By Andrew Brown
An inspirational artist has spent five months and hundreds of hours creating an exact replica sculpture of a World War II Supermarine Spitfire, to pay tribute to the brave Polish pilots who flew from Britain during World War II.
Incredibly, Suhail Shaikh has built his artwork – which is one third of the size of a real Spitfire – almost entirely out of paper.
His ‘moment in time’ sculpture shows the exact moment, height and speed of the Spitfire being flown in 1942 by Polish pilot Sergeant Jerzy Stanislaw Zielinsky of the 308 Krakowski Squadron based at RAF Woodvale as it intercepted and shot down a Dornier German bomber off the coast of Southport.
The artwork is part of the Courage and Devotion exhibition which takes place at The Atkinson on Lord Street in Southport from Saturday, 26th June 2021 until Saturday, 12th March 2022. Admission is free.
The sculpture took an incredible 1,500 hours to build – and that was with the hundreds of hours of research and the trials and tribulations of transporting the sculpture from France to England during the Covid pandemic!
Suhail began working on his sculpture in January this year, after carrying out extensive research into the Spitfire, RAF Woodvale, and the Polish RAF Squadrons.
He worked over 70 hours a week for five months.
He had the additional headache of working during the Covid pandemic with all its lockdowns, rules and restrictions. Transporting the sculpture from France to England provided some real difficulties.
Suhail said: “I am originally from India, but I have been living in France for the past 21 years.
“Making sculptures out of paper is something I have done since I was a child.
“My grandmother used to encourage me to make toys out of paper!
“When I was a Design Educator, I had less time to devote to my sculptures. After 20 years in the industry I called it quits to take up building shapes with paper full-time.”
Suhail has two huge passions in his life to which he devotes nearly every waking hour – paper and aviation.
His stunning Spitfire sculpture at The Atkinson was the perfect chance to combine the two, recreating the world’s most iconic aircraft in a truly unique way.
He said: “Every time I get the chance to build shapes and to do it with an aviation theme, I go for it.
“My Spitfire sculpture is made entirely of paper and its derivatives, such as cardboard. There is no wood involved.
“That is the challenge. To make something so big, that can take the load when you suspend it from the ceiling at The Atkinson.
“The only things not made from paper are the propeller and the cockpit, which has been specially moulded from Perspex.
“The aircraft is suspended from the ceiling as though it is banking to the right to intercept the German bomber. The ailerons are titled at the correct angle and other details like that are in place. It is the sort of thing that aircraft enthusiasts and former pilots would always pick up on, so it has to be right!”
For Suhail, working on such an iconic design as The Spitfire – the most famous aircraft in the world – was a joy.
He said: “The Spitfire is a ‘plane that never goes unnoticed. Its proportions are just so perfect. It is one of the most sought-after shapes.
“The Spitfire does embody the crowning moment of the Royal Air Force when it defended Britain at such a trying time, when it was so close to being invaded and defeated by the Nazis.
“After The Battle Of France in 1940, the RAF was left very bruised, but Spitfire and Hurricane pilots from all over the world came together to fight again in The Battle Of Britain.
“Pilots and ground crews of all nationalities fought together as a team.”
Britain faced a grim struggle for survival during World War II, most notably during The Battle Of Britain, when the Luftwaffe laid siege in overwhelming numbers.
Britain survived by the skin of its teeth – in no small part thanks to the Polish fighter pilots who swelled the RAF’s numbers at such a critical time.
Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who was initially reluctant to allow Polish pilots into battle, said: “Had it not been for the magnificent work of the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of battle would have been the same.”
Polish airmen downed a remarkable 203 German aircraft in The Battle of Britain alone, with 35 probables and 36 damaged.
Such a feat could not be achieved without a price. Twenty nine Polish pilots lost their lives in combat during those grim days in 1940.
Poland had been invaded by the Hitler’s Nazis and by Stalin’s Russians in September, 1939, which prompted the outbreak of World War II – a conflict that raged over six years.
After their defeat, tens of thousands of Polish servicemen made their way to France and then to Britain to continue the struggle against a common enemy.
Their contribution to the war was significant, although achieved at a very heavy price.
The 1,903 personnel killed are today commemorated on the Polish War Memorial at RAF Northolt. Many of these pilots served at RAF Woodvale.
However, their courage and the dedication did not get the recognition it deserved at the time.
They fought bravely, hoping to defeat Hitler’s Nazis and remove them from Europe so they could return home to a free Poland. But the end of the war saw their homeland cruelly invaded by Stalin’s Russia, a regime no less brutal than the Nazis.
The Courage and Devotion exhibition at The Atkinson is determined to recognise the bravery and sacrifice of the Polish airmen during the conflict and raise awareness of what they achieved and the issues they faced.
Suhail said: “I read an excellent book – For Your Freedom and Ours by Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud, which tells the story of the all-Polish Kosciuszko 303 Squadron.
“During the Battle of Britain, the pilots from 303 Squadron to the RAF shot down more German planes than any other squadron.
“There is so much owed to the Polish pilots during the war – not just in turning the tide, but also using their experience from the war in Poland and The Battle Of France to bring about a change in tactics for the RAF and showing British pilots how better to fly into battle.
“The Polish pilots had already seen their country invaded by the Nazis, they had lost friends and comrades, they had left family behind, they had lost everything.
“So they fought, with nothing to lose.”
So it was incredibly important to Suhail that creating his Spitfire sculpture fully embodied the emotional story behind it.
He said: “I wanted to build not just a model, but to be able to tell a story.
“This Spitfire is all about a moment in time, 12.45pm on 21st February, 1941. It shows Spitfire Vb AB273 being flown by Polish pilot Sergeant Jerzy Stanislaw Zielinsky of 308 Krakowski Squadron, banking right as it pursues and shoots down a Dornier bomber spotted off the coast of Southport.
“The control panels inside the sculpture are set at that exact moment, with the altimeter reading an altitude of 10,000ft, with a speed of 160 knots.
“It captures the moment when Sergeant Zielinsky has attacked an enemy ‘plane.
“I wanted to move away from creating an object to creating an historical moment.”
With two confirmed kills, one probable and three severely damaged to his credit, Sgt Zielinsky was awarded the Croix de Valeur and Bar. Sadly, he crashed three months later on the 26th of May while flying a Miles Magister at High Ercall.
The Atkinson Curator Joanne Chamberlain said: “While our Courage And Devotion exhibition is dedicated to the Polish pilots who flew during World War II, and particularly those who flew from RAF Woodvale, there are eight specific pilots we are really focusing on, telling visitors more about their stories.
“We will have eight totems here in the gallery telling people more about their lives.
“We will have a silk parachute here in the exhibition, and lots more to see too.
“We also have a Polish newsletter which was written and distributed at the time. They gave it out to people they knew.
“We also have objects from Southport RAF local hero Flight Lieutenant Henry Falls-Hands, who spent some time working with the Polish squadrons.
“We have some great exhibits and some lovely stories about people who were active at RAF Woodvale during the war, but I would still love to hear more.”
Visitors to Courage And Devotion will be able to see the Polish emblem on Suhail’s Spitfire.
It is fitting that the Polish pilots should now be remembered.
He said: “I now realise how badly they were treated in Britain and what they had to put up with.
“After their country was invaded by the Nazis and by the Russians in 1939, they retreated and they retreated, until they reached Britain. They called this ‘the island of last hope’.
“When they first came over, they were treated with a lot of suspicion.
“They had a lot of time before they were allowed to fly combat missions when they were kicking their heels, learning English and learning all the RAF’s rules and regulations.
“When they were finally thrown into the mix at The Battle of Britain, they were amazing.
“And yet when the Victory Parade took place at the end of World War Two, the Polish pilots were not allowed to march with the others. It was very bad, it was soul destroying.”
It made for an emotive story behind the sculpture which took five months and 1,500 hours to build.
Suhail is proud of the finished product and the story of the Polish pilots’ ‘courage and devotion’ it will now be able to tell.
He said: “I would not have traded these last five months for anything!
“It was such a joy to be able to build this sculpture.
“A project like this works in two ways. The first is that while I am building it, it gives me a sense of achievement every day, and that is wonderful.
“Then when it is completed, it starts giving back to you.
“When I put it up at the Atkinson and suspended it from the ceiling, I thought, it is going to be a great, great exhibition.
“Getting it all the way from France to here has been another story!”
RAF Woodvale was built near Southport in 1941 in order to protect the region against German bombers, which had devastated Liverpool and Bootle docks during the heavy bombing.
The Liverpool Blitz saw heavy and sustained bombing of the region by the German Luftwaffe. A number of bombs also fell on Southport, including on the factories at Crossens and on a home for blind children in Birkdale.
During World War Two Liverpool was the most heavily bombed area of the country, outside London, due to the city having the largest port on the west coast and being of significant importance to the British war effort. Around 4,000 people were killed in the region during the Blitz, a death toll which was second only to London by the end of the war.
- Suhail Shaikh’s Spitfire will be part of a new exhibition, ‘Courage and Devotion’, at The Atkinson on Lord Street in Southport which opens on Saturday, 26th June 2021 and runs until Saturday, 12th March 2022. Admission is free.
- The curator, Jo Chamberlain Joanne.Chamberlain@sefton.gov.uk is looking for stories, memories, objects and ephemera that relate to both the Polish Airmen based at RAF Woodvale and the surrounding area. Please do get in touch if you would like to contribute to the exhibition.