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A story of risk, adventure, and daring as four American bobsledders race for the gold in the most dangerous competition in Olympic history.
In the 1930s, as the world hurtled toward war, speed was all the rage. Bobsledding, the fastest and most thrilling way to travel on land, had become a sensation. Exotic, exciting, and brutally dangerous, it was the must-see event of the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, the first Winter Games on American soil. Bobsledding required exceptional skill and extraordinary courage—qualities the American team had in abundance.
There was Jay O’Brien, the high-society playboy; Tippy Grey, a scandal-prone Hollywood has-been; Eddie Eagan, world champion heavyweight boxer and Rhodes Scholar; and the charismatic Billy Fiske, the true heart of the team, despite being barely out of his teens. In the thick of the Great Depression, the nation was gripped by the story of these four men, their battle against jealous locals, treacherous U.S. officials, and the very same German athletes they would be fighting against in the war only a few short years later. Billy, king of speed to the end, would go on to become the first American fighter pilot killed in WWII. Evoking the glamour and recklessness of the Jazz Age, Speed Kings will thrill readers to the last page.
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Andy Bull is a senior sportswriter for The Guardian. In the decade he has been working there, he has covered more than fifty different sports and has received multiple nominations and commendations at both the British Press Awards and the Sports Journalism Awards. Speed Kings is his first book.
The lunch van arrived at a quarter to one. And about time too. Bill Littlemore’s stomach was starting to growl. They had been up before dawn again, fitting and rigging the fighters, loading the bullets, checking the repairs, running the engines. That was the job, so there was no sense complaining. Which never stopped them from doing exactly that.
Bill volunteered to run over to the van for his fellow mechanics. He could already see the queue starting to form as he trotted across the grass. He quickened his pace. Started to sweat a little. It was hot now. The early morning haze was long gone. This was the first bit of blue sky they’d had all week. He looked up. The pilots were up there somewhere, but he couldn’t see them. They must be out over the Isle of Wight. He said a quick prayer to himself, asking God to send them home safe. He often did that when they were in the air, and he didn’t mind admitting it.
He’d already eaten half his bun by the time he got back to the dispersal hut. He had to duck his mouth down to it because his hands were full and he didn’t want to spill the tea on his uniform. The lads were all idling around, waiting for news from Control. The squadron had taken off half an hour ago, when the radar stations had picked up a formation coming out of Cherbourg and heading across the Channel. By now they’d either be in the thick of it or already on their way back home.
“Any news?” he asked as he put the three teas down. He already knew the answer. No one was moving, so there was nothing doing.
He passed the buns around, one apiece for each of the two Jocks, Tyrrell and McKinley. They were firm pals, flight mechanics, like Bill, with 43 Squadron, the “Fighting Cocks.” And just then, they heard the distant hum of the engines.
“That sounds like them now,” said Tyrrell. “That’s the Cocks returning.”
Bill put his ear to the wind, paused. And he knew, he just knew, that it wasn’t them. The pitch was off.
“They’re not ours,” he said. “They sound like bloody Jerry, don’t they?”
The loudspeakers burst into life. “Attention! Attention! Take cover! Take cover!” It wasn’t the first time they’d heard that today. But the announcer sounded a little more urgent this time.
Bill heard the words, but somehow they didn’t register. They’d done so many drills—he just couldn’t believe this was the real thing. Then the air-raid alarms began to wail. He stepped out of the hut and threw his hand up above his brow to block out the sun. And he saw it straightaway. A Stuka. Gull wings, fixed undercarriage, large glass canopy. The silhouette was utterly unmistakable. He watched as the plane turned its nose down toward the earth and swept into a steep dive, down toward No. 1 Hangar. He could hear the howl of the siren from across the field. When the dive reached two thousand feet, a small black orb fell away from the Stuka’s belly and carried on down toward the earth while the plane itself pulled up and away back into the sky. And then a pillar of fire and smoke filled the sky, followed, so quick you couldn’t tell which had come first, by the thump of the explosion. The bomb fell right by the van, at the exact spot where Bill had been standing a few minutes earlier.
There is no single, definitive account of what happened at RAF Tangmere on August 16, 1940. There are dozens of versions, one for every person who was there. Their memories of the raid don’t always add up. Often they contradict each other. Some say they heard the sirens earlier, that the Tannoy warned them sooner, that the first bomb fell in another spot. They are all right. Everyone made sense of the chaos in his own way. This is the story of the raid as told by Bill Littlemore, Leading Aircraftman, 43 Squadron, as he remembered it forty years later.
“From that moment on all hell broke loose, with bombs exploding, the noise of the Stukas strafing us as they dived and pulled skywards, and our ground defenses putting up a barrage of metal which must have made the Hun feel that he was not welcome,” Bill wrote. “For many of us at Tangmere that day it was our first baptism of fire, something I shall always remember as a very unpleasant experience when one considers we had no arms to hit back with except the tools in our tool boxes. And I can assure you these felt very inadequate when set against the bombs and cannon fire that was to be aimed at us by the Stuka 87s when they suddenly pounced on the airfield.
“For those of us on the flights, and I am sure I express their feelings as well as mine, we were shaken to say the least, and as per our orders for such a situation the only sensible thing to do was seek the protection of our air raid shelter which lay just to the rear of ‘B’ Flight dispersal hut. All sprint records were I am sure broken in our haste to reach the safety of the shelter and it is said that fear lends wings to those who need them. I grew a pair very quickly.”
Bill wasn’t thinking anymore. It was blind panic. He sprinted toward the bomb shelter, and safety. He was almost there when, through the machine-gun fire and the bomb blasts and the sirens and the engines, he heard, loud and clear, what he described as the “stentorian shout” of his boss, Flight Sergeant Savage.
“Stand by!” Savage barked. “Our aircraft are approaching!”
Bill stopped running. All those hours of drills, of unthinking obedience to orders, had their effect. Another instinct kicked in, one even keener than self-preservation: duty. The shout, Bill wrote, “had the immediate effect of doing away with all the panic and bringing us back to awareness that we had a job to do.” The Fighting Cocks were returning to base. The planes would need refueling and rearming. It didn’t matter that the raid was still going on around them. In fact, it made the work more important than ever, since the pilots might need to get right back up into the air.
“With the disappearance of panic came the opportunity to take stock and look around us,” Bill continued. “And it was then I became aware for the first time of burning hangars and the buildings, and a great pall of smoke hanging over the whole scene.” For those brief moments, Bill Littlemore stood still, feet rooted to the ground, while the fires raged around him. He was looking upward, scanning the skies for the returning British fighters. He saw four, though at first he couldn’t tell whether they were with 43 or one of the other squadrons flying out of Tangmere. “I have etched on my memory the picture of four Hurricanes flying in what could only be described as loose, strung-out formation approaching the aerodrome at about 2,000 feet from the south, and who were to be the first to land on the aerodrome while the three-minute raid was still in progress. Yes three minutes, and yet to most of us who witnessed it, it seemed more like half an hour.”
The fighters were in silhouette. “About 8 of us on ‘B’ Flight were watching the approach of these aircraft when to our horror we observed that one had begun to leave behind it a trail of white smoke.” This, Bill knew, was bad news. White smoke could only mean that the engine was leaking ethylene glycol, which burns with an invisible flame. The pilot wouldn’t be able to see the fire leaping up through the floor of the cockpit and lapping around his legs. And the smoke was even more dangerous. In those quantities glycol fumes cause, first, involuntary rapid eye movements, then short losses of consciousness. For a pilot, that was fatal. “The white smoke was the forerunner of things to come. For the pilot must very soon make a decision to bail out, otherwise he would be overcome by fumes leaking back into the cockpit, and oblivion would take over.”
Bill was transfixed. He started to scream: “Get out! Get out for Christ’s sake!”
The Hurricane continued its approach. The white smoke turned black. Flames started to burst up from the engine. It was so close now, right over the hedgerows at the distant side of the field. It was too late to jump. Perhaps the pilot had already lost consciousness. He was done for. Suddenly, the plane broke into a steep dive. The undercarriage was up. It was going to crash. “I felt that this could only be the start of that inevitable plunge toward earth, culminating in that awful crump and plume of smoke that would climb into the sky, marking the spot where yet another of our chaps had plowed into the ground and made his own burial site.”
And then, “at the moment when it seemed that this could be the only outcome,” the plane pulled up, and the pilot, “struggling to maintain control, leveled out only feet above the ground.” The plane landed flat on its belly, bounced up and down, and shot into a skid. A shower of sparks spurted out behind it as it swept across the runway, trailing a wake of great coils of thick black smoke. When it finally came to a standstill, the flames, held in check for so long, burst out into the sky. Two men ran across the turf toward the wreck.
That was the last thing Bill saw. Instinct kicked in again. He came out of the trance, remembered where he was and what he was supposed to be doing. The sky was full of vapor and smoke. Aircraft were coming in from every point of the compass. It was chaos up there. But down below, a kind of calm had fallen. The raid was over. “From that moment my immediate concern had to be looking for my own pilots.”
The day passed. The battle passed. The war passed. But that one image of the burning Hurricane making its belly landing always stayed in Bill Littlemore’s mind. It froze there, so crystal clear that he could still see, forty years later, the precise position he was standing in, the exact course the plane was flying, and even the specific spot where it finally came to a stop. The one thing he didn’t know was who had been flying the plane. Perhaps that was why he never stopped thinking about it. He even commissioned a local artist to paint the scene for him, just as he remembered it.
Some of the veterans preferred not to talk or even think about the war. They shut their memories away and sealed them off. They didn’t want to remember. Bill Littlemore wasn’t like that. He stayed in touch with his old colleagues, took the newsletters, bought the books, attended the annual meet-ups. And as he read and heard all those other accounts and memories of the raid, he slowly pieced it all together, until he realized, at last, that he had seen the final moments of one of the most remarkable stories of the war.
“It was,” Bill wrote, “the last landing of Billy Fiske.”
Speed, it seems to me, provides the one genuinely modern pleasure. True, men have always enjoyed speed; but their enjoyment has been limited, until very recent times, by the capacities of the horse, whose maximum velocity is not much more than thirty miles an hour. Now thirty miles an hour on a horse feels very much faster than sixty miles an hour in a train or a hundred in an airplane. The train is too large and steady, the airplane too remote from stationary surroundings, to give the passengers a very intense sensation of speed. The automobile is sufficiently small and sufficiently near the ground to be able to compete, as an intoxicating speed-purveyor, with the galloping horse. The inebriating effects of speed are noticeable, on horseback, at about twenty miles an hour, in a car at about sixty. When the car has passed seventy-two, or thereabouts, one begins to feel an unprecedented sensation—a sensation which no man in the days of horses ever felt. It grows intenser with every increase of velocity. I myself have never traveled at much more than eighty miles an hour in a car; but those who have drunk a stronger brewage of this strange intoxicant tell me that new marvels await any one who has the opportunity of passing the hundred mark.
—from “Wanted, a New Pleasure,” in Music at Night and Other Essays, by Aldous Huxley, written on the French Riviera in 1931
Billy Fiske, Lake Placid, 1932.
September 1930. Afternoon on the Riviera. In Cannes, outside the Carlton Hotel, a small crowd of people have gathered on La Croisette. They’re standing around a brand-new, racing green Bentley “Blower,” exceptionally pretty and extraordinarily fast. Bentley had made only fifty or so of the cars, and this one was especially rare. It was a road model built to racing specifications. The hood was a little longer, the tank a little larger, the dash a little sleeker than was standard. It was fourteen feet long and weighed almost a ton and a half. A good chunk of that came from the silver supercharger mounted at the front, which gave the car its unusual name. The car was so big that the boy in the driver’s seat seemed a little lost inside it. The steering wheel was too broad for his chest and too thick for his fingers to wrap around. He was nineteen and he looked it. His mouth was spread out in a broad grin, which puckered up little dimples in his smooth cheeks. He wore his sandy hair swept back beneath a cap, peak turned up so that the wind wouldn’t pluck it off his head.
He tugged on the magneto switches, sent a pulse of current into the engine, slipped his hand across the dash to flick the Bakelite switch that controlled the fuel pump, and then pressed the starter button. The crowd stepped back as the engine exploded into life, and the long, square panels of the hood rattled underneath the restraining straps. Dust rushed up off the road and coated their clothes. They had to shout to be heard above the roar.
“Good luck, Billy!”
He watched the dial. He had to wait ten seconds while the oil pressure rose. Oh, and one more thing. He reached across to the little clock on the far side of the dash. There was a stopwatch set into it, three little dials inside a small square window. He’d paid an extra shilling to have it installed. He twisted the cog that flipped the counters back to zero. Immediately, the cylinders began to roll back around again, counting upward. He took a last glance at the St. Christopher’s medal strapped to the dash. Then he put his foot down and slipped the car into gear. He had forty miles to travel on a winding road, and sixty minutes to do it. Make that a second under sixty minutes, since he didn’t just want to beat the record, he wanted to be the first man to break the hour barrier.
The French authorities had recently scrapped their speed limit, which had been set at just over 12 miles per hour in built-up areas. Billy passed that before he was even a little way down La Croisette, with the sunlight flickering off the silver fittings as the car accelerated out toward the coast road. The new regulations insisted only that vehicles must be driven at “moderate speed.” This, Billy felt, was a subjective sort of stipulation, one that entirely depended on what you understood “moderate” to mean. His conception of moderation was a little different from that of the men who had written the rule. But then they had said, too, that “the driver must remain in total control of the speed at all times.” And he always was, even as he shot out of Cannes onto the road to Antibes, where he pushed the car so hard that the needle on the rev counter shot up past the red line and the super...
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