Having been told by someone at work that we probably weren’t going to see the Lancaster Bomber yesterday at RAF Coningsby’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight hangar, it was a surprise to spot it’s distinctive tail when we walked from the car park across to the entrance, and a delight later when we saw it take off on it’s delayed flight down to Eastbourne. We also saw a Hurricane take off, but sadly the Spitfire(s) had already left.
I’m already getting ahead of myself. But the Lancaster was the obvious star of the day – since it is the only one left flying in the UK. I saw it some years ago at RAF Waddington but as far as I can recall I only remember it sitting far away on the tarmac. The spotting area at Coningsby is a far superior spot and if people stop cutting holes in the fence to shove their cameras through then hopefully that dead-end of road near the emergency crash gates will remain open to the public for years to come. It’s a great place to watch the Typhoons on a daily basis – and we’d been and done that before driving around to the hangar – I wrote a post about that here.
The photo above shows what we saw through the fence that day. A Hurricane and a Lancaster due to fly out at around 3pm because the weather was crap the day before. What luck!
We (Biggles, his dad – who used to work at Coningsby when it was home to Phantom squadrons, and me) toddled down to the visitor centre and paid the very reasonable entry fee for the 1.5 hour guided tour. We had time to kill before our tour was scheduled to start, so we had some drinks, crisps and an Eccles cake in the cafe and had a look around the exhibits. Some of the models reminded me of the hours I’d spend gluing together Airfix kits and carefully painting them and applying the slippery decals.
I guess the blank plate on the signage outside the entrance was because the Lancaster wasn’t supposed to be there. There was also an unlisted special guest in the form of the only surviving Hawker Typhoon in the world – more about that in my other post. The Chipmunks were the training aircraft for the Hurricane and Spitfire pilots and of absolutely zero interest.
The tour was great. Full of interesting information for anyone interested in WWII and/or 1940s aviation history or technology. Unfortunately our guide had the most boring voice I’ve ever heard and about halfway through the 1.5 hours, I kind of switched off. In fact he waffled on so much about the first aeroplane in the hangar – a Dakato C47 they use for tail-wheel aircraft training (for the Lancaster) that I thought something in his brain had got stuck, especially when he embarrassed himself by misremembering the name of Operation Overlord (the plane is tricked out in the black and white stripes from the Normandy landings as a tribute).
Given that the Dakota wasn’t actually involved in the Battle of Britain his monologue was somewhat disconcerting, but I guess he was stalling for time because a guide ahead of him didn’t seem to be moving very quickly. Our guide was really knowledgeable and seemed like a lovely man, so I mean him no disrespect. I bet he gets bored of the sound of his voice saying the same things day in day out.
The hangar was very much a working area and so there were a bunch of planes over the other side that we didn’t get a close look at. But the guys did roll out a few into the daylight for us to admire (including the Typhoon) and even fired up one of the Hurricanes.
Next in line after the Dakota was a Mk 9 Spitfire in North Africa desert colours from 1942-43 with a Merlin 60 engine and two super chargers.
Then we got a good look at a later design – a Mk 16 Spitfire with more of a bubble canopy for better visibility. Also the radiators don’t appear to be under the wings, but maybe the canopy had just been removed. I should’ve asked our guide I guess, but I just wanted to get outside and see the Lancaster up closer.
A Hurricane was getting pushed out while we were looking at the Spitfires and so we followed it out and watched them fire up the engines before returning to the Typhoon shown above. There’s a video of the whole operation with a weird propeller effect on the Hurricane included in the video near the bottom of this post.
We were invited to get closer to the Lancaster at this point, but the barriers prevented any decent shots from the front. I like the picture above because it shows how moody the sky was getting and you get that sense of foreboding about taking the the skies that the aircrew and pilots must have felt. Not least because they were going into battle. To be honest, at the time I was just thinking about whether the chippy would still be open after 2pm. I could almost taste the salt and vinegar.
While we were outside, they wheeled out the Hawker Typhoon (the only one left out of the approx. 3,300 built) and it was cool to see it there with the new Eurofighter Typhoons parked in the distance. Then we had a look at some big bombs – Tallboy and Grand Slam – designed by Barnes Wallis of ‘Dambusters’ bouncing bomb fame (more in a bit) and went to the chippy. Thankfully it was open.
I had a great bit of fish and nice chips – some of the chippies in Llandudno might want to visit and learn how it’s done. We ate in the mostly deserted spotting area next to the runway. It was getting on for 3pm and it was puzzling that there weren’t more people here to see the Lancaster take off. This video includes the taxiing and take off of the bomber plus one of the Hurricanes (plus a snippet of our guide telling us about the Spitfire):
After that treat we decided to pop over to nearby Woodhall Spa and visit Petwood Hotel – home of the legendary RAF 617 ‘Dambusters’ Squadron in WWII. We visited the lounge bar which has been left pretty much as it would’ve looked back in 1940s, and then had a drink outside among the wasps which were in abundance that day.
The place was very lah-dee-dah and it invoked a weird reaction in me when ordering the drinks. I said ‘And could I trouble you for a glass of tap water, please…’ Yeesh.
We found this rusty relic while we were having a wander about. It was a bit bigger than your standard oil drum and full of what looked like concrete.
The visit to the hotel was a nice little add-on to a very nice day out. I can thoroughly recommend both the Battle of Britain Memorial flight hangar tour and popping in for a look in Petwood Hotel. Woodhall Spa struck me as a very nice location, and apparently it has a very nice park – Siggy and her sister have run around it on quite a few occasions.
I think it’s important as an end note (and considering it’s the RAF’s centenary) to recognise those people who fought in the skies to ensure our freedom in WWII and those who lost their lives doing so. Things would be a whole lot different if they hadn’t put up such a good fight in the Battle of Britain.
Historians tend to list three things when they talk about how we just about managed to win the battle for the skies over the UK: the Spitfire (despite the Hurricane doing the bulk of the work), use of radar and a change of tactics by German bomber command to bomb cities (the Blitz) rather than airfields for a crucial period in 1940. However, if it wasn’t for the people willing to get into those Spitfires and Hurricanes then the path would’ve been clear for a ground invasion. Let’s not forget.
Many thanks to Biggles for some of these images, the Eccles cake and for driving. All images are either copyright 2018 him or me. So please don’t use without asking first. Thanks.