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A Sad Farewell to Land Rover and Remembering Squadron Leader Keith Thiele By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

defenderBye-Bye To The Original Land Rover

Whilst I have a huge dislike the modern trend to over-use of words such as iconic, ubiquitous and historic I am on this occasion content to make an exception for anyone who attempts to mark the end of Land Rover production by using such words. Today the very last model of the Land Rover Defender will roll of what in recent years has been a single assembly line producing this excellent vehicle at the Jaguar Land Rover factory in Lode Lane, Solihull.

There have been other great vehicles in the history of UK car manufacturing of course and one thinks easily of great UK designed and built car such as Morris Minor and the Mini but in terms of value added specialist design nothing comes near to the export success achieved by the Land Rover. With around two million Land Rover Defender and predecessor four wheel drive vehicles having been built since production of the Series 1 started in 1948 the Land Rover has no equal when it comes to production resilience. It is a vehicle that stood the test of time because of the durability, quality and reliability that it exuded in spades.

Back in 1947 when the late Maurice Wilks was busy designing an off-road utility vehicle that could replace the US built ‘Jeep’ the Rover Company Works in Lode Lane, Solihull was known simply as ‘Meteor Works’ following the original jet engine development work that had taken place during the early years of WW2. I mention this only because it provides me the opportunity and excuse to remind of the work that Frank Whittle’s Power Jet team in Coventry and Solihull would, under Rolls-Royce’s later ownership would eventually lead to in the form of the W.2B/26 and Welland jet engines and that in more powerful form as the Derwent would power production Meteor jets. Our appreciation to Frank Whittle and indeed, to Stanley Hooker of Rolls-Royce for their respective parts in the design and development of the jet engine knows no bounds.

Back to the Land Rover and whilst being born in Birmingham I had spent my formative years living in Solihull, approximately one mile from what seemed to me, as a child at any rate, a vast plant that made cars. As a boy I well remember making regular cycle trips down to Meteor Works at a time when the Rover Company still operated its own test track at the back of the plant. It was no uncommon sight to see the splendid Rover gas turbine car speeding around the track and in those days alongside literally thousands of Land Rovers awaiting loading for export.

Surely no other vehicle produced in the UK deserves its place in the history of automobile development than Maurice Wilks splendid Land Rover design. Having started life as a design based on a vehicle that could be used to replace the ‘Jeep’ I venture to suggest that no other vehicle produced in the UK has, pro-rata, produced so much benefit for its manufacturer, the nation and the economy than the Land Rover.

While the Solihull plants is a very different beast today to the one that produced Land Rover and fine Rover Cars during post war years I will find it hard to imagine that production of the Land Rover has finally come to the end. When production started Solihull was itself but a small village with conurbations around it. Today Solihull is a thriving small Metropolitan borough town with a population well over 200,000. I would have to argue that the Land Rover has played a big part in the development of Solihull over the years and that there will be many people living in the town that will be shedding a tear today.

I am not sure why they have finally stopped manufacturing such a durable vehicle that the rest of the world has bought and loved in equal measure. They tell me it is because of new safety requirements that can’t easily be built into a design that, notwithstanding many modifications, dates back to 1947. So be it and there is no doubt that with so many other vehicles in production today and that purport to do what a Land Rover can do competition in this small specialist four-wheel-drive segment is very tight. There is though nothing to equal a Land Rover and while no one doubts that Jaguar Land Rover produce a superb range of upmarket cars and four wheel drive vehicles a very special and important light has today gone out of the UK car manufacturing industry.

Squadron Leader Keith Thiele

New Zealand born Squadron Leader Keith Thiele whose death at the age of 94 on January 5th this year is recorded in what I regard as a superb ‘Obituary’ published in the Daily Telegraph yesterday was decorated on no less than four occasions. In fact, Thiele is one of only four New Zealand born airmen to earn three DFC’s and was also awarded a DSO. Unusual for having been both a bomber and fighter pilot during his service in the Royal Air Force flying Wellingtons, Halifax and Lancaster bombers from October 1941 and before he later successfully converted to become a fighter pilot flying Spitfire, Typhoon and Tempest aircraft his mission achievements during WW2 are far too numerous for me to list here.

However, courtesy of the Daily Telegraph obituary, please allow me to mention just a few missions recorded and that show the bravery and leadership skills that Thiele clearly had in abundance. En route to attack Berlin he pressed on to the target despite two of his crew having to attend to a sick colleague. On another occasion he returned from a target at low level to allow his gunners to engage the enemy’s searchlights and anti-aircraft defences. In March 1943 he attacked Nurenburg. An engine caught fire on the outward journey but he continued to the target. A month later he attacked Stuttgart when his Lancaster was badly damaged and he had to make a forced landing on two engines and one main wheel at an airfield on the south coast. He was awarded the DSO for his ‘outstanding courage’

On his 56th operation he attacked Duisburg on the night of May 12 1943. As he approached the target his Lancaster was hit by flak but he pressed on and held the bomber steady. Over the target, the aircraft was hit again, completely destroying an engine. He had just stabilised the aircraft when another shell disabled a second engine, damaged the cockpit and wounded Thiele and another crew member. He regained control and headed for England steadily losing height. He made a crash landing at an airfield in Norfolk without injury to his crew, an action which resulted in the award of an immediate Bar to his DFC. The citation highlighted his “exceptional valour and skill”.

Thiel’s move to fly fighter aircraft followed his turning down the offer of command of 617 Squadron following the death of Guy Gibson on a mission over Germany. His successes as a fighter pilot over the UK and Germany are too numerous to mention here but his lick finally ran out when he was forced to bale-out of his Tempest aircraft and was taken prisoner by the Germans. Undaunted and though slightly injured he and a colleague escaped on bicycles and later, having ‘acquired’ a motorcycle found their way to American lines at Remagen.

While Thiele has never been cited in the same light as his more well-known former colleagues such as Douglas Bader or Guy Gibson his achievements in Royal Air Force service merit equally alongside. Keith Thiele stands equally alongside many other brave Royal Air Force officers whose stories of bravery in the skies I have previously recorded over the years and that really stand-out such as the fantastic story of the late Wing Commander Lucian Ercolani.

CHW (London 29th January 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785

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