Bombs away! The Blenheim's back: Magnificent return of the last remaining World War Two plane of its kind lovingly restored after crashing 12 years ago in tribute to the heroes of Bomber Command 

  • The Blenheim bomber  is the last of its type and is insured for £2 million 
  • It took 28,000 man-hours to rebuild the aircraft after it crashed in 2003
  • The Blenheim was the first aircraft to get credit for sinking a U-boat
  • It also scored the first combat victory of any aircraft using its own radar 

Beneath the panes of Perspex in her floor, the daisy-strewn runway falls away as fast as 80 years of history. The Blenheim’s snout lifts skywards, her twin engines casting a heat haze behind the propellers’ silver blur. At 200mph, she throttles towards a patchwork of cumulus and sun, quiet, quick and deft.

Inside she is bare of today’s technology. Her khaki flight deck contains pedals as delicate as a piano’s, a joystick, and a small black bank of antique instruments. I am perched in the navigator’s place on a circular seat the size of a dinner plate.

Above me and in front, on both sides and beneath my boots, I can see the sky through the windowed cutouts of her cockpit. From here, by the Blenheim’s bomb mount, there is truly a fly’s-eye view of Earth. It’s one that few people have been privileged to see since the end of the Second World War when the RAF’s Blenheim fleet was retired. This old warbird is the only craft of her type still flying.

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Mail on Sunday reporter Sarah Oliver, pictured, got the chance to fly on the historic Blenheim bomber

Mail on Sunday reporter Sarah Oliver, pictured, got the chance to fly on the historic Blenheim bomber

The bomber, pictured, was badly damaged in a crash landing 12 years ago and has been completely rebuilt

The bomber, pictured, was badly damaged in a crash landing 12 years ago and has been completely rebuilt

It took more than 28,000 man hours to repair the badly damaged bomber and get it back into the air

It took more than 28,000 man hours to repair the badly damaged bomber and get it back into the air

It has taken a team of engineers led by John Romain, chief pilot and managing director at Duxford’s Aircraft Restoration Company, 12 years and an estimated 28,000 man-hours to rebuild her since she crashed on landing in 2003. She is now insured for £2 million.

Her real value is far greater. She is a priceless tribute to the Blenheim Boys, the pilots and crew who have become the almost forgotten heroes of Bomber Command.

Churchill likened their courage flying such a lightly armoured plane to the bravery shown by troops in the Charge of the Light Brigade. They held their nerve – and their line – fighting and bombing in Europe and the Far East despite catastrophic losses. And it is this which makes the Blenheim’s return to the skies such a poignant sight as well as a landmark event in global aviation. The aircraft, which has just begun a limited programme of public appearances, can be seen in flight later this month at the Chalke Valley History Festival, of which Viscountess Rothermere, wife of Viscount Rothermere, chairman of the Daily Mail and General Trust, publishers of The Mail on Sunday, is a patron.

It’s a fitting link, for the Blenheim on which Britain depended would not have existed without the vision of the current Lord Rothermere’s great-grandfather, the 1st Viscount Rothermere.

In 1934 he commissioned the Bristol Aeroplane Company to build a commercial aircraft ‘faster than anything available elsewhere’. He was determined to snatch back the speed crown from Germany, then a world leader in the field.

But he also recognised the aerial threat to Britain from Hitler’s 1930s rearmament programme, chiding Ministers and military leaders about their lack of air readiness. In October that year, for example, he wrote to Neville Chamberlain, then Chancellor of the Exchequer: ‘Today Germany, day and night, week in week out, is building an immense air force with the intention of raiding and ravaging England and France.

‘Yet the National Government whose first duty is to secure national safety, has nothing more than the most meagre programme for meeting this supreme menace…’

Rothermere’s Bristol 142 prototype passenger plane, which he called ‘Britain First’, was to be become – as he had planned – part of the fightback, the first truly ‘modern’ aircraft available to the RAF.

The press baron’s plane had a top speed of 307mph at 11,800ft, 80mph faster than any British military aircraft. Her range was 1,450 miles. She marked, says the Imperial War Museum today, ‘an important milestone in the history of British aviation’. The RAF acknowledged her as such, and in July 1935, just three months after her maiden flight as a passenger aircraft on April 12 that year, Whitehall began drawing up plans to convert the plane into a light bomber.

Rothermere presented the prototype to the nation the following month, and two years later the RAF, which renamed it the Blenheim Bomber, had a fleet of 150. Each had a 1,320lb payload and a roomy interior, which was to give the RAF another, unexpected advantage – space to install radar.

By August 1939, the fleet exceeded 1,000 and it was chosen for secret trials of the newly invented radar, ensuring she would make a critical contribution to the country’s defences. The Blenheim was the first British aircraft to cross the German coast on September 3, 1939. It was also a Blenheim that sank the first U-boat of the war on March 11 1940.

And on the night of July 22 1940, it was a Blenheim which achieved the world’s first combat victory using airborne radar.

Later the same year, squadrons of Blenheims helped to destroy the invasion barges integral to Operation Sea Lion – Hitler’s plan for an air and sea invasion of Britain.

As the war progressed, Bomber Command’s crews suffered greater losses than Fighter Command but the Blenheim Boys remained resolute.

This Mark I’s return to the sky after more than a decade now enables a public tribute to be paid to men such as Squadron Leader Ian Blair, now 96. The veteran won a Distinguished Flying Medal for bringing home a Blenheim in which he was the bombardier after a direct hit killed his pilot. This raw talent saw him sent back to the UK from North Africa to train for his wings.

The great-grandfather from Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, is perhaps the last man alive to have flown in Lord Rothermere’s original Blenheim when it visited his RAF station in Bicester, Oxfordshire, on Boxing Day 1936. ‘We went for a familiarisation trip – a joyride, in other words,’ he laughs.

Today his heart thrills to the sight of this Mark I taking off. ‘She’s a beautiful bird who bore the brunt of the war and we owe her so much,’ he says. ‘If the call came, I would still jump in.’

‘Beware ground rush,’ John Romain warns as we come in to land, and the airstrip, visible through the windows of the Blenheim’s nose and belly, swells to meet us.

I think what a welcome sight that must have been for those Blenheim Boys careening home through the dawn and landing to leave barely a dimple on the grass, but a profound impact on Britain’s war story.

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