While most visitors to the UK will tend to use London and the South East as a base, the North East of England has a couple of places well worth a visit, both with unexpected South African connections.
During World War II the South East and East Anglia were the main homes to the RAF's Fighter Command and the USAAF 8th Air Force, while Lincolnshire was the spiritual base for Bomber Command. Today, these regions are littered with museums and monuments that are well known to aviation enthusiasts. The North East of England housed many allied bomber units, particularly those of the Royal Canadian Air Force as well as the occasional fighter unit - but, being farther away from the main action, its contribution has largely been forgotten.
Two museums are trying to put this right, the Yorkshire Air Museum & Allied Air Forces Memorial at the former bomber base at Elvington, and the North East Air Museum on a former fighter station just outside Sunderland.
The Yorkshire Air Museum & Allied Air Forces Memorial
Entering the former RAF Elvington airfield, the visitor is greeted by the flags of all the Second World War Allies, including South Africa, indicating something more than a simple aircraft museum lies ahead.
The museum was a bomber base during WWII and it has retained the feel, and many of the original buildings, of that period. During the conflict Elvington was initially home to 77 Squadron, which was equipped with Halifaxes and when they departed they were replaced by two Free French units, No. 346 (Guyenne) and No. 347 (Tunisie), who also flew the Handley Page 'heavy'.
In view of this, it is a fitting home to the world's only complete Handley Page Halifax. This Mk III is really a composite rebuild that has included many original parts around the fuselage of Halifax II, HR792, which carried out an emergency landing on the Isle of Lewis in 1945. A crofter, Mr McKenzie, purchased the fuselage section for use as a hencoop. The wings came from Hastings, TG536, at RAF Catterick. It is painted in the colours of LV907, coded NP-F and nicknamed "Friday the 13th", which completed a remarkable 128 operational missions. Sadly, the original was scrapped after being displayed on Oxford Street in London, although the nose from the aircraft was saved and is exhibited at the RAF Museum Hendon.
The French bomber connection to the airfield was recognised by the donation of a Mirage IV from the French government. This large supersonic nuclear bomber was a vital part of the French deterrent force for over thirty years and is a truly impressive machine, resembling a much scaled up Mirage III. While President Sarkozy made the generous offer in 2007, it took nine years of negotiation and planning to transfer the massive machine from Paris to Yorkshire.
The site is also home to the Allied Air Forces Memorial. The Memorial recognises and commemorates the achievements and sacrifice of allied airmen and women in all conflicts, and being on the largest original wartime RAF Bomber Command Station open to the public, it has a natural tendency to focus on WWll, although all conflicts are within its scope. The memorial garden is immaculately kept, with many of the shrubs bearing individual commemorations, and lies next to the base chapel.
South African visitors of a certain age would feel at home, with three Buccaneers, a Mirage III, a Canberra and a Vampire on display.
These are joined by a good selection of post war aircraft, many of which appear in running condition on various days throughout the year. These include a Nimrod and a Victor that dominate the end of the display line.
A pair of Tornados are joined by a Lightning, a pair of Hunters, a Harrier, and a Gloster Javelin. The latter was the final product of the Gloster Company and was a massive delta winged all-weather interceptor that served until 1968.
Alongside the Mirage IV stands a contender for one of the most ungainly looking aircraft in the Royal Navy's history, the Fairy Gannet - whose size is never quite captured by the camera.
Another aircraft the camera does not do justice to is one of the many pre-WWII aircraft in the form of the little known Port Victoria P.V.8 Eastchurch Kitten. This was a lightweight biplane fighter with a wingspan of only 18 feet (a little less than 5.5m), powered by a 35 hp ABC Gnat engine and armed with a Lewis gun. This was a 'disposable' fighter designed to fly from ships in the North Sea to combat the threat of Zeppelins during the First World War.
Another unusual aircraft is the sectioned Hadrian glider, displayed carrying an artillery piece as many would have done on D-Day.
While there are many other aircraft on display, what makes the Yorkshire Air Museum extra special is the care that has gone into the ground displays. These include many vehicles and the restored control tower. The period French Officers' Mess is complete with two original paintings by one of the French pilots that flew from the base during WWII. Actually, original is slightly misleading as when the Mess display was planned the original paintings had long since been mislaid - fortunately the artist was still alive and with nearly 50 years more practice the new 'originals' are probably even better!
There is an excellent and extensive display of photos and materials from 77 Squadron's service during WWII and a room dedicated to air gunners, complete with a range of bomber turrets. 609 (West Riding) Squadron also has its own Nissan hut display.
Easily accessible from York, the museum is a must for any aviation enthusiast and one for which a full day should be put aside.
North East Air Museum
NEAM is based at the former Home Defence aerodrome at RAF Usworth. This base dates back to 1916 when 36 Squadron RFC moved to the site, then known as Hylton. The unit's BE.2's and BE.12's were tasked with the defence of the North East from Zeppelin raids. It was from a satellite field, Seaton Carew - 40km down the coast, that South African born Ian Pyott took off into the wintery night sky on November 27 1916 to try to engage an airship that was bombing nearby West Hartlepool. Zeppelin L34, captained by Max Dietrich, the uncle of the singer and actress Marlene Dietrich had already dropped a number of bombs (causing some damage to housing and killing four) when it was caught by searchlights. Attacking at 9,500ft Second Lieutenant Pyott was close enough to suffer minor scorching when his 'Buckingham' incendiary bullets set fire to the massive airship, causing it to crash into the sea, just under a kilometre off the shore. For this feat, Pyott was awarded a DSO. His actions form one part of a comprehensive display on the WWI raids on the North East.
Pyott returned to South Africa after the war. He is also remembered by a memorial in Seaton Carew.
In the Second World War the base saw early service as a home to the Hurricanes of 607 (County of Durham) Squadron which were involved in the shooting down of at least two He.111's on one of the Luftwaffe's few forays from Norway during the Battle of Britain.
The museum is a small affair mainly run by volunteers - a hard-core of around twenty, supported by another forty or so regulars. Its main attraction is Avro Vulcan XL319. This was the first Vulcan to have been delivered to an independent museum, back in 1983 as the V bomber force came to an end. It was flown into what was then Sunderland airport, as RAF Usworth had become. The following year saw the closure of the airport, which was to see new life as a massive Nissan car plant.
The aircraft is currently undergoing restoration, but still has regular cockpit days where the public can have the rare chance of experiencing how cramped the V-bomber's cockpit is, especially the 'coal hole' for the rear crew members.
A replica Morane-Saulnier Type N is a relatively new addition to the collection and is a tribute to another Zeppelin 'killer', Sunderland born Claude Ridley D.S.O., M.C who downed L15 in March 1916.
The fixed wing collection also includes a Meteor, a Super Sabre, an English Electric Lightning, and a Thunderstreak amongst others.
Helicopters include a Dragonfly, a Wessex, a Whirlwind, a Gazelle, and a Saro Skeeter.
The museum has roughly three special events every year, and my visit coincided with an emergency service day with both new and old vehicles on display.
There is also a collection of a variety of vehicles and a nice 1940's display of living conditions in the North East. These are all housed in period hangars. Finally, there is a detailed history of 607 (County of Durham) Squadron which continued its service post war with Vampires until the disbandment of all the Auxiliary Air Force units in 1957.
While not on the scale of Elvington, NEAM allows a half-day to be spent in very friendly and pleasant surroundings. Hopefully, the signing of a new 35 year lease will help some of the planned restoration projects to be brought forward as well as the building of new hangars to give more of the airframes the conditions they deserve.