Even in 1940, the Spitfire had celebratory status. Communities and individuals around the British Isles and across the Dominions and Empire were thinking of new ways to collect money and entice their friends to part with their hard-earned savings to buy a Spitfire.
The Spitfire Fund, as a nationwide enterprise was the brainchild of Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill’s friend and political ally in whom the Prime Minister had entrusted the production of military aircraft, especially Spitfires. Churchill realised that producing fighters would be a key part of Britain’s survival.
So enthused were contributors, they funded more than 1500 Spitfires, dubbed ‘Gifts of War’ and donated to the Royal Air Force. The efforts of individuals or community groups were to see a Spitfire painted up with a presentational caption just below the cockpit, telling with the world that the aeroplane had been ‘bought’ by the contributors to the fund.
In six weeks, the Salisbury & Winchester Journal reported that over £6,000 had been collected by the communities of West Wiltshire to buy a Spitfire. Today, £6,000 is the equivalent of about £700,000; a real achievement for a rural community with no large conurbations or industrial enterprises.
The ‘South Wiltshire Spitfire Fund’, based in Salisbury and administered by The Journal, raised over £114 in a single September weekend by displaying a Luftwaffe Dornier Do 17 bomber in the Market Square. Local people were charged thrupence (3d) a time to see it. Part of this bomber is still preserved and displayed in the Museum of Army Flying at Middle Wallop, the wartime base from which Spitfires flew in pursuit of German bombers and probably bought this Dornier down only a few miles from the Hampshire airfield.
Back at Salisbury, little boys spent the weekend trying to find souvenirs. Several will admit today to taking pieces as small as screws despite the watchful eyes of the Home Guard drafted in to protect the bomber.
That weekend more than 9,000 people paid to see the bomber, many coming back several times; perhaps to stand and wonder at their first sight of the enemy or perhaps to rejoice that there was one fewer enemy bomber in British skies.
The result of the fund-raising was an appropriately named Spitfire Mark IA – ‘Sarum & South Wilts’. So on 2 July 1941, serial number P8137 began its operational service with No 234 Squadron just down the road at Middle Wallop.
Sadly, its career was very short even by 1941 standards. The Spitfire and its pilot, Sergeant Ivan Pearce RAFVR were lost just a week later on a sortie over the English Channel to engage German fighters over the Cherbourg peninsula; no trace of aeroplane nor pilot was ever found.
A local Wiltshire Spitfire which lasted slightly longer was the one ‘bought’ by West Wiltshire’s fundraising. More than £8,000, including £3,000 from the people of the market-town of Trowbridge was collected in September 1940. Ironically, Trowbridge was about to become a hub of the dispersed Spitfire production programme after Luftwaffe bombers destroyed the Supermarine works at Southampton.
‘Wiltshire Moonraker’ was the name selected for the West Wiltshire Spitfire Fund. It was completed as a more powerful Mark VB, given the serial number W3312 handed over by Supermarine to the Royal Air Force on 6 June 1941.
The ‘Moonraker’ served with great distinction with No 92 (East India) Squadron based at RAF Biggin Hill, probably the most famous Battle of Britain fighter station. It became the favoured fighter of the squadron’s boss, Squadron Leader James Rankin.
It was damaged in combat, repaired and returned to Fighter Command, ending up with No 65 Squadron at RAF Eastchurch in Kent. On this unit it flew sorties over Occupied France but on 3 September 1942, in the hands of Pilot Officer N R MacQueen it suffered engine failure, probably through combat. Its Rolls-Royce Merlin 45 engine stopped and the Spitfire crashed into the Channel on 3 September 1942. MacQueen baled out but downed before a rescue craft could reach him.
The last of 1500 presentational Spitfire was delivered to the Royal Air Force in 1945 and quite appropriately named ‘Winston Churchill’.
Paul Beaver is an experienced vintage aeroplane pilot who will be speaking on “Spitfire – people, places, politics, production” at the Chalke Valley History Festival on Sunday, 29th June 2014.