The Lost Eagles

Through the first half of 1942, American servicemen began to disembark en masse in Liverpool, paving the way for the build-up of forces that would eventually provide sufficient muscle to liberate North Africa, Italy and Occupied Europe. A significant number of Americans were already in Britain, however, having volunteered to fly with the Royal Air Force (just as they had in World War 1), whether it be under their own flag or adopting Canadian citizenship for the purpose.

Initially the call-to-arms had been made by Charles Sweeny, a wealthy businessman living in London, who took it upon himself to recruit American citizens to fight as a US volunteer detachment in the French Air Force, echoing the Lafayette Escadrille of WW1. When France collapsed under German invasion in May 1940, a dozen of Sweeny’s volunteers made their way to Britain, where they would be joined by 6,700 applicants from across the USA seeking to join the RCAF or RAF.

As a result of this recruitment drive, there were sufficient American pilots to form the three ‘Eagle’ squadrons of the RAF between September 1940 and July 1941 – these being nos. 71, 121 and 133.  With the arrival of the US Army Air Force in strength, however, these units were due to be transferred back to American control and renamed the 334th, 335th and 336th squadrons of the 4th Fighter Group USAAF; their battle-hardened pilots intended to provide a finishing school for the eager recruits flowing across the Atlantic.

A month before the transfer took place, 133 Squadron was re-equipped with the new and top-secret Spitfire Mk.IX, featuring a two-stage supercharger to give better performance above 20,000 feet and provide a much-needed answer to the Focke-Wulf 190. Not all of the pilots were thrilled about becoming repatriated – not least the commanding officer, Squadron Leader Carroll McColpin, who repeatedly delayed and fudged his transfer until the last possible moment on 25 September. He was replaced by a temporary unit leader, Flight Lieutenant Gordon Bettrell, who found his new command somewhat unhappy about the situation.

As the unit had been declared operational on the Spitfire Mk.IX it was decided that 133 Squadron should give the type its operational debut the following day: 26 September 1942. On paper it looked like a relatively straightforward job of escorting American B-17 Flying Fortresses on a raid over the French town of Morlaix.

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A Spitfire Mk.IX

A total of 14 Spitfire Mk.IXs shuttled down to RAF Bolt Head near Salcombe in Devon in readiness, of which only 12 were eventually required for the mission.  One pilot from each flight – Ervin ‘Dusty’ Miller and Don ‘Buckeye’ Gentile – were ordered to remain on the ground.  They were rather put-out by this news, having been keen to see how their new Spitfires would perform against the FW190s, but dutifully watched their squadron take off into low cloud. They were:

A Flight                                                               
F/Lt  E.G. Brettell        ES 313
P/O  L.T. Ryerson       BS 275
P/O W.H. Baker          BS 446
P/O D.D. Smith           BS 137
P/O G.B. Sperry          BR 638
P/O G.G. Wright          BS 138

B Flight
F/Lt  M. E. Jackson    BS 279
P/O R. E. Smith          BS 447
P/O C.A. Cook            BR 640
P/O R.N. Beaty           BS 148
P/O G.H. Middleton    BS 301
P/O G.P. Neville         BS 140

Gentile and Miller waited.  Then they waited some more.  Eventually they heard approaching aircraft but these proved to be Spitfire Mk.Vs of 401 Squadron RCAF, which were also deployed on the mission.  They were almost out of fuel and had seen neither the Fortresses or the Mk.IXs in the impenetrable cloud.  Very clearly, something had gone disastrously wrong.

Word reached Bolt Head that one of the Eagle Squadron Spitfires had crash-landed on the coast just a few miles away.  This turned out to be the only one of the 12 machines ever seen again.

The official squadron diary recorded: The 12 aircraft  took off with 401 to make a rendezvous with the Fortresses in mid-channel at a point approximately half-way between Bolthead and Morlaix.   It is not yet clear as to what exactly happened but some of the Fortresses were seen after our aircraft had been flying  for 45 minutes.  The pilot of one aircraft (P/O Beaty)  alone returned from this operation and owing to petrol shortage crash landed in a small field near Kingsbridge, Devon.  From his account and what he overheard on the R/T it seems probable that the rest of the Squadron force landed on the Island of Ouissant or on the French mainland.

It transpired that this was a rather optimistic view of the outcome.  Following a strenuous board of inquiry, it became clear that 133 Squadron had never broken free of the cloud and was thus unaware of the fact that the north-easterly wind was blowing at 100 knots instead of the predicted 35. The increase in wind speed had been recorded but not communicated effectively to the squadrons. With no reference points to call upon, the flight leader, Flight Lieutenant Brettell, called for directions home and received a heading back to base from Morlaix – rather than from where he actually was.

The Fortresses were equally lost and equally far off course. When they broke free of the cloud they found themselves over the Pyrenees. They turned around and slogged back to Britain being more grateful for the cloud cover than on their outbound leg.

Meanwhile, having followed the prescribed heading for what was deemed the correct amount of time, Brettell closed up the formation and they dropped out of the cloud to see what they all assumed was the British coast.  While looking for landmarks, the squadron passed over a large town – and immediately found themselves in a barrage of anti-aircraft fire that destroyed one Spitfire and damaged several others just before the defending FW190s swept in to savage them.

They had in fact made their way to the Germans’ prized port of Brest, one of the most heavily defended areas of the French coast.  German sources reported all 12 of the Spitfires were shot down – although there were only 11 as the sole 133 Squadron Spitfire to get away, that of Pilot Officer Bob Beatty, had turned back early after suffering a misfire.  Beatty made landfall in Devon by luck alone after gliding in to the coast when its fuel ran out, where it crashed near the village of Kingsbridge.

One other airman, Pilot Officer Robert Smith, made it back to Britain on foot after passing through France and into Spain undetected. Six pilots were killed in action and eventually four were taken POW. On 29 March 1944, Gordon Brettell was one of the officers involved in The Great Escape – he was later recaptured and summarily executed.

The element of surprise that was hoped for the Spitfire Mk.IX had been lost, as well as some of the most valuable combat experience available to the fledgling USAAF.  Three days after the Brest raid, 133 Squadron transferred to American command with a compliment of earlier Spitfire Mk.Vbs (pictured top) and, following the board of inquiry, those ground controllers and met. officers who were responsible for the mission found themselves posted to the worst available hellholes in the Far East and North Africa as penance for their sins.

The USAAF continued to operate Spitfires on bomber escort duties for a number of months but R.J. Mitchell’s masterpiece was by design a short-range interceptor rather than a long-range escort fighter for offensive missions.  On each occasion the Spitfire pilots were forced to watch German fighters circling until their own fuel became critical and they were forced to turn away… at which point the Germans would wade into the bombers without interference. This was a situation that would only change with the arrival of the P-47 Thunderbolt.

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One of our Spitfires is missing (but the Kittyhawk isn’t)

A few years ago there was a minor kerfuffle that made its way into the pages of the daily press: the Royal Air Force Museum had handed over a Spitfire Mk.22 to aircraft restorers Kennet Aviation as payment for retrieving a gem from the Sahara. For it was in North Africa that an almost perfectly-preserved Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk had been discovered, 70 years after it force-landed.

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The Kittyhawk’s pilot, Flight Sergeant Dennis Copping, made a controlled landing in the desert which he survived. However, the Western Desert is a vast and inhospitable place in which Copping died without being rescued. His body has never been found.

Once Copping’s aeroplane revealed itself, however, preserving it became something of a fixation at the RAF Museum. In this quest, the museum believed that it had found the ideal partner in Tim Manna, a former US Navy reservist who moved to England in 1989 and now rebuilds old aeroplanes in Essex under the Kennet Aviation banner.

The RAF Museum agreed to trade a stored Spitfire Mk.22 with Kennet in return for the long-lost Kittyhawk. A Spitfire Mk.22 is not the most desirable of the breed, but a complete airframe with history holds value – somewhere around the £200,000 upwards mark – and with restoration to airworthiness that figure increases by four or five fold.

For the Spitfire in question, PK664, this would prove to be its 15 minutes of fame. It did not see service during World War 2 as it only reached No.39 MU in December 1945. It sat around for two years before being sent back to Vickers for upgrading with a Griffon 85 engine and 6-bladed contra-rotating propeller.

After another two years of standing idle, PK664 was refitted and finally issued to No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron based at Biggin Hill in May 1949. In August 1949 it suffered an accident while in Germany, with the resulting damage being given RAF Category 3 – meaning indefinitely out of service. It was returned to 615 Squadron in early 1950, where it flew on until December of that year.

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PK664 shown in storage at Wattisham in 2009

Shortly afterwards, PK664 went back into storage at Vickers pending disposal. Nobody wanted secondhand Spitfires in the late 1950s, however, so she was stuck on a plinth outside RAF Waterbeach as a gate guardian for most of the 1960s; being removed for maintenance and the occasional repaint. Later she was partially restored (and presumably given a Hamish Mahaddie makeover) for duty on the Battle of Britain movie. She then went into storage at RAF St. Athan for much of the next 23 years before being transferred to the RAF Museum. In recent years it was on display at the Science Museum, but departed for Kennet Aviation in 2012.

The only problem was that the Kittyhawk and the patch of sand in which it had lain for all those decades were in Egypt. And Egypt likes to have lots of paperwork and red tape around the place, so matters of this kind tend to be processed in a leisurely fashion. Meanwhile, there was something of a revolution going on and the Kittyhawk paperwork was an early casualty in the throes of Egyptian regime change.

Here the story ended, as far as the world was concerned. The RAF Museum was in some disgrace for handing over a Spitfire to Kennet without any apparent guarantees and it got nothing in return but a barrel load of tabloid invective for perceived naïvety and ineptitude.

Two years later, the RAF Museum is being treated to a second helping of opprobrium in the press after the Egyptian-run El Alamein Museum proudly put its newest exhibit on display – Flight Sergeant Copping’s Kittyhawk.

Rather than preserving the lightly-damaged machine, it has been treated to a restoration that looks like the first 1/72 kit ever attempted by the S&G. Aged seven. Missing panels and the absent propeller have been replaced with ungainly fibreglass and wood structures, then the whole lot has been vigorously painted in an approximation of RAF Desert camouflage – which this P-40 never wore. Like many RAF aircraft in the desert, it retained the Temperate Land Scheme of Dark Green and Dark Earth over Sky… like this model of an earlier Tomahawk is sporting… and it never had the shark’s mouth markings, either.

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But the Egyptians prefer the drama of shark’s teeth, Mid-Stone and Azure Blue (or approximations thereof), resulting in this:

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So it appears that the Kittyhawk’s fate is sealed. Even if the great gobs of emulsion and filler could be removed from it, the patina and uniqueness of the wreck have been utterly destroyed. Probably the greatest hope left for its long-term survival is that it can be bought by an aircraft restorer and rebuilt to flying condition.

But where is Spitfire PK664? Apparently it is still in a shed in Essex, appreciating in value day-by-day. Which would make Kennet Aviation the winner in this sad little saga.

A campaign to preserve Biggin Hill St George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance

The S&G doesn’t often get involved in campaigning, but the collective goat has been grottled and our dander has been dumbfounded with news that Biggin Hill St. George’s Chapel of Remembrance is facing partial demolition among numerous other indignities. There is not much to be added to the text of the petition, so feel free to read it below or scoot straight through to the petition here.

Regular visitors to the S&G will know that the official history of the Battle of Britain, as described in such colourful terms by Winston Churchill in 1940 and propagated for the 77 years that have followed, is open to a degree of question. In the eyes of the pilots in front line squadrons, the 14-week period through which the most intense air battles were fought over southern England, encapsulated by Churchill as the ‘Battle of Britain’, was simply part of an ongoing campaign that lasted from May 1940 to May 1941 and from which no decisive result between Britain and Germany could be claimed.

The Battle of Britain was not simply a story of clean-limbed boys climbing into Spitfires and Hurricanes to ‘see off the Jerries’ but it also involved almost every facet of the military, from Bomber Command pounding away at the German infrastructure to achieving aircraft production on an unprecedented scale to having the Home Fleet of the Royal Navy as the trump card: a force 10 times stronger than that of the entire German Kriegsmarine that could and would have obliterated any attempted a sea invasion.

For all that, the importance of that period is not open to interpretation, and is deserving of its place in our history. Britain did not capitulate to the tyranny that was being unleashed upon mainland Europe. It did not meekly accept Hitler’s offer of retaining control of its Empire in exchange for Nazism being enforced at home. Ultimately, the Battle of Britain helped to convince America to abandon its policy of laissez-faire – at best – towards Nazism and ultimately to bring its industrial and military might to help reclaim Western Europe.

If one were to look up the word ‘unprepossessing’ in an illustrated dictionary, a view of the RAF Chapel of Remembrance at Biggin Hill would most likely be lying in wait. It’s a bland, artless red brick thing. But it exists for a reason, and should not be troubled by the passage of time.

Given that very little has happened at Biggin-on-the-Bump without the approval of Bernie Ecclestone for the past few decades, perhaps it would be as well to simply drop a note round to Princes Gate. So many outwardly unexciting buildings in the area actually have a wealth of history to them and to deface one, or start charging fees to see it, would inevitably set precedents that might lay waste to this whole area in historical terms.

Here is the petition:

The London Borough of Bromley Council’s current planning application necessitates demolition of the Grade II Listed Vestry, which houses the Air Crew Association stained glass window. Also it requires change of use of part of the Nave (the St George’s Room) to provide additional space for the new museum, the overall design of which the vast majority of genuinely concerned people find appalling – an ultra modern, stark structure enveloping two sides of the Chapel.

Under these proposals, visitors to the Chapel will no longer be able to view the St George’s Room with its commemorative stained glass windows, including the St George’s Battle of Britain Memorial Window, without paying the predicted museum charge of £7.50.

A Museum is long awaited at Biggin Hill, but the situation is incredible because there is an existing highly praised approved design, by the Biggin Hill Battle of Britain Supporters Club, which in no way affects the Chapel, but could provide the same level of support and with vastly superior facilities at lower predicted cost. Importantly it doesn’t require the closure of the Chapel during the building works.

The new Council design will require the closure of the Chapel to visitors, also for services and the funerals of Veterans for over a year whilst building works take place. This was highlighted to great effect at the recent St George’s Day Service, when a 95 year old RAF Veteran, proudly wearing his Air Crew Association tie, rose to his feet and announced his days were numbered and he wanted his funeral to be in the Chapel and his ashes placed in the Garden of Remembrance. But he could not die to order, how could they consider closing the Chapel for over a year?!

Since starting this petition, the previously stated total closure of the Garden of Remembrance on Health and Safety grounds has been reviewed.

Other than those in the immediate locality of Biggin Hill, the many other interested parties, including ex-RAF personnel, and relatives worldwide of those commemorated, are in ignorance of these distressing plans!

My previous advice to visit the Chapel is no longer relevant as the London Borough of Bromley has now CLOSED THE CHAPEL TO VISITORS. People arriving from a distance, perhaps even from overseas, will find the gates chained, at present with no explanation!

Please direct your comments on the closure to the Trust’s email address: hello@bhmm.org.uk

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

Green light for Battle of Britain

There are many reasons why the 1969 epic movie The Battle of Britain has endured for as long as it has in the affections of millions. Fundamental to all of those reasons is the fact that it conjures the vision of Britain as it saw itself during the battle, for which it has lauded itself – and been universally lauded – ever since.

It is Churchill’s description of the battle – so ripe and so successful in keeping hope alive during the summer of 1940 and beyond – that was captured lavishly in a movie production helmed by none other than James Bond franchise creators Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli and directed by their star man, Guy ‘Goldfinger’ Hamilton. The icing on the cake comes in the form of a mouth-watering cast of characters, both human and metallic, populated by some of the greatest acting talent of the Sixties.

Word has now come that Ridley Scott has all-but closed the deal on a remake that he has been trying to get off the ground since the 1980s. What a treat! This is the man behind The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator and The Martian. Not to mention the vastly under-rated kids’ fantasy Legend. Now he is getting to make the project that he always wanted to get stuck into, even while making these classics.

The grapevine states that Fox has bought the movie and that Scott has recruited screenwriter Matthew Orton to produce the script, based largely on his work with Operation Finale, currently filming, which tells the story of Mossad agents tracking down Adolf Eichmann in Argentina during the 1960s.

There has been quite a lot of movement in the undergrowth in recent months, not least with several of the original Hispano Buchon aircraft (licence-built, Merlin-engined Messerschmitt 109s), coming out of mothballs and being delivered to aeroplane restoration experts like Richard Grace at Air Leasing. They are even in their original film paint, as this pic shows from the S&G’s recent visitation.

 

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Look over on the far wall and you will see Major Foehn’s ‘Messerschmitt’ in all its cobwebby glory!

The most important question at this stage is what the script be like. A faithful retelling of Churchill’s mythical ‘few’ or a more realistic attempt to describe the events of 1940?

Let us not forget that Hitler never stood a hope of getting across the Channel without an open invitation and that his victories of 1939-40 had been as much due to a gambler’s good fortune as they were to good planning. The conquest of Poland, Norway, France, Belgium and Holland had cost his armed forces dearly in terms of men and materiel and he needed to consolidate. He had lost:

  • 235 aircraft shot down in Poland, with 279 withdrawn for significant repair
  • 1,389 aircraft shot down in Belgium, France and Holland
  • Total losses in all campaigns from September 1939 – June 1940 of 2,000 aircraft

From the vantage point of a man busily humiliating the French at Compiègne and touring Paris, it was the Führer’s belief that Britain would simply agree to become a junior partner in an alliance with the Reich. He was assured that the British would be content to keep their empire intact in return for sending a large proportion of its resources towards combatting the existential threat posed by Russia.

This is what his diplomats had been told throughout the 1930s by the British establishment, from whom Churchill was ostracised and by whom the British public’s opinion was seldom consulted.

Throughout the years preceding the war, praise had been heaped upon Germany’s revival by men such as Edward VIII, the Duke of Hamilton, Sir Oswald Mosley, Albert Ball Sr. and Michael Burn. By society women like the Mitfords. By establishments such as the British Legion and of course by most of the motor racing and aviation communities, where men like Whitney Straight were few and far between.

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The Stuttgart Police boxing team visits the Albert Ball memorial while visiting Nottingham

Instead, when it came to the crunch, the British chose not to be part of Hitler’s vision of Europe. They rediscovered their backbone, appointed Churchill as the pugnacious face of defiance against the Reich and retreated from Dunkirk to blow raspberries across the Channel. Meanwhile, the air defences that Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding had fought tooth-and-nail to build up against political resistance (where all eyes were on building up an offensive bomber fleet), came into their own.

When Hitler’s patience finally snapped and he realised that Britain really was intent on staying independent, he sent his bombers over. He had no other option, no means of doing anything else meaningful, primarily because he could muster only eight destroyers in his navy, confronting more than ten times that number of British destroyers and a number of capital ships at anchor in the Home Fleet.

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Licence-built Heinkel He-111s from Spain approach the white cliffs in 1968

Into this one-sided sea battle the invasion forces – 90,000 men and 4,500 horses in the first wave, 160,000 men and 50,000 horses in the second – would have to be towed across the treacherous Channel waters in unsuitable flat-bottomed river barges. Much of this vast, floating target could be overturned by the wake of a single British naval vessel. Meanwhile RAF Bomber Command pilots like Guy Gibson were busily bombing the barges at harbour.

Britain was paranoid about German paratroops landing and establishing a beachhead. Such fears were unfounded. The Germans had only 262 Ju52 transports intact, having lost 44% of their fleet, leaving a capacity to carry just over 3,000 paratroops, of whom at least a third could confidently expect to be killed during the jump or soon afterwards, based on previous losses. The 2,000 survivors would have to fight harder than Leonides’ Spartans at Thermopylae simply to see the sun set.

Hitler’s naval chief, Karl Dönitz, had told him very plainly that Germany could not compete with the Royal Navy until 1945 at the earliest; even then only provided that a suitable shipbuilding programme could be sustained. Meanwhile, Göring told him that the Luftwaffe could win the war in weeks and that invasion would be all-but redundant. Hitler felt that his run of good luck would continue, and duly sent the Luftwaffe in to bat.

The intention was that the Luftwaffe should first smash the RAF on the ground and mop up anything in the sky – but in truth the Luftwaffe’s losses were devastating while the RAF ended the battle with more fighters than it started with. After a tactically shaky start, Fighter Command squadrons got to grips with the job – and let us not forget the Poles, Czechs and other experienced airmen who soon entered the fray. Meanwhile, British aircraft production rocketed throughout the Battle of Britain, producing twice as many fighters as Germany throughout the summer of 1940.

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This is as far as the 1969 movie The Battle of Britain takes us – with only teasing glimpses of British pre-war bonhomie with Nazism and no mention of the fact that the ‘few’ who fought in the skies over south-east England were in fact growing more numerous every day. It is the neat and tidy tale of heroism that we love today like any good adventure story – Rourke’s Drift with aeroplanes – but it does not end there.

Having failed to demolish the RAF, Hitler then turned his attentions towards the cities and to breaking public support for the war – the ‘Blitz’ upon London, Coventry, Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Plymouth and elsewhere that ran through from the autumn of 1940 to the spring of 1941. In this, he very nearly succeeded. When Churchill toured the streets he was jeered and heckled as often as he was cheered. But no surrender came.

Churchill’s speeches moved mountains in terms of belief – his vision of ‘the Few’ seeing off the mighty forces of Nazism acted as a beacon to the free world. But as RAF ‘ace’ Tom Neil put it, his view wasn’t necessarily shared by the men awaiting the next scramble – referring to the ‘so-called Battle of Britain’.

“So-called, as that then-familiar phrase related to a national crisis which for us had been merely part of a sustained period of activity against the Luftwaffe” Neil surmised. “A tidy but emotive expression for a tidy fourteen-week event, conveniently terminating on 31 October 1940. As though for us the war had started in July and ended in October, which it most definitely had not!”

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Tom Neil (highlighted) and the pilots of 249 Squadron during the battle

Wars are untidy things with many loose ends and misadventures, as Tom Neil and many of the other veterans have always been at pains to point out. The Luftwaffe may have been beaten back in the summer of 1940, and it would count the cost of squandering its best and most experienced airmen upon Göring’s hubris for the rest of the war. But the Battle of Britain was one of the messiest escapades in military history and it ended only with uncertainty.

The British people remembered only too well the cost of the Great War of 1914-18 and had no great desire to be bombed. With Mussolini’s armies also trying to fracture Britain’s grasp on its Empire by seizing control of the Mediterranean and Africa, things looked bleak long after the Battle of Britain was announced as a victory. Churchill was doing his best to woo America, but President Roosevelt faced a majority, including Joe Kennedy, intent upon doing a deal with Hitler to prevent war.

Whether any of this makes its way into Ridley Scott’s epic remains to be seen. However, in these troubled times, there are any parallels to be found.

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A restored Hispano ‘Messerschmitt’ has been flying in its film colours in recent years

One thing that we can be assured of is that the owners and operators of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmitts of all colours are going to be gleeful. Doubtless many will be recruited for filming and air shows will take on a very Battle of Britain-orientated theme over the next couple of years. Equally, there may well be many more Stukas, Dorniers, Bf110s, Ju88s, Gladiators, Defiants and Blenheims appearing in the new film, made available through the wonders of CGI that did not exist in 1968.

In the meantime, we can entertain ourselves with casting the movie on his behalf. Here is the original cast list, with the S&G’s recommendations to fill the roles today alongside them in brackets:

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Sir Laurence Olivier – Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (Gary Oldman)
Trevor Howard – Air Vice Marshal Keith Park (Rhys Ifans)
Robert Shaw – Squadron Leader Skipper (Charlie Hunnam)
Christopher Plummer – Squadron Leader Harvey (James McAvoy)
Sir Ralph Richardson – British Ambassador (Rufus Sewell)
Baron von Richter – Curd Jürgens (Heino Ferch)
Harry Andrews – Senior Civil Servant (Edward Fox)
Sir Michael Redgrave – Air Vice Marshal Evill (Daniel Craig)
Kenneth More – Group Captain Baker (James Purefoy)
Susannah York – Section Officer Harvey (Emma Watson)
Michael Bates – Warrant Officer Warwick (Sean Pertwee)
Patrick Wymark – Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory (Hugh Jackman)
Barry Foster – Squadron Leader Edwards (David Tennant)
Michael Caine – Sqadron Leader Canfield (Laurence Fox)
Edward Fox – Pilot Officer Archie (Freddie Fox)
James Cosmo – Pilot Officer Jamie (Ben Wishaw)
Ian McShane – Sgt. Andy (Harry Styles)
Isla Blair – Mrs. Andy (Eve Hewson)
Rolf Steifel – Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz)
Hein Riess – Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (Herbert Grönemeyer)
Wilfried von Aacken – General Osterkamp (Benno Führmann)
Peter Hager – Field Marshal Kesselring (Sebastian Koch)
Wolf Harnisch – General Fink (Jürgen Prochnow)
Reinhard Horras – Bruno (Daniel Wiemer)
Paul Neuhaus – Foehn (Stipe Erceg)
Alexander Allerson – Brandt (Daniel Brühl)

 

And on that absurdly handsome note, let’s remind ourselves why this movie is potentially so very special:

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

A giant called Winkle

Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown has died at the age of 97. This remarkable man flew 487 different types of aircraft, made 2,407 deck landings at sea and 2,721 catapult launches. The odds on those achievements ever being equalled are decidedly slim.

Brown’s talent for aviation was spotted by none other than Ernst Udet, the World War 1 fighter ‘ace’, who met the 17-year-old Brown in 1936 when his father took him to witness the Olympic Games in Berlin. Udet, the greatest air display pilot of the 1920s and 1930s, took the teenager up and threw him around the sky – noting that he was completely calm and attentive throughout.

Brown did indeed learn to fly and he returned to Germany as a student teacher, where he was briefly detained upon the outbreak of World War 2 before being allowed to drive his MG Magnette back to Britain.

During the war, Brown volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm and saw active service piloting the Grumman Martlet (a ‘rebadged’ F4F Wildcat), in defence the Atlantic convoys until his ship, HMS Audacity, was sunk in late 1941. He was one of only two aircrew to survive the ordeal and, once back on dry land, became a leading light of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, evaluating all manner of aircraft.

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As a result of this job, Brown’s log book featured every major combat aircraft of the Second World War including gliders, fighters, bombers, airliners, amphibians, flying boats, helicopters jets and rocket-propelled aircraft. As the war in Europe drew to a close, Brown was attached to the Enemy Aircraft Flight, dispatched to evaluate the latest technology being produced in the Third Reich for potential future use.

It was while in this role that Brown’s German language skills were seconded to interviewing some of the most significant Nazis in captivity, including Josef Kramer ‘the Beast of Belsen’ and Irma Grese, ‘the Beautiful Beast’. It was while working among these killers that Brown identified a detainee who claimed to be called Heinrich Hitzinger but was in fact none other than Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS.

After the war, Brown continued to work with new aviation technologies, including making the first deck landings by a jet and by an aircraft with tricycle undercarriage. He went on to become a leading light in the global aerospace industry, then a long-serving author and public speaker who was still appearing in person and in media interviews until late in 2015.  And now the story ends: we shall not see his like again.

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Eric “Winkle” Brown unveils his bust at the Fleet Air Arm Museum