John Gillespie Magee Jr.

Royal Canadian Air Force John Magee (missionary) Ronald Reagan

John Gillespie Magee Jr.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr.jpg
Official Royal Canadian Air Force picture of Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr.
Born9 June 1922
Shanghai, Republic of China
Died11 December 1941 (aged 19)
Ruskington, England
Place of burial
Holy Cross Cemetery, Scopwick, England, United Kingdom
Service/branchAir Force Ensign of Canada (1941-1968).svg Royal Canadian Air Force
Years of service1940–1941
RankPilot Officer
UnitNo. 412 Squadron RCAF
Battles/warsWorld War II

John Gillespie Magee Jr. (9 June 1922 – 11 December 1941)[1][2][3] was a World War II Anglo-American Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot and poet, who wrote the poem High Flight. He was killed in an accidental mid-air collision over England in 1941.

Early life

Sonnet to Rupert Brooke
: "We laid him in a cool and shadowed grove
One evening in the dreamy scent of thyme
Where leaves were green, and whispered high above —
A grave as humble as it was sublime;
There, dreaming in the fading deeps of light —
The hands that thrilled to touch a woman's hair;
Brown eyes, that loved the Day, and looked on Night,
A soul that found at last its answered Prayer...
There daylight, as a dust, slips through the trees.
And drifting, gilds the fern around his grave —
Where even now, perhaps, the evening breeze
Steals shyly past the tomb of him who gave
New sight to blinded eyes; who sometimes wept —
A short time dearly loved; and after, — slept."

John Gillespie Magee was born in Shanghai, China, to an American father and a British mother, who both worked as Anglican missionaries.[2][3] His father, John Magee Sr., was from a family of some wealth and influence in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Magee Senior chose to become an Episcopal priest and was sent as a missionary to China. Whilst there he met his future wife, Faith Emmeline Backhouse, who came from Helmingham in Suffolk and was a member of the Church Missionary Society. Magee's parents married in 1921, and their first child, John Junior, was born 9 June 1922, the eldest of four brothers.

Magee began his education at the American School in Nanking in 1929. In 1931 he moved with his mother to England and spent the following four years at St Clare, a preparatory school for boys, in Walmer, in the county of Kent. From 1935 to 1939 he attended Rugby School, where he developed the ambition to become a poet, and whilst at the school won its Poetry Prize in 1938. He was impressed by the school's Roll of Honour listing its pupils who had fallen in the First World War, which included the Edwardian poet Rupert Brooke (1887–1915), whose writing style Magee emulated. Brooke had won the school's Poetry Prize 34 years prior to Magee. The prize-winning poem by Magee centred upon the burial of Brooke's body at 11 o'clock at night in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros in April 1915.

Whilst at Rugby Magee fell in love with Elinor Lyon, the daughter of P. H. B. Lyon, the headmaster. She became the inspiration for many of Magee's poems.[4] Though his love was not returned, he remained friends with Elinor and her family.

Magee visited the United States in 1939. Because of the outbreak of World War II, he was unable to return to Rugby for his final school year, and instead attended Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Connecticut.[5] He earned a scholarship to Yale University in July 1940, but did not enroll, choosing instead to volunteer for war service with the Royal Canadian Air Force (R.C.A.F.).

World War II

Magee joined the R.C.A.F. in October 1940 and received flight training in Ontario at No.9 Elementary Flying Training School, located at RCAF Station St. Catharines (St. Catharines), and at No. 2 Service Flying Training School at RCAF Station Uplands (Ottawa). He passed his Wings Test in June 1941.

Shortly after his promotion to the rank of Pilot Officer, after having been awarded his wings, Magee was sent to the United Kingdom, where on arrival he was posted to No. 53 Operational Training Unit at RAF Llandow, in Wales. His first flight in a Spitfire occurred on 7 August 1941. On 18 August, while still stationed at Llandow, he flew a Spitfire to 33,000 feet, by far his highest flight to that date. This is the flight usually accepted as having inspired his famous poem.[6] [7]

After completing his training with No. 53 Operational Training Unit he was assigned to No. 412 (Fighter) Squadron, R.C.A.F.,[1] a Canadian unit formed at RAF Digby on 30 June 1941. No. 412 Squadron was part of the "Digby Wing", commanded by the legendary "Cowboy" Blatchford. One of the other pilots serving at Digby that September was Flight Lieutenant "Hart" Massey, the son of Vincent Massey, the first Canadian-born Governor General of Canada.[8]

Magee arrived at Digby on 23 September 1941, where he continued to train on the Spitfire. When Magee joined No.412 Squadron it was flying the Supermarine Spitfire Mk II; the squadron switched to the more powerful Mk Vb shortly after his arrival. He first took a Mk Vb aloft on 8 October 1941. On 20 October 1941, he took part in a convoy patrol, and on that same day the Squadron moved from the Digby Aerodrome to the nearby RAF Wellingore in Lincolnshire, a satellite station of Digby.

Raid on Lille

On 8 November 1941, he took part in a sortie to Occupied France escorting bombers attacking railway workshops at Lille. Twelve aeroplanes from No.412 Squadron flew from Wellingore to RAF West Malling to refuel, and then headed out over the English Channel near RAF Manston. They crossed the hostile coast east of Dunkirk, encountering flak, after which they were attacked by Luftwaffe fighters.[9] Of Magee's four-ship section that entered the engagement, only he survived; all the others (including No.412's acting-Squadron Leader) were shot down and killed in action by the leading German ace Joachim Müncheberg. In the course of the engagement Magee fired 160 rounds of .303 ammunition, but made no claim for the infliction of damage to the enemy on returning to base in England. This was Gillespie's lone engagement with the Luftwaffe during the war.[10]

In late November- early December 1941 Magee took part in three more convoy patrols.[11]


On 11 December 1941, in his tenth week of active service, Magee was killed while flying Spitfire VZ-H (Serial No.AD291) (the same aircraft he had flown in the engagement with the Luftwaffe over France four weeks earlier).[12] He had taken off in the late morning with other members of No.412 Squadron from RAF Wellingore (the airfield post-war has now reverted to agriculture) to practise air fighting tactics, during the performance of which Magee's aircraft was involved in a mid-air collision with an Airspeed Oxford trainer (Serial No.T1052) flying out of RAF Cranwell, piloted by 19-year-old Leading Aircraftman/Pilot Under-Training Ernest Aubrey Griffin.[13] The two aircraft collided just below the cloud base at about 1,400 feet AGL, at 11:30, over the hamlet of Roxholme, which lies between RAF Cranwell and RAF Digby, in Lincolnshire.[2] Magee was descending at high speed through a break in the clouds in concert with three other Spitfires when his struck the Airspeed Oxford.
At the inquiry afterwards a local farmer who witnessed the accident testified that he saw Magee after the collision struggling to push back the canopy of his Spitfire as it descended apparently out of control.[2] Magee succeeded in reversing the canopy and bailing out of the out of control aeroplane, but was at too low an altitude for his parachute to have time to open, and he fell to earth and was killed instantly on impact with the ground in farmland near the village of Ruskington.

Magee's grave

He was 19 years of age.[12][2][3] Leading Aircraftman/Pilot Under-Training Griffin, the other pilot involved in the mid-air collision, was also killed in the incident.[14]

Magee's body was buried in the graveyard of Holy Cross Church in the village of Scopwick in Lincolnshire.[2][3] On the gravestone are inscribed the first and last lines from his poem High Flight. Part of the official letter to his parents read, "Your son's funeral took place at Scopwick Cemetery, near Digby Aerodrome, at 2.30 pm, on Saturday, 13 December 1941, the service being conducted by Flight Lieutenant S. K. Belton, the Canadian padre of this Station. He was accorded full Service Honours, the coffin being carried by pilots of his own Squadron".

High Flight

High Flight

"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God."

Magee's posthumous fame rests mainly on his sonnet High Flight, which he started on 18 August 1941, just a few months before his death, whilst he was based at No. 53 OTU. In his seventh flight in a Spitfire Mk I, he had flown up to 33,000 feet. As he climbed upward, he was struck by words he had read in another poem — "To touch the face of God." He completed his verse soon after landing.[citation needed]

The first person to read Magee's poem later that same day in the officers' mess, was his fellow Pilot Officer Michael Henry Le Bas (later Air Vice-Marshal M. H. Le Bas, CB CBE DSO AFC, Air Officer Commanding No. 1 Group RAF[15]), with whom Magee had trained.[citation needed]

Magee enclosed the poem in a letter to his parents, dated 3 September 1941. His father, then curate of Saint John's Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, reprinted it in church publications. The poem became more widely known through the efforts of Archibald MacLeish, then Librarian of Congress, who included it in an exhibition of poems called "Faith and Freedom" at the Library of Congress in February 1942. The manuscript copy of the poem remains at the Library of Congress.[citation needed]

Sources of inspiration

The last words of High Flight — "...and touched the face of God" — can also be found in a poem by Cuthbert Hicks, published three years earlier in Icarus: An Anthology of the Poetry of Flight. The last two lines in Hicks' poem, The Blind Man Flies, are:

For I have danced the streets of heaven,
And touched the face of God.

The anthology includes the poem New World, by G. W. M. Dunn, which contains the phrase "on laughter-silvered wings". Dunn wrote of "the lifting mind", another phrase that Magee used in High Flight, and refers to "the shouting of the air", in comparison to Magee's line, "chased the shouting wind". Another line by Magee, "The high untrespassed sanctity of space", closely resembles "Across the unpierced sanctity of space", which appears in the anthology in the poem Dominion over Air, previously published in the RAF College Journal.

Uses of the poem

U.S. President Ronald Reagan addresses the nation after the Challenger disaster (28 January 1986)
High Flight is inscribed in full on the back of the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

During April and May 1942, Many Hollywood stars including Laurel and Hardy, Groucho Marx, Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope joined the Hollywood Victory Caravan as it toured the United States on a mission to raise war bonds. Actress Merle Oberon recited High Flight as part of this show.[16] During the performance on 30 April 1942, at the Loew's Capitol Theatre in Washington, D.C., and before her recitation of High Flight, Oberon acknowledged the attendance of his father, John Magee, and brother Christopher Magee.

Orson Welles read the poem on an episode of The Radio Reader's Digest (11 October 1942),[17][18] Command Performance (21 December 1943),[19] and The Orson Welles Almanac (31 May 1944).[20]

High Flight has been a favourite poem amongst both aviators and astronauts. It is the official poem of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Air Force and has to be recited from memory by fourth class cadets at the United States Air Force Academy, where it can be seen on display in the Cadet Field House.[21] Portions of the poem appear on many of the headstones in the Arlington National Cemetery,[22] and it is inscribed in full on the back of the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial. It is displayed on panels at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, the National Air Force Museum of Canada, in Trenton, Ontario. It is the subject of a permanent display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio.[23] General Robert Lee Scott Jr. included it in his book God is My Co-Pilot.

Astronaut Michael Collins brought an index card with the poem typed on it on his Gemini 10 flight and included the poem in his autobiography Carrying The Fire. Former NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz quoted the first line of the poem in his book Failure Is Not An Option. U.S. President Ronald Reagan used part of High Flight in a speech written by Peggy Noonan on the night after the Challenger disaster on 28 January 1986.[24]

At RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, a memorial to Red Arrows pilots, Flight Lieutenants Jon Egging, killed on 20 August 2011, and Sean Cunningham, killed on 8 November 2011, bears an interpretation of the poem on a brass plaque atop a wooden plinth in front of a gate guardian aircraft outside the RAF Aerobatics Team hangar. The plaque reads "...they have slipped the surly bonds of Earth / Put out their hands and touched the face of God... / In memory of / Flt Lt Jon Egging – 20th August 2011 / Flt Lt Sean Cunningham – 8th November 2011".[25][26]

In her 1 September 2018, eulogy for her father, John McCain, Meghan McCain quoted the poem at the end of her tribute. "I know that on the afternoon of August 25th in front of Oak Creek in Cornville, Arizona, surrounded by the family he loved so much, an old man shook off the scars of battle one last time and arose a new man to pilot one last flight up and up and up, busting clouds left and right, straight on through to the kingdom of heaven. And he slipped the earthly bonds, put out his hand, and touched the face of God"[27]

Musical adaptations

The plaque at St. Catharines/Niagara District Airport that commemorates J G. Magee Jr.

Miklós Rózsa composed the earliest known setting of High Flight, for tenor voice, in 1942. It was later published as one of his Five Songs in 1974. Canadian composer and Royal Canadian Air Force veteran Robert J. B. Fleming wrote a through-composed musical setting of the poem for the Divine Services Book of the Canadian Armed Forces published in 1950. The composer Bill Pursell wrote his own arrangement with narration for the United States Air Force Band, which was broadcast on their radio show in the late 1940s. Several songs and symphonic compositions have been based on Magee's text, including Bob Chilcott's 2008 setting, premiered on 1 May 2008 by the King's Singers.[28]

The poem has been set to music by several composers, including by John Denver[29] and Lee Holdridge as performed on the Bob Hope television show and is included in his 1983 album It's About Time and by Christopher Marshall, whose composition was commissioned for and premiered by The Orlando Chorale with saxophonist George Weremchuk (Orlando, Florida) in March 2009, under the direction of Gregory Ruffer. The first performance of a setting of words, known as "Even Such Is Time", from Fauré’s Requiem, plus additional non-liturgical texts that included High Flight, was performed by the Nantwich Choral Society, conducted by John Naylor, on Saturday 26 March 2011, in St Mary's Church, Nantwich, Cheshire. The music was written by Andrew Mildinhall, the former organist at the church, who accompanied the performance with the Northern Concordia Orchestra.

Singer Al Jarreau paid brief homage to "High Flight" by using the closing lines in the bridge of his 1983 song "Mornin'".

Phill Driscoll, a trumpet player, Christian artist, and singer, has also performed the poem in song. In his rendition of the song, he alludes to being caught up to be with God.[30]

The American composer James Curnow was commissioned by the Graduates Association of Tenri High School Band in Nara, Japan to write a piece for concert band in honour of the 50th anniversary of its association. The piece is entitled Where Never Lark or Eagle Flew with the subtitle "Based on a poem by John Gillespie Magee Jr."[citation needed] In 2012, the Australian composer Daniel Walker was commissioned by North Sydney Boys High School to compose a piece for the school's centenary celebrations. This composition, 'Through Footless Halls of Air', which was written for choir and symphonic winds, features the poem in the lyrics.

British composer Jonathan Dove included the poem in his 2009 oratorio There Was a Child, written as a memoriam to Robert Van Allen, who also died at the age of nineteen. It has also been set by British composer Nicholas Scott Burt as a short motet and dedicated to the choir of Rugby Parish Church.

In 2014, Canadian composer Vince Gassi composed a piece for concert band entitled Chase The Shouting Wind.

In 2015, the Hardcore DJ Nosferatu used the poem in his track "sanctity of space".

Other use in the media

Many U.S. television viewers were introduced to High Flight when several TV stations ended (and sometimes also began) their programming day with various short films containing it.[31] The sign-off film occasionally seen on KPTV in Portland, Oregon and KCRA in Sacramento, California featured the spoken poem played to Air Force flying footage.[32] Other examples of the use of the poem in television programs, films include:

Per Ardua

Per Ardua

 (To those who gave their lives to England during the Battle of
Britain and left such a shining example to us who follow,
these lines are dedicated.)

They that have climbed the white mists of the morning;
They that have soared, before the world's awake,
To herald up their foeman to them, scorning
The thin dawn's rest their weary folk might take;
Some that have left other mouths to tell the story
Of high, blue battle, quite young limbs that bled,
How they had thundered up the clouds to glory,
Or fallen to an English field stained red.
Because my faltering feet would fail I find them
Laughing beside me, steadying the hand
That seeks their deadly courage –
Yet behind them
The cold light dies in that once brilliant Land ....
Do these, who help the quickened pulse run slowly,
Whose stern, remembered image cools the brow,
Till the far dawn of Victory, know only
Night's darkness, and Valhalla's silence now?

Shortly after Magee's first combat action on 8 November 1941, he sent his family part of another poem, referring to it as "another trifle which may interest you". It is possible that the poem, Per Ardua, is the last that Magee wrote. There are several corrections to the poem, made by Magee, which suggest that the poem was not completed when he sent it. Per ardua ad astra ("Through adversity to the stars") is the motto of a number of Commonwealth air forces, such as the Royal Air Force, RAAF, RNZAF and the RCAF. It was first used in 1912 by the newly formed Royal Flying Corps.


  1. ^ a b Government of Canada (2007). Battle of Britain – Pilot and Aircrew Manual – Ceremony 2007. Ottawa: Government of Canada.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "RAF Digby – John Gillespie Magee Jr". Retrieved 2 March 2008.
  3. ^ a b c d "High Flight Poem – John Gillespie Magee Jr". Archived from the original on 8 February 2008. Retrieved 2 March 2008.
  4. ^ Sunward I've Climbed. Hermann Hagedorn, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1942. (In this biography, Elinor was referred to as "Diana.")
  5. ^ "Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee". Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  6. ^ Rob Kostecka, "Finding Magee - the Story Behind the High Flight Harvard." Vintage Wings of Canada. Photograph of logbook page here:
  7. ^ see also: Elinor Florence, "High Flight Written 75 Years ago." 17 February 2016.
  8. ^ Stephen M. Fochuk, "Maggie's War – John Gillespie Magee's One and Only Time he engaged the Luftwaffe", Air Force Magazine, Vol. 41, No. 3, 15 December 2017, p. 44, p. 49;
  9. ^ The Composite Combat Report filed by No.412 Squadron states these were Messerschmitt Bf 109s: Stephen M. Fochuk, "Maggie's War – John Gillespie Magee's One and Only Time he engaged the Luftwaffe", Air Force Magazine, Vol. 41, No. 3, 15 December 2017, p.48; however, Fochuk in his article refers to them as Focke-Wulf 190s, and the entry on Joachim Muncheberg says his unit was flying FW190s at that time
  10. ^ Stephen M. Fochuk, "Maggie's War – John Gillespie Magee's One and Only Time he engaged the Luftwaffe", Air Force Magazine, Vol. 41, No. 3, 15 December 2017, p. 48
  11. ^ Stephen M. Fochuk, "Maggie's War – John Gillespie Magee's One and Only Time he engaged the Luftwaffe", Air Force Magazine, Vol. 41, No. 3, 15 December 2017, p. 47
  12. ^ a b Stephen M. Fochuk, "Maggie's War – John Gillespie Magee's One and Only Time he engaged the Luftwaffe", Air Force Magazine, Vol. 41, No. 3, 15 December 2017, p. 49
  13. ^ 'Bomber County Aviation Resource' website, 1941 Lincolnshire Aviation Incident Logs, entries for 11 December 1941.
  14. ^ "Casualty Details". Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  15. ^ "M H Le Bas". Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  16. ^ "Search Library Databases | Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  17. ^ Wood, Bret (1990). Orson Welles: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 121. ISBN 0-313-26538-0.
  18. ^ "Wendy Barrie and Orson Welles on Radio Reader's Digest". Chicago Tribune. 11 October 1942.
  19. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 10 February 2013. Retrieved 15 March 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  20. ^ "The Orson Welles Almanac". Orson Welles on the Air, 1938–1946. Indiana University Bloomington. 31 May 1944. Retrieved 19 July 2018.
  21. ^ [1] Archived 6 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ Michael Patterson. "High Flight – John Gillespie Magee, Jr". Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  23. ^ [2] Archived 28 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ Reagan, Ronald; Noonan, Peggy (28 January 1986). "Address to the nation on the Challenger disaster". Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation. Archived from the original on 27 December 2007. Retrieved 3 May 2008.
  25. ^ "75 Years of High Flight Beloved aviator poem's 75th anniversary celebrated". RAF. Retrieved 13 September 2017.
  26. ^ "2028 Squadron Realise A Dream with the Red Arrows". Warwickshire & Birmingham Wing Air Training Corps. Archived from the original on 13 September 2017. Retrieved 13 September 2017.
  27. ^ "Meghan McCain eulogy of John McCain: Celebrating her dad's love and influence while criticizing Trump". Retrieved 3 December 2018.
  28. ^ "Press Office – Network Radio Programme Information Week 19 Tuesday 6 May 2008". BBC. Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  29. ^ "John Denver sings High Flight". 1 August 2012. Retrieved 27 January 2016 – via YouTube.
  30. ^ "High Flight: Phil Driscoll: MP3 Downloads". Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  31. ^ TheShootingstar31 (12 January 2013). "HIGH FLIGHT TV STATION SIGN-OFF – 1972". Retrieved 3 December 2018 – via YouTube.
  32. ^ An example of a "High Flight"/TV sign-off film on YouTube
  33. ^ "Bloom County Comic Strip, July 08, 1984 on". Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  34. ^ "Address to the Nation on the Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger". 28 January 1986. Retrieved 27 January 2016.