On my regular journey from the Deepings to my parents’ home in Norfolk, I pass a brown tourist sign indicating the ‘Fenland Aviation Museum‘. For over a decade I have been meaning to visit and on a recent rainy Saturday afternoon I finally visited with my sixteen year-old daughter.
On arrival it is clear that this small museum is not in the same league as the IWM at Duxford. The museum is set back from the road behind a pet-shop and various other small independent retail outlets.
A shingle track full of puddles leads to the entrance gate where the suggested donations are listed on a laminated card. The museum consists of a few modular buildings behind a grassed area probably not much bigger than a badminton court and crowded with aircraft in various stages of reconstruction. These include a Lighting T5 training jet and the fuselage of a recently donated spitfire awaiting the reattachment of its wings, somewhat reminiscent of a half-finished Air-Fix kit.
From the outside, I was not entirely convinced the museum was open as I gently pushed the PVC door but, sure enough, a volunteer named Steve was at the desk awaiting visitors. At almost 11am he was delighted to welcome us as the first visitors of the day. He briefly explained the layout of the museum and called across to another volunteer, Henry, who he said would be pleased to answer any questions.
The museum has a wide range of exhibits from many periods of aviation history including models of early airships through to the cockpit of a jumbo jet and memorabilia from the first gulf war. However, the raison d’etre appears to be a place to show the findings of many archaeological digs which have recovered parts of aeroplanes which crash-landed in and around fens during the Second World War.
Henry began our introduction by showing us an illuminated map of various crash sites which had been excavated, and then pointed to two engines which had been recovered from the same plane. The first was smashed and damaged almost beyond recognition while the second had been partially restored. Further into the museum were many similar examples of smashed propeller, landing gear and other scrap metal illustrating Fenland’s aviation heritage.
Henry followed us to the 1950s training simulator, the jumbo jet cockpit and the helicopter engine commenting with a zeal to match any aviation enthusiast.
We then came to a short passage connecting two of the buildings which told the stories of some of the aircraft and airmen who had served during the Second World War. Henry pointed to a panel which told the story of a Halifax bomber which had been shot down over Holland in December 1944. The panel has details of all the six crew but points out that, sadly, only the navigator had survived.
“There was fuel all through inside of the aircraft”, said Henry, “and so the pilot gave the instruction to bail out. I removed a metal door from hatch from beside me and dropped it through the hole. I then stepped through and followed it out. The plane crashed into the countryside and I looked around but I couldn’t see any other parachutes. It was only me. I had no control over the parachute and the wind swept me over the river, which was the border, and so I landed in Germany.”
“How old were you?” I asked.
“Then? I was 21. Now, I’m 96.”
Henry was ‘on the run’ for six days trying to stay out of sight and surviving by drinking water from puddles and cattle-troughs. Eventually, just before Christmas he found himself walking, exhausted, down a main road. He heard the click of a rifle bolt and a voice shout “Halt, Wer Da?” and he knew he had been captured.
The panel in the museum explains that while Henry was a POW (Prisoner of War) for ‘only’ a few months, they were certainly the worst few months to be in that position with the German armies retreating from the advancing allied troops as the war neared its end. Henry was among the POWs forced to take part in the ‘Death March’ of 227km over 21 days and nights from Bankau Stalag Luft VII to Goldberg during horrendous weather with very little food and virtually no medical care. This was followed by three days travelling by rail, standing with 65 other men in a cattle truck.
As we stood at the centre of this small but well-cared-for museum, Henry told us that people refer to this corridor as ‘the hall of heroes’ but adds “We didn’t consider ourselves heroes, we were just doing our job”.
My daughter and I made our way round the rest of the museum exhibits which include a helicopter engine, propaganda posters from World War 1 and examples of ordnance of various shapes and sizes. Before we left, Henry directed us to an exhibition piece beneath a swastika flag. It has details, in original German and also translated into English, of a German attack on a Halifax bomber. In fact it was the attack which brought down Henry and his companions on that fateful night in 1944. Henry explained “I researched the raid in the Bundes-archive and I know how many rounds of ammunition were used, the name of the pilot and the name of the gunner. I don’t have any ill-feeling towards them. They were doing their jobs just the same as we were”.
Henry is the same age as the Queen. At the outbreak of the war he was the same age as my daughter is now. As a young man he put himself in harm’s way in defence of our country. What an unexpected privilege to meet an aviation enthusiast with such a story to tell.
The Fenland Aviation Museum can be found at Old Lynn Rd, Wisbech PE14 7DA is normally open, during the season, on Saturdays (10-5), Sundays (10-4) and Wednesday afternoons (1-4). For more information phone 01845 461771. NB. The museum is usually closed between November and Easter.
What a man