March 2018 update. Further research has revealed that some of the outline below is no longer quite correct (I shall update it shortly). The true story is a lot more interesting … Because of the extra material I have uncovered, the book will not now be published until 2019, at the very earliest. Bear with me, dear potential reader 🙂
Many of the stranger features of George’s life (seen here sitting at his mother’s feet, front left) can be traced back to his being brought up in a very strict evangelical Christian family, which eventually led to his becoming distanced, if not estranged, from his parents. His elder brother, Archie, on the left, and younger brother, Moxon, sitting on his mother’s lap, likewise both entered careers that took them far overseas. A fourth brother, David, is sitting in a striped jersey on the right.
George’s mother, Mary, was part of the large Glover family seen on the right. Next to her is her younger sister, Ellen, and then her father, the Rev. Richard Glover. Next, her brother Sydney, an accomplished artist, then her mother, Sarah, then brother Rev. Archie (A.E.) Glover and Sydney’s son, then sister Ethel, and finally Rev. Archie’s second wife Evelyn and their young daughter.
The picture was taken at Wotton Rectory (Rev. Richard Glover’s home), almost certainly by George’s father, George Staunton Stainforth, on the occasion of Rev. Richard and Sarah’s Golden Wedding anniversary in 1905.
As with all such family group portraits, it is intriguing to consider what differing lives they all lived, and what differing life spans. Without giving too much away, I shall simply say that Ethel lived to the age of a hundred, and one of them, David, died at the age of just six … a terrible tragedy that scarred George for life, and does much to explain his extraordinary behaviour from 1935 onwards …
… But that is to look a long way into the future. Meanwhile …
The Crystal Palace, close to the Stainforth family home in south London, was one of the early focal points for aviation in Britain. George’s passion for aeroplanes developed after Samuel Cody flew directly over his school before landing at Crystal Palace in 1907. During the school holidays he and his younger brother Moxon also made frequent visits to air displays at Brooklands Aerodrome which was easily accessible from their grandparents home at Wotton Rectory near Dorking.
George’s mother disapproved so strongly of aeroplanes that he was forced instead to join his brother Archie in ‘the family regiment’, The Buffs, in 1918. He deliberately misbehaved so badly in the army that he was eventually thrown out in disgrace in 1923. Somehow he managed at last to join the RAF, and very soon proved to be a pilot of exceptional ability. The late 1920s were for George ‘Golden Years’ in which the RAF in effect became the family that he had never had. After being part of the RAF Aerobatic team in the late twenties, he joined the RAF High Speed Flight in 1929. In 1931, when the British team won the Schneider Trophy air race outright, he was chosen to attempt to break the world speed record in the Supermarine S6b seaplane.
Watched by over a million people on the side of the Solent, George became ‘the fastest man in the air’, being the first to fly over 400 mph. After this, George went to Buckingham Palace to receive the AFC from the King.
After his success in the Schneider Trophy, George became one of the RAF’s top test pilots based at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough. One day in the summer of 1935, bad weather forced him to fly very low over Salisbury Plain, and here, close to Stonehenge, he was involved in an incident that triggered off a chain of circumstances that eventually led to his death seven years later …
After ‘the incident near Stonehenge’ George was grounded and given the administrative job of Adjutant on board the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious. The ship had been based in Alexandria, in Egypt, for several months when he met a beautiful married lady, Stella Deacon, at a party in November 1935.
By the spring of 1936 they were deeply in love with each other; indeed George had become so obsessed with her that his work as Adjutant was being badly affected. Shortly after taking her on an aerobatic flight over Dekheila Airfield (shown above) and then for a weekend in Giza, which included making love to her under the pyramids, the RAF gave him a sideways promotion to Iraq as an ‘acting Squadron Leader’. But this was a strictly non-flying job: he was put in charge of running the Aircraft Depot in Hinaidi. After enduring this for year (in which he kept in touch with Stella through hundreds of letters, and making two visits to Egypt), he was finally given the command of 30 Squadron, at the huge new base of Habbaniya, described as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’. This airfield in the desert, from which wives were banned, rapidly gained a reputation for eccentricity. On one occasion in March 1938 a new recruit was greeted by the whole squadron in fancy dress, including George dressed as the devil with horns.
At the Munich Crisis they were sent to Egypt but, after ‘peace in our time’ they were ordered back. George arrived back at Habbaniya 10 days late, after once more pursuing his affair with Stella (… in a strange menage a trois with her husband, Dick).
After the ‘Munich Crisis incident’, the RAF sent George home to Upavon in despair, to make use of his immense piloting skills to test all the latest models of Spitfire and Hurricane etc, and write the ‘Pilot’s Handling Notes’.
After a year of this, George requested active service again, and somehow persuaded the RAF to let him be a Wing Commander in charge of two squadrons guarding the Suez Canal. When he arrived back in Egypt he was devastated to find that Stella had separated from her husband and was engaged to a new lover. Now, although his eyesight was failing, and as Wing Commander he was meant to stay on the ground, he would still be flying at every opportunity. About a fortnight before his death, Churchill (on his way back from visiting Stalin in Russia) encouraged George to give King Farouk an air display … to frighten him … which George did, firing the rockets of his Beaufighter so that they only just missed the Royal tent.
A few days later, George was again grounded, but he took no notice … his death, officially described as ‘killed on active service’, while strictly true was very economic with the truth …
[All pictures above are from the Stainforth Family Archive]