Robin J Brooks reflects on the closure of the airport
after 100 years and why the museum must remain at Manston
The story of the museum began in April 1944 when a Spitfire Mark XVI bearing the serial number TB752 was rolled out of the Castle Bromwich factory and was allocated to No. 33 Maintenance Unit at RAF Lyneham. On February 21, 1945 the aircraft was flown to No. 66 Squadron based at Linton-on-Ouse and given the codes LZ-F. One month later the squadron moved to a forward base at Schijndel in Holland carrying out its first operational sortie on Monday March 19, 1945 with TB752 flying top cover for bombers from No. 2 Group. During another sortie six days later, the aircraft made a ‘one wheels’ landing sustaining considerable damage. Sent to No. 409 Salvage and Repair Unit, TB752 underwent repairs as well as being upgraded with new guns and several other modifications before being issued to No. 403 (Wolf) Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Flying from the recently captured airfield of Diepholz in Germany, four enemy aircraft fell to her guns in just the space of twelve days. TB752 also laid claim to being the last allied ‘combat’ aircraft to have shot down a German ‘combat’ aircraft, an action that was later portrayed in a superb painting by renowned aviation artist Michal Turner appropriately titled ‘Final Victory’.
At the end of the war the Spitfire was based at various maintenance units until officially declared ‘non-effective’ stock on December 13th 1954. At around this time, film makers were seeking Spitfires to feature in films such as ‘Reach for the Sky’, the story of Douglas Bader. This bought a new lease of life for TB752 when it was requisitioned to appear in the film. At the end of several months filming in which she appeared in many flying and ground scenes, she returned to ‘non effective’ stock and was flown back to RAF Manston on September 28th 1955. TB752 now began a new life as a gate guardian at the airfield, a position that was to continue until 1978 when a Medway based aircraft restoration company were looking for an aircraft to refurbish. The Medway Aircraft Preservation Society ( MAPS) Ltd began as an aircraft preservation group at Rochester Airport within the newly reformed Medway branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society. Formed in 1977 by Lewis Deal MBE, the aim of the group at that time was to attempt to bring a flying boat back to Medway in the form of the Science Museum Short Sandringham. This did not happen and the group were actively looking for another aircraft when TB752 came to their notice. By this time, and having been exposed to the elements for many years, the aircraft was looking very sad. Lewis approached the MOD about allowing MAPS to restore her and with permission granted, TB752 arrived in the workshops of MAPS on July 7, 1978. It came with one proviso required by the MOD, that the aircraft had to be returned to Manston by Battle of Britain day September 15, 1979 which gave MAPS just over one year to complete a daunting task.The preservation group was broken down into three teams, all of them volunteers, to handle the engine, fuselage and wings respectively. The summer weather helped to progress the restoration at top speed but come the autumn and winter it was a different story. The winter of 1978/9 was a bad one. Heavy frost followed by intense cold and then snow made work intolerable for the volunteers. With very little heating in the workshop and difficulty in blocking the draughts that came with an old building, work continued at a somewhat slower pace. As crisis replaced crisis the date of delivery back to Manston crept even closer. However, the Rochester Air Display in August 1979 saw TB752 rolled out of the workshop for the public to see what progress had been made.
She became the star of the show, but there was still a long way to go. Back into the workshop she went for work to continue including spraying the aircraft in green primer. Once this was complete, the time had come to dismantle the aircraft ready for transporting back to Manston. Upon arrival the teams had to reassemble and paint her, and with just two weeks to go before September 15, plans were formulated for the official handover. With the work complete, TB752 looked resplendent in her original RAF paint scheme with No. 66 Squadron.
On the day itself over 1,000 people attended and witnessed the rebirth of TB752. Standing proud as the gate guardian of RAF Manston and later flanked by a Canberra and a Javelin, just one thought was in the minds of the MAPS members. After over 8,000 man hours working on it at a cost of around £4,000, TB752 could not once again be exposed to the elements. It had to be housed in a purpose built building.
Consultations began which included the then CO of Manston, Wing Commander Colin Campbell, the MOD and members of MAPS. The then chairman of Thanet Council, Councillor John Jones and Wing Commander Campbell launched an appeal to house Kent’s only Spitfire. The donations began to come in and soon reached £5,000. Fund raising days took place and coach companies made sure the Spitfire was included in their local tours. Two legends from the Battle of Britain, Wing Commander Stanford Tuck and Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader gave visible support for the cause which by the autumn of 1980 stood at around £18,000. This was nowhere near the required £30,000 to £35,000 but with the setting up of a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with various individuals and companies to cover any shortfall, work began under the capable hands of a local building company, WW Martin (Thanet) Ltd.
The building was finally completed in June 1981 when it became known as the ‘Spitfire Hall’. TB752 was out of the cold and was now on view to the public. It became known as ‘The Manston Spitfire’ and during the weeks after the formal opening, no less than 17 pilots who had flown the aircraft were traced and invited to see their ‘old mount’ fully restored. Along with the aircraft, many items associated with the Battle of Britain were also on display. The opening of a shop within the building saw books, pictures, CDs and DVDs and memorabilia for sale, all of which generated income for the maintenance of the building. Later a Hurricane aircraft was refurbished by MAPS and is now housed in an additional building making the duo a permanent memorial to all those brave airmen and women who died or suffered in any way as a result of the war.
Since, however, the demise of Manston airfield visitor numbers have dropped dramatically, a fact that threatens the very survival of the Spitfire and Hurricane building together with the very fine cafe known as ‘The Merlin Cafe’. Whereas previously much of the income came from tourists who arrived on coaches as part of the Thanet Tourist Trail, without the flying aspect at Manston the appeal of visiting has sadly decreased. Though there is still a military presence in the form of the Defence Fire Training and Development Centre, the fact that it was once a major fighter airfield in the defence of the country and latterly a Master Diversion Airfield for the RAF seems to have faded from the public’s mind. So too has the museum, and many have the idea that the museum has now closed its doors but this is not so. It continues as a permanent memorial to all those who ensured that today we live in a world of relative security. With the addition of a memorial garden during the 1990’s, where people can sit and reflect on the sacrifices made by the services and especially the RAF, where else in Kent could you find such a fine tribute? The Spitfire and Hurricane Museum needs your help so if you do happen to be in Thanet at any time, pay them a visit. All year entry is free and you will find a wealth of history within its walls, plus, of course, a very warm welcome.
mmm By ROBIN J BROOKS