The Airmen's Stories - P/O R H Shaw
Robert Henry Shaw was born at Astley Bridge, Bolton on 28th July 1916 and was at New House in Repton School from September 1930 to April 1935.
He joined the RAFVR on 1st October 1937 as an Airman u/t Pilot. He reported for full-time service at the Manchester Transit Centre on 2nd September 1939.
Shaw was posted to 5 FTS Sealand on the 9th. He was commissioned and posted to 11 Group Pool at St. Athan on 1st February 1940. After he had converted to Hurricanes, Shaw joined No. 1 Squadron in France on 11th March. The squadron was withdrawn from Nantes to Tangmere on 18th June.
After being attacked by a British fighter over the Sussex coast on 1st August Shaw made a forced-landing back at Tangmere with damaged aileron controls.
He failed to return from a patrol on 3rd September 1940 in Hurricane P3782. The aircraft crashed at Parkhouse Farm, Chart Sutton.
Shaw was reported 'Missing' and commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial, Panel 10.
The site is marked by a cross engraved 'RAF Pilot' rather than his name, the evidence for it being Shaw's crash site is reproduced below with permission from Andy Saunders, author of 'Finding the Few'.
Each year, on the Sunday nearest to 3rd September, an elaborate and moving ceremony is held on the edge of an orchard at Chart Sutton, Kent, to honour a Battle of Britain pilot killed there on 3rd September 1940. Local dignitaries, the RAF Association, Air Training Corps and villagers gather around a memorial garden. Beautifully planted and maintained in this remote corner of Kent, a wooden cross stands at the centre of the flower beds. The cross is simply engraved 'RAF Pilot – September 3rd 1940'. A short service is held, wreaths are laid and a Hurricane aircraft of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight dips low overhead in salute to the 'Unknown Airman'.
The story of the event dates back to 1940 when, on 3rd September, a Hurricane plunged out of one of the many air battles above and buried itself deep in the heavy clay. Its unknown pilot had not escaped and a couple who lived nearby placed a simple wooden cross at the site and laid flowers there at each anniversary. With the passage of time the memorial fell into disrepair and the now elderly couple eventually passed away but in 1970 the nearby Headcorn Branch of the RAFA resurrected the memorial, restored the garden and kept it permanently maintained and began the now traditional service for the 'Unknown Airman'. Aside from a brief entry in the Maidstone Civil Defence Book in the Kent County Archives little was known about the crash. That entry read:
'British Fighter down in flames near Park House, Chart Sutton, 10.42 hours. Map ref 21/73'.
A further message timed at 11.12 hours recorded:
'Aircraft still burning fiercely. Machine gun bullets exploding. Still no news of pilot'.
Brighton-based haulage contractors AV Nicholls & Co was contracted to the Air Ministry to help clear away aircraft wrecks – British and German – from their scattered crash sites in south east England. The company had been engaged in 1940, when the number of wrecks that had to be cleared simply overwhelmed the RAF’s own resources. In 1975, however, the author contacted the former proprietor of that company, Arthur Nicholls, and discovered that he still held all of his wartime notes and records. Nicholls was only too happy to hand them over, pleased that his carefully preserved notes might be of some interest. Of interest they certainly were! Contained within the file were orders for the collection of specific wrecks and detailed reports on what had been found or recovered and compiled by Arthur Nicholls himself. It was a treasure-trove of data that enabled detail to be added to many losses of the Battle of Britain including serial numbers and precise crash locations. Amongst the losses detailed was a Hurricane at Chart Sutton.
In a letter dated 19th September 1940 Squadron Leader Goodman writes to Nicholls from RAF Faygate asking him to recover six specific aircraft wrecks. All are detailed as to serial number and location. The sixth aircraft on the list is the significant entry:
Park House Farm is, indeed, the location of the airman’s memorial and the additional information as to the serial number of the Hurricane, P3782, suddenly revealed the identity of the unknown airman. P3782 was a Hurricane of No. 1 Squadron RAF and had been lost on the morning of 3rd September 1940 during a squadron patrol. Its pilot, Pilot Officer Robert Henry Shaw, was posted missing and was never found. Consequently, Shaw’s name can be found on the Runnymede Memorial although, in reality, evidence exists as to where he still lies. This discovery, of course, rather put into question the continuance of the ceremony to honour an unknown airman. How to deal with the situation posed a dilemma for the author. Should he simply bury the detail that had emerged and forget about it? Or should he take the matter forward in some way? Having considered many of the other cases that had gone before, and the undying gratitude of relatives who had been able to discover what had happened to loved ones, the choice was not a difficult one. The family of Robert Shaw had to be told. First, they had to be found!
According to his birth certificate Robert Henry Shaw was born on 28th July 1916 to Colin and Ida Shaw at Astley Bridge, Bolton. Other than that, any clue as to the family whereabouts was non-existent. To add to the difficulties the surname Shaw was hardly uncommon. Looking for the Shaw family was like the proverbial needle in a haystack, but an appeal by the author in the Bolton Evening News during May 1987 quickly drew results. Before very long, contact had been established with Robert’s two surviving brothers; Lt. Col William Shaw and Thomas Shaw, and his sisters Catherine Cornish and Alison Barton. All were immediately apprised of the situation regarding their long-missing brother and were sent copies of all the supporting documentary evidence. All the siblings were convinced by the evidence presented to them, but remained puzzled as to how or why their brother should still be missing. Clear evidence existed to support the view that here was their brother’s aeroplane. On top of that, it was well know locally that the pilot was still in the wreckage. Even the date of the crash was known with that all important detail carved onto the memorial cross. Under the circumstances it is hard to explain why Robert was left in situ, but the clue probably lies within the report submitted by Arthur Nicholls after he had visited the site on 29th September 1940. It reads:
'Hurricane P3782. Parkhouse Farm. Chart Sutton.
I located site of crash as above, inspected crater made by aircraft with P.C. Whyman, no.165, Kent County Constabulary, stationed in Sutton Vallence. He informed me that this aircraft was removed by an RAF squad with a long low-loader on Saturday the 28th September. This P.C found billeting for the squad. The site has been completely cleared.
Signed: A V Nicholls'.
Mr. Nicholls took no further action, understandably believing that the site had been fully cleared and there was nothing else for him to take away. What he did not realise, of course, was that the RAF squad who had beaten him to it by one day had merely cleared away the surface wreckage leaving the engine and fuselage deeply embedded in the ground. Ex-Police constable Mr RF Whyman was still living in November 1978 and was traced to Brighton by the author. His recall of the event was clear and he could confirm what had happened:
'I do know that a plane was brought down at Park House Farm, Chart Sutton, on 3rd September 1940. The engine was buried in the Wealden clay and I think it was never recovered'.
Without a doubt, then, the engine must have still been buried when Arthur Nicholls left the site on 29th September. With it was buried the fuselage, cockpit and the unfortunate Robert Shaw. Nicholls’ report to Squadron Leader Goodman simply drew an official line under the case and Pilot Officer Shaw was destined to remain classified as missing in action – his parents duly notified that no trace of him could be found. Wing Commander 'Pat' Hancock, then Secretary to the Battle of Britain Fighter Association, was flying with Robert Shaw on the day in question. Writing in October 1978 he recalled:
'I have referred to my logbook and on 3rd September 1940 I was flying with F/Lt. Hillcoat, 'B' Flight Commander, and Pilot Officer Shaw. I recorded the sortie north of Dungeness and that both pilots were missing. So you are right, and poor old Shaw is still with his aeroplane'.
The Shaw family, however, were now faced with making a collective decision as to what should be done. Ultimately, it fell to Lt. Col Shaw to announce that they had decided to maintain the status-quo. He wrote:
'The RAF Association at Headcorn have over a number of years maintained this memorial and built up the wreath-laying ceremony which has now become a local institution. This ceremony, it seems to us, owes its local popularity in great part to the mystique of an unknown pilot. This would not be the same if the pilot were officially known. We also have in mind what we think would have been our brother’s feelings on the matter but are content to all now know where he lies. Had it not been for your investigations and hard work in taking the trouble to find us then we would never have known. And knowing is very important to us'.
It was an entirely understandable decision and Lt. Col 'Bill' Shaw’s response on behalf of the family clearly hid some considerable emotion between the lines he had written. Having met this very military retired officer it was clear that emotion was not something he found easy to countenance or deal with, although it is interesting to note that after making this decision members of the Shaw family, including Lt. Col Shaw, have travelled each year to the memorial service. As the years have passed so that tradition has continued down into subsequent generations. Generations who were not even born when Robert Shaw had died. Strangely, there is a tacit acknowledgement that this is the 'grave' of Robert Shaw by the organisers and participants of the annual service and, of course, by family members who are welcomed on most years at the ceremony by the RAF Association. As the other brother Thomas Shaw put it:
'Our brother Bobbie is here. We are sure of that, but he represents all of the other pilots who didn’t come back in 1940. It isn’t just his memorial. It belongs to them all'.