Sunday, 12 December 2010

Angels One Five

Angels One Five is the operational flying height of 15000 feet for the Spitfire war plane created by R J Mitchell and the name of a British War film set at the outbreak of World War II when the British Air Force amounted to some 50 squadrons, in theory about a thousand planes and pilots, although they were never at full strength because of losses, against a force several times its strength with the capacity and training base to replace losses, and to increase its numbers which Britain did not. (The) First of the Few is the story of Mitchell and the Spitfire

Given the British Board of Film censors U certificate rating which made Angel’s One Five. a family film, it presented combat in way which protected the younger members of the audience from the reality of death and injury in wartime, but it created the atmosphere where just below the surface excitement of Biggle’s, the drinking and the horseplay was the reality where every time a pilot set off he knew the odds of surviving rapidly diminished. These were very young men and few came home to the parents, wives and girlfriends.

As an adolescent, and then as a young man, in his first job it was my privilege to know three such men, men who came back. In fact I was about twelve years of age when with the help of the local Conservative Member we were rehoused in the top flat of a requisitioned house in Wallington shared with a former RAF flyer his wife and son, and later when the house was returned to its owners we were rehoused together in flats built by the council after the war, two blocks of six flats, three stories in height which everyone thought were private rather than Council because of the attractive way they looked, and still do. Until this morning I had been writing that I was younger when the move was made and only now I remembered that I started at the John Fisher School from the home we shared with the sisters of my birth and care mothers and the married sister and her six children. Then in my first job at the age of sixteen, working for Middlesex County Council, in a large tall building in the Vauxhall Bridge Road, now used by the Random House Publishers, I was attached to section of six men, originally five all of whom had served their country in one of the three armed services. One of the five was a wartime flyer and but I believe the sixth who joined the section and was the youngest had completed National Service in the RAF but I am unsure now if he had experienced combat as had the others. All the three homes were in walking distance of London’s former great airport at Croydon, and where over 140 rocket bombs fell.

The story of the film Angels One Five is a simple one. A young man, training to be a doctor at university, a member of the volunteer student flying corps enlists, trains, and is eager to go into combat, but is delayed because of injury after a near miss accident with another aircraft that has been shot up and without communications and other instrumentation, and has to make a hasty landing. The new young pilot crashes the new aircraft as a consequence and which does not get him off to a good start with his new colleagues and in part because of injury, he serves three weeks assisting in the operations room. However he overcomes this difficult start, forming a relationship with Michael Denison who is the operations room commander, and who takes over a squadron as the story progresses, and Dulcie Grey, who does not play Michael’s wife in this instance, but the stoic and resourceful wife of the second in command of the operations room, and who lives at the end of the runway putting out a guiding signal each night despite the blackout and continuing even when the property is bombed. She introduces the young flyer, played my John Gregson, to a local nurse and the sister of another flyer, and the two establish a nice relationship which leads to plans for a first date meal out together one evening.

The airfield commander officer is Jack Hawkins, who appeared in a number of wartime time films notably The Cruel Sea and his is the father figure, man of compassion who understands more than most of his men, and their relatives, how the odds are stacked against their individual survival and that of the country in general should Germany chose to invade. He is not casual bout general discipline and security, but understands that every time his men take to the skies some do not come back and he must inform the parents, the wives and girlfriends, relatives who he has invited for drinks every Sunday evening, until the news comes that the enemy are about to launch raids on the Airfields and their command centres.

The young flyer gets the opportunity to go into combat with initial success but fails to return on the evening of the first date as we learn during the film, several others, including the former squadron leader. The film also pays tribute to the young women who manned the operations room and the RAF ground crew and defence personnel whose sergeant major is played by Geoffrey Keen, who was subsequently to star in a TV series called the Planemakers or such like.

The film obviously will mean more to the generation of parents who saw their sons, and their daughters leave home for the first time, not to return as well as those who had partners and friends, and also by those of us who although children experienced the fear of the bombing and were also present when the dreaded telegram arrived. The film also has meaning for younger people to day.

The R J Mitchell story is also one which present day generation should know about. He only lived for 42 years dying from cancer in 1937. He left school at sixteen years and gained an apprenticeship at a locomotive engineering works and at the end of this he work in the drawing of the firm and continued to study engineering and mathematics at night school. At the age of twenty two he joined Supermarine Aviation at Southampton and married Florence Dayson and was appointed Chief Designer, then Chief Engineer in 1920 and Technical Director in 1927. In 1928 the company was taken over by Vickers, in the film for half a million pounds, but only on the understanding that Mitchell remained with them for five years.

Between 1920 and 1936 he deigned 24 aircraft including light aircraft, fighters, bombers sea planes, and flying boats. In addition to the Spitfire he established an international reputation for winning the Schneider Trophy which was an a time trial competition for sea planes which attracted worldwide media interest, with the first race in 1913 and Britain winning the following year. The Italians won in 1920 and 1921 but it was Mitchell’s plane which won in 1922 as a private entry. In 1927 with Government backing Mitchell designed planes came first and second. His planes won again in 1929 and 1931 and as the event become biannual, the original trophy was handed over for good and is seen as The London Science Museum Flight Section along with the winning 1931 plane. In the film the government were unable to financially sponsor either the 1929 or 1931 races because of the depression but an eccentric and far sighted aristocrat who was concerned that Britain was at risk by not rearming and staying ahead of the flight race for speed put up the necessary funds.

In the film Mitchell is reputed to have thought of the bird inspired single wing structure soon after joining the firm but it was rejected and he left the first for a period of a week before the firm said they wanted him to develop his idea. Before then the job of the designer had been to construct a plane around the engine with separate fuel tanks and two wings. Mitchell conceived the idea of the single wing which were integrated with the rest of the body and placed the fuel tanks in the floats. As a result of his design quickly followed by others speeds increased from under 200 Mph to over 300. In the film he commenced to concentrate on a British fighter plane after a holiday trip to Germany as guests of the Glider Club, during which time he learnt of Germany’s rearmament intentions and political ambitions. This is fiction as he never visited Germany.

His first deign was rejected by the RAF because of its unsatisfactory performance so he re-designed a new all metal plane bringing together the least technical advances developed elsewhere in the UK and USA and his genius was to marry these advances with his expertise in high speed flying. The prototype first flew in 1936 and in subsequent tests reaches a speed of 369 Mph and the RAF ordered 310 in the first instances.

Mitchell underwent a colostomy for rectal cancer in 1933 but continued to work and live well until his death, taking flying lesson and getting his pilots licence in 1934, something not mentioned in the film which suggested that he died as a consequence of ignoring medical advice to give up working and rest. This was added to the film released in 1932 as a message to everyone that doing their duty to resist the Germany meant putting Individual lives into the service of the country whether as part of combat forces or other ways of assisting in the war effort.

The film commences with a short and powerful history of what happened in Europe and how at the time when the film was released Britain and her then Empire stood alone against Germany who boasted they would be in London before the end of the summer. It is generally accepted that had Hitler invaded in 1942 Britain did not have the production strength or defences to have succeeded in repelling the attack. Without the superiority over the Spitfire and the brave young men who flew them there is little doubt that Germany would have succeeded. Over Twenty Two thousand Spitfires and derivatives were built as the basic designed could be improved where as the Hawker Hurricane quickly became obsolete

His son Dr Gordon Mitchell married Alison Barrow and they had three children with his wife dying in 2005 but his son lives on in Cotswolds. In 2005 all the surviving Mitchell family including two great grand children went to London to watch a statue of Mitchell displayed at the Science Museum. I not know its present whereabouts.

The actor who plays Mitchell in the film Leslie Howard bore little physical resemblance to Mitchell who was large and athletic. He was also working class with fierce temper. Leslie Howard was shot down and killed by the Luffwaffe in 1943 while in a transport plane.

In the film the Test pilot and personal friend from school days is played by David Niven and the film is a flashback of their work together told to young flying officers who are in awe of the plane and its designer. The principal test pilot was Jeffrey Quill after Joseph Summers. Joseph Mutt Summers was the Chief Test pilot at Vickers Armstrong and he undertook the first trials of the spitfire as well as 309 other aircraft by 1946. He was the pilot for the first bouncing bomb experiments used for the Dam Buster. He was awarded the OBE in 1946 and died after surgery in 1954 aged 50. Nothing further is known of him. Jeffery Quill who took over the testing of new versions of the Spitfire during the war had a long and important career. Mr Quill lived near Shoreham airport on the South Coast and began a non commissioned career in the RAF, aged 18 and half as an acting Pilot officer. He went solo in just over half the time as normal in those days and in 1932 in joined a squadron of fighters and started to fly aerobatics in order to test his and the plane’s maximum capabilities. In the 1934 he joined and the commanded the RAF metrological flight which involved a twice daily flight to 25000 feet to provide the best and latest data. Because of the way he operated he was awarded the Air Flying Cross. In 1936 he joined Vickers as assistant to Mutt Summers aged 23. In 1936 he narrowly missed death after a plane failed to come out of a spin at 3000 feet and looked as if it smash him as it feel and a he came down by parachute landing on the Kingston Surrey bypass. I lived at Teddington Middlesex 1967-1969 which was just beyond Kingston and en route to the home of my birth and care mothers, and their eldest sister. He was appointed in charge of development and production flying at the commencement of World war Two and decided that to do his job properly he would become a combat pilot and during 19 days he shot down two enemy planes. He wanted to stay on but the top brass felt he was too valuable and recalled him to his official position. When in 1942 allied fighters were being overtaken by the Foch Wulf 109 it was planned for Quill to be taken to France to hijack one of the planes and bring back. Fate intervened in that a German pilot mistakenly landed one in England unaware where he was.

After the war he continued as a major test pilot and wrote several books primarily about the Spitfire and became President of the Spitfire Society.

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