The Perfect Spitfire
What makes Spitfire MH434 so special? Ken Ellis finds out
It was one of several on his list for the day, each needed to be subjected to the same rigorous assessment before it was released ready for combat. Outside the giant factory at Castle Bromwich, Birmingham, on August 7, 1943, Vickers test pilot Alex Henshaw put the throttle forward on Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IX MH434 and took it aloft. Six days later, it was delivered to 222 Squadron at Hornchurch, Essex.
Seventy-five years later, MH434 is still going strong and is much-loved. It has been the flagship of the Duxford-based Old Flying Machine Company (OFMC) since 1983. Some corks are bound to be popped to celebrate this milestone later in the year.
When MH434 became a British civilian in 1963 it was part of a dwindling population of such veterans. The term ‘warbird’ was not in wide circulation. Today, there are far more Spitfires airworthy and more destined to take to the skies.
There are older variants flying and others that are also 75 this year, but it is undeniable that MH434 has a special place in the hearts of pilots and enthusiasts. Let’s see what this incredible machine means to some of the many who have been associated with it.
Now 99 and living in Australia, New Zealander Alfred William ‘Bill’ Burge flew MH434 in 1943-1944 and it made a lasting impression on him. During 2012, he conducted a lively email correspondence with OFMC about his wartime career.
In his absorbing writing was a caveat, he did not wish to detail combat, believing that it was an experience to be endured, but not shared. He summarised his Spitfire experience as “several defensive sorties” and 124 offensive operations: “into Adolph’s patch of sky”.
After basic training on Tiger Moths in New Zealand, Bill sailed to Canada where he gained his ‘wings’. In Britain he was familiarised with the crowded airspace and procedures at 17 (Pilots) Advanced Flying Unit, Watton, Norfolk, on Miles Masters before moving to Aston Down, Gloucestershire, for combat training on Spitfire Is and IIs with 52 Operational Conversion Unit.
His first frontline posting was to 64 Squadron, commanded by Australian Sqn Ldr Tony Gaze. The unit, the first to take delivery of Spitfire IXs, was based at Fairlop in Essex and used nearby Hornchurch as a satellite. After a short while with 64, Bill was transferred to 485 Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force, also at Hornchurch and equipped with Mk.IXs.
Cooking the books
A selection of Bill’s engaging anecdotes follows. Some relate to his time when he piloted MH434; most do not, but are just as fascinating.
“New Zealander Wg Cdr Bill Compton [of the Hornchurch Wing] posted me to 222 Squadron [from 485 Squadron] as the deputy commander for ‘A’ Flight on November 9, 1943, and MH434 was allocated to me on that date. However, after ten offensive sorties the unit was taken off operations and we underwent low-level ground attack training off Southend.”
Bill Burge was 24 when he joined 222. Spitfire IX MH434 had been given the unit codes ‘ZD-B’ – B-for-Baker – colours that it was returned to in the early 1980s.
“After that we were sent to various localities to co-operate with the British army, using a variety of very aged Spitfires. [In turn, 222 was stationed at Woodvale, Lancs, in December, as well as Catterick, Yorks and Acklington, Northumberland, both in February 1944.]
“Just prior to the Normandy invasion, on most occasions Flt Lt Ernie Broad DFC, the ‘A’ Flight commander, led 222 and, as his deputy, I led his flight. On a dozen occasions, I was involved in dive-bombing the ‘buzz-bomb’ [V-1] sites just inland from the French coast. The bomb sighting equipment was quite primitive.
“Occasionally, immediately after the invasion, Ernie authorised me to lead the squadron. He commented at the time that it would be good experience for me. This assignment, as I only held the rank of flying officer, I considered to be a pat on the back.
“I had deliberately omitted to enter a few sorties in my logbook, as I realised that I was then right up to the maximum offensive hours allowed for an operational tour on Spitfires. I was looking forward to operating from the continent, once we were firmly established in France.
“However, the winco [wing commander] of the three squadrons operating from Friston on the south coast [Sussex] was more wide awake than I realised. We normally handed in our logbooks at the end of each month for our CO to check and sign. These then went to the winco for him to check and enter his signature.
“In early July 1944 I was called by the winco and he very bluntly accused me of ‘cooking the books’ and stated – correctly – that I had not listed some sorties in my logbook. I was ‘off operations’ from then on.
“He went on to tell me that I would be posted to a training unit as an instructor. I was cheeky enough to blurt out: ‘I have no wish to be a damn instructor or fly a desk for six months’. He countered with: ‘You will do as you are told’…
The rest of this article is in the August issue available on sale in the UK now and in other countries from next month. It can be ordered direct from www.flypast.com or in leading newsagents. Alternatively, you can download a digital edition from www.pocketmags.com – simply search ‘FlyPast’.