RAF Church Fenton
Gate Guardians

Gate Guardians

Probably the most well-known of Church Fenton’s gate guardians is Spitfire Vb BM597. A history of this aircraft, by Stephen Birtles, can be found below:

BM597 was built as part of the third order (dated 24/10/1941) to Vickers-Armstrong (Castle Bromwich) for 1000 Spitfire aircraft, under Air Ministry contract B981687/39/C.23(c). This contract was written for Spitfire Mk1 aircraft in early 1939, but by the time the order for the batch including BM597 was released it had been upgraded to the Mk3 version. However, the Spitfire was developing at a rapid pace and these aircraft (including BM597) were actually built as Mk5B aircraft at Castle Bromwich between 23/11/1941 and 16/05/1942. BM597 was manufactured between weeks 4 and 9 of 1942; i.e., from January to March 1942 and delivered to 37MU at Burtonwood (Cheshire in those days) on 26/04/1942. It was then allocated to 315 Polish (Deblinski) Sqn, part of 9 Group RAF, in the first week of May 1942, just after they had arrived at RAF Woodvale. The aircraft carried the markings of PK-C. Although there seems to be a little confusion around the exact date, BM597 was transferred to 317 Polish (Wilenski) Sqn by the time the unit arrived at RAF Woodvale from RAF Northolt on exchange from 11 Group to 9 Group on 05/09/1942. The aircraft was marked as JH-C in this squadron. Category B damage occurred on 13/02/1943. The aircraft was repaired by De Havilland from March to June 1943. It then went to Vickers Armstrong via 33MU at RAF Lyneham from 09/06/1943 to 22/11/1943. It was initially used by Vickers for modifications testing and then underwent further modifications itself before being sent into storage. Firstly it was stored at 39MU RAF Colerne from 23/11/1943, then it went to 222MU (Packing Unit) RAF High Ercall in new year 1944 where it was crated for operational shipment, but was never sent to a unit probably because of the availability of new Mk8 and Mk9 aircraft. Eventually it was sent back into storage at 39MU RAF Colerne from 10/04/1944. BM597’s last operational tour of duty started on 02/04/1945 with 58OTU / 2TEU in Scotland. It was finally retired from active service on 16/10/1945. The aircraft was then given maintenance serial 5718M and sent to No.4 School of Technical Training at RAF St Athan, where it was used as an instructional airframe for almost 5 years. In April 1950 BM597 was assigned as a static gate guardian at RAF Hednesford, before being moved to carry out the same role at RAF Bridgenorth from July 1955. Eventually it was moved to RAF Church Fenton in 1960 to start a long association as gate guardian there. The Church Fenton relationship was interrupted briefly in early 1967 when BM597 was used for the epic film ‘Battle of Britain’, firstly being taken to the BoB filming unit at RAF Henlow and then shipped to Pinewood studios to be used as a mould model for replicas being built. In August 1968 it was returned briefly to RAF Henlow, before going back to Church Fenton again as the gate guardian there for the next 20 years from 1969 (with the exception of 1977 to 1979 when Church Fenton was “closed” and BM597 was looked after by RAF Linton-on-Ouse). The aircraft was sold by the MoD into private ownership in 1989. It eventually returned to full airworthiness with the Historic Aircraft Collection at Duxford in July 1997.

This photo is from the official “RAF Church Fenton Information Handbook” (Thanks to Peter Mason for giving me a copy). It shows BM597 just after it had been returned from RAF Linton-on-Ouse on 8/9/79
© Crown Copyright

The Church Fenton gate guardian Meteor NF14, serial WS739. This aircraft was ex-1 Air Navigation School and was painted up in 85 Squadron markings, although it never actually flew with 85. © Roger Carvell.

Taken in the fifties, this photo shows an earlier gate guard Spitfire, RW382, a Mk16 with squadron codes Q-3L. This aircraft was maintenance no 7245M. This aircraft was allocated maintenance serial 7245M on 12/06/51 and placed in the care of 609 Sqn, which was at Church Fenton during that era with Gloster Meteor F8’s. 609 Sqn did actually fly the Mk 16E version of the Spitfire from 1948, but RW382/7245M flew with 604 Sqn. It stayed at Fenton until 28/11/55 when it was allocated maintenance serial 8075M and repainted as RW729 and placed on the gate at RAF Uxbridge, where it could be seen in the 1968 film Battle of Britain. (Info from Stephen Birtles). © Brian Davidson

A photo of BM597 on the gate at Church Fenton taken in 1987. © Tim Clarke

BM597 seen looking superb in 4 Hangar at Duxford on 19th October 2003. It is painted in the markings of 317 (Polish) Squadron. © Stephen Birtles, who was stationed at Church Fenton 1986 – 1988