On the far north western edge of Wales is the old fortified city of Caernarfon. Its magnificent castle looks out over a flat estury on one side, with dramatic hills rising above the horizon on the other. Eight or so miles south of Caernarfon is a tiny stone village named Llandwrog, situated in low hills a short distance from the Irish Sea.
From Llandwrog the ground slopes down gently towards the coast, flattening out at the bottom into a wide plain. The plain is surrounded on three sides by the hills of Snowdonia, rising up to 3,500 feet. The hills are responsible for the unique weather of the locality. Biting westerly winds sweep off the sea, bringing moisture-laden air with them. The air is deflected up by the rising terrain and, as it cools with altitude, the moisture condenses into cloud. It is not unusual for the entire British Isles to be clear of cloud, except for this tiny corner of Wales (and perhaps deepest, darkest, northern-est Scotland):
On the plain between the village of Llandwrog and the sea is an airfield. Despite being closer to the village of Dinas Dinlle, the airfield was originally named RAF Llandwrog. It opened in January 1941 as the home of No. 9 (Observers) Advanced Flying Unit and later became famous as the base of the first ever RAF Mountain Rescue unit. In late May 1943, following three months thumb-twiddling at No. 11 PDRC in Bournemouth and two months flying in Tiger Moths at No. 26 EFTS at the old grass airfield at Theale in Reading, Jack Purcell found himself posted to RAF Llandwrog. Over the next month or so he would log 18.25 hours by day and 7.10 hours at night flying in Avro Ansons.
Summer in this part of the world is very different to summer in Australia. It’s not too difficult to imagine what Jack may have thought on first being posted to this place with the strange name. He had been exposed to flying in English conditions in the Tiger Moths at Theale – but not in something relatively modern like an Anson, and certainly not in weather as persistant as that at Llandwrog. Visibility would have been often reduced in atmospheric haze, which made visual navigation difficult. The wind over the hills made the air bumpy when an aeroplane strayed too close to them. Sure, aeroplanes bounced a bit in thermals in Australia, but this was a different sort of bump. Even in summer the wind would be cold, especially when it blew straight off the Irish Sea. The beach is covered in pebbles and under a cloudy sky would have looked far less than inviting. In short, this must have looked like a forgotten part of the world.
Llandwrog, I discovered when I visited the area in June 2010, is pronounced ‘G’lland-oohrogh’. The airfield, now known as Caernarfon Airworld, is still active and is home to a flying club and a small museum. Despite the brand new hangar and operations building, much remains of the old RAF station. The former fire station, now missing important bits like its roof, stands behind the museum:
The old control tower – until recently the headquarters of the flying club and still in use as their air-ground radio base – still stands:
Behind the fire shed is a remarkably intact bomb shelter:
I particularly wanted to go flying from Caernarfon because of its connection with Jack’s story. I took along a local instructor named Phil. We flew south along the peninsula towards Bardsey Island, keeping below the cloud base. Nearer the island it became clear that the cloud was very much ‘following’ the coast line and we emerged into beautifully clear flying weather:
The cloud, however, stretched solidly over land back towards the airfield and the tops of some of the higher peaks were easily visible popping out the top of it as we flew ‘over the top’. It was easy to see how someone not used to flying in the area (like, for example, a brand new Australian WWII navigator) might blunder into what pilots euphemistically call ‘cumulo-granite’. We were able to use the modern aid of radar and a helpful air traffic controller from nearby RAF Valley to vector us clear of the terrain for a descent through cloud over the sea before we returned to the airfield, but this of course was not an option during wartime. It really is no wonder so many aircraft crashes occurred (and, sadly, continue to occur) in the Snowdonia area – a direct factor in the creation of the RAF Mountain Rescue team originally based at RAF Llandwrog.
For a morning, I had walked (and flown) in the footsteps of my great uncle. Though in some respects modernised there remains much in this area that has probably not changed in the six and a half decades since Jack was here. The sleepy little stone villages remain sleepy little stone villages. The airfield remains an airfield. The wind and the cloud is still the same wind and cloud. The connection that I felt to that time was made even stronger when I discovered the full name of the instructor I flew with.
He was called Phil Smith.
(c) 2010 Adam Purcell