Military History Monthly’s roving museum explorer Keith Robinson investigates another little-known military museum.
A monster silhouetted against dark, turbulent skies. Ground crew huddled against the driving rain. One by one, four Rolls-Royce Merlin 24 engines, generating 1,640hp each, start up. Water lying on the tarmac behind the Avro Lancaster ripples furiously. A tractor pulls the plane onto the runway, and the Lancaster City of Sheffield begins to taxi.
This is no memory of the many occasions such scenes were enacted before bombing raids across Germany in WWII, but one to be enjoyed regularly at East Kirkby in Lincolnshire today – though, hopefully for visitors, minus the rain.
Affectionately known as Just Jane from its nose art, the Kirkby Lancaster, NX611, is a Mk B VII. his was very similar to the original production model Lancaster, the Mk B I. It carried a crew of seven, had a wingspan of 102ft, and a length of early 70ft. The plane’s maximum all-up weight was 72,000lbs, and it could carry a maximum bomb load of 18,000lbs.
At 15,000ft, it had a cruising speed of 200mph and a maximum speed of 275mph. It had a very handy service ceiling of 25,000ft, and a range of 2,350 miles carrying a 7,000lb bomb load. The main modifications were to place the electrically operated Martin 250CE dorsal turret, with its win .50 calibre machine-guns further forward, in place of the earlier FN50/150 models. The rear turret was also upgraded, replacing the FN20 model and its four .303in Brownings with the Nash & Thomson FN82 and twin 0.50in Brownings.
Just Jane is undoubtedly the main attraction, and its home,The Hangar, forms the focus of the Centre. This is really a treasure trove of material, including a large amount of memorabilia and many artefacts from WWII, representing both RAF and American naval aviation.
Besides the Lancaster, The Hangar houses a Douglas C47A Skytrain, better known in its RAF incarnation as a Dakota Mk 3. Seeing military service with the USAAF, the RAF, and the RCAF, this Dakota (N473DC) took part in the D-Day operations and has been restored to 87th Squadron USAAF D-Day colours.
The crew compartment of a Canberra nose-section gives the visitor the chance to clamber around the cramped conditions experienced by the Crew. Definitely one for the more limber amongst us…!
The Hangar also hosts displays of aircraft wreckage that has been discovered and conserved by the Lincolnshire Aircraft Recovery Group. East Kirkby is now home to the LARG, which has its own dedicated workshop.
Work in progress on restoration projects can be seen in another of the airfield’s buildings, including a Vickers Wellington 1A (L7775).
Also housed in The Hangar is the Centre’s important collection of airfield support vehicles. The Fordson WOT 1 Crew Bus is thought to be the only surviving example in the country. Its driver was able to take about 14 aircrew to the dispersal point. This particular vehicle came into service
with the Ministry in 1941. It was powered by a Ford V8 engine, coupled to a four-speed gearbox. Its fuel capacity was 15 gallons, giving it a range of 90 miles.
Other vehicles include: a Fordson WOT Foam Tender, built in 1939, again with four gears and a V8 engine; an AEC Matador Petrol Bowser, a 6×6 development of the 4×4 artillery tractor, designed to carry 2,500 gallons of fuel; and another rarity, one of only a handful of 1942 mobile canteens or NAAFI Wagons, a welcome sight for WWII personnel.
A personal favourite of mine is the Bedford ‘Queen Mary’ aircraft recovery vehicle. This has a 40ft-long, low-loading trailer, which was long enough to carry the complete wing section or body of most aircraft, the Lancaster body being an exception.
The Heritage Centre, however, is a lot more than just one building: it is the airfield as whole. Acquired by the Panton brothers, much has been restored. The Pantons were originally interested in finding a fitting memorial for their elder brother Christopher, a Pilot Officer Engineer, who died in a Hampden in a raid over Nuremberg in March 1944.
The acquisition of Just Jane was that act of remembrance, and East Kirby airfield a suitable home for the plane. East Kirby, an active Bomber Command base in WWII, saw both 57 and 630 Squadrons RAF stationed here. A memorial to the squadrons greets visitors at the entrance to the airfield.
The heart of the airfield would have been the Control Tower, and this has been restored. WWII dioramas have been created in the ground floor, where scenes such as the Switch Room or the Duty Pilots’ Rest Room can be viewed. The first-floor Control Room is alive with radio communications, maps, rosters, battle orders, and targets.
Other buildings house a special exhibition on the Blitz, and another The Escape Museum, which holds collections of the RAF Escaping Society, displays on the French Resistance, (which aided many British airmen), and material representing the Caterpillar Club (for pilots and crew whose life was saved by a parachute) and the Goldfish Club (baled out over the sea or survived ditching).
Definitely worth more than a flying visit.