Memorial to James Tillet

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Tillet, memorial, Pook Lane, Fareham, HampshireThere are so many stories behind every memorial.  Of course, there are exceptions, but outside graveyards most memorials tend toward the grand.  However, if you happen to be wandering about the southern slopes of Portsdown Hill, just north of Fareham in Hampshire, you might stumble across a modest tribute to a Battle of Britain pilot, James Tillet (or, more probably, Tillett), one of ‘the Few’, who crashed and died nearby.

It is hard to conceive now that a great air battle once took place in the skies over southern England.  Flying Officer Tillet belonged to 238 Squadron, equipped with Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft, based at RAF Middle Wallop near Andover.  The squadron had actually been decamped to a satellite station, RAF Chilbolton, and was scrambled from there on 6th November 1940 to intercept a German bomber force heading toward Portsmouth.  Tillet’s aircraft was probably one of two shot down that day by Major Helmut Wick in a Messerschmitt Bf109.  Eyewitnesses say that the Hurricane belly-landed in a field near Whitedell Farm and that Tillet, slumped over the controls, could not be pulled from the aircraft before it caught fire.  He was just 22 years old and is buried in Ann’s Hill Cemetery in nearby Gosport.  Tillet was a regular RAF officer, having passed out from Cranwell, the RAF equivalent of Sandhurst, before the war.  Before that, he had attended St Lawrence’s College in Ramsgate, Kent.  We know he enjoyed running and hockey and that he was the adopted son of Maud Reynolds of Courteenhall – a village and estate in Northamptonshire to where, coincidentally, his old school was evacuated in 1940.

Hurricane, aircraft, WW2A short time after Tillet’s death, on 28th November, Major Wick was himself shot down and killed over the Isle of Wight.  He too was young – 25 – though an air-ace credited with 56 ‘kills’ and a holder of the Iron Cross.  He had two children, one of whom he never met.  RAF Chilbolton, Tillet’s last home, went on to become a larger base hosting USAAF fighter and transport squadrons.  It has largely returned to agricultural use now, but since 1992 part of the old base has been used by Chilbolton Flying Club.

MeBf109, aircraft, WW2There are so many stories behind the bald facts recounted above.  The larger backdrop of the Battle of Britain, of course, is part of our history; though the events of that particular day, 6th November, in 1940 don’t figure greatly in any book.  I’m touched by the thought of James Tillet – how did he come to be there?  Was he the product of a romance from the previous war?  Did he have unknown brothers and sisters?  A sweetheart?  What was he like?  Who was Maud Reynolds?  What was her story?  The Corteenhall Estate has been owned by the Wake family since 1673; did Maud work there?  And is the fact that James Tillet’s old school was evacuated to Corteenhall merely a coincidence?  Major Helmut Paul Emil Wick’s life is a little more public – he was a decorated war hero.  The details of the lives of the participants in most dramas are long-forgotten; does anyone think of Tillet, Wick and Maud Reynolds at all now?  Are there any descendents?  Though F/O Tillet is also commemorated on the Battle of Britain Memorial in London and Major Wick’s name may well appear on a memorial in Germany, we have only heard of them because someone took the trouble to erect a nondescript concrete memorial on a country lane.

For this we can thank a Graham Alderson. On the side of the memorial are the words:

“He died so young, so we that are left, grow old knowing only freedom. Let not future generations squander such a gift. Graham Alderson 1994”.

Tillet, memorial, RAF, Pook Lane, Battle of BritainI understand that Graham Alderson put up several memorials to airmen in the Portsmouth area, at his own expense, sometime in the 1990s. Apart from working out he was probably born in the mid-1920s, I couldn’t find any information about him; but he is/was obviously a good egg.  So there’s yet another story.

Since first writing this article, I have been surprised and moved by the comments that have been received, which you will see below.  There’s Steve, whose father witnessed the crash as an 11-year-old boy. The River Wallington was flooding, he says; a policeman arrived on a bicycle and shoed the youngster (or youngsters) away from the burning aircraft.  It doesn’t bear thinking about.  Rob, a member of the local angling club, puts a cross on James’s grave every November, and a chum puts one on this memorial.  Rob says that the crash site is still visible, marked by a furrow in the ground.  He goes on to mention a memorial to the second airman believed to have been shot down by Wick on 6th November 1940.  That memorial is further east, near Widley, and was also placed by Graham Alderson.  It commemorates Sergeant Hubert Hastings Adair, who like James Tillet was also flying a Hurricane, with 213 Squadron based at Tangmere.  Adair and his aircraft were excavated from a depth of 9 feet in 1979.

Back to James Tillet.  Tina writes in to say that her elderly dad has been maintaining the memorial for more than 20 years.  People remember, and care.

Out of the blue, I then received an astonishing contribution from Alexe von Brocdorff, which I reproduce below almost in its entirety:

“My name is Alexe von Brockdorff and my mother, Margaret often spoke of James Tillett because she had known him when she was young.  ‘Jimmy’, as she so fondly called him was a very special person to her.  Jimmy was, I think, born in 1918, while my mother was born in 1924.  Mum was born in Wetherby, Yorkshire, an only child, and was first brought up there; later, the family moved to Scotland, in Bridge of Allen.  There was a lady, who, I now know from your article, was called Maud, who worked for my maternal grandparents; she used to help them in the house.  Mummy most probably told me her name, but, to be honest, I had forgotten.  When Mummy was young, she was told that Jimmy was Maud’s adopted son and so she grew up always considering him to be that.  Jimmy and Mummy spent all their time together until he eventually went off to join the RAF.  A few years ago, a few months before Mummy died, aged 90, we decided to go on holiday together, to Scotland, a trip down Memory Lane, if you like.  The trip just opened a flood of memories regarding her young life in Yorkshire, and that in Scotland.  She told me that Jimmy, very naughtily, because he would have been in such trouble with his Squadron Leader, etc., used to secretly fly over the green hills in front of her house, where she would be waiting for him, and he would silently dip his wings to her and fly off to do his exercises, or whatever he had to do.   As soon as Mummy could, she joined and served in the WAAF, also to pay tribute to him.  On our Scottish holiday, I asked mummy if there had ever been anything stronger than just a friendship between them, because, as a family, we had always thought that maybe there had been.  However, Mummy said absolutely not, she had just loved him as a brother.  I feel enough time has passed to be able to say now that she was only told later that Jimmy was not Maud’s adopted son, but he had been her son, born out of wedlock, which at a time like that, would have meant total ostracism for Maud.  My grandparents knew the real story and accepted Maud into the family without any worries.  You ask if he is still thought about….  oh, yes, very much so……  After my holiday with Mum I started looking for Jimmy’s grave, because I wanted to take Mummy there on our next holiday together, and, thanks to the wonderful War Graves Commission, I managed to find him.  Sadly Mummy passed away very soon after I had discovered the grave, but, about a year later, a friend of mine, my daughter and I drove down to his resting place and, on behalf of Mummy, we left a single rose for him.  I wish she could have been there, it would have meant so much to her, but, alas, it was not to be.  My mother always kept a picture of her beloved ‘Jimmy’ on the mantelpiece and my father completely accepted this, and never questioned her love for him.  She was buried with both a picture of Jimmy and my father; it was what she would have wanted.”

Alexe plans to visit Jimmy again.  She concludes:

“So you see, he will never be forgotten, at least as long as my generation shall live……  and my daughter’s…..  he meant too much to her……  and he gave his life so that I, today, can write this to you…..”

And Alexe generously sent a copy of the photo of Jimmy Tillett that had sat on her family’s mantelpiece all their lives.  And here it is.

James TillettSubsequently, I have found further information about Jimmy that more dedicated researchers have published since the original of this article first appeared.  From the Battle of Britain Monument website, it seems that he began the war flying Fairey Battles, an aircraft that was pretty much obsolete before it even entered service, and it’s suggested he volunteered for a transfer to Fighter Command.  The Sussex History Forum includes a fuller account of his death as well as revealing that James Tillett’s estate, worth £104, went to Maud Amelia Reynolds, a teacher, born in 1879 and by 1939 living in Broadstairs.

This article began with a fairly blank canvass.  It has had life and colour added by people who care about these things, and who bothered to get in touch.  I’m particularly grateful to Alexe von Brockdorff for her amazing contribution.  Some of the questions have been answered, but the most important thing is that this young man, who gave his everything for us some 80 years ago, is very far from being forgotten.

I’d like to thank my brother for showing me James Tillett’s memorial in the first place.  If you’re round that way, you’ll find it at the junction of Pook Lane and Spurlings Road, by the Wallington River just north of the M27.  Next time I’m in that part of the world, I’d like to make a point of visiting James’s grave – and the memorial to Sergeant Adair.

48 thoughts on “Memorial to James Tillet

  1. Jim

    For many years I was Deputy Head at the school which is located at Roche Court just a few hundred yards over the fields from where James’ Hurricane crashed. I attended the unveiling of the memorial to him in Pook Lane/Nine Elms Lane in November 1994 by the late Wing Commander Pat Hancock the then secretary and treasurer of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association. I developed a great interest in this young man who had lost his life 54 years earlier. I would tell his story, insofar as I could research it at that time, during the Remembrance Day Assemblies. Some members of the school made a wooden cross which we placed in front of the memorial. I would pay my own personal respects by placing a cross there every November 6th until I retired and moved away a few years ago. I always wondered who had placed the other crosses I saw there. I am not sure how long they would survive since the River Wallington is prone to flood just there. I also visited James’ last resting place in St Ann’s Hill Cemetery in Gosport,
    My interest continues and around that time I met up with the late Alan Sturgess
    the then verger of St Peter and Paul Church in Fareham. He recalled that when he was a boy he saw the plane come down at Whitedell Farm in the late afternoon and running across the fields to see. He recalled the ammunition exploding in and around the burning plane.and realising that the pilot was tragically already dead.
    The opportunity arose for me to have a painting on glass of James’ aircraft done by S. Foster of Aircraft Glass Profiles so that hangs on my wall as I speak.
    The one thing I always wanted to see was a picture of James and thanks to this article and to Alexe von Brockdorff I finally have an image to have in my mind when I think of him on Remembrance Sundays, to go alongside a young Surgeon Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, also named James, whose name I am proud to bear.
    Thank you to all those involved in this updated article.

  2. marmeladegypsy

    It was wonderful the first time; all the better with the additions. Thanks for staying with it, the updates. Just lovely how blogs are enriched by those who visit and share.

  3. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – what an amazing addition … and how wonderful Jimmy is remembered so well – and loved so much. Just brilliant that Alexie found your blog and wrote his wonderful comment – yes the internet just adds to our lives … cheers Hilary

  4. Alli Templeton

    How amazing that you should have received this email and have been able to put not only a face to the name on the memorial, but also a life story. This is so moving, Mike, and as you say it does restore a little faith in an otherwise bleak online world. I go down to Portsmouth and Portchester Castle a few times a year, and my grandmother is buried in St Ann’s Hill Cemetery. Both my sets of grandparents lived in Gosport, so I know the area well having spent many childhood summer holidays there. So next time I visit my nan’s grave I’ll also seek out Jimmy’s final resting place and put a flower on his stone. A touching and tragic yet heart-warming story that has a real resonance for me with the locations involved. Thank you for updating us, and God bless Jimmy and all the brave men who fought and died for our freedom. <3

  5. Ruth Gill

    A really fascinating article , particularly the update and the information. I’m enjoying your book too. My eldest granddaughter is nearly 22. Sobering to think of these young men , so young, making those flights and losing their lives as a result.

  6. tidalscribe

    What a moving story. My father was in the RAF, bomber command. He never said much about it except that if they had seen the bigger picture of how many fliers were being killed, he would have been more worried! My son has been in the air force since he was 19, his class the last officers to graduate from Cranwell in the twentieth century. At nearly forty now he would have been an old chap to those youngsters in WW2.

    1. franklparker

      My father, too, was in bomber command – Flight Engineer, in his last role flying Lancasters in the Pathfinder role. He bought it on 18th Novemebr 1943 over Manheim, 2 years, 2 weeks and 2 days after my birth. He was 26.

      1. tidalscribe

        So our lives have been completely different. Dad was flight engineer as well. Have you been to visit the Bomber Command memorial in london or the new one in Lincoln, I haven’t yet.

  7. Darlene

    This is so amazing. The fact that your initial article prompted others to add to the story is so wonderful. Keeping the memory of these young people alive is so important.

  8. SueW

    Oh, Mike,
    What a very interesting story. How lovely that so many people came forward and offered so much more about this young airman.

  9. Alexie von Brockdorff

    I would like to address this to the gentleman who wrote the original article that began this thread. My name is Alexe von Brockdorff and my mother, Margaret nèe Ingham often spoke of James Tillett because she had known him when she was young. ‘Jimmy’, as she so fondly called him was a very special person to her. Jimmy was, I think, born in 1918, while my mother was born in 1924. Mum was born in Wetherby, Yorkshire, an only child, and was first brought up there; later, the family moved to Scotland, in Bridge of Allen. There was a lady, who, I now know from your article, was called Maud, who worked for my maternal grandparents; she used to help them in the house. Mummy most probably told me her name, but, to be honest, I had forgotten. When Mummy was young, she was told that Jimmy was Maud’s adopted son and so she grew up always considering him to be that. Jimmy and Mummy spent all their time together until he eventually went off to join the RAF. A few years ago, a few months before Mummy died, aged 90, we decided to go on holiday together, to Scotland, a trip down Memory Lane, if you like. The trip just opened a flood of memories regarding her young life in Yorkshire, and that in Scotland. She told me that Jimmy, very naughtily, because he would have been in such trouble with his Squadron Leader, etc., used to secretly fly over the green hills in front of her house, where she would be waiting for him, and he would silently dip his wings to her and fly off to do his exercises, or whatever he had to do. As soon as Mummy could, she joined and served in the WAAF, also to pay tribute to him. On our Scottish holiday, I asked mummy if there had ever been anything stronger than just a friendship between them, because, as a family, we had always thought that maybe there had been. However, Mummy said absolutely not, she had just loved him as a brother. I feel enough time has passed to be able to say now that she was only told later that Jimmy was not Maud’s adopted son, but he had been her son, born out of wedlock, which at a time like that, would have meant total ostracism for Maud. My grandparents, Marjorie née Banks and Robert Ingham, knew the real story and accepted Maud into the family without any worries. You ask if he is still thought about…. oh, yes, very much so…… After my holiday with Mum I started looking for Jimmy’s grave, because I wanted to take Mummy there on our next holiday together, and, thanks to the wonderful War Graves Commission, I managed to find him. Sadly Mummy passed away very soon after I had discovered the grave, but, about a year later, a friend of mine, my daughter and I drove down to his resting place (I live in Rome) and, on behalf of Mummy, we left a single rose for him. I wish she could have been there, it would have meant so much to her, but, alas, it was not to be. My mother always kept a picture of her beloved ‘Jimmy’ on the mantlepiece and my father completely accepted this, and never questioned her love for him. She was buried with both a picture of Jimmy and my father; it was what she would have wanted. My sister and I are comint to the UK very soon, and my sister has asked me if I can take him to his resting place so that she can pay homage to such a special person in the life of our mother. So you see, he will never be forgotten, at least as long as my generation shall live…… and my daughter’s….. he meant too much to her…… and he gave his life so that I , today, can write this to you….. I have a picture of him, the picture that all our life has sat on our mantlepiece…. and, if there is a way, I will gladly upload it for you all to see……

  10. Steve

    My father, aged 11, was an eye witness to the crash. There was flooding in the river Wallington. He describes challenges getting to the site. He vividly described the burning plane until a policeman on a bike arrived and shooed then away. So the weather was probably poor.

  11. Rob O'Hagan

    Hi Mike, I am part of the team who look after the river Wallington for the local fishing club, a chum of mine usually puts a cross at the memorial every November and I put one one James’s grave at Annes Hill cemetery since learning of his story.

    If you walk through the yard and along the footpath past the cottages you can still see where the plane actually came down in the field to the right of the path, there is a visible furrow. Tom in the cottage knows the story very well. There is another memorial to the other pilot believed to have been shot down by Wick that day on portsdown hill near Paulsgrove.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Hi Rob. Thanks for that additional info, and for dropping in. I don’t know when I’ll next be down that way, but would be interested in exploring more and paying my respects when I am. It’s wonderful that people like you and your pal remember – and sad that we don’t know more about James. I hope somebody does!

  12. Caprigt

    Hi mike great reading i to came across james memorial and wanted to learn more but unable to find out such things like what were the weather conditions on that fateful day ? I have found out that october and november that year were very wet but i can only guess the weather that day must have been good for those men to take to the skies not even the raiders would have been that far from home in bad weather surely ?? ANYBODY KNOW As im trying to paint a combat portrail of james tillets last action

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Hi – I’m sorry for not replying to you before. I would have thought your best bet would be to try to get a look at the Squadron records for the day – pilots’ log books may also be available. Good luck – and thanks for dropping in!

      1. Tina Emmett

        Hi Mike, a bit late but just found your post, I just wanted to share that my dad who’s 77 has been maintaining James Tillet’s memorial for over 20 years always planting fresh flowers and keeping it tidy, just want people to know people do still care and it was nice to see that people do visit the site.

        1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

          That’s wonderful, Tina; your dad is part of the story – thanks for letting us know – really appreciate it. I must try to visit James Tillet’s grave next time I’m in that neck of the woods.

  13. Marcia Brown

    Very touching story. And I too would like to know the rest of the story. Unsung heroes are all around us.

    By the way I’m reading a book that you’d like. “In the Land of the Giants – A Journey Through the Dark Ages” by Max Adams. I just finished the part where he walked from London to Sutton Hoo. The flyleaf states: “A cultural exploration of the Dark Age landscapes of Britain that poses a significant question: is the modern world simply the realization of our ancient past?” Published in 2016. Hope you can find it.

  14. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – yes so many untold stories … I too wonder about Maud adopting young James – and why … what happened to his real parents … fascinating story to read – your brother has done you proud bringing these details to your and our attention. Then Mr Alderson – what a kind spirited soul he is … thoughtful too … I hope the memories are stored elsewhere for future reference … cheers Hilary

  15. clarepooley33

    Such a thoughtful post, Mike. Thank-you. My mother and my late father both watched the Battle of Britain unfold in the skies above them and even though they were both very young at the time (both born 1930) they were amazed at the bravery and courage shown by these young airmen. I am pleased that there are memorials to a few of the airmen. In seeing these tributes we are reminded of all the other young people who lost their lives fighting for their country.

  16. Stew Hilts

    Enjoyed that little story. Makes me think of our son and whether anyone in the little town near to which he died will think of him 100 years from now. Maybe I should think of copying Graham Alderson.

  17. Pamela Gordon

    How sad a story of these two brave young men, and the hundreds like them I guess, doing their part to protect our freedoms. Thank you for sharing their stories.

  18. 1066jq

    i’m reading the third of William Manchester’s trilogy about Winston Churchill and am in the middle of reading about the Battle for Britain. What an incredible job those young men did against just impossible odds.

  19. Cynthia

    Pool Lane — I’m sure there is a story there, too. Memorials are erected, “lest we forget”, but they can’t hold the full story of a life and we are left with many questions. Thankful to men like Mr Alderson who do try.

  20. Shammy

    We should never forget those brave young men who died. And I mean young… Tillet was 22 and Wick was 25. I can’t imagine my 2 sons fighting a war and flying Hawker Hurricanes and Messerschmitts at that age. Thank goodness.
    BTW Alderson or Anderson?

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