Imperial War Museum
Tom McGhee takes a look in deepest South London.
Situated in Lambeth, the Imperial War Museum was opened in 1920 in the old Bethlehem Royal Hospital. Originally set up to house displays relating to the Great War, its collection now encompasses all Commonwealth military operations since 1914.
Numerous military vehicles and weapons are on display here, alongside collections of medals, works of art and so on, and regularly changing exhibitions ensure that there are a great variety of sights and sounds.
But as our remit is aviation, we shall be reviewing some of the aircraft exhibits on display here, beginning with the Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c. This First World War twin-seat reconnaissance aircraft was used to gain information on German troop movements, and trench activities, allowing the British commanders to have some advanced warnings of enemy forces. It must have been brave crews who took to the air in these early aircraft, as the semi-translucent fabric covering would actually let light through - not quite the armoured cockpit that today's pilots are used to! The unusual "L" shaped exhaust pipes are visible here on 2699; presumably the crews had enough to contend with without the added bonus of spatters of boiling hot engine oil in the face.
Another Great War British aircraft here is the Sopwith Camel, represented by N6812, a naval 2F1 version. This classic fighter really does look the part, and the olive drab finish to the upper surfaces even manages to stop the light shining through, although I doubt it adds much to the agile fighter's strength. Flight Sub-Lieutenant S. D. Culley was flying this particular aircraft on 11 August 1918 when he shot down Zeppelin L53 over the North Sea.
Moving on to the Second World War, and we begin with the Supermarine Spitfire, an early Mk.1A is displayed here and the remarkable progression of fighter design in the few years since the Sopwith Camel are all too evident. The sleek lines and trademark elliptical wingtips of Mitchell's masterpiece will surely never be beaten as a reminder of "The Few". R6915 flew 57 operational sorties during the Battle of Britain, accounting for 2 kills, another 2 shared kills, and 4 damaged.
The Germans too were no mean fighter designers, and arguably it was their scientists who were at the forefront of aviation technology. Probably the best German fighter of the war was the Focke Wulf FW.190, with its massively powerful radial engine. Its speed and maneuverability was well ahead of the Bf.109, and it was only the later versions of the Spitfire that were able to match it. The example here (Wrk. Nr. 733682) is of the most produced sub-type, the A-8, and was captured and evaluated by the RAF before being presented to the museum.
If there was any doubt in German technological ingenuity, then the Heinkel He.162A-1 Salamander jet powered fighter (Wrk. Nr. 120235) should be enough to persuade you. Taking only 90 days to design and achieve a first flight, these aircraft, known as the "Volksjager" (Peoples Fighter) were rushed into production at the end of the war with the thought that young Hitler Youth glider pilots could fly them!
America's belated participation in the Second World War is also represented with a superbly presented North American P-51D Mustang. This type eventually found its niche after the RAF had the original Allison engines replaced with Rolls Royce Merlins. This re-engining gave the D model the performance and range necessary to escort the 8th Air Force B-17 and B-24 bombers on missions over Germany. The P-51D was by far the most successful USAAF fighter aircraft and served with various air forces well into the 1970s. The example on show here (44-73979, ex-RCAF 9246) is painted as 44-72258 "Big Beautiful Doll", the mount of Lieutenant-Colonel J. D. Landers, commander of the 78th Fighter Group at Duxford in 1945.
Besides the complete exhibits here are a few large aircraft components including a Lancaster I nose section from DV372, a Halifax B.VII nose from PN323, a cockpit section from a Japanese A6M5 Zero, plus a fuselage section from the Bf.110 which Rudolph Hess crash landed in Scotland in May 1941 whilst attempting to come to some sort of peace agreement with Britain.
Although there is only a small number of aircraft exhibits here, there is a multitude of other exhibitions, displays and collections to enjoy, especially if your interest is in military history in general. Further information may be obtained at the Imperial War Museum's website at www.iwm.org.uk.