Aviation history and tales of Col Fish

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With links to the Second World War covert missions, the CIA, the Cold War, and much more, Harrington Aviation Museum certainly has its fair share of interesting stories.

And with the museum recently re-opening until October, the Telegraph has decided to look at the tale of a former commanding officer at the air base, Colonel Robert Fish, who was best known to his friends as Bob.

Col Fish was an American based at Harrington during the legendary Operation Carpetbagger.

The operation was a clandestine mission, where those based at Harrington, together with RAF special duty squadrons based at Tempsford, near Bedford, flew vital supplies to resistance groups in occupied Europe.

He was one of the original officers who developed the operation and shortly after the war he returned to America.

During this time the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was formed, in 1949, in a bid to counter the Soviet Union.

Thor in Harrington Road, Rothwell

Thor in Harrington Road, Rothwell

The CIA wanted to undertake top-secret flights to gather intelligence on the Soviet Union, and planned to base them on operations carried out during the Second World War at Harrington.

Ron Clarke, chairman of the Harrington Aviation Museum Society, said: “The CIA, and American High Command, required someone with wartime experience of covert supply.

“And because of Fish’s experience at Harrington and with Operation Carpetbagger, he was seen as the perfect candidate to supervise the methods, techniques and operations of the first agents.”

Fish spent several years working with the CIA and armed forces, taking part in several further overseas missions.

On February 1, 1970, he retired from the Air Force after 30 years of service.

Bob and his wife Jean then moved to a house in Zapata, Texas, on the Rio Grande, and in 1987 they moved into Air Force Retirement Village II, where they lived among other retired service families.

Col Fish still kept strong links with Harrington air base.

The Harrington Aviation Museum was opened in 1993 by the commanding officer of the Special Operations Group which flew agents and supplies to resistance groups in German occupied Europe.

The museum was formed for the 50th anniversary reunion of the United States Army Air Forces’ 801st/492nd Bomb Group (The Carpetbaggers) at Harrington.

Col Fish would visit the museum every year with his wife, and was president of the museum’s society up to his death on October 12, 2008.

Mr Clarke said: “Bob would visit the museum every year with his wife Jean and they would spend some time in the county.

“He even donated the uniform he wore during his time with the CIA to the museum, which is still on display today.”

Mr Clarke said that more information about the colonel’s link with the air base and his interesting story can be found at the museum.

He added: “We re-opened the museum in March and we have a wide range of artefacts, and exhibitions, on covert operations.

“If you find this sort of thing interesting there is definitely something for you here.”

Since the museum’s opening nearly 50,000 visitors have visited the comprehensive display of “Secret War” artefacts used by the American, British and German Special Forces in the Second World War.

The museum building is the old headquarters block, which has been returned to its wartime condition having been re-roofed, re-wired, and returned to its original colour schemes.

Mr Clarke said going through the door takes you back to “those dark days”.

Visitors are first taken to the projection room where they are shown films which were restricted until only recently.

The films were shot at Harrington by an American Navy film unit, which recorded the operation cycle and aircraft used during Operation Carpetbagger.

The films were taken during the US 801st/492nd Bomb Group’s occupation of the airfield.

Mr Clarke said Operation Carpetbagger and Col Fish’s tales are not the only interesting stories, or claims to fame, that come from Harrington airbase.

In 1962 the Americans and Soviet authorities had reached a deadlock in the Cuban Missile Crisis, with Russian atomic missiles based in Cuba, and US missiles installed in Turkey and England.

The Americans had installed a number of missiles across the UK, including at Harrington.

At that time there were three of the Thor missiles based at Harrington, and 57 others in England all aimed at Soviet targets.

At one time the situation was so bad many feared the world was only few hours away from a full nuclear global war.

The soviet forces in Cuba had shot down an American reconnaissance aircraft and the situation was only resolved when the Russian and American leaders agreed to withdraw missiles and return them to their countries.

Mr Clarke said with all these interesting stories, people should take a look at Harrington Museum.

He said: “We have had thousands of visitors since we opened. If anybody is interested in wartime history they should come to the museum and have a look at the artefacts, we have on display.”