A regular school holiday treat for me and my cousins in the 70’s was a trip to the Science Museum in South Kensington. It was about half way between our houses either side of London and was a great playground that enabled my mum and her sister to sit in the coffee shop in the knowledge that their little angels were improving their educations on the various floors and exhibitions.
Over the years of regular visits some of the exhibits became good friends. The ground floor had great big beam engines and also little beam engines in glass cabinets that you could press buttons to engage into hoisting diminutive buckets or threshing scaled down plastic corn. The first floor’s treasures included a model of a house ablaze, demonstrating a canvas chute attached to an upstairs window through which those in peril could slide down to the safety of the awaiting fire service. The model chute had a pair of plastic feet sticking out the bottom to simulate a resident’s safe escape. In scale terms, the feet were so enormous that in real life their monstrous owner would surely have been left to burn.
The lower ground floor was a hoot with loads of experiments and things to do in the Children’s Gallery. You could spin a handle on a Van der Graaf generator, its rotating belt and metal ball generating enough static to make the hair of an adjacent dolls head stand on end. If you were brave enough to poke your finger through a round hole in the Perspex casing you could induce a terrific crack as the thing discharged an unpleasant but effectively harmless spark that left your arm sore for several minutes. The residual pain ache would soon be forgotten when admiring the adjacent glass toilet which demonstrated how the flush mechanism worked. We loved this as it contained a plastic turd that bobbed about on the internal tide.
Despite these wonders however, my favourite was the third floor, a big hangar of a space dedicated to flight. Then came the same life-size models of the Wright brothers 1903 flyer, and an early bi-plane or two hanging from the high ceiling with a stepped metal walkway allowing you to pass at cockpit level and drop things on your cousins below, and have an elevated view of the sawn-off cockpit of a Douglas Dakota as well as racks of full-size engines, a representation of the Montgolfier balloon and cabinets of beautifully built model planes. Underneath, he floor was smooth which allowed us kids to slide in our socks as we charged around, playing chase or hide-and-seek and while our mothers abstained from parental duty for an hour or two. When they’d finally found us and we’d been told us off for being so hot, sweaty and the state of our socks, we were calmed down by looking more closely at the planes. Of all the wondrous aircraft on show, my favourite was the Messerschmitt M-163 Komet.
This stubby little plane, though marked with Luftwaffe insignia, looked more fat blue tit than WW2 German war machine. Of course, it was deadly weapon responsible for the death of a servicemen on both sides, and my celebration of it here in a light-hearted blog piece is made with total respect for the lives lost to it, of which I in no way condone or glorify. Rather to my child-self it seemed the most unlikely of all the planes on show. Its chubbiness made it look as capable of flight as a pool table, whilst its nose held the smallest of propellers which was no bigger than those powered by an unwinding elastic band in the balsa toy planes I made, let alone drive a huge hamster of metal through the air. I now know that this mini-propeller did no more than provide power for the instruments, the plane itself reliant on a state-of-the-art rocket engine for flight. Now decades on from those childhood visits, I’ve started researching the Komet and quickly began to realise that that the story behind this plane’s development and its impact on the Nazi war effort is an amazing one, with as much ill-fortune and incompetence as there was brilliance and bravery.
In a nutshell, the Komet ran on highly explosive rocket fuel, holding enough for a mere 7.5 minutes of powered flight yet it raised the world air speed record from 469mph to 623mph in 1941, and then again to 702mph in July 1944. It had been designed to intercept incoming Allied bombers through its sheer speed and rate of climb, gliding back to land once all fuel and ammo had been used.
You get an idea of the phenomenal speed after take-off in the following clip. YouTube clip of the Komet However, the genius in propelling the thing to enemy squadrons rendered it to fast for its twin guns to be effective making it virtually unable to bag an enemy bomber except by a single lucky volley, whereas it normally took 5 or 6 passes to being down a Halifax or Stratofortress. With even the smallest amount of rocket fuel being both toxic and highly volatile, the Komet killed more Germans than it ever did Allies, and was an unmitigated combat disaster. Yet the technology behind the world’s first and so far only operational rocket-powered fighter makes for an intriguing catalogue of small steps forward between the many mishaps and ill fortune over a 20-year development period for this little plane that jettisoned its wheels after take off and if not blown up by the enemy of its own volatile fuel, landed on the grass on a retractable skid. But what has gripped me most are the human stories attached to it, such as that of its Nazi-hating designer, Alexander Lippisch; publicity-seeking motor mogul Ferdinand Opel who was obsessed by developing rocket planes, cars, and motorbikes; the celebrity test pilots who bravely flew the numerous prototypes, and Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, the only RAF man ever to fly the Komet in the UK after 21 examples of this unique plane had been claimed and shipped back to England as war prizes.
How do I know this? Well, a few weeks ago, with the idea of this blog piece in mind, I checked with the Science Museum to see if the Komet was still on show some 40-or-so years on from my last visit. I was delighted to find that not only was it still being display, but they invited me to visit their Dana Library to study the archive of paperwork they held about in.
Come the day, I first made my way to the Museum and rushed up to the third floor, bounding up the spiralling staircase through the centre of which still dangled the enormous pendulum, meticulously making out the decades since I’d seen it last.
I hurried past the queues of people waiting to ride in a number of electronic aircraft simulators that certainly weren’t there in the ‘70s and stopped for a moment to gather my thoughts and middle-aged breath before entering ‘Flight’ as they call it.
A much better name might be the ‘Time Machine’.
Wow. The Montgolfier model was in exactly the same place and behind the opening cabinets, was the large open hangar of a room, with most of the old planes still hanging and the collection of aircraft engines still racked. It was much darker than I remembered, contributing to the poor quality of my photos, light coming mainly from the cabinets of those same model planes I immediately recognised. The floor was swept free of that childhood dust meaning unfettered kids could still potentially charge around between the exhibits on its shininess, sliding on gloss rather than the dust and so keep their socks white. The same elevated walkway was still there, and as I ascended, my heart sat in my throat as if planning to meet an old lover. Would the Komet of my memories have lost her beauty and appeal? Would I wonder what I’d seen in her all those years ago? Would the reasons we split up suddenly whack me around the chops like a wet cod? I walked past Amy Johnson’s De Havilland Fairy Moth and looked down at the V1 rocket that I’d forgotten all about, and that cut-away cockpit of that Dakota, unmoved since the 70’s. I came to where the Komet always hung only she wasn’t there. I stopped and looked over the rail at the point I had always known her to be, but all I could see was a Hurricane and Spitfire.
My moment of horror grasped me until in my building concern I looked right, left and finally up. There she was, hoisted high into the gloom at almost ceiling level, tiny wee propeller still there and with her duck-egg blue underbelly exposed, and suddenly I was 10-years old again. I moved to take in her stubby flanks and look at the patches of damage to her paintwork that were almost certainly there long before I first saw her. I tried to read the information board, but it was too dark to read comfortably. A fraction of the size of the enormous cross section of a Boeing 747 behind her, it seemed even more unlikely that this dumpy little plane was not only lethal, but had held the world speed record for so long. I thought of the people on both sides who had lost their lives either in or because of her kind. Maybe the Komets diminutive size (it is two thirds the length of a Spitfire) has saved her from being moved-on or replaced. She doesn’t take much room hanging up there in the rafters. I’d asked how they got her and the other planes onto the third floor of a central London building. It sure wasn’t up the stairs spiralling that pendulum. Apparently, the windows were taken out to accommodate them, but that no known photos of the exercise exist. Before hanging the Komet, the armour within her nose cone had been removed to reduce its weight, as had the rocket engine which for many years was displayed separately but this has now been removed and put into storage. I said my farewells, knowing it would not be another 40 years before I saw her again, and gave a cursory glance to the Alcock & Brown’s Vickers Vimy biplane and Gloucester Meteor, but it was my Komet that I’d come to see. I wandered out of the museum, I saw that the large red beam engine is still there, but I’d seen what I wanted to see, and did not want to ask any of the staff if the plastic turd was still on show. For the record, I am pretty sure it isn’t. With a smile on my face at a romance reformed, I made my way to the nearby Dana library having first bought a very expensively priced but most welcome ham baguette in their refectory.
The library is down some stairs, overlooking a pleasant grass area. It is quite small, lined with cases of books about all manner of the sciences. There are a number of desks, on this day partially populated by readers, researchers and a woman dressed in a business suit and the most unfeasibly pink tights known to science. It is as silent as you would expect it to be. My ID and confirmation of address were scrutinized, I signed the Data Protection disclosure, and watched with glee as the librarian pulled out a bulging paper file that had been previously got ready for me, and untied the ribbon that kept the historic contents intact. I donned the blue latex gloves she gave me to protect the photographs from my toxic fingers and was passed the top 3 documents, the most I could be trusted with at any one time. I spent 4 glorious hours reading through the hand-typed RAF reports, technical guides, magazine articles and transfer records of my Komet’s movements after capture in Northern Germany between various UK airbases in the post-war years. I saw a chit issued by the Museum acknowledging receipt of the plane, and correspondence from the 1970’s confirming that the camouflage paintwork on the Komet was not strictly accurate and that the current matt paint would soon be corrected with authentic semi-gloss. I can report that it remains matt and presumably will continue to be so. By the time I had to leave I had only got through half of documents. When time allows, I will complete my study then publish one giant mother of a blog piece telling the whole incredible story. I’m pretty sure I will have enough to write a book, but that is all for the future.
For now, you too can visit the Dana library by prior arrangement and the Science Museum itself without arrangement for free (they suggest a £5 per person donation upon entry). I hope you find the time to go, and if you do, say ‘Hi’ to my Komet.
Yesterday, I took advantage of the Christmas holiday to try and ingratiate my pacifist daughter into the joys of a German fighter plane and took her to see my Komet at the Science Museum. It was a much brighter day outside, and sunlight streamed in through the side windows to illuminate the racks of engines and, more importantly, the Komet which had thoughtfully been hung on the sunny side of the roof.
I’m not sure that Charlotte has inherited the Messerschmitt gene that even I didn’t know I had, but she was able to take some far better pics:
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