Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Accidental Researching in Charlton


The grave of Flight Lieut FJ Kemp at Charlton Cemetery (author's photo)

Since taking the plunge in 2015 and becoming a full time researcher and guide, with the time available for research no longer restricted to weekends, I've been able to actively seek research projects for customers around the world and have thoroughly enjoyed this new aspect of my work.

One aspect of researching in archives remains constant and that is resisting the temptation of reading irrelevant documents in files that one is researching and becoming absorbed by them, rather than concentrating on the job in hand. It can sometimes be difficult to stay focussed, especially when the research is going badly and seemingly bumping into one dead end after another but if one stays patient and keeps plugging away, the reward is usually not too far away. Sometimes though, this sort of 'accidental research' can lead to some fascinating results and opens a whole new project.

An example of this arose last year, when I was - rather unusually for me - undertaking some non-wartime family history research for a contact in New Zealand. Part of the work involved searching a local cemetery for the grave of the family ancestor in question in order to photograph it. As it was a grave dating from the 1930s in a particularly unkempt part of the cemetery and there was no map available, it was proving something of a mission. I knew the grave number but finding the relevent part of the cemetery was to prove easier said than done, although after a long and laborious search it was eventually located.

Whilst exploring the cemetery in Charlton, Southeast London, I chanced upon several headstones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission dotted around. I already knew the existence of some of these and indeed wrote about one of those buried there in the May 2015 edition of this blog. The headstone that caught my eye on this occasion though was that of a Royal Air Force pilot, Flight Lieutenant FJ Kemp, who had died in July 1944. Having the usual self-deprecating view of one's own neighbourhood, I had no idea that anyone employed in one of the war's more 'glamorous' professions such as a pilot had emanated from Charlton, so I immediately set out to discover more.

30 year old Frederick Kemp was born in Greenwich in 1914 and had married his wife Ellen in 1938, settling in the Charlton area of Southeast London. The 1939 Register shows Fred living with his wife in what must have been crowded conditions with his parents at 27 Mascalls Road, although they were later to move to a house of their own at 35 Eastcombe Avenue.

Upon the outbreak of war in September 1939, Frederick had joined the Royal Air Force, eventually qualifying as a pilot in 1941. By 1944, he had risen to the rank of Flight Lieutenant and was serving with 68 Squadron at RAF Castle Camps in Cambridgeshire, flying the De Havilland Mosquito NF XVII, which was a night-fighter varient of the sleek and versatile 'Wooden Wonder' as it was frequently referred to at the time.

Flying Officer James Donald Farrar (Aircrew Remembered)

His navigator was the 20 year old James Farrar from Carshalton, Surrey. James obviously had aviation in his family's blood, as his elder brother was the aeronautical engineer David Farrar. James had been called up in February 1942 and received his commission as a Pilot Officer the following year, serving with 68 Squadron. James was also an accomplished poet and had an anthology of his work, entitled "Unreturning Spring" published posthumously in 1950. He had been a pupil of Sutton Grammar School and his talent as a writer was described by Alwyn Trubshaw, his former English teacher who said of him "I say taught English but it would be truer to say that I taught English in his presence only. He had no need of my teaching. He was a natural born writer."

By July 1944, London was once again under German bombardment, not this time from manned bombers but from the V-1 Flying Bomb, known to Londoners as the Doodlebug or Buzz Bomb. These fearsome weapons were launched mainly from fixed sites in the Pas-de-Calais region and were programmed for their engine to cut out when over the London area. Thus, they were the first, albeit crude form of Cruise Missile, technologically advanced in their propulsion and guidance but aimed only in the general direction of London, falling indiscriminately on their target, whether factory, house or hospital.

At first, the V-1 caused havoc amongst the war weary Londoners. The first one fell on 13 June 1944, barely a week after D-Day and at a time when the British people could have been forgiven for thinking that the end of the war was finally in sight. The British defences were quickly re-organized; the anti-aircraft guns located in and around London were quickly re-located to form a defensive strip around the Kent and Sussex coasts, where the majority of the missiles crossed on their steady course. Inland of the guns, the barrage balloons were re-deployed and behind these, RAF Fighter Command was given free reign to shoot down any of the Buzz Bombs that had not been brought down by the first two layers of this new and hastily improvised defence. The new arrangements proved extremely effective; the anti-aircraft guns with their proximity shells and radar guidance shot down the most, eventually gaining a success ratio of one V-1 for every hundred shells fired. The Barrage Balloons were less successful but were still thought to have been responsible for bringing down about three hundred missiles. The RAF shot down 1,954 of them, with the Hawker Tempest being the most successful with 638 'kills' and with other types such as the Mosquito taking 623, Spitfire 303 and Mustang 238, with other types accounting for the remainder, including the then new Meteor jet fighter, which gave the people of Kent and Sussex an early vision of the jet age. Overall, out of 9,250 Doodlebugs aimed at England, only some 2,400 reached their target, which represents a remarkable change in fortunes.

The extract from 68 Squadron's Operational Record Book (author's image)

The RAF nicknamed their flights against the V-1s as "Anti-Diver Patrols" and it is was on these missions that Flt. Lieut. Kemp and Flying Officer Farrar were employed in July 1944. As the threat from these weapons was of a round the clock nature, 24 hour patrols were maintained, with the fighters being vectored onto the Divers by radar. On the night of 25 July 1944, ten Mosquitos of 68 Squadron were on patrol, with Kemp and Farrar flying in aircraft serial number MM679 with a callsign of "Ferro 19". Shortly before midnight, they were vectored to intercept a Diver over the Thames Estuary. They replied to say that whilst they could see the V-1, they were out of position and that another aircraft of 219 Squadron was better placed to intercept. Shortly after making this transmission, they sent a further message to say that the Diver had exploded. At 04:12, they were given a new vector by control to intercept but did not respond to the message. Despite repeated efforts to contact Ferro 19, they could not be raised and had to be considered as missing.

Frederick Kemp's body was later washed ashore in the Thames Estuary but there was no trace of either the Mosquito or James Farrar, who is today commemorated on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede. Fred Kemp left a wife (who never remarried) and three daughters. I shall make a point of revisiting his grave in my local cemetery.

James Farrar's lasting memorial is his poetry - here is an early piece written as a sixteen year old after watching a Battle of Britain dogfight:

I walked endlessly, no clock drips by the hours,
The burnished hedgerows, clotted and high,
The still woods, the dead meadows, the closed flowers,
Shrunken under that bright scarred sky.
 
A light-play, as of sun on August leaves,
A height-soft moan, a wooden intermittent rattle,
And, as the scrolled conflict eastward weaves,
Feelers drooping darkly out of battle.
 
They come slowly, soft tap-roots questing down,
At the groping tip of one glisters a bead of light:
I see them, like waterflies struggling not to drown,
Soundlessly pass into earth, and meet night.
 
What is it that they are fallen?
Sane men hold it to be just
That each, when dead feed the earth like pollen,
Lies strewn in some broken field like a wrack of dust.
 
 
Unpublished Sources:
 
68 Squadron Operational Record Books - National Archives AIR 27/604 

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