High Flight: the story of WW II Anglo-American Royal Canadian Air Force Spitfire pilot John Gillespie Magee and of how the most famous aviation poem is born

High Flight: the story of WW II Anglo-American Royal Canadian Air Force Spitfire pilot John Gillespie Magee and of how The Most Famous Aviation Poem is Born

By William Cobb
Dec 25 2021
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Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr. and his High Flight poem.

On Dec. 11, 1941, as the world was reeling from War, a midair collision happened which took away the lives of two young men, Leading Aircraftman/Pilot Under-Training Griffin, who was flying an Airspeed Oxford Trainer, and Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr., who is best known for his poem High Flight. Both were only 19 at the time of their deaths. This is the story of the life of Magee.

John Gillespie Magee Jr.

John Gillespie Magee Jr. was born on Jun. 9, 1922 in Shanghai, China, to Anglican Missionary parents. His mother was British while his father was the scion of a wealthy American family from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Choosing a life of the cloth rather than of money, the Senior Magee became a missionary in China where he met the woman who would become the mother of his child.

Magee Jr. was raised in China for nearly the first decade of his life, before moving to England with his mother to complete his schooling. While attending Rugby School (the English Public School, not the Sport) Magee Jr. decided he wanted to be a poet, and began writing a series of poems inspired by the school’s Roll of Honor listing those alumni who fell in battle during the First World War. Magee would write an award-winning poem describing the burial of fellow Poet and Rugby graduate Rupert Brooke.

Despite winning a scholarship to Yale in 1940, Magee decided to defend his mother’s country by enlisting in the Royal Canadian Air Force, one of a substantial number of Americans who entered the war before the United States officially did. Training in Canada and winning his RCAF wings in June 1941, Magee then was posted to the UK where he undertook operational training in the Spitfire and joined newly formed 412 Squadron, RCAF. It was while on a training flight to above 30,000 feet that he was reputed to have been inspired to write his epic poem High Flight. He transitioned from the Spitfire Mk. II to the more powerful Mk V, and flew his first operational sortie on Oct. 29, 1941.

The only survivor in a 4 ship-flight ambushed by Fw 190s

On Nov. 8, 1941, Magee managed to be the only survivor in a 4 ship-flight which was ambushed by an equally sized schwarm of Focke Wulf 190s led by Luftwaffe Ace Joachim Muncheberg. At the time the Focke Wulfs were just entering service, and were taking a substantial toll on the new Spitfire Vs also beginning operations (the Fw 190 was not matched in combat until the introduction of the improved Spitfire Mk. IX).

Muncheberg’s Schwarm managed to shoot down all but Magee: the fact that Magee survived combat against an ace who would be credited with 135 victories before his death over Tunisia in a 1943 midair collision against an American flown Spitfire says a lot about the man’s skill and luck in the air. During the fight Magee managed to fire off 160 rounds of .303. cal ammunition, but made no victory claim. In such an environment, his very survival against what would be a 135 victory ace was an amazing accomplishment.

High Flight: the story of WW II Anglo-American Royal Canadian Air Force Spitfire pilot John Gillespie Magee and of how the most famous aviation poem is born
Pilot Officer John Magee at the controls of a 412 Squadron RCAF Spitfire in England, 1941

The encounter with Muncheberg on Nov. 8 would prove to be Magee’s only aerial combat. Magee did fly several patrol missions over the channel in the meantime, but on Dec. 11, he took off on what was to be an air to air dogfight training session with a flight of 4 Spitfires. As the formation of 4 dived through a break in the clouds, Magee’s Spit collided with the Airspeed Oxford twin engine trainer flown by Aircraftsman/Pilot Under Training Griffin.

Killed in a collision

According to Wikipedia a local farmer who witnessed the crash said the following;

“He saw Magee after the collision struggling to push back the canopy of his Spitfire as it descended apparently out of control. 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 the village of Ruskington.”

John Gillespie Magee Jr. would be most famous for his poem High Flight. Magee is reputed to have written the poem on the back of an envelope, something all poets and creatives tend to do, literally writing as soon as inspiration strikes anywhere they can. He was certainly exultant, not many mortals get to climb to 33,000 feet by themselves at the controls of one of the best fighter aircraft in the world, and even fewer do it before they turn 20. Magee may have had a short life but his words would echo long after he ended his all too brief time on this Earth. He was influenced by a variety of sources.

“To touch the face of God” poem

According to Wikipedia;

In his seventh flight in a Spitfire Mk I, he had flown up to 33,000 feet. As he climbed upward, he was struck by words he had read in another poem — “To touch the face of God.” He completed his verse soon after landing.

The last words of “High Flight” — “…and touched the face of God” — can also be found in a poem by Cuthbert Hicks, published three years earlier in Icarus: An Anthology of the Poetry of Flight. The last two lines in Hicks’ poem, “The Blind Man Flies”, are:

For I have danced the streets of heaven,

And touched the face of God.

Spitfire Mk Vb print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. Supermarine Spitfire Mk Vb – W3257 E-FY – 1941

The anthology includes the poem “New World”, by G. W. M. Dunn, which contains the phrase “on laughter-silvered wings”. Dunn wrote of “the lifting mind”, another phrase that Magee used in “High Flight”, and refers to “the shouting of the air”, in comparison to Magee’s line, “chased the shouting wind”. Another line by Magee, “The high untrespassed sanctity of space”, closely resembles “Across the unpierced sanctity of space”, which appears in the anthology in the poem “Dominion over Air”, previously published in the RAF College Journal.

Magee enclosed the poem in a letter to his parents, dated Sep. 3, 1941. His father, then curate of Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, reprinted it in church publications. The poem became more widely known through the efforts of Archibald MacLeish, then Librarian of Congress, who included it in an exhibition of poems called “Faith and Freedom” at the Library of Congress in February 1942. The manuscript copy of the poem remains at the Library of Congress.

High Flight poem

The Poem went as viral as things could back then, thanks to a Hollywood War Bond tour when various celebrities recited the poem to an America determined to fill the sky with planes. This the nation did in a big way, constructing a quarter of a million airplanes in the years between 1941 and 1945. High Flight would become a national inspiration, a poem recited whenever a tragedy in the sky strikes. Because its very words are tragically linked to Magee’s fate, the Poem may strike some as sad, yet for a 19-year-old kid who just returned from 33,000 feet in a Spitfire, the poem represents a love of flight only someone who has been to such a place can know.

If ever there is an Aviator’s Creed, Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee’s High flight is it.

“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 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.”

Be sure to check out William Cobb’s Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for awesome aviation’s photos and stories.

High Flight: the story of WW II Anglo-American Royal Canadian Air Force Spitfire pilot John Gillespie Magee and of how the most famous aviation poem is born
The plaque at St. Catharines/Niagara District Airport that commemorates the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the St. Catharines Flying Club, No. 9 Elementary Flying Training School, and J G. Magee, Jr., who trained at No. 9 EFTS and wrote the famous poem “High Flight”. The No. 4 Wireless School Flying Squadron is not mentioned on this plaque, No. 4 WS took over the airfield after No. 9 EFTS closed and used it from January 1944 until sometime in 1945.

Photo credit: Royal Canadian Air Force, J. Steve Bond, and Franck Cabrol Bryan Fury75 via Wikipedia and Vintage Wings of Canada

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William Cobb

William Cobb

Mr. William Cobb is a licensed Instrument Flight Instructor in Single and Multi Engine Airplanes who is the founder and director of the Pensacola Aerospace Museum. Mr. Cobb spent from 2008 to 2015 instructing for the U.S. Navy's Initial Flight Screening program. After 8 years of full time Flight Instruction, Mr. Cobb started his own Commercial Drone Business, obtaining the first FAA Part 107 certification in his FAA region. Subsequent Drone work led to his becoming involved in Film Production work, and his establishing the Pensacola Aerospace Museum, an entity dedicated to honoring the memory of all those who ever gave their lives to flight.

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