Many gentlemen tinker in garages and build or restore old vehicles. Of the thousands who share this hobby, one must stand out as being completely different; Martin Smith has commenced a project to rebuild a Short Stirling bomber in his garden shed, using spare parts collected from all over the world and using a Haynes manual to guide him.
The Stirling bomber, designed by Short Brothers Ltd of Rochester, Kent, England, was brought into service with the RAF in 1941 and by 1943, they were flying missions over Germany in formations of 100 or more. The Stirling was 87 ft long and had a wingspan of just on 99 ft. It carried a crew of seven and their optimum flying speed and altitude was 282 mph at 12,500 feet. They carried 14,000 lbs of bombs and had eight Browning machine guns mounted at strategic locations.
By the end of 1943 they had been outperformed by the Lancaster bomber that could carry twice the bomb payload, had a greater range and was 40mph faster along with a higher flight ceiling. They may have been superseded for heavy bombing missions but the Stirling still undertook immensely important missions for the Allied forces.
The Stirling was then used to sew minefields around German port cities and it played a very important role in towing gliders during the Allied invasions of 1944-45. It was also a vital transport plane for carrying cargo during the same period. Records show that 2,371 Stirlings were built but not one has survived to modern times.
In 1989, Martin Smith noticed a number of WWII aircraft instruments in an army surplus shop in Peterborough and he just had to buy them. This sparked his interest and he tracked down the original owner of the instruments. He found that the original owner had died leaving behind a wealth of WWII memorabilia as well a seat from a cockpit. He rescued all of the parts and he has been collecting ever since.
His initial plans went awry as he explained, “Initially I was going to do a Lancaster. But I got a bit bored because there’re about ten Lancaster home builds in this country, so there is no point in doing that. I’ve spent a lot of money trying to get the parts – it depends if my wife Karen is reading this or not – but I would say well into the thousands. I also swap parts – I traded a Lancaster part for the control column in Holland which was the only complete one in the world. I’ve been swapping coins and the like since I was about five years old – I guess I’ve just upped the scale.”
Once he had decided on the Stirling, he quickly found that he had set himself a formidable task. Parts for these planes were extremely difficult to find and to date, he has collected parts from over 30 different Stirling planes.
He has sourced some of the parts via on-line auctions such as eBay and others have come to him via word of mouth. Some he has found in the most unlikely of places. One time he was working on the fuel tank from a lawnmower when he realized that it was no fuel tank but the hydraulic tank from a Stirling bomber, “‘I was doing a bit of work on it and I thought I’d seen it before. I looked through the manual and there it was – a hydraulic fluid tank off a Stirling. I persuaded the owner to part with it,” said Mr. Smith.
He has rescued seats just before they were to be cut up to fit into racing cars and has even rescued a propeller blade from a Stirling that crashed into the English Channel on the way home from a raid on Turin. The pilot of the Stirling on that ill-fated mission, Ron Middleton, was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery for making sure that his crew bailed out of the Stirling safely before leaving himself, even though he had been seriously wounded by anti-aircraft fire.
As the parts are so scarce and with the difficulty associated with trying to find them, Martin Smith has set his sights on initially rebuilding the 30-foot nose section of the Stirling. This nose section will not include the wings, which is just as well as his garden shed only measures 20ft by 12 ft. He will push forward, using his trusty Haynes manual, and those parts that he has been completely unable to find, he will try to build himself. He is still looking for the pilot’s seat and the throttle box.
He believes that it will take him around five years to complete this rebuild but it is his hobby and as he said, “Sometimes I am really into it solidly, then I just leave it for a few months. I’ve got to make a living and you can get a little bit too absorbed in it, and before you know it I’ve got to earn money.”
One man’s passion will again give the world a small piece of its history back and generations to come will again marvel at the bravery of the men that fought for our freedoms over the skies of Europe.