London’s Classic Car Show

It’s that time of year again. London’s Excel is throbbing to the sound of delightful engines and shimmering in the glow of highly polished coachwork. For the next three days, there will be many things to enjoy, from Phillip Glenister and a lot of TV cops’n’robbers cars to virtually every breed of racing Porsche.

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The London Classic Car Show and Historic Motorsport International are together in one gigantic hall. Up and down the middle is the Grand Avenue, where a vast array of cars from the 1920s to the 1990s will be running.

Star of the show will be Nigel Mansell, who will be on hand regularly throughout the public days. As well as the man himself, there’s also a goodly collection of his cars, such as the Lotus-Renault 95T that he pushed over the line at the 1984 US Grand Prix in Dallas and his mighty title-winning Williams-Renault FW14B from 1992.

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There are still plenty of tickets available to book online, which costs less than paying at the gate. In fact you can book online using your phone whilst you’re in the Excel and save yourself a few quid. The wonders of the Internet!

As part of the Historic Motorsport International experience there are a series of feisty forums in which those who build, race and occasionally attempt to manage the process of historic racing. So to find out what makes them tick, who’s got a GT40 with FRIC and why traction control on a Lotus Cortina is a very bad thing, then this is the place to be.

Here are some of the shiny things that caught the S&G’s eye while wandering. Do go along and enjoy the show.

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Sir Stirling’s stepping back

Sir Stirling Moss is stepping back from the many and varied roles at which he has worked tirelessly over the years, be that an insouciant F1 pundit or ever-popular presence in the paddocks of the world’s great historic race meetings. His homepage now carries a message from Stirling’s son, and at the S&G we can only wish this fabulous knight and Lady Susie, their family and many friends the longest and most enjoyable days to come.

It is no great presumption to say that the scribes and regulars here at the S&G are numbered among those millions around the world united in admiration both for all that Sir Stirling achieved in his youth and all that he has brought us ever since.

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Meeting real heroes does not often happen – if it happens, make sure that you’re wearing trousers. S&G.

Thank you, Sir Stirling, for being a hero par excellence. This is the statement from stirlingmoss.com

To all of his many friends and fans around the world, who use this website for regular updates, my father would like to announce that he will be closing it down. 

Following his severe infections at the end of 2016 and his subsequent slow and arduous recovery, the decision has been made that, at the age of 88, the indefatigable man will finally retire, so that he and my mother can have some much deserved rest and spend more time with each other and the rest of the family.

The entire and extended Moss clan thank everyone for all their love and support over the years and we wish you all a happy and prosperous 2018.

The Lost Eagles

Through the first half of 1942, American servicemen began to disembark en masse in Liverpool, paving the way for the build-up of forces that would eventually provide sufficient muscle to liberate North Africa, Italy and Occupied Europe. A significant number of Americans were already in Britain, however, having volunteered to fly with the Royal Air Force (just as they had in World War 1), whether it be under their own flag or adopting Canadian citizenship for the purpose.

Initially the call-to-arms had been made by Charles Sweeny, a wealthy businessman living in London, who took it upon himself to recruit American citizens to fight as a US volunteer detachment in the French Air Force, echoing the Lafayette Escadrille of WW1. When France collapsed under German invasion in May 1940, a dozen of Sweeny’s volunteers made their way to Britain, where they would be joined by 6,700 applicants from across the USA seeking to join the RCAF or RAF.

As a result of this recruitment drive, there were sufficient American pilots to form the three ‘Eagle’ squadrons of the RAF between September 1940 and July 1941 – these being nos. 71, 121 and 133.  With the arrival of the US Army Air Force in strength, however, these units were due to be transferred back to American control and renamed the 334th, 335th and 336th squadrons of the 4th Fighter Group USAAF; their battle-hardened pilots intended to provide a finishing school for the eager recruits flowing across the Atlantic.

A month before the transfer took place, 133 Squadron was re-equipped with the new and top-secret Spitfire Mk.IX, featuring a two-stage supercharger to give better performance above 20,000 feet and provide a much-needed answer to the Focke-Wulf 190. Not all of the pilots were thrilled about becoming repatriated – not least the commanding officer, Squadron Leader Carroll McColpin, who repeatedly delayed and fudged his transfer until the last possible moment on 25 September. He was replaced by a temporary unit leader, Flight Lieutenant Gordon Bettrell, who found his new command somewhat unhappy about the situation.

As the unit had been declared operational on the Spitfire Mk.IX it was decided that 133 Squadron should give the type its operational debut the following day: 26 September 1942. On paper it looked like a relatively straightforward job of escorting American B-17 Flying Fortresses on a raid over the French town of Morlaix.

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A Spitfire Mk.IX

A total of 14 Spitfire Mk.IXs shuttled down to RAF Bolt Head near Salcombe in Devon in readiness, of which only 12 were eventually required for the mission.  One pilot from each flight – Ervin ‘Dusty’ Miller and Don ‘Buckeye’ Gentile – were ordered to remain on the ground.  They were rather put-out by this news, having been keen to see how their new Spitfires would perform against the FW190s, but dutifully watched their squadron take off into low cloud. They were:

A Flight                                                               
F/Lt  E.G. Brettell        ES 313
P/O  L.T. Ryerson       BS 275
P/O W.H. Baker          BS 446
P/O D.D. Smith           BS 137
P/O G.B. Sperry          BR 638
P/O G.G. Wright          BS 138

B Flight
F/Lt  M. E. Jackson    BS 279
P/O R. E. Smith          BS 447
P/O C.A. Cook            BR 640
P/O R.N. Beaty           BS 148
P/O G.H. Middleton    BS 301
P/O G.P. Neville         BS 140

Gentile and Miller waited.  Then they waited some more.  Eventually they heard approaching aircraft but these proved to be Spitfire Mk.Vs of 401 Squadron RCAF, which were also deployed on the mission.  They were almost out of fuel and had seen neither the Fortresses or the Mk.IXs in the impenetrable cloud.  Very clearly, something had gone disastrously wrong.

Word reached Bolt Head that one of the Eagle Squadron Spitfires had crash-landed on the coast just a few miles away.  This turned out to be the only one of the 12 machines ever seen again.

The official squadron diary recorded: The 12 aircraft  took off with 401 to make a rendezvous with the Fortresses in mid-channel at a point approximately half-way between Bolthead and Morlaix.   It is not yet clear as to what exactly happened but some of the Fortresses were seen after our aircraft had been flying  for 45 minutes.  The pilot of one aircraft (P/O Beaty)  alone returned from this operation and owing to petrol shortage crash landed in a small field near Kingsbridge, Devon.  From his account and what he overheard on the R/T it seems probable that the rest of the Squadron force landed on the Island of Ouissant or on the French mainland.

It transpired that this was a rather optimistic view of the outcome.  Following a strenuous board of inquiry, it became clear that 133 Squadron had never broken free of the cloud and was thus unaware of the fact that the north-easterly wind was blowing at 100 knots instead of the predicted 35. The increase in wind speed had been recorded but not communicated effectively to the squadrons. With no reference points to call upon, the flight leader, Flight Lieutenant Brettell, called for directions home and received a heading back to base from Morlaix – rather than from where he actually was.

The Fortresses were equally lost and equally far off course. When they broke free of the cloud they found themselves over the Pyrenees. They turned around and slogged back to Britain being more grateful for the cloud cover than on their outbound leg.

Meanwhile, having followed the prescribed heading for what was deemed the correct amount of time, Brettell closed up the formation and they dropped out of the cloud to see what they all assumed was the British coast.  While looking for landmarks, the squadron passed over a large town – and immediately found themselves in a barrage of anti-aircraft fire that destroyed one Spitfire and damaged several others just before the defending FW190s swept in to savage them.

They had in fact made their way to the Germans’ prized port of Brest, one of the most heavily defended areas of the French coast.  German sources reported all 12 of the Spitfires were shot down – although there were only 11 as the sole 133 Squadron Spitfire to get away, that of Pilot Officer Bob Beatty, had turned back early after suffering a misfire.  Beatty made landfall in Devon by luck alone after gliding in to the coast when its fuel ran out, where it crashed near the village of Kingsbridge.

One other airman, Pilot Officer Robert Smith, made it back to Britain on foot after passing through France and into Spain undetected. Six pilots were killed in action and eventually four were taken POW. On 29 March 1944, Gordon Brettell was one of the officers involved in The Great Escape – he was later recaptured and summarily executed.

The element of surprise that was hoped for the Spitfire Mk.IX had been lost, as well as some of the most valuable combat experience available to the fledgling USAAF.  Three days after the Brest raid, 133 Squadron transferred to American command with a compliment of earlier Spitfire Mk.Vbs (pictured top) and, following the board of inquiry, those ground controllers and met. officers who were responsible for the mission found themselves posted to the worst available hellholes in the Far East and North Africa as penance for their sins.

The USAAF continued to operate Spitfires on bomber escort duties for a number of months but R.J. Mitchell’s masterpiece was by design a short-range interceptor rather than a long-range escort fighter for offensive missions.  On each occasion the Spitfire pilots were forced to watch German fighters circling until their own fuel became critical and they were forced to turn away… at which point the Germans would wade into the bombers without interference. This was a situation that would only change with the arrival of the P-47 Thunderbolt.

Hats off to Darkest Hour

If Gary Oldman should carry off an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, it will be well deserved and long overdue. As an ensemble piece, the movie is virtually flawless – a vehicle in which Oldman kills off any lingering doubts that he is Britain’s greatest living thespian with zeal, all the more so for being almost completely obscured by jowly prosthetics. Meanwhile, Kristin Scott-Thomas does a fine job of sparring with him in the role of Churchill’s rock, anchor and keeper, Clemmie.

For most of the film, the enemy that Churchill must confront is arguably the most watchable actor in Britain, Stephen Dillane, as the somewhat reedy, appeasing voice of the British Establishment in the form of Lord Halifax. The final addition to this leading foursome is the oft-overlooked Ronald Pickup, playing the part of the equally oft-overlooked Neville Chamberlain with both compassion and despair.

It is shot and acted beautifully, scripted reasonably well… indeed, even when watching it, one imagines that it will become a standard text on the period. Generations of children will be sat down to diligently watch this movie in school history lessons – and therein lies the problem. While the acting and the filming are all superb, the history is not.

We can overlook the fact that Churchill is depicted flying out to France in a C-47 (which didn’t exist then), instead of his D.H.95 Flamingo. Given the amount of CGI and special effects already in place, it wouldn’t have been too big an ask… but we can gloss over that. One CGI shot that was rather superfluous, however, was Churchill pontificating on a rooftop at night, watching a flight of four Hurricanes pass low overhead. Wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start.

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A de Havilland Flamingo – Churchill’s aircraft were not C-47s

This is but a prelude to the scene in which Churchill, alone and in the dark, begs President Roosevelt for destroyers and P-40 fighters. Yet the Royal Navy had ample resources at the time to see off the threat of the German Kriegsmarine. It is suggested that the Germans will come to Britain in high speed boats carrying 100 troops in each vessel – although these never existed. Churchill’s main concern was trying desperately to convince the French to send their navy across the Channel, lest it fall into German hands. In the end Churchill ordered the sinking of four French battleships, five destroyers and a seaplane tender when at port in Mers-el-Kébir in Algeria – and captured or sank those French vessels lying in British waters.

As for fighters, Churchill was fully focused upon stimulating the output of Britain’s own aircraft factories – starting with the vast white elephant at Castle Bromwich. Despite severe losses, the Hurricanes of the British Expeditionary Force had taken a mighty toll on the Luftwaffe as the Germans devoured Belgium and France, while belatedly the Spitfire was starting to appear in significant numbers. Quality was not in doubt but quantity was and, in Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill had an ardent quartermaster who ensured that the Battle of Britain ended with more fighters in front-line squadrons than it had begun with.

Not until Britain’s fight for immediate survival was long over did America grudgingly enter into the Lend-Lease programme… but try making a film about World War 2 these days that does not rely upon America’s righteous, guiding hand and see how far it gets through pre-production.

But all of these quibbles pale into insignificance next to the greatest red herring in the film: Churchill riding the District Line. This is the moment at which Oldman’s characterisation is powerless to stop Churchill being propelled into a new role: as a prototype for Tony Blair or David Cameron. You half-expect him to take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves and insist that the everyday Londoners call him Winston as he seeks their counsel.

The Darkest Hour

This segment of the film is an uncomfortable collection of anachronisms – a measure of what a modern British premier looks like to audiences around the world. Presenting this as historical fact – or as director Joe Wright prefers to call it ’emotional truth’ – is potentially disastrous not just for the film but also for its future viewers. In early 1940 more British people had died as a result of travelling in the blackout than from enemy action, and memories of the horrendous casualties of the Great War were still fresh. They supported appeasement. Appeasement at all costs. Appeasement however long and hard the road may be. When, later, Churchill visited the cities stricken by the Blitz he was booed.

Darkest Hour is a phenomenal piece of work by the cast – Oldman chief among them – and by the artists who created and lit every scene. For the most part it is exquisite. But mistaking its ’emotional truth’ for historical fact would be a grievous error. Enjoy it for what it is – a brilliant piece of movie making.

One of our Spitfires is missing (but the Kittyhawk isn’t)

A few years ago there was a minor kerfuffle that made its way into the pages of the daily press: the Royal Air Force Museum had handed over a Spitfire Mk.22 to aircraft restorers Kennet Aviation as payment for retrieving a gem from the Sahara. For it was in North Africa that an almost perfectly-preserved Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk had been discovered, 70 years after it force-landed.

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The Kittyhawk’s pilot, Flight Sergeant Dennis Copping, made a controlled landing in the desert which he survived. However, the Western Desert is a vast and inhospitable place in which Copping died without being rescued. His body has never been found.

Once Copping’s aeroplane revealed itself, however, preserving it became something of a fixation at the RAF Museum. In this quest, the museum believed that it had found the ideal partner in Tim Manna, a former US Navy reservist who moved to England in 1989 and now rebuilds old aeroplanes in Essex under the Kennet Aviation banner.

The RAF Museum agreed to trade a stored Spitfire Mk.22 with Kennet in return for the long-lost Kittyhawk. A Spitfire Mk.22 is not the most desirable of the breed, but a complete airframe with history holds value – somewhere around the £200,000 upwards mark – and with restoration to airworthiness that figure increases by four or five fold.

For the Spitfire in question, PK664, this would prove to be its 15 minutes of fame. It did not see service during World War 2 as it only reached No.39 MU in December 1945. It sat around for two years before being sent back to Vickers for upgrading with a Griffon 85 engine and 6-bladed contra-rotating propeller.

After another two years of standing idle, PK664 was refitted and finally issued to No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron based at Biggin Hill in May 1949. In August 1949 it suffered an accident while in Germany, with the resulting damage being given RAF Category 3 – meaning indefinitely out of service. It was returned to 615 Squadron in early 1950, where it flew on until December of that year.

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PK664 shown in storage at Wattisham in 2009

Shortly afterwards, PK664 went back into storage at Vickers pending disposal. Nobody wanted secondhand Spitfires in the late 1950s, however, so she was stuck on a plinth outside RAF Waterbeach as a gate guardian for most of the 1960s; being removed for maintenance and the occasional repaint. Later she was partially restored (and presumably given a Hamish Mahaddie makeover) for duty on the Battle of Britain movie. She then went into storage at RAF St. Athan for much of the next 23 years before being transferred to the RAF Museum. In recent years it was on display at the Science Museum, but departed for Kennet Aviation in 2012.

The only problem was that the Kittyhawk and the patch of sand in which it had lain for all those decades were in Egypt. And Egypt likes to have lots of paperwork and red tape around the place, so matters of this kind tend to be processed in a leisurely fashion. Meanwhile, there was something of a revolution going on and the Kittyhawk paperwork was an early casualty in the throes of Egyptian regime change.

Here the story ended, as far as the world was concerned. The RAF Museum was in some disgrace for handing over a Spitfire to Kennet without any apparent guarantees and it got nothing in return but a barrel load of tabloid invective for perceived naïvety and ineptitude.

Two years later, the RAF Museum is being treated to a second helping of opprobrium in the press after the Egyptian-run El Alamein Museum proudly put its newest exhibit on display – Flight Sergeant Copping’s Kittyhawk.

Rather than preserving the lightly-damaged machine, it has been treated to a restoration that looks like the first 1/72 kit ever attempted by the S&G. Aged seven. Missing panels and the absent propeller have been replaced with ungainly fibreglass and wood structures, then the whole lot has been vigorously painted in an approximation of RAF Desert camouflage – which this P-40 never wore. Like many RAF aircraft in the desert, it retained the Temperate Land Scheme of Dark Green and Dark Earth over Sky… like this model of an earlier Tomahawk is sporting… and it never had the shark’s mouth markings, either.

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But the Egyptians prefer the drama of shark’s teeth, Mid-Stone and Azure Blue (or approximations thereof), resulting in this:

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So it appears that the Kittyhawk’s fate is sealed. Even if the great gobs of emulsion and filler could be removed from it, the patina and uniqueness of the wreck have been utterly destroyed. Probably the greatest hope left for its long-term survival is that it can be bought by an aircraft restorer and rebuilt to flying condition.

But where is Spitfire PK664? Apparently it is still in a shed in Essex, appreciating in value day-by-day. Which would make Kennet Aviation the winner in this sad little saga.

Vintage Aviator takes a pause

The Vintage Aviator Limited, which produces toolroom copies of First World War aeroplanes that are 100% authentic down to the type of engine and bracing wire, has halted production while an internal investigation takes place. It is understood that the investigation relates to sales of aeroplanes made by TVAL since mid-2016.

The company was begun by movie director Sir Peter Jackson more than a decade ago after he fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition of buying an airworthy Sopwith Camel replica – ostensibly for use in his remake of the movie King Kong. Although the Camel was never used in the film, which instead uses scale model and CGI US Army Air Force biplanes, it set Jackson off on a new course.

By joining forces with Gene de Marco, a leading display pilot and restorer of WW1 types from his time at Old Rhinebeck aerodrome in New York State, TVAL has acted as an airborne ‘Jurassic Park’ that has brought types not seen in the skies for almost a century, including the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 and F.E.2, the Sopwith Snipe and Albatros D.V.

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This TVAL-built Albatros D.Va has starred in WW1 centennial activities in the UK, France and Belgium

Sir Peter has ploughed back a good deal of the money made from his films, particularly his J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, into restarting production of extinct aeroplanes – both in full-scale and with his 1/32 model kits, sold under the Wingnut Wings label. He also has two museums dedicated to WW1. Employing more than 50 craftsmen and women to build the exhaustively-researched replicas for both static and aerial use, the order to cease work has made big news in the community around Wellington in New Zealand.

Neither the production of Wingnut Wings kits, nor the current airshow season is thought to be affected by this hiatus in aircraft production.

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A completed S.E.5a ‘Hisso’ from Wingnut Wings

Several TVAL types have been based in the UK in recent years, based at the WW1 aerodromes of Bicester Heritage and Stowe Maries, and many of the team have been involved in bringing to life the number of World War 2 de Havilland Mosquitos that have appeared in the skies over the past couple of years.

Like many thousands of enthusiasts around the world, the S&G hopes that the investigation reaches a satisfactory conclusion for all parties and that TVAL is soon back to doing what it does best: bringing long-forgotten aeroplanes back from extinction and flying them as they were meant to be flown.

Farewell to 2017

Well, that was a year. It was called 2017. It’s over now – although its ramifications may well carry on clanking through history for some considerable time.

Once again the S&G observed fairly limited opening hours due to a number of factors, not least a rather frantic year of book-writing. After 30 years, the longest and dearest-held dream of writing a book about the S.E.5 came to fruition. We also spent a welcome few days with the ancestors of Sir Ernest Shackleton, which may well bring forth some stories.

A new record was set in the number of visits and the number of people coming through the door and settling into the snug. At almost 35,000 we should probably get a bigger sofa. These were the people’s picks for 2017 A.D.:

  1. Gladiator Survivors #3 – What Hope for Faith?
  2. The Racing Driver’s Bride
  3. Hawthorn’s Surrey Part 4: the final journey
  4. Beyond the British Grand Prix
  5. Visiting the TT Garage, Farnham
  6. The Mystery of Seaman’s Grave
  7. Setting Sail with Errol Flynn
  8. Malta’s Spitfires – revealed at last
  9. Ken Miles Part 2: 1966 and all that
  10. ‘Malta Spitfire’ flies again in 2016

It’s gratifying to see a number of Malta-related stories bubbling up to the top 10 (as well as the inclusion of fresh stories like those of the post-British GP world and Ken Miles’s finest hour). History was not kind to Malta’s supreme importance in the story of WW2, both in Europe and in Asia. Gradually and belatedly this campaign, and the uncommon valour that it produced among the armed forces and civilian population, is receiving more attention. There can never be enough.

Interestingly, the movie Dunkirk was released in 2017. Apparently it inspired and infuriated both experts and the uninitiated in a very even-handed way. The S&G has yet to see it, although the absence of a single cigarette among the soldiers and statesmen in the trailers was notable and leads one to question its commitment to history. Apparently, depicting tobacco usage is a no-no to Fox, which produced the film, because of the evil weed’s risk to human health.

Dive-bombers are less of a problem, apparently…

In other news, one publisher to whom the S&G spoke declared that books on subjects pre-1966 were now ‘commercially dead’.  This may come as a startling revelation to Lord March, who continues to maintain about just about the only viable racing venue in the UK based upon a rather different business model! It is remarkable that people are considered unlikely to shell out £10-20 for a book on the era when the classic cars that they describe continue to rocket in value.

We now live in a world where it is possible to spend in excess of £30,000 on a mid-Eighties hot hatch, like a Peugeot 205 GTI (£38,000 being the new record for such a car). The white heat of inflation in values continues to astonish, to the point where the S&G was informed that there is now a queue of around a dozen investors with ‘a minimum of $30 million cash’ waiting to be spent for any Porsche 917, irrespective of condition or racing history, provided that it was built in Zuffenhausen.

Wowsers.

2017 was a slow year for aviation-related stories at the S&G, for which we apologise and promise to make good in 2018. Our air-minded regulars are the most loyal and enthusiastic imaginable and there have been lean pickings for them. This will not do.  We did manage to get the S.E.5 book out successfully, and despite one or two issues with getting the right pages to the printer it was an emotional moment to see 30 years of research and passion take the chequered flag.

There will be much to-do about the centenary of the Royal Air Force in 2018. The S&G will do its bit, with one aim: encouraging the powers-that-be to give its missing VC his name back. July will see the 100th anniversary of Edward Mannock’s death and we all know where he lies. It’s time for him to rest up.

So that’s what to expect when crossing the hearth at the S&G in 2018: more aeroplanes, some valuable reminders for racing folk and a bucket full of derring-do. God knows we need the latter above all else.

A safe and peaceful 2018 to you all.