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Saturday, December 6, 2014

My Manston Memories

A guest post by my truckbuddy Tim from England, now resident in Spain.

Remember a while back, in a post entitled "He’s So Fine – Part 1", I wrote about a B-17 Flying Fortress coming to my local airfield at RAF Manston in 1961. It was there for filming the movie The War Lover, starring Steve McQueen. Well, this post is about that airfield, and its prominent role in and throughout my life. I set out to write a piece about summer outings in the countryside with my parents when I was a child; but found I kept returning to the old wartime airfield as I wrote the piece. Well, I can take a hint, the countryside tale will have to wait, but Ma and Pa will still figure in this post, and so does Christmas. Tis’ the season . . . etc.

OK, just one more look at Steve. This moody image of him captures the feel of what I hope is a reflective piece today. Unusual to see him with stubble, a nice change though, what do you think?

To set the tale in some sort of historical and geographical context a few words and images by way of explanation first– yes, this is the science bit! My home area is called the Isle of Thanet, in the south-eastern corner of England, facing France and Belgium just a few miles across the grey waters of the English Channel.

Although no longer a ‘real’ island, it was once, being separated from the mainland by a shallow channel called the Wantsum. The Wantsum gradually silted up, aided and abetted by the local Monks who wanted more power which then as now equated to land, and so Thanet made a permanent connection to the rest of the county of Kent, around the time of the 15th Century.

But the ‘Isle’ tag remained, and with it a somewhat insular outlook on life on the part of the inhabitants, typical of most island people. ‘Planet Thanet’ it is called with varying degrees of affection by those who never leave and by those, who like me, have escaped its gravitational pull! With no close family ties remaining after Ma’s death a few years ago, I have little reason to visit it these days, but like my parents, the place always remains in my thoughts. And Manston, in particular, holds a specials place in my affection. Just as my parents provided love and physical nourishment to a growing boy, Manston fed not only my childhood hobbies but also my dreams. Together they inspired my desire to make a career in aviation.

Living on what in effect is now a peninsula, means your freedom of travel is somewhat limited, and because the large airfield at Manston commands a central location on the isle, it was a place you always had to go around to get anywhere else. This was not a problem for ‘young’ Tim and whenever we set forth on a family outing I would insist we either went, or came back, via Manston. Pa never minded, but I suspect Ma was not so enthusiastic about aeroplanes as I was! The airfield site, shaded grey in the image above covers some 800 acres today, and was probably double that back in the 1950’s. The wide single runway remains the fourth longest in the UK. Here’s a bird’s eye view of the real thing.

My first memories, when I was about 3, are of driving past the ‘fairy lights’ at night. All roads then took you close to the runway or the taxi-ways, and the different coloured lights glowed and winked in the dark, just like the lights on a Christmas tree. I don’t think I knew what an airfield was then, but those lights gave the place a magical quality which hinted of further mysteries to be discovered; feelings that stayed with me in the years to come.

As I got older, those mysteries were gradually revealed, and I came to understand what an airfield was, who lived and worked there, and what aircraft flew in and out. The aircraft became my abiding passion and Manston was the means of fuelling it. But the connections were not only physical ones, there were family ties too. Ma’s father had served there as an Admiralty Clerk when Manston first opened in 1916 during WWI as a Royal Naval Air Station. Later on, during WWII, both Pa and his twin brother Fred were stationed there at various times. Such family ties of place and history can be stronger than steel and concrete to an impressionable boy.

-- Continued after the jump --

The mid to late fifties saw the USAF in residence, exciting times, yet dangerous ones too. Jet engines were still a relatively new concept back then and engine reliability was a major problem. Sadly there were many tragic accidents and losses over the years. For that reason I was often left at home in the care of a relative, whilst my older brother, who presumably could take better care of himself, was allowed to visit the regular air displays. Much to my chagrin, he was the one who got to drink coca-cola or 7-Up in the Sergeant’s Mess, and to get up-close to the planes. But I would see the silver-coloured fighter jets drawn up on the dispersal sites when we drove past, tailplanes gaily painted in their various Squadron colours, red, yellow and blue. And Ma and Pa had American friends at the base whose children I would play with on occasion. Here’s an image from a display in late fifties. That American pilot standing on the wing of his shiny F-84F Thunderstreak had the look I later aspired to as a teenager – green MA-1 flight jacket and tight chinos – and a nice butt too! Notice how warmly and sensibly the visitors are dressed, a typical Thanet summer’s day!

In 1955 Manston received its ‘gate guardian’, a silver-painted Spitfire Mk16 placed there in recognition of the station’s illustrious history during the Battle of Britain and subsequent operations until the war in Europe ended. This version of the legendary fighter was powered by an American-made version of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, built under licence by the Packard Motor Car Company of Detroit. It was the same engine that also powered the famous P-51 Mustang fighter, and co-incidentally the same engine on which my Pa specialised during his wartime service in the RAF. He knew every inch of the Spit, and soon I did too, for it was the first aircraft I could touch and investigate.

Soon every visit to Manston necessitated a stop by the Spitfire so Pa and I could go exploring. I remember I was fascinated by the details; the cross-tread pattern of the tyres, the tiny navigation lights in the wingtips, no bigger than Christmas tree lights it seemed. He would lift me up so I could look into the cramped cockpit with its array of dials and switches, and he would recite the engine start-up drill. Nowadays she is housed in a small museum alongside a Hurricane fighter, but you can no longer touch or scramble over her as I did when a child. She is a very splendid but frail 70-year old lady these days!

It was a sad day for all concerned when the USAF finally left in 1958, but soon new civilian tenants arrived to share the base with the RAF. First to come was an airline with the wonderfully evocative name of Silver City Airways. They operated passenger and freight services to the continent and introduced a car-ferrying service, unique in it’s time. You could load your car onto the Bristol Freighter and fly with it to start your grand European tour in France within minutes. No choppy sea crossing over that grey English channel! The Freighter was a lovely old propeller aeroplane, fat and jolly, with a round face that opened up and swallowed the cars.

We couldn’t afford such luxuries in the 1960’s, but I did make a plastic model of one which I would load with my ‘matchbox’ toy cars and pretend we were flying off on holiday. And many years later, in New Zealand, my dream finally came true. In 1974 my Nimrod crew was taking part in a Commonwealth air forces competition. Our hosts in the Royal New Zealand Air Force took all the participating crews on a trip to the mountains and volcanic springs of Rotarua and Lake Taupo in North Island.

The Australians and Canadians took one look at the ageing Bristol, still in the brown and tan camouflage it had worn not long before during its service in Vietnam, and declined to fly in it. “You Limeys built the fucking thing, you can fly in it” was the general tone of their argument. So whilst they flew fast and high in a modern Hercules, we flew slowly below the clouds in our wonderful old aircraft, and saw far more of the countryside below than the others ever did. One Manston dream accomplished.

Here’s a lovely little home movie from the early sixties. It all seems so simple now, drive on, fly, and drive off.

Silver City were followed by other small airlines in the mid-sixties, Air Ferry and Invicta among them, who operated another propeller driven plane, the tubby little Vickers Viking airliner, based on the old WWII Wellington bomber. Once again, I never got to fly in one at the time, but the Manston connection was completed some ten years later when my aircrew training in the RAF involved flying the Vickers Varsity, a crew-trainer developed from the portly Viking.

The mid-sixties was also the time I became obsessed with plane spotting, my bedroom was already full of aircraft models, books and magazines about aviation crammed my shelves. Ma thought it would be better if I got out more, so I started collecting aircraft numbers. Together with my best friend Bob, we would cycle out most weekends, usually to Manston but occasionally to the little airport in Ramsgate. This, by the way, was nothing more than a grass field, but it had the most wonderful art-deco style airport building, opened in 1937. Set above a small café-bar and the custom’s office was a small control tower with ‘aero-style’ curved-glass windows.

There was also a tiny hangar alongside, less attractively styled in corrugated steel sheeting, where the smaller aircraft were housed. Ramsgate was a satellite airfield to Manston during the Battle of Britain, taking excess traffic and providing a diversion for emergency landings. Like its parent, it was bombed heavily by the Luftwaffe for its pains, and spent the remainder of the war hors de combat. But worse was to come. In an act of criminal vandalism, and achieving what the Luftwaffe bombers failed to, the airport building was demolished in the early 1970’s when the land was sold and turned into an industrial estate. But then the good Burgomasters of Thanet, like the Monks five-hundred years earlier, have always put what was good for the purse before what was good for the soul. Bizarrely, the hangar was left standing; perhaps it’s where they stashed the loot!

Our mums would make us a packed lunch, and Bob and I would be out for the whole day, log books, cameras and binoculars at the ready. We soon found all the best spots to lie-up in the fields surrounding the airfield and so avoid the attention of the patrolling ‘Snowdrops’, the RAF Police, so named after their white caps. Bob was really more interested in ships and the sea, so we would alternate our trips, sometimes visiting the little harbour in Ramsgate, famous for its role in the evacuation of Dunkirk and the armada of little ships that left there to bring the troops back.

Other times we would record the ships lying at anchor in the Channel off the North Foreland lighthouse. Here he taught me to tell the difference between an oil tanker and a bulk carrier, or which shipping line had a red and green funnel. Years later this skill was to come in handy during the long hours of maritime patrols in Nimrods.

My brother and I didn’t have so much in common as children, five years is a big difference when you’re young. But as we grew into adolescence, we both shared a desire to break away from the small-mindedness of the island culture. Like Bob, my brother’s first love was the sea, and he went on to join the Royal Navy. Now looking back I can see more clearly how Manston was the spark that lit the fire of my imagination, and how it fuelled my determination to escape and enter the exciting world of aviation and the RAF.

For many years the one thing that continued to elude me was to fly to or from Manston itself, to make my own small mark in the family history, and to crown the connectivity that bound me to the old airfield. An act that would cement that bond in the most perfect and satisfying manner. In December 1976, whilst I was stationed at RAF Kinloss in Scotland and just before we were about to set off on Christmas leave my pilots and navigators realised they had not completed their monthly flying ‘stats’. They needed to complete some additional hours of navigational exercises and night-flying to maintain their operational status. We could not go on leave until they were completed.

This was my opportunity; I quickly suggested to the captain that we organise a ‘round-robin’ night flight. We could visit various RAF airfields around the UK, dropping personnel off as we went for the Christmas holidays. St Mawgan, Waddington, various names cropped up. “How about Manston?” I innocently suggested. “It’s still officially an RAF station so we could land there free of landing fees” I added, less-innocently! The stats could be completed and no extra costs incurred. A night-time navigation exercise par excellence! Naturally, I also suggested that I might be dropped off at Manston.

And so, on 21st December, in the gathering dark, I saw my beloved airfield from the air for the first and only time: the fairy lights, twinkling in the twilight; and that long broad runway stretching ahead of us as we came into land. We made an ‘engines running’ stop and I exited the Nimrod down a ladder from the rear door.

It must have been a rather bemused Air Traffic Controller who witnessed an airman disembark with a large German Shepherd dog draped over his shoulders, for I had brought Legolas with me. I would have loved to have seen his face. But the face I was really happy to see was my Pa’s, waiting by his car parked on the apron, and looking not a little bemused himself. I had made a surprise radio-phone call a few hours earlier and asked him to be at Manston to pick me up. Mission accomplished, and recorded in my RAF log book, the last entry for the month: ‘NAVEX KS – SM – MANSTON + LEG’, i.e., navigation exercise, Kinloss to St Mawgan to Manston, plus Legolas!

Pa had his dream come true just a year before he died. For his 75th birthday Ma bought him a flying lesson from Manston including a trip around the Isle of Thanet as a birthday present. Later he told me how much he had enjoyed it, and that he had actually ‘flown’ the little 2-seater aeroplane back to the airfield. I was so pleased for him; everyone deserves a dream to come true. Here he is at the controls.

One final connection came when my beloved Nimrod fleet was scrapped in 2010 as part of the Government’s defence cuts. The last flight of a Nimrod took place on 26 May 2010, with XV229 flying from RAF Kinloss to Kent International Airport (Manston) to be used as an evacuation training airframe (i.e., fire practice) at the nearby Military Fire Training Centre. What an ignominious end for a fine aircraft. Here she is coming in for that final landing.

So you can imagine, Dear Reader, how I felt whilst researching this post to discover that my beloved Manston is now closed. After 98 years' service, 62 of them in my own lifetime, the familiar buildings, the runway and taxi-ways with all their coloured lights, all will be raised to the ground and bulldozed away. The sad end to Ramsgate’s little airport was prophetic. I have to admit to being a little misty eyed on hearing the news. It’s strange how places as well as people can have that effect on you when you hear about their demise. But writing this post has rekindled many fond memories which remain with me, and which I’ve shared with you. So farewell my old friend, you may be going but you won’t be forgotten!

At the present and barring any unexpected last minute reprieve, it seems most likely that the Manston site will become, in effect, a new town, with new schools, shops and businesses supporting new homes. Hopefully they will name some of the streets after the old airfield, and perhaps keep its history alive in the schools, to instil a sense of place and belonging in future generations. But as for the magic that inspired me to spread my wings and seek a new life elsewhere all those years ago, I’m not so sure. Thanet will be a little darker without those fairy lights!

Postscript: I didn’t want to end the year on too sombre a note, so remembering one year’s end heralds another’s beginning, I wanted to tell you about a set of posts Russ and I have been planning to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII next year, and in particular our fathers’ adventures in it. So look out for Bill and Ted’s wartime adventures (yes, that’s their real names – you couldn’t make it up!) next May to commemorate VE-Day.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all – and if you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment in my stocking!


Stan said...

I love the idea of the Bristol Freighter.
I've always been fascinated with aircraft too and I always look up to see if I can identify a huge Luftansa Airbus A360 coming into Newark from Frankfort or an Elal 747 coming in from Tel Aviv.
Thanks for this interesting post.

Tim said...

I'm glad you liked it Stan. The old Bristol had a movable plywood partition inside. Depending on the length of the cars being carried, the partition determined how much space the passengers had. Health and Safety would have a fit these days!

Davis said...

Great insights, Tim.

Steve McQueen = All Man

Tim said...

Thank you kindly, Davis.

Yes, wasn't he just! Gone too soon.

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