John Gillespie Magee and High Flight - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
Go to content

John Gillespie Magee and High Flight

This piece was written on 31 July 2017

Today, on the 100th anniversary of Passchendaele, the great work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) can be seen on all the TV news channels and it reminds me of the poet John Gillespie Magee, Junior, whose grave is in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery midway between RAF Scampton and Lincoln. John Gillespie Magee, Junior was an American citizen serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force (before the USA joined in World War 2). He died, at the age of 19 years, on 11 December 1941 as a result of a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire (UK) and is buried in an immaculately maintained CWGC cemetery at Scopwick, about two miles from RAF Scampton, current home of the RAF Red Arrows.

Before I knew anything about Magee, and long before I had any aspirations to become an RAF pilot, I knew, off by heart, his poem High Flight, which I was introduced to at school. The final few lines were especially well known during WW2 and many folk at the time thought the poem was all about RAF fighter pilots.

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've 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 wind-swept 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 shares the Lincolnshire cemetery with graves of servicemen from several countries – including some Luftwaffe graves. In December 2000, a few weeks before I retired, I visited the cemetery with a BBC TV crew who were making an insert for the annual Remembrance Day programme and while they were at work I took a series of photographs.
Here are three of those images:

Above: Looking towards the North. The Canadían and German graves, immaculately maintained are at the top. The 'local' graves, sadly largely unattended for many years, are nearest the camera.

Above: The graves of two German airmen, Gűnther Wolff (aged 21) and Helmut Knorr (22), killed nearby in January 1943.

Above: A shady corner at Scopwick where other Royal Canadian Air Force aircrew killed in action in UK during WW2 are buried in graves maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Back to content