… it’s a bit like Christmas eve. At airfields hither and yon the sound of fantastic engines crackling to life can be heard on a daily basis as the boys get their toys ready for the start of another year. Thanks to the advent of social media the owners are keen to share progress and pictures, so here’s one from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight…
It was remiss of me not to have had a camera about my person when 14 of the 16 world champions who walk the earth congregated in Bahrain a couple of years back – together with 20 of their cars. You can probably find the TV footage on Sky’s F1 channel at most hours of the day and night. However m’colleague Ben Nicholson very thoughtfully took an excellent record of events.
Sir Stirling was due to come too, after all few such gatherings should be without him, but unfortunately he had an altercation with his lift shaft and was therefore U/S. This left Sir Jack Brabham as the sole representative of Scarf & Goggles-era racing, and he was on good form, especially when being interviewed for TV.
TV girlie: Sir Jack, how does the modern sport compare with your day?
Sir Jack: What?
(TV girlie repeats the question louder, and Sir Jack considers it for a moment…)
Sir Jack: Too easy! And too much money!
And with that, here are some pictures of the more venerable of the collection:
Today, the good folk of the motor racing fraternity get a little green about the gills when the grey tendrils of politics are seen to encroach upon the virgin purity of their vocation. Mind you, trying to keep up with Damon Hill’s many back-flips over whether or not he believes a particular race should happen on political grounds would make anyone a touch queasy…
The fact remains, however, that in the days of Scarf & Goggles motor sport was quite simply an extension of foreign policy for most participating nations – be they hosts or participants. After all, once internal combustion had proven itself to be far superior to electricity, steam and any other form of motivation in the great races of the 1890s, there had to be a point to competition.
That point was granted by James Gordon Bennett Jr, the millionaire owner of the New York Herald. In 1899 Gordon Bennett inaugurated a trophy to be raced for annually by the automobile clubs of the various countries. Manufacturers would build cars that would be painted in the uniform colour of their nation: blue for France, white for Germany, red for Italy and green for Great Britain.
The early 1900s were a time of fierce nationalism, sabre-rattling and military expansion which ultimately ended in World War 1. The whole of Europe was in a state of fervour, and motor racing provided a white hot crucible in which the technology of the arms race and the national status of the military powers could be trumpeted. Gordon Bennett was on to a winner from the outset.
The Gordon Bennett races were succeeded in 1906 by Grand Prix racing, but the nationalistic fervour which surrounded these races was no different – nor indeed were the racing colours. While the 1914 Grand Prix contest between the vast, organised might of Mercedes and the quixotic local hero Georges Boillot’s Peugeot was certainly spectacular in itself, it was undoubtedly given piquancy to the hundreds of thousands of French fans in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and the mustering of arms that would soon be locked in battle.
After World War 1 motor racing had a short break from political life but it bounced back with a vengeance with the rise to power of Benito Mussolini. Il Duce wanted more than just the trains to run on time, he wanted to rebuild the Roman empire and to do that would mean making the whole of the Mediterranean aware that their neighbours could take on and beat the world in matters of might and technology.
Mussolini’s patronage of, and benefits from, the great racing programme at Alfa Romeo were a match made in heaven, in his view. The scarlet cars from Portello would howl their way to victory in Grand Prix and sports car races across the whole of Europe, only to be greeted by a beatifically smiling Duce upon their return home.
While Italy triumphed, a certain Austrian politician was busy making all sorts of promises about funding racing cars if he was to get into power in Germany. Adolf Hitler was wooed by the motor manufacturers and wooed them back in return, forming a triumvirate with Deutsche Bank that effectively created the mechanical power of the regime and sold it to the masses via motor racing.
Millions of Reichmarks were poured in to the racing funds of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union by Hitler’s chancellery through the era of the ‘silver arrows’. The formidable German technology on show not only chewed up and spat out the competition across Europe, Africa and North America but also bred technology that was soon to be put to work in the latest weapons of war.
But it wasn’t only Grand Prix racing. Motorcycle racing and sports cars were equally important to the NSKK (Nationalsozialistische Kraftfahrkorps, responsible for all automotive matters in the Reich) as the means to show German supremacy.
As for the races themselves, Germany and Italy turned their major race meetings into idealogical pageants, with flags a-flutter and uniformed stormtroops aplenty… the crowds at the Nürburgring were also treated to such pre-race entertainment as a display by the prototype Stuka dive-bomber.
Both the German and Italian teams also had to be selective in their driver line-ups. For the German teams in particular, hiring non-German drivers was only ever done in line with national priorities. Occasionally the teams were then ‘requested’ by NSKK officials to deploy team orders, such as when Auto Union was required to allow Hans Stuck to surrender certain victory in the 1935 Tripoli Grand Prix to his Italian team-mate Achille Varzi.
You might be forgiven for thinking that, in the wake of World War 2, such political engineering would be consigned to history – but such was not the case. The cars retained their national racing colours, and when Tony Vandervell set out to create his world championship-winning Vanwall team in the mid-1950s, he did so with the sole objective of beating ‘those bloody red cars’.
Among the drivers, too, there was strong feeling. Stirling Moss always wished for a competitive British car, and when none was available made certain that his mount would at least carry British colours. Mike Hawthorn raced a green Ferrari in his first races of 1953 as a tribute from Enzo Ferrari himself, and later added a green windcheater to his racing uniform to ensure that, even when the cars were red, a flash of green was on show.
Of course Stirling also benefited from the pre-war ethos of team orders when at Mercedes-Benz, being handed his victory at Aintree in 1955 by his team-mate Fangio as a handy bit of PR for the Stuttgart marque.
Today the modern version of Grand Prix racing takes the sport to nations which pay for the spectacle from public funds and seek to gain something back in terms of status, tourism, business and PR. The Caterham team, meanwhile, is owned by 1Malaysia, a government organization intended to promote racial harmony among its discordant Chinese, Indian and Malay population.
So it’s clear that, today, the sport is still carrying on at least some of the traditions that have kept it in rude health for more than a century. Politics are part of the fabric of life in all walks – although motor sport still has a long way to go to catch up with the Olympics!
If wars were won with pluck and dash alone, in the way that the movies teach you, then Italy would have romped home to victory at a canter during World War 2. For every Doolittle Raid or Dam-Buster on the allied side there is a tale of ingenuity and bravery from Italian men at arms which, while delivering little to turn the tide of the war, leaves one with a profound respect.
One such tale is that of the bombing of Bahrain.
Through the second half of 1940, after Mussolini launched his attempt to wrest control of the Mediterranean from British and French influence, things were going somewhat disastrously awry for the Italian armed forces.
To start with he sent an invading force of 700,000 men to mop up southern France. The north of the country was already over-run and Dunkirk evacuated, but the Italian forces were still held back by a force of 32,000 French troops – the route to the Côte d’Azur famously being defended by a single NCO and seven men.
Mussolini also planned to charge across the Sahara to Cairo and take control of Suez. Once again an inferior number of British troops pegged the Italian advance at Sidi Barrani, sparking the long war of attrition in the Western Desert.
Even at sea, where Mussolini had invested in the construction of a superior naval force to the British fleet, things did not go to plan. Admiral Cunningham took great exception Mussolini’s belief that the Mediterranean would become mare nostrum (our lake), and duly battered the Italian navy at the Battle of Matapan. Shortly afterwards he would send Swordfish biplanes to mine and torpedo the remainder at anchor in Taranto harbour.
The Regia Aeronautica, Mussolini’s air force, had meanwhile launched an assault on Malta. This key outpost lay just 60 miles away from Sicilian shores but 800 miles away from the nearest British reinforcements and was woefully under-prepared. Yet the bombing did not provoke the hoped-for Maltese revolt against their British colonists, meanwhile might of the Regia Aeronautica was held at bay by a handful of Gloster Gladiator biplanes.
Thus after these opening exchanges, Italy’s military position was fast becoming an embarrassment and the Italian people – who had no great territorial ambitions anyway – were likely to start asking il Duce some rather searching questions before long.
So it was that a number of spectacular and daring raids were prepared to win as much propaganda value as they did military success. The use of midget submarines and small high speed boats to mount lightning raids bore fruit, meanwhile the Regia Aeronautica hatched a truly ambitious plan.
Pre-war Italian civil aircraft were particularly good for long range flights and so several capacious Savoia Marchetti SM82 Cangaru (Kangaroo), tri-engined airliners were hastily converted into bombers which could fly much further than the regular types in the Regia Aeronautica’s front line. They became known as the 41st Gruppo.
Next a suitable target was required which provided both strategic importance and enormous kudos to Mussolini’s strength and ingenuity. After much strenuous planning, the decision came to attack the American-owned oil fields in the British protectorate of Bahrain: a vital source of supply to British forces across the Empire, and the attack would be made in mid-October 1940.
The 41st Gruppo’s aircraft, meanwhile, were being put into action elsewhere. It’s inspirational leader, Tenente Colonello Muti, and his men would bomb British enclaves in Palestine and even the previously impregnable rock of Gibraltar. Then on 13 October, Muti led a flight of five aircraft from their base at Rome-Ciampino to the airport of Gadurrà in Rhodes.
Once in place, Muti and his men finalized the plan for their marathon 4,000km flight. They would take off from Rhodes and fly east, skirting Cyprus before making landfall on the Lebanese coast, crossing Syria and then turning onto a more southerly heading to avoid the heaviest British concentrations in Jordan and Iraq until they reached the Arabian Gulf and the run-in to the target.
The plan was to set the wells, refineries and port ablaze, and if they managed to do so then they would undoubtedly be intercepted by the Royal Air Force on their return. Their escape route was therefore over Saudi Arabia – providing them with the secondary target of the oil fields at Dammam – before flying out over the vast emptiness of the Arabian desert, eventually reaching the Red Sea and then safe haven in Italian colony of Eritrea.
In all, the plan took two months to agree and prepare for. In the end four of the SM.82s would be used, stripped of all defensive armament and fitted with additional fuel tanks for the marathon flight. Their load was 1.5 tons of incendiary and explosive bombs made up of 15, 20 and 50 kg bombs – and they were finally for take-off as dusk began to settle on December 18 1940.
The fifth aircraft was flown off directly to the airfield at Zula in Eritrea where the escaping bombers would finally touch down again. This aircraft carried a huge store of supplies in readiness to go out and assist any bombers which were forced down over the desert.
Overloaded with an all-up weight of 19,500kg, the aircraft struggled to get airborne. They were galvanized by the barnstorming Tenente Colonello Muti in the lead aircraft, however, who had demonstrated with his crew of Maggiore Giovanni Raina and Capitano Paolo Moci that it was possible – albeit inadvisable – to take off in an SM.82 laden with 21,000kg.
The remainder of the flight was crewed by Tenente Colonello Fortunato Federici, Capitano Aldo Buzzaca and Tenente Emanuele Francesco Ruspoli in the second aircraft, Capitano Giorgio Meyer, Tenente Adolf Rebex and Sergente Maggiore Aldo Carrera in the third and Capitano Antonio Zanetti with Tenente Vittorio Cecconi and Sergente Maggiore Mario Badii in the fourth.
Muti was able to keep formation by painting large white diamonds on the upper surface of his wings, which were dimly lit to allow the rest of his ‘flock’ to follow in their allocated position. The formation observed radio silence as their aircraft laboured to reach 19,000 feet to cross the hinterland of Jordan and Syria and onward throughout the entire journey.
The formation held throughout the outward leg, but at the last minute the number 2 aircraft of Tenente Colonello Federici lost sight of the leader and fell out of the formation. Rather than risk a collision with his unseen colleagues or arrive too late and draw anti-aircraft fire, he set course for Dammam and let the remaining trio of bombers close in on Bahrain.
At 02:20 on 19 December all was calm in Bahrain. In Muti’s lead aircraft, major Raina found the target easy to spot from his bomb aimer’s position, saying that the refinery and the port were well illuminated. The three aircraft swept in at only a few hundred feet, completely disorientating the people below as they began to unleash their payload.
For obvious reasons, reports differed as to the effectiveness of the bombing. The British reported that most bombs fell into the sea and only one hit the land, blowing up on a mountain of spoil from the drilling activity with a broken leg as the only casualty. The Italians meanwhile claimed to have set six wells ablaze with secondary fires seen burning in the storage areas.
The bombers meanwhile escaped and made their long slog across the great empty girth of the Saudi desert without problem. The three aircraft landed almost in unison at Zula in Eritrea at 08:40 after flying for more than 4000km and 15 and a half hours.
After a few days of celebration, recuperation and propaganda duties, the five SM.82s once again lifted off from Zula and headed for the Italian strongholds in Libya, from where they made their last leg back to Rome-Urbe airport.
The bombing of Bahrain was an astonishing feat of airmanship by Ettore Muti and his men. Although limited by the small number of bombers and the small load they carried, the attack was a huge blow to British morale and required them to pull back a squadron of fighters and significant anti-aircraft defences to defend Bahrain’s oil supply.
The loss of the fighters and defences significantly weakened the rest of the British presence in the Middle East, in part prompting the Axis-leaning prime minister of Iraq, Rashid Ali, to try and expel the British forces there. A brief and bitter campaign was waged in the spring of 1941 as a result.
Even today, Bahrainis talk of the giant barrage balloons which hung in the sky through the war years as a result of Ettore Muti’s audacity. The man himself was duly promoted out of the front line and ended up working in intelligence, where he made a formidable enemy in the former Chief of Staff, Pietro Badoglio.
Muti discovered that Badoglio’s record in the field left a lot to be desired, and when Badoglio successfully ousted Mussolini from power in 1943 his first job was to assassinate the man who had masterminded the Regia Aeronautica’s barnstorming long-distance bombing campaign.