Geoff Jones recently visited the Michael Beetham Conservation Centre at RAF Museum Cosford on behalf of Warbirds News. We were particularly interested to hear about progress on their Handley Page Hampden TB Mk.I restoration project. Only three partial airframes of the 1430 Hampdens built are known to exist, with the RAF Museum’s example, P1344, being the most complete. Staff and volunteers at Cosford are currently lavishing their attention on P1344, and have made significant progress over the last few years. This following article is based on Geoff Jones’ report…
Hampden P1344 joined the RAFas a standard medium bomber variant in December 1939. After passing through 14 OTU (Operational Training Unit), the aircraft underwent major modifications for conversion into a torpedo bomber, being re-designated as a Hampden TB Mk.I. She then joined Coastal Command with 144 Squadron at RAF Leuchars in Scotland. Whilst at Leuchars she flew a mission to Kristiansand, Norway. The weeks of practice using drain pipes filled with concrete as mock torpedo’s came to nought though, as the crew never found their target, so P1344 returned home without releasing its torpedo. On September 4th, 1942, P1344 took off from Sumburgh in the Shetland Islands with fifteen other 144 Squadron Hampdens and a further sixteen examples from 455 Squadron RAAF. They were bound for temporary duty on the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk in north-western Russia. From here they were due to undertake fleet protection responsibilities for Arctic convoys. Unfortunately neither P1344 nor her crew made their destination.
P1344, marked as PL-K for ‘Kitty’, had five men aboard that day. Pilot Officer E. H. Perry was at the controls, with Flight Sergeant G.E. Miller RCAF as navigator, Sergeant James Morton Robertson as wireless operator/gunner and gunner Sergeant Daniel C. Garrity. The aircraft also carried a technician/engine fitter, Corporal George Shepherd, to help with aircraft servicing whilst on detachment. The Hampdens flew across the North Sea heading east to northern Norway, and had to climb to 9000ft before landfall to clear the mountains. The Hampden experienced severe icing at altitude, particularly on the propeller blades, so it had to descend into warmer air to maintain flying speed. Due to the continued icing conditions, P1344 couldn’t climb over the mountains in northern Sweden, so Flt.Sgt. Miller plotted a new course, flying a circuitous route to their destination over lower ground. Unfortunately this took the Hampden too close to the German occupied airfield at Petsamo, Finland. They encountered anti-aircraft ground fire, but were soon being hounded by two Messerschmitt Bf109’s. Flt.Sgt. Miller in the Hampden’s nose called out instructions to the pilot to help him avoid fire from the Messerschmitts, but the Hampden was no match for the agile Luftwaffe fighters. The pilot declared that he couldn’t out-wit his attackers and decided to attempt a forced landing. Three crewmen died in the incident, while the pilot sustained serious injuries. Only the fitter, George Shepherd, managed to walk away from the wreck, but the Germans soon picked him up attempting to escape into Sweden. He guided his captors back to the crash site, where they rescued the wounded pilot. Both men spent the rest of the war in PoW camps.
P1344 remained where it fell on the Kola Peninsular, slowly sinking into the boggy ground over the following decades until being discovered by a salvage team in 1989. Jeet Mahal acquired the wreck and imported it into the UK in 1992. He soon arranged a deal which saw P1344 join the RAF Museum’s collection. The Hampden arrived for conservation at RAF Cardington in 1992, moving to Cosford upon Cardington’s closure in 2003.
Although badly damaged in the crash, the Hampden’s fuselage showed clear evidence of bullet strikes from the German fighters that shot it down. Russian locals had partially stripped the aircraft over the years, even recycling one of the tires for soles on make-shift shoes. Locals also daubed the airframe liberally with graffiti, however much of the original wartime paint work remained. The conservation and restoration effort began with a detailed photo survey of the wreck, together with a comprehensive inventory of all internal fittings, framework and components. This enabled the team, led by Darren Priday with assistance from Ella Middleton, to categorize what was present, what needed fixing, and what was entirely missing.
Due to the substantial damage, and significant missing sections, MBCC staff at Cosford were initially unsure how to finish the aircraft for its eventual display. They eventually decided to restore only one side of the Hampden, leaving the other side in its ‘as-found’ condition. This would have been an interesting way to display the aircraft, however it became clearly impractical due to the physical imbalance of the finished product placing undue stress on the remaining structure. The Museum now plans to restore the entire Hampden, although this will be a much lengthier and costlier process.
Following the wreck assessment, restoration efforts focused on the rear fuselage. The museum’s staff and volunteers first re-established the assembly’s structural integrity, applied corrosion proofing and then a final surface finish, completing this part of the job in 2011. The bomb-bay sidewalls followed next in the restoration queue.Completion of the tailboom is the next big task.
More recently the team overhauled one of the two 965hp Bristol Pegasus XVIII radial engines and work on the wings is in progress. The major tasks remaining as of early 2014 are the forward fuselage, inner wing, port outer wing, starboard outer wing, tailplane complete with fin and rudders, one undercarriage and the second Pegasus engine.
The RAF Museum recently secured a cache of Hampden parts from Canada, and these will be essential to completing P1344 as she is missing substantial sections of the forward fuselage and wings. Work on the project is split between RAF personnel and a group of apprentices who are advancing their skill sets with the varied tasks at hand. There are currently no completion target dates. However, Darren Priday hopes to display major sections to the public once they are completed. This will help tell the story of the Hampden’s crew and their sacrifice, and testify by association to the bravery of all who flew Hampdens into harms way.