The view from Stow Maries

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

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

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The attacking Gotha bombers photographed over London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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London’s flying past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The magnificent facade of the Hotel Cecil still dominates The Strand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Savoy still looks out over the Victoria Embankment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Battle of Britain memorial on Victoria Embankment

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

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

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

Silvertown comes back to life

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

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

Nevertheless, the War Ministry was not to be denied…

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

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Silvertown immediately after the blast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The site as it looks today

Now that’s some locomotion

Doing a little more about trains seemed to be a good idea. So what could be more in keeping of a place at the S&G than the beautiful, streamlined LMS Coronation Class locomotives – the most powerful ever to have turned a wheel on the British network…

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Power is one thing – and that came in the form of around 3,300hp twinned with astonishing torque from its four cylinder engine, which saw the valve gear driving the outside valves directly and the inside valves via rocking shafts in William Stanier’s design. But it’s the fabulous art deco lines of these locomotives, from the pen of the chief draughtsman at the LMS works at Derby, Tom Coleman, which really defined the type.

The first five locomotives, Nos. 6220–6224, were built in 1937 at the LMS works in Crewe. They were streamlined and painted in the rich blue of the Caledonian Railway with its rakish silver piping to match the coaches of the Coronation Scot express service from Euston to Glasgow that was to be the principal service for the breed.

The speed with which express services could make the run from London to Scotland delivered enormous prestige to the two competing lines – LMS to the west and the London and North Eastern line to the east. LNER had hogged the limelight with the Flying Scotsman but the sleek new Coronation class attained 114mph on test and would complete its scheduled journey in just six and a half hours, stopping just once at Carlisle for crew change and to pick up and set down passengers.

LMS adverts proclaimed the strength and speed of the Coronation Class

LMS adverts proclaimed the strength and speed of the Coronation Class

Impressive though the speeds attained by the Coronation class were, they also ended the era of high speed demonstrations after it proved rather difficult to rein in the big beasts in order to negotiate mundane but potentially treacherous sections of track. A white knuckle ride awaited passengers on the 114mph run when they reached Crewe and were unable to slow down to the required 50mph, staying on the rails but causing chaos in the restaurant car and kitchen.

The second five locomotives of the class, Nos. 6225–6229, were also streamlined but their elegant lines were not painted blue and silver, but rather the traditional LMS hue of crimson lake with gold horizontal stripes. The problem was that the benefits of the wrap-around streamlined body of the Coronation class were only felt above 90mph. At normal speeds and in the maintenance sheds, the fabulous styling was simply a hindrance.

The Coronation class eventually totalled 38 locomotives, which served through World War 2 and through until the last was retired in 1964. They were shorn of their beautiful streamlining and painted in rather more plebeian liveries – wartime black without coachlines and later black and green under British Railways operation – but their character endured and enchanted successive generations.

After the abandonment of steam, three of these fabulous engines were preserved and one, No. 6229 Duchess of Hamilton, was recently returned to her full streamlined glory. She resides in the National Railway Museum in York and remains a thrilling sight more than 75 years after her debut.

The Duchess of Hamilton today

The Duchess of Hamilton today

A perfect way to unwind…

A good weekend’s work: 1950s model kits reissued by Airfix

In the 1950s, Airfix released its first 1/72 scale model aircraft kits. The Spitfire was first of course, but among the aviation icons that followed soon after was the pre-war de Havilland Comet racer, hero of the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race and several other record-breaking flights through the late 1930s.

It was astonishingly basic, with just 24 pieces to glue together and a single colour to paint.

Recently, Airfix has reissued the kit for the umpteenth time but, this time, there’s a twist: rather than the winning aircraft from the 1934 race, ‘Grosvenor House’, it has released its two stablemates: ‘Black Magic’ and the unnamed aircraft known to all as ‘The Green’Un’.

The passage of 60 years and many, many hundreds of thousands of kits stamped out from the original moulds makes the kit quite hard work at times… sandpaper, plastic filler and a decent stock of swear words are required. But the results – even for a rank amateur such as myself – are well worth the investment in my view.

I hope you agree…

Jean Batten: a life in motion

From our present era of celebrity cynicism and intrusive 24-hour rolling news, the story of Jean Batten seems improbable at best. But 80 years ago there were plenty of things that one just didn’t like to ask about a beautiful, celebrated and single young woman…

Jean Batten in her prime

Jean Batten in her prime

This story begins in the upmarket Remuera district of Auckland, from whence hailed some of New Zealand’s finest exports including the racing driver and constructor Bruce McLaren and mountaineer Sir Edmund Hilary. Jean Batten was born here, the daughter of a dental surgeon, in 1909 and later attended a girls’ boarding school where she was inclined towards ballet and the piano.

The Batten parents separated when she was still a young girl, prompting her mother to push her young daughter towards feminism and high achievement in preference to personal relationships. As even her most sympathetic biographer, Ian Mackersey, points out: she gained tremendous beauty in adolescence but became a ‘loner: a highly intelligent, solitary person whom few could warm to’.

At the age of 19 Batten decided that she wanted to be a pilot, prompted by the wave of excitement that followed Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic. This clearly tallied with her mother’s expectations, and thus the older woman gladly complied with her daughter’s  request to contact Australian record-breaking hero Charles Kingsford-Smith to request her first experience of flying. Kingsford-Smith was clearly happy to oblige, and so the remarkable Miss Batten travelled to Australia and there had her first flying lesson in his famous Fokker record breaker, The Southern Cross.

In 1930 mother and daughter moved halfway round the world to London. Here, Jean was able to gain access to the thriving social whirl of sporting aviation while learning to fly at the London Aeroplane Club. Her aim was to qualify as a pilot and attempt to beat Amy Johnson’s new record from London to Australia, but to do so she would need a sponsor – and to gain a commercial sponsor she needed a commercial pilot’s licence.

Salvation came in the form of Fred Truman, a young New Zealander who had moved to England to join the Royal Air Force. He had savings of £500 and this was enough to pay for a commercial licence – after which Batten broke off the ‘romance’. While Truman nursed a broken heart, Batten became involved with another young pilot, Victor Doree, who in turn borrowed £400 from his mother and bought her a de Havilland Gipsy Moth formerly owned by HRH the Prince of Wales.

In this aircraft Batten made her first attempt on Johnson’s record in 1933, but the flight ended with a crash in Karachi. Batten returned to London and asked Doree to buy her another aircraft – but he refused, and broke off their relationship. Fortunately for Batten, the Castrol oil company had taken notice of her, and it presented her with a brand new Gipsy Moth to try again in 1934.

Once again Batten crashed, this time in Italy. She returned to London and repaired the Gipsy Moth with parts from the similar aircraft of another new suitor – stockbroker and amateur aviator, Edward Walter. On May 8 1934 again she set off and on this occasion she made it to Darwin in 14 days 22 hours and 30 minutes, taking a full six day’s from Amy Johnson’s record.

While in Australia, Batten met and fell in love with an Australian airline pilot, Beverley Shepard. This did not go down too well with her fiancee, Edward Walter, who promptly sent her a bill for the repairs to her aircraft. By now, however, Batten’s success meant that she could afford to both settle her bills and buy a new Percival Vega Gull monoplane. With it, in November 1935, she became the first woman to fly across the South Atlantic during her record-breaking flight from England to Brazil in just 61 hours and 15 minutes.

Jean Batten's record-breaking Gull photographed in the 1950s

Jean Batten’s record-breaking Gull photographed in the 1950s

A year later, Batten flew her Gull from England to Australia in just six days to obliterate her own record. She stayed in Australia waiting for good weather and then made the six-hour hop to New Zealand – her total time of just over 11 days being good enough to stand as a record for 44 years. Nevertheless, the relentless pace of her life took its toll and Batten suffered a nervous breakdown.

She set off to be reunited with Beverley Shepard in Australia, only to be greeted by the news that he had been killed in a crash on the day she arrived. Batten was inconsolable, and disappeared from view for eight months. When she re-emerged, Batten flew the Gull back to England from Australia in just five days, becoming the first person ever to hold the record flying time between Britain and Australia in both directions.

This was to be her final record-breaking flight. Batten remained in Britain and was active in raising funds for the RAF during World War 2, then spent the peacetime years travelling the world with her mother. They lived a curious life, moving mainly between islands in the Caribbean and Mediterranean where they would live in hotels or in cheap property.

When her mother died, in 1965, Jean was bereft and became a recluse. Then, to the amazement of the world, she reappeared in 1969, looking fit and healthy – indeed a good deal younger than her 60 years. She was still beautiful, still a star and for a decade she toured television studios and lecture halls while making the most of the social opportunities available – before disappearing again without trace.

Not until 1986 was she discovered. While living in seclusion on Majorca in 1982, Batten was bitten by a dog. The wound had become infected and, refusing treatment, she had died from lung failure. Not knowing who she was, the authorities had buried her anonymously in a pauper’s grave on the island.

In her will, Jean Batten requested that her body be taken to London for cremation and her ashes carried to Auckland to be interred at Auckland International Airport. Due to the nature of her burial in Palma this was not possible, but her memory remains alive at Auckland’s airport in the Jean Batten International Terminal, where her celebrated Percival Gull hangs from the ceiling over the passengers who now daily follow the trail she blazed with such determination.

In October 2008 a musical called Garbo of the Skies written by Paul Andersen-Gardiner and Rebekah Hornblow had its inaugural performance in Opunake by the Opunake Players at the Lakeside Playhouse. The remarkable story of Jean Batten lives on…

Batten's aircraft today takes pride of place in Auckland's international airport

Batten’s aircraft today takes pride of place in Auckland’s international airport

You can fly like 007!

Original artwork for the cover of Diamonds Are Forever

Original artwork for the cover of Diamonds Are Forever

It’s a seminal passage from Ian Fleming’s fourth James Bond adventure, Diamonds Are Forever, when 007 and the glamorous criminal Miss Tiffany Case board the opulent Boeing 377 Stratocruiser for BOAC Monarch Flight 505 and their transatlantic journey from London Airport to New York’s Idlewild, with a stopover at Shannon Airport in Ireland.

Although the Stratocruiser – developed from the B-29 bomber that dropped atomic reapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – had an unenviable record when it came to flight safety, it offered passengers like Fleming a five-star experience. Within its porcine airframe the Stratocruiser had plenty of room and a downstairs cocktail bar – both of which would doubtless have been appreciated by the tall Englishman with the cruel, lidded eyes as he brandished his cigarette holder towards an engaging brunette.

Cutaway of the Stratocruiser - Fleming's home from home

Cutaway of the Stratocruiser – Fleming’s home from home

Indeed, so much did Fleming enjoy taking the Stratocruiser instead of more modern and convenient jet aircraft that his description of the flight is perfect down to the last minute. A recent academic study took Fleming’s description of the positions of the sun each time a landmark slips by beneath the wing and compared it to an accurate calculation of time zones, British Summertime and air speed of the Stratocruiser taken against the prevailing westerly winds. From this, it is clear that he was describing the 08:15 scheduled flight in mid- to late-July!

Back then the old Stratocruiser lumbered along taking 16 hours 31 minutes from London to New York. British Airways has now revived the route – including the Shannon stop – for its exclusive Club World flights, taking much less time than Fleming enjoyed but getting much the same ambience.

Because these ‘business class specials’ fly out from London City Airport, the runway is too short for a fully-laden Airbus A318 to take off with sufficient fuel for a transatlantic crossing. Thus the stop for a top-up at Shannon, which also allows passengers to fill out their US Immigration requirements and enjoy an unflustered arrival in the USA as domestic passengers.

Of course Fleming’s old BOAC Monarch flights of the 1950s, which this new service aims to replicate, came from the days before supersonic air travel shrank the Atlantic to a puddle. Transatlantic flying has regressed in so many ways since Concorde was prematurely retired – although the little Airbus A310 lacks any of the grandeur that 007 and Tiffany Case enjoyed. Today it is impossible to enjoy a cigarette on board and there is no cocktail lounge below decks, but it is possible to go online at a cost of £6 per MB or to use your mobile phone at a tariff of £1.99/£1.47 to make/receive.

The BOAC cocktail lounge, 1948

The BOAC cocktail lounge, 1948

The British Airways A318 'executive express'

The British Airways A318 ‘executive express’

Nevertheless, if I were in the company of a beautiful diamond smuggler, there’s only one way that I would accompany her to New York!