Pilot’s name finally added to village war memorial, 81 years after death
PUBLISHED: 05:30 24 August 2020 | UPDATED: 11:23 24 August 2020
BISHOP'S STORTFORD COLLEGE
Heroic teenage pilot officer Harold Graham Tipple’s name has at last been added to a Suffolk village’s war memorial - 81 years after his death.
Aged just 19, the young recruit crashed in a field in Hintlesham in December 1939, while delivering a plane to his wartime base at Martlesham Heath.
Harold was buried in the village churchyard, where caring villagers tended his grave over the years.
But little was known about his story until Gerald Main, who has spent years researching the stories behind the names on the memorial, investigated.
“I couldn’t understand why a pilot buried in the village wasn’t commemorated on the memorial,” Gerald said.
“I was even more intrigued to find his military records, which are held at the National Archive in Kew, were classified. I made an FOI request and they were released.
“Once I had researched into the case, the parish council agreed to add the name to the memorial.”
Hintlesham’s memorial was unveiled in 1920, two years after the end of the First World War. A special centenary service had been planned, but had to be cancelled because of coronavirus.
“We really wanted Harold’s name on the memorial in time for its centenary in June, but the pandemic delayed everything,” Gerald said.
“Hopefully we’ll do something ‘official’ on Remembrance Sunday … but in the meantime, Harold’s name is just where it deserves to be.
“The more we learn about the men named on the memorial, the more we appreciate their sacrifice and the terrible cost of war.”
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Poignantly, this month also marks the centenary of Harold Tipple’s birth, on August 5, 1920 in St Leonards.
Gerald, the former editor of BBC Radio Suffolk, has made a video telling Harold’s story, entitled The Last Man on the Memorial.
He also gives more detail about the young pilot on his website, dedicated to the men commemorated on the memorials at Hintlesham and Chattisham.
Harold grew up in Hertfordshire and attended Bishop’s Stortford College, where he was known as an excellent swimmer, before later moving to Bagshot.
He trained as a pilot, and was commissioned as an acting pilot officer in April 1939. Following the outbreak of war, he became a pilot officer in September 1939, and joined Squadron 264 in Suffolk in November, based at Martlesham Heath.
On December 13, Harold and Flight Lieutenant Nicholas Gresham Cooke, known as “Lanky”, were instructed to collect two planes from RAF Little Rissington in Gloucestershire and fly them back to Suffolk. Harold had no experience of flying a Fairey Battle aircraft. Lanky - who was later to die in action flying over Dunkirk - did his best to train him, but there was no time for a practice flight.
A witness in Little Rissington saw black smoke coming from the rear of his plane following take-off.
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And, when the planes approached Hintlesham, witnesses working in the fields said his plane had smoke pouring from its tail and was losing height.
Harold tried to bale out, but failed to clear the aircraft before it hit a tree. A court of inquiry was held at Martlesham, but its findings were kept secret, including witness reports and even the wording of a telegram sent to the pilot’s mother. All these documents were placed in the archive at Kew and classified.
“It’s not really surprising that happened. It was wartime, and if such detail got out, it wouldn’t have been good for morale,” Gerald said.
The records were classified “closed” until 2030, but after Gerald’s FOI request the status was changed to “open”. He was able to see the documents, including the finding of the inquiry held just two days after the tragedy, which said: “In the opinion of the Court the cause of the accident was an attempted abandoning of the aircraft by the pilot immediately after a probable seizure of the engine, due to the pilot flying from the time of the take off to the time of the crash, in fine pitch, whilst in formation with another aircraft.”
Harold’s body was taken to a mortuary at RAF Wattisham and he was buried in Hintlesham Churchyard.
His mother declined a military headstone, and instead bought a headstone for his grave in Hintlesham. Gerald said: “His grave was tended for many years by a lady living in the village and her granddaughter, Margaret Spraggons, who to this day still remembers being brought here by her grandmother to lay flowers for the pilot’s grave.”
The stone also commemorates his brother Robert, who died while serving with the Army Catering Corp/Royal Army Ordnance Corps in February 1943, and is buried in Algeria.
Gerald is pleased that Harold’s name has now been added to the memorial.
As he says in his video: “Harold Tipple has lain in Hintlesham soil for over 80 years, and that truly makes him one of ours.”
To find out more about Harold Tipple and the other men commemorated on the Hintlesham and Chattisham war memorials, visit Gerald’s website.
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