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Historians honour former Bishop's Stortford College pupil who became Second World War pilot

A Bishop's Stortford schoolboy turned pilot, who died at the start of the Second World War, has been honoured in the Suffolk village near where his aircraft crashed.

RAF Pilot Officer Harold Graham Tipple attended Bishop's Stortford College from 1929 to 1936. Staff at the Maze Green Road school helped Hintlesham historian Gerald Main with details of the plucky 19-year-old's education and interests before he signed up.

He said: "Amazingly, when I contacted the college they found his records within minutes... and even told me Harold was remembered for being a great swimmer!"

Former Bishop's Stortford College schoolboy Harold Tipple is the last man on Hintlesham's war memorial
Former Bishop's Stortford College schoolboy Harold Tipple is the last man on Hintlesham's war memorial

Gerald, a broadcaster, trainer and event host, was determined to tell Harold's story for the first time in more than eight decades.

"I suppose because Harold didn't come from Hintlesham, no one at the time thought about putting his name on the memorial," he said. "After 80 years of lying in Suffolk soil, I think it's time to recognise Harold's service and sacrifice."

He discovered that next to Harold on the college's Memorial Hall roll of honour is elder brother Robert, who died while serving with the Army Catering Corp/Royal Army Ordnance Corps on February 15, 1943, aged just 27. He is buried at La Reunion Cemetery in Algeria.

Hintlesham historian Gerald Main at the memorial
Hintlesham historian Gerald Main at the memorial

Although Harold's was the last name to be added to the war memorial in the Suffolk parish this summer, he was the first of those remembered to perish in the conflict, when his aircraft hit a tree just three-and-a-half months after the outbreak of war.

The young pilot's fate is detailed on website http://hintleshamwarmemorial.com/ which is dedicated to the fallen of the village.

Harold was born on August 5, 1920, in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, and grew up in Bishop's Stortford, where his mother is said to have owned a café before the family moved to Bagshot, Surrey.

He was a student pilot at Hamble Flying School in Hampshire and on April 29, 1939, he was commissioned as an acting pilot officer.

The last resting place of teenage pilot Harold Tipple in Hintlesham, Suffolk
The last resting place of teenage pilot Harold Tipple in Hintlesham, Suffolk

Following the outbreak of war, he gained his wings and became a pilot officer in September 1939, joining 264 Squadron in Suffolk on November 5, 1939.

Just over five weeks later, on December 13, Harold and Flight Lieutenant Nicholas Gresham Cooke, of 264 Squadron based at RAF Martlesham Heath, were instructed to collect two aircraft from RAF Little Rissington in Gloucestershire and fly them back to Suffolk.

Harold had never flown a Fairey Battle Mk 1 aircraft before. After a two-day delay because of bad weather, the pair took off on the morning of the December 16 with Flt Lt Cooke leading the way.

Remembered at last(40978898)
Remembered at last(40978898)

A witness in Little Rissington noted black smoke coming from the rear of Harold's aircraft following take-off on what was a fine day with good visibility.

By the time the pair approached Hintlesham between 11.30am and 11.45am at around 1,000 ft, Harold was clearly in difficulty, with smoke pouring from the aircraft's tail as it lost height.

The teenager tried to bail out but failed to clear the aircraft before it hit a tree at Vauxhall Farm in the parish of Great Wenham, next to Hintlesham.

Farmer Lionel Fenning was one of the first on the scene, followed by Police Constable W H Shaw. The officer probed the wreckage and removed Harold's dog tags before handing them to crash investigators. His body was taken to RAF Wattisham, near Stowmarket.

Flt Lt Cooke did not realise Harold was missing until he landed safely at Martlesham Heath.

A court of inquiry held at Martlesham on December 18 determined: "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."

Records of the incident are held at the National Archives in Kew and should have been sealed until 2030. Gerald said: "In 2019, I made a Freedom of Information request to have the files declassified. That resulted in Harold's story coming to light for the first time since the accident in December 1939."

Harold was buried in Hintlesham churchyard at Christmas 1939. As his next of kin, his mother declined a military grave and instead bought a headstone which also commemorates his brother Robert, who died just over three years later.

In 1947, the authorities made a final attempt to contact Harold's mother to give her his outstanding pay, but the letter to Queen Anne House in Bagshot was returned "unknown at this address".

Today, Harold's resting place is in need of repair. Although listed as a Commonwealth War Grave, it is a private plot and headstone and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is unable to maintain it.

He was omitted from the Hintlesham war memorial until this year, following the website research and agreement of the parish council.

His honour was intended to be part of a service to mark the centenary of the memorial, but it was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The pilot who flew with Harold on his last journey went on to become one of the RAF's aces.

Nicknamed 'Lanky', Flt Lt Cooke became one of the elite band who shot down more than five aircraft in a day and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He was killed in action over the Dunkirk evacuation beaches on May 31, 1940, aged 26.

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