Spitfire frolics above the Goodwood estate are nothing new, but one of this year’s pre-Revival flypasts had an extra touch of poignancy
Writing this, still in the soggy and arthritic afterglow of the most rain-affected Goodwood Revival Meeting yet, there’s a memory of the Thursday cricket match that stands out for me. That afternoon’s thin cloud cover was high with a watery sun occasionally breaking through as we 22 incompetents larked about with bat and ball on the Goodwood cricket pitch, where the laws of the game were first codified way back in the 18th century. Goodness me, were he aware of our antics the old Duke who presided over that process must bounce off the rev limiter in his grave each year…
Anyway, we played (and my team-mates won) and as every year we all anticipated the best flying display you’ll ever see as The Old Flying Machine Company’s lone Spitfire – Ray Hanna’s famous Mark IX MH 434 – made its spine-tingling run-in. Lee Proudfoot was its pilot and he expertly swooped, looped, soared and dived within apparent inches of house, lawn, yews and cricket stumps. It was a masterly display, but what we didn’t appreciate at the time was that we were also witnessing the final sortie of Squadron-Leader F A O ‘Tony’ Gaze OAM, DFC and two bars.
This Australian wartime Spitfire pilot was, of course, also the car-mad officer who – in 1947-48 – had first pointed out to the present Lord March’s grandfather, ‘Freddie’, that the perimeter track at his estate’s RAF Westhampnett former fighter aerodrome would make a darned fine motor racing circuit. Tony went on to race such cars as Alta, HWM, Aston Martin and Ferrari into the mid-1950s before taking up competitive gliding, at which he also represented Australia internationally.
His first wife Kay had been the widow of pre-war racing driver Johnny Wakefield, killed in a flying accident near Wargrave in April 1942. After her death he married Diana Davison, herself widow of Australian motor racing legend Lex Davison, who suffered a heart attack and crashed fatally while practising his Brabham BT4 for the Sandown Park Tasman Championship round in 1965. Diana passed away in August last year and Tony followed – at the age of 93 – this past July.
The Davison dynasty is still, of course, strongly represented within the motor racing world, and between them had concluded that the Goodwood Motor Circuit would be a resting place Tony would appreciate. Strapped firmly into place within MH 434 as it flew that jaw-dropping routine was the urn containing Tony’s ashes. A most fitting final sortie, indeed.
After landing, his ashes were interred in the motor circuit’s little memorial garden, close by the statue of Tony’s erstwhile CO, Douglas Bader, and flanking the assembly area from which he had so often driven his cars out onto the circuit he had god-fathered…
I bumped into Tony’s step-daughter Cathy that evening, and she told me the story. One could sense her relief that it had all gone so well, of duty well done, mission accomplished.
We swapped Tony stories – because he could equally be charm personified, or stuffily pompous, dependent upon mood – and I’ll never forget a group photo of BRDC members being posed together during one Classic Adelaide Rally, when he exclaimed in bewilderment “Who are all these people? What is the Club coming to?”
But I also remember a remark by George Abecassis, Tony’s long-time friend and of course co-founder of their HWM team. George was a fellow wartime RAF pilot, also a DFC. I once mentioned to him Tony’s DFC and two bars – he had actually earned the medal three separate times – to which George responded: “Oh yes old boy, two bars – saloon and private.”
I feel privileged to have known them.