‘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
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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.
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″.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..
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“.
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.
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.
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.
Converting an ICM 1/48 Scale Supermarine Spitfire Mk VII to a Spitfire PR.X
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
Paint and Markings
So that was the plan.
The Final Details
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…
References and Credits
- I am particularly indebted to @TroySmith at the Britmodeller forums for his assistance and advice in this project
- The Aircraft Restoration Company for kind permission to use an image of their PRXI
- The Britmodeller Forum and its contributors in general