A story behind every Boxted Airfield Museum exhibit
- Credit: Archant
Boxted Airfield Museum is more than a collection of Second World War and aircraft artefacts. It’s a neverending collection of tales, some happy, some sad, shedding light on the brave men who flew from there and the lives they touched. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage found out more.
Every exhibit, every photo, on show at the museum tells a story. Take pilot Robert Silva’s suitcase.
Lost at sea during a flying accident, his belongings were returned to his mother in America. There they remained, stored in a suitcase, until she died.
“The suitcase was left to Robert’s nephew, who had shown great interest when he was younger in the suitcase and the pilot’s life. He discussed it with his mother (Silva’s
sister) who’s coming up to her 99th birthday and it was agreed the suitcase should come to our museum because that was the field Robert took off from when he was lost and that was the best place for his story to told,” says Richard Turner, chairman of Boxted Airfield Historical Group which established and now runs the museum.
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“So we have this wonderful exhibit, this suitcase and its contents which include letters Robert wrote home to his family; pictures of him... There’s also the story of the lady he met in Colchester. They didn’t have a relationship as such, but they were both very keen dancers. Because they were the same height they always teamed up when they met at dances in the area.
“She’s still alive in Colchester and we’ve met her. An aeroplane is involved but it’s much more of a human, personal story.”
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While there are plenty of airfield artefacts to look at, just as much work goes into preserving and sharing the airfield’s social history.
“There are lots of individual pilots’ stories throughout the museum. We try to tell how the airfield has affected Langham. So we have lots of contributions from people who lived in the village, their stories, contributions from veterans and their families in America for instance... Hundreds of photographs.
“We also have the day to day diary of the first unit that served at Boxted, which arrived in June 1943, which covers the first 12 months of their existence. It was a completely self-contained base, at the peak of the Second World War 3,000 men would have lived there... They (even) had a cinema. You can imagine the effect it had on this small village. We try to tell that story too.”
The site consists of the museum - an existing building volunteers and a local builder restored and renovated courtesy of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant - and the relatively new visitors centre, used for refreshments and by the historical group for its monthly meetings.
Reliant on fundraising, voluntary contributions and visitors, there’s plenty for aviation and history buffs to see - including the fuselage of a Martin B-26 Marauder #41-35253 which was assigned to the 454th Bomb Squadron, 323rd Bomb Group.
This aircraft took part in the 323rd’s last mission of the war to Erding Aerodrome on April 25, 1945. It originally flew from nearby Earls Colne airfield, but Boxted was also a Marauder base.
The fuselage is owned by the trustees of Marks Hall.
“It’s the only section of a B26 Marauder left in the UK. After the war they were all scrapped but during the Second World Marauders were prevalent in Essex, there would have been hundreds of these things in the sky and we are very fortunate to have on loan the very last surviving section of Marauder in the UK.”
At the heart of the museum’s work is the people who served at the airfield, who in some cases gave their lives.
“We have a small chapel within the museum dedicated to the 98 men who were lost from the airfield during the Second World War. It’s in tribute to them that we have done
this, that’s the most important thing that should never be forgotten,” says Richard, who was instrumental in getting the museum off the ground.
Interested in the Second World War, he began researching Boxted Airfield’s history in 1994.
Discovering how important it was, home first to the United States Air Force and then the RAF, his investigations led to him staging small exhibitions in the village hall to collect people’s memories.
“Lots of people turned up and told me stories. By 1999 I said I’d like to take it further and perhaps we could organise a history group? That’s how Boxted Airfield Historical Group came to be established in 2000,” he remembers.
“We put on small events, mainly exhibitions of photographs, stuff like that. By this time we were in touch with veterans in the US who contributed material and were interested in what we were doing.”
Next was getting the airfield site - spanning two separate farms - opened to the public and the existing privately used grass airstrip able to handle fly-ins.
The first was in 2002, with flying displays sometimes featuring more than 50 aircraft, taking place up to 2006. The profits enabled the society to establish the museum.
“It’s a fantastic achievement by the group, it’s not down to me. There are now 125 members in our group, that’s how we keep it going and we can call on about a dozen good volunteers who will help us at the drop of a hat if we want to put on a special event... We’re very lucky.”
The group holds regular meetings with guest speakers, film evenings, coach trips and outings to various museums and events. Full details can be found on the group events section of the airfield’s website.
Boxted Airfield Museum, Langham, near Colchester, is open the last Sunday of every month, March-October, 10am-4pm. For more information visit www.boxted-airfield.com.