Memorial plaques at Golders Green Crematorium, north London, bear lots of memorable names - Anna Pavlova, Marc Bolan, Sid James - but, hanging around after a funeral a few years back, it was a memorable date which caught my eye. It was 3 September 1939, on a Commonwealth War Graves tablet commemorating the falling of John Noel Isaac.
Later research told me that pilot officer Isaac of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve had been officially recorded as the first Briton to die on active service in the second world war. His Blenheim long-range fighter crashed at Hendon one hour and 35 minutes after Neville Chamberlain told the nation that Hitler ‘can only be stopped by force’.
I parked the poignant tragedy in my mind. But, years later in the Law Society library, I was thumbing through back numbers of the Gazette in search of material for the Memory Lane column when the name leaped out at me again. In November 1939 the Gazette resumed the 1914-18 practice of devoting the front of its news section to the Roll of Honour. The first of many instalments recorded that ‘Isaac, Pilot Officer John Noel Laughton, BA Oxon, partner in the firm of Clifford-Turner & Co of 11 Old Jewry EC, was killed on Active Service on the 3rd September, aged 27. He was admitted in 1935’.
A bit of internet research turned out a little more. Clifford-Turner was an ancestor of magic circle firm Clifford Chance. A 1993 history of Clifford Chance reveals that John Isaac had been admitted to the partnership at the unusually early age of 27, after serving his articles with the firm, ‘an indication of how highly he was regarded’. If any relative or historian knows more about this brilliant young man, perhaps they’ll get in touch.
What I do know is that the metamorphosis high-flying solicitor to fighter pilot was a logical enough step in the late 1930s. The Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve had been formed in 1936 as a citizen air force, open to the ‘complete range of the output of the public and secondary schools’. It provided a large proportion of the Hurricane and Spitfire pilots – mainly sergeants, rather than the languid aristocrats of mythology – who fought the Battle of Britain.
Oxford-educated Isaac joined a smart unit, 600 Squadron, which would become the highest-scoring night-fighter squadron of the war. (It is still active.) When war came, 600 Sqdn, based at Hendon, was still getting to grips with the Blenheim, originally introduced as a bomber. Most British military aircraft of the period were designed with little concern for their pilots’ lives, and the Blenheim, with its restricted forward view and inaccessible flight controls, was no exception. I haven’t looked up Isaac’s accident report, but it would have taken only a tiny malfunction or piloting lapse to send the aircraft ploughing into Heading Street on a solo training flight that Sunday lunchtime.
Pilot Officer Isaac had a short war, and couldn’t have begun to guess the horrors of the next six years. But he would certainly have been aware that, of fighter pilots flying on the first day of the conflict, very, very few would be alive at the end.
He went up anyway to do his bit. Spare him a thought in the silence, this Sunday.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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