Wattisham on film
PUBLISHED: 11:43 29 September 2015
It was stories told to her in her youth that inspired Maggie Aggiss to devote most of her adult life to preserving the heritage of RAF Wattisham. Dave Gooderham talked to her about her latest project, a documentary film
As a wide-eyed youngster, Maggie would listen intently to the wartime tales told by her grandparents, Leonard and Clara Pryke.
And what stories they were, with the couple living on the edges of Wattisham Airfield and witnessing a lifetime of military memories.
Describing it as a “natural progression”, Maggie was a driving force in establishing the Wattisham Station Heritage museum in 1992. She did publicity at the start and has been chairman and curator for many years.
“Wattisham is part of my history,” she says. “I grew up hearing lots of stories from my grandparents and I was able to observe Wattisham as a child. That meant I always had an interest in aviation.
“I think the thing that makes Wattisham so unique is that we are still going. There are very few airbases in Europe with such a continuous history and so many changes in role. We should be very proud of that fact.”
Maggie has shown incredible devotion to championing the role a small village in the heart of Suffolk has played in military circles for almost 90 years.
The changing role Maggie alluded to encompasses Wattisham delivering the first World War Two bombing raid on the enemy, housing the United States Air Force, and its present day role as home to 3 Regiment Army Air Corps and 4 Regiment Army Air Corps.
Having written books on the subject, Maggie’s latest project is arguably her most ambitious. She aims to capture Wattisham’s illustrious history on film, in a documentary called Wattisham From Both Sides of the Fence.
Maggie wants the film to be both entertaining and educational, while also paying tribute to those who lost their lives. It’s a tricky balance.
“There are so many stories, like the ones my grandparents used to tell me, that I wanted to produce a documentary that could be used for future generations.
“Many visitors to the museum over the years have asked numerous questions about the history of Wattisham, the air base and the people who have lived and worked in and around the site. It made sense to capture this all on film.
“Wattisham airfield is in the middle of Suffolk and has seen thousands of people serve there over the years.
“The history of it is fascinating – the aerodrome has affected all the local parishes, and it has a Roman road running right across the middle.”
The ethos of the film, which will be produced by David Ellery, Viewpoint Productions, is in keeping with the aspirations of the museum, run by 20 like-minded people who work together to restore, preserve and exhibit Wattisham’s distinguished history.
“It will be multi-faceted. There will be terrific memories shared, but we also want it to be respectful – there will be both sadness and glamour.
“We have begun interviewing veterans including a Blenheim crew member who was here during the first week of the war and took part in the first bombing raid of World War Two.
“The airfield was also home to the Black Arrows in the 1950s, who did things you simply couldn’t get away with these days, including some spectacular aerobatics with a 22-aircraft loop-the-loop.”
Maggie speaks with passion every time she talks about the airfield, whether focusing on the past, present or the future. Educating young people in Suffolk is a big priority for the museum with the film playing an integral role. Recent work with schools shows that there is an appetite to learn more.
“I recently did a project at Ringshall School about the affect the aerodrome had, and still has, on the local community,” Maggie said.
“This involved segregation, which some found very difficult to understand, as well as the change in infrastructure. Some of these areas are now industrial estates.
“It went really well and the children all wanted to learn about their local area.”
Maggie appreciates more than most why the film needs to strike a respectful chord. Indeed, her childhood war stories were not always akin to bedtime reading.
“I remember a story my mother, Myrtle Gibbons, used to tell me. She was cycling to work with a friend next to the airfield when an enemy aircraft saw them and started to shoot.
“They threw down their bikes and ran behind a haystack absolutely petrified.”