TWILIGHT OF THE PISTONS     |                     Click here to buy the book or look at our other publications about the history of The Isle of Thanet

Once again I haven't with my limited computer skills attempted to make this look like the pages of the book but just gone for clear readable web pages, all the illustrations in the book are monochrome.


Every play must have a setting, for Air Ferry the stage was an airfield described by one Station Commander as being steeped in aviation history; the story was the British aviation scene and travel industry of the 1960s.  The story spans just over six years, a long time in the life of many airfields, especially those built solely for use in the second world war.  For Manston this represents but one chapter in a long and momentous life.

Manston's past has received extensive coverage, notably by the Station History, and it is not the intention to retell it in detail here.  However, no story set in such a famous place would be complete without a reference to earlier times on the airfield, and also of the aviation scene leading up to the start of Air Ferry.  Those readers impatient to start the story proper are referred to Chapter 2.

During the winter of 1915/16 aircraft from nearby Westgate sometimes used the area which became Manston airfield as an emergency landing ground.  Some months later the limitations of both Westgate and Detling airfields led to the establishment of a Royal Naval Air Station at Manston.

The first world war was being fought across the Channel and Manston was used by fighter, bomber and training aircraft.  In 1917 German Gothas raided England, the Royal Air Force was formed the following year and Manston went through a period of considerable expansion.  Construction continued after the Armistice and provided accommodation for over 3,600 people, a big station by any standards.  Another feature was the provision of underground hangars, in reality buildings in vast scooped out hollows, they were probably unique to Manston and all part of the legend.

Manston, aerial view, pre WWII (R.A.F. Manston History Museum)

The training role was extended in early 1920 by the establishment of the R.A.F. School of Technical Training, an important step in ensuring the firm basis of technical excellence which would be so badly needed later on.

The inter war years saw Manston as one of the `great five' R.A.F. stations of the time with involvement in flying training, as a base for bomber squadrons and for summer camps by Auxiliary Air Force and University Air Squadrons.  It participated in Air Defence of Great Britain exercises and held Empire Air Days.

In 1935 it was discovered a German spy had been studying Manston and his trial in 1936 made the newspaper headlines.  Also in 1936 the expansion programme which prepared the R.A.F. for the second world war led to the establishment of the School of Air Navigation.  The schools moved away when WWII started and in November 1939 the station transferred to R.A.F. Fighter Command.

Manston's contribution between 1939 and 1945 was quite staggering.  Defensive and offensive operations were often inextricably mixed as those six long years saw a gradual shift of emphasis from the early `backs to the wall' days through to eventual victory.  Aircraft flying from Manston endeavoured to clear mines from the sea, covered the evacuation of Dunkirk, and gave protection to shipping in the Channel.  As a forward airfield during the Battle of Britain the station was exposed to frequent attacks by the Luftwaffe and was extensively damaged.

Early 1941 saw the pattern evolving which remained, with variations, until the end of the war.  The station was used as a forward striking airfield for Manston's own aircraft and as a refuelling and briefing point for aircraft based inland.  Virtually the full range of R.A.F. operational code words applied to Manston's operations carried out by single aircraft and in flight, squadron and wing strength.  There were sorties for reconnaissance, low level strikes against enemy targets, fighter sweeps and bomber escorts.

One of the primary roles was the participation in `Channel Stop', an attempt by the Royal Navy and R.A.F. to deny axis shipping entry to the Dover Straits.  The anti-shipping strikes developed into a long and arduous campaign, one well known feature being the passage by the German heavy ships in February 1942, at a time when, although the German forces were deeply involved in Russia, there was still fear that an invasion of Southern England could take place.

There were Air Sea Rescue flights, night operations, support for the landing at Dieppe and counters against the tip and run raids by the Luftwaffe on the southern counties. Just before the Dams raid the station was used for bombing trials at Reculver.

From early 1940 Manston was used by R.A.F. bombers as a diversion and emergency landing airfield and this requirement escalated during the following years as Bomber Command's strength built up, while from August 1942 onwards aircraft of the U.S.A.A.F. found a similar need when in distress.  A special emergency runway was built for this purpose in 1944 which was backed up by additional facilities for aircraft repair and specialist medical support, both staffed by British and American personnel. Later on the F.I.D.O. landing aid was added to further enhance Manston's capabilities.

After D Day Manston's fighters assisted in mastering the V1 menace, transports flew from the airfield in support of the Arnhem landings and the bomber escorts continued. In early 1945 wounded personnel evacuated from the Continent were airlifted into the station, and by the end of the war Manston's aircraft on long range penetration flights were using continental airfields as their forward bases.

Many thousands of aircrew used the airfield, from the unknown to the famous and decorated. Some short excerpts, chosen with great difficulty from the many evocative descriptions of the station, give a brief anthology of Manston at war.

THE NARROW MARGIN    by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster    June 1940
Generaloberst Milch went to see Goring on June 18th at command headquarters at Sovet in Belgium.  Milch proposed that all available paratroops and air landing forces which remained operational after the battles of Belgium and Holland should be despatched immediately to southern England.  There they were to take and hold key fighter airfields such as Manston and Hawkinge and be reinforced by normal troops taken over by air in second or third waves.

R.A.F. BIGGIN HILL    by Graham Wallace     12 August 1940
At 2.30pm 32 Squadron was scrambled to patrol Dover-Hawkinge at 8,000 feet; no enemy aircraft sighted.  While the Hurricanes were on the ground refuelling and the pilots snatched a breather, Spitfires from Manston kept watch.
The SKY SUSPENDED    by Drew Middleton     1940
In my mind's eye the pilots still sprawl in the sun at Manston, the German bombers still move aloofly up the Thames, I stand in a Kentish lane and see a tormented Stuka trying to shake off a Hurricane.

NINE LIVES    by Al Deere    12 August 1940
“What the hell's up now,” I thought to myself.  The answer was soon forthcoming; just below and to my right lay Manston aerodrome, half hidden in mushrooms of smoke which drifted across its now bomb cratered surface.  The first of the many attacks that were to be made on Manston had been launched.

All that day the German formations continued their onslaught.  First Manston, then Hawkinge, then Lympne and further along the coast the radar stations.  Manston was serviceable again in a matter of hours and 65 Squadron, which was airborne shortly after our return to Hornchurch, was diverted there to fill the gap caused by our withdrawal.  They had barely refuelled before the second wave was plotted in mid-channel, heading for Manston.  The squadron managed to get airborne but only just in time to miss a stick of bombs that exploded behind them as they became airborne. Miraculously, none of the Spitfires was hit, but there were several casualties among the station personnel.

54 Squadron landed at Manston again later that afternoon, after a second engagement, to be met by a very shaken body of airmen and a no less frightened gathering of 600 Squadron pilots.  The airfield was a shambles of gutted hangars and smouldering dispersal buildings all of which were immersed in a thin film of white chalk dust which drifted across the airfield and settled on men, buildings and parked aircraft in the manner, and with the appearance, of a light snow storm.  The rows of yellow flags, marking the safety lane for landing, and the chalk-coated men and materials were to become symbolic of Manston in the days that followed, and remain as a lasting impression with all those who worked and operated from there in August 1940.

THE STORY OF 609 SQUADRON    by Frank Ziegler    20 January 1943
Then at 12.45, distracted from report-writing by deafening anti-aircraft fire, I saw the sky festooned with convoluting smoke trails, plus one or two parachutes, and was nearly run down by `Bee' driving furiously towards Typhoon PR G.  Next moment I was horrified to see another Typhoon, coming in to land, being fired on by one of a Spitfire squadron that had been told thirty enemy planes were attacking Manston - the Typhoon pilot being Jean de Selys, landing now from a defensive patrol.

                                                                         June 1943
Manston was now easily the busiest airfield in the country right round the clock, for besides at one time having six squadrons of its own, it was also the nearest landfall for shot-up Flying Fortresses and Liberators by day and Lancasters and Halifaxes by night.

THE MIGHTY EIGHTH   by Roger A. Freeman  381 Bomb Group U.S.A.A.F.  1943
The Fortresses finally got to Villacoublay on Bastille Day, July 14th, and wrought considerable havoc.  Le Bourget and Amiens/Glisy airfields were also attacked with creditable results.  A Fortress `T.S.' (ostensibly Tough Stuff but generally having a more purposeful if unprintable meaning) of the 381st Group was on its fifth mission as part of the force sent to Amiens/Glisy.  The Ridgewell group was attacked head-on and one FW190, either hit by defensive fire or through pilot error, struck the `T.S.' with a wing.  The impact knocked the propeller from the Fort's No. 3 engine, amputated the Focke-Wulf's wing as it slashed almost halfway through that of `T.S.' and caused the enemy machine to cartwheel over the Fortress disintegrating as it went and tearing away part of the bomber's fuselage skin and fin.  `T.S.' wallowed around the sky, but somehow held together and, under the watchful eye of eight Duxford Thunderbolts, lurched into Manston for a wheels up landing.  From its battered fuselage the crew emerged without a scratch.  One of the Focke-Wulf's gun barrels was found embedded in the wall of the radio room.

THE BIG SHOW    by Pierre Clostermann     341 `Alsace' Squadron 27 August 1943
We landed on the first airfield on the coast - Manston.  Chaos reigned supreme there. The Luftwaffe's reaction, in such an unfrequented sector, had disagreeably surprised everyone.  Aircraft were simply piling up.  A Fortress had crashed in the middle of the runway.  The Thunderbolts, disregarding all the rules, were landing cross and down wind.  The perimeter of the field was cluttered up with Spitfires, Typhoons and aircraft of every sort waiting for the bowsers.  The poor ground control chaps were rushing about with their yellow flags, firing red Verey lights in all directions, trying to park aircraft from each flight all together.

We came across a few of our mates.  Fifi had stood his Spitfire on its nose properly and it looked pretty comic, with its tail in the air and its propeller buried in the ground.

We counted heads-only ten. Commandant Mouchotte and Sergt. Chef Magrot were missing.  We hung on the telephone.  Biggin Hill had no information, the controller had lost all traces of Mouchotte, and none of the emergency fields had reported his arrival. Not much hope now, for his tanks must have been empty for the last quarter of an hour at least.  It was a tragic blow, and the world no longer seemed the same.

THE NUREMBERG RAID  by Martin Middlebrook  61 Squadron Lancasters 1944
Against a strong head wind with two engines out we made only about 80 knots over the ground so we set course for Woodbridge.  We opened the rear door and threw out everything we could move - guns, ammunition, parachutes - but we continued to lose height and I thought we would have to ditch.  Then, over on the port side, we saw the lights of Manston.  The pilot simply said `Going straight in' and put her down first time.

We were a bit shocked and had a couple of stiff brandies before going to bed.  Next morning I woke up and looked out of the window.  It was like a grave-yard.  There were aircraft all over the place, some smashed up, some burnt out.

With victory achieved in Europe it was decided that Manston would be a full strength peace time station.  The western powers demobilised almost completely and airfields across Britain emptied virtually overnight.  The aircraft which had used Manston in their hundreds were no longer needed, the R.A.F. squadrons were mostly disbanded while the American groups returned to the U.S.A. to be deactivated.

By the end of 1945 most of Manston's squadrons had gone although the R.A.F.'s High Speed Flight, flying Meteors, had been based on the airfield in November to recapture the world air speed record.  The station transferred to R.A.F. Transport Command and became a Staging Post, the resident squadron using Dakotas.  Manston was designated an `R.A.F. and Civil Customs Aerodrome', a feature that has been so significant in the airfield's post war operations.

As Britain under her new Labour Government struggled through the years of austerity fresh storm clouds were already appearing over the horizon.  The U.S.S.R. had not demobilised after the war; having suffered twenty million casualties this was perhaps understandable, but her aggressive attitude was causing grave concern to her wartime allies as well as former enemies.  For at least two years after W.W.II the Red Army could have overrun mainland Europe, and Berlin quickly became a flashpoint.  While the Americans and British were exploring ways to rebuild Europe the Russians blockaded Berlin and for a year the city was supplied from the air in an epic operation by the U.S.A.F., the R.A.F., and a collection of British airlines.  Some of the independents involved, such as Eagle, later became household names.

Russia continued to make technological advances, her Mig 15 jet fighter rendered the U.S.A.F. and R.A.F. front line equipment obsolescent and, by 1949, the Soviet Union had exploded a nuclear device.  In June 1950, having been given tacit approval by Moscow, North Korea attacked her southern neighbour and the Korean war began.  In the air the U.S.A.F. B29 bombers suffered badly at the hands of the new Migs.

Across the world from this conflict, the deficiencies of British equipment and the laborious development of new types for the R.A.F. had been causing concern for some time and this contributed to the decision to accept help from the Americans in the defence of the United Kingdom.  Bombers of America's Strategic Air Command had been using British airfields on temporary deployments since 1948, a practice that was to continue with variations for many years, but now some R.A.F. airfields were nominated for use by U.S.A.F. fighters.

Within weeks of the start of the Korean war U.S.A.F. F84 Thunderjets landed at Manston, an American presence that was to last for eight years.  The distinctive iron cross shape of the Thunderjet quickly became a familiar feature in the Kentish skies; if the B29 bombers had gone into action over a European battlefield, Manston's F84s would have been used for escort duties.

In September 1950 an F84 involved in the development of in-flight refuelling flew from Manston to Maine in the U.S.A., a distance of 3,300 miles.  The pilot was Colonel Dave Schilling, leader of the wartime 56th Fighter Group of the Eighth Air Force, who sadly died later in a car crash back in England.

In 1953 the coronation of the Queen was the cause of many celebrations and Ramsgate at night will be long remembered by those who saw the town's illuminations.  In November there was excitement of a different kind at Manston when the F84s were replaced by the F86 Sabre, surely one of the most beautiful aircraft ever designed.  By the middle of that year the Korean war ended, Stalin had died, but East-West tension remained high.  Dean Rusk, U.S. Secretary of State to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, talking in later years about the grim, chilling days of the cold war, said the West carried much of the responsibility; the post war demobilisation had subjected Stalin to intolerable temptation.

New aircraft were now entering R.A.F. service, the Hunter, Javelin and the Valiant, the first of the V bombers; all would be visitors during the Air Ferry days.  In April 1956 Manston became a Master Diversion Airfield and, in December, the station was formally transferred to the Americans as U.S.A.F. Manston.  Relations between London and Washington were under considerable strain at this point as Britain, France and Israel had carried out the Suez operation which the Americans, at the height of a presidential election campaign, had not supported.  Tempers ran high and the Russians, although busy with the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising, were threatening to become involved.  A Hungarian airlift, on a much smaller scale than Berlin, gave some support and one U.S. transport aircraft used on this by General Airways was N56006, later to be Yankee Kilo of Air Ferry.

By 1957 the new R.A.F. fighters made the American contribution to our air defence unnecessary and, in June 1958, the Stars and Stripes were lowered for the last time in front of the station headquarters with Manston reverting to Air Ministry control.  Gone were the red baseball caps and colourful jets, the familiar sonorous drone of the Albatross air sea rescue amphibians, and a great deal of the trade in Thanet.  In August the airfield was put under `Care and Maintenance', a depressing classification which has foretold the demise of many a famous airfield as closure and disposal usually follow.

Tension continued unabated between the N.A.T.O. powers and the Communist Bloc. The U.S.S.R. had put an earth satellite into orbit and the development of the launcher rocket as a missile made the R.A.F.'s V Force vulnerable as it was still building up.  One solution was for the V Force to adopt a scatter policy with aircraft, usually in fours, using stations away from the main bases to provide greater protection on the ground.  Manston was one of the dispersal airfields and the V bombers visited quite frequently.  The Valiants, Vulcans and Victors were an impressive sight in their white anti-flash paint schemes and made an eerie spectacle if they landed in the dark and taxied round the perimeter track between the blue marker lights.

The international crises in the early 1960s were as dramatic as they were dangerous. One highly secret aspect of the cold war was the operation of strategic reconnaissance flights across the U.S.S.R. by U.S.A.F. and R.A.F. aircraft, and the destruction of one of these by a new generation missile caused the Soviet leader, Nikita Khruschev, to angrily berate the N.A.T.O. powers.  He gave an ultimatum over Berlin at a meeting in Vienna which brought the superpowers near to war and the following year brought them even closer by causing the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

By this time America was already providing air support missions in a far off Asian country that was to dominate so much of her thinking in the coming years - Vietnam. This then, in that same autumn, was the world background to the formation of Britain's newest independent civil airline.

We left Manston under Care and Maintenance, a state which continued until March 1959, when the airfield reopened under R.A.F. Fighter Command.  Before continuing the story let us briefly go back to 1945 and trace some of the milestones in U.K. civil aviation in the intervening years; some of them would later influence the future of Air Ferry.

The British Overseas Airways Corporation had carried out diplomatic flights during the war on a number of routes; now, with the end of hostilities, it was possible for conventional civil operations to recommence in Europe.  There was no shortage of aircraft as, although thousands had been scrapped, many ex-bombers and transports were readily available.

B.O.A.C. flew from the newly opened London Airport while B.E.A. was based for eight years at R.A.F. Northolt.  Equipment for the state airlines, as for the emerging independent operators, included Halifaxes, Yorks and DC-3s although new aircraft, such as the Viking, were leaving the production lines and would later become the workhorses of the independents.  These airlines flew a variety of passenger and freight charters until the Berlin Airlift which then provided as much work as hours could be flown.  There were then some ninety independents but time and chance would drastically prune these numbers

In America military aircraft were also being released for civilian use.  The U.S., with her vast production capability, and an eye for the post war civil market, had manufactured transport aircraft in very large numbers.  For a time, before turning to new types, the factories continued to produce new aircraft or refurbished transports to airline standards.  This led to different descriptions being applied to basically the same aircraft, the military C-47 or Dakota became a DC-3 in civil guise while the C-54, used on the U.S.A.A.F. Air Transport Command's long range flights, became the DC-4; for simplicity only the civil designations have been used in this work.

After the Berlin Airlift many operators closed down and those remaining faced stringent times.  The independents' share in the airlift had underlined their potential as a military transport reserve and this now led to some government orders to boost the revenue earned from civil passenger and freight charters.

In the 1950s Britain still had extensive overseas possessions with service garrisons to be maintained.  The economics and convenience of air travel resulted in trooping contracts to move military personnel and their dependents.  Trooping became one of the main sources of income, reaching a peak in the mid 1950s, when it provided some two thirds of the passenger miles flown by the independents.

From 1956 the Government wished the independents to have a larger share of the aviation cake.  It was already rationalising the aircraft industry by encouraging the formation of two large groups, the British Aircraft Corporation and Hawker Siddeley and it was felt that a similar formula applied to the independent airlines would be beneficial.  It would also reduce the competition for the trooping work, a reversal of the usual divide and rule philosophy practised by the men from the ministry.

Competition between the independents was fierce, and a Committee of Enquiry was held in 1957 to consider the implications of the low returns from this work and how they affected factors such as safety and the economic viability of the participants.
By 1960 Britain was withdrawing from the Middle East and bases east of Suez, leaving West Germany as the main trooping destination.

Colonial Coach flights provided another source of revenue for the independents, these were the routes serving Britain's colonial possessions in Africa in the years before those countries gained independence.  It was permitted to charge fares below the scheduled rates and these services were very popular; two airlines, Airwork and Hunting, flying a successful partnership for some years.

Inclusive Tour work also built up during the 1950s, Starways from Liverpool and Air Kruise from Lympne being two pioneers in what has become a large industry.  In 1956 Air Kruise, by then at Lydd, had the most extensive holiday flight programme of any U.K. airline.

Much of the traditional work was seasonally based and of an unpredictable nature; many of the operators sought licences to enable them to fly scheduled services on domestic routes and to Europe.  As the state corporations had a monopoly on the issue of licences, any routes flown were awarded only with their agreement.  Nevertheless some scheduled networks were built up to supplement other work.

The 1960 Civil Aviation Act abolished the state airlines monopoly for scheduled services and the Air Transport Licensing Board was created to award routes.  Even after this change, however, it was still very hard to obtain routes.  When advances were made at the British end, foreign governments frequently prevaricated and blocked progress to protect their own state companies.

One of the main post war developments started at Lympne in 1948, when Silver City opened their car ferry route to Le Touquet.  With little competition from the ships of the time business expanded rapidly.  Silver City transferred its operations to its own airfield at Lydd in 1954 and the following year claimed to be the non-communist world's largest air cargo carrier.  Competition from Channel Air Bridge at Southend started the same year and, by 1957, Silver City had completed its 100,000th. crossing of the Channel.

With slightly longer routes than Silver City, Channel Air Bridge had been making steady and profitable progress under the leadership of Douglas Whybrow.  Douglas had been sought out by Freddie Laker for the position of General Manager; he started in November 1955 and joined the Air Bridge board five years later.

Life for the independents was never easy, those companies which survived through the 1950s were generally backed by the large shipping companies which invested in civil aviation as it built up after the war.  In 1958 the changes required by the government began to take shape.  Gatwick reopened after its modernisation and, with Croydon due to close, some operators moved into Gatwick.  Airwork acquired Transair, Morton and Bristow and, at the end of the year, bought out Freddie Laker's operations.  Based at Southend these comprised Air Charter, Channel Air Bridge and Aviation Traders.

In March 1960 the enlarged Airwork merged with Hunting to form British United Airways.  The Chairman was Sir Miles Wyatt and Freddie Laker emerged from the changes as Managing Director.  The new airline soon demonstrated that it was taking the lead expected of it, in 1961 orders were given for two new types of jet airliner, the BAC1-11 and the VC10, an unprecedented step.  B.U.A. gained the contract as the sole trooping carrier to West Germany and was energetically seeking scheduled route licences.

Many independents had failed since 1945, but the 1961 season saw the sudden and highly publicised collapse of one of their fraternity, Overseas Aviation.  Holidaymakers were stranded abroad, holidays not yet taken were cancelled and much money lost. Overseas was second in size to B.U.A. and the timing, in August, and the manner of the failure caused great concern.  It would not be the last event of this type.

In January 1962 British Air Services, which included Silver City amongst its operators, became part of B.U.A. with a new holding company, Air Holdings, being formed to administer the group.  This merger made B.U.A. almost half the size of B.E.A. and it was probably the largest independent airline outside the U.S.A.

The car ferry business peaked in 1962 with the carriage of 137,000 cars at some 27% of the market.  Although Channel Air Bridge was introducing the Carvair, a DC-4 conversion which was able to carry five cars, by this time new sea ferries had been introduced and the mainstay of the work, the Bristol Freighters, were ageing.

At Gatwick B.U.A. were encountering problems with the unions and in 1962 all the engineers were dismissed following a dispute.  Trooping accounted now for just over half of B.U.A.'s revenue and buying Silver City had left Eagle as the only competitor. With the shrinking of the defence responsibilities and with R.A.F. Transport Command's capabilities building up, the future income from trooping was uncertain. This, with the beginning of the decline in the car ferry operation, underlined the need for diversification into scheduled routes and inclusive tour work.

Silver City was involved in two other ventures, both of which concerned Manston. From 1955 Skyways flew their Coach-Air services between Lympne and Beauvais and the following year Silver City introduced their Silver Arrow service from Lydd in competition. With the cutback in trooping, Silver City's parent operator Britavia, had surplus Hermes aircraft and these were made available for the Coach-Air service although runway restrictions at Lydd led to the transfer of the service to Manston. Silver City arrived at Manston in April 1959 and remained until 1962 when, following their integration into B.U.A., the service moved to Gatwick.

During the winter of 1960/61 the Silver City Hermes were used on a trooping contract between Manston and West Germany, a diversion from ordinary routine which attracted critical comment in Freddie Laker's biography.

A further stage in the consolidation of the Air Holdings business occurred on 1 November 1962 when the regional scheduled service and other networks of Silver City and Jersey Airlines, both already part of the group, were merged to form B.U.(C.I.) Airways.

Back in use, Manston saw more activity, and the Central Training Establishment of the Air Ministry Fire Service was formed in 1960.  B.E.A. used the airfield for crew training on Vanguards and, in July 1961, No. 22 Squadron's Whirlwind Air Sea Rescue helicopters moved in.  The following year B17 Fortresses were seen in the circuit again for the filming of John Hersey's fine novel `The War Lover', the station was transferred from Fighter to Bomber Command, and plans were taking shape for the new operator on the eastern, or civilian, side of the airfield.

Post-war Aerial View (Roy Doherty Collection)