Normally held on the first Saturday of November, this year saw the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre’s season finale fall on the last day of October. Jamie Ewan made the trip into the heart of Bomber County for a night with Avro Lancaster ‘Just Jane’ for AeroResource for the East Kirkby Fireworks & Night Run 2015.
On April 25, 1945, nine Avro Lancasters powered into the night sky above Bomber County from RAF East Kirkby for the stations final act of war. Four aircraft from 57 Squadron departed to lay mines off the Norwegian coast and the other five aircraft from 630 Squadron joining the raid on the Eagles Nest in Berchtesgaden – Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat. With the last of the bombers lifting off towards the unknown, no one then could have imagined that the snarl of the Lancaster would still be heard there 70 years later. Seven decades on and the quiet surroundings of East Kirkby still reverberate with the heavenly rasping growl of Rolls Royce Merlin engines as the heart and soul of the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre (LAHC) comes to life through Avro Lancaster B.VII NX611 or ‘Just Jane’ as many know her.
With so many paying the ultimate sacrifice during the dark days of Bomber Command’s relentless offensive, it is always hard to focus on just one name with a connection to the story you are looking at – in this case East Kirkby and the LAHC – especially when you consider that 160 of the 12,330 bombers lost were in fact from East Kirkby’s 57 and 630 Squadrons with each carrying a crew of seven – 1,120 men in total of which 764 were killed in action. That said, the loss of Handley Page Halifax III HX272/BM-N ‘Nielson’s Nuthouse’ during the disastrous Nuremburg raid of March 1944 and, in particular the machine’s Flight Engineer, is the reason that LAHC exists.
Aged just 19, Flight Engineer Pilot Officer Christopher W Panton was hours away from completing his twenty-seventh raid – only three away from his first completed operational tour – when an unidentified German night fighter pounced on the aircraft and riddled it with bullets and an ensuing fire. Within seconds, another lethal burst of bullets from the enemy aircraft caused the Halifax to enter an uncontrollable dive with only three of the eight man crew managing to escape the mangled machine. Christopher’s Halifax was just one of the 95 bombers that were lost during the raid – a staggering 11.9 percent of the force sent to Nuremburg on that fateful night and, during that one night, Bomber Command would in fact suffer more losses than Fighter Command did during the entirety of the Battle of Britain.
Pilot Officer Panton’s two younger brothers, Fred and Harold, were aged just 13 and 10 when he was killed over Germany and, soon after, became determined to commemorate the death of their brother as well as all who were lost. Sadly, due to their Fathers views on the war and the loss of his eldest son, the brothers did not see where their sibling was laid to rest until 1970 when Fred travelled across to Germany to take a picture of his final resting place.
Having looked at purchasing a Halifax as a memorial piece, their father told them they were not allowed to store the aircraft on the family farm. This changed when Fred and Harold became co-owners in the farm. Soon after taking over, the brothers purchased more land including part of the defunct airfield at East Kirkby – an aircraft hard standing and several rundown buildings including the old control tower.
Having first set eyes on NX611 in 1972, it took 16 years for the Panton brothers to bring the machine to East Kirkby. Originally conceived to be a private and sombre family affair, suggestions were made that the aircraft and remnants of the airfield should be made public to allow future generations the opportunity to learn, and more importantly understand, the sacrifice made by those for the defence of the Empire.
Opening in 1988, the East Kirkby’s Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre is now a living memorial to those men lost in battle, whom until recently – and sadly too late for many – have not received the recognition deserved for their efforts, heroism and sacrifices with one of hardest hitting images of the war at the head of it all, the Avro Lancaster.
Built by Austin Motors at their Longbridge factory in April 1945, the Lancaster destined to become ‘Just Jane’ was the third of a batch of 150 B.VIIs ordered for the British Commonwealth’s Tiger Force – the long-range heavy bomber force proposed for use against the Japanese. How the aircraft ended up at East Kirkby is a tale that has been regaled throughout the world and includes spells with the Aéronavale as a maritime radar, cartography and search and rescue asset, huge ferry flights, auctions, test flights with engine failures. The story even includes a long spell as the gate guardian at another well-known Lincolnshire base and bombing raids over Indo-China – a role not too far from the machines intended purpose.
In a bizarre twist, NX611 would quite probably have ended up at East Kirkby for a time 70 years ago whilst the aircraft and crews of Tiger Force worked-up at the Lincolnshire base in preparation for their move east. With the Japanese surrendering on September 2, 1945 after the nuclear attacks on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tiger Force was disbanded and NX611 placed into storage following the world changing event.
Lincolnshire itself played a major role in Bomber Command’s offensive with hundreds of bombers climbing aloft from the county on a nightly basis – filling the air with the snarl of war. In many cases, those heading towards the unknown failed to return – most becoming a number in the horrifying statistics of Bomber Command’s losses. Throughout the course of the war, the Royal Air Force launched some 392,137 raids, during which 12,330 bombers were lost killing 55,373 of the approximate 120,000 who volunteered for Bomber Command – the average age of which was just 22. 26,911 of those were killed flying operations from the county of Lincolnshire alone. Broken down, if you took a group of 100 airmen, 45 were killed, six were seriously wounded, eight became Prisoners of War and only 41 escaped physically unscathed – who knows how many of those suffered psychologically. Such were Bomber Command’s losses, if each of those lost received just one day of remembrance since VE Day – May 8, 1945 – it would take until July 2, 2097 for each name to be honoured.
Normally held on the first Saturday of November, this year’s event fell on the last day of October and, like previous years, saw the culmination of the work and effort by all at the LAHC with ‘Just Jane’ performing three ‘runs’ – including one under the cover of darkness – followed by a spectacular fireworks finale. Sat on the dispersal, there was a constant hive of activity around the aircraft including a number of period dressed re-enactors who who happy to pose and chat imparting their unique knowledge. The added atmosphere as they stood with the aircraft and related material was a nice touch. Given the tight confines of the aircraft’s dispersal, the crowds were able to get up close and personal with the action including spying the machines 70th Anniversary marks on the nose signifying the fact that, as the last aircraft left East Kirkby for its final act of war, ‘Just Jane’ was just coming off the production line.
With the early attendees of the day gathered around, ex-Battle of Britain Memorial Flight pilot Mike Chatterton coaxed the first of the Rolls Royce Merlin engines into life for the first of the day’s runs. Being in such close proximity to one of the finest looking and sounding aircraft of all time is one of those things in aviation you can’t describe but that feeling gets even better as the wingtip passes by just feet away. Rather appropriately, a re-enactor playing the role of a Group Captain was on hand to salute ‘Just Jane’ as she trundled out onto the grass of the wartime airfield.
Filling the air with a growl, many couldn’t help but notice that the aircraft’s port aileron was missing. As part of the ongoing effort to return NX611 to the skies, the component is currently undergoing overhaul to flight condition with the work needed taking longer than initially thought. Given the airfield’s rich history with the type, one could almost have been standing on the airfield back in 1944 watching a battle torn Lancaster arriving back at its base from a raid against the Third Reich.
Following the same pattern as the first run, the aircraft performed another faultless second taxi run in what turned out to be the better light of the day before heading back to the dispersal in preparation for the highlight – the night run. Sitting dormant on its parking spot, ‘Just Jane’ made a fine silhouette against the dark brooding skies of Bomber County as the last amber rays of light pierced the sky.
With a couple of hours to spare between the runs, there was ample time to take in the the sights and sounds of the centre including D-Day veteran Douglas C47A Skytrain ‘Drag Em Oot’, the restoration of Handley Page Hampden TB.I AE436 under the Brian Nicholls Hampden Restoration Project and the remains of Wellington IA L7775 – the latter representing the largest remains of the type outside of the collections at Hendon and Brooklands. The Lincolnshire Aircraft Recovery Group are also located at East Kirkby and have a number of displays including the substantial remains of Supermarine Spitfire Vb BL655 and memorials to the 14 men killed over Ruskington when Lancasters ME473 and ND572 collided – the latter a 57 Squadron aircraft.
Throughout the day a number of lectures were given on Bombing up, Second World War flying Kit and Escape & Evasion, cementing the LAHC’s ethos – ‘If one person goes away with a better knowledge of Bomber Command, their losses and what they gave for our country, we are one step closer to repaying our debt to them’. Sadly, the planned demonstration from an original German Second World War 60cm searchlight unit was cancelled due to an unforeseen technical problem.
As darkness took over the airfield, the anticipation grew while the ground crew went through their various tasks. Before long, the cold air was again broken by Just Jane’s snarl accompanied by the hypnotic spits of blue flame from the exhaust stubs. Creeping forward into the night, the only clue of the Lancaster still being there was the steady crescendo slowly pulsating from within the darkness – one can only imagine the sound that engulfed a Bomber Command station as squadron of heavies taxied out for a strike, followed by another and quite possibly another.
Emerging from the dark, the Lancaster stopped on the way back to her dispersal to allow the crowds to admire this creature of war and the photographers enough time to fire off a number of long exposures. After a last burst of power, ‘Just Jane’ moved slowly to her final spot for the night for what to many is the highlight of the night run – each of the four Merlins being taken up to 2,000rpm. The best way to describe this sheer spectacle of 1940’s power? A spine tingling, ground shaking, chest thumping heavenly growl!
Shutting down for the final time, silence once again prevailed over East Kirkby only to be broken by the rapturous applause from the smiling, albeit cold crowd. What followed was one of the biggest fireworks displays in the country courtesy of Jubilee Fireworks, bringing to an end to the days entertainment with a bang. A fantastic day… and night for just £10!