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  • Spitfire Mk.I (Type 300) and Formation of Four Spitfire Mk.Is

In 1936, before the first flight of the prototype, the Air Ministry placed an order for 310 Spitfires. However, in spite of the promises made by the Chairman of Vickers-Armstrongs (the parent company of Supermarine) that the company would be able to deliver Spitfire at a rate of five a week, it soon became clear that this would not happen. In 1936 the Supermarine company employed 500 people and was already engaged in fulfilling orders for 48 Walrus amphibian reconnaissance aircraft and 17 Stranraer patrol flying boats. In addition the small design staff, which would have to draught the blueprints for the production aircraft, was already working at full stretch. Although it was obvious that most of the work would have to be sub-contracted to outside sources, the Vickers-Armstrongs board was reluctant to allow this to happen. When other companies were able to start building Spitfire components there were continual delays because either parts provided to them would not fit, or the blueprints were inadequate; the sub-contractors themselves faced numerous problems building components which in many cases were more advanced and complicated than anything they had faced before.

As a consequence of the delays, the RAF received the first two Spitfires off the production line in July 1938, while the first Spitfire to enter squadron service was received by 19 Squadron in early August. For a time the future of the Spitfire was in serious doubt, with the Air Ministry suggesting that the programme be abandoned and that Supermarine change over to building the Bristol Beaufighter under licence. The managements of Supermarine and Vickers were eventually able to convince the Air Ministry that production would be sorted out and, in 1938, an order was placed with Morris Motors LImited for an additional 1,000 Spitfires to be built at huge new factory which was to be built at Castle Bromwich. This was followed in 1939 by an order for another 200 from Woolston and, only a few months later, another 450. This brought the total to 2,160, making it one of the largest orders in RAF history. Over the next three years a large number of modifications were made, most as a result of wartime experience.

  • Spitfire Mk.Ia N3200

Spitfire Mk. Ia N3200, was produced at Woolston with final assembly at Eastliegh. Delivered to the RAF between September the 8th 1939 & January the 20th 1940. N3200 was the mount of Sqn Ldr Stephenson, CO of 19 Squadron Duxford and a pre-war Cranwell contemporary of Douglas Bader's. Stephenson had also been a member of the Royal Air Force aerobatic team. He was shot down on Sunday, 26 May 1940, in Spitfire I, N3200, coded 'QV', while covering the evacuation of the Dunkirk beaches during Operation Dynamo, landing his fighter on the sands at the shoreline, and made a prisoner of war. Multiple escape attempts led to his transfer to Oflag IV-C at Colditz Castle where he would participate in the creation of the never-flown Colditz Cock glider. Following the war, Stephenson served as the personal pilot for King George VI.

  • Spitfire Mk1 Dunkirk Veteran

P9374 left the factory on the 2nd of March 1940 and was flown to No.9 Maintenance Unit for final checks before going on to 92 Squadron, based at Duxford, England.

92 Squadron went to war, but on the first sortie P9374 stayed on the ground. Bushell led twelve pilots off at 10.45 hours to patrol from Boulogne to Dunkirk. Here they met the aggressive Messerschmitt Bf109 pilots from I. /JG 27 and a vicious fight ensued. Pilot Officer Pat Learmond went down in flames as the Bf109s hit them, and then it was every man for him as the Spitfire formation broke up. Both sides overclaimed heavily; the relatively inexperienced RAF pilots claimed two destroyed and four more 'unconfirmed' while I. /JG 27 claimed three Spitfires. Pat Learmond was the sole casualty from either side.

At 17.20 hours they were off again, this time with Pilot Officer Desmond Williams flying P9374. Off Boulogne, they sighted a mass of twin-engined aircraft that were quickly identified as Messerschmitt Bf110s. The German fighters dived on them from above and Bushell broke the squadron hard to port. The Bf110s charged through them, cannon and machine-guns blazing.

P9374 had been truly bloodied. Williams returned, claiming one Bf110 destroyed and two 'possibles'. It is not known whether his first two opponents were credited, as 'unconfirmed destroyed' or 'damaged', but it was likely that it was the latter. When the battle was over, Roger Bushell was gone, as was Sergeant Paul Klipsch and Flying Officer J.Gillies. Bushell and Gillies became prisoners-of-war. Paul Klipsch was, like Learmond, dead. But 92 Squadron had claimed a total of seven destroyed, four unconfirmed, and four damaged (including Williams' claims), plus two Ju88s destroyed. Flight Lieutenant Bob Tuck's aircraft had been badly shot and Pilot Officer Tony Bartley's had received some hits, as had Flight Lieutenant Charles Green's.

92 Squadron was stood down until the early morning of the 24th. At 08.05 hours, they were scrambled to patrol between Calais and Dunkirk. Flight Lieutenant Bob Tuck, now promoted to Acting Squadron Leader following the loss of Roger Bushell, was leading, and Pilot Officer Peter Cazenove was flying P9374, with another squadron pilot, Tony Bartley, leading one of the sections of that flight.

Despite being quite intact, and still looking very much like a Spitfire, the challenges of recovery, preservation, conservation and restoration are clearly apparent in this side view of P9374.

One of those pilots flying in Tony Bartley's section had been Peter Cazenove and the bombers they had intercepted were, in fact, Dornier 17-Zs of I./KG 77. Whilst the Spitfires had luckily avoided the fighter escort the gunners on board the Dorniers were putting up a spirited defence, with Tuck describing how the gunners "blazed defiance" and "laid on a heavy crossfire". It was into this defensive crossfire that Cazenove gamely followed Tony Bartley, and whilst Bartley's Spitfire was hit it was not mortally damaged. Exactly what happened to P9374 we cannot be absolutely certain, although it is reasonable to assume that Cazenove's Spitfire took hits from the Dornier gunners, probably disabling the engine. It only took a single round in the wrong place to cripple the fuel supply, wreck the oil pressure or to knock out the cooling system. Certainly, it would appear that nothing major from a structural point of view had affected the Spitfire and it could clearly still fly under control -- although Cazenove had obviously decided a return across the Channel or back to Hornchurch was out of the question. Below him lay a wide, flat and open expanse of sand with the tide far out. Fortunately, this was a little to the south of the evacuation beaches, and thus he had a clear landing site to head for. Wheels up, he skidded across the beach throwing up a great arc of sand and water as his windmilling propellor kissed the surface, bending under impact as the radiator and oil cooler scoops dug into the wet surface. The Spitfire finally came to a halt not far away from the Phare de Walde light tower.


Wings (Youtube) - © Malcolm Auld

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