Eduard’s Royal Class

Model makers appear to be enjoying the S&G’s manual for the S.E.5 fighter, which has been given the thumbs-up from Military Modelling magazine – thank you, chaps. In the appendices you will find what was hoped to be the definitive list of scale models of the type but, rather annoyingly, a brand new model kit has since appeared. The good news, however, is that Eduard’s new 1/48 S.E.5a looks like a gem.

The headlines have all been stolen in recent years by Wingnut Wings and its staggering output of 1/32 scale kits of World War 1 aeroplanes. In part it is because of the phenomenal level of detail in such a (comparatively) large scale, and also the quality of the fit and finish. There’s also the star quality of knowing that these models were produced by Lord of the Rings movie mogul Sir Peter Jackson as part of his lifelong crusade to see Great War aviation remain in the spotlight.

While the success of Wingnut Wings has been staggering, the smaller scales have been left in the shade as a result, including the seldom-less-than-brilliant offerings from Czech firm Eduard. That has changed with the release of its long-awaited S.E.5a, however.

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Eduard’s S.E.5a broke cover earlier this year (pic IPMS Deutschland)

For British modellers, the downside of Wingnut Wings kits primarily revolve around the steep price that must be paid to own one, thanks to Her Majesty’s Customs & Excise. There is also the size of the things to be considered, however. A 1/48 scale kit bridges the gap between the hyper-detailed world of Wingnut Wings and the tiddly 1/72 ‘gentleman’s scale’ modelling that most of us attempted in our youth at one time or other.

To date the Eduard S.E.5a kit has only been available with the British-built Wolseley Viper engine. Now, however, it has been treated to a deluxe ‘Royal Class’ release, with sufficient parts to make two different aeroplanes, and for both the Viper and the Hispano-Suiza engine around which the type was originally designed.

All of this presents the modeller with a myriad of choices to make on colours, pilots, squadrons and setup for each model. Fortunately, Eduard has also included a Royal Flying Corps-themed hip flask with the plastic content, upon which the lucky owner can take the occasional pull while making their mind up.

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Sumptuous detail in miniature form: Eduard’s S.E.5 can be made ‘undressed’ (pic IPMS Deutschland)

The basic Viper-engined kit appeared about a week after the S&G’s book was published and sells at £21.99. This new Royal Class edition will be very limited and retails at a healthy £65.00 but includes so much in the way of photo-etched metal parts, resin upgrade parts and, of course, the commemorative flask, that it looks like good value and can be found for around the £50 mark with a bit of smart shopping.

All in all it looks like a great deal. Here at the S&G we have dabbled with Eduard kits and they do make even ham-fisted amateurs look like fairly decent modellers. This one will doubtless be much the same – so why not give it a go?

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The S.E.5 and the Camel

With the S.E.5 book on the shelves, a few requests have come in for stories about the machine and the men who flew it. Here’s one that went out on History of War, in case of interest.

It could be said that posterity has been cruel to the airmen of World War I. As a society, we have an apparently bottomless well of sympathy and interest when it comes to the men in the trenches. Yet the men who fought and died in the bitter campaign three miles above them are often portrayed as comical figures in fluttering silk scarves like Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart.

Perhaps that is why, if ever we have cause to think of their war, the recurring images are those of the anthropomorphic Sopwith Camel and the Red Baron’s scarlet Fokker Triplane. Yet it is the prosaically-named S.E.5, which entered service almost exactly 100 years ago today, which was arguably the greatest fighting aircraft of 1914-18.

Designed around the remarkable Hispano-Suiza V8 engine, a product of pre-war motor racing genius Louis Béchereau, the S.E.5 was a conventional biplane intended to combine manoeuvrability with greater structural strength than earlier aircraft. The V8 engine carried it faster and higher than most other front-line machines while its solid construction made for a stable gun platform.

The Royal Aircraft Factory’s designers Henry Folland and John Kenworthy, together with chief test pilot Frank Goodden, worked to the premise that the war would not be won by flying rings around the enemy but instead by shooting him down. The days of gallant lone hunters jousting in the sky – and the romantic vision of the ‘cavalry of the clouds’ – were coming to an end by the time that the S.E.5 debuted above the Battle of Arras in late April 1917.

Formations of aeroplanes, as many as 50 on each side, would instead jockey for position before unleashing a blitz attack, regrouping and then attacking again. This was not a method of fighting that the swashbuckling pilots who started the war easily adapted to: most notably Britain’s celebrated hero Albert Ball, who was initially an outspoken critic of the S.E.5.

Ball helped modify the original design to its definitive S.E.5a specification, with a raft of improvements that gave the pilots better visibility, greater firepower and even a degree of warmth in the icy world of an open cockpit at 15-20,000 feet. Despite his early misgivings, Ball eventually came to rely upon the S.E.5’s rugged construction but he remained a lone hunter at heart, which ultimately led to his death in combat on 7 May 1917.

Yet despite Ball’s loss the S.E.5 went on to see more of its pilots reach the status of ‘ace’ – namely shooting down more than five enemy machines – than any other Allied aircraft in the war. The most successful S.E.5 pilot was diminutive South African pilot ‘Proccy’ Beauchamp Proctor, credited with 54 victories made exclusively on the type.

In total, 215 pilots ‘made ace’ on the S.E.5 on the Western Front and in the Middle East, while the type also served with distinction in defending Londoners from the terror of large scale bombing raids. Among these men were the classically-educated Arthur Rhys Davids, the working class heroes Jimmy McCudden and ‘Mick’ Mannock, as well as India’s only ‘ace’ of the war, Indra Lal Roy.

“The S.E.5 is a very modern aeroplane in many respects,” says Rob Millinship, who has flown the last original airworthy example of the breed for 25 years as part of The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in Bedfordshire. “It’s 100 years old but nothing about it would surprise or disconcert a pilot used to modern high-performance designs.”

Pilots flying the Sopwith Camel accounted for more enemy aircraft destroyed than their counterparts in the S.E.5 but their successes came at an almost insatiable cost to their own lives. Unlike the S.E.5 with its long, stable V8 engine, the rotary-engined Camel was designed to be unstable in flight – perfect for dogfighting at close quarters but dreadful for inexperienced or wounded pilots trying to land safely.

Losses among Camel pilots stood at 831 dead (with 424 being killed in action and 407 killed in flying accidents), with 324 more pilots wounded or made prisoners of war. Among the S.E.5 squadrons, 286 pilots were killed of whom 207 were lost in action and 79 in accidents, with 170 more wounded or POW.

This means that while the Camels scored 3,318 victories in air combat to the S.E.5’s 2,704 the cost was infinitely greater. In statistical terms, one Camel pilot was lost for every four victories scored compared to one S.E.5 pilot for every six victories scored.

“Young guys with very little experience were getting thrown into these machines and it was sink or swim,” says Gene De Marco, head of The Vintage Aviator Limited in New Zealand, which has built three Hispano-Suiza powered reproduction S.E.5s under the watchful eye of proprietor and Lord of the Rings movie mogul, Sir Peter Jackson.

“If you’re a pilot with maybe ten hours of experience in total before reaching the front line, it would be very easy to kill yourself in the Camel… in the S.E.5 there were so many luxuries and so many potential problems had been engineered out of it that it was a very modern, very pleasant aeroplane to fly.”

The original story can be found here: History of War

Visiting Captain Ball

This week saw the S&G in the sleepy village of Annœullin in the Pas de Calais, paying a visit to a key figure in the archives – and one set to appear several more times in the weeks and months ahead – Captain Albert Ball.

It had been 28 years since last calling in on the good Captain (the passage of time being rather less marked upon Annœullin than upon oneself). Ball’s grave remained in impeccable condition, standing tall among the simple crosses that fill the rest of the German military cemetery in the village.

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It is 99 years since Ball’s last flight and the discussion over how he ended up inverted in a shallow dive over the fields of this little corner of the Pas de Calais continues to ebb and flow. Indeed, it’s simmering along rather excitably at present; with a few metaphorical low blows and beard tweaks being exchanged between historians.

Of course, whether he was shot down by Lothar von Richthofen – or anyone else, for that matter – became of little consequence to Ball himself from the moment that he hit the ground. Unless his S.E.5 suffered a structural failure, it is highly doubtful that even Ball knew the real cause of his demise.

Photographing the grave was not a problem but, sadly, reaching the surviving marker of the two laid down at the crash site by Ball’s distraught father, Albert Sr., proved impossible. These photos show the closest that could be achieved.

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To the best of the S&G’s knowledge, Albert Ball Sr. bought the field in which his son died in order to lay the stones that marked where the wreckage lay. With the markers in place – it has never been clear what happened to the second marker – the land has been worked continuously since the Armistice. Despite the agricultural setting it was possible, in 1988, to walk right up to the remaining stone.

As can be seen in the pictures, no such path exists today. For those interested in the inscription, this ‘borrowed’ image might clarify what lies out amid the greenery:

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A quick scout around upon returning to Blighty revealed that, yes, the land was bought by Albert Ball Sr.

On the assumption that nobody in the family has since sold the land back, it can hardly have been the intention that visitors should be deterred from venturing near the marker by an impenetrable army of lettuce.

Of interest was a story in the news for staff at RAF Waddington, where 56(R) Squadron – Ball’s unit of 1917 – is now based. A sergeant with the unit recounted travelling to Annœullin in 2014 for an Armistice commemoration, saying:

‘The next morning the party travelled to the town hall of Annœullin for a meeting with the Mayor and other local dignitaries. As well as discussing our participation in the Armistice parade, we also talked about the future of the field where Captain Ball crashed. Purchased by his father after the Great War, the local population has been maintaining the site ever since. It is envisaged by the local council that a permanent footpath and fence should be erected to preserve the site, and 56(R) Squadron will help facilitate the negotiations between the council and Ball family.’

Of course it is not going to be a high priority for public spending in Annœullin, and the intransigence of French farmers is the stuff of legend, but perhaps for the 100th anniversary of Ball’s last flight such a path could be inaugurated. Such a path might honour not only the loss of the man but also the determination of a bereft father that his son should never be forgotten.

The view from Stow Maries

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

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

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The attacking Gotha bombers photographed over London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London’s flying past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The magnificent facade of the Hotel Cecil still dominates The Strand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Savoy still looks out over the Victoria Embankment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Battle of Britain memorial on Victoria Embankment

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

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

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

Spending the weekend with Albert Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silvertown comes back to life

This is not a story of speed, distance or endurance but it is remarkable to think that, until as late as last year, a site of around 30 acres had lain dormant in the heart of east London, sitting on the northern bank of the River Thames, for the better part of a century. This was once the site of the Brunner Mond chemical factory in Silvertown, which opened in 1893 for the production of soda crystals and caustic soda but largely closed down in 1912.

The pressing need for munitions during World War 1 saw much of the site taken over by the War Office for the purification of TNT explosive destined to be used in artillery shells, bombs and grenades. This was widely held to be a very poor idea, because the process the surrounding area was densely populated with slum housing and the purification process was considered to be even more hazardous than the either the initial production of Trinitrotoluene or the final stages of munitions manufacture.

Nevertheless, the War Ministry was not to be denied…

The plant opened for business in September 1915 and was soon up to speed, producing at a rate of approximately 9 long tons (10 tonnes) of refined TNT per day. All was well until early in the evening of 19 January 1917, when a small fire broke out in the factory’s melting pot room. Only a skeleton staff was on hand at the time, approximately 40 people, who were led by Andrea Angel, the plant’s chief chemist, to try and contain the blaze. They did not succeed.

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Silvertown immediately after the blast

At 6:52 p.m. the fire reached the TNT and around 50 tons of explosive detonated as a result. In an instant the factory and all the souls within it were simply erased from the face of the earth. Additional TNT stocks held in railway trucks outside also detonated. Red hot debris was thrown for miles, some hitting a gasometer on the Greenwich Peninsular with sufficient force to breach the container and ignite 200,000 cubic metres of gas.

London itself was in a state of black-out due to marauding Zeppelin raiders, which made the explosion seem all the more profound. One bystander, Michael McDonagh, was waiting for a train on Blackfriars Bridge:

“Then suddenly a golden glow lit up the eastern sky, making everything as clear as day; and looking down the Thames I saw a high column of yellow flames rising, as I thought, from the river. This quickly died down, and the sky immediately became overspread with the loveliest colours – violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red – which eddied and swirled from a chaotic mass into a settled and beautiful colour design.”

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Poor quality housing crammed into the Silvertown neighbourhood bore the brunt of the explosion

The king heard the blast – and he was on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk. So too did people in Southampton. As far west as Guildford people marvelled at the burning sky. As far south as Croydon the shockwaves could be felt. The windows of the Savoy Hotel on The Strand were blown in.

In the immediate area of Silvertown, the destruction to property was enormous, with 70,000 properties damaged, of which 900 were completely destroyed or unsalvageably damaged. The cost of this in material terms was set in the region of £2.5 million in 1917 – around £195 million today.

Yet for all this destruction, only 73 lives were lost and 120 serious injuries among the 400 treated. This minor miracle was due to the timing of the explosion, meaning that the factories were largely empty and the upper floors of the houses, which bore the brunt of the blast, were not yet occupied. Although many lives were spared in the blast, the suffering of those living near the site would go on for much longer.

Almost immediately, looters arrived with sacks, carts and vans to claim anything that they could find. It was also bitterly cold, with temperatures falling to below -10 degrees at night, and there was barely a roof or window left for miles to protect the families who huddled in the ruins for fear of losing their worldly possessions to the looters.

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Photographed in 1939, the empty site of the Brunner-Mond factory is conspicuous

In addition to the cold, the damage, the injuries and the looters, the people of Silvertown also had to contend with the toxic residue of the TNT that dusted the area with greenish-yellow ‘fallout’.

The Ministry of Munitions announced the explosion in the following day’s newspapers, and ordered an investigation led by Sir Ernley Blackwell that was published on 24 February 1917 – although it was classified until the 1950s. A definite single cause of the explosion was not determined, but it was found that the factory’s site was inappropriate for the manufacture of TNT and the report was fiercely critical of the management practices at the site as well as the TNT storage arrangements.

What remained of the factory site and the worst-affected areas were cleared almost immediately and then they were abandoned. In the 1920s a limestone memorial was erected by the Brunner-Mond company on what had been the main entrance to the site but then it had lain dormant, overgrown and ghostly until late in 2015 when finally the last little wilderness in London was claimed by property developers.

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The empty wasteland was a filming Mecca – here is the first episode of the BBC’s brilliant Ashes to Ashes

The Royal Wharf development will be the biggest new Docklands neighbourhood since Canary Wharf was built 20 years ago. A total of 3,385 new homes will be built, promising “old-fashioned design principles with a high street, a school, parks, squares and riverside restaurants.”

Eventually more than 20,000 people will live and work at Royal Wharf. “We want to deliver it quickly, within five years, unlike some other large-scale London projects that drag on interminably,” said Richard Oakes, director of the development company Ballymore that is undertaking the project with Singaporean money. “It’s a chance to buy early into an area with considerable upside,” he added.

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Artist’s impression of the new Royal Wharf development, located on the site of the Silvertown explosion

It is also an area with unique history to it. A planning application to remove the limestone memorial from its original position on the site entrance has been approved by Newham council, and the commemorative stone will be moved to a new location on the western perimeter of the old Brunner-Mond plot where it is promised that residents and visitors can engage in quiet contemplation. Apartments on the historic site of London’s biggest explosion are priced from £235,000 and townhouses from £695,000.

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The site as it looks today