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12/11/1941 – The Day the Poet Died

Curiously enough, December 11th, 1941 was a Thursday, just like 2008.  It was cloudy in England on that day, but not cloudy enough to prevent 412 Squadron from flying.

The squadron practiced formation flying above the clouds for about an hour.  On returning, Magee was part of a flight of four “letting down” through the cloud cover.  (No Air Traffic Control in those days.)  Sergeant Pilot Dwayne Linton saw the entire horrific event unfold right in front of him; Magee was #3, and Linton was #4.

At 1,500 feet above the ground, the air was very hazy.  The flight was going about 350 mph.  Linton caught site of an Airspeed Oxford bomber trainer coming at right-angles to the 412 flight.  Linton warned his flight; #1 and #2 were able to get out of the way, but apparently it was impossible for Magee to avoid a collision.

Linton had also turned to avoid, but saw the explosion when the Oxford and Magee’s Spitfire collided.  By the time Linton recovered from his evasive manuevers, he was only about 100 feet off the ground.  He saw Magee’s parachute “stringing” … meaning that it did not deploy enough to be effective.  A farmer on the ground saw the collision as well; both accounts stated that Magee had been able to get out of the cockpit and jump, but he was too low for his parachute to open.

John Magee was killed instantly upon impact with the ground.

The pilot of the Airspeed Oxford was also killed.  He was Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) Earnest Aubrey.  Aubrey was a student pilot flying out of RAF Cranwell, which was a very short distance away from the 412 Squadron’s base at Wellingore.

John Magee had foreseen his death, but he rather imagined it to be a somewhat more glorious death, being shot down in heated aerial combat.

And so it was that the world lost a most promising young man.  But not before that poet-pilot had given us something enduring, an amazing poem that still, 67 years after being written, charms us.

Thanks, John, and rest assured that we will not forget you.


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2 replies

  1. Found your blog in a different search for High Flight.

    There have been several versions of High Flight written for chorale groups. I heard a performance of singers from the Air Force at First United Methodist Church in San Diego, CA sometime in the 80s or 90s. They did an absolutely beautiful rendition of High Flight accapella. I’ve been trying to find a recording of that piece by any choral group but have had no luck. Do you have any sort of list of recordings of High Flight sung as a choral piece, not spoken as a poem?

    1. Sadly, I have not compiled a list of High Flight being sung as a choral piece. I know that it has been done many times, starting in 1942 at a performance that John Magee’s mother attended (I saw the report in a newspaper archive).

      If you happen to create such a list, I hope that you could share it with me! I’d like to include it in the book…

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