(takes to the skies once more).
By David Taylor
First published in the August 2004 (issue 23) of Searchlight
50 years after the event (April 1st 1954), the 81 Squadron Spitfire that flew the type’s last operational sortie in RAF service from Seletar has taken to the air once again; well, almost! It all began in July 2002 when George Yallop, an ex ARS engine fitter, submitted a photograph of Spitfire PR Mk XIX PS888 to the Daily Mail, for their “Every Picture Tells a Story” feature. The words, The Last!’ were painted on the port side engine cowling, and the text related to how this aircraft had flown the RAF’s last operational sortie of a Spitfire. At the time, I contacted the Mail, sending them a letter for onpass to George, inviting him to join the Association. I never received a reply, but have since learned that George is so into Riley cars he has no time for anything else.
Another person to see that article, aviation photographer and Spitfire historian, Peter Arnold, decided to take things a stage or two further. During a chance meeting with Sqn Ldr Paul Day, at the time CO of the BBMF at Coningsby, he made the suggestion that if, when the six year major service and repaint of their PR Mk XIX PS915 was due, they wished to paint it as The Last!’, he would do the research and prepare the drawings. With the go ahead being given, PS 915 emerged from its winter 2003-04 major inspection, contracted to the Aircraft Restoration Company at Duxford, as PS888, in almost every aspect apart from the registration.
Of course, the story was a lot more complicated than that, for with only monochrome photos available, they needed information from somewhere as to colouring etc. Enter Brian Rose (464), ex ARS aircraft finisher (and friend of George Yallop; which is how I came to know about the Rileys!) – in fact it was Brian who supplied the paint for the lettering. The words were in fact applied about an hour after the aircraft returned from its mission – a photo-recce sortie over a suspected bandit camp in Johore – one George Travis, 81 Sqn member, and ex sign-writer, turning up with a cigarette tin, requesting Brian to fill it with white paint, and to supply a brush. Once duly painted, Sqn Ldr Swaby, the pilot, and 81 Sqn CO, along with the Station CO, Grp Cpt T King, conducted a small ceremony out by the aircraft, and that was it. Well, not quite, as an extract from my book, Seletar- Crowning Glory, explains:
81 Squadron also featured prominently in the news in April 1954, when on the 1st of the month Spitfire PR19, PS888, took off from Seletar to make what was to be the last operational flight of the type with the Royal Air Force. Strange, that, to all but 81 Squadron. Some months earlier they had been piqued to learn that not only had 60 Squadron (Tengah) been credited with flying the last operational sortie, back in 1951, but that Rolls Royce and Vickers Armstrong had actually presented them with silver model Spitfire to commemorate the event!
Sqn Ldr W P Swaby, 81’s Squadron Commander, decided to take the matter up officially, and in a letter to Far East Air Force Headquarters he stated:
It is noted that the flying carried out by the Spitfires of No. 81 Squadron should not have been classified operational with effect from January 1st 1951, and you are therefore requested to transfer the total of 1874.25 hours and 1029 operational sorties flown from that date to the training columns. Alternatively, the squadron will be pleased to accept an 18 inch high silver model of a Spitfire from the Commanding Officer of No. 60 Squadron in commemoration of current operations.
A result of all this was that, on November 21st 1954, Rolls Royce and Vickers Armstrong made amends for someone else’s error by presenting 81 Squadron with their own silver Spitfire. The presentation had been made by no less a personality than Mr Jeffrey Quill, OBE AFC, who, as the former Supermarine Chief Test Pilot, had flown every mark of Spitfire, including the first prototype in 1936.
What I’d be interested in finding out – been chasing after it for some years now, especially for my book on Seletar, but no luck so far – are details of that presentation. We know it was made by Jeffery Quill, we know the date; but how and where? Someone who was on the Sqn at the time must recall some details, but I haven’t yet been able to come up with any answers. I even contacted the Spitfire Association, British Aerospace (no longer any records of Vickers Supermarine), and Alex Henshaw, ex-racer, record breaker (in fact, believe it or not, his London – Capetown record, down the West coast of Africa, set in 1939, still stands!), Spitfire test pilot and good friend of the late Jeffery Quill, all to no avail. Does anyone out there possess any of this information?
Now for a few facts, rumours, was-told-by’s, etc on 81 Sqn’s Spitfires; gleaned from ex Sqn members, so don’t quote me!
At the time the squadron had three Spitfires: PS888, PS890, plus one other, serial unknown.
According to Keith Priest (177), that last Op was actually thought to have been a failure due to camera problems.
One Spitfire remained at Seletar for up to a year (Al Taylor arrived on 81 in April 55 and it was there then), presumably as a Station hack, and Sqn Ldr Swaby’s plaything! Yet, as Bob North (95) recalls it:
Some weeks or months later the three Spits were sold to the Royal Thailand Air Force. A fairly large group of RTAF bods arrived with so much gold braid on their shoulders you wouldn’t believe it. Their instruction in flying the planes seemed to consist mainly of three or four of them at a time leaning over the cockpits and having all the gubbins explained to them. They then took it in turns to fly. They were very brave men but not very good pilots as most of the landings were something to behold – such as dropping down onto the runway from about twenty feet up, and then bouncing up again. I was surprised that any of them were airworthy for the flight to Thailand.
PS890 was presented to the Planes Of Fame Museum, Chino California, in the late 50’s. She eventually flew about two years ago, albeit with contra-rotating props and clipped wings. I did have the pleasure of seeing this plane just a few months before she flew again.
Al Taylor (114), in Queensland, offers the following:
With Tengah-based 60 Sqdn having laid claim to the honour of flying the Spitfire’s last Operational sortie in 1951 (a ground attack mission), working on the assumption that PR flights did not count as ops, but forgetting that they had no target without 81’s PR prowess.
The theory is posed, to end the sour grapes by 60 Sqdn at having had the honour rightfully wrested from their grasp, that the matter should be ended once and for all by an air to ground attack on 60 Sqdn lines. Approval was apparently forthcoming, (Sqn Ldr Swaby, in his quest for justice, again went right to the top – H.Q. F.E.A.F.or maybe even the MOD?) and this raid was given ‘Firedog1 status, with authority to use 200 sheet ‘Aunty Mary’ issue Bog Rolls. Bog Rolls were duly armed to unravel upon release and installed in the Spitfire PR 19 bomb rack flaps and 1/4 flaps selected. It is said that PS 888, still bearing The Last!’ livery, was used for this operation.
The above would indicate that this “Op” took place after April 1954, although Bob North seems to think it was in 52/53, before he joined the Sqn, and certainly before PS888’s mission, therefore well before the livery was applied, so maybe that was a separate issue?
Data held at Hendon on PS888 is as follows:
2/4/45 6 MU (Service delivery)
17/6/45 542 Squadron
12/10/45 6 MU
13/12/50 Dispatched FEAF via Chivenor
27/12/50 Arrived FEAF
31/1/51 MBFE (Storage) – (MBFE: Maintenance Base, Far East?)
31/1/51 81 Squadron
3/6/53 Flying accident – damage category 3*
Sqn Ldr Swaby
5/6/53 Re-categorised Category A
15/4/54 MBASE(R) PI
Struck Off Charge
3/6/54 Transferred to Thai Air Force.
*Accident card records that at 0950GH Sergeant D G Hood was landing at Seletar after a formation sortie. The aircraft “touched down heavily with side load causing u/c to collapse”.
“Pilot lacks practice on Spitfires – to be restricted to Mosquitos for remainder of tour.”
Taxiing in (George Jarvis with chock )
Photos by Brian Rose
PS888 Adding the script(Photo Brian Rose)
Taxiing in (George Jarvis with chock )(Photo Brian Rose)