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WWII RAF veteran reunited with aircraft that made him into a wartime poster boy

Ijan Blair with the restored Bristol Blenheimn Mk 1. Photo IWM

Veteran Blenheim Pilot S/L Ian Blair ( RAF Retired ). Copyright IWM

RAF poster boy for Careless Talk Costs Lives campaign re-united with the plane that changed his life

This is RAF veteran Ian Blair reunited with a vintage World War Two Bristol Blenheim light bomber after a twelve year restoration project returned it to flying condition.

Conservators welcomed the former squadron leader and Spitfire pilot to Imperial War Museum Duxford to come face to face with a plane that made him into a pilot – and a poster boy of the RAF during World War Two.

In September 1940 when still a corporal observer flying in Blenheims in North Africa he was on a bombing mission to attack the Derna Aerodrome in Axis occupied Libya when his pilot was killed during an attack by an Italian Fiat CR 42 fighter.

According to an account on the 113 Squadron website, the former pilot recalled how: “I had just released my bombs when there was a loud bang on the port side and when I looked round in the direction of the noise, I saw the pilot was slumped forward on the controls, and out of the port window I saw a CR 42 breaking off as if he was preparing for another attack.”

Grabbing the yoke of the control column the airman somehow managed to steady the plane and, with the help of his colleague in the Blenheim’s gun turret, laid the dead pilot on the floor of the aircraft. He then took the controls.

Having completed several hours of flying in Blenheims the young observer had noted how the pilot officer handled the plane – including changing the pitch of the propellers to increase drag and altering the mix of the fuel supply on landing. Armed with this knowledge he completed a remarkable 350-mile, 1 and ¾ hour journey back to base where he made a textbook landing, in which the aircraft “flaired out nicely and sat on the ground”.

a photo of a plane in flight

The Blenheim in flight. Photo IWM

a colour photo of a two engined and single engined plane flying in formation

The Blenheim at the 2015 Duxford Flying Legends show with a Spitfire. Photo Charlie Jackson. Copyright CC BY 2.0.

Seventy-five years later the veteran watched John Romain, the owner of the Aircraft Restoration Company, fly the newly restored Blenheim, landing and taxiing it next to RAF Museum Duxford’s historic Control Tower.

Two full-time engineers and a supportive bank of volunteers and apprentices have worked on the plane to restore it. During the 1980s was the only flying example of the RAF light bomber until a crash at Duxford almost wrote it off.

A first restoration project, on a derelict example in Canada, took a small, skilful squad 12 years, only to be wrecked four weeks after its return to the air in May 1987. A determined team then resolved to resurrect a new Blenheim, turning the Duxford edition into a Mark I Blenheim with a five-year restoration concluding in June 1993. The Blenheim went on to be feted at air shows, and in films, television and magazines until a significant landing accident at Duxford in 2003.

a photo of two men talking

Pilot John Romain discusses flying the aircraft with a man who knows all about it. Photo IWM

A trust intent on guaranteeing the longevity of the Blenheim was formed, allowing hundreds of visitors to watch craftsmen and their protégés rebuild the aircraft.

The ceremony revealing the Blenheim in flight served as a tantalising preview ahead of Duxford’s VE Day 2015 Anniversary Air Show, which featured the B-17 Flying Fortress Sally B leading seven wartime bombers and fighters on a 70th anniversary salute.

The Bristol Blenheim actually emerged 11 years before VE Day and was modified from a small commercial airliner to become the first stressed skin aircraft to enter service with the RAF.

At the start of the war, 1,089 models were in service and although its crews enjoyed manning them, casualties soon mounted as the aircraft was pressed into service during the Battle of France and in other sorties across Europe which pitched it against the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt 109 fighters.

a black and white photo of a Bristol Blenheim flying above the clouds

Bristol Blenheim Mark I, L1295 in flight above the clouds. This aircraft commenced service in August 1938 with No. 107 Squadron RAF. © IWM (CH 655)

a black and white photo of six camouflaged twin engined planes in flight

Six Blenheims – the later Mark IVFs of No. 254 Squadron RAF, flying in formation over Northern Ireland shortly after the unit’s arrival at Aldergrove, County Antrim. © IWM (CH 2992)

a blck and white photo of a airmen resting beneath the wings of twin-engined RAF aircraft

The crew of a Bristol Blenheim Mark I of No. 113 Squadron RAF rest under the wing of their aircraft, between sorties at Ma’aten Bagush, Egypt. © IWM (CM 26)

Later variations of the Blenheim had some success as a night fighter and with Coastal Command, and they continued to be used in other theatres of war such as North Africa and the Far East, but as the war ground on Winston Churchill was moved to compare their use to the Charge of the Light Brigade.

As for his small part in the varied history of the Blenheim Ian Blair was rewarded with a Distinguished Flying Medal and dispatched to flying school, going on to become a Spitfire pilot and Squadron Leader.

But just two days after his cool head saved the life of he and his fellow airman in North Africa, he was photographed by the RAF’s PR section and unwittingly became a poster boy in the Ministry of Information’s Carless Talk Costs Lives campaign.

It was not until he was on leave in Britain that he knew anything about his new role – after noticing himself peering out from the wall of the local post office.

a poster with a photograph of a young airman with the words careless talk may cost his life

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 13955)

For more on the Blenheim restoration see the Aircraft Restoration Company website and the website of the Blenheim Society.

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Duxford, Cambridgeshire

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