Kent's Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum
PUBLISHED: 14:53 23 January 2017 | UPDATED: 14:53 23 January 2017
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
Manston will always be associated with the Battle of Britain and there's nowhere better to discover its history than at Kent's Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum. Words by: Jack Watkins. Pictures by: Manu Palomeque
In the spring of 2014 Manston Airport closed, with the loss of 150 jobs. As speculation continues over the its future, with the threat of redevelopment hovering above it like a dirty black enemy bomber, people with an interest in the history of aviation can be forgiven for reflecting back on what used to be.
Those fighting to save the airport and arguing for its continued viability call the site “a project of national significance.” You can say that again. Manston is one of our oldest airfields, its origins dating back to 1915.
One hundred years ago, in the summer of 1917, pilots taking off from here played a key role in repelling the threat of the German Zeppelins and heavy bombers, thwarting their attempts to penetrate beyond the front line and strike at the heart of London. In the open, flat, blustery fields not far from the coast above Ramsgate, you can still experience something of the character of the area during the early years of flight when pilots literally took to the air on a wing and a prayer.
Pre-war, most flying had been done in fair weather, and during daylight hours. The mono and biplanes weren’t especially reliable, with piloting and the development of technology still being at the trial and error stage.
Accidents were frequent. In the carefree days before the outbreak of the First World War, these had been laughed off by many of the gentlemen aviators who enjoyed their playboy reputations, but it became a serious matter with the outbreak of hostilities in 1914.
Aircraft using a thin strip of ground further along the coast at St Mildred’s Bay, Westgate, sometimes misjudged their landings and careered over the edge of the cliffs.
So, towards the end of 1915, pilots started to use the more secure landing ground on the open farmland at Manston. An official aerodrome was established soon afterwards, and a Handley Page training school was set up here to educate fliers at the controls of the new Handley Page bombers.
Fighters taking off from Manston were to have one of their finest moments during the German bombing campaigns. In August 1917 15 enemy bombers were sent out to attack the Kent coast before heading for the capital, but with the help of planes from Manston, they were prevented from reaching their target.
As such Manston can be said to have played a key role in proving the hitherto under-appreciated value of air power as a component in the defence of the realm.
At the outbreak of the First World War, the Royal Flying Corps was made up of just 146 officers and fewer than 100 aircraft, while the Royal Naval Air Service had 727 personnel and, similarly, fewer than 100 aeroplanes.
In 1918, these two arms were merged to form the RAF, comprising 313,161 serving personnel and around 22,000 aircraft.
The repositories of Manston’s distinguished aerial history today are the Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum, along with the RAF Manston History Museum, although the latter’s main concentration is on the Cold War.
Despite its name, the Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum contains exhibits relating to the First World War, including several examples of trench art, a cloth covering of a German Gotha bomber shot down over Margate in 1917, and examples of Princess Mary’s Christmas gift boxes to the troops, including luxuries like tobacco and chocolate.
Even so, the name Manston is associated by most people with the Battle of Britain, and it was the desire to provide a suitable location and display of a rare surviving Spitfire that led to the official founding of the museum in 1981.
“Our Spitfire (TB752) is a 1944-built MK XVI which saw action with the 403 Squadron, and accounted for four aerial victories, the last of which, in May 1945, may well have been the last German warplane to be shot down by an allied fighter in the Second World War,” says Matt Demedts, museum manager. “For a long time after the War she was a gate guardian at RAF Manston until she was painstakingly restored to her wartime splendour by the Medway Aviation Protection Society, and then housed in our Spitfire Hall.”
The museum now also houses a Hurricane. It’s not always properly appreciated what a vital role the Sydney Camm-designed Hawker Hurricane played in the war, actually shooting down more planes at the Battle of Britain than all other aircraft in the service of the RAF combined. It’s the other jewel in the crown of the museum, according to Matt.
“While the Spitfire draws the nation’s admiration due to its sleek appearance and almost feline grace, the Hurricane was much sturdier to handle and, given its older design, much more manoeuvrable in turning fights than the Spitfire. The Hurricane’s stability and size also allowed them to be used in all manner of climates such as the desert and in Malta. And it also lent itself to ground attack.”
Despite the heroic efforts of fighter and bomber aircraft and their crews, as well as ground staff, Manston took a terrible pounding during the Battle of Britain. The critical phase was in August 1940, and Manston was in the front line, along with other RAF bases in Kent such as Biggin Hill, Hawkinge and Lympne. As well as airmen who perished in the battle, airfield personnel were lost, landing sites were cratered, communication lines were cut, and unexploded bombs lay everywhere. When Winston Churchill visited to see the damage, he was visibly shocked. Although personnel were evacuated, some would return, many for a time living in the chalk tunnels which ran under the airfield, a relic of the First World War.
Manston would continue to play a role in operations for the remainder of the war, being used as a base for the Hawker Typhoon fighter bomber squadrons, and for the RAF’s first Meteor jet squadron. The RAF did not finally leave Manston until 2000, but only fragments related to the wartime airfield infrastructure now remain, such as the old control tower next to the museum and a few pillboxes dotted around the perimeter of the site.
The Battle of Britain isn’t the only one of the Second World War’s most famous events remembered at the Museum. When Barnes Wallis tested out his bouncing bombs ahead of the Dambusters raid, he used the coast at nearby Reculver to trial them. A prototype of the bomb is on display in the museum.
A new display, funded by the South East Museums Development Programme, focuses on the valiant stories of the civilians who endured the Blitz and yet continued to support their country. There are also plans for a commemorative event marking the centenary of the RAF in 2018 at the museum.
Get in touch
The Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum
The Airfield, Manston Road, Ramsgate CT12 5DF
01843821940 or firstname.lastname@example.org
For details of the RAF Manston History Museum: call 01843825224 or visit www.rafmanston.co.uk