Hooray for Tailspin Tommy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Oxford vs. Cambridge in the air

Please forgive the anachronism – the song came six years after these events – but throughout writing this piece, The Varsity Drag has been tootling through the old grey matter. It needs to be exorcised, so press play and read on…

And so back we go to 1921, when a large number of undergraduates had previously served in the armed forces – particularly during the last climactic year of the Great War. After surviving such excitements, the prospect of peacetime was a trifle drab – especially for the former airmen whose time had been spent fighting the German Imperial Air Service at up to four miles above the earth.

Undoubtedly the excitement and comradeship of war coloured how these young men felt about studying the Classics and preparing for life in boardrooms, the Bar or the diplomatic service. In an effort to restore some of their former glories, therefore, an Oxford student and erstwhile test pilot, A.R. Boeree, decided to organise a University Air Race to rival the long-standing Boat Race as an outlet for the rivalry between the dark blue scholars of Oxford and their pale blue counterparts at Cambridge.

To join either of the teams, the requirement was to have more than 1,000 hours logged as a pilot. In total six pilots from each university signed up to take part, of whom three would race and three would be held in reserve. Meanwhile the Varsity Air Race was incorporated within the programme of the 1921 Aerial Derby at Hendon, with the Royal Aero Club providing the students with sufficient funds to hire eight decommissioned S E.5a fighters for the event.

The going rate to buy an airworthy war surplus S.E.5a was around £5 at the time. Although they were only hired, the university colours were applied to the aircraft – dark blue for Oxford and pale blue for Cambridge. A prize fund of £400 was also established – most of which came from Shell, which also provided the fuel.

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Oxford University pilots watch their Cambridge counterparts in action – note that the aircraft has been completely repainted

From the few available photographs it appears that one of the Oxford aircraft was completely repainted in dark blue and had white walls painted on its tyres. Another Oxford aircraft had almost the whole of the top wing painted blue aside from the centre section and the fuselage from the cockpit backwards was also freshly painted in the same shade.

The Cambridge squad would appear to have spent less time on the appearance of its aircraft – splashing light blue on the nose, tail and wheels but leaving the rest of their S.E.5s in their wartime olive brown and cream livery. Instead, the Cambridge pilots focused rather more on practising their tactics for the race.

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A pastel of one of the Cambridge S.E.5as ‘borrowed’ from Nigel Hamlin Wright – all rights his

A shortened version of the main Aerial Derby course was chosen, measuring around 43 miles and running in a triangle from Hendon to Epping and Hertford and back. Three laps of the course was the decided length of the race.

Race day was Saturday 16 June and it delivered scorching hot conditions and a near-cloudless sky. The six competing aircraft were lined up at 2.30 p.m. with Oxford represented by Boeree (Oriel College), Pring (New) and Hurley (Keeble) while Cambridge had Francis (Caius), Philcox (Caius) and Muir (St. Catherine’s).

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The full course of the 1921 Aerial Derby, from which the Varsity runners used only the 4th and 5th Turning Points

The Oxford trio took an early lead by thundering off at tree-top height, while the Cambridge contingent climbed as hard as they could to find cooler air where the 220 hp Wolseley Viper engines would produce more get-up-and-go. The early running was made by Pring’s machine for Oxford but soon Cambridge’s tactic of going for height paid off and Philcox took the lead halfway round the second lap.

On the final lap, Pring’s Wolseley Viper began to struggle and he was eventually forced to find a suitable field near Epping after the fault with his ignition proved terminal. The result was 1-2-3 for Cambridge with Hurley fourth and Boeree, whose idea the race was, coming home last.

It was widely hoped that the University Air Race would become an annual fixture to rival the Boat Race as a social fixture for the two great universities. Sadly, Oxford was never as keen as Cambridge on aviation in the first place and, with Boeree departing, the idea was shelved.

Within 18 months, all of the S.E.5a aircraft would be scrapped and the whole affair lost in the mists of time. Of rather more success was the Varsity Speed Trials for students with a passion for fast motoring. In due course, this latter event would see the likes of future Grand Prix star Dick Seaman take part, continuing the heady spirit in which the Air Race had been created.

There once was a girl called Elly…

It had passed the S&G by, but a made-for-TV biopic was made of the life of Elly Beinhorn a couple of years ago by the German channel ZDF – and seems to have received some fairly glowing reviews. Most of the glow appears to have been targeted towards the Luxembourg-born actress Vicky Krieps, who played the feisty aviatrix – which seems fitting enough.

Surely for any actress, filling Elly’s flying boots would be a fairly daunting prospect. On this occasion it seems that the all-female team of producer Ariane Kampe and director Christine Hartmann picked a winner.

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Vicky Krieps as Elly Beinhorn in ZDF’s movie Alleinflug

Elly’s story itself is the stuff of legend: a middle-class girl from Hannover falls in love with the idea of flying and defies her family’s wishes to make record-breaking solo flights to Africa, around Mount Everest and all the way to Australia. The media made her a newsreel star and celebrated photojournalist – although when she was at her zenith that media was the state-controlled propaganda machine operated by Josef Göbbels.

In 1935 Elly meets the love of her life: the Grand Prix racing driver, Bernd Rosemeyer. There is a will-they won’t-they romance while she wrestles with fears of losing her hard-won independence, but then the couple are joyously united to become the ‘Posh and Becks’ of the Third Reich.

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Bernd and Elly in their recreated courtship

The couple welcome their first child, Bernd Jr., in late 1937 but then Rosemeyer is killed on a blustery morning in January 1938 during a foolhardy record breaking run on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn. Our girl Elly is bereft but still she rises, with her little boy and her love of the skies. Fine stuff, indeed.

It’s all very beautiful and glamorous and there is much to savour, from Elly’s time stranded with the Tuareg in the Sahara to the sight of her Klemm and Messerschmitt aircraft floating artfully through the sky.

Interestingly, the good folk at Audi Tradition were obviously brought in to support the film with their Auto Unions and pre-war paraphernalia.  This is interesting because they usually fight shy of placing their silver arrows anywhere near a period setting, for fear of the dreaded swastika appearing in shot with what is the centrepiece of Audi’s worldwide heritage PR programme.

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Audi Tradition weighed in with a V16 (not sure about the modern pit trolley, though!)

Perhaps it is Audi’s presence that puts the government of the day so far out of the spotlight in the film, when in real time the swastika was plastered all over the exploits of both Bernd and Elly – whether they liked it or not. In Elly’s own accounts they did not like it one iota… although subsequent research by German historians certainly calls Bernd’s reluctance into question.

Nikolaus von Festenberg, reviewing the film in der Tagesspiel, felt that this was the one important element missing from the film, saying: “The apolitical celebrity couple served, whether they knew it or not, the Nazi regime. Today’s filmmakers need to make clear the traces of brown in the shadows… it is not silenced when the hero remains silent.”

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It was pretty hard to avoid the swastika at a German team in the Thirties

All things being equal, however, it’s a well-deserved film of a woman well worth naming one’s daughter after, if an adventurer she be. The real Elly Beinhorn lived to 100 years of age, feisty to the last and an inspiration to many.

Should the chance arise, do treat yourself to an evening with Alleinflug. The DVD is available on Amazon but it hasn’t yet made it on an overseas release so there are no subtitles. No doubt some enterprising soul will put it out on the internet before long, though. In the meanwhile here’s a rather nice picture of Bernd Rosemeyer Jr. with the actors who played his parents… a nice touch, I thought.

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Bernd Rosemeyer Jr. with the leading man and leading lady

‘Carradale’ is lost

The destruction of Sir Sydney Camm’s former home ‘Carradale’ is near completion despite a last minute surge in attempts to preserve the house at 29 Embercourt Road in Thames Ditton.

Sir Sydney Camm's home was demolished during the VE Day commemorations

The home of the ‘The man who saved Britain’ could not, apparently, be saved from developers

The demolition has been carried out by Leatherhead-based property firm Shanly Homes even though its proposed new development for four new homes was rejected by the local council on the grounds of size and scale. Shanly Homes later assured campaigners that the house would not be demolished without planning permission – although the results of that assurance are clear to see.

The campaign to save the property included lobbying English Heritage, the MoD, British Aerospace and other associated bodies. A letter appealing to save the house, published in both the Surrey Advertiser and The Times, drew signatories from the Brooklands Museum, the School of Aerospace and Aircraft Engineering at Kingston University, WW2 veterans such as Captain Eric M ‘Winkle’ Brown and his fellow presidents of the Royal Aeronautical Society as well as widespread support from local residents and councillors.

A final shot

A final shot

Thames Ditton councillor Ruth Lyon, who called the demolition ‘unnecessary’, said: “We are sickened with the unnecessary demolition of a historic house when they haven’t got a planning permission. They know how important Sir Sydney Camm was as a world class aeroplane designer. They are really cynical.”

A Shanly Homes spokesman said: “We do respect the work of Sir Sydney Camm and agree that his work should be remembered. We would therefore like to work with local residents to find a suitable way to honour his memory within the new residence or its grounds.”

The developer insisted it has not broken any promises.

Camm's legacy must now be carried by the surviving aircraft that he created

Camm’s legacy must now be carried by the surviving aircraft that he created

Can ‘Carradale’ be saved?

There is dire news from leafy Surrey with the notification that the former home of British engineering hero Sir Sydney Camm could be bulldozed as soon as this coming Monday (April 20 2015), according to the local press. Sir Sydney was the principal designer of Hawker Aircraft Limited, whose most valuable contribution to history was the Hurricane fighter, which effectively saved the free world on two occasions.

Although the property developers, Shanly Homes, have been denied permission to demolish the property at 29 Embercourt Road in Thames Ditton, the level of vandalism already carried out in preparation for destroying the house is evident in the pictures. The house was known as Carradale when Sir Sydney Camm lived there from 1930 until his death in 1966.

Sir Sydney Camm at ease after WW2

Sir Sydney Camm at ease after WW2

Camm’s career as an aviation engineer began with biplanes and ended in the jet age. He was born in Windsor in 1893, the eldest of 12 children, and earned a scholarship and free clothing in order to attain education until the age of 15 before he became an apprentice engineer.

The burgeoning aviation industry had captured young Camm’s imagination completely, and he employed his younger brothers in building model gliders, which were then sold through various means to the well-heeled schoolboys at nearby Eton.

He became a founder member of the Windsor Model Aeroplane Club in 1912, earning an honourable mention in Flight magazine for his handiwork. With the onset of the First World War, Camm got a job as a carpenter – his father’s trade – at the Martinsyde aircraft factory at Brooklands. His skills were soon spotted, and he progressed rapidly to the design office, where he would serve out the war.

Camm with a glider during World War 1

Camm with a glider in 1915

In 1923, the ambitious Camm was taken on by H.G. Hawker Engineering – the firm built from the ashes of the Sopwith company at its original factory in Canbury Park Road, Kingston. Harry Hawker, Sopwith’s test pilot and leading light, had been killed while flying and Camm’s appointment was set to galvanise the still-shaken company into a new era.

The aircraft that Camm developed at Hawker evolved into a range of powerful military types, including the elegant series of biplanes that formed the backbone of the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm through the 1930s: the Hart, Audax, Demon, Hardy, Hind, Hector and Osprey two-seat bombers and their single-seat fighter siblings, the Fury and Nimrod.

Hawker aircraft like the Fury were mainstays of 1930s defence

Hawker aircraft like the Fury were mainstays of 1930s defence

Camm was a hard taskmaster. His successor at Hawker, Dr. John Fozard, once recalled that ‘he would brook no irreverence or argument from his men. His ability to give an instant and bowel-loosening dressing-down to an errant draftsman became well developed.’

As with so many tyrant engineers, Camm only valued quality workmanship – and rewarded it richly. Among the inner circle of management a very different man emerged for whom, as one put it: ‘Prime ministers were a mere temporary nuisances and Chiefs of Staff were to be pitied for their boring clerical jobs. But if you designed fighters for Sir Sydney Camm, you were a prince among men.’

At home in Carradale, a warm-hearted family man emerged. He enjoyed reading Evelyn Waugh, playing operatic and orchestral records (his daughter Phyllis later recalled a distaste for solo singers and violinists) and variously fettling his golf clubs, repairing furniture or fixing the family’s shoes – a luxury item, in Camm’s view, that required maintenance rather than replacement.

The rebirth of German militarism in the 1930s led to grave misgivings in some quarters that Britain was completely unprepared for any potential conflict. In 1934, the Royal Air Force’s fighter strength was just 13 squadrons of biplanes, while the German industrial heartlands were starting to churn out metal monoplane aircraft that were superior in every aspect of performance and armament.

At first Camm submitted a design for a new and more powerful biplane but this was rejected by the Air Ministry – as was his first monoplane design. He returned to his desk and sketched out an aircraft to house a new Rolls-Royce engine, the PV-12, which would later to become famous as the Merlin.

The new aircraft featured retractable undercarriage, carried four guns and had an enclosed cockpit. In August 1934, a one-tenth scale model was made and a series of wind tunnel tests confirmed the aerodynamic qualities of the design. This time the Air Ministry was satisfied and a prototype of the “Interceptor Monoplane” was ordered

Camm’s hard work was almost undone when, in November 1934, the Air Ministry issued Specification F.5/34 which called for fighter aircraft to be armed with eight guns. Work on the modified prototype airframe was completed at the end of August 1935 and the components were taken to Brooklands for final assembly. On 6 November the silver monoplane took to the sky in the hands of its trilby-hatted test pilot ‘George’ Bulman, leading to an intensive programme of development until, in June 1936, the type was approved and the name put forward for it was given Air Ministry approval: the Hawker Hurricane.

The first of the many - Hurricane prototype aloft over Surrey

The first of the many – Hurricane prototype aloft over Surrey

The Hurricane was immediately ordered into production as it was unclear if the more advanced all-metal Supermarine Spitfire would enter production smoothly. The Hurricane was also significantly cheaper than the Spitfire, requiring 10,300 man hours to produce versus 15,200 for the Spitfire.

In stark contrast to R.J. Mitchell’s stressed-skin metal Spitfire, the Hurricane employed traditional manufacturing techniques and could be rapidly built in the factory. No less importantly, it could be stripped and repaired quickly by squadrons in the field whose engineers who knew the technology inside-out.

The demand for eight guns played to one of the Hurricane’s key strengths: a thick and strong wing section. Four guns sat snugly close to each wing root, making the Hurricane a stable gun platform while the Spitfire – whose slender, elliptical wings forced Mitchell to splay the guns out – would shudder like a wet dog when the guns were fired.

The first four aircraft to enter service with the RAF joined No. 111 Squadron in December 1937. By the outbreak of the Second World War, nearly 500 Hurricanes had been produced, and had equipped 18 squadrons. Production continued to rise and developments such as a metal-skinned wing to replace the original fabric covering and the switch from a wooden two-blade propeller to a de Havilland metal airscrew with variable pitch served to increase its performance.

87 Squadron scrambles to meet the Luftwaffe in the Battle of France, 1940

87 Squadron scrambles to meet the Luftwaffe in the Battle of France, 1940

The Hurricane was the only RAF fighter in action during the Battle of France and despite the legend of a whitewash by Hitler’s Blitzkrieg tactics it took a heavy toll on the Luftwaffe – with German records showing the loss of 299 aircraft destroyed and 65 seriously damaged.

This record of achievement carried on into the Battle of Britain, in which Hurricanes accounted for 55% of all air combat victories – although in a battle that was in itself a PR exercise, the seductive beauty of the Spitfire was what inspired people to believe that Hitler could be beaten.

Hurricanes of 85 Squadron in flight during the Battle of Britain

Hurricanes of 85 Squadron in flight during the Battle of Britain

The Hurricane was not perfect. Its wood and fabric cockpit was cold and drafty for pilots operating at up to 35,000 feet – although in the main it struggled above 20,000 and was thus at a disadvantage to the high-flying Messerschmitts. Its main fuel tanks were to either side of the cockpit and if they caught fire the most natural path for the flames was towards the cockpit, resulting in the majority of early ‘guinea pig’ burns patients being Hurricane pilots.

Yet despite these faults, in the early years of the war, the Hurricane was undoubtedly the best solution to meeting the onslaught of Nazi Germany.

While the Battle of Britain raged, Benito Mussolini decided to try and win back the old Roman empire in the Mediterranean – and to do so he needed to secure the island fortress of Malta. At first his bombers were repelled only by a flight of hastily thrown-together Gloster Gladiators, but soon the Hurricanes arrived.

By the winter it was clear that Mussolini had bitten off more than he could chew in the Med, so Hitler reluctantly intervened. He dispatched an army to North Africa to sweep the British out of Egypt and, while licking its wounds from the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe pounded the Malta mercilessly.

Yet even in the depths of despair for the Maltese there were Hurricanes that held out and offered resistance. Hitler once again had to concede, and in the summer of 1941 turned his attentions towards Russia.

He would return at the end of the year, when Rommel had come within an ace of reaching Cairo and the Suez canal – only to have the supply lines to his Afrika Korps virtually severed by RAF bombers and Royal Navy submarines operating from Malta. When the Russian winter forced the armies to dig in, the Germans returned to punish Malta. The plan was to annihilate resistance and allow Rommel to take Cairo, Suez and the oil fields of Iraq and Saudi Arabia – fuel for the Reich and a back door into Russia.

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

Without Malta, British overseas forces would have been forced to flee to a toehold in India, where they would soon have been overrun by the Japanese. With Britain thus neutered, America would have had little alternative but to make terms with Germany and adjust to a new order in the Old World – one in which Hitler was an emperor over all that he surveyed.

Yet throughout the summer a stream of Hurricanes had been flown in to the island. Outnumbered, outpaced and outgunned but nevertheless potent, they endured five withering months in which more bombs fell on the tiny island than anywhere else on earth. Finally in the spring of 1942 the Hurricanes were relieved by supplies of Spitfires – the first overseas posting for the all-metal fighter after nearly three years of war.

The Hurricane continued to serve throughout the war in the Far East, Middle East and Europe, both on land and at sea. Meanwhile Camm had developed the muscular Typhoon ground attack aircraft and its high altitude sibling the Tempest. Both aircraft were to play their part in finishing the job that the Hurricane started.

After the war, Camm and his team developed new jet aircraft. The Hawker Hunter became the mainstay of the RAF’s defensive forces, but it was the P.1127 vertical take off and landing fighter that was to be his final triumph. Taking to the skies in test flights over Dunsfold in 1960-61, the P.1127 would become the Hawker Harrier, which served mightily until its premature retirement in 2011.

The sixth P.1127 prototype today stands outside the Brooklands clubhouse

The sixth P.1127 prototype today stands outside the Brooklands clubhouse

Sydney Camm stepped back from work after the P.1127 programme was running steadily. His final years were spent enjoying life at Carradale, playing golf and driving his prized E-Type Jaguar. He died after collapsing on the golf course in 1966 at the age of 72 – leaving behind his latest project: the design of an aircraft to travel at Mach 4.

This year we are marking the 80th anniversary of the Hurricane, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the 70th anniversary of VE Day and VJ Day, and the 55th anniversary of the Harrier. Today Camm’s beloved Carradale sits in its leafy suburb, surrounded by similar properties which sprang up around Brooklands, Addlestone and Kingston. There is no need for it not to do so for many years to come.

No need except for the greed of the Shanly Homes company.

If you wish to register your support to preserve this handsome building you might wish to contact English Heritage’s relevant department in the south east. Alternatively Dom Raab is the MP for Esher and Walton who should be made aware of the contemptible actions of Shanly Homes – who are themselves available here.

A little Christmas present

‘Tis the season to be jolly, so with plenty of jostling at the bar and festive ribaldry, we wish you the most splendid of Christmases from the Scarf & Goggles Social Club.

The story of Eddie Rickenbacker’s rise from the mean streets of Columbus, Ohio to the pantheon of pioneering airmen and motor racers will be continued in the days ahead. For now, however, please sit back and relax, enjoy a stoup of something nourishing and the goodwill of all men.

In case nobody buys you a nice DVD or you cannot find a single thing worth watching on the box, feel free to enjoy the little offering below. It features the last original S.E.5a fighter still airworthy, strutting its stuff above Old Warden at one of the Shuttleworth Collection’s celebrated air days. Like its sisters in London’s Science Museum and the RAF Museum, it is one of Major Savage’s sky-writing machines, so as you enjoy it in action, feel free to imagine that it is writing:

Merry Christmas from the S&G