The final flight of Spitfire RW 388 – a piece of our city’s heritage

We Stokies have fond memories of 1986 because of the National Garden Festival which transformed a huge area of derelict land in the heart of the Potteries.

But it was also the year that an iconic piece of our heritage was unveiled at its new home after 20-odd years in a ‘greenhouse’.

The city’s Mark XVI Spitfire, RW 388, was gifted to the people of Stoke-on-Trent by the RAF in 1972 as an acknowledgment that Spitfire designer Reginald Mitchell had been born in the city and received all of his education here.

Since that time it had been on display inside a huge glass hangar on Bethesda Street where generations of children – including me – gawped at its magnificence.

But on October 27, 1985, under cover of darkness RW 388 was carefully winched out of its glass hangar before being carried at lamppost height to the foot of Unity House where one of the largest cranes in the country took over the operation.

It soared over the museum at around 8.30am before being eased into blocks inside the courtyard of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery so that construction work could begin on a purpose-built gallery to house the classic fighter aircraft.

The cost of the project, to transfer the plane and create its new home ahead of the public opening of the gallery in the Spring of 1986, was put at around £89,000.

However the city’s taxpayers only had to find £40,000 as the remainder was covered by grants.
RW 388 never actually saw combat during the Second World War.

It was built in 1945 at Castle Bromwich and was first used as a training aircraft and then later for towing targets so that Royal Navy ships could practice accurately aiming their guns.

After that she was used as part of a gate display at two RAF bases – RAF Benson and RAF Andover.

This exposure to the elements for an aircraft only build to last a few years goes some way to explaining the deterioration of RW 388 as it approaches its 68th birthday.

Having said that, the city’s Spitfire is unusual in that it is not your typical mixed bag for an aircraft of its age.

It is estimated that around 85 per cent of RW 388 is original – just as it was when it rolled off the production line in Birmingham all those years ago.

That being the case, the city’s Spitfire is rather special – and remains a major attraction at a venue which also boasts the world-renowned Staffordshire Hoard and a fabulous collection of locally-made ceramics.

Earlier this year a campaign was launched to raise tens of thousands of pounds to conserve and ultimately restore RW 388 to pristine condition.

This will involve a major fund-raising event at the King’s Hall in Stoke on Friday, October 19, which will be compered by yours truly.

It is a project I am very proud to be associated with – one which will help to preserve an important piece of our heritage.

That the man who designed the aircraft which helped to turn the tide of the Battle of Britain came from our neck of the woods is something we should continue to celebrate – even as the generation which remembers those dark days leaves us.

*Anyone wishing to make a donation to the fund should visit: http://www.uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/spitfire or call 01782 232502.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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