I recently had the honour once again to be shown around RAF Northolt, accompanied by a Wing Commander and Squadron Leader as well as the Head of the Air Historical Branch. This time I took in the Polish Exhibition, Line Hut and Officers’ Mess, as well as returning to the Sector Command building. The Line Hut and Sector Command building are being refurbished at some expense – but more of that later in this blog. For now, if my photo uploading skills will allow, let me take you on a fascinating tour of the remarkable air force history that abounds at RAF Northolt…
First stop the “Polish Lounge”, so called because this is actually a departure lounge for some of those who fly out of Northolt. This is a great idea, because it brings a passing crowd to the exhibition. Outside stands a recently refurbished Spitfire with Polish colours on (see just under the exhaust, and the image to the right of that is a fighting Polish dog). It looks stunning. It commemorates RAF Northolt as an operational fighter station in both World Wars.
Inside, the memorabilia is inspiring. What’s marvellous is that the pilots and their offspring donate these items with great generosity. In the picture above, you see the only item one Polish pilot took with him when he left Poland – his briefcase. On it sit his Polish Wings.
In this picture, a seminal moment is shown, immortalised in the movie Battle of Britain. At this time, August 1940, the Polish pilots of 303 Squadron – which turned out to be Poland’s if not the Allies’ most famous – were only permitted to fly behind a British Squadron Leader. The Poles weren’t trusted to lead their own Squadrons. On one such training run, the Poles spotted some Nazi planes, and asked for permission to attack. Claiming not to understand the Squadron Leader’s response – which was essentially “No, stay in line and let someone else deal with it!” – Polish pilot Ludwik Paszkiewicz peeled off and shot down a Messerschmitt. It was 303 Squadron’s first kill of the Battle of Britain. On returning to the ground, Paszkiewicz was given a public dressing-down, but later congratulated in private. And within a day 303 Squadron was declared operational.
But alas, within a month, Paszkiewicz was shot down and killed in his Hurricane. In the glass cabinet pictured above, you see the remains of his plane (the shrapnel). But remarkably, someone later turned up a part of the Messerschmitt he shot down (the cog like mechanism).
We visited the “Line Hut”. The photograph above shows you the reason for its name. Pilots waiting to scramble couldn’t drift too far, hence they rested in a hut adjacent to the airfield next to where the fighters… lined up. The Line Hut at Northolt remains, and needs refurbishing. Once completed, the Polish Exhibition will be rehoused there.
And finally, back to the Sector Command building. For those of you who haven’t yet read my blog of 2 December – Fighter Command, RAF Northolt and Polish Pilots – which I do recommend, I should explain the airfield Sector Command buildings received orders from central Fighter Command as to when to scramble their fighters. They then controlled those fighters in the sky. The Sector Command building at Northolt, which was saved from demolition just a few years ago, is being painstakingly returned to its original condition. Within are more artefacts. The piece of a spitfire shown in the bottom left of the picture above – a propeller tip – was presented recently to Northolt by an elderly man who was emigrating, and had kept hold of it for 70 years. He told the curators at Northolt it belonged to a Spitfire that crashed into a house in Ruislip – just a mile from the airbase – during the War. The staff did some investigation, and came up with the picture you see above the piece of wreckage. Sergeant Czachia’s Spitfire ran out of fuel and indeed crashed into a house in Melrose Avenue, Ruislip, in 1942. He survived. The story was true.
So, another tour around the Second World War history of RAF Northolt that concentrates one’s mind on how much the RAF gave – no more so than when the Head of the Air Historical Branch showed us the row upon row of books containing casualty records. By the end of the War, the many owed much to more than just the few. I mentioned refurbishment: the Sector Command building, Line Hut and Fighter Command Bunker (the latter at RAF Uxbridge) require it aplenty, so I am hoping to work with RAF Northolt to raise funds by way of a series of talks with a Northolt/WWII/Polish theme. It’ll take a while to organise, but we’re determined to do it, and involve a few celebrities into the bargain! Keep reading this blog for further updates. And look out, too, for the opening to the public of the incredible Fighter Command Bunker at Uxbridge, a subterranean journey back in time to the heart of the War – due to happen in the next weeks…