A gift for heaven: The Canada Aviation and Space Museum’s Supermarine Spitfire Mk IIb

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The Supermarine Spitfire on display for the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, 18 September 1940. Anon., “News roundup – Battle of Britain ceremonies.” Aircraft, November 1960, 58.

Greetings, my reading friend. As you may have noted by now, yours truly had been known to mention, oh, so rarely, the incomparably amazing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario. On this day, I would like to bring to your attention one of the flying machines which contribute to the galactic reputation of this national museum.

On 18 September 1960, an impressive ceremony was held on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, one of the crucial campaigns of the Second World War. The Prime Minister of Canada, John George Diefenbaker, a gentleman mentioned in October 2020 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, was on hand – as were Air Marshal Hugh Lester Campbell, Chief of the Air Staff, Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and approximately 1 500 members of that service. Approximately 20 000 people were also there to witness the event.

Diefenbaker spoke briefly, in English and French – an act of bravery for this man who knew how much his French was the butt of jokes in Québec. Campbell spoke as well, in English only. Both of them highlighted the bravery of the young pilots, some of them Canadian, who had fought and, in too many cases, died during the summer and fall of 1940.

Among the people who deposited wreaths in front of a small monument dedicated to their memory was Ernest Archibald “Ernie / Pee Wee” McNab, the first RCAF pilot to shoot down a German aircraft during the Battle of Britain.

Modern fighter aircraft of the RCAF, namely some Avro Canada CF-100 Canucks and some North American / Canadair Sabres, 2 aircraft types represented in the collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, flew over Parliament Hill, at fairly low level.

It is worth noting that the ceremony was broadcasted (live? =n English only?) by the Canadian state radio and television broadcaster, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

On display were examples of 2 of the iconic fighter aircraft of the 20th century, the very aircraft types whose Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots, helped by a number of Commonwealth and foreign pilots, kept the United Kingdom in the fight, back in 1940. These aircraft were a Hawker Hurricane, the more important of the pair as far as enemy aircraft destroyed was concerned, and a Supermarine Spitfire, the more glamorous of the pair by far.

While your truly cannot say (type?) for sure that the Hurricane in question is the one presently on display in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, I can state with certainty that the Spitfire in question is presently on display in a national institution.

One could argue that the story of that aircraft began around mid-1940, in the United Kingdom, at the newly formed Ministry of Aircraft Production, which was headed by Lord Beaverbrook. This Canadian, born William Maxwell “Max” Aitken, conceived the idea of asking members of the public to donate money to boost aircraft production – a crowd funding initiative to use 2020 lingo. That, or someone in his entourage came up with the idea. The aircraft chosen for that campaign was the Spitfire.

A sum of £ 5 000 (about Cdn $ 22 000), picked more or less out of thin air, could buy one of these magnificent aircraft. A wing could be later be bought for £ 2 000 (about Cdn $ 8 850), while a rivet cost 6 pence (about Cdn 11 cents).

In any event, money quickly began to pour in, from Spitfire funds formed everywhere in the United Kingdom, by businesses, local councils, individuals, voluntary organisations, etc. Local and national newspapers began to highlight the success of various funds, as did the state-owned radio broadcaster, British Broadcasting Corporation.

Adding to the magic of these presentation Spitfires, as these aircraft were / are often called, was the fact that funds who managed to cover the cost of a complete aircraft could put a name of their choice on “their” Spitfire. The resulting monikers turned out to be touching, mundane, hilarious or baffling. A British chain of movie theatres, Associated British Cinemas Limited, for example, provided no less than 4 Miss ABC to the RAF. RAF officers stuck in a prisoner of war camp in Germany sent in a month’s pay via the Red Cross. Their Spitfire was called Unshackled Spirit.

Would you believe that the only presentation Spitfire known to exist in 2020 belongs to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum? Well, it does. As of 2020, it was on display at the Canadian War Museum, in Ottawa.

Its story really began in November 1940, on the day British Prime Minister Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, a giant of the 20th century mentioned in May 2019, November 2019 and October 2020 issues of out blog / bulletin / thingee, celebrated his birthday. Residents of the Nederlandsch Indië, or Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia, a Dutch colony at the time, chose that happy occasion to publicise their purchase of 7 Spitfires, which were to be christened Bandoeng, Batavia, Ceram, Merapi, Soebang, Toba, and O.A.B.

Six of the aircraft were named after administrative areas known as residenties (residencies). The name of the 7th Spitfire, on the other hand, is a bit of a mystery to me. All I know is that it was bought by Dutch non-commissioned officers of the Koninklijk Nederlandsch Indisch Leger, the royal army of the Dutch East Indies.

In early December, the spouse of princess Juliana Louise Emma Marie Wilhelmina van Oranje-Nassu, then in exile in Canada, prince Bernhard Leopold Friedrich Eberhard Julius Kurt Karl Gottfried Peter zur Lippe-Biesterfeld, gave a check worth £ 35 000 (about Cdn $ 155 000) to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the British finance minister, Sir Howard Kingsley Wood, a gentleman mentioned in a May 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Incidentally, prince Bernhard was one of the high profile individuals sullied by the multinational Lockheed bribery scandal of the 1970s. You see, back in the late 50s or early 60s, the good prince and Second World War fighter pilot had seemingly accepted slightly more than a million dollars from Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in exchange for his intervention in favour of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, a supersonic fighter bomber under review by the Koninklijke Luchtmacht, or Dutch air force, which, in the end, chose that very aircraft.

When the Dutch element of the scandal blew up, in 1975, then Queen Juliana may have threatened to abdicate to prevent the Dutch government from putting her hubby on trial. While prince Bernhard never saw the inside of a jail, a shocking report made public in August 1976 forced him to resign from virtually all of his high profile positions.

Would you believe that the Dutch government then had the courtesy of burying the information according to which prince Bernhard had accepted $ 750 000 $ from the American aircraft manufacturer Northrop Corporation in exchange for his intervention in favour of the Northrop P-530 Cobra, a supersonic fighter bomber under review by the Koninklijke Luchtmacht, which, in the end, chose another aircraft? Said government feared that the good Dutch people, enraged by this new indiscretion, might have demanded that the prince be put on trial, an action which might very well have led to the abdication of very popular queen Juliana. And yes, Northrop was mentioned in August 2018, May 2019 and January 2020 issues of our blog /bulletin / thingee.

Interestingly, Canada was one of the buyers of the spectacular Starfighter which did so without the need for monetary lubrication on the scale needed to convince officials in West Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, and Italy. Back in 1958-59, the folks at Lockheed Aircraft may have been intrigued by the fact that Canada’s Department of National Defence wanted to buy their aircraft on its own merit. Not some / many officers of the RCAF, mind you, including at least one test pilot, who preferred another machine, but then, such is life. But I digress. Somewhat dangerously in this case perhaps.

Incidentally, some / many officers of the Luftwaffe and Japanese preferred the aircraft preferred by some / many of their counterparts in the RCAF. That impressive machine was the Grumman F11F Super Tiger, an aircraft developed for the United States Navy which was not put in production, just like the aforementioned Cobra, by the way.

And it should be noted that Lockheed Aircraft was not / is not (will not be?) the only large aircraft manufacturing firm sullied by a bribery scandal. But back to our “Spit.”

The Spitfire which bore the name Soebang, 1 of the 3 (!) three aircraft of this type owned by the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, was completed in the late winter of 1940-41. It went to No. 222 Squadron, RAF, in May 1941.

The Spitfire was assigned to Sergeant John Henry Bateman Burgess. Born in the United Kingdom in 1920, Burgess joined an insurance firm after leaving high school. He enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in 1938 where he did some initial flight training. Called in September 1939, like countless other young men in the United Kingdom, Burgess completed his flight training in July 1940. He joined No. 222 Squadron toward the end of the month. Based in England, this unit was heavily involved in the Battle of Britain.

Between early September and late October, Burgess claimed a Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter aircraft, took part in the destruction of 2 more and probably destroyed a 4th one. And yes, my wing nutty reading friend, there is a Bf 109 in the gorgeous collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, but back to our pilot friend.

Burgess had to make an emergency landing in late October as a result of damage to his aircraft during an aerial battle. He was seemingly not hurt.

Burgess remained in action throughout the fall and winter of 1940-41. He damaged a German bomber in April 1941, for example.

Burgess received his commission the following month, thus becoming a Flying Officer, a rank comparable to an army lieutenant. Burgess began to fly the Spitfire which bore the name Soebang just before or after that promotion.

Burgess probably destroyed a Bf 109 in August 1941. His Spitfire was damaged a few days later, but Burgess immediately got a new one, and… Would you mind if we continued with this brief biography? We will return to the Spitfire which bore the name Soebang before too long. Thank you.

Burgess damaged a Bf 109 in September 1941.

In October, Burgess moved to another squadron where he served as a flight / section commander. In December, he went to an operational training unit where he served as an instructor.

Burgess returned to combat duty in early August 1942. Three weeks later, he found himself on a ship sailing to Gibraltar where he was to command a fighter unit assigned to the defence of this crucial Royal Navy and RAF base at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea.

In October, Burgess moved to Malta, a crucially important navy and air force base in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, where he served as a flight / section commander in yet another squadron.

Burgess damaged a Bf 109 in November.

In late November, during a flight over Sicily, Burgess was attacked by a few German fighter aircraft. His Spitfire caught fire and crashed near the shore. Burgess was captured. Taken to the base where the pilots who had shot him were stationed, he was treated with a great deal of courtesy.

Burgess spent the next 9 months in an Italian prisoner of war camp, one of the worst ones actually, near the shores of the Adriatic Sea.

The collapse of the government headed by the buffoonish dictator Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, and the signing of an armistice, in early September 1943, which saw Italy surrender to the United States and its allies, was a total game changer. The German armed forces immediately attacked their former air, land and sea allies, which had not been informed of what was taking place.

The prisoner of war camp where Burgess was kept was soon taken over by the German military. He and the other prisoners moved to another camp, in Germany. They stayed there until the unconditional surrender of National Socialist Germany, in May 1945.

Repatriated to the United Kingdom in May or June, Burgess was discharged by the RAF in November. After some time spent in the insurance industry, he went into banking, where he did quite well. Burgess retired in 1980. He died in August 1988, at the age of 67 or 68.

Let us now return to the Spitfire which bore the name Soebang. Salvaged after its accident, the aircraft was repaired but did not return to combat. Indeed, it may or may not have been flown at all.

Transferred to the RCAF in April 1942, the Spitfire was crated and put on a British cargo ship. It arrived in Canada in early May.

The Spitfire was taken on strength within days. Test flown at RCAF Station Mountain View, Ontario, near Trenton, it was put on display at several / many locations in Canada between 1942 and 1945. One only needs to mention its presence in front of Toronto City Hall, in Toronto, Ontario, in November 1943.

The Spitfire went to a technical training school at RCAF Station Camp Borden, Ontario, near Barrie, in November 1947. It was displayed at several / many RCAF stations between that date and late 1964. One only needs to mention its presence at RCAF Station Uplands, Ontario, near Ottawa, in July 1962. Mind you, the Spitfire was put on display elsewhere as well. In August and September 1959, it was at the Canadian National Exhibition, a massive event held in Toronto each year.

Added to the RCAF’s collection of historic aircraft in December 1964, the Spitfire was spruced up and repainted in 1966, at a repair depot at RCAF Station Trenton, near Trenton. The colours given to the aircraft were those of a completely different Spitfire, which was / is somewhat puzzling. In any event, the Spitfire was put to use for a series of military displays known as the Canadian Armed Forces Centennial Tattoo held in 1967 to commemorate the centennial of Confederation.

The Spitfire went to the National Museum of Science and Technology, in Ottawa, today’s Canada Science and Technology museum, a sister / brother museum of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, where it was on display between 1968 and 1986. The aircraft then went to the National Aviation Museum, today’s Canada Aviation and Space Museum, where it was on display between September 1986 and June 1987. It was presumably a bit later that most of the aircraft of the museum got moved to the new building which opened its doors in June 1988.

The Spitfire was repainted in its original 1941 markings in July 1988, a month or so before the death of Burgess.

The Spitfire was loaned to the Canadian War Museum in September 1988. It came back to the National Aviation Museum in January 1999, but went back to the Canadian War Museum in September. The Spitfire has been there ever since. Since May 2005, it has been on display in the new building of this national institution.

Let us now conclude this brief journey into the world of presentation aircraft. By the time the Second World War ended, in 1945, no less than 2 600 Spitfires had been paid for by donations coming from all over the world. Incomplete records mean that only 1 575 or so of them have been identified.

Each donating organisation or individual obtained 2 small photographs of their aircraft, as well as a small plaque. How many of these plaques are still with us is not known.

Even though the British government did not necessarily need the £ 8 million (about Cdn $ 35.45 million), worth about £ 400 million (about Cdn $ 680 million) in 2020 currency, donated over the 6 years the Second World War lasted, the Spitfire funds certainly contributed to the British war effort, if only from a morale point of view.

It should be noted that individuals and groups also donated money to buy many (30+) types of aircraft other than the Spitfire. Approximately 330 presentation Hurricanes have been identified so far, for example. In all other cases, the number of known presentation aircraft of each type does not exceed 50, with the great majority under 10.

Undoubtedly the most touching examples of presentation aircraft were the Short Stirling heavy bomber and the 4 Hurricanes bought in 1941-42 by wealthy geologist, cattle breeder and feminist Lady Rachel Workman MacRobert, a widow since 1922, in memory of her 3 sons, who had died in 1938, 1941 and 1941 while serving in the RAF. Three of the former carried the names of the young men, while the 4th saluted the bravery of the Soviet people. The Stirling, on the other hand, was christened MacRobert’s Reply.

I would like to thank the people who provided information. Any mistake in this text is my fault, not theirs.

Stay safe, my reading friend.

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Rénald Fortier