WWII airmen signatures on East Devon pub ceiling revived by 10-year project
PUBLISHED: 11:47 05 November 2019 | UPDATED: 14:50 06 November 2020
Signatures written by Second World War airmen on the ceiling of an East Devon pub have been brought back to life in a painstaking 10-year project, writes Owen Jones
It's a scene played out in a host of Second World War movies - the English countryside pub where boisterous off-duty airmen drink warm ale and briefly forget the perils they face daily in the skies over Britain, France or Germany.
In the early 1940s the St George and Dragon at Clyst St George was just such a pub, frequented by pilots, navigators and air crew from the nearby airfield, now Exeter Airport.
And those young men - British, American, Canadian, Polish, Czech and even Burmese - left their mark on the pub, scrawling or carving their names on the boards of the ceiling above the bar. Many of them would not survive the war.
The ceiling was torn down in 1975 when the brewery decided to refurbish the pub. A local businessman saved some of the panels from being destroyed and several ended up languishing in a store room at Exmouth's Royal Air Forces Association.
But now those poignant signatures have been given a new lease of life, thanks to the determined efforts of Suzannah Holwell and her husband Robin. The couple live opposite the St George and Dragon and by chance heard about the ceiling panels while having tea at the RAFA club in Exmouth.
Worried that the old boards would soon deteriorate beyond repair, they offered to restore them - and that kick-started a project which has lasted 10 years and still continues.
Now the couple's home is filled with framed displays of varnished sections of the ceiling along with old photographs of the airmen and aircraft whose stories Suzannah and Robin have painstakingly researched.
It's clearly been a labour of love for Suzannah - the daughter of an RAF Lancaster bomber tail gunner - who admits she has been 'like a ferret' in her determination to discover more about the men behind the signatures.
Many of the stories are tragic. The Polish crew of a Wellington bomber from 305 Squadron signed their names during visits to the St George and Dragon on 10 and 11 January 1943. Just two nights later they were all killed while returning from a bombing mission over Brest.
Another signature is from Sgt Albert Stilin, a 21-year-old Canadian flying with 257 Squadron. He was killed crashing his Hurricane fighter into the roof of the pub on 30 September 1942. The initials RIP have been added after his name.
The panels also bear the names of US Air Force crew from 414th Bomb Squadron, including the crew of the B17 Yankee Doodle, which was the first Flying Fortress aircraft to bomb over enemy territory in August 1942.
Among other notable names are those of 616 Squadron. At the time they added their signatures to the ceiling in the autumn of 1943 they were flying Spitfires, but they would later become the first squadron to fly the RAF's first jet fighter - the Gloster Meteor.
The signatures include Flight Officer TD "Dixie" Dean, famed as the first pilot to bring down a feared V1 Doodlebug rocket in August 1944.
Battle of Britain pilots signed the ceiling - cousins Michael and Anthony Rook, Michael Shand (later the last man out of the Great Escape tunnel from Stalag Luft 111) and Czech pilot Karel Mrazek.
So too did Norman Finch, a former Royal Marine who was awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War and was a quartermaster at Dalditch commando training camp on Woodbury Common during World War 2.
So far the research and preservation work by Suzannah and Robin has created 25 boards, beautifully framed by Phil Evens of Cooks Farm, Woodbury Salterton. Some 150 of the names have been identified so far.
But there's still a mystery to be solved: are there more panels waiting to be discovered? If so they may contain the signatures of Hollywood idol Clark Gable and Joseph Kennedy, older brother of US president JFK.
Both are believed to have visited the St George and Dragon during the war years. Gable served in the US Army Air Force as a photographer and aerial gunner. Kennedy was a US naval aviator and was killed in action in August 1944.
Suzannah, who funded the restoration and framing costs herself, has been talking to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter about displaying the frames.
She also hopes someone might step up to the challenge of writing a book about the names. You can read more about the historic signatures online at rafexeterarchive.org.uk, where you can also make a donation to the Royal Air Force Association.
Barmaid Ailsa's wartime memories
Among the signatures on the ceiling was that of barmaid Ailsa Lobb, daughter of landlord Harold Lobb, who was 17 when war broke out.
Now 97 and living in South Devon, Ailsa recalls it was Canadian airman David 'Blackie' Williams who first wrote his name on the ceiling. She added her signature above the bar and in the years that followed hundreds of airmen added theirs.
Ailsa says it was all a bit of much-needed fun at a time when death could be just around the corner.
"You had to provide a bit of jolly, you know, because these pilots - they went out and you never saw them again. And they were just 18, 19, twenties - all youngsters and it was terrible. So when they came back to the George they liked a bit of drink. They used to balance pints of beer on their heads and the drinks used to go all over the place.
"Some of the youngsters, if they were locked out they used to climb on the telephone box - which is still there - into my bedroom. I used to leave the window open for them to get through, which raised a laugh really."
As well as the names on the ceiling, the pub also had another unusual display - the snipped-off ends of airmen's ties, pinned to the wall. Ailsa recalls: "I had a big pair of scissors, dressmakers' scissors, and I used to cut off the end of their ties and put their name and address on them."
The arrival of Americans, billeted at Digby near Exeter, was memorable: "They used to bring all this food in - great big tins of fruit, steaks - we used to make steak sandwiches in the kitchen. We weren't exactly short of food!"
But too often the days were marred by tragedy. Ailsa recalls: "If someone was shot down it was all quiet and they didn't want to do anything, so you knew when something had happened. It was like 'here today, gone tomorrow' really.
"I think young people today don't realise what went on. They don't think about it really, it seems such a long time ago."
Ailsa returned to the St George and Dragon to see a display of the framed signatures.
Also present was Edward Klecka from Texas, whose father Rudy had signed the ceiling in 1943 while stationed at 36th Station Hospital, Digby, Exeter as a Mess Staff Sgt in the US Army.