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Christopher Hamo Thornycroft


A prominent mechanical engineer, Thornycroft was born in Hampstead on February 18th 1915, and followed the same profession as his father, Oliver. Chris Thornycroft was educated at Bedales, the progressive co-educational school. His great uncle, Sir John Thornycroft, had founded the famous engineering firm; his grandfather, Hamo, had been knighted for contributions to the arts and Chris Thornycroft displayed a blending of these qualities. He had a natural flare for innovative engineering design and dedicated research work.

Chris Thornycroft joined the Communist Party as an undergraduate at Oxford at the school of engineering. He also joined the university air squadron and learned to fly, to assist his ambition to become an aero-engine designer.

He was among the first of the recruits to the International Brigades and used his skills as a mechanical engineer in the Spanish civil war. As he recalled: "I had the feeling there would be no shortage of people who would oppose Franco, but a great shortage of people who knew much about anything technical." Apart from fighting, he was in great demand as an engineer, restoring and repairing outdated weapons, trucks and ambulances, and creating makeshift operating theatres - complete with electric generators.

Based at Boadilla, in the defence of Madrid, he first saw action in November and December 1936. He is mentioned in the book, `Boadilla', written by his colleague and friend, Esmond Romilly. (See entry for Romilly.) He was also at the battle of Jarama in February 1937, and at Brunete that July. He returned to Britain late in 1937 suffering from typhoid.

After briefly working for a Swiss engineering firm, he served in the engine room of a Cunard Atlantic liner. In 1938, he joined Napier Power Engineering to work on aero-engine design projects, including that of the Hawker Typhoon fighter-bomber and the Tempest fighter, which was effective in stopping the V1 flying bombs.

Thornycroft was sacked from employment with Napiers in 1947, an early victim of the post-second world war purges of Communists and others considered undesirable during the cold war. His brother, Bill, was also sacked by Napiers four years later. Chris Thornycroft remained an active member of the Communist Party for many years thereafter, as he brother recalled `although sticking to his principles seriously reduced his earning ability and his young family had to struggle on a very low income throughout their early years'.

He joined a firm designing agricultural machinery and, in the early 1960s, went to Slough to work with the British Internal Combustion Engine Research Institution at Slough, becoming its director.

He never lost faith in the relevance of the battle for Spain in the larger war against fascism: "Spain wasn't a defeat," he said, "it was a strategic withdrawal." He died, aged 86, on September 11th 2001,

Sources: Guardian October 1st 2001; Letter from F E (Bill) Thornycroft Guardian October 13th 2001