Alexander Korda’s Real Life Spy Enigma

The pre-war film Q Planes, starring Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier and Valerie Hobson, is at the heart of a real life spy story that led to the British Secret Service part funding Alexander Korda’s 1939 production.

In 1938 a Vickers Wellesley bomber prototypes, which utilised the revolutionary geodesic construction method created by Barnes Wallis, disappeared whilst on a test flight over the English Channel.

The Air Ministry asked Lord Vansittart of Denham, chief of the British secret service, to initiate a search for the lost aircraft. Part of the Wellesley’s wreckage was supposedly found in a garage in Kiel and it was suggested that the ill-fated plane had been shot down by a German U-boat.

To warn the Luftwaffe that the British secret service knew of the aircraft’s fate, it is alleged that secret service funds were used to finance a film that told the story of an aircraft going missing over the English Channel. Lord Vansittart of Denham was a friend of Sir Alexander Korda, who had founded London Films at Denham Studios. In 1939 London Films released Q Planes, which was called Clouds over Europe in the United States of America. In the film several British planes carrying secret equipment disappear over the English Channel, brought down by a mysterious ray that was beamed from a salvage ship that was presumed, but never stated, to be German.

In addition to its espionage heritage Q Planes has a number of other claims to fame. Brian Clemens, co-creator of the 1960s British television series The Avengers, has suggested that the mildly excentric character of Major Hammond, played by Ralph Richardson, was the inspiration for iconic John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee.

Another of Q Planes’ claims to fame is that its screenwriter, Jack Whittingham, collaborated with Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory on a James Bond screenplay that eventually, after numerous lawsuits, became Thunderball.