I think my earliest aeromodelling memory is of gravely stating to my mother that, "When I'm seven, I'm going to start building model aeroplanes". If the memory is accurate, this must have been sometime in 1943. I'm sure that the location was St Ives, Cornwall.
There is some significance in this statement, because at the time I was terrified of full-size aircraft! This needs some explanation.
Before the war, my father was a regular soldier in the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry (DCLI). Quite how this came about, when he was a native of Redditch, Worcestershire, I simply don't know. My mother came from Aston, Birmingham, and the family home was in Handsworth, Birmingham. This meant that my father was away much of the time. He was very close to leaving the army when the second world war broke out, putting an end to that plan for a while.
Although I was less than 5 years old at the time, I have graphic memories of the night of 14th November 1940 when Coventry was almost destroyed by bombing. I remember being taken from the house to the Anderson shelter and looking towards Salford Power Station (very close to the present site of Spagetti Junction) to see bombers with bombs falling from them. Many years later, I saw an R/C Heinkel 111 in the air and the sight of that distinctive wing shape gave me the most peculiar feelings of dread.
My mother decided to accept the opportunity to be evacuated. I'm not sure where we went, but it was a hop growing area, although it seems unlikely that this would have been Kent. The conditions and the way we were treated made her return home after just two days, during which time I managed to get myself stung on the back of the neck by a wasp!
At this time, my father, who was now a sergeant in the MP's (Redcaps), was stationed in Bodmin Barracks and my mother decided to follow him to Cornwall and find lodgings locally. We spent some two years in Bodmin, of which I have little recollection. He was then moved to guard duty at a radar station close to St Ives and we followed him there. Less than a year later, he was again moved to the Scilly Isles and we returned to Birmingham (Aston this time, not Handsworth). He spent the latter part of the war in the Middle East.
It's clear that I was happy in St Ives, and I have a lasting affection for the place. However...
Without a great deal to do - my mother had an evening office cleaning job - it was normal to spend days at the beach. Normally, this would be the main beach (Porthminster). On one occasion, we were persuaded by a local friend to try the other beach to the west of the town. At that time it was full of rocks and pools and there were warnings of quicksands. It's now a renowned surf-riding resort.
So, there I was, paddling in a pool when I heard an aircraft approaching. At 6 years old, I was now wary of such things, but not really wary enough. The plane passed over the gasworks (now gone) on that side of the town and dropped a single bomb. This hit the gasometer and produced an effect uncanily like an atomic bomb (nobody would have recognised it as such at the time) with the entire contents rising up in a red-orange mushroom cloud.
This gentleman-aviator then made one or more passes along the beach firing his guns. I can distinctly remember the sound of bullets ricocheting off rocks to this day. As I may well have been the only person on the beach at the time, it is hard not to take this personally. I believe that he was shot down on the other side of the bay by rifle fire! More on this raid here.
A couple of days later, on my way home from school, I was absolutely terrified by a pair of Hurricanes who flew over the town several times at low level. It is of great interest to me after all this time that I knew they were Hurricanes.
I remember very few air raid warnings from that period although it was common to hear aircraft passing overhead - sometimes at very low level - at night. Another memory is of thick fog with the mournful sound of many foghorns coming from the bay. Next day, when the fog cleared, there were very many ships anchored in the bay, including TWO aircraft carriers. More than todays British fleet!
In those days, the skies were full of aircraft and I began to develop an interest in aircraft recognition - possibly in an act of self-preservation. For many years I was puzzled by the fact that I knew that I had seen Westland Whirlwinds in the air (and more than one). It is only fairly recently that I discovered that the only operational squadron was stationed at Lostwithiel (roughly midway between Bodmin and Fowey). Blenheims and Whitleys (that curious nose-down attitude that made them look like they had a beard) were very common and so were Barracudas.
Returning to Brum to a house with half a roof and no gas for the lighting (happy days) was quite a shock and I discovered the joys of cardboard modelling. Curiously, despite my earlier adventures, I wanted something that flew. At that time, model shops were even rarer than they are today, but model kits were stocked by bicycle shops (they still exist, don't they?) and woodyards.
I think my first sight of a model aircraft kit was in a small display window which was part of a woodyard in Lozells. This was a Frog Barracuda, laid out in all its glory, complete with glue and dopes. It stayed there for many years and the plan faded, while the cement tube shrunk. Around this time, I also saw a Frog Hart in its winding box in a second hand shop. I did actually go in and ask the price: 30/- (£1.50). A princes ransom! (Only last year I saw another example at a swapmeet. Was it really so small? Memory says it was enormous).
Somewhere around this period, a relative bought me a kit of an Aircobra for Christmas, I think it was an Astral kit. Another well-meaning relative took it away to build it for me. I never saw it again. This had a profound effect on me that has lasted all my life.
The first real breakthrough came when I discovered the Airyda scale kits at 1/3 (6p) each - the same price as Aeromodeller. Where can you get a flying scale kit today for under £3.00? I built, or tried to build, all of these at least twice, with no success.
All of this activity, both in kit buying and window shopping, involved walking into, and around, Birmingham. This in an age when the vast majority of road vehicles were horse-drawn. We lived a stones throw from Ansells brewery which, at that time, had the largest stables in Europe. Public transport consisted solely of trams - wonderful devices, but the fare could be spent on other things.
My first copy of Aeromodeller was the November 1946 issue. The purchase involved a 5 mile round trip walk into Birmingham and the expenditure of more than a months pocket money. All this at the age of ten!
So, here we had a youngster who went from a fear of aircraft to an unsatisfied obsession with flying models, in the space of perhaps three years. The first successful model provided a defence against reality which has lasted for the rest of my life.