The Manston Hurricane

The charming Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum at Manston, Kent, might be based on what remains of one of the most important Battle of Britain airfields but also commemorates a much less celebrated period of World War 2.

The Manston Hurricane – a remarkable machine in unique surroundings

Alongside the remaining airfield buildings, all crammed with artefacts and information, are the modern, purpose-built homes of the Museum’s Spitfire Mk.XVI and its Hurricane Mk.IIc, the latter representing the ill-fated Operation JUBILEE: the 1942 assault on Dieppe.

In fact the aircraft itself hadn’t been built when the British and Canadian forces were dashed against the defences of Dieppe. Hurricane LF751 was built at Langley in 1944 joined her first unit, No. 1681 Bomber Defence Training Flight, in April of that year. Soon she moved to No. 27 Operational Training Unit, where she would remain for the remainder of the war and some considerable years afterwards.

When the RAF laid the foundations of its Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, it turned to 27 OTU for a Hurricane and selected LF363 from the stores. Her sister aircraft, including LF751, were meanwhile picked clean for usable spares to maintain their airworthy sister until it was decided that a Hurricane was needed to stand guard over the gates of RAF Bentley Priory – the nerve centre of RAF Fighter Command and the defence of Britain in 1940.

BBMF’s LF363 was revived with parts from the Manston Hurricane

It was for this task that LF751 was refurbished – although by the time that work was completed, there were more Mk.IId parts on her than original Mk.IIc. Nevertheless she spent almost 30 years standing outside the iconic building from which Dowding and Park commanded their celebrated defence through the summer of 1940.

By the mid-1980s only two genuine Hurricanes remained as gate guardians: LF751 at Bentley Priory and LF738 at RAF Biggin Hill. Neither of them would have survived such exposure to the elements much longer, and were thus withdrawn in favour of plastic replicas. Remarkably, given their timber, canvas and lightweight metal construction, both aircraft were considered to be restorable and were thus transferred to the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society (MAPS) for their respective overhauls in mid-1985.

For almost 30 years LF751 stood guard over RAF Bentley Priory

For almost 30 years LF751 stood guard over RAF Bentley Priory

Completely stripped down, the rebuilding of LF751 was to take MAPS some 22,000 man hours and cost some £18,000. In order to complete the build, parts were sourced from across Britain as well as Canada and Germany, including a control column previously fitted to a Hurricane that had crashed at West Malling in September 1940.

While the long road to restoration was underway, the research began to give the finished product a suitable new identity – LF751 having had a relatively quiet wartime life. It was eventually decided to give her the markings of Mk.IIc BN320, which carried the code FT-A while assigned to of the famous ‘Fighting Cocks’ – No. 43 Squadron – in early 1942.

The real BN320 had been the personal mount of Squadron Leader Danny Le Roy Du Vivier, DFC and bar, Croix de Guerre (Belge), a Belgian pilot. As well as her standard camouflage, this particular aircraft had worn a colourful collection of badges beneath the cockpit – namely the RAF Ensign, the Belgian flag and the black and white chequers of 43 Squadron.

Manston's Hurricane LF751 remains a tribute to Du Vivier and BM320

Manston’s Hurricane LF751 remains a tribute to Du Vivier and BM320

Sqn Ldr Du Vivier was a noted Hurricane ‘ace’ who had joined his unit in August 1940, after escaping from occupied Belgium along with eight comrades and travelled to Britain via Gibraltar by boat. He shot down his first enemy aircraft on August 16 – a Junkers Ju87 – but was himself shot down in flames on September 2, baling out to land in the grounds of a girls’ school in Sidcup. Several girls arrived at the scene bearing shovels and pitchforks and du Vivier chose to play dead until the police arrived, lest his strong Brussels accent be mistaken for German.

After recovering from his injuries, Du Vivier rejoined 43 Squadron and would stay there for a remarkable total of 27 months, rising from Pilot Officer to Squadron Leader. In May 1942 he caught and shot down a Ju88 reconnaissance aircraft some 50 miles off the coast near Newcastle at the helm of BN320. Flying at 30,000ft to make his ‘kill’ – an almost unprecedented altitude for a Hurricane on active service – BN320 was damaged by return fire but swiftly patched up.

She flew again with du Vivier in the Dieppe raid of August 19 1942, this time at low altitude flying close air support to the landing troops. Leading by example, du Vivier flew four sorties that day and returned each time with significant damage to BN320 – ensuring that this day was to prove her last on active service. It is fair to say that in her few months of front-line service, the real BN320 gave her all for the cause, and was an aircraft well worth commemorating.

Manston's fine little museum is a fitting home for old warriors

Manston’s fine little museum is a fitting home for old warriors

So it was that with all due ceremony, LF751 in her new guise of BN320 was handed over to the RAF at an impressive ceremony at Rochester Airport on April 22 1988. A flypast by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (including LF363) and a Phantom F-4 of 43 Squadron gave a fitting salute before the completed Hurricane entered her new home in Manston’s evocative museum, where she remains to this day.

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Reflections from Normandy Part 5: Utah and the Airborne

Overview of all five beaches of the D-Day landings

Overview of all five beaches of the D-Day landings

After a short detour inland on the highway towards Cherbourg, one arrives in the real Band of Brothers country.

Heading back out towards the coast, the first stop is Ste Mère Eglise. This picturesque little town, sitting roughly 10km behind the coastline, was undoubtedly going to see enemy reinforcements piling through once the landings became apparent – which meant that airborne infantry units were parachuted in during the hours before the sea invasion to head off any such threat.

Mixed units of the U.S. 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions were dropped shortly before 02:00 on June 6th – including the real-life Lt. Dick Winters and Easy Company. Due to an earlier aerial attack fires in the town illuminated the parachutists, resulting in enormous casualties among those directly overhead. Among these men, however, was Private John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, whose story would be immortalised in the movie The Longest Day.

Private Steele is a permanent presence watching over visitors to Ste Mère Eglise

Steele escaped the bullets only for his parachute to become ensnared on the church steeple. Steele was wounded and played dead until he was rescued and captured by German troops – although he subsequently escaped and joined forces with the other airborne troops who successfully captured the village. Today a waxwork of Private Steele hangs from the Steeple in perpetuity – a major draw for visiting tourists, who were also being treated to a 1940s dancing display and re-enactment event when the S&G visited.

More re-enactors camped out at Ste Mère Eglise

American hardware was much in evidence throughout Normandy for the 70th anniversary commemorations

Heading back out towards the coast, Utah Beach is seen after driving down a road littered with memorials to the Allied forces, including the Danish seamen as well as markers for every state of the USA at 1km intervals. Once again it was time for a commemorative event when the S&G arrived, bringing with it crowds of French families and, in anticipation of a VIP arrival, many gendarmes too.

The US Navy is featured heavily in the memorials at Utah Beach – and among the artefacts on show

One of the plethora of Sherman tanks to be found in Normandy – outside the Utah Beach museum

Visiting the beach at low tide reveals just what an epic slog it must have been to the heavily burdened G.I.s coming ashore in the murderous fire depicted in that unforgettable opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. It was far and away the most ground that must have been covered and in the most exposed stretch of the beachhead – one of the most unforgiving battlegrounds that could have been imagined.

The vast sweep of Utah Beach is one of the most sobering sights when touring Normandy

Obstacles from the beach intended to delay invading Allied troops in the field of fire

Former defensive fortification now part of the Utah Beach memorials

And, with that, a whistle-stop tour of the Normandy beaches was concluded. There is much more to be seen and much more to report on, but for now it is to be hoped that the rest of the commemorations on all sides pass off successfully and that these site and sights continue to be visited for many generations to come.

Reflections from Normandy Part 3: Gold Beach

The three beaches attacked by the British and Canadian troops on June 6th 1944

The three beaches attacked by British and Canadian troops on June 6th 1944

Moving westward along the D514 the road climbs from sea level to cliff top and out in the Channel there are irregularly-dotted shapes on the horizon. This is what remains of one of the more astonishing feats of engineering completed in the war: the Mulberry Harbour.

The Mulberry Harbour holds out after 70 years

The vast concrete caissons were towed out immediately in the wake of the invasion fleet – one heading for Omaha Beach and the other to Gold Beach at the coastal resort of Arromanches les Bains. Incredibly, the Arromanches port – Port Winston, as it was known – was complete and operational by June 9th, just two full days after the initial assault.

Bear in mind that Port Winston consisted of 600,000 tons of concrete and 33 jetties to support 10 miles (15 km) of floating roadways and the magnitude of the Royal Engineers’ achievement becomes clear. Despite being designed to last only three months – the Omaha Beach port was destroyed by storms soon after deployment – ‘Port Winston’ was still in full-time use almost a year after D-Day and its total contribution was to bring more than 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tonnes of supplies in to Arromanches in support the advancing armies.

A cliff top view of Port Winston’s eastern flank in 2014

Travelling back down from the cliffs, one is swallowed up by the pretty little port of Arromanches itself – although in June 1944 it was in something of a sorry state. Today it is back to its pristine best and is home to the leading museum covering the British role in the D-Day landings and Operation Overlord. It is hard to imagine the narrow, winding streets resounding to the crunch of boots and clank of tank tracks that must have bordered on deafening as, by June 12th, more than 300,000 men, 54,000 vehicles, 104,000 tons of supplies had been landed in the town.

Arromanches reflects the British army’s largest landing ground, Gold Beach

The Arromanches slipway is just yards from the nearest remnants of ‘Port Winston’

After saying a fond farewell to Arromoanches – a very pretty little place today – it was time to press on further up the coast, saying goodbye to the British sector and entering the American zone…

Looking out over Arromanches from the hilltop viewpoint

 

 

 

Reflections from Normandy: Part 2 – Juno Beach

The three beaches attacked by the British and Canadian troops on June 6th 1944

The three beaches attacked by British and Canadian troops on June 6th 1944

Drive a little further down the D514 and one is in Saint Aubin sur Mer, another sleepy seaside town where once the Canadian regiments fought their way ashore with support from the Royal Marines. This is the smallest of all the sectors of the Normandy beachhead in 1944 and a combination of rough weather and heavy defensive fire held the troops off the coast for some time before they could get to shore.

Juno Beach retains a proud affinity with the Canadian troops who landed here

Behind the seafront, once again, more re-enactors were to be found in their assembled Jeeps and trucks, emerging from their Government Issue tents to greet the day and be off to wherever their schedules were taking them for the day.

The ‘military’ camp at Juno Beach empties out for another day of re-enactment

Far and away the tallest monument standing in Normandy is that which marks the spot on which Général Charles de Gaulle disembarked on Juno Beach. On June 14th 1944. Ah, politicians…

Looking up from the shoreline to the de Gaulle memorial

In nearby Courseulles sur Mer there is a permanent museum to those Canadian troops who took part in the D-Day landings, nestled in a picturesque and busy little port. Approaching from the east one is confronted by this particular piece of hardware, which offers a salutary reminder of the violence involved in the assault.

Damage to the cannon – this was not a healthy place to be in 1944

The Juno Beach area offers a vast array of memorials, vantage points and adventurous walks. It’s a sector of the landings that can take whole days to cover fully – and whether rain or shine it’s a bracing landscape. Here are some more views:

Juno Beach tribute to the logistics of invasion

Juno Beach memorial

A Churchill AVRE tank nestled in the dunes at Brèche de Graye. This tank served with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, and was given a new coat of paint for the 70th anniversary

Blasted-out ruins merging with the scenery – what will be made of this in 70 years’ time?

Reflections from Normandy: Part 1 – Sword Beach

The three beaches attacked by the British and Canadian troops on June 6th 1944

The three beaches attacked by British and Canadian troops on June 6th 1944

Rolling off the Portsmouth-Caen ferry and turning right at the first set of traffic lights puts you on the D514 – a narrow coastal road that shadows four of the five D-Day landing beaches. Within just a few kilometres one would have been in the thick of the action on June 6th 1944, starting with the easternmost of the landings of British and Canadian forces at Sword Beach.

Sword Beach stretches roughly 8 kilometres (5 miles) from Ouistreham to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer. Often overlooked in retellings of the battle, Sword Beach backs on to the villages near Ouistreham and has a sleepy seaside charm far removed from its place in the vanguard of the push to take Caen.

Looking out over Sword Beach today

Just behind the seafront, I stumbled across the first of many encampments playing host to hordes of re-enactors and military vehicle enthusiasts who had gathered for the 70th anniversary commemorations. After a long weekend in the front line they were heading back to all points of the compass – including a Czech group of G.I.s with their Jeep loaded on a trailer – although many were heading further up the coast for more re-enactments at Ste Mère Église and Carentan before heading home.

There were precious few British vehicles and uniforms on show – even in this part of the battlefield. But it made for an evocative start to the tour…

Army re-enactors moving out

Reflections from Normandy: Overview

The Normandy beaches viewed from the Channel at 06:00 - what a sight it must have made 70 years ago

The Normandy beaches viewed from the Channel at 06:00 – what a sight this must have made to young men in their landing craft 70 years ago

Travelling to Le Mans for the 24 Hours brought with it the opportunity to take a whistle-stop tour of the Normandy beaches and dig around in the embers of last week’s spectacular D-Day 70th anniversary commemorations.

In fact the official commemorations will go on for another week, albeit on a somewhat less presidential scale, and the knock-on effects of the event are profound in France. Only this morning I discovered from a French colleague that the rail strike that will hit all main line and Métro services this week has been timed to coincide with the D-Day bank holiday, so that the oppressed workers can take advantage of spending a few days away somewhere pleasant!

If you want to know when the French are going on strike, check the bank holiday dates...

If you want to know when the French are going on strike, check the bank holiday dates…

There are many pages of the Internet dedicated to the military campaign and still more news stories and editorial content available covering the commemorations. That is not the S&G’s purpose in life. I am simply going to post some photos of my journey down the D514 coast road, a backwoods route these days but which was, in 1944, the main artery for the defending Germans and the advancing Allies.

I haven’t included any of the many museums that can be visited along the route for the simple reason that I didn’t stop at any. In all honesty one doesn’t need to in order to get a sense of those momentous days in 1944 as so much of what happened is writ large on the landscape. But if you have the time, say three days or so, there is a virtually limitless supply of preserved artefacts on display as well as, of course, the gigantic cemeteries of German, American, Canadian and British war dead.

What follows for S&G readers are the images I took away from the battlefields as they are today – both with commemorative crowds and as you will find them if you venture there at any other time. It is a journey well worth the making.