The Gate Guardians of the RAF Museum London
This week we have welcomed back to our London site our amazing Gate Guardians, as part of London’s RAF Centenary Transformation Programme. If you visited us before 2016 you may remember the Hawker Hurricane MK 1 and the Supermarine Spitfire MK XVI we had as the Gate Guardians on our London site. Now they both are back after refurbishment, freshly painted and ready to welcome all our visitors as they arrive at our site.
Both of our Gate Guardians are the replicas of the iconic aircraft whose glorious history reflects the rich and diverse story of the RAF Hendon, formerly one of the U.K’s oldest airfields, and now the home of our London site.
Our Supermarine Spitfire MK XVI is liveried in the colours of No. 601 Squadron which was based at RAF Hendon from 1927 to 1939 and from 1946 to 1949. The Hawker Hurricane MK 1 is decorated in the colours of No 504 Squadron as flown from RAF Hendon by Sergeant Ray Holmes during the summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain. In this blog post, we would like to tell you Ray Holmes’ fascinating and amazing story.
Raymond Towers Holmes was born in 20 August 1914 in Merseyside and worked as a news reporter by trade. In 1937, he became a part-time flyer in the RAF Volunteer Reserve. With the outbreak of the Second World War Ray was called up and joined No 504 Squadron in June 1940.
On Sunday 15 September 1940, in the morning, 26-year-old Sergeant Ray Holmes was taking a bath when a RADAR station on the south coast picked up a sudden activity. One hundred Dornier bombers, with a heavy fighter escort appeared on the screens crossing the English Channel, heading to London. As the telephone rang calling the Squadron at readiness, Ray had time only to pull on his blue sport shirt and the uniform trousers and run to his car. Less than five minutes after the alert No 504 Squadron was airborne.
For Sergeant Holmes this was his first air combat and he was thrilled and excited that he was flying his Hawker Hurricane MK1 right to the Battle. While attacking his first Dornier, he noticed another enemy aircraft, also Dornier, on fire heading directly to Buckingham Palace.
As his ammunition had run out, he understood that there was only one thing that he could do to prevent catastrophe, even though it would be a suicidal mission. As Ray said himself: “His aeroplane looked so flimsy, I didn’t think of it as solid and substantial. I just went on and hit it for six”.
His Hurricane rammed the Dornier, cutting through its rear fuselage, breaking the bomber up right over the Hyde Park Corner in a plain sight of hundreds of citizens. The Dornier’s forward fuselage section crashed near Victoria Station, the tail landed on a rooftop in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. Two of the five crew members survived and were captured.
Ray Holmes lost control over his Hurricane and had to bale out near Pimlico. He landed without serious injuries right into an open dustbin in a garden on Hugh Street. Seeing two young ladies in the neighbourhood garden looking at him he leapt the fence and kissed them both.
His Hurricane smashed into Buckingham Palace Road at the speed of 400 miles an hour. So, when Sergeant Holmes arrived to look at his aircraft, straight after his landing, there wasn’t much left. It was just a pile of scattered scrap metal smoking in hole in the ground. He picked up a small piece of its Merlin engine as a souvenir, before he was pulled to the Orange Brewery on Pimlico Road for some cheers and brandy from appreciative Londoners.
On that day, No 504 Squadron destroyed 5 enemy aircraft and damaged 4. Sergeant Ray Holmes became a celebrity and a hero of one of the most famous incidents of the Battle of Britain. He was invited to meet the King and Queen, interviewed on BBC Radio and received more than a hundred letters from the public – including a telegram from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who had witnessed the episode herself, praising his bravery. Ray survived the war, left the RAF service as a Flight Lieutenant and became a journalist.
He died on 27 June 2005 at the age of 90. The year before, in 2004, his Hurricane was excavated from Buckingham Palace Road. The control column with its gun button still set on Fire mode and the part of the Hurricane’s engine are currently on display in the reception area of Historic Hangars (Hangar 3) at our London site.
In his honour a beautiful replica of his Hawker Hurricane MK 1 in the colours of No 504 Squadron is now on display at our site as a Gate Guardian – the perfect reminder of Ray Holmes’ bravery and of an amazing story from the RAF’s breath-taking history.