Cheerio, Foub.

This blog would not exist were it not for the encouragement of Peter Foubister, who died suddenly and unexpectedly last week. ‘Foub’ was a constant in the world of motor sport as a journalist, publishing executive and latterly as the Motoring Secretary of the Royal Automobile Club. He was someone who knew virtually everyone and had a bad word for few.

Above all he was an enthusiast – and a contagious one at that.

Being one of the few who in our industry has never darkened the doors of Haymarket Publishing (in an official capacity at least), our paths did not truly converge until 2009. That was when the Foub was recruited by Martin Whitaker to assist with bringing the Bernie Ecclestone Collection of historic racing cars to the Bahrain Grand Prix.

ecclestone_collection-car2

The ex-Hunt, ex-Villeneuve McLaren M23 in Bahrain, 2009

Together we worked on turning this astonishing and seldom-seen collection into an informative attraction for fans and media, while also building notes on the cars that were provided by Doug Nye into a commemorative book with Interstate.

It was enormous fun and made all the more so by Foub’s very obvious delight at the role – not least when Bernie’s BRM V12 took to the circuit long after nightfall, with the Bahrain International Circuit’s safety car in front illuminating the way.

The following year saw Foub back in Bahrain – this time as anchorman for the official 60th anniversary celebrations of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. An astonishing array of title-winning cars and drivers had been assembled, from the ‘father of the house’ Sir Jack Brabham through to the young pups still competing on the grid.

2010-196998-60th-anniversary-of-f1-world-championship-mario-andretti-usa-1978-f1-world-cha1

Mario Andretti leads Damon Hill around the Bahrain International Circuit in 2010

Only two living world champions failed to make their way to the ‘gem of the Gulf’: Nelson Piquet, who was persona non grata after blowing the whistle on ‘crashgate’, and Kimi Räikkönen, who couldn’t be bothered to come. All of the rest were coaxed and cajoled with alacrity by the Foub, who ensured that their every heart’s desire was met and every inducement found its mark.

This time all the writing fell upon yours truly to put together. The midnight oil was burnt in trying to piece together exactly which chassis were coming, in putting press material together with approved quotes from our retired champions and bullying people on the price of pictures – all of which was achieved in record time with the Foub’s assistance.

The memories of that weekend will last a lifetime. The Williams mechanics successfully wedging Keke Rosberg back into his car; the moment when John Surtees mashed the throttle on Bernie’s Ferrari 1512; helping Mario Andretti to locate a lost crash helmet when he was late for his flight; Nigel Mansell feeling a little aggrieved that his was the only Williams not present and correct – and Patrick Head’s response.

All that and so much more was possible because of Peter Foubister’s efforts in making it so. It was his attention to detail with what the drivers wanted or needed that helped ensure that Sir Jack Brabham rallied to make it to the grid on raceday. That was the moment when it all crystallised and, after that, all that was left was to write the book.

Thereafter, back in the UK, Foub and self became a bit of a double act at the Royal Automobile Club for a time. If something needed writing on behalf of the Club, the phone would ring and there would be the lilting request that a website be rehashed, the bon mots for the Segrave Trophy be jotted, the description for the latest car to be shown off in the Rotunda or some stories about the Future Car Challenge be put about the place.

vet1_2049642i

Nigel Mansell made the London to Brighton Run an experience to savour.

My favourite mission from Foub was to cover Nigel Mansell’s appearance on the London to Brighton Run, driving a Mercedes. Your scribe was dispatched in a brand new Peugeot 207 GTI to chase after the 1992 world champion and his jovial co-driver, transport minister Mike Penning, to capture the story of their Run for the Club magazine and website.

Despite giving away more than a century in technology and a hat full of horsepower, it was I who reached each checkpoint with the metaphorical tongue hanging out as Mansell set a blistering pace at the helm of his veteran machine.

In fact he reached Brighton nearly two hours ahead of time, so we decamped to the nearest hostelry for something restorative. Nigel, unbidden, took out a packet of playing cards and proceeded to entertain not only our table but all of the lightly stunned families and drinkers with an hour-long improvised magic show. The minister could do little else but go with the flow (and say something about abolishing the MOT).

It was while writing about the first Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy that the Scarf & Goggles came into being. I’d written a story for Foub about the first race in 1905 to support the return of the TT to the FIA World Sportscar Championship calendar. Eventually that story ended up on the cutting room floor but I felt it deserved resuscitation. Foub suggested that I should start a blog for such pieces. So I did… and for a while stories to be found on here often coincided with work undertaken on behalf of the Club.

Eventually Foub and his brilliant PA-cum-manager Jemma were joined by a permanent member of staff to help with the workload and Haymarket moved in to produce the ‘assets’ for RAC events. Our little production company became redundant, although there were still occasional and enjoyable calls. There will be no more, and that is a very sad prospect. Thanks for so much fun, Foub. My thoughts to all your nearest and dearest.

pictured-left-to-right-peter-foubister-peter-read

Peter Foubister (left): an enthusiast and a good man

Advertisements

Working with a racing legend

There are very few times in one’s life when the opportunity arises to say: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the seven times world motorcycle racing champion and 1964 Formula One world champion, John Surtees.”

But that is exactly what happened at Goodwood last month.

Big John‘ and self were engaged by Shell to bring the Revival to life for its guests and to mark the restoration of the Shell Classic X-100 motor oil as a brand. Not only is Shell bringing back an icon of the 1950s and 1960s to the shelves of your local retailer, but with every can sold it is raising money for one of the best causes out there – the Henry Surtees Foundation.

At Brands Hatch in 2009, a promising and personable young racer, Henry Surtees, was killed. Your scribe was at Manston that day, but had been at Brands Hatch the day before, when I was introduced to Henry by a mutual friend and was deeply impressed by his wit and easy confidence. When the news came over the radio that he had been lost, I was not alone in feeling his loss very sharply indeed, even after such a short meeting.

It wasn’t until 2010 that I first met Henry’s celebrated father, when he was among the champions who had gathered in Bahrain to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Formula One world championship. His early arrival and eager presence around the paddock – accompanied at every turn by the stalwart artist, Michael Turner – became a welcome feature of the weekend.

Then came the matter of climbing aboard his car for the parade of champions: the wickedly beautiful little Ferrari 1512, which now resides in Bernie Ecclestone’s very private collection. John was rather uncomfortable about this, as it was to be the first time he had gone on track since Henry had died and his family was far from thrilled about it. Then the car broke. Bernie was annoyed, spotted windmilling his arms in the collecting area, but Surtees himself was outwardly unmoved.

The following day, with the car miraculously fixed by the genius who cares for it, the host of champions mustered once again. First out of the blocks was Nigel Mansell at the wheel of the glorious Thinwall Special Ferrari. He was followed by the likes of Damon Hill in his title-winning Williams, Mario Andretti in his title-winning Lotus and Jody Scheckter in his title-winning Ferrari.

I was stationed beside ‘Big John’ in case there was another problem. Here was a rather wiry, almost nervous old gentleman, far removed from the confident, beaming figure that we all recognise in the photos from the mid-Sixties. He seemed ill at ease while the likes of Keke Rosberg and Jackie Stewart set off on either side amid the yowl of Cosworth DFV power – but then came the most unforgettable sight.

First of all, the Surtees chin jutted. Then he snapped his goggles down and the years fell away. Everything about his body language changed – as if to say: “I’m still a bloody racing driver, like it or not!” And with that he dumped the clutch and left two black lines running down the immaculate Bahraini pit lane. It was an astounding demonstration of courage.

Fast forward to this year’s Revival, where John was to be found signing autographs at every turn, posing for selfies, doing interviews and generally being pressed into action. He drove a Ferrari 250 LM to lead out the Lavant Cup competitors, helped to open Shell’s new vintage-looking aviation refuelling area and he played a key role in the Bruce McLaren tribute.

In the midst of all this, he came and spoke to a lot of bigwigs from Shell. As MC for the event, I had seven questions to make sure we said all the right things – and didn’t need one of them. Surtees has been a Shell ambassador for decades and knows, very precisely, what to say and when. Then I asked him to tell the audience something about Henry and what the Foundation is doing in his name. And what a response.

John talked us through his time as a karting dad, about Henry’s life and loss and then about the work that the Foundation has done since 2009. He spoke brilliantly about the lives saved because the Air Ambulance now has blood transfusion equipment. About his determination not only to make the world safer in Henry’s name but also to use motor sport to bring wayward and disadvantaged kids back from the brink.

All of it impressed upon the guests how important every can of Shell X-100 oil sold will be. And, equally, it also showed the determination and energy of a man who, even in his ninth decade, is determined to work harder than ever in his son’s name to bring some measure of good from his horrendous loss. This is the John Surtees that I have come to know. These encounters have been a pleasure and a privilege and I hope that our paths cross again before long.

Some special heritage moments

Few sports are as good at looking backwards as motor sport – but then few sports have attained such levels of bravery and skill as a matter of course. With so much to celebrate each year, there are always some highlights. Few of these fall within the S&G’s remit, but they’re fun nevertheless…

Sicily 2015: Dan Ricciardo drives the Targa Florio

Goodwood 2014: Marking 50 years since John Surtees became F1 champion – love the standing ovation!

Bahrain 2010: 60 years of Formula One – world champions gathering

Barcelona 2015: Alonso drives Senna’s McLaren

Ferrari 2012: Jacques Villeneuve marks his father’s memory 30 years on

And while it’s been on the S&G before, it’s always a pleasure to see Fernando Alonso at the wheel of the Ferrari 375 in 2011 – one lap behaving himself and then the blue touch paper is lit!

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.

Scarves and Goggles in the desert

It was remiss of me not to have had a camera about my person when 14 of the 16 world champions who walk the earth congregated in Bahrain a couple of years back – together with 20 of their cars. You can probably find the TV footage on Sky’s F1 channel at most hours of the day and night. However m’colleague Ben Nicholson very thoughtfully took an excellent record of events.

Sir Stirling was due to come too, after all few such gatherings should be without him, but unfortunately he had an altercation with his lift shaft and was therefore U/S. This left Sir Jack Brabham as the sole representative of Scarf & Goggles-era racing, and he was on good form, especially when being interviewed for TV.

TV girlie: Sir Jack, how does the modern sport compare with your day?

Sir Jack: What?

(TV girlie repeats the question louder, and Sir Jack considers it for a moment…)

Sir Jack: Too easy! And too much money!

And with that, here are some pictures of the more venerable of the collection:

An insurance man's dream come true

An insurance man’s dream come true

All unpacked and ready to go...

All unpacked and ready to go…

Nigel Mansell hustles the Thin Wall Special around Sakhir

Nigel Mansell hustles the Thin Wall Special around Sakhir

David Coulthard lets rip with the Mercedes-Benz W196

David Coulthard lets rip with the Mercedes-Benz W196

Juan Fangio II at the wheel of ex-Horace Gould 250F

Juan Fangio II at the wheel of ex-Horace Gould 250F

Donington Collection's glorious Ferrari 500 F2 - arguably the most successful chassis on earth

Donington Collection’s glorious Ferrari 500 F2 – arguably the most successful chassis on earth

The 1959 Cooper-Climax T53

The 1960 Cooper-Climax T53

Rob Dean giving plenty in the big Ferrari 375

Rob Dean giving plenty in the big Ferrari 375

Mario Andretti gets a feel for the W196

Mario Andretti gets a feel for the W196

Ron Dennis in a Ferrari - smiling!

Ron Dennis in a Ferrari – smiling!

Sir Jack Brabham on the grid with his old steed

Sir Jack Brabham on the grid with his old steed

Magnificent effort from John Surtees in Ferrari 1512 (yes it's post-S&G but you don't see that every day, do you?

Magnificent effort from John Surtees in Ferrari 1512 (yes it’s post-S&G but you don’t see that every day, do you?

Nigel - still going strong in the Thin Wall

Nigel – still going strong in the Thin Wall

 

 

When Kangaroos Bombed Bahrain

If wars were won with pluck and dash alone, in the way that the movies teach you, then Italy would have romped home to victory at a canter during World War 2. For every Doolittle Raid or Dam-Buster on the allied side there is a tale of ingenuity and bravery from Italian men at arms which, while delivering little to turn the tide of the war, leaves one with a profound respect.

One such tale is that of the bombing of Bahrain.

The oil drums lined up on Sitra wharf in 1940

The oil drums lined up on Bahrain’s Sitra wharf in 1940

Through the second half of 1940, after Mussolini launched his attempt to wrest control of the Mediterranean from British and French influence, things were going somewhat disastrously awry for the Italian armed forces.

To start with he sent an invading force of 700,000 men to mop up southern France. The north of the country was already over-run and Dunkirk evacuated, but the Italian forces were still held back by a force of 32,000 French troops – the route to the Côte d’Azur famously being defended by a single NCO and seven men.

Mussolini also planned to charge across the Sahara to Cairo and take control of Suez. Once again an inferior number of British troops pegged the Italian advance at Sidi Barrani, sparking the long war of attrition in the Western Desert.

Even at sea, where Mussolini had invested in the construction of a superior naval force to the British fleet, things did not go to plan. Admiral Cunningham took great exception Mussolini’s belief that the Mediterranean would become mare nostrum (our lake), and duly battered the Italian navy at the Battle of Matapan. Shortly afterwards he would send  Swordfish biplanes to mine and torpedo the remainder at anchor in Taranto harbour.

The Regia Aeronautica, Mussolini’s air force, had meanwhile launched an assault on Malta. This key outpost lay just 60 miles away from Sicilian shores but 800 miles away from the nearest British reinforcements and was woefully under-prepared. Yet the bombing did not provoke the hoped-for Maltese revolt against their British colonists, meanwhile might of the Regia Aeronautica was held at bay by a handful of Gloster Gladiator biplanes.

Gloster Gladiators on Malta which staved off the Regia Aeronautica

Gloster Gladiators on Malta which staved off the Regia Aeronautica

Thus after these opening exchanges, Italy’s military position was fast becoming an embarrassment and the Italian people – who had no great territorial ambitions anyway – were likely to start asking il Duce some rather searching questions before long.

So it was that a number of spectacular and daring raids were prepared to win as much propaganda value as they did military success. The use of midget submarines and small high speed boats to mount lightning raids bore fruit, meanwhile the Regia Aeronautica hatched a truly ambitious plan.

Pre-war Italian civil aircraft were particularly good for long range flights and so several capacious Savoia Marchetti SM82 Cangaru (Kangaroo), tri-engined airliners were hastily converted into bombers which could fly much further than the regular types in the Regia Aeronautica’s front line. They became known as the 41st Gruppo.

Savoia-Marchetti SM.82 in full warpaint

Savoia-Marchetti SM.82 in full warpaint

Next a suitable target was required which provided both strategic importance and enormous kudos to Mussolini’s strength and ingenuity. After much strenuous planning, the decision came to attack the American-owned oil fields in the British protectorate of Bahrain: a vital source of supply to British forces across the Empire, and the attack would be made in mid-October 1940.

The 41st Gruppo’s aircraft, meanwhile, were being put into action elsewhere. It’s inspirational leader, Tenente Colonello Muti, and his men would bomb British enclaves in Palestine and even the previously impregnable rock of Gibraltar. Then on 13 October, Muti led a flight of five aircraft from their base at Rome-Ciampino to the airport of Gadurrà in Rhodes.

Once in place, Muti and his men finalized the plan for their marathon 4,000km flight. They would take off from Rhodes and fly east, skirting Cyprus before making landfall on the Lebanese coast, crossing Syria and then turning onto a more southerly heading to avoid the heaviest British concentrations in Jordan and Iraq until they reached the Arabian Gulf and the run-in to the target.

The plan was to set the wells, refineries and port ablaze, and if they managed to do so then they would undoubtedly be intercepted by the Royal Air Force on their return. Their escape route was therefore over Saudi Arabia – providing them with the secondary target of the oil fields at Dammam – before flying out over the vast emptiness of the Arabian desert, eventually reaching the Red Sea and then safe haven in Italian colony of Eritrea.

Tenente Colonello Muti

Tenente Colonello Ettore Muti

In all, the plan took two months to agree and prepare for. In the end four of the SM.82s would be used, stripped of all defensive armament and fitted with additional fuel tanks for the marathon flight. Their load was 1.5 tons of incendiary and explosive bombs made up of 15, 20 and 50 kg bombs – and they were finally for take-off as dusk began to settle on December 18 1940.

The fifth aircraft was flown off directly to the airfield at Zula in Eritrea where the escaping bombers would finally touch down again. This aircraft carried a huge store of supplies in readiness to go out and assist any bombers which were forced down over the desert.

Overloaded with an all-up weight of 19,500kg, the aircraft struggled to get airborne. They were galvanized by the barnstorming Tenente Colonello Muti in the lead aircraft, however, who had demonstrated with his crew of Maggiore Giovanni Raina and Capitano Paolo Moci that it was possible – albeit inadvisable – to take off in an SM.82 laden with 21,000kg.

The remainder of the flight was crewed by Tenente Colonello Fortunato Federici, Capitano Aldo Buzzaca and Tenente Emanuele Francesco Ruspoli in the second aircraft, Capitano Giorgio Meyer, Tenente Adolf Rebex and Sergente Maggiore Aldo Carrera in the third and Capitano Antonio Zanetti with Tenente Vittorio Cecconi and Sergente Maggiore Mario Badii in the fourth.

Muti was able to keep formation by painting large white diamonds on the upper surface of his wings, which were dimly lit to allow the rest of his ‘flock’ to follow in their allocated position. The formation observed radio silence as their aircraft laboured to reach 19,000 feet to cross the hinterland of Jordan and Syria and onward throughout the entire journey.

The formation held throughout the outward leg, but at the last minute the number 2 aircraft of Tenente Colonello Federici lost sight of the leader and fell out of the formation. Rather than risk a collision with his unseen colleagues or arrive too late and draw anti-aircraft fire, he set course for Dammam and let the remaining trio of bombers close in on Bahrain.

At 02:20 on 19 December all was calm in Bahrain. In Muti’s lead aircraft, major Raina found the target easy to spot from his bomb aimer’s position, saying that the refinery and the port were well illuminated. The three aircraft swept in at only a few hundred feet, completely disorientating the people below as they began to unleash their payload.

For obvious reasons, reports differed as to the effectiveness of the bombing. The British reported that most bombs fell into the sea and only one hit the land, blowing up on a mountain of spoil from the drilling activity with a broken leg as the only casualty. The Italians meanwhile claimed to have set six wells ablaze with secondary fires seen burning in the storage areas.

The bombers meanwhile escaped and made their long slog across the great empty girth of the Saudi desert without problem. The three aircraft landed almost in unison at Zula in Eritrea at 08:40 after flying for more than 4000km and 15 and a half hours.

A camouflaged Cangaru receiving attention

A camouflaged Cangaru receiving attention

After a few days of celebration, recuperation and propaganda duties, the five SM.82s once again lifted off from Zula and headed for the Italian strongholds in Libya, from where they made their last leg back to Rome-Urbe airport.

The bombing of Bahrain was an astonishing feat of airmanship by Ettore Muti and his men. Although limited by the small number of bombers and the small load they carried, the attack was a huge blow to British morale and required them to pull back a squadron of fighters and significant anti-aircraft defences to defend Bahrain’s oil supply.

The loss of the fighters and defences significantly weakened the rest of the British presence in the Middle East, in part prompting the Axis-leaning prime minister of Iraq, Rashid Ali, to try and expel the British forces there. A brief and bitter campaign was waged in the spring of 1941 as a result.

A Gloster Gladiator in its wartime colours

A Gloster Gladiator in its wartime colours

Even today, Bahrainis talk of the giant barrage balloons which hung in the sky through the war years as a result of Ettore Muti’s audacity. The man himself was duly promoted out of the front line and ended up working in intelligence, where he made a formidable enemy in the former Chief of Staff, Pietro Badoglio.

Muti discovered that Badoglio’s record in the field left a lot to be desired, and when Badoglio successfully ousted Mussolini from power in 1943 his first job was to assassinate the man who had masterminded the Regia Aeronautica’s barnstorming long-distance bombing campaign.