A genealogy of the sound of a liquid-cooled, V-12, 27-litre Rolls-Royce Merlin piston engine — A Remembrance Sunday meditation

S/Ldr Zumbach's Spitfire from 303 Squadron of the RAF (source)
READINGS: Kings 19:11-13
(The 1985 Jewish Publication Society translation)

“Come out” [God called to Elijah], “and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind — and earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire — a soft murmuring sound. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his head mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

NB: the Hebrew words translated here by “a soft murmuring sound” were translated by William Tyndall as “a still small voice”. In other translations this reads “a sound of sheer silence”.

Spitfires by Chris Wood
(From A Handmade Life)

Sometimes in our Kentish summer we still see spitfires in the sky—it’s the sound.
    We run outside to catch a glimpse as they go growling by—it’s the sound.
    There goes another England, sacrifice and derring do and a victory roll or two.
    From the drawing board to the hand of the factory girl upon the lathe—it’s the sound.
    It’s ordinary men and women with an ordinary part to play.
    ‘Cause theirs was a gritty England, ‘Workers’Playtime' got them through and an oily rag or two.

But sometimes I hear the story told in a voice that’s not my own—it’s the sound.
    It’s a land of hope and glory voice an anglo-klaxon over-blown—it’s the sound.
    Because theirs is another England, it hides behind the red, white and blue - ‘Rule Britannia’? No thank-you.
Because when I hear them merlin engines in the white days of July—it’s the sound.
    They sing the song of how they hung a little fascist out to dry.


Before I begin to turn my attention to one possible genealogy of the sound of a liquid-cooled, V-12, 27-litre Rolls-Royce Merlin piston engine I want to say just a very few words about genealogy itself.

If, like me, you are one of those people who simply can no longer believe that there exists in things some timeless and essential essence or secret that is just waiting to be uncovered, then the (possible) meaning and intelligibility of those same things needs to be located elsewhere. Thanks to Nietzsche in the late 19th century and then Michel Foucault in the late 20th century, there has developed a way of locating meaning and intelligibility in a thing’s genealogy; that is through tracing its complex history, one made up of innumerable, often disparate and highly contingent elements. In the context of Remembrance Sunday I’m going to look at today at one possible genealogy of the sound of the Merlin engine in the hope that it proves to be for you a reasonably persuasive, meaningful, intelligible one which helps us walk us towards peace and not more conflict and war. So let’s begin.

Back in 2009 the singer-songwriter Chris Wood was disturbed, as were many of us, by the far-right British National Party’s (BNP) anti-immigration campaign which used on their election posters a picture of a WWII Spitfire. At the time this nasty campaign was being directed particularly at the Poles, many of whom had only recently come to the UK following their country’s accession to the European Union in 2004. However, before we go on, let’s not forget that there were many Poles here before 2004 not least of all because following the Second World War many Poles who had bravely fought against the Nazis alongside us decided to stay and make their homes here. What the BNP failed to notice was that the Spitfire they chose for their poster came from 303 Squadron of the Polish Air Force and in their racist literature and speeches they also failed to note that during the Battle of Britain Polish pilots accounted for two-hundred-and-three Luftwaffe aircraft, that’s about twelve percent of total German losses. Speaking about the men of this squadron their Canadian Group Captain, John A. Kent DFC, AFC, Virtuti Militari said,

“We who were privileged to fly and fight with them will never forget and Britain must never forget how much she owes to the loyalty, indomitable spirit and sacrifice of those Polish fliers. They were our staunchest Allies in our darkest days; may they always be remembered as such!”

It should come as no surprise that the xenophobic BNP did not so remember — if they ever knew — and Wood felt that they simply had no right to hijack the Spitfire, this evocative and powerful symbol of resistance to the Nazi’s and fascists in general, and he wanted back.

My one serious criticism of the song it is that in it Wood seems to conflate England with Great Britain and Northern Ireland and, since we are now in the middle of an increasingly fractious culture war where (as the journalist Hadley Freeman notes) “things that once seemed straightforward are suddenly riven with perils and connotations” this conflation is more problematic than it once was.

Setting this serious matter aside as much as we can, the rhetorical power of Wood’s song hinges on the difference he wants us to notice between the distinctive sound of Merlin engine and that of another kind which he calls “a land of hope and glory voice an anglo-klaxon over-blown.” This Remembrance Sunday address is, in part, an attempt to tease out in what might consist this difference in sounds. 

Since 1957 and the foundation of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and given that the Spitfire, the Hurricane and the Lancaster bomber were all powered by this engine, the sound of the Merlin engine has become very much part of our country’s post-WWII rituals of remembrance. As a child, in the white days of July during the late 1960s and early 1970s when I’d be often be staying with my grandparents in Norfolk just a few miles north of Coltishall where the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight used to be stationed, whenever I heard the Merlin’s low growling at the edge of my hearing I, like Wood, would rush outside, stop and look up in the hope I would see a Spitfire or two pass overhead and perhaps, just perhaps, see them do a victory roll or two before they slowly disappeared into the distance leaving behind only the soft murmuring sound of a summer’s day. To this day a Merlin’s sound’s coming and its going will always draw my attention skyward.

You see, it’s the sound . . . (click on this link to hear the sound of a Supermarine Spitfire Mk2a which we heard during the service).

But what does — or might — this sound which comes out of the wind, earthquake and fire of war say to us today, we who wish for peace and not more war? To this I will turn following our time of remembrance. 


Here followed a time of prayer and two minute’s silence . . .


It’s the sound . . .

In the same way a rich open C played on a cello by Pablo Casals cannot be reduced merely to being a longitudinal wave traveling at 65.41Hz, the rich sound of a Merlin engine cannot be reduced to a mere mechanical sound. Rather it always-already comes to us attached to a story, a deeper context, and this context, if you take time to listen with an historically alert imagination, this sound is itself full of other sounds even though not all of them can immediately or easily be discerned in its loud, whirlwind like growl. Wood’s skill as a song-writer is displayed in being able to draw our attention to some of them.

R.J. Mitchell (centre) & his team at Supermarine’s Woolston factory, 1927.
The first still small sound he gestures towards is the careful, considered, precise sound of the aeronautical engineer Reginald Joseph Mitchell’s (1895–1937) pencil marking paper on a drawing board in the Supermarine offices somewhere in Woolston, a suburb of Southampton. It seems important that with regard to the design of aircraft that Mitchell’s imagination and technical skills were firstly honed in the development, not of warplanes, but of the Schneider Trophy seaplanes, the Supermarine S.4, S.5, and S.6, all of which can clearly be seen to be progenitors of the Spitfire. It would be naive of me to suggest that there was never a link in Mitchell’s mind to the plane’s potential military applications but we do need to be alert to the fact that the genealogy of the sound of Mitchell’s pencil on paper in the design office, and therefore the genealogy of the Spitfire’s own sound goes back, not to the cries of anguish on the battlefield, but to the sound of cheering, cosmopolitan crowds of excited spectators from all over the world peacefully enjoying the wondrous and exciting seaplane racing spectacle playing out before them.    

The second sound to which Wood draws our attention is that of the lathe which, often in the hands of a factory girl, turned Mitchell’s plans into actual Spitfires.

One of the little known stories about the Spitfire relates to this particular sound. During the Battle of Britain, once it became apparent to the Luftwaffe that the Spitfire was proving to be its nemesis, the Nazi leadership began to put considerable efforts into bombing the Spitfire factories in Southampton and for a while they believed they had halted Spitfire production for good. However, during 1940 all around Salisbury in Wiltshire, in sheds, workshops, garages, bus depots and even a local hotel, a large ad hoc workforce was gathered together, many of whom were women, and they managed to build over 2000 Spitfires, that was 10% of the total build. The picture above gives you some idea of what this endeavour looked like and I hope it helps you in your imagination to hear the many sounds that would have filled those “shadow factories” and also to sense what it would have been like to stop for lunch, wipe your hands with an oily rag and to sit down to listen to “Workers’ Playtime” which was broadcast three times a week live from a factory canteen “somewhere in Britain”. What we have here is yet another set of still small sounds, quiet murmurings in our memory that nestle inside the larger sound of the Merlin’s growl. It’s a set of sounds made by “ordinary men and women with an ordinary part to play” and who did not themselves choose to be involved in the violence of this conflict but who were doing the best they could in dreadful, threatening circumstances beyond their control to win a war against nazism and fascism

Now, before we go on, it’s important to jump to the end of Wood’s song because, although the Second World War was more complex than this, most of us can say with a clean heart and full belief that the sounds of Mitchell’s pencil, that of the factory girl’s lathe and of the Merlin engine are today all, in one way or another, voices singing a song about “how they hung a little fascist out to dry.” This was the single, unifying end to which all these sounds are tending — if, that is, you accept the general outline of my genealogy.

But in 2009 Wood felt the need to say out loud in a song of his own that sometimes he heard the story “told in a voice that’s not my own”. The sound of the same Merlin engine was being given a wholly different genealogy which tended towards a very different end — namely towards the very fascism against which the aforementioned sounds were clearly pushing. The BNP were offering up a completely different kind of song, “a land of hope and glory voice, an anglo-klaxon over-blown”. Their’s was a song which was trying to hide “behind the red, white and blue” and to this song Wood responds: “‘Rule Britannia’? No thank-you.”

But it is a deeply disturbing fact that since 2009, as the culture wars in which we find ourselves deepens, the BNP’s drive to nationalism and xenophobia has not gone away but has, in fact, got worse. This is because even as the BNP has pretty much died a death it’s rhetoric — its song, its anglo-klaxon sound — has increasingly entered into the mainstream of politics, especially in the run-up to and since the EU Referendum. Their’s is a song which simply doesn’t have a place for people coming from outside the United Kingdom. This is a song which, just to stick to the RAF and the Battle of Britain, simply doesn’t remember that between 10 July to 31 October 1940 the sound of the Merlin engine carried with it 574 pilots from countries other than the United Kingdom who flew alongside the 2,353 British pilots. Here, for the record is the list of other nations who had serving members in the RAF during the Battle of Britain: Australia, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Ireland, Jamaica, Newfoundland, New Zealand, Northern Rhodesia, Poland, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia and even seven aircrew from the United States.

The song sung by the BNP and its heirs also fails to understand that the struggle to hang a little fascist out to dry was one which, despite the unimaginable horrors of war, brought the European nations together in a way unimaginable before hand — including, of course, our former enemies. The Merlin engine’s sound therefore also carries with it the hope for friendly relations and co-operations across Europe and the world and associated hope that we in these isles would never again be divided from our new friends by the kind of anglo-klaxon fascistic sounds increasingly being made by many on the right. (Naturally, today I’m mostly thinking about the UK context but, given that I have particularly remembered our Polish comrades, I note in passing and with great distress yesterday’s huge march in Poland of assorted far-right nationalists chanting slogans such as “God, honour, country”, “Glory to our heroes” and even phrases like “pure Poland, white Poland” and “refugees get out”.)

Let’s not fail to recognise that these latter kinds of sounds are gaining a footing in our culture and they are turning the sound of the Merlin engine, the red poppy, and the remembrance of war in general, not into symbols that can serve to remind us of freedom, co-operation, inclusivity, cosmopolitanism, internationalism and ultimately peace but into their very opposites.   

Now, to conclude, remember how I started this address — I said that I don’t think there is a timeless and essential essence or secret to be found anything, and certainly not in the sound of the Merlin engine — let’s not forget it was a warplane designed to kill and the sound it makes is a deeply ambiguous and conflicted one even in the genealogy of it which I’ve offered you today. But the fact remains it’s a sound all of us share in these isles and we can either use it to tell a story of the sound that leads us towards more cosmopolitan, democratic and pluralist ways of organising ourselves and, therefore, towards peace, or we can hand over ownership of the sound to those who want to tell a very different story, one that leads ever closer to rampant nationalism, Nazism, fascism and war. This latter course is surely something no pilot who flew with the RAF ever thought was desirable or, given their eventual victory in the skies, ever thought would once again be possible.

So when, in a moment or two the sound of the Merlin engine once again fades away into the soft murmuring of summer bird-song will we in our remembering be bringing ourselves into a quiet land of everlasting peace or to a mere calm before the coming of yet another dreadful and violent storm?

Well, that all depends on the tone, quality and genealogy of our culture and country’s remembrance and the parts we come to play in it.