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There 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.
A 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.
There 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”.
I 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.
Subsequently, 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.