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History and character

RNZAF 486 Squadron at RAF Wittering in 1942

Like many people of my vintage I conduct a futile personal campaign to hold back the ravages of Time by maintaining my membership of a local health club. To be frank, whenever I weigh the cost of doing so against the number of times I actually manage to visit said establishment, it doesn’t represent particularly good value for money. Indeed, I’ve come to the conclusion that part of the (subconscious) reason I retain it is its use as a motivational tool via the guilt factor, i.e. ‘It’s there, it’s costing you and – to the extent you don’t keep going – you’re wasting your money’.

Generally-speaking I attend merely ‘to do my own thing’, not for the camaraderie or social side. The turnover of personal trainers and staff is considerable and the number of ‘regulars’ at the times I tend to go is small – with most of them nodding-acquaintance is the limit of communication. It’s the way I like it.

One guy I’ve come to know a little bit is a Kiwi some five or six years older than myself. He works in the building trade and uses the club as somewhere to relax after work for an hour to ninety minutes, usually to be found wallowing in the Jacuzzi or sweating it out in the sauna. Mostly when we bump into each other, inevitably because of his nationality, we talk about sport and particularly in recent times the prospect for the Rugby World Cup.

A couple of years ago, on the back of me describing my irregular visits to WW1’s battlefields and cemeteries, he told me the story of his uncle’s time with 486 Squadron of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) in the UK during WW2, of which I knew absolutely nothing.

It had been formed in 1942 to serve under RAF command, initially flying Hawker Hurricanes from 1942 onwards and then, more notably, fighter-bomber Hawker Typhoons detailed to create havoc in northern France in the 1943/1944 run-up to D-Day. His uncle had been killed in 1943 in one of these raids and was apparently buried ‘somewhere near Honfleur’. He said that one of his ambitions was to locate the grave and visit it one day.

Given my interest in military last resting places, I offered to see what I could find out about his relative. This didn’t amount to a great deal but it included the location of his grave, which was in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of a communal cemetery in a little town/village not far from Honfleur.

It so happened that last year I was invited by a friend to meet up with him at a village near Poitiers, well south of Honfleur, in July to attend the 70th anniversary celebrations of an action ‘behind enemy lines’ during the summer of 1944 after D-Day. The particular reason for attending was that said pal’s uncle, then an SAS officer aged just 21, had been killed in the action and was commemorated upon a Maquis memorial in the locality. This was an opportunity too good to miss and I accepted.

In planning my driving route down to Poitiers, I decided to set off a day early and detour over to Honfleur in order to see if I could ‘kill two birds with one stone’ by finding the grave of my Kiwi health club mate’s uncle (see earlier above) on the way.

In the event, this is exactly what I did. Neither the communal cemetery concerned, nor the gravestone itself, was easy to find but I eventually achieved the feat and duly took some photographs for the benefit of my health club mate upon my return.

He was delighted and immediately said that one day – when the right opportunity arrived that was convenient to both of us – he would love to travel there to see it so that, the next time he returned home to New Zealand, he could describe and show photographs of it to his many relatives.

We made the pact, but have yet to ‘get our act together’ as regards actually mounting said expedition.

mccawWhich brings to me to two articles upon the much-admired All Black rugby captain Richie McCaw published in the UK during the past week which, taken together, have prompted this post.

The first was by Matt Butler of The Independent – see here – THE INDEPENDENT

The second was an appreciation written by Brendan Gallagher for last weekend’s The Rugby Paper. Sadly I cannot find a link to the article on the website that I might have included here for my reader’s benefit, but the relevant section of the piece was that upon Richie McCaw’s grandfather – one J.H. (Jim) McCaw DFC, a fighter ace of Scottish ancestry who served with the aforementioned RNZAF 486 Squadron and flew over 300 sorties during WW2. The squadron’s motto was Hiwa hau Maka (translated from the Maori as ‘Beware the wild winds’).

The tantalising possibility is that there may have been some connection between Richie McCaw’s grandfather and my health club pal’s uncle who was killed in 1943. They may have known each other or even flown together – the possibility exists, at least.

I shall research this during the autumn and report further in due course.

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About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts