National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire – RAF, Far East, Land Girls and Navy

Having visited the Millennium Chapel, we started to explore the grounds. There is no way I will do all the memorials, so we will have a selection of them. The gardens are lovely, and there is a good variety of planting. I like the Alder Tree, although the Arboretum seems cut off from Alrewas by the A38. Access to the Arboretum by public transport is appalling.

The RAF Halton Apprentices Memorial Garden has a centrepiece representing the wheel badge. The base in Buckinghamshire, was open in 1912 when forces from Aldershot needed somewhere to practice the defence of London using their three aircraft and an airship. The information board was fascinating.

The RAF Regiment provides specialist Force Protection for military airbases worldwide. It has been on operation since it was founded in 1942.

The Auxiliary Territorial Service Statue is the work of Birmingham sculptor Andy de Cimyn who used his wife Francesca as the model. It consists of a cementitious render over a reinforced concrete core. The ATS was founded in September 1938, had 23,900 women in the service in 1939, and 212,500 in 1945. 335 were killed, 94 reported missing, 302 wounded, and 20 became PoWs.

We went into the area of the Arboretum which commemorates the War in the Far East. It is perhaps the hardest part. We went round the displays in the Pavilion, and the horror is so overwhelming that silence is almost the only response. Ronald Searle the cartoonist, and former pupil of the Central School in Cambridge (which became the Boys’ Grammar and then Netherhall), suffered appallingly. While working in Suffolk I met men who had served in that theatre where so many East Anglians met their death – and I met their wives and widows. The Sumartra Railway was not a story I know, the Burma Railway I only know through the lens of Bridge over the River Kwai, I have never been brave enough to watch The Railway Man. The Sumatra memorial is by Jack Plant, based on a sketch by Owen Greenwood – they were both prisoners there. The track for the Burma Railway was originally manufactured in Middlesbrough and returned in 2001 to be in this memorial.

The World War I Sikh Memorial is dedicated to the 124,245 Sikh soldiers who fought for the British Indian Army in all the theatres of warm including major battles at Ypres, Flanders, the Somme and Gallipoli. The guide does not say who the sculptor was. It was unveiled in 2015.

The Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps Memorial is lovely – I liked the figures better than the ATS one. The Women’s Land Army existed for two years in WW1 and was re-founded on 1 June 1939 (it was disbanded for the second time on 30 November 1950). By 1943, 80,000 women were working in the Land Army, and about 6,000 others were in the Timber Corps. Land Girls and Lumber Jills. The bronze memorial was unveiled in 2014. It is by Denise Dutton. 1,000 Land Girls worked as Rat Catchers, killing “Hitler’s little helpers”.

There is a selection of naval memorials. We sat in the Women’s Royal Naval Service garden for a while and admired the Wren. It is a memorial to the 21 WRNS and the 1 Naval Nursing Sister who died when SS Aguila was torpedoed in 1941.

The Naval Service Memorial commemorates those who have served, serve today and will serve tomorrow, regardless of rank, trade or fighting arm. It was created by Graeme Mitcheson, from a theme developed by Lt Col Nigel Huxtable. It is comprised of 13 coloured glass panels on a white granite terrace and includes a figure of Kilkenny limestone. The glass depicts the colours of the five oceans – steel grey with spume lines for the Atlantic, turquoise for the Indian, ultramarine for the Pacific and white for the Arctic and Southern oceans. Yellow for the rising sun, red for the setting sun and the blood spilled at sea, and on land. On the memorial’s terrace stands a figure of a sailor, head bowed in respect to shipmates everywhere, cap held in the ‘at ease’ position. The figure faces west, where the sun sets. The terrace has a carved inscription of the Tennyson poem ‘Crossing the Bar’, a phrase used when shipmates pass away (I’m sure I did the poem for O level). The glass panels cast a shadow suggesting the shape of a warship, visible only in sunlight and for a few hours each day. The carved shapes suggest waves and motion while the scale and colour hint at sails in a harbour. It was unveiled in 2014.

The memorial I wanted to find was the one to all the crew members of HMS Barham, from her launching in October 1914 to her sinking on 25 November 1942. I wrote my daily facebook rambling about this later that day:

When we were in Orkney we went to the island of Hoy, and I was wandering round the Naval Cemetery at Lyness. I found the memorial to the Chaplain, the wonderfully named Henry Dixon Dixon-Wright, who was one of the 26 who died when she was involved in the Battle of Jutland.

At the start of WW2 she was part of the Mediterranean fleet, and saw action off the coast of Africa, on convoys to Gibraltar, and came as far north as Scapa Flow. On the afternoon of 25 November 1941, she was one of a group of ships which departed Alexandria to hunt for Italian convoys in the Central Mediterranean. She was torpedoed by submarine U-331, three of the four torpedoes struck amidships so closely together as to throw up a single massive water column. Barham quickly capsized to port and was lying on her side when a massive magazine explosion occurred about four minutes after she was torpedoed and sank her. 841 men lost their lives.

When I mentioned finding the memorial on Hoy to my colleagues St Edmundsbury Cathedral Neil the Dean told me that the candlesticks at Westminster Abbey had been given in memory of the survivors, and when I did some research I found that on the nearest Saturday to 25 November the HMS Barham Association attended Evensong. In 2011 Gareth and I joined them. It was the 70th anniversary and, for the final time, the survivors carried the Standard to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior (I’m sure there’s a more naval way of expressing that). There were several hundred of us in the Abbey, and you could have heard a pin drop as a group of very old men made their way down the Nave. Incredibly moving.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them.

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One Response to National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire – RAF, Far East, Land Girls and Navy

  1. Hi
    I have been inspired by your blog posts about the National Memorial Aboretum to plan a visit there shortly. I will be taking your notes with me. I will let you know how I get on.

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