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Romantic love letter to a glamorous treasure

Romantic love letter to a glamorous treasure
Romantic love letter to a glamorous treasure

Marking 75 years of a British icon, journalist John Sergeant presents a new BBC2 documentary looking at the nation’s love affair with the Spitfire. Chris Price reports.

Broadcaster John Sergeant celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Spitfire in a new programme heralding the triumph of British design and endeavour.

The Spitfire: Britain’s Flying Past is an hour-long televisual love letter to this romantic aircraft, which schoolboys dreamed of piloting and the nation took to their hearts.

It is the symbol of how the RAF protected the skies over Kent from the onslaught of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

One of the command bases for the Spitfires and Hurricanes in 1940 was Biggin Hill, near Westerham, which is featured in John’s show.

The airport became a target of German attacks during the battle because of its importance in protecting London from bombers. Between August 1940 and January 1941, the airfield was attacked 12 times, the worst of which wrecked workshops, stores, barracks, WAAF quarters and a hangar, killing 39 people on the ground.

Yet the Spitfires which took off from Biggin Hill proved their importance time and again over the course of the war. Fighters based at Biggin Hill claimed 1,400 enemy aircraft, at the cost of the lives of 453 Biggin Hill based aircrew.

It was that dependability which still stirs pride and emotion in the Spitfire. As an ex-RAF Cadet, former Strictly Come Dancing-favourite John shares a longing love for the Spitfire and its role in the Second World War.

“The Spitfire has a special place in the hearts and minds of many people, young and old, as the ultimate paradox: a beautiful fighting machine,” said John, 67.

“The balance of its elements give it a visual perfection, a mystical quality suggesting timeless energy, a sharpness ready to be unleashed in defence of ancient, national freedoms. It is a modern Excalibur.

“To this day the Spitfire still remains the most beautiful, glamorous and romantic aircraft to grace our skies.”

John’s own passion in the programme is matched only by the heart-warming contributions from the men and women of this country who each owe a debt of honour to the plane.

The programme is dotted with real-life family stories of tragedy, survival and heroism told with heart and passion by people directly affected by this legendary war bird and her actions.

Many of these ordinary people feel they owe their lives to the Spitfire, leading John to believe that we might all owe our society to this plane and its heroic efforts to defeat Nazism.

“Its presence in the sky spelt protection for us Brits on the ground and death to its rivals in the air,” said John.

“The roar of the Merlin engines were a prelude to the Spitfire’s dogged determination to bring victory for Britain. Its reputation meant even captured Luftwaffe pilots would lie about what had shot them down; always claiming it was a Spitfire so the star quality would rub off on them.”

The Spitfire’s elliptical wing had a thin cross-section, allowing a higher top speed than its contemporary fighters, including the RAF’s Hawker Hurricane.

Beaten expensively and time-consumingly from aluminum, the wings enabled the plane to pirouette in the air as gracefully as any prima ballerina. Thankfully, John is not inspired to pull out any of his own infamous dance moves in the programme.

The Spitfire: Britain’s Flying Past is shown on BBC2 on Thursday, September 22, at 9pm.

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