On the bench 2 - Icons

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



A flurry of social media activity from fellow modellers, historians and aviation enthusiasts. has rekindled a basic interest from childhood.


Following on from the previous article about the Battle of Britain 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 metal wing Hurricane MkI and the Revell Spitfire MkIIa which will be gently hacked about a bit to resemble a MkIa. Both are decent products with their own set of foibles. Is anything ever perfect in styrene-ville?


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 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.


In model making terms, I am a fugitive from the terrors of the kit 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, not for me, no siree.


Why these two?


The duality is straightforward: Historians and those with a keen interest and vivid imagination have argued for decades over the premise that an RAF consisting solely of Spitfires or Hurricanes 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 bottom kicking contest based on presumptions and skewed data by people who just weren't there.


In my amateur, enthusiastic estimation, I think that this argument, while of some academic merit, is really immaterial and that it is an exercise in pointlessness. History has shown that they are the joint icons of a tumultuous age and world changing event. Arguing over hypothetical points of paper based technicalities is moot.


Yes the Spitfire is the epitome of the fighter aircraft. It came first and eclipses that other icon the North American NAA P-51D 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 it has a purity of line which is totally original. There is no pre-existing design to draw on, modify or refine to reach thoroughbred status.


It just is.


Here is the epitome of a fighter aeroplane in its raw state, a racing machine with eight teeth.


But to return to the largely academic argument, without the Hurricane, a solid, purposeful aeroplane who's design and construction hark back to a previous age of wire and fabric, the Spitfire would probably not have prevailed against the Luftwaffe alone. Forget numbers and odds, the Hurricane is the hero of the hour. A solid, doughty, dependable, less highly strung, yet very capable despatcher of Dorniers, Heinkels and Junkers. Able to absorb battle damage from bomber defences in a way that would render a Spitfire needing serious surgery, the Hurricane was a steady old girl with some clout.


The subject choice is based not on a particular aircraft marking (although both subjects carry 'embellishments') or even 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.


The sight, sound and organic smell of these machines today are what stir the base emotions and they are the enduring legacy of the men and their hour of glory. Faded images of scratchy blue serge, silk polkadot scarves and yellow life-vests. Young men who are now all gone.


The models here and elsewhere are then, 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.


The back story - two men


There are a host of names and faces I could have chosen, and who are well documented in the folklore of RAF and modern history. Men such as George Unwin, Brian Lane or the idefatigable Douglas Bader. Men who have, through the photographs which document those dark days show the true price 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 and his enduring fascination.


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, a young man from the North east of England who survived the Battle and by way of several 'interesting moments', survived the conflict too to die in 1991. Interestingly they share the same birthday 3 years apart.


William Lidstone 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 the mercurial Bader, I revisited McKnight's story and the events surrounding his death 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 had similar qualities and played rugby at St.Edwards school, Willie quarterbacked the football team and was renowned for crashing his father's car into a neighbour's fence while trying to impress a new girlfriend.

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

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


By the hight of the battle he had become 242's top scorer, and in various accounts appears to have been looked upon by Douglas and Thelma Bader as the son they never had. His disappearance in combat in early '41 reputedly affected the Baders and 242 squadron deeply. William Lidstone McKnight 22, Canadian, Battle of Britain ace and one of the 'Few' was never found. He is commemorated along with 20, 455 others at the Runnymede Memorial.

Eric ball, Douglas Bader and William McKnight


Denys Edgar Gillam


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

Unlike McKnight, who joined up looking for adventure just as the storm clouds of a war in Europe started to form, Denys joined the RAF on a short service commission in 1935 and was posted to 6 FTS Netheravon for training. With his flying training completed, he joined 29 Squadron at North Weald in 1936.


On 18th September 1939 Gillam was posted to 616 Squadron at Finningley. And it was over Dunkirk on 1st June 1940 that he damaged his first enemy - a Junkers Ju88. Getting into his stride, he claimed a Ju88 destroyed on 15th August, a Bf109 on the 26th, a Bf110 on the 29th, and a further Bf109 destroyed, a probable and another two damaged on the 30th. Not hanging about, and in the common parlance of the day, he bagged another Bf109 destroyed on the 31st. On 1st September, Gillam destroyed a Do17, probably another Do17 and a Bf109 and damaged a third Do17. On the 2nd he destroyed a Bf110. A busy few days!



In this last action his engine was set alight by return fire from the Bf110 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 (sic) 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.


Denys Edgar Gillam survived the war and returned to the family textile business. He passed away at the age of 76 in 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 linked by reading a book as a lad and watching war films. 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 legendary) and what additional detail is a must.


Did I say I have a thing about details?


Kia kaha, noho kaha - be strong, stay strong.


Anthony

Wellington - September 2020 (edited August 2021).


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