Welcome to my blog, where I take pleasure in words and pictures, be they my own or those of others. I'm a creative individual, and the crafty side I explore on my 'other blog', Picking Up The Threads, which I hope you'll visit too. I'm sure you understand that I have sole copyright of my original work and any of my contributions, so please ask if you want to use them. A polite request is rarely refused. So, as they used to say on the BBC's 'Listen With Mother' radio programme, many years ago: "Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin."

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Their Finest Hour

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 
As I foretold you, were all spirits and 
Are melted into air, into thin air: 
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve 
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on, and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep. 

William Shakespeare 
From The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1

Alan’s photo prompt for this week’s Sepia Saturday gives us ‘sleeping' or ‘rest’ for a theme, if we choose to do so. Alan was confident that we themers could pluck something from the thinnest of air, cleverly referring, I’m sure, to the words above, spoken by Prospero in Shakespeare’s ’The Tempest’.

The picture I have chosen is of Spitfire pilots resting during World War Two*, whilst waiting for the call to ‘scramble’ their aircraft. Last Sunday was ‘Battle of Britain Sunday’, an occasion marked by church services throughout the country, including Westminster Abbey. This year also marks the 75th Anniversary of the first flight of the prototype Spitfire, the remarkable aircraft which played such a huge part in the Battle of Britain, a turning point in the war.

My own father was serving in the RAF at that time, having enlisted in July 1941, the month of his 19th birthday. He was one of the unsung groundcrew, who made sure that the aircraft were serviceable, and put in long and exhausting hours, often in extreme weather conditions. Dad suffered frostbite whilst stationed at RAF Silloth in Cumbria in one of the bitterest winters on record 1941-2. However, prior to that was stationed at Biggin Hill with 609 Squadron during part of the Battle of Britain, and knew many of the young pilots, for whom he has a deep and lasting respect.

I’m not going to detail facts and figures about the aircraft as, these can be found by simply clicking a button and searching the web, but in 2006, marking its 70th birthday Jonathan Glancey’s book ‘Spitfire, the biography’ was published, which gave a very readable account of the aircraft and its life above and beyond the war.

The book is full of detail, anecdotes and stories, and I am indebted to it for the further information I gleaned from it. Glancey quotes the famous poem ‘High Flight’, by John Gillespie Magee, a young American Spitfire pilot who had crossed the border in order to join the Canadian Air Force. In a letter home, he wrote:

 "An aeroplane, is not to us a weapon of war, but a flash of silver slanting the skies; the hum of a deep-voiced motor; a feeling of dizziness; it is speed and ecstasy.”

Glancey reminds us that Magee was tragically killed in an aircraft collision, just a few days after America joined the war. He was just nineteen.

We took Dad to Biggin Hill a few years ago, and he was very moved whilst visiting the chapel, and old wartime memories were stirred.

Dad was really pleased when in 1985-7, my husband was stationed at R.A.F. Coningsby in Lincolnshire, and as OC Mechanical Engineering (Aircraft) Squadron, was responsible for the maintenance of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight aircraft. Dad got to visit the Flight and see the Spitfires, Lancaster and Hurricane at close quarters again. It was our honour and pleasure to see the aircraft flying overhead on a regular basis, and always gave us a special thrill to remember the part they had placed in our island’s history.

‘Their finest hour' comes from the famous speech made by Winston Churchill, making reference to the Battle of Britain which was about to begin.

* RAF Pilots with Beaufighter and Spitfire at Malta 1943, UK Government via Wikimedia Commons

Update on this post: My father, who died in November 2012, would have been very upset to hear recently that the MOD did not think St George’s Chapel (seen in the photos above) was worth maintaining any longer. Luckily, in January 2015, Biggin Hill Airport stepped in to make up the £50,000 per year shortfall in running costs.


  1. Wonderful post, i love the Shakespeare text and thats such a lovely picture of your dad in uniform. Scarlett x

  2. I am enjoying the literary thread in Sepia Saturday almost as much as the photographs!

    What a wonderful tribute to your father. My father joined the military just as the War was coming to a close. He did serve for a time repairing the aircraft. By that time, the engines were held together with bailing wire and repaired with all sorts of bits and pieces of scrap metal. I bet they would enjoy sharing a memory or two!

  3. Rob would love to chat to your dad, he wanted to join the RAF and is obsessed with planes. So many 19 year olds can't even operate a washing machine, it's difficult to imagine the trials servicemen face, and the steep learning curve they have to negotiate.
    You always find such fascinating things to share - thanks.

  4. That is a lovely piece from Shakespeare! Alan does know that we can pluck and scrape all kinds of tid-bits from his photos, and you did a fantastic job here...your photos are outstanding and it was all so very interesting! thank you!

  5. Another superb post, Nell. I hope everyone reading it also follows your link to John Gillespie Magee.
    During WWII we had RAF personnel billeted with us, some of whom were lost over Germany in bombing raids.
    Lincolnshire was very much my playground from aged 14. Coningsby, Digby, Cranwell were all places where I played hockey, rugby or cricket.
    Your father must be around the same age as my brother who served in the Fleet Air Arm.
    Your quote from The Tempest is well chosen.

  6. That's a nice photo of your father in uniform. I find the angle of his cap amusing.

  7. Nice then and later photographs of your father.

  8. Its so moving and touching to read incidences of WW-II (I am not saying stories because these are little incidences in their lives that remain with them for ever)
    You can see their eyes lit up when they narrate these incidences (but we should have the patience to sit and listen)

  9. What a wonderful post, and I love the photos of your father both then and now.

  10. I really enjoyed this about Spitfire. Because I have read and researched a lot about WWII (fascinated by learning anything about the war that took my pilot father whom I never knew) I applaud you for taking your father to see this and reawakening his memories. That stained glass window is unique and beautiful too.

  11. The lot of the ground crews is so often glossed over in favour of the dashing stories of the glamour boys, but your photograph of the pilots resting is an apt portrait of their off duty hours. Thanks for sharing it, and your father's memories.

  12. A great post. Love the cowboy boots in the first photo. I love history, American and British. Great photos and some nice history. I plan to look up that book.

  13. My father-in-law was in the RAF and about the same age when he joined up. So many were so young when their lives were rounded with a sleep.

  14. Ah, I hadn't even thought of my dad's old military shots. I know there are several of some of his flight crew sleeping on some island in the Pacific.

    Wonderful post with memories for your dad and for those of us who know nothing about the war other than our parent's memories.

  15. A very nice tribute woven artfully into the Sepia theme.

  16. I love seeing the picture of your father then alongside the current photos.

  17. what could have been a trivial theme turned into a serious post and a touching tribute. well done!!

  18. I love the thought of your dad visiting his old friends, the Spitfires. The nostalgia is romantic, even if the reason it began in the first place is not.

  19. A very moving post, Little Nell - and those pilots must have been so tired to be able to have forty winks with all the adrenalin rushing. I just finished reading "the Beauty Chorus" which was about women pilots who moved planes around during the War, although they weren't allowed to be fighter pilots - the kindle version is very economical and gives fascinating background info(and thanks for the alert about my broken link). My grandfather supervised a factory in Scotland during the war - they made Spitfire wings. When I (stupidly) asked why they only made wings, he said "only the wings get shot off, we ship out new ones, they bolt them on and chocks away" Jo :-)


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