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Down-to-earth tribute to the heroes of the skies

Chris Fautley finds evocative memorabilia at a museum dedicated to the experiences of Second World War fighter pilots

What makes a good museum? Virtual reality, videos, hands-on sessions, interactive experiences, electronic wizardry?

The Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Building at RAF Manston in Kent offers none of these. Against the current trend many of the exhibits are in display cases and they positively ask you not to touch those which are not because they are so fragile. And yet for all that it comes whole-heartedly recommended.

Manager Robin Linihan says the aim is "to commemorate the Battle of Britain and the few". It is run by a charitable trust and most of the exhibits - the star attractions being a Hurricane and a Spitfire - have either been donated or are on loan.

The theme is the Battle of Britain but it is also a veritable gold mine for anybody studying the war years.

The place heaves with artefacts: newspapers, ration books, log books, silk underwear made from parachutes, RAF escape kit, dog tags, a miniature telescope, (just one inch long), a Polish Air Force button with compass concealed inside, and a "German corner", are just a few of the exhibits. Larger items include a 1942 RAF fire engine, a Messerschmitt propeller dredged up from the sea bed, and a complete RAF dispersal kit with camp bed, canvas bucket and bowl, canvas chair and flying helmet together with silk map and emergency rations.

Many of the items are touching indeed: the flying jacket of a JU-88 crew member who was shot down, and the shreds of a map retrieved in 1983 from the excavated wreckage of a Hurricane. The log books make compelling reading: "Passed out and fell 20,000 feet. Came round over French coast. Joined what I thought was the flight, turned out to be 109s. Don Cobden and Smith lost."

But the biggest tear-jerker by far is the life story, as told in letters and artefacts, of Squadron Leader Hugh William Eliot DFC, who died aged 23 while serving in northern Italy. It offers a fascinating insight into life on active service: his flying gauntlets, photographs, log books, epaulets, medals, passport, pages from a diary kept by his mother, the fateful telegram from the Air Ministry to his parents and a letter of sympathy from George VI.

Most poignantly there are also more than 100 letters home, including one dated January 11, 1945. It ended, "Cheerio. Give my love to Grannie and Pop. PS: Will you send my little green nail brush which I left behind me?" They were to be the last words he ever wrote home.

To read these letters is an emotional experience beyond description, and Robin Linihan says he is only too happy to remove them, (and anything else), from their display case for closer examination. An education room is available for this purpose.

Unreservedly recommended for serious research for both GCSE and A-Level students, this is one of Britain's great little museums.

The Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Building, RAF Manston, Ramsgate, Kent. Tel: 01843 823351, ext 6219 www.Spitfire-Museum.comOpen daily from 10am Admission free, but donations gratefully accepted. Advance booking required

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