Have we given this hero due credit?
An Anzac weekend is inevitably a time for memories. Ruffling through old aviation files adds to that ...
It was 1956. But looking back there was something unmistakeable in his manner as the tall, lean ex-fighter pilot stood on the steps of the Auckland War Memorial Museum and watched a big team of helpers ease a Spitfire up, step by step and inside the big doors.
I remember he joked with me about his height – 1.95 metres (6ft 5in) – being a problem that designers of cockpits hadn’t taken into account.
But then when Reginald Mitchell drew up plans for his famous Spitfire, he hadn’t bargained on getting it upstairs and through doorways either.
There was too, a recognisably real feeling for that fighter as we watched. And that reaction went back a long way.
When Sir Keith Park commanded fighter squadrons over Dunkirk and then in defence of London and southern England in the Battle of Britain, his pilots knew that he could “walk the walk just as well as he could talk the talk”.
Sir Keith was born in Thames in 1892, the son of a professor, a World War One infantryman, he was at Gallipoli and transferred to the Royal Artillery in France until a wound on the Somme put his war in doubt. He was ruled “unfit to ride a horse”.
So he joined the Royal Flying Corps as a fighter pilot over the Western Front.
Years later he would laugh about how strange it was that although unfit to ride he was deemed fit to fly.
“Tradition was very strong in those days of horse-drawn artillery and an officer and a gentleman was expected to ride into battle on a charger.”
He went on to estab- lish his own tradition.
Flying a Bristol fighter, he scored 20 victories despite being shot down twice – once by anti-aircraft fire and a second time by the German ace Kurt Ungewitter.
He won the Military Cross and bar, Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.
As a peacetime airman, he was a fighter station commander, rose to Air Vice Marshall and was one of George VI’s four aides-de-camp riding behind the king in his coronation procession. Back on a horse again.
At war again, in charge of organising air cover in the Dunkirk evacuation, he flew over the beach himself, spotting enemy positions and pointing out enemy positions to his pilots. Walking the walk.
At nearly 50, he flew in his Hurricane over the last two British ships to leave and was the last RAF pilot to turn back to Britain.
Later, in his key defensive role as commander of No 11 Fighter Group which defended London and the south of England against the air blitzkreig, he earned an accolade from Lord Tedder, Chief of the Royal Air Force:
“If any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did.
“I do not believe it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did to save not only this country, but the world.”
This really was The Big Show, as the young fighter pilots called it.
Between July and April, 1940, the RAF shot down 1652 German planes – and lost 1087 of their own.
With Hitler’s Luftwaffe repulsed, it seemed obvious that experience would take him on to command the defence of Malta.
Typically, he won again, sending his young fighter pilots out to intercept the Dorniers, Heinkels and ME109s over the Med.
In the process, like London, Malta was saved.
Another challenge. Promoted Allied Air Commander-in-Chief, South East Asia, he perfected tactics which meant jungle fighters got essential support and supplies through monsoon and ground defensive fire.
Throughout his long career, he never missed a chance to ease his tall frame into a Hurricane cockpit and head off where the action was.
Back in peacetime Auckland, we were both logical spectators as the Spitfire moved into its new home, him more than me.
He was the distinguished figure so revered in London, and now back home in retirement, who had negotiated the gift of the Spitfire to the museum.
I was simply the aviation reporter for the Auckland Star, delighted to get so close to that fighter, one of those heroic symbols of my childhood.
I was also conscious that I was sharing the occasion with a great New Zealander.
Looking back, I don’t believe the community really gave him the recognition he deserved in those retirement years leading up to his death at 82 in 1975.
Oh yes, the Museum of Transport and Technology was proud to put his name to a wing of its buildings.
He had been voted on to Auckland City Council, has a street named after him and this and that, but all this was small beer lined up against his hard-won chestful of medals, his achievements, and the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath he so richly deserved.
Recapping on his career, you can understand the English plan to put his statue on a plinth in Trafalgar Square, recognising the man Lord Tedder said saved Britain.
I remember asking him what the chances were of his name being emblazoned on this latemark Spitfire, built in the year the war ended but never flown in action.
He shrugged those high altitude, lean shoulders and trotted out that he already had a British railway locomotive named after him – references show him as only one of three men honoured in that rather distinctive fashion, the others were Winston Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook.
Then he became quite bemused at the oily liquid dripping from somewhere on the Spitfire.
I knew without asking that his concern was for the welfare of the veteran fighter plane rather than the state of the museum steps.
I thought some old reflexes twitched when I told him about my flight in a dual training version of the RNZAF’s then new Vampire jets – 620mph at 60 feet above coastal sand-hills. Seven Gs as we pulled out of a 10,000 foot highspeed dive.
I felt I knew, in the unlikely eventuality of the Spitfire ever coming down those steps and being readied to scramble again, exactly who would be at the head of the queue to fly it.
Once a fighter pilot, always a fighter pilot.
Even if we’ve never planned to put him on a New Zealand plinth. • Reginald Mitchell did not live to see his brilliant design’s greatest war triumphs.
He died of cancer in 1937 at 42.
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