Home to one of the finest collections of aircraft in the UK, Jamie Ewan travelled to the Yorkshire Air Museum for a nightshoot with their replica Handley Page Halifax III better known as ‘Friday the 13th’.
The cries of ‘it’s not a real one’ or ‘that’s not a proper Halifax’ are often heard when it comes to the Yorkshire Air Museum’s (YAM) Handley Page Halifax. Despite being true, the fact that the Museum can boast such an iconic and often forgotten airframe is nothing short of astounding.
How the museum came to display a Halifax is a story in itself and includes 20 years of sheer determination, a hen house in Scotland, the French Air Force, apprentices from BAe Brough and a sprinkling of luck. Starting in 1986 with a near 20-foot section of Halifax fuselage, it ends with the sheer spectacle that can be seen at YAM today – the aircraft being the heart and soul of the team behind its conception.
Finished in the the colours of aircraft from No.346 (Guyenne) Squadron on the starboard and 158 Squadron on the port, the latter carries the most famous name and code connected with the Halifax world – LV907/NP-F ‘Friday the 13th’.
Friday the 13th
Delivered to 158 Squadron based at RAF Lissett on 13th March 1944, those watching its arrival could not help but notice that the aircraft looked brand new, lacking the general wear and tear and the telltale scars of battle – another replacement! Little did they know that this normal looking Halifax, almost identical to the others in the air around Lissett air testing for that nights Op, was going to become a legend in both Bomber Command and the Royal Air Force.
Initially added to Order of Battle as a spare the aircraft, it was soon marked up with the code NP-F following the loss of HX342/NP-F/F for Freddie during a raid to Frankfurt. Having lost seven aircraft assigned the code F on operations in the previous twelve months, many at Lissett turned a cold shoulder believing Freddie was a jinx.
Flying as part of Bomber Commands Offensive, the yet un-christened LV907 started to prove that ‘F’ coded aircraft had some luck on their side when assigned to A-Flight for its first act of war against the Third Reich on March 30th 1944. The target – Nuremburg.
Called in to action from his rest period, Flight Sergeant Hitchman’s regular Halifax ‘G for George’ had been taken by his Squadron Leader, Flight Sergeant K Bray. Arriving safely back to base after a seven and a half hour flight to Germany, Hitchman found that ‘G for George’, like so many others that night, was lost during the infamous raid. LV907 had survived its baptism of fire and Bomber Commands costliest raid.
Assigned to Pilot Officer Clifford Smith and his crew, he branded superstitions as the stuff of nonsense and went as far as giving the Halifax an unlucky name. Believing it would break the so-called jinx, LV907 was christened ‘Friday the 13th’. As well as the name, Smith ordered the aircraft to be painted up with a Grim Reaper, a white tombstone with the crews names on it, an upside down horseshoe and even had an open ladder painted above the crew hatch! This was later removed along with the tombstone as it shone brightly when the enemy’s searchlights pinched the aircraft. The tombstone however did remain on the aircrafts flag that the crew would fly from the machine while taxing out and in from raids; the actual flag still exists at YAM. Accompanying the Grim Reaper was a scythe dripping blood and the words ‘As Ye Sow… So Shall Ye Reap’.
As the days turned to months LV907’s mission tally increased. By June 1944 it had flown 25 raids and by August the same year it had doubled that to 50 reaching the 100 mark in January 1945 and flying its final mission in April 1945. LV907 even went as far as flying more than one raid during a 24-hour period on more than one occasion. In the space of 13 months, the aircraft completed an incredible 128 operations at the hands of 24 different pilots. As well as being the most successful of its type during the war, LV907 held another distinction of being one of the few to survive long enough to require a major inspection. Luck was on hand on a number of occasions when the aircraft was subjected to a number attacks by Luftwaffe fighters.
Like many aircraft of Bomber Command, LV907 was marked with a single bomb for each individual raid – yellow for night raids and white for day raids. As the number increased, more so-called humour saw the addition of medal ribbons painted next to the nose art – the DFC and DFM as the total grew, the DSO for 80 raids and a VC added after 100 raids. A key denoted the aircrafts 21st raid while a cannon firing shows the raid flown on the eve of D-Day and the damage caused by flak.
After flying its 128th and final raid the aircraft was withdrawn from service and used as part of the victory celebrations in London. LV907 was placed on display in London’s Oxford Street in front of the bombed out wreck of John Lewis. Once finished with, ‘Friday the 13th’ was unceremoniously scrapped despite the aircrafts distinction in late 1945 at the York Aircraft Repair Depot. Thankfully, the aircrafts nose art was saved and can be seen on display in the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon.
Almost 71 years to the day of the original LV907’s delivery to the Royal Air Force the museum, in conjunction with Timeline Events, gave some 100 photographers the chance to capture the airframe in a unique setting. As well as making a rare appearance in the open air, the event would be the first time since the Second World War that a Halifax had been the subject of a nightshoot.
Those arriving early for the event were greeted by the immense sight of the Halifax sat outside the hangar – something that has only been seen half a dozen or so times before since its roll out in 1996. As darkness fell over the supposedly haunted airfield, a very thorough briefing was given to the gathered photographers, re-enactors and Timeline staff chaperoning the event.
Unlike some nightshoots where all of the action happens at the same time, the event was broken up nicely to allow ample time for long exposures with and without the re-enactors and periodic ground equipment. Joining the Halifax for a majority of the night were a Standard 12hp Light Utility Vehicle better known as a ‘Tilly’ and a Thompson Brothers Mk Vc Aircraft Refueller. With periodically dressed re-enactors being added into the mix, the scene transported you back to 1944 with the only thing that made you realise you were not there was the click of modern day camera shutters!
Joining the re-enactors was a Halifax veteran by the name of Richard ‘Dick’ Curnock. Dick, a Warrant Officer who served as a Rear Gunner, was a member of 425 Alouette Squadron (RCAF) based at RAF Dishforth. He was only on his second operation on 25th February 1944 to Augsburg when his aircraft was shot down by flak. Becoming a prisoner of war, the gunner was incarcerated in Stalag Luft VI near the town of Heydekrug until the end of hostilities.
With a number of scenes played out it was evident the communication between the organiser, photographers and the guys posing worked well and ensured everyone got something from each other. The time taken for each scene also allowed photographers to move and capture it from another angle if they so wished.
As well as the Halifax, a number of other resident aircraft were on hand to add to the night’s entertainment – De Havilland Mosquito DH98 NFII HJ711/CV-I, De Havilland DH 104 Devon C2 VP967 and Douglas Dakota IV G-AMYJ/KN353 – the later two taking part in their first nocturnal engine runs. Sadly, both aircraft were plagued with technical gremlins – the Dove managing to run its number one engine up while the number two failed to turn over and the Dakota’s run being cut short by a hydraulic leak. The Mosquito was used a backdrop for a number of the re-enactors adding to the atmosphere created during the event, this being helped by the original Second World War buildings on site.
However, capturing ‘Friday the 13th’ on Friday the 13th at night and in the open, was more than enough, well for the author anyway!
A special thanks must be given to YAM volunteer Ian Finch – the gentleman who initiated the idea of a nightshoot and without his hard work getting the go ahead, the event may never of happened.