Travel: Britain - Where the few live on

The Battle of Britain is still celebrated in museums across the South-east
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IT IS about this time of year that minds cast back to the summer of 1940. The Battle of Britain, which officially lasted from 10 July to 31 October 1940, has become part of modern myth. It even became legend during the war itself. The British line has always been that successful resistance to German bombing caused Hitler to abandon his plans to invade Britain. The German line has always been that they were changing their minds anyway.

Either way, the battle is replayed in endless airshows around the country. Today there are more airworthy Spitfires than there have been for 40 years, though in fact only one of these saw service during the battle. (There are very few Hurricanes; they bore the brunt of the conflict.) It is a strange comment on our own time that so much effort goes into keeping these planes going, but there is simply no more magnificent sight or sound in the world of aviation.

The real battle now exists only in photographs and film. Unless, of course, you have time to visit some of the eccentric and memorable museums in south-eastern England.

RAF Manston, near Ramsgate, was in the front line. In August 1940 it was constantly attacked. The worst day was the 24th, when 20 German bombers did so much damage, despite attempts by 264 Squadron's Defiants to beat them off, that the field was practically put out of action.

The old RAF station is now Kent International Airport. On the north side is the RAF Manston Hurricane and Spitfire Memorial Building.

The building is essentially two large rooms, with the Hurricane II in the eastern half and the Spitfire XVI in the west. Scattered around are relics dug from battle crash sites, including a pair of Hurricane engines. Pilot Officer KC Campbell's engine is in astonishing condition

More vivid is the wrecked Rolls-Royce Merlin III from Sgt. Franciszek Jan Kozlowski's Hurricane I of 501 Squadron. He was shot down on 18 August 1940 but baled out and survived, only to be killed three years later over France. The pulverised front half of Kozlowski's engine, with pistons and rods bent like plastic, testifies to the force of hitting the ground at 400mph-plus. That kind of crash often led to the engine reaching a depth of 18ft or more.

All of which makes the contents of the Kent Battle of Britain Museum at nearby Hawkinge - perched on the hills above Folkestone and the Channel Tunnel entrance - utterly astonishing. Hawkinge was also in the front line, but is little changed.

Up here on a quiet summer's day, with the grassy airfield and crumbling RAF buildings, it is easy to imagine what it was like, waiting hour after hour in the sun to be scrambled for a dog fight. With combat lasting a few shocking seconds of glaring noise and light, terror and mayhem, few pilots were unshaken and many lost friends daily.

The museum, housed in and around several wartime buildings, has myriad engines, instruments and controls. At first it looks like unlimited quantities of scrap, but a phenomenal amount of effort has gone into this place. Efforts have been made to identify every aeroplane involved, and there are photographs and biographies of many pilots.

One of the most famous books about the Battle is Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy (1942, and frequently reprinted). Hillary was shot down and severely burned on 3 September 1940 and wrote his book about that extraordinary summer during the long process of recovery.

Two of Hillary's friends in 603 Squadron were Colin Pinckney and Peter Pease. Pinckney was shot down on 29 August. His Spitfire crashed in Dymchurch and the control column is on display at Hawkinge. So, too, are fragments of Peter Pease's Spitfire, which was shot down on 15 September 1940 (Battle of Britain Day). Pease was killed; Pinckney survived, but died later in the war.

It is remarkable to see fragments of Spitfires from Hillary's pages. But they also serve as illustrations of a controversial activity. Many of these planes were excavated 20 years ago. It is now illegal to dig up any military aeroplane without MoD consent.

Where the pilot is thought still to be incarcerated this is always denied, though this raises interesting disagreements with relatives who want proper graves.

Having said that, I still didn't feel very much at ease. This is a private collection, as is made plain to visitors. No photography or even written recording is allowed, and there are no guidebooks for sale.

It is a pity, because this is a part of history that belongs to us all.

Closer to London - and in many ways the most intimate monument to the battle - is Shoreham Aircraft Museum. This is also privately owned and is far smaller than Hawkinge, but is superbly presented by the proprietor, Geoff Nutkins, a first-class aviation artist.

Here the main exhibit is the magnificent Merlin engine from Sgt. John Lansdell's Hurricane of 607 Squadron. Lansdell had flown from Tangmere, only to be shot down and killed in the afternoon of 17 September 1940.

There are many other items, including a blackboard from a Biggin Hill pub signed by pilots during the war. There are several colossal Jumo 211 engines from bombers and also the vast BMW radial motor from a Focke-Wulfe FW190.

If you go for a Second World War aviation trail round Kent, try to pass through Kingsnorth, just south of Ashford. Here I found a Pratt and Whitney twin-row Wasp radial motor which came from an American B24 Liberator ditched in the Channel. Now it decorates a roadside scrap dealer's display.

It is a reminder that, whoever won the Battle of Britain, the air war had a long way to run and many people on both sides were to die as a consequence.

Aircraft Museums

THE ONLY surviving Battle of Britain Spitfire in working order is a Mark II, serial number P7350, built at Castle Bromwich in Lord Nuffield's factory. It makes fairly regular appearances in the summer but lives at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, where there is a visitors' centre (01526- 344041).

RAF MANSTON Museum (01843-823351, ext 6219) is open daily all year round, 10am-4pm, staying open till 5pm between May and September. To get there take the A253 from Canterbury to Ramsgate, turning north on the B2048 at Minster and, shortly afterwards, east on the B2190.

KENT BATTLE of Britain Museum at Hawkinge (01303-893140) is open from Easter until the end of October, closing at 5pm (4pm in October). Admission: adults pounds 3, senior citizens pounds 2.50, children pounds 1.50. It is accessible most easily from the A260 (off the A2 between Canterbury and Dover).

THE SHOREHAM Aircraft Museum is in Shoreham High Street, signposted from the A225 between Eynsford and Otford (01959-524416). If coming from farther afield, leave the M25 at junction 3 and take the A20 1.5 miles east to Farningham and then join the A225. Open Sundays only, from May to September, 10am-5pm. Admission pounds 1; children and students free.

THERE IS also the Brenzett Aeronautical Museum in Ivychurch Road, Brenzett, near New Romney on the A2070 (01233-627911). Apart from fragments of Battle of Britain planes there are other pieces such as experimental versions of the Dam Buster bombs. Open Sundays and Bank Holidays, 11am to 5.30pm, from Easter to 31 October, and Wednesday to Friday (afternoons only) from July to September.