It was with a sense of demonstrable relief that after twenty months since their last face to face business meeting that life is getting back to normal for the Probus Club of Basingstoke. The Club has continued unabated since its foundation in 1979 and it was time for a much-delayed 41st Annual General Meeting. Covid restrictions delayed the AGM from the traditional June until 14th September and it was held at the Test Valley Golf club, the normal venue for Probus monthly meetings.
Because Covid also made it impossible to hold the AGM in June 2020 the Executive Committee had continued in office for a second year. This time there was a change at the top with David Wickens (a retired engineering sales manager) taking over as President from Richard Wood (a retired Chartered engineer).
The other committee members, who range from a nuclear scientist, a solicitor, a small business owner, a civil engineer and two RAF officers have specific responsibilities and were happy to continue in post for another nine months until June 2022. This ensures that their experiences are paramount in successfully returning to normal operations as a social club for retired Professional and Business managers as per the acronym of the name the Probus Club.
Although Probus Clubs now extend throughout the English-speaking world, with most UK towns having one or two Probus Clubs, the organisation was founded in Caterham, Surrey, in 1965 for retired managers who wanted to remain socially active. With no central office each club sets its own rules while following the basic tenet that likeminded men from all branches of society enjoy meeting for lunch with an attendant interesting speaker. Other opportunities exist to include wives for visits to interesting places throughout the year.
Their October meeting will have as its guest of Honour the Worshipful the Mayor of Basingstoke & Deane BC, Cllr Onnalee Cubitt.
Six magazines published our reports in their September editions. Four ran the Douglas Bader reports and two quarterlies the piece about Probus seeking new members. Once again the Link (Oakley) failed to use our report and there is no doubt that the pressure caused by their reduced pagination means that those reports not specifically about the Oakley area are squeezed out.
The same could probably be said about the Loddon Valley Link (Sherfield) where the new editor excluded our report. We are missing the now defunct Popley Matters and the Chineham Chat magazines – only time will tell if the Chat is resurrected.
It happened just a few weeks ago now, a chance glimpse of a small insignificant fading snapshot of a young WW2 bomber crew, attached to which was a sellotaped fading biro written note. At least it credited their names and a date, but what initially intrigued Probus Club member, retired RAF Squadron Leader Chris Perkins MVO, was the connection with the ‘legless WW2 fighter ace’ Douglas Bader. Seeing this old black and white photograph was on a quick visit to his old RAF Station Odiham carrying out research into the helicopter era of the 1970s and 80s concerning 18 Squadron. What follows is yet another tale that should never be forgotten.
The 18 Squadron crew pictured comprised of Pilot, Jack Nickleson from Toronto Canada, Observer, Walter Meadows from Askrigg in Yorkshire and Air Gunner, John Pearson from Birmingham. Walter and John were in their 20s, but their ‘Skipper’ Jack, was just 19 years old. All were Non-Commissioned Sergeant Aircrew and had been on the squadron barely a month. Sadly, their Operational Tour was to last just eleven missions and their names are listed amongst the 55,000 plus other airmen lost in Bomber Command during WW2.
To those of us growing up in the ‘black and white’ years of the 1950s, the wartime exploits of Bader, as portrayed magnificently by actor Kenneth Moore in the film ‘Reach For The Sky’, were very familiar. It will be eighty years ago this August, that, on 9 August 1941 Wing Commander Douglas Bader, leading his Spitfire Wing from RAF Tangmere, was shot down over German occupied France. He ‘bailed out’ minus his prosthetic right leg, which had become jammed by the rudder pedals during combat. Thankfully, a leather retaining strap eventually broke allowing him to exit the aircraft. Knocked unconscious on landing, he was taken to a Luftwaffe hospital in St Omer.
The battered artificial leg was subsequently recovered from the Spitfire wreckage and a temporary repair was carried out before being returned to him. Bader was delighted! It meant that he now had the mobility means to try an engineer an escape before being transported under escort to more a permanent incarceration in Germany. In the meantime, however, the German Authorities had signalled the RAF reporting his ‘safe arrival’ and status as a POW and requesting that a replacement leg be delivered. Safe passage for that aircraft by the Luftwaffe would be guaranteed.
Although the RAF were willing to devise a means of delivery, they were unwilling to offer a propaganda opportunity to the Germans by means of the ‘safe passage’ option. It was therefore decided to parachute drop the replacement leg by an aircraft involved in a bombing operation nearby. No 18 Squadron operating from a forward operating base at RAF Manston were allocated the task with six Blenheim light bombers and escorted, appropriately, by Spitfires of Bader’s Tangmere Wing.
Sgt Jack Nickleson and crew were chosen to deliver the box with replacement limb. At that time, there was no devised procedure for dropping cargo from RAF Blenheim bombers and automatically deploy a suitable parachute. It was decided that the ‘best option’ would be to attach the box, ‘somehow’, to a standard partially opened crew parachute and ‘throw’ it out of the aircraft! In theory this was a simple solution, but in practise it fell far short.
Once the crate containing the leg was delivered to the 18 Squadron at RAF Manston in Kent, Jack, Walter and John realised the enormity of their task. To manhandle and dispatch the bulky crate attached to a partially opened cumbersome parachute out of a small escape hatch, was not going to be easy. All this and bouncing around at 10,000 feet in formation with other aircraft and from the extremely cramped interior of the bomber. But this they did and very successfully. Needless to say, a following press release on the operation at the time, in typical fashion, falsely reported Bader’s leg as being delivered by ‘Our Fighter Boys’!
The ‘Nickleson Crew’ survived operations until 20th September 1941. As part of an eight 18 Squadron aircraft low level mission to attack shipping off the Dutch coast, they were hit by anti-aircraft fire. Their aircraft was seen to crash into the sea with the starboard engine on fire. The bodies of Sgt Walter Meadows and Sgt John Pearson were both washed ashore during the weeks following the crash and they lie in Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries. The body of the young Sgt Jack Nickleson, Royal Canadian Air Force from Toronto, Canada was never found. At 18 he had enlisted straight from high school in July the previous year and his flying career had spanned but a short, active but nevertheless eventful fourteen months.
The Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede commemorates by name over 20,000 men and women of the air forces, who were lost in the Second World War during operations from bases in the United Kingdom and North and Western Europe, and who have no known graves. They served in Bomber, Coastal, Fighter, Transport, Flying Training and Maintenance Commands. They came from all parts of the Commonwealth plus countries in Europe that had been overrun, their airmen continuing to fight the enemy from the ranks of the Royal Air Force.
The Memorial stands upon the crest of Coopers Hill overlooking the River Thames and the fields of Runnymede, where in 1215 King John signed the Magna Carta thus sealing that document to the cause of English liberty. It is a fitting and hallowed place, therefore, to commemorate the ultimate sacrifice made by all those servicemen and women. Unveiled by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth on 17 October 1953, it was designed by Sir Edward Maufe, the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s Principal Architect responsible for the United Kingdom after World War Two. His main aim was to create an atmosphere of quiet intimacy for all those coming to remember the missing.
The memorial site certainly lived up to all expectations on the day of my visit with perfect summer weather and clear warm conditions to take in the gleaming splendour of the architecture and quietly contemplate the multitude of names arranged in the cloistered panels within. My aim on the 19th of August was to seek out the name of a Flight Sergeant Jack Nickleson, the Captain of an 18 Squadron Blenheim bomber aircraft tasked with successfully delivering a replacement prosthetic limb to the renowned Wing Commander Douglas Bader, incarcerated as a POW by the German Luftwaffe at St Omer in Northern France.
Jack’s name is to be located on panel 60 of the memorial cloisters with all of of the Royal Canadian Air Force Airmen who gave their lives for our freedom in 1941. It indeed was a privilege to pay my respects and place the small memorial cross and card below his name. He is not forgotten and neither are his other crew members. Sgt Walter Meadows, Observer/Bomb Aimer, is buried in Bergen-Op-Zoom and Sgt John Pearson, Air Gunner, in the military plot of Amsterdam New Eastern Cemetery. Hopefully, with the lifting of continental travel restrictions, I’ll be able to accord them both the same recognition in my forthcoming battlefield tour activities.
Come the month of August and most of the local magazines do not publish. It is disappointing therefore that even one that does, the Link, in Oakley, unfortunately, and rarely, did not include our piece. This can be perhaps put down to the fact that since resuming their printed editions they are now a free issue publication which means that advertising pays for the printing costs. Previously they made a charge to receive the magazine. The net result is that the pagination has reduced accordingly to match the paid for pages with editorial decisions having to be made about what is included or excluded from each edition.
The Loddon Valley Link, as previously mentioned, is tricky to gain a place in each printed edition and made more difficult because of their rotating editor policy. Our most supportive editor has now resigned and a new one has been installed but it may take time for a relationship to be built up so that the Probus Club reports become a standard feature.
The Chineham Chat still does not publish but they have maintained their “blog” type news site and we are successful with our press releases. The Kempshott Kourier sails on regardless of what happens to other publications although the editor has admitted that they have lost a couple of advertisers which makes it difficult to cover their costs.
The first social get together for members of the Probus Club of Basingstoke, together with their spouses, in over eighteen months took place at the Longbridge Mill, Sherfield on Loddon.
Plenty of chatter filled the air as everyone had much to say after such a long absence due to the Covid pandemic. And yet It almost felt as though there had not been such a long absence from meeting together, perhaps, down to being such close relationships built solidly over many years.
There were good reasons for notable absences with holidays, clash of dates, family visitors from overseas and medical appointments and of course the sad loss of two members, and also the passing in recent months of the wives of two members.
We can now look forward to the resumption of the typical Probus Club activities starting with the delayed AGM in September.
July proved to be a good month for magazine publicity despite the loss of the Chineham Chat and Popley Matters and for some reason the Link (Oakley & surrounds) for once, did not include our report about Richard Stettner doing business in Russia. However four magazines did us proud and the Basinga Extra carried the short version on their web site.
There was an element of calendar variances as three of the quarterlies caught up with our previous reports – the Winklebury Way used Stephen Thair’s report about meeting Prince Philip and two CommunityAd magazines – Bramley & Sherfield also had the Prince Philip meeting and the Old Basing & Lychpit Parish Council Community Newsletter ran with Chris Perkins’ Pyrean adventures.
Export or die was a common expression, along with permanent complaints by Government ministers about the balance of payments deficit. Yet there were many people involved in trying their best to right matters.
Probus Club of Basingstoke member, Richard Stettner, was one such person and he told of his experiences in trying to find export customers for products made by his employer, Basingstoke based Wiggins Teape in the 1980s. While most will know the company for producing printing and office type papers like the famous Conqueror range, there was a different part to the business that had specific industrial applications made by their mill in Stonehaven near Aberdeen. This was the Industrial Casting Paper section for whom Richard was the Export Sales & Marketing Manager.
This division made specialised paper which was the base material used by other companies in the manufacture of imitation leather for use in the automotive, clothing, shoes, fashion and upholstery industries.
Already doing business with some Eastern bloc countries, the thought was Russia surely had some potential? But where to find customers in such a vast country? It seemed logical that Russia operated in a similar way to the other Eastern bloc countries where Richard had wide experience. In these countries state trading organisations had the responsibility of buying goods and services needed by companies in these centrally controlled economies. What central buying organisations existed in Russia and what protocols needed to be followed?
Based in London, a Russo-British Chamber of Commerce has operated since 1916. Prince Michael of Kent has been its patron for many years being related through his grandmother to Tsar Nicholas 11. Annual trade missions took representatives of British companies to meet the Ministry of Light Industry in Moscow.
“Firstly, I had to submit to the Russian Embassy in London, details of our company and what business I wanted to develop in Russia” explained Richard. “Once accepted, other than receiving my visa and learning the name of the hotel I had no further information about who, when and where I was going to see in the seven days in Moscow.”
On the first occasion, arriving in Moscow there was no customs control at the airport, purely passport control, with the party’s luggage put into the coach to take to the hotel. Their travel guide explained how things would operate during the week’s visit. At the hotel, each member of the party was given an envelope containing their scheduled visits for the week.
Bedroom keys were handed out by a lady guardian on each floor, to whom they would be returned to each morning. Bedrooms were large and basic with an empty fridge.
“We had been educated by the trade mission about the various surveillance techniques that would be used to monitor our activities”, continued Richard. “The whole top floor of the hotel was given to monitoring the guest bedrooms so it was clear that while away during the day my room would be searched to provide some evidence of private activity that might be used as leverage against me at some future date.”
Each morning every delegate was allocated a taxi for use for the whole day, irrespective of the length of each business meeting. The driver would take notes of which offices were visited, the duration of meetings and how any spare time was used.
Like all Eastern bloc countries, the Russian currency of the Rouble was not traded in the West and so hard currencies like US dollars, Deutschmarks and Pounds Sterling were needed for any purchases made by the trading companies. Hard currency shops existed where only Western money could be used, and while $10 would buy a pack of 200 Marlboro cigarettes their value to the Russian public multiplied many times.
“Let me illustrate this in action,” said Richard. “One evening ten of us had a meal together and it was paid for by a pack of 200 Marlboro cigarettes.”
Consumer products were in short supply in Russia during Richard’s eight visits with the Chamber of Commerce, so he used to take products in his luggage to help maintain smooth relationships. Ladies’ knickers, sanitary products, toothpaste and cotton wool.
A further example of the surveillance techniques he encountered was the night he and two others went to the Bolshoi. That evening, instead of ballet, it was opera and rather than sit through the complete evening they decided to stay in the bar for a few drinks. They were the only customers while the performance continued except for a young woman across the bar. After a while, they asked her what she did for a living. She was a chambermaid at their hotel and worked on the same floor as their bedrooms. With the entrance to the Bolshoi priced in US dollars, meant few Russians had the currency to pay for the tickets and certainly unlikely for a lowly chambermaid. It was evident she had been set up to monitor their movements that night.
Was any business conducted? “A large order for 400 tonnes of Casting paper was achieved plus a subsequent smaller order, and at £1,200 per tonne was valuable.” Richard continued, “But as the forestry industry is an important component of the Russian economy and it made wood pulp, which Wiggins Teape constantly needed in paper manufacturing, there was an attempt to barter trade. We had one delivery of their wood pulp, but it was black and was of extremely poor quality meaning we didn’t use it. So that was the end of our relationship.”
Other Eastern bloc countries turned out to be more productive.
A full house for the June local magazines. All featured the story of Stephen Thair meeting Prince Philip in Papua New Guinea in 1977. Clearly the recent passing of the Duke of Edinburgh was the catalyst for the editors seeing this report as being pertinent for their readership.
My Memory of Meeting Prince Philip by Stephen Thair
Like most of the nation, following the passing of the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on 9th April, Probus Club of Basingstoke member Stephen Thair was sure that he was not the only member with reminiscences of this man who had been present throughout his life. One memory was from many years ago and in a far-off land.
“I was fortunate to meet him briefly on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Tour of the Commonwealth in 1977, when I was working as a Barrister and Solicitor in the Department of Justice, in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea” explained Stephen. “With my wife, Margaret, we had arrived there In April 1975, and so were able to watch some of the ceremonies when the country achieved independence in September that year, when Prince Charles came to do the honours, so to speak.”
At the time of the Silver Jubilee Tour, he was running a Junior Scout Troup of mainly expatriate boys (the PNG equivalent of a Cub Pack) with another leader, an Australian Scouter called Geoff. The final engagement of the Queen and Prince Philip in Papua New Guinea before they left for the next leg of their journey was to inspect an assembly of PNG Scouts and Guides. They were lined up for the royal inspection in a giant horse-shoe on the Murray Barracks’ parade ground in Port Moresby, with the Guides forming one side of the horse-shoe, and the Scouts the other.
The Scouts and Guides being well-organised were all in position for 11am, when the inspection was due to commence, with the pipe band of the Pacific Islands Regiment behind them. However, 11am came and went, with no sign of the royal party. The tropical sun rose ever higher in the sky over the parade ground, and it was, to say the least, very hot. Eventually, at around midday, the Queen and Prince Philip and their escort arrived. The Pacific Islands Regiment band began to play, and the Queen and Prince Philip began their inspections, accompanied in each case by the great and the good of PNG Guiding and Scouting.
“Our troop was in line with me at one end of it, and Geoff at the other end. We had other Scout Groups either side of us. Prince Philip and his party were about two groups away from us on the inspection, when the boy standing next to Geoff fainted because of the heat, and Geoff had to carry him off to the shade of a tree where fortunately he revived. However, by then Prince Philip had arrived at our Group, and so Geoff missed out, and I was the only representative for him to speak to.”
“Prince Philip asked me what I was doing in the country and when I had explained, he asked if I was enjoying it – which I was – and then moved on. He was perfectly pleasant to me. I had been a bit anxious as my father had told me a story of a solicitor friend of his who had been introduced to Prince Philip at an event of some kind, and when he replied to a question from Prince Philip as to what he did, received the comment “Oh no, not another b* * * * y solicitor!”.
Thus, another interesting PNG experience drew to a close. Stephen always felt marginally guilty that Geoff missed out on a Prince Philip encounter, although in fairness it could just as easily have been the boy next to him who fainted!