SEVENTY years ago the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment packed its bags at the end of World War Two and said goodbye to Helensburgh.
RAF Helensburgh, as it was known, operated primarily with flying boats after the unit moved north from Felixstowe in September 39. It returned to the Suffolk port when hostilities ceased.
The work done at the establishment was crucial to winning the battle against the U Boat, and also included work done on the Dambusters ‘bouncing bomb’.
Vital work. Talented scientists. Brave and valiant men and women. Yet few would know it today.
Among those who returned to England after the war was Len Townend (left) from Melton Mowbray, the Leicestershire town best known for its pies.
Len, who was one of the very few RAF Helensburgh people left and who fondly remembered the town and Garelochside, died a few weeks ago.
Last year Len was in contact with retired Merseyside newspaper editor Robin Bird, who has written two books about MAEE during World War Two.
Robin said: “Len sent me a copy of the page in his diary for March 15, 1944, the day of the Scion crash.
“In the evening he went to the cinema at Helensburgh to see the Yellow Canary, a 1944 film release about Nazi agents in Canada starring Anna Neagle and Richard Green.
“You would have thought he had enough excitement and war for the day, but it only goes to show that life went on . . .”
There is now little to show that this important establishment was based at Helensburgh and Rhu.
The Royal Northern and Clyde Yacht Club was the officers mess and nearby Rosslea Hall Hotel was MAEE headquarters.
In Glen Fruin the water tank testing facility still exists and these days seems to be used a lot in army training. In wartime bombs and torpedoes were tested inside the complex of brick and concrete buildings.
At any given time around 375 personnel served at RAF Helensburgh in RAF, WAAF and civilian roles. A large proportion came from England, not knowing beforehand where Helensburgh was.
But most left Helensburgh with happy memories that lasted a lifetime.
“Scottish lifestyles may have been different, the climate often cold and the work often dangerous, but all in all RAF Helensburgh was a good posting,” Robin said.
“This was apparent after I spoke to many men and women who served there between 1939 and 1945 during my research into the MAEE.
”They are now in their 90s or late 80s, and sadly their number is diminishing.”
University graduate James Hamilton’s first job was as a junior scientific officer, a boffin, with the MAEE at Helensburgh. He progressed rapidly to a senior capacity, and in later life he was knighted for his contribution to the design of the Concorde aircraft.
The skills and experience he gained experimenting with flying boats at Helensburgh were his first steps in a distinguished aviation career.
Sir James died a couple of years ago, but he cheated death in 1942 when an experimental Scion seaplane crashed on the Gareloch on March 15 1944. His boss, H.G. White, drowned but the pilot survived.
Len Townend, then an RAF Flight Mechanic, should have been aboard the three seater Short Scion Senior when it took off on that fateful day, but his place was taken by Messrs Hamilton and White.
Len adjourned for a cuppa that cold frosty morning at Mrs Mac’s café at the end of the pier. He had hardly sat down when he learned of the crash.
He was soon in a motor boat with dry clothing for the pilot and his passengers, not knowing then that there had been a fatality on the Gareloch.
The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Johnson, and James Hamilton had been taken aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Biter.
Len was still a young man aged 20, having enlisted in the RAF three days after his 18th birthday. Helensburgh was his first posting after training courses.
On the evening of March 15 1944, Len went to the cinema in Helensburgh to see the Yellow Canary. It was his way of coping with what he had seen and what could have been.
Len was posted abroad shortly after, and in all he served 24 years with the RAF. In recent years he was president of the Melton Mowbray branch of the Royal Air Force Association.
“Len said he was posted to Rhu, a pleasant village, and billeted in a house called Inchalloch,” Robin said.
“Len returned to the Helensburgh area a few years ago, and commented afterwards that Rhu was still a pleasant place.
“His job with the MAEE was hard work, servicing flying boats in all weathers in the wake of the Scion crash. Len usually worked seven days a week and had to attend church parades on a Sunday morning.
“That was something Len disliked but he was the first to agree that ‘service discipline could not be bucked’.”
The man from Melton told Robin: “Helensburgh was heaven for me as I really enjoyed working on flying boats.”
Robin has thought for a long time that there should be some sort of memorial to those who served in MAEE during the war, a number of whom lost their lives.
It was for that reason that he presented a memorial cross carved in the shape of an aircraft to Helensburgh Heritage Trust, and it is on display in the Heritage Room in Helensburgh Library in West King Street.
He said: “Len's passing is a timely reminder that there is still no memorial for those who died and served at Helensburgh and Rhu. For many of them they were in a 'foreign land'.
“I think that there should be a mounted memorial plaque on the seafront between Helensburgh and Rhu — perhaps at Kidston Park overlooking the Gareloch — showing a Sunderland or Lerwick flying boat, with appropriate wording.”
Robin and the Heritage Trust have raised this proposal to remember them on a number of occasions, so far with no result.
MAEE played a big part in Helensburgh’s wartime experience — and either Argyll and Bute Council or the Royal Navy at Faslane should do something to recognise this.