Blue skies at the Shuttleworth Collection

When the sun is out, there’s barely a whisp of cloud in the sky and the breeze wouldn’t trouble a house of cards there’s really only one place to be: Old Warden for a flying display.

While the rest of the nation was shedding a tear of joy or two over Prince Harry’s nuptials, a decent sized crowd went to Bedfordshire. They came to savour not only the regular field of aeroplanes from the Shuttleworth Collection’s unique array of vintage and veteran stock, but also the official return to flying duties of its unique Spitfire Mk.Vc after 12 years under restoration.

Given that it was an evening show, the S&G wasn’t able to linger and enjoy the undoubted stars of the show, the WW1 and Edwardian machinery, take to the air on such a still and clear night. Nevertheless, there is never a day when one feels short-changed by seeing even a portion of the schedule at Old Warden, so here are the highlights.

First of all: what was to be found on the ground:

 

And here’s what was seen during the air displays:

 

As the long days of summer hopefully stick with us until the new academic year and beyond, it’s always worth keeping an eye on what’s going on at Old Warden, particularly with a brood to entertain.

Advertisements

MH434 in full flight

Believe it or not, it’s 30 years this year since Piece of Cake was televised. It brought us a host of talented young actors who went on to become household names like Neil Dudgeon (Midsomer Murders), Nathaniel Parker (Inspector Lynley), and Jeremy Northam (The Crown).

It was also arguably the finest moment of Spitfire Mk.IX MH434’s long career. She’s pictured above during a display that the S&G savoured at Old Warden in 2016. But better than that, better than her low pass down the main straight at Goodwood or her celebrated buzzing of Alain de Cadanet she went under the largest single-span bridge in Britain.

It’s quite a big bridge but in a Spitfire it’s threading the needle. And then some.

Because before CGI there was Ray Hanna.

Dunkirk and the fog of war

If there is one question that has been aimed at the S&G’s hearth more than any other in the past few months, it is whether or not Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a lot of Tommy-rot. There are two ways to answer this – either ‘yes it is and it’s a damned disgrace’ or ‘yes it is and it’s a fine old film’.

Let’s stick with the latter interpretation – with apologies to Daily Mail readers in the congregation.

It’s a fine old film because it hits its marks like ducks in a barrel. It draws tears of elation. It draws squirms of mortal terror. It inspires both woe and breathless admiration. Moreover, it deploys Elgar’s Nimrod with the sort of quiet gravitas that has long-since escaped our national culture. It reeks of the right sort of Britishness.

But in a historical sense it’s a bit of shambles, yes.

The first and most glaring omission is tobacco. Not one pipe or cigarette is seen in the course of 106 minutes. According to a dear old mucker who works in the business they call show, it is now a policy at Fox to completely exclude such evils from all and any of its products, lest the studio be exposed to law suits for encouraging people to take up the cancerous weed.

1274947247_0

Dunkirk survivors in 1940

Yes, you read that right.

Looking at images of the real events (above), one could be forgiven for thinking that the only excuse open to the Luftwaffe for not wiping out the British Expeditionary Force was the impenetrable fog of Capstan Full Strength that hung above them. Whether it was the soldiers on the beaches, the captains of little ships, the shipwrecked soldiers hooked out of the oggin or even the wounded on their stretchers – everyone was drawing comfort from the muzzy tang of tobacco to settle their nerves and steel their resolve.

So while cinematic sinews were stretched to get the costumes and equipment right, they might as well have dressed everyone in onesies and given them Kalashnikovs thanks to that omission.

Then there’s the question of Spitfires – or more accurately the gliding Spitfire, which is the area in which most S&G regulars have shown most interest.

nrtk1gpwjrbz

Spitfires at 500 feet… give or take

Its progress isn’t easy to follow – and not helped unduly by the fact that the Spitfire scenes are chopped up and replayed from the vantage point of each different narrative within the film. By the end, the gliding Spit seems to zoom silently from one side of the screen to the other like the ball in a rally between Murray and Nadal. But here’s the gist:

Having buzzed around over the Channel at a claimed 500-1,000 feet (albeit with lovely aerobatic shots stitched in from several thousand feet higher), one Spitfire runs out of fuel. It glides the full length of the beach, then turns and glides back even faster than before to make an interception. It then appears to turn again before taking a long and lingering descent to the shore.

Right there you have an answer. A ton of Rolls-Royce Merlin is very hard to keep aloft for its own sake – and all the more so when the weight of fuel and ammunition is no longer there to help trim the aeroplane out.

Let’s not forget, also, that the Spitfire’s beautiful wing was never the most stable gun platform. One pilot memorably described it as ‘shaking like a wet dog’ when the eight Brownings were fired. Which is really not the behaviour that one needs from an aeroplane when gliding at 400mph at rooftop height. And after gliding around for half an hour or so with no fuel, what exactly is it that causes the aeroplane to burn so fiercely on the ground?

Oh, that’s right: a smouldering look from Tom Hardy. It certainly did the trick for most of the ladies in the audience, but it’s Hollywood hokum of a sort to make Errol Flynn proud.

a576975b0cda7c54e9db86c726684a97

Spitfire pilots have a smoke and ponder their optimum glide ratio

But at least the Spitfires are there. And they did run out of fuel. And many of their pilots did drown while trying to escape their cockpits. And, yes, many irate soldiers and sailors did claim that the RAF had hung them out to dry.

In fact Dunkirk was disastrous for many Fighter Command units – not least the Spitfires of 610 Squadron, where losses among the bright young boys of Cheshire were proportionally as great as those of a Pal’s battalion on the Somme. Not many engagements were at 500-1000 feet, though. Certainly not for an entire patrol. Their job was to get up high, get behind the bombers, shoot them down before they reached the beach and scoot off home to refuel and rearm before doing it all again… three or four sorties per day.

While we’re at it, let’s address the thorny issue of the Indian soldiers serving in France in 1940. In total there were three companies of the Royal Indian Service Corps in France, who were employed in domestic roles far behind the lines. It has caused outrage in some quarters that the stories of the drivers, batmen, cooks and runners do not dominate Dunkirk as a movie. Yet the only story to be told of their war is that of their ethnicity – which is indicative of the sort of tokenism with which historical study has been besieged. It is insanity.

All that aside, and despite the lack of destruction apparently suffered by the streets of Dunkirk (it was a flaming, broken and bombed-out mess), all the women on ships large and small (they weren’t), and the soldier emotively reading out Churchill’s ‘we will fight them on the beaches’ speech from the paper (a day before he had even delivered it!), Dunkirk is a really good movie.

methode-times-prod-web-bin-3ad98ab4-6725-11e7-9755-334d14a02d15

Brilliant acting, ahoy!

Separate what is essential from what is not – or in other words: if Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance or Cillian Murphy are in shot, pin your ears back and savour the moment. Don’t forget to whoop and cheer for Sir Michael Caine’s cameo. And be bloody impressed not only by the inspired move by Harry Styles’ handlers to place their teen warbler amid this chaos, but by as strong an acting debut as can be remembered… from within an entirely credible and brutally-told sub-plot. Apparently this boy’s got it all.

And don’t forget Nimrod. Ever.

The Lost Eagles

Through the first half of 1942, American servicemen began to disembark en masse in Liverpool, paving the way for the build-up of forces that would eventually provide sufficient muscle to liberate North Africa, Italy and Occupied Europe. A significant number of Americans were already in Britain, however, having volunteered to fly with the Royal Air Force (just as they had in World War 1), whether it be under their own flag or adopting Canadian citizenship for the purpose.

Initially the call-to-arms had been made by Charles Sweeny, a wealthy businessman living in London, who took it upon himself to recruit American citizens to fight as a US volunteer detachment in the French Air Force, echoing the Lafayette Escadrille of WW1. When France collapsed under German invasion in May 1940, a dozen of Sweeny’s volunteers made their way to Britain, where they would be joined by 6,700 applicants from across the USA seeking to join the RCAF or RAF.

As a result of this recruitment drive, there were sufficient American pilots to form the three ‘Eagle’ squadrons of the RAF between September 1940 and July 1941 – these being nos. 71, 121 and 133.  With the arrival of the US Army Air Force in strength, however, these units were due to be transferred back to American control and renamed the 334th, 335th and 336th squadrons of the 4th Fighter Group USAAF; their battle-hardened pilots intended to provide a finishing school for the eager recruits flowing across the Atlantic.

A month before the transfer took place, 133 Squadron was re-equipped with the new and top-secret Spitfire Mk.IX, featuring a two-stage supercharger to give better performance above 20,000 feet and provide a much-needed answer to the Focke-Wulf 190. Not all of the pilots were thrilled about becoming repatriated – not least the commanding officer, Squadron Leader Carroll McColpin, who repeatedly delayed and fudged his transfer until the last possible moment on 25 September. He was replaced by a temporary unit leader, Flight Lieutenant Gordon Bettrell, who found his new command somewhat unhappy about the situation.

As the unit had been declared operational on the Spitfire Mk.IX it was decided that 133 Squadron should give the type its operational debut the following day: 26 September 1942. On paper it looked like a relatively straightforward job of escorting American B-17 Flying Fortresses on a raid over the French town of Morlaix.

Spitfire_Mk_IX_EN133_FY-B_611_42-43

A Spitfire Mk.IX

A total of 14 Spitfire Mk.IXs shuttled down to RAF Bolt Head near Salcombe in Devon in readiness, of which only 12 were eventually required for the mission.  One pilot from each flight – Ervin ‘Dusty’ Miller and Don ‘Buckeye’ Gentile – were ordered to remain on the ground.  They were rather put-out by this news, having been keen to see how their new Spitfires would perform against the FW190s, but dutifully watched their squadron take off into low cloud. They were:

A Flight                                                               
F/Lt  E.G. Brettell        ES 313
P/O  L.T. Ryerson       BS 275
P/O W.H. Baker          BS 446
P/O D.D. Smith           BS 137
P/O G.B. Sperry          BR 638
P/O G.G. Wright          BS 138

B Flight
F/Lt  M. E. Jackson    BS 279
P/O R. E. Smith          BS 447
P/O C.A. Cook            BR 640
P/O R.N. Beaty           BS 148
P/O G.H. Middleton    BS 301
P/O G.P. Neville         BS 140

Gentile and Miller waited.  Then they waited some more.  Eventually they heard approaching aircraft but these proved to be Spitfire Mk.Vs of 401 Squadron RCAF, which were also deployed on the mission.  They were almost out of fuel and had seen neither the Fortresses or the Mk.IXs in the impenetrable cloud.  Very clearly, something had gone disastrously wrong.

Word reached Bolt Head that one of the Eagle Squadron Spitfires had crash-landed on the coast just a few miles away.  This turned out to be the only one of the 12 machines ever seen again.

The official squadron diary recorded: The 12 aircraft  took off with 401 to make a rendezvous with the Fortresses in mid-channel at a point approximately half-way between Bolthead and Morlaix.   It is not yet clear as to what exactly happened but some of the Fortresses were seen after our aircraft had been flying  for 45 minutes.  The pilot of one aircraft (P/O Beaty)  alone returned from this operation and owing to petrol shortage crash landed in a small field near Kingsbridge, Devon.  From his account and what he overheard on the R/T it seems probable that the rest of the Squadron force landed on the Island of Ouissant or on the French mainland.

It transpired that this was a rather optimistic view of the outcome.  Following a strenuous board of inquiry, it became clear that 133 Squadron had never broken free of the cloud and was thus unaware of the fact that the north-easterly wind was blowing at 100 knots instead of the predicted 35. The increase in wind speed had been recorded but not communicated effectively to the squadrons. With no reference points to call upon, the flight leader, Flight Lieutenant Brettell, called for directions home and received a heading back to base from Morlaix – rather than from where he actually was.

The Fortresses were equally lost and equally far off course. When they broke free of the cloud they found themselves over the Pyrenees. They turned around and slogged back to Britain being more grateful for the cloud cover than on their outbound leg.

Meanwhile, having followed the prescribed heading for what was deemed the correct amount of time, Brettell closed up the formation and they dropped out of the cloud to see what they all assumed was the British coast.  While looking for landmarks, the squadron passed over a large town – and immediately found themselves in a barrage of anti-aircraft fire that destroyed one Spitfire and damaged several others just before the defending FW190s swept in to savage them.

They had in fact made their way to the Germans’ prized port of Brest, one of the most heavily defended areas of the French coast.  German sources reported all 12 of the Spitfires were shot down – although there were only 11 as the sole 133 Squadron Spitfire to get away, that of Pilot Officer Bob Beatty, had turned back early after suffering a misfire.  Beatty made landfall in Devon by luck alone after gliding in to the coast when its fuel ran out, where it crashed near the village of Kingsbridge.

One other airman, Pilot Officer Robert Smith, made it back to Britain on foot after passing through France and into Spain undetected. Six pilots were killed in action and eventually four were taken POW. On 29 March 1944, Gordon Brettell was one of the officers involved in The Great Escape – he was later recaptured and summarily executed.

The element of surprise that was hoped for the Spitfire Mk.IX had been lost, as well as some of the most valuable combat experience available to the fledgling USAAF.  Three days after the Brest raid, 133 Squadron transferred to American command with a compliment of earlier Spitfire Mk.Vbs (pictured top) and, following the board of inquiry, those ground controllers and met. officers who were responsible for the mission found themselves posted to the worst available hellholes in the Far East and North Africa as penance for their sins.

The USAAF continued to operate Spitfires on bomber escort duties for a number of months but R.J. Mitchell’s masterpiece was by design a short-range interceptor rather than a long-range escort fighter for offensive missions.  On each occasion the Spitfire pilots were forced to watch German fighters circling until their own fuel became critical and they were forced to turn away… at which point the Germans would wade into the bombers without interference. This was a situation that would only change with the arrival of the P-47 Thunderbolt.

One of our Spitfires is missing (but the Kittyhawk isn’t)

A few years ago there was a minor kerfuffle that made its way into the pages of the daily press: the Royal Air Force Museum had handed over a Spitfire Mk.22 to aircraft restorers Kennet Aviation as payment for retrieving a gem from the Sahara. For it was in North Africa that an almost perfectly-preserved Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk had been discovered, 70 years after it force-landed.

kittyhawk_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqcjwi45dx1ptcmbvoy6pvuteywsyl1t0vdp8t5m585vi

The Kittyhawk’s pilot, Flight Sergeant Dennis Copping, made a controlled landing in the desert which he survived. However, the Western Desert is a vast and inhospitable place in which Copping died without being rescued. His body has never been found.

Once Copping’s aeroplane revealed itself, however, preserving it became something of a fixation at the RAF Museum. In this quest, the museum believed that it had found the ideal partner in Tim Manna, a former US Navy reservist who moved to England in 1989 and now rebuilds old aeroplanes in Essex under the Kennet Aviation banner.

The RAF Museum agreed to trade a stored Spitfire Mk.22 with Kennet in return for the long-lost Kittyhawk. A Spitfire Mk.22 is not the most desirable of the breed, but a complete airframe with history holds value – somewhere around the £200,000 upwards mark – and with restoration to airworthiness that figure increases by four or five fold.

For the Spitfire in question, PK664, this would prove to be its 15 minutes of fame. It did not see service during World War 2 as it only reached No.39 MU in December 1945. It sat around for two years before being sent back to Vickers for upgrading with a Griffon 85 engine and 6-bladed contra-rotating propeller.

After another two years of standing idle, PK664 was refitted and finally issued to No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron based at Biggin Hill in May 1949. In August 1949 it suffered an accident while in Germany, with the resulting damage being given RAF Category 3 – meaning indefinitely out of service. It was returned to 615 Squadron in early 1950, where it flew on until December of that year.

visit_stafford_spit1

PK664 shown in storage at Wattisham in 2009

Shortly afterwards, PK664 went back into storage at Vickers pending disposal. Nobody wanted secondhand Spitfires in the late 1950s, however, so she was stuck on a plinth outside RAF Waterbeach as a gate guardian for most of the 1960s; being removed for maintenance and the occasional repaint. Later she was partially restored (and presumably given a Hamish Mahaddie makeover) for duty on the Battle of Britain movie. She then went into storage at RAF St. Athan for much of the next 23 years before being transferred to the RAF Museum. In recent years it was on display at the Science Museum, but departed for Kennet Aviation in 2012.

The only problem was that the Kittyhawk and the patch of sand in which it had lain for all those decades were in Egypt. And Egypt likes to have lots of paperwork and red tape around the place, so matters of this kind tend to be processed in a leisurely fashion. Meanwhile, there was something of a revolution going on and the Kittyhawk paperwork was an early casualty in the throes of Egyptian regime change.

Here the story ended, as far as the world was concerned. The RAF Museum was in some disgrace for handing over a Spitfire to Kennet without any apparent guarantees and it got nothing in return but a barrel load of tabloid invective for perceived naïvety and ineptitude.

Two years later, the RAF Museum is being treated to a second helping of opprobrium in the press after the Egyptian-run El Alamein Museum proudly put its newest exhibit on display – Flight Sergeant Copping’s Kittyhawk.

Rather than preserving the lightly-damaged machine, it has been treated to a restoration that looks like the first 1/72 kit ever attempted by the S&G. Aged seven. Missing panels and the absent propeller have been replaced with ungainly fibreglass and wood structures, then the whole lot has been vigorously painted in an approximation of RAF Desert camouflage – which this P-40 never wore. Like many RAF aircraft in the desert, it retained the Temperate Land Scheme of Dark Green and Dark Earth over Sky… like this model of an earlier Tomahawk is sporting… and it never had the shark’s mouth markings, either.

IMG_6463

But the Egyptians prefer the drama of shark’s teeth, Mid-Stone and Azure Blue (or approximations thereof), resulting in this:

nintchdbpict000375786120

So it appears that the Kittyhawk’s fate is sealed. Even if the great gobs of emulsion and filler could be removed from it, the patina and uniqueness of the wreck have been utterly destroyed. Probably the greatest hope left for its long-term survival is that it can be bought by an aircraft restorer and rebuilt to flying condition.

But where is Spitfire PK664? Apparently it is still in a shed in Essex, appreciating in value day-by-day. Which would make Kennet Aviation the winner in this sad little saga.

Green light for Battle of Britain

There are many reasons why the 1969 epic movie The Battle of Britain has endured for as long as it has in the affections of millions. Fundamental to all of those reasons is the fact that it conjures the vision of Britain as it saw itself during the battle, for which it has lauded itself – and been universally lauded – ever since.

It is Churchill’s description of the battle – so ripe and so successful in keeping hope alive during the summer of 1940 and beyond – that was captured lavishly in a movie production helmed by none other than James Bond franchise creators Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli and directed by their star man, Guy ‘Goldfinger’ Hamilton. The icing on the cake comes in the form of a mouth-watering cast of characters, both human and metallic, populated by some of the greatest acting talent of the Sixties.

Word has now come that Ridley Scott has all-but closed the deal on a remake that he has been trying to get off the ground since the 1980s. What a treat! This is the man behind The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator and The Martian. Not to mention the vastly under-rated kids’ fantasy Legend. Now he is getting to make the project that he always wanted to get stuck into, even while making these classics.

The grapevine states that Fox has bought the movie and that Scott has recruited screenwriter Matthew Orton to produce the script, based largely on his work with Operation Finale, currently filming, which tells the story of Mossad agents tracking down Adolf Eichmann in Argentina during the 1960s.

There has been quite a lot of movement in the undergrowth in recent months, not least with several of the original Hispano Buchon aircraft (licence-built, Merlin-engined Messerschmitt 109s), coming out of mothballs and being delivered to aeroplane restoration experts like Richard Grace at Air Leasing. They are even in their original film paint, as this pic shows from the S&G’s recent visitation.

 

IMG_6789

Look over on the far wall and you will see Major Foehn’s ‘Messerschmitt’ in all its cobwebby glory!

The most important question at this stage is what the script be like. A faithful retelling of Churchill’s mythical ‘few’ or a more realistic attempt to describe the events of 1940?

Let us not forget that Hitler never stood a hope of getting across the Channel without an open invitation and that his victories of 1939-40 had been as much due to a gambler’s good fortune as they were to good planning. The conquest of Poland, Norway, France, Belgium and Holland had cost his armed forces dearly in terms of men and materiel and he needed to consolidate. He had lost:

  • 235 aircraft shot down in Poland, with 279 withdrawn for significant repair
  • 1,389 aircraft shot down in Belgium, France and Holland
  • Total losses in all campaigns from September 1939 – June 1940 of 2,000 aircraft

From the vantage point of a man busily humiliating the French at Compiègne and touring Paris, it was the Führer’s belief that Britain would simply agree to become a junior partner in an alliance with the Reich. He was assured that the British would be content to keep their empire intact in return for sending a large proportion of its resources towards combatting the existential threat posed by Russia.

This is what his diplomats had been told throughout the 1930s by the British establishment, from whom Churchill was ostracised and by whom the British public’s opinion was seldom consulted.

Throughout the years preceding the war, praise had been heaped upon Germany’s revival by men such as Edward VIII, the Duke of Hamilton, Sir Oswald Mosley, Albert Ball Sr. and Michael Burn. By society women like the Mitfords. By establishments such as the British Legion and of course by most of the motor racing and aviation communities, where men like Whitney Straight were few and far between.

9397227-large

The Stuttgart Police boxing team visits the Albert Ball memorial while visiting Nottingham

Instead, when it came to the crunch, the British chose not to be part of Hitler’s vision of Europe. They rediscovered their backbone, appointed Churchill as the pugnacious face of defiance against the Reich and retreated from Dunkirk to blow raspberries across the Channel. Meanwhile, the air defences that Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding had fought tooth-and-nail to build up against political resistance (where all eyes were on building up an offensive bomber fleet), came into their own.

When Hitler’s patience finally snapped and he realised that Britain really was intent on staying independent, he sent his bombers over. He had no other option, no means of doing anything else meaningful, primarily because he could muster only eight destroyers in his navy, confronting more than ten times that number of British destroyers and a number of capital ships at anchor in the Home Fleet.

Battle_of_Britain_He111_2.jpg~original

Licence-built Heinkel He-111s from Spain approach the white cliffs in 1968

Into this one-sided sea battle the invasion forces – 90,000 men and 4,500 horses in the first wave, 160,000 men and 50,000 horses in the second – would have to be towed across the treacherous Channel waters in unsuitable flat-bottomed river barges. Much of this vast, floating target could be overturned by the wake of a single British naval vessel. Meanwhile RAF Bomber Command pilots like Guy Gibson were busily bombing the barges at harbour.

Britain was paranoid about German paratroops landing and establishing a beachhead. Such fears were unfounded. The Germans had only 262 Ju52 transports intact, having lost 44% of their fleet, leaving a capacity to carry just over 3,000 paratroops, of whom at least a third could confidently expect to be killed during the jump or soon afterwards, based on previous losses. The 2,000 survivors would have to fight harder than Leonides’ Spartans at Thermopylae simply to see the sun set.

Hitler’s naval chief, Karl Dönitz, had told him very plainly that Germany could not compete with the Royal Navy until 1945 at the earliest; even then only provided that a suitable shipbuilding programme could be sustained. Meanwhile, Göring told him that the Luftwaffe could win the war in weeks and that invasion would be all-but redundant. Hitler felt that his run of good luck would continue, and duly sent the Luftwaffe in to bat.

The intention was that the Luftwaffe should first smash the RAF on the ground and mop up anything in the sky – but in truth the Luftwaffe’s losses were devastating while the RAF ended the battle with more fighters than it started with. After a tactically shaky start, Fighter Command squadrons got to grips with the job – and let us not forget the Poles, Czechs and other experienced airmen who soon entered the fray. Meanwhile, British aircraft production rocketed throughout the Battle of Britain, producing twice as many fighters as Germany throughout the summer of 1940.

batbritlc

 

This is as far as the 1969 movie The Battle of Britain takes us – with only teasing glimpses of British pre-war bonhomie with Nazism and no mention of the fact that the ‘few’ who fought in the skies over south-east England were in fact growing more numerous every day. It is the neat and tidy tale of heroism that we love today like any good adventure story – Rourke’s Drift with aeroplanes – but it does not end there.

Having failed to demolish the RAF, Hitler then turned his attentions towards the cities and to breaking public support for the war – the ‘Blitz’ upon London, Coventry, Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Plymouth and elsewhere that ran through from the autumn of 1940 to the spring of 1941. In this, he very nearly succeeded. When Churchill toured the streets he was jeered and heckled as often as he was cheered. But no surrender came.

Churchill’s speeches moved mountains in terms of belief – his vision of ‘the Few’ seeing off the mighty forces of Nazism acted as a beacon to the free world. But as RAF ‘ace’ Tom Neil put it, his view wasn’t necessarily shared by the men awaiting the next scramble – referring to the ‘so-called Battle of Britain’.

“So-called, as that then-familiar phrase related to a national crisis which for us had been merely part of a sustained period of activity against the Luftwaffe” Neil surmised. “A tidy but emotive expression for a tidy fourteen-week event, conveniently terminating on 31 October 1940. As though for us the war had started in July and ended in October, which it most definitely had not!”

29E9058300000578-3136779-image-a-51_1435103043276

Tom Neil (highlighted) and the pilots of 249 Squadron during the battle

Wars are untidy things with many loose ends and misadventures, as Tom Neil and many of the other veterans have always been at pains to point out. The Luftwaffe may have been beaten back in the summer of 1940, and it would count the cost of squandering its best and most experienced airmen upon Göring’s hubris for the rest of the war. But the Battle of Britain was one of the messiest escapades in military history and it ended only with uncertainty.

The British people remembered only too well the cost of the Great War of 1914-18 and had no great desire to be bombed. With Mussolini’s armies also trying to fracture Britain’s grasp on its Empire by seizing control of the Mediterranean and Africa, things looked bleak long after the Battle of Britain was announced as a victory. Churchill was doing his best to woo America, but President Roosevelt faced a majority, including Joe Kennedy, intent upon doing a deal with Hitler to prevent war.

Whether any of this makes its way into Ridley Scott’s epic remains to be seen. However, in these troubled times, there are any parallels to be found.

8504566711_531c3a3532_b

A restored Hispano ‘Messerschmitt’ has been flying in its film colours in recent years

One thing that we can be assured of is that the owners and operators of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmitts of all colours are going to be gleeful. Doubtless many will be recruited for filming and air shows will take on a very Battle of Britain-orientated theme over the next couple of years. Equally, there may well be many more Stukas, Dorniers, Bf110s, Ju88s, Gladiators, Defiants and Blenheims appearing in the new film, made available through the wonders of CGI that did not exist in 1968.

In the meantime, we can entertain ourselves with casting the movie on his behalf. Here is the original cast list, with the S&G’s recommendations to fill the roles today alongside them in brackets:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sir Laurence Olivier – Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (Gary Oldman)
Trevor Howard – Air Vice Marshal Keith Park (Rhys Ifans)
Robert Shaw – Squadron Leader Skipper (Charlie Hunnam)
Christopher Plummer – Squadron Leader Harvey (James McAvoy)
Sir Ralph Richardson – British Ambassador (Rufus Sewell)
Baron von Richter – Curd Jürgens (Heino Ferch)
Harry Andrews – Senior Civil Servant (Edward Fox)
Sir Michael Redgrave – Air Vice Marshal Evill (Daniel Craig)
Kenneth More – Group Captain Baker (James Purefoy)
Susannah York – Section Officer Harvey (Emma Watson)
Michael Bates – Warrant Officer Warwick (Sean Pertwee)
Patrick Wymark – Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory (Hugh Jackman)
Barry Foster – Squadron Leader Edwards (David Tennant)
Michael Caine – Sqadron Leader Canfield (Laurence Fox)
Edward Fox – Pilot Officer Archie (Freddie Fox)
James Cosmo – Pilot Officer Jamie (Ben Wishaw)
Ian McShane – Sgt. Andy (Harry Styles)
Isla Blair – Mrs. Andy (Eve Hewson)
Rolf Steifel – Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz)
Hein Riess – Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (Herbert Grönemeyer)
Wilfried von Aacken – General Osterkamp (Benno Führmann)
Peter Hager – Field Marshal Kesselring (Sebastian Koch)
Wolf Harnisch – General Fink (Jürgen Prochnow)
Reinhard Horras – Bruno (Daniel Wiemer)
Paul Neuhaus – Foehn (Stipe Erceg)
Alexander Allerson – Brandt (Daniel Brühl)

 

And on that absurdly handsome note, let’s remind ourselves why this movie is potentially so very special:

‘Malta Spitfire’ flies again in 2016

One of the major drawbacks of doing this blog thing for fun rather than as a career is that one can only report on what is seen. Hence it is very much to your scribe’s chagrin that the reappearance of a Malta-based Spitfire in the skies has gone unreported on the S&G until now.

The celebrated Flying Legends collection of airworthy warbirds, a stalwart of the Duxford-based restoration community, quietly welcomed another Spitfire earlier this summer.

We have all become somewhat accustomed to Spitfires being returned to the sky, so unless the Daily Mail makes a song-and-dance about a particular airframe it is very hard to pick them out. This one is a humdinger, however, because it is – on paper at least – a genuine ‘Malta blue’ Spit, flown by a ranking ace of this most heroic theatre of WW2 to make an historic string of victory claims.

As a Mk.Vb that was ordered on 23 August 1941, EP122 was one of the fourth batch of Spitfires, numbering 904 aircraft, to be built at the Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory. After final assembly in Topicalized fettle, complete with the large chin-mounted  air filter, and acceptance onto the RAF strength, this aircraft was then disassembled and crated on 8 June 1942 for shipment to the North African theatre of operations.

ww2supespitfire-2

Spitfire Mk.Vs destined for Africa were painted in Desert scheme

Shipped to Gibraltar on board the S.S. Guido four days later, EP122 was reassembled and assigned to Malta rather than North Africa, requiring a new coat of paint. As per all Malta aircraft arriving in planned delivery, her factory finish Desert Scheme of Mid-Stone and Dark Brown camouflage over Azure Blue undersurfaces was transformed into the Temperate Sea Scheme of Extra Dark Sea Grey and Slate Grey over Sky.

Although the most desperate air fighting over Malta had reached its zenith in April-May 1942, there was still plenty of trade to be had. In June and July the Canadian ace ‘Screwball’ Buerling in particular was busy swatting down German and Italian aircraft with 249 Squadron when EP122 arrived as one of the replacement aircraft flying off HMS Eagle during Operation PINPOINT and was immediately pressed into service with 185 Squadron.

In common with other 185 Squadron aircraft, EP122 was given the unit’s distinctive identifying code letters, painted in yellow and in a smaller, squarer font than other units on the Island, which usually carried white letters. With ‘GL’ as the identifying code for 185 Squadron and ‘B’ as the individual aircraft code, EP122 was ready to go into battle.

image1

Newly-restored EP122 wears the ‘Temperate Sea Scheme’ that was standard in Malta

This aircraft became the regular mount of a recently-arrived American volunteer, the teenage Sgt. Claude Weaver III of Oklahoma City. Weaver had enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on 13th February 1941 and, after earning his wings and briefly flying in the UK, he joined No.185 Sqn at Malta in late June, aged 19.

Within days of his arrival, on 17 July, Weaver had shot down his first Messerschmitt 109. Flying EP122, he shot down two more 109s on 22 July, followed by another pair the next day and then claimed a half-share in a Ju.88 the day after that – becoming the youngest Allied ‘ace’ of the conflict.

He was decorated with the DFM for destroying five enemy fighters and sharing in the destruction of a bomber within a period of one week. His score was up to ten before he was shot down over Sicily in another Spitfire, BR112, and made a force-landing on a beach that was photographed in colour and subsequently fuelled much of the myth behind the ‘blue’ spitfires of Malta.

spit-x

This photo of Weaver’s BR112 is responsible for much of the ‘Malta blue’ debate among historians

Although captured and taken prisoner-of-war, Weaver later escaped and walked 300 miles before eventually returning to operations with No.403 (RCAF) Sqdn – briefly flying alongside ‘Screwball’ Buerling until the latter was posted for insubordination and conduct unbecoming.

Weaver was killed in action over France after his Spitfire Mk.IX was shot down by the Focke-Wulf FW190 of 44-victory ‘ace’ Gerhard Vogt. Baling out of the stricken aircraft, Weaver’s parachute was caught on the Spitfire’s tailwheel and he was dragged to earth, surviving for a few hours despite his terrible injuries.

Back in Malta, EP122 meanwhile became the regular mount of Wing Commander J.M. Thompson, C.O. of 185 Squadron in the autumn 1942, who had the aircraft repainted with his personal identification letters of JM-T.

At the beginning of 1943, with the defence of Malta complete and attention turning towards an Allied invasion of Sicily, EP122 was transferred to 1435 Squadron, carrying the code letter ‘L’. On 27 March 1943 it crash-landed on the edge of the cliff at Dwejra Bay, Gozo. EP122 was pushed over the cliff-edge into the bay shortly afterwards.

9cef3b7d66b09bdce98fb44fd0b846e0

As a major RAF base in the 1960s, airmen would dive on WW2 wrecks for relaxation

The wreck of EP122 was discovered by divers from the RAF Sub Aqua Club off the coast of Gozo in 1969. She lay under 10 metres of water but was cleaned up and salvaged in the mid-1970s. Eventually the wreck came under the ownership of one of the most celebrated men in the American automotive and aviation community: Tom Friedkin.

Friedkin’s father Kenny had become obsessed with flying as a child, after watching a barnstorming display in the early 1920s. He qualified as a pilot at the age of 17 and volunteered to fly with the Royal Air Force in World War 2 – much like Claude Weaver.

319_0

Pacific Southwest Airlines became California’s main carrier – with a certain style!

Kenny Friedkin went on to found Pacific Southwest Airlines after the war only to die from a brain haemorrhage in 1962, the airline being privatised soon afterwards. Among the many knock-on effects that resulted from Kenny Friedkin’s premature demise was that  his son, Tom, became not only a serving pilot for the airline but also a member of the Board of Directors.

Tom Friedkin’s interests extended beyond aviation, and he used his wealth to race cars alongside his great friend Carroll Shelby. As well as driving, Friedkin owned his own NASCAR team in 1965-69, with cars built by Bill Thomas.

In 1969, Shelby introduced Friedkin to representatives of Toyota, which was looking to break into the American automobile market. It was through this introduction that Friedkin established Gulf States Toyota Distributors shortly afterwards.

Jim Paschal pits the Tom Friedkin Plymouth during the 1966 Daytona 500 - Paschal finished 11th___

Tom Friedkin ran a NASCAR team through 1965-69 with Bill Thomas

Today, GST regularly features in the annual Forbes list of largest private companies in the USA, with annual revenues in excess of $5bn. As his business flourished, so Friedkin has been able to further indulge his passions for powered sport on land, sea and air – nas well as appearing as a stunt pilot and cameo actor in movies such as Blue Thunder, Firefox and Jaws: The Revenge as well as in Clint Eastwood’s critically acclaimed movies The Rookie and Pale Rider.

Throughout nearly 50 years , Tom Friedkin has also played a key role in the restoration, ownership and display of historic aircraft; with Spitfires and the Duxford-based Flying Legends team featuring heavily in that interest. Now in his eighties, Friedkin remains a key player in the global warbird scene and his son, Dan, has followed closely in his father’s footsteps. The restoration of EP122 is the latest in a long line of landmark rebuilds.

The initial work was apparently undertaken by Steve Vizard’s VMI Engineering Service at Aldershot in Hampshire before transferring to Airframe Assemblies in Sandown, Surrey. Finally she made her way to the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar for completion – albeit minus the distinctive tropical air filter. Having made her maiden flight from Biggin Hill in May 2016, EP122 made her airshow debut at the Flying Legends spectacular at Duxford this July.

As a result, it will now be possible to see a genuine example of a ‘Malta blue’ Spitfire Mk.V in the air, complete in the colours with which she was flown by a remarkable young American volunteer to write his place in the history of military aviation.

Of all the Spitfires airworthy today, this makes EP122 one of the most significant of her breed. Ultimately it must be assumed that EP122 will make her way to the USA but it is to be hoped that, with the 75th anniversary of her accomplishments on the horizon, she will remain long enough to be one of the star performers of the 2017 UK airshow season.

gcisv9spitegkb

EP122 flies again – ready to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Malta’s finest hour next year