The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight has conducted thousands of flypasts at events up and down the country, taking part in over 100 airshows per year. The Flight was formed in 1957 to commemorate the RAF’s defence of Britain against the Luftwaffe in 1940. It subsequently became a memorial to those who lost their lives while serving with the RAF across the whole of the Second World War, and now commemorates members of the RAF whose lives have been lost in all conflicts, past and present.
BBMF Spitfires undergoing winter servicing. Image: Clive Rowley
A WORKING BASE
Comprising 12 airworthy warbirds, the Flight includes six Spitfires, two Hurricanes, a Dakota, and one of only two Avro Lancasters known anywhere in the world to be capable of flight. Two Chipmunks, used as training aeroplanes, make up the full complement. Their airborne activities are certainly spectacular, but a trip to the BBMF hangar and visitor centre gives one an extraordinary opportunity to view these historic aircraft up close.
This is not just a hangar full of aeroplanes. RAF Coningsby is a working base: Eurofighter Typhoons thunder overhead, and visitors are invited to look under the skin of the historic aircraft as they are maintained and preserved by RAF engineers. Aircraft are moved around the hangar on a regular basis, and, though once produced in their thousands, each BBMF aircraft has its own story to tell.
These stories have been meticulously researched and documented, and some can be read in the visitors’ guidebook, but it is the personal tour of the hangar that makes a visit to the BBMF centre so special. Armed with binders full of contemporary photographs and documents, volunteer guides are equipped to share a wealth of knowledge about the aircraft and their crews.
The Lancaster flanked by two Spitfires. Image: Clive Rowley
MUSEUM WITHOUT WALLS
‘This is a museum without walls,’ explains retired Squadron Leader Clive Rowley. Clive was an RAF fighter pilot for 36 years, and he flew the Flight’s Spitfires and Hurricanes from 1996 to 2007. He hung up his flying gloves last year, but continues tom volunteer with the BBMF, hosting tours of the hangar and researching the history of the aircraft.
The Flight’s predominance of Spitfires reflects the important role these aircraft played during WWII, and their iconic status. Of the six Spitfires in the Flight, the Mark IIa P7350 is the most thrilling to behold: it is the oldest, original, airworthy Spitfire in the world, and the only one from the Battle of Britain that is still flying today.
This type of Spitfire met its match in the Messerschmitt Bf 109E, but, in general, Spitfires were able to fly faster than most of their contemporaries, and were popular among pilots and the general public. Attacked by a group of Bf 109s in October 1940, P7350 was hit on the left wing, leaving pilot Ludwik Martel badly wounded.
But both survived the war: the Spitfire was restored to flying condition for its appearance in Guy Hamilton’s Battle of Britain (1968), and Martel died aged 91. On my visit, the aircraft’s engine cowlings had been removed to reveal its Rolls-Royce Merlin 27l engine, as well as its petrol tank (which is positioned directly in front of the pilot, on the aircraft’s centre of gravity).
Nose art from Jimmy Whalen’s Mk IIC HW840.
Clive relayed a most intriguing tale, however, when we reached the Flight’s C-47 Dakota ZA947. Built in the USA, the BBMF’s Dakota served in Canada during WWII. But visitors are not only introduced to the aircraft on display: some aeroplanes are exhibited wearing other aeroplanes’ colour schemes. As such, ZA947 now resembles FZ692 Kwicherbichen of 233 Squadron, one of the first Douglas Dakotas deployed to evacuate casualties from France in the wake of D-Day.
Nursing orderlies Corporal Lydia Alford, LACW Edna Birkbeck, and LACW Myra Roberts (dubbed the ‘Flying Nightingales’ by the press) were on the first three flights across the Channel, becoming the first British women to fly into a warzone on air-ambulance duties. But, carrying war supplies and ammunition on their way out, their aeroplanes were prohibited from carrying the Red Cross symbol.
Similarly, the last Hurricane ever built, the BBMF’s Mk IIC PZ865, was originally painted with the inscription ‘The Last of the Many’, but this ‘Hurri-bomber’ now resembles fighter ace and Canadian RAF pilot Jimmy Whalen’s Mk IIC HW840.
By 1944, Whalen had shot down three Bf 109s and three Japanese Navy ‘Val’ Type 99s – victories he commemorated in nose art that he himself designed and applied. Whalen was killed flying another aircraft over Japanese-occupied jungle on 18 April 1944, but his original nose art is hung on a wall in the BBMF head-quarters. PZ865 thus wears a design that features three swastikas and three Japanese hinomaru (‘circle of the sun’) symbols, separated by a clenched fist holding a lightning bolt, all of which is surrounded by a laurel wreath.
The Flight’s Avro Lancaster dominates the hangar. Image: Clive Rowley
But, with a wingspan of 31m, it is Avro Lancaster B1 PA474 that dominates the hangar. (Visitors should note that this aircraft will be missing from the collection from October 2016 until spring 2017, while it undergoes servicing at Duxford.)
WWII saw the loss of 3,345 Lancs during operations, although this particular aircraft, completed in 1945, did not see any action. But it is representative of those that did, and currently wears the colour scheme of Squadron 617’s DV385, ‘Thumper Mk III’, which sunk the Kriegsmarine battleship Tirpitz in 1944.
Built to fly with one pilot rather than two, these aeroplanes were designed to reduce pilot loss-rates, while dropping powerful ‘Tallboy’ bombs on ever-larger targets. Looking up into the aircraft’s cavernous bomb bay, it is not difficult to imagine the scale of destruction wreaked by these heavy bombers.
Impressive as these aircraft are, they come with some tragic human stories: WWII saw the loss of around 22,000 men while flying Lancs. Operations were particularly gruelling for the aircraft’s ‘Tail-end Charlie’, crammed into a Perspex bubble, alone at the back of the aeroplane. Not only were these men the most vulnerable of the Lancaster’s crew (life expectancy was just five sorties), they were also exposed to the elements, having to deal with temperatures as low as -30° or -40°.
Sergeant Rob Pierson, who was 19 when he operated the rear guns of a Lancaster during WWII, recalled, ‘My face was exposed to the slipstream – the temperature of which plummeted the higher we went – but it was better to freeze than not to see the enemy.’ Stories like these breathe life into these antique flying machines, many of which were prised from the scrap-dealer’s hands not long after the end of the war.
Access to the hangar is by guided tour only, and the tours last an hour to an hour and a half. Most guides have some sort of military background, but tours can be adapted for novices and aircraft afficionados alike. With airworthy aeroplanes, a variety of knowledgeable guides, and ever-changing aircraft colour schemes, it is virtually guaranteed that no two trips to the BBMF hangar will be the same.
A visit is highly recommended. Entry to the visitor centre is free, and this area includes a shop and a cafe, as well as a small exhibition space with interpretative boards and a modest selection of artefacts.
There are a variety of other military aviation museums nearby, and visitors might also wish to stop off at the nearby Petwood Hotel, formerly the Dambusters’ Officers’ Mess. Its Squadron Bar is filled with a variety of objects and images relating to the Second World War history of Squadron 617, and is the ideal place to relax after a long day exploring Bomber County.
[icons icon_name=”icon-money” icon_size=”14px”] Entry to the visitor centre is free. The hangar tour is £7.
[icons icon_name=”icon-envelope” icon_size=”14px”] BBMF Visitor Centre, Dogdyke Road, Coningsby, Lincolnshire, LN4 4SY
[icons icon_name=”icon-external-link” icon_size=”14px”] www.lincolnshire.gov.uk/visiting/museums/battle-of-britain-memorial-flight
[icons icon_name=”icon-phone” icon_size=”14px”] 020 7940 6300
[icons icon_name=”icon-time” icon_size=”14px”] Open 10am-5pm Mon-Fri, and at weekends/bank holidays on 29-30 May, 30-31 July, and 29 August 2016.