The view from Stow Maries

Word has come in from the outposts of S&G territory – in this case, Essex – of some wonderful goings-on. In this instance it is the restoration of a First World War Airfield to full working order at Stow Maries.

This little patch of farmland, located between the seaside town of Malden and the county town of Chelmsford, is home to some buildings that were erected a century ago for a very particular purpose. These fields were once a hive of activity during the defence of London in the First World War, after marauding Zeppelins became a regular menace during 1915 and the massed daylight bombing raids of Gotha aircraft swept Britain into a state of hysteria.

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The attacking Gotha bombers photographed over London

In September 1916, the hastily-built airfield at Stow Maries received the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2s of ‘B’ Flight of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron. The favoured route for German raiders was to make landfall on the Essex coast and then cruise down towards Epping Forest in the knowledge that within minutes their bombs would fall near something valuable.

The first commanding officer at the aerodrome was Lieutenant Claude Ridley, who was only 19 years of age. On the evening of 23/24 May 1917 Ridley, promoted to Captain, and Lieutenant G. Keddie made the first recorded operational flight from the aerodrome in response to a large Zeppelin raid targeting London.

Air defence was in its infancy and for every Zeppelin brought down in a sea of falling flame there were hundreds of hours spent by pilots tootling around in the dark. Often they had to light flares on the end of their wings to see the runway on final approach. It was dark and dangerous work but ultimately something of a footnote in the history of the conflict.

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Alone in the great big sky: the solitary life of Home Defence flying re-created

Not that this precluded the growth of Stow Maries, which soon saw ‘A’ Flight of 37 Squadron arrive alongside the rest of the unit. It was a busy time for London and, during the early hours of 17 June 1917, 2nd Lieutenant L. P. Watkins was credited with the downing of Zeppelin L48 at Theberton in Suffolk – the last Zeppelin brought down on British soil before the arrival of the fixed-wing Gotha bombers.

It was these massed daylight raids that caused pandemonium in the capital, and 37 Squadron was in the thick of the action on 7 July 1917 when 22 Gotha bombers made one of the heaviest raids on London. The combination of unreliable engines, numerous landing accidents and increasingly effective Home Defence – not only from the aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service but also the anti-aircraft batteries ringing London – took a heavy toll on the daylight raiders. Soon they were compelled to fly at night and in smaller groups.

At its peak, Stow Maries was home to 219 staff and 16 aircraft – centred around all three flights of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. It’s original B.E.2 aircraft were replaced first with the B.E.12 and, much later, with the Sopwith Camel.

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Both inside and out, Stow Maries is returning to former glories

Unlike other Home Defence stations which were further developed and would win fame in the later Battle of Britain in 1940 – Biggin Hill, Manston and Hornchurch in particular – Stow Maries reverted to peacetime farming soon after the Armistice of 1918. After 37 Squafton’s departure in March 1919, its buildings were abandoned and forgotten about until a group of enthusiasts happened upon them and discovered what amounted to the only preserved World War 1 airfield in existence.

In the space of four years between 2007 and 2011, six of these buildings were fully conserved and one partially conserved. The decades of neglect were brushed aside and the structures were restored with appropriate materials in accordance with their original construction and architectural detailing.

Now, after venturing down a rather rustic farm track, it is possible to walk into the world of 1917 where the volunteers have now restored the Ambulance Shed and Mortuary, the Blacksmith’s Shed, the Workshop and Dope Shop and the NCO Mess. The Squadron Offices have now been rebuilt and house the museum, while the Workshop and Dope Shop have been conserved to comply with modern workshop environment conditions, but behind the modern internal wall finish is the original fabric untouched.

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Fixtures, fittings and the occasional bit of hardware can now be seen by visitors

Work is indeed undertaken on aircraft at Stow Maries – aircraft of 1914-18 vintage. In the only modern construction to be found at the site you will find hangared an assortment of tool-room copies of WW1 aircraft built by Sir Peter Jackson’s brilliant operation in New Zealand, The Vintage Aviator Ltd.

Recently, Stow Maries hosted its first fly-in for these magnificent aircraft, from where these photos have been provided. Complete with a supporting cast of re-enactors buzzing around the partially-restored Pilots’ Ready Room (the S&G collectively remains a little unsure about the value of re-enactors), the sights and sounds of aviation were laid out for the assembled hordes.

The Bristol Scout, Albatros D.V, and Sopwith Snipe encapsulated the progress made in aircraft design in 1916-18, while the B.E.2 was utterly at home on the field from which 37 Squadron campaigned the type so vigorously against the bombers. It is an amazing sight to see the facilities and the machines in an environment all-but unchanged in a century, and long may the good folk who have brought Stow Maries back to life continue to offer the world such a unique insight into the war.

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There is still much work to be done, the roll-call of buildings requiring or undergoing conservation includes:

  • Office and Communications Room
  • Motor Transport Shed
  • Royal Engineers’ Workshop
  • Generator Hut
  • Reception/Headquarters Building

If there is the will, the energy and the funding available, a further 14 buildings may yet also be saved to complete the restoration, these being:

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  • Officers’ Mess
  • Officers’ Quarters (four buildings)
  • Men’s Accommodation Block
  • NCO Accommodation
  • WRAF Accommodation (three buildings)
  • Water Tower and Reservoir (two buildings)
  • Fuel Store
  • Ammunition Store

To find out more about the airfield, the aircraft, when and how to visit and for news on forthcoming events please visit the website of this remarkable undertaking.

More World War 1 aviation for the 2015 season

An exciting airshow season is ahead with much to savour for fans of World War 1 aviation. Last year the national home of airworthy vintage aircraft, the Shuttleworth Collection, was quite rightly focused on the return of its De Havilland DH.88 Comet Grosvenor House to the skies after more than two decades, marking the 80th anniversary of her win in the Macrobertson Air Race but in 2015 it looks like biplanes are in pole position.

This year the Collection’s unique selection of First World War aircraft at its Old Warden home will be bolstered with a reproduction Sopwith Camel, complete with a period Clerget 130hp rotary engine. Originally built in 2001 by Northern Aeroplane Workshops, the Shuttleworth Collection engineers have been beavering away getting it ready for display appearances later in 2015 wearing the markings of the Ruston Proctor-built D1851 when flown in 1918 by 70 Squadron, RAF.

'Ikanopit' is sure to be a hit - and a handful to fly!

‘Ikanopit’ is sure to be a hit – and a handful to fly!

Carrying the legend ‘Ikanopit’ (I can hop it!), the original D1851, in the hands of Lieutenant W. Gowan, survived a mid-air collision with its squadron mate D1796 flown by Lieutenant S. Rochford. Its reproduction will make an extremely welcome addition to the Shuttleworth shows this year, where it will doubtless fly alongside the collection’s original Sopwith Pup – although a three-ship formation with the reproduction Sopwith Triplane is still some time off as the damage from the latter’s landing accident last year is repaired.

Two beautiful Sopwith scouts will star in 2015

Two beautiful Sopwith scouts will star in 2015

Also currently at Old Warden is a Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a, which is ultimately going to join the WW1 Aviation Heritage Trust (WAHT), based at Bicester Heritage in Oxfordshire. Last year the Bicester group took the WW1 scene by storm with a pair of Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2e aircraft and is following up with three new additions, of which the S.E.5a is the first arrival.

Pictured behind Shuttleworth's genuine ex-Savage S.E.5 a is WAHT's new replica

Pictured behind Shuttleworth’s genuine ex-Savage S.E.5 a is WAHT’s new replica

Still to arrive in the UK are WAHT’s other two new attractions: a reproduction Albatros D.Va and a muscular little Sopwith Snipe reproduction, both of which hail from Peter Jackson’s Vintage Aviator company in New Zealand. The Albatros,  was recently air tested by the legendary Kermit Weeks prior to disassembly and freighting halfway around the world. The flying schedule for the year includes a display at the Shuttleworth Collection and an appearance at the Goodwood Revival.

WAHT's Albatros gets an air test from Kermit Weeks

WAHT’s Albatros gets an air test from Kermit Weeks

WAHT has now opened a funding campaign to raise the £11,200 it needs to reassemble the newcomers when they arrive in Britain – details of which can be found at the trust’s website.

3 Lancasters at East Kirkby

A dozen Merlins roar as the three Lancasters are brought together

A dozen Merlins roar as the three Lancasters are brought together – East Kirkby, September 14 2014

Bringing three priceless aircraft together 70 years after their prime was always going to be a big ask. Originally scheduled for 2 September, the dramatic engine failure suffered by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Lancaster ‘VeRA’ put paid to many plans to witness the three big Avros in action together – and one could only sympathise with the Canadian team, the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the redoubtable Panton family as they dealt with the issue.

Days before the original reunion, VeRA was forced down in Durham (pic. borrowed from BBC)

Days before the original reunion, VeRA was forced down in Durham (pic. borrowed from BBC)

The irony was not lost that the Canadian Lancaster wears the colours of KB726, code VR-A, in which Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski earned a posthumous Victoria Cross for attempting to save the live of his rear gunner when they were shot down in flames in June 1944. It was from this airfield, in its wartime guise of RAF Middleton St. George, that Pilot Officer Mynarski and the rest of No. 419 ‘Moose’ Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force took off on the fateful mission.

Nevertheless, thanks to the BBMF and the Pantons, a replacement Merlin was fitted and plumbed in at a pace not seen in almost 70 years and the two flying Lancasters were reunited in the air in time for their remaining dates, including the Goodwood Revival. Meanwhile the Pantons worked feverishly to get a new date for the ‘3 Lancasters’ event – not least calling every ticket holder in person to let them know that their tickets would be valid for a rescheduled event on Sunday, 14 September.

Made it at last - the three Lancasters set hearts a-flutter

Made it at last – the three Lancasters set hearts a-flutter

Thousands of people made the return journey to the fabulous Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre at East Kirkby, to soak up the atmosphere beneath brooding clouds. Many were in their tenth decade, men with breasts brightened by medals and women who had lived and worked around the Lancasters as they flew out towards occupied Europe every night.  By 15:20 the crowd was five deep along the full length of the flight line and then, with the museum’s own ‘Just Jane’ ticking over on the field, her two sisters hove into view.

The fourth and final pass brought the Lancasters towards the crowd line

The fourth and final pass brought the Lancasters towards the crowd line

It was a truly magnificent occasion and an achievement that was well worth the wait. Not until Peter Jackson finally leaves Middle Earth behind him and begins recreating RAF Woodhall Spa for his long-awaited Dam-Busters remake will such a sight be seen again – and at least on this occasion there was no CGI involved!

Congratulations and deserved thanks to the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum and the Panton family for making this once-in-a-lifetime spectacular come true.

Final salute - the Lancs bid farewell after their unique reunion

Final salute – the Lancs bid farewell after their unique reunion

From two Lancasters to three!

News last month that the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Avro Lancaster will be flying across the Atlantic this August to take part in a series of events with the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight truly set hearts a-flutter. For the first, and likely only, time in their remaining lifetimes the last two airworthy examples of the mighty ‘Lanc’ will be joining forces – for many airshow goers it simply couldn’t get better than that.

Until, that is, it was announced that the pair would be adding an extra date to their schedule when they fly over East Kirkby airfield, home of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre and residence of the other active Lancaster in Britain: the celebrated ‘Just Jane’.

'Just Jane' will create a thundering trio of Lancasters at East Kirkby on September 2nd

‘Just Jane’ will create a thundering trio of Lancasters at East Kirkby on September 2nd

The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre is a privately owned and run museum that was founded by farmers Fred and Harold Panton as a tribute to their eldest brother, Christopher, who was shot down and killed as aircrew on a bombing raid over Nuremberg on 30/31 March 1944. The Panton family farmed nearby the wartime Bomber Command station at East Kirkby and the young brothers,Fred aged 13 and Harold aged 10 ½ when their brother died, became accustomed to living cheek-by-jowl with the heavy bombers throughout the last three years of the war.

In his grief, their father forbade all talk of Christopher and the war for many years, in which time the boys became successful poultry farmers. In the 1970s the brothers finally visited Christopher’s grave and, in 1981, bought the former airfield at East Kirkby, which had remained an operational air base until the late 1950s and subsequently become a chicken farm.

The airfield was purchased not only for the useful extension of their poultry business but also as a home for the brothers’ other recent purchase – a Lancaster bomber.

Almost airborne, almost airworthy: 'Just Jane' stretches her legs

Almost airborne, almost airworthy: ‘Just Jane’ stretches her legs

Their Lancaster B.Mk.VII, serial NX611, was built at the Longbridge works by Austin Motors in April 1945 as the third aircraft of an order for 150 Lancaster B.VIIs destined to join the RAF’s TIGER FORCE for operations in the Far East against the Japanese.

TIGER FORCE was never required, and the Lancasters were consigned to storage until April 1952, when 54 of the aircraft were sold to the French government for £50,000 apiece to serve as maritime reconnaissance aircraft.

For the next decade the Lancaster was flown from bases in Brittany and Morocco. She then flew halfway round the world to New Caledonia, a French island territory approximately 1000 miles east of Australia, where she took part in bombing missions in the long war for independence in French Indochina.  Upon decommissioning in 1964, NX611 was bought by the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society and flown back from Australia to the UK thanks to funding from the RAF, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Hawker Siddeley Group, Shell Petroleum and Qantas.

Upon returning to Britain, NX611 was restored to wartime configuration and flew regularly until 1970 when she was deemed to be beyond economic viability. The Lancaster was put up for auction – with the Panton brothers among the bidders at that time – but after much wrangling the Lancaster ended up on display at the gate of RAF Scampton, where she would remain for the next 14 years.

The Pantons had never given up on their dream of owning the Lancaster, however, and in 1983 their offer to purchase her was finally accepted – although she remained on duty at Scampton until 1987, when the long task of dismantling and moving her to East Kirkby for restoration would begin.

It was discovered that the airframe and engines remained sound, despite their long years out in the elements, and from 1990-95 she was overhauled one step at a time until she was able to taxi with all four engines bellowing.

 

With the airfield restored to its former glory and brimful of Bomber Command artefacts, the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Museum has subsequently become a Mecca for historians, enthusiasts and film-makers alike – including Peter Jackson and his Dam-Busters screenwriter Stephen Fry – for the past 20 years. In 2011, it was used in the filming of the BBC’s Doctor Who episode, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe.

Fred Panton passed away suddenly in the summer of 2013, leaving a remarkable legacy in the care of  his brother and their family. All the more remarkable for the fact that ‘Just Jane’ might yet return to the skies. The relentless determination of the brothers, allied to such fine fund-raising devices as ‘Taxi Rides’ for paying punters and a very fine line in charitable cheeses, has brought NX611 to the required standard to apply for a Certificate of Airworthiness – although both funding and the possible implications for the nature and character of the museum continue to keep enthusiasm tempered.

Within 24 hours of the announcement that the only two Lancasters currently flying in the world would be paying a visit to East Kirkby and the third airworthy example, all 5,000 tickets were sold out. On September 2nd there will be 12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engines thrumming across this perfectly preserved memorial to the men of Bomber Command – and the S&G will be there to record the occasion for all who cannot be there.

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If the Canadian Lancaster’s twin displays with the BBMF are the airshow event of the decade, then this will undoubtedly be the defining moment. To find out more about the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, visit its website here.

Western Front Warbirds #1

Aircraft of the 1914-18 war were far from durable. The survival of any at all after a century is something of a marvel, so let’s celebrate their ongoing existence – and those faithfully rebuilt, restored and replicated examples as well. It’s all a long way from Biggles and from Snoopy’s imaginary battles with the Red Baron…

The RAF Museum's FE2b - as good as a new one

The RAF Museum’s FE2b – as good as a new one

Our first survivor is this Royal Aircraft Factory FE2b, a type which flew as fighter, bomber and reconnaissance aircraft from 1916-18. It’s quite a work of art and features heavily in Derek Robinson’s brilliant tale of the Battle of the Somme, War Story.

This particular aircraft never saw action… indeed it took 90 years to build! The bathtub-like nacelle which holds the engine amidships and the crew of two out in front was built in early 1918 by Richard Garrett & Sons near Lowestoft, but was never delivered. Instead it sat around the factory until 1976 when it was donated to the RAF.

In the late 1980s the search began for original components to finally, belatedly build this FE2b into a complete aircraft, gaining an engine and ancillaries by the mid-1990s but then work ground to a halt. Finally in 2007 the 90% complete aircraft was sent off to Retrotech near Hastings and assembled, the gaps filled in and she was given the markings of A6526, which flew night bomber operations with 58, 102 and 148 squadrons in 1917-18.

Of course while all this was going on, Peter Jackson built two of them from scratch, using original Beardmore engines and as many original components as he could find!

For more information on the RAF Museum, visit the site.

An artist at the controls in King Kong

Yes, it’s that man again… Peter Jackson, creator of Meet the Feebles and other more hobbity fayre, once again putting the sort of aircraft that fit right in at the Scarf and Goggles back on the silver screen.

In this case it’s the original Curtiss Helldiver – sister type to the aircraft which took a starring role in the original King Kong movie of 1933. When Jackson remade the movie which started him off on the road to tinseltown, he wanted the most authentic flying scene he could create, and without any surviving Curtiss biplanes of the right vintage he built a pair of new ones… just like his squadron of full-size Lancaster bombers being readied for The Dam-Busters.

Obviously most of the flying was done with CGI which gave him the chance to muck about a little. Hence the ‘pilot’ of the star aircraft is none other than aviation artist extraordinaire, Jim Dietz. Jim was able to counsel Jackson on the correct colour scheme for these beauties, and was rewarded with the best seat in the house for Kong’s vertiginous last stand – that of pilot in the leading aircraft. So enjoy one of Jackson’s little in-jokes anew:

“For Jim it was a childhood dream. He got to wear all the gear and fire blanks from a machine gun. He was like a little boy getting to play pilot,” said his wife, Patti.

To see more of Jim’s stunning artwork, go to his website – here!

Dogfight, Peter Jackson Style

Peter Jackson copped some flak from Richard Todd yesterday, but although remaking The Dam-Busters is never going to be easy, there’s still plenty of grounds for optimism.

After all, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is fantastic. As is The Hobbit. OK, a bit too much James Nesbitt for some tastes, but I think in time many people will end up preferring it to LOTR.

Not only that but this is a man who seriously loves aircraft and history. He’s invested millions in building a museum full of World War 1 artefacts and restoring or building 100% authentic ‘continuation’ examples of World War 1 aircraft that are flown for the public.

And as a little extra side dish, he funded the creation of Wingnut Wings – making the highest quality model kits on the market. Truly, this is a god amongst men.

So for your entertainment, here’s Jackson’s little experimental short film made using some of his World War 1 aircraft. Perhaps we can look forward to him doing his own Waldo Pepper-like movie before too long?