Little Staughton Google Street View MK44 2BY

If you’ve got the courage, and it’s still standing, you can look at your childhood home on Google Street View.  I googled the name of our cottage to find out its postcode – MK44 2BY – and was suddenly struck with the possibility of Street View.   How would it feel to re-visit the village virtually?  Too tempting: I clicked on it.

As I zoomed in, I was dizzy with emotion.  There were the paths I ran along as a child; I saw the paddocks where our friends’ ponies were kept, and could clearly see the verges we would canter along, on the way home from a day out riding.  It was all still there, roads and fields and farms.

Then a shock when I saw a grid of grey: what’s that?  A grid, like the back of a fridge.  It’s my family in their graves, straight lines of stones.  My father’s down there, so is my grandma; my uncle, my grandad, and my great-grandad: the revered Baptist Minister Alfred Barnabas Hall, who lived in the manse.

Nothing but graves are penned in the graveyard now, apart from a small ruined building no bigger than a chicken-shed.  In the Second World War, an American plane clipped the top off the roof of the chapel, and that was the end of that.  As Americans do, they gave the Baptist trustees a pile of money in compensation, so that a shiny new chapel could be built: much further down the long, straight road, much further away from our cottage, and the manse, and our butcher’s shop.

I scrolled down the main thoroughfare to our cottage: Lilac Cottage.  Still there.  They’ve let the verge outside go to weeds.   How can my childhood empire still be there, almost intact, just as it is in my dreams and memories?

I can’t bring myself to roll the mouse over the airfield now.  Undoubtedly it’s still there, put to use for industrial purposes, neat commercial vans beavering about their business where once it was all planes and jeeps.

Growing up in the fifties and sixties, I only knew the airfield as a vast deserted expanse, with rosebay willowherb growing up through the tarmac.  There were several huge black hangars, a windsock and a control tower.  But no-one I knew ever talked about the time when the village was completely dominated by fighter planes flying low over the cottages, preparing to land after a bombing mission, or taking off to go on one.

Bedford Museum holds an account by John Hughes, interviewed by Jenny Ford as part of an oral history project:

“…We used to see the sky full of the Fortresses from Thurleigh when they used to congregate and they used to meet up with other Squadrons.  But they’d circle round at different heights, keep circling round and then they’d go off…That was something to see, all those aeroplanes in the sky like that.”

“Them Yanks weren’t all that bad, were they, duck?”  My father asked me this out of the blue during the year he spent dying; it was quite near his death.  The cancer must have crept through his body, up to his head, so that his mind gradually unspooled, like a film played slowly backwards.  His questions, and his sudden statements, would reveal to me what decade we were living in together at the time.

The airbase was built for American bombers in 1941/2; many houses and two pubs had to be demolished to make way for it.  I have no idea where the families who had lived there went, or how much they were missed, but the chapel must have lost a good part of its congregation and our butcher’s shop a good proportion of its customer base.

The village must have seemed full of Yanks.  John Hughes again:

“When these Yanks as we called them were at Little Staughton the lorries used to come by here as well and us kids outside we used to call out to the Yanks, ‘Any gum, chum?’  And they’d throw us some…  The fag packets they used to have as well, because the older boys they used to throw cigarettes to.  There were these long Pall Mall I think they were called and Camel all in these posh packets what they used to sling to the lads because they seemed to have plenty of everything.”

The Crown pub – the only pub left in Little Staughton – still commemorates the American Squadrons who brought their conspicuous consumption to the village.  Before the airfield was built, there had been five pubs, and considerably more houses.

Next to the airfield, surrounded by fields, there’s now a very small stone memorial to all the Americans who were killed after taking off from Little Staughton.  It looks a bit lost on the Colmworth Road, quite a distance away from the last house.  It’s almost as if, even now, the Yanks have to be kept at arm’s length.

Much more detailed memorials exist on websites.  One, in particular, demonstrates the air crews’ heroism.  I find it hard to believe that, as I was growing up, no-one talked about our village’s contribution to the war, or of the planes, or of the airmen who died, or of the missions they died on. I was moved to read about the planes which must have circled our village just after lift-off, the airmen squinting down at our houses, our fields, our graves underneath them:

22 / 23 April 1944
Took off from Little Staughton at 22.14. Task was to bomb railway yards. The plane was shot down by a night fighter and exploded, crashing in flames at Dives, north-east of Compiegne, with a loss of the whole crew.Took off from Little Staughton at 22.45. Task was to attack the airfield. Intercepted by a night fighter and shortly afterwards exploded, with a loss of the whole crew.
24 / 25 May 1944
Took off from Little Staughton at 00.20. Hit by flak and fell onto Schutzenstrasse in the centre of Aachen, with the loss of all the crew.
14 / 15 June 1944
Took off from Little Staughton at 00.24. Task was to bomb rail facilities. Believed to have been shot down by a night fighter south west of Adinkerke in Belgium, with the loss of the whole crew.
23 / 24 September 1944
Took off from Little Staughton at 10.42. Was on a fighter affiliation exercise. Reported to have lost control whilst making a diving turn at 8,000 feet and dived into the ground at 11.32. All the crew were killed.

When I was born, a decade after the war ended, was the village still in shock from what must have felt like a catastrophic invasion?  Did it become a taboo to even mention the Yanks, and the planes, and the devastation?

It’s thrilling for me now to see how our old airfield is celebrated online as a reasonably well-preserved wartime site; the control tower has even been listed.  What ruined the village in terms of my family’s commercial and religious interests ended up putting Little Staughton on the map.

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