Friday, 2 December 2016

What Would He Have Done ? A VBCW Aerial Hero

MichaelChurch Court, Michaelchurch Escley

A very long time ago (in real life terms), JP published some research on "Interwar Aeronautics in Herefordshire", tracing the development of civilian flying in the pre-war period - including the use of Hereford Race Course as an "aerodrome" and the results of the 1936 "Three Counties" Air Race. In the world of Hereford VBCW, of course, the Race Course has now been fully developed - at the snarling command of Captain Arrowsmith - into the principal BUF/Royalist airfield within the County.

But back to pre-war history, and a strange connection between MichaelChurch Court (No.141 on my List of Herefordshire Country Houses) and JP's research. It appears that the Three Counties Air Race of 18th September 1936 was nothing of the sort, but was "shortened to avoid clashing with the London-Cardiff race". One of the two turning points on the actual course for the newly shortened, Hereford-only, air race was none other than Michaelchurch Court.

The choice of Michaelchurch Court was no accident, for it was the home of Hereford's premier aviator, Randolph Trafford.

Randolph Trafford was, according to the research of the Ewyas Lacy Study Group, the first man in Herefordshire to own and fly his own plane. A rich playboy, he qualified as a pilot in Switzerland in 1927/1928. After coming into his inheritance, Randolph returned from Switzerland to Michaelchurch in 1931, making extensive renovations to the house (including installing a swimming pool) and building an airfield of some 20 acres in the fields behind the house.

A car fanatic as well as an aviator (he owned a Rolls Royce, an "Amilcar", a Lagonda, a Sunbeam, an Essex "Terraplane", and kept a Citroen in Switzerland), Randolph was both President of the Wye Valley Auto Club and an inaugural member of the Hereford Gliding Club (founded 1936). By the mid 1930s, he was flying a Gypsy Moth bi-plane, and a hosting a wide variety of society, as well as international, visitors at Michaelchurch. Of all his visitors, much the most sinister (in retrospect) were a number of German pilots.

In 1934, following their participation in RAF Air Pageant at Hendon as guests of Lord Jeffrey Amherst (5th Earl Amherst) and Richard (Dick) L'Estrange Malone of Heston, a number of German piloted aeroplanes, accompanied by their Hendon hosts, landed at Michaelchurch. The leader of the German delegation was Baron Alexander von Winterfeldt, a WW1 fighter pilot who, serving with Jasta 20, had claimed four victories in 1918. Further visits took place in the following summers, but the most ambitious event took place in 1937 - the first (and only) "Michaelchurch Air Rally". Although small, this event had a truly :international attendance - from Air Touraine, the Aero Club de Dieppe, the Aero Club de Geneve, the Cardiff Aeroplane Club, and a Luftwaffe delegation lead by Major Hans Seidemann.

A French visitor described the events of the 1937 rally:

"......we were the guests of Mr Trafford at his private airfield at Michaelchurch.  It was a typical calm English Sunday with French sun.  The enchantment of the trip began. … Under the sign of the rose of York, we flew towards Wales, soon followed by M Legendre of Dieppe, M et Mme Deveau (sic) of Geneva and two German planes.  Never had Michaelchurch seen such a flock of wings.  To facilitate the landing, we were obliged to leave our Farman at Heston and to continue the flight in Mr Malone’ s 5 seater twin engine Short.

Receptions, official and private dinners, teas, cocktails and more cocktails … how not to abandon oneself to this generous welcome, whose printed programme I have now under my eyes, with a view of Michaelchurch Court on the cover, next to the Trafford coat of arms, set in a theatrical decor.  The most authentic and romantic setting you could imagine, with waist-coated servants, family portraits, tapestries, hunting trophies, rare birds and above all flowers in deep halls like those of churches, and in the gardens which prolong the ever green countryside, decorated with ruins, as in the paintings by Hubert Robert, and animated with cattle, as in Corot’ s paintings.

That ’ s how Michaelchurch appeared to us, and the following day, Goodrich Castle and Goodrich Court, owned by Mrs Moffat, and the wonderful house [Handley Cross] of Mr Corbett-Winder, a great hunter – all more or less related to Mr Trafford and his mother, Mrs Capper, who did the honours with infinite grace – in the vast undulating countryside, with Hereford as its capital."

Some two years later, Randolph and his erstwhile German guests were at war. The leader of the 1934 delegation, Baron Alexander von Winterfeldt, was killed in a flying accident in Germany on 16th May 1942, having previously shot down an RAF Blenheim during the French campaign and destroyed an RAF Gladiator at Maleme airfield during the invasion of Crete. Count Speck von Sternberg, who had taken part in the 1937 Air Rally, flew Heinkel 111 bombers during the Battle of Britain. He was shot down and killed about 100 miles north east of Michaelchurch, around Birmingham, on the night of 10th/11th May 1941. Major Hans Seidemann, the leader of the 1937 German delegation, survived the war as a highly decorated "General der Flieger", ultimately promoted to command "Luftwaffe Command 8" on 29th April 1945, the day before Hitler committed suicide in the Bunker.

What of the dashing Randolph's war?  The story is told in full here, but ended in tragedy. Some fifteen months
after joining the Fleet Air Arm on the outbreak of the war, while flying a Fairey Fulmar in low visibility, Randolph crashed to his death on Dartmoor (18th January 1943). He was just 36. The "Hereford Times" recorded Randolph's funeral:

"In the burial ground of the little church of Michaelchurch Escley, in view of his home, Michaelchurch Court, nestling in the foothills of the Black Mountains, the remains of the late Mr R.R.W.R. Trafford were laid to rest on Saturday afternoon.  Mr Trafford, a lieutenant in the R.N.V.R., serving in the Fleet Air Arm, was killed while flying the previous Monday.  He was … a pioneer of aviation in Herefordshire, and was to have been High Sheriff of Herefordshire this year.…

The coffin, which recorded that Mr Trafford was killed on war service, bore the family crest, and was draped with the Union Jack.  Brought to Hereford by train, it was accompanied to Michaelchurch Escley by Mrs Capper (Mr Trafford ’ s mother), and Mrs M J Hunter (sister)."

Randolph Trafford, RNVR and Fleet Air Arm
A Pioneer of Aviation in Herefordshire
1907 - 1943

VBCW Notes:

(1). Michaelchurch Escley is just over 15 miles from Hereford along the B4349 road and just over 25 miles from Ross on Wye along the B4348, The parish is within the area controlled by Sir Gilbert Hill and his Golden Valley Invincibles. A pre-made landing strip at Michaelchurch would serve the wily Sir Gilbert's plans very well, together with those of his close allies, the Anglicans. It might also be a strategic target for the Royalists/BUF, anxious to prevent its use as an alternative landing site for Ludlow's famed 366 Squadron.

(2). Major Hans Seidemann's pre war activities illustrate his potential "alternative career" in the VBCW. Trained at  Lipetsk airbase in Russia in 1929 in clear violation of the Versailles Treaty, by the time he met Randolph in 1937 he was serving on the General Staff of the Luftwaffe. From December 1938 to June 1939, he served as Chief of Staff to the Condor Legion in Spain. If Hitler had been interested in any kind of intervention (however informal or undercover) in the VBCW, it is not too difficult to imagine the by then Lieutenant Colonel Hans Seidemann returning to Herefordshire in order to "advise" the BUF Air Arm.

Oberstleutnant Hans Seidemann 1939
Chief of Staff "Condor Legion" or
 Three Counties BUF "Air Adviser"?

(3). Randolph Trafford  There is an unwritten convention that real people should not be written into the VBCW. This does not stop speculation as to what famous British characters and politicians of the period would or might have done in the event of such a Civil War. Given that Randolph Trafford was such a dashing pre war figure in Herefordshire, and that none of Randolph's direct family now remain alive, perhaps he would not mind his memory being revived for "our VBCW". Nothing is known of Randolph's political or religious convictions (it may be that he found both "rather a bore"'), but it seems unlikely that he would have disapproved of Edward VIII's louche lifestyle or choice of bride. A reasonable argument can therefore be made that, as a member of the County landed gentry, Randolph would automatically have supported the "Royalists". Such a conclusion would overlook, however, the disdain felt by some well established County families for the "Governor" imposed upon them by Edward VIII, the notorious Lord de Braose (whom Randolph would undoubtedly have considered "a bit of a narg" = "not a real gentleman"), together with their lack of class sympathy for the BUF and its snarling commander, Captain Arrowsmith ("a truly appalling fellow"). Not all of the landed gentry would have automatically supported Edward the Oathbreaker, and in Randloph's case, the clincher might well have been his extended County family. As seen above, his aunt, Mrs Moffatt, owned Goodrich Court, a vast country house in the centre of Ross-on-Wye and therefore (in all probability) an Anglican Command Centre for General Jermingham, the charismatic Anglican C-in-C. Whether from conviction or simply by way of compromise with a geo-political reality, it is easy to see Mrs Moffat acting as the "grande dame" or "chatelaine" at Goodrich Court for the Anglican cause, and persuading her nephew to join the colours - perhaps with an Albertine sympathy - upon the Anglican alliance with his fellow local landowner, Sir Gilbert Hill. Given his character and untimely death in real life, it is a pleasure to imagine the raffish Randolph Trafford enjoying "his VBCW", flying his Gypsy Moth from Michaelchurch on recce missions over the "occupied" parts of the County, training new pilots (sourced from the Hereford Gliding Club) in his spare time, and bombing up and down the B4348 in his "Essex Terraplane" or "Amilcar", string driving gloves tight to the steering wheel and silk scarf flying, for urgent "staff discussions" with General Jermingham, or simply cocktails with his politically influential Aunt.

The "Amilcar"

The "Essex Terraplane"

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating chap, and indeed article! Bravo for keeping the flag flying sir.