America and the V8: a love story (from France)

Here’s an interesting little meander through time that takes us through the greater part of the past century – from the air war over the Western Front to Texan boogie rock.

In the 1900s, the design and development of internal combustion engines became a French speciality and in their bid to increase reliability and profitability the Monobloc engine was created. Effectively this meant that far fewer individual components were needed if the the cylinder block, cylinder head and crankcase were all forged as a single item.

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An early Monobloc design

Available as early as 1905 from manufacturers such as De Dion Bouton, the Monobloc truly came of age in the hands of Swiss designer Marc Birkigt, whose Hispano-Suiza V8 was lighter and more powerful than any other aero engine in the Allied arsenal… becoming effectively the Rolls-Royce Merlin of World War 1.

The Hispano-Suiza first found fame in the SPAD S.VII in which Capitaine Georges Guynemer briefly became the most successful Allied air ‘ace’ of the war, then became the power plant for Britain’s S.E.5 – arguably the greatest fighter design of the war. When the Americans arrived, they opted for the later SPAD S.XIII as their front-line fighter and in these machines were written the legends of Eddie Rickenbacker, Frank Luke and Raoul Lufbery, among others.

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Eddie Rickenbacker’s patriotic SPAD – beautifully captured by Jim Dietz

As with all Monoblocs, even the Hispano-Suizas encountered some problems along the way. Primarily this was down to the outsourced manufacturing quality of components rather than the fundamental engine design – although most failures would serve to highlight any inherent weakness around the gasket and exhaust.

Nevertheless, the sophistication and power of the V8, together with the enthusiasm for ‘ace’ pilots in SPADs, set America thinking. If it could use its industrial might to iron out any kinks, then V8 power could become central to postwar living.

The most effective solution to the Monobloc‘s problems was to adopt side-valve design, reducing the stresses on the weakest links in the chain. It was with the side-valve ‘Flathead V-8’ engine that Ford Motor Company took the motoring world by storm between the wars.

Having established the mass production of motor cars with the Model T of 1908, Ford was content to rest on its laurels for 18 years until the advances in engineering that emerged from World War 1 finally caught up with the old ‘Tin Lizzie’.

Ford’s belated response was the Model A, which was barely less Spartan in its simplicity than the Model T but was packaged far more elegantly and, unlike its predecessor, featured controls in the same layout as most other mass-market cars.

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The Model A Ford brought modern motoring to the masses

The Model A was a success, averaging almost a million sales per year, but the car buying market was growing ever-more sophisticated and demanding. Rivals such as General Motors were keen to offer an ever-increasing range of options based as much upon personalisation and comfort as they were to efficiency, while in Europe levels of style and sophistication were reaching their zenith.

Ford decided to try and outdo both.

The result was really only a single solution that went under many names, but for the sake of brevity it shall be called the 1932 Model B. As many major components as possible were carried over from the Model A but alongside the traditional 4-cylinder engine but alongside it in the showrooms was something rather special: a Monobloc V8 called the Model 18.

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Ford’s version of the Monobloc V-8: the side-valve ‘Flathead V-8’

This was a Model B fitted with what Ford called its ‘Flathead V-8’. At a stroke, the Blue Oval could offer a smoother-running, more powerful engine for just $10 more than the standard 4-cylinder model. In total the Model B was also available with an array of 14 body styles, from standard sedans through roadsters, coupés, woodies and trucks… the very model of platform-sharing diversity.

The Model B and Ford’s Flathead V-8 became motoring icons overnight – and remained that way for decades. They were cheap to buy, relatively cheap to maintain and sold at a rate in excess of 300,000 units per year.

In 1933 the Model B was reworked again. As Ford’s motor won a following, so the car that it belonged to was given a longer wheelbase, a radiator grille shaped like a medieval knight’s shield and smoothed out styling on the inside and out. The Flathead V-8 was also tweaked; gaining better ignition to boost power. This would become the Model C, with the Flathead V-8 version being named the Model 40.

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The 1933 Ford put a stylish face on a wide array of bodies

 

The V8 took hold among all American automobile manufacturers thereafter, but thanks to its low cost and endless variety of cars, Ford produced arguably the greatest icon of American motoring between the wars.

Not only that, but there were now European Ford V8s being built in England and Germany, led by the Ford V-8 Pilot. It was a boon to moonshine runners during prohibition, and in this era of Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, the whole world fell under the spell of these smooth American engines.

During World War 2, V12s were the weapon of choice in the air but in the late 1940s, Ford’s faithful Flathead V-8 was still a mainstay of post-war motoring. It became the focus of a cottage industry of tuners and tweaks – either those who wanted to race on the drag strip and stock car circuit or continue to keep one step ahead of the law.

The birth of the hot rod movement and the NASCAR stock car racing series ensured that Flathead V-8s remained at the forefront. Kids bought them, stripped them, tuned them and had a whale of a time in their Little Deuce Coupes and a whole host of other variations on the theme.

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The Beach Boys had their ’32 Ford – the Little Deuce Coupe

But then in the mid-Fifties, General Motors went and moved the goalposts with its ‘small block’ V8. This was a relatively fuel-efficient 90-degree V8 with overhead valves and pushrod valve train that would set new standards for light weight, compact size, general simplicity and remarkable durability.

After 40 years, the V8 Monobloc was history.

Chevrolet’s V8 became – and largely remains – the weapon of choice for America’s hot rodders and racers, who called it the Mighty Mouse for its ability to punch above its weight in the tuning shop – and colloquially the Mouse ever after. And among the legions of fans that the Mouse has won over the years was a man called Billy Gibbons, who is also among the world’s finest blues guitarists and one third of the boogie-rock band ZZ Top.

In 1976, Gibbons went to Don Thelen of Buffalo Motor Cars and Ronnie Jones of Hand Crafted Metal. The guitarist wanted to create the ultimate hot rod with the iconic looks of the 1933 Ford Model C and the refined power of a small block Chevy. It would take seven years to realise that dream – and the result was the legendary ZZ Top Eliminator.

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Billy Gibbons (centre), with Frank Beard (thank you Matthew Carter!) and Dusty Hill – ZZ Top

While the car was being completed, Gibbons just happened to be in the process of turning ZZ Top’s brand of gnarly Texan blues-rock into a powerhouse of radio-friendly unit shifters. ZZ Top created an album that was to become as much a part of the Eighties cultural experience as Tom Cruise, big hair and shoulder pads… and it too was called Eliminator.

The completed car became the basis for the album’s artwork. It also starred in all of the videos for the hit singles that it spawned – Gimme All Your Lovin, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs. In fact the car provided the story in all the videos, in which young men were rescued from Cinderella-style drudgery by a bevy of beautiful women, who scooped them up and carried them off in the Eliminator to a world of good times, cheap sunglasses and bearded blues-rock.

Nice!

Now, there are few elements of the American Dream that are as instantly recognisable as the burble of a V8 engine. It’s a 90-year love affair that shows no sign of slowing down, for all the Elon Musks of the world. So just remember, next time you see a Hot Rod or watch a NASCAR race – or when your favourite TV cop arrives at a crime scene in a jet black Escalade – it’s as all-American as escargots de Bourgogne, fine champagne and fresh fougasse. Indeed, as all-American as the Statue of Liberty itself.

Vive les États-Unis d’Amérique!

56th Daytona 500

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Richthofen’s Last Stand

It is 100 years today since the most famous airman of them all, Rittmeister Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen – or the Red Baron, if you will – was shot down. The debate rolls on over who fired the single bullet which felled him, but it is a measure of the intensity of Richthofen’s war that he should have allowed himself to get caught up in such an improbable melée as that seen over the River Somme on 21 April 1918.

The fear that the Red Baron instilled in his enemies led to his being vilified for building up the single greatest score of the conflict primarily over slow 2-seater reconnaissance and artillery observation machines.

In Britain it was felt that this was somehow unsporting and any sort of a man with decency and fair play in his bones should have stuck to duelling with fighters. Indeed, many pilots in the Royal Flying Corps believed that Richthofen’s insistence on tactical advantage made him a coward.

But it was the 2-seaters which acted as the eyes and ears of the Western Front – photographing enemy emplacements, dropping bombs and directing the fire of artillery – which meant that they were the obvious target to a professional huntsman. In Richthofen’s mind, enemy fighters were simply there to defend the machines that were worth shooting down, rather than being worth shooting at on their own account.

Another myth which gained traction about the Red Baron was that he was not a great airman; not a dogfighter. That really doesn’t hold much water when reading the testimony of his final victim – one of the few men to survive such an encounter.

Second Lieutenant David Lewis was flying his Sopwith Camel in a formation of six when they ran into six Fokker Dr.I triplanes led by an all-scarlet machine. The German leader singled out his English opposite number, Major Richard Raymond-Barker, and dived upon him, setting his Sopwith alight.

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Richthofen’s last mount: Fokker Dr.I serial 425/17

As the Fokkers regrouped from their initial attack, Lewis dived on one, fired without doing any obvious damage and then found that his own aircraft was coming under withering fire. “Then started a merry waltz; round and round, up and down to the staccato of the machine guns of the other fighters,” he recounted. “Only once did I get my sights on his machine, but in a trice the positions were reversed.”

Against a Sopwith Camel, the ‘king of air fighters’ this was no mean feat of airmanship on Richthofen’s part. There can also be no doubt that the onslaught must have been terrifying to the inexperienced 2/Lt Lewis, who recounted:

“His first burst shattered the compass in front of my face, the liquid therefrom fogging my goggles, of which, however, I was relieved when a bullet severed the elastic from the frame, and they went over the side…

“I do not think Richthofen was more than 50 feet away from me all this time, for I could plainly see his begoggled and helmeted face, and his machine guns. Next I heard the sound of flames and the stream of bullets ceased. I turned round to see that my machine was on fire.”

Lewis put his Camel into a vertical dive to try and stop the flames from consuming him. The plan worked but instead blew the fire back towards the Camel’s tail so that when the time came to pull out of his dive its elevators were practically useless.

The stricken Camel was beyond saving but its pilot was thrown clear of the wreckage and survived with only minor injuries. It was one of those miraculous escapes that come every so often when it is simply not one’s day to go.

Sending two Camels down in flames was a good day’s work but the battle only served to show how far from the cool-headed huntsman Richthofen had become. He was brawling on the edge of the abyss; his finely-honed tactics thrown to the wind.

There is no doubt that he should not have been anywhere near the cockpit in the spring of 1918. He had never fully recuperated from being shot in the head the previous summer, was suffering from what we would call combat fatigue in this day and age and he was, by any stretch, physically and mentally exhausted.

It is noticeable that from his return to active duty in early March until his death six weeks later, Richthofen was no longer fixated upon shooting down the valuable reconnaissance and artillery spotting machines. Instead he attacked enemy fighters like the Camels of Lewis and Raymond-Barker, which were of little strategic value.

Perhaps he felt that if he shot down enough of them, he would evade the bullet with his name on. “I am in wretched spirits after every battle,” he wrote. “When I set foot on the ground again at my airfield after a flight, I go to my quarters and do not want to see anyone or hear anything.”

All of the great air aces who were killed during World War 1 died as a result of going to the well once too often. Almost to a man, those who excelled at war in the air died from doing something that they would, in their prime, have reprimanded, grounded or posted a junior officer for attempting.

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Richthofen (right) was just 25 when he died

‘Mick’ Mannock was flying at barely 100 feet when he presented his S.E.5a as the perfect target to enemy machine gun emplacements. Werner Voss was tackling an absurd number of airmen single-handed and refusing to break off from the fight. Jimmy McCudden was showing off. Georges Guynemer dived in to the stream of bullets from a 2-seater.

When one looks at the photos of these men in the days before they died it is noticeable that, although most were only in their mid-twenties, their faces are lined, their eyes pouched and their hands are usually bunched even as they try to look carefree for the camera. They look a good two decades older than their years – and Richthofen was no exception.

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Richthofen (right) with his men

British pilots were generally spared the same level of public acclaim that the French and German propagandists accorded their own ‘aces’. It was felt that the negative effect on public morale when famous pilots were killed in combat was far more profound than the benefits of cheering them on in life.

The propagandists had made a public hero of Albert Ball only to discover that he was in fact mortal – and in the wave of mourning that followed they decided to keep their high-scoring pilots anonymous wherever possible.

Not so the French or Germans, who lionised their most successful ‘aces’. This added a layer of expectation and reciprocal sense of duty that pushed them all onward into the furthest reaches of their endurance.

“One of my superiors advised me to give up flying, saying it will catch up with me one day,” Richthofen wrote.

“But I would become miserable if now, honoured with glory and decorations, I became a pensioner of my dignity in order to preserve my ‘precious’ life for the nation while every poor fellow in the trenches endures his duty as I did mine.”

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Richthofen and his protégé, Kurt Wolff

The day after Second Lieutenant Lewis and Major Raymond-Barker had fallen to Richthofen’s guns, he again led six Fokker triplanes in to battle with a squadron of Sopwith Camels. One was singled out for the same sort of furious attack that Lewis had received but Wilfred ‘Wop’ May proved elusive.

Richthofen’s pursuit took them down to almost ground level with the experienced Arthur Roy Brown’s Camel diving in to May’s rescue and an entire Australian division firing up at the scarlet triplane. One .303 bullet among the thousands aimed at him finally found its mark and the rest is pure conjecture.

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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.

A brief history of British motor sport: Part 2 – 1919-1939

Continuing the S&G’s odyssey through British achievements in motor racing, we come to the crowded era in between the two world wars, when the men and women of the Empire went motoring with aplomb. As with Part 1, this is not intended to be a definitive history, simply a glimpse of the major landmarks along the way.

1919

  • The Cyclecar Club changes its name to the Junior Car Club and begins preparing for the restoration of racing at Brooklands.

1920

  • Brooklands hosts its first motor racing event after extensive repair work is completed, following its wartime role as a primary hub for the British aviation industry. Among the day’s winners is Woolf Barnato, on a Calthorpe. Six more events are held in a season going through to October.
  • Kenelm Bartlett wins the 350cc class at the first French Motorcycle Grand Prix, held at Le Mans, riding a Verus.
  • The first Isle of Man TT since the war sees Tommy de la Hay win the Senior race on a Norton and Cyril Williams claim the Junior race for AJS.
  • Shell’s wartime research into petrol properties by Harry Ricardo brings about the first fuels with different octane ratings.
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Brooklands was restored to action and drew bumper crowds through the ‘Golden Era’

1921

  • Brooklands hosts the first long-distance race to be held in Britain after World War 1, the 200 Miles Race, which is won by Henry Segrave on a Talbot-Darracq.
  • Count Louis Zborowski reveals Chitty-Bang-Bang, the purpose-built racing car powered by a 23-litre Maybach Zeppelin engine and intended to take and hold the Brooklands Outer Circuit record.

1922

  • Sunbeam wins the RAC Tourist Trophy – the first major international event staged in Britain since the end of World War 1 – with Jean Chassagne becoming the first foreign winner of the race.
  • Stanley Woods wins the Junior TT for Cotton at the age of 18.
  • D.J. Gibson becomes the first fatality among competitors at Brooklands since the end of World War 1.

1923

  • Sunbeam finishes first and second in the French Grand Prix, with Henry Segrave taking victory.
  • Garage proprietor Jack Dunn enters a Bentley in the inaugural Grand Prix d’Endurance – the Le Mans 24 Hours race.
  • Dario Resta is killed attempting to set a speed record over a distance of 500 miles at Brooklands on a Sunbeam, when the buckle of a restraining belt works loose and causes a puncture. Resta’s riding mechanic Bill Perkins survives but is replaced for the forthcoming San Sebastian Grand Prix by Tom Barrett, who is killed when Kenelm Lee Guiness loses control. As a result of this accident, moves begin to ensure that riding mechanics are no longer carried in Grands Prix.
  • Brooklands hosts the first dedicated Ladies’ Race, won by Mrs. O.S. Menzies on a Peugeot.

1924

  • Jimmie Simpson wins the inaugural FICM European Motorcycle Championship 350cc class for AJS.
  • Brooklands employee Charles Geary makes headlines when he murders his wife and attempts to take his own life.
  • Motor Sport magazine is founded as a monthly dedicated to performance motoring and motor sport.
  • The inaugural Lewes Speed Trials are held, and continue through the summer months each year until 1939.
  • Jack Dunn takes a works-supported Bentley across the Channel to Le Mans, where he defeats an armada of French machinery to win the second running of the Grand Prix d’Endurance, sharing the car with Frank Clement.
  • Malcolm Campbell raises the Land Speed Record to 146.16 mph in his Sunbeam Blue Bird at Pendine Sands.
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Malcolm Campbell was a hero to millions

1925

  • After competing in the Monte Carlo Rally, the Hon. Victor Bruce wins the Mont des Mules hillclimb in his AC.
  • The Aston Hillclimb at Kop Hill in Buckinghamshire sees a spectator injured when a car loses control. As a result, the Royal Automobile Club refuses to issue any further permits for speed events on a public highway. Only the Isle of Man and Ulster are exempt.
  • Malcolm Campbell raises the Land Speed Record to 150.87 mph in his Sunbeam Blue Bird at Pendine Sands.
  • Jock Porter wins the FICM European Motorcycle Championship 250cc class for New Gerrard.
  • Local residents near Brooklands take legal action against noise from the race track, resulting in increased muffling of exhausts and other details of settlement.
  • Wal Handley becomes the first rider to win two Isle of Man TT classes in a week – the Junior and the Ultra-Lightweight categories

1926

  • Brooklands hosts the inaugural RAC Grand Prix, deciding round of the AIACR Grand Prix World Championship. Victory in the race – and the championship – is taken by Delage.
  • British motorcycles and riders make a clean sweep of FICM European Championship titles, with Jimmie Simpson claiming the 500cc title (AJS), Frank Longman the 350cc (AJS) and Jock Porter the 250cc (New Gerrard).
  • The Hon. Victor Bruce becomes the first British winner on the Monte Carlo Rally, sharing an AC with W. J. Brunell.
  • John Parry Thomas raises the Land Speed Record to 170 mph in his Liberty-engined special called Babs at Pendine Sands.
  • A cycling race is held on the land that will become Brands Hatch.
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Delages dominated the first to Grands Prix in England

1927

  • Crystal Palace circuit opens for motorcycle racing on a 1-mile loop of gravel and paved roads within Crystal Palace Park.
  • British riders and motorcycles once again dominate the FICM European Championships with Graham Walker winning the 500cc title (Sunbeam), Jimmie Simpson the 350cc title (AJS) and Cecil Ashby the 250cc (OK-Supreme).
  • Bentley takes its second victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours, driven by Dr. Dudley Benjafield and ‘Sammy’ Davies.
  • Brooklands hosts its second and final RAC Grand Prix, won by Delage and confirming its successful defence of the titles won in 1926. Due to the increasing cost of the 1.5-litre supercharged Grand Prix formula, it is abandoned, along with the world championship, when the only other manufacturer entrant, Talbot, withdraws.
  • After Malcolm Campbell sets a new Land Speed Record of 174.88 mph at Pendine Sands on the new Napier-Campbell Blue Bird. John Parry-Thomas is killed in Babs trying to win back the record, but Campbell is beaten the following month by Henry Segrave in the 1,000 hp Sunbeam Mystery, who reaches 203.79 mph at Daytona Beach.
  • Wal Handley wins the Lightweight TT.
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Twice European Motorcycle Champion, Graham Walker,  in action

1928

  • Malcolm Campbell sets a new Land Speed Record of 206.956 mph on his Napier-Campbell Blue Bird special on Daytona Beach.
  • Wal Handley dominates the 500cc and 350cc FICM European Motorcycle Championship standings, riding for the Swiss manufacturer Motosacoche. Cecil Ashby claims the 250cc title for OK-Supreme.
  • Bentley wins its third Le Mans 24 Hours, driven by Woolf Barnato and Bernard Rubin.
  • The British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) is founded by Dr. Dudley Benjafield, primarily as a social organisation.
  • Kaye Don wins the first RAC Tourist Trophy for five years and the first to be held on the new Ards circuit formed of closed roads between Newtownards, Comber and Dundonald in County Down.

1929

  • Henry Segrave raises the Land Speed Record to 231.446 mph in the Golden Arrow on Daytona Beach.
  • More success for Britain in the FICM European Motorcycle Championship, with Tim Hunt winning the 500cc class for Norton, Leo Davenport claiming the 350cc title for AJS and Frank Longman the 250cc title for OK-Supreme.
  • Bentley wins its fourth Le Mans 24 Hours, driven by Woolf Barnato and Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin. The BRDC becomes active in organising races.
  • Rudolf Caracciola wins the RAC Tourist Trophy at Ards on the Porsche-designed Mercedes-Benz SSK, the first foreign combination to win the race.

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1930

  • Rover initiates the ‘Blue Train Races’ – namely trying to beat the luxurious Train Bleu which carried wealthy British passengers from the port at Calais to holiday destinations the Côte d’Azur. Driving south-to-north from a starting point in St. Raphael in January 1930, the Rover Light Six driven by Dudley Noble won by 20 minutes at an average of 38mph.
  • Alvis beats le Train Bleu from St. Raphael to Calais by three hours with a Silver Eagle model driven by E.J.P. Eugster.
  • Henry Segrave becomes the first British holder of the Water Speed Record, piloting Miss England II to 98.760 mph on Lake Windermere. He is killed attempting to improve on this speed later in the day, as was chief engineer Victor Halliwell.
  • Woolf Barnato bets that he can not only beat le Train Bleu to Calais, but that he can be in his London club by the time that the train reaches the port. Barnato achieved the feat, arriving at his club four minutes before le Train Bleu stopped in Calais, but after using his victory to publicise the Bentley marque he is fined heavily by French police for abusing speed limits and dangerous driving, plus Bentley is banned from the Paris Auto Salon. The Blue Train Races are henceforth outlawed.
  • Bentley wins its fifth and final Le Mans 24 Hours, driven by Woolf Barnato and Glen Kidston, defeating the supercharged Mercedes-Benz team after ‘Tim’ Birkin’s ‘Blower’ Bentley is used as a hare to draw the Germans on too fast. The winning car is then driven to Montlhèry for a 24-hour speed record attempt, but catches fire.
  • Talbot takes the first class win at Le Mans for a British team, winning the 3.0-litre category. British pairing Lord Howe and Leslie Callingham win the 2.0-litre class on an Alfa Romeo and Lea-Francis wins the 1.5-litre class driven by Kenneth Peacock and Sammy Newsome.
  • The first high-octane fuels are put on sale: Shell Racing is advertised for supercharged and high compression engines (sold as Shell Dynamin internationally).
  • Rudge riders win two FICM European Motorcycle Championship titles – Irishman Henry Tyrell-Smith the 500cc class and Ernie not the 350cc class. Syd Crabtree wins the 250cc class for Excelsior.
  • Tazio Nuvolari wins the RAC Tourist Trophy at Ards on an Alfa Romeo 1750 GS.

1931

  • Donald Healey becomes the first British winner of the Monte Carlo Rally at the wheel of an Invicta. He follows up this success with victory in the Coupe des Alpes.
  • Malcolm Campbell reaches 250mph and sets a record of 246.09mph in his 1400hp Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird at Verenukpan in South Africa. He is knighted for his achievement
  • George Eyston sets a new speed record for 750cc cars with 103.13 mph from EX120, an MG featuring his self-designed Powerplus superchager, at Montlhèry. He continues to set a new record of 101mph over an hour but on the final ‘insurance’ lap a fuel pipe breaks loose and the car catches fire, Eyston choosing to jump from the inferno at 60mph in his patented asbestos suit.
  • Kaye Don takes the rebuilt Miss England II to South America, reaching 103.49 mph on the Paraná River to reclaim the Water Speed Record from America’s Gar Wood, in a fierce competition between the two men.
  • The inaugural Ulster Motor Rally is held over a 1,000-mile distance from various starting points in Ireland.
  • For the first and only time, British bikes and riders claim all four FICM European Motorcycle Championship titles, with Tim Hunt winning the 500cc for Norton, Ernie Nott the 350cc for Rudge, Graham Walker the 250cc for Excelsior and Eric Fernihough the 175cc for Excelsior.
  • Fred Craner and the Derby & District Motor Club commence motorcycle racing at Donington Park.
  • Earl Howe and ‘Tim’ Birkin win the Le Mans 24 Hours in an Alfa Romeo 8C, with Aston Martin winning the 1.5-litre class.
  • Gwenda Stewart raises the 100-mile and 200km to 121mph at Montlhèry in the ‘Flying Clog’.
  • Norman Black restores British pride by winning the RAC Tourist Trophy at Ards on an MG C-type Midget.
  • George Eyston raises the 750cc record to 114mph in MG EX127.

1932

  • Sir Malcolm Campbell raises the Land Speed Record to 253.97 mph in the Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird at Daytona Beach.
  • Kaye Don takes the Water Speed Record to 119.81 mph on Loch Lomond in the redesigned Miss England III.
  • British entries sweep the Mont des Mules hillclimb at the end of the Monte Carlo Rally: J.W. Wright winning the 750cc class for MG, C.R. Whitcroft winning the 1.1-litre class for Riley, N. Black winning the 1.5-litre class for MG, T.C. Mann winning the 2-litre class for Lagonda, H. Widengren winning the 3-litre class for Alvis and Donald Healey winning the 5-litre class for Invicta.
  • ‘Tim’ Birkin raises the Outer Circuit speed record at Brooklands to nearly 138 mph with his supercharged Bentley 4.5 litre but is scathing about the venue, saying: “I think that it is, without exception, the most out-of-date, inadequate and dangerous track in the world. Brooklands was built for speeds no greater than 120 mph and for anyone to go over 130 without knowing the track better than his own self is to court disaster. The surface is abominable. There are bumps which jolt the driver up and down in his seat and make the car leave the road and travel through the air.”
  • F. Dennison wins the inaugural Scottish Rally in a Riley.
  • Donald Healey and the Invicta triumph on the Coupe Internationale des Alpes, co-driven by Ian Fleming. The Hon. Brian Lewis takes class honours in a Talbot.
  • Cyril Whitcroft wins the RAC Tourist Trophy on a Riley Brooklands Nine.
  • Norton retains the 500cc class of the FICM European Motorcycle Championship, ridden by Italian star Piero Taruffi.
  • The first grasstrack motorcycle race is held at Brands Hatch.
  • Aston Martin maintains British honour at Le Mans with a second successive 1.5-litre class win.
  • The inaugural Royal Automobile Club Rally sees 367 cars entered for the drive a 1,000-mile route to Torquay starting from nine different towns and cities (London, Bath, Norwich, Leamington, Buxton, Harrogate, Liverpool, Newcastle upon Tyne and Edinburgh). It is won by Col. Loughborough in a Lanchester.

1933

  • Sir Malcolm Campbell raises the Land Speed Record to 272.46 mph in his revised 2300hp Rolls-Royce engined Blue Bird at Daytona Beach.
  • Jimmie Simpson wins the FICM European Motorcycle Championship at 350cc for Norton, Charlie Dodson wins the 250cc class for New Imperial.
  • British winners on the Coupe Internationale des Alpes include Harold Aldington’s Frazer Nash overall, with Riley and MG taking class honours.
  • Kitty Brunell wins the JCC Brooklands Rally in an AC.
  • MG becomes the first non-Italian manufacturer to win class honours on the Mille Miglia with its K3 Magnette, driven by George Eyston and Count Lurani
  • British cars dominate the slam capacity classes at Le Mans: Riley wins the 1.1-litre class and finishes fourth overall, followed by the 1.5-litre class-winning Aston Martin and the 750cc winning MG.
  • C. Griffiths wins the Scottish Rally in a Riley.
  • K. Milthorpe wins the Scarborough Rally in a Wolseley Hornet
  • Stanley Orr wins the Ulster Rally in an Austin 7.
  • ‘Tim’ Birkin dies as a result of septicaemia incurred from a burn to his arm while racing in the Tripoli Grand Prix.
  • Tazio Nuvolari returns to the RAC Tourist Trophy, taking victory for MG in the same car that won its class on the Mille Miglia
  • Kitty Brunell becomes the first British woman to win a major motor sport event when she claims the RAC Rally in an AC Ace
  • English Racing Automobiles (ERA) is founded by Raymond Mays and Peter Berthon with funding from Humphrey Cook, producing single-seat Voiturette cars with a Reid Railton-designed chassis and bodywork by George and Jack Gray, with the engine and transmission based around Mays’ supercharged 1500cc Riley.

1934

  • Donald Healey finishes third overall on the Monte Carlo Rally in a Triumph Gloria
  • Cadwell Park circuit begins holding motorcycle races.
  • Bo’ness Hillclimb hosts its first event.
  • Triumph takes class victory on the Coupe Internationale des Alpes.
  • Charlie Dodson wins the RAC Tourist Trophy for MG
  • Jimmie Simpson retains his 350cc FICM European Motorcycle Championship title with Norton.
  • Raymond Mays sets Class F speed records in ERA R1A at Brooklands, achieving 96.08mph for a mile from a standing start.
  • Riley wins the 1.5 litre class at Le Mans and finishes second overall; MG wins the 1.1-litre category.
  • Jimmie Simpson wins the Lightweight 250cc category on the Isle of Man TT, his first class win in 12 years of trying. Jimmie Guthrie beats Simpson to win both the Senior and Junior TT for Norton.
  • R.G. Spikins wins the RAC Rally in a Singer Le Mans
  • A battle between Mrs. Kay Petre and Mrs. Gwenda Stewart for the women’s Outer Circuit lap record at Brooklands sees speeds increase over three days to reach 135.95 mph in Gwenda Hawkes’ favour.
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English Racing Automobiles would dominate Voiturette racing

1935

  • C. Ridley finishes second overall on the Monte Carlo Rally in a Triumph Gloria.
  • Sir Malcolm Campbell raises the Land Speed Record to 276.816 mph in the Blue Bird at Daytona Beach, but is convinced that he can go faster on a better surface. Six months later on the Bonneville Salt Flats he achieves 301.129 mph.
  • George Eyston sets a 24-hour speed record of 140.52 mph in the Rolls-Royce V12-engined record car Speed of the Wind on on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
  • Lagonda becomes the second British marque to take overall victory at Le Mans. Aston Martin wins the 1.5-litre class and MG triumphs in the 1.1-litre category. The 750cc class is won by Austin.
  • Jimmie Guthrie wins the 500cc FICM European Motorcycle Championship for Norton, Wal Handley claims the 350cc class for Velocette.
  • Fred Craner of the Derby & District Motor Club holds the inaugural Donington Grand Prix, won by Richard ‘Mad Jack’ Shuttleworth on an ex-Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeo P3.
  • John Cobb sets the all-time Outer Circuit record at Brooklands, at a speed of 143.44mph. An observer states: “On the Byfleet the Napier-Railton seemed to be in a steady slide, the tail a little higher on the banking than the front”
  • In a year of success for ERA, Raymond Mays wins the Voiturette race at the German Grand Prix in R3A as the first international racing success for the type. Pat Fairfield then wins the Manin Beg, Nuffield Trophy and Dieppe Voiturette Grand Prix at the wheel of R4A, while Dick Seaman wins the Coppa Acerbo Junior, Swiss Voiturette Grand Prix, and Masaryk Voiturette Grand Prix in Czechoslovakia in R1B
  • Freddie Dixon wins the RAC Tourist Trophy for Riley
  • Amid a plethora of class wins on the RAC Rally’s 1000-mile routes to Eastbourne, no overall winner is declared

1936

  • Dick Seaman is insuperable in 1.5 litre Voiturette racing, using a 10-year-old Delage Grand Prix car rebuilt to modern standards by ex-Alfa Romeo and Scuderia Ferrari engineer Giulio Ramponi (see picture at the top of this article).
  • ERA continues to win despite Seaman’s defection – B. Bira wins Voiturette races at Monaco, Picardy and Brooklands in R2B Romulus, and at Albi in R5B Remus; Reggie Tongue won the Ulster 200 as well as hillclimb wins in Germany, Switzerland and Shelsley Walsh in R11B Humphrey and numerous other minor events were won. However, Marcel Lehoux was killed in R3B rolled and caught fire at Deauville.
  • George Eyston reclaims the 24-hour speed record from America’s Ab Jenkins, averaging 149.096 mph in Speed of the Wind at Bonneville. He continues to set a 48-hour record of 136.34 mph.
  • Jimmie Guthrie wins his second straight 500cc title in the FICM European Motorcycle Championship, and Freddie Frith wins the 350cc title, both riding for Norton.
  • John Cobb beats Eyston’s 24-hour speed record at Bonneville, averaging 150.163 mph in the Napier-Railton.
  • Tommy Wisdom wins the Coupe Internationale des Alpes in an SS 100 Jaguar.
  • Seaman and Hans Reusch win the second Donington Grand Prix on an ex-Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeo 8C/35
  • Crystal Palace circuit is extended to a 2-mile length and fully paved to allow car and motorcycle racing to take place.
  • Freddie Dixon and Charlie Dodson share victory in the RAC Tourist Trophy for Riley, although the race is marred when Jack Chambers in another Riley loses control and crashes into the crowd killing 8 spectators and injuring 40 others, 18 of them seriously. The Ards circuit is abandoned and the 1937 Tourist Trophy is moved to Donington Park.
  • E.A. Westacott wins the RAC Rally in an Austin 7

1937

  • Dick Seaman joins the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team
  • Bira becomes the winner of the inaugural London Grand Prix on Crystal Palace circuit in ERA R12B Hanuman.
  • Aston Martin wins the 1.5-litre class at Le Mans
  • Jimmie Guthrie wins both the 500cc and 350cc FICM European Motorcycle Championship titles, which are awarded posthumously after he is killed attempting to complete a hat-trick of wins in the German Motorcycle Grand Prix senior race.
  • The ERAs keep winning in Voiturette competition, Charlie Martin claiming at the German Grand Prix meeting in R3A, Pat Fairfield taking three wins in South African races with R4A, Raymond Mays winning the Picardy Grand Prix in R4C and Peter Whitehead victorious in the Australian Grand Prix in R10B.
  • Armed with Blue Bird K3, a new hydroplane designed by Fred Cooper of Saunders Roe and powered by a Rolls-Royce R aero engine, Sir Malcolm Campbell raises the Water Speed Record to 129.50 mph on Lake Maggiore.
  • Rising star Tony Rolt wins the Coronation Trophy race at Brooklands in a Triumph Dolomite.
  • Freddie Frith becomes the first man to average 90mph around the Isle of Man Mountain Circuit, riding a Norton
  • The mighty Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz teams dominate the third Donington Grand Prix, drawing a crowd of 60,000.
  • George Eyston sets a new Land Speed Record of 311.42 mph in Thunderbolt at Bonneville.
  • Franco Comotti wins the RAC Tourist Trophy at Donington Park on a Talbot-Lago.
  • Jack Harrop wins the RAC Rally in an SS 100 Jaguar.

1935,1 hour record breaking Norton of Jimmy Guthrie, 114.092mph-1

1938

  • Prescott holds its first hillclimb.
  • ERA reveals the new E-Type Voiturette, designed after the style of the Mercedes-Benz grand prix cars with an offset driveshaft lowering the car’s profile and centre of gravity.
  • Ted Mellors becomes the last British rider to win honours in the FICM European Motorcycle Championship, taking the 350cc class for Velocette, as the rise of German machines and riders swamps the major classes.
  • Dick Seaman wins the German Grand Prix for Mercedes-Benz.
  • George Eyston and John Cobb battle for the Land Speed Record at Bonneville, with three records set – Eyston ending as the fastest man at 357.5 mph in Thunderbolt, after Cobb’s best effort of 350.2 mph in his Railton Special set an interim record.
  • British driver A.F.P. Fane wins the 2.0-litre class on the Mille Miglia for BMW
  • Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Blue Bird K3 reaches a new Water Speed Record of 130.91 mph on the Swiss Halwillersee.
  • Despite a pause caused by the Munich Crisis, Tazio Nuvolari claims victory in the fourth and final Donington Grand Prix, watched by a young Murray Walker, son of former motorcycle champion Graham and future commentating superstar, among the crowd of 65,000.
  • Louis Gérard wins the last pre-war RAC Tourist Trophy on a Delage D6.
  • Jack Harrop becomes the first double winner of the RAC Rally in his Jaguar SS100.

1939

  • John Cobb returns to Bonneville with his Railton Special to set a new Land Speed Record of 369.74 mph.
  • After a lean year in 1938, the Brits bounce back at the final pre-war Le Mans 24 Hours; Walter Watney’s team finishing second overall and first in the 3.0-litre class with a Delage in front of the 5.0-litre class winning Lagonda V12 in third overall.
  • A.F.P. Fane wins the RAC Rally for BMW, the first foreign make to take victory on the event.
  • Georg ‘Schorsch’ Meier becomes the first overseas winner of the Senior TT, riding a supercharged 500cc BMW.
  • Dick Seaman crashes out of the lead of the Belgian Grand Prix, dying the following morning from his injuries.
  • Tony Rolt buys ERA R5B Remus from Prince Bira and Prince Chula, which catches fire in its first event at Brooklands – Rolt puts his gloved hand over a hole in the firewall and wins the race, well ablaze. He serves in the Rifle Brigade during the early months of World War 2, being captured in the defence of Calais in 1940 and attempting to escape seven times in the next four years.
  • Using the new Vespers-Built Blue Bird K4, Sir Malcolm Campbell raises the Water Speed Record to 141.74 mph on Coniston Water.
  • Just four weeks before the outbreak of World War 2, Brooklands hosts its last ever race meeting. It becomes a centre for wartime aeronautical research and aircraft production, with Barnes Wallis establishing his office in the Clubhouse from which the Upkeep Dam-Buster bomb, Tallboy 6-tonne and Grand Slam 10-tonne earthquake bombs are produced. German bombing raids, increased aircraft production and general wear-and-tear will put the track out of service forever
  • A.F.P. Fane signs a contract to replace Dick Seaman at Mercedes-Benz, which is unfulfilled. During World War 2, Fane flies the reconnaissance missions in a Spitfire that reveal the location of the battleship Tirpitz in Norway, leading to her destruction by Lancasters from 617 Squadron. After flying 25 PR operations with 1PRU (17 successful) – and a total of 98h 50m operational time – Fane is killed attempting to follow the railway lines back to RAF Benson while flying in thick fog.
Aerial-footage-of-Brooklands-racetrack-Shot-in-June-2017-by-Andy-Lambert

A still from Andy Lambert’s brilliant aerial film of Brooklands today

The S.E.5 and the Camel

With the S.E.5 book on the shelves, a few requests have come in for stories about the machine and the men who flew it. Here’s one that went out on History of War, in case of interest.

It could be said that posterity has been cruel to the airmen of World War I. As a society, we have an apparently bottomless well of sympathy and interest when it comes to the men in the trenches. Yet the men who fought and died in the bitter campaign three miles above them are often portrayed as comical figures in fluttering silk scarves like Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart.

Perhaps that is why, if ever we have cause to think of their war, the recurring images are those of the anthropomorphic Sopwith Camel and the Red Baron’s scarlet Fokker Triplane. Yet it is the prosaically-named S.E.5, which entered service almost exactly 100 years ago today, which was arguably the greatest fighting aircraft of 1914-18.

Designed around the remarkable Hispano-Suiza V8 engine, a product of pre-war motor racing genius Louis Béchereau, the S.E.5 was a conventional biplane intended to combine manoeuvrability with greater structural strength than earlier aircraft. The V8 engine carried it faster and higher than most other front-line machines while its solid construction made for a stable gun platform.

The Royal Aircraft Factory’s designers Henry Folland and John Kenworthy, together with chief test pilot Frank Goodden, worked to the premise that the war would not be won by flying rings around the enemy but instead by shooting him down. The days of gallant lone hunters jousting in the sky – and the romantic vision of the ‘cavalry of the clouds’ – were coming to an end by the time that the S.E.5 debuted above the Battle of Arras in late April 1917.

Formations of aeroplanes, as many as 50 on each side, would instead jockey for position before unleashing a blitz attack, regrouping and then attacking again. This was not a method of fighting that the swashbuckling pilots who started the war easily adapted to: most notably Britain’s celebrated hero Albert Ball, who was initially an outspoken critic of the S.E.5.

Ball helped modify the original design to its definitive S.E.5a specification, with a raft of improvements that gave the pilots better visibility, greater firepower and even a degree of warmth in the icy world of an open cockpit at 15-20,000 feet. Despite his early misgivings, Ball eventually came to rely upon the S.E.5’s rugged construction but he remained a lone hunter at heart, which ultimately led to his death in combat on 7 May 1917.

Yet despite Ball’s loss the S.E.5 went on to see more of its pilots reach the status of ‘ace’ – namely shooting down more than five enemy machines – than any other Allied aircraft in the war. The most successful S.E.5 pilot was diminutive South African pilot ‘Proccy’ Beauchamp Proctor, credited with 54 victories made exclusively on the type.

In total, 215 pilots ‘made ace’ on the S.E.5 on the Western Front and in the Middle East, while the type also served with distinction in defending Londoners from the terror of large scale bombing raids. Among these men were the classically-educated Arthur Rhys Davids, the working class heroes Jimmy McCudden and ‘Mick’ Mannock, as well as India’s only ‘ace’ of the war, Indra Lal Roy.

“The S.E.5 is a very modern aeroplane in many respects,” says Rob Millinship, who has flown the last original airworthy example of the breed for 25 years as part of The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in Bedfordshire. “It’s 100 years old but nothing about it would surprise or disconcert a pilot used to modern high-performance designs.”

Pilots flying the Sopwith Camel accounted for more enemy aircraft destroyed than their counterparts in the S.E.5 but their successes came at an almost insatiable cost to their own lives. Unlike the S.E.5 with its long, stable V8 engine, the rotary-engined Camel was designed to be unstable in flight – perfect for dogfighting at close quarters but dreadful for inexperienced or wounded pilots trying to land safely.

Losses among Camel pilots stood at 831 dead (with 424 being killed in action and 407 killed in flying accidents), with 324 more pilots wounded or made prisoners of war. Among the S.E.5 squadrons, 286 pilots were killed of whom 207 were lost in action and 79 in accidents, with 170 more wounded or POW.

This means that while the Camels scored 3,318 victories in air combat to the S.E.5’s 2,704 the cost was infinitely greater. In statistical terms, one Camel pilot was lost for every four victories scored compared to one S.E.5 pilot for every six victories scored.

“Young guys with very little experience were getting thrown into these machines and it was sink or swim,” says Gene De Marco, head of The Vintage Aviator Limited in New Zealand, which has built three Hispano-Suiza powered reproduction S.E.5s under the watchful eye of proprietor and Lord of the Rings movie mogul, Sir Peter Jackson.

“If you’re a pilot with maybe ten hours of experience in total before reaching the front line, it would be very easy to kill yourself in the Camel… in the S.E.5 there were so many luxuries and so many potential problems had been engineered out of it that it was a very modern, very pleasant aeroplane to fly.”

The original story can be found here: History of War

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.

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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 Wolseley Viper 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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

albert_ball_crash_site

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.