A tribute to the men of Bomber Command in WW2
Our production of the WW2 Terence Rattigan play, Flare Path at the Oast Theatre in Tonbridge had its last night on October 19th and our research over the last six months had heightened our interest in the work of Bomber Command. The play, about bomber pilots and their wives, was set in Lincolnshire and we were determined to see, first-hand, one of airfields that so many aircrew flew from during the war.
So, after bidding farewell to our gravel drive campsite:
we headed for East Kirkby airfield, the home of the privately owned Aviation Heritage Centre. It was set up over 20 years ago by two farming brothers, Fred and Harold Panton, 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.
As luck would have it, today was the British Legion’s launch of the 2013 Poppy Appeal and as we entered the giant hangar, part museum and part home of the Lancaster bomber, Just Jane, standard bearers were starting to line up and there were hundreds of folding plastic chairs set out and a brass band was playing the already seated audience.
With the strains of Elgar’s Enigma in the background, we wandered round the excellent exhibits, from the sad remains of crashed aircraft to the many photographs and newspaper cuttings of handsome young men who hadn’t lived past their twenties. It was clear that this museum as a labour of love for the brothers and the quantity and quality of the exhibits was extraordinary. There were old vehicles galore, including a mobile control unit used for take-offs.
The parade of standard bearers began and the audience were treated to some excellent singing from a branch of the Military Wives Choir. There were speeches and prizes awarded to British Legion branches for last year’s campaign and then more singing, including some old Very Lynn favourites, and then the formalities were over and people started milling about the hangar and around the looming presence of Just Jane who stood like a giant over us.
People began streaming out and excitement was growing as Just Jane was brought out from her hangar, preparatory to a “taxy ride” as the museum curiously referred to a trip up the grass runway, complete with a small contingent of paying passengers and one raffle winner (sadly not either of us). The Lancaster was being piloted by one of the resident pilots.
The four mighty Merlin engines fired up one by one as the crowd stood behind a blue rope, eagerly anticipating the moment when the Lancaster started taxi-ing up the concrete strip. It was an amazing sight and one which is difficult to describe as the leviathon moved forward with a roar.
It disappeared down the grass runway, to reappear after five minutes or so. When it turned to face us thousands of poppies were released from the wing flaps, flying hither and thither – quite a sight.
We then decided to have something to eat in the NAAFI building. It was full of people but we queued for some scampi and chips which quite good. I got the impression, listening to conversations, that most of the people there were connected in some way to the RAF and/or the airfield. It was almost like a giant family occasion and it was nice to be part of it for a few hours.
There is a museum in the old control tower with some interesting exhibits populated by some eerie looking models (old shop dummies I think). The poses were quite good but spoiled rather by some dodgy hair. The scenarios were good though, with some excellent props.
There was an outbuilding with some parts of a Wellington bomber – interesting to us because of Flare Path.
We left at the end of the afternoon, pleased that we had been to such an interesting heritage centre and full of admiration for the family that had put so much of their time and energy into such a worthwhile cause. I would love to go on one of the “taxy runs” in the Lancaster, but at £260 for about twenty minutes, maybe not.
It was one of those wonderful late afternoons when the sun was low in the sky and provided lots of opportunity for photographs. The flat Lincolnshire fields had never looked more beautiful.
As this was the final time we would go through Boston, we took a detour to photograph the early 19th century Maud Foster Mill, sited very picturesquely on the drain of the same name. It still mills flour and you can climb up the stairs to see all seven floors. It gives Boston a very Dutch look.
Sue Mann said:
What a fascinating museum. Timing of visit very appropriate too. Proud to have had a RAF father.
It sounds like you visited the museum at exactly the right time. What an interesting place. I can’t believe you actually ‘wanted’ to get in the plane though!
How lucky to visit on such a special day.