By John Illsley

Ask the average person what warbird they would most like to see flying in this country and many would give the answer "Spitfire", the name synonymous with one of the most famous lines of fighters to emerge from World War Two. The design in its various versions made a name for itself from the Battle of Britain through to the end of the war in Europe and the Pacific. Griffon engine versions extended the life of the aircraft into the post-war era, although by then it was a very different machine to the Mark 1 versions that had seen service in the late 1930s and the opening stages of the war.

Spitfire 5518 in one of the colour schemes it may have worn in SAAF service with Springbok roundels.

The South African Air Force has a strong connection to the Spitfire. Several squadrons flew the type in North Africa and then in the Italian campaign. South Africans serving in the RAF, such as "Sailor" Malan who led 74 Squadron, added to the connection. In the decade after the war Spitfires equipped squadrons and raining units of the SAAF until the fighter squadrons became an all jet force and the Spitfire was withdrawn from service. Most would be ignominiously cut up and sold for scrap with only a single example of a low back Mk IX being used as a gate guardian at Air Force Base Waterkloof.

Of the wartime SAAF aircraft only one was allocated for preservation, a Mk VIII (serial 5501) which resides in the Military Museum in Johannesburg. Of the Mk IXe airframes, remnants survived in various Cape Town scrap yards and one reasonably complete example (ex-MA793 and 5601) was found in the playground of a children's home near Hartebeespoort dam in the late 1960s. The latter was obtained by Johannesburg businessman Larry Barnett and rebuilt to flying condition by his team and Atlas Aircraft. In the wartime 40 Squadron markings of General Bob Rogers (who was chief of the air force by the time the aircraft took to the skies again in 1975) it became a highlight of the air show scene in this country in the late 1970s and the first half of the next decade. Although many imagined that the much-admired aircraft (named "Evelyn" after the owner's wife) would remain a permanent piece of flying heritage to be enjoyed in the country, the owner saw fit to sell it to an American in 1986. Although supposedly under the custodianship of the air force, it was virtually smuggled out of the country before the SAAF were aware of the export deal. Today, after having spent some time in the USA, it resides in a museum in Brazil.

Other major Mk IXe components went on to become the basis for rebuilds in other countries, with flying examples emerging in Canada, Australia and Britain. Less well known was a static example built at Snake Valley as part of an exchange for a Bristol Beaufighter in a deal with the Portuguese Air Force Museum. (The Beaufighter after partial restoration was sold to a museum in Scotland and so the entire deal ultimately saw no addition to the SAAF Museum collection). In short, there are half a dozen ex-SAAF Spitfires flying or on display overseas while in this country only a single example is to be seen in a museum with plans now underway to add a further example.

A painting of the Spitfire by Port Elizabeth artist Don Bell showing it when flying as "Spirit of Reutech" and in the markings of Spitfire 5553 for which photographic references were available to ensure an authentic finish.

The loss of the flying Spitfire "Evelyn" prompted the SAAF Museum to look at the rebuild of the example, serial number 5518 (ex-TE213), which had been a gate guardian at AFB Waterkloof. In the mid 1980s this was in the museum's restoration hangar at Lanseria but not being rebuilt. The departure of the airworthy Spitfire to the USA and the assumption of command of the museum by Colonel Tony Smit prompted an initiative to put 5518 back in the air. A Merlin engine was rebuilt in the USA and the airframe was restored at 1 Air Depot and completed at Atlas (later Denel Aviation) in Kempton Park. Much of the funding for the rebuild came from Reutech which is why the completed aircraft carried the name "Spirit of Reutech" when it took to the air again in 1995.

Amazingly South Africans then had the brief pleasure of having two Spitfires flying in the country. Andrew Torr had imported another Mk IX from Britain in 1998 and the two were flown in the same air show at Zwartkop in April 2000 . But the elation at seeing two examples flying together was to be very short lived indeed. At this same air show the SAAF Museum example suffered a partial engine loss and during the subsequent attempt to force land back on the air base it was crash landed through a boundary wall and very extensively damaged. South Africa's run of ill fortune with Spitfires continued when the privately-owned example, after having been bought by a Johannesburg attorney, was written off in a fatal accident at Wonderboom in April 2002, probably die to a torque roll during an aborted landing. A two seat version of the Spitfire was in the process of being purchased by a Natal-based enthusiast who was killed in the aircraft while under conversion instruction in the UK a week before the crash of 5518. If fate had been kinder, the country could have had three flying examples in this century.

For some years now, the only extant Spitfire has been the all-silver Mk VIII at the Military Museum in Saxonwold. The remains of 5518, after its accident, were stored in containers at Zwartkop, seemingly unlikely to again see the light of day. The Museum council eventually agreed to something being done about the aircraft. That project has gained further momentum in recent years with the adoption of the Spitfire project by the Friends of the SAAF Museum, Pretoria Branch. Although it has vacillated between a rebuild to static display condition and a return to airworthy status, the current commitment is to try and achieve the latter.

The Spitfire which is now the focus of a local initiative was delivered to the RAF in 1945 but never saw service in that air force and was ferried to South Africa in 1947. It saw service with 1 Squadron from 1948 to 1953 at both Waterkloof and Zwartkop. From 1955 to 1979 it was a gate guardian at AFB Waterkloof before going to the SAAF Museum.

The damaged fuselage of Spitfire 5518 which is now the subject of a project to rebuild it to flying condition.

The task facing the team who have pledged to rebuild Spitfire 5518 is truly an awe inspiring one but certainly not impossible. The expertise to undertake such a project certainly exists within the country but it is the funding of the project that presents the greatest challenge. This rebuild will require millions to reach completion. Fund raising projects have included the sale of signed prints of the aircraft signed by ex-SAAF Spitfire pilots as well as other memorabilia. A non-profit company has been registered to assist with donations that would have a tax benefit to donors. However, the pledging of support from aviation companies in terms of workshop time, in effect a donation in kind, may potentially be of the greatest value to the project. In this regard, some companies have already indicated their willingness to assist. Much work has been done assessing the airframe; labelling and storing small components; securing drawings and planning the engineering schedule. Much of this has been driven by retired Colonel Tony Smit, an ex-officer commanding of the SAAF Museum.

It is not yet clear how some key components in the rebuild will be secured. A case in point are the wing spars which are made up of a series of elongated steel sections of diminishing size, each fitting inside another to make up a spar. These are available from Britain as newly-manufactured items, but with the exchange rate being what it is at present, are prohibitively expensive to import. A similar quandary could be presented by the propeller unit and the engine rebuild.

John Martin who flew Spitfires with the SAAF in Italy and Albie Gotze who flew with the RAF in WW2 and with 2 Squadron SAAF in Korea.

The Spitfire pilots at the event. In the front row are those who flew the type in WW2 or in the Korean War period (as training for service with 2 Squadron in Korea) while behind are pilots who have flown restored examples of the type in recent decades.

In order to build enthusiasm around the project, a number of Spitfire events have been organised at the SAAF Museum in recent years. At each of these, as many pilots as possible who have flown Spitfires have been gathered together. Sadly the number of surviving World War Two veterans who flew the type in SAAF service has dwindled but they were joined on the day by men who flew the airworthy examples in more recent decades. I attended the most recent of these gatherings at Zwartkop on Saturday the 4th November. The wartime SAAF pilots and those who had flown them on training in preparation for the Korean War were the VIPs. This was apparently the largest gathering of Spitfire pilots in several decades.

The officer commanding the SAAF Museum welcomes guests to the Spitfire event at Zwartkop.

The chairman of the Spitfire Project Steering Committee, Ian Grace, introducing VIPs at the event.

All those present were given a progress report on the project and plans for taking it forward. The damaged fuselage of 5518 was on display as both an inspiration and a reminder of the daunting task ahead. There was certainly no much enthusiasm evident from young and old and one has to hope that this will help to ensure that the project gains further support, particularly from within the aviation industry. There would obviously be no greater tribute to those who flew this type of aircraft than a flying example of a Spitfire again taking to the air in South Africa.

Anyone who is able to assist this project in any way should contact Ian Grace
iang@xsinet.co.net or IanG@chemetrix.co.za

Events 2017

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