Magee, John Gillespie, Jr

John Jr. was a Pilot Officer for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and is best remembered for his poem, High Flight. 

People, who love aircraft and flying, usually come to memorise it, and know it by heart, even if they don’t care much for other literature. Bookworms just downright love it, pilots print and display it, motivators quote it.

High Flight by John Gillespie Magee Jr.

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God. Magee J. G. Pic 2

John Jr. was born in Shanghai, China to an American father and a British mother. Both were Anglican missionaries. His father, John Gillespie Magee, was from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania whose family was of some wealth and influence – there is the Pittsburgh Magee Hospital and the Magee Building. Magee Sr., disregarding family wealth, chose to become an Episcopal priest and was sent as a missionary to China and there met his wife, Faith Emmeline Backhouse.

John Jr. began his education at Nanking (1929-1931). In 1931, he sailed with his mother to Britain where he continued his education, first at St. Clare’s near Walmer, Kent (1931-1935) and then at Rugby School (1935-1939) winning the Rugby School’s poetry prize in 1938. In 1939, he sailed back to the USA for a visit. Because of the outbreak of the War, he could not return to Rugby School and so lived with his aunt in Pittsburgh and attended Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Connecticut. He earned a scholarship to Yale University, where his father was then a Chaplain, but did not enrol, choosing instead to enlist in the RCAF.

Like many others, John Jr., crossed the Canadian border illegally in 1941. During the desperate days of the Battle of Britain, hundreds of Americans crossed the border into Canada to enlist with the RCAF, knowingly breaking the law, but with the tacit approval of the then still officially neutral United States Government. They all volunteered to fight the Nazis.

“An aeroplane,” he wrote home while undergoing basic training in Canada, “is not to us a weapon or war, but a flash of silver slanting the skies; the hum of a deep-voiced motor; a feeling of dizziness; it is speed and ecstasy.” Of his flying, his instructor noted, “Patches of brilliance; tendency to over-confidence.”

John Jr. trained at several air bases. Among these was No.2 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) located at Uplands, Ottawa. While there, part of the movie “Captains of the Clouds” was filmed. John sent a letter to his parents and as well as writing about news and things in general, he gave a list of films for his parents to see. “One is ‘Captains of the Clouds.’ This is a film made at Uplands in which I took part in formation flying, etc.” Magee J. G. Pic 6

On the 5th July 1941, John Jr. embarked for England aboard the Armed Merchant Cruiser, HMS California. Arriving at Bournemouth, he was posted to 61 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) in Rednal in Shropshire. It was here that he got his first taste of the Spitfire. On the 30th June 1941, following his conversion, he was posted to 412 (Falcon) Squadron RCAF at Digby, Lincolnshire. 

In his poem, the Supermarine Spitfire Mk.V fighter aircraft which he flew is rhapsodically evoked. In early September, he wrote to his parents after a high altitude test flight. “I am enclosing a verse I wrote the other day. It started at 30,000 feet, and was finished soon after I landed. I though it might interest you.” On the back of the letter was “High Flight,” written on the 3rd September, exactly two years after Great Britain had declared war on Germany.

John spent his time with the Squadron flying various “Ramrods”, “Rhubarbs” and “Circuses,” which were code names for various types of missions. For example, on the 8th November, he flew as part of “Circus 110”, providing cover for bombing attacks in the Dunkirk area. This was a bad day for 412 Squadron having three pilots shot down, none of whom survived.

Then, on the 11th December 1941, three days after the US entered WWII, John Jr. was killed in a flying accident close to RAF Tangmere. Wikipedai notes that he was flying Spitfire VZ-H, serial number AD291 and had taken off with other members of 412 Squadron from RAF Wellingore near RAF Digby. His aircraft was involved in a mid-air collision with an Airspeed Oxford trainer, flown by Leading Aircraftman Ernest Aubrey Griffin. The two aircraft collided just below the cloud base at about 1,400 feet AGL, at 11:30, over the hamlet of Roxholme. John Jr. was descending at high speed through a break in the clouds with three other aircraft. 

At the inquiry afterwards, a farmer testified that he saw the Spitfire pilot struggling to push back the canopy. The pilot stood up to jump from the plane, but was too close to the ground for his parachute to open, and he died on impact. Griffin was also killed.

John Jr.’s grave is in the quiet church yard of Holy Cross, Scopwick, Linconshire. In icily precise lettering, a white military tombstone reminds us he was just nineteen years old. The first and last lines from his poem, High Flight, are also inscribed.

John Jr.’s idealistic sonnet has become an immortal item in aviation legend. After his death, the original copy of the poem was soon on display at the Library of Congress in Washington where it remains today. Copies of a poster with the poem, a portrait of John, and a drawing of a Spitfire were sent to every airfield in the British Empire and newspapers printed the poem.

Vince Conant
The Spitfire Association