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

 

Can ‘Carradale’ be saved?

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

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

Sir Sydney Camm at ease after WW2

Sir Sydney Camm at ease after WW2

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

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

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

Camm with a glider during World War 1

Camm with a glider in 1915

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

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

Hawker aircraft like the Fury were mainstays of 1930s defence

Hawker aircraft like the Fury were mainstays of 1930s defence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first of the many - Hurricane prototype aloft over Surrey

The first of the many – Hurricane prototype aloft over Surrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hurricanes of 85 Squadron in flight during the Battle of Britain

Hurricanes of 85 Squadron in flight during the Battle of Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home of the Camel, Heart of the Hurricane

In a sleepy corner of Kingston lies an aviation icon…

If one ventures to Canbury Park Road in Kingston these days it is hard to find anything to write home about. Just a slightly grimy offshoot of Richmond Road, opposite the railway station and nestling on the edge of Kingston’s dreaded one-way system.

Yet by wandering up past the tattoo shop and continuing into suburbia for just a few hundred yards, one is actually in the presence of greatness. The buildings become a little outsized – and they echo of some of the greatest British engineering of all time.

In December 1912, the 24-year-old aviator Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith purchased the Victorian roller skating rink which sat on Canbury Park Road. The fad for skating had passed and his needs were pressing – a smooth, clear floor was needed upon which to chalk out the lines of Sopwith’s home-made flying machines.

Even then Kingston was a busy town and very much part of London’s south-western sprawl. Ordinarily it would be an inconvenient place for building aircraft but as Sopwith specialised in fitting floats to his machines to take off and land on water he could – together with his mechanic, Fred Sigrist – easily hump his creations down to the River Thames and take off where it straightened out just north of Kingston Bridge.

Although it was an age far removed from modern ‘elf and safety’ concerns, the influential River Thames Conservancy group took umbrage at such use of the river – and so too did the local constabulary. As a result, Sopwith tended to fly off at the first light of dawn – but later invested in a Daimler lorry for transporting new aircraft down to Brooklands, equipped with wheels rather than floats for undercarriage.

Nevertheless, Sopwith’s seafaring aircraft were a hit. In 1913 the company’s most ambitious project to date was undertaken in partnership with the S. E. Saunders boatyard of East Cowes on the Isle of Wight, building the wood-hulled ‘Bat Boat’ which brought truly amphibious aviation to life.

Sopwith's 'Bat Boat' became a roaring success

Sopwith’s ‘Bat Boat’ became a roaring success

The success of these early models – the ‘Bat Boat’ was sold not only to the Royal Navy but also its Greek and German counterparts – saw the building of a factory in Woolston, Hampshire.  Yet Sopwith retained Kingston as his centre of operations and soon there would be far more to the premises than the old ice rink.

The First World War brought about a massive expansion to Sopwith’s factory. His delicate little Tabloid seaplane made the early running, but in 1916 he employed Yorkshireman, Herbert Smith, as chief designer – and Sopwith became a fabled name almost immediately.

The Sopwith 1½ Strutter by Herbert Smith launched a famous line of fighting aircraft

Smith’s first design was the two-seat 1½ Strutter, which finally gave reconnaissance crews flying over the Western Front sufficient performance to survive against Germany’s new breed of single-seat fighters. Then came his brilliant line of single-seat fighting scouts the Pup, Triplane, Camel, Dolphin and Snipe… all of which were born in the heart of Kingston.

The original ice rink was supplemented by a saw mill and carpenters’ shop on Elm Road in 1914-15, doubling the size of the property, which doubled once again in 1916-17 with the addition of woodworking, paint and tinsmith’s shops.

In 1917 the government also built a new ‘national’ factory at Ham, between Kingston and Richmond, which was also leased to Sopwith for the duration of the war. In total, Sopwith employed 5,000 staff and 16,000 aircraft were built – although many were sub-contracted to firms such as the Lincolnshire farm equipment manufacturers Clayton & Shuttleworth and Ruston Procter.

The Sopwith Camel was called the ‘king of air fighters’

If the armistice of 1918 declared time on ‘the war to end all wars’ then clearly, society had no need of fighter aircraft – and Sopwith was immediately in trouble. The Ham plant was reclaimed by the government and sold to Leyland to convert ex-military trucks to civilian use.

By now Sopwith was a crippled firm which was also being pursued for Excess War Profits Duty. After a final, flailing effort to turn its wartime products into civilian aircraft and a doomed partnership with ABC Motorcycles, Sopwith went bust in 1920.

From the ashes of one fighter firm came another, however, fronted by Sopwith’s chief test pilot Harry Hawker together with Thomas Sopwith, Fred Sigrist and Bill Eyre. The new firm, H.G. Hawker Engineering, started afresh – albeit from the Canbury Park Road premises – to build a string of world-class biplane fighters such as the Fury, Demon, Hart and Hind designed by Sydney Camm.

Hawker aircraft like the Demon filled RAF squadrons between the wars

Hawker aircraft like the Demon filled RAF squadrons between the wars

In 1934 the renamed Hawker Aircraft Limited bought out Gloster aircraft and a year later merged with Armstrong-Siddeley to create an aviation conglomerate comprising Hawker, Gloster, Armstrong-Whitworth and Avro under the banner of the Hawker-Siddeley Group.

Meanwhile life in Kingston carried on as normal. By January 1935, Sydney Camm had completed his initial design work on a new single-seat monoplane fighter with an enclosed cockpit, retractable undercarriage and eight machine guns: the Hurricane. When it flew from Hawker’s shed at Brooklands that November, the Hurricane laid the foundations of British air defence for World War 2.

In readiness for the Hurricane – and doubtless with a weather eye on the increasing belligerence of Nazi Germany and the other fascist states – the site in Kingston was effectively levelled and a new factory complex erected in its place. The original administration building was retained – albeit in extended form – a while a nest of red brick sheds with slate roofs standing 2 or 3 storeys above Canbury Park Road.

All focus was fixed on the Hurricane as WW2 approached

It was from here that the war work was carried out, with the various iterations of the Hurricane and Sea Hurricane being followed by the Typhoon and, by the end of the war, the Tempest and Sea Tempest.

With peace and the arrival of the jet age it was clear that the Kingston plant could no longer cope with the demands being made upon it. So it was that Hawker left its home in 1948, moving back to the factory up the road at Ham which it had vacated 30 years earlier.

The story of Hawker and the Hawker-Siddeley Group in Britain’s golden era of jet production can be told another day. For the Canbury Park site there was little sentiment – even if it was unique as the birthplace of more war-winning weaponry than any other factory in the world.

The only overt sign of the Sopwith building’s true purpose…

Today the most obvious link between the past and present is in the form of a wrought iron fence which features four-bladed propellers as a motif. This fence rings the original nerve centre of the factory, the design office and administration building, which dates back to 1914 and updated in 1935.

From here the great Sopwith and Hawker designs of two world wars first emerged and it is an impressive edifice, blending a little bit of all styles from Georgian to Art Deco – which doubtless made it a mouth-watering prospect for the developers. Today this is one of the Ritzier residential plots in Kingston and a highly desirable address.

Gateway to the heavens: the main entrance to Sopwith and Hawker’s HQ

Around it one or two of the 1935-era industrial buildings remain, red bricked and metal trussed, such as the Experimental Shop. Some are a little careworn, but they do at least remain, and will continue to do so under Grade II listed status – the surviving parts of the oldest purpose-built aeroplane factory in England.

A little piece of history – the Experimental Shop today

Jetting to Jersey?!

As the long, hot summer of 2013 continues to see the British Isles basking in almost unbroken warmth, this lovely old advert for BOAC’s new jet services to the Channel Islands leapt to my attention.

We have been blessed, of course, with the birth of a future monarch, victories for British athletes at Wimbledon and in the Tour de France, the British and Irish Lions delivered in rugby and the Ashes look set to be saved. Adrian Newey’s British-built Red Bull RB9 seems set to continue the team’s dominance in Formula One – and we can enjoy all this while breaking out the buckets and spades and heading for the coast this summer.

Truly it’s a vintage year… so here’s some vintage sunshine to celebrate.

You just can't beat a decent British summer...

In any era, you just can’t beat a decent British summer…

The remarkable Whitney Straight – Part 2: aviator

The art deco splendour of Ramsgate's airport terminal - a Straight Corporation creation

The art deco splendour of Ramsgate’s airport terminal – a Straight Corporation creation

The prodigiously talented young American racing driver, Whitney Straight, abandoned his chosen career at the ripe old age of 23. With no prospect of winning at the highest level of the sport without representing Nazi Germany, he turned to his other great passion – aviation – and founded the Straight Corporation Ltd. in early 1935.

Immediately he began looking for ways to invest in the aviation infrastructure of his adopted home country, Britain, thus the Straight Corporation set about buying up operator’s rights and expanding existing airfields, setting up flying clubs and taking a lead role in civil aviation.

The business grew rapidly through the mid-1930s and among the many Straight Corporation properties were the airports at Exeter, Ipswich, Ramsgate, Weston Super Mare, Bristol and Inverness. Whitney Straight himself also joined forces with the Miles aircraft company to produce a beautiful touring machine, the Miles Whitney Straight, in 1936.

The Miles Whitney Straight was a rakish air racer and tourer

The Miles Whitney Straight was a rakish air racer and tourer

As with his motor racing exploits, Straight very quickly inveigled his friend Dick Seaman in the new venture. No doubt arguing that Seaman also needed something to provide him with a future beyond racing, the younger man also gained his pilot’s licence and was listed as a director of many Straight Corporation-owned businesses. He was even the registered owner of a Short Scion airliner at the tender age of 22!

The Aeroplane recorded that, in January 1936, the Straight Corporation Ltd. of Brettenham House, Lancaster Gate, Strand, London, WC2 reported increase in capital of £45,000 over the registered capital of £75,000. Whitney Straight was himself stated to be director and also director of General Aircraft Ltd. Dumium Ltd, Air Commerce Ltd and Sidco Trust Ltd.

As well as a prominent businessman, Straight had also become a husband. In a classic meeting of backgrounds, he married Lady Daphne Margarita Finch-Hatton, whose father was Guy Montagu George Finch-Hatton, 14th Earl of Winchilsea and 9th Earl of Nottingham, but whose mother was Margaretta Armstrong Drexel, an American banker’s heiress. The couple had two daughters together.

In 1938, with war becoming an increasing certainty, Whitney Straight became a British citizen. When war broke out, the British government requisitioned most of the Straight Corporation’s airfields while he himself joined the Royal Air Force.

Whitney Straight in uniform as an RAF officer

Whitney Straight in uniform as an RAF officer

Straight’s background in establishing, developing and managing successful airfields in peacetime doubtless played a key role in his first military assignment. He was dispatched to Norway in April 1940 to find frozen lakes suitable for use as airfields. The resultant RAF base at Lake Lesjaskog became home to the Gloster Gladiators of 263 Squadron, which fought a desperate battle against overwhelming forces during the Nazi invasion of Norway.

Straight himself was seriously wounded during the invasion and invalided back to Britain. After his recuperation, during which time the Blitzkrieg rolled its way through Belgium, Holland and France, he lobbied hard for a front-line role in the defence of Britain and was posted to 601 (County of London) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force – better known as the ‘Millionaires Squadron’.

Just like other Auxiliary units such as 610 Squadron, the early weeks of active service had taken a heavy toll on the wealthy ‘weekend warriors’ of 601. Straight flew with them from September 1940 until April 1941, during which time he was credited with two aircraft destroyed.

A 601 Squadron Hurricane being serviced in late 1940

A 601 Squadron Hurricane being serviced in late 1940

He then became CO of 242 Squadron, formerly commanded by Douglas Bader, and was able to bring his total score to 3 and 1 shared (with 2 ‘probables’) by July 1941. It was on July 31st 1941 that his front line career ended, however, when he was shot down over France.

Straight was flying a 242 Squadron Hurricane II on a ROADSTEAD anti-shipping raid near Le Havre when his aircraft was hit by the defending flak ship, knocking its engine out. He managed to make a forced landing in a nearby field and made a run for it.

Thanks to his upbringing and considerable time in Europe, Straight was a fluent French speaker and because he chose to fly in a non-regulation leather jacket he was able to make his way to Rouen and catch a train to Paris. Here he found the US Embassy closed but finally managed to telephone and persuade a member of the embassy staff to bring a thousand francs to a nearby café where Straight was hiding in the lavatories.

He then took a train to Tours and crossed out of Nazi-occupied France into the Vichy state by swimming across the river Cher. After gathering himself together and drying out, he then took a bus to Chateauroux and a train to Toulouse, from where he boarded another train heading for Pau. On approaching Bedous, near the Spanish border, he was arrested and, realising the potential propaganda value he could hold for the Germans, he gave his name and rank as Captain Whitney of the Royal Army Service Corps.

It was known that Vichy France was repatriating wounded prisoners at this time, and thus Straight claimed to be suffering ear problems from wounds received in Norway and was successfully certified as unfit for further military service. There was a long delay before repatriation could be arranged and it wasn’t until March 1942 that he joined a party being sent through Spain via Perpignan.

On arrival in Perpignan, however, it appeared that the repatriation policy had been reversed. The party was turned back and sent to detention in Nice, where Straight continued to complain of trouble from his Norwegian wounds and was duly sent to the Pasteur Hospital in Nice.

Meanwhile in London, word had reached the War Office from the US Embassy that Whitney Straight was alive in Vichy captivity and orders were given to the escape line operated by Pat O’Leary (the nom-de-guerre of Belgian army doctor-turned-spy Albert-Marie Guérisse).

A top secret vessel: HMS Tarana

A top secret vessel: HMS Tarana

O’Leary’s network ran from Gibraltar through neutral Spain and into Vichy France. One of his operatives, Francis Blanchain, traveled to Nice and visited Straight in hospital, organizing a diversion with the assistance of a nurse, Nicole Brugere, during which Straight together with two more POWs – Polish bomber crewman Sergeant Stefan Miniakowski and British soldier Private Charles Knight – simply walked out of the hospital.

The three men joined four other prisoners of war and one member of the Special Operations Executive at St Pierre Plage, near Narbonne. In what was known as Operation BLUEBOTTLE, a former French trawler used by the British secret services at MI9 as HMS TARANA, gathered up the 17-strong party in a rowing boat and then sailed them to Gibraltar in mid-July 1942.

In September 1942, Straight was appointed Wing Commander and dispatched to the Middle East as AOC of 216 Group, the air transportation and logistics operation for the region. He remained in this position until the end of the war, returning to England to take over 46 Group, the principal Air Transport operation in the RAF.

Straight and Shaikh Khalifa of Bahrain in 1945

Straight and Shaikh Khalifa of Bahrain in 1945

Straight returned to civilian life in 1946 and took up the position of deputy chairman at British European Airways before moving to the position of managing director and Chief Executive Officer of British Overseas Airways Corporation in 1947 – becoming BOAC Chairman in 1949.

Meanwhile, all around Straight there was plenty going on. His cousin Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney was President of Pan-American Airways and was also appointed President Truman’s special envoy to the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Spain and Italy, with the two cousins apparently embodying the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the USA.

Straight was also involved in what would turn out to be a 30-year romance with Diana Barnato Walker, the daughter of Le Mans winner Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato and a celebrated pilot in her own right. Together Straight and Diana had a son, Barney Barnato Walker, although he remained married to Daphne throughout his life.

Wartime heroine and long-term mistress, Diana Barnato Walker

Wartime heroine and Straight’s 30-year mistress, Diana Barnato Walker

In the meantime, Straight’s younger brother Michael was also getting some undesired attention for extracurricular interests. After flying with Whitney to South Africa in 1934, Michael Straight continued to travel and in 1935 he visited Russia – and later in the year went up to Cambridge, where he entered the circle of Communist ringleader Anthony Blunt.

Fearful of Nazism and disillusioned by British appeasement of Hitler, the teenage Straight was a ripe target for recruitment by the KGB – and legend has it that Stalin himself was kept abreast of the recruitment of the rich young American.

Cambridge spy, Anthony Blunt

Cambridge spy, Anthony Blunt

When he completed his studies at Cambridge it was agreed that Straight would very publicly attack the Communist Party and its ethos, after which he feigned a nervous breakdown and travelled to the USA with his mother and stepfather.

Through his family contacts, Michael Straight was able to gain an audience with President Roosevelt, who refused to employ him on his permanent staff but offered to help him get a job at the State Department. It was a low-profile role and it allowed the young man plenty of opportunity to copy secret documents and smuggle them to his KGB controller, Iskhak Akhmerov.

When the USA entered the war, Michael Straight joined the Army Air Service and operations. At the war’s end he joined the editorial and management team of The New Republic political magazine, founded by his mother, but this venture foundered and his elder brother Whitney forced the closure of the business.

It was at this time that Whitney Straight, now on the board of Rolls-Royce’s aeronautics division, discovered to his horror that the Soviet Union had access to Rolls-Royce technology and that the MIG 15 front-line fighter was powered by a rip-off of the Rolls-Royce Derwent engine.

MIG fighters were powered by Rolls-Royce clones

MIG fighters were powered by Rolls-Royce clones

This was nothing to do with his brother – in fact Britain’s socialist prime minister, Clement Attlee, had sent 40 Rolls-Royce engines to Russia under an export licence agreed by the Labour government. Straight immediately sued the Soviet government for breach of copyright, demanding £200 million in unpaid royalties… without success.

Michael Straight meanwhile decided that he wanted to follow the family route into American political life, when a background check by the Democratic Party revealed his Communist affiliations before World War 2. At the height of the Cold War, alarm bells went off on both sides of the Atlantic.

For the next decade, Michael Straight became a cause celebre of the American secret services, with information drawn from him in 1963 giving up Anthony Blunt as the ringleader of the Cambridge spy ring which included Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby. No action was taken directly against Michael Straight by the US government, but many believed that by not revealing his secrets earlier, he allowed Burgess, McLean and Philby a free hand.

After his long years in the wilderness under FBI and CIA observation, Michael Straight returned to public life in the late 1960s as a patron of the arts and wrote several historical studies. His older sister, Beatrice, had long been involved in the arts as an actress, taking to the stage in England in 1939 and winning an Oscar for her role in the movie Network in 1976.

Whitney and Michael Straight's sister Beatrice won an Oscar in 1976

Whitney and Michael Straight’s sister Beatrice won an Oscar in 1976

Michael Straight died in 2004 at the age of 87, three years after his sister. By that time their older brother Whitney, the pioneering aviator and racing driver, war hero and airline grandee was also dead.

At the age of just 66 – and yet with more life lived than many of far greater years – Whitney Straight died at home in Fulham in 1979, leaving a large family and a quiet but unshakeable legacy of adventure and achievement. They were, and remain, a truly remarkable family.

Hawthorn and the Stratocruiser

Hawthorn enjoyed bumping in to people on the Stratocruiser's staircase

Hawthorn enjoyed bumping in to people on the Stratocruiser’s staircase

It seems that Ian Fleming wasn’t the only British star of the 1950s who appreciated the finer things on offer from the tubby, propeller-driven Boeing 377 Stratocruiser in comparison with faster, more modern jet airliners.

In his biography Challenge Me the Race, the 1958 Formula One world champion was no less fulsome in his praise of the old bird than 007’s creator, saying:

“The fat old Stratocruiser is still my favourite aircraft for long distances. Its spiral staircase and bar on the lower deck give the passengers the opportunity to walk about and chat and get a change of scene which passes the time more agreeably than sitting glued to ones seat for hours on end in the slim modern projectiles.”

Of course, being Hawthorn, the possibility that some of his fellow passengers might be attractive young women would doubtless add more spice to the journey. Meanwhile here’s a BOAC promo film with James Robertson Justice pretending to fly one of these beautifully-appointed leviathans…

Has the Revival jumped the shark?

The best of all worlds? The Revival is a fancy dress race meeting.

Where should the Fancy Dress end and the race meeting start?

“That first year I was working on our car on the grid and I got the damned thing started and I looked up… well, it almost moved me to tears. I mean there simply was not a hair out of place among the cars, the mechanics, the marshals or the crowd. Apart from the drivers’ helmets you could have been standing there in about 1958 or 59.”

So said a veteran of the inaugural Goodwood Revival of 1998 who has been a regular ever since, courtesy of the fairly exotic assortment of ancient automobiles that he knows how to cajole into competitive life. But my friend won’t be on the grid or, indeed, among the crowds this year.

“It’s got bloody silly, really. It’s become some outlandish sort of theme park that bears no resemblance to the Goodwood I remember,” he said trenchantly. “You can’t see the cars for all the bloody vintage supermarkets and so on, and it’s a very different crowd these days.”

Kinky boots, kohl and psychedelic swirls - someone's idea of the 1960s

Kinky boots, kohl and psychedelic swirls – Goodwood’s reincarnation.

The phrase ‘jumped the shark’ is one used in the TV industry when a series has toppled past its peak into an often irreversible slide. It stems from an episode of the comedy Happy Days, when its nostalgic look at 1950s family life was becoming a little over-familiar to the audience, prompting a key character to waterski and jump over a live shark for no obvious reason.

Can a motor race be compared to a sitcom? Well, both are in the entertainment business. Fickle public affections have afflicted motor sport, such as the decline of the British Touring Car Championship from its late 1990s boom to today’s pale imitation. The apparently relentless expansion of NASCAR in the 2000s appears to have been well and truly checked, while endless Audi dominance has dented the lustre of the Le Mans 24 Hours.

The Revival was all about the racing for many years

The Revival was all about the racing for many years

The Revival is different because it is an occasion, rather than a contemporary racing series. It is a celebration of the past – albeit a past which increasingly few people remember. Yet it has also been brilliantly marketed and become a fixed point in the social calendar: a place where Glastonbury togetherness meets Last Night of the Proms Englishness with a bit of Rocky Horror Show dressing up thrown in.

Back when the Revival started, Lord March brought together the best parts of the original International Historic Festival at Silverstone, mixed in some of the best air display pilots and machines and put them out to a small but well-informed group of fans and veterans of the period with very fixed ideas of what was about to take place.

If you wanted to park in the circuit you had to have a car registered before 1966, the year when racing originally stopped. If you wanted to get into the paddock then a jacket, tie and shoes were mandatory for men and a frock was preferred (with or without hat) for the fairer sex. Period accessories were smiled upon. All was well.

Ray Hannah's famous 1998 flypast, as seen from the grandstand

Ray Hannah’s famous 1998 flypast, as seen from the grandstand

In those early years there were magic moments, such as the late, great Ray Hannah flying the ever-fabulous Spitfire MH434 below the height of the pit garages and the appearance of Bernie Ecclestone’s Vanwall VW5 on the grid of the main event.

The problem is that racing genuine period cars on a genuine period track inherently brings with it genuine period safety concerns. The Revival has survived numerous scares such as the 1998 accident which saw Neil Corner ejected from a barrel-rolling Ferrari 246 Dino, Sir Jack Brabham’s injurious crash in 2000, Willie Green’s bone-crunching 2005 collision with a TV camera in a vintage Maserati and Jochen Mass being pinned under a Lancia D50 in 2008.

How many more of these incidents the Revival can sustain in the increasingly litigious and invasively nannying world of the 21st Century is open to question. Racing cars crash and, when they do, 1960s standards are no longer palatable. Add in the precedent of  ‘bend it and mend it’ court action witnessed earlier this year when a journalist was effectively bankrupted for blowing an historic engine and the day might yet come when racing is legislated out of the whole show.

Presumably it was this reality which prompted Lord March to team up with fashionista Wayne Hemingway for the 2010 Revival to create Vintage at Goodwood as the theme for the Revival. The grand plan was to merge the worlds of fashion, film, music, art, design and photography to celebrate five decades of British cool (the 1940s to the 1980s) as a backdrop to the traditional Revival meeting.

‘Vintage’ added concerts by Sandie Shaw, The Wailers and The Buzzcocks, with a period street featuring vintage John Lewis stores and beauty parlours where women could get made-up in the style of the decade of their choice. While aficionados came to see Norton versus Moto Guzzi and Ferrari versus Jaguar on the track, a whole new crowd appeared for the catwalk shows, Burlesque evenings and dancing lessons.

Behind the Grandstands a new world has emerged in recent years

Behind the Grandstands a new world has emerged in recent years

The relationship with Hemingway lasted only one year but the effect on Goodwood was profound. The movie set of period shops, streets and fashions has become the major selling point for many at the Revival, putting the racing in the back seat for many visitors. As m’colleague Mary, over at WeHeartVintage, puts it: “I loved all the vintage fashion, and the boys in my family loved the cars and planes, so we were all happy!”

Quite probably Mary is in the majority on this, but in return it means that the perception of the Revival is increasingly less that of a race meeting and more of a fancy dress party. This has left many purists, such as my friend quoted earlier, feeling somewhat adrift. They are not alone: the letters pages and online comment boards of the classic car press are stuffed to the gunwales with protest at punters turning up in wigs, moustaches, psychedelia, Dad’s Army uniforms and Thunderbird outfits, with trainers on their feet and iPhones clamped to their ears.

Certainly this chap, pinched from WeHeartVintage wouldn’t pass muster either based on the old dress code or as a re-enactor:

Stick-on moustache and mobile phone: double no-no, surely?

Stick-on moustache and mobile phone: put that man on a fizzer, sergeant!

I shall be going to the Revival this year but I shall be paying very close attention to what people believe is appropriate dress for a race meeting in the period 1948-66. While I’m sure that some outfits will titillate, it is to be remembered that it was the Morris Minor, not Union Flag-bedecked E-Type Jags or Mini-Coopers, which was the best-selling car of the era and psychedelia came a long way behind taupe in the fashion stakes.

That’s not to say I’m a curmudgeon. Lord March and the team at Goodwood still have the rosette for best in class when it comes to the welter of classic car events that fill almost every weekend of the British summer these days, from Chris Evans’s ‘CarFests’ to the bijou gatherings around London’s more elitist environs.

In the meantime, the Scarf & Goggles will be maintaining a series of features on how to get the most out of the Revival, the do’s and don’ts and the must-not-misses, in readiness for a weekend that remains unique.