By Kevin Armstrong
Amongst Blackpool’s many fascinating heritage attractions is Hangar 42, Blackpool Airport, home of the Lytham St.Annes Spitfire Display Team.
The team was founded back in 2009 when John Coombes, then Leader of Lytham St. Annes council, found an archived photograph of the Supermarine Spitfire “Lytham St. Annes” amongst the Town Hall records. Intrigued by its mystery, he went on to uncover her story. During 1941, when Great Britain stood alone in the fight against Nazi Germany, the people of Lytham St. Annes came together to raise money to provide a Spitfire for the war effort. Many communities up and down the land collected money in this way for what were known as “Presentation Aircraft”.
Over £6500 was raised, by public subscription, by holding garden parties and fairs, children’s concerts etc. One local lady even auctioned her diamond earrings! The Air Ministry added a further £6500 to this and, in February 1942, the Spitfire W3644, named “Lytham St.Annes”, was purchased and handed over to Squadron 19 of the Royal Air Force. Her pilot was Sgt. Allan Lever-Ridings, a 20 year old Lancashire lad with family connections to the town.
Sadly, both plane and pilot were lost over the English Channel in June 1942. They were attacked by a superior force of the new Focke Wolf 190 fighter while returning from a mission escorting R.A.F. Boston bombers on a raid to Morlaix in France.
The stricken aircraft ditched off Star Point and neither she nor her brave pilot has ever been traced.
From the discovery of that single image in June 2009, John and a group of local volunteers were moved to begin raising funds for a memorial to plane and pilot, to the many members of the Royal Air Force who gave their lives during World War II.
A milestone was realized when a mobile replica of a MK.9 Spitfire was purchased. Christened “Lucy”, she was to be used as an Event Display Piece, touring throughout the U.K. With Lucy’s help over £80,000 was raised. The proud result of the team’s effort was that in 2012 a full size replica of Spitfire W3644, “Lytham St.Annes” was mounted on the shore of Fairhaven Lake.
Following on from this success, the group decided to continue exhibiting “Lucy” and since then, she has toured the U.K. and beyond, appearing at shows and re-enactments including a visit to Normandy for the 70th Anniversary Celebrations of the D Day Landings, and to Horse Guards Parade, in May 2015, for the 70th Anniversary of V.E. Day.
In 2015 the Spitfire Display Team moved to their new home in Hangar 42, an original World War II Hangar at Blackpool Airport. To enter is to take a step back in time. It is literally a living history of the breathtakingly heroic days of The Battle of Britain.
I met up with Mike Fenton, the Spitfire Display Team curator who took me on a guided tour. The team’s objective is to establish Hangar 42 as a permanent Museum. As well as Lucy, a Spitfire replica exact in every detail right down to original cockpit instruments, the collection now includes two more Spitfires, affectionately known as Holly and Vicky.
A Hawker Hurricane has recently been acquired and is currently undergoing restoration. Hangar 42 also houses a number of World War II military vehicles and a wonderful, authentic and atmospheric Battle of Britain airfield operations hut.
The whole centre is run by John and his team of twenty volunteers. As well as fundraising and manning the touring displays (where the team appear in wartime uniform) they undertake all improvement and maintenance of Hangar 42 and the exhibits. They are happy to welcome new volunteers and, should you be interested, they can be contacted via their website.
For more information about the Spitfire Display Team, their work and some wonderful videos, visit their website: www.spitfiredisplayteam.co.uk or Facebook page facebook.com/FyldeAviationMuseum