The war hero who was recruited to create movie magic in Shropshire's skies

"A few brave men, a few outdated machines.

Peter Gordon-Hall, DFC, DSO.
Peter Gordon-Hall, DFC, DSO.

"Our story begins in the last days of October when Italy invaded Greece..."

This is a voiceover at the start of one of the greatest war films you will never see – a movie at the centre of an enduring mystery, and a remarkable recent discovery.

One of those involved was real life war hero Peter Gordon-Hall. At the age of just 22 he was already a battle-scarred veteran who had been shot down twice when he arrived at the Shropshire airfield where the film crew assembled in the autumn of 1943.

Peter Gordon-Hall, DFC, DSO.

They were there to shoot the aerial sequences of Signed With Their Honour, based on a novel by Australian author James Aldridge set against a backdrop of the air war in Greece in 1940 and 1941.

At that time a Flight Lieutenant, Peter Gordon-Hall was one of the experienced pilots loaned by the RAF to the film company to fly the antiquated Gloster Gladiator biplanes, but he also seems to have had a small on-screen speaking role.

The movie-makers operated from RAF Rednal, near Oswestry, at the time a major wartime Spitfire training base.

According to Peter's memoirs, big name stars John Mills and Vivien Leigh were lined up for the film.

Peter Gordon-Hall – standing in the light overalls – at RAF Rednal in 1943 during the making of the movie. The aircraft is one of the Gloster Gladiator biplanes which were used.

They shot the aerial scenes, with the mountains of Wales doubling for the rugged landscape of Greece, and then... nothing. The entire movie was abandoned, leaving an unsolved riddle over what happened to the footage.

Signed With Their Honour had been lost to history, a prospective wartime classic which could only be imagined.

But no longer.

Wing Commander Gordon-Hall died in December 2014, just a few days after turning 94. And following his death his granddaughter Jessica Gordon-Hall came across the complete screenplay and script for the movie among his things.

Jessica flicks through the film script and screenplay.

How he came to have it can only be guessed at, but it seems likely he was given it during the production and kept it as a souvenir for the rest of his life.

"I found the manuscript after he died," said Jessica.

"I've had offers for it from collectors, but I would never sell it."

A fascinating aspect is that it underlines how high-powered the production was intended to be, as the cover reads: "Signed With Their Honour, by H E Bates and Terence Rattigan."

Bates was a distinguished novelist who was commissioned as a writer for the RAF during the war, while Rattigan was a famous playwright who served as an air gunner and then worked for the RAF's film production unit.

In the last few years Jessica, who lives near Chester, has been researching her grandfather's life and has tried to find out what happened to the footage that was shot, but has drawn a blank.

But at least the script and screenplay show what the finished film would have been like, telling a story of brave RAF pilots fighting impossible odds in an air war against huge Italian air armadas, the heroism of the Greek people, and intertwined with a love story involving heroic pilot John Quayle and a young Greek woman, Helen Stangou, the character who would no doubt have been played by Vivien Leigh.

Talking of heroic pilots, Jessica's grandfather won both the Distinguished Flying Cross – presented to him in person by the king – and the Distinguished Service Order during the war.

"He was the most modest man you could meet," said Jessica.

"I grew up idolising him really. I joined the air cadets when I was 16, and I mainly did that because of my grandfather.

"Unfortunately I didn't get to ask my grandfather much about the film. I didn't know much about it until he passed away."

For those RAF pilots who took part it was a welcome respite from operational flying.

"He enjoyed filming, he enjoyed the break without being worried about being shot down.

"The script doesn't say who plays who in it. As far as I'm aware my grandfather was given a small part with the pilot extras. I know he had a speaking part but that it was quite small."

Peter Gordon-Hall was at the time a Flight Lieutenant with much operational experience.

Although he had mainly flown the twin-engined Bristol Blenheim in both its bomber and fighter variants, he would have had little difficulty flying a Gloster Gladiator, having trained on biplanes, and also thanks to a spell as a ferry pilot which involved having to fly various unfamiliar types at the drop of a hat.

His life could have made a movie in itself.

This young man, who was related to General Gordon of Khartoum, joined the RAF in 1939, incurring the displeasure of his father, James Gordon-Hall, who had served in the Royal Flying Corps during the Great War and so knew what war was all about.

Based with 18 Squadron at RAF West Raynham and its satellite RAF Great Massingham in Norfolk, Peter flew daring missions in a Bristol Blenheim bomber in 1940. He had just turned 19 and yet was the "old man" of the crew. They were then posted to the Middle East, flying more bombing missions, before fancying a change and getting a posting to Blenheim day fighters with 203 Squadron.

Peter, middle row, third from left, with RAF colleagues, with a Bristol Blenheim in the background.

He flew from Crete, operating from Heraklion.

"With the Germans overrunning Greece, the British forces were being evacuated. Our task was to cover the convoys making for Crete and Egypt, protecting them from the heavy Luftwaffe attacks," he wrote in his memoirs.

It meant he would have been familiar with some of the real-life events and landscapes in the Signed With Their Honour novel.

He was shot down for the first time on April 26, 1941, while rendezvousing with a convoy north of Crete, when the Royal Navy mistook his Blenheim for the enemy and opened fire.

Hit in an engine, it limped to within three miles of the Crete coast before ditching. Peter found himself pinned in to the sinking aircraft by a jammed harness.

"There followed one of the worst half minutes of my life while I fought to free myself."

His troubles were not over, as when he and his crewmen reached shore they had a welcoming party of hostile locals who were convinced they were Germans.

In a last desperate effort he shouted all the obscenities he knew, and a British soldier came to rescue them in an episode, he wrote in his memoirs, recorded in the Official History of the RAF.

"It stated that the captain of the aircraft gave the inspired cry 'We're ****ing British.' This must be a unique achievement, to be mentioned in a history by virtue of the use of bad language."

A modern sequel to the story is that that Blenheim, serial number L 9044, was salvaged from the bottom of the sea in 1996 and in old age Peter was able to see it again, which was an emotional experience for him.

"I think he was quite overwhelmed by it. It brought back a lot of memories," said Jessica.

There was also a more humorous aspect.

"He had lost his wallet and was hoping his wallet was still in there – but it wasn't."

The wrecked plane is today on display at the Hellenic Air Force Museum in Greece.

The wreck of Peter's aircraft on display at the Hellenic Air Force Museum in Greece. Shot down by friendly fire in 1941, it was salvaged from the sea in 1996. Picture: Wikimedia Commons.

Only a few weeks after those events off Crete he was destined to be shot down again, having been posted to Iraq, which had sided with Hitler, and flying from Habbaniya, a large RAF base about 80 miles from Baghdad and surrounded by hostile forces.

By now he and his fellow crewmen, navigator Cliff Poole and wireless operator and rear gunner Ivor Oultram, had flown around 50 sorties over enemy territory, both in Europe and the Middle East. On May 9, 1941, they strafed Mosul aerodrome but were hit by ground fire.

With the Blenheim a mass of flame, and with his arms, legs, and face burning, he managed to escape the stricken aircraft, along with Poole, but Oultram, who may have been hit, was killed.

The two survivors were quickly captured by angry tribesmen, and were well aware of the gruesome fate – the cutting off of their male parts and death – in store in such circumstances. Fortunately a search party of Iraqi forces found them and took them into custody, although the threat of being lynched by an angry mob was ever-present until he was taken to hospital.

After his recovery Peter was held at a prison camp at Kirkuk. Getting wind of plans to fly the British prisoners there to Germany, senior officers went to see the camp commandant and warned him of dire consequences if this happened – at the time British forces were successfully taking over Iraq.

The upshot was that the Iraqi colonel let them walk out of the camp, and Peter managed to get to the British Embassy in Baghdad, and eventually sailed to England on the "Duchess of Richmond" where one of his fellow passengers was writer Evelyn Waugh, then serving as an officer in the Royal Marines.

Back in England he served as an instructor, and was recommended for his DFC by his chief flying instructor Guy Gibson, who was later to win a Victoria Cross in the legendary Dambusters raid.

His participation in the movie in Shropshire was just a short break in his career. Peter did not know why the film was not completed, although it seems to have been because of budget constraints, although it can't have helped that several of the Gladiators were lost during the filming through crashes.

A chat for producer Paul Soskin and cameraman Osmond Borradaile during the shooting of the movie Signed With Their Honour at a Shropshire airfield in 1943.

One of the Gladiators assigned to the filming survives, and is now on display at the RAF Museum at Cosford.

After his movie adventures, the war continued for Peter, and there was to be yet more heroism, flying Mosquito night fighters with 85 Squadron before becoming chief flying instructor at a training unit and then flying low level reconnaissance missions in Auster light aircraft from small fields close to the front line during the advance into Germany.

For his reconnaissance exploits he won the DSO.

"He never collected it because he was sent off straight away. My father and myself have been trying to collect it for eight years now," said Jessica, who incidentally is happy to be contacted by anyone wanting to know more about the film and her grandfather's story at pjgh1@outlook.com by email.

After a brief post-war civilian spell as CFI with Wiltshire School of Flying Peter rejoined the RAF and in 1952 took command of 148 Squadron, flying Lincolns, but becoming one of the first squadrons to re-equip with the new jet V-bombers. In later life he lived on the Isle of Wight.

Jessica is hoping later this year to go to Greece to see the Bristol Blenheim in which her grandfather nearly died all those years ago.

And one of her prized mementoes are miniatures of his medals.

"I take them out every November for the Remembrance parade and wear them."

These miniatures of Peter's medals are cherished possessions for granddaughter Jessica.

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