This month marks 50 years since one of the RAF’s longest serving aircraft - the Short Sunderland - and an icon of Pembroke Dock - was moved from Pembrokeshire to London.

With the transfer of the aircraft, serial number 'ML824', to the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon, the last poignant chapter in the story of the Sunderlands of the Haven waterway finally came to a close.

The Sunderland was and is synonymous with Pembroke Dock which was a vital flying boat base in the Second World War. Ironically, it was only in the early 1960s that - through the generosity of the French Navy - one of the RAF's most unsung aircraft - which had been was such a familiar sight at the Haven in wartime - returned.

The National Wales: ML824 on its arrival at Pembroke Dock in 1961. Photo: Pembroke Dock Heritage CentreML824 on its arrival at Pembroke Dock in 1961. Photo: Pembroke Dock Heritage Centre


The Sunderland 'ML824' patrol bomber, which had played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic during the war, was displayed at Pembroke Dock after being gifted by the French Navy in 1961, becoming the town’s first major tourist attraction. But its stay was sadly shortlived, just 10 years.

Despite a campaign to keep it at its ancestral home (Sunderlands first entered RAF service at Pembroke Dock in the 1930s) the costs of protecting and renovating the plane became too much, and ML824 was donated to the RAF Museum in 1971, where it remains on show to this day

Flying boat historian and author, John Evans, a patron of the Pembroke Dock Sunderland Trust, said there was “great sadness” among locals when it departed for Hendon after just a decade in the town.

“It was a sad day when it left,” he said. “The community and county had lost a unique heritage attraction.

“We didn’t celebrate its going to Hendon – we lamented it, because it’s such an important part of Pembroke Dock’s history.

“Pembroke Dock’s a military town, and you won’t find another community in Britain which has such long connections with all three Armed Services – so it was a big loss.”

Mr Evans, a leading authority on maritime aviation who has written 11 books on flying boats, regards the Sunderland as “one of Britain’s most iconic aircraft”.

“You think of the likes of the Spitfire, the Hurricane or the Mosquito – I would say the Sunderland was up there with them,” he said.

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“It had a long, long service too, remarkably for its era. It was the largest aircraft the RAF had in 1938, but served with them until 1959, and then even continued with others right up until the 1960s, when aircraft were coming in and going out of service very quickly.”

By the start of WWII in 1939, three RAF squadrons had been equipped with Sunderlands. Seven hundred and forty-nine aircraft were built in all, and served throughout the war.


Sunderlands were one of the most widely used flying boats throughout the war, and were heavily involved in Allied efforts to counter the threat of German U-boats during the Battle of the Atlantic. They also proved themselves useful in the Mediterranean theatre, performing maritime reconnaissance flights and assisting in the evacuation of Crete in 1941.

The National Wales: Sunderland II W3983/RB-R of No 10 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force, about to be brought out of the water at Pembroke Dock, 3 October 1941.Sunderland II W3983/RB-R of No 10 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force, about to be brought out of the water at Pembroke Dock, 3 October 1941.


 “In the Battle of the Atlantic, it had a pivotal role in the battle against the U-boats and, of course, things like convoy protection too.

“Maritime trade was all important – if we’d have not been able to continue our maritime trade and bringing supplies across the Atlantic, we would have lost the war.”

The final Coastal Command Sunderland operational mission took place in June 1945. 

Post-war, Sunderlands took part in the Berlin Airlift and during the Korean War Sunderlands based in Japan undertook nearly 900 sorties. The aircraft finally retired from RAF service in 1959 when the last aircraft were scrapped in Singapore.

The Sunderland’s design was so good that it remained in front line service for over twenty years. It was also the last flying-boat operated by the Royal Air Force.

Following the war, ML824 served mainly in west Africa with the French Navy, and made its final flight on 24 March 1961, flying from Lanveoc-Pouloc, near Brest, to Pembroke Dock and landing on the Haven. It was then refurbished and repainted in RAF colours, before going on display behind the Royal Dockyard Chapel, where it attracted many tourists during the following seasons.

However, as it was displayed outside, the Welsh weather took its toll on the airframe, with much remedial work having to be carried out during its decade at the dockyard.

The National Wales: ML824 pictured on display at Pembroke Dock in the 1960s on a postcard. Photo: Pembroke Dock Heritage CentreML824 pictured on display at Pembroke Dock in the 1960s on a postcard. Photo: Pembroke Dock Heritage Centre


In 1971, ML824 was finally dismantled, and for local people in Pembroke Dock, with much reluctance, transported to Hendon, having been donated to the Royal Air Force Museum, which opened the following year.

More than 30 years later, Mr Evans, along with three other trustees, set up the Pembroke Dock Sunderland Trust. This has now developed into the Pembroke Dock Heritage Centre, which celebrates the town’s history, and has many displays and artefacts of flying boats, particularly the Sunderland.

“What we’re trying to do with the Heritage Centre is tell the town’s stories, those links with the armed services, and of course the social history of a once very prosperous town,” says Mr Evans .

“But we also tell the story of the Sunderland – it was an aircraft which the people who were connected with it have a great affinity.”

While the centre is currently closed due to lockdown, it remains accessible online, with digital content enabling visitors to experience the collection and stay connected to the town’s heritage.

The National Wales: ML824's final resting place at the Roya Airforce Museum Hendon; Photo: RAF MuseumML824's final resting place at the Roya Airforce Museum Hendon; Photo: RAF Museum

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