MY SPITFIRE ODYSSEY
The year I became a Spitfire hunter
- IAN HEWITT -
THE NORWAY EXPEDITION BEGINS
In Spring 2018 whilst travelling to one of the early season air shows I received a call from an unknown number, little did I know that the chap on the other end of the line was to become a friend and involve me in a story that I will no doubt tell for the rest of my life.
After a brief introduction Tony Hoskins launched right in. Leaving little room for interjection, which I was to come to learn is very much Tony’s way, Tony laid out his plan and how I could help make it happen.
With the full plan told I simply spoke a single word. I had no need of due consideration, no need for further time to assess the proposal, no need to number crunch, no diary that would not re work around the dates.
“Yes”….But I did have a condition. Tony’s expedition was to accommodate an additional team member.
Tony is a details person, he’d done his research on me and had pre assumed the likely hood my one condition and therefore he too had no need for due consideration.
“Yes…we leave in three months, welcome aboard”.
And that was it, as simply as that I was enrolled as part of an expedition to Norway to find and dig up a Spitfire. I hung up my phone, punched the ceiling of the car and spoke the word again…"YES".
HOW IT STARTED
THE BACK STORY TO THE MISSION
The story that had drawn me in so quickly was that of a very special Spitfire, a rarest of breed Spitfire you might say, one of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. Spitfire AA810’s story was entwined with the life of the last pilot to fly her, a young man by the name of Alistair ‘Sandy’ Gunn.
For the purpose of this story I will outline the tale of Sandy Gun and Spitfire AA810, however the full story is told in its entirety in Tony’s book Sandy’s Spitfire.
On 5th March 1942 Pilot Alistair Gunn lifted PRU Spitfire AA810 off the runway at Wick in Scotland and climbed to 25,000 ft. His mission, to photograph the infamous German battle ship the Tirpitz.
PRU Spitfires flew armed only with cameras. Their armaments having been replaced with cameras and additional fuel tanks to achieve the greater distances required of reconnaissance missions.
Alistair joined the tunnelling committee, although their first tunnel was discovered they were soon put to work on a second longer tunnel, codenamed Harry, and Harry was to become known the world over, made famous by the film The Great Escape.
Alistair was paired with Mike Casey to be the 63rd pair to enter the tunnel. On 24th March 1944 Alistair and Mike disappeared into the night.
Travelling to the Swedish border by hanging onto the underside of freight trains the two got to within 25 miles from Stettin, but were sadly captured by the Gestapo late on the 26th March.
Hitler was infuriated by the Stalag Luft III escape and order that 52 of the captured escapees be executed.
On 6th April 1944 at the age of twenty four pilot Alistair ‘Sandy’ Gunn was murdered by the Gestapo. He rests in peace alongside his fellow murdered prisoners in the Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in Pozna.
Seventy years after Sandy’s death I found myself flying out to Trondheim, as part of an expedition to locate, retrieve and repatriate Sandy’s Spitfire. Travelling to the edge of the Arctic Circle to dig up and return the remains of a historically important Spitfire is the stuff of comic book 'Boys Own' dreams. I felt humbled and honoured to be involved.
After introductions, a few beers and much excitement at the prospect of what the days ahead might yield, we retired to our rooms with thoughts of buried Spitfires in our heads.
Then, in no time at all we were travelling once more, in glorious sunshine through scenery that inspired and lifted the soul. In two hours we would be in Surnadal.
Surnadal is a sleepy town that looks out across a vista of broken fjords that drain into the Norwegian sea, beyond which lies Iceland. For us Surnadal would be a place of meadow flowers, of green green grass and vivid forests. This is the time for growing, for pickling and chopping and digging, but in no time at all Surnadal would be returned once more to the ice and the cold and the long dark days.
We were determined that Spitfire AA810 would not spend another year frozen in the cold and the dark. 75 five long Nordic winters was time enough time to bring her home.
But first there were respects to be paid.
SPITFIRE IN THE COMMUNITY
To a 1940s farming community in rural Norway a Spitfire, even one that had crashed in flames was a thing of value. Motors, engine parts, cabling, aluminium, bolts all could be repurposed and re used, brought back to life. Over the decades Spitfire AA810 had literally become a part of the Surnadal community.
Prior to trekking up to the crash site we enlisted the help of Frode Foss and Lilli Husby to convince the people of Surnadal to give up their Spitfire booty.
Weeks prior to our arrival villagers had started returned pieces to the Husby’s, there garage had become a treasure trove of Spitfire parts.
Me (Top left) with my first Spitfire prop complete with bullet holes. (Top right) Mark talking me through the booty from the village. Then off to the village hall under which we would find the wing sections.
With the contents of the Husby’s garage and the wings sections from under the hall safely loaded on our van we turned our attention to the following day. At dawn we were heading into the mountains on foot in search of Sandy’s Spitfire.
At around 12 noon Sandy dropped Spitfire AA810 down into the Trondheim Fjord to be picked up immediately by two waiting ME109 German fighter aircraft.
Flying as a pair the ME109’s took out AA810’s fuel lines, soon Alistair was on fire. Leaving it as late as possible, Alistair bailed out suffering burns to his hands and his face in the process. He descended by parachute landing on the hills above Surnadal not far from where his Spitfire had impacted the snow covered mountain.
At the age of 22 years Alistair ‘Sandy’ Gunn found himself alone in the harshest of environments behind enemy lines. With his parachute having drawing the attention of the local Surnadal garrison, his situation was hopeless.
On his capture Sandy was driven from Trondheim to Oslo where he was interrogated for almost a month. Finally, he was sent on to the new Camp Stalag Luft III.
As one of the first prisoners to arrive Sandy was soon joined by others and between them they hatched a plan to escape.
I'LL SEE YOU IN HELL!
Excluding yours truly Tony had put together a crack team of UK Spitfire Hunters. I would meet the team for the first time in a hotel at midnight in a town called HELL!
Gods – Expedition actually means freight service or cargo handling, but hey, what a sign to be greeted by!
Having accustomed myself to the price of alcohol I settled down to an evening in Hell and awaited the arrival of the five other UK team members with whom I would be spending the next ten days, not in Hell, we were moving out to Surnadal in the morning.
Left to right: Mark Hilliar – Author and Historian. Mark Khan – Author and Historian. Yours truly.
Left to right: Peter Arnold – Spitfire Historian. Tony Hoskins - Expedition Leader. Alex Hocking - Development Producer
The Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in Poznan is a quiet, pleasant place, well-tended for and friendly.
Shortly after the end of the War Sandy’s parents visited Poznan intent on returning their son’s remains to his family home in Edinburgh. However, on visiting Sandy’s grave it was decided that their son was well tended for and should rest in peace in Poznan.
We six stood in silence before that very same grave, the grave of a young man that none of us had ever known, I had no family connection to, no historical bond with. And yet here I stood bound to these five strangers and bound to this young man who had died seventy-four years earlier and to whom we six had made a commitment.
We would find Sandy’s Spitfire for him, we would bring her home and we would endeavour to make her fly again and we would remember the men of the Photo Reconnaissance Unit.
TO THE MOUNTAIN
THE MISSION BEGINS
Whilst researching the location of Spitfire AA810’s crash site Google offered up a gift. That being the existence of a dam within the locality of Surnadal. The dam was situated approximately 3 miles from Sandy’s crash site. But more importantly the dam had a private access road up to it. It was this revelation a year prior to our arrival that had convinced Tony Hoskins our expedition leader that an excavation of the crash site was in fact a very real and practical possibility.
We met with our Norwegian team mates on a forest road three miles from the end of which lay our Spitfire. On a bright warm Norwegian summers morning we shook hands said our hello’s then climbed back into our respective vehicles to begin the climb up to the Surnadal Dam.
I must confess that I had pre conceived ideas of what a team of Spitfire hunters would look like, so far my UK compatriots had delivered to that stereotypical assumption. Mark Khan and Mark Hillier our two military historians dressed in their cerca 1990’s British army gear, Tony in his steel toe capped engineers boots and Peter Arnold our Spitfire hunter/historian extraordinaire in his green country classic waxed jacket and of course me in my swanky expedition sponsors Spitfire Heritage Distillers t-shirt.
Our Norwegians on the other hand rocked far less stereotypical look.
After establishing our camp we set about planning the dig.
Our intel was that Spitfire AA810 had smashed into the mountain pushing up a large bank of earth which over the years had created what I can best describe as a folly surrounded by trees. Across from the folly was a grassy mound which we believed had been created by the Germans as they searched through the crash site throwing Spitfire panels into a stack in order that they could assess the interior workings of this rarest of aircraft a Photo Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) Spitfire which was as yet unknown to the German intelligence. PRU Spits were fitted with additional fuel tanks to enable greater penetration behind enemy lines, and of course a camera. In order to do so all armaments were sacrificed meaning that the PRU Pilots flew deep into hostile territories with no weapons on board.
Gura bagging up pieces with Eskils compressed air bottle to the rear and Radiator in the foreground.
I don’t think any of us ever called Gura by her name. She was known to us as Eskils Mum!
As each piece was unearthed our experts revealed the nature of each find, making for slow but fascinating progress.
For the next four days our routine was set. Up early, drive to the dam, trek up the mountain, resume digging, after lunch Gura and Hege would load their rucksacks and run down the mountain to the dam, unload their Spitfire parts and return for another load. Whilst we continued with the task of digging and collating.
As the excavation progressed it became apparent that Spitfire AA810 had not crashed in the position as believe but was actually some six meters from the bank of soil. She’d crashed in the snow, as the snow melted she’d sunk into a bog below her. Yes we had to dig on our hands and knees in a bog, cold, smelly work but we loved it. At the end of each day we would gather our larger finds and trek down the mountain. A muddy smelly band laden with trophies, the finds of that day.
That night, we sat nursing our beers, feeling beaten by the radiator. Then Tony put it out there. “I’m going back for the radiator tomorrow at first light, who’s coming with me?”.
As the sun rose from behind our mountain Tony, Frode and myself dropped down into Sandy’s wood. There waiting for us was the Radiator of Spitfire AA810, I imagined it smiling as we approached and greeting us with the words “I knew you’d be back”. I also imagined that Sandy was nodding in approval.
We lashed this lump of metal to a wooden frame, gathered our strength and began to drag our prize from out of the wood. Believe me when I say that this was no easy task. It took an hour to climb the few hundred yards out to the woodland. Finally, out from shadow of the trees and a downhill trek before us. We assumed a two man up front, one man behind formation, chipping away at the miles 100 yards at a time between rests and changing of positions. For hours we brow beat our tormentor down the mountain. We had to be back in good time for in the afternoon we had arranged to show the Surnadal people what we had retrieved.
Above: Back of head rest
Such is the folly of the English gentlemen that we began distributing the spades, metal detectors and general kit amongst the men. Frode (in orange) was quick to share out his burdens to Guro (pink) and Hege (purple). Frode knew, what we would learn soon enough that Guro and Hege were mountain machines. In-fact on one occasion I almost resorted to asking them to carry me!
Tony, ever the planner had brought his own gate to lean on.
Eventually we approached our destination. Dropping down into a sheltered woodland glade, conversation petered out, this was it, we had arrived, what would we find in this lonely spot?
It was at these two locations that we concentrated our efforts. The youngest members of our group Eskil and Peder set about with metal detectors.
In no time at all the detectors started singing but over a much wider area than we had expected. We would have to spread ourselves out!
In no time at all the glade began to offer up her Spitfire.
A great find by Eskil , one of the four compressed air bottles - note the test date 11 09 39
Tony, Froda and Lilli inspect the half Merlin engine block. (Left)
So how exactly do you get half a Merlin engine block down from a mountain side? Lilli came up with the perfect solution “Tomorrow I will bring my son”. He was in all fairness a big lad, young enough and daft enough to it. It took three of us to lift it onto his back.
As well as the large pieces we were uncovering hundreds of small elements Guro and Hege volunteered to run up and down the mountain ferrying rucksacks packed with Spitfire parts.
That’s a six mile round trip three times a day plus the walk in made for more or less a marathon a day half of which laden with Spitfire bits.
Boy did I feel stupid after offering to carry the spades for them.
Eskil’s Mum 'Guro' (Bottom right) with a rucksack full of Spitfire on her final decent of the day, carrying two spades!
At the end of our last day a melancholy descended on our group. This time spent working together had in some strange way created an almost spiritual connection with Sandy Gunn.
We all felt that Sandy was watching and approved of our efforts. Finally, it was time to leave, we gathered ourselves, said a few words of gratitude and left our bog with a Spitfire shaped hole dug in it.
Have you ever tried to carry a Spitfire Radiator? Don’t, they are ridiculously heavy. But Lilli’s son was back to university and our arms, legs and backs where spent from the days of digging, plus the heat of the day was stifling.
So after much anguish we opted to leave the radiator behind.
As we grunted and swore our way down the mountain Peter was marking out the shape of a Spitfire on the stage of Surnadal’s theatre, along with the two Marks who were laying out the identifiable parts in the appropriate positions within the plan. That afternoon the three of us placed our radiator as one does the final piece in puzzle. We sat back exhausted and looked at what we had achieved.
That afternoon the community came out to us, honouring the amnesty to return their pieces of Sandy’s Spitfire. I watched on as Tony, Peter and the two Marks received each piece of treasure with glee and reverence whilst they listened to stories of grandparent’s water pumps, milking churns, tractor engines and garden gates all powered or made better by parts of our Spitfire. R J Mitchel (designer of the Spitfire) would have been proud of the ingenuity.
The following day we loaded Sandy’s Spitfire into the back of a long wheel based transit van and watched as Tony drove away. He would later tell of passing through customs at the Port of Dover and being asked what was in the van. His reply inspired the entire allocation of customs staff to descend upon his transit. With pats on the back and “good on you fella” Tony was sent on his way. To return Spitfire AA810 back to her home after 75 years in exile.
THE MISSION BEGINS
Thankfully this is a story without end. With Sandy’s Spitfire back home the second stage of our journey takes us into the rebuild to flight of Spitfire AA810. With awareness building week by week for the rebuild of Sandy’s Spitfire progress is impressive and with the ongoing parts amnesty in Surnadal we have over 70% of the original aircraft.
In addition to the re build, great progress is being seen in regards to other aspirations of the project. After many months of ongoing work and with the assistance of Luke Graham MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, on June 27th 2019 Sandy and the PRU were recognised by the House of Commons, opening the door for a National Memorial to mark the significant contribution and sacrifice of the pilots of the Photo Reconnaissance Unit.
This was a significant milestone to achieve the project’s aims. For all the lives lost, for all those risked, and for all those men who are still missing.
In August this year the Sandy Gunn Aerospace Careers Programme (ACP) was accepted as a registered charity. The charity exists to promote, develop and support the careers of young people interested in pursuing a future in aerospace engineering.
It is also wonderful to report that the Royal Aeronautical Society has joined the ACP team and will be attending School Presentation Roadshows in starting in winter 2020.
May 2020 saw the structure of our first airworthy assembly complete! The tail unit of AA810 was completed by the engineers at Airframe Assemblies Ltd on the isle of White. The unit will remain with them until the tailplanes are completed and the entire rear end of AA810 will then move to Kennet Aviation for the internal fit out to begin.
It is hard not to feel proud of my association and contribution however small. It is wonderful to know that each week the rebuild marches on and electrifying to consider that in a few years time Spitfire AA810 will take her first flight after 80 years, 72 year of which will had been spent buried in the cold and dark of a Norwegian mountain.
There will be two parties that I for one will be attending one in Wick and one in Surnadal. And at both I will be raising a glass of Spitfire Heritage. Until then…Be Proud of your Spitfire Heritage.