A flight down memory lane
One of the best bits about trying to write an historical novel is the excuses you get for research. In the past year, I’ve read a conscientious objector’s hate mail in the Imperial War Museum reading room, spent a happy afternoon nosing around the London Fire Brigade Museum’s archives and wandered the streets of London looking for the scars left by the 1940 Blitz.
In November, I decided to travel a little farther afield – the RAF Cosford museum in Shropshire to be precise – to see something quite magical. Every year, the museum opens the doors of its conservation centre to the public, offering behind-the-scenes access to some of its most precious work. Since the men in my family are aircraft nuts I went along with my great-uncle – who worked for Armstrong Siddeley for many years – and my cousin, who, it turns out, is a dab hand at pointing out which end is which on a bomber.
The main purpose of my visit was to see the remaining sections of a Handley Page Hampden discovered in northern Russia in 1989. Hampdens were medium bombers used in the early years of the Second World War. They suffered greatly in daylight raids, eventually switching to night raids and mine-laying, known as gardening. The aircraft was in operation until 1942 when it was replaced by the Halifax and the much more famous Lancaster.
RAF Cosford’s Hampden had been en-route to Murmansk in Russia for convoy defence duties when it was shot down on 4 September 1942. Three crew members died. The remaining two airmen survived to become prisoners of war. It is one of the museum’s longest-running conservation projects and one of only three Hampden projects that the museum is aware of.
The trip to Cosford was invaluable (and not just because said cousin pointed out which end was which). Although I’ve read several books that describe how slim the Hampden fuselage was and how tricky it was to move around – the navigator had to slip down under the pilot’s feet in order to get into position – there’s nothing like seeing it for yourself. Some raids could last as long as eight hours, depending on the target. I struggle to sit still for more than twenty minutes at a time and cannot imagine how oppressive this must have felt. I hope that having seen just how small the inside is for myself I can infuse some of that claustrophobia into my writing.
Below are some pics I took of the aircraft. For anyone interested, I would highly recommend a visit to the RAF Cosford museum. It holds all sorts of events during the course of the year and you can follow their progress on the Hampden restoration on their blog.
The photograph above shows the Hampden tail in the foreground and what remains of the main fuselage at the back.
This photo shows the inside of the Hampden's main fuselage. As you can see it's about as wide as a step-ladder (the yellow frame).
Another inside shot - the dials in the background show where the wireless operator sat. He would also man the upper guns. It gives you a good sense of how tight it would have been inside.
This is where the rear gunner would sit.
Not the greatest shot in the world (one-handed and highest ISO) but it is the inside of a Wellington that is also being restored at Cosford. It gives you some idea of how much more room a crew had inside a heavy bomber.
Given my inability to tell which end from which, my cousin decided I needed a little help. Christmas project here we come...