After lunch at the coast yesterday, I spent some time sitting with my father on the terrace overlooking his lawn, ‘chewing the cud’ together. With thunderstorms and torrential rain predicted for today, the weather couldn’t quite make up its mind and was alternating weak sunshine with dark grey clouds.
Suddenly, out of the blue, the roar of a Rolls Royce Merlin aero engine vaguely-familiar to me dominated the atmosphere. We both instinctively looked up towards the sky and – three or four seconds later – the unmistakeable outline/silhouette of a Supermarine Spitfire, the iconic WW2 fighter plane, crossed overhead. For a while we watched silently as it flew in a straight line, then banked to the left over the estuary and went on its way in the direction of Thorney Island and Emsworth.
“Must have come from Goodwood …” decided my father.
At the time we had been speaking about his visit to the Chichester Festival Theatre next month to see a play called Pressure, about the events leading up to D-Day on 6th June 1944 – specifically the inclement weather that caused General Eisenhower to take the potentially-fateful decision to postpone the launch of the Allies’ Normandy invasion by 24 hours.
The danger of said postponement was that the 5th of June had originally been chosen as the date because it combined the necessary ‘most favourable conditions’, in terms of tide and wind that month, and any delay – potentially by another month if those ‘most favourable conditions’ were deemed essential – had catastrophic implications, not least for the element of surprise.
My father mentioned that – specifically for the D-Day campaign – all Allied aircraft were painted with thin black and white stripes on the underneath of their wings (in the style of Magpie markings, he described them) so that troops on the ground could more easily identify them and thereby not shoot them down.
From there, our conversation quickly moved on to two famous British black and white WW2-related films: First Of The Few (1942), the Leslie Howard-produced and directed propaganda pic featuring himself as aircraft designer R.J. Mitchell and David Niven as a Spitfire test pilot; and Reach For The Sky (1956), the Douglas Bader-biopic directed by Lewis Gilbert, starring Kenneth More in possibly his greatest-ever movie acting performance as the legless fighter ace.
Talking about them brought back strong personal memories for me. Less about the respective subject matters’ impact, as it happens – and more about the circumstances in which, as a young prep school boy boarding away in East Sussex, I had watched them for the first time in a regimented film show setting.
Whilst that conversation was still in mid-flow, we suddenly heard the roar of the Merlin engine again and the Spitfire we had seen early then made another pass over the house – or at least, that was how we regarded it – before disappearing off in the direction of the South Downs once more.