Whilst the 1st April was the date RB396 carried out her final flight, it was also April Fools’ Day. There are no current plans to rebuild RB396 as a two-seater. If you have read this far, without sharing this news on social media, along with the comment of words to the effect of “how could anyone do this, who do they think they are?!” then we thank you. Please keep the joke going.
The project has come a long way since its inception in 2014 and the following formation of a charity and public launch in 2016. Year on year, the team have gone from strength to strength, with more team members joining, acquisitions of parts, sourcing a complete and inhibited Napier Sabre, raising in excess of £600,000 and finally, in 2019, commencing the physical rebuild in partnership with the Aircraft Restoration Company and Airframe Assemblies. There has been a great amount of progress to date, as much as funds have allowed. The year 2020 was set to be no different as it was set to be the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the final flight of RB396.
The Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group, which is a small team of dedicated volunteers, had been working incredibly hard on plans to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the final flight. Five days ago on 27th March, Bernard Gardiner, one of the last surviving WWII Hawker Typhoon veterans, was due to take a flight. It was to be no ordinary flight. Bernard is a huge and emphatic supporter of the project to rebuild RB396, and it is for this support, and in recognition of his and his comrades’ service on the Typhoon during WWII that the project had arranged for him to fly in the fighter he never flew. During WWII, Bernard flew the Hurricane and the Typhoon, much the same as project trustee Sam’s grandfather. After the hostilities, Bernard went on to have a long and successful commercial flying career, before retiring in Jersey. But one aircraft eluded him. The Spitfire.
Through contacts established over many years, the HTPG had arranged for Bernard to fly in a Spitfire, the fighter that had eluded him, from Duxford with the Aerial Collective. As part of the event, the HTPG were also planning to announce the first in their team of project ambassadors. Paul Bonhomme, three times Red Bull Air Race champion, was to be the pilot for this incredibly special flight, and it was to be his first official duty as a project ambassador. The event was due to be covered by ITV and BBC news, and the report was due to be aired on the anniversary date, 1st April.
In the background, the research department had been working on an incredibly emotional development in the history surrounding RB396’s final flight. On 1st April 1945 RB396 was being flown by Chris House, as her usual pilot, Frank Johnson, was shot down and taken PoW just two days earlier. Chris was hit by flak and skillfully force landed near Denekamp. After surviving the landing, and escaping from the site by, in his words “doing a runner”, Chris House was helped by a local Dutch family, eventually passed to the resistance, and arrived back with 174 squadron some three days later. Chris then heard that the family who had helped him escape had been shot by the Gestapo. This haunted him forever, and he passed away in 2007 never being able to bring himself to return to the area.
Through countless hours of extensive enquiries, the research team on the HTPG have now discovered that the family survived. They were not shot by the Gestapo. The team have now been in touch with the descendants, including the then young boy, who helped Chris, as well as Chris’ own family. Planning was ongoing to reunite the two families, on the exact anniversary of the final flight, at the exact site, bringing a degree of closure to the story.
Alongside these two main elements to the commemorations, there were many sub elements. Knowing that the coverage would increase, a new website had been built, a range of new merchandise had been developed, including specific 75th anniversary items in the form of a Limited Edition pencil drawing and commemorative coin and clothing that draws on the significant step of RB396 being registered “G-TIFY” in the summer of last year. On top of that a new tier had been developed for the Supporters’ Club, as a route for those who are able and willing, to contribute to the rebuild at a higher level than is currently available. It is the Platinum Club, and with strong pre-launch interest it has the potential to enable the rebuild to move along at a much faster pace than is currently possible. It seeks just one thousand people who really want to see the rebuild take off. Go to the “Get involved” tab to find out more about this.
For some time the project had been seeking a suitable patron and over the winter, recently retired warbird master, Air Marshal Cliff Spink joined the project in that capacity. Alongside Paul Bonhomme, James Holland the well known TV historian and author had agreed to come on board to join him as an ambassador. Discussions with others are ongoing. It is hoped that these individuals, and the others that come on board in future, will help to further cement the credibility and reputation of the project to rebuild Hawker Typhoon RB396 and in doing so, help to secure future funding and success.
It was hoped to announce all of this exciting news in the crescendo of media coverage created by flying Bernard in the Spitfire and reuniting the two families at the site where this entire journey began, 75 years ago. The planned Members’ Day on 5th April, for members of the Supporters’ Club was set to be a large commemorative event, looking back on the 1st April 2020 as one of the proudest days in the project’s history.
Then, COVID-19 hit and every single one of these events had to either be cancelled, indefinitely postponed or significantly re-worked.
The team is still in communication with the Dutch family, and Chris’ family, and will plan a reunion when it is safe to do so. Bernard is staying out of harm’s way in Jersey and Aerial Collective have had to suspend all flight activity for the time being. It is still the intention for Paul to fly Bernard but only when it is safe to do so. This global pandemic has affected entire countries, but it has also had a direct impact on the livelihoods, lifestyles and working practises of the entire project team. In a time when the increased coverage should have brought increased sales and increased funds for the project, the shop has had to close, in accordance with UK Government restrictions.
There is never a right time to ask for money, whether it be small amounts or large. But one thing is for sure, the will of the project team in the Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group to raise the funds required to rebuild the only surviving combat veteran, in the form of Hawker Typhoon RB396, will not diminish. Now, more than ever, the project needs your help. The existing tiers to the Supporters’ Club are still open to new members, and the new Platinum Club is now open. The web shop is still accepting orders, including for the last few copies of the Limited Edition 75th print and coin, and the team will be back in to process and dispatch those orders as soon as the restrictions are relaxed or lifted.
Just a few weeks ago, an entirely different plan for the 75th anniversary commemorations was being worked on, but such is life. The team will overcome this hurdle, just like they do all others. Please join them in commemorating the 75th anniversary of RB396’s final flight by getting behind the project in whatever capacity you can. Large commercial backing is always sought, and whilst the current climate is a tricky one, the world continues to turn and the team must do what they can to keep pushing the project forward.
Once the world gets through this ordeal, and it will, Hawker Typhoon RB396 will surge forwards once again.