Alexander Henshaw was born on the 7th November 1912 and died at the age of 94 on the 24th February 2007.
One day in February 1939, Alex Henshaw, then 26, rich and a sports aviator, landed at Waltham aerodrome, near Grimsby in Lincolnshire, UK. He had just returned from a record-breaking 12,754 mile solo flight from Gravesend to Cape Town and back. As he was pushing his Percival Mew Gull into the hangar, he glimpsed at another aircraft, a Mark 1 Supermarine Spitfire, which was vast after the Mew. Entranced then by “the beauty of its classic lines”, he went on to become, from 1940 to 1946, the chief Spitfire test pilot at Vickers’ huge Castle Bromwich works in Birmingham.
Jeffrey Quill, the test pilot in charge of Spitfire development, said that Henshaw was “the last of the great amateurs, who under stimulus of war then became a very great professional”. Alex was also a key figure in the fighter’s evolution, and Castle Bromwich was pivotal to turning it out. Built in the run-up to war as a “shadow factory” by Nuffield, the Morris cars group, the aim was to mass produce Spitfires.
The initial results were poor. In June 1940, during the Battle of Britain, Alex arrived from the Southampton Supermarine plant. That month, Castle Bromwich made 10 fighters. So Vickers-Armstrong was entrusted with the plant. Production accelerated to peak at 320 planes a month. The Spitfire Mark 1 that he had seen in February 1939 had half the weight, and less than half the horsepower, of the final marques. In 1948, the last of more than 22,500 Spitfires were delivered, 11,694 of them produced at Castle Bromwich. The painting is of a Spitfire making a pass over the Vickers factory.
Alex oversaw a team of 25 pilots, and flew more than 2,300 Spitfires, plus other planes. He barrel-rolled a four-engined Lancaster bomber, scandalised the authorities when he flew a Spitfire down Birmingham’s Broad Street and flipping it upside down over the town hall – and survived a potentially lethal engine failure.
With reference to the Birmingham flight, the following is from a blog by artist Ivan Berryman:
I was commissioned in January to depict another episode in the incredible flying career of the late, great Alex Henshaw. Somewhat annoyed by the insistence of the managing director of the Spitfire factory at Castle Bromwich that he perform a demonstration over Birmingham city centre, test pilot Alex Henshaw decided to treat the Lord Mayor and the other assembled dignitaries to a display of the Spitfire that they would never forget. Just fifty feet above the busy shops and businesses, Henshaw flew the length of Broad Street fully inverted, before rolling out over the Civic Centre to the dismay of those on the ground. As daring and inspired as it was, Henshaw had harboured misgivings about displaying an aircraft over so crowded an area, and this inspired piece of airmanship was as much a protest by Henshaw as a flag-waving event. Nothing of the kind has ever been repeated. The painting presented me with the problem of sourcing images of Broad Street as it was in the 1940s, as it is changed beyond recognition now. No doubt, there will some out there who will know the area far better than I, but I have tried to get my painting as close to reality as possible. The other problem I encountered was that it just didn’t look right! Whatever I did and however I placed the aircraft, it looked completely awkward!
The R.J. Mitchell – designed fighter was first flown by test pilot Mutt Summers from Eastleigh, Southampton, on the 6th March 1936. Twenty days later, Quill made his own first take-off. Alex’s inaugural Spitfire flight was on his birthday, in November 1939, but back in spring 1936, he and his father were touring Europe in a de Havilland Leopard Moth, taking in Basle, Vienna, Budapest, Warsaw, Brest-Litovsk and Germany. In the novel, Sigh for a Merlin (1979), Alex wrote that in those times, he had mingled “with what would now be called the jet-set”.
Alex was raised in Lincolnshire and educated at Lincoln Grammar School. At 16, his father had run away to North America, and working with an old prospector, had discovered and staked a claim to a silver mine, thus boosting a family fortune that would eventually include fertiliser manufacturing, a building company, a radio business and a golf course.
Henshaw Senior was also clever with engines, inspiring his small, pugnacious son’s dreams of competing in the Isle of Man TT races. (Web Master: The International Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) Race is a motorcycle racing event held on the Isle of Man that was for many years the most prestigious motorcycle race in the world. Thanks to Wikipedia). Then one day, walking on a riverbank, the teenager was transfixed by the sight of a diving biplane flattening out over the waters. The plan had been for Alex – who had hated school – to be apprenticed to Rolls-Royce, but flying took over.
His father paid for the lessons and then successively for a de Havilland Gypsy Moth, a Comper Swift (in which he won the Siddeley Trophy at the 1933 King’s Cup air race) a Leopard Moth, an Arrow Active and then the Mew Gull. And it was in the Mew Gull, which he called the “King of all racing machines” that Henshaw, in 1938, won the King’s Cup. Then, in January 1939, came the Cape Town flight referred to above. The plane was just 22 ft long, had 205 hp and weighed 2125 lb.
To read Alex’s account of his adventures in the novel, The Flight of the Mew Gull (1980), is to enter a world infused with the spirit of Biggles, and in his descriptions of visits to Germany, something of Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, with planes filling in for boats. On the day Poland was invaded, Henshaw remembered, “with a new significance, those strictly regimented groups of marching boys and girls, Dad and I had seen on the banks of the Rhine as early as 1935 … the flight of the Hindenburg over England … the bomb racks I had seen on the Junkers transports in 1936, locked in a hangar in eastern Germany … the secret grass landing strips amongst the pine forests near Danzig”.
Then there is the pilot’s account of that African odyssey; sand, distant oceans, colonial outposts, night flying 14,000ft up in a thunderstorm between canyons of clouds peaking at 30,000 – and a bout of malaria racking him for 4,000 miles, and 27 hours, from Libreville back to Gravesend.
The photos are of Alex in his testing days and then when he re-visted the Spitfire IV to commemorate the 70th anniversary (March 2006) of Mutt Summers flight. On the day, he flew in a two-seater Spitfire IV when five of the aircraft flew as part of the commemoration. The one of him taken with Winston Churchill was taken at Castle Bromwich in 1941.
Postwar, Alex returned to a business career. As for the Mew Gull, it was restored in the 1970s. Its flight with Alex remains a record. He was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 2003, and he donated his flying records to the RAF Museum in 2005. His wife, Barbara, whom he married in 1940, predeceased him. His son, Alex, survives him.
Thanks to Nigel Fountain of the Guardian, UK
Updated by Vince Conant
The Spitfire Association