Biggin on the Bump

Here’s a lovely little video made by the team of warbirds based at that most celebrated of all Battle of Britain airfields, Biggin Hill. One thing it shows – other than the gleaming black hive which houses Bernie Ecclestone’s money factory, Formula One Management, is just how pronounced Biggin’s Hill actually is.

But rather than fuss and fiddle over such ephemera, why not just enjoy Spitfires and a single, glorious Hurricane where they ought to be…

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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

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.

It’s official: the Poles run Britain

Moving house, office, animals and sundries and then rebuilding them at the other end simply wouldn’t have happened were it not for our local Polish community. All offers of tea or coffee have been met with a flat refusal (“No! We’re working! We’re not English!”) and everything’s happened twice as fast and for half the cost that anyone in their right mind would have expected.

As a result, this particular scene from The Battle of Britain has not been far from anyone’s thoughts around here lately…

Malta’s Spitfires – revealed at last?

One could be forgiven for thinking that the model making community was a tranquil oasis amid our turbulent world: a place for calm, reflective pursuit. Yet this is not so – indeed, the pursuit of accuracy can create more online mayhem, hair-pulling and name-calling than a busload of boozed-up celebrities accessing their Twitter accounts at the same time.

Undoubtedly one of the greatest causes of model making fracas is the question of what colours the Spitfires which valiantly defended Malta against unspeakable odds during World War 2 were painted. These aircraft hold a semi-mythical status not only for the deeds done 70 years ago but also for their allegedly unique paintwork – and now one brave soul, Brian Cauchi, has revealed the results of his 14-year research into the matter.

A great Spitfire riddle resolved? This new book offers an exhaustive trawl through the possible permutations.

Mr. Cauchi’s new book labours under the title Malta Spitfire Vs – 1942: Their Colours and Markings, which makes up for its lack of blockbuster appeal by delivering an accurate summary of the contents. Within we find forensic analysis of the many and various colour schemes captured in often poor quality photographs during the dark days of 1942, backed up with fragments of original paint from recovered wrecks and an array of accounts both firsthand and by respected historians on the subject.

The mystique of the Malta Spitfires stems from the fact that they have often been described as being blue – and a blue-painted Spitfire is far more exotic than the muddy tones of camouflage that typify its wartime history. The prospect of R.J. Mitchell’s timelessly beautiful fighter with its lines drenched in blue paint is one that has beguiled model makers for many years – and their interpretations have varied from mild to wild, thus sparking many a heated debate.

Why should we care about such minutiae? After all, the world has moved on and now we are preoccupied by reality TV shows and the Eurozone crisis and… oh, hold on. Let’s have another look at these Spitfires, shall we?

S&G didn’t make a bad stab at deciphering this one, according to Mr. Cauchi

Malta was beseiged from June 1940 until November 1942, standing alone in the centre of the Mediterranean with 1000 miles of open sea between it and friendly soil – while the massed ranks of Italy and Germany sat just 60 miles to the north in Sicily. Despite being only the size of the Isle of Wight, the strategic importance of Malta was absolute as it was from here that submarines, aircraft and ships were able to all-but sever the supply routes to Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and in so doing safeguard North Africa, the Suez Canal and the invaluable oil fields beyond.

As Sir Winston Churchill put it; Malta was the master key to the entire British Empire.

The Luftwaffe devastated the Island in January-May 1941 but when these forces were redirected to the invasion of Russia, Malta was soon back in action. As a result the Luftwaffe returned to the Mediterranean in the winter of 1941-42 with even greater strength and made the Island the most bombed place on Earth. At its peak, during March-April 1942, the tonnage of bombs dropped on Malta was greater than that dropped on London during all 12 months of the Blitz.

It was in March 1942 that the Spitfires finally arrived; replacing the few outdated Hawker Hurricanes that hadn’t been shot out of the sky or blown up on the ground. They came in small numbers and were quickly bombed out of existence but in the weeks ahead more deliveries followed and, despite continued losses on the ground, the Spitfires began to hold the Luftwaffe to account and blunt its furious assault – while the hope which these aircraft brought to the beleaguered Maltese was more valuable still.

Were they painted blue? Yes – more or less. The reason was that they were ordered with desert camouflage of sandy yellow tones which stood out like a sore thumb over the Mediterranean, while flying against enemy forces which outnumbered them by a ratio of more than ten to one. As a result the Island’s defenders took it upon themselves to paint the Spitfires in a more suitable scheme for the unique conditions in which they fought.

About as blue as it gets: a reasonable representation of a Malta Spitfire

Despite the unprepossessing title given to his work, Brain Cauchi’s book is beautifully laid out and his long years of painstaking research are brought to vivid life in the text, photos and colour profiles within. Ultimately there were almost as many different paint schemes worn by these celebrated Spitfires as there were aircraft themselves, because they were usually painted on an ad hoc basis under severe bombardment with whatever materials were to hand.

Even after all his hard work, Mr. Cauchi is at pains to point out that his hypotheses are still only the best guesses he can give in each case. It won’t end the grouchiness among modellers seeking to create an accurate Malta Spitfire but his book does bring some order to the chaos and gives non-modellers a much-needed insight into a story that is too often overlooked by the major historians of World War 2.

In 2005 a Hurricane and a Spitfire returned to Malta to commemorate 60 years since the end of the war in Europe – and both were painted to represent aircraft which flew from the Island. The Hurricane was spot-on but while the Spitfire was perhaps a touch too ‘Hollywood’ in recreating the mythical blue defenders it made for a stirring spectacle…