“I’ll drive to Nanton if you spring for Peter’s [Drive In] on the way out of town.” With those words, the trip had begun! Personally, I thought I got the better end of the deal. $15 for lunch, and my boyfriend Patrick did all the driving.
Only 65km south of Calgary, Nanton is far enough to feel “away” but close enough that we were able to do the trip in a day. Our destination was the Lancaster Museum. The museum honours all who were associated with Bomber Command. Bomber Command is the term for the air offensive launched by a combined Royal Air Force (British) and Royal Canadian Air Force effort.
The museum is home to a large collection of WWII aircraft and related paraphernalia. The Highlights include a fully restored rear gunner turret (from a Lancaster aircraft), an excellent description of “The Great Escape”, information about specific men and their missions, and of course, the aircraft themselves.
One of the men featured at the museum is Calgarian Barry Davidson. He flew a Blenheim IV and was captured on his first mission. He spent five years as a POW, and earned his nickname “the Scrounger” for his ability to scavenge bits and pieces needed to dig the tunnels for what would become known as “The Great Escape”. Mr. Davidson’s diary from his POW days is on display, along with some of his artwork. The museum has a restored Blenheim aircraft dedicated to Barry Davidson, and it is decorated with the markings of his specific aircraft.
The Lancaster aircraft is dedicated to the memory of Ian Bazalgette. Squadron Leader Bazalgette was a Lancaster pilot, and the only Albertan to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the war. S/L Bazalgette’s plane was engulfed in flames when he ordered his crew (seven including himself) to bail out. Four of the men were able to escape, but Ian had no intentions of leaving the other two. His wireless operator, Chuck Godfrey, witnessed the rest of the flight as he floated to the ground on his parachute. The burning plane was headed towards a village and, down to only one engine, Bazalgette managed to steer the burning plane away from the homes and crash landed in a field nearby. The plane exploded on impact, killing the three men on board. Both Chuck Godfrey and the Flight Engineer, George Turner were on hand in 1990 to unveil the plane’s markings. A replica of Ian’s VC medal is on display at the museum.
Next we moved into the hanger where the aircraft are on display. Important note – bring your jacket! It’s freezing during the winter.
Unfortunately, neither Patrick nor I know much about planes, so the stats about motors were lost on us. However, I didn’t need to know about motors to be awed by the opencockpit biplane or to secretly question the air-worthiness of the propellers. The main aircraft attraction is of course the Lancaster, if you put on a hardhat (which are provided free of charge) you can walk through part of the plane. It really drives home what I’d read earlier about how totally isolated the rear gunner was from the rest of the crew. One corner of the hangar is dedicated to the RCAF – WD (Royal Canadian Air Force – Women’s Division). Their motto was “We Serve That Men May Fly”, but their role was much more comprehensive. By the war’s end, women were fulfilling over 65 different jobs including photo interpretation, radar mechanics and wireless operators. RCAF Air Marshall Breadner recognized the WD’s important role in 1942, only one year after it was founded.
Going back into the main area of the museum, Patrick and I found a large book listing the names of the Bomber Command members who lost their lives. The book is unfortunately quite thick – approximately 60% of the members died, one of the highest death rates of the war. Two of Patrick’s paternal great uncles served in Bomber Command. Both men lost their lives, and are listed in the book. The museum volunteers were only too happy to photocopy that page for Patrick to take home.
Overall, I’d say the museum is informative without being overwhelming, and it is certainly interesting, even to someone like me who is not really interested in war or airplanes. It took us about two hours to go through the whole museum.
The building is certainly easy to find – it’s right on the highway and is the only building with two full sized aircraft on display out front! There is ample parking, although I suspect it gets a bit more crowded in the summer. Admission is by donation; $4 is suggested for adults. This is not really a kids museum as there are no real hands-on exhibits, and most things are explained via plaques mounted on the wall. There is a sign on the donation box advising parents instruct their children on the proper way to behave in a museum – which suggests to me that this has been a problem in the past. From May 1 – October 31, the museum is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. During the winter, it is open on weekends from 10 am to 4 pm.
For more information, the museum phone number is (403) 646-2270. They also have a web site: http://www.lancastermuseum.ca/
The web site has a wealth of information, including upcoming events. During the summer the museum has an annual “fly in” which must be quite a show!