GROUP CAPTAIN PETER JAMES MURCH
Group Captain Peter James Murch AFC., DSO., born in Salcombe, Devon, had been in love with flying since he saw his first planes. He was a sailor, used to steering his dinghy around the Salcombe Estuary, and competing in the tough sailing races against all comers including world renowned winners such as Uffa Fox. They say that the best sailors came out of Salcombe, certainly Peter and his brother Alec were amongst the best.
But that changed when he learned about planes. For him flying had the same freedom that he had experienced on the water. His uncles and many family members were Royal and Merchant Navy men, and they thought that he would join the Navy, but Peter had other ideas.
He left public school just as the clouds of war were gathering. Schools such as his began collecting money for the new British plane called a “Spitfire” which was suddenly being produced to counter the German armaments build up. Pictures of the proposed plane appeared in newspapers and magazines. It was to be the fastest, most manoeuvrable craft, capable of countering the German Messserschmitt and charged with the task of defending British shoes in the event of the war that everyone now realised was coming.
After school Peter’s father James Cranch Murch wanted both his sons to join the family building firm, by then one of the biggest in the South West. Alec, talented as an architect, and with a natural drawing flair, became his father’s right hand man, but Peter was a very different man.
Tasked with starting at the bottom, and building a wall, Peter’s efforts invariably collapsed. He was good at book work but doodled Spitfires on the edges of his working papers. In desperation his father found him a job with a firm of Accountants in Bristol. One day, only a matter of weeks after joining the family business, he went into the Royal Air Force Recruiting Centre and joined up.
The fact that he was under-age was, as he saw it, only the smallest of problems. Honed by hard tennis playing, his hand/eye co-ordination were first class. He had good eyesight, and physically he was in perfect health. He was in. It was just the small matter of him being only sixteen years old.
The RAF solved that. They knew that they would need men such as Peter very soon. They were so keen to take him that they sent him and other under-age potential top class pilots to Canada to work on the prototype Spitfires and to learn the whole business of flying a plane that had never been flown before.
He stayed outside Vancouver flying over the Canadian wilderness for many months. Within a few weeks he qualified as a pilot and began officer training, passing both with top marks. He cabled his anxious parents: “Got wings. Am now Flying Officer P J Murch”.
As things hotted up on the international front, the young pilots were brought back to fly from airfields on the east coast of England. They knew more about the Spitfires than any other men, and they flew them like birds, much like skimming a dinghy over Salcombe Estuary.
Group Captain Peter James Murch AFC, DSO never talked about his war time missions, but he flew hundreds of sorties. He survived. It was only years afterwards that the full extent of his flying sorties became known when it was discovered that the boy from Salcombe had walked with the giants, and through his efforts and those of other very young boys, had saved the country they loved from the Nazis.
Dr. John Murch – Teacher, Writer and Riot Breaking Hero
John Murch, the oldest son of Alfred Murch of the Salcombe Murch clan, was blessed with good fortune when his aunt Carrie paid for him to attend the grammar school in Kingsbridge. Her generosity offered him the opportunity to work his way to university and the fulfilment of his academic aspirations.
As a lad in Kingsbridge he had walked past the workhouse daily and the building and its history filled him with loathing. Alfred had been a war hero in the Great War, but had remained a relatively poor farm hand most of his life. John desperately wanted to reach higher goals. Like many of the Murch clan he was drawn to the military services and in particular the RAF, having harboured a longing to learn to fly. Though only a teenager during the war he became a messenger and runner for the U.S and Allied services and the Homeguard forces based around Kingsbridge and the surrounding villages during the last two years of the war. He frequently cycled from one village to another, whizzing his way through the hills and lanes of the area carrying messages in his satchel. Too young to join up until the wars end, he still enjoyed his small part in the war effort. Finally, after leaving school, he joined the RAF and, as was fitting for a messenger boy, he became a communications technician, learning Morse code and radio skills.
His short stint in the RAF was a small blip in his academic ambitions though, and he secured a place at university. His long held ambition was finally achieved. After completing his degree at St Johns College, Exeter he embarked on a teaching career, and it was this that years later secured him a contract in Zambia, and a close shave with a rioting crowd.
Embarking from Southampton with his wife, Pat, and four children in 1964 they sailed to Cape Town. They travelled through Rhodesia to Zambia,on to the capital Lusaka and from there to Ndola. From there they were driven out into the bush. They must have been bewildered to finally reach the isolated school where they were billetted in a bungalow skimming the bush. Chiwala Secondary School sprawled in a bush clearing about ten miles from Ndola. It covered a huge plot with classrooms to the centre and dormitories surrounding the sports fields with staff bungalows edging the perimeter.
Life was happy and settled for the first two years. John taught biology, land management and horticulture alongside general classes. However, Zambia was the base for the ANC and ZAPU alongside other political movements campaigning against apartheid in Rhodesia and seeking independence in Angola and Namibia. Politics in Africa was complicated and unsettled. Zambia, formerly Northern Rhodesia, had achieved its independence with Kenneth Kayunda of the ANC as president just before John arrived to take up his teaching post. It was relatively stable politically. However, tensions bubbled to the surface occasionally with riots and violent uprisings occurring sporadically. Chiwala was no different. It was an enormous school with over 2000 young men housed and educated there who travelled from an extensive area of the surrounding countryside. John was a charming and funny man and popular with the boys who he treated as his friends. His support for and joy at teaching them shone through. That was not the case with all the teaching staff. A legacy of colonialist attitudes remained. Some treated the young students, newly mobilised in the cause for independence and black power, with an unpleasant disrespect.
Inevitably, one afternoon a teacher abused a young man during a class. His racist abuse resulted in a mass walkout as rumours quickly rippled around the school. That night the teachers of the school sat nervously in their bungalows around the perimeter of the school aware that trouble was coming. By about midnight the perimeter road was thronged with hundreds of angry, agitated schoolboys and men of the local villages. Some carrying machetes, sticks and stones. The vocal and angry mob had became more agitated and vocal during the evening as they chanted and shouted. After some hours of this violence broke out. Their anger was focused on the bungalow of the teacher involved in the incident. It was surrounded on three sides by the mob and soon stones began to rain down on the bungalow. Within minutes the house was systematically being destroyed while the teacher, his wife and two children sheltered in the kitchen at the back, utterly terrified.
John and his wife were in one of the furthest bungalows from the trouble. Their house quickly filled with fleeing teachers and their children as staff disappeared into the bush away from the potential danger. Desperate phone calls to each house around the compound called them one by one to get out and make their way to the Murch bungalow. Only one family remained in their home with now no means of escape and their lives in great peril. The police were many miles away and would not arrive for some hours. John, unwilling to sit back and do nothing then embarked on possibly the most foolish action of his life.
Leaving the bungalow, armed only with a torch, he walked calmly around the perimeter road to the teachers’ house that was now threatened with burning torches. He walked slowly and purposely towards and through the mob, dead centre of the dirt road, not stopping to pay attention to the weapons and sticks now aimed at him. He said hello to a couple of boys he recognised as he approached and they merged back into the crowd. But he continued through. Only one blow struck him on the shoulder as he pushed through the crowd and approached the house. He shrugged it off and continued slowly through the crowd. Boys who knew and liked him parted to allow him through, and in the gloom, lit only by burning torches, he walked through the gate and into the remains of the shattered house. The family were hiding, mute with fear, in the kitchen pantry. The house, now a sea of glass, bricks and debris, was in darkness but John eventually found them after calling out. He led them through the back garden and out into the bush. They picked their way carefully down small paths that tracked around behind staff huts at the rear of the teachers’ bungalows until they eventually reached John and Pats house. For the moment they were safe.
The crowd now turned the focus of their anger on the school itself. Classrooms and dormitories were wrecked, equipment smashed or looted and as dawn broke many slipped away out into the bush.
The army and riot police arrived from Ndola before dawn, armed and ready for a confrontation. Tear gas was fired at the fleeing rioters and beatings meted out to those that were caught. It was a brutal and bloody night which was repeated for another two nights as battles with the police ensued when darkness fell each night. As the riot police occupied the compound for the third night, the school fell silent, pupils scattered into the villages and bush and finally the rioting ceased.
On arriving back at the bungalow John lit a cigarette and shook with shock at what he had witnessed and done. The apprehension that things could escalate further to the bungalow where everyone sheltered was unfounded. The families quickly resumed their homes or departed for safety to Ndola while the rioting continued at the top of the school. Few of the pupils dared return to the school until the riot police had gone. Head Boy, Jonathan Mumba, a young man my father admired and respected enormously arrived at the house with a group to start the clean up alongside my father and the teaching staff. It took weeks to get the school back to normal. Repairs were carried out, and slowly, the pupils who had rioted returned to their dormitories and lessons. John never rebuked or criticised any of the boys who had rioted. He understood their frustration and didn’t want them to miss their education for a moment of anger.
John did not renew his contract in Zambia. After three years at Chiwala the family returned to Devon. The story of his walk through the rioters was now a tale recounted with great relish at family gatherings.
John embarked on another degree and studied child psychology while teaching in Paignton. Within a few years he was specialising in teaching special needs children. He had a masterful ability to reach out to difficult children with behavioural problems and take them forward, to achieve goals and overcome emotional or learning difficulties. He taught for many years at Stokelake school in Chudleigh while writing and researching.
He didn’t sever his links with the RAF completely and commanded the Dartmouth ATS, taking great pride in the boys he instructed. After many years teaching in Devon he moved to Wiltshire with his second wife in the 1980s. His academic work and studies continued along with a new hobby, writing. He wrote a history of Broughton Gifford, which sadly was never published, many educational papers and articles and memoirs of his early childhood in Kingsbridge. His research and academic papers were well thought of and his proudest day was collecting his doctorate after so many years of work. He retired from teaching but continued to mentor his former pupils and write prodigiously.
Researching the family history of the Salcombe Murch’s was a lifelong interest. He had been named after his fathers’ beloved older brother John, who had died in the trenches in WWI. Finally after years of research, he made a pilgrimage to Arras and the memorial to the Canadian Forces there. It was a very emotional journey for him. His research and search for relatives then came to a sad end. He had stoically endured skirmishes with cancer, suffered from altzheimers but finally a stroke laid him low. He died four years ago with his oldest son and wife by his side. His research was unfinished.
I am proud to say that John Murch was my father. He was a brave, wonderfully charming and hilariously funny man who was adored by his children, grandchildren and many of his pupils. His stories of his life, and there were many, were always accompanied by loud guffaws and a hanky to cry into with joy at his own silliness. He never stopped striving for the next goal, working happily in his office in his garden in Wiltshire on his books, his research and his memoirs.
Up to the day of his death he never forgot his humble start in life or the opportunity the kindness of his auntie Carrie had given him.