When warplanes roared above the now tranquil home of birds

41 Squadron pilots, winter 1951-52 - Mike Holmes standing, far right
41 Squadron pilots, winter 1951-52 - Mike Holmes standing, far right

This week’s Looking Back supplement pays special tribute to one of our most popular nostalgia writers, former RAF pilot Mike Holmes, from Chichester, who has died at the age of 84, with a final series of his articles.

Mike Holmes,, who has died at the age of 84, was a former RAF and then airline pilot who, after retiring from his career as a pilot, worked in forestry and wildlife conservation.

The Environment Agency is in the process of altering the whole aspect of the coastline along the Manhood Peninsular between Selsey and Bracklesham. The wall is to be broached and the sea is to be allowed in, so covering some of the area it did in ancient times when Selsey was still Seal Island.

One can walk along the top of the sea wall from the end of the Bunn Leisure caravan park on the west side of Selsey, all the way to Bracklesham; a distance of about three kilometres.

It is a grand walk with views of the English Channel, busy with ships, across the beach to the south. then further to the west lies Spithead with the Isle of Wight beyond.

Landwards, on the other side under a big sky, stretches the wide, flat country that extends as far as Chichester.

This is a view across agricultural fields divided by deep ditches and rifes, thick with reeds and overgrown by hedgerows, with here and there areas of small water meadows and marsh.

Wildfowl nest in these patches of reeds, water and undergrowth, together with numbers of other birds, including some rare species.

During the winter, the sky will often contain gaggles of brent geese circling above their feeding and resting grounds. In the distance, the low ridge of the downs forms the horizon.

About halfway along the walk, you pass an area of rough, unkempt grassland, dotted with pools of water.

At present it’s an RSPB reserve, where lapwings and redshank nest in the summer.

I would sit on top of the sea wall and watch the lapwings displaying over their territory of rough grassland; putting on their superb aerobatic show and calling in that wonderful, wild way they have.

This, to me, is one of the greatest birdwatching sights and sounds of the English countryside.

The remains of a couple of small, distinctive concrete sheds, dating from the second world war, show the area has in the past been occupied and used by the armed forces; in this case, the Royal Air Force.

In those days, this was the Manhood air-to-ground firing range, where pilots of locally-based fighter squadrons honed their skills in the use of their weapons.

It remained in operational use until the early part of the 1950s.

Large canvas targets were set up just inside the seawall, equipment was stored in the concrete sheds and the controllers and other ground staff operated from them.

Aircraft would make their diving attacks from inland, so that they were firing out towards the sea.

In 1951, I was a pilot on 
No 41 Fighter Squadron, based at Biggin Hill in the north-west corner of Kent.

We flew Gloster Meteors and our task, together with that of many other such squadrons in Fighter Command at the time, was the defence of the UK.

It was the early part of the Cold War, and we were Cold War Warriors, expecting a Soviet attack at any time.

We would fight the second Battle of Britain.

Air-to-ground firing was part of our training and, though quite different from the way in which we would have to use our 20mm cannon in air-to-air combat, did teach us you had to get in close and aim accurately in order to hit a target.

The Manhood Range was where we carried out this training, and my logbook 
shows we usually had one or two days each month doing this type of flying.

I forget the exact details of the procedure we used, as it’s now 60 years since I was part of that life and could call myself a fighter pilot, but I do remember how we operated in pairs, with the No 2, the wingman, following his leader round the pattern and making his attacks in turn.

At that stage in my career I was very junior, a brand-new pilot officer on my first squadron, so the No 2 position was therefore always mine.

However, I well remember circling round behind my leader at about 5,000 feet, and then diving to attack in turn.

It was important not to continue down too low and close to the target, as we would 
then fly into our own cannon shells as they ricocheted up from the ground.

Also one had to beware of becoming too mesmerised by the target, and flying straight on into it. This had happened to a friend I had done my pilot training with when he was firing on a range on the Essex coast.

His crash knocked a gap through the seawall and he 
was killed.

All the surrounding farmland was flooded until the gap was repaired, so we were not popular.

New aircraft types, still under test and not yet released to the RAF, tested their weapons here. One of these was the superb Hawker Hunter, which later replaced our Meteors.

At that time, long before it had entered RAF service, being still with the makers in prototype form, it was flown and tested by Squadron Leader Neville Duke, Hawker’s famous chief test pilot.

When he fired the Hunter’s guns on his first run, the empty shell cases, instead of ejecting down, clear of the aircraft, were sucked straight into the engine, causing a lot of damage and an immediate failure.

He was faced with having to use his excess speed, to pull up and then glide some distance to Tangmere, where he was able to make a successful forced landing on the runway. It was a superb piece of flying.

So, though I love watching the lapwings and listening to their wild calls over the wide marsh land, I have thoughts for the roar of jet engines and 20mm cannon in that wide patch of sky.

Though such noises now are very unpopular, and nothing like the wonderful sound of the birds, the thoughts of them are very nostalgic for me, and in my mind I visualise the Meteors as they used to be, diving to fire their guns over what is now a beautiful land, but shortly to be flooded by the waters of the Channel.