In recent years, news of the maiden flight of a Spitfire following restoration has become common place thanks to the vision and determination of owners and the skills of dedicated engineers. All of those that have been resurrected have an interesting story to tell and the latest one which has been restored by the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar is no exception. It’s a Mk. 1X and is the earliest known survivor of the original batch of 100 Mk. 1Xs built at Southampton during 1942 and was the sixth in line and designated as BR 601, FS – H. it’s first flight was at Eastleigh, Southampton on 16th June 1942. Together with the other five built before her they were scheduled for delivery to 64 Squadron at Hornchurch. The next day is was flown to Scotland for pre-service preparation before the Air Transport Auxiliary brought it south to join its unit. It finally arrived at its new base at Hornchurch.
It flew many missions there but on 8th September the squadron was moved to Fairlop. Bad weather throughout the month plagued many operations. On the 26th 64 Squadron received orders to move to Harrowbeer , Devon which 64 would use as a forward base to escort B-17s attacking Brest in Brittany. The weather in October was equally bad but they still managed to fly a few missions acting as escorts fro B17,s and B-24 Liberators. On the 21st BR 601 flown by Sqn Ldr Gray suffered a burst tyre on landing which caused it to swing violently resulting in a collapsed undercarriage and wing damage. After inspection BR 601 was declared Catergory B being repairable but not by resident facilities – and despatched on 2nd November to General Aircraft at Hanworth, Surrey for repairs. So ended its career with 64 Squadron.
Three and a half months later, on 19th February 1943, BR 601 was ready for collection and was delivered to 39 MU at Colerne. It was stored until 2nd April then issued to 453 squadron Royal Australian Air Force returning to its old base at Hornchurch. It was then coded FU – S . A few days later it was sent to Air Service Training for modifications before joining 129 ( Mysore ) squadron on 17th July when its codes became DV – S. On 28th August it changed both unit and base with a transfer to the Polish 316 ( City of Warsaw ) squadron at Northolt west of London once more changing codes to SZ – H. Low and behold this posting lasted only weeks as on 28th September BR 601 was placed on charge with 165 ( Ceylon ) squadron at Culmhead in Somerset only to be moved later that month to Colerne where it remained with the unit eventually sustaining damage necessitating repair by AST on 19th March 1944.
With the repairs completed by 5th June 1944 it was flown on 8th June to 8 MU at Little Rissington where it was apparently repaired yet again on 29th August. On 27th February 1945 it moved to 3501 Support Unit at Cranfield in Bedfordshire from where it was then sent,, on 1st March , to Vickers-Armstrongs for modifications. The work was completed by the 9th March and was declared ready for collection only to be sent on 25th April to Miles Aircraft for yet more repairs. On 22nd August it flew to Lyneham in Wilshire for storage with 33 MU.
The SOUTH AFRICAN Connection
Selected in 1948 for sale to the South African Air Force, BR 601 transferred on 11th October to 47 MU at Sealand before being dismantled and packed for shipping leaving Birkenhead Docks on 27th October aboard the SS Clan Mackellar. It arrived on 13th March and was sent to 15 Air Depot, Snake Valley, Pretoria and was given the SAAF serial number 5631. It was stored for nearly 2 years and then on 16th March 1951 it was issued to Air Operation School at Langebaanweg Cape Town It suffered 3 accidents. On 6th April it swung on landing, On 11th May it was again swung on landing and then on 6th May 1951 it overshot the runway at Ysterplaat. It was then sadly relegated for ground instruction use with 7 squadron over a 3 year period.
On 10th March 1955 it was sold to Harold Barnett who was a former SAAF Spitfire pilot and then the proprietor of the South African Metal and Machinery Company. He moved 5631 from Ysterplaat to his scrap yard in Salt River where it joined components from several other Spitfires and stood minus its outer wings, along side the road for many years. In 1967 when Larry Barnett and Alan Lurie began the rebuild of Mk 1X MA793, they borrowed 5631 to use as a pattern on condition that they rebuild it for display at the yard. So the former BR 601 was transferred to Atlas Aircraft Corporation’s apprentice school and rebuilt using wings from 5620 and another from an unidentified Spitfire. To lighten the airframe so it could be mounted on a plinth, the undercarriage and engine were removed. Initially painted as DB – U, the identity of one of the Spitfires flown by Harold Barnett which had been written off in North Africa during the war.
Spitfire BR 601 was assessed for possible restoration and removed from the yard in 1986. It was auctioned on 31st October by Christies of London and was bought by Doug Arnold of War Birds of Great Britain for £70,000 and placed in a store at his Biggin Hill facility. On 6th July 1989 it was transported by road to Aerofab Restorations in Thruxton, Wiltshire. The wings, which had a few usable parts remaining, were shipped to R G C Aeronautical Engineering of Sandown, Isle of Wight, and subcontracted to Airframe Assemblies before being returned to Thruxton. Work stopped following Doug Arnold’s death in 1992, BR 601 was then shipped to the USA and placed in store. Jet Cap Aviation acquired the Spitfire from the Arnold estate in 1994 and it moved to Harry Stenger’s facility at Barrow, Florida where it remained untouched. With the dispersal of the Jet Cap collection around 1996 BR 601’s wings and tail section were used by Stenger in the rebuild of Peter Godfrey’s two seater Mk 1X, MH367. The sad remains of BR601’s fuselage were transported to the Lone Star Flight Museum at Galveston, Texas around November 2002. There it kept company with an airworthy stablemate, Mk XV1 TE392 for several years until being acquired by California based Jeff Thomas in January 2008 and shipped to Avspecs at Ardmore, New Zealand for restoration to flying condition.
On 29th July 2009 Jef Thomas sold the project to Peter Monk and the fuselage was shipped to the UK and delivered to Airframw Assemblies on the Isle of Wight where the complete restoration to modern standards was carried out. A new tail assembly and a pair of wings were constructed from scratch. As mentioned , the originals had been used in the build of MH367 which coincidentally currently flies in New Zealand. The rebuilt airframe then went to Monk’s Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar for final systems fit, assembly and painting in its original markings as SH – F of 64 Squadron – plus a newly restored Rolls-Royce Merlin 66 rebuilt by Retro Track and Air at Dursley, Gloucestershire.
In the Air Again
On August 31st 2016, at the very famous Biggin Hill Airfield, Spitfire BR601 took to the air for the first time since the early 1950’s. The following month it made a public appearance at Goodwood, Sussex. Sadly for the UK enthusiasts the Goodwood outing was probably the only chance to see BR601 as by now it would have been shipped to its new home on the other side of the Atlantic. The exceptional restoration is owned by the Collings Foundation of Stow, Massachusetts U.S.A.
What an exceptional story especially being part of our own South African aviation history. Hope you have enjoyed it.
Until the next time
Photo’s of BR601 at South African Metal and Machinery, Salt River, Cape Town