The heavenly roar of four Rolls Royce Merlin engines fills the air on a cold November night at the former RAF East Kirkby as resident Lancaster NX611 dances once again in the dark. Jamie Ewan was there for Aero Resource to witness this nostalgic event.
On April 25th 1945 the final wartime raid from RAF East Kirkby was launched with nine Avro Lancaster bombers powering into the night skies over ‘Bomber Country’- four aircraft from 57 Squadron heading off to lay mines in Norway and the other five aircraft from 630 Squadron to join the raid on Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat.
Now, nearly 70 years on, the growl of Merlin engines graces the quiet surroundings of East Kirkby once again with the Lincolnshire Heritage Aviation Centre’s resident Avro Lancaster, ‘Just Jane’, flexing her muscles at various events throughout the year, including during the very touching poppy drop from the flaps of the Lancaster. However, one of the highlights of the year for the team is the annual November Night Run that includes a simply stunning fireworks display to finish.
Sitting dormant on the hard standing, Avro Lancaster BVII NX611 was a fine silhouette against the skyline of ‘Bomber County’ as the last rays of the sun bathed it in a golden light. Lincolnshire played a major role in Bomber Commands offensive during the Second World War with hundreds of heavy bombers climbing aloft from their bases with deadly loads on a nightly basis, filling the picturesque scenery with the sounds of war however, in many cases, the aircraft and crews failed to return.
One such case of this occurred in March 1944 when Handley Page Halifax III HX272/BM-N ‘Nielson’s Nuthouse’ was lost on the disastrous Nuremburg raid which itself turned out to be Bomber Commands heaviest single loss of the war. Flight Engineer Pilot Officer Christopher W Panton, aged just 19, and the crew of HX272 were intercepted and shot down by a night flying Luftwaffe ME110 over Friessen, Germany. Only hours away from completing his 30th sortie and his first operational tour, ‘Neilson’s Nuthouse’ was riddled with machine gun fire that hit one of the aircrafts fuel tanks causing the wing to catch fire and the order to ‘abandon aircraft fast’ was given by the captain, Pilot Officer N Christian RCAF. Within seconds of the order, another burst of fire from the night fighter caused the Halifax to enter an uncontrollable dive. Of the eight man crew, only three survived abandoning the aircraft to become POW’s. During the raid 82 bombers were lost before reaching the target area after being pounced on by the German night fighters prowling the Belgian border under a full moon and a further 13 were lost on their return journey. In total 64 Lancaster and 31 Halifax aircraft were lost on during the raid with the loss of 665 aircrew – a staggering 11.9 percent of the force sent to Nuremburg on that fateful night.
Pilot Officer Panton’s two younger brothers, Fred and Harold, were aged just 13 and 10 when their brother was tragically killed over Germany and became determined to commemorate the death of their brother. Sadly, due to their Fathers views on the war and the loss of his eldest Son, the brothers didn’t see where Chris was buried until 1970 when Fred travelled across to Germany to get a picture of his grave.
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 and, soon after taking over, the brothers purchased some land including part of the now defunct RAF East Kirkby which included an aircraft hard standing and several buildings in a state of disrepair including the old control tower.
Constructed during 1942-3 in the heart of Lincolnshire, the first unit to arrive at East Kirkby was 57 Squadron with their Avro Lancasters in August 1943. Soon after, 630 Squadron and their Lancasters arrived to add their efforts to the British offensive over Germany. By the time the last raid was flown from East Kirby in 1945, 212 operations had been carried out by the Squadrons. During that time, 121 of the aircraft failed to return with each carrying 7 crewmen. With the end of hostilities in 1945, Bomber County once again became a quiet place and in 1951 the USAF moved into East Kirkby with the 3931st and 3917th Air Base Group operating Douglas C-47s until the airfield was closed in 1958 after some 15 years action. Now, the airfield is once again a hive of activity as a living memorial to those heroes of Bomber Command as well as reflecting on life in the Second World War.
The Lancaster destined to become ‘Just Jane’ was built as NX611 by Austin Motors at their Longbridge works in April 1945. Built as part of the order for 150 Lancaster BVII’s for the Royal Air Forces ‘Tiger Force’ with 30 Squadron it was the third aircraft in the batch for use in the Far Eastern Theatre against the Japanese. With the Japanese surrendering on September 2nd 1945, the squadron was disbanded and NX611 was sent to RAF Llandow in Glamorgan for Storage with No.38 Maintenance Unit.
How ‘Just Jane’ ended up at East Kirkby is a story in itself and includes spells with the Aeronavale (French Navy) as a Maritime Radar, Cartography and Search and Rescue asset, bombing raids over Indo-China, massive ferry flights, auctions, test flights with engine failures and also gate guard duties.
Having first set eyes on NX611 in 1972 at Squires Gate, it took 16 years for the Panton brothers to finally get it to East Kirkby to take centre stage as part of their memorial. Originally conceived to be a private and sombre family affair, suggestions were made that the aircraft and remnants of East Kirkby be made public so that future generations could learn and understand the sacrifice made by those for the defence of the Empire during those dark days. Opening in 1988, the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre is now a living memorial to the 55,573 men who were lost with one of hardest hitting images of the war at the head of it all – the Avro Lancaster.
On the first Saturday of November, the culmination of the work and effort by the team who looks after NX611 is shown with 3 runs, including a night run, and a grand fireworks finale. Sat on the dispersal, there was a constant hive of activity around the aircraft including a number of period dressed re-enactors adding to the atmosphere of the event with a real sense of history as well as allowing the crowds get up close and personal with the aircraft.
The Museum itself includes another live example of a machine with connections to East Kirkby in the form of D-Day Veteran Douglas C47A 42-100882 ‘Drag Em Oot’ which is a frequent display act at airshows around the country. Other exhibits include the restoration of Handley Page Hampden TB.I AE436 under the Brian Nicholls Hampden Restoration Project and the remains of Wellington IA L7775 which represents the largest remains of the type outside of the museum 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 Spitfire V BL655 and memorials to the crews of Lancasters ME473 and ND572 and Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle V1610 which was shot down over Lincolnshire. The Centre also has a very comprehensive and well-presented set of wartime artefact displays and exhibitions including the RAF Escaping Society collection.
As the early attendees of the day gathered around, ‘Just Jane’ burst into song as it was started up for the first run of the day. Being in such close proximity to one of the finest looking and sounding aircraft of all time is a very special moment and one that gets even better as the wingtip passes by just feet away. With the Lancaster going about its business out on the airfield you can’t help but smile as the surrounding air is filled with short sharp bursts of power and the birds flying away as the dark silhouette of a Lancaster approaches them. Sadly, on the first run the port outer engine developed a fault and had to be shut down – a truly heart wrenching sight to see a Lancaster come home on three. Thankfully the problem was rectified in time for the second run of the day.
Following the same pattern as the first run, the aircraft again performed its taxi run as the growing crowd watched in awe despite the driving rain. Another fine sight of a Lancaster kicking up spray as the power was poured on during a quicker run, water streaming of the aircrafts surfaces like tears to those who were lost. Almost as soon as it had started the rain was gone and a fantastic rainbow welcomed ‘Just Jane’ back to the dispersal in preparation for the highlight of the day, the night run.
With aircraft in place the final run, the anticipation grew along with the crowds as the ground crew moved like ghosts around the darkened airframe in preparation. Before long the cold November air silence was broken by the roar of NX611s number one Merlin bursting into life, accompanied by spits of blue flames from the exhaust stubs. Soon all four of the heavenly sounding engines with running in harmony – a salute to men as young as 19 climbing aboard these beasts of war and flying them into the heat of battle.
With a blast of power, ‘Just Jane’ trundled off into the distance becoming a ghost with the only clue it was still there being the engine noise. Before long a steady crescendo rose from the dark as ‘Just Jane’ slowly remerged and returned to the dispersal. Stopping on the way for the crowds to take pictures, Jon Sully, the pilot for the day’s runs, opened the throttles once again with sparks spitting out from the hard working engines. After a last burst of power, ‘Just Jane’ moved slowly to her final spot for the night before the four Merlins were shut down and silence once again prevailed over East Kirkby to be broken by the fantastic applause from the smiling, albeit cold crowd before the finale of the night was one of the biggest fireworks display in the UK bringing a fantastic days entertainment to an end with a bang.
What else could people want? Up close and personal with a Lancaster, the heavenly sound of four Rolls Royce Merlins not once but three times, a fantastic event with lots to do and see and all for £10!