Monthly Archives: July 2012

RAF Coningsby – home of ‘The Phantom of the Ruhr’

‘The Phantom of the Ruhr’, RAF Coningsby

Since writing this original post, I have reflected on what was perhaps an overly harsh appraisal of my inability to access the ‘Phantom’ owing to an Aston Martin Owners club event. Perhaps my original comments were based purely on my disappointment at not being able to get up close to the old girl. The circumstances of the meet event were not known to me at the time and as they have now been explained, I was  unfair to describe the attendees as a ‘bunch of idiots’, after all, they have a passion and a hobby through their ownership of Aston Martins, much as I do over the history of 75(NZ) Squadron – each to their own, live and let live………..
Obviously, I now stand in a difficult editorial position, by leaving my original comments, I potentially stand to offend other Aston Martin owners, by removal I can be accused of running away from an original comment and being accused ‘airbrushing’ the past comment…….
For the sake of diplomacy I have gone with the latter option.

2 days since I was stood looking up at ‘Just Jane’ at East Kirkby and I am once again stood staring at another Lancaster – this time at RAF Coningsby, at the Battle of Britain  Memorial Flight. It’s wonderful to see another Lancaster, but its a slight shame that an arranged visit by the Aston Martin Owners club means that we can’t get onto the tarmac to see her up close.

PA474 is one of only two Lancaster aircraft remaining in airworthy condition out of the 7,377 that were built (the other is in Canada with the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at Hamilton, Ontario). PA474 rolled off the production line at the Vickers Armstrong Broughton factory at Hawarden Airfield, Chester on 31 May 1945 (ironically not far from where I now live), just after the war in Europe came to an end, so she was prepared for use against the Japanese as part of the ‘Tiger Force’. However, the war in the Far East also ended before she was deployed and she did not take part in any hostilities.

At the time of my visit she still carried the nose art and markings of the ‘Phantom of the Ruhr’ EE139 who flew with 100 and 550 Squadron between May 1943 and November 1944. EE139 was one of only 35 of the 7,377 Lancasters built that searched a total of 100+ operations. Sadly in hindsight, after 121 ops completed EE139 was scrapped in February 1946.

NE181, JN-M of 75 (NZ) Squadron, with crew

Not to be outdone, I should mention that NE181, JN-M of 75 (NZ) Squadron is believed to be first RNZAF aircraft to complete over 100 operations (estimated to be approx. 101). She was named “The Captain’s Fancy”, the usual mount of ”C Flight Commander, Squadron Leader Jack Bailey. Despite the urging of the RNZAF aircrews and commanders, the New Zealand Government refused to pay for her to be shipped back to New Zealand and she, like EE139 was scrapped.

From the BBMF’s website:
The Avro Lancaster is the most famous and successful RAF heavy bomber of World War Two. It is a legend that lives on today and the contribution made by the aircraft and its crews to the freedom of our nation will, hopefully, never be forgotten. The prototype Lancaster took to the air for its first flight from Woodford, Manchester, on 9th January 1941; the first production Lancaster flew later that year on 31st October. The first RAF unit to receive the new aircraft for operations (on Christmas Eve 1941) was No44 Squadron at Waddington, quickly followed by 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa. The performance of the Lancaster was simply outstanding. It could carry a maximum bomb load of 22,000 lb, its maximum level speed with a full load at 15,000 feet was 275 mph and it could cruise routinely at altitudes above 20,000ft at a range speed of 200 mph. With a full bomb load the aircraft had a range in excess of 1,500 miles. The Lancaster’s performance, its ruggedness, reliability and to many its sheer charisma, endeared it to its crews who were proud to fly this famous thoroughbred.

An impressive total of 7,377 Lancasters were built between 1941 and early 1946. Of these, some 3,500 were lost on operations and another 200 or so were destroyed or written off in crashes. The vast majority of those Lancasters that did survive the war were simply scrapped when their services were no longer required, as the reverence in which the aircraft is now held had yet to develop to the point where their preservation seemed important.

The Lancaster did not carry the weight of the night bombing offensive against Nazi Germany on its own but was supported by other earlier twin-engine bombers such as the Wellington and the other four-engine RAF heavy bombers – the Stirling and the Halifax – as well as medium bomber versions of the twin-engine De Havilland Mosquito. In total some 125,000 aircrew served in Bomber Command during World War Two; over 73,700 of them became casualties, either killed, wounded or shot down and made PoWs.

In a letter to the head of Avro after the war, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, the Commander in Chief of Bomber Command, said of the Lancaster:

“I would say this to those who placed that shining sword in our hands: Without your genius and efforts we could not have prevailed, for I believe that the Lancaster was the greatest single factor in winning the war.”

Visit the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight webpage here

East Kirkby – home of ‘Just Jane’

NX611 ‘Just Jane’

I have been to Easy Kirkby once before, many years ago now. I approach this visit with slight trepidation. On my first visit, it was with curiosity – a chance to see a Lancaster – a plane that Bob flew. On that visit I was surprised the effect of hearing the aircraft’s engines run had on me – I actually found it it remarkably moving and had a lump in my throat.

This time we are not so lucky, Jane is sat in the hanger – one of her ‘in’ days, but is still wonderful to see the old girl again and stand so close to her – now it feels far more poignant.

From the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre website;
The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre is a privately owned and run Museum and was set up by two farming brothers, Fred and Harold Panton. It has been built up as a memorial to Bomber Command and primarily as a tribute to their eldest brother Christopher Whitton Panton; who was shot down and killed on a bombing raid over Nuremberg on 30/31 March 1944.
For a short time after the war there was interest from the brothers to visit Christopher’s grave in Germany, but their father denied them the chance as he wanted ‘nothing more to do with the war’. Until, in the 1970’s Mr Panton called Fred over and told him to ‘get off to Germany and bring me a photograph of Chrisy’s grave’ which of course Fred did as soon as he could. This reignited Fred’s interest in the War and when NX611 came up for sale it was eventually purchased by the brothers and brought to their land at East Kirkby. Even though they had planned to keep it only for their private collection it was suggested that they should make it into an exhibit for the public and this Museum was set up with the Lancaster and Control tower as its centre pieces.
The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre was then opened in 1988 and has hosted visits from many famous people both from the aviation and show-biz worlds.  We are all extremely proud of the accomplishments of the Centre, one of the biggest independent museums receiving no funding or Lottery grants.  We can only hope that we will be able to continue to educate the following generations to the sacrifices and roles of Bomber Command.

“Just Jane” was built by Austin Motors at Longbridge near Birmingham, in April 1945. Given the serial number NX611, she was one of the first 150 B Mk VII Avro Lancasters destined as part of the RAF’s Tiger Force in the Far East. However, Japan’s early surrender meant these aircraft were suddenly surplus to requirements and, instead of seeing service, NX611 ended up in storage at Llandow. There she stayed until 1952. From then on, a chequered career followed.
In April 1952 she was bought by the French Government. Painted midnight blue, she flew maritime patrol for the French Naval Air Arm. Ten years later, she went to Noumeau, New Caledonia, was painted white and used for air sea rescue and cartography. Then in 1964, the French presented her to the Historical Aircraft Preservation Society and flew her to her new home in Sydney where she was overhauled before being flown back to Britain. It took nine days to complete the 12,000 mile journey back to her homeland- seventy flying hours- landing at Biggin Hill on 13 May, 1965.

Temporarily grounded, due to expiry of permitted flying hours, it was 1967 before NX611 flew again, but even then public appearances were brief because of prohibitive costs.
She was flown to Lavenham in Suffolk and, a few years later, in 1972, was put up for auction at ‘Squires Gate’, Blackpool.

Meanwhile, in Lincolnshire, determined to commemorate the death of their brother Chistopher who was killed on the Nuremburg Raid in March 1944, and all of the men who served in Bomber Command, Fred and Harold Panton had decided to purchase a Second World War Bomber. At one time, they had had their eyes on a Halifax which was coming up for sale, but their father told them, in no uncertain terms, they would not be permitted to keep one at his farm.

The years passed, but the brothers still held on to their dream. Eventually, Fred and Harold became co-owners of their own farm. When some land came up for sale which included part of the defunct East Kirkby airfield they bought it. Some areas of concrete and a few buildings still stood on the old airfield, in a state of disrepair.  They used part of the area to set up a chicken farm. However, with the idea of owning an exhibition aircraft still foremost in their in their minds, they also began to renovate the “working area” of the airfield. That included building a new hangar, where an original T2 hangar had stood there during the war years.

Learning about the forthcoming auction, via an advertisement, Fred and Harold decided to try and purchase the old Lancaster. This aircraft could be the perfect monument to their brother’s memory. When Fred saw NX611 for the very first time at Blackpool, she stood lonely and forlorn, waiting to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Around her, a great crowd stood- some hopefully putting in bids, but most just watched- curious to see one of the country’s finest types of Bomber at close range.  Sadly, due to the reserve not being reached, she was withdrawn from the auction and later privately sold to the Rt Hon Lord Lilford.  Fred and Harold kept in contact with her new owner and eventually, whilst she stood Gate Guardian at RAF Scampton, near Lincoln, and after one or two hiccups in the furtherance of their ambition to own her, a deal was struck with Lord Lilford’s agent.

In September 1983, NX611 was finally purchased by Fred and Harold and, four years later, after completing an agreed total of ten years gate guardian at RAF Scampton, she was brought to East Kirkby, courtesy of the RAF.  It was sixteen years since Fred had seen her at Blackpool auction.

The first moves towards restoring one of her four engines were made in 1993. Two ex RAF engineers were brought in to do the job. They began work on No3 engine. Although it had been idle for 22 years, they were confident they could bring it back to life. Accessing the spare parts was organised, the engine rotated to ensure it would still turn and the cam shaft covers removed. Both had to be replaced, although the engine cylinders were in good working order. Then the propeller was removed, stripped down and examined and – apart from having to adjust the blade settings – everything proved to be in fine order and was rebuilt.
Local contractors were brought in to check the wiring and make good where necessary. That alone was a ten-day job.
The engine’s starter motor, magnetos, fuel booster pump and ignition harness were removed and checked, the fuel tank was pressurised and the fuel jettison system reset. When the throttle controls between the cockpit lever and the engine were uncovered, it was discovered that almost a third of the small control rods had to be replaced.
However after about seven hundred man hours and at a cost of £7000 the engine was finally ready.
This work was then completed for all four engines and they are now at a fully operational taxiing standard.

Visit the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre website here.

A summer expedition

A quick decision to do a family visit offers a couple of trips to boot! Bev’s family are in Grimsby and she suggests (perhaps by way of a sop) that we could take the opportunity to go to East Kirkby and Coningsby while we are in Lincolnshire – how can I refuse…….