We were really up against it, that summer of 1940. We all knew it…
Hitler’s Army had swept across Europe and was now glaring at us from across the Channel. The British Expeditionary Force had been brought home from Dunkirk. We were all beginning to lose weight because of rationing and now we were being reminded to always carry our gas masks – just in case. Above our heads the summer skies were laced with twisting vapour trails as the RAF took on the German Luftwaffe… and on the ground we wondered what we could do to help those brave young men who were risking their lives to save ours.
Fighting alone, with their backs against the wall, the people of Britain decided that the most useful thing to do, the most practical and patriotic thing to do, would be to buy Spitfires to replace those that had fallen. And so in the summer of 1940 communities large and small, businesses, organisations, societies, clubs, trade unions and individuals started up “Spitfire Funds”. As the poster showing a cheery RAF pilot suggested, their slogan was – “I’ll fly it if you’ll buy it!”
A Brief Financial Digression
In February 1940 a brand new Spitfire cost £8897.6s.6d. Airplane enthusiasts and those sad types who just like long columns of pre-decimal figures might enjoy the following price list…
|Eight guns||£800||Blast tube||15s.0d|
|Tail||£500||Oxygen bottle mounting||12s.6d|
|Airscrew (prop)||£350||Warning horn||10s.6d|
|2 x Petrol Tanks||£65||Spark plug||8s.0d|
|Oil tank||£25||60 screws||5s.0d|
|Header tank||£20||Engine Switch||2s.6d|
|Fuel Gauge||£15||A rivet||6d|
Although it doesn’t sound very much £8897.6s.6d was equivalent to about £255,608 today. Recognising that it would be difficult for cash strapped organisations to raise such large sums Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production, decided to make the public an offer that it couldn’t refuse. He dropped the nominal price of a Spitfire to just £5000, equivalent to £143,600 today. If your community or organisation could raise £5000 Lord Beaverbrook would build a Spitfire, stick your name on it and give it to the RAF. (In reality the next Spitfire off the production line was simply accredited to the donating group.)
Meanwhile Back At The Spitfire Fund
Encouraged by Beaverbrook’s reduced price the money began to pour in….
- In Liverpool a “lady of the night” left £3 at the Police station “for the Spitfire Fund”, this being the amount she would have been fined if arrested for ‘soliciting’.
- Fred Smith, aged 7, gave 6d, his pocket money
- In Colchester a man with a barrel organ raised £60 while a woman in the town gave up having “perms”, and put the money instead into the Spitfire fund.
- A cinema in Bury St. Edmunds showing Chaplin’s The Great Dictator “put a nail in Hitler’s coffin” with a coffin shaped collection box for the Fund.
- In Dursley in Gloucester the local paper ran a “Limerick competition”. The winner was Mrs Wise..
There was a young lady of Dursley,
Who gave to this fund each Thursday.
If others each day,
Were to give in this way
THEN CHURCHILL COULD SAY “NAUGHT DETERS ME!”
Between 1940 and 1945 around 1500 “Presentation” Spitfires, paid for by ordinary people, were produced, representing about 17% of total Spitfire production. Not wishing to be left out Richmond bought a Mk II Spitfire called, “Jubilee – The Borough of Richmond”, and Twickenham two – “Twickenham I” and “Twickenham II”. Citizens who might have wished for more exciting names like “Shanghai Lil” or “Scourge of the Skies” were told that names had to be straightforward and to the point. I wonder what the young pilots thought of going into combat with aircraft called “First City of London Textiles” or “National Federation of Hosiery Manufacturers Association – Leicester Section”
A cartoon of the time caught their reaction…
So What Became of Our Spitfires?
“Jubilee – Borough of Richmond” – Mk Iib P8347.
Bought in November 1940 with a donation of £6,203 19s 7d the Richmond Spitfire was called “Jubilee – Borough of Richmond” to mark the 50th anniversary of the Borough. The local paper said…
“If the Fighter Plane Committee has been able to carry out its full programme they would have raised enough for two Spitfires. But they had the satisfaction of achieving their object by raising £5000 in a month – and that in spite of the blitzkrieg.”
Based at RAF Coltishall “Jubilee” served with 222 (Natal) Squadron on bomber escort and “Rhubarbs” (penetration ‘nuisance’ raids into occupied France.) Later it took part in attacks against shipping off the Dutch coast. In January 1942 it was involved in a minor flying accident but was repaired and finished its service life at an Operational Flying Unit. It was decommissioned on 21st June 1947 and eventually scrapped.
“Twickenham I” – Mk Vb Ad116 And “Twickenham Ii” – Mk Vb Ad241.
The Spitfire Fund in Twickenham was started by Alderman A.G Greig JP who suggested that it would be “a decent thing to do to raise money for a Spitfire.” The people of Twickenham responded by declaring that they would give not one Spitfire but two – and did so by raising £10,297.
“Twickenham I” joined 303 (Polish) Squadron in September 1941 flying fighter ‘sweeps’ and bomber escort. During its service the aircraft was involved in the shooting down of 2 Messerschmitt 109 fighters and a Focke Wufe 190. In September 1942, lost on a cross country exercise and running short of fuel, the pilot, Flying Officer F.S Kingsford, crash landed in County Donegal, Eire. Kingsford was uninjured and allowed to return to Northern Ireland. The remains of “Twickenham I” were handed over to the RAF in Belfast on 6th December 1942 and then scrapped.
“Twickenham II” joined 111 Squadron at North Weald in October 1941 flying sweeps, bomber escorts and “Rhubarbs”. On 23rd November it flew into high ground at Titsey Hill in Surrey but was recovered, repaired and transferred to 129 (Mysore) Squadron at Thorney Island. In May 1943 “Twickenham II” was converted to Seafire mode for maritime operations and allocated to the Royal Navy. On 4th September that year the plane overturned on soft ground but was repaired (again!) and sent to 761 Squadron. Nothing is known of the aircraft beyond February 1944.
Much of the information in this article came from “Gifts of War”, a comprehensive reference book about Presentation Spitfires by Henry Boot and Ray Sturtivant. In their introduction the authors write…
It has been argued, with some truth it has to be said, that the fighter and bomber funds … did not produce a single aircraft over and above those which would have been built had the funds never taken place, yet people all over the world embraced the idea…..Notwithstanding the hardships and deprivation, the Spitfire Fund was something that everyone could join in and contribute to help “our lads”, from the common man to the elite, from the poor to the wealthy. And they did in their hundreds of thousands joined by their fellow citizens around the world in what was then the British Empire.
…and you would have done the same, if you had been living in St Margarets 70 years ago, during that long summer of 1940.
- The photograph of Spitfire Mk Vb AD241 “Twickenham II” is used with the kind permission of Richmond Library – Local Studies Collection
— from Martyn Day