Tuesday 12 October 2010

Merlin defiant

On the afternoon of September 7th 1940 the phone rang in the dispersal hut at RAF Martlesham. 257 Squadron were scrambled to intercept an incoming force of enemy aircraft. For the fourth time that day Flight Lieutenant Hugh ‘Blue blood’ Beresford raced to his waiting Hurricane and fired up its powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. He was quickly airbourne leading ‘A’ Flight. Out over the Thames Estuary 257 Squadron were vectored in on a flight of 50 German bombers and they met them head-on. As Flight Lieutenant Beresford began his attack an Me.109 fighter escort swept down from altitude to attack the defiant 257 Squadron and defend their own bombers. Flight Lieutenant Beresford frantically called a warning to his comrades below him; “Alert Squadron! Four snappers coming down!” These were probably his last words as he was hit by a cannon shell fired by one of the 109’s and his aircraft fell away from the squadron and plunged earthwards.

On the quiet marshland of Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey the Hurricane struck the ground at Spitend. Impacting nose first the aircraft disappeared into the marshy soil leaving just a small crater and two slashes where the wings had hit and sliced into the soft ground. There was no explosion, no flames nothing but a small wisp of smoke or steam drifting up from out of the hole.

For the next 39 years Flight Lieutenant Beresford remained in the cockpit of his Hurricane, buried 4-5 metres below the surface. Then, in August 1979 a team of volunteers recovered the aircraft and the pilot’s mortal remains along with a few remnants of his personal effects. Hugh Beresford was finally laid to rest, with full military honours, in the Brookwood military cemetery in Surrey.

On the day he died back in 1940 Hugh Beresford was just 24 years old, the same age as my eldest son.

Last year I was on Elmley one quiet Sunday morning in the middle of summer. There were swallows skimming low and skylarks singing high against the azure sky which was broken only by the contrails of even higher flying planes.

As I looked at the patterns of criss-crossing vapour trails the thought struck me that I could have been transported back to the 1940's when the skies above Kent were the scene of fierce fighting as the RAF fought the threat of Nazi invasion and the might of Hitler's Luftwaffe. Even as these battles raged, and brave young men of both sides lost their lives, the birds on the marshes of Sheppey continued, just as they have always done, oblivious to the struggles of men.

In early September this year I was lucky enough to catch up with a merlin on Elmley and the thought of the summer of 1940 returned to me and this painting was conceived. The Rolls Royce Merlin engine powered both the Spitfire and the Hurricane so I thought it would be an appropriate bird to place in the context of the Battle of Britain. The young male sits on a pile of boulders which are not naturally occuring in Kent. They have been brought in to be used in the coastal defences, so again I thought they were appropriate. I have used a little artistic license and the fighter planes depicted are Spitfires not Hurricanes simply because the shape of the Spitfire is more easily recognisable.