John Beresford

This article was written by David Vessey as part of a book celebrating the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012. It now includes a short update to celebrate the 100th birthday of John and the launch of the new Ampney Crucis village website in 2015.

John was born on 20 June 1915 in Wolverhampton. He attended school in Ramsgate after which he joined the family firm before being offered a short service commission in the RAF. War intervened, the short service scheme was cancelled and John was instead invited to join the RAF on 6 September 1939 as Aircraftman 2nd Class.

After the obligatory period of getting kitted out, learning how to march and how to guard an inanimate object (in John's case a petrol pump), he commenced flying training, first on Tiger Moths and then Masters. Following a conversion course on Spitfires, he joined 54 Squadron in Catterick where it was recuperating from losses in the Battle of Britain. In February 1941, the squadron moved back to Hornchurch in Essex, one of the main fighter stations during the war.

From Hornchurch, he took part in a series of escorts of Blenheim bombers, mostly along the French coast and over France and later in "sweeps" as part of a Wing (three squadrons) over France. John made his last patrol on 25 June 1941 and his log records, in red ink, "Sgt Beresford did not return".

Squadron Leader John Beresford

John had been flying in a raid with three other Spitfires when they were attacked by Messerschmitts who came at them "out of the sun". Two Spitfires were shot down, John's was hit, his flying controls failed and he was forced to bail out. He had a narrow escape; although he bailed out at 16,000 feet, his parachute only opened at tree top height and he hit the ground one second later. Watching from the gate of the cornfield in which he landed, and within sight of his crashed Spitfire, was a troop of German soldiers, one of whom spoke enough English to utter the immortal line - "for you, the war is over". No, really, he did.

Squadron Leader John Beresford

On being asked whether or not he had been frightened during this time, John replied that his overwhelming feeling was of extreme anger with himself. At being so stupid to persue one Messerschmitt while he had another on his tail.

John was taken first to Stalag 9C at Bad Sulza where, after a few months he took part in a night-time escape attempt. He and his companion had first to climb the fence of the inner perimeter which consisted of two barbed wire fences, about 2 metres high and 1½ metres apart, the space filled with colied barbed war. Climbing over this fence was more noisy than John could have imagined and he described himself as being more terrified than at any other time in his life. On the other side, and in the outer compound, John lay in a ditch and waited for his companion who, unfortunately had been spotted by one of the guards with a dog. John was captured on the guards next circuit of the compound and both men were sentenced to 21 days "solitary".

John received his commission in November 1941 and was moved to Stalag Left III. This was best known for "The Great Escape" but what is less well known is that the camp is in five parts; North, South, East, West and Centre. North and East were for British POWs, the remainder were for Americans. The Great Escape was from the North compound; John was in East but that also had a well known escape.

In order to get some exercise, the POWs asked their German captors if they could build a vaulting horse. Using this as cover, a tunnel was constructed from the compound. John played his part, vaulting the horse for "exercise" and helping to carry it to and from the hut where it was kept, trying hard not to show that they were carrying not just the horse but a POW and bags of tunnelled sand. The deception worked, the tunnel was completed and three officers escaped, the feat being immortalised in the film "The Wooden Horse", based on the book of the same title and written by one of the escapers, Eric Williams.

In January 1945, the POWs were taken from the camp and marched off to Germany in what became notorious as the "Long March". He reached Luckenwalde in Germany where he was liberated by the Russians, taken to Brussels and let loose on the city with a ten shilling note. He arrived back in England on 25 May 1945.

After a period of convalescence working on a farm, he resumed his RAF career with service in India, returning to the UK in 1947. In 1950 he met and married his wife Sheila. His promotion to Squadron Leader was confirmed in 1951 and for the next four years, he held a number of operational roles both at home and abroad and flew a range of aircraft from Tiger Moths all the way to Shackletons. He ceased active flying in 1954, was promted to Wing Commander and posted to one of the NATO organisations. His final challenge was preparing plans for a major tactical exercise designed to test communications between the three services, a task for which he was made an OBE.

It was the habit of the RAF to offer retiring officers a final appointment of their choice and John chose to become CO at Fairford. He and Sheila moved to Ampney Crucis in 1968 and John finally retired from the RAF in June 1970. He then took up a second career and, after a spell of administration work in Swindon, he returned to the family firm which he found leaderless, beyond recovery and ready for liquidation, which he put in hand. He was then asked to become Bursar of a large comprehensive school in Swindon, and finally retired in 1978.

During his real "retirement", he served as Chairman of the Conservative Association, Chairman of the Ratepayers Association and, finally, Chairman of the Parish Council for seven years. He finally called "time" in 1994, since when he and Sheila have lived quietly at home enjoying their garden.

John and Sheila Beresford

To celebrate John's 100th birthday in 2015 he, his family and the rest of Ampney Crucis were treated to a private air display consisting of a Hurricane and Spitfire. They managed four flyovers before they "waggled" their wings and flew off to land at Brize Norton.

Later, the Officer Commanding the Flight, his Hurricane pilot plus three members of the ground crew came out to visit John. They brought him two presents. The first was a framed photograph of the Spitfire and Hurricane in flight and the second was a print of the more technical side view drawing of both planes and this had been signed by the whole crew. A day to remember.