A depiction of the action for which Flight Lietenant Nicolson won his VC - one of many original aviation paintings held in the collection at Tangmere.
As Culture24 launches a series of features exploring the stories behind the objects held in the Battle of Britain Hall at Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, Richard Moss begins by exploring one of the most moving Battle of Britain exhibitions in the country.
When visiting museums that tell the story of the Battle of Britain the first destination for many is probably the RAF Museum’s peerless collection of aircraft in its Battle of Britain Hall, or Imperial War Museum Duxford’s Hangar 4 where visitors can see a Messerschmitt Bf 109 recovered from the Sussex field where it crashed landed in 1940.
But in West Sussex, a lesser-known but equally notable museum tells the human story of the Battle and, like its illustrious peers, is a must-visit during the 70th anniversary year of the Battle of Britain.
Tangmere Military Aviation Museum’s Battle of Britain Hall sits at the heart of a historic location amidst a fine collection of historic aeroplanes and artefacts lovingly tended by a volunteer band of enthusiasts.
An original Hamilton Fort recovered in 1984 from nearby RAF Merston and air raid shelter from the Battle of Britain period in the grounds at Tangmere. Photo Richard Moss
During World War Two Tangmere was attacked on several occasions and almost put out of service by JU87 Stukas of the Luftwaffe on August 16 1940, so the former Fighter Command station can lay claim to being very much in the eye of the storm during the summer of 1940.
Today all but a handful of RAF Tangmere’s original buildings have gone but there remains an atmosphere and an authenticity about the place that is priceless.
The blood spattered tunic worn by Fighter Command’s only VC winner sets the tone of a Battle of Britain collection whose centrepiece is the poignant remnants of a Hurricane recovered from a road in Hove 1996.
A souvenir from a Luftwaffe aircraft in the Battle of Britain Hall at Tangmere. Photo Richard Moss
But it’s the stories behind these powerful objects that resonate in a museum that specialises in what its Curator David Coxon calls the “human touch”.
“We appeal to everybody,” says David, “while the men might be attracted to the machines, the aeroplanes and the guns, the women are drawn to all of the human stories we have. And that’s really what we’re about, the human stories.”
He shows me one of many prized exhibits; the RAF tunic and 'Mae West' lifejacket worn by Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson VC when he was shot down over Romsey near Southampton on August 16 1940.
The Battle of Britain Hall is packed with artefacts. Photo Richard Moss
“On that day he was attacked by Messerschmitt 110s; the aircraft was on fire, blood was pouring down his face, and he decided to bail out,” explains David, “but then he saw a Messerschmitt 110 beneath him, so he got back into his seat and shot that aircraft down, before bailing out successfully.”
Nicolson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his action – the only pilot in Fighter Command to receive the award during the Second World War.
Nearby hangs the scramble bell used at RAF Tangmere in 1940. “We get a lot of school parties in,” David tells me as he strikes the bell which peals out across the bustling museum. “We then take them over here.”
Scramble bells. Photo Richard Moss
We approach a reconstruction of a dispersal hut where mannequins are attired in RAF period uniforms; some are wearing requisite glued on RAF moustaches or sport flying gear and Mae West life jackets. At the flick of a switch a gramophone starts up - and then the phone rings.
A mannequin lifts the receiver awkwardly and a period voice comes over the speaker. “Attack on its way, scramble”!
“Sometimes we have a bit of disaster and his arm hits his chin,” says David, “but the kids love it.”
It might not be state-of-the-art animatronics, but there is an honesty and authenticity about this and other displays at Tangmere, which, it should be pointed out, boasts its share of adroitly edited films and state-of-the-art flight simulators courtesy of the many skilled ex-RAF men and aviation experts on site.
Flight Lieutenant Nicolson's uniform. Photo Richard Moss
But in the Battle of Britain Hall it's the way every object tells a story which brings the whole history of the Battle alive. At every turn there are remnants of aircraft, tail sections souvenired by young pilots stationed at Tangmere, uniforms, flying helmets and photographs that reveal how men and women lived and died at Tangmere in the summer of 1940.
Hiding in a corner you may come across the remains of an aerial from a Stuka JU87 dive bomber downed by an American Tangmere-based pilot of 601 Squadron. Purloined by schoolboys in 1940 it was recently given to the museum by a family who knew where it would be best enjoyed and appreciated.
“I didn’t ask too many questions,” says David of the acquisition of the heavy metal and Bakelite object. “It’s a pretty hefty thing and was probably obtained overnight when the guard’s back was turned.”
Noble's Hurricane. Photo Richard Moss
Sadly the man who claimed the Stuka, Carl Davies, didn’t survive the Battle of Britain. He was shot down in September 1940 and is buried nearby at St Mary’s Church in Storrington.
Another tragic tale is represented by the mangled remains of the excavated Hurricane which has been partially but sympathetically reconstructed in the centre of the Battle of Britain Hall.
Shot down over Brighton by a Messerschmitt 109 on August 30 1940, the story of its pilot, 20-year-old Sergeant Dennis Noble, is told next to fragments of his clothing, his log book (final entry “killed in action 30th August 1940”) and his RAF wings.
The poignant effects of Sergeant Dennis Noble. Photo Richard Moss
Above this moving display hangs his parachute, which was recovered unopened in 1996 with the young pilot’s remains deep beneath a road in Hove by Keith Arnold, one of the Museum’s many dedicated volunteers.
Elsewhere, there are stories of survivors like Peter Parrot DFC, who was at Tangmere with 145 Squadron at the beginning of the Battle of Britain and claimed the first Stuka shot down over the Isle of Wight - and Billy Drake of Number 1 Squadron, one of the dwindling band of Battle of Britain pilots still alive with a connection with Tangmere.
“I met him for the first time last year,” says David of Billy Drake. “He is 92 but you would think he was about 70. He is such a famous pilot, he flew in Number 1 Squadron, he flew at Tangmere before the Second Word War, but he’s one of those people who doesn’t want to talk about himself, he’s such a nice person.”
And that unassuming air of humility is something that Tangmere Military Aviation Museum captures very well – both through its collection of artefacts and their stories and in the volunteers who look after them. The pilots with a connection to the former air base may be vanishing but there is something of their spirit living on in this inspiring museum.
Find out about the first of our Battle of Britain Curator's Choice objects from Tangmere as Curator David Coxon discusses the uniform of Flight Lieutenant Nicloson VC.
Keep up to speed with the latest news about the Battle of Britain 70th anniversary at www.culture24.org.uk/battle-of-britain.