Sunday, 21 September 2014

Three Lancasters Grace The Skies Over Lincoln

A pretty, young WAAF drives the crew out to where their Lancaster Bomber awaits. Before she set off she checked her reflection in her silver compact. Her blonde hair is neatly tucked into a roll at the nape of her neck, the ruby red has faded a little on her plump lips, but she'll do. Some of the boys engage in banter, and laughter flows, slicing through the cool night air.
'Come on, Joan, come out with me some time,' a young airman calls out, almost pleading. He mustn't be bothered about the rumors, but the boys beside him exchange nervous glances. 'Everyone who takes her out gets the chop,' one of them whispers.  Joan laughs it off. She never goes out with any of them - not anymore. Some are silent, looking ahead to where their Lancaster waits on the dispersal pan, her dark form looming out, swathed in moonlight. This shuttle run might be their last but Joan is the consummate actress, disguising apprehension beneath a cloak of frivolity while she paints on a smile for the boys.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The transport wagon slows to a halt and the boys bid her farewell. Sleet begins to fall, wet and cold as seven men clamber inside the Lancaster through the side door. Each one harbors fear as black and bleak as the night, but they keep it locked away. And the Lancaster will be their protector now since she is all that stands between them and the enemy and they must pull together like a team if they are to survive this night. This 1000 bomber raid.

This is their twentieth mission. As they fly over Lincoln Cathedral and head towards the Channel, their hearts sink. This might be the last time they see England, a thought that accompanies them on every mission. They have flown the darkened skies, silhouetted against the bomber's moon time after time, dodging flak, twisting, turning and diving in a frantic fight as they try to avoid being coned by the searchlights. They've sat helpless, shuddering as aircraft explode alongside them, showering them with debris and plumes of thick smoke. But there's no time to dwell in this place where every second counts. They've sailed through the fires of hell and felt the heat and all its fury. They've braved the plummeting temperatures and witnessed the burns of fire and of ice while hyperventilating behind oxygen masks during the heat of battle, well aware their fate lies in another's hands. 

But this night they cross the Channel where the moonlight dances upon the crest of the waves. It is almost mesmerising to those weary airmen looking down into the dark waters. Then, as dawn breaks, the towers of Lincoln Cathedral rise up in the distance with mighty arms to shepherd them home to their base. There, they will change and head to the mess hall for a hearty breakfast. There, they will see the tables laid out lovingly for all crews, and as they take their seats, they will cast sideways glances at the empty tables, with seven place settings each, seats that will not be filled this day. Bunks that will be stripped and made ready for fresh crews, the identities of the former occupants erased. They will remember, but for now they will try and block out what the night holds until this war is over. It's the only way to get through.


The picture below was taken at Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre on the 7th September 2014. It was a special day and a truly spectacular event. Just Jane, the non-flying Lancaster owned by the Centre was center stage as shown, whilst our very own Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster flew overhead, accompanied by the Mynarski Memorial Lancaster, which had flown all the way from Canada for a special tour.  The sound of twelve Merlin engines roaring was amazing and something I will never forget. It was a truly fitting tribute to the men of Bomber Command and to all those who were once based here at East Kirkby. 
3 Lancs Event, Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre
East Kirkby is in Lincolnshire - bomber county. Along the road is RAF Coningsby. And then there's Woodhall Spa and the Petwood hotel, the former home to 617 Squadron, The Dambusters. 
The Petwood Hotel, Woodhall Spa
After the war, the former base at East Kirkby reverted back to agricultural land. It's the home of the Panton's. Harold and Fred Panton were boys during the war and their elder brother served with Bomber Command. Christopher Whitton Panton was shot down and killed during a bombing raid over Nuremberg on 30/31 March 1944. His grave lies in Germany. 

Later, in the 70's, Fred Panton went on a journey to see his brother's grave for the first time. Then, when the Lancaster bomber NX611 (Just Jane) came up for sale, both he and his brother decided to buy it. They kept her in an old hangar on their land at East Kirkby, the former RAF base which also houses various other old buildings including the original watch tower. The museum was then in the making, although they did not realise it at the time. 

The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre finally opened in 1988 and has grown in popularity ever since. They serve as an important fixture in this former bomber county and bring much joy and nostalgia to thousands of people and to all the veterans who visit. 

It's a very special place and from the moment I set foot on the grass it felt like coming home. The tower was one of the places I wanted to spend time in - mainly because I've read that it's haunted. Once inside it really is like stepping back in time. It's preserved as a museum exhibit, with the original equipment from the period and some fabulous dummies as WAAF's and RAF officers. As you wander around you have the sounds of the R/T for company - the contact between the tower and the approaching aircraft. It's fantastic just to stand for a while and listen - it gives you a real sense of how it would have been during the war. There are also the sounds of approaching bombers, coming in to land. It really is quite a peaceful place and I can safely say that I did not sense anything 'spooky' at all. If there are spirits then they must be at peace.
Inside the watch tower
Outside, re-enactors milled around, some dressed as American Air Force, some dressed as RAF and WAAF. The uniforms were very authentic and they really did look the part. They do a fabulous job and if you ask nicely they'll gladly pose for photos. Below, they look as if they've just returned from a mission, or they're just about to board for one. 
Re-enactors with Lancaster NX611 Just Jane
The best, of course, is when the Pilot starts up the Merlin engines. One after another, they roar to life and it's spellbinding. This Lancaster is not airworthy, although they are still hoping to raise enough funds to make her so. But for now, she taxi's up and down and sits content whilst people come to gaze at her in awe.
Re-enactors with Lancaster NX611 Just Jane
The flypast was the highlight of the day. Twelve Merlin engine's roaring - eight of them above us as the last two flying Lancaster's performed the flypast. We were privy to four passes in all and it was a superb display. The sight of them flying overhead and the roar of the engines was spine tingling but all too soon they're flying off into the horizon, back to RAF Coningsby.
Two Lancaster Bombers

The other highlight was meeting some of the veterans of Bomber Command. It was lovely to speak with them and shake their hand. 

And, right on time, the flypast was as expected - magnificent, only this time there was a slight change to the grand finale. Both flying Lancaster's left us by performing what is known as a Prince of Wales Break - they split, one peeling off to the left, the other to the right. You can just see the beginning of the break.
Lancaster Bombers perform the Prince of Wales Break
Back inside the hangar, a certain gentleman caught my eye. Elderly, grey hair swept back, sitting crouched over a book he was busy signing. For a split second I thought my eyes deceived me, but no, it was definitely him - George 'Johnny' Johnson, a former Dambuster. I've seen him on television so many times, but I never thought I'd get the chance to meet him. To his right was Eric Quinney, also signing books. I was fortunate to meet Eric at the first event on the 7th, when he happily posed for a picture. He played the RAF pilot who flew P-Popsie in the Dambusters film which starred Richard Todd. Next to Eric, was Mary Stopes-Roe, who is the daughter of Barnes Wallis - the brilliant scientist who developed the bouncing bomb which made the Dambusters raid possible. For those who may not be aware, Johnny Johnson is one of two surviving Dambusters. The other is Fred Sutherland, a Canadian. 
Eric Quinney
I wondered what I would say to Mr Johnson when I met him - my last minute moment of euphoria and then I was there. His sparkling blue eyes suggested a friendly, gentle man, which indeed he is. He signed my book and even though he was having books thrust at him, one after another by one of his aides, he shook my hand and posed for photographs. My few minutes with Mr George "Johnny" Johnson, the man who walked and flew with other brave men, the man who returned from Operation Chastise, were some of the best minutes of my entire life, for which I am so grateful.
George 'Johnny' Johnson.
For me, seeing the Lancasters fly once again was simply beautiful. They represent so much, especially the young men who flew in them, and of which 55,573 were killed, including more than 10,000 Canadians. But seeing the veterans and chatting with them was truly an honour and perhaps in many ways, even more special. 

In 1940, Winston Churchill declared, "The fighters are our salvation, but the bombers alone provide the means of victory." History would eclipse these brave, young men, many of whom were mere boys of eighteen. Churchill and the Government saw to it that they were the forgotten, the sidelined, perhaps the marked men at whom much criticism was aimed. 

For many years, Sir Arthur Harris, Commander -in-Chief of Bomber Command, known as Bomber Harris, was criticised for the grand scale aerial bombing campaigns, in particular, Dresden. However, many of the public may not realise that such decisions were not taken by Harris at all. It was in fact the Air Ministry along with the support of Churchill. The bombing of Dresden was ordered directly by Churchill in February 1945. Bomber Harris was highly respected by his men and whilst he believed that the bombing of civilian targets would shorten the war, it is only fitting to remember that Britain was the first receiver of such aerial bombing campaigns by the Luftwaffe. 

Bomber crews faced such formidable odds. The statistics were frightening and during the offensives of 1943 and 1944, statistics portrayed that less than 25 out of every 100 crews would survive their first tour of thirty operations. Despite such damning figures and great loss of life, young men continued to volunteer to serve with the RAF. Whilst many paid the ultimate sacrifice, it was done with unfaltering courage and we will be forever in their debt. We will remember them.

In commemoration of the day, I give you this beautiful print by my friend and talented graphic artist, Kevan Platts. I believe they are available to buy. Kevan very graciously gave me one of the prints - it's fabulous, vivid and truly breathtaking. He's extremely talented and I'm blessed to have it as a beautiful memento of the events. Long after the Canadian Lancaster's departure, I can sit and gaze and remember.
Print courtesy of Kevan Platts of Mugshot Graphics

Finally, I give thanks to the Panton family, for taking the initial step when they bought an old wartime bomber. Over the passing of time, what they have achieved with their wonderful centre is to pay respect continually to all who served with Bomber Command, and to all who gave their lives in that service. It's a place of beauty and of inspiration and poignancy. Visit the chapel and read the list of names of all the airmen who lost their lives whilst in service at RAF East Kirkby. In the specific sections of the museum there are letters that were written by some of the servicemen, offering a looking glass view of times gone by. It truly is a special place. 

Links: -Kevan Platts, Graphics Artist.

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