Lord North, the most unassuming man in a position of power ever!

One of the things I dislike most about the world is people who are boastful or prideful and this goes doubly for those who do so for very little reason whatsoever.

I always find if anyone has to boast about anything then they aren’t really anything special at all.  The very best people have no need to boast about anything or even mention any talent whatsoever.

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This also applies in areas like wealth where you can have someone as staggeringly rich as Prince Charles going around in clothes that are so old they have been stitched back together compared to someone moderately well-off, who feels the need to tell the world about their diamonds or fancy cars.

As someone with nothing to boast about whatsoever, it is easy for me to side with the unassuming people, but even I and most definitely Prince Charles who is famous for being hard-work behind the scenes, would have to take a bow to Prime Minister Lord North.

If you haven’t heard of Lord North then that might be because he is often seen as the black sheep of the Prime Miniseterial world who will forever have to bear the shame as being the Prime Minister in charge when the American colonies went their own way.

He might well, as Sir Winston Churchill said of someone else entirely, be a modest man with a lot to be modest about but Lord North for all his power and indeed failings was also both unassumingly modest and possessing a razor sharp wit.

It is recorded that one night at a operatic concert in Covent Garden he was asked by an acquaintance to identify a plain-looking lady in the box opposite him.  The Prime Minister cheerfully replied that this rather dowdy lady was actually his wife.

Somewhat taken aback, the mortified questioner attempted to get out of the hole he was digging by then continuing to say: “No, no, I meant the dreadful monster sitting next to her”. North’s reply was: “That, sir, is my daughter… we are considered to be three of the ugliest people in London”.

If only todays leaders could have half the wit and modesty of this man who was mostly likely the better of them all.  It is true that Lord North was perhaps not the most handsome man ever and it is perhaps fair if a little rude to label his wife as being somewhat lacklustre in appearance.

Frederick North, Lord North and amongst other things Prime Minister

Frederick North, Lord North and amongst other things Prime Minister

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Anne Speke (before 1741–1797), wife of Lord North.

The account of this hilarious event at the opera instantly was the talk of polite society in London and perhaps even more embarrassingly, Viscount Goderich who was also one of the lesser known Prime Ministers once related the story at a dinner party to the lady sat beside him.  After the punchline the lady replied “I know that story, I am Lord North’s wife”.

I bet that was an awkward moment!

I did try to find a painting of his ravishing daughter but alas I couldn’t find any but surely she couldn’t quite be descibed as a monster.

 

 

 

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Manfred Von Richthofen – The Red Baron

April 21st 2018 sees the 100 anniversary of the death of one of the most famous names not just in the history of air-combat but aviation generally. The Red Baron was the name given to Manfred von Richthofen, a German fighter pilot who was the deadliest flying ace of World War I. Along with some of his contemporaries such as Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke, the Red Baron didn’t just pioneer aerial tactics which are still studied today but during WW1 he becaeme what we might call a celebrity.

During a 19-month period between 1916 and 1918, the Prussian aristocrat shot down 80 Allied aircraft including one that had my relation Serjeant Reuel Dunn.   His utterly ruthless and skillful flying style was brought wider fame thanks to his legendary scarlet-coloured airplane.  Richthofen’s legend only grew after he took command of a German fighter wing known as the Flying Circus.  However even his brilliance couldn’t see him survive The Great War as his brilliant career in the skies ended in a dogfight over France  in April 1918.

The Red Baron

The Red Baron – Manfred Von Richtofen

Baron Manfred von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892, into an affluent family of Prussian nobles in what is now Poland.  As befitting his status, he enjoyed a privileged upbringing and spent much of his childhood hunting and playing sports before he enrolled in military school at age 11. In 1911, after eight years as a cadet, Richthofen was commissioned an officer in the 1st Uhlan cavalry regiment of the Prussian army.

The bravery of Manfred von Richthofen became clear right from the start of World War I when his cavalry regiment saw action on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. He received the Iron Cross for his courage under fire, but he later grew restless after his unit was consigned to supply duty as the stalemate on the Western Front got bogged down by endless trenchwarfare and cavalry charges began to be consigned to history.

That was never going to stop a man like Richthofen, desperate as he was to make an impression on the war he requested a transfer to the Imperial German Air Service, having told his commanding officer that he had not joined the military “to collect cheese and eggs.”

The request was granted, and by June 1915 the headstrong and ambitious young officer was serving as a backseat observer in a reconnaissance plane. 

Manfred von Richthofen spent the summer of 1915 as an aerial observer in Russia before being transferred back to the Western Front, where he earned his pilot’s licence. After honing his skills flying combat missions over France and Russia, he met the famed German flying ace Oswald Boelcke, who enlisted him in a new fighter squadron called Jasta 2.

Under Boelcke’s tutelage, Richthofen used his natural ability to grow into a formidable fighter pilot. He recorded his first confirmed aerial victory on September 17, 1916, by shooting down a British aircraft over France, and soon racked up four more kills which was needed to earn the title of “flying ace.”

By early 1917, Richthofen had downed 16 enemy planes and was Germany’s highest-scoring living pilot.  In recognition of his long succession of victories and likely an almost equally important morale boost for the Imperial German Command, he was presented with the Pour le Mérite, or “Blue Max,” Germany’s most illustrious military medal. 

In January 1917, Richthofen was placed in command of his own fighter squadron known as Jasta 11, which featured several talented pilots including his younger brother, Lothar von Richthofen.  It was now that he had his Albatros D.III fighter plane painted blood red and he cemented his place in history as the distinctive paint scheme gave rise to the immortal nickname “the Red Baron”.

The spring of 1917 proved to be Richthofen’s deadliest period in the cockpit. He shot down nearly two dozen Allied planes during what became known as “Bloody April” alone which took his tally to 52 overall; he was far and away the most brilliant and feared flier in the world.  In a time when victory in the war was becoming an increasingly distant prospect, Richthofen became a huge propaganda symbol in Germany, where he was lavished with military decorations and featured in numerous news articles and postcards. In the realm of public recognition, he was in some ways the German “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Unlike many of World War I’s top pilots, who prided themselves on their white-knuckle acrobatics, Richthofen was a conservative and calculating tactician. Preferring to avoid unnecessary risks, he typically fought in formation and relied on the aid of his wingmen to ambush his enemies by diving at them from above. To mark his growing kill count, he commissioned a German jeweler to make a collection of small silver cups bearing the date of each of his aerial victories.

In June 1917, Richthofen was promoted to leader of his own four-squadron fighter wing. Officially called Jagdgeschwader I, the unit became known in the press as “the Flying Circus” due to its brightly painted aircraft and swift movement to hotspots along the battlefront. Later that summer, it was outfitted with the Fokker Dr.1 triplane, the distinctive, three-winged machine that would become Richthofen’s most famous aircraft.

Even a man as brilliant as Richthofen couldn’t endure the deadly skies over Europe with a series of close calls and he suffered his first serious war wound on July 6, 1917, when he sustained a fractured skull after being grazed by a bullet during a dogfight with British aircraft.

Despite returning to duty with his Flying Circus just a few weeks later, he never fully recovered from the injury and complained of frequent headaches.  It has been speculated that Richthofen began to suffer from what we know now as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; the strain of daily combat and sending so many young men to their deaths whilst always having to be on the look out for that one plane that might catch him off-guard.  The casualty rate was so high in the air that many pilots didn’t even bother to get to know the knew fliers who replaced fallen comrades because it just wasn’t worth the effort as most wouldn’t make it past their first few missions.

Perhaps it was in such a state of mind that was eventually to become Richthofens undoing when he took his final flight  on April 21, 1918.  As happened countless times in the past, his Flying Circus engaged a group of British planes over Vaux-sur-Somme in France. As Richthofen swooped low in pursuit of an enemy fighter, he came under attack from Australian machine gunners on the ground and a plane piloted by Canadian ace Arthur Roy Brown.

The death of the Red Baron

Hot Pursuit by John Ketchell (Sopworth Camel) at the Historic War Art website

During the exchange of fire, Richthofen was struck in the torso by a bullet and died after crash-landing in a field. Brown got official credit for the victory, but debate continues over whether he or the Australian infantrymen fired the fatal shot.

He survived long enough to tell the first Allied troops on the scene “Kaput” before he died.  Despite being on the side of the enemy, allied soldiers held him in great respect.

His body lay in state for a day in an airport hangar. Hundreds of Allied soldiers filed by to pay their respects before a full military funeral for Richthofen was arranged and he was buried in a village cemetery near Amiens the next day.  Six airmen, who all shared the rank of captain with von Richtofen, were his pallbearers and 14 Australian soldiers acted as his guard of honour firing a salute and reversed arms as a sign of respect. Allied squadrons that were stationed near by left memorial wreaths emblazoned with the words “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.

The 25-year-old German ace had ruled the skies for a little over two years but his 80 confirmed aerial victories were not to be surpassed and this combined with the  much debated moments that led to his death and his legend as the fearsome Red Baron ensured that he lingered in the popular consciousness long after the war ended.   Now his remains lie in a family plot in southern Germany but for those in the U.K. it is possible to see his good luck mascot in the RAF Hendon museum, in the shape of a little blue dog.

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You can see my video I did on a filming trip with  he Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Don’t forget my WW1 Concise History book, Lest We Forget… the CWGC don’t use just anyone!

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WW2 icons of the RAF

Following on from my RAF100 post the Sopwih Camel and WW1

By 1940 the awesome might of Hitler’s Luftwaffe had been displayed in the lightning blitzkrieg offensive that annexed France in six weeks. In the aftermath the British had managed to rescue more than 300,000 troops from Dunkirk with a hastily cobbled together flotilla during May and June 1940. Then the country braced itself for the inevitable Nazi aerial onslaught and invasion.

The Royal Navy ruled the waves and the German fleet was no match for it but the man in charge of the Luftwaffe, Goring, believed that the Luftwaffe would be able to take care of the Royal Navy or at least keep it contained.  This would allow the German navy to mount an invasion along the southern coast of England.

You can see my dedicated post to Our Finest Hour and The Battle of Britain

The only thing standing between Hitler and a successful invasion of these isles was the RAF and as such Goring ordered the total destruction of Britain’s air force. Over the following weeks the outnumbered British pilots, along with Czechs, Poles and volunteers from Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia and Barbados held the Germans at bay and inflicted crippling losses on the Luftwaffe.  For a time it was a very touch and go victory, we were out of pilots, planes and materials and if the Germans hadn’t have switched tactics it is widely though the RAF would have been out of the war just a day or two later.

Spitfire P7350, flies alongside Hurricane LF363.

Spitfire P7350, flies alongside Hurricane LF363.

The ferocity of the RAF gave the Germans no indication that they were so close to victory and so Hitler decided to change tactics and initiated the Blitz.  Britains cities were about to be blasted to oblivion but it meant that militarily if not yet ready for victory would never be defeated.

There were a number of factors that contributed to Britain’s greatest victory, such as superior radar, having a home advantage meaning our pilots were more rested, and strategic confusion on the German side.

Yet one of the decisive factors was the Spitfire and its Rolls Royce Merlin engine, which meant the aircraft was more agile than anything the Third Reich could put into the sky.

Ultimately what prevented Britain becoming a province in the Nazi empire was the bravery and determination the young pilots who faced down the most devastating air force the world had seen.

Winston Churchill poignantly expressed the magnitude of the RAF’s victory when said:

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

In the little over two decades since its formation, the RAF had evolved from an adjunct of the army and navy into the saviour of the nation.

Although there may have been other minor air battles, from WW1 all the way up to British and American air battles over Iraq in the 21st century it can really be said that the Battle of Britain was the only major battle decided in the air.  It was the only aerial battle comparable to the huge battles of old with troops and cavalry that decided the fate of nations and empires.

The First World War aircraft such as the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 had a top speed of 130mph by the time of the second world war the Spitfire more than doubled that at 360mph.

 

Another factor in our victory was that the Luftwaffe only had 5 or 10 minutes to actually fight with us after crossing the Channel.  It is always the case that people defending their home-land have added motivation over invaders and there are several occassions of RAF pilots getting shot down or crash landing and then high-tailing it to the nearest airbase and taking back to the skies to get into the very same battle they had crashed out of.  As figures in the German High-Command noted, with spirit like that, how could they win?

Though the RAF had countless varieties of planes in use during WW2, the obvious icons of this era are two fighter planes in the shape of the Spitfire and Hurricane and also the Lancaster Bomber.

It was the Spitfire and Hurricane that were the stalwarts of defence in the Battle of Britain.  I’m probably about the youngest person in Britain who grew up being able to recognise the different engine sounds of the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster as I lived on route where they would practice for ceremonial flights over London.  There is absolutely nothing like the sound of a Spitfire and the video below shows why it is so beloved.

 

The video below shows a Spitfire flying about 8 feet above a very shocked TV presenter. A bit of strong language ensues when they have to duck!

 

The Lancaster Bomber was the most famous RAF bomber plane of the Second World War.  It wasn’t fast and maneurverable like a fighter, it was slow and lumbering and its only purpose was to drop bombs over Germany.

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A Lancaster Bomber

 

Probably the most famous mission flown by the Lancasters was the audacious Dambusters mission to destroy dams that powered large German industrial complexes.  These dams were in heavily defended mountainous areas and in an era before missiles, it would be an impossible job to fly over the dam and drop a few bombs and hope for the best.

Instead, inventor Barnes Wallis came up with the idea that if you could drop a bomb at precisely the right height and speed and drop it spinning then it would bounce along the surface of the lake like a skipping stone and if precisely right, impact upon the dam and explode.

It wasn’t much more than a suicide mission and worthy of much more of a blog post than these few words.    Immortalised in the classic Dambusters film, it was so a deadly and improbable mission you can see below on the video how it inspired George Lucas and the final attack on the Death Star in Star Wars.

 

Below is a clip of two Lancasters conducting a memorial flight over Derwent Reservoir.

 

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A Brief History of the Penny

As the modern era of a cashless society rolls relentlessly onwards and due to inflation the value of it ever decreasing, the Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has raised the prospect that like the half pence in the 1980’s the Penny be removed from circulation.  The fact that the banking chief claims to rarely see them whilst I see plenty of them daily is probably more a reflection of his over-inflated salary than anything else but then again I still regularly write cheques.

Money is always changing and coins have always come and gone out of circulation and in some countries the Penny has already met it’s banking maker in the sky.  However their are few coins more iconic than the British Penny.

Though there were obviously currencies in these islands beforehand, the roots of the English penny go back to Roman times.  In fact before decimalisation in 1971, the abbreviation for penny was “d.” and this stood for Denarius, which was originally a Roman silver coin.

The first mention of Britannia

The first mention and depiction of Britannia on a Roman Didrachm coin during the reign of Claudius I

After the Romans decided to withdraw from Britain to protect places closer to Rome around  about 411 A.D., Britain fell into what is slightly misleadingly known as the Dark Ages during which relatively few coins were struck. Those coins which were struck were mainly imitations of earlier, mainly Roman issues.

The splendidly titled Frankish King Pepin the Short introduced a new good quality of silver deniers in mainland Europe around 755AD and similar coins were also introduced into England, probably by King Offa, shortly afterwards. Both the deniers, and the English pennies, were of a similar diameter, and weighed about 20 grains (about 1.3 grams or 0.05 ounces) and were of high grade silver. The French word denier shows its obvious derivation from the Latin denarius. For the next 500 years, the silver penny was the main, almost the only, English coin type issued though King Offa did also introduce another coin based on the Denarious, a gold Dinar which was copied from the Arab Dinar of Caliph Al-Mansur as well as a gold penny which is thought to have been worth about 20 pence.

The English silver penny was struck to extremely high standards for the time and rapidly became famous throughout Europe. Not only were its size and weight imitated, but also its designs, portraits and inscriptions. It served as the model for the coins of Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland. The first coins produced for Poland by Boguslav the Mighty carried the name of Ethelred I, King of England.

Such is the lasting influence of the penny that, although the USA declared independence from Britain in 1776, and adopted a decimal currency, largely as a gesture of independence, Americans rather curiously still refer to their one cent coin as a penny!     Even now, the Royal Mint produces  money for around 70 foreign countries around the world.

As for the word Penny which doesn’t obviously have Latin origins, it is possible it originates from an Anglo-Saxon man called Penda who was King of West Mercia.  It is also possible that  the name comes from the pans into which molten metal was poured from crucibles to produced coin castings and blanks.  Such origins  are even more obvious in Germany where the German word “pfanne” meaning pan is very similar to the German word “pfennig” meaning penny. Penge, penninge, pande, and penig are other early north European words with similar meanings.

Once the Romans had left the scene, many of the Anglo-Saxon pennies featured a cross as part of the reverse side of the coin to illustrate the fact the population was devoutly Christian.   It was in 978 King Eadgar’s pennies introduced the King’s head as the main obverse design, a feature which had been common on many Roman issues. A head still survives to this day in the designs of the coins of most countries, so that the “obverse” or main side of coins is commonly referred to as the “head” of the coin.

In the reign of Ethelred II, the cross was extended to the edge of the coin, largely as a counter-measure against clipping or filing the edges. Clipping or filing the edges of coins was a huge problem 1000 years ago.  The coins being made from silver and so worth their weight in (Sterling) silver, dubious minded individuals would often trim the edges of coins.  Trim the edge of 100 silver coins and you have 100 scraps of silver that you can melt down and created 10 new coins from whilst leaving the honest trader out of pocket. By having the cross extend right to the edge of the coin, it was more obvious if the coin had been tampered with.

King Henry III Long Cross

King Henry III Long Cross coin

 

This fraud protect continued for centuries until bad King Charles I during whose reign coinage was struck with a beaded circle around the edge of the coin and eventually milled coinage was introduced. , when a beaded circle was used for a similar purpose and this tactic is still very much in use today.

From the tenth century, the weight of a silver penny had been increased to 22.5 grains. A “pennyweight” is 24 grains. It is possible that the difference could have been due to seignorage, or the profit charged by the mint, which would therefore have worked out at 15 pence, equivalent to 6.25%. According to other sources, when silver pennies were first introduced into England, their weight was 24 grains, which would have made a penny’s weight a pennyweight.

The terms “sterling” and “pound sterling”, seem to have acquired their meaning over a period of time, and from several convergent sources. The first mention is that of “sterilensis” in 1078, and by the thirteenth century the term sterling had appeared. Mintmarks on pennies included a star and a starling, both of which have been argued to be the source of the word sterling. Easterlings were early merchants and money-changers, and this may have contributed to the use of the word sterling. The Germanic word “ster” means strong or stout, and is probably the strongest influence in the use of the word sterling to mean strong, pure, stable, reliable, or excellent, and reflects the high esteem in which the English silver coinage was regarded. The term “pound sterling” was used throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.

As time went by, the weight of the penny was reducedIn 1344 the weight of a penny was reduced from over 20 grains to 18 grains, in 1412 to 15 grains, and in 1464 was further reduced to 12 grains. In 1816 the coinage underwent a major change, and weight of a silver penny was reduced to about 7.27 grains, and the maundy pennies which are still issued each year continue at the same weight.

The first copper pennies were issued in 1797, and were produced by Matthew Boulton and James Watt, at their Soho, Birmingham works, using steam powered coining presses. These coins weighed one ounce, and contained their full intrinsic value of copper. They were so substantial that they soon became known as “cartwheel” pennies, twopences were also issued, and at two ounces each even better fit the cartwheel description.
The size and weight were reduced slightly for the next issues of 1806 and 1807, and copper pennies continued to be produced from 1825 during the reign of George IV, William IV, and Victoria, until 1860.

It was at the time of the Soho Mint that the familiar figure of Britannia became more widespread on our coinage.

 

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Britannia on the reverse of a current gold coin

 

In 1860, a new smaller bronze penny was introduced, and these were produced until 1967, with a penny dated 1970 being specially produced for inclusion in a “farewell to £.s.d” proof set bearing that date. These bronze coins are commonly but inaccurately referred to as copper.

For a brief period, from 1971 to 1982, the British penny disappeared to be replaced by the “new penny”, part of Britain’s decimalisation, and with 100 to the pound.

The design on the reverse of the decimal penny is a “Royally crowned portcullis”. This was originally a badge of Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs. It was first used on coins as a mintmark on the first (gold) coinage of Henry VIII.

In 1982, it was decided that we British had adjusted sufficiently to decimalisation, the the word “new” was dropped from the “new” coins, so the penny once again bears the value “one penny”, although there are those who seem to believe it is a “one pence”!

In 1992, pennies were produced from copper plated steel partly as the price of the raw materials exceeded that of the value of the coins. It is likely that this will become a permanent change, although in some years bronze pennies have been issued also because of production problems, in supplying the steel coins in sufficient quantities.

It’s likely that the Bank of England Governor doesn’t appreciate the history of this famous old coin and as the saying goes is likely to be the type of man who knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing.  It’s one thing for us to go from paper money to plastic money but another thing all together to condemn the Penny to the history books.  Perhaps Mark Carney can send all the pennies in the vaults to me as I will find a use for them!

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The legendary Sopwith Camel – Icon of WW1 fliers

The first really star plane of the Royal AirForce was the Sopwith Camel which was already in service for the Royal Flying Corps.

The Camel grew out of the Sopwith Pup, a little fighter introduced in 1916, but which was soon outclassed by the German Albatroses and Halberstadts.

Its name derived from the slight hump forward of the cockpit. Its twin 30 caliber Vickers machine guns enabled it to destroy its (by WW2 or modern standards) flimsy opponents. In all, 5,490 were manufactured.

The plane wicked torque and killed a lot of novice British pilots, but the Sopwith Camel shot down 1,2494 German aircraft making it the most successful plane.

 

 

Though one of the better planes of WW1 and they did become much more advanced by the end of the war than at the beginning, you can see just how fragile they were.  By the end of war best planes were still only capable of going up to 130mph and so much of the war was spent fighting in planes that weren’t really going any faster than a car.

The photo below gives an indication of what the cockpit of a Sopwith Camel is like and just how flimsy it is to modern eyes.  Steel plating had been invented but it was heavy and slowed the planes down and so most pilots had no protection at all from bullets or the environment.

 

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Sopwith Camel cockpit

 

My relation Reuel Dunn was in a similar Sopwith plane when he fought the Red Baron.

Looking at the commemorative stamp below you can see the typical gear that a pilot in the RFC or early RAF might wear.  Leather coat, cap and gloves to keep as warm as possible in the cockpit that was open to the elements.

Googles were very important to the relatively primitive engines and guns had a tendancy to leak and splatter oil in the face of the pilot.

If you look closely you might be able to see the pilot is wearing a silk scarf.  These days lots of people make a bit of fun of the stereotype of carefree WW1 pilots with their scarf fluttering in the wind but it actually served several purposes as well as keeping them warm.  With no sort of window, an enemy plane could appear without warning from any angle and a pilot would spend much of their sortie looking around at every angle trying to see if any planes were approaching and the scarf would stop their necks from chaffing on their coats and uniforms.   Also the scarf would be used to wipe away oil splats from their goggles.

 

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A WW1 RAF flyer

 

Life as a WW1 pilot was terribly dangerous and though we are all familiar with the massive death tolls in the trenches, though their numbers are far smaller for those who actually flew in WW1 the death rate was staggeringly high.  When you think about it a WW1 air battle was essentially a duel and though there were definite skills and tactics involved as well as dollops of luck, when it came down to it the battle would only end when one of the pilots was dead and that was pretty much 50/50 who it might be.

Should a plane catch you unawares then it was hugely difficult to shake him from behind you and all the time your opponent would be mirroring your every move whilst unloading machine gun bullets into you aeroplane.

Though a comedy, the Blackadder sketch below gives some indication of how long your life expectancy might be as a novice pilot with the famous 20-minutes scene below.

 

As well as always having to be on the look out for the changing locations of the front lines in the Western Front that in places were very volatile, you also had to keep an eye out for Archie or what in WW2 became known as Ack-Ack Anti-Aircraft fire. Mechanical malfunctions frequently occurred and a life could easily be saved or lost by an untimely malfunctioning of a machine-gun for example depending if it was yours or that of your enemy.

Pilots had to really think like predators, fly as high as possible as that would not only help you see planes below but also give you a chance to dive and pick up speed to attack your enemy (and hope it isn’t a sitting duck diversion to lure you in and have the enemy attack you from even higher).

Alert pilots would wherever possible fly with the sun behind them so that they would be invisible to enemy aircraft coming towards them due to the bright sunlight.  Not flying in a straight line was always a good idea too.

I hope that gives a bit of an idea of what life was like as a WW1 pilot and these early aviation heroes who flew in planes like the iconic Sopwith Camel.  You can see a Sopwih flying around in the video below and if you don’t want to watch it all, skip ahead towards the end and see just how slow it is travelling when it comes in for landing.

 

And don’t forget to get my WW1 history book Lest We Forget published by Endeavour Press and available in Kindle or Paperback

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Incidentally if you have even a passing interest in WW1 in the air then I recommend the fictional adventures of Biggles written by WW1 pilot W.E. Johns

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100 Years of the RAF

This week sees the 100th anniversary of the oldest dedicated air force in the world, the Royal Airforce or RAF.

The formation of the RAF was partly a bureaucratic cost-saving exercise by the Prime Minister Lloyd George. He wanted to bring down the expense of having two air forces in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service by amalgamating them into one.

There were two organisations costing lots of money. The army and navy were negotiating their own contracts, ordering their own aircraft and doubling up on training, so the PM said ‘enough is enough’.”

At the time the military was also exploring the idea of broadening the role of aviation. During the war, planes had been tethered solely to the needs of the army and navy, but now the government was looking at using them to strategically bomb German cities and defend Britain.

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Over the last century the aircraft and technology the Royal Air Force deploys has changed beyond recognition.

Yet what has remained immutable is the bravery and dedication of those who serve in its ranks.

 

In the years leading up to the First World War there had been skepticism that aviation would ever have a meaningful role to play in battle. The French general, Ferdinand Foch, who would go on to become the Supreme Allied Commander during the First World War, was quoted in 1911 saying: “Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value”.

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Claude Grahame-White

In fact one of my relations, an aviation pioneer and entrepeneur Claude Grahame White famously landed his plane on Executive Avenue outside the Whitehouse and rather than be arrested, he was widely applauded by the American police who came to pat him on his back for his airmanship.

Whilst Claude was very much in it for his own ends, to make money at his aircraft factory in Hendon, London it is indicative of the situation that he had to encourage the Whitehouse to consider spending money on military planes in the first place… something that ever since has not been that big of a problem!  (You can visit RAF Hendon Museum which has planes from WW1 right up to the 21st century with me at Ye Olde England Tours)

Those early years gave rise to the rapid development of aeroplanes from novel innovations into deadly war machines that could give land and sea forces a decisive edge.

But aviation advances showcased at European air displays in the ensuing years convinced the military top brass of the major powers that planes could provide a crucial tactical advantage and in 1912 Britain established the Royal Flying Corps (RFC).

By 1914 the generals were convinced of the coming value of airplanes and all the major players had bought aircraft and started an air force wing.

In the early months of the war the challenge was fitting the light wooden and canvas aircraft with heavy machine guns. As the RFC initially grappled with the problem, the first fighter pilots instead carried handheld weapons with them into battle.

In the first weeks they were very frustrated as they had no decent weapons to take down other planes so they took up carbine rifles, shotguns, revolvers and even grenades, but to drop those on an enemy plane was almost impossible.

Even when machine guns were successfully mounted the challenge then was where to place them to allow the pilot to shoot forwards without shredding the plane’s wooden propeller.

The Germans were the first to crack the conundrum by inventing an interrupter system that instantaneously paused the propeller midair to allow a pilot to shoot through it.

These early developments set the pace for what was a continual arms race between the Germans and Allies to improve their planes throughout the war.

By the end of the conflict the clunky, weaponless aircraft that the powers had started the war with had been honed into nimble and lethal machines.

The early pilots were a mix of volunteers and recruits with the army and navy actively seeking out men who had a mechanical background, such as car and motorbike owners.

Yet many men also volunteered for the service. Some did as they saw the force as a way out of the trenches, others were enticed by publicity around the heroic Aces and the idea of the noble one-on-one duels between enemy pilots.

While being a pilot meant spending nights in a warm bed at a base and eating warm meals in a mess, the chances of survival dropped precipitously for the men who signed up.

 

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Through adversity to the stars

 

Although some planes were fitted with armour plates to shield the pilots from fire, these made the aircraft much slower and easier targets, so many did without.

As well as the threat of being shot down by enemy pilots, the light structures were also vulnerable to ground fire from rifles and machine guns.

The life expectancy of pilots during the First World War was notoriously short and during the bloody Battle of Arras in 1917 it dropped to as low as 17.5 flying hours for British pilots.

Constant spectre of death took a huge psychological toll on the early pilots, many of whom suffered nightmares about their greatest fear – going down in a burning plane.

Those who did survive and took down increasing numbers of enemies were lionized in the press as Aces.

But the longer pilots survived the more they tended to become fatalistic and potentially more reckless. One notable example was Germany’s infamous ‘Red Baron’, Manfred von Richthofen, who was the most deadly pilot in the conflict with 80 kills.

He was killed in the last year of the war when he inexplicably went against his own advice which was never follow a potential victim low down and he was killed on April 21, 1918 as he followed an aircraft almost to the ground and was killed by ground fire.

By the end of the war Britain’s air force had developed from an embryonic technology into a sophisticated wing of the military that was starting to show its potential away from the traditional land and sea battles.
Since then the RAF has been an ever present force in the defence of our and other nations.  Whilst obviously famous for the heroic battles of WW2, the RAF has seen action in many other arenas, most notably the Falklands War in 1982 and the various wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are currently RAF bases in amongst other places Gibraltar, Cyprus, Acension Island, the Falklands, Canada, the UAE, Qatar and 4 semi-permanent stations in the USA.
It is not just overseas where the RAF sees action, even now just as in the dark days of WW2, RAF bases are on standby 24 hours a day to head off incursions by Russian airforce planes who probe out defences and airspace on an almost daily basis.
Celebrations for the 100th anniversary will take place across the country with the higlight being the RAF 100 Parade in London this summer.
In my own small way, I will be writing 3 short posts on some of the iconic planes from the distinct eras of the RAF.
Posted in Heritage, history, WW1 | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth

The Fourth Plinth is probably the most famous public art commission in the world and it all began back in 1994 when after 150 years with an empty plinth, Prue Leith, then chair of the Royal Society of Arts wrote a letter to the Evening Standard suggesting that something should be done about the empty plinth in Trafalgar. This sparked a flurry of public debate. Five years later, it hosted the first artwork, ‘Ecce Homo’ by Mark Wallinger and ever since, the Mayor of London’s Fourth Plinth programme has invited leading artists to make sculptures for the plinth. These artworks have so far included a bright blue cockerel, a golden rocking horse and even people themselves standing on the plinth for 100 days.

No wonder then that the Fourth Plinth has attracted a huge amount of public interest and when I give my tours it is a pretty regular occurence to be asked what on earth it is all about.  The Fourth Plinth art is never a simple thing of beauty but instead is deliberately made to make people think about sometimes challenging subjects.

 

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Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ was a scale (1:30) replica of HMS Victory in a bottle. It was the first commission by a black British artist, and the first to reflect on its setting. Trafalgar Square commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, and links directly with Nelson’s column. The ship’s 37 large sails were made of patterned textiles typical of African dress. They are used to show African identity and independence. The work considers the legacy of British colonialism and its expansion in trade and Empire. This was made possible through the freedom of the seas and the new trade routes that Nelson’s victory provided.

It now has a permanent home at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

 

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‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’, Marc Quinn, 2005

This was a 3.6m tall, 13-tonne Carrara marble figure of the artist Alison Lapper. She was born with phocomelia and has no arms and shortened legs. The sculpture publicly celebrated a different idea of beauty. It asked us to question our narrow view of what is and what isn’t socially acceptable. The sculpture’s presence was also a huge boost for disabled rights in the UK. A huge inflatable version of the sculpture was later a centrepiece of the London 2012 Paralympic Games opening ceremony and people here are still proud that the ParaOlympics in London 2012 is still the only Paralympics that was consistently sold out.

 

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My favourite of recent years has been ‘Gift Horse’ which was a skeletal, riderless horse in bronze. It was based on an etching by George Stubbs, an English painter whose works can be seen in the National Gallery. Tied to the horse’s front leg was an electronic ribbon with a live ticker of the London Stock Exchange. This completed the link between power, money and history. The sculpture directly references the equestrian statue of William IV originally planned for the plinth.

2017 saw Trafalgar Square given the big thumbs up in a piece of art that was designed to illustrate what a great city London is and what a great future there might be given the recent Brexit vote.

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Now though, the 2018 statue has just been unveiled and in keeping with the thought provoking tradition. Michael Rakowitz’s new work for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square shimmers, whatever the weather. A life-sized copy of the winged god that stood at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh from 700 BC until its destruction by Islamic State in 2015, Rakowitz’s replica in London recalls what has been lost and makes it new. Its scale perfectly matches the proportions of the empty fourth plinth. Riveted together from 10,500 empty Iraqi date-syrup cans, the relief sculpture has a disconcerting exactitude, with its polychrome wing on one side, the sheer gold wall and cuneiform inscription on the other, the god’s implacable face, its ruinous majesty.

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Rakowitz’s project is a reminder that what was destroyed by Isis including the ancient  lamassu cannot be replaced.  The art is also tells us something about their loss and absence. Symbols and representations change their meanings with time; they are hostages to belief and ideology, to conflicting cultures. Images are powerful, which is why people have always wanted to destroy them. Fragility, sorrow and resistance, absence and presence come together in this project. The lamassu refuses to disappear. It persists.

It is also a reminder to us all that in parts of the world where some people seemingly want to go back to the stoneage, that thousands of years years ago their ancestors were amongst the greatest, most glorious and culturally sophisticated people in the history of the world and in a city that has too had more than its fair share of  Islamic terrorism it is an act of defiance and solidarity.  It faces south east towards the ancient city of Nineveh where the winged lamassu stood for over 6,000 years.

I think this is an amazing piece of work and as someone who finds the Babylonians to be the most incredible of the ancient civilisations I naturally love it.    It is actually part of a bigger art project which Rakowitz has labelled The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist and will involve recreating 7,000 objects that were destroyed in Iraqi museums.

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Posted in Culture, history, Life, London, News | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments