Monday, 25 October 2021

Return of Henley-made wartime Spitfire whose pilot inspired classic film

Return of Henley-made wartime Spitfire whose pilot inspired classic film

PART of a Second World War Spitfire will be on display in Henley on Sunday to mark 80 years since its original flight from the town.

The plane, which was assembled at RAF Henley, took to the air for the first time on October 17, 1941.

About five months later, in March 1942, it was shot down while on a secret photo reconnaissance mission in Norway but was left largely intact.

It was found in 2015 near the city of Trondheim by Spitfire historian and restorer Tony Hoskins after months of research and was brought back to the UK in 2018.

Mr Hoskins, an engineer from Sussex, who runs Spitfire AA810 Restoration, has been rebuilding the aircraft for flight.

He will be bringing the restored tail section of the Spitfire and a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine to Falaise Square from 10am to 5pm on Sunday. He and members of his team will discuss the restoration with visitors.

The aircraft was one of more than 500 which were assembled at the top-secret Vickers hangar at RAF Henley, off Culham Lane, between Remenham and Wargrave.

The Spitfires were used for reconnaissance missions to photograph enemy troops, ships and bases and they were stripped of weapons and armour to accommodate extra fuel tanks.

As other factories were destroyed or put out of action, parts began to be transported to Henley at night. These were assembled and the planes test flown before moving on to airfields like Benson.

Mr Hoskins said: “Spitfire PR.IV AA810 took to the air for the first time from RAF Henley, having been built in secret at Vincent’s Garage in the centre of Reading and transported at night to RAF Henley for final assembly.

“AA810 was intended for top secret intelligence work from RAF Benson and RAF Mount Farm, near Wallingford, hence why it was one of only a few special unarmed super long-range photo reconnaissance Spitfires test flown from the quiet training airfield on the hills east of Henley.

“It was test flown by none other than Supermarine chief test pilot Jeffrey Quill OBE AFC, one of the world’s most famous test pilots.

“The aircraft would go on to be flown by jockey Mervyn Jones, the rookie winner of the 1940 Grand National, AFP Fane, the famous pre-war Grand Prix, Le Mans and Brooklands racing driver, and Guy Morgan, one of post-war Britain’s most experienced jet aircraft test pilots.

“All in all, Spitfire AA810 would fly the highest operational hours of any surviving Mk1 Spitfire left in existence today before being shot down on a top secret mission to Norway in March 1942 with Scotsman Sandy Gunn at the controls.

“Parachuting to safety, he would become a prisoner of war and would later attempt to escape from the German prisoner camp Stalag Luft III. His break-out would become famous worldwide as immortalised in the 1963 Steve McQueen film The Great Escape.

“Sandy would be caught and tragically murdered by the Gestapo on direct orders from Adolf Hitler. He died aged just 24.”

Mr Hoskins grew up in Didcot and used to visit the airfield at RAF Benson as a child, which led to his love of aviation and a career in plane restoration.

He hopes to have the Spitfire ready to fly by 2024, which is a year later than planned due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After he had finished the tail section, he began working on the fuselage frame. Next will be the wings and the propeller.

Work on the internal systems is under way and an engine is being stripped back before being rebuilt.

Mr Hoskins said: “We are about 20 per cent fully completed but in terms of work that we have under restoration we are about 60 per cent of the way there.

“One of the aims of Sunday’s event is to raise awareness of the Sandy Gunn aerospace careers programme, a charity which goes into schools to inspire 15- to 18-year-olds to explore engineering careers.”

Henley Mayor Sarah Miller said she welcomed the historic visitor and encouraged people to visit the event.

She said: “It ticks all the boxes in terms of the history and heritage of Henley and will be so educational for the kids.

“To learn about Sandy Gunn, who inspired one of my favourite films in The Great Escape, sounds like great fun.”

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