SPITFIRE Mk 1 – P9374 / G-MKIA
By Andy Saunders
The story of the discovery and reconstruction of Spitfire P9374 is a truly remarkable one and a tale which has resulted in the very spirit on 1940 being encapsulated in this perfect stock-standard machine of the period.
In September 1980 the wreckage of a Spitfire aircraft emerged from the sands of Calais beach where it had crash-landed during the Second World War. Initially, the identity of the aircraft remained a mystery but following its recovery by the manager of the nearby Hoverport in January 1981, the Spitfire was identified as P9374, an early Mk 1 version of Supermarine’s finest creation. Further research established the detail of the build history of that aircraft, of its engine and of the story behind its arrival on a French beach and the background of its pilot.
Spitfire P9374 was one of a batch of 138 Spitfires built under Air Ministry Contract number 980385/38 at Supermarine’s Woolston works and delivered to the RAF on 2 March 1940. First accepted at 9 Maintenance Unit the Aircraft Movements Card for P9374 (AM Form 78) shows it to have been delivered to 92 Squadron at RAF Croydon on 6 March 1940. At that time this famous fighter squadron was engaged on Home Defence duties. The squadron’s aircraft carried the fuselage identity letters ‘GR’ with P9374 being allocated the individual identity letter: ‘J’. Thus, this particular Spitfire became GR-J / P9374.
The Merlin III engine installed in P9374 was numbered 13769 (Air Ministry number: 143668) and was built at Rolls-Royce, Derby, on 27 October 1939, was tested on 2 November 1939 and with a delivery date of 6 November 1939 when it was dispatched to 14 Maintenance Unit, RAF Carlisle. As added confirmation that this was the wreck of P9374 the engine numbers on the AM Form 78 matched those of the recovered Merlin.
During Spitfire P9374’s service with 92 Squadron it is known to have been flown by at least eight different pilots, including Sgts Barraclough, Eyles and Fokes, Plt Offs Bryson, Saunders and Williams and Flt Lt Green. It was Plt Off Williams, however, who ‘blooded’ P9374 in action on 23 May when he claimed a Me 110 destroyed over the French coast. Additionally, it is almost certain to have been flown at some stage by the CO of 92 Squadron, Sqn Ldr Roger Bushell, later ‘Big X’ of Great Escape fame. Another of the pilots who flew P9374 was Fg Off Peter Cazenove and it was he who was flying the aircraft on 24 May 1940 in what was his first and last combat sortie of the war. Records show that P9374 had a total flight time of 32 hours and 5 minutes at the time of its loss.
Flying from RAF Hornchurch in Essex the squadron were covering operations on the ground in what would ultimately see the fall of Calais to German troops. During this early-morning sortie P9374 was hit by what is thought to have been a single bullet fired from a Dornier 17-Z bomber and which holed the Spitfire’s coolant system. With an overheating engine, and with no realistic hope of returning across the English Channel, Fg Off Cazenove made a wheels-up forced landing at low tide on the beach near Calais. Before executing what was a perfect belly-landing Peter Cazenove had radioed that he was OK, and: ‘Tell mother I’ll be home for tea!’ From where he had landed he made his way into Calais town and fought a rear-guard action with the Army before the town eventually fell to the attackers and he was taken as POW. During his time as prisoner Cazenove had made several escape attempts but was later incarcerated at Stalag Luft III from where the Great Escape was mounted. Cazenove became involved in forging documents for the escapers, but of the many scheduled to break out of the tunnel he was last on the list. His physical size led to fears that he would become stuck in the tunnel, but this may well have saved his life as the escape was discovered before Cazenove’s turn came. Of those who escaped and were recaptured, fifty were executed by the Gestapo. Among them was Cazenove’s CO, Roger Bushell who had been shot down and taken POW on 23 May 1940.
The occupying Germans did not attempt to recover the wreck of P9374 and on successive tides the Spitfire sunk deeper into the sands until it had vanished from sight. Its re-emergence in 1980 is thought to have been the result of nearby sand dredging related to the operation of cross-channel hovercraft. Despite its long immersion in the sand many of the recovered components, including the engine and machine guns, were found to be in remarkably good condition. Sadly, it transpired that Peter Cazenove had died shortly before the recovery of his aircraft but he had remarked not long before he passed away: ‘I wonder what happened to my Spitfire and I wonder if anyone will ever find it?’
Post-recovery the Spitfire went first to the Musee d’l’Air at Le Bourget, Paris, from where it was acquired by a French collector, M. Jean Frelaut, in 1981. It was from Frelaut’s estate that the aircraft was acquired by the present owners, Mark One Partners, in 2000 and placed on the British Civil Aircraft Register as G-MKIA that year and their followed a meticulous reconstruction, the watchword for which was surely ‘attention to detail.’ In this process only a 100% faithful following of the build and fit was followed, down to sourcing correctly dated instruments and equipment. If a piece of kit was the correct type but, say, dated 1940 or 1941 then it was discarded in favour of a correctly dated item. This fastidious policy even ensured that the ammunition for the guns is correctly dated! Where possible, original components from the wreck of P9374 were included.
The fuselage ‘tube’ was constructed by Airframe Assemblies on the Isle of Wight, not far from its original birthplace, with the wings being built at Duxford in 2007 by the Aircraft Restoration Company. The fuselage and wings were married-up at Duxford in July 2008 where P9374 was fitted out, painted and finished. The engine and propeller had been re-engineered and constructed by Retro-Track & Air of Cam, Gloucestershire, and successful ground-runs of the installed engine were conducted in June 2011. Many components from the original engine of P9374 were incorporated into the build.
The completed aircraft was first flown at Duxford on 1 September 2011 by John Romain who later remarked of P9374:
‘This is a fantastic restoration to be justifiably proud of. Spitfire P9374 is a truly lovely aircraft, and she flies beautifully.’
© Andy Saunders 13 March 2015