Alone, Above All

Photo Reconnaissance

A Spitfire PRXI flies high and alone on an RAF publicity photo opportunity which creates a sense of serenity and peace in the operations of these Spitfires. The missions were in fact fraught with danger calling up reserves of courage and resourcefulness as well as navigational and airmanship skills second to none in the air war. Image copyright: © IWM

‘There are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall.’   

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette


A Supermarine Spitfire PR.XI of No. 541 Squadron RAF based at Benson, Oxfordshire, flys over the photographer’s aircraft, showing the ‘split-pair’ camera ports under the fuselage, aft of the wing roots. Copyright: © IWM.

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By its very nature, war calls upon the courage of men and women. What comes to mind when we consider courage might be images of soldiers holding off great numbers of the enemy singlehanded; or deeds that beggar belief such as climbing out on to an airborne aircraft’s burning wing to extinguish a fire in an engine; or acts of self sacrifice such as remaining on station in the face of certain death to ensure one’s comrades have a chance at survival.

Military units are at least configured such that a combatant is rarely, if ever alone. Officers and men alike know that courage is contagious, but so is fear and since the start of organised conflict military hierarchy and unit structure has been used to leverage the former and mitigate the latter. Even in the mechanised era, which has effectively removed large units of men from the zone of conflict, a man assigned to a squad or combat machine of some sort, be it a tank, bomber or ship, shares his risk with his crew mates. Almost all first-hand stories of war and combat demonstrate men were usually far more concerned with what their comrades thought of their courage than almost anything else; their overriding compulsion is rarely described as a commitment to the military objective, rather it was in staying with, and looking after their mates.

There are exceptions of course, those rare individuals that possess a level of courage that doesn’t require company or witness. Families who risked everything to hide jews from the deportation trains in occupied Europe, for one. Espionage, another example, requires its participants to eschew comrades and instead rely only on their wits, their intelligence and their ability to hide, to blend in. Comradeship in their occupation brings the risk of betrayal, usually leading to an unpleasant incarceration and most likely an anonymous execution thereafter.

High above the clouds, alone and defenceless, a Spitfire PR.XI skimming the clouds. For the resourceful and courageous pilot able to rely on his wits and airmanship, the PR role must have offered a tremendous opportunity for freedom of action rare amongst pilots who flew as part of a regular fighter squadron.

Aerial Photo Reconnaissance is another of those shadowy, solitary tasks, albeit perhaps a little less glamorous in popular culture than espionage. While the vast majority of military pilots during the Second World War flew and fought in Flights as part of Squadrons, and most of those as part of a crew, not so the PR pilot. The PR pilot flew alone, in an unarmed Spitfire and by necessity over enemy territory. In thinking of the archetypical image of a Spitfire pilot one conjures scenes of the Battle of Britain, of the air action over Dieppe or No Ball fighter bomber sweeps over Western Europe; all such images involve swarms of fighters in massed combat, wingmen looking out for each other; the purity, even perhaps a form of chivalry in the dogfight. No such opportunity exists for the PR pilot for among other reasons, he has no guns with which to fight.

The Photo Recon pilot had no wingman, no flight, no formation. He flew alone in radio silence for hours at a time, navigating on dead reckoning all over mainland Europe; in his unarmed Spitfire he had only its altitude and speed along with his wits and airmanship as protection. And, if enemy aircraft, flak or mechanical issues didn’t bring him down (and the latter was by far not unknown), the weather was an omnipresent threat. Their’s was that rare solitary kind of courage founded in self-reliance and perseverance as they well knew that the target not photographed today would have to be photographed tomorrow. And finally, perhaps most poignantly, if he didn’t come back there was no one to tell why or how he met his end.

The Tool of the Trade; Photo Recon Spitfire

At the start of the war the RAF did not have an effective PR aircraft, though the need had been identified well prior. Despite chronic shortages in the early months of the war, in October 1939 two Spitfire Mk Is were allocated for development as photo reconnaissance aircraft. These two became the first of what would eventually total around a thousand PR Spitfires converted or manufactured during the war.

Initially designated by letters of the alphabet, A through F, (the “A” was built from a Mk I, the “B” from a Mk.II, etc.) the PR Spitfires were later known by the designation “PR”. From the Type “D” onward all were characterised by the specificity of their wings, known as the “Bowser Wing” because it held 114 gallons of fuel in leading edge wing fuel tanks in place of guns, and by the various configurations of fuselage mounted vertical and oblique cameras, as well as in their wings. It was capable of mounting cameras ranging in focal length from 5″ to 36″.

Spitfire PR Type D Mark IV, the first true PR Spitfire Mark. The PRIV was in fact the longest ranged PR Spitfire reaching Berlin with ease and even ranging as far as Stettin on the Baltic coast. Copyright: © IWM

The most produced PR Spitfire was the PR.XI of which 470 examples were produced. Based on the Mk.IX fuselage married with an updated Bowser Wing containing slightly more fuel than the earlier version at 133 gallons capacity. The PR.XI became the workhorse of the PR Spitfire type, equipping all of the RAF’s PR squadrons from the summer of 1943 onwards. The PR.XI flew the vast majority of PR sorties for the remainder of the war.

Spitfire PR.XI, PL775 of No. 541 Squadron RAF based at Benson, Oxfordshire, in flight. The PR.XI was the most produced of the PR Spitfires with 470 built and saw service from late 1943 through to the end of the war in almost all theatres of operations in Europe, North Africa and the Far East. Copyright: © IWM

In the Spring of 1944 the high altitude PR.X was produced by splicing the PRXI’s Bowser Wing to the Mk.VII pressurised fuselage. Only sixteen PR.X’s were produced however as it was almost immediately superseded by the Griffin engined PR.XIX which brought with it better performance at all attitudes than both the PR.XI and X.

The final, and definitive PR Spitfire, the PR.XIX. This particular aircraft was issued to No. 542 Squadron RAF at Benson, Oxfordshire, and was one of the last Spitfires to be lost to enemy action when it was abandoned off Norfolk while returning damaged from a sortie over the Ruhr on 6 January 1945. Copyright: © IWM

There’s a small irony in that the relatively short ranged Spitfire, built as an interceptor to win localised air superiority and initially tasked with defending the United Kingdom’s skies became, among other things, the long range PR weapon of choice. It became able to reach deep into Germany, including to Berlin, and provided the RAF and allies with a vital capability as they took the war to the Germans from 1943 onwards.

Getting There

Dead Reckoning Navigation (which in the interests of brevity I will initialise as DRN) is in principle a simple proposition, and at its very simplest it’s managed thus;

Speed x Time = Distance

Distance x Heading = Location

A pilot starting from a known location on a known heading for a known measure of time can determine with relative certainty where he is at any given moment. As long there’s no wind. Or other weather.

If there is weather – there is always weather – things become more complex. For example, if the target destination is due east but the wind is coming from the north, the pilot will need to fly a course which is north of east to arrive at his or her desired location. But how much north? and what does that adjustment mean for the speed calculation because airspeed and ground speed are now different? The solution to this lies in a tool invented by a US Naval Officer named Phillip Dalton, which became known as the the E6B (its USN inventory number, as it happened). The versions used by the RAF during the Second World War were the models C, D, and G, the last of which was patented in 1937.

A cardboard E6B; the PR Pilots would have used something substantially the same as this for their navigation

In making his flight plan for a PR sortie, the pilot would include way points where he would check his position against known ground features. As a typical sortie would include more than one target, several waypoints were usually planned for each leg of the route, and also for the return trip to home base.

This assumes he can see the ground of course; cloud cover could, and often did obscure ground features and taking an unarmed Spitfire too low would expose him to enemy fighters and anti aircraft fire. The Records of Operations for the RAF’s No. 541 Squadron are filled with sortie reports where 10/10 clouds obscured the target and the job had to be abandoned with no result. It was common for a pilot to fly four-plus hours over enemy territory to several targets and not see the ground once, nor take a single photo.

Clear skies weren’t without hazard either. Flying higher than 27,000′ produces a contrail that shows clearly against a blue sky and while the flak batteries below could not see the PRU Blue coloured Spitfire producing it, they did of course know exactly where their target was. Contrails also alerted enemy interceptors, and while PR Spitfires had [usually] less to fear from them than from flak, having to take evasive action complicates navigation and uses fuel which wasn’t always in plentiful supply for the longer ranged missions.

Getting The Photos

Once at the target though, the PR Spitfire was well equipped to get the images needed. The standard configuration from the PR.XI onwards was two F52 36″ cameras set up vertically in the fuselage aiming down and slightly out with overlapping fields of view. Their primary purpose was high altitude wide angle vertical shots designed to provide photo interpreters with a very clear image on targeting or damage assessment.

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the wrecked marshalling yards at Les Aubrais/Orleans, France, following a raid on the night of 19/20 May 1944 by 118 Avro Lancasters and 4 De Havilland Mosquitos of Nos. 1 and 8 Groups RAF, Bomber Command. This was a particularly accurate attack which put the yards entirely out of action before the Allied invasion of Normandy. This image was captured on 20 May by F/O A.M. Lott (R.C.A.F.) of No. 541 Squadron in a Spitfire PR.X MD193. Copyright: © IWM

In addition to the main cameras there was a station in the fuselage side behind the pilot to mount a camera for oblique angle photos. These photos were low level and useful for providing more context to targets than a view from directly above.

Low-level oblique camera-taken image of the Rhine River barrage at Kembs, near Mulhouse, Germany, prior to the attack by No. 617 Squadron RAF on 7 October 1944. This image was captured by Spitfire PR.XIX RM637 of No. 541 Squadron flown by F/L R.F.C. Garvey. Remarkably, shortly before taking this image, his aircraft had been hit in the tail by flak, jamming the elevators for a short time. He was able to free some movement by “extreme pressure on the stick” and “was able to control the aircraft’s attitude by throttle” though it flew tail down. His report expressed regret this meant the images “would show a slant” ! Copyright: © IWM

Getting Home

Stories abound of PR pilots’ resourcefulness, courage, and sometimes luck in completing their camera runs and then making it home. There are also multiple reports of ditching and forced landings due to mechanical failure of one sort or another recorded in the Operations Record Books; there are attacks by enemy aircraft, and friendly aircraft too; very many reports include remarks on ground fire, be it flak at high altitude or tracer and small arms fire when down low. A close look at the Records of Operations for No. 541 Squadron in only the month of October, 1944 elicited the following remarkable sorties among the one hundred flown that month.

On Monday the 2nd of October, 1944, F/O J.N. Rowbothom flying a PR.XI (PL901) was chased off target by Mustangs that failed to recognise him as a friendly. Fortunately he was able to evade their attempts to shoot him down.

Four days later on Friday the 6th, F/L R.F.C. Garvey flying a PR.XIX (RM637) encountered heavy anti aircraft fire while photographing Koblenz at only 6,500′. After completing his second run he saw two enemy Fw190s above and to the southwest of his position. F/L Garvey immediately opened up his Griffen engined Spitfire in a climbing turn to the west. As he made the turn however, he noticed some form of vapour trail from the leading Fw190 which he assumed to indicate methanol injection was being used to boost its power. Indeed, the enemy aircraft was able to close the range to only 700yds, opening fire as he did so. Garvey immediately pushed his Spitfire over into a tight spiralling dive down to zero feet in a desperate evasive manoeuvre but at least one of the Fw190s was able to pursue him downwards. Now flying at zero feet and with throttle wide open, Garvey pulled another steep turn which again the pursuing enemy aircraft attempted to follow. Part way through the turn Garvey pulled up hard to clear some trees, and while he was able to pull his Spitfire up and over them, the enemy aircraft did not, exploding as it crashed into them. The other enemy aircraft had failed to follow and was nowhere to be seen. Garvey set course for home. For this remarkable feat of airmanship in downing an enemy aircraft by superior flying skills alone, F/L R.F.C. Garvey was awarded a Bar to his D.F.C..

541’s Record of Operations entry for F/L R.F.C. Garvey’s history claim of a Fw190 he flew into the ground on 6th October 1944. Garvey was awarded a Bar to his D.F.C. for the action. Edit January, 2023 – F/L Garvey’s Spitfire is now the subject of its own article, “Zero Feet, and Throttle Wide Open” as well as the model of his Spitfire added to this piece.

Garvey was in the thick of it again the next day. On the 7th, and flying the same Spitfire, it was struck in the tail by ground fire while on approach to the target, jamming his elevators for a short time. He was able to free some movement in them by “extreme pressure on the stick” and thereafter “was able to control the aircraft’s attitude by throttle” though it continued to fly in a tail-down attitude. His report expressed regret that due to this his photos “would show a slant“.

Also on the 7th, F/O A.M. Lott reported being harassed by [not so] friendly fighters while flying a PR.XI (PL901), though fortunately they inflicted no more harm than to cause him to abort the camera run on the target.

After a quiet couple of weeks, on the 28th F/L L.S. Dearling flying Spitfire PR.XI (PL856) was forced to abort his sortie when close to his target due to a failure of the auxiliary fuel tank to release.

And finally, on Tuesday the 31st, Lt. T.F. Mayer of the SAAF flying a Mustang FB182 was forced to abort his low level camera run gathering images of bombing damage when it became apparent that the bombing was in fact still ongoing! being naturally somewhat surprised to find his aircraft bracketed by bombs falling either side of him from above!

There were other periods of intense action for No. 541 Squadron such as the intense action around the German Ardennes offensive, and as it had been the previous September in support of Operation Market Garden. No month was worse though than March, 1945, agonisingly close to the end of the war, when No. 541 lost six pilots, the Record of Operations simply noting against each that the “A/C failed to return“.

A simple notation marks the loss of one of six pilots lost by No. 541 Squadron in March 1945; “A/C failed to return”

Even in the midst of such losses, during that same month Belgian pilot F/O L.J. Mouson in a PR.XI (PL968) demonstrated the resourcefulness, courage, determination and luck that making it home from PR work required. His mission on the 12th took him to targets in both The Hague and Hamburg at 25,000ft. After an uneventful camera run in The Hague, upon arrival at Hamburg he found all targets were obscured by 10/10ths cloud. Nonetheless, he made two camera runs nearby which he felt might have covered alternate “jobs” in the sortie target list. Turning for home at 25,500ft and some way to the north of Nienburg he was intercepted by two Me163 rocket powered fighters which then made several attacking passes at him, working as a pair, one 200m behind the other. On each occasion Mouson waited until the enemy aircraft were in firing range before throttling back sharply and entering a tight turn to either port or starboard, each time causing the attacking aircraft to overshoot. After each one of the seven passes and subsequent overshoot, the enemy aircraft climbed before turning to attack again. Finally though, after seventh attack their limited fuel was exhausted and Mouson reported that they climbed a final time before gliding away slowly.

Excerpt from No. 541 Squadron’s Record of Operations for March 1945 describing F/O L.J. Mouson’s remarkable mission on 12 March 1945.

Having successfully evaded attack, F/O Mouson had decided to return to base when he was surprised to see a gap in the cloud cover 10 miles to the north of his position towards which he tuned to investigate. Upon reaching it he saw Hamburg docks directly below him and despite heavy haze made two photographic runs. At this point though, he realised his remaining fuel was becoming too low for comfort when compared to that required to get home. As the Germans clearly knew he was was in the area there was little risk in breaking radio silence to call for a vector to base, and he was duly given a heading of 230 degrees by an unidentified station. Some time later this vector was confirmed by station Gandy 49 who confirmed his then range to base at around 200 nautical miles. After a mission lasting close to four hours F/L L.J. Mouson landed at Benson at a little past 6pm with only 15 gallons of fuel remaining in his Spitfire’s fuel tanks, and the photographs he was sent to get.

If, like F/O Mouson and F/L Garvey to name just two, the PR pilot survived the hazards he encountered on the way to his target, found his target, was able to get the images he was sent to take, wasn’t shot down while taking those images; did not get shot down by flak or enemy aircraft on his way home, did not get lost, nor exhaust his fuel before arrival at base, and indeed successfully made his way back to base; he lived to do it all again, often the next day.

At least, they usually did. On 9th January, 1945 Flight Lieutenant J.F.V. Puysaelayr (Belgian) piloting a No. 541 Squadron Spitfire PR.X (MD197) returned from a five hour sortie to Berlin to find blizzard conditions in the area around his base at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. Having no choice due to low fuel but to attempt a landing in practically zero visibility, he crashed in the attempt and was killed.

Edit January, 2023 – F/L Garvey’s Spitfire is now the subject of its own article, “Zero Feet, and Throttle Wide Open” as well as the model of his Spitfire added to this piece.

Above All

The Royal Air Force No. 541 Squadron’s motto is “Alone Above All” and it’s hard to imagine a more apt description of the PR pilot’s job. Alone in almost every sense of the word; and Above All Else of everything flying: literally in terms of altitude and, I would argue, figuratively in terms of their airmanship, courage and determination. This is not to downplay nor dismiss the courage of bomber pilots, fighter pilots or any number of other pilots and crew who risked their lives sortie after sortie; far from it.

No, what I mean is something more subtle, the clue of which was in the opening paragraphs. Being alone brings for many of us a sense of disquiet, even a fear. While from time to time we all seek solitude, for most of us it is not our preferred state. In times of heightened intensity at work or play, we typically prefer that the stress is shared, that we work as a team; we take on adversity and win or lose together. In times of danger and fear, which thankfully most of us are spared in our ordinary lives, we seek the reassurance of safety in numbers, and with it the opportunity to lean into each other in order to cope. The fighter pilot was covered by his wingman and squadron mates, rarely alone and exposed if he found himself so; the bomber pilot flew in large formations, with his crew on board with him, a tight group of men that lived, worked, flew, and all too often died together.

The PR pilot’s job was by necessity a solitary one. It was a remarkable individual indeed who climbed into an unarmed aircraft to fly over enemy territory in all weathers to take photographs, sometime high up, sometimes very low. To do this day after day, month after month required an uncommon stamina. To note (with sadness, relief, resignation?) the losses of fellow pilots with no explanation of what happened, how or why they didn’t return, and then face that same unknown themselves, must have required an extraordinary courage.

And this was a kind of courage driven not by glory or fame, nor in becoming an ace, nor even in looking out for their squadron mates, for theirs was an individual and unglamorous task, unwitnessed in its execution and largely unknown to the public. But they knew though: They knew what it was they accomplished, what it was they did, what they really did, as did their peers. In reading the Squadron’s Records of Operations one senses a subtle subtext revealing an underlying pride in their work, a very professional kind of pride, the same sort of pride any craftsman takes in their work; I rather suspect that for them, that was enough.

It’s hard not to romanticise the notion of flying a PR Spitfire above the clouds, alone and in some senses of the word, free. How could it not be? In fact, while the flying must have been exhilarating, it was also extraordinarily dangerous work.

Converting an ICM 1/48 Scale Supermarine Spitfire Mk VII to a Spitfire PR.X

Supermarine Spitfire PRX (Serial Number MD195) of RAF No. 541 Squadron as it would have appeared at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire during December, 1944. MD195 was built at the Eastleigh factory near Southampton and delivered to 541S in May 1944. It was one of the six PR.X’s to see service with the Squadron and completed a total of 61 sorties, bringing its pilot home safely every time. After seven month’s service with No. 541 it was sent to the Heston Aviation Company for refurbishment on December 5th. It remained there for the remainder of the war until in October 1945 it was sent to Marshalls in Cambridge and struck off charge on the 13th of that month.

The Kit

The ICM kit builds up into reasonable representation of a Spitfire, at least in my opinion. There are tons of options in the box, so which Spitfire variant you build is largely up to you as despite what it on the box cover, the contents are largely the same in each. It does fall down in its representation of a Mk. VII though; most notably in the canopy not being a Lobelle canopy. There are other issues; the wheels and many other components are moulded poorly, the production quality isn’t always where it should be and the plastic is very soft. I nonetheless decided to use the ICM kit as a basis for my PRX conversation because I had one in the stash, I’m not as big a fan of the Eduard kit as many others are, and, well, why not? To that end I purchased a Barracuda vacform canopy and Quickboost lower engine cowl and PR Camera Set to make the conversion; I also bought a Quickboost propellor and spinner, wheels and exhausts to replace what experience has taught me were some of the weaker parts of the kit.

The Build

In order to create a PR.X from an ICM Mk. VII the following changes, conversations and additions needed to be made to the kit;

  • Make and insert the pressure bulkheads in the cockpit
  • Fabricate and install the humidity absorption crystals container
  • Remove pilot’s head cushion (not present on PR.X)
  • Convert the rear canopy section to pressurised configuration
  • Fabricate and attach the Lobelle Canopy hinges and hardware
  • Fabricate the black rubber sealing around windscreen and canopy rails
  • Replace kit parts with vacform “Lobelle” canopy
  • Fill the pilot access door panel lines (not present on PR.X)
  • Omit the dorsal fuselage signal lamp
  • Remove the gunsight holder (not present on practically all PR Spitfires)
  • Drill holes for the cameras and scribe for the starboard fuselage access hatch
  • Remove the bakelite antenna post base (post not present on PR.X)
  • Replace kit part for the lower engine cowling (oversized on PR Spitfires)
  • Replace the carburettor intake with extended version
  • Remove gun barrels and fill all associated panel lines on the wings
  • Scribe “Bowser” wing tank fuel filler cap and vent tubes
  • Attach auxiliary fuel pump covers to the underside of the wings

I also enhanced or replaced the kit following parts with resin replacements as the detail is soft or incorrect in the kit parts;

  • Replace spinner and propeller blades
  • Replace main wheels (from an Eduard kit)
  • Replace exhausts
I intended to finish this one with the canopy closed so not a huge amount of effort was expended on the cockpit itself. I did use some spare PE seat belts to enhance the look, but otherwise the only deviation from the kit instructions was the removal of the gunsight mount as this wasn’t present in the PR Spitfires. Note that the cylindrical objects on the rear side of the fuselage frame were removed and replaced with a piece of stretched clear sprue to represent the container that housed the humidity absorption crystals.
Construction on the airframe began with many of the conversion tasks; in no particular order they were creation of the pressure bulkheads front and rear of cockpit, the camera access hatch on the starboard side of the fuselage which was aided considerably by the photo etch template provided in the Quickboost conversions set, drilling out the camera hatch for the port side oblique camera, and filling the cockpit door panel lines. Work still required but not shown was the adaption of the rear cockpit glass to take the vacform piece.
The PR Spitfires sported the “Bowser” wing, so called because it replaced the guns with leading edge wing fuel tanks. To create the “Bowser” wing most of the panel lines need to be filled as well as scribing a fuel filler hatch and creating a breather vent. In the pic above, the panel lines are mostly filled, but I’ve not yet completed the latter items.
The wing to fuselage joint wasn’t too bad but the resin engine sump cover was designed for the Hasegawa kit, not the ICM and consequently did not fit, it was in effect too short. My solution was to cut the resin shorter still, fit it to the kit and then graft the the kit sump cover onto the resin to fill the gap. When happy with the splice, I installed the extended carb intake and finished the join with Mr Surfacer.
While the wing to fuselage seam wasn’t too bad, I did have a dihedral issue to solve which I accomplished with some surgery to the mating surfaces and some tension while the glue was setting. Note that the final task, fabricating the Lobelle canopy rails and attaching the clear parts still remains to be completed.
Test fitting finished, scribing finished, windscreen attached as well as the rear glass. The remnants of the paint I used to check the seams can also be seen. At this point I was suffering from sanding/filling/sanding/adjusting fatigue at this point and enthusiasm was waning… Thankfully, I reached this milestone and was ready to begin the painting.

Paint and Markings

This is a factory fresh PR.X, still at the airfield at Eastleigh. What colour is it? For me, this is overall PRU Blue though contrarians will point to the [apparent] demarcation at the lower cowling and possibly one one the tail wheel covers. But to me, this is more likely a trick of the light, and the contrast between the colours isn’t strong enough to prove conclusively that this is the high altitude grey over blue scheme. Copyright: © IWM
I am representing my model of MD195 at the end of its operational career, in December 1944. By then, it’s D-Day stripes would have been painted over. This picture of a 541 squadron PR.XI shows that their Spitfires did not carry a code on the fuselage side (while not conclusive by itself, the Squadron’s Records of Operations refers to their aircraft by serial number, not by a code letter), with only the serial number painted in grey, 6″ numbers just in front and under the horizontal stabilisers. In most official photos the censor has erased this, but it’s just visible in the image above. Lastly, the spinner is painted black in every pic I’ve found of a 541 PR Spitfire, no matter the Mark. Copyright: © IWM.
For the finish, this is what I am aiming at. PRU Blue was notorious for its poor weathering resistance and above this is quite obvious. Also note how the newer paint over the D-Day stripes contrasts quite strongly with the faded original colour. On my model I am note aiming at such a strong contrast as the new paint would be two or three months old at time of its representation and so exhibit so weathering itself. Note how the D-Day stripes were originally painted around the S/N which on this aircraft is painted in white.

So that was the plan.


As I do for most models with a monochrome finish, I started this with a basic pre-shade. Using a Tamiya Black I emphasised the areas I wanted to show as darker on the finished model. I don’t have the patience for the currently en vogue “marbling” style of pre-shade, and I’m not sure it even gives a terribly realistic finish, so I pretty much left things as seen here, and below. I used the kit canopy as the mask for the cockpit, the vacform canopy and rear glass I painted separately.
I used Vallejo Model Air “Faded PRU Blue” as my base colour and quite quickly applied a top and bottom coat. When that was dry enough to handle, I masked off the areas where the D-Day stripes were covered over (during October 1944 as described in the No. 541 Squadron Summary of Operations for that month) and lightened the colour some more and applied that to the original paint on the outer wings and fuselage. I faded the underside as well, but not as much as it wasn’t exposed to as much of the UV light which caused the effect.
The contrasting fading can be seen on this shot, with the chalkiness somewhat visible. I achieved this by random application of the further faded shade of PRU Blue to give a patchy, random look to the finish. I retained the depth of finish in the subtle accent of key panel lines. I further faded the control surfaces at the tail as this is quite clearly visible in the image of PL848 above…
…the tail – I was quite please with the effect I achieved on the rudder in particular, but whether it’s still visible when the process is complete remains to be seen.


First I painted the wing walk lines; I had pause on this because on earlier Spitfire production runs there was no line to the trailing edge on the starboard wing. There was a moment where I thought I’d messed up and was preparing to remove the starboard line. However, research indicated that in the later Spitfire production runs, those from late 1943 onwards, on wings with two radiators both wings were marked the same as the wing skinning was stronger over the radiators, allowing personnel to walk there. Next I applied the roundels on upper wings and fuselage (there were no markings on the underside of the wings) using Pmask ‘s RAF Roundel Mask Set. With that completed, I applied a clear coat in preparation for the few decals required to complete the markings.


Weathering! There were a few stencil decals to apply which went on with little trouble.  Next I tried, unsuccessfully actually, to accent the control surfaces and some selected panels with a wash.  For some reason I just couldn’t get that to look the way I wanted so I applied the first flat coat and resorted to a black technical pencil to fill the lines and then I wiped that back with a cotton bud to soften it a bit.  I then went to town with the pastel chalks for the grime and stains.  I sealed that with the final flat coat, with more applied to the “older” paint on the wing tips and fuselage.  Lastly, I used some Tamiya “Smoke” for the Spitfire oil staining; I used that as it has a sheen to it, same as wet oil.  Note; the white dot is the Micro Krystal Klear before it becomes clear.
With the underside complete, I turned my attention, and the model over to the topside. Following a similar process as for the underneath, I applied pastels and shading to create the griminess of a well used Spitfire. One additional step was applied to the topsides in the application of an extremely thinned solution of light great over the entire airframe but with particular attention to the original areas of paint. This simulated the very flat finish of the weathered PRU Blue and further faded it too. However, sharp eyed readers will notice there’s a gloss still to the rear part of the fuselage in this image. This is because I was stalled at this point waiting for decals to add the serial number.

The Final Details

By far the trickiest part of the conversion was the Lobelle Canopy. This entailed a vacform canopy, cutting down the rear canopy frame, adding the hinges to the fuselage runners and fabricating the black rubber seals around the windscreen and lower edges. The canopy itself was only painted on the lower rails as the forward and rear edges were left as the clear perspex moulding. The PR.X sported a whip antenna, unlike the PR.XI and it was relatively long, represented here by stretched sprue.
Some of the finer details… The top two images show more of the detail for the Lobelle Canopy.  The middle left picture shows the wing tank filler and vent, the lower left the Quickboost exhausts (not specific to the PR.X but much nicer than the kit parts) and bottom right image shows the Bowser Wing.


I don’t often add a conclusion to the build section but I think this time it’s worth a summary. In hindsight I wouldn’t use the ICM kit as the basis for the conversion were I to do this again. The kit isn’t good enough for a conversion though I still think it’s a good kit – I have a MK VIII in the stash and will build it as such, and it will suffice for that purpose.

I have it in my mind to [one day] complete a 541 Squadron collection with F/O Mouson’s PR.XI, and F/L Garvey’s PR.XIX joining my PR.X. The Airfix kit more than meets the requirements for the PR.XIX and despite not being thoroughly enamoured with it, I think I’ll likely go with an Eduard kit for the PR.XI.

Notwithstanding the trials of basing this conversation on an ICM kit though, building a conversion brings with it a satisfaction not found in OOB builds, founded in creating something rather than assembling it. It’s not always fun, and it doesn’t always work [well], but it always delivers an enhanced pride in the result. Speaking of which, here’s my result with this one…

Airfix 1/48 Spitfire PR.XIX as F/L Garvey’s PR.XIX RM637

Airfix’s 1/48 Spitfire PR.XIX builds relatively easily to a nice looking representation of the real thing. The engineering was intuitive and the fit was very good. There was only one issue to overcome, that being the inner flaps were much smaller than the space provided for them.

Of note however, is the kit out off the box is for a main production PR.XIX, the first production batch, albeit a small run, was built from what were essentially converted Mk.XIVs and did not have the pressurised cockpit.


The changes necessary to create one of the early unpressurised PR.XIXs from the Airfix kit are relatively simple; fishtail exhausts to replace the kit-supplied round exhausts, four-spoke wheels in place of the five-spoke, scribe a cockpit entry door, a “standard” rear cockpit bulkhead, “standard” high back canopy and rear glass, a rounded windscreen without armour, and removal of the air intake on the port forward fuselage.

I used some aftermarket resin for the wheels and exhausts and adapted the Eduard bulkhead for use by splicing the kit part with it.

Much of the imagery below is focused on the conversions, including an image of the specific windshield type the PR.XIX used. The rear glass was the most difficult to get right but I was pleased with how it turned out. I used spares for the clear parts and adapted an Eduard rear fuselage bulkhead to replace the Airfix part.

Click on any of the images below to scroll through the gallery.

By far the most time consuming part of the assembly were the conversations. The cockpit otherwise builds up nicely and I used only some Kitsworld 3D seatbelts to enhance it. The wings assembled very easily, needing just a little help to ensure the correct dihedral and seamless fit.


By 1944 PR Spitfires wore an overall PR Blue paint scheme. Painting such a monochrome scheme is relatively straight forward, though to achieve some texture I added a pre-shade. I mixed the PR Blue to match a fairly new, unfaded hue and applied. As Garvey’s RM637 was delivered in June I was painting it as it would have appeared in early October, some fading but not to the chalky appearance as older PR Blue faded to.

I added the underside invasion stripes and applied a slightly less faded PR Blue to represent where the upper stripes would have been overpainted in early July. The Squadron Summary of Events for October 1944 mentions that the stripes were totally covered up in October; as I am representing the airframe as it was on the 7th I decided to leave them on though of course it’s possible they were already painted over by then.

Click on any of the images below to scroll through the gallery.


The markings were simplicity itself, beginning with the wing walk lines. In terms of squadron and RAF markings, No. 541 Squadron’s PR Spitfires did not carry squadron letters so all that was required were the roundels and fin flash.

A factory fresh PR.XIX serial number RM632 served as a guide for stencil decal placement. This airframe was photographed in May 1944, the same month as RM637 was produced and so serves as a good reference for how the my subject would have looked out for the factory. Note also the Mk.XIV type canon and rear glass as well as the whip aerial.
Image Copyright: ©IWM

The serial number was too small to cut a mask for so I used a generic RAF letter decal sheet. I also applied several of the applicable stencil decals using the image above as a guide.

Click on any of the images below to scroll through the gallery.


I assumed very light weathering as 541S was operating from a home based airfield at Benson on Oxfordshire and would have the resources available to maintain and clean the aircraft appropriately. Consequently, I simply added a little staining for engine oil leaks and lubrication streaking on the control surfaces.

Click on any of the images below to scroll through the gallery.


After applying the final semi-flat finish the finishing touches were simple to complete; attach the undercarriage and doors and unmask the clear parts and attach the canopy.

Click on any of the images below to scroll through the gallery.

The Airfix kit was easy to work with and produces a fine model of the PR.XIX. If I had one complaint it would be the depth of the panel lines (“trench-like,” in the parlance of the typical review – they’re not that bad but are nonetheless over emphasised). To my eye they detract a little from the overall impression. If you want to know how much, I did not use a a panel line wash on this model at all (I usually only use it for control surfaces and access panels anyway), the kit’s panels are very visible anyway.

References and Credits

Additional references specific to S/L R.F.C. Garvey DFC and Bar.

If you are interested in following Garvey’s Spitfire build as it unfolded, as well as the research that led to the choice of markings, the full build diary is logged in the Britmodeller Aircraft WIP Section.

This article, its text, and photos of the model(s) is my original work and is protected by copyright in its entirety, except where noted.  All research sources are listed above in the References and Credits section above, including photos from official sources. All other images were sourced from the internet and are used here under protection of fair-use.  Any copyrighted images will be removed or credited forthwith upon request by its rightful owner.

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