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

 

Commemorating the Battle of Britain

The history of the world is written by its victors.  So it was that, this summer, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain has been commemorated: a 14-week period that was defined by Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, that ended on 31 October 1940 and resulted in Germany’s first defeat of the war.

That is not the way everyone saw it at the time, of course. Churchill was a politician who needed to inspire his country towards a prolonged and outwardly hopeless war that most people dreaded, thus he declared Fighter Command’s survival of the Luftwaffe’s summer onslaught to be a victory of epic proportions. Even as he spoke, however, German bombs were raining down on British cities at night as the Luftwaffe operated almost with impunity.

It is important to remember that, even in 1940, the pilots of RAF Fighter Command considered that their leader had somewhat over-egged the pudding.  Tom Neil, a 20-year-old Hurricane pilot and ‘ace’ in 1940 described the ‘so-called’ Battle of Britain thus:

“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, a tidy but emotive expression for a tidy fourteen-week event, conveniently terminating on 31 October 1940.  As though the war had started for us in July and ended in October, which it most definitely had not!”

The 'Battle of Britain' saw Churchill in the role of commentator, umpire and team captain

The ‘Battle of Britain’ saw Churchill combine the roles of commentator, referee and team captain

The Battle of Britain is therefore open to considerable interpretation and the 75th anniversary of these events should have been handled with care with those few remaining voices who fought and lived through it being given fullest attention.  But this is 2015 so there was no chance of such subtlety.

The role of host broadcaster for the commemorations was handed, fairly inexplicably, to Channel 4. This is the broadcaster of bean curd, socialism and dubious sexual practices; sort of an advertiser-funded Student Union.

The presenter of Channel 4’s broadcasts was to be Dermot O’Leary, a man who has fairly rocketed up the greasy pole of media celebrity from local radio to hosting The X-Factor, aided by his anodyne matiness and a bottom that makes grown women weep.  Alarm bells immediately clattered into life at the S&G.

Then came the title of the first of Channel 4’s commemorative programmes, which caused the alarm bells to shatter and the wall upon which they were hanging to be blown down flat. Battle of Britain: The Day The War Was Won

As the opening credits rolled, Dermot’s voice rang out with no little sense of occasion.  “Tonight we will be winding the clock back 75 years to that crucial day when the Nazis attempted to annihilate the RAF and pave the way for a full-on land invasion.”

Not just any kind of invasion, you understand, but a ‘full-on land invasion’.  I bet that’s what Hitler called it as well – about ten seconds before he realised that, in 1940, any kind of sea invasion of the British Isles was utterly impossible to achieve.

The thrust of the programme, however, was that Churchill did not go far enough in distilling an 11-month campaign into a 14-week victory. Now it all boiled down to one day, 15 September 1940, upon which the fate of everything in the world, if not the known universe, would depend.

Presumably even the producers realised that they were catastrophically wide of the mark and thus to save their bacon a tame historian was required to endorse the scriptwriter’s dismal handiwork.  Enter the ubiquitous James Holland.

Dermot O'Leary and James Holland told their version of the Battle of Britain

Dermot O’Leary and James Holland told their version of the Battle of Britain

James was not his usual ruddy-faced self.  He had the haunted look of a man who had been handed the choice between making a convincing case for the script or making a convincing case for his reputation.  In the end, he managed neither. As a fall-back position, he adopted a slightly weird Estuary twang and said:

“The idea is to kind of, sort of bomb London into submission, demoralise the people, you know, hit the factories, but it’s also to, you know, kill people as well.  That’s the point of it.  But what the Luftwaffe have got to do is destroy the Air Force because you cannot do a cross-Channel invasion unless you have command, or control at least, of the skies in that invasion.”

There was that word again: invasion.  Not a ‘full-on land invasion’ but still, scary stuff.  Yet although the ‘i-word’ was repeatedly proffered it was never explored. This was a shame, because I’d like to have heard what thoughts James had to offer on that subject.

Mary Wilkins, wartime ferry pilot with the ATA, featured heavily in proceedings

Mary Wilkins, wartime ferry pilot with the ATA, featured heavily in proceedings

Instead we were offered Arthur Williams, whose PR describes him as ‘a young, ambitious and exciting new broadcaster identified by Channel 4 as a star of the future, and he was ready for his big moment.  Pointing out towards France, Arthur said: “Waves of Hitler’s planes set off to attack us…”

Terminology is everything. First we had Dermot telling us that the Nazis were attempting to annihilate the RAF. Now we had Arthur describing ‘Hitler’s planes’ mustering over France. There is an obvious omission here: the ‘g-word’. This was not a small, crazed sect of ‘Nazis’ with ‘Nazi plans’ and armed with ‘Hitler’s bombers’ – it was the entire nation of Germany galvanised to arms and cheering itself hoarse with delight at having conquered mainland Europe.

The political map of Europe in October 1940

The political map of Europe in October 1940

After Arthur’s contribution came Dermot’s recap: “Hitler’s Luftwaffe had set out to smash the RAF and pave the way to invasion…”  The S&G’s television narrowly escaped from being chucked through a window.

So thank God, then, that for the last couple of minutes the endless parade of statements died down and, in the quiet, those last few faltering voices of the men and women who were there spoke their own epitaph.  This was brilliant, electrifying TV of a kind that Channel 4 couldn’t possibly have bargained for or understood, otherwise it would have shown nothing else.

First there was Tom Neil, still clear-eyed and forthright at 95, who concluded: “I’ve done my bit.  My generation’s done its bit.  But I’m now not afraid of dying.”

Then there was Geoff Wellum, still full of dapper good cheer, who added: “It’s not about medals.  It’s not about thank-yous.  But it’s nice to be remembered because being remembered covers everybody who served through and fought in the Battle of Britain. And being remembered is all that we want.”

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum also gave his thoughts

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum also gave his thoughts

‘Battle of Britain Day’ is commemorated on 15 September each year, and for the 75th anniversary this meant a live broadcast on Channel 4. Up to 40 aircraft, representing types flown by the RAF in the Battle of Britain, prepared to fly off from Goodwood to tour the south of England as the main act of the day.  To make sure that as many people took notice as possible, this programme was entitled The Battle of Britain: Return of the Spitfires

Dermot O’Leary and James Holland were back in their Laurel and Hardy roles. The programme was called Return of the Spitfires, thus Dermot was walking among Spitfires (after flying in a two-seat Spitfire) when he asked James which particular aircraft of all those standing around them stood out: ‘that Hurricane over there’, James replied, pricelessly.

When, finally, the flying got underway the focus did at least fall in the right direction: back on that brilliant man Tom Neil, who was back in a two-seat Spitfire after half a century and in pride of place in the formation as it toured the skies where the battle was fought.

Wing Commander Neil had refused a full helmet or radio link.  Instead we were treated to the view of his 95-year-old features wordlessly absorbing the environment that, within just five years on active service, had come to define the rest of his life. It is also an environment to which he is unlikely to ever return, making it all the more remarkable to share his experience as best we could.  When this silent, stoic salute to a generation was over, Dermot could be relied upon to ask the Wing Commander for his thoughts.

“Quite an emotional business,” came the reply.

Prince Harry was a major part of the 15 September commemorations - as was Tom Neil

Prince Harry was a major part of the 15 September commemorations – as was Tom Neil

Right from the very first planning meeting, through two deeply underwhelming TV programmes, nobody else had stood a chance of saying anything more profound than its veterans. If only they could have had the courage not to even try.

Bader, Goodwood and another Battle of Britain commemoration

Another of the stories with which the S&G was regaling all and sundry at the 2015 Goodwood Revival surrounded the statue of Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, one of the Battle of Britain’s best-known heroes, which stands before the Garden of Remembrance and, in its own way, commemorates one of the many historic links between Shell and Goodwood.

In 2015, the Goodwood Revival commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain with a spectacular gathering of wartime aircraft in the Freddie March Spirit of Aviation display and flying programme, supported by Shell as Official Fuel and Lubricants Partner to the event. It was therefore appropriate to look back upon the incredible life of Sir Douglas Bader, the ‘ace’ who later became Managing Director of Shell Aircraft Ltd.

Bader’s statue at Goodwood anchored the military vehicle area at the 2015 Revival

Lord March commissioned the statue in 2001 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Bader’s final operational sortie, on August 9 1941, when he led his wing of Spitfires from Goodwood (then RAF Westhampnett) towards occupied France. Recent research has shown that another Spitfire, in the heat of battle near Le Touquet, accidentally shot down Bader’s aircraft in northern France. Forced to bail out of his stricken machine, the RAF’s celebrated airman was captured and taken as a Prisoner of War.

The German medical officer who examined him exclaimed: “My God, you have lost your leg.” Soon afterwards they realized that this was in fact the famous British pilot who flew with two ‘tin legs’.

Bader had graduated from the RAF College in Cranwell in 1930, where he captained the Rugby team and was a champion boxer. A year later, however, he crashed his Bristol Bulldog fighter and both of his legs were amputated as a result.

Although discharged from the RAF, Bader was determined to keep flying and had artificial legs made, learning to walk again while taking a role working for Shell.

After considerable lobbying by Bader – something for which he was famous –the RAF agreed to take him back as a regular flying officer in 1935. Upon the outbreak of war, Bader was once again tireless in his efforts, this time to get posted to a frontline squadron, and duly arrived at 222 Squadron, flying Spitfires, in time to help provide air cover to the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Bader (centre) and the men of 242 Squadron at Duxford, September 1940

On his first operational sortie, Bader shot down a Messerschmitt Bf109. He was promoted to Squadron Leader during the Battle of Britain and given command of 242 Squadron, flying Hawker Hurricanes in Cambridgeshire – away from the most intense fighting, much to Bader’s chagrin.

Once again, Bader relentlessly lobbied his superiors, demanding that they employ a ‘Big Wing’ tactic, namely a massed formation of up to 70 fighters that Bader believed would hit the German bomber formations harder. Once again, Bader got his way.

This remarkable period of service came to an end in captivity after Bader had been credited with a total of 23 victories – although, in captivity, another chapter then began. Soon after his capture, a parcel was dropped by parachute during an RAF bombing raid with a note attached to it, which read:

“To the German flight commander of the Luftwaffe at St Omer. Please deliver to the undermentioned address this package for Wing Commander Bader, RAF prisoner of war, St Omer, containing artificial leg, bandages, socks, straps.”

Thus restored, Bader set about causing the Germans as much trouble as he had his RAF commanders. He tried repeatedly to escape and was eventually incarcerated in Colditz, where his captors confiscated his legs each night to prevent further escape attempts.

After the war, he rejoined Shell and travelled the world as Managing Director of Shell Aircraft Ltd. providing guidance on air operations and flight standards to Shell group companies worldwide.

Douglas Bader with the Miles Gemini he flew with Shell in the 1950s

Throughout this time, and through his retirement in 1969, Bader also worked tirelessly to establish and raise funds for the Douglas Bader Foundation, which provides help to disabled people who want to achieve seemingly impossible goals.

He was knighted for his work on behalf of the disabled, adding to the Distinguished Service Order that he was awarded twice, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Mentions in Dispatches, the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre.

Interestingly, the Bonhams auction at this year’s Revival was supposed to star Douglas Bader’s personal transport throughout the war years: his black MG Midget. In the end the car was withdrawn from the sale during the week before the event, but it was nevertheless heartening to see this fine motor car looking in such good trim.

The Battle of Britain: an untold story

The S&G was called upon by Shell at this year’s Revival to tell a few stories to support its ongoing partnership with Goodwood. The first of these was a timely and unsung tale of how Shell developed fuels that made their debut in the aircraft of Fighter Command in the summer of 1940.

One might have thought that the arrival of a new fuel grade that boosted the power and endurance that was made available to fighter aircraft defending Britain in the summer of 1940 might have merited the occasional mention before now. Indeed, it did – in a rather colourful tome called Time’s Forelock: a Record of Shell’s Contribution to Aviation in the Second World War, written by Wing Commander George Kerr in 1948.

The skies over Sussex were in dramatic form

The skies over Sussex were in dramatic form at the 2015 Revival

It’s an astonishing piece of work, and sets the scene that, with a little bit of Transatlantic archive plundering, produced the following story:

National commemorations to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, including those at the Goodwood Revival, are an opportunity to reflect not only upon the heroic efforts of the men and machines of RAF Fighter Command throughout the summer of 1940, but also those who serviced and supported their great endeavours. The pilots who flew into battle were immortalised by Winston Churchill as ‘the Few’, but those who worked tirelessly away from the fighting were the many – and among them was Shell.

Developing innovative products for the aviation industry has been Shell’s mission from the outset of powered flight. In 1919, Shell engaged Harry Ricardo to investigate the fundamental properties needed to make aviation fuels more effective. Improving the fuels became a process that ran parallel to improvements in engine technology, identifying the correct blends to deliver optimum performance that became known, from 1930 onwards, as the fuel’s octane number.

Throughout the 1930s, in laboratories spanning the UK, Netherlands and USA, Shell scientists created blends of various octane levels and with specific lean and rich running properties to suit a variety of roles, with an 87-octane blend becoming the global industry standard through the 1930s. Nevertheless, further increases in the octane rating of aviation fuel were sought, led by the world-famous air racer and manager of the aviation department of Shell in the USA, Jimmy Doolittle.

General Doolittle (in uniform) visiting Shell’s laboratories in 1945

As a direct result of Doolittle’s insistence, Shell constructed a dedicated plant producing 100-octane fuel in the USA by 1934. The 100-octane blend provided high performance aircraft with a 15 to 30 percent increase in power over a compatible engine burning 87-octane fuel, with measurable increases in terms of shorter take off runs and faster rate of climb as well as overall reduced fuel consumption – qualities that would prove invaluable for the fast response of interceptor aircraft like the Spitfire and Hurricane during the Battle of Britain.

The Royal Air Force had agreed to a limited supply of 100-octane fuel in 1938, but the outbreak of war placed supply routes under threat until the USA invoked a revised Neutrality Act in late 1939; allowing large quantities of 100-octane fuel to be shipped from the United States. Those supplies began to reach front-line squadrons in bulk through the first half of 1940 and would see its first use in battle in defending the evacuation of Dunkirk, immediately prior to the Battle of Britain.

Delivering those supplies was a fleet of tankers that was forced to brave not only the rigours of the North Atlantic but also the concentrated attacks of submarine and surface vessels. In total 29 fuel and oil tankers were sunk in the Atlantic during the period of the Battle of Britain, with the loss of 260 merchant sailors. Their sacrifice in attempting to deliver desperately needed fuel to the front line cannot be forgotten.

The Shell tanker Pecten, sunk on 20 August 1940 delivering 100-octane fuel to the RAF

As a result of using 100-octane fuel, the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines fitted to the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire were able to make maximum use of their increased power and range.

With 100-octane fuel, the supercharged Merlins of the RAF fighters could, once adjusted, be “boosted” from +6.25 lbs/sq.in. to +12 lbs/sq.in., increasing peak power from 880 hp (656 kW) to 1,310 hp (977 kW). This increased power substantially improved the rate of climb for Britain’s first line of defence, especially at low to medium altitudes, and increased top speed by up to 45 mph in level flight.

The development of aviation fuels would be accelerated dramatically throughout the next five years at war. Octane levels rose from 100- to 130- and finally 150-octane by the war’s end, by which time the piston-engined aircraft was at the limit of its development. But as early as May 6 1941, Shell scientists had been on hand to witness their kerosene at work in the first flight of an aircraft using an all-new form of aero engine: the jet.

By then the Battle of Britain had been declared a victory by the British Prime Minister and ‘the Few’ had been garlanded. In those 16 weeks, the Royal Air Force had beaten off the threat of surrendering control of the skies over its homeland, and the ‘Few’ of Fighter Command were justifiably the heroes of the hour.

Goodwood Revival Air Displays

The aircraft element of this year’s Goodwood Revival was in some ways more prominent than usual, with the Freddie March Spirit of Aviation concours being dedicated to Battle of Britain aircraft in anticipation of the former RAF Westhampnett becoming the focal point of national commemorations for the 75th anniversary. What this meant was an abundance of Spitfires, a smattering of Hurricanes and the lone Bristol Blenheim standing in all their glory on the airfield to be enjoyed up close by the visitors to the event.

In the air, however, the pall of nearby Shoreham still hung heavily over proceedings. The flying elements – a daily ‘Dawn Patrol’, scheduled flyovers by the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and performances by aircraft stationed at Goodwood for the weekend – were little more than gentle circuits that dipped down over the runway before climbing out to perform another circuit. The only non-WW2 aircraft scheduled to perform, the Avro Vulcan bomber, did not appear due to a technical fault in the landing gear.

The only opportunity provided for a proper air display was over the cricket match on Thursday night, during which a spectacular display was put on by the lone Spitfire. Elsewhere through the weekend, the heroes of the show were the Old Flying Machine Company’s pair of movie stars – Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IX MH434, a stalwart of the Revival, and P-51D Mustang Ferocious Frankie.

MH434 is the only flying Spitfire to have never been fully restored. She was first flown by aviation aces, securing an enviable record in WWII, before the late Ray Hanna, a founder member of the RAF Red Arrows, bought her as the anchor of his historic flying circus, the Old Flying Machine Company.

Ray’s exploits in MH434 remain legendary, including the famous ‘buzz’ of Alain de Cadenet, flying down the start/finish straight at Goodwood lower than the pit garage roof and flying through the Winston Bridge in County Durham for a scene in the TV adaptation of Derek Robinson’s Piece of Cake. This latter appearance was one of many film roles to date such as A Bridge Too Far, The Longest Day, Hope & Glory and Battle of Britain.

In her regular position alongside MH434, P-51D Mustang Ferocious Frankie also drew admiring glances. Frankie also had an enviable war career, followed by second place overall in the Reno air races. Since she was added to the Old Flying Machine Company stable, the Mustang has become another movie regular with roles in Saving Private Ryan, Memphis Belle, Hart’s War and an iconic presence in Stephen Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.

The other pair working the line at Goodwood was The Fighter Collection’s pair of Curtiss Hawks. A novelty for many, the Curtiss Hawk 75 is the only airworthy example of the Curtiss P-36 lineage left anywhere in the world. Flying in the colours of the French Armee de l’Air, she was joined by one of only two P-40F fighters still airworthy, the sole Hawk type to be fitted with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.

Of course the highlight of the weekend for many was the flypast by 12 Hurricanes and Spitfires. And it was great – not least thanks to the presence of war veterans now well into their tenth decade, the backdrop of film and speech and music and the general level of reverence being offered up before the aircraft swooped in.

All in all, it was done very well indeed.

Didn’t you all do well?

Well that’s it for another year – the Goodwood Revival has come and gone for 2015. First of all, let’s start with a little look back at some of the many, many fine outfits put together this year. Who knows, you might even find yourself in the gallery!

A few concerns have been voiced in recent years that the whole fancy dress element has taken over the event to the detriment of the original festival of all that once was in motor racing. It is true that the nature of the event has changed and that it is now fundamentally a social occasion at which some lovely old aeroplanes and cars are present. But is that so wrong, when so many people among the record 149,000 attendees have got it so very right?

The fact is that most of the cars and all of the aircraft taking part in this year’s Revival can be seen at other events all summer long. It is Goodwood that makes it special, and it does so by encouraging everyone to feel part of the occasion. That can be no bad thing.

Yes, everyone was carrying a smartphone or tablet along with their fur stole or G.I. helmet – but that is the nature of life in 2015. On the plus side, it must have been a relief to many that silly stick-on moustaches were mercifully few, those who arrived dressed like hippies had a certain self-conscious look about them and almost any hint of training shoes or hoodies had been banished from the Goodwood Estate.

After four days on site, your correspondent was required to call in to Sainsbury’s to buy some milk. It was a harsh reintroduction to the modern world and made one wish that every day was a Revival day. So please enjoy the gallery and well done to everyone who was there. The S&G salutes your eye for detail and your relentless good cheer – it was a very happy place to be. So click on a picture and scroll through a lot of what you all got up to – and what the rest of you should be doing next year!