Obituary: Dave Jarvie, wartime airman and newspaper printer

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Born: 19 April, 1921, in Glasgow. Died: 1 June, 2014, in Glasgow

Dave Jarvie, who has died at the age of 93, was an RAF airman who worked at a top secret Second World War experimental base on the Firth of Clyde, of which little was publicly known until recent years.

The Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment (MAEE) in Helensburgh tested weapons designed for use against the German battleship, Tirpitz, as well as Barnes Wallis’ Tallboy “earthquake” bomb and his Highball bouncing bomb.

Maritime aircraft of many types were also put through their paces, overseen by scientists and engineers.

MAEE was initially set up in Felixstowe, Suffolk, in 1924 by the Air Ministry to evaluate water-based aircraft. But the location was vulnerable to German reconnaissance and bomber aircraft and it was moved to Rhu and Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire, in 1939.

To avoid attracting any particular attention to the site, it was simply named RAF Helensburgh and it was here that Jarvie was posted after completing his flying and trade training as a signaller, having enlisted at the outbreak of war, aged 18.

Flight testing was carried out on maritime patrol aircraft including the Sunderland flying boat, built at the Blackburn aircraft factory, next to Denny’s shipyard down the Clyde at Dumbarton.

Other seaplanes were also tested, including a Spitfire fitted with floats.

Such was the level of secrecy that Jarvie was told he was on an overseas posting, only to arrive finally at Rhu, on the Gare Loch. A code of confidentiality was imprinted on the minds of all who worked at MAEE Helensburgh and he was no different.

For the rest of his life, he would only admit to being involved in active flying boat missions as well as experimental and training flights.

However, it is now known that a flight of captured German Heinkel 115 float planes were flown from Rhu on secret missions to drop agents over occupied Europe, some of which Jarvie was probably on board.

So hush-hush were these operations that British and Allied fighters tried to shoot down the planes, which still carried enemy markings. One was so badly damaged by friendly fire that it had to make a forced landing in Stranraer for repairs before returning to base.

Jarvie flew in Sunderland flying boats and other aircraft to test bombs and other missiles, as well as monitoring the performance of aircraft weapons.

The author Robin Bird uncovered some information for his book, Top Secret War Bird of World War Two, which tells the story of his father Bob Bird, who was a “government photographer taking top secret pictures of weapons to sink U-boats and experiments by airborne forces preparing for the D-Day invasion”.

He visited Helensburgh in 2006, only to find locals with no knowledge of the operations at Rhu.

MAEE Helensburgh worked in co-operation with the seaplane base at Rhu, the weapons testing tank at Glen Fruin and the RAF bases at Stranraer and Lough Erne, which operated flying boats, particularly Catalinas, rated next to the Sunderland in importance to Coastal Command.

Both aircraft offered an enclosed environment for photographers, who had previously been exposed to freezing wind and rain in open positions in Otter and Walrus bi-planes.

But no aircraft had heating or oxygen for high altitude work, and photographer Bird was hospitalised for a week with frostbite after removing a glove to change a lens and having his fingers frozen to the camera body.

He noted in January 1942 that it was so cold the pilot’s vision was affected and they crash-landed on their return.

His earlier arrival in Helensburgh, in November 1941, had been marred by a Sunderland crash at Rhu which had killed the two MAEE crew, highlighting the dangers of the work Jarvie undertook.

David Cunningham Jarvie was born in Partick, Glasgow, the middle child of five. After attending Shawlands Academy and membership of the Boys Brigade he became an apprentice compositor with the printer Harry Hobbs, from 1936 until 1938. He was also a keen racing cyclist, speed skater and proficient ballroom dancer.

During his war service at Rhu he met his wife of 69 years, Millie, and they lived initially in London before moving to Glasgow in 1948 and living in the city’s Beechwood Drive for the next 60 years.

He continued in the printing business, spending most of his working life in the caseroom of The Bulletin, Evening Times and Glasgow Herald in Mitchell Street, now occupied by The Lighthouse.

He was a member and Glasgow meetings convenor of the Scottish Saltire Aircrew Association, and an exceptional golfer at Windyhill, winning many prizes over the years. He was most put out when his wife joined the club and rapidly matched him for prowess.

He played badminton and took up gardening, specialising in prize-winning chrysanthemums and roses while attempting to achieve the perfect lawn.

In retirement, he and Millie relished their travels in Canada and Europe and when at home enjoyed sitting in the conservatory reading and completing crosswords.

Although dementia was later to take its toll and end independent living, he remained fit and active into his 90s and never lost his politeness, sense of humour or hair.

He is survived by his wife and their son Ian, daughters Ruth and Frances, two grandsons and four granddaughters.