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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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

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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 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.

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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:

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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.

The view from Stow Maries

Word has come in from the outposts of S&G territory – in this case, Essex – of some wonderful goings-on. In this instance it is the restoration of a First World War Airfield to full working order at Stow Maries.

This little patch of farmland, located between the seaside town of Malden and the county town of Chelmsford, is home to some buildings that were erected a century ago for a very particular purpose. These fields were once a hive of activity during the defence of London in the First World War, after marauding Zeppelins became a regular menace during 1915 and the massed daylight bombing raids of Gotha aircraft swept Britain into a state of hysteria.

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The attacking Gotha bombers photographed over London

In September 1916, the hastily-built airfield at Stow Maries received the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2s of ‘B’ Flight of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron. The favoured route for German raiders was to make landfall on the Essex coast and then cruise down towards Epping Forest in the knowledge that within minutes their bombs would fall near something valuable.

The first commanding officer at the aerodrome was Lieutenant Claude Ridley, who was only 19 years of age. On the evening of 23/24 May 1917 Ridley, promoted to Captain, and Lieutenant G. Keddie made the first recorded operational flight from the aerodrome in response to a large Zeppelin raid targeting London.

Air defence was in its infancy and for every Zeppelin brought down in a sea of falling flame there were hundreds of hours spent by pilots tootling around in the dark. Often they had to light flares on the end of their wings to see the runway on final approach. It was dark and dangerous work but ultimately something of a footnote in the history of the conflict.

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Alone in the great big sky: the solitary life of Home Defence flying re-created

Not that this precluded the growth of Stow Maries, which soon saw ‘A’ Flight of 37 Squadron arrive alongside the rest of the unit. It was a busy time for London and, during the early hours of 17 June 1917, 2nd Lieutenant L. P. Watkins was credited with the downing of Zeppelin L48 at Theberton in Suffolk – the last Zeppelin brought down on British soil before the arrival of the fixed-wing Gotha bombers.

It was these massed daylight raids that caused pandemonium in the capital, and 37 Squadron was in the thick of the action on 7 July 1917 when 22 Gotha bombers made one of the heaviest raids on London. The combination of unreliable engines, numerous landing accidents and increasingly effective Home Defence – not only from the aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service but also the anti-aircraft batteries ringing London – took a heavy toll on the daylight raiders. Soon they were compelled to fly at night and in smaller groups.

At its peak, Stow Maries was home to 219 staff and 16 aircraft – centred around all three flights of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. It’s original B.E.2 aircraft were replaced first with the B.E.12 and, much later, with the Sopwith Camel.

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Both inside and out, Stow Maries is returning to former glories

Unlike other Home Defence stations which were further developed and would win fame in the later Battle of Britain in 1940 – Biggin Hill, Manston and Hornchurch in particular – Stow Maries reverted to peacetime farming soon after the Armistice of 1918. After 37 Squafton’s departure in March 1919, its buildings were abandoned and forgotten about until a group of enthusiasts happened upon them and discovered what amounted to the only preserved World War 1 airfield in existence.

In the space of four years between 2007 and 2011, six of these buildings were fully conserved and one partially conserved. The decades of neglect were brushed aside and the structures were restored with appropriate materials in accordance with their original construction and architectural detailing.

Now, after venturing down a rather rustic farm track, it is possible to walk into the world of 1917 where the volunteers have now restored the Ambulance Shed and Mortuary, the Blacksmith’s Shed, the Workshop and Dope Shop and the NCO Mess. The Squadron Offices have now been rebuilt and house the museum, while the Workshop and Dope Shop have been conserved to comply with modern workshop environment conditions, but behind the modern internal wall finish is the original fabric untouched.

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Fixtures, fittings and the occasional bit of hardware can now be seen by visitors

Work is indeed undertaken on aircraft at Stow Maries – aircraft of 1914-18 vintage. In the only modern construction to be found at the site you will find hangared an assortment of tool-room copies of WW1 aircraft built by Sir Peter Jackson’s brilliant operation in New Zealand, The Vintage Aviator Ltd.

Recently, Stow Maries hosted its first fly-in for these magnificent aircraft, from where these photos have been provided. Complete with a supporting cast of re-enactors buzzing around the partially-restored Pilots’ Ready Room (the S&G collectively remains a little unsure about the value of re-enactors), the sights and sounds of aviation were laid out for the assembled hordes.

The Bristol Scout, Albatros D.V, and Sopwith Snipe encapsulated the progress made in aircraft design in 1916-18, while the B.E.2 was utterly at home on the field from which 37 Squadron campaigned the type so vigorously against the bombers. It is an amazing sight to see the facilities and the machines in an environment all-but unchanged in a century, and long may the good folk who have brought Stow Maries back to life continue to offer the world such a unique insight into the war.

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There is still much work to be done, the roll-call of buildings requiring or undergoing conservation includes:

  • Office and Communications Room
  • Motor Transport Shed
  • Royal Engineers’ Workshop
  • Generator Hut
  • Reception/Headquarters Building

If there is the will, the energy and the funding available, a further 14 buildings may yet also be saved to complete the restoration, these being:

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  • Officers’ Mess
  • Officers’ Quarters (four buildings)
  • Men’s Accommodation Block
  • NCO Accommodation
  • WRAF Accommodation (three buildings)
  • Water Tower and Reservoir (two buildings)
  • Fuel Store
  • Ammunition Store

To find out more about the airfield, the aircraft, when and how to visit and for news on forthcoming events please visit the website of this remarkable undertaking.

London’s flying past

One seldom thinks of central London as a focal point for aviation. There’s London City Airport, plus the interminable political blathering about where the next major runway should be built to service the city and, for schoolchildren, an occasional visit to the Royal Air Force Museum, Science Museum or Imperial War Museum.

Yet in fact a brisk stroll takes one through what was, a century or so ago, the white hot crucible in which British military aviation was organised – and from the Armistice onwards the peacetime air network would be established that so preoccupies our airport planners of today.

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The Palace of Westminster is a fairly good landmark to get started

For the sake of argument, let’s start at the Houses of Parliament. Indeed, let’s start under Big Ben – if you can fight your way through the seemingly endless turf war between Japanese tourists with their selfie sticks and East European pickpockets – then you’ll soon arrive at the statue of the pioneering politician of air power, Winston Churchill. In his role as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill showed uncommon vision for the potential of early aviation as a tool of reconnaissance and offensive bombing – resulting in the Royal Naval Air Service being significantly stronger and lighter on its feet than the army’s Royal Flying Corps.

Now head up Parliament Street to the Cenotaph and the beautiful facades of Whitehall abound. Keep going past Downing Street to Horse Guards Parade and there the magnificent War Office building stands opposite, from where the Royal Flying Corps was ultimately managed.

Built in neo-Baroque style to the tune of £1.2 million, the building was completed in 1906 and featured 1,000 rooms on seven floors connected by two-and-a-half miles of corridors. It was from here that wars were fought and won, occasionally fought and lost – and much of the Empire was policed until 1968. The building was sold on 1 March 2016 for more than £350M, on a long 250 year lease, to the Hinduja Group and OHL Developments for conversion to a luxury hotel and residential apartments.

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The War Office – about to enter conversion to a hotel and residential development

Keep going just a little further and Admiralty Arch appears, with it Admiralty House and all the pomp of the Senior Service that is laid out like a challenge before anyone wishing to travel up the Mall. From here Churchill set about ensuring that the ground was made fertile for developing the first verdant shoots of a modern air force – while the dullards at the War Office retained their faith in horses in the face of mechanised slaughter.

Just like the War Office, Admiralty Arch has already been sold off for transformation into an hotel. The questions raised in parliament about how security for the many state and sporting occasions that run through Whitehall each year, let alone that of the Royal Family down the road, is to be maintained by hoteliers in the face of increased insurgency has never really been answered. But then Whitehall has suffered from more than its fair share of fatheads over the years – as we shall see…

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The buildings around Admiralty Arch were a hive of air-minded activity when Churchill was First Sea Lord. Today it is a Spanish-owned hotel.

From the Admiralty, head up The Strand and there is a large run of shops lying in wait before reaching the Savoy Hotel. The shops stand at street level beneath an imposing facade that was once the frontage of the Hotel Cecil – one of the more remarkable buildings in London.

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The Hotel Cecil was designed in the late 1880s by architects Perry & Reed in a sympathetic ‘Wrennaissance’ style for what was a fantastical barn of a building that would, in its day, be the largest hotel in Europe.

This 900-room leviathan was the pet project of notorious politician, financier, property developer and fraudster, Jabez Balfour. Balfour decreed that the Cecil should be “an abiding memorial of my enterprise” – although a rather more permanent memorial was the penury of the people who had invested in his schemes. The extent of Balfour’s embezzlement – a cool £8.4 million in 1895! – was uncovered during the Cecil’s six-year build.

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The magnificent facade of the Hotel Cecil still dominates The Strand

In a colourful turn of events, Balfour went bankrupt and fled to Argentina, where he was pursued and apprehended by Scotland Yard, brought back to London and sentenced to 14 years of penal servitude. The Cecil was sold for a relatively paltry £1.5 million and the proceeds were redistributed among Balfour’s impoverished investors. The hotel’s construction carried on – although not all of the materials were as grand as had been hoped – but Balfour’s abiding memorial appeared set to remain a white elephant.

Despite recruiting such luminaries of the era as ‘Smiler’ the renowned Indian curry chef or M. Coste, one of the greatest chefs of the late Victorian era, the gargantuan hotel was a commercial black hole. It was therefore fortunate for the owners that war broke out in 1914 and suddenly a pressing need was found to quarter staff and administer the conflict.

In 1916, the increasing importance of the war in the air, combined with the profligacy and wanton disruption that the rivalry between the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service was causing meant that an Air Board should be formed to manage the quarrelling air services in a contained space. In January 1917 it was decided that the space in question should be the Hotel Cecil.

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To the rear, the Hotel Cecil (and the Savoy Hotel next door) fronted the Victoria Embankment

The deep-rooted and bloody-minded rivalry between the two air arms carried on unabated, leading to claims that the occupants of the Hotel Cecil were ‘actively interfering’ with the running of the war. This in turn led to a nickname for their palatial residence: Bolo House, named after the celebrated French traitor, Bolo Pasha.

To digress – Bolo’s conviction was for a remarkable plot in which he was alleged to have travelled to America in order to receive laundered German funds with which he purchased Le Journal newspaper and began printing German propaganda. The evidence, such as it was, could only be described as circumstantial. Bolo’s firing squad was, however, utterly unequivocal.

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The Savoy still looks out over the Victoria Embankment

Back to London, then, and one significant ‘plus’ for men of the air divisions was that if they were required to work in the Cecil they would be quartered next door in the sumptuous Savoy Hotel. Many celebrated airmen of all allied nations, including Eddie Rickenbacker, found themselves enjoying the hospitality of the Savoy, although the Silvertown explosion on 19 January 1917 caused many of the windows to be blown in upon the hapless occupants.

It took the bombing of London in broad daylight by long-range German aircraft to force change upon the Bolo House, brought about by the wave of public outrage against Britain’s inefficient defences against attack. While the administrative work went on that would create a united and independent Royal Air Force, the first ever plotting room was created in the bowels of the hotel in order to marshal defending fighters against incoming arial raiders in a precursor to the famous system employed during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

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The plaque is almost correct – it was the first night raid by German aeroplanes

The German bombing campaign was also nearly the end of the Hotel Cecil, as on the night of 4/5 September the bombers came back for their first nocturnal sortie and managed to plant a 50 kg bomb virtually on the doorstep. The bomb itself landed beside Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment, onto which the rear entrance of both the Hotel Cecil and the Savoy faced.

The blast did kill and maim – a passing tram was caught in the blast, killing the driver and two passengers while blowing the conductor out onto the street.  Today the site is clearly seen by the shrapnel damage that remains upon Cleopatra’s Needle and the Sphinx.

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As for the Hotel Cecil, it served out the war as the birthplace of the Royal Air Force and remained on governmental duties until 1921, when it was used to house the Palestine Arab delegation which arrived to protest the British mandate on the region. The site was then demolished in 1930 – save for the grand facade on The Strand – in order to make way for the beautiful art deco Shell-Mex House which presides over the Victoria Embankment to this day – Shell having provided every drop of aviation fuel used by the allies from 1914 to the end of 1917.

In 1961, after the official separation of Shell and BP, Shell moved its head office to the 27-storey leviathan on the South Bank of the river where it remains to this day. Shell-Mex House was disposed of in the 1990s and today it is known as 80 Strand, home of businesses as diverse as Penguin Books, the Nectar loyalty card and PricewaterhouseCoopers. A small green plaque was erected on the back gate in 2008 commemorating its status as the location where the Royal Air Force was founded.

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The art deco frontage of Shell-Mex House (left) replaced the Hotel Cecil in 1930 to become a major landmark on the Thames, viewed from the bomb-damaged Sphinx

Walking back along the Victoria Embankment towards the Houses of Parliament, a golden eagle soon rises up overhead. This is the memorial erected immediately after the Great War in honour of the fallen airmen whose fate, in almost every instance, was in part decided within the buildings along the route of this stroll around the city.

The golden eagle sits atop an orb, around which a sash is wrapped carrying all the signs of the zodiac. Upon the pedestal, the inscription reads:

In memory of all ranks of the Royal Naval Air Service, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force and those air forces from every part of the British Empire who gave their lives in winning victory for their King and country, 1914 – 1918.

There is also a quotation from Exodus 19: I bear you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto myself. 

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A further inscription was added in remembrance of those men and women of the air forces of every part of the British Commonwealth and Empire who gave their lives in World War 2, although this rather beautiful tribute has long since been overtaken by bigger-budget productions elsewhere, such as the magnificent Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park.

Just before reaching the end of this little walk around the crucible of British aviation, another of those modern memorials stands – that dedicated to the Battle of Britain in 1940. Just a few hundred metres from Westminster station, this low, flat block has the most ornate brass relief that makes an ideal spot to stop and tick off the places seen.

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The Battle of Britain memorial on Victoria Embankment

Westminster and Whitehall are so very ‘pomp and circumstance’ that it is hard to credit the emergence of modern air warfare to buildings more closely associated with Trafalgar and the creation of of the British Empire. Yet it is perhaps an even greater leap to now think of these majestic buildings being turned into foreign-owned hotels for those guests who may be tired of life at the Savoy – or may indeed have something other than tourism in mind for their visit.

Meanwhile, this little patch of London is ripe with myriad stories. Far too many to write in a blog post, a book or even a trilogy. Tripping over them is the ideal way to spend an hour or so messing about by the river…

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Shell-Mex House (centre) and The Savoy standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind Cleopatra’s Needle

Spending the weekend with Albert Ball

For a multitude of reasons, much of this weekend was taken up with old aeroplanes and the men who flew them, not least Captain Albert Ball VC, DSO & two bars, MC – the dashing young ‘ace’ who captivated Britain in the dark days of 1916-17.

With such a title and decorations to his name, one could be forgiven for thinking that this was a career soldier with enormous battle experience – but the Royal Flying Corps wasn’t quite like that. Ball was barely 20 years of age when he sprang to fame.

The eldest son of a Nottingham politician, Ball was not a gifted academic but made best use of his passion for internal combustion and his natural sporting prowess. The war granted him an opportunity to do something really exciting with both these skills – to fly aeroplanes and shoot down enemy machines, which for many months he relished.

His preferred method of attacking aircraft was either to dive into the middle of a formation where the enemy gunners were afraid to fire for fear of hitting one of their own aircraft, or to approach from below and fire upwards before his prey even knew he was there. Ball usually flew bare-headed and alone, undaunted by taking on odds of ten-or-more-to-one.

He was also rather a handsome young chap, and apparently made the most of every opportunity that opened up for him among the eligible ladies of England. It turns out that as detailed a diary was kept of his conquests on leave as of his victories in the air – and that his antics were something of which his father vigorously disapproved.

“I have fooled two girls that you know of, and of course I have made heaps of other girls think I liked them that you don’t know of,” Ball confessed in a letter to his father.”I really do feel a bit of a rotter, but I really mean to stop now – in fact I will try.”

Evidently, this was one battle that young Albert could not win.

One of Ball’s private diary entries recounted his father sharing a compartment on the train with a young lady and, in the course of their conversation, the Royal Flying Corps came up – something upon which the girl had quite a bit to say. When Ball Sr. asked how she came to know so much about the air war, she said proudly: “I’ve just spent the weekend with Albert Ball.”

The stolid sepia images that are left to us, and Albert’s more widely-known correspondence (dashed as it is with liberal amounts of ‘absolutely ripping’ this and ‘topping little’ that), portray a world far removed from our own times. And yet there was colour aplenty, and vibrancy and mischief – the sort of thing that makes history all the more entertaining.