This year marks the 100th anniversary of the day the two wings of Britain’s pioneering military air force, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, merged to become the Royal Air Force.
It’s an anniversary and a branch of militaria that stirs hearts and minds like no other, according to Marcus Budgen, medal specialist at Spink, London.
“The RAF, and those men who took to the skies to win us our freedom, have always had an enduring appeal,” he says. “They hold a special place in the nation’s hearts. RAF militaria has always been very popular, but we have seen a surge of interest with the 100th anniversary.
“People are looking back to the different periods of aviation, back to those pioneering airmen who went up in wooden canvas aircraft right through to the guys who served in the Falklands and Iraq.”
To honour the centenary, Spink is dedicating a section of its Orders, Decorations and Medals sale on April 25-26 to the RAF, and will host a public exhibition, Scramble, from April 17-24 in its London gallery. This will exhibit flying medals and aeronautical relics on loan from prominent private collectors, including Flight Lieutenant William Reid’s Victoria Cross, awarded for his role as a pilot in Bomber Command in 1943. Spink sold the medal for £384,000 in 2009, a record for a UK recipient of the VC.
Notable lots in this month’s sale include the medals, letters and parts of uniform belonging to the Battle of Britain Spitfire ace Flight Sergeant Adrian Francis Laws, who flew with No 64 Squadron, and destroyed five enemy aircraft from June to August 1940, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM).
Laws received a commission on September 28, 1940, and was killed in a midair collision while training junior pilots just two days later. The collection includes moving letters to his pregnant fiancée. “This is pure Battle of Britain,” says Budgen, “with Laws right in the heart of the battle himself.” The lot is estimated at £12,000-15,000.
The DFM has become more collected in the past five to 10 years. “People are now recognising the work and the gallantry of the noncommissioned officers who flew alongside the pilots, such as the air gunners, or who were pilots themselves,” says Budgen. “The internet has opened up a lot of doors, allowed awards to come to light that can be researched, and allowed these men’s stories to come alive.”
Also going under the hammer is an early aviator’s group belonging to Sergeant Gordon Percy Olley, a First World War flying ace credited with 10 aerial victories, who was awarded the Military Medal in September 1917. Olley later started his own civilian airline.
“He was one of those celebrity pilots of the 1920s,” says Budgen. “He was flying the Prince of Wales, Douglas Fairbanks and other Hollywood stars, and he also performed a great stunt in 1928, with passengers on board, when he raced the Flying Scotsman from London to Edinburgh – and won by 15 minutes.” This lot carries an estimate of £12,000-15,000.
A group of nine medals belonging to Canadian fighter ace Wing Commander Forgrave Marshall ‘Hiram’ Smith comes with a full complement of ephemera and accoutrements.
Smith was shot down (but survived) over Kent during the Battle of Britain in August 1940. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1945.
The collection includes photographs, letters, log books, and his uniform, including his flying suit, sheepskin, boots, goggles and helmet. It is estimated at £8000-10,000.
A package such as this “takes you into the battle, and adds colour to what these guys were doing,” says Budgen.
And, in Smith’s case, if you sadly find yourself outbid at this month’s sale, you can still get a taste of his deeds at RAF Hendon, where the Spitfire he flew in the early part of 1940 is on permanent display.