News, Richard Kellett

Heligoland 59

After the first email from Doug Aylwood, attaching a complete service biography of Richard Kellett, and the first extraordinary ceremony in Eye Cathedral, exactly this time last year, finally we are gathered. This was the creative initiative of Jack Waterfall, who’s Cambridge News_11-05-2019_Jack Waterfall 3(1) Uncle died 1940 in a Wellington Bomber over Wilhelmshaven.

“John Henry Waterfall joined the RAF seeking a better life for himself at the age of 20. He joined 37 Squadron, at Feltwell and died on a raid to  Bremen, Emden and Wilhelmshaven, 1940.

This is Jacks tenuous connection with this ambitious project – to collect the relatives of those airmen flying Wellington bombers who fought and both lived but particularly those who died in this battle of Heligoland. It is a battle which can only be described as disastrous (despite the gung ho reporting at the time) with far too many young lives who never lived to get old, 59 in this case, including 2 Germans. It was the phoney war, in which as Richard said, instructions were bizarre and even in the contrariness of of war, extraordinary to read today:

‘The war cabinet were anxious to obtain the sinking of a German ship but our objective was simple but silly – no civilian may be killed or injured and only naval ships could be attacked at sea. We were virtually forbidden to drop our bombs on land. If a man transgressed from this ruling, punishment was severe. We’d be taken off flying and put in the Ops room”

I learned much I didn’t know over these next few days, particularly from Tim Harris – who I’d  met for the first time the previous day at Mildenhall. He’d flown over from Canada, Montreal, where he worked with animals in transit (based at the airport), especially for this ceremony, and over the next few days I came to understood how he fitted in to both the Heligoland59 project, but even more into Richards and my life. We were the son and niece of the airmen.


The weather was wet. That morning I’d have preferred to have been still, sitting by an open fire, writing seasonal letters that needed writing.  The long and no doubt slow journey around the notorious M25 was not an attraction. Michael listened to my complaining mumblings, changing his jacket to a Harris tweed, and trousers to corduroy, retaining quiet humour, for this was not his family or his bag. After a good lunch at the Japanese Miso, where I vowed to change my diet come January and live on green tea, the M25 was surprisingly fluid, with what is an unkind joy to behold, the other side on the stand still.  We arrived at our Air bnb in the suburbs of Chertsey to a warm welcome from the hosts neighbours, and find a generous apartment decorated with candles and buddha’s. I collected Tim from Runnymeade. It was as he began to recount as a raconteur  his background in pigs that I over shot the Eggham roundabout and we ended up back on the M25, just for one junction to another, and back again. A testament to Tim’s stories, which I came to know were plentiful. They continued long and strong at the recommended Italian restaurant. At this stage I was never sure of beginings or endings, as the middle twisted and turned so much.

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Brief background to Paul Iver Harris, Tim’s father: Worcestershire prep school  an ambition to fly thwarted by parents and diverted to Law, however, joined the TA. Despite two impossible obstacles, colour blind and ashma, he managed to sign up. (His sight so good he could read the legend under the colour). Comparing log books, Tim and I think Paul must have met Richard in the Middle East, where Paul was stationed 1932-36, flying Digby, Aero linx which he flew all over Africa. At some stage he was mainly dropping chaff – leaflets then later silver paper to distract radar.

Stationed to Mildenhall, he said in his speech at the raising of the Loch Ness Wellington:
IN-CREDIBLE AS IT MAY SEEM NOW, SOME OF OUR SQUADRON COMMANDERS DID NOT FLY WELLINTONS AT ALL. I HAD ONE WHO WAS, MERCIFULLY FOR US ALL, POSTED, TO BE REPLAED BY WING COMMANDER RICHARD KELLETT. The importance of formation flying and Richards experience of it, was fundamental to surviving on this raid, as described further by Paul Harris in this document Paul Harris Address WellingtonPDF

Paul Harris and Richard had 3 potential overlaps. Middle East pre-war; Heliogoland 1939 and finally 1985 when they raised the Wellington from Lochness. Paul died soon after attending this event.

In the war Harris worked back in Africa under Montgomory. By the time he’d retired in the 1950s, he experienced the evolution from bi plane to Jet.  He bought a farm in Kent, where he raised pigs, and so we come to Tim (‘I was subversive and negative, the only grave I’ve ever danced on was on my headmasters – he wasn’t such a bad chap either’). From slopping out pigs in short trousers, Tim developed his life long skill of transporting animals, starting with pigs, to pig eating countries like France, China etc but encompassing everything else on the way, like for example pigs one way and 1,000 bottles of veuve clicquot champagne on the way back. Customs were a hurdle.

After loosing money in Lloyds as so many did (It was asbestos which brought the most financial devastation), Tim’s life took a turn. With a need to sell the farm,  he went to Canada to look after his indomintable sister, who it turned out didn’t need any care, so he contacted Nicole MacDuff.  (‘I married her 10 years ago.  Someone had to make an honest woman of her’).  who bred German Shepherds and needed advice on transporting them. ‘She nearly bit my hand off’. They’ve been together 12 years, based near the airport of Montreal.

Heligoland 59 – 80th anniversary

‘I’ll wake up the map’, said Tim. With two sons/daughters of pilots in front seat, Michel is relegated to the back seat of his own motor, however, he is undeterred with his sat nav echoing Tim’s. We are sure to find Runnymead, and avoid the M25.

Tim: Did you know that the  width of Apollo space rocket was based on the width of a horse’s rump? (see postscript at the end of this page)

We are early. I find Jack, appropriately arranging the poppies for those who lost their lives at Heligoland, 59 poppies on sticks on a montage of the sea. The names of those coming today – around 100 in all – are on badges  helpfully described together with the name of their relative and squadron name. In my case KELLETT Squadron 149.

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Richard was one of four brothers, in age order: Edward (Marsh Kellett), Gerald, Richard (twins) and Ross. It was Wanda (daughter of Gerald) with Caroline and  Pepita who first established contact with this project last year, and fittingly they are here today, Wanda fiesty, stylishly dressed with fur collar, bright eyed, and facilitated by her daughters Petpita with a just broken wrist (football – don’t ask) and Caroline who mothered both of them, and  drove (car and later wheel chair). No Simon (also of Gerald) and none of us know why he isn’t here for he is the ardent family historian, and would enjoy the gathering. Tory (daughter of Edward Marsh) is with her husband Peter, who is dying. That leaves me, daughter of Ross, (and no husband or progeny, but very glad to be accompanied by an amazingly fit and game for all Michael, who at Wanda’s age, 84, is clocking up his steps on the day. Doug Alwood later reminded us at the end how this project has joined families together, one from Hong Kong to Australia. Ours for Not a Funeral.

Wanda: I’ve signed the official secrets act, so I’m not going to tell you where I was during the war’.

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Two families are particularly well represented, the Vaughn Williams and Francis. Francis was the rear gunner in Richards plane, and I’d met Sarah and (tall) Richard at Flixton, they even came to the wood. This time they’d bought children and family with them and my regret of the day was not spending time with them – about 8 in all. At least I got a photograph of them all at Broklands (see below) Later Sarah showed me a photograph of her mother at Mildenhall, with a mark of a bullet which just missed her cheek.

We were off. A glorious day (how lucky we were, the previous and next were pants. Tim calls this the Harris Luck), a pleasant walk in December sunshine to the RAF memorial at Runny mead, led by the Mayor of Runnymead, a tall Indian Sikh originally from the Punjab. Had Richard been here, I wondered.

Heliogoland59 December 2019-4

Jack had arranged a perfect ceremony. Quietly organised by the RAF Padre (stand here he instructed me, read slowly, pause at the beginning and end) It was an honour to accept Jacks request to read at the ceremony. For one who had a stammer in my early life, it is still a great gift to read in public. (As I’d rehearsed, the two men gave advice – don’t act, you’re not Jesus, be normal.)

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It was the tall German Lutheran who reminded us: On this cold December day 80 years ago, they took off. They were good blokes, they were all good blokes. All our aggression towards the other, what is is about? Division. Even now it lasts, towards the European Union.

The last post trumpeter was the same woman who played at Ely.

Afterwards Michael and I looked around. Names in Times Roman, alphabetical order. Designed as a watch tower, 3 figures at the entrance, one blindfolded. Up the spiral stars to the top, and a splendid view to historic Windsor castle (in a skirt of trees) and the one every 2 minutes, Heathrow runway, the metal birds taking off and landing.

H39 Runnymede Rachel Kellett 20191218_111009

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We were welcomed by the PR of Broklands in the Vickers Room. Cars and planes. A very good 5 minute introduction seen later, with an unusual history containing so many speed hungry women.

We were here for R for Robert, Tim Harris’s fathers plane, the one he flew to Heligoland and the one that was later ditched in Loch Ness and recovered in Richards life time.

It was in the main hanger, the last full Wellington, out of the 11,000 manufactured and flown. The famous Barns Wallace geodesic design clear to see. A film beside showed a 24 hour making of one plane– women so many women involved in this construction and not just the sewing on of the canvas. The tail rudder, the compact tiny space where the front gunner sat and then lay  belly down, looking to see when to drop the bombs. Then up to operate the chatter guns. Cloth clad, stretched and stitched before being dubbed which when dry stretched the fabric.

A 95 year old man was there who knew wellingtons as he flew as a navigator, and found Tim, but I only heard of him later.

In the Vickers room, Tim and I gave our matter to the archivists who keenly took all to scan and capture our stories. IBCC Digital

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Jack gathered us together, and brings out of a hat THE BOOK – hundreds of blank pages – Jacks next project. Tim rounded off with a thanks to Jack, the Padre and the organisers.

Back via Aldi, Rachel driving Michael navigating, for champagne and pig meat, gin tonic and lemon. Later Tim said I haven’t enjoyed myself for years as I have here. I’ve missed this English conversation and banter. We even touched on a bit of philosophy – should the greater help the weaker? Tim said, it did not do me good to be the best in my school. A false sense of entitlement settled into my bones. Despite the fact that we hold different views on Europe – Tim delighted we are out – we are just the same, and find our joins rather than differences, eating pig meat, remembering Tim’s pig transportation days. I notice Tim has his scripts (as I have mine for example I knew nothing of India, Bob or Greeneace) (At the same time I heard how often I said sorry.)

Moving the Wellington to Broklands

We’ll meet again at Loch Ness, our plan. When Tim will come back over to celebrate the raising of the R for Robert Wellington Bomber.  Hogmanay in Scotland 2020 – that’s a good thought.

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Tim – explained why formation was so critical, and setting the record straight about Richard.

“It was based on Churchill’s direct order that the air force was ‘to do’ something, and this is what they did … My father learned to fly in 1932 at RAF Digby, and I have his log books from the very first day he started flying. The only thing he really knew was how to fly in formation – he trained his crew in formation flying, which on that day was the thing which saved their lives. The Wellington has a fore and aft gun, but it doesn’t turn to a full 180 degrees, so if you were flying alone then the fighter could come up and cut you in half! But if you flew in a box of five aircraft, you could just about defend the sky. That’s how he managed to preserve all but one of his aircraft and get them back to England. The official war record still repeats the lie that Kellett led too fast, but my father said, ‘No – it’s because the other crews haven’t been trained in formation flying and they didn’t know how to form off the lead aircraft’. However, he did because he’d flown with Kellett before.”


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Jack’s Heligoland 59 web page with these and other photographs here

Postscript from Jack: The main focus of the H39 Project in 2020 is gathering in more information about the crew men who took part in The Battle of Heligoland Bight in Dec 1939. Our objective is to be able to publish this in printed book form by the end of 2020 so that the information will be more widely available to the families concerned, and that the 1939 event and the men involved are not forgotten.

Caroline Kesseler –  (Family Researcher H39 Project)
Doug Aylward – (Family Researcher H39 Project)

Going forward into 2020

It is very pleasing to reflect on the 80th Anniversary Year of the Battle of Heligoland Bight, beginning with the Act of Remembrance in Ely Cathedral in December 2018 and culminating with the Commemoration Ceremony at Runnymede in December last year.

Currently three film presentations are being edited from footage captured on the 18th December 2019: ‘The H39 Runnymede Commemoration 2019’.  ‘Wellington N2980’s Connection with Brooklands’ & ‘The H39 Anniversary Year 2018-19’.

The Runnymede Ceremony presentation, edited by Mark Jarman & Brian Sadler, is available to view on the The 80th Anniversary Year film will first be shown at ‘Littleport’s Phoney War Exhibition’ on the 18th April, and the Wellington N2980 item will be prepared for showing at Inverness Museum from November 2020 to January 2021.

As we all move forward into the final year of The Heligoland39 Project I would like to express my gratitude to all those who have been willing to follow my lead and contribute to what has become a tremendous collective effort.

The institutions, organisations and individuals who have freely given their support have enabled the main object of this endeavour to be fulfilled, namely, making a connection with the families directly affected by that disastrous 1939 action.

Going forward into 2020 the final objective is to document this largely forgotten history in the form of a book, and everyone connected with the project is invited contribute to this.

Also, research and visits to places of interest will continue throughout this year to ensure no stone remains unturned in the quest for the most complete record.

Plans are already being finalised for the following events:


  • 20th February – Visit Fenland & West Norfolk Aviation Museum
  • March – Frisian & Heligoland Islands Aerial Filming
  • 18th April – Phoney War Exhibition – In conjunction with The Littleport Society, Littleport, Cambs.
  • 16th May – RNLI Fund Raiser – Wells Maltings, Wells, Norfolk
  • June – Diving the North Sea at the ditched Wellingtons’ map references. AWAITING NEWS
  •   7th July – Visit & R3236 Commemoration to RAF Feltwell – VISIT TO BE CONFIRMED
  •   7th July – Visit & R3236 Commemoration to Jever Airfield Northern Germany
  • 29th December to 2nd January – N2980 Ditching Commemoration – Inverness, Scotland.


A post script from Tim – how the width of the Apollo 11 rocket was based on the width of a horses rump

The original rail tracks were laid as close as possible to the width of a roman chariot wheels (two horses rumps) namely 4ft 8 inches [give or take]

The US standard railroad gauge (width between the two rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used?

Because that’s the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.

Why did “they” use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons which used that wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe (and England) were built by Imperial Rome for their legions. The roads have been used ever since. And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots first formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for (or by) Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse’s ass came up with it, you may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses. Thus, we have the answer to the original question.

Now the twist to the story . . .

There’s an interesting extension to the story about railroad gauges and horses’ behinds. When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory had to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses’ behinds. So, the major design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a Horse’s Ass!

The above-quoted item about the gauge of modern American railroads’ having been slavishly copied from the measurements of ancient Roman war chariots is a concept first expressed at least well over a century ago, as exemplified by this nugget from a 1905 issue of Popular Mechanics:

Many persons no doubt have stood and looked down a railroad track and wondered how such an out of the way measurement as 4 ft. 8-1/2 in. came to be adopted as our standard railway gauge. It would seem that the responsibility for the choice of this measurement rests with George Stephenson, of locomotive fame. While inspecting some portions of the Roman wall through which chariots used to be driven, he discovered that deep ruts had been worn in the stone. Upon measuring the distance between them he found it to be in the neighborhood of 4 ft. 8-1/2 in., and not doubting that the Romans had adopted this gauge only after much experience, he determined to use it as a standard in the construction of his railroads. From that time on this measurement has been the standard gauge in England and the United States.

Now there’s a bit of useless knowledge, but it may help you win a Trivia Contest one day.

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