Battle of Britain Day 2015 was marked by a gathering of more than 30 Spitfires and Hurricanes at Goodwood racecourse and aerodrome. Elliott Marsh and Huw Hopkins write.
Earlier in the year the Boultbee Flight Academy at Goodwood aerodrome, Sussex, announced plans for an ambitious Battle of Britain 75th anniversary commemoration to be held on 15 September 2015. Initial plans called for more than 50 aircraft (amongst them more than 30 Spitfires and eight Hurricanes) to launch from Goodwood on Battle of Britain Day and fly individual paths across key locations in Southern England. The event itself would be open to the public and free of charge, albeit limited to in the region of 30,000 people via an advanced ticket system. Participants had been drawn from far and wide, with aircraft from the UK, USA, Germany and Holland attending, amongst them some unique airframes and aeroplanes rarely seen away from their bases. To my mind, however, the day was never about the specific participants – it was about an overarching commemoration to remember the immense sacrifices of 75 years ago.
15 September 2015 – Battle of Britain Day
In the event, aircraft serviceability, incidents and other factors conspired to reduce the overall number considerably but, it’s fair to say, only a churl would complain of a gathering of 25 Spitfires, six Hurricanes and a single Bristol Blenheim! I’d go as far as to question whether another 10-15 aircraft would have had any noticeable influence on the impact of the day’s flying; the spectacle and feeling was there in abundance regardless of how many dozens of aircraft launched on the day.
After gales and fast-moving heavy showers precluded any arrivals on Monday 14th, the 15th dawned wet and overcast – some of the most imperfect flying conditions for historic aircraft you could imagine – delaying both the final raft of arrivals and the take-off time itself. The latter was something of a blessing for the many spectators (myself included) caught in the horrendous local traffic; from about 0900 onwards (rush hour for local residents and commuters), the bottleneck of dual carriageways, roundabouts and country lanes struggled to hold the influx of 30,000+ visitors. Whilst some of the car parks utilised for the Goodwood Revival (held over the weekend of 11-13 September) were in use here, the rigid parking plan that worked so well just days earlier was not in use, with thousands of cars funnelled into just a few single lane access roads.
All told, it took as long as three or four hours to travel just a couple of miles but, with the event necessarily delayed by two hours and the new departure time set for 1400, it certainly appeared that the vast majority of spectators made it on-site with time to spare. Access to around three quarters of the racecourse had been granted for the event (with the central complex and Aero Club restricted to participants and the national press) and with some ‘flights’ positioned West of the main runway, and others parked up beyond, there was a quite wonderful panorama to take in as you strolled around the raised fringes of the race track; Spitfires and Hurricanes sat in the foreground, gaggles of fighters clustered across the airfield and the rolling hills of the Sussex Downs offering a timeless backdrop against which this vista would soon unfold.
Lo and behold, by some minor miracle the early clag blew itself out, giving way to expanses of blue sky and the kind of beautifully defined cumulus clouds you only see during September and October when the lower sun gives them an autumnal glow. A few final arrivals – the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF)’s Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIc LF363 adding the sixth example of the type to the line-up (thus presenting what must be the largest gathering of Hurricanes for several decades), Peter Teichman’s Spitfire PR.XI PL965, and Stephen Stead’s Spitfire Mk.XVI TE184 completing the mighty 25–strong Spitfire and Seafire contingent – and the stage was set for this unique commemoration to get underway.
Spitfire Mk.IIa P7350 – Owner: Battle of Britain Memorial Flight – Pilot: OC BBMF Sqn Ldr Dunc Mason
Spitfire Tr.IX SM520 – Owner: Boultbee Flight Academy – Pilot: Matt Jones, Passenger: Tom Neil
Spitfire Tr.IX PV202 – Owner: Historic Flying Ltd – Pilot: John Romain, Passenger: Nathan Forster
Spitfire Mk.Vb AB910 – Owner: Battle of Britain Memorial Flight – Pilot: Wng Cdr Justin Helliwell
Spitfire Mk.IXe MK356 – Owner: Battle of Britain Memorial Flight – Pilot: Sqn Ldr Andy Millikin
Hurricane Mk.IIc PZ865 – Owner: Battle of Britain Memorial Flight – Pilot: Flt Lt Antony Parkinson
Hurricane Mk.IIc LF363 – Owner: Battle of Britain Memorial Flight – Pilot: Sqn Ldr Mark Discombe
Spitfire Mk.XVIe TE311 – Owner: Battle of Britain Memorial Flight – Pilot: Gp Capt Jez Attridge
Hurricane Mk.I R4118 – Owner: Polly and Peter Vacher (at time of event) – Pilot: Stu Goldspink
Spitfire PR.XI PL965 – Owner: Hangar 11 Collection – Pilot: Peter Teichman
Sea Hurricane Mk.Ib Z7015 – Owner: Shuttleworth Collection – Pilot: (NB joined en-route from Old Warden)
Spitfire Mk.XVIe TD248 – Owner: Spitfire Ltd – Pilot: Ian Smith
Spitfire Mk.XIVe MV293 – Owner: The Fighter Collection – Pilot: Carl Schofield
Spitfire Mk.IX SL633 – Owner: Historic Flight Foundation – Pilot: John Sessions
Spitfire Mk.I X4650 – Owner: Comanche Warbirds Ltd – Pilot: Brian Smith
Spitfire Tr.IX ML407 – Owner: Carolyn Grace – Pilot: Richard Grace
Seafire Mk.IIIc PP972 – Owner: Air Leasing Ltd – Pilot: Dave Puleston
Bristol Blenheim Mk.IF L6739 – Owner: Blenheim (Duxford) Ltd – Pilot: Lee Proudfoot
Spitfire Mk.IXb MH434 – Owner: Old Flying Machine Company – Pilot: Steve Jones
Spitfire Mk.Ia AR213 – Owner: Comanche Warbirds Ltd – Pilot: Pete Kynsey
Spitfire Mk.Vb EP120 – Owner: The Fighter Collection – Pilot: Stephen Grey
Spitfire Mk.IXe TD314 – Owner: Aero Legends – Pilot: Dave Ratcliffe
Spitfire Mk.I N3200 – Owner: Imperial War Museum – Pilot: Cliff Spink
Spitfire Mk.Vb BM597 – Owner: Historic Aircraft Collection – Pilot: Paul Bonhomme
Hurricane Mk.XII RCAF 5711 – Owner: Historic Aircraft Collection – Pilot: Dave Harvey
Seafire Mk.XVII SX633 – Owner: Kennet Aviation – Pilot: Lt Cdr Chris Gotke
Spitfire Mk.IXe RR232 – Owner: Martin Phillips – Pilot: Willy Hackett
Spitfire Mk.IX TA805 – Owner: Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar – Pilot: Dan Griffith
Hurricane Mk.X AE977 – Owner: Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar – Pilot: Clive Denney
Spitfire Mk.XVIe TE184 – Owner: Stephen Stead – Pilot: Stephen Stead
Hurricane Mk.XIIa BW874 – Owner: Karl Grimminger – Pilot: John Dodd
Spitfire Mk.IX MK732 – Owner: RNLAF Historical Flight – Pilot: Chris Lorraine
Spitfire Mk.VIIIc MV154 – Owner: Max Alpha Aviation GmbH – Pilot: Maxi Gainza
The atmosphere as the timeless sound of Merlin and Griffon engines crackling into life echoed across the Goodwood grass was almost tangible; anticipation, excitement, remembrance, pride – all these thoughts and emotions combined to make a heady cocktail. The very best of aviation. One by one, the 25 Spitfires, six Hurricanes, single Blenheim and P-51D Mustang (‘The Shark’, joining the throng at the very end of the take-offs) got airborne, banking right as they went to avoid the urban areas beyond the aerodrome.
This was one of those rare, intense sensory aviation experiences where near constant action captivates; no sooner had one section departed, another was lining up and waiting for the preceding aircraft to carry out their formation fly-over before they too took to the air. In a testament to the engineers and pilots entrusted with these vintage aircraft, all 33 aircraft got airborne safely (the German Mk.VIII returning early with a technical issue) and all landed back without incident either at Goodwood or elsewhere in the UK.
The streamed departures were necessarily protracted over the course of an hour or so to give each of the ten sections sufficient time to start-up, warm-up, taxy to the runway holding area, carry out power checks and then depart prior to carrying out a single flypast in formation along Goodwood’s main runway. Equally, the staggered departures prevented any overheating, a major consideration for historic aircraft of this type, particularly the early mark Spitfires with their tendency to overheat on the ground – hence the classic line from the Battle of Britain film, “We either stand down or blow up”.
The beauty of being able to put up so many aircraft was that there were enough elements to cover significant ground across Southern England on this, a day of national remembrance of ‘the Few’. Similarly to the Biggin Hill Hardest Day tribute, one had only to look at the social media reaction, with Facebook and Twitter (to say nothing of the extensive national media coverage) alive with photographs and real time ‘call outs’ of the various elements making their way across the countryside. This commemorative format – launching aircraft from a public event and dispatching them in smaller flights to ensure that as many locations as possible are included within the aerial tribute – is a highly effective way of touching people in the wider world, broadly spreading the message to the masses in a way a straightforward airshow could not. There can be few more poignant sights and sounds than small flights of aircraft weaving their way over England 75 years on from when the British people and their allies were embroiled fully in the war against Germany.
Several of the aircraft returned to Goodwood upon completion of their respective legs, including the full six-strong BBMF contingent, the locally-based Boultbee Spitfire, the Dutch Mk.IX Spit and Karl Grimminger’s utterly superb silver Hurricane. John Romain also carried out a brief solo in Spitfire T.IX PV202, flying a cuban-eight and a barrel roll over the airfield to the delight of the crowds and, undoubtedly, the veterans in attendance. In PV202’s back seat was Nathan Forster, a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict who suffered life changing wounds to his legs, back and neck in an IED blast four years ago. Nathan is a member of the Spitfire Scholarship, run by the Boultbee Flight Academy with the support of the Royal Foundation’s Endeavour Fund, and is undergoing training to fly the Spitfire himself. Prince Harry – who had planned to fly in the rear seat of one of the twin stick Spitfires – nobly gave up his seat when other T.IXs were unable to make it to Goodwood, ensuring that veterans Wing Commander Tom Neil and Nathan Forster were able to fly on the 15th.
With the final aircraft safely down, a calm descended over Goodwood once more. The large crowds dispersed in no time at all, and wandering back to the car park around an empty racecourse, there were few indications of the momentous occasion that had gripped more than 30,000 people just a few hours earlier. It was a moment, perhaps, for some silent reflection on all the emotions the day had brought to the fore. Numerically, it had been the largest of the Battle of Britain 75th commemorations and the largest gathering of Spitfires and Hurricanes in decades. That it played out before tens of thousands at Goodwood itself, many thousands more across Southern England and East Anglia, and was broadcast to millions via national television (a Channel 4 documentary on the day aired on the evening of the 15th) and newspapers, made it a vitally important event in this country’s remembrance of one of the key events in its recent history. A truly special, likely unique event that I doubt we will see the likes of for many years, if at all.
Battle of France and Battle of Britain veterans
A number of aircraft that took part in the commemoration have direct links with the Battle itself, some airframes being genuine veterans of the period as well as others wearing the schemes of aircraft that took part. Through these airworthy aircraft, the stories of their pilots’ exploits live on.
Spitfire Mk.I N3200 ‘QV-’ No. 19 Sqn
This Spitfire never got to see service during the Battle of Britain as it was shot down during the Battle of France. N3200 had the distinction of being flown by the Commanding Officer of No. 19 Sqn at Duxford, Sqn Ldr Geoffrey Dalton Stephenson. Whilst covering the evacuation of Dunkirk on 26 May 1940, Stephenson was shot down and forced to land on the beach at Sangatte where he was captured by the Germans. The sand quickly claimed the Spitfire and it lay under the beach until its recovery in the mid-1980s.
Eventually Mark One Partners LLC purchased the Spitfire and restoration began in 2007, led by Historic Flying Ltd at Duxford. N3200 re-emerged in March 2014 and flew on the 26th with John Romain at the controls. In 2015, owner Thomas Kaplan donated the Spitfire to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford.
Spitfire Mk.I X4650 ‘KL-A’ No. 54 Sqn
Based at RAF Catterick in North Yorkshire with No. 54 Sqn, in December 1940 X4650 was being piloted by Sgt Howard Squire on a training sortie with the legendary Kiwi Flt Cdr Al Deere leading in X4276. A lesson in how to follow an enemy fighter went awry; ‘Stick to me like glue’ were Deere’s words to his young wingman, but Squire got too close and his propeller chewed off the tail of Deere’s Spitfire at 12,000ft. Thankfully, both airmen were able to exit their aircraft and parachute to the ground safely. X4650, trimmed perfectly by Squire before his exit, made a steady crash landing, ending up in a river.
During the drought of Summer 1976 the Spitfire was revealed on the dry riverbed and recovery commenced. Peter Monk acquired the wreck and The Spitfire Company (Biggin Hill) Ltd set about restoration. Shortly before his death Howard Squire visited his Spitfire under restoration at the age of 89. X4650 got air under her wheels for the first time again in 2012 and is currently owned by American-based Comanche Fighters LLC (father and son Tom & Dan Friedkin), but currently resides in the UK.
Hurricane Mk.I R4118 ‘UP-W’ No. 605 Sqn
Delivered to No. 605 Sqn at Drem in Scotland in mid-August 1940, the squadron soon moved en masse to Croydon on 7 September, arriving to find a heavily bombed out airfield – so much so that they did not fly for three days until repairs took place. R4118 flew 49 sorties and scored five kills before suffering battle damage on 22 October 1940, thereafter being sent for major repairs. After these were completed the Hurricane moved to No. 111 Sqn at Dyce in Scotland and saw operations over the North Sea, and from there served as a training aircraft with No. 59 and 56 OTUs, suffering various damages at the hands of trainee pilots, before being shipped to India in 1943.
No longer required as a training aircraft once arrived, it languished in its crate until being donated to an engineering university. The bulk of the fuselage of R4118 was discovered in the yard of Banara Hindu University in 1982 by Peter Vacher and after six years of negotiations he succeeded in buying and exporting the airframe. A lengthy restoration concluded with a return to flight in 2005. In 2013 R4118 was put up for sale. Luckily in 2015 it was purchased by software entrepreneur James Brown, with the Hurricane being based at Old Warden, meaning that this most historic airframe will continue to grace the British skies and airshow scene.
Spitfire Mk.IIa P7350 No. 266 & 606 Sqns (also representing Mk.Ia N3162 ‘EB-G’ No. 41 Sqn)
Currently the only Spitfire flying to have actually fought in the Battle of Britain, Mk.IIa P7350 flew with No. 266 Sqn at RAF Wittering and Hornchurch during the height of the battle. Transferred to No. 603 Sqn, also at Hornchurch, on 17 October 1940, on the 25th P7350 suffered combat damage and as a result had to force land. Whilst being flown by Polish pilot Ludwik Martel in combat against Me-109s the left wing was hit by cannon rounds. Wounded by shrapnel, Martel broke through cloud and belly landed near Hastings. Recovered and brought back on line by No. 1 Civilian Repair Unit, P7350 was back in operation, this time with No. 616 Sqn, flying fighter sweeps over occupied France in 1941.
P7350 is currently wearing the colors of Mk.Ia N3162 ‘EB-G’ flown by Eric Lock, the highest scoring RAF ace of the battle. Lock joined No. 41 Sqn in June 1940 at RAF Catterick in North Yorkshire, and on 15 August scored his first victory against a bombing raid launched from Norway, shooting down one of the Me-110 escorts. Having missed the early part of the Battle in the south, no. 41 Sqn was posted to RAF Hornchurch on 3 September, right into the thick of it. On the 5th of the month the Luftwaffe mounted two large raids against London and the South East and No. 41 Sqn suffered terribly, with the loss of their Commanding Officer and a Flight Commander as well as several pilots being wounded, including Lock, and aircraft shot down. It is on that day that Lock flew Mk.Ia N3162. Despite suffering leg wounds, he was in combat the following day and shot down a Ju-88 by himself. In the nine days following No. 41 Sqn’s arrival in the South, Lock had shot down a staggering ten aircraft, and by 20 September that had risen to a total of 16; he was awarded a DFC for his efforts and shortly thereafter a bar was added to his DFC. After a period of rest he was back in action in October and continued to add to his kill tally, including a raft of Me-109s, one overhead RAF Biggin Hill as personnel looked on and cheered. All told, he has been accredited with shooting down a staggering 26 ½ aircraft during the Battle of Britain. He continued to fight in the post-Battle of Britain period and was shot down on one occasion and badly injured, having to crash land his Spitfire. Sadly Eric went missing on 3 August 1941 after attacking ground targets in the Pas-de-Calais region and neither his body nor his Spitfire have ever been located. His name is inscribed on the memorial to missing aircrew at Runneymede in Surrey.
Spitfire Mk.Ia AR213 representing Mk.IIa P7308 ‘XR-D’ No. 71 ‘Eagle’ Sqn
Assigned to the Eagle Sqn, who flew from North Weald during and after the Battle of Britain, in mid-April 1941, Pilot Officer William Dunn became an ace between then and August of that year. Dunn was wounded in an accident that same month and re-entered action with the USAAF 53rd Fighter Group, which whom he would spend the rest of the war and score a sixth kill.
Today AR213 is also owned by Comanche Warbirds LLC. Fitting, as Tom Friedkin’s father was a Spitfire pilot in the RAF from 1942-1945.
Hurricane Mk.X AE977 representing Mk.I P2921 ‘GZ-L’ No. 32 Sqn
During the Spring and Summer of 1940, RAF Biggin Hill and her squadrons fought relentlessly as the capital’s last line of defence. P2921 was a No. 32 Sqn machine flown by the ace Pete Brothers. Having already fought during the Battle of France as a Flight Commander, Brothers had plenty of combat experience by the Summer of 1940, and this showed in the way he led his ‘B’ flight into the melee. In one day of the battle he downed seven Luftwaffe fighters and a bomber on multiple sorties.
By the time No. 32 Sqn was pulled off of the front line in August 1940, its pilots had claimed 102 enemy aircraft downed for the loss of just five of their own airmen. These colours couldn’t be more apt, for AE977 currently resides at Biggin Hill under the ownership of the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar.
Hurricane Mk.IIC LF363 representing Mk.I P3395 ‘JX-B’ No. 1 Sqn
Sgt Arthur ‘Darkie’ Clowes was one of the few No. 1 Squadron members to fight with the unit throughout the ‘Phoney War’, Battle of France and Battle of Britain. In that early period of the war he had garnered valuable experience in how to stay alive in the air, as well as bring guns to bear on the enemy, having shot down eight aircraft alongside more ‘probables’, kill shares and damaged enemy aeroplanes. During the height of Summer 1940, Clowes took on P3395 as his personal Hurricane, on which he painted a fearsome wasp motif on either side of the nose.
Flying from RAF Northolt , No. 1 Sqn were in almost constant action, with the pilots averaging two sorties a day. On 6 September the Squadron Leader’s engine failed to start ahead of a patrol and Clowes took the lead, despite his rank of Sergeant. They were jumped by Bf109s from on high, but Clowes kept his cool and fought a stellar defensive dogfight, bringing all of the pilots in his care home safely.
Hurricane Mk.XII Z5140 representing Mk.I P3700 ‘RF-E’ No. 303 Sqn
In a project co-financed by the Polish Embassy, the Historic Aircraft Collection’s Hurricane was repainted in early 2015 into the markings of No. 303 (Polish) Sqn P3700 ‘RF-E’ as part of the project to raise awareness of the 145 Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. On 9 September 1940 this Hurricane was being flown in combat over Beachy Head by Sgt Kazimierz Wunsche when he was shot down in flames and forced to bail out, surviving but suffering injuries, whilst P3700 crashed near a farm in West Sussex.
The crash site was located recently and on the 75th anniversary of the crash an archaeological dig took place to uncover the wreckage, supported by service personnel from the British and Polish armed forces of more recent conflicts. The dig was attended by Wunsche’s family and the Historic Aircraft Collection’s Hurricane, now adorning the markings of P3700, conducted several flypasts over the crash site. At the end of the Battle of Britain, No. 303 Sqn ranked highest out of all RAF squadrons in terms of enemy aircraft shot down.
Bristol Blenheim Mk.IF L6739 ‘YP-Q’ No. 23 Sqn
This is the second Blenheim restored to flying condition in the UK, taking to the skies in June 1993 after a five year restoration. The aircraft suffered a landing accident at Duxford in August 2003, subsequent to which a second rebuild took place; this saw the Blenheim converted from its initial Mk.IV designation to Mk.IF standard with the earlier, shorter nose. The Blenheim returned to the air on 20 November 2014 in the hands of John Romain. During this Battle of Britain anniversary year, the aircraft has pleasingly enjoyed a raft of high-profile bookings, with appearances at such airshows as RIAT, Duxford, Old Warden and Cosby. The Blenheim also won the Freddie March Spirit of Aviation award at the Goodwood Revival.
The Blenheim is one of the forgotten allied aircraft of the Battle of France and Battle of Britain. During the former conflict, Blenheim squadrons suffered terribly against the onslaught of Luftwaffe fighters, giving it a somewhat unfair reputation as an ineffectual combat aircraft; that rather overlooks the fact that bombers, be they of the light of heavy variety, will always be at a disadvantage to the faster, more agile fighters sent to engage them. Putting aside that reputation, Blenheim crews put up a tenacious fight against the advancing German forces and once daylight operations ceased in the face of withering losses, the aircraft was utilised as a night fighter and bomber.
Goodwood’s 15 September event was one of the crowning moments in a year of deeply emotional Battle of Britain commemorations, a sublime way for thousands to recall the events of 75 years ago and a moving remembrance the debt we owe.