I can’t think of many more apt ways to spend the eve of Battle of Britain day and one of the biggest aerial commemoration of the Battle than unhindered access to arguably the most significant collection of complete aircraft of the era.
Following on from building success of the Open Cockpit evenings at both sites over the past couple of years, the RAF Museum announced a much hoped for event an open evening of their famous Battle of Britain Hall.
The event wasn’t just the normal open cockpit evening, there was also period entertainment, living history tours along with a pop up bar and restaurant. Tucking into a Steak and Spitfire ale pie while sitting under the wing of a Sunderland is a moment I won’t forget in a hurry.
The extra touches made for more of an event and complimented the wonderful machines on show.
Ultimately it was the actual aircraft themselves that were the star attractions. The access offered is something I never thought would be possible with the RAF Museum’s rarest machines.
The Gladiator was the first aeroplane on view, while no cockpit access as such was offered, a number of the side panels had been removed allowing for excellent access to the interior of the RAF’s last Bi-plane fighter.
The Gladiator was well matched by the Fiat CR42 on the other side of the hall. There was a small set of steps up to the cockpit of the Fiat allowing an incredibly rare chance to take a close look in this Italian fighter. Hendon is the only place in the world where you can see both of these Bi-Plane adversaries in the same building, though hopefully Duxford will add to this list when the Fighter Collection’s Fiat restoration comes to an end.
The museum’s Gladiator, K8042, was delivered in August 1937 and was passed through a number of storage units, before ending up at Boscombe Down as part of their research flight. After further moves around the country, including some time as a training airframe, ‘042 was damaged in an accident in Cambridge in February 1944. Struck off Charge in 1948, the Gladiator passed through a number of public display appearances, including a couple of showings at Horse Guards Parade. Eventually K8042 was placed on display at Hendon in 1978, where the airframe has stayed ever since.
Fiat CR42 Flaco MM5701 was built around 1940 and took part in the day bombing raids over the UK carried out by the Italian Air Force in November 1940. While being flown by Segment Pilota Pietro Salvadori had to make a forced landing on the beach at Ordfordness in Suffolk. The photograph of the Fiat sitting on its nose is an iconic image of the Battle of Britain.
The RAF removed the Fiat from the beach and sent it to Martlesham Heath to be repaired. By the end of November the aircraft was flying again and was delivered to Farnborough and later tested at Duxford in 1941. The Fiat was flown extensively in tests until 1943 when the airframe passed through a number of storage units before moving to Hendon with the Gladiator in 1978.
Moving on from the last bi-plane fighters, two early war designs were also open for close inspection, the Blenheim IV and Boulton Paul Defiant. The Blenheim had a set of steps alongside for an elevated view of the cockpit through the top hatch, while the emergency exit was open below for another angle on the inside of the bristol twin.
The Defiant, having recently been restored by the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society at Rochester, was a surprise gem of the evening. The turret had been opened up and stairs had been positioned for a closer look. The level of detail in the turret of this unique airframe is incredible.
The museum’s Blenheim was actually built as a Bollingbroke, L8756, and started service with the Royal Canadian Air Force in October 1942. ‘756 spent the war as a training aircraft at bombing and gunnery schools before being struck off charge in 1946. The RAF Museum purchased the Bollingbroke in 1966 and the long process of shipping and restoration began, eventually being put on display at Hendon in 1978.
The Defiant, N1671, was taken on RAF charge in August 1940 and was allocated to No.307 (Polish) squadron. ‘671’s first operational sortie came in December 1940, it was without incident. After a busy early war the Defiant was moved around evaluation units until being struck off charge in 1947. Much like the other aircraft above the Defiant moved into the hangar at Hendon in 1978. ‘671 moved to Rochester in 2009 for restoration work, returning in December 2012.
A classic trio of Battle of Britain icons can be found in the main part of the hall, in the shape of BF109E, Spitfire and hurricane. Each of these machines had steps alongside for a detailed look in the cockpits and the hurricane had the rear access panel open so the construction of the Hawker’s fuselage could be seen.
Messerschmitt BF109E-4 W/NR.4101 was built in September 1940 at Leipzig and flew as part of JG51 as a fighter-bomber. On the 27th November 1940 ‘4101’s pilot, Wolfgang Teumer was shot down by Flt Lt George Christie and made a forced landing in a field near Manston. After recovery, the airframe was moved to Hucknall where it was to be repaired. As these repairs carried on the aircraft was repainted into RAF colours with the serial DG200.
The 109 flew again on the 25th February 1941. A year later, having passed through de Havilland at Hatfield, ‘4101 arrived at Boscombe Down before moving to Duxford. While at Duxford the 109 carried out a number of test and demonstration flights. In September 1943, once newer 109 models had been captured ‘4101 was retired to Stafford for storage. The airframe was refurbished at St Athan in the early 1970s before finally being delivered to Hendon in 1978.
Spitfire I X4590 was taken on charge in September 1940 and joined No.609 squadron at Middle Wallop. This Spitfire carried out a number of operational sorties including a half share in a JU88 on the 21st October 1940. In February 1941 ‘590 moved to No.66 squadron at Exeter before a further move to No.303 squadron in July. Later that month the airframe was declared surplus and was moved around a number of OTUs and MUs. In 1954 X4590 joined a number of other future museum aircraft at the Air Historical Branch in storage at RAF Stanmore. It was in September of this year that the airframe appeared on display at Horse Guards Parade. Further years of storage and static display ended with the Spitfire being put on display in the Battle of Britain hall at Hendon in 1978.
Hurricane Mk.I P2617 is a Gloster built Hurricane and was taken on charge in January 1940, and passed through a number of different squadron allocations in a matter of days. Eventually the Hurricane joined No.607 squadron who were still in France at the time. With the fall of France the squadron moved to Croydon in May 1940. P2617’s front line service came to an end when Flying Officer Watson had to make a wheels up landing. The Hurricane was used as a training aircraft for the rest of the war. The next activity of note was in 1951 when the airframe was used in the filming of “Angels One Five”. ‘617 was a film star again in 1955, being used for static shots in “Reach For The Sky”. Like the other aircraft, a number of years of storage and display followed, including another film appearance in the Battle of Britain film, before arriving in the Battle of Britain hall at Hendon in 1978.
The Luftwaffe airframes on display were of course, highlights of the night. Two particular types sit well together, namely the pair of Junkers. On display in the hall are the JU87 Stuka and JU88. The Stuka is an aeroplane that I have no doubt is long engraved on many aviation enthusiasts minds thanks to that memorable scene in the Battle of Britain film. No doubt due to its rarity and awkward size, no cockpit access was given to the Stuka. The public were encouraged to walk up close and get a detailed look at this eccentric dive bomber. Details i’d never even noticed were plain to see, such as the bomb sight window underneath the pilots seat. The JU88 is a real hidden gem of the collection. Due to the way the hall is laid out, only the front of the bomber can really be seen on a normal day. Being able to walk all around this machine was a real honour. The cockpit and bomb-bay were also open for close inspection.
The museum’s Stuka, 494083, is actually a Ju-87G, a later model example, thought to have been built around 1943. The airframe was captured in May 1945, possibly at a factory near the Russian border. This airframe was selected for museum dimply by the air ministry and was moved by road to the UK. After a short stay in storage at Sealand, the airframe was moved to RAF Stanmore Park. After some select trips out of storage for static display the Stuka was briefly moved to Henlow in 1967 to potentially be used in the Battle of Britain film. During this time the engine of the JU87 was run and it was potentially taxied. Though the film makers got permission to restore the Stuka to flying condition, it was found to be prohibitively expensive. After this near resurrection the airframe was returned to static display duties before being repainted at St Athan in 1975. The Stuka then joined the other Battle of Britain airframes at Hendon in 1978.
Junkers JU88 R-1 W/Nr. 460043 is believed to have been built as an A-1 Bomber in 1942 before being converted to R-1 standard in 1943, these variants were fitted with radar for the night fighter role. On the 9th May 1940 ‘043 took off from Kristiansand, Norway at 16:50, supposedly going on a normal mission. The aircraft’s crew for the day featured two known critics of the Nazi regime; Heinrich Schmitt and Paul Rosenberger who, it was believed, had been working with British intelligence for some time. 20 minutes after take off, the crew radioed in engine problems and dropped below German radar. After making sure to drop three life rafts, the crew headed for Scotland. The third member of the crew, Erich Kantwill, resisted this decision until being held at gunpoint.
The reason for this defection was the crew being asked to intercept unarmed BOAC Mosquitoes over the North Sea, which Schmitt and Rosenberger decided was too much. A pair of Spitfires were sent to intercept the JU88 only to find it dipping its wings and lowering its undercarriage. The Spitfires escorted the German bomber to Dyce aerodrome where it landed. Following this dramatic arrival the aircraft was hidden in a hangar at Dyce before being escorted to Farnborough by Beaufighters. ‘043 was allocated the British serial PJ876 and soon received RAF roundels. The RAF flight test program began in May 1943 and continued until October 1945. Amongst other interesting flights, the Junkers was flown around airfields in the build up to D-Day to help aircrew with aircraft recognition techniques. Following the war the JU88 spent time in storage or on static display until restoration began at St. Athan in 1974 ahead of the arrival at Hendon in 1978.
Two final key Luftwaffe types, including another icon of the Battle were also on display. The elegant Heinkel HE111 was open for interior inspection, through the lower hatch. Being able to get up close to this imposing design was incredible, the huge wings and horizontal stabilisers combined with that glazed nose make for an impressive sight. While the Messerschmitt BF110 had a high level set of stairs positioned alongside, offering great internal views of this imposing aircraft as well as a great vantage point for the rest of the collection.
The Museum’s Heinkel HE111 701152 was built as an H-20 Paratroop variant in 1944, which was built to carry 16 Paratroops and 3 crew. Wartime service information is unclear, but the airframe was allowed to the USAAF collection of German aircraft and was set to be shipped across to the USA for testing.
There was limited space on the ship when the time came however and the ‘111 was never left. In July 1945 ‘152 was flown from Cherbourg to Boxted to join the 56th Fighter Group. The Heinkel was seen in the same colour scheme as the 56th P-47s at the end of July 1945. During August the airframe was displayed at a number US airbases. ‘152’s final flight was in November 1945 when the aeroplane was delivered to Farnborough. In 1947 the aircraft was selected for museum use. Like many of the German aircraft the Heinkel was moved around to numerous special appearances and occasions including a short stay at Henlow in 1967 for potential use in the Battle of Britain, though again the airframe was never used. In 1969 ‘152 had some restoration work carried out at St Athan before moving to Hendon in 1978.
BF110G-4, W/Nr.730301 was likely built in 1944 and was surrounded to the allies in Denmark in May 1945. In August the airframe was ferried from Germany to Farnborough where the aircraft would be flown by a number of British test pilots, including Eric “Winkle” Brown. In September 1945 the ‘110 was placed in storage at Boscombe Down and soon selected for long-term preservation. ‘301 was moved around the UK for decades in various states of repair and a number of paint schemes before being fully restored at St Athan in 1976 with a move to Hendon following in 1978.
The above presents a potted history of each of the very rare and significant airframes on display at this inaugural event. As well as the above collection, the Lysander, Sunderland and Seagull were also on display, with the Seagull in particular proving a highlight.
Access was also given to the reconstructed Operations room at the Museum, which again brought about memories of the hustling scenes seen in films over the years commemorating the Battle.
This event was so much more than an open cockpit evening, it truly was a memorable experience and a step back in time. I knew many of these airframe’s stories before, but getting a chance to go “behind the rope” and experience them up close really made them all the more real. I sincerely hope that the RAF Museum are aware of the wonderful event they put together and that they see fit to make this a regular fixture on their event calendar. I can think of few better ways in marking Battle of Britain day than being immersed and exploring the machines and stories that were the Battle of Britain.
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