“High Flight”

On 11 December 1941, in his 10th week of active service, 19 year-old P/O John Gillespie Magee, RCAF, was killed while flying a Spitfire VZ-H (Serial No. AD291). He had taken off in the late morning with other members of No. 412 Squadron from RAF Wellingore to practise air fighting tactics.

During this training Magee’s aircraft was involved in a mid-air collision with an Airspeed Oxford trainer flying out of RAF Cranwell, piloted by 19-year-old Ernest Aubrey Griffin, ‘Pilot Under-Training’, who was also killed.

The two aircraft collided just below the cloud base at about 1,400 feet AGL, at 11:30, over the hamlet of Roxholme, which lies between RAF Cranwell and RAF Digby,

Magee succeeded in opening the canopy and bailing out of the out of control aeroplane but was at too low an altitude for his parachute to have time to open, and he fell to earth and was killed instantly on impact with the ground in farmland near to Ruskington.

John was buried in Row 3. Grave 33, in Holy Cross Churchyard at Scopwick (a village about 5 mls. [8 kms.] north of Ruskington).

Leading Aircraftman 1314735 Ernest Aubrey Griffin is commemorated at Oxford Crematorium. He was the son of Ernest and Mary E. Griffin, of Headington, Oxford.

John Gillespie Magee was born in Shanghai, China, on 9 June 1922, the eldest of four brothers. His father, John Magee Sr., was an Episcopal priest and was sent as a missionary to China. Whilst there he met his future wife, Faith Emmeline Backhouse, who came from Helmingham in Suffolk.

John first attended the American School in Nanking in 1929, then in 1931 he moved with his mother to England and spent four years at St Clare, a preparatory school for boys, in Walmer, Kent. From there, in 1935, he went to Rugby School, and won its Poetry Prize in 1938.

On the school’s Roll of Honour; listing its pupils who had fallen in the First World War, he saw the name of Rupert Brooke (1887–1915), who had also won the school’s Poetry Prize 34 years prior to Magee.

John returned to Pittsburgh, USA, in 1939 but Because of the outbreak of World War II, Magee was unable to travel to Britain for his final school year (1939-40) at Rugby. After discussions with his parents, he decided to go to Canada to join the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), with the intention of learning to fly, and then being sent to Britain. He passed his Wings Test in Ottawa in June 1941.

Shortly after his promotion to the rank of Pilot Officer, and being awarded his wings, John was sent to England, and posted to No. 53 Operational Training Unit at RAF Llandow near Cardiff. His first flight in a Spitfire occurred on 7 August 1941.

After completing his training with No. 53 Operational Training Unit he was assigned to No. 412 (Fighter) Squadron, R.C.A.F., a Canadian unit formed at RAF Digby on 30 June 1941.

Part of the official letter to his parents read, “Your son’s funeral took place at Scopwick Cemetery, near Digby Aerodrome, at 2.30 pm, on Saturday, 13 December 1941, the service being conducted by Flight Lieutenant S. K. Belton, the Canadian padre of this Station. He was accorded full Service Honours, the coffin being carried by pilots of his own Squadron“.

However, John’s posthumous fame rests mainly on his sonnet “High Flight”, inspired by high-altitude training sessions with his squadron, which he wrote about 3 months before his death. He enclosed the poem in a letter to his parents, dated 3 September 1941. It became the official poem of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

   …… about the uses of the poem, including being read by President Ronald Reagan when he addressed the nation after the Challenger disaster (28 January 1986)