Monday, April 29, 2013

The "Bottle" of Britain

Or, a Visit to the Royal Air Force Museum

My past two weeks away from History Matters have been very busy ones.  Before going to bed last night, I realized I have not even scratched the surface yet regarding sharing photos and stories from my adventure to England and Normandy in March.  Thus, today we continue our historical extravaganza in the suburbs of London--home of the Royal Air Force Museum.  Compiled from a hodge podge of buildings both old and contemporary, the complex is a large one filled to the brim with every manner of British (and sometime American and German) aircraft.  The story was much bigger than that, however.  The museum conveys the personal stories of explorers, aviators, navigators, radiomen, ground crews, and mechanics.  So too is the story more encompassing than the traditionally romantic image of biplane fighters with white scarves flapping in the wind (although it was evident here still).  One of the first scenes one is greeted with at the museum is a Hurricane and Spitfire dangerously strafing the parking lot.

By far the coolest hangar on site was the old Grahame-White factory.  In some ways, this could be considered a birthplace of the Royal Air Force.  This was one of the United Kingdom's first factories to mass-produce airplanes for the military.  Built in 1917 at the height of WWI, stepping onto the grounds was much like walking into a movie set or, dare I say, something from Downton Abbey.  This structure was part of a much larger complex, but for the most part, this is the only impressive feature of it that still exists.

Inside, more treasures were to be found.  Scores of vintage WWI-era biplanes graced the massive hall of the old factory hangar.  Interesting enough, I discovered that many of these survived through the ages because they were converted into planes intended for use in civilian flying schools, barnstorming businesses, and crop dusting.  How they survived scrap drives during the World War of twenty years later is beyond me.  Perhaps an even more horrifying aspect of these planes is that many pilots flew them without the capacity for parachutes.  So, what if their engine caught fire or their wings were shot up?  Their personal predicament was often solved with a revolver they kept at their side.

One of the museum's more recent acquisitions is this replica of a German Albatros.  It's wood paneling and fuselage reminded me of the colorful assortment of planes and flyers from the Great War.  Seeing this plane reminded me of a story I once read while in an undergraduate course on the conflict.  Flight-Commander James McCudden of the 56 Royal Flying Squadron encountered a plane much like this in September 1917.  Helping to chase down its pilot, Werner Voss, McCudden wrote, "I shall never forget my admiration for that German pilot, who single-handed fought seven of us for ten minutes, and also put some bullets through our machines.  His flying was wonderful, his courage manifest, and in my opinion he is the bravest German airman whom it has been my privilege to see fight."  The British pilots regretted that they could not "have brought him down alive."

The inside of the Grahame-White factory would have looked something very much like this during the First World War.  Here, we see the construction of an AVRO 504 in an assembly shop.  Some 8,000 of them were constructed during the conflict.  Just imagine how many pilots were lost in these even if only a fraction of them were destroyed in combat.

In the Milestones of Flight Hall, one could see how readily air travel and combat had changed in a mere twenty-five years.  Greeting me at the entrance was the classic P-51 Mustang--perhaps the finest plane of WWII.  (This one was named "Donald Duck.")  The plane was obviously an American design but this one had a Rolls-Royce engine inside.  As a museum plaque noted, what better way to symbolize the notion of British and American partnership?

Furthermore, the color of the plane's nose reminded me of the recent film Red Tails and the plight of African American soldiers in Europe.  In communities only miles away from this museum, African Americans were welcomed into pubs, restaurants and clubs by the local populace.  As one of these soldiers recalled, he was treated more like an American citizen in England than he was in his own country.  Still, the ugly shadow of Jim Crow lingered here and there--sometimes erupting in race riots between white and black GIs in the months leading up to the Normandy invasion.

Anybody else love the humorously ironic phrase painted on the side of this British aircraft?

And here is the big picture of the plane--the Avro Lancaster 1.  The photo simply does not do it justice.  The bomber is massive beyond description and is one of the few survivors of the war and its aftermath.  But as the museum noted, "it is worth remembering that the average age of the seven-man crew was only 22 years. They endured danger and discomfort and many showed great courage in continuing to fly knowing the odds against survival were high. Bomber Command suffered the highest casualty rate of any branch of the British services in World War Two."  Much of the same is true of the U.S. Army Air Force--which lost more men over the skies of Europe than the Marines lost in the entire Pacific War.

Literally right under the nose of this Lancaster, I had my own brush with history when I met this gentleman.  His name was Tony Lobbel, an actual RAF veteran from WWII!  As it turned out, he was an air cadet during the war and flew in both a Lancaster like the one behind him as well as a B-17 that had been supplied by the Americans.  He performed these tasks and training exercises at age seventeen.  I had an enjoyable conversation with him in the shadow of this iconic aircraft.  (His talking points ranged from WWII history to how bad American healthcare is.)

Speaking of a B-17, they had one of those on display too, with an oddly enthusiastic American crew boarding it.  I was most surprised to find such a large portion of the RAF Museum dedicated to the AAF and Yanks in Britain.  Large quantities of vehicles, planes, uniforms, and mock offices adorned a whole wing of this hangar.  I sensed a British affinity or kinship to Americans of the WWII generation that we Yanks somewhat lack for our own 1940s allies.  Perhaps this scenario is so simply because they did not have the presence in our country as we did in theirs.  I found the displays compelling for these reasons and more.

We also saw a 4D short film entitled B-17: The Mission.  Of course, it is not as spectacular without the 3D imagery, surround sound, and puffs of smoke that shot out of the seat in front of you.  Regardless, here it is for your viewing pleasure.

Among the items in the American displays cases were items and uniforms belonging to generals in the pantheon of U.S. airmen, including Jimmy Doolittle and Ira Eaker.  The latter was seemingly popular with the Brits, in part for making this comment to them: “We won’t do much talking until we’ve done more fighting. After we’ve gone, we hope you’ll be glad we came.”  A proponent of daylight precision bombing among the Allies, Eaker was a hard-nosed leader who once said, "The German people cannot take that kind of terror much longer."  Some of his actions during the war, but especially those of Curtis LeMay, have become a point of moral conjecture and debate among historians and philosophers since.

One of the more eerie exhibits was the rusty shell of the W1048 Halifax bomber that had been recovered from the waters near Aasfjord in Norway.  This plane plus twenty-nine other Halifaxes and twelve Lancasters were tasked with destroying a massive German battleship.  This was one of several shot down while trying to accomplish that mission.

A whole building was dedicated to the Battle of Britain--undoubtedly the RAF's finest moment.  This structure was not only filled with German aircraft and haunting sounds of air raid sirens, but also a highly human element that offered you civilian perspectives of the Blitz.  Here, I stand in a recreation of the Underground (or subways), where Londoners took shelter as the air war raged above.  "Be on your guard!"

Other exhibits here had an immersive quality to them as well.  You can actually walk (or crawl) through this Short Sunderland MR5 boat plane that was used to fish out downed pilots from the English Channel as the Battle of Britain was tearing up the skies.  Radio transmissions play as you tour one end of the aircraft to the other.  This plane too is mammoth and I can only imagine what it looked and sounded like during a landing.  Walking through, I tapped on fuselage.  It seemed paper thin.  Despite this, the Germans called in the "Flying Porcupine" due to its heavy machines on board.  The plane was used by the RAF until the late 1950s.

This fun afternoon was concluded in the RAF Museum restaurant named "Wings."  (Get the double-meaning?)  Keeping in tune with the theme of the day, I had some delicious beef stew with a refreshing Spitfire Kentish Ale--also known as "The Bottle of Britain."  Cheers.

No comments:

Post a Comment