History of Spitfire BR 108

by Brian Cauchi

--------------------

 

Apart from being (in my opinion) one of the most beautiful aircraft of the Second World War, the Spitfire played a major role in defending Britain and Malta at the worst time of the battle and later on to help take the war to the enemy.  I had been wanting to build a Spitfire for a very long time.  But which Spitfire variant?  These are many and all are beautiful and significant in their own way.    

A number of years back, I had the great fortune of making the acquaintance of the late wing commander P.B. ’Laddie’ Lucas at a book signing session.  This led to a unique friendship which resulted in regular correspondence and even meetings.  A perfect gentleman and always willing to help, ‘Laddie’ was a mine of information and through him, I also got to correspond with ‘Johnnie’ Johnson.  Since then, I was in regular contact with these two famous pilots and so the choice of which aircraft to model became very simple.  I would model a Spitfire which each of them flew. 

‘Laddie’ Lucas was the author of quite a number of books, the most popular in Malta being ‘Malta - A thorn in Rommel’s side’.  This is a detailed account of the terrible summer of 1942 when the battle was at the very worst and Malta was on the verge of capitulating due to a dire lack of food, fuel, ammunition and constant bombing.  He was then Squadron Leader of the famous 249 Squadron based at Ta’ Qali airfield.  This airfield was no more than that  - an open field.  The dust surface resulted in much wear on the aircraft and hence my extensive weathering of the model.  When consulting Laddie on which aircraft I should model, he instantly mentioned a VC coded T-R which he flew most frequently and in one particular instance was involved in action against three Italian SM84’s which were all shot down.  However, after much consideration, I opted for BR108, another VC coded T-W.  The remains of this aircraft are now located at the National War Museum in Malta.   

Apart from ‘Laddie’, other famous pilots like Buck McNair, Stan Grant and Paul Brennan flew this machine.  In the short span of 3 months, no fewer than 4 aircraft were confirmed destroyed by pilots flying BR108.  Although initially equipped with 4 cannons, two were removed on arrival at Malta.  This was standard practice on all VC’s.  Although unconfirmed the reason for this was to lighten the aircraft and to conserve ammunition which was very scarce at the time.  Considering that the Malta spitfires were already hampered by the tropical filter, the additional weight of two extra 20mm cannon did no good to their already reduced performance. 

Following is an extract from the book ‘Malta  -  the Spitfire Year’ which just about sums up the aircraft’s history. 

SPITFIRE Vc BR108

 Pride of place in the Air Hall at the National War Museum in Valletta is taken by the front section of the wreckage of Spitfire Vc BR108.  This was recovered from the seabed of Marsalforn Bay, Gozo, by members of the RAF Subaqua Club in 1973, and was the aircraft ditched by Flt. Lt. Lester Sanders of 603 Squadron on 8th July 1942.

 BR108 was built by Vickers-Armstrong (Supermarine) Ltd. in early 1942, its maiden flight taking place at High Post Aerodrome on 3rd March; it was flown to 8 Maintenance Unit five days later, then to 47 Maintenance Unit on 23 March.  From here, in company with others, it was partially disassembled, crated and loaded aboard the freighter Empire Heath, destined for Gibraltar.  Here it was reassembled, test flown, allocated the code    C-20 and loaded aboard the USS Wasp on 7 May, from where it was flown to Malta two days later. 

BR108 was issued to 249 Squadron, retaining the code markings C-20 until about 19 June, when it was re-coded T-W (T being 249 Squadron’s identification letter).  Finally, at the beginning of July, BR108 was transferred to 603 Squadron and was presumably re-coded once more, possibly as X-W (X being 603 Squadron’s identification letter)  Known important flights were: 

249 Squadron            Pilot                                         Action

9 May                          Plt. Off. P.A. Nash                    Bf109 destroyed

                                                                                    Bf109 probable

                                    Plt. Off. P.A. Nash                    Bf109 damaged

                                    Plt. Off. P.A. Nash                    Ju87 probable

 

10 May                        Plt. Off. P.A. Nash                    Scramble

                                    Plt. Off. P.A. Nash                    2 Ju87’s destroyed

 

12 May                        Plt. Off. P.A. Nash                    Scramble - hit steamroller when

                                                                                    taxiyng-in on return; damaged

 

6 June                          Flt. Lt. P.B. Lucas                   Scramble

                                    Flt. Lt. R.W. McNair               Scramble

 

8 June                          Sqn. Ldr. S.B. Grant                        Shipping patrol

                                    Sgt. R.B. Brennan                Scramble

 

10 June                        Flt. Lt. P.B. Lucas                   Scramble

                                    Flt. Lt. P.B. Lucas                   Scramble

                                    Flt. Lt. P.B. Lucas                   Scramble

 

11June                         Sqn. Ldr. S.B. Grant                        Scramble

 

12 June                        Flt. Lt. P.B. Lucas                   Scramble

                                    Flt. Lt. P.B. Lucas                   Scramble

           

16 June                        Flt. Sgt. M.E. Tomkins            Scramble

 

19 June                        Flt. Lt. P.B. Lucas                   Scramble

 

20 June                        Flg. Off. J. Smith                 Scramble

 

21 June                        Flt. Lt. P.B. Lucas                   Scramble

                                    Flt. Lt. P.B. Lucas                   Scramble

 

24 June                        Flg. Off. R. Daddo-Langlois            Scramble

 

25 June                        Plt. Off. C.H. Lattimer            Bf109 destroyed

                                                                                    Bf109 probable

 

28 June                        Flg. Off. J. Smith                 Scramble

 

29 June                        Wt. Off. C.B. Ramsey                        Scramble

                        Wt. Off. C.B. Ramsey                        Scramble

 

603 Squadron

 

8 July                           Flt. Lt. L.V. Sanders                Ju88 damaged, Bf109 probable

                                                                                    shared with Plt. Off. N.S. King

 

BR108 was then shot down by Lt. Heinz-Berres of I/JG 77, and ditched in Marsalforn Bay, Gozo, from where the slightly injured pilot was rescued by Maltese fishermen.  Although initially located by members of the RAF Luqa’s Subaqua Club in 1968, the wreckage of BR108 would remain on the seabed for a further five years.  

I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve built a model of a pretty significant aircraft.

 ‘Johnnie’ Johnson was the highest scoring Commonwealth ace with 38 confirmed victories.  He patiently supplied me with all the necessary information such as codes and serial number required to build the Mk.VB which he flew with 616 Squadron.  This aircraft was flown by Johnnie during August 1941 just after the famous Douglas Bader was shot down and captured, hence the inscription ‘BADER’S BUS Co. STILL RUNNING’.  The only photograph showing this aircraft is that shown and is featured in a number of books.  It is most unfortunate for us researchers and modellers that the photographer was more concerned with the pilot than with the aircraft.  The information which one can gleam from this photo is very limited and some of the finer details were assumed and certain decisions arrived at by looking at other 616 Squadron VB’s.  Even here, there are few photos showing VB’s from this particular Squadron.  Being accurate is sometimes very frustrating indeed!  In contrast to BR108 which was finished in a desert scheme, this model was finished in a temperate scheme with a grey/green camouflage topsides and lighter grey underside.

James Edgar Johnson was born in Barrow upon Soar in Leicestershire, U.K.  His first action was with 616 squadron in December 1940 when he flew Spitfire MkI’s.  He later flew MkII’s and as MkV’s as the squadron received these aircraft.  His first confirmed combat victory took place on 26th June 1941 when he shot down a 109E when flying a spitfire MkIIA.  During this time, he often flew as wingman to Douglas Bader.  He was promoted to Squadron Leader in June 1942 and took command of 610 Squadron flying Spitfire V’s.  In March 1943 he was promoted to Wing Commander when he took command of the Kenley Wing, flying Spitfire IX’s.  In September of the same year, he began a rest tour and returned to the front on March 1944 when he commanded the Canadian manned No 144 Wing, also equipped with MkIX’s.  In August, the Wing was disbanded and the then took command of No127 Wing  where he stayed till he was promoted Group Captain in April 1945.  His score at the end of  the war was 34 enemy aircraft destroyed and 7 shared plus a further 3 and 2 shared probably destroyed, 10 and 3 shared damaged and 1 shared destroyed on the ground.  Of great significance is the fact the Johnnie is the top scoring Spitfire pilot of the war and obtained all his victories whilst flying this aircraft.  Of all his victories, all were single engined fighters except for a Bf110.  

Following is a brief history of Spitfire VB serial number W3457 as obtained from Spitfire - the history.

W3457 was produced at Eastleigh and first flew on 10th July 1941.  It was transferred to No.12 Maintenance Unit on 13th July.  Its first assignment was with 616 Squadron where it was delivered on the 23rd July.  It saw service with this Squadron till the 23rd December of the same year when it was transferred to Air Service Training.  W3457 was involved in a flying accident and suffered category AC damage on the 13th July 1942.  It was repaired on site.  On the 16th August, it was transferred to 41 squadron  where it was involved in another two flying accidents on the 27th August and 11th September respectively.  In both cases, it suffered category B damage.  On 4th February 1944 in was fitted with a tailhook by the Cunliffe Owen Aircraft Ltd. and then transferred to the Royal Naval Air Station at Henstridge on the 28th March.  The Aircraft was struck off charge on the 28th March 1945.

Its history stops there and it seems that W3457 survived the whole war and had a rather varying career.  One wonders what happened to this aircraft in the end.  To think that it could have been an exhibit in some museum.  Another significant aircraft.

Brian

1/32 Hasegawa and Revell Spitfires   Engine, cockpit and gunbays  Part 1 1/32 Hasegawa and Revell Spitfires  Wings, Undercarriage and painting Part 2

Photos and text © by Brian Cauchi