Age of Innocence, 1956 – The Lancaster Bomber and Airfix Model Planes

spitfire airfix model

Following Britain’s world humiliation over the Suez crisis it was significant that also in 1956 the Royal Air Force decommissioned the Second-World-War bomber, the iconic Avro Lancaster.

Along with the spitfire this was the most successful British wartime plane and I have my own fond memories of them both because I can remember struggling to assemble an Airfix plastic model of the famous old aircraft.

Although the Spitfire is probably the most famous and the most recognisable of all the British planes used by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War the Hurricane was in fact the principal fighter in the Battle of Britain and not the Spitfire as most people might think.

In 1940 there were thirty-two squadrons of Hurricanes and only nineteen squadrons of Spitfires.  They looked similar but there were differences between them and they complimented each other and worked closely together to shoot down enemy aircraft and rule the skies.   The swifter Spitfires were best for engaging the Luftwaffe’s fighter planes, like the Messerschmitt, whilst the Hurricanes took on the fleets of bombers like the Junkers and Heinkels.

I can tell the difference between them quite easily because when I was a boy I used to like making model aircraft from Airfix self-assembly kits.  The Spitfire was much better looking with sleek elliptical wings, a slim body and a long raking nose.  The Hurricane was chunkier with a higher cockpit and stumpy little wings.  My first Airfix kit was the Hawker Hurricane and I have to say that for no other reason than this after that it was always my favourite of the two.

I used to buy my Airfix kits from a shop in Rugby called Moore’s Handicrafts which was a DIY and hardware shop but I wasn’t especially interested in the tools and the key cutting service because I liked the train sets and the Scalextric and the Airfix Models but also the little packs of balsa wood that I would buy for 6d or 1/s with real genuine constructional optimism and then take it home and inevitably make a modelling disaster!

Moores Handicrafts Shop

In the beginning Airfix was sold in F.W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. for two shillings (that’s 10p today) and the first in the range, in 1952, was a very small scale model of Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hind.  It was so successful that Woolworths than began to ask for additions to the range and soon Airfix began to produce more polybagged model kits.   The famous duck-egg blue Spitfire model appeared in April 1953.

An Airfix kit was notoriously difficult to assemble and the only absolute certainty was that once it was finished it definitely wouldn’t look anything like the picture on the box.

Getting the fuselage and the wings snapped together was usually a fairly straightforward procedure but things quickly became increasingly complicated after that, with fiddly little bits and pieces that required huge dexterity, great precision and unnatural amounts of patience to position into exactly the right place.

I was often a bit over eager at this stage and would prematurely glue the obvious parts together without reading the instructions properly and then realise that some of the fiddly bits needed to be planned for and carried out before the larger parts were put together.  Two good examples of this were the propeller on the Spitfire and the tail gunner’s position on the back of the Lancaster bomber which would only turn or swivel as intended if placed in position before permanently attaching the fuselage section together.

What made things especially difficult was the Humbrol plastic cement glue with its curious smell and a nasty habit of exuding the tube nozzle in far greater quantities of stringy ooze than you could ever possibly need for such a delicate operation would end up in sticky white flakes on the end of your fingers or big dollops on the dining room table that would strip the varnish off and end up in a good telling off.

I always found the gluing together part of the operation especially tricky when finally putting the cock-pit window into position at the end and my model was always left with smears on the plexi-glass that if this was a real plane would have made it virtually impossible for the pilot to see where he was flying or to shoot down any enemy aircraft.  And thinking about the pilot, one of the most irritating things was to discover that I had got the cockpit in place and the whole thing finished before I had placed the pilot into his seat and there he was rattling around in the bottom of the box along with all of the bits of discarded plastic and the double sided page of incomprehensible assembly instructions.

After the gluing together stage came the painting and this was an equally messy affair with paint dribbling down the fuselage, bits of wool and hair getting stuck on the model and fingerprints in various places where I had tried in vain to rectify the damage.  Most of this was a consequence of the fact that I was naturally impatient.  Paint came in little tins and it was sensible to let one colour dry before applying the second but I rarely had enough time for that which mostly led to disastrous results.

Finally there was the delicate process of applying the decals which had to be separated from the backing paper by soaking in water and then requiring a most delicate touch to slide them carefully into position on the fuselage and the wings.  Sometimes if I was lucky they could be used to cover up the dodgy paintwork but mostly they would end up on first contact in the wrong place and crease and tear as I tried to correct the error.

I finished the Hurricane and the Lancaster to some sort of messy sub-standard but I can recall making such a catastrophe of a bright red Westland Lysander that as soon as it was completed I was so ashamed of it that I immediately consigned it to the waste bin.

Airfix was also popular in the United States, France and Germany, but here the swastika transfers on Heinkels and Messerschmitts were banned.

Airfix model aircraft were an important part of my childhood in the days before computer games and a really significant thing about Airfix was that it taught important life skills like reading assembly instructions that were as deeply impenetrable as the Amazon rainforest and which were useful later in life for dealing with flat-pack furniture assembly.

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11 responses to “Age of Innocence, 1956 – The Lancaster Bomber and Airfix Model Planes

  1. Andrew, did I tell you all that or was I dreaming. As I read I kept saying things ahead of you. “Don’t glue it up before you put the pilot in”. In a later year when I was teaching a year nine history class I purchased twenty five different WWll airfix kits and the whole class got to make their own plane or tank or battleship. And then the boss came in and asked me what on earth I thought I was doing letting the boys play instead of learn. I told him I was teaching history and we were on an excursion and he could stay if he wanted. He just huffed and went away. Prize twit.

    • Airfix is history. I used to like the historical figures. Airfix in school lessons would be really good.
      My dad kept all of my efforts in a cardboard box. In my head they were all perfect specimens, all worthy of a place in an art museum. One day he gave me the box and I was shocked at just how bad they were and what a very poor memory I had!

  2. Pingback: Age of Innocence – 1956, Model Aircraft and Flat Pack Furniture | Have Bag, Will Travel

  3. I can smell that oozing glue right now! My sons went through rather the same agony with the kits.

  4. You’ve brought back some memories I’d forgotten I had. I remember being given that Golden Hind model, I was not impressed, I would have preferred something more like a car or train, but definitely not a ship or a plane. I remember spending some birthday cash in Woolworths on a Lanchester veteran car; it was so disappointing, the wheels wouldn’t go round, but I suspect I may have been the culprit with over exuberance of the gluing process. A couple of years later and I went through a phase of Rosebud railway locomotive models and had a few of them, now they were nice, and by then I was old enough to have learnt how to apply the glue with a pin to the axles so the wheels would go round. Now the talk of Rosebud models has dragged another memory from the back of my mental archive – perhaps there may be a story in it!

  5. I remember boys who had model airplanes and put them together from kits. I can still smell that glue. 🙂

  6. As well as steam railways I have a long term interest in aircraft. I was told by a fellow who had worked for Airfix that the odd spectrum of good/bad degree of perfection in their products depended entirely upon which Airfix designer was given the job. I think one of the worst Airfix models to try and assemble was the Short Sunderland flying boat. For interest, my first Airfix model was a Gloster Gladiator (blue plastic), the next was a Spitfire I or II. I made two models of the snub-nosed, purposeful-looking Bristol Beaufighter and one of a Westland Whirlwind (the single seat fighter, not the helicopter). I have many unmade kits to this day, including a Hawker Typhoon bought around 1974 (faulty propeller moulding) and Vought-Sikorsky Kingfisher (no instruction sheet in the packed) – no response from Airfix to my plaintive cries for help). One beautiful flying boat kit I completely screwed up. An Italeri CANT Z.501. I had oh so carefully prepared the highly detailed components, but made the mistake of selecting the wrong shade of red for the high-visibility sunbursts on the upper surface of the wing. Assembly stopped right there and I never found how to fix it or even if it were possible. Simply over-painting, even with a thin wash, would seem to spoil the look of it. I also have an unmade German Focke-Wulf Fw-187 twin engine fighter. Nothing wrong with the kit, but interestingly the swastika decal has itself to be assembled because reproduction of the (complete) symbol is (was?) prohibited in Germany. Blah blah blah . . . .

  7. Excellent, and brought back many memories of Airfix kits and then glue sniffing sessions down in the park. Why didn;’t we ever do that? Were just well behaved?

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