‘Carradale’ is lost

The destruction of Sir Sydney Camm’s former home ‘Carradale’ is near completion despite a last minute surge in attempts to preserve the house at 29 Embercourt Road in Thames Ditton.

Sir Sydney Camm's home was demolished during the VE Day commemorations

The home of the ‘The man who saved Britain’ could not, apparently, be saved from developers

The demolition has been carried out by Leatherhead-based property firm Shanly Homes even though its proposed new development for four new homes was rejected by the local council on the grounds of size and scale. Shanly Homes later assured campaigners that the house would not be demolished without planning permission – although the results of that assurance are clear to see.

The campaign to save the property included lobbying English Heritage, the MoD, British Aerospace and other associated bodies. A letter appealing to save the house, published in both the Surrey Advertiser and The Times, drew signatories from the Brooklands Museum, the School of Aerospace and Aircraft Engineering at Kingston University, WW2 veterans such as Captain Eric M ‘Winkle’ Brown and his fellow presidents of the Royal Aeronautical Society as well as widespread support from local residents and councillors.

A final shot

A final shot

Thames Ditton councillor Ruth Lyon, who called the demolition ‘unnecessary’, said: “We are sickened with the unnecessary demolition of a historic house when they haven’t got a planning permission. They know how important Sir Sydney Camm was as a world class aeroplane designer. They are really cynical.”

A Shanly Homes spokesman said: “We do respect the work of Sir Sydney Camm and agree that his work should be remembered. We would therefore like to work with local residents to find a suitable way to honour his memory within the new residence or its grounds.”

The developer insisted it has not broken any promises.

Camm's legacy must now be carried by the surviving aircraft that he created

Camm’s legacy must now be carried by the surviving aircraft that he created

The Maltese Hurricane

The Malta Aviation Museum is home to a trove of remarkable artefacts and aircraft. There is everything from the flying boot that Adrian ‘Warby’ Warburton was wearing on his final flight – recovered, along with his remains, in 2002 – to restored post-war jets.

A veritable trove of aviation history in Ta'Qali (formerly the RAF fighter base of Takali)

A veritable trove of aviation history in Ta’Qali (formerly the RAF fighter base of Takali)

One can wander freely around, getting a close-up look at the restorations underway and the seemingly endless supply of parts. One source of parts is the sea around the island – into which so many aircraft dropped during the siege of 1940-42. One of the treasures offered up by the Mediterranean was the Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIa now so beautifully restored by the museum volunteers.

The museum's Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIa Z3055

The museum’s Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIa Z3055

Hurricane Z3055 was built in early 1941, one of the fifth production batch of 1,000 aircraft built at Kingston. It was delivered from the factory to No. 48 Maintenance Unit at Hewarden on 27 February 1941 and prepared for squadron service. Over the next few months the Hurricane was shuttled between It was transferred to Abbotsinch and No. 5 Maintenance Unit at Kemble. It was delivered back to Abbotsinch on 18 May, for shipment to Malta as part of the convoy known as Operation ROCKET.

To start this, the seventh ‘Club Run’ (as the Royal Navy christened the Malta convoys), the converted Edwardian cruise ship HMS Argus was loaded with 29 cased Hurricanes on the Clyde, and sailed with the cruiser HMS Exeter to join convoy WS 8B to Gibraltar, arriving on May 31st. A day later the carrier HMS Furious, a converted WW1 battle cruiser, also arrived in Gibraltar, upon which were 48 pre-assembled Hurricane Mk.II aircraft including Z3055, which were transferred to HMS Ark Royal as she lay at anchor in Gibraltar.

Ark Royal at rest, as she would have looked on Operation SPLICE and Operation ROCKET

Ark Royal at rest, as she would have looked on Operation SPLICE and Operation ROCKET

This was a repeat of the previous Club Run, Operation SPLICE, which had taken the elite 249 Squadron to Malta a fortnight earlier. Among the pilots who made that journey was 249 Squadron’s top-scoring ace Tom Neil, who memorably described the voyage in his memoir Onward to Malta:

“In the warm and sultry blackness of the Mediterranean night, Gibraltar was a blaze of light, a stirring and nostalgic sight for those of us who had lived in conditions of blackout for almost two years. Gathering our meagre belongings we bade farewell to the Furious and stumbled along the debris-strewn dockside towards the Ark. Above us, planks had already gone down and the first of our aircraft were being trundled across.”

The Argus then made a stern-to-stern transfer of her completed aircraft to Furious, while the remaining cased airframes were landed on Gibraltar for assembly. Although the scene was one of furious activity for many engineers, stevedores and sailors, the same could not be said for the pilots. Their job was still to come, and Gibraltar provided an ideal interlude:

From our hosts we learned that we would be sailing as soon as the transfer of aircraft had been completed,” Tom Neil wrote.

Later, much later, with pink gins fairly slopping around inside I returned to my cabin, my morale restored absolutely by the sophistication of my surroundings and the courtesy of my new-found friends. Then, in the wee small hours, tremors and subdued grumblings started up somewhere underfoot and, in a cosy, gin-induced stupor, I concluded that we were once more heading seawards… Good ol’ Navy, I thought; Cap’n Bligh, or whoever, would probably know the way. Two points to starboard, if you please, Mister Christian! Dear God! If only the sides of this cabin would keep still.

On Operation ROCKET, Ark Royal and Furious set off eastwards late on June 4th, escorted by Force H of the Mediterranean fleet: the battlecruiser HMS Renown, the cruiser HMS Sheffield and the destroyers HMS Faulknor, Fearless, Foresight, Forester, Foxhound and Fury.

HMS Furious was a much older vessel than the Ark

HMS Furious was a much older vessel than the Ark

Early in the morning of June 6th the carriers launched a total of 44 Hurricanes from their regular point close to the Balearic Islands. The Hurricanes would rendezvous with eight Blenheim bombers that had taken off from Gibraltar and fly the regular supply route towards Cap Bon on the northeast tip of Tunisia then skip round the hostile islands of Pantelleria, Lampedusa and Linosa before arriving over Malta.

The route was difficult and potentially dangerous – Italian, German and Vichy French aircraft were all in range of the Hurricanes, which were unarmed and over-laden with fuel for the flight and supplies for the island such as cigarettes and toothpaste, stowed where the ammunition should be. There was also, for the pilots, the new and daunting prospect of taking off from a ship.

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

The experience was recorded by Tom Neil, who was not in the best of spirits when he had to make his great leap into the unknown.

“Silent and yawning, we went in single file to one of the deserted dining rooms and were each handed a fried breakfast by one of the kitchen staff whose bare and bulging arms were liberally garnished with red-and-blue pictures referring to Love, Mother and a lady called Doris…”

Although there was considerable trepidation among the young men who would fly off, catastrophes were thankfully rare on these convoys. The mighty Ark Royal in particular could summon up 30 knots into wind, giving the over-burdened Hurricanes all possible help to take off despite the short runway of her deck.

All 44 of the Hurricanes got away safely on Operation ROCKET but one was forced to return to the Ark Royal due to engine problems and made an unheard-of deck landing – all the more remarkable when laden with long-range fuel tanks and stowed equipment. The remaining 43 Hurricanes and the eight Blenheims from Gibraltar arrived safely in Malta.

Z3055 wears the colours of 126 Squadron in 1941, with which she flew

Z3055 wears the colours of 126 Squadron in 1941, with which she flew in a quiet spell of the siege

At this time the war in Malta had quietened down significantly. The Luftwaffe had only days before withdrawn from Sicily in order to make its way to the Russian border, where soon Operation BARBAROSSA would launch Hitler’s offensive to the east.

Tom Neil would recall it as: “a delightful period of my life. Here I was on a nice warm Mediterranean island, surrounded by friends and decent aeroplanes to fly… what we had was a private war between three squadrons of Hurricanes and the Italian air force in Sicily, which was very much a comic opera affair… The Italians were not really interested in this war. They did not bother us much.”

As a result Z3055 was held in reserve until July 1st when she was taken on charge by 126 Squadron. On July 4th she took off before daybreak from the reserve airstrip at Safi before dawn with Sergeant Tom Hackston at the controls. For some reason Hackston got into difficulties and crashed into the sea and was killed, with Z3055 ending her marathon journey to Malta in ignominious fashion.

In 1993 a local Maltese diver called David Schembri discovered Z3055 lying at a depth of 40 metres only a short distance from the coast off Wied Iz-Zurrieq, a tiny harbour set in a narrow inlet in the cliffs and guarded by a watchtower from which tourist boats take tours to the Blue Grotto.

The Hurricane was remarkably well-preserved – despite the ravages of her crash, more than half a century of passing tides and regularly snagging fishing nets on her exposed structure. After a thorough exploration, she was salvaged two years later, on Thursday, 19 September 1995.

Raised from the seabed: Z3055 appears after 54 years

Raised from the seabed: Z3055 appears after 54 years

The restoration of Z3055 is undoubtedly the high point of the Malta Aviation Museum’s work to date and she sits proudly alongside the restored Spitfire Mk.IX. Many of the replacement parts used in the restoration were sourced from other Hurricane crash sites on Malta – such as the engine cowling taken from the Mk.IIc night fighter of Alex Mackie, whose death in January 1942 is described so memorably in the prologue to James Holland’s history, Fortress Malta.

Malta's Hurricane and Spitfire - both first class restorations

Malta’s Hurricane and Spitfire – both first class restorations

One day the Museum hopes to perform a full restoration of the celebrated Gloster Gladiator, Faith – although controversy still dogs that issue. It also has sufficient parts to rebuild a Fairey Swordfish, which is rather more likely, while this brilliant and friendly museum – located on the former fighter airfield of Takali – continues to act as a beacon for all who are interested in the remarkable role that Malta had to play in World War 2.

Can ‘Carradale’ be saved?

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

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

Sir Sydney Camm at ease after WW2

Sir Sydney Camm at ease after WW2

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

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

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

Camm with a glider during World War 1

Camm with a glider in 1915

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

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

Hawker aircraft like the Fury were mainstays of 1930s defence

Hawker aircraft like the Fury were mainstays of 1930s defence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first of the many - Hurricane prototype aloft over Surrey

The first of the many – Hurricane prototype aloft over Surrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hurricanes of 85 Squadron in flight during the Battle of Britain

Hurricanes of 85 Squadron in flight during the Battle of Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodwood celebrates 60 years of the Jaguar D-Type

The 2014 Goodwood Revival on 12-14 September will have a treat in store for lovers of curvaceous cars from Coventry. To mark the 60th anniversary of the storied Jaguar D-Type, an unprecedented 30 surviving examples will be entered for the Lavant Cup race.

'Shortnose' D-Type as it appeared in 1954

‘Shortnose’ D-Type as it appeared in 1954

The D-Type’s importance is hard to overstate, not least because it utilised the first successful monocoque chassis design in motor sport history. An alloy ‘tub’ of elliptical shape and comparatively small cross-section provided an incredibly rigid yet lightweight structure. Sub-assemblies were then bolted to the front and rear – carrying the engine, steering assembly, and front suspension in front of the cockpit while the rear suspension and final drive were carried behind.

In many ways the D-Type was the road-going equivalent of the Hawker Hunter jet fighter and borrowed heavily from contemporary aeronautical design. The man behind the car was Malcolm Sayer, an aeronautical designer from the Bristol Aeroplane Company, had joined Jaguar in 1950 and brought with him the most advanced thinking available in the world. Sayer’s brilliance steered the Jaguar XK120 and its Le Mans-winning sister the C-Type, whose success cemented Jaguar’s reputation and paved the way for his 1954 masterpiece, the D-Type.

The Hawker Hunter jet also debuted in 1954 bearing many similarities to the D-Type

The Hawker Hunter jet also debuted in 1954 bearing many similarities to the D-Type

 

It is astonishing to think that Sayer’s work depended upon developing complex formulae for creating curves – exactly the same science that is replicated by today’s CAD software programmes. Back in the early ‘Fifties, however, the only tools that Sayer had to call upon were a slide rule and seven-figure log tables.

Sayer’s handiwork was tested in a wind tunnel. He was determined to minimise the frontal area of the car in order to decrease wind resistance and thereby increase speed on the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. This in turn required Jaguar’s Chief Engineer William Haynes and former Bentley engineer Walter Hassan to develop dry sump lubrication in order to cant the 3.4-litre straight-6 XK engine at 8½ degrees from the vertical in order to meet Sayer’s demands – creating the D-Type’s signature offset bonnet bulge in the process.

The canted XK engine installed in a D-Type

The canted XK engine installed in a D-Type

In addition to the structural similarities between the D-Type and contemporary fighter aircraft, several ancillaries were carried over from aircraft such as Dunlop disc brakes and a Marston Aviation Division bag to carry the fuel instead of a traditional rigid tank.

The dark green cars caused a sensation at Le Mans in 1954 and should have taken victory in the 24 Hours at a canter, but for fuel feed problems resulting from their revolutionary design. Nevertheless the superiority of these high-tech creations was clear to see when they achieved more than 172 mph on the Mulsanne Straight compared with the 160 mph reached by the instantly outdated (but ultimately victorious) 4.9 litre Ferrari V12.

Acclaimed artist Tim Layzell's print of the D-Type's unveiling www.timlayell.com

Acclaimed artist Tim Layzell’s print of the D-Type’s unveiling www.timlayzell.com

Ongoing development of the D-Types cured these gremlins and, with revised ‘long nose’ styling from 1955 onwards to further increase high speed efficiency and stability, duly conquered the world. Jaguar won Le Mans in 1955, 1956 and 1957 against the combined might of Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin. More important still, it set the template for every successful thoroughbred racing car to this day, both sports-prototype and single-seater.

Today the D-Type remains a popular choice for drivers and fans at historic events. Total D-Type production is thought to have included 18 factory team cars, 53 customer cars, and 16 road going XKSS versions. The Goodwood celebration will certainly be well deserved and undoubtedly a highlight of another spectacular race card.

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 Princess and the Hurricane

Air racing remains a hugely popular attraction in America, but its heyday in Britain was in the years that bracketed World War 2. Small wonder, then, that in the late 1940s a number of famous fighter aircraft took to the skies wearing the liveries of racing stables rather than warpaint – and among them was a particularly celebrated veteran.

pz865_1955

In July 1944 the 14,533rd and last Hawker Hurricane fighter was completed on the production line at Langley in Buckinghamshire. In celebration of the fighter’s role in the vanguard of the Battle of Britain and in celebration of ‘the Few’ who fought it, the Hurricane Mk.IIc serial number PZ865 was given the inscription ‘The Last of the Many’.

She was given a ceremonial role, being given her test flight by Hawker’s pre-war test pilot, Group Captain P.W.S. ‘George’ Bulman, who had been the first man to fly the prototype of the breed 10 years earlier, and then went on to fund-raising duties for the duration of the war. Soon after the end of hostilities, Hawker bought PZ865 back from the War Office and tucked her away in a corner of the Langley works as the world got on with readjusting to peace.

'George' Bulman takes PZ865 up for her delivery flight in 1944

‘George’ Bulman takes PZ865 up for her delivery flight in 1944

In 1948 it was decided that PZ865 should be overhauled and flown again, but soon the government decided to place a ban on civilian operation of military aircraft, lest the skies become crowded with high performance, high maintenance machinery. An official role was found for the Hurricane as a ‘public relations vehicle’ and with her paperwork duly shuffled, and her 20mm cannon replaced with extra fuel tanks, she was granted the civilian registration G-AMAU and repainted with a livery of royal blue and gold.

It was decided that one of the Hurricane’s PR duties should be as an entry in the revived King’s Cup Air Race of 1950. The race was a handicapped event of three laps around a 186-mile ‘course’ that was open to aircraft with more than 110hp, and it so happened that an entry was being sought for Princess Margaret, the younger daughter of King George VI.

The young princess was patron of the event and it was expected that someone should fly in her name. The Hurricane was deemed an appropriate ‘fit’ for the role, and the job of flying her was given to Group Captain Peter Townsend, the king’s equerry, who was a celebrated Hurricane ‘ace’ in the war.

In the end Townsend and the Hurricane thundered across the finish in second place behind a humble Miles Hawk training aircraft – the handicappers doing their job well – but the blue and gold fighter had a greater significance than that. It was to be one of the most public collaborations between the beautiful young princess and the charismatic fighter pilot which threatened a constitutional crisis when their enduring love affair became public knowledge.

Hawker refitted the Hurricane in readiness for another crack at the King’s Cup in 1951, including the removal of her radio, mast and other extraneous items but the death of George VI put the race into hiatus. Instead she enjoyed many and various PR roles, appearing at the Vintage Aircraft Rally in 1952, the another Royal Aeronautical Society Garden Party in 1953, the National Air Races in 1954 Royal Aircraft Establishment Jubilee in 1955.

Aside from official duties, she also remained a workhorse for Hawker, acting as chase plane for the Hawker Kestrel, which was later developed into the Harrier.  Public interest in wartime history began to increase through the 1960s, prompting Hawker to restore the Hurricane to perform at the growing number of air shows each year. Then she was repainted again as a Hurricane Mk.I to join the other two airworthy Hurricanes in the world on the strength of the all-star movie Battle of Britain.

In March 1972, after a complete overhaul, the Hurricane regained her original serial PZ865 and was flown to RAF Coltishall where she was presented by the Hawker Siddeley Group to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. For the past 41 years she has been a mainstay of this, the official tribute to RAF aircrew in World War 2, entertaining millions each year among a fleet including a Lancaster bomber, fleet of Spitfires and a second Hurricane Mk.II.

PZ865 today - wowing the crowds with the BBMF

PZ865 today – wowing the crowds with the BBMF

Out of all these astonishing and charismatic aircraft, PZ865 alone has enjoyed a unique and unbroken place in the public eye. Long may she continue to do so.