A TALE OF TWO CITIES
The last flying Lancaster PA474While at RAF Coningsby after I retired from Trials I was looking for other things to do at the
weekends and Game Shooting during the winter months filled one passion but during the
summer months things were a little blank. However I volunteered my services for the Battle
of Britain Memorial Flight and from that happy moment enjoyed 8 years on the air show
circuit with the last flying Lancaster Bomber PA 474.
PA474 wearing the livery of “PMM2” the most successful bomber of WWII
The Yellow Bombs are night raids and the White are daylight. The Aircraft shot down 2
fighters and was awarded the Victoria Cross and the DFC and Bar
En-route to a display with the Spit and Hurri
The RAF has 2 display teams with the Red Arrows being the world renowned air display
team. The Battle of Britain Flight has the last Lancaster, 5 Spitfires of different marks and
2 Hurricanes. After I left the Flight they acquired a Dakota to go with the Devon and 2
Chipmunks for continuation training. During my time on the Flight we were offered the last
Mosquito from British Aerospace but this was turned down by some fool in the Ministry of
Defence as it would take one extra airman to service it!
On this particular day we are scheduled to leave RAF Coningsby on a Saturday morning,
fly to BAE Warton, do our display and land there. Later in the day we take off do a single
pass then depart for RAF North Weald just to the north of London.
PA 474 with different squadron markings
We cross the Pennines and do our display, land and taxy in, crowds everywhere and pick
out the marshallers amongst all the waving arms. However, can’t help but notice one
individual who looks a bit like the big British comedian , Bill Maynard, who used to stick both
thumbs up and always say “All right?” This man has enormous thumbs, a bit like a human
102 foot wingspan, and carried 21,000 lbs of bombs!
We shut down and start making our way to the crowd barrier when the big guy comes over
and says I’ve got a present for you and hands me a propellor carved out of a “Bobbin” from
a Lancashire cotton mill. You can’t help but notice the man’s hands and these enormous crab
like thumbs. “Oh yeah” he says quite casually lost them, pointing to his hands and missing
8 fingers, one night over Germany. We got shot up pretty bad, lost the heating, intercom
and most guys were killed and I was stuck in the rear turret and couldn’t get out. When we
landed they pulled me out but my fingers were frozen on the gun handles so just got to keep
“Me Thumbs” and they just got bigger and bigger! Only reason we got back was the Flight
Engineer kept rubbing the pilot to keep him warm so we could get home.
Later in the day we depart and wend our way southbound to the old wartime fighter base
at RAF North Weald which always has a fairly exceptional display of old warbirds. We are
cleared in, do our display and then land. We taxy in, shut down and leave our engineers to
prep the birds for tomorrow and now make our way to the pilot’s tent for the first refreshing
beverage of the day.
RAF North Weald with a North West 747 and TEN wartime fighters
I’m just ducking under the crowd rope when an older gentleman stops me and asks me a
question. This distinguished gentleman has a RAF tie on and the classic blue blazer…….he
says “I wonder if there is any chance of going out and touching the Lancaster for old times
sake?” Now in the course of any one day at an airshow we must get 100+ requests like this
and unfortunatrely most of “Joe Public” come armed with little screwdrivers and before you
know it pieces are missing! This man doesn’t seem to fit that bill so I ask him why I should
make an exception for him and he then retells a story of how he was a pilot on Lancs during
the war and one night while on one of the big 1000 bomber raids they had been shot up
and only 3 of the crew were left alive and his Flight Engineer had kept him alive by rubbing
him and keeping him warm so that he could get them home.
I took him out to the Lanc and let him sit in the front seat and within minutes we were both
in tears. I then showed him the propellor that his rear gunner had made and given me earlier
that morning. What an amazing coincidence and neither of them had any idea the other was
still alive. My thoughts went out to two very brave men who had endured the most
horrendous night together some 40 years before and it also brings home the real privilege
of being a custodian of part of Britain’s heritage.
My favourite Spit, the MK19 with Invasion Markings
Sqn Ldr Tony Down BBMF 1983-1990