The disappearance of David Atcherley

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Yesterday, one of my Google searches for an incorrect spelling of the surname Atcherley led me to a fantastic find on YouTube: a short British Pathé film featuring Air Vice Marshall David Francis William Atcherley. It is the first film of David that I have found – and it may also be the final film in which this Atcherley twin appeared. Less than 4 months after the footage was captured, David disappeared without trace while flying over the Mediterranean Sea between Egypt and Cyprus.

Having served as Basil Embry’s Senior Air Staff Officer at Fighter Command from 21 Jan 1950, in January 1952 AVM David Atcherley took up a new post as Air Officer Commanding (AOC) of 205 Group, Middle East Air Force, in Egypt. He became the first AOC to arrive by jet when taking over a command.

David set up home in a houseboat, which he described as “large and comfortable and very cool in the summer.” His work in Egypt’s Suez Canal Zone involved a lot of office work and “high-powered meetings” but also provided plenty of opportunities for flying. In one of his letters home he wrote:

I’m holding a big air exercise from Tuesday to Saturday next week. We’ve got quite a big air force here at the moment and I thought it would be a good thing  to keep them occupied. I hope they’ll enjoy it.

The big air exercise David referred to was most likely ‘Hightime’, which was the subject of the above-mentioned British Pathé film. I found this gem after searching online for the word “Atchedey”, having noticed that that the letters ‘r’ and ‘l’ used consecutively (“rl”) might in some situations be interpreted as a ‘d’. (See Lost in transcription for more misspellings of the surname Atcherley). The film shows David getting into his aircraft (from about 47 seconds in to 1:10) and, right at the end (from about 3:43), talking to his officers in the Operations Room.

British Pathé film from YouTube.

David Atcherley’s last letter home was sent on Sunday 1 June 1952. He told of his planned move to “the big house” the following Saturday, and of a party he was going to give for senior local RAF and Army personnel so that they could all get to know each other. He also said:

I’m off to Cyprus tomorrow morning, merely for the fly. I’ll deliver a letter to the Air Commodore, have lunch and fly back here in the evening. It’s Whit Monday tomorrow, a holiday and nothing much to do locally unless you sail. 

It appears that either David’s plans changed after he wrote, or that he decided to make another visit to Cyprus on Saturday 7 June. Either way, at about 6 o’clock on the morning of that fateful day the Air Vice Marshall set off from RAF Fayid for Nicosia in a Meteor PR 10 jet, WB.161. David Atcherley was never seen again, and the last that was heard from him was by radio, 2 minutes after take-off, when he checked on the weather conditions at Nicosia.

Later that day, two messages were sent “by secure means” from Middle East Air Force headquarters to the Air Ministry in London, both headed FLASH SECRET. One of them read as follows:

Regret Atcherley overdue beyond maximum endurance on lone flight to Cyprus this morning in a Meteor 10. Full search and rescue measures already in operation. Shall extend air search to Southern Areas of Turkey if necessary. Foreign Office may like to know this.

Para. 2. Understand he did not take dinghy pack or Mae West and had ejector seat taken out before leaving.

Para. 3. Normal casualty reporting action will be taken by 205 Group as necessary but feel you and C.A.S. will like to have this stop press news at once for personal information. 

(‘Mae West’ was the popular nickname for the inflatable life-jacket used by RAF personnel at that time.)

Further messages to the Air Ministry followed on 8 June. It was confirmed that an “intensive air and sea search” had taken place during daylight hours for two days running, but the results had been “entirely negative”. The search operation had begun 40 minutes after David was overdue at Nicosia, with the despatch of Meteor and Vampire jets followed by Lincolns and Valettas, and then by Mosquitos and Beaufighters. Lancasters from Malta also joined in. In total, 50 search sorties were flown from the Canal Zone, and a large number from Cyprus. Searches were made by forces from Turkey, Lebanon and Israel too, and by an American aircraft. In addition, naval vessels were engaged.

Finally, on 10 June 1952, the Middle East Air Force (MEAF) despatched the following message: “Land search in Port Said area and small area in Lebanon continued on June 9 with negative results. All search action has now been discontinued and regret there can be little hope of Atcherley’s survival.”

On 12 June, J H Barnes wrote to David’s twin, Air Vice Marshall Richard Atcherley:

Sir,

I am commanded by the Air Council to inform you that they have learned with profound regret that the search for the aircraft piloted by your brother, Air Vice-Marshall D.F.W. Atcherley, C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O., D.F.C., on 7th June has proved unsuccessful.

The Air Council, recalling your brother’s long record of distinguished service, desire me to extend to your parents and to yourself an expression of their deepest sympathy.

To this day, the circumstances in which David Atcherley disappeared remain a mystery. Weather conditions and visibility were good, and David’s Meteor was fully fuelled giving him 2¾ hours flying time at height. An initial suggestion was “unconsciousness of Pilot through oxygen failure”, and in a letter to the Marshall of the RAF dated 12 June 1952, Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Sanders of the MEAF wrote: “I am afraid the only conclusion is that he went straight in and down into the sea, probably through lack of oxygen. The sickening thing is that we have no real clue at all as to what happened.”

Sir Theodore McEvoy later stated that David had said to him during a conversation some three weeks before he was lost, “What do you know about the instruments in these aeroplanes? I can’t see them!” He suggested that as David never wore spectacles when flying, his inability to read his flight instruments might have played a part in his disappearance. The Pathé news footage of David getting into his aircraft during the ‘Hightime’ exercise certainly shows that he was not wearing glasses on that occasion.

Meteor PR 10

With his own letter to the Air Marshall of 12 June 1952, Sir Arthur Sanders enclosed a number of additional messages expressing sympathy and loss, which had been sent to him by the local British Embassy and by representatives of the armed forces in the Canal Zone. One was from the Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Land Forces, General Sir Brian H Robertson, who wrote:

Atcherley had only been with us a few months. Right from the start he captured the affection and admiration of my officers to a most remarkable degree. I had never met him before myself, but from the moment when I first shook hands with him I knew that I liked him.

I have heard men say of him, without meaning to be unkind, that he was crazy, if so it was the craziness of real heroism. He was a man of whom your Service can be immensely proud. We in the Army are terribly sad at his loss and shall always remember our association with him with gratitude and great respect.

Of course, the man who felt David Atcherley’s loss the most was his twin brother Richard. He had wanted to fly out and join in the search operation for David, but this was very sensibly ruled out by Basil Embry. To complement the private family memorial service in York, Richard organised a public service in London which was attended by high-ranking representatives from all three of the armed forces, various dignitaries, about 120 officers and wives from Fighter Command, and 50 from other RAF Commands. A further service held at Ismailia in Egypt gave Richard the opportunity to fly, alone and in a Meteor, the same course that David had set out on but never completed. John Pudney, the Atcherley twins biographer, later summed up the impact on Richard thus:

The loss of David was more profound in its impact than that of any other blood relation. Close friends observed the profundity of the shock, the fracture of the pattern of a lifetime. … no words can describe the sense of desolation and loneliness at losing one whom he had lightly described as his ‘better half.’


Picture credits. Eastern Mediterranean, showing RAF Fayid and Nicosia: Based on a public domain image fromWikimedia Commons. Meteor PR 10: Photo, from Flight magazine, 27 May 1955, page 729, taken from Flight Global archive, which states “we’re positively encouraging you to link to, copy and paste from, and contribute to the development of this unique record of aerospace and aviation history”.


References

[1] John Pudney (1960), A Pride of Unicorns. Pages 217-221.
[2] Royal Air Force (RAF) Officers 1939-1945. At: World War II Unit Histories and Officers (website, accessed 22 Jun 2015).
[3] Air Vice Marshal D F W Atcherley. At: Air of Authority – A History of RAF Organisation (website, accessed 22 Jun 2015).
[4] The National Archives, Kew, item ref AIR 8/1688: Air Vice Marshal D.F.W.Atcherley’s disappearance between Fayid and Cyprus and subsequent search June 1952. Indexed at TNA Discovery catalogue.
[5] London Gazette, number 38980 (supplement), 28 July 1950, page 3939.


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Glover, mercer, drapers – Roger and Elizabeth Atcherley

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The first Atcherley to be listed in a trade directory appears to have been Roger, a mercer and draper in Whitchurch, Shropshire in the late 1700s. Among those Atcherleys claiming second place (and certainly the first female Atcherley to be so listed) was none other than Roger’s wife, Elizabeth.

Roger Atcherley, who was named after his father, was the youngest of nine children. Born on 9 June 1743, he was baptised a week later on 16 June at Shrewsbury St Chad. Although his father was married to Ann (nee Thomas), the parish register named his parents as “Roger & Joan”. This was presumably an error on the part of the clerk as I have found no other evidence to suggest that Roger Atcherley junior was born out of wedlock.

Roger Atcherley senior, a tanner, died some 12 years after his youngest son’s birth and was buried at Shrewsbury St Chad on 16 December 1755. A little over a year later, on 16 February 1757, the widowed Ann Atcherley apprenticed 14-year-old Roger to James Burley of Shrewsbury, a glover, at a cost of £20. Burley was a member of the Shrewsbury Glovers’ Company (also known as the Glovers’ & Skinners’ Company), and was a Warden of that trade guild in 1764 and 1765.

In setting Roger as an apprentice, Ann Atcherley’s goal was to ensure that he would learn a trade which would provide him with a secure future. In this Ann was successful, although Roger did not remain a glover. Nor did he stay in Shrewsbury. The next record I have found in which Roger features is that of his marriage, on 3 January 1768, to Elizabeth Scripture. The wedding took place at the church of St Alkmund in Whitchurch, Shropshire (pictured right). Roger lived and traded in that town for the rest of his life.

Unlike her husband, Elizabeth was a native of Whitchurch. With her unusual surname it was quite easy to find a record of her baptism, although for some time an element of doubt remained as to whether or not the record I had found really did relate to Roger’s wife. The reason for this was that Elizabeth Scripture was baptised on 7 April 1729, over 14 years before her husband was born.

(It appears that Elizabeth had two sisters, Ann, who was baptised at Whitchurch on 2 July 1726 and married Samuel Trevor at nearby Prees on 8 June 1752; and Mary, for whom I have found no baptism record, but whose marriage to George Jackson of Malpas, Cheshire, was witnessed by Elizabeth Scripture at Whitchurch on 15 October 1758. The girls’ parents, John Scripture and Elizabeth, nee Barrow, were buried at Whitchurch on 23 January 1736/7 and 2 March 1786 respectively.)

Most of the marriages for which I have seen records during my family history research – certainly those relating to first marriages – have involved men and women of around the same age, but usually with the groom being older than the bride. Nuptials between a man of 24 and a woman of 38 most certainly do not fit the typical pattern. Elizabeth’s age at the time of her wedding might go some way to explaining why she and Roger only had two children. The baptisms of their son John and daughter Mary Atcherley took place at Whitchurch on 22 November 1768 and 16 October 1773 respectively.

Although the record of John Atcherley’s baptism gives no information beyond the names of parents and child, the entry in the parish register for Mary’s baptism shows that the family was then living in High Street, Whitchurch. An indication that Roger must then have been trading successfully in that town is that he was one of 32 men of Whitchurch who formed a society for pursuing and prosecuting felons. This society was announced in the Shrewsbury Chronicle of 10 July:

Whitchurch, Shropshire, June 24, 1773.
Whereas divers Persons guilty of Felony, Burglary, Grand and Petit Larceny, frequently escape punishment, either through fear of the expence which may attend their prosecution, or for want of an immediate and vigorous pursuit, or from a principle of ill-timed lenity and moderation,
Notice is therefore hereby given,
That in order to prevent in some degree the evil aforesaid, We, whose names are hereunto subscribed, inhabitants of the parish of Whitchurch aforesaid, have formed ourselves into a Society for the purpose of raising a sufficient fund to defray the expence of pursuing, detecting, and prosecuting with the utmost rigour, such as shall be guilty or shall be suspected to be guilty of the crimes or offences above specified, against the person or property of any member of this society. …

A notice published in another newspaper (Chester’s Adam’s Weekly Courant) on 4 May 1779 shows that “Mr. Roger Atcherley, Mercer” had lately been the holder of “A very convenient freehold messuage, or dwelling-house, with the Shop and Appurtenances thereunto belonging, pleasantly and advantageously situated for carrying out any Business in the High-street, in Whitchurch”. The property was to be let, so it appears that Roger may have moved to alternative premises around that time. Further particulars of the property were to be obtained from a Mrs Trevor of Whitchurch – possibly Roger’s sister-in-law Ann.

The 1784 edition of Bailey’s British Directory; or, Merchant’s and Trader’s Useful Companion listed Roger Atcherley as a mercer and draper in Whitchurch. This is, as I have already mentioned, the earliest listing for a member of the Atcherley family which I have found so far in any trade directory. (See Directories Part 1.)

Bailey’s British Directory did not give an address for Roger in Whitchurch, but he was most likely still trading in the town’s High Street. When Robert B Jones, a bookseller, stationer and bookbinder of High Street, Whitchurch, announced in 1791 that he was “removed across the street” his new shop was said to be “next door to Mr. Atcherley’s.”

Despite the fact that he was much younger than his wife, Roger Atcherley predeceased Elizabeth. He was buried at the church where he had married and where his children had been baptised, Whitchurch St Alkmund, on 27 April 1793. He was 49 years old.

Although she was aged 64 when she lost her husband, Elizabeth Atcherley evidently took over the family business. She was listed as a draper amongst the “Traders &c.” of Whitchurch, Shropshire in volume 4 of The Universal British Directory of Trade, Commerce, and Manufacture (published around 1800, see extract, left).

This directory, published some four decades before the census of 1841, provides a fairly detailed picture of the town in which Elizabeth Atcherley and her children then lived. Whitchurch was described as “a pleasant and populous market-town”, 12 miles from Nantwich, 20 from Chester and Newport, 22 from Newcastle under Lyme, and 161 miles from London. The town had coach services to Birmingham, Manchester and London, and mail services to Malpas and Chester, and to and from London.

In addition to the gentry and the clergy who headed the list of the principal inhabitants of Whitchurch, there were other residents undertaking a wide range of occupations: an architect, attorneys, an auctioneer, bakers, booksellers (including the aforementioned Robert Jones), braziers, breeches makers, a bricklayer, butchers, cabinet makers, chandlers (including tallow chandlers), cheese factors, a china shop proprietor, clock (and watch) makers, a collar maker, a confectioner, coopers, curriers, a “Chymist and Druggist”, excise officers, farmers, grocers, flax dressers, a gardener, a habit maker, hairdressers, the head of a School for Ladies (possibly at Ellesmere House, pictured right), a heel maker, a hosier, hucksters, ironmongers, joiners, a liquor merchant, maltsters, a mantua maker, a mason, mercers, milliners, a “nailor”, a plasterer, two plumbers and glaziers, rope makers, saddlers, shoe makers, a sieve maker, smiths, a stay maker, a stocking weaver, surgeons, “taylors”, a timber merchant, a tanner, a turner, an umbrella maker, victuallers (there were no less than 23 public houses), wheelwrights and  writing masters. There were also other drapers, some listed as linen and woollen drapers.

This, then, was the town in which Elizabeth Atcherley was trading – and the town in which she died. Notice of Elizabeth’s death was included in the May 1800 edition of The Monthly Magazine (albeit with her surname given as Alcherley). “Elizabeth Atcherley Widow”, aged 71, was buried at Whitchurch St Alkmund on 20 February 1800.

Roger and Elizabeth’s daughter Mary Atcherley followed her parents to the grave on 30 March 1802. Aged 28 (the burial register knocked a year off her true age), Mary was unmarried. Her brother John was wed the following year (one of the witnesses was Ann Trevor, possibly John’s maternal aunt) and through him the Atcherley family continued to trade in Whitchurch. John Atcherley was a victualler rather than a mercer or draper.  In time however, one of John’s sons would take up the trade carried on by Roger and Elizabeth Atcherley in Whitchurch.


Picture credits. Whitchurch St Alkmund: Photo © Copyright Carol Walker, taken from Geograph, adapted, used, and made available for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence. Extract from the Universal British Directory of Trade, Commerce, and Manufacture, published circa 1800 and therefore out of copyright. Ellesmere House, Whitchurch: Photo © Copyright David Dixon, taken from Geograph, adapted, used, and made available for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence.


References.

[1] St Chad, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, parish register covering 1743. Entry for baptism of Roger Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Marriages. Abstract in Shropshire Parish Register Society (1916), Shropshire Parish Registers. Diocese of Lichfield, Volume XVI (St. Chad’s, Shrewsbury), page 1069 viewed at the Internet Archive and at Mel Lockie’s website. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch P01575-2, Film 908236.
[2] The National Archives, Kew, Reference IR 1/53 folio 28, page 16 (Board of Stamps: Apprenticeship Books). Copy viewed at Ancestry – Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices’ Indentures, 1710-1811.
[3] C H Drinkwater (1887), Shrewsbury Trade Guilds. The Glovers’ Company. In: Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological and Natural History Society. Volume X. Page 43. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[4] St Alkmund, Whitchurch, Shropshire, marriage register covering 1768. Entry for Roger Atcherley and Elizabeth Scripture. Copies viewed at Shropshire Archives and at Findmypast – Shropshire Marriages. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch M03756-1, Film 501818, 503826, 503827, 510683, 510684.
[5] St Alkmund, Whitchurch, Shropshire, parish register covering 1729. Entry for baptism of Elizabeth Scripture. Copy viewed at Shropshire Archives. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch C03756-2, Film 510683, 510684.
[6] St Alkmund, Whitchurch, Shropshire, parish register covering 1726. Entry for baptism of Ann Scripture. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Baptisms (surname indexed as Scriphure).
[7] Prees, Shropshire, parish register covering 1752. Entry for marriage of Samuel Trevor and Ann Scripture. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Marriages.
[8] St Alkmund, Whitchurch, Shropshire, marriage register covering 1758. Entry for marriage of George Jackson and Mary Scripture. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Marriages.
[9] FamilySearch shows marriage of John Scripture and Elizabeth Barrow. Film 1655540, Digital folder 4012056, Image 296.
[10] St Alkmund, Whitchurch, Shropshire, parish register covering 1736/7. Entry for burial of John Scripture. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Burials.
[11] St Alkmund, Whitchurch, Shropshire, parish register covering 1786. Entry for burial of Elizabeth Scripture, widow. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Burials.
[12] St Alkmund, Whitchurch, Shropshire, parish register covering 1768. Entry for baptism of John Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Baptisms. Transcript viewed at Shropshire Archives. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch C03756-2, Film 510683, 510684.
[13] St Alkmund, Whitchurch, Shropshire, parish register covering 1773. Entry for baptism of Mary Acherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Baptisms. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch C03756-2, Film 510683, 510684.
[14] Shrewsbury Chronicle, 10 Jul 1773, page 2. Copy viewed at Findmypast – British Newspapers 1710-1953 (search term Atcherlcy).
[15] Adams Weekly Courant (Chester), issue 2424, 4 May 1779, page 2.
[16] Bailey’s British Directory; or, Merchant’s and Trader’s Useful Companion for the year 1784. Indexed at Ancestry – U.K. and U.S. Directories, 1680-1830.
[17] Chester Chronicle, 1 Apr 1791, page 3.
[18] St Alkmund, Whitchurch, Shropshire, parish register covering 1793. Entry for burial of Roger Atcherley. Copies viewed at Shropshire Archives and at Findmypast – Shropshire Burials.
[19] The Universal British Directory of Trade, Commerce, and Manufacture (circa 1800), page 745. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[20] The Monthly Magazine, No. 58 (No. 4 of Vol. 9), 1 May 1800, page 305. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[21] St Alkmund, Whitchurch, Shropshire, parish register covering 1800. Entry for burial of Elizabeth Atcherley. Copies viewed at Shropshire Archives and at Findmypast – Shropshire Burials.
[22] St Alkmund, Whitchurch, Shropshire, parish register covering 1802. Entry for burial of Mary Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Burials.
[23] St Alkmund, Whitchurch, Shropshire, marriage register. Entry dated 20 Jan 1803 for John Atcherly and Martha Furmston. Copies viewed at Shropshire Archives and at Findmypast – Shropshire Marriages. Transcript viewed at Shropshire Archives. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch M03756-1, Film 501818, 503826, 503827, 510683, 510684.


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