Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Supermarine Spitfire

Walking around the Military hanger at the Scottish National Museum of Flight here at East Fortune in East Lothian you feel dwarfed as you walk between the military jets which between them through time have played there part in military aviation history,

Amongst the large jets is a Lightning...



A Harrier Jump jet...



A Jaguar...



McDonnal Douglas Phantom...



And a Tornado...





However there is a smaller less obvious plane quietly sitting in a corner that played a very important part during WW2 and remains to this day probably the most famous and loved fighter aircraft to ever fly,

The Vickers Supermarine Spitfire...



This example is TE462, derived from the similar LF.IXe, the main difference being the installation in the Mark XVI of an American Packard built Merlin engine...



TE462 never saw squadron service, being built in 1945. Most of its active life was with maintenance units...



Features not in common with the more familiar Spitfire versions is the bubble canopy...



And clipped wingtips which enabled the aircraft to roll much more quickly...



Post 1940 Battle of Britain Spits had Hispano 20mm cannon as well as 8 USA Browning .303 machine guns, which would later be made under licence at the Vickers Factory...





Our TE462 spent time as a gate guard at RAF Ouston, Northumberland before becoming the first aeroplane the Royal Scottish Museum acquired, in 1971.

The heart of the Spitfire was its clipped ``elliptical` wing, and the Rolls Royce V12 Supercharged engine which was also fitted to the Hawker Hurricane.
The engine spat out 1000 BHP making the Spitfire the fastest fighter of its time in the summer of 1940,.
The Merlin's power would increase to nearly 2000 BHP by the end of WW2 and the engine would also power the legendary Mosquito light bomber, the 4 engined Avro Lancaster heavy bomber and the P51 Mustang long distance fighter escort amongst others.

Here is a great film someone made using footage of Merlin V12 engine production from a Rolls Royce Factory...



First flown in 1936 the Spitfire was the RAF's first all-metal fighter.
Its nimble and precise handling and speed made it an instant favourite with every pilot who flew it..



Its legend began with its first combat on October 16th 1939 here off the coast in East Lothian above the Firth of Forth when Spits from RAF Drem in East Lothian and Turnhouse in Edinburgh were scrambled to intercept German aircraft...



After helping win the Battle of Britain they would turn the air war over the Island of Malta.
Spits would also see action  later over the Middle East in both Israeli and Egyptian hands.
Here is a film of some Gun camera footage, and as you see many of the builders of  Spitfires were woman, in nylon stockings too!...




RAF Drem, East Lothian;

Many fighter Squadrons of Spitfires passed through RAF Drem between 1939 and 1946 here in East Lothian... the fighter station was on the front line for protecting the Firth of Forth Estuary from Attacking German bombers flying across the North Sea from Germany and then occupied Norway...




RAF Drem was a satellite airfield for RAF Turnhouse- today's Edinburgh International Airport and once home to 603 Squadron.
Today if you fly to/from Edinburgh Airport you wont miss the (replica) Spitfire at the entrance in honour of the Squadron...



RAF Drem;
A minister blessing new Spitfires and Hurricanes, this was done to all ships and planes when new, behind is the village of Drem and Kilduff woods on the skyline..



A patrol coming in, behind is West Fenton and Gullane Hill...



Spitfires ready to scramble...



There pilots waiting in a nearby dispersal hut for that phone to ring to give the call to scramble...


Ground crews work on a planes guns, behind is Gullane Hill...


This picture of 4 young pilots is iconic, none of these young men saw the end of 1940...


Cycling through the now quiet Airfield Peri (Perimeter) track i often imagine what it would be like to be here 70 years ago to see and hear all these aircraft taking off, it must have been some sight...

Photographers wait for an important visit to RAF Drem in 1939, behind are the Garleton Hills and monument on Byres Hill...




King George at RAF Drem in 1939, accompanied by Sir Hugh Dowding would become Air Marshall of fighter command in 1940 during the Battle of Britain...





Many other Squadrons would pass through RAF Drem Airfield for short periods between 1939 and 1946 but mostly the airfields early WW2 duty was interceptor fighters which patrolled the coastline and North Sea and intercepted bombing attempts on Roysth Dockyard in the Firth of Forth Estuary...

Photo taken from a German Bomber...





A film i made of RAF Drem, using pictures collected, audio interviews of pilots who were stationed there, and historians accounts, the real gun cam footage if from the Battle of Britain, many of the Squadrons would have passed through Drem when on leave from the South coast of England.
As you will see even here there were tragic accidents,  20 young airmen from all around the world lost there lives while stationed at Drem. They are buried nearby at Dirleton..




I have always been interested in WW2 and esp the Battle of Britain and Spitfires and what happened here in East Lothian at the time.
As i grew up my dad would often mention that he used to go fishing with men who once flew Spitfires,
Then as an apprentice green keeper at Gullane Golf Club i would chat daily to elderly members who were Battle of Britain Veteran's,though they wouldn't talk about it unless you asked them. During the war one of them was based here at RAF Drem several times.
They would be very modest when you asked them about the war and would say they were just normal people who "did what they had to do" and "did there bit".
What there friends would then often tell you was of there bravery and medals won.

If you do the sums, the 8 303 calibre machine guns were set to cross at 250 yards to provide the maximum damage, if a Spitfire was diving at approx 400 mph on a bomber at 200 mph then that 250 yards disappears very quickly...that's how close the fighting was...



Some experienced pilots had there guns trimmed in a bit to converge at 150 yards.
Oh and the 8 .303 machine guns had 3 belts of 100 rounds per gun loaded that only lasted 14.3 seconds,
so those young men had to learn fast to shoot carefully to conserve ammunition.

The Hawker Hurricane was produced before the Spitfire and in greater numbers and was regarded by some as a tougher aircraft capable of taking a lot of damage and being more easily repaired.
65-70% of enemy aircraft were shot down by Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. It has also been said the Hurricane turned tighter than the Spitfire.

Hawker Hurricane...



So why then has the Spitfire stole the limelight and become the symbol of the Battle of Britain?, it seems to have developed a very special place in the hearts of those who flew it and also in the public heart who watched them fly then as they do today at Airshows...



Here is film of both fighters...



One thing to the Spitfires design compared to the Hurricane was its ability to be updated as faster ME 109s and the Folke Wulf 190 were introduced.  By 1945 the Spitfire was nearly twice as heavy and fast with nearly twice the engine power as the Mk1 that first entered service.

The question often asked was which fighter was better?, the Spit or the ME 109 or the Folke Wulf 190?,
RAF pilots have often been quoted that to fly a ME 109 well the pilot was very very skilled,
Here is a film of veterans from both sides and there opinions of both planes...



There are not many original surviving Spitfires still flying today. 16 in the Battle of Britain Squadron.
There are only at the time of writing this 11 Hawker Hurricanes flying here in the UK.
While both planes shared the famous V12 Rolls Royce Merlin engine, the Spitfire seems to have a certain charm...

I am nearly 40 and thinking back to my late teens i was a similar age then in 1987 to what the Battle of Britain pilots would have been in 1940.
But i cant imagine myself doing at the age of 19 what those brave men - then just boys really did ...

What they did was quite an extraordinary feat of bravery, as they actually faced a near impossible task given the odds stacked against them.
They were often quickly trained flying Tiger Moths or Gladiator Bi planes during the summer months of 1940 with a quickening shortage of pilots often it was only 8 hours flying time then they would be posted to a fighter squadron and go on to fly Spitfires and Hurricanes. These fighter planes were capable of over 400 mph, this was in 1940, speeds then hard to believe possible.

They would fly these fighters into battle against armed German bomber crews and escort fighter pilots who were already battle hardened by there war against Spain.
Out numbered at odds of 4-1, they had to learn very fast and many inexperienced pilots never made it back from there first combat,
1 in every 6 RAF pilots would be dead by the end of the summer of 1940 which is by the way Russian roulette odds.

A recommended read is Geoffrey Wellum`s biopic `First Light`...



The youngest surviving Battle of Britain Pilot, at just 18 years of age, Geoffrey flew in 92 Squadron.
Reading his book it is like sitting in the cockpit, and you imagine the sheer adrenaline, fear, and tragedy that was witnessed by all pilots on all sides...

The BBC made an excellent Documentary Drama of his Book for the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Available on DVD it is a very life like look at life during those dark days.
Here is a clip of his first experience of a scramble, and a very lucky escape...



Despite being heavily out numbered the RAF bravely didn't fold under the German Luftwaffe onslaught over the summer of 1940 as expected by the axis forces.

In June 1940 only 1000 RAF pilots were ready with approx 600 fighters and they faced the impossible and by September 15th approx 3000 pilots from the Commonwealth would have helped stop the fall of the RAF and Germany withdrew its planned land invasion of Britain...
446 RAF fighter pilots would pay the ultimate price in the summer of 1940, and many more would be horrifically burned and crippled, a terrible sacrifice was paid by young men on both sides.

Watching Battle of Britain news reels on Youtube you see real footage of scrambles during 1940, but it is a realisation that this is not Hollywood...some of those planes were not coming back,
Also remember those gun cameras they fitted not only documented confirmed planes shot down but often the death of someones son, brother or husband...

Real news real footage, it is a bit propaganda with the music and commentary but watch the RAF footage at 3mins 40 secs...



Pilots accounts often talk of the years of nightmares of watching friends shot down, unable to remove the canopy, often due to a enemy bullet damaging the slider rails, seeing there friends being burned alive and there screams on the intercom radio- something the young woman at battle HQs had to deal with too...
How the surviving pilots coped with the loss of life is remarkable...

Fatigue would play its part as the days wore on from August into September, but it has been documented of these young men's amazing fighting spirit- maybe because they were fighting for there own survival and our country, and this was going on in the skies over southern England where daily people would watch these dog fights in a huge outdoor amphitheatre...

That intense struggle to victory of our skies was as Churchill would later quote `There finest Hour`...

The pilots who survived have often been quoted as saying they do not want thanks, or medals for what they did, but just to be remembered, that is all, as then those who did not come back are forever remembered...

Every year here at East Fortune Airshow a Spitfire flys over for a few minutes and dives and rolls.
I find it awe inspiring and quite moving to watch and listen to the roar of its Merlin engine...



I have wanted to make a film on Spitfires for a long time.  There are lots of Spitfire films on Youtube already so i have tried to do one a bit different by using documentary narrative of surviving WW2 pilots and ground crew. They can describe more than myself the charm of the aircraft, also is some narrative of Battle of Britain Historian Dr Stephen Bungay and also female Spitfire owner and pilot Caroline Grace.
It took a few weeks evenings editing the real WW2 fighter film with some of today's airshows then added the narrative and music.
The WW2 flying footage combined with the narrative of those involved with the Spitfire give - i hope some insight into this amazing aircraft and the important part it played so people could live a free life today...

Here is my tribute to "the few" who flew the Spitfires and did there bit during dark days,

massive respect...




2 comments:

  1. you of course will be aware that Spitfires from 602, City of Glasgow Squadron were on 16th Oct, 1939 involved over (then Midlothian) towards Prestonpans firing on a JU88a1 of 1/KG30. Joined by Spits of 603, City of Edinburgh, this Junkers flown by Hans Sigmund Storp crashed into the sea off Port Seton and was the first enemy aircraft to be lost in British airspace in WW2. And the first ever to 'a Spitfire'. Its 3 surviving crew were picked up by the fishing boat 'Dayspring' and became the first German POWs when landed at Port Seton and 'arrested' by PC Harry Stevenson of the then East Lothian Constabulary. Credit and a DFC for this first kill went to Pat Gifford of 603 who was the last to fire on the 88, but it was already heavily damaged and would almost certainly have been a 'shared kill' later in the war. 9 Minutes later, George Pinkerton of 602 brought down the German KG leader Gunther Pohle's 88, off Crail. Not recorded elsewhere is that Pohle and a mortally injured crewman were initially picked up by another Port Seton boat 'Queen of the Fleet' before transfer to the destroyer HMS Jervis en route to Rosyth for treatment to injuries. David J. Ostler, for The Coastal Regeneration Forum, who hope to have this 'first Spitfire action' commemorated locally. Contact crf.spitfire@gmail.com for more information (Website under construction).

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi, Thanks for posting, i read (your?) article in the paper about a preposed memorial to this event at Port Seaton.
    Not many people are alive today who witnessed these events of WW2 here in East Lothian.
    A shame as it is part of our local history and should be remembered.
    I heard from an old boy at Gullane of aircraft wreckage believed to be German that could be seen offshore at Gullane cliffs at the lowest tides of the year during the 1950s. Could it possibly one of the downed aircraft?.
    My father found landing gear washed up at Gullane point in the 1970s when he was the County Ranger, possibly from the same aircraft?

    ReplyDelete