Tracking the flight path of The Shepherd

A look at the path flown in the Frederick Forsyth Christmas tale, The Shepherd - a holiday favourite read by Al Maitland.
More than 3,900 de Havilland Vampires were manufactured between 1945 and 1960. They were built under licence by six countries, including Canada, and served with the air forces of 26 nations. (Courtesy Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, Hamilton)

Former As it Happens co-host Al Maitland’s Christmas Eve reading of The Shepherd is a CBC Radio tradition that goes back to 1979. It is by far the most popular reading on As it Happens, with listeners writing in every month to make sure the show doesn’t forget to play “Fireside Al’s” dramatic reading of the short story.

The story is a first-person account of a Royal Air Force pilot trying to fly home to England from Germany in time for Christmas. 

As It Happens

Listen to Al Maitland's reading of The Shepherd on Christmas Eve on CBC radio's As It Happens after 7 p.m.

The Shepherd begins with the pilot lifting off from an R.A.F. airbase with the call letters “C-E-L-L-E”.

According to Ross Mahoney, an aviation historian at Royal Air Force Museum, “RAF Celle was an airbase in Germany used by the RAF until 1957 when it was handed back to the Germans.”

Once airborne, the pilot plans to fly toward England by taking “a straight run over the Dutch coast south of Beveland into the North Sea.”  

Beveland is a municipality in the southwest corner of The Netherlands. The website for the municipality predicts that tourists will: “Discover the beautiful beaches and the hiking and biking trails that take you along the pearls of the island, such as the nostalgic shops, galleries ... birdwatching and beautiful vistas.”

At this point, we’re reckoning the flight path would look like this:

After passing through the Netherlands our narrator is over the North Sea.

It’s here, that his Vampire airplane blows a fuse and he finds himself flying without a radio or lights towards Britain.

Beginning to run short of fuel, he decides to fly to Norwich, a city in eastern England because he will be able to recognize the terrain.  

This is how he plans to get home: "I could identify the great curving bulge of the Norfolk coastline from Lowestoft, round the Yarmouth to Cromer, I could find Norwich, the only major sprawl of lights set twenty miles inland from all points on the coast."

On Google Earth you can’t miss the bulge on the Norfolk coastline:

Almost out of gas and over the North Sea, our narrator runs into the mysterious De Havilland Mosquito, an old World War II bomber, who will shepherd him back to safety.

The pilot thinks he’s being guided towards the RAF. base called Merriam Saint George.  However, once he lands, our pilot discovers that he is at a small airfield called RAF. Minton, which he describes as “old stores depot Minton, with its cobwebbed runway lights” and a “drunken commanding officer.”

There is no RAF. Minton, because Mr. Forsyth invented it.  However, he leaves a good clue as to where it might be.  

“Where is RAF Minton, exactly? I asked him. "Five miles in from the coast, inland from Cromer.”  

Cromer is a small town just up the coast from Norfork.  There is no record of an RAF base located there, but a bit of research uncovered an airfield about 3 kilometres from Cromer.  It’s doubtful this is the airfield Frederick Forsyth had in mind, but nevertheless it provides a place for our Vampire and its pilot to land.

Based on the amount of gas he had left in the tank, the total flight took 80 minutes, taking him from western Germany to the east of England.

Here is what that flight might have looked like:

What do you think? Did we get it right? Let us know in the comments section below.


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