The pilots who defended the skies above Sunderland

Iris, Vi and Ken. Can anyone tell us more about them?
Iris, Vi and Ken. Can anyone tell us more about them?

A First World War pilot - and the Sunderland airfield he flew from - gets the attention of Wearside historian Trevor Thorne.

He has taken a closer look at Hylton Airfield after being approached by a relative of one of the men who served there.

Miss S from Hylton Airfield - but who is the mystery woman?

Miss S from Hylton Airfield - but who is the mystery woman?

It’s the site of the Nissan car plant these days.

But back in 1916, the area known as West Town Moor played host to British pilots.

B Flight of the No. 36 Squadron Home Defence Squadron was first stationed there to combat the very real Zeppelin menace. As that danger receded, flight operations concentrated on anti-submarine coastal patrol. Submarines were at their most vulnerable when they had to surface to recharge batteries or take in air.

One of the pilots in the squadron was Stuart Norman Menzies and the information in this article was researched by his great nephew Charles Brecknell, aided by the First World War photographs and documents collected by Stuart Menzies.

B Flight of the No. 36 Squadron Home Defence Squadron was first stationed there to combat the very real Zeppelin menace. As that danger receded, flight operations concentrated on anti-submarine coastal patrol.

Trevor Thorne

Stuart originally joined up in August 1914 as an army despatch rider and then served in France, Egypt, Salonica and Italy.

While in Egypt, he went on an aviation course and was accepted for flight training. He transferred to England where he obtained his wings. By 1918, he was 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps and arrived in Sunderland to serve at Hylton between March and June 1918.

Trevor said: “The photograph collection gives a wonderful insight to the work and life at the airfield which up to now has not been available. Among the support staff were five WRAF personnel who would have been responsible for clerical and other administrative support work. The top job available to them would have been as a shorthand typist which was a highly sought after skill at the time.

“While the aircrew would have been drawn from all parts of the country it is probable that these WRAF girls were local.”

Trevor added: “Some of the photographs appear to be taken in what looks like a well-off house with a large garden presumably in the Sunderland area.”

At the end of the war, the RAF left Hylton - not returning until the 1930s. Homeless families moved in, in the meantime and lived there rent free. The area was dubbed ‘Liberty Villas’.

Can readers identify any of those women in the photographs?

We know that three of them are ‘Iris, Vi and Ken (short for Kendra?)’ and the other names given as ‘Miss Jones and Miss Gordon’.

Trevor added: “Charles Brecknell is particularly interested in identifying the lady who is only described on the photographs as ‘Miss S’. While she was a particular friend of his great uncle he does not currently know her full name.

“Miss S was associated with a clergyman, Alexander Boddy, whose church was All Saints at Monkwearmouth. He was a much respected Pentecostal minister who organised international religious conferences before and during the war.”

Delegates from around the world would attend and some of the meetings were in Sunderland. However, this was deemed too dangerous once war had started.

Trevor told us: “Rev Boddy came to national prominence during the First World War as an outspoken believer in the ‘Angel of Mons’. During the early part of the war things were not going well for the British.

“A number our troops insisted they saw the Angel of the Lord riding on white horse, clad in white, with a flaming sword forbidding the Germans to advance any further. This is now considered to have been a myth.”

Trevor urged anyone who can provide more details on any of the WRAF ladies to contact him at Sunderland Antiquarian Society . The research centre is open Wednesdays and Saturdays between 9.30am and 12pm, and its website can be found at http://www.sunderland-antiquarians.org/.

The photographs are shown with the kind permission of Charles Brecknell.