The Shepherd: Disney’s ghostly new Christmas tale evokes the eerie qualities of Britain’s abandoned Second World War airfields

From Charles Dickens to M.R. James, Christmas has a long association with ghost stories. In The Shepherd – part of Disney+’s festive fare for this year – we have an evocative addition to the genre.

Based on a short story by acclaimed thriller writer, Frederick Forsyth, and set in 1957, The Shepherd explores the links between flight and the spectral.

As Forsyth explained in the forward to a new edition of the story, it was written as a gift to his wife “in a single afternoon” on Christmas Eve 1974. It draws on his first-hand experiences as a Royal Air Force (RAF) National Service pilot during which he had flown the Vampire.

The film, which is largely true to Forsyth’s original, sees young RAF pilot Freddie (played by Ben Radcliffe) take-off on Christmas Eve from a British airfield deep in the German countryside bound for England. Freddie’s route should be straight-forward – a direct flight across the North Sea to the RAF base at Lakenheath, in Suffolk in east England.

Not long after he crosses the Dutch coast, however, he runs into problems – his compass fails and his radio malfunctions. With mere minutes of fuel left, salvation arrives. From out of the clouds comes an ageing Mosquito, a type of fighter-bomber from the second world war, and its pilot “shepherds” him home to a rather eerie and apparently deserted RAF base.

The Shepherd is a ghost story of a sort that became familiar in the post-second world war period. In this time, several storytellers found inspiration in the ghostly old airfields dotted around the UK. Many of these bases, once teaming with action and central to the war effort, had been left to decay – places full of ghosts and memories.

Abandoned airfields

The military airfields that were abandoned in the 1940s and 1950s were shaped by one of the most pivotal events of modern history: the second world war. Hundreds were hastily constructed throughout the country in what was one of the largest civil engineering projects in British history.

For a few short years, these bases were home to thousands of service men and women. They were places in which life was lived intensely, and which were also marked by tragedy, trauma and death. And then, with the victory of 1945, many became surplus to requirements. Abandoned, they were returned to farming and their buildings were left to moulder.


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For the full article by Dr Sam Edwards visit the Conversation.


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