In 1985, William Kimber published “Night Hawk”, my biography of Flight Lieutenant Karel Kuttelwascher, the RAF’s greatest night intruder ace [for more information click here]. While doing picture research for this book at the Imperial War Museum in London, I came across a photograph of “The Darlington Spitfire”. Given my surname, I was naturally intrigued and began to research the record of this particular aircraft.
I found that it had spent no less than three and a half years with the wartime RAF, in that time serving with six operational squadrons and making a total of 161 recorded sorties. Its victory score was three enemy aircraft destroyed, another three and a half probable, and one damaged. All but the shared probable were achieved with the ace Donald Kingaby at the controls.
The monograph which resulted from these researches was completed in October 1986. It was too long for an article and too short for a book. Therefore, for 13 years, it rested unseen in my study. Now the advent of the Internet means that I can ‘publish’ my work on my web site.
"The Darlington Spitfire"
at Eastleigh in June 1941
Note: In 1999, Peter Caygill - a resident of Darlington in County Durham - produced the book that I would love to have written. Entitled "The Darlington Spitfire: A Charmed Life", it was published by Airlife Publishing Ltd. Well done, Peter!
PART 1: IN THE BEGINNING
Throughout the Second World War, cities, towns, boroughs, companies, organisations and even individuals patriotically raised funds to purchase aircraft for the hard-pressed Royal Air Force. These were known as presentation aircraft.
More Supermarine Spitfires - at least 3,000 in all - were funded in this way than any other aircraft type and at that time the nominal cost of each was £5,000 (today’s auction price would be around £300,000). Each donated aircraft bore a name suggested by its donor, usually marked in yellow characters on the engine cowling.
Some of the names were rather odd-ball. A Spitfire named "Dorothy" was bought as a result of subscriptions from women all over Britain who bore that name; another, "Gingerbread', was funded by red-headed men and women and flown by flame-haired Australian pilot 'Bluey' Truscott; while a third, "The Dogfighter”, was - appropriately enough - a gift from the Kennel Club!
This monograph is the story of one such presentation Spitfire, one with a conventional enough name but an unconventional record: "The Darlington Spitfire".
In fact, there were two Darlington Spitfires, one bought by two private individuals and the other purchased through public subscription. The former was donated by Messrs 0 R and D D Williams, chairman and managing director respectively of Henry Williams Limited, permanent way and signal engineers.
However, it is the latter aircraft that is the subject of our story. "The Darlington Spitfire" was bought by the £5,082 contributed by the people of the town of Darlington in County Durham in north-east England during the town's War Weapons Week of National Savings Campaign in 1940.
Of course, the Supermarine Spitfire was the most famous aircraft of the War. Although in the Battle of Britain there were almost twice as many Hurricanes as Spitfires, it is the latter that is particularly identified with that turning point in history. Subsequently the versatility, grace and sheer beauty of the aircraft immortalised it in the hearts of millions.
The Spitfire was designed by the dying Reginald Joseph Mitchell to specification F37/34 and the prototype K5054 first flew on 5 March 1936 at Eastleigh, Hampshire. It eventually appeared in 24 basic Marks and - including Seafires - some 40 major versions and in all 2O,334 were built - more than any other British aircraft.
"The Darlington Spitfire" was one of a batch of 450 ordered on 22 March 1940 and the manufacturer in this case was Vickers-Armstrong. Originally intended as Mark Is, they were in fact all completed as Mark VBs. "The Darlington Spitfire" itself was emblazoned as such below the cockpit on the starboard side and its manufacturer's serial number was W3320.
The Mark V was essentially a Mark I/II airframe with the fuselage longerons strengthened to take a more powerful engine. It was powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin 45 which was combat rated at 1,470 horsepower (some 440 h.p. more than that delivered by the Merlin III which powered the Mark I). This gave it a top speed of 374 mph at 13,000 feet. The service ceiling was 37,000 feet and maximum range was 470 miles.
The Mark V Spitfire was the standard version in production in 1941 and eventually equipped over 100 RAF units. In all, 6,464 of this particular Mark were built, more than any other single Mark. For many, it was the 'classic' version of the Spitfire.
There was a selection of three wings for the Mark V: the VA carried eight 0.303 inch machine guns; the VB - such as the "Darlington" machine - was armed with two 20 mm. cannon and four 0.303 inch machine guns; and the VC or ‘universal’ wing could carry a variety of armaments, such as eight machine guns, two cannon and four machine guns, or four cannon. On the VC, as well as the Browning machine guns and the Hispano cannon, one 500 lb or two 250 lb bombs were optional.
PART 2: EARLY KILLS AT BIGGIN
"The Darlington Spitfire" effectively started life on 12 June 1941 at 9 Maintenance Unit (MU). At this stage of the war, events were taking a major turn with the opening of a whole new front when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in "Operation Barbarossa”.
After exactly one month at 9 MU, on 12 July 1941 W3320 was allocated to 92 Squadron, the first user of the Mark VB Spitfire in March 1941. This unit - known as the East India Squadron and sporting code letters QJ - was then based at Biggin Hill in Kent (where its call sign was 'Gannick Squadron') and commanded by the Scottish Squadron Leader Jamie Rankin DFC, a man who finished the war with a score of 21.
Reformed in October 1939, 92 Squadron converted from Blenheims to Spitfires in March 1940 and joined the Battle of Britain when it moved to Biggin Hill in early September 1940. Most of the squadron's members were ex-Auxiliaries who were not particularly fond of authority and discipline and they became somewhat notorious for their slap-dash appearance and easy-going behaviour. However, their fighting prowess well exceeded their lack of sartorial elegance: the 100th victory was scored in October 1940 and in early 1941 the squadron was the top scorer on operations.
At 92 Squadron, "The Darlington Spitfire" immediately became the regular 'mount' of a very special pilot. Sergeant Donald Ernest Kingaby from Devizes joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in April 1939 and was called up that September. After training, in June 1940 he was assigned as a Sergeant to 266 Squadron.
One day in August, he damaged two Junkers Ju88s and a Messerschmitt Bf 110. Then in September he was moved to 92 Squadron. In a matter of weeks, he had damaged two Bf 109s and in mid-October he destroyed one - his first confirmed 'kill'. Kingaby's score continued to edge upwards and then in mid-November he claimed four in one day. By the end of the year, he was credited with 9 and a half kills and, such was his forte at knocking out Messerschmitts that, the newspapers had dubbed him “the 109 specialist". His outstanding record was marked by the award of the Distinguished Flying Medal.
In the early weeks of 1941, 92 Squadron began regular sweeps over France and these were the occasions for him to clock up still more victories. By the time "The Darlington Spitfire" was allocated to the unit in mid-July, his score was 15 and a half and that month he was awarded a Bar to his DFM.
W3320's first operational fight came on 20 July 1941 when Kingaby took her on a one and a half hour evening sweep over the Channel. The squadron had received some information about enemy shipping but saw nothing. This largely set the pattern for the next five days when the aircraft was taken out on another eight sweeps, a Lysander escort and a convoy patrol.
Virtually all these sweeps were flown by Kingaby and two at least involved some action. In the early evening of 2-3 July, several enemy aircraft were encountered and Sergeant Hickman shot down a Bf 109 in flames. Next day witnessed a richer score when, in the early afternoon, Flight Lieutenant Thompson knocked out another 109, Sergeant Johnston claimed two probables, and Sergeant Howard was credited with a third probable.
August was full of sweeps by the Biggin Hill Wing, with 92 Squadron achieving some success and W3320 was out on no less than 15 of these sweeps.
7 August was bright with a clear sky, A conference was called for 9 am in view of a sweep planned for an hour later. In fact, this was postponed, owing to the weather, but later that morning it did take place.
Take-off was 10.30 am for what was designated 'circus 67’. The squadron was part of the high escort cover wing for the operation and rendezvoused with the close escort and six Bristol Blenheim bombers at Manston. The French coast was crossed at Gravelines and the 'circus' experienced slight flak about five miles inland.
Kingaby was flying “The Darlington Spitfire" as Blue 1 and, when two Messerschmitt Bf 109Fs passed underneath the squadron, he led Blue Section down to attack. He squeezed the red button on the control column and unleashed a three-second burst with cannon and machine guns at 500 yards range - the first time the aircraft had fired in anger - and had the satisfaction of seeing several HE cannon shells slam into the fuselage of the 109 on the right. After this initial encounter, Kingaby immediately turned and climbed to rejoin the rest of the squadron. Looking back over his shoulder, he was delighted to note the Messerschmitt going down out of control with black smoke pouring from it. He would be able to claim that one as a probable.
The 'circus' had now arrived over the target area of St. Omer. There were a good many 109s in the vicinity, flying in pairs, but they did not choose to attack the bombers, so the RAF fighters had no more targets at this stage. However, just after the 'circus' wheeled round to return home, two 109s made a quarter attack on Kingaby from the starboard. He turned towards them and saw their tracer pass underneath him. They then dived inland, so wisely he left them.
The shooting was not over though, for two minutes later he saw another two 109s passing in front of the squadron about 600 yards ahead. Kingaby opened fire with cannon and machines guns and hit the first one several times. The Luftwaffe pilot knew the danger of his position and swung round in his turn to make a head-on attack on the Spitfire. At a closing speed. that must have been around 600 mph, the German broke away only at the last moment, missing a collision by a matter of inches. Kingaby did not see that one again and merely claimed his enemy as damaged.
This ought to have been enough action for one sortie but, as the 'circus' crossed back across the French coast at Gravelines, Kingaby attacked yet another 109 from the beam. However, the Luftwaffe machine dived inland and he did not: see. any results of his fire. Another pilot might have been satisfied with one probable and another damaged but, in his combat report, Kingaby noted: "Lack of tracer ammunition was most disappointing and, had I had some, the results. would probably have been more definite". Of course, Kingaby was already a triple ace and eager for more kills, but today was the opening for "The Darlington Spitfire’s" own score sheet.
PART 3: FIRE AND PHOTO
That afternoon Kingaby was up, in W3320 again on another wing sweep when the Commanding Officer boosted the squadron's score still further: Squadron Leader Rankin was credited with one confirmed and one damaged.
A mere two days later there was more excitement for the unit and more victories for some of its members including Kingaby. The weather was dull when, in the early evening, a wing sweep was carried out to Boulogne and several combats blazed across the skies. The CO shot down two confirmed; Kingaby - once more in W3320 - used cannon and machine gun fire to knock out one and claim a probable; Sergeant Le Cheminant also had one confirmed; and the rest of the squadron scored one probable and three damaged. The cost was Sergeant Harrison shot up, but he managed to land at Hawkinge.
Kingaby's action started when he joined Blue 1 in chasing two Bf 109s which dived inland. However, the RAF pilots had their backs to the sun and a Messerschmitt swooped down behind them and fired a short burst that forced Kingaby to leave the chase. He then noted four 109s turning in behind him and he had to zoom into the sun at full boost to lose them. Turning the tables now, Kingaby made an attack on them from behind, but he mistimed it and they dived through a thin layer of cloud before he could pull into range.
Passing through the cloud, Kingaby soon located another two enemy fighters climbing up from Le Touquet. He stalked them patiently and, when they were at about 6,000-7,000 feet, he pounced on to the left-hand 109 and let off a two-second burst from just 150 yards. The Luftwaffe aircraft wobbled violently and gradually turned over, before falling down with glycol and black smoke pouring from it. Kingaby last saw it going straight down at about 2.000 feet and was subsequently credited with a probable.
After this attack, he climbed back up to the cloud base and found the other Luftwaffe pilot sweeping round in a steep turn to the left, looking for "The Darlington Spitfire" to avenge his comrade. Kingaby seized his advantage and dived on the 109, delivering an attack from the port quarter above involving a two-second burst of cannon and machine guns.
The fight then developed into a turning competition and at first Kingaby had too much speed and could not get inside the Messerschmitt's turn. Pulling the Spitfire's nose up, he skidded violently but the manoeuvre brought his speed down. Kingaby then began to out-turn the German pilot and moved in for the kill.
He gave him a couple of short bursts of machine-gun fire from port quarter at a mere 70 yards range. Several bullets ripped into the 109's wings and fuselage. As a reaction, the enemy aircraft ceased turning, straightened out, and prepared to half roll. At this crucial point, Kingaby delivered the ‘coup de grace': a two-second burst from astern with cannon and machine guns finished the German who gradually turned over in a pirouette of death and dived straight into the ground about five miles south of Le Touquet.
Towards the end of August, other 92 pilots - notably Pilot Officer Brettell - used "The Darlington Spitfire" on sweeps, convoy patrols, and one scramble. The most eventful of these was a wing sweep on the last day of the month when Sergeant Hickman flew the aircraft and the squadron claimed one enemy aircraft destroyed, one probable and two damaged.
One week into September, Squadron Leader Rankin became Wing Commander at Biggin Hill and so Flight Lieutenant Milne DFC was promoted to Squadron Leader and made CO of 92 Squadron. The anniversary of the unit's stay at Biggin Hill 8 September was the excuse for a big party.
Don Kingaby - now promoted to Flight Sergeant - was back at the controls of W3320 for three more sweeps over France later in the month. Then, on 25 September, 92 Squadron was moved to Gravesend on the southern side of the Thames estuary.
Before we leave Biggin Hill, the existence of a 'mini mystery' must be confessed.
The Imperial War Museum has in its photographic records a picture of "The Darlington Spitfire" (CH3977) and at the controls is Sergeant Frank Everett Jones, described as attached to the Royal Canadian Air Force No. 249 Squadron.
Frank Jones subsequently lived in British Columbia, Canada and, when asked about his recollections of W3320, wrote:
"I forget any contact I had with 92 Squadron, the most likely for me. I was with 72 Squadron at Biggin Hill when that photo you refer to was taken and it was some time in the late summer and fall of 1941. There may be one explanation and that is that 92 may have been a sister squadron at that time. One other may have been that we 'borrowed' the aircraft from 92 Squadron due to losses at that time, I do not know, as I have long ago forgotten most of the war doings and have lost my old log book".
Although 72 Squadron was at Biggin Hill at this time, an examination of the records of the squadron during the "The Darlington Spitfire’s" time at Biggin Hill with 92 Squadron does not show Jones on operations with it. Certainly there is no record of him ever having flown W3320 operationally. The photograph was probably taken before he went on active operations and it seems that the aircraft was 'borrowed’ from 92 Squadron for the shot.
As for Jones - who, thanks to the photograph is now inexplicably linked to the history of "The Darlington Spitfire" - he went on to serve with 249 Squadron at Malta, where he shot down an estimated total of six aircraft, before winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and leaving the RAF with the rank of Wing Commander. He died aged 73 on 3 December 1989.
PART 4: ADDING TO THE SCORE
Within a week of 92 Squadron's move to Gravesend, "The Darlington Spitfire" was bloodied again and once more Kingaby was the marksman. 1 October was bright and clear and at mid-day a fighter sweep was made by the squadron during which the West Country ace scored one Bf 109 confirmed and one probable.
Kingaby was over Cap Gris Nez when he spotted four 109s approaching from inland and hid in cloud. Coming down again, he found the Germans pitching into a formation of Spitfires and picked out one of them which obligingly showed his belly in plan view at about 40-50 yards range. A one-second burst was enough to send him down with glycol pouring from both radiators.
Another ten miles inland, the ace cleverly made effective use of the same trick when he saw a gaggle of eight Messerschmitts coming towards him. This time he came out of the cloud about 50 yards to the right and 100 yards behind the gaggle. He chose the last 109 and opened fire in a quarter, turning to astern, attack. A four-second blaze had a devastating effect: pieces fell from the Luftwaffe aircraft which then just fell away in a dive, breaking up into separate parts as it did so. As Kingaby prosaically phrased it in his combat report: "The tail parted company with the rest of the fuselage and followed it to earth".
The following day the Luftwaffe had its revenge. Three 92 Squadron pilots - Flight Lieutenant Lund, Sergeant Edge and Sergeant Port - were lost on operations. The squadron's Operations Record Book (ORB) noted laconically: "A very bad day for '92’”.
Kingaby struck back the very next day (3 October). The weather was clear for ‘circus 105' and the squadron split into two sections. The one led by the CO returned without difficulty, but the second section ran into superior numbers of Bf 109s and a series of dogfights ensued.
As usual, Kingaby was flying "The Darlington Spitfire", but unusually the aircraft was giving him serious trouble. Even before he sighted the Luftwaffe, both the radio telephone and the reflector gunsight were inoperable due to an electrical fault. It would have been prudent for Kingaby to abandon this sortie, but resolutely he decided to complete the operation.
When he saw some 20 109s apparently about to bounce his comrades from behind, he was unable to warn them by radio and therefore he simply swung his Spitfire into the oncoming aircraft. Six of the109s set about W3320 and, as the combat progressed, Kingaby was alarmed to find glycol flooding his cockpit.
Assuming he was hit and deciding that at this point discretion was indeed the better part of valour, Kingaby put the Spitfire into a snaking dive for the English coast. Seven of the 109s gave chase - three of them firing at him - but gradually all but one peeled off back to France. The exception seemed absolutely determined to shoot down W3320 and kill its gallant pilot.
The range between the RAF aircraft and the Luftwaffe machine closed frighteningly fast. As Kingaby put it in a graphically written combat report: "He overhauled me hand over fist, although I had full throttle, full revs and the boost cut out in operation". He was convinced that his engine was about to give up at any moment, but felt compelled to turn and fight his persistent adversary. He went into a steep turn to the left with the 109 firing a deflection shot at 150 yards range. The two fighters now played a deadly game of cat and mouse as they each sought the other's tail in a great aerial circle.
As Kingaby began to take the advantage, the German decided to head back to France, but the British ace clung to him as the Luftwaffe pilot desperately dived to within 500 feet of the sea. Kingaby used a fixed bead sight for a rough aim as "The Darlington Spitfire" sent a lethal two-three second burst of cannon and machine gun fire slamming into the 109. The enemy aircraft erupted with a big puff of black smoke and keeled over into the sea.
Kingaby landed at Manston rather than Biggin Hill where he discovered that the glycol in his cockpit had not come from his engine but from a faulty windscreen anti-freeze device! In fact, he had not stopped a single bullet.
However, two of 92's pilots - Sergeant Cox and Sergeant Wood-Scrawen - never made it home at all, being shot down by the marauding Messerschmitts. This meant that, in the period of just two days, the squadron had lost five pilots and written off seven Spitfires. It was an attrition rate that no unit could survive for long but, as always in the face of misfortunes, the ORB was stoical: "A very bad show".
92 Squadron bounced back ten days later on the afternoon of 13 October with a very successful sweep. The weather was good with a clear sky which augured well for the operation involving escorting bombers to a power station near Lille. The ”Darlington" machine was one of several on this particular sweep with the familiar Kingaby once more in the pilot's seat.
However, it was the CO who won the honours: he accounted for three Bf 109s and damaged a fourth. The ORB noted with satisfaction: "This is the best single score since 92 became operational and the squadron is very proud indeed of the splendid work of Squadron Leader Milne today. We have now reached the splendid total of 193 destroyed".
In the next few days, W3320 and Kingaby were out on a variety of patrols, one over Manston at 10,000 feet, another over Canterbury at 15,000 feet, and a rhubarb. Then, on 20 October, the squadron moved north to Digby in Lincolnshire. Clearly this was well out of the front line and both man and machine took the occasion to leave 92 Squadron.
On 2 November, Flight Sergeant Don Kingaby received the second Bar to his DFM and, speaking for all his colleagues, the ORB proclaimed: "Good show Donald". He was now posted to an Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Grangemouth and later commissioned as Pilot Officer, At this stage, his score was some 17 - but it was not to stop there.
After a short rest period, in April 1942 Kingaby joined 64 Squadron where he knocked out another couple of German aircraft. He then moved to 122 Squadron as a Flight Commander and shortly afterwards became its Commanding officer and received the Distinguished Service Order. He added a few more to his score before being promoted to lead the Hornchurch Wing. After a year at Fighter Command Headquarters, in the summer of 1944 he returned to the air and again saw action when he shared a Bf 109 over Normandy.
This was his last victory and brought his total score to 22 and a half - virtually the same as the much more famous Douglas Bader - with eight probables and 16 damaged. This made him No. 22 in the post-war list of the RAF's top aces.
Kingaby was not the only one to leave 92 Squadron at this time. On the same day, Pilot Officers Humphreys and Duke were posted as Flight Lieutenants to the Middle East and Sergeant Pavely was sent to Manston. The ORB sounded a sad note: "The whole squadron were very sorry indeed to see those grand boys leave'92’".
It was as if, without her ace pilot, "The Darlington Spitfire” no longer wished to remain with 92 Squadron. On 11 November, she went "repairable in works" and two weeks later moved to 24 Maintenance Unit.
PART 5: THE FIRST 'PRANG'
After three months at 24 MU, on 1 March 1942 W3320 was allocated back to a squadron, but this time about as far away from the action as it was geographically possible to go.
54 Squadron - whose aircraft were coded KL - had changed its Gladiators for Spitfires shortly before the outbreak of war and fought with distinction from Hornchurch in the early part of the Battle of Britain, becoming the top scoring unit before being moved for a rest. By this stage of the war, however, the unit commanded by Squadron Leader Hartley - was stationed in the wilds of Scotland at Castletown.
The ORB was sounding increasingly strident notes of desperation over this isolation: “54 feels now that they are being used as an OUT, as no sooner do we get the pilots operational and cracking than they are posted. However, we must grin and bear it and hope that one day before long we shall go south again" (25 March) and "After 5 months at Castletown (No Man's Land), the whole squadron is completely browned off and constantly pray the 'powers that be' will soon have mercy on us and grant us a spell of duty in civilised England" (10 April).
There may have been no action at Castletown but there were certainly plenty of crashes, one of them fatal. One week into March, there half a dozen ‘prangs' in the space of a couple of days and on 10 March Pilot Officer Fenton was killed when he went off to beat up the Army and smashed into the ground.
The accidents were largely the result of inexperience for pilots of many different nationalities - Canadians, French and Poles - were drafted into the unit. The ORB quipped: "The squadron is gradually being brought up to strength but is becoming highly cosmopolitan and we only need a Russian pilot to make an Entente Cordiale. Nevertheless we have a marvellous opportunity of studying various languages" (8 April).
In these circumstances there was not a lot for "The Darlington Spitfire" to do, but in late March and early April it was used on a number of patrols and shipping escorts, more often than not under the hands of Flight Sergeant Farquharson.
It seemed as if there was more excitement in the local pub than the native skies. On 9 April, Flight Lieutenant Gibbs took command of the squadron from Squadron Leader Hartley (who went to 134 Squadron) and the celebration party in "The Dunnet" was described in the ORB as "a wow".
But W3320 was not to remain long in this out-post of boredom and bumps. On 19 April, the weather was grand and there was plenty of flying. One of the three French Sergeants with the squadron, Le Peutrec, took up the "Darlington" machine during the late afternoon and, while landing, contrived to crash her. "Some damage to his kite but none to himself" recorded the ORB.
Officially the incident was noted "FA cat B" (that is, flying accident category B) and next day the aircraft was carted off to 56 Maintenance Unit where it was originally designated "ROS" (that is, repairable on site), However, there must have been a re-think for, on 5 May, it was re-designated "RIW” (that is, repairable in works). Not until 1 November did it become "AW/CN" (that is, awaiting collection). Then, more than six months after the accident, on 7 November it passed to 12 Maintenance Unit and there it languished for another eight months.
Not until 3 July 1943 did "The Darlington Spitfire" return to an operational unit. This time it was 118 Squadron whose code letters were NK. This outfit was formed in February 1941 on Spitfire IIs but soon received Spitfire Vs. At this stage, it was stationed at Coltishall, north of Norwich, and commanded by Squadron Leader John Freeborn DFC and Bar, a blameless participant in the unfortunate 'Battle of Barking Creek' in September 1940.
As at 92 Squadron, W3320 found herself a regular 'mount' of one particular man. This individual had a most appropriate name for a pilot: Pilot Officer R J Flight (1332436) who had just been commissioned and re-joined the squadron after completing a 'Fighter Leaders Course' at RAF Charmy Down.
In his hands, “The Darlington Spitfire" soon had as much action as one could wish and a small addition to the aircraft's score sheet. However, it was mostly action of a particular kind - close escort to bombers - which effectively denied her the chance to increase her score very much, since her prime responsibility was to protect her charges and not to go darting after her own targets. Such escort duties required the aircraft to be fitted with long range tanks.
PART 6: ESCORTING THE BOMBERS
On the afternoon of 18 July, eleven aircraft from 118 Squadron - including W3320 piloted by Flight - set off to escort Bristol Beaufighters armed with torpedoes, but the attack was called off when the enemy convoy was seen entering the harbour of Ijkduin.
Early evening the same day, the squadron was up again on a similar but more successful operation (Group Roadstead No. 14). A formation, including fighters from 56, 402 and 416 Squadrons, rendezvoused with the 12 torpedo 'Beaus' and crossed the North Sea looking for enemy vessels. They hit landfall at Bergen on the Norwegian coast and spotted a convoy of some 20 ships with fighter escort. The Beaufighters went for the M.V.s and escort vessels, while the Spitfires dropped their long range tanks and laid into the attendant Messerschmitts.
118 Squadron struck with deadly effect. The two Flight Lieutenants, R A Newbery and J B Shepherd, each destroyed a Bf 109, while a third was sent down jointly by Shepherd and - according to the combat report - Flight Sergeant C Anderton (the ORB names Flight in "The Darlington Spitfire" as the other pilot, but this seems unlikely). For good measure, 415 Squadron claimed a fourth victim. The ORB described the operation as "a real party" and recorded that "the afternoon's victories were suitably celebrated in the evening".
There was no let up in the pace. On the afternoon of the next day, the whole squadron joined in a Roadstead attack on shipping and, on reaching Ijkduin, they split into two Flights. Six aircraft under Flight Lieutenant Shepherd flew north and returned to base without incident. By contrast, the remaining six under Flight Lieutenant Newbery zoomed south and ran into two motor vessels of 800 and 1,000 tons respectively. The Spitfires dived into low level action with cannon firing and left the 800 ton ship blazing and the 1,000 tonner damaged.
In this fierce encounter, Flying Officer F T Brown's aircraft – another presentation Spitfire called “Fiducia” ( EN966) - was hit by flak but courageously he pressed home his attack, However the damage was so severe that Brown was forced to bale out from 900 feet. He smashed into the sea and was seen swimming, so Flight - as always in W3320 - swept low and threw out his dinghy which splashed down near the parachute. Sadly there was no further sign of Brown and it was feared that he had become entangled in his parachute harness and drowned. Flying Officer Brown - the holder of the Distinguished Flying Cross - was eulogised in the squadron's ORB in a lengthy entry which emphasised his sporting prowess as much as his flying skills.
The remainder of the month of July saw "The Darlington Spitfire" out almost every day on a variety of operations - escorts, Ramrods, lagoons - each of which took her over to the enemy's skies and invariably she was piloted by Flight.
A notably exciting encounter occurred on the evening of 27 July. Squadron Leader Freeborn led a total of 11 aircraft from 118 Squadron as part of close escort to 12 North American B-25 Mitchells bombing Schiphol aerodrome, the Spitfires being positioned above and starboard of the bombers. The weather was clear at 12,000 feet but there was thick haze below where visibility was only four miles.
Enemy aircraft engaged the Wing and in resultant combats the squadron scored a couple of victories in a particularly cosmopolitan effort, One Bf 109 was destroyed by the Norwegian Second Lieutenant S K Liby and a second Messerschmitt was shared by the Sinhalese Flying Officer C Talalla (Blue 3) and Pilot Officer Flight (Blue 4).
Flight gave a short burst on the starboard beam of the 109 from 400 yards and then came astern to pump two further bursts of fire at it. He observed strikes on the fuselage and wing roots with puffs of brown and white smoke recorded with his camera gun. Then Talalla made two attacks. When last seen, the German was at 4,000 feet going down in a spin out of control.
This victory shared by W3320 was claimed as destroyed but only allowed as a probable since, although the enemy aircraft was obviously finished, it was not actually seen to crash. This was the first damage by "The Darlington Spitfire" for 21 months, but the engagement demonstrated that there was still plenty of fire power in her cannon and machine guns. However, from now on, her victory score would rise no further.
PART 7: LOSS OF FLIGHT
Tragically, at this particular time, there were more fatalities among the squadron's pilots from accidents than from combat. After two ramrods on 29 July, 118 was coming in to land in fine formation when two aircraft collided near the airfield and both pilots were killed - Pilot Officer E A Buglass in EP191 which was burnt out and Flight Sergeant J Hollingworth in AR447 which simply disintegrated.
Of course it was not always Pilot Officer Flight at the controls of "The Darlington Spitfire". One day - 3 August - three different pilots took her up but, whoever was flying her, early August saw Jim Crow anti-shipping reconnaissances and further close escorts to bombers but no real action.
On 15 August, 118 Squadron moved from Coltishall south to Westhampnett, a satellite airfield of Tangmere, near Chichester. All the pilots hoped that the transfer from 12 Group to 11 Group would mean greater contact with the enemy and their aspirations were immediately fulfilled.
The very next day, 12 aircraft led by Flight Lieutenant A Drew - a recent replacement for Newbery - joined with 611 Squadron to form close escort to the second box of Marauders detailed to bomb Beaumont Le Roget airfield. The attack was successfully carried out, but 118 encountered six of the powerful Focke-Wulf Fw 190, a superior aircraft to the Spitfire V. As usual, Flight was in W3320 and - as the ORB put it - "got a squirt without result"*
Meanwhile the Norwegian Second Lieutenant S K Liby was seen in combat with two 190s. His aircraft (EP126) may have been hit because he was observed straggling and heard to say that his engine had packed up and he proposed to bale out. Apparently he promised to return on the next boat but - whatever his fate - he did not.
The close escorts continued but, with Flight on a period of leave (during which he missed a visit by Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary of State for Air), other pilots - including Flight Lieutenant Drew and the Australian Flight Sergeant N K Paull - took turns at the control of "The Darlington Spitfire", so that in August a total of six pilots took her in the air.
When Flight did return to the squadron, it was to a different airfield since, after little more than a week at Westhampnett, the unit was reallocated to Merston, another Tangmere satellite. The reason was to have a Wing of Spitfire V squadrons:118 and the Canadian 402 and 416 Squadrons.
On 3 September, the fourth anniversary of the outbreak of war, Merston was visited by the Marshal of the RAF Lord Trenchard who was introduced to all the pilots.' The 'Grand old Man' gave what 118 Squadron's ORB described as "an interesting and inspiring address".
Next day, 118 returned to their old base of Coltishall for an operation which was subsequently cancelled while their Merston stablemates 402 and 416 took part in a highly successful Marauder escort to the marshalling yards of St Lo. The Canadians destroyed six enemy aircraft and damaged another two for the loss of only one Spitfire (the pilot of which was saved). The 118 ORB lamented: "We were most unlucky to have missed this party".
The close escort duties were often fairly uneventful exercises for 118 Squadron, but that of 15 September was an exception.
It was early evening when 12 of the squadron aircraft, led by Flight Lieutenant J B Shepherd, took off for the traditional close escort duty. On this occasion, W3320 was piloted by the other Flight Lieutenant, A Drew. 118 linked up with 402 and 416 Squadrons and the Wing was led by Wing Commander Chadburn. This time Marauders were bombing Merville airfield and made a decent enough job of it.
However, there were a number of Fw 190s around and a couple of 118 Squadron's sections engaged four of them, Flying Officer F S R Everill probably destroying one. Meanwhile Flying Officer Flight - on this occasion flying AR433 - found himself in serious trouble when he put his Spitfire into a screaming dive after retreating Luftwaffe fighters. Suddenly his engine caught fire and he was forced to bale out east of Bailleul. Fortunately, he managed to make a safe landing, he became a prisoner of war, and subsequently he was repatriated at the end of hostilities.
Back at base, the author of the ORB noted of Flight: "He was an exceptionally charming character and an extremely keen pilot who was rapidly making a name for himself and his loss is keenly felt by all ranks".
If aircraft had feelings too then undoubtedly "The Darlington Spitfire" would have been particularly saddened by the loss of R J Flight, her regular pilot at 118 Squadron. Over the previous two months, she had carried him into battle on a total of 26 operations, never failing to bring him back unharmed and, perhaps had she been with Flight rather than Drew that day, the former would have been back safely at Merston rather than languishing in some German prisoner of war camp.
Without Flight, W3320 was available to anyone and on 18 September her three operational sorties were in fact at the hands of three different pilots. At 92 Squadron, when Don Kingaby left the unit, so did ”The Darlington Spitfire". Seemingly in the same way, it was as if - once her favourite 118 Squadron pilot R J Flight was no longer with the unit - W3320 too felt the need to move on.
In fact the real explanation was more prosaic. A dramatic change of location for 118 Squadron involved a wholesale exchange of aircraft. On 19 September, the squadron flew to West Malling in Kent to change their machines for - as the ORB put it - "something less pretentious”, namely Spitfire VBs without long range tanks from 64 Squadron.
Later that day, 118 moved on to its new base at Peterhead, north of Aberdeen. This reassignment from the southern coast of England to the north east coast of Scotland was geographically about as lengthy a transfer as one could imagine and still remain in the country, so it is little wonder that the ORB reviled the squadron's new location as "the end of the earth”.
PART 8: NOT MUCH TO 'CROW' ABOUT
64 Squadron - "The Darlington Spitfire’s” fourth - had replaced its Blenheims for Spitfires in 1940 and by this stage of the war its aircraft carried the code letters SH. One of 64 Squadron's ex- members was Don Kingaby who spent several. months with the unit after he had left 92 Squadron where his regular 'mount' had been W3320. The boss at 64 Squadron was now the Belgian Squadron Leader Michel Donnet DFC CdeG [for more information click here].
On 6 September 1943, the unit had moved from Gravesend to West Malling where it was engaged on the same type of operations as 118 Squadron, namely close escort on ramrods to north west France. Then, on 19 September, came the exchange of 18 Spitfires between 64 and 118 Squadrons at West Malling, prior to the former's planned move a little later up to Coltishall.
The proposed transfer from No. 11 Group to No, 12 Group was a "bitter disappointment" to the squadron but the change of aircraft proved more popular than was originally feared. When, on 20 September, 18 pilots had taken up their new 'kites' for air and cannon test the ORB recorded: "Everyone agreeably surprised at the increased performance of the 'cropped blowers' and we are hoping that we shall be able to get wing tips put back on the four aircraft that are clipped rather than that the 14 unclipped ones be clipped."
The reference to clipped aircraft merits some explanation. Clipped wing Spitfires had a span of only 32 feet 2 inches compared with the normal 36 feet 10 inches. This was achieved by removing the detachable wing tips and substituting wooden fairings.
The main benefit was an increased rate of roll, intended to place the Spitfire on an equal footing with the Luftwaffe's formidable Focke-Wulf Fw 190. However, the improved roll rate was at the expense of climb rate and service ceiling plus some reduction of speed at higher altitudes.
Consequently the 'clipped and cropped' Spitfire was a mediocre fighter above 20,000 feet, but effective at low and medium altitudes where of course bomber escort duties of the kind flown by 64 Squadron were necessarily undertaken. There is no conclusive evidence as to whether "The Darlington Spitfire" itself had clipped wings at this stage, but statistically the chances are that it had not.
Still at West Malling for the time being, 64 Squadron immediately re-commenced escort duties with its new aircraft, so that on 21 September 12 aircraft went on 'Ramrod 235' to provide escort duty to 18 Mitchell bombers. W3320 was flown by Flying Officer D L Ferraby.
The target was the synthetic petrol plant at Lievin and, about 10 miles back on the return journey, between 10 and 15 Fw 190s dived out of the clouds in an attack on the bombers. Fortunately the attack was ineffective, which was just as well, since the bombers were unprotected from such a tactic as the 'close' escort was flying about three miles behind!
However, three days later the squadron proved more effective on a similar operation. This was 'Ramrod 242’ and involved providing close escort to the second box of 72 Marauders bombing Evreux airfield. Thirteen of the squadron's aircraft were deployed and this time "The Darlington Spitfire" was flown by the American Flying Officer J W Harder.
The bombing proved very good and Evreux was suitably pasted. Then on the way back, not far from Rouen, a single Messerschmitt Bf 109G came in behind the squadron and - somewhat recklessly in the circumstances - tried to attack the bombers.
Flight Lieutenant John Plagis DFC and Bar - who finished the war as the top-scoring Rhodesian with16 kills - promptly took his 'Charlie' section down after the German. He gave the Luftwaffe aircraft four good bursts and saw him crash on the edge of a big wood. 'Charlie' 2, 3 and 4 - Sergeant H Hopkins, Flying Officer Harder, and the Trinidadian Sergeant N J de Verteuil respectively, had their own brief bursts at the enemy aircraft.
All of the squadron landed safely at West Malling except Harder who had to put down at Friston, on the coast near Beachy Head, owing to slight engine trouble. It was the first recorded ‘shots in anger' for "The Darlington Spitfire" since 27 July.
Next day - 25 September - 64 Squadron moved up to Coltishall, midway between Norwich and the North Sea. The first escort duty here (27 September), when W3320 was piloted by Flying Officer K V Calder, was a little different from most of the others. It involved going to the aid of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses returning from a raid on Emden which were being chased back by 250-300+ enemy aircraft. The bombers were successfully accompanied back to Lowestoft.
A few days later, on 29 September, the "Darlington" machine took part in its first 'Jim Crow' operation - named after the crow's nest on a ship - at 64 Squadron. On this occasion, the CO led 13 aircraft on a shipping patrol over the Hague and along the Dutch coast from Ijmuiden to the island of Terschelling. Nothing was seen save 11 fishing vessels. Such 'Jim Crows' were to prove a regular feature of RAF life for the squadron and W3320, but rarely was shipping seen and action was almost non-existent.
Throughout October and November, 64 Squadron continued with its staple diet of ramrods leavened with frequent 'Jim Crows' and the odd scramble, but the weather was often "dud” or "duff" and W3320 itself was not recorded as participating in operational sorties.
At the beginning of November, Squadron Leader Donnet left the unit after two and a half years when he was posted to Fighter Command. His replacement as CO was Squadron Leader E Cassidy DFC who came from RAF Hornchurch.
PART 9: QUIETER DAYS
It was not until 25 November that "The Darlington Spitfire" was recorded as back on operations. It was then one of eight aircraft on a shipping reconnaissance but typically nothing was seen.
After this two month absence from sorties, W3320 had a full December. There were several escorts - to either Fortresses returning from Germany or to Marauders or Mitchells going over to France - and several fighter sweeps over Holland and France plus the inevitable 'Jim Crows'. In the course of these operations, Flight Sergeant J D H Duncan - known to his mates as 'Dunc’ - established himself as the 64 pilot usually at the controls of the "Darlington" aircraft.
The first four months of 1944 were exceptionally quiet ones for "The Darlington Spitfire" considering that it remained with a front line squadron. It made only two sorties in January (but the squadron did spend two weeks off operations up in Ayr for air firing practice), merely one in February, and four each in March and April.
Meanwhile there were further changes at 64 Squadron. On 3 April, there was a new CO: Squadron Leader J N Mackenzie DFC. Then, on 29 April, the unit was moved from Coltishall to Deanland, down in the West Country.
The switch of location seemed to bring about a dramatic change in the tempo of operational life for W3320. After just 11 sorties in four months, she made no fewer than 27 in May (over a third of them at the hands of Flight Sergeant Duncan). Time after time, she was out on escort duty (usually to Bostons, Marauders or Mitchells), regular sweeps and 'Jim Crows, and occasional special exercises.
For the longer trips, the squadron's Spitfires were now fitted with the new 45 gallon tanks. However, the most common word in the ORB accounts of these operations was "uneventful". An exception was the squadron's introduction to train-busting: operating from Manston, 64's pilots knocked out seven locomotives on a lively summer evening's sortie (21 May).
In the early days of June, it became clear to everyone on the squadron that the long-awaited invasion of Europe was about to commence. On the evening of 4 June, ground crew began the business of distempering distinctive markings on to the unit's Spitfires. However, the ORB bewailed the fact that: "This job was spoiled by heavy rain which removed the distemper with an enthusiasm equal to that of the ground crew who were putting it on."
D-Day was 6 June 1944 and this invasion of Normandy - "Operation Overlord" - involved no less than 13,000 aircraft. 64 Squadron's particular role was to provide low beach cover over the American assault at 'Omaha’ and that day the unit made three such sorties. This was the pattern for the next week and, during all these fighter cover patrols, no enemy aircraft were encountered, Then, on 16 June, one of the squadron's Pilots, Flight Sergeant Duncan - a regular at the controls of "The Darlington Spitfire" but this time flying BMI29 was hit by flak north-west of St. Lo and killed.
For some reason, W3320 missed all the action over the beaches of Normandy. Indeed, in the course of June, only three operational flights were attributed to the aircraft, all towards the and of the month,. By this time, the squadron had moved to Harrowbeer in Devon (23 June) and a week later the unit started to exchange its Spitfire Vs for Spitfire IXs (basically the same aircraft but with a Merlin 61 engine).
The weather was too bad to fly the new aircraft until 3 July and then "the Spitfire Vs claimed their last victim from the squadron". Flying Officer 'Wally' Smart - one of the unit's most experienced and popular pilots - experienced mechanical trouble on a shipping patrol and tried to crash land back at base. The aircraft over-turned and he was killed.
It was on this day that "The Darlington Spitfire" left 64 Squadron after ten months, a record period of time for the aircraft to be with one particular operational unit.
PART 10: THE FINAL DAYS
The aircraft did not move far. For months, 64 and 611 Squadrons had been base partners, moving together from Coltishall to Deanland to Harrowbeer, and W3320 now passed into the charge of 611. The 'West Lancashire' squadron coded its aircraft FY and at this time its CO was Squadron Leader W A Douglas DFC.
Like 64, 611 Squadron had spent June 1944 patrolling the invasion beaches of Normandy, but it had seen a lot more action. It shot down at least seven enemy aircraft - the first squadron victories since September 1943 - but it also lost a couple of its pilots.
On the day that "The Darlington Spitfire" was transferred to it, 611 Squadron moved from Harrowbeer (Devon) to Predannack (Cornwall), still in the south-west. Here W3320 joined several sorties, including one on 9 July when a radar station at Pointe de Raz was attacked with 500 lb bombs.
However, in the same way that 64 Squadron had switched from Spitfire Vs to Spitfire IXs, so - only a couple of weeks later - did 611 Squadron. When, on 17 July, the unit moved from Predannack to Bolt Head (Devon) "The Darlington Spitfire" was left behind and it was subsequently transferred to 9 Maintenance Unit (MU) where it had started life three years before.
After languishing in an MU for a couple of months, the "Darlington" aircraft joined its sixth and last squadron on 5 October 1944. 63 Squadron - affiliated to the City of Wolverhampton - had just moved from Lee-on-Solent to North Weald, north-east of London, where it was commanded by Squadron Leader M Savage (although he was in hospital a lot at this time). The aircraft were coded UB.
At North Weald, 63 Squadron's main role was to reinforce the work done by the two Czech squadrons (310 & 313) and the RAF squadron (234) already in residence, namely that of fighter escort to air supply and paratroop aircraft and the silencing of flak positions. In fact, 63 and 234 Squadrons - both flying the Spitfire V - joined together to form a Wing.
Therefore 12 October found W3320 on a fighter escort for Lancasters, Mitchells and Bostons bombing gun positions and other selected target near Breskens on the Dutch coast. Then, on 28 October, it was on a fighter escort to Halifaxes and Lancasters bombing selected targets at Walcheren in the same area. These two operations - when Flight Lieutenant J D Scholey was at the controls - proved to be the last for "The Darlington Spitfire”, since the second accident of its career robbed it of further operational experience.
On 28 October 1944, two aircraft of the Czech 310 Squadron were landing shortly after dusk and in each case careered off the runway and into 63's dispersal. One of the RAF’s Spitfires was written off and W3320 suffered a 'Flying Accident category B".
In the case of both accidents, local training flights by 310 Squadron were involved. Flight Lieutenant M Divis was returning from Digby, while Flight Sergeant V Nikl was coming back from Manston when each damaged his own Spitfire IXF running into one of 63 Squadron's aircraft (forward vision was difficult in the Spitfire once its tail was down). It is not known which of the two pilots accounted for "The Darlington Spitfire’s" injuries, but it would seem that the offending aircraft was MA228.
As W3320 effectively left the war, the end of the conflict could be seen with the Third Army crossing the German border on the west and the Russians entering East Prussia on the east.
The actual graveyard of "The Darlington Spitfire" is not known. At the end of January 1945, 63 Squadron was disbanded and 12 Spitfires went to No. 41 Operational Training Unit. Perhaps she was one of them. According to Air Historical Branch records, she was "struck off charge" on 21 June 1947, six years after joining the RAF.
"The Darlington Spitfire’s" record was a longer and livelier one than average with the peak of its achievement reached in its first weeks on operations, It spent no less than three and a half years with the wartime RAF, in that time serving with six operational squadrons and making a grand total of 161 recorded sorties: in chronological order, 49 with 92 Squadron, 5 with 54 Squadron, 42 with 118 Squadron, 59 with 64 Squadron, 4 with 611 Squadron and 2 with 63 Squadron.
Its victory score was three enemy aircraft destroyed, another three and a half probable and one damaged, a most creditable record. All but the shared probable involved the ace Donald Kingaby at her controls.
Many brave pilots of different nationalities and temperaments were borne aloft by W3320 in the course of those three and a half years, men like Don Kingaby whose wartime score eventually totalled 22 and a half, the aptly-named R J Flight who was shot down while piloting another aircraft, J D M Duncan killed during the Normandy invasion, and others from as far apart as Australia and Trinidad, However, it was not only those pilots - or at least those who survived - who remembered the aircraft with affection; it was so many citizens of Darlington who recollected with pride that they had given the RAF a magnificent £5,000 worth.