Paying homage to the BBMF

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:27 am

Battle of Britain Memorial FlightIt was the only time I ever saw our dour, ill-tempered, Polish foreman remotely happy. As a student one hot summer long ago, I had a labouring job on a new section of motorway. It stretched into the distance, an elegantly excavated scar across the land, punctuated with bridges and bright yellow vehicles. One day, a speck in the sky on the horizon grew rapidly larger and, with it, gradually came a strangely familiar sound. The foreman was running along the unfinished road surface, leaping almost, grinning broadly and gesticulating toward the heavens. “Spitfire!” he yelled. “Spitfire!” At that moment, the aircraft, which had been flying from the west, low over the route of the new carriageway, banked to the north displaying its pale underbelly and distinctive elliptical wings. The foreman was lost in his memories, while the hairs stood up on the back of my neck and I gaped stupidly at the departing vision. The entire incident was over in an instant, but I have never forgotten it.  And the sound, which I had recognised from dozens of movies, was the unmistakable roar of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.

Supermarine SpitfireThat same unmistakable roar can be heard on state occasions and at events commemorating the Second World War, when aircraft of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) take to the skies.  The BBMF is a Royal Air Force aerial display team flying historic aircraft. Currently, the team is equipped with a dozen veteran aeroplanes: six Spitfires, two Hurricanes, one Lancaster, one Dakota and two Chipmunks (dating from the 1950s and mainly used for training).  The flight is administratively part of No 1 Group RAF, flying out of RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire – which in the 21st century is an operational base on the front line of Britain’s defences. The Battle of Britain Flight aircraft can be visited at Coningsby, where expert guides will give you details of their history and tales of the men that flew them.  Most of the photographs here come from a visit in September 2020. The aircraft have also been used in many films, of course.

Dakota, Battle of Britain Memorial FlightThe Dakota – officially a Douglas C-47 Skytrain – is an American transport aircraft, used extensively by the Allies in the Second World War in every theatre of war, including for parachute drops during D-Day and Arnhem.  Over 1900 Dakotas served with the RAF.  The BBMF’s Dakota was built at Long Beach, California, USA in March 1942 and flew with the Royal Canadian Air Force, including during D-Day when it was also used to evacuate casualties and re—supply.

Spitfire, BBMFThe Supermarine Spitfire was, famously, designed by RJ Mitchell in the 1930s and entered service with 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford on 4 August 1938. Mitchell, sadly, did not live to see his brainchild become, arguably, the most famous British fighter aeroplane ever.  More Spitfires – 20,341 – were built than any other British combat aircraft to date.  There were over 20 marks, various sub-variants, and they were supplied to national air forces all over the world.  The Spitfires of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight include a Mark II, built by Supermarine at the Castle Bromwich factory in Birmingham in 1940, which saw service that year with 266 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF, based at Wittering, and 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron RAF, based at Hornchurch.

Battle of Britain Memorial FlightThe BBMF’s two newest Spitfires were both built in 1945 and are Mark XIX type, high altitude, unarmed, photo reconnaissance aircraft powered by Roll-Royce Griffon engines.

Hawker Hurricane, Battle of Britain Memorial FlightThe Hawker Hurricane was the cutting-edge RAF monoplane of the 1930s.  When it first entered service in 1937, it was 100mph faster than the other aircraft then in service.  Though out-performed by the newer Spitfire, the Hurricane was known as a steady gun platform and, in fact, Hurricanes destroyed more enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain than all other aircraft and ground defences combined.

The two Hurricanes of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, one of which was the last Hurricane (of 14,533) ever built, both date from 1944. The older of the two was in service with RAF squadrons in Scotland and the south of England.  It is shown with a wasp emblem painted on the nose, a nod to the aircraft flown by Sergeant Arthur ‘Darkie’ Clowes during the latter part of the Battle of Britain, which had the emblem painted on the nose by Clowes himself. There are only ten other airworthy Hurricanes left in the world.

BBMFThe Avro Lancaster was the RAF’s most successful bomber of WWII.  7,737 were built at various locations in England, and in Canada. Just two are still flying: the one based with the BBMF and another in Canada – which in 2014 was flown across the Atlantic to briefly join its sister and tour the UK. The Lancaster could carry an enormous bomb-load for the time and had a crew of seven – bomb aimer/front gunner, pilot, flight engineer, navigator, wireless operator, mid-upper gunner and rear gunner.  The rear gunner was known as tail-end Charlie and sat in his unheated, cramped, position for maybe 7, or more, hours. Casualties in Bomber Command during the Second World War were horrendous – higher than in any other branch of any of the armed services. A crew was expected to fly perhaps 30 sorties to complete a tour before being rested; the RAF’s website says that, “on average Lancasters completed twenty-one missions before being lost.”

Battle of Britain Memorial FlightThe BBMF’s Lancaster, the City of Lincoln, was built by Vickers Armstrong at Broughton, Chester, in May 1945. Destined for the Far East, the war ended before it saw operational service.  She is currently decked out in the markings of L-‘Leader’, of 460 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force, which had a mixed Australian-Scottish crew – hence the bagpipe-carrying kangaroo.  The aircraft displays the markings of bombs for operations over Germany, ice-cream cones for operations over Italy and poppies denoting poppies released for commemorative flights.

It is a paradox that some military machines, designed for destruction and death, can simultaneously be perceived as being very beautiful.  Emotions run high, too, by association – and that is certainly the case with these classic aircraft.  You don’t have to have been there in 1940 to know this.  Only too well-aware of the role the Spitfire and Hurricane played in the Battle of Britain in 1940, and the Lancaster in the controversial air offensive against Germany and occupied Europe from 1942, I am sure I am not unique in my generation in experiencing a certain moistening of the eye on the rare occasions you see one of these iconic aeroplanes.

Grand Slam, bombVisiting Coningsby was an experience.  It is also an appropriate location, at least so far as the Lancaster is concerned, because the east of England was full of bomber air bases during WW2. One of the most famous RAF bomber squadrons, No 617 ‘Dambusters’ was based just down the road at Scampton.  And outside the BBMF hanger are a couple of preserved ‘Grand Slam’ 22,000 lb earthquake bombs, designed by the inventor of the ‘bouncing’ bomb, Barnes Wallis. The ‘bouncing bomb’ was used by 617 Squadron in Operation Chastise, the 1943 attack on the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams in Germany. Grand Slams were used against strategic targets by 617, including bridges, viaducts and U-boat pens, during the closing stages of the war in Europe.

Typhoons at RAF ConingsbyIf we needed a reminder that Coningsby is a fully operational airfield, lined up on the tarmac were several FGR4 Typhoons.  I wonder how many of them will still be flying in 70 or 80 years?

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

Here is the website for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

32 thoughts on “Paying homage to the BBMF”

  1. An interesting post, Mike. I visited IWM Duxford in 2017 and found it fascinating. I am currently listening to an audiobook about the pilots in WWI. I covers British, French, American and German pilots.

  2. I’m not really into seeing old planes in a museum like this but to see and/or hear them in the air is something special indeed 🙂 I loved reading about the excitement of your Polish foreman!

    1. Seeing them fly is certainly something special. When we were last at Duxford, we came out of a hanger to hear that unmistakable sound – and there was a Spitfire, taxiing for take-off; beautiful. And I’ve often wondered what happened to that foreman!

  3. Thanks for this, Mike. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Lancaster – my father was Flight Engineer on one that came to grief during a raid on Mannheim in Novemebr 1943.

  4. I was at RAF Coltishall when the BBMF was there (late 1963 – 1976) and have been all over the Avro Lancaster- she’s called The City of Linclon, and also got to see her with the Canadian one when they joined up in 2014 at Little Gadsden air show, amazing to see them in formation. I loved the spitfires best though. Nice post!

  5. It was an interesting read. Had it not been for this war, my sisters and I would not exist. My Scots mother told me she remembered the first day of the war when numerous planes flew over the sky. She was a teen at the time.

    1. Thank you. It’s a thought, though guess that is true for thousands, if not millions; and, of course, we are all children of survivors as well. The air raid sirens sounded in many places just after the outbreak of war; the sound used to send shivers down my mother’s spine.

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