High Flight

John Gillespie Magee

The Memorial Gardens entrance.
Close-up of the poem.

John Gillespie Magee was an American teenager, educated at Rugby in England, who set aside his scholarship at Yale to go to Canada in 1940 where he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.

By September 1941 he was based at RAF Digby in the UK, flying the Spitfire. It was during one of these flights that he got the idea for his poem which he finished soon after and sent home to his parents.

Three months later, on the 11 December, Pilot Officer Magee was dead, killed in a mid-air collision with a student pilot near RAF Cranwell. He is buried in the military cemetery at Scopwick.

His poem has lived on, the original manuscript being held in the Library of Congress in the USA. Later in the war, the poem was used in posters which were sent to every airfield in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth.

In 1971, James Irwin, pilot of the Apollo 15 Lunar Module, carried a copy of the poem with him to the moon. President Regan quoted from the poem following the Challenger disaster in 1986, and in 1998 it was included in the eulogy to America’s first man in space, Alan Shephard.

The ‘High Flight’ poem was etched onto Welsh slate by Barrie Price of James Beresfords & Sons.

The Memorial Gardens are maintained by Belper Town Council; originally ‘The Paddock’ they were part of the gardens belonging to Green Hall, home of Jedediah Strutt II. In 1921, the land was offered by George Herbert Strutt for the creation of a permanent memorial to Belper’s fallen of the First World War. The British Legion hold Remembrance Day ceremonies in the Gardens.

‘A Tribute to High Flight’ was painted by Edward Ash to commemorate the sixty fifth anniversary of the death of John Magee. You can see the image, hear the poem, order prints or cards of the painting from Aviation Art.