Aston Down to Chicago

Battle of Britain1940

9.05 am, 9 July 1940; Squadron Leader Lawrence White took off in P9306 on an acceptance flight of the aircraft into 74 Squadron RAF based at Hornchurch. The six months of storage from first flight on 19 January and delivery on 6 July was ended in fine style.

It was a grey wet Wednesday and officially the first day of the Battle of Britain. At 6.55 am on 10 July, Pilot Officer Peter Stevenson flew the first sortie of the day in P9306, with Squadron code ZP-H. At 10.35 am he was in the air for the third time, flying as Red 3 to Sgt Tony Mould.

They were providing escort cover for Convoy Bread when at 11.00 am the ships were spotted by a single Dornier reconnaissance aircraft with up to 20 Me109 fighters as cover.

The Spitfires attacked and Stevenson destroyed one of the Messerschmitts and claimed two as probable. In the early afternoon of the same day Sgt Mould force landed P9446 after sustaining damage while protecting another convoy off Dover.

P9306 had the first ‘kill’ marking applied.

Aston Down 1943

Speed 85 m.p.h., 100ft off the ground, over the threshold and the runway was coming up fast. The pilot could not see over the spinner anymore and attempted to judge distance to the ground by looking over the sides of the cockpit.

At that critical point he forgot to watch his airspeed, it dropped below 65 m.p.h and the Spitfire stalled and dropped to a very hard landing, damaging the left undercarriage.

It was February 1943 and P9306 was damaged to the extent that it had to be shipped to Westland Aircraft for repair.

Gloucestershire was away from the main operational areas and so was an ideal location to train pilots and Aston Down played an important role in training, aircraft storage and maintenance.

The airfield was opened in mid 1938, having been built on the site of the First World War Minchinhampton aerodrome, which had been established on high ground to the south of Stroud.

52 OTU arrived at Aston Down from Debden in August 1941, with a mix of Miles Masters and Hurricanes. The following month saw the beginning of the conversion to Spitfires. P9306 arrived on October 22, 1941.

Operational training Units were essentially non combatant, but were on call and expected to be ready to go into action when required. The aircraft came from operational units and were in operational colours, only the Squadron codes were changed. P9306 had the codes GK in 24” letters applied either side of the fuselage.

In mid August 1943 the situation changed. Reasonably safe airfields were required for preparations in advance of the invasion of Europe. Initially the airfield was used by the Fighter Leaders School, tasked with teaching the latest fighting techniques to senior pilots. Spitfires were once again the main type used in this role, which continued until the 26th January 1944 when the school left for Millfield in Northumberland.

From February to September 1944 the station was part of No.84 Group, the organisation that provided support for the 2nd.Tactical Air Force. 

Post war Aston Down was important in the processing of war surplus aircraft and over a 1000 heavy bombers were dismantled on the site. 20 MU finally closed on the 30th September 1960, when its responsibilities was taken over by No.5 M.U based at Kemble. However, some of the hangars were still used for several years afterwards by RAF Kemble for the storage of surplus aircraft.

In a reverse of fortune, where previously Chedworth airfield had been a supplementary field, Aston Down now became a Relief Landing Ground used by the Central Flying School based at Little Rissington. For the next ten years Jet Provost aircraft would come over here on a ‘day to day’ basis to practice approach and landings. When Little Rissington closed in 1976 Aston Down was no longer required by the RAF and it became a private airfield used by the Cotswold Gliding Club.

P9306 never returned to Aston Down. Repairs took a little over a month and then the aircraft was sent 33 MU at RAF Lyneham for storage on 14 March 1943.

It was allocated to OTU at RAF Rednal, where it the letters GK were replaced by UU around 4 May 1943.

Another success was shared on 12 July with Flight Lieutenant Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan (Pictured left) at the controls. He had taken off on a patrol from RAF Manston at 18h10 and together with another pilot shot down a Heinkel He111.

Later that evening Sgt Mould flew P9306 back to Hornchurch.

British radar stations picked up a large formation of aircraft over Dover on 28 July and alerted Fighter Command that there were over 100 of the enemy on their way across the channel.

Air Vice Marshall Keith Park released the Spitfires of 41 and 74 Squadrons and the Hurricanes of 111 and 257 Squadrons, to halt the incoming formation.

Sailor Malan was leading the twelve Spitfires of 74 Squadron from Manston which arrived first on the scene. As was normal practise the Spitfires went for the fighter escorts leaving the bombers for the Hurricanes, which arrived very shortly afterwards.

The Spitfires dived in accounting for three Me109s but losing two Spitfires. Pilot Officer Peter St John was at the controls of P9306 and managed to damage one of the enemy fighters above the Straits of Dover.

For the men who had flown P9306, 11 August 1940 was a dramatic, successful, tragic day. It was a day of combat from first to last thing, of 100s of aircraft engaged in frenetic combat.

Promoted to Acting Squadron Leader three days before, Malan led 74 Squadron into action on the first orders of the day at 7.49 am. The twelve aircraft climbed to 20 000 feet and attacked an estimated eighteen Me109’s.

During the fighting the first pilot to score a victory in P9306, P/O Peter Stevenson was shot down. In his words ‘a really large volume of cannon and machine-gun fire came from behind. There were about twelve Me 109s diving at me from the sun and at least half of them must have been firing deflection shots at me. There was a popping noise and my control column became useless. I found myself doing a vertical dive, getting faster and faster.

I pulled the hood back. I got my head out of the cockpit, and the slipstream tore the rest of me clean out of the machine. My trouser leg and both shoes were torn off. I saw my machine crash into the sea a mile off Deal. It took me twenty minutes to come down. I had been drifting eleven miles out to sea.

One string of my parachute did not come undone, and I was dragged along by my left leg at ten miles an hour with my head underneath the water. After three minutes I was almost unconscious; then the string came undone. I got my breath back and started swimming. There was a heavy sea running.

After one-and-a-half hours, an MTB came to look for me. I fired my revolver at it. It went out of sight, but came back. I changed magazines and fired all my shots over it. It heard my shots and I kicked up a foam in the water, and it saw me. It then picked me up and took me to Dover.’

John Frayn Turner The Battle of Britain 1998 Airlife Publishing pp32-34

Sgt T B Kirk flew P9306 on that day the most successful day during the Battle of Britain. During the third of the four battles 74 Squadron engaged in, Sgt Kirk destroyed an Me110 36 miles east of Harwich at 4,000 feet and later damaged an Me109.

For another regular pilot of P9306 P/O Donald Cobden, flying R6757, combat with the Me109s resulted in him being shot down and he crashed into the sea. The Germans recovered his body and he is buried in the Oostende Community Cemetery. It was Donald Cobden’s 26th birthday.

Some sixteen squadrons had been in action accounting for 32 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed and 28 damaged. The cost was high, 25 RAF aircraft, two pilots confirmed killed and 20 missing.

The months of multiple sorties per day in high charged combat situations meant that the men needed a break, time to recharge and regroup. 74 Squadron was transferred off the front line on 14 August to Wiitering for seven days and then to Kirton-in-Linsey.

Before the days of instant news, people were informed thought the medium of newsreels. These were 5 to 10 minute movies, half documentary, half propaganda, highlighting the news of the day. In America the best known was ‘The March of Time’ produced by Time, Inc.

P9306 was filmed with pilot Ben Draper for the American news reel on 29 August 1940. This footage could have appeared in Britain’s R.A.F – (Vol. 7, Ep. 2) (Synopsis: English Royal Air Force preparing to challenge German's Nazi air force gain air superiority through training & technology. Runs: 17:29), or The March of Time: War Breaks Out - The Battle Beyond, Part 2.

The Squadron was back on the front line, based at Biggen Hill from 15 October. P9306 was frequently engaged in combat interceptions, no kills were recorded. On September 20, 1940, records indicate that P9306 incurred damage requiring it to be sent to 45 MU for repairs. The nature of the damage is not known, nor is it known how long the plane was out of action before rejoining the Squadron.

Judging from the activities of 74 Squadron through the closing months of 1940, it is possible that P9306 scored its final three kills during November and December, the squadron accounted for 26 enemy aircraft in November, and 12 more in December.

In early 1941, 74 Squadron's combat activities took on an offensive nature and were carried out with newer Mk.IIs; P9306 and other Mk. Is were fast becoming obsolete as first-line weapons. On July 17, 1941, P9306 was transferred to 131 Squadron then forming up at Ouston. All other markings remained the same, and it is certain that P9306 now carried five kill marks. The fighter saw no combat during its short stay with 131 Squadron, but served as a training aircraft for new pilots joining the unit. Records indicate that many of them were Belgian

Chicago now

In January 1944, the aging fighter was withdrawn from active duty and earmarked for a major overhaul, but was damaged before being collected. It was sent first to No. 39 Maintenance Unit, at Colerne, where it was allocated to the Royal Navy disposal account. It was then transferred to No. 52 MU at Cardiff, Wales, where it was allocated to the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago on 26 August 1944.

It arrived in Chicago on 19 September and at a formal ceremony on 10 November it was presented to the Museum. Representing the United Kingdom was Air Commodore D.L. Blackford who was then stationed in Washington, D.C.

As Cameron Lynch noted; ‘When viewing the plane in the museum, it's easy to pass it off as just another anonymous warbird, one in a parade of planes that were frequently destroyed within days of being built. Yes, they were expendable. But this one survived. It was there when the Heinkel He 111s made their runs across the English Channel. It struck fear in the hearts of rear gunners trapped in outclassed Bf110s. It was flown by such names a Malan, Mungo-Park, Stevenson, and Brzezina. It was not the personal aircraft of any one pilot, but was kept ready for any pilot on call when the order to scramble was given--in the summer of 1940, that happened a lot!

The Collections Assistant at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry gave Cameron Lynch the following details, regarding the history of Spitfire P9306.

"The Spitfire Mk. IA in the Museum's collection had at least seven paint schemes during its operational lifetime. I am uncertain as to whether or not the plane was painted again after its arrival at the Museum. Our work order records indicate that the aircraft was 'assembled and rehabilitated' before its’ installation here. It is not clear if part of this 'rehabilitation' included a new paint job or if the aircraft was 'touched-up' by the Museum since the aircraft was of fairly recent construction when it arrived here in 1944 and was part of a larger Royal Air Force exhibition. "

At some point the engine and machine guns were removed and although not on display are held in storage by the Museum.

There are no records of the type of damaged suffered in any of the accidents reported against P9306. It is clear when looking at the airframe in the Museum that there are signs of repair beneath the cockpit door and in the adjoining wing fillet panels. The fuselage fuel tank cover forward of the windshield appears to have been badly ripped, then welded shut and painted over. Finally, the exhaust manifolds have been replaced by the fishtail type that was more common to the Mk. V Spitfire.

The plane carries the standard day fighter scheme of Dark Green/Ocean Grey/Medium Sea Grey that was authorized after August 15, 1941. The national insignia have been retained, but there are no unit markings.

Along the starboard side of the cockpit there are five German kill marks. There appears to have been no standard way pilots or their crew marked victories, so it would be wrong to say that it is unusual that the markings are in yellow and unusually on the starboard side of the cockpit. However it is also very possible that these were painted on by the British Information Service before it was given to the Museum.

The 13 November 1969 issue of Flight International published a letter from the well know original author of Wrecks and Relics, Leslie Hunt. He wrote to the magazine reporting that on 16 September Museum staff were lowering the aircraft on display when the winch attached to the Junker Ju87 slipped and the aircraft crashed 40 ft to the ground. The Stuka, one of two complete airframes, and was repaired by the EAA at Hales Corner.

Spitfire P9306 was lowered without incident, although the local TV news reported in jest that ‘another swastika had been painted on the RAF fighter.

Mr Hunt appealed for the MOD to arrange to send a Mk XVI to this museum and recover the rare Mk la. It is, according to the museum, only on loan from the RAF

It was last lowered in 2007 and cleaned but no restoration work was carried out

P9306, the Museum's 1940 Supermarine Mark 1A Spitfire hangs in permanent combat. 

It is banking, forever attacking the Stuka which is in an eternal mid dive.

Junkers Stuka JU-87R-2 Trop,WkNr 5954 A5+HL

Captured serving with Sturzkampfgeschwader 1 (StG 1 Dive Bomber Wing) (Afrika Korps Close Support)

The Luftwaffe aircraft that 'flies' in front of the Spitfire is a 1941 Junkers Ju-87R-2 5954 Tropical Stuka. 'There are bullet holes in the fuselage, which is part of the explanation of how it came to Chicago,' says Kathleen McCarthy, the Museum's Director of Collections. The Stuka was forced down in fighting over North Africa and made an emergency landing in Libya just before the British captured the German air base. After the war, it was sent to America as part of a tour of war relics put on by the British Information Services and was donated after the tour. The designation 'R' (Reichweite - operational) range) indicates that this is a long-range version of the Ju 87B. The additional range was provided through an additional oil tank and fuel lines to the outer wings which connected to a 300-litre under-wing drop tank under each wing,