The Silver Spitfire Flight, a Close Run Thing!
The world record-breaking Silver Spitfire is an exceptional aircraft for a number of reasons. Not only is it a masterpiece of British Engineering and a thing of beauty but MJ271 is a highly original airframe. The aircraft Is also now well known for her 2019 round-the-world trip. Lastly, she is also a combat veteran and took part in 53 operational Spitfire flights during World War II. She was flying with 132 Squadron out of RAF Ford on the South Coast during 1944 and carried the serial number MJ271. It was on one of these sorties that she so nearly did not make it back!
‘I was on the left-hand side of our group. He turned into me at the same time I turned toward him, and we both “opened” up on each other, it all was over in a split second. My right wing was hit, and the leading edge opened up, this probably saved my life as it tore my aircraft around to the right out of the way of his cannon fire and he passed to my left. I tried to turn around to line up on him again but that’s when I noticed a great big haze of fuel vapour from my aux 90-gallon fuel tank.’
The account of one of six pilots on a Ranger into Germany by the legendary Wing Commander Geoffrey Page DSO, OBE, DFC* on 29 April 1944. The account written by a New Zealander John Caulton who was flying alongside MJ271 when they strayed over German occupied, Deelen airfield and met a Luftwaffe Ace in an Me 110 going the other way.
The result of this encounter left two of the six spitfires damaged and limping for home, Caulton was shot down to become a prisoner of war and another was shot down by flak. Lady luck was looking after Henry Lacy Smith, an Australian at the controls of MJ271 that day.
Spitfire Flight from RAF Ford
Six aircraft departed RAF Ford, initially routing East for RAF Manston for a refuel before heading across to West Schouwen and onwards inland across enemy territory. On reaching Arnhem, one of the pilots, Flying Officer J Caulton reported seeing a Me 110. In the excitement, no one had noticed that they were flying directly over Deelen airfield which was the home to two-night fighter units NJG 2 and NJG 5. It was by now too late and the anti-aircraft guns had opened up. The Me 110 went after Flight Sergeant W S Armour, rounds from the 110 smashed the canopy of the Spitfire and also injured the pilot.
Flying Officer J Caulton was attacked by the Me 110 being flown by Major Hans Joachim Jabs, a Luftwaffe ace who had survived from the Battle of France, through the Battle of Britain flying both single-engine and twin-engine fighters. He had also been awarded the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves. Caulton a New Zealander was to survive the encounter and later recalled: -
“The day it happened to me – the person who shot me down had been down to Saint Trond, an airfield he had been on, and he was creeping back, low level, to Arnhem where he was based. He appeared out of the fog in front of me. So, it was a head-on attack, of which I came off worst because he had two 37 mm along the line of sight, and I had two 20s … So, it was a one-off for him”.
Flying Officer R B Pullin, also in the formation was hit by flak and had to force land. They were now down to four aircraft! Pullin’s aircraft hit trees and burst into flames. Roy Bernard Pullin was killed aged just 21 and is buried in Apeldoorn General Cemetery. Another of the last remaining Spitfires was also hit. Flight Sergeant Trigg’s aircraft was hit by a cannon shell in the wing and it took a very large lump off, although Trigg managed to limp back to RAF Ford.
The Bf 110 had been hit in the ensuing combat and had been losing power in one of its engines, it was about to put down just as Squadron Leader Geoffrey Page attacked the aircraft and set it on fire.
Only MJ 271 being flown by Henry Lacy Smith and the Commanding Officers aircraft returned to base undamaged! Both John Caulton and Hans Joachim Jabs survived the war and later became friends. Sadly, Henry Lacy Smith was to be posted away from the Squadron and was later listed as Missing on operations after being posted to 453 Squadron. A very close-run thing for sure for the Silver Spitfire!
On the 11 June 1944, Henry and his section were detailed to patrol beaches in the Quistreham area. The formation was targeted by flak and one of the pilots saw a strike on Lacys aircraft . He reported that the aircraft immediately lost speed and started to emit smoke. Henry continued to glide in a westerly direction to Quistreham but as he tried to set it down in the canal it appeared to skid on the surface for a short period, and then nosed into the water, finally turning over comparatively slowly on its back, with the port wing half submerged in water and the remainder of the underside of the aircraft out water. Henry Lacy Smith was recovered from the aircraft 66 Years later and was buried with full military honours.
Flying Around The World In A Spitfire
Wind forward to 2019 when Matt Jones and the Longest Flight Team were preparing for their epic round the word flight, the ditching characteristics of the Spitfire and the survivability of an engine failure over water was at the forefront of their minds. As shown by the unfortunate and sad demise of Henry Lacy Smith, the Spitfire is not an aircraft that is easy to ditch and escape from. It was experience and lessons learned from operations of the aircraft during WW2 that helped the team prepare and train for such an event.
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