valuable service at home and abroad. He retired in 1946.

 

I was co-opted on to the committee as financial adviser in 1953, at the same time as Rosemary Edmonds became secretary and who held the post until 1959. Towards the end of 1953 Brian Masters took up an important appointment in the gliding world at Lasham, later making a successful career in aviation on the American continent, and a new chairman, Arthur Hobkirk 'Hobby' of Bristol was elected. Great credit is due to the chairmanship of 'Hobby' during this difficult time holding us together and laying a sound foundation for our future.

 

In the years 1952-57 we tried hard to find land where we could fly, without success. From time to time we met in our own homes and over cups of tea planned for the future. It was decided, on my recommendation, to make the club 'limited' under the Friendly Societies Act. To comply with the rules of the Friendly Societies Act I was authorised by the committee during my visits to London, which were frequent in the 1950s, to contact the Friendly Societies Headquarters in North Audley Street,  London W1. I built up a good understanding with the Society and eventually the gliding club was approved in principle. We have always been happy that everything was drawn up in the best interests of the gliding club so far as all the rules are concerned. However, we progressed so well that in 1956 the British Gliding Association indicated that if we could obtain 40 names and each one put up £40, a total of £160, they would give their authorisation for the club on paper. So the Taunton Vale Gliding Club came into being with the B.G.A. approval to commence operations when a suitable site could be found.

In 1957 we rented land at Dunkeswell Airfield, Dunkeswell, Devon, as sub-tenants for £30 per annum and purchased a second hand T31 glider without airbrakes, which we called 'Old Faithful'. It was in this glider that the pioneer members learned to fly and gained their wings. Later that year we made our first flight - our baptism of becoming airborne. The two small gliders for the day were lent by Percy Coate and Arthur 'Hobby' Hobkirk. The latter was the organiser assisted by Samuel Tolman, who in 1958 became the new chairman of the club as well as acting as chief flying instructor.

Membership of the club having spread through the West of England the name was changed from Taunton Vale Gliding Club to the Devon and Somerset Gliding Club. During this period I gained my wings and was elected president in succession to Air Vice Marshal M.Taylor.

At this stage of development we agreed to invite the support of vice-presidents, and so we offer our thanks to those who accepted the invitation in those early pioneering days. Air Commodore Arthur M. Wray and Wing Commander E.B.Fielden in particular gave us practical help with the competitions and other events.

Here are some brief notes on our vice presidents:

Air Commodore Arthur Wray, DSO MC DFC AFC, born 1896, was the son of a missionary in Central Africa. Towards the end of World War 1, when at Sandhurst, he was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and saw active service on the Western Front. In 1917 he had his left knee cap shot off in combat, which left him lame for the rest of his life. For his conspicuous gallantry he was awarded the Military Cross. Between the wars he served the Royal Air Force in many ways and became known as 'Father' Wray. During the second World War he repeatedly risked his life shepherding nervous bomber crews half his age through their baptism of fire - at times receiving severe frowns from headquarters. In his command of a Polish squadron it was said, 'He was the finest kind of Englishman – humane, straight forward and very brave’. In April 1942 he won a bar to his DFC and it was said that 'his gallantry and exceptional leadership set a most inspirational example'. The Poles recognised this by awarding him their highest honour, the Virtuti Militari. Arthur Wray gave young pilots the priceless gift of confidence and he always kept a fatherly eye on all under his command.

At the end of the war he retired from the Royal Air Force at the age of 50 and settled with his wife and three children at Pitney in Somerset where, with his kindness and good works he earned the reputation of 'always wanting to do something for someone else'. The only thing he missed was flying and in 1961 he discovered the Devon and Somerset Gliding Club. At the age of 65 he took off for the first time in 15 years and became enchanted with silent flight. He would come down in a state of incredulous wonder that he had actually been able to climb without an engine, using only sun-powered thermals - all for free! His bubbling enthusiasm had a great impact on the club and he went out of his way to encourage young pilots. In 1964 he became one of the oldest pilots to earn the 'Silver C' badge, the mark of a qualified soaring pilot. It was a great achievement but Arthur Wray took up another challenge, the 'Gold C', for which the requirement was a 300 kilometre (186 mile) cross country flight. He worked on this summer after summer and in May 1972, after being airborne for five long, exhausting hours and suffering the pain of his old leg injury, he completed the flight when he sighted the flashing airfield beacon of RAF Binbrook. This was accomplished at the age of 75 and he gained a victory achieved by relatively few glider pilots.

When he died in April 1982 three generations of airmen remembered him with deep affection and the highest admiration. To those of us who knew him his indomitable spirit disproved the Royal Air Force adage 'there are old pilots, and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots'. Arthur Wray was both.

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Wing Commander E.Bateman Fielden DFC born on the 14th October, 1899 in Skipton, Yorkshire, was the eldest son of John Smith Fielden who was a member of the Fielden family of Todmorden, Yorkshire, with their family seat at De Brogie Castle. He was educated at Ermysted's Grammar School Skipton, and joined the Royal Flying Corps on the 2nd February, 1917. After training he was sent to France and flew on the Western Front. When the Royal Air Force was formed on the 1st April 1918 he was assigned to 24 Squadron and continued his association with this unit for the rest of his life.

After the first World War ended he went into the family business, but the flying bug had caught him and he joined Northern Aviation in 1922. From then until 1935 he probably flew more people than any other pilot in the world: 100,000 passengers without injury by 1931, and managed with the help of Sir Alan Cobham's Air Circus to reach 200,000 by 1934. Later he joined British Airways and flew from what is now Gatwick Airport. The company made a profit - mostly due to the mail they flew to Paris, Amsterdam and Hamburg.

By September 1939 the second World War had started and he continued to ferry VIPs round Europe. During the Dunkirk evacuation 'E.B.F.', like so many others, did valuable rescue work. His knowledge of every field and ditch on the approaches to Europe (which came from long years of flying day and night with the continual risk of engine failure) stood him in good stead. After Dunkirk he was seconded back to the Royal Air Force and chosen to collect diplomats from odd places in fallen France. It was on one of these missions that he was ordered by Winston Churchill to find Major General Sir Edward Spears and it was 'E.B.F.' who rescued Colonel, later General de Gaulle: the plane landed safely on British soil peppered with bullet holes and petrol at zero. If de Gaulle had not been so rescued he would probably never have been heard of again.

After this important work he went to the Manchester area to organise the forming and training of the Parachute Regiment. In 1943 he rejoined 24 Squadron and took  them to India where he spent the next two years ferrying supplies to General Wingate fighting in the Burmese jungle against the Japanese - they were known as the 'Chindits'. It was here that he won the DFC, also an American award, since he was also supplying American units further east on the borders of China and Vietnam.

After the war he joined the British Overseas Airways Corporation and was soon second in command. Later he went as a consultant to Iran and set up routes and airports to open up their National Airline. He worked throughout the Middle East starting El Al for the Israelis, Egyptian Airlines, and then to Kenya where he settled down and bought a farm, though he later returned to England in 1961. By the end of the 1960s he had joined the Devon and Somerset Gliding club through his son, John. Like Arthur Wray he was an inspiration to members of the club.

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In addition we have had other vice-presidents who supported us in other ways - Lord St.Audries, Sir Bernard Waley Cohen, Bart., Sir Rolf Dudley Williams, The Right Honourable Edward du Cann P.C., M.P., and Sir Peter Emery M.P.

Early in 1958 Edward du Cann accompanied by Frederick Wallis, Mayor of Taunton that year, spent a day at our airfield. Both had flights under stormy condition in the old T31 but survived cheerfully. It was the first time that Mr du Cann had flown in a glider, and 'Mayor Frederick', who had passed his 60th birthday, had never been in an aircraft in his life. Mr du Cann was flown by John Fielden and 'Mayor Frederick' by Samuel Tolman.

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By 1962 we were able to purchase three modern gliders and we held our first regional championships, opened by Sir Bernard Waley Cohen accompanied by Lady Waley Cohen and their children. In order to do this he gave up a Saturday during a very busy year. This was a highly successful event and the airfield looked like a town of caravans during the week of the competition. Leaders from the flying world stayed on the site, including Ann Welch who has run many national gliding events and has  managed the British teams in a number of world championships; also her husband Lorne, who has flown the prototypes of most gliders since the end of the last war. Ann Burns also came. She was the national gliding champion of Britain in 1966 and in 1968 had received the Whitney Straight Award. With her was her husband Dennis, who is well known in flying circles, and Alan E.(Doc) Slater, Sir Peter Scott (the artist and naturalist), and the late Philip A.Wills who, like many others in our time, did so much to generate interest in this splendid sport. Incidentally both Sir Peter Scott and Dr A.E.Slater are vice-presidents of the British Gliding Association.

In 1962, when we were experiencing some difficulties with the Air Ministry, Edward du Cann received Ann Welch, David Clayton and myself in his London office to help thrash out problems which were eventually resolved. In 1963 he opened our second regional championships accompanied by Robin Maxwell Hyslop M.P. for Tiverton. In 1964 the regional championships were opened by Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor accompanied by Air Marshal Sir Aubrey Ellwood. During that year John Fielden, then our chief flying instructor, became British National gliding champion.

During one weekend in 1963 we were having a meeting in the club house about the club's future, unable to fly owing to bad weather conditions, when John Fielden asked if I would approach the President of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, for authorisation of a trophy in memory of his brother, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, who was killed while stationed at Dunkeswell and awarded the Navy Cross posthumously. The United States Navy had a unit which operated from Dunkeswell during the years 1943/45 and in Dunkeswell village church there is a roll of honour, commemorative plaque and an organ dedicated to the 183 officers and men of the Fleet Air Wing Seven who gave their lives in the cause of freedom. From time to time memorial services are held in the village church usually attended by one or more serving officers of the American armed services. Friendly correspondence passed between myself and the White House, Washington, and authorisation was given to present a trophy, namely a silver cup on behalf of Lieutenant P.J.Kennedy calling it the 'Kennedy Trophy' which is competed for each year in a gliding event  by the club members. In one of the letters from President Kennedy, we were happy to learn that both he and he wife, Jacqueline hoped to visit us in the future, but unfortunately, it never materialised owing to his untimely death a short time later.

Towards the middle of the 1960s the Air Ministry decided to sell Dunkeswell Airfield and the club found itself in a serious position. It was decided by the majority of members that it would have to be wound up, as at that particular stage we had no other site to move to, and the question of buying anything else at a reasonable price was completely out of the question. Fortunately, through a farmer friend, Sidney Dymond, to whom I was introduced by John Fielden an opportunity arose of obtaining land in the area. Mr Dymond informed us that 108 acres was going up for sale at North Hill, Broadhembury, Devon, a matter of three miles from Dunkeswell Airfield. He would consider purchasing this on our behalf provided he had a guarantee that we would buy it from him and allow him grazing for his sheep. We realised that if we tried to buy it on the open market the price would go far beyond our resources - in other words the gliding club would have to come to an end.

The matter was considered by the members, some of whom had grave doubts. Would it become an impossible burden, if we went ahead? However, one of our older members, Frank Bell, came to see me saying that - under sound leadership - the matter could be carried through. I promised therefore to give it my backing. This was followed by a stormy meeting in the old control tower at Dunkeswell Airfield, when David Clayton, chairman, and Geoffrey Tregonning, secretary, worked very hard to prepare the plans and encourage me in the venture. I told members that, if they would back me sufficiently, I would lead them to the 'promised land'. I gave my guarantee to bridge the gap between what the club could raise immediately and the cost of the land, in addition a £1,500 bank overdraft to cover the club's day-to-day expenses. Following this move some brave members came forward pledging covenants, life memberships, bank guarantees and interest free loans. To the credit of those who gave these loans, most of them left the money in the club as subscriptions. Let us record our grateful thanks to these good people for their courage and trust in the club's future.

However, the transaction had not been completed and we only had a few days to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’. On the following Monday when having lunch with a surgeon friend from Yeovil, I mentioned this big challenge and said I was meeting my bankers that afternoon to make the arrangements as promised to the club. He gave me encouragement in his words, 'Go ahead and become your own masters'. On our promise Sidney Dymond bought the 108 acres at Broadhembury and, later, we bought a further 7 acres on our own so that we would have complete access to our airfield. In 1966 we moved to North Hill Airfield with two gliders and a small hut purchased for £25 and we made this our first club house. WE HAD REACHED THE PROMISED LAND - in the words of my surgeon friend 'we had become our own masters'.

Towards the end of the 1960s we had new direction with Francis Bustard, chairman Kenneth Bunyon, secretary, who followed Brian Knowlman, the latter having done good work during his five years in office following Rosemary Edmonds. Eric Shore became treasurer. We were entering a new era in the club's history and a tremendous challenge lay before us. Great credit is due to all our previous chairmen, secretaries and treasurers but, a new undertaking being under way, it was decided that individuals with new ideas should take full responsibility. Francis and I worked well together - strange, being men of such opposite temperaments - Francis so quiet and gentle and I a very hard driver. Kenneth was so capable in advising us and keeping a tight rein on the club's affairs, while Eric proved a pillar of strength with his banking experience. Best thanks to all concerned.

As soon as we arrived at North Hill members of the club set to work in planning the future of the airfield. We now have a splendid club house and aircraft hangar, the latter built entirely by the members, to house the glider fleet and powered aircraft, and backed by our own sound assets and healthy bank balance. The club is indeed fortunate in having persons from all walks of life, and this has proved the backbone of the building of our organisation. If a job has to be done or a problem solved, there is always someone to come forward to take the responsibility to see it completed. It is well known that hard work, determination and, in our case as in other business successes, sheer stubbornness will eventually see the difficulties through to a successful end. The great asset of our membership has been the attitude of the  persons concerned.

 

On the 19th September, 1970 we had our grand official opening, conducted by Rex Laurence, chairman of Broadhembury Parish Council. Fortunately the weather was fine and we were honoured by a number of local civic dignitaries. The Mayor and Mayoress of Honiton had a flight and they were pleased to see what their town looked like from the air. Friends also came long distances and television gave us a fine boost paying tribute to our efforts of self help. Everyone present was thrilled by a daring display given by John Fielden in his glider - it was one of our many great days.

The club, having grown in stature, not only runs regional championships from time to time but also task weeks and courses during the summer months for those learning or improving their gliding. The instruction is all given voluntarily by our own qualified pilots, who often devote their holidays to this work. Students come from all parts of the British Isles, Europe and Canada for flying instruction, and ages vary considerably. At 16 a glider pilot can qualify to go solo, at 17 for powered aircraft. During the summer flying courses are run for the education authorities - universities, colleges and senior pupils of local schools. In our time we have flown groups from Rotary, Round Table, chambers of commerce, women's and youth organisations, and in 1981 we helped the disabled in their international year. We have flown civic leaders - local and national, members, of the Armed Services - British and North American - leaders in the business world, sportsmen and women of note and well known personalities from the world of entertainment. On one occasion a son of an army friend, a parson, and his wife, a lawyer, visited the club on, of all days, a Sunday. They were offered a flight and before taking off he passed the comment, 'Going up on important business'. When Janet Halfacre was writing in the club's magazine a month later she referred to the young vicar's exploit and his remark on taking off in the glider, when he said he was going up above for a board meeting.

The club is an entirely private concern run under the Friendly Societies Act and not a commercial concern in the general sense. To fly with the club everyone has to be elected a member in the proper manner which keeps it on a strict basis. This is not only as  laid down by the Friendly Societies Act but our insurance cover must be obeyed in every detail.

During the early 1970s we increased our membership and consolidated the sound foundation laid down in the early years – a long way from the 1950s when we had nothing except determination and vision. In 1974 having served as a committee member for four years and seventeen years as president, I decided to ‘retire’ from active day-to-day working, knowing the club was under strong management and financially sound.

At the end of that year, having taken the annual general meeting, the members made it my 'retirement night' and made me life vice-president. In closing the meeting I said 'Being an elder statesman I now go to the back benches'; but Peter Cooper, who always had a good sense of humour, said 'No, we are sending you up to the House of Lords'!

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