On the bench 2 - Icons

'80 Years ago' Part 2: Building an icon (or two)

I normally post some inane rambling on a Wednesday but have been preoccupied with the events of 80 years ago and a flurry of social media activity from fellow modellers, historians and aviation enthusiasts. It sort of rekindled a basic interest from childhood.

So following on from last week's waffle #5 about the Battle of Britain Day and how that title and its legacy are part of a collective psyche, I have started on a modelling project to simultaneously build a 1/32nd scale Spitfire MkI and Hurricane MkI.

The kits are the curates egg Pacific Coast Models MkI metal wing and the Revell Spitfire MkIIa which will be hacked about a bit to resemble a MkI. Both decent products with their own set of foibles. Nothing's ever perfect eh?

The (admittedly flawed) logic of building two kits at once is that they share common features such as colour and they are both simple structures with only a cockpit and basic undercarriage to detail. The main aim is also to link the process to a documentary approach to photography and introduce some basic techniques which will improve the images for social media use.

As I've said before in my 'on the bench' He162 article, I'm a fugitive from the building process and enjoy the application of paint much more than the 'coercing two bits of styrene to join together and stay stuck' job. gaps, filler, scary canopy joins, no sir

Why these two?

The duality is simple: historians have debated for decades that neither the Spitfire or Hurricane acting alone could have been enough to counter the Luftwaffe in the Summer of 1940. The discussion expands into the relative merits of each type and usually descends into a one legged arse kicking contest based on presumptions and skewed data.

In my amateur, enthusiastic estimation, I think this discussion while of some academic merit, is really immaterial and that they are the joint icons of a tumultuous age and world changing event.

Yes the Spitfire is the epitome of the fighter aircraft. It came first and eclipses the Mustang in the aesthetic stakes purely because if the Battle of Britain had gone the wrong way there probably would never have been a 'Cadillac of the Skies' (at least not a definitive Merlin version) and has a purity of line which is totally original.

Here is no new power-plant needed to turn it into something great, no discovery of its real purpose after struggling in another role. No, here is the epitome of a fighter in its raw state, a thoroughbred racing machine with eight teeth.

But to return to the academic argument, without the Hurricane, a solid, purposeful aeroplane who's design and construction hark back to a previous age to incorporate the form and line of earlier Hawker designs, the Spit would probably not prevailed against the Luftwaffe alone. Forget numbers and odds, the Hurricane is the real hero of the hour. A solid, doughty, dependable, capable despatcher of Dorniers, Heinkels and Junkers.

The subject choice is based not on a particular aircraft marking (although both subjects carry 'embellishments') or historical location as is more usual when choosing a modelling subject. It is based on the people who flew these machines and the way their stories inspire my imagination and echo my childhood connection to the Battle of Britain through remembered stories and film.

As I said in Waffle number 5, the sight and sound of these machines are what stirs the base emotions and they are the enduring legacy of the men and their hour of glory. Faded images of scratchy blue serge, silk scarves and yellow life-vests. Young men who are now all gone.

The models here and elsewhere are pale imitations, miniature homages, but still a connection of sorts.

So it's not really the aircraft per se, or the aesthetic, (although these are things of mechanical beauty, and an altogether deadly beauty at that) but more the human story.

Two men

There are a host of names and faces from the time who I could have chosen and who are well documented in the folklore of RAF history. People such as George Unwin or Brian Lane who have become something of historical celebrities through the photographs which document those dark days via the toll on their faces. Many others too whose courageous actions inspired films and comics to recreate their daring acts have fired the imagination of this small boy in an adult's body.

One is of a young man who travelled to England from Canada and who ultimately met his fate in combat some short time after the Battle of Britain ended. The other of a young man from the North east of England who survived the Battle and by way of several 'interesting moments', the conflict too to die in 1991. Interestingly they share the same birthday but 3 years apart.

The back story - William McKnight

I first came across Willie mcKnight when I was 9. I was given my dad's copy of the Paul Brickhill book 'Reach for the Sky' to read. It is a ninth edition from 1955 and I still have it albeit in a less than pristine condition now. In recent years and with a changing adult perspective on Bader, I revisited McKnight's story and his loss in combat which is still clouded in some mystery.

William Lidstone "Willie" McKnight was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on 18 November 1918 and grew up in Calgary. He was considered a bit of a character at school and showed a rebellious streak. With parallels to his wartime mentor Douglas Bader who played rugby at St.Edwards, Willie quarterbacked the football team but was renowned for once crashing his father's car into a neighbour's fence while trying to impress a new girlfriend.

In 1939, after entering the medical school at the University of Alberta, McKnight continued to be a thorn in the side of authority and was reputedly on the verge of expulsion when a recruiting mission for the Royal Air Force arrived in Calgary. Seeing a chance for adventure as well as leaving behind a turbulent romance with his girlfriend, he enlisted in February 1939.

Perhaps it was this rebellious outspoken streak in McKnight which was seen as a strength by his c/o that saw McKnight often fly as Bader's wingman.

By the hight of the battle he had become 242's top scorer, and appears to have been looked upon by Douglas and Thelma as the son they never had. His death in combat in early '41 reputedly hit the Baders and 242 squadron hard.

The back story - Denys Gillam

Denys Edgar Gillam was born half a world away from Alberta at Tynemouth on 18th November 1915 and educated at Bramcote, Scarborough and then Wrekin College, Shropshire.

UNlike McKnight who was recruited as the storm clouds of war started to form, Denys joined the RAF on a short service commission in February 1935 and was posted to 6 FTS Netheravon for training. With his flying training completed he joined 29 Squadron at North Weald on 6th March 1936.

On 18th September 1939 Gillam was posted to 616 Squadron at Finningley.

Over Dunkirk on 1st June 1940 he damaged a Ju88. Getting into his stride, he claimed a Ju88 destroyed on 15th August, a Me109 on the 26th, a Me110 on the 29th, and a further Me109 destroyed, a probable and another two damaged on the 30th. Not hanging about he bagged another Me109 destroyed on the 31st.

On 1st September 1940 Gillam destroyed a Do17, probably another Do17 and a Me109 and damaged a third Do17. On the 2nd he destroyed a Me110. A busy few days! In this last action his engine was set alight by a Me110 over Maidstone. Gillam bailed out unhurt as his Spitfire, X4181, crashed to earth at Brook Farm, Capel.

Denys went on to become the C/O of 306 and 615 Squadron before being sent to the USA to lecture. Returning to the UK, Denys was promoted to command the first Typhoon Wing.

In his own words:

I flew Hurricanes, Spitfires and Typhoons in combat. At first the Typhoon gave a lot of trouble – both with the airframe and the engine – and we lost a lot of good pilots. However, once these faults were overcome it became a very tough and reliable machine and the very best gun platform. It carried bombs, rockets and, of course, cannons and you could hold a steep dive longer than the Me 109 or the FW 190. The Typhoon could withstand high ‘g’ – forces and its wide undercarriage was a great benefit on the rough airfields we had to contend with during our trek across France towards Germany.

Unlike Willie McKnight, Denys Gillam survived the war and returned to the family textile business. He died in September 1991.

Whats the connection and what's next?

Both McKnight and Gillam shared a birthday, the 18th November, and both flew with the 12 Group 'Big Wing' of Douglas Bader (although this wasn't during the Battle itself), so the link is not a direct one, and not entirely preoccupied with the frantic summer of 1940 either. It's more of a serendipitous albeit sad connection. The tale of two men and the enduring image of a tumultuous event as told via a potted history and two scale replicas of their machines.

In the next post we'll look at the kits and assess the work needed to get things underway. Don't worry, there isn't any long-winded, type history preamble review here - just a synopsis of whats good, what needs sorted (the PCM wing joints are legend!) and what detail is a must.

Did I say I have a thing about details?

Kia kaha, be good and be kind (but don't suffer the idiots).


Wellington - 15-24th September 2020.

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