Farewell to 2017

Well, that was a year. It was called 2017. It’s over now – although its ramifications may well carry on clanking through history for some considerable time.

Once again the S&G observed fairly limited opening hours due to a number of factors, not least a rather frantic year of book-writing. After 30 years, the longest and dearest-held dream of writing a book about the S.E.5 came to fruition. We also spent a welcome few days with the ancestors of Sir Ernest Shackleton, which may well bring forth some stories.

A new record was set in the number of visits and the number of people coming through the door and settling into the snug. At almost 35,000 we should probably get a bigger sofa. These were the people’s picks for 2017 A.D.:

  1. Gladiator Survivors #3 – What Hope for Faith?
  2. The Racing Driver’s Bride
  3. Hawthorn’s Surrey Part 4: the final journey
  4. Beyond the British Grand Prix
  5. Visiting the TT Garage, Farnham
  6. The Mystery of Seaman’s Grave
  7. Setting Sail with Errol Flynn
  8. Malta’s Spitfires – revealed at last
  9. Ken Miles Part 2: 1966 and all that
  10. ‘Malta Spitfire’ flies again in 2016

It’s gratifying to see a number of Malta-related stories bubbling up to the top 10 (as well as the inclusion of fresh stories like those of the post-British GP world and Ken Miles’s finest hour). History was not kind to Malta’s supreme importance in the story of WW2, both in Europe and in Asia. Gradually and belatedly this campaign, and the uncommon valour that it produced among the armed forces and civilian population, is receiving more attention. There can never be enough.

Interestingly, the movie Dunkirk was released in 2017. Apparently it inspired and infuriated both experts and the uninitiated in a very even-handed way. The S&G has yet to see it, although the absence of a single cigarette among the soldiers and statesmen in the trailers was notable and leads one to question its commitment to history. Apparently, depicting tobacco usage is a no-no to Fox, which produced the film, because of the evil weed’s risk to human health.

Dive-bombers are less of a problem, apparently…

In other news, one publisher to whom the S&G spoke declared that books on subjects pre-1966 were now ‘commercially dead’.  This may come as a startling revelation to Lord March, who continues to maintain about just about the only viable racing venue in the UK based upon a rather different business model! It is remarkable that people are considered unlikely to shell out £10-20 for a book on the era when the classic cars that they describe continue to rocket in value.

We now live in a world where it is possible to spend in excess of £30,000 on a mid-Eighties hot hatch, like a Peugeot 205 GTI (£38,000 being the new record for such a car). The white heat of inflation in values continues to astonish, to the point where the S&G was informed that there is now a queue of around a dozen investors with ‘a minimum of $30 million cash’ waiting to be spent for any Porsche 917, irrespective of condition or racing history, provided that it was built in Zuffenhausen.

Wowsers.

2017 was a slow year for aviation-related stories at the S&G, for which we apologise and promise to make good in 2018. Our air-minded regulars are the most loyal and enthusiastic imaginable and there have been lean pickings for them. This will not do.  We did manage to get the S.E.5 book out successfully, and despite one or two issues with getting the right pages to the printer it was an emotional moment to see 30 years of research and passion take the chequered flag.

There will be much to-do about the centenary of the Royal Air Force in 2018. The S&G will do its bit, with one aim: encouraging the powers-that-be to give its missing VC his name back. July will see the 100th anniversary of Edward Mannock’s death and we all know where he lies. It’s time for him to rest up.

So that’s what to expect when crossing the hearth at the S&G in 2018: more aeroplanes, some valuable reminders for racing folk and a bucket full of derring-do. God knows we need the latter above all else.

A safe and peaceful 2018 to you all.

Finding Mannock

In case you’re wondering where the S&G has been of late, the answer is somewhere between October 1917 and July 1918. It’s been a protracted stay but well worth the making.

In the spirit of those times, therefore, feel free to enjoy a documentary made by the BBC in 2009, based upon the rather excellent book Aces Falling by popular historian Peter Hart. It’s a little bit schmaltzy in places and frankly re-enactors gazing meaningfully into the camera can make one a bit queasy at times but all in all it does Hart’s work, and that of Joshua Levine, some justice. Plus it’s always nice to see the Shuttleworth Collection’s S.E.5a aloft…

The most important point raised by the film, and about which nothing has continued to happen, is the pressing need to formally identify the body of the aviator ‘Known unto God’ that has lain in Row F, Grave 12 of Laventie Military Cemetery since 1920.

Edward Mannock was a unique individual, a gifted tactician and, quite possibly, the most successful Allied fighter pilot of the Great War. As one of only 19 airmen of the Great War to hold the Victoria Cross, any opportunity for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to right a very obvious wrong can and must be taken before the centenary of Mannock’s death.

Mannock’s body was retrieved and buried by the Germans some 300 metres away from Butter Lane near Pacault Wood. The body of the airman in Row F, Grave 12 was exhumed from a grave 300 metres away from Butter Lane near Pacault Wood.

The German Army’s very precise record of where they buried the body does not tally exactly with the location where the CWG first found him, which has been the major reason cited as to why no further investigation has been carried out. But then the CWG was using a British trench map. By using a German trench map of the same area, the description given takes you pretty much to the original grave site.

The body exhumed in 1920 had no identification about it. The Germans took all of Mannock’s personal effects and identification from his body before burial, which were eventually returned to his family.

Modern science is a wonderful thing. It helped identify King Richard III where he lay beneath a municipal car park in Leicester some 527 years after he fell. To the best of the S&G’s knowledge there should be sufficient living relatives of Mannock to be able to get a DNA profile, exhume the airman in Row F, Grave 12 and confirm, one way or another, who he is.

Only two other candidates remain; these being Sopwith Camel pilots shot down a couple of months before Mannock. Neither of these men deserves to remain nameless any more than Mannock, although the evidence linking them to the German grave at Butter Lane is circumstantial at best.

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The evidence all points to this being Edward Mannock’s grave. Let’s have a definitive answer.

There are other clues to be found, no doubt. For one thing, accounts from local history state that the British aircraft that crashed by Butter Lane was there until 11 November 1918, after which it was pretty swiftly tipped into a shell hole and covered over. Perhaps removable parts were taken as trophies but a dial, a plate and certainly a Wolseley Viper engine would make itself fairly obvious to ground surveying equipment.

For all that, there might not be any need to go and find any remnants of S.E.5a serial E1295. For the body in Row F, Grave 12 to be that of Mannock, it needs to be the remains of a gangling six-footer who stood out a mile from most of his fellow aviators. In addition, the aircraft was well alight when it crashed and Mannock’s dread fear of burning caused him to keep his Webley service revolver readily to hand in order to end the agony. Even after 100 years, the sort of damage that a .455 bullet does to a skull is clear to see.

‘Mick’ Mannock led by example. He cherished the lives of his men and gave them every possible chance to see the peace that he was convinced would not be his to savour. Yet he flew on, staring his horror of being set alight full in the face until the nightmares became a reality.

He died alone, afraid and practically unheralded. Yes, it would cost money but it would be worth more than 100 of the self-serving commemorations that this country has organised to mark the centenary of the Great War. Worth more than a wild goose chase across Asia looking for buried Spitfires. Worth more than pulling the unrecognisable hulk of a Dornier out of the Goodwin Sands for even the slightest chance to give this most human of heroes back his own name.

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