Model Aircraft Exhibition at NI War Memorial

Second World War models commemorate the contribution of Shorts aircraft

All boys of a certain age (and it is overwhelmingly boys) will have memories of model aircraft, whether of the balsa wood variety, which with the aid of rubber band power even flew for a bit before crashing, or of the more static plastic Airfix kind. I can still smell the glue!

Derry's Daniel Doherty has extended his model making enthusiasm from childhood into adulthood and his precise models of wartime aircraft have already featured in the Battle of the Atlantic exhibition in his home city.

At the NI War Memorial exhibition in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, Doherty focuses on the Stirling and the Sunderland flying boat, two iconic Second World War aircraft built at the Shorts aircraft factory in Belfast and its outlying plants at Maghaberry and Aldergrove. These are 16” long models constructed in great detail in plastic and seem to be in the Airfix tradition rather than any other.

I find the proceedings at the unveiling rather more interesting than the models. Veteran of them present is the sprightly 87-year-old Flight Lieutenant Bill Eames, originally from Enniskillen. Eames, who flew Stirlings during the war on night-time glider and parachute drops over occupied Europe, was wounded during the desperate efforts to relieve surrounded troops at Arnhem in 1944, an operation in which half the Stirlings involved were lost along with 530 aircrew.

Eames praises the Stirling, curiously as a ‘gentleman’s plane’, but suggests that Doherty’s model is an idealised one, including mid-upper and nose gun turrets, neither of which were present in the ones he flew in, which were stripped down to the bare essentials with the only armouring being behind the pilot’s seat. This was a consequence of an unfortunate design and cost cutting exercise imposed by the Air Ministry, which reduced the wing span from 112’ to 100’.

As Alan McKnight of Bombardier says, this did not detract from the Stirling’s role as a pioneer four engine bomber, but it ‘could have been a greater aircraft’. Nonetheless, 2,300 of them were built, of which 900 came from Belfast. All that survived the war also met their fate in Northern Ireland. As Eames ruefully recalls, once the war was over the disbanding of his squadron coincided with an operation in which Stirlings from all quarters were flown in to the airfield at Maghaberry and scrapped.

The Sunderland flying boat remains perhaps the most memorable example of that strange hybrid of boat and plane. 80-year old Squadron Leader Mike Dark is emphatic in calling it a ‘boat’. His own active service was in the Korean War, one marked by long patrols by day and night along the North Korean coast in often appalling weather conditions.

It was in similar conditions over the North Atlantic that the Sunderland proved its worth in the Second World War. German U Boat crews feared it as ‘the flying porcupine’ and Sunderlands flying from the base at Castle Archdale on Lough Erne are reckoned to have sunk at least ten U boats.

Alan McKnight tells that the slipway at the ‘north end’ of Bombardier’s present works, where the Sunderlands were launched is still extant. He goes further, suggesting that Shorts was only ever located in Belfast because of the perceived threat from the rise of Hitler. It was assumed that a factory there would be safe from enemy attack. In that mistaken view lies the origin of our aircraft industry, albeit one now wholly devoted to civilian aircraft.

Meanwhile current RAF officer Nigel Burton explains that the air-force presence in Northern Ireland is now down to 72 personnel at Aldergrove, with down-sizing still very much on the agenda under the current Coalition government. A murmur of disapproval from the audience suggests that the policy is not quite flavour of the month with veterans.

Certainly the NI War Memorial makes an appropriate location for musing upon these things. The ground floor display on the Home Front includes a wide range of artefacts along with useful explanatory panels. I find an electronic display the most moving – one that simply flashes up, one by one, the names, addresses, and ages of the almost 1,000 Blitz victims. There is no doubt that, with the 70th anniversary of the Blitz falling next year the NI War Memorial will become a focus of attention.

They also make effective use of contemporary art. The ground floor is dominated by James McKendry’s impressive realist copper frieze recording the American involvement in Northern Ireland alongside the workers on the Home Front.

Stanley Scott’s stained glass window, Caroyln Mulholland’s ‘Blitz Memorial’, and Diane McCormick’s shower of falling ceramic bombs (they transform into flax flowers) are all worth looking out for. If model aircraft aren’t quite your thing, there is lots more to explore.

The NI War Memorial, which is beside Belfast Cathedral, is open from Monday to Friday from 10.30 to 4.30. Admission is free. The aircraft models will be on display to the public until the end of the year.