Hooray for Tailspin Tommy

A recent discovery online has been one of the serials whose instalments were a weekly highlight of life for cinema-goers in the 1930s. Pretty much every major genre was represented in these movies, which broke a longer story into 10-12 chapters like a pulp fiction novel for the silver screen, but the antics of  Tailspin Tommy take some beating.

Just look at the hardware on show in these first two chapters of Tommy’s first tale! There’s an entire encyclopaedia of US Navy aviation in the Thirties on screen almost throughout the film, with the added joys of some proper barnstorming aerobatics.

Tailspin Tommy himself was a creation of comic strip artist Hal Forrest, a former WW1 pilot, who sought to capitalise on the popularity of barnstorming and the surge in popularity of aviators thanks to the record-breaking exploits of Charles Lindberg et al.

Tommy Tomkins made his comic strip debut in four newspapers during 1928, but such was the thirst for air-related yarns that this rose to 250 newspapers by 1931! The central character was America’s answer to Biggles, an aircraft-obsessed teenager from Littleville, Colorado who comes to the aid of an airman in trouble and earns himself a job with Three Point Airlines in Texas.

Once in Texas, Tommy soon earns his wings as a pilot and picks up a new best friend, Skeeter Williams, and a girlfriend, Betty Lou Barnes, and the tree of them buy shares in Three Point Airlines. Along the way the trio have many and varied adventures throughout the USA, usually with a ticklish problem to solve.

Hollywood soon beckoned and Universal snapped up the rights to these adventures. The first movie serial, Tailspin Tommy, appeared in 1934 as a 12-episode tale in which Tommy must help Three Point Airlines overcome an unscrupulous rival to win a major contract. Not only that but he must win Betty Lou’s heart from a rival suitor.

The second serial, Tailspin Tommy and the Great Air Mystery, is where the above clip hails from – an altogether bigger and more ambitious production.  Tommy must stop a corrupt businessman from stealing vital oil reserves, and along the way befriends an investigative journalist played by screen legend Pat O’Brien.

This was to be the last of Tommy’s serial adventures, although he would return for four full-length movies later in the 1930s. The cinema-going public’s affections had switched from air-minded melodrama to the utterly fantastical, which was good news for one of the stars of the Tommy Tomkins movies – Jean Rogers.

From playing the businesslike, if slightly flighty, Betty Lou Barnes she went on to become a genuine Hollywood icon playing Dale Arden, the love interest of Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon in the greatest serial of them all.


Jean Rogers went from Tailspin Tommy to Flash Gordon – doubtless to the envy of many girls of the Thirties



Finding Mannock

In case you’re wondering where the S&G has been of late, the answer is somewhere between October 1917 and July 1918. It’s been a protracted stay but well worth the making.

In the spirit of those times, therefore, feel free to enjoy a documentary made by the BBC in 2009, based upon the rather excellent book Aces Falling by popular historian Peter Hart. It’s a little bit schmaltzy in places and frankly re-enactors gazing meaningfully into the camera can make one a bit queasy at times but all in all it does Hart’s work, and that of Joshua Levine, some justice. Plus it’s always nice to see the Shuttleworth Collection’s S.E.5a aloft…

The most important point raised by the film, and about which nothing has continued to happen, is the pressing need to formally identify the body of the aviator ‘Known unto God’ that has lain in Row F, Grave 12 of Laventie Military Cemetery since 1920.

Edward Mannock was a unique individual, a gifted tactician and, quite possibly, the most successful Allied fighter pilot of the Great War. As one of only 19 airmen of the Great War to hold the Victoria Cross, any opportunity for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to right a very obvious wrong can and must be taken before the centenary of Mannock’s death.

Mannock’s body was retrieved and buried by the Germans some 300 metres away from Butter Lane near Pacault Wood. The body of the airman in Row F, Grave 12 was exhumed from a grave 300 metres away from Butter Lane near Pacault Wood.

The German Army’s very precise record of where they buried the body does not tally exactly with the location where the CWG first found him, which has been the major reason cited as to why no further investigation has been carried out. But then the CWG was using a British trench map. By using a German trench map of the same area, the description given takes you pretty much to the original grave site.

The body exhumed in 1920 had no identification about it. The Germans took all of Mannock’s personal effects and identification from his body before burial, which were eventually returned to his family.

Modern science is a wonderful thing. It helped identify King Richard III where he lay beneath a municipal car park in Leicester some 527 years after he fell. To the best of the S&G’s knowledge there should be sufficient living relatives of Mannock to be able to get a DNA profile, exhume the airman in Row F, Grave 12 and confirm, one way or another, who he is.

Only two other candidates remain; these being Sopwith Camel pilots shot down a couple of months before Mannock. Neither of these men deserves to remain nameless any more than Mannock, although the evidence linking them to the German grave at Butter Lane is circumstantial at best.


The evidence all points to this being Edward Mannock’s grave. Let’s have a definitive answer.

There are other clues to be found, no doubt. For one thing, accounts from local history state that the British aircraft that crashed by Butter Lane was there until 11 November 1918, after which it was pretty swiftly tipped into a shell hole and covered over. Perhaps removable parts were taken as trophies but a dial, a plate and certainly a Hispano-Suiza engine would make itself fairly obvious to ground surveying equipment.

For all that, there might not be any need to go and find any remnants of S.E.5a serial E1295. For the body in Row F, Grave 12 to be that of Mannock, it needs to be the remains of a gangling six-footer who stood out a mile from most of his fellow aviators. In addition, the aircraft was well alight when it crashed and Mannock’s dread fear of burning caused him to keep his Webley service revolver readily to hand in order to end the agony. Even after 100 years, the sort of damage that a .455 bullet does to a skull is clear to see.

‘Mick’ Mannock led by example. He cherished the lives of his men and gave them every possible chance to see the peace that he was convinced would not be his to savour. Yet he flew on, staring his horror of being set alight full in the face until the nightmares became a reality.

He died alone, afraid and practically unheralded. Yes, it would cost money but it would be worth more than 100 of the self-serving commemorations that this country has organised to mark the centenary of the Great War. Worth more than a wild goose chase across Asia looking for buried Spitfires. Worth more than pulling the unrecognisable hulk of a Dornier out of the Goodwin Sands for even the slightest chance to give this most human of heroes back his own name.



‘Malta Spitfire’ flies again in 2016

One of the major drawbacks of doing this blog thing for fun rather than as a career is that one can only report on what is seen. Hence it is very much to your scribe’s chagrin that the reappearance of a Malta-based Spitfire in the skies has gone unreported on the S&G until now.

The celebrated Flying Legends collection of airworthy warbirds, a stalwart of the Duxford-based restoration community, quietly welcomed another Spitfire earlier this summer.

We have all become somewhat accustomed to Spitfires being returned to the sky, so unless the Daily Mail makes a song-and-dance about a particular airframe it is very hard to pick them out. This one is a humdinger, however, because it is – on paper at least – a genuine ‘Malta blue’ Spit, flown by a ranking ace of this most heroic theatre of WW2 to make an historic string of victory claims.

As a Mk.Vb that was ordered on 23 August 1941, EP122 was one of the fourth batch of Spitfires, numbering 904 aircraft, to be built at the Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory. After final assembly in Topicalized fettle, complete with the large chin-mounted  air filter, and acceptance onto the RAF strength, this aircraft was then disassembled and crated on 8 June 1942 for shipment to the North African theatre of operations.


Spitfire Mk.Vs destined for Africa were painted in Desert scheme

Shipped to Gibraltar on board the S.S. Guido four days later, EP122 was reassembled and assigned to Malta rather than North Africa, requiring a new coat of paint. As per all Malta aircraft arriving in planned delivery, her factory finish Desert Scheme of Mid-Stone and Dark Brown camouflage over Azure Blue undersurfaces was transformed into the Temperate Sea Scheme of Extra Dark Sea Grey and Slate Grey over Sky.

Although the most desperate air fighting over Malta had reached its zenith in April-May 1942, there was still plenty of trade to be had. In June and July the Canadian ace ‘Screwball’ Buerling in particular was busy swatting down German and Italian aircraft with 249 Squadron when EP122 arrived as one of the replacement aircraft flying off HMS Eagle during Operation PINPOINT and was immediately pressed into service with 185 Squadron.

In common with other 185 Squadron aircraft, EP122 was given the unit’s distinctive identifying code letters, painted in yellow and in a smaller, squarer font than other units on the Island, which usually carried white letters. With ‘GL’ as the identifying code for 185 Squadron and ‘B’ as the individual aircraft code, EP122 was ready to go into battle.


Newly-restored EP122 wears the ‘Temperate Sea Scheme’ that was standard in Malta

This aircraft became the regular mount of a recently-arrived American volunteer, the teenage Sgt. Claude Weaver III of Oklahoma City. Weaver had enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on 13th February 1941 and, after earning his wings and briefly flying in the UK, he joined No.185 Sqn at Malta in late June, aged 19.

Within days of his arrival, on 17 July, Weaver had shot down his first Messerschmitt 109. Flying EP122, he shot down two more 109s on 22 July, followed by another pair the next day and then claimed a half-share in a Ju.88 the day after that – becoming the youngest Allied ‘ace’ of the conflict.

He was decorated with the DFM for destroying five enemy fighters and sharing in the destruction of a bomber within a period of one week. His score was up to ten before he was shot down over Sicily in another Spitfire, BR112, and made a force-landing on a beach that was photographed in colour and subsequently fuelled much of the myth behind the ‘blue’ spitfires of Malta.


This photo of Weaver’s BR112 is responsible for much of the ‘Malta blue’ debate among historians

Although captured and taken prisoner-of-war, Weaver later escaped and walked 300 miles before eventually returning to operations with No.403 (RCAF) Sqdn – briefly flying alongside ‘Screwball’ Buerling until the latter was posted for insubordination and conduct unbecoming.

Weaver was killed in action over France after his Spitfire Mk.IX was shot down by the Focke-Wulf FW190 of 44-victory ‘ace’ Gerhard Vogt. Baling out of the stricken aircraft, Weaver’s parachute was caught on the Spitfire’s tailwheel and he was dragged to earth, surviving for a few hours despite his terrible injuries.

Back in Malta, EP122 meanwhile became the regular mount of Wing Commander J.M. Thompson, C.O. of 185 Squadron in the autumn 1942, who had the aircraft repainted with his personal identification letters of JM-T.

At the beginning of 1943, with the defence of Malta complete and attention turning towards an Allied invasion of Sicily, EP122 was transferred to 1435 Squadron, carrying the code letter ‘L’. On 27 March 1943 it crash-landed on the edge of the cliff at Dwejra Bay, Gozo. EP122 was pushed over the cliff-edge into the bay shortly afterwards.


As a major RAF base in the 1960s, airmen would dive on WW2 wrecks for relaxation

The wreck of EP122 was discovered by divers from the RAF Sub Aqua Club off the coast of Gozo in 1969. She lay under 10 metres of water but was cleaned up and salvaged in the mid-1970s. Eventually the wreck came under the ownership of one of the most celebrated men in the American automotive and aviation community: Tom Friedkin.

Friedkin’s father Kenny had become obsessed with flying as a child, after watching a barnstorming display in the early 1920s. He qualified as a pilot at the age of 17 and volunteered to fly with the Royal Air Force in World War 2 – much like Claude Weaver.


Pacific Southwest Airlines became California’s main carrier – with a certain style!

Kenny Friedkin went on to found Pacific Southwest Airlines after the war only to die from a brain haemorrhage in 1962, the airline being privatised soon afterwards. Among the many knock-on effects that resulted from Kenny Friedkin’s premature demise was that  his son, Tom, became not only a serving pilot for the airline but also a member of the Board of Directors.

Tom Friedkin’s interests extended beyond aviation, and he used his wealth to race cars alongside his great friend Carroll Shelby. As well as driving, Friedkin owned his own NASCAR team in 1965-69, with cars built by Bill Thomas.

In 1969, Shelby introduced Friedkin to representatives of Toyota, which was looking to break into the American automobile market. It was through this introduction that Friedkin established Gulf States Toyota Distributors shortly afterwards.

Jim Paschal pits the Tom Friedkin Plymouth during the 1966 Daytona 500 - Paschal finished 11th___

Tom Friedkin ran a NASCAR team through 1965-69 with Bill Thomas

Today, GST regularly features in the annual Forbes list of largest private companies in the USA, with annual revenues in excess of $5bn. As his business flourished, so Friedkin has been able to further indulge his passions for powered sport on land, sea and air – nas well as appearing as a stunt pilot and cameo actor in movies such as Blue Thunder, Firefox and Jaws: The Revenge as well as in Clint Eastwood’s critically acclaimed movies The Rookie and Pale Rider.

Throughout nearly 50 years , Tom Friedkin has also played a key role in the restoration, ownership and display of historic aircraft; with Spitfires and the Duxford-based Flying Legends team featuring heavily in that interest. Now in his eighties, Friedkin remains a key player in the global warbird scene and his son, Dan, has followed closely in his father’s footsteps. The restoration of EP122 is the latest in a long line of landmark rebuilds.

The initial work was apparently undertaken by Steve Vizard’s VMI Engineering Service at Aldershot in Hampshire before transferring to Airframe Assemblies in Sandown, Surrey. Finally she made her way to the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar for completion – albeit minus the distinctive tropical air filter. Having made her maiden flight from Biggin Hill in May 2016, EP122 made her airshow debut at the Flying Legends spectacular at Duxford this July.

As a result, it will now be possible to see a genuine example of a ‘Malta blue’ Spitfire Mk.V in the air, complete in the colours with which she was flown by a remarkable young American volunteer to write his place in the history of military aviation.

Of all the Spitfires airworthy today, this makes EP122 one of the most significant of her breed. Ultimately it must be assumed that EP122 will make her way to the USA but it is to be hoped that, with the 75th anniversary of her accomplishments on the horizon, she will remain long enough to be one of the star performers of the 2017 UK airshow season.


EP122 flies again – ready to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Malta’s finest hour next year

Ferrari 312 T2 031 in practice at Watkins Glen October 77 - 1

And the winner is…

First of all thank you to everyone who took part in the first S&G readers’ competition. Hopefully it will not be the last.

The question was to name the three men credited with designing the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 and they were H.P. Folland, John Kenworthy and Major Frank Goodden.

In case of concern, there is method in the madness of such an apparently unrelated question to win a Haynes manual about Ferraris from the 1970s. At present the S&G is a hive of activity while yours truly finishes off the Haynes manual for the S.E.5, which will be available from early next year to mark the centenary of the type.


The correct competition entries have been counted, shuffled, re-shuffled, placed in a hat and jiggled around a bit for good measure. After these preliminaries an independent body (well, the independent fingers of Miss Sonal Patel at least) produced the winner’s name. Step forward please, James Miers – one signed copy of the Ferrari 312T series manual will be heading your way.

James, if you could post a reply on this entry including an email address, I shall contact you directly to get your address and delete the blog reply immediately to maintain privacy.

Thank you once again to everyone for taking part, for visiting the S&G and offering to give a good home to the Ferrari book. If you haven’t seen the growing range of classic aircraft manuals by Haynes, please do feast your eyes on the array to date. The S.E.5 will be the second World War 1 title in the catalogue, following the Sopwith Camel published earlier this year.

Normal service will soon be resumed!


Hollywood on the march again

It appears that moves are afoot in Tinseltown to remake another flying epic – in this case The Battle of Britain.

The original 1969 movie was directed by the godlike genius of Guy Hamilton (responsible for the British spy movie masterpieces Goldfinger and Funeral in Berlin).  Hamilton was employed by James Bond producer Harry Saltzman to depict the summer of 1940 with an all-star cast including Sir Laurence Olivier as Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Trevor Howard as Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park and luminaries such as Robert Shaw, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer and Edward Fox among the pilots.

It is a movie brim-full of bravado and armed with no shortage of quotable moments that have probably done more for sales of Airfix kits than any other venture of the past 50 years. Here’s an old favourite to set the tone:

The production famously featured enough aircraft to count as the 35th largest air force in the world. Wartime bomber pilot, Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie, brought together 18 Spitfires and six Hurricanes, while the Spanish Air Force was still flying licence-built Heinkel He-111s, Junkers Ju52s and Messerschmitt 109s and provided no fewer than 61 aircraft in total.

Admittedly not all of the aircraft flew (it’s always fun to spot the ‘Messerschmitts’ in formation with the three airworthy Hurricanes, for example), but the resulting film was for the most part flown for real. Better still, it was filmed under the direction of genuine Battle of Britain aces on both sides of the conflict led by Group Captains Tom Gleave and Peter Townsend on the British side and General Adolf Galland representing the Luftwaffe with characteristic verve.

The film cost $12 million – an incredible fortune in 1968 – and by the end of production money was tight, meaning that scale model Stuka dive bombers were used rather than the planned restoration of the RAF Museum’s full size example. Although generally receiving favourable reviews, the renowned critic Roger Ebert picked up on the cost cutting in his review, saying:

“The airplanes are another sore point. Sure, Harry Saltzman spent millions to assemble and repair Spitfires and Hurricanes, and there was even a TV special about the authenticity of the movie. But you’ve got to USE airplanes; it isn’t enough to own them. Some of the aerial photography is very good. We see dogfights actually filmed in the air and fought by real planes (instead of by models and visual effects). But the aerial scenes are allowed to run forever and repeat themselves shamelessly, until we’re sure we saw that same Heinkel dive into the sea (sorry — the ‘drink’) three times already.”

Despite Ebert’s reservations, much of the aerial photography and the actors’  performances were astounding, leaving us with scenes to treasure such as this one, when Robert Shaw’s Captain Skipper leads his men in to intercept another Heinkel raid:

Fast forward 48 years and the Oscar-winning producer, Graham King (The Departed), has hired Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) to write a new script. Towne and King have previously worked together in the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible series.

King recently told Entertainment Weekly that the film is personal project, saying: “My father lived in London and watched this spectacular dog fight over the city, so bringing this story of endurance and triumph to the big screen means a great deal to me…”

It has now been reported that nine of the Hispano ‘Buchon’ fighters – licence-built Messerschmitt 109s – used in the film have been unearthed still wearing their fictional warpaint from 1968. At least four of them are being recommissioned for the remake. It would seem that money was so tight that by the end of filming they were presented to the flying co-ordinator in lieu of currency!


Four Hispano ‘Messerschmitts’ are receiving some TLC

In total there are three genuine Messerschmitts of the correct vintage and seven Hispano Buchons airworthy in the world, with a further 29 Messerschmitts and 14 Hispanos under restoration to static or flying condition.

Elsewhere in the world there are nearly 240 Spitfires known to exist worldwide, of which 54 are currently airworthy and 113 are in various states of restoration. Thanks to the population explosion in restored airframes there are many more period-correct Spitfires available today than Guy Hamilton had in his ‘air force’ – in the 1969 movie many of the Spitfires were given cosmetic makeovers to appear closer to 1940 specification, being nicknamed ‘Mk. Haddies’ in deference to the Group Captain.

Hurricanes are less plentiful but nine are airworthy and six more are potentially ‘runners’, with 14 on static display in Europe and North America. Two genuine Heinkel He-111s are on static display, 11 of the CASA 2.111s used in the film still exist – but for the Junkers Ju88s, Dornier Do17s and Messerschmitt 110s there is little hope.


Spitfires are multiplying at a rate unseen since the Forties

There are now two airworthy Gloster Gladiators in the UK, plus a Bristol Blenheim and a static Boulton Paul Defiant. Their use all depends, of course, on how authentic – and how well-funded – the remake is intended to be. And, of course, there is the question of how much of the final film is shot for real and how great a role digital special effects will play.

The S&G is therefore watching developments with a measure of trepidation. Hollywood’s idea of the Battle of Britain will be based upon what is sellable, as was last seen in the odious tosh that was Pearl Harbor – a movie that will live in infamy.

Will the presence of the Royal Navy at anchor and the almost complete absence of a workable German invasion plan warrant a mention? Will the remake toe the line and depict the mythical ‘Few’ of Churchill’s invention? Will Tom Cruise single-handedly win the Battle as an American volunteer who is ostracised for wearing crepe soled brothel creepers in the officers’  mess?

Locations shouldn’t be too great a problem – doubtless Goodwood/Westhampnett will be in the mix and Duxford is a given. Sadly for all concerned, the closest airfield to the white cliffs in wartime and star of many scenes in the original movie, Hawkinge, has long since been buried under the urban sprawl.

One thing is for sure: very little could ever replace the sight of Susannah York preparing for a night of passion. One can rebuild a Spitfire pretty easily, but other things are unrepeatable.



Competition time! Win a signed Ferrari book

The S&G’s recent addition to the Haynes series of manuals for motor sport enthusiasts has been accorded Book of the Month by Classic & Sports Car magazine. As a result, we’re celebrating with the offer of a signed copy of the Ferrari 312T Series and a little competition.

Screenshot 2016-02-12 23.33.14

Sadly, due to the postage costs involved, the prize is only on offer to addresses in the UK or British Forces Based Overseas. However, don’t let that stop you joining in the fun. What we want to know is:


Who were the three men credited with designing the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 fighter? 


Simply enter your answers on the thread below – one answer per person- before midday on Thursday 18 August and all correct entries will be put into a hat. The winner’s name will be posted and we will sort out how to get the book to you privately.

In the meanwhile, the book remains on sale from all good high street retailers and online via the usual suspects.

Have a great weekend one and all, and good luck if entering.


Visiting Captain Ball

This week saw the S&G in the sleepy village of Annœullin in the Pas de Calais, paying a visit to a key figure in the archives – and one set to appear several more times in the weeks and months ahead – Captain Albert Ball.

It had been 28 years since last calling in on the good Captain (the passage of time being rather less marked upon Annœullin than upon oneself). Ball’s grave remained in impeccable condition, standing tall among the simple crosses that fill the rest of the German military cemetery in the village.

2016-08-07 07.14.05

It is 99 years since Ball’s last flight and the discussion over how he ended up inverted in a shallow dive over the fields of this little corner of the Pas de Calais continues to ebb and flow. Indeed, it’s simmering along rather excitably at present; with a few metaphorical low blows and beard tweaks being exchanged between historians.

Of course, whether he was shot down by Lothar von Richthofen – or anyone else, for that matter – became of little consequence to Ball himself from the moment that he hit the ground. Unless his S.E.5 suffered a structural failure, it is highly doubtful that even Ball knew the real cause of his demise.

Photographing the grave was not a problem but, sadly, reaching the surviving marker of the two laid down at the crash site by Ball’s distraught father, Albert Sr., proved impossible. These photos show the closest that could be achieved.

2016-08-07 07.27.112016-08-07 07.29.29

To the best of the S&G’s knowledge, Albert Ball Sr. bought the field in which his son died in order to lay the stones that marked where the wreckage lay. With the markers in place – it has never been clear what happened to the second marker – the land has been worked continuously since the Armistice. Despite the agricultural setting it was possible, in 1988, to walk right up to the remaining stone.

As can be seen in the pictures, no such path exists today. For those interested in the inscription, this ‘borrowed’ image might clarify what lies out amid the greenery:


A quick scout around upon returning to Blighty revealed that, yes, the land was bought by Albert Ball Sr.

On the assumption that nobody in the family has since sold the land back, it can hardly have been the intention that visitors should be deterred from venturing near the marker by an impenetrable army of lettuce.

Of interest was a story in the news for staff at RAF Waddington, where 56(R) Squadron – Ball’s unit of 1917 – is now based. A sergeant with the unit recounted travelling to Annœullin in 2014 for an Armistice commemoration, saying:

‘The next morning the party travelled to the town hall of Annœullin for a meeting with the Mayor and other local dignitaries. As well as discussing our participation in the Armistice parade, we also talked about the future of the field where Captain Ball crashed. Purchased by his father after the Great War, the local population has been maintaining the site ever since. It is envisaged by the local council that a permanent footpath and fence should be erected to preserve the site, and 56(R) Squadron will help facilitate the negotiations between the council and Ball family.’

Of course it is not going to be a high priority for public spending in Annœullin, and the intransigence of French farmers is the stuff of legend, but perhaps for the 100th anniversary of Ball’s last flight such a path could be inaugurated. Such a path might honour not only the loss of the man but also the determination of a bereft father that his son should never be forgotten.