We are always on the lookout for interesting and engaging stories concerning OVs and this story really caught our attention. Sir Christopher Benson OAM DL (Cl 43-47) has led, and continues to lead, an extraordinary life. He joined the navy from School and travelled the world as a seaman in the Royal and Merchant Navy. Many years after, and following a stint working in Worcester, Sir Christopher built up property company, MEPC plc and then went on to chair it and subsequently, to chair many other major companies and public bodies, the sheer range of which leaves us in awe: Boots, Docklands Development Corporation, Royal Sun Alliance, Costain Group, Albright and Wilson to name but a few. More recently, Sir Christopher was awarded an honorary Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the bilateral relationship between Australia and the United Kingdom and, even in lockdown, Sir Christopher continued to work in promoting and bringing to light hugely important and previously unrecognised ventures. The latest represents an extraordinary and wonderfully interesting project.
Unskilled and unqualified young girls, boys, women and a handful of engineers worked in secret to build over 2000 Spitfires in Salisbury (10% of the total built during WWII). With more built elsewhere around the southern counties, it was an achievement instrumental in winning the war. The workforce were sworn to secrecy and they kept it secret until 2020. In 1940, the Germans destroyed the Spitfire factories in Southampton and believed they had ended the threat from their nemesis. Unknown to them, the British were building Spitfires in secret, hidden in sheds, garages, back gardens, a bus depot and a hotel. Salisbury become a major centre for manufacturing Spitfires.
The 7th August 2020 was an emotional day for all those involved in the project to create a monument and permanent memorial to those individuals who worked so tirelessly, and without recognition, during the war to build the spitfires. The replica of a MK-9 Spitfire, built in Salisbury during the war by this Secret Workforce, arrived in Salisbury, watched by some of the people who made it possible. Due to covid restrictions, the erection of the memorial and the formal service to commemorate the memorial, was delayed until July 2021.
The initiative for the project was that of the Trust Chairman Chris Whalley who enlisted Sir Christopher as Patron and Trustee, who then identified Air Commodore Suraya Marshall as co-Patron of the charity raising funds to create the lasting memorial in Salisbury. Sir Christopher is also a qualified Fixed and Rotary Wing Air Pilot himself, he continues to enjoy flying helicopters and has also flown a Spitfire (under supervision)! Of the project, Sir Christopher says, “We had a marvellous event in Salisbury. Close to the main road, we have erected a replica Spitfire to memorialise the, mainly women and elderly men and boys too young to fight, who built 2,500 Spitfires in back yards, garages and stables and never told a soul, even their own families. They were just going down to the “garridge” to work. Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, the Chief of the Air Staff, and his wife, Katie, both delightful people, flew in and the most senior woman Officer in the British Armed Forces, Air Marshal Sue Gray, attended together with my co-Patron the female Commandant of Cranfield, Air Commodore Suraya Marshall, and also the youngest woman aviator to command a bomber squadron. They brought the Queens Colour Squadron and the RAF Regiment Band for the Sunset Ceremony as a Spitfire flew over at circa 250 ft and did three circuits. Not many dry eyes ! We now hope to set up Scholarship and/or Bursaries to enable, hopefully, female young people to satisfy an ambition to be aviators or aeronautical engineers.”
You can listen to what Sir Christopher has to say about the importance of this charity on their website here.
Sir Christopher is also a keen supporter of King’s School and understands the importance of bursaries – across so many fields – in raising the opportunities and futures of young people. We have enormous respect for Sir Christopher’s energy and enthusiasm and look forward to hearing what the next project will be!