Early in summer 1942 war-torn Essex faced an invasion. More than 40,000 American servicemen from the 8th and 9th Army Airforce progressively established themselves within numerous newly built airbases throughout Essex. Between bloody air battles these young men drank our warm beer in timbered pubs on village greens and when peace was eventually declared three years later, many Essex girls sailed to the US as GI brides.
In 1943, more than 100,000 US servicemen were based in Britain and by D-Day – 6th June 1944 – more than half of the USAAF’s combat strength was concentrated in this island, mostly in East Anglia where most of the 8th Air Force and some of the 9th were located on almost 100 air bases.
I recently met Dennis Pittson who came to live in Billericay in 1961. As a teenager living in Walthamstow when the war was at its height he grew up to the sound of aero-engines. "We used to watch the dog fights over London sitting on top of the air-raid shelter," he recalls. Although not realising at the time, Dennis’s observations studying planes of all types was the start of a life-long interest and hobby of modelling RAF and USAAF fighter aircraft. When Dennis was called up in 1946, he chose the RAF.
During a six-month recuperation following an accident, Dennis began building model aircraft from kits, the first of which was the famous Spitfire. He created hundreds of model planes set on an airfield made from plastic sheeting. Initially these were displayed at North Weald Aces High, then at Blake Hall Airscene which had the benefit of a war-time memorabilia with a background of 1940s music. Sadly Blake Hall Air Museum has now closed.
With Dennis’s encyclopaedic knowledge of aircraft and airfields he’s amassed a huge music collection dedicated to Big Band war-time music, including 700 Glen Miller recordings.
Fortunately Dennis found a new home for his latest models, photographs, paintings and portfolio "History of Military Aviation 1914-1975" at Ridgewell Commemorative War Museum, near Wethersfield. Dennis’s models are part of the collection of World War II memorabilia displayed in and around the old hospital buildings behind the memorial which commemorates the USAAF 381st Bomb Group (H) and 90 Squadron RAF which served there.
Dennis and his wife Mavis are preparing to welcome visitors to Ridgewell War Museum on Sunday 8th April 11.00am-5pm. Among visitors will be families of those young Americans who lost their lives in service missions. The Museum is open on the second Sunday of each month from April - September. Free admission. For further details contact Curator Jim Tennet: 01787 277310.
(With kind permission of Newsquest Essex)