By Dave O’Malley
One of the great joys of being part of Vintage Wings of Canada, the foundation created by Michael Potter, is the chance to share its beauty and its mission with friends and strangers alike. There is no better way to do this, to express the passion and the history associated with each aircraft than to lead a tour of the hangar, particularly when all of our aircraft are “in the barn”.
I start the tour at the airplane closest to the entry door that particular day and I lead off the tour, which usually takes about an hour and a half to two hours, with a brief outline of our mission. I am proud to announce that each aircraft in this outstanding and world class collection is chosen not just because it is the finest example of its type anywhere in the world, but because the type has a significant and exalted place in Canadian aviation history. I then tell the visitors that a few of our aircraft, though exceptional examples of their type and real crowd pleasers, were sold off because those types did not hold a significant connection to us as Canadians.
The beautiful WACO Taperwing A.T.O. was one of the most beautiful aircraft in the Vintage Wings of Canada collection and one of the first acquired. In the end, it was sold however, because it did not tell a uniquely Canadian story. Photo: Peter Handley
I then explain our unique-in-the-warbird-world program called “In His Name” and how every aircraft in the collection carries the name of a Canadian aviator, famous or not-so-famous, whose exemplary career is, in some direct way, connected to the type which bears his name. It gives me great pleasure then to walk with my guests around the hangar, stopping at each of the meticulously maintained and historic flying machines and spend some time telling them about the type, the restoration of the particular airframe and then, finally, the story of the pilot or aviator whose name is emblazoned on its fuselage.
Also from the outset, I explain to guests the importance of the provenance attributed to each aircraft and that though some, like our P-40N Kittyhawk and Hurricane IV, have very little of the original aircraft remaining, that a small aluminium or steel “data plate” riveted to their fuselage somewhere inside establishes their bona fides.
I explain to them that, according to my own scale, there are three levels of pedigree for a fighter like a Spitfire or a Hurricane. The First Level, I tell them, is that the aircraft must have its original data plate still attached. This data plate, in some cases, relates its factory construction number, type and date of construction and carries a factory identity in the form of a logo. In other cases it is a simple construction number stamped in the factory on a small piece of metal and affixed to the airframe. There sometimes are several other data plates on the same aircraft, to identify certain major components. These construction number data plates were recorded by the builders next to the air force serials they would later be known by—in the case of the Spitfires, by their RAF serial numbers. When aircraft change hands from one air force to another, they are often bought back by the manufacturer and then resold to another air force. In situations like these, and over time, it is possible to lose the paperwork connecting the original air force serial to the data plate construction numbers.
I tell people that we are building a Spitfire Mk IX and we are doing it from scratch. Thanks to the fact that we have the original data plate, our Spitfire work will be considered a restoration and the resulting Spitfire will be a pedigreed original. Without the data plate, despite the exacting work, it would forevermore be known as a “replica”, a word often spoken with not a little derision by warbird purists. It’s a terrible fate for a beautiful aircraft that differs from a “real” warbird only by the existence of the small 2” by 4” aluminium data plate. The real insult comes with the valuation of the airframe… in many cases, less than half of the plated warbird.
My guests are often impressed and shocked by the ruthlessness of this reality. By the time they understand this, I am alongside perhaps our former Royal Australian Air Force Curtiss P-40N Kittyhawk or perhaps our 6 Squadron Hawker Hurricane IV. Here, I stop and tell them the next highest level of pedigree for a warbird—the combat record. I tell them that the best examples of warbirds at the end of the war, the ones worth keeping for postwar service, were those that had not yet seen the rigors of a combat career, where field conditions, rough handling by inexperienced pilots and combat itself took a damage toll on every aircraft. If you could establish that your particular airframe had seen combat in any theatre, the value would climb. I tell them how our Spitfire (Spitfire XVI SL721) did not see combat, as it had been built near the end of the war and had been held in reserve. I tell them that even though it had never seen combat, it ranked high since it was selected after the war by the Commander of the RAF, Air Marshall James Milne Robb, to be his personal aircraft for visits to his flying kingdom.
If an aircraft could be traced to a famous combat event like the Battle of Britain, D-Day or Malta, then you had hit the provenance motherlode and the aircraft would have more value in the marketplace. This was all done by the data plate which could be connected via air force records to the air force serial worn on the fuselage or the tail of the aircraft. But of course records could be lost or destroyed.
As we leave the P-40N with its RAAF combat record in Papua New Guinea, my guests usually ask…“What about the third level… the best pedigree you can have?” I tell them I am saving it for the end of the tour.
I end every tour of our hangar, our collection and our operations in the far corner, where Ken Wood, our superstar structures and metals fabricator is completing the build of a pair of wings for the Flight Lieutenant Arnold Roseland Spitfire Mk IX. The fuselage of this beautiful restoration, nearing completion in Comox, British Columbia by another Superstar structures man named Dean Sept, awaits the arrival of these wings in about a year. People are always very impressed that we are scratch-building Spitfire wings right here in our hangar, and they should be… no one else is doing it in the Western Hemisphere.
Next to the massive and brightly-lit frame that holds the pair of Spitfire wings, sits a forlorn, corroded and holed hulk that was once the fuselage of a Royal Thai Air Force Supermarine Spitfire Mk XIV, a variant of the vaunted fighter not powered by the typical Rolls Royce Merlin engine, but rather a Griffon engine from the same company. It has no wings, no empennage, no landing gear, no engine, no canopy, nor propeller. In fact, it was a wreck which had lain in an open yard for decades, slowly being stripped of its components by other warbird builders and by vandals. Even after its recovery to England from Thailand via New Zealand, some of it components would disappear.
What it did have though, was a data plate, which could eventually speak to the provenance of this fighter. Limited available records failed to connect the construction number found on the fuselage to any specific Royal Air Force serial number. Without a Royal Air Force serial number, the true history of the airframe was impossible to know. All of the Spitfires used by the Royal Thai Air Force had been built in one of the Vickers Supermarine factories in England. All had been given RAF serial numbers, some had combat records and all were bought back from the RAF by Vickers after the war to refurbish and sell to the Royal Thai Air Force.
Though researchers could not, through records, connect the RAF serial with the construction numbers found on data plates, there were other very compelling signs as to its identity, which led them to declare that this aircraft was in fact Spitfire XIV with former RAF serial number RM873.
And that is when I tell my guests, with a flourish of my hand and a note of great pride in my voice, that before them is the one warbird in the entire collection that qualifies for the third level of pedigree: 1. It has its data plate, ensuring it was built on one of Supermarine’s assembly lines; 2. It has a combat record, having flown at the end of the war with two squadrons and last, but most important of all; 3. It has a CANADIAN COMBAT RECORD having been flown into battle by Canadians in squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force. It’s one of ours!
One can easily look at squadron or wing Operational Record Books and ascertain that RM873 was indeed operated by both 401 and 402 Squadrons of the RCAF at the end of the war. Because RM873 had fought against the enemy in the hands of one of our countrymen, it was of particular interest to Mike Potter, our founder.
While the third level of warbird provenance varies from country to country (in Australia, one with an Australian Combat Record would have level three), for Canadians, RM873 was an opportunity to bring to this country a particularly Canadian story of our heroes. Potter purchased the wreckage on the spot from John Romain’s Aircraft Restoration Company for the simple reason that it was Canadian and needed to come to Canada.
RM873 will forever be known as a Spitfire with a Canadian story to tell. We cannot take that away from that particular RAF-serialed Spitfire. The problem is, as we have just recently learned, the extremely costly hulk at the back of our hangar, upon which we have already spent much time and money, is NOT, in fact, RM873.
Why did we think it was RM873?
A wartime photo of 401 Squadron RCAF’s Spitfire Mk XIV RM873. RCAF photo
The short answer is we were told that by the company we had bought it from, the Aircraft Restoration Company of Duxford, whose exemplary reputation gave us no reason to doubt this declaration. In fact, the whole warbird world, and specifically every Spitfire researcher, writer, aficionado, and follower understood that the airframe collected from a children’s playground in Sawankhalok, Thailand, in the early 1990s was RM873. This was based on the very compelling clues and research conducted by none other than Peter Arnold, who along with Gordon Riley and Graham Trant, co-authored the two-volume compendium entitled Spitfire Survivors—Then and Now. Arnold, along with Riley and Trant, have made it their life’s work to track down every extant Spitfire on the planet and research their unique combat and operational histories. Spitfire Survivors is the result of this life’s work—a comprehensive guidebook outlining the histories of all the world’s surviving Vickers Supermarine Spitfire and Seafire fighter aircraft. Thoroughly illustrated with nearly 1,000 photographs and charts, Volume I covers the Spitfire from the Mk I to the Mk XII. In addition to the full history of each surviving Spitfire Mk XIV to F.24, and all surviving Seafires, Volume II includes last-minute updates to the Spitfire histories from Volume I. Arnold and his cohorts are recognized from Thailand to Iceland as the most knowledgeable and thorough Spitfire researchers today.
Peter Arnold scoured the planet in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, finding and recording the fates and provenance for every Spitfire and Seafire still in existence. Arnold travelled the planet seeking the last remaining examples, whether they were impeccably maintained in world class museums, recently dug out of mud holes in England, or rotting in junk yards in the remotest spots of Thailand or South Africa. One of the postwar operators of Supermarine Spitfire Mk XIVs was Thailand and, though most of their Spitfires had long-since been cannibalized, disappeared into junk yards and even restoration projects, there was one example still rotting in a place called Sawankhalok.
Arnold had known of this Spitfire as early as the 1970s and that it had lost its wings to an Australian builder in 1983. Throughout the 1980s Arnold made attempts to establish the Spitfire’s RAF serial identity, and was able to get information from Australian Spitfire restorer Peter Sledge. However, the information was not conclusive and Arnold visited the Spitfire Mk XIV in Sawankhalok in 1989 and in 1993 in Bangkok where it was transferred. He did this with his own funds and for no other reason than to record the facts of the Sawankhalok Spitfire for historical accuracy. The following tables, photographs and accompanying captions tell the story of how Arnold was able to make a positive declaration as to the identity of the Sawankhalok Spitfire in 1993—an identity which was accepted as fact for twenty years, until Arnold himself, just one month ago, was able to determine otherwise.
List of Thai Spitfires This is a photocopy document that was given to Peter Arnold in the early 1970s. Peter Arnold states: “It lists all the Thai Spitfires in Thai Air Force serial order including a brief history. It includes all the cockpit plate construction numbers but uses the prefix ‘65’ rather than the correct ‘6S’ which is the Supermarine prefix—easy mistake. It was compiled post the Spitfires going out of service and also includes the Ground Instructional survivor PM630 at Trad/Trat. The word cannibalized is spelt with a ‘Z’ rather than an ‘S’ which may indicate the compiler was not a UK citizen. This really is inside information at that time and probably came from a diplomatic source, Air Attaché enthusiast and or a resident service engineer from Vickers or Rolls Royce. Note no former RAF serials are included for the XIV’s but some ‘pencilled in’ serials have been nominated post compilation.” This document will provide clues combined with later discoveries. The first column, Numbers 1 to 34, lists the numbers worn on the fuselages of the Thai Spitfires. The third column, entitled Serial No., is in fact the Vickers Factory Construction Numbers found on data plates, while the fifth column (RTAF Reg. No.) lists the Royal Thai Air Force serial numbers.
This partial page is from an appendix to Eric Morgan’s book on Supermarine Aircraft published in 1981. If we refer back and forth between this and the previous table, we can see that author Morgan, who was the official Vickers archive librarian, has drawn information from the previous chart, lending credibility to the data contained in that list.
The Spitfire Mk XIV of the Royal Thai Air Force found at Sawankhalok, Thailand was heavily damaged, but it did have wings, engine mounts, engine, cowlings and propeller. Throughout the 1970s, Australian Peter Sledge had been building a static display Spitfire IX from the South African Air Force (RR232). He was short of parts and material to build his wings, so sought and received permission to “obtain” the wings from the Sawankhalok Spitfire seen in this photo taken in 1980 before the wings were removed. Sawankhalok is a district in the northern part of Sukhothai Province, northern Thailand. Photo: Peter Sledge
At the request of Peter Arnold, Sledge searched for clues to the identity of the Sawankhalok Spitfire, which at one time was attached to Sledge’s wings. Upon opening the starboard wing, Sledge found the numerals 873 and the letters STB scribbled in pencil on the underside of the wing skin. These marks were made by factory workers during the assembly of the wings in England during the war. Many wings were worked on simultaneously and each wing was crafted individually and wing skins measured for one particular wing fit that wing best of all. It was a simple thing to write down which aircraft the skin and wing belonged to, to avoid mixing them up. In this photo taken in 1984 in Sydney, New South Wales, Sledge has marked with grease pencil a clearer indication of what the pencilled marks said ( barely visible in the centre of the above photo). Upon seeing this image, Peter Arnold considered that RM873 was a POSSIBLE identity for the Sawankhalok Spitfire since RM873 was a known RAF Spitfire sold to the Royal Thai Air Force. Photo: Peter Sledge
A photograph of the now wingless Sawankhalok Spitfire, taken by Peter Arnold on his second trip to Thailand in 1989. Arnold was returning from Burma and flew into the Northern Thai city of Phitsanulok, and then paid a driver to take him to the resting site of the former Royal Thai Air Force Mk XIV Spitfire. Looking closely at the fuselage, Arnold could detect no evident Thai markings that would lead him to identify the specific airframe. Photo: Peter Arnold
The Sawankhalok Spitfire had lost some of its component pieces by 1989—the wings, rudder and other empennage parts. Though there were no exterior markings on the fuselage of the Spitfire, Peter Arnold was prepared to look for an interior data plate, bringing tools and cleaning gear to take the information from the plate. Photo: Peter Arnold
Arnold was able to retrieve a steel data plate from the interior of the cockpit in the Sawankhalok Spitfire. “The cockpit data plate was the steel type rather than the aluminium type and very corroded. Although I had emery strip and wire wool with me, I was concerned that I might damage the plate and loose the data. I decided to ‘ping’ the plate and bring it back to the UK for careful bead blasting. It revealed the cockpit c/n as 6S–432296.” If a researcher looks closely at the data in the document above entitled List of Thai Spitfires, the construction number 6S–432296 matched perfectly the entry for Thai serial U14–5/93, Spitfire number ‘5’ of the Royal Thai Air Force. Though the cockpit construction number was now known, there was yet no record of what RAF serial that particular Construction number was connected to. Photo: Peter Arnold
A close-up of the corroded data plate clearly reveals the Vickers Identity: 6S–432296. Photo: Peter Arnold
Shortly after Arnold’s visit to the Sawankhalok Spitfire, the husband of the Thai King’s daughter, a Group Captain in the Royal Thai Air Force, heard about the continued interest in the Spitfire as well as the “missing” wings then in Australia and had the remaining fuselage with its engine moved to the Thai Air Force Museum store at Don Muang, Bangkok, with the hopes of someday restoring it. Four years later, in 1993, Peter Arnold was able to visit the storage area that held the remaining fuselage and engine in Bangkok. The engine and bearers had been removed from the rest of the fuselage and the engine cowlings were available for inspection. Photo: Peter Arnold
The major shaped parts like the engine cowlings were almost bespoke—custom adjusted in the factory to fit best to one particular Spitfire. To avoid difficulties fitting the wrong cowlings to a Spitfire coming out of service, squadron ground crews often painted the serial numbers of the Spitfire it came from inside the cowlings so that ease of fit could be guaranteed. In both the previous photo and this image, the RAF serial RM873 was painted by hand underneath the cowlings. Arnold says this of the practice of marking the cowlings: “As the Spitfire is a ‘File & Fit’ type aircraft, like the Aston Martin car, things like cowlings and fillets are not readily interchangeable with out some work. That is why maintenance staff daub the RAF serial or last three digits on the inside of these detachables, so that they go back on the same aircraft.” Since Arnold had no written record which connected the construction number found on the fuselage four years before (6S–432296), the only information he or anyone else could rely on was the ground crew applied markings, found under the cowlings, which indicated clearly that the cowlings, engine hangers and engine came from RM873 and the factory worker-applied markings found on the underside of the starboard wing skin, which indicated that the wings were also from RM873. This led Arnold, as it would anyone, to declare that the Sawankhalok Spitfire was RM873, a former Royal Canadian Air Force operated Mk XIV Spitfire of the Second World War. Photo: Peter Arnold
A photo of the fuselage without its engine hangers and engine taken in Bangkok in April 1993. Based on the VERY compelling clues found with the engine cowlings and the wing skins, the Sawankhalok Spitfire was now accepted worldwide as RM873. Based on the table entitled List of Thai Spitfires above, and the construction number c/n 6S–432296, it was clear that the newly identified Spitfire RM873 should have been U14–5/93 in Royal Thai Air Force serial—a Spitfire F.Mk XIV. After it was struck from service with the RAF/RCAF and bought back by Vickers, the Spitfire with c/n 6S–432296 took on a short identity with a British civil registration as G.15.115 before it was sold and delivered to Thailand. Flying in Royal Thai colours, Spitfire c/n 6S–432296 (now also identified by the RAF serial number RM873) wore the numeral “5” on its fuselage aft of the Thai roundel. Save the RAF serial, this was the correct identity thanks to the data plate recovered by Arnold. Photo: Peter Arnold
By the time Peter Arnold returned from his trip to Bangkok in 1993, he had in his camera pretty compelling evidence that the Sawankhalok Spitfire was none other than RM873. The wings told that story since Peter Sledge opened them in 1984 and now the engine and its attendant custom-fitted cowlings were telling the same story. Though the construction number 6S–432296 could not definitively be connected through paper records to RM873, but based on this rather clear visual evidence found on other aircraft components, Arnold and his colleagues felt quite certain that the aircraft removed from Sawankhalok, Thailand was indeed RM873, a Canadian combat veteran of the Second World War. This opinion was held by the entire warbird world until late May 2013.
What new evidence changed the identity of the Sawankhalok Spitfire?
There is no better way to introduce the news that our Spitfire may in fact not be what we thought it was than to quote directly from the letter I received from Peter Arnold a month ago with the title: Thai Spitfires—News You do not want to hear. Before I quote from Arnold’s letter, I wish to express, in a public forum, how much we at Vintage Wings of Canada appreciated the forthright and honest letter we got, how grateful we were to be told right away and how professional Peter Arnold and his co-authors were in every respect when it came to communicating the details and helping us understand how both the first identity was declared and how the true identity was finally established. Here is part of Peter’s letter:
... When my friend Peter Sledge in Australia ‘obtained’ the wings of the Sawankalok Spitfire for his RR232 project, I instilled in him that as he restored them he looked out for any clues that might lead to an RAF identity.
He duly sent me an image of a wing skin with ‘873’ pencilled on the inside surface. That is quite normal in the build process and knowing that RM873 was one of the Thai Spitfires I duly noted that this was a possible identity.
As an historian I am always looking to prove it wrong until I can’t, rather than leaping on thin evidence and making a pronouncement. So provisionally RM873 only.
When I made a personal visit to Sawankalok after being in Burma in 1989, the fuselage was still tightly cowled so I could not investigate the firewall area. The fuselage data plate was still affixed but corroded and unreadable so I ‘pinged’ it off for inspection back in the UK. The number was 6S–432296. This number is important as it is what Vickers would know it as in their documentation and inspection system. These numbers are complex because Supermarine built Spitfires in a number of dispersed sites in Southern England each with an allocated batch of construction numbers.
Since the early/mid 1970s I have had a typed spread sheet on the Thai Spitfires clearly written by a researcher with direct access to the Thai historic records. It is most probable that this was the resident Vickers site support engineer. This listing gives the technical and unit history of the 34 Spitfires, listing them by Vickers c/n number [Construction Number—Ed.] and Thai military serial. There is a column for the RAF serial that is blank except for the four Ground Instructional Mk XIXs. On my copy of this document a few pencilled RAF serials have been nominated.
Sure enough 6S–432296 is listed and was U.14–5/93 of the Thai Air Force. That is aircraft number 5.
During my commuting trips to Ford Motor Company Australia in the early 1990s I was to call in several times to the ThaiAF museum in Bangkok. The Royal Prince Group Captain had invited me to become a member of Tango Squadron and escorted me on a couple of these trips. He was furious that the wings had been ‘obtained’ as he was very keen to get a Spitfire flying. The residue of the Sawankalok Spitfire was in the storage area to supply parts for their two Mk XIX restorations. I was able to study it in detail, record the firewall frame 5 sub-assembly number. All four engine cowlings were removed. On the inside of one was the crudely painted RAF serial RM873, quite normal practice, and on other RM873 stenciled in black. The other cowling had no internal RAF identity.
For me at this time, with a Vickers c/n, a Thai serial and indications on the wing and cowling of the RAF serial RM873, I was happy to declare and announce beyond reasonable doubt that this was RM873. The RAF identity stays with the fuselage assembly frame 5 to frame 19.
This serial has been firmly lodged in my Surviving Spitfire data base these past twenty years and indeed is the entry in Spitfire Survivors Volume II that went to the printers just three weeks ago and will be available at the book launch at Flying Legends Duxford in July.
...and then ten days ago I received a large package of documents from Andy Saunders. It was correspondence from the late Peter Foote, a meticulous researcher to the point of OCD. There was one neat package of correspondence from Tom Pharo and Foote’s copy letters in return from the period 1949–1972. Pharo was in the RAF in the early period and Foote worked for Vickers at Hurn. Foote would request any known aircraft serials from ‘spotting’ trips, air shows, etc. Being pre-photocopy times, these listings were hand written transcriptions of Pharo’s own notes and spotters log.
There was one very significant list from Pharo, undated. He headed it ‘South African Air Force Spitfires’ but actually it was a list of Thai Spitfires. The listing was of RAF Serials, Thai Air Force serials and the class B registrations. The civil B registrations are special and assigned to the industry and allow factories to air test foreign aircraft with out the normal full civil registration process. The list was in Class B order and it assumed Pharo had access to Vickers documentation.
This list was a breakthrough because even the Vickers librarian, Eric Morgan, had a gap here in his Class B listings in his book Supermarine aircraft since 1914.
I fully expected to see RM873 listed as U.14–5/93 but it was listed as U.14–6/93. The RAF serial against U.14–5/93 was RM747. Initially I assumed a transcription error but decided to look in to it in more depth using the RAF movement card data base. Spitfire Mk XIVs were built and assembled at several Supermarine facilities and this is indicated on the movement card. Cards marked just VA are Mk XIVs made at the main base of Vickers Armstrong at Eastleigh. Dispersal sites were marked Vickers Armstrong—Chattis Hill, Aldermaston, Keevil etc. This is why the fuselage construction numbers, obtained from personal inspections, seem to leap around when in alpha-numeric RAF serial order. RM747 was built at Chattis Hill so I shuffled the data base in to c/n number order where known. There are two other Chattis Hill survivors—RM689 and RM694 close to RM747. They are respectively 5 and 27 airframes apart in RAF serial / Chattis Hill order sequence... and you have guessed it. The ‘Bletchley Park’ moment, the fuselage construction numbers are in perfect harmony, 6S–432296 matching RM747 exactly.
So unfortunately your fuselage, which must carry the RAF identity [as opposed to the wings or engine—Ed.], is RM747. A very interesting RAF career but not with a Canadian Squadron and I know this will disappoint.
If no work has been done on the recovered fuselage I think it would be worth while studying the area either side of the Thai roundel for any microscopic evidence of either a Thai 5 or a 6. Perhaps just the faintest of witness marks from the paint on the masking tape build up.
I have not gone public on this and will await your comments before doing so. I will have to make an announcement on our Spitfire Survivors web site in due course. If only the documetns had arrived with me just a few weeks earlier, but that is Sod’s Law. [Murphy’s Law on this side of the pond—Ed.] There are quite a number of lists of survivors out there on the internet with RM873.
I would be happy to supply you with all the relevant photos, spread sheets, listings and research on this and even write it up for you if and when you go public.
A black and white photograph supplied by Peter Arnold shows Spitfire RM797 after its arrival at Darwin, Australia in August of 1973. This was to show me how the style and position of aircraft numerals when searching for clues later on. The Spitfire with c/n 6S–432296 would definitely have had similarly styled numeral “5” and later I would look for faint telltale signs of the numeral “5” on the fuselage in the Vintage Wings of Canada hangar. Photo via Peter Arnold
A colour photograph of the derelict Royal Thai Air Force Spitfire Mk XIV, RAF serial NH698 (RTAF serial U14–10/93) taken around 1968 in Phrae, Thailand also shows me where to look for hints of the former markings. Photo: Tom Whitaker via Peter Arnold
Though it is truly impossible to tell, nearly 60 years after the numeral was applied, if I had to make just one choice to save my life, it would be a “5” that had been painted on the fuselage aft of the Thai roundel and not a “6”. I sprayed the surface with water and a cleaner to try to highlight any faint traces of a numeral that might have been applied in the early 1950s. I prayed that I would find evidence of a “6”. I found a curving mark about the thickness of the numerals in the previous two photos, which I thought could have been part of a “5” or a “6”, but the only other trace was a small 90º corner that seem to indicate the numeral “5”. Photo: Dave O’Malley
In this photo of the fuselage, you can just make out the possible curving stroke of the numeral “5” that had once been painted on the side. Photo: Dave O’Malley
Above, pages One and Two of Tom Pharo’s handwritten list of Spitfires (wrongly attributed to the South African Air Force, but still a complete list of the Spitfires sold to the Royal Thai Air Force) holds the clues to the true identity of the Sawankhalok Spitfire. Peter Arnold’s notes explain:
Just a matter of days after the book had gone to the printer, and past the dead line, I received a package of documents from Andy Saunders. One neat packet was the correspondence from Tom Pharo to Peter Foote and the copy letters from Foote to Pharo in response dated 1949 to about 1972. Among many pages and listings of Air show attendance reports, Spotters log entries in Pharo’s local area etc. was a page of serials in Foreign Air Force Order, Class B civil registration order and in consequence random RAF serial Order. This listing filled all the missing data in the ‘Image 3’ book. Pharo was in the Air Force and Foote worked for Vickers at Hurn in Southern England. From the style of the entries on this transcribed list by Pharo from his records, one can see that he wrote it in columns rather than each aircraft, one at a time, across the page. He has made three mistakes and there is one anomaly. There is no entry for G–15.122 and there is a double entry for G–15.133 so that when he gets to the end of the listing he has the correct amount of entries in all columns. Initially this was concerning but if the ten entries in the vertical column from 123–132 are displaced downward by one and 122 inserted and the first entry 133 deleted then the listing reads perfectly with two entries above and one below, the concerning ten, matching with the pencilled RAF serials in the ‘image 1’ listing. For some unexplained reason he has RM797 and RM757 transposed. RM797 is the Garry Cooper Mk XIV. These are very similar serials and a ‘5’ and a ‘9’ very similar in form, particularly if hand written at some point in the records.
For this list to be in G–15 and Foreign Air Force order this listing logically will have come from Vickers company records, most likely at the point of overhaul, new livery repaint and test flying. The end user may not have been obvious to the initial compiler. It may have been privileged. It is noted that the compiler thought the Spitfires were destined for the South African Air Force rather than Thailand.
All the aforementioned errors and anomalies have no bearing on the true identity of the Sawankalok Spitfire. Studying the Pharo listing it was noted that the RAF serial against U14–5/93 was RM747, not RM873 as I would have anticipated. RM873 was listed as U14–6/97. A puzzle!
I transferred all the Pharo data to a spread sheet for analysis and you will see in blue the ‘knowns’ and in green the commonality with the ‘image1’ list (List of Thai Spitfires in this article). I then listed in parallel the cockpit Construction Numbers from the ‘image 1’ list. I then listed in parallel the factories that all these Mk XIVs were made at. I have the factory data on an enormous spreadsheet all 20k + movement card listing but you can see it printed in the Morgan Shacklady Spitfire book.
All of a sudden the general mish-mash started to have some order and clearly construction numbers starting with 432 were built as a batch at Chattis Hill whilst those starting with 507 were built at the main factory at Eastleigh.
I then noted that two UK based Mk XIVs that I had inspected previously, RM689 and RM694, were adjacent to RM747 and all were Chattis Hill built.
I then counted down the RAF serials list eliminating all Spitfires not built at Chattis Hill. There were five between RM689 and RM694 and twenty-seven between RM694 and RM747.
I then counted down the known construction numbers for RM689 and RM694, five, and projected plus twenty-seven for RM747. It came to 6S–432296 precisely.
And that is the number on the plate that I removed from the Sawankalok Spitfire.
I think the clue may be in the word ‘cannibalized’. The wing(s) and cowlings of RM873 have been fitted to RM747. I had noted previously on a trip down to Trat that PM630 had the wing(s) of PS888.
– Peter Arnold
And what do we make of this?
RM747—Belgian and Dutch Combat Veteran, and RAAF Operational Veteran
This last paragraph of Peter’s letter references the first chart found in this article called List of Thai Spitfires, where, in the far right column, we can see the fate of all the Thai Spits—either crashed or cannibalized. The crash and damaged rate is not surprising under the conditions and training of the Thai Air Force in those days. No doubt somewhere in their Thai operational histories, both RM873 and RM747 suffered enough damage that the wings, engine and cowlings of RM873 were salvaged and mated with what was left of another accident in which RM747 was damaged. Since the RAF serial resides with the fuselage, the Sawankhalok Spitfire is RM747, despite the fact that her engine and her wings were from the Canadian RM873.
The first thing we would like to say is that though Peter titled his initial email to me “Thai Spitfires—News you do not want to hear.” In fact, we are grateful that he told us immediately and that we now know that the money we have spent to date is for a Spitfire that is NOT Canadian. This is far better than getting this news after we have spent millions of dollars and years restoring it. Though we are deeply disappointed in the outcome of the research and diligent detective work done by Peter Arnold, we are respectful of his new and finally accurate declaration, and are now pondering what lies ahead for this much travelled Spitfire.
As painful as it is to swallow, the true identity of our Spitfire Mk XIV is part of history and as such must be recorded so. This we know. Without the incredible work of men like Peter Arnold, much of the iconic Spitfire’s remarkable history would not be known. We owe them much.
RM747, our newly identified Spitfire, has a remarkable combat record, so her value as a restoration project has not diminished at all. The erratum prepared by Arnold, Riley and Trant for their newly printed Spitfire Survivors–Volume II states:
“RM747 was issued to No. 322 (Dutch) Sqdn at Deanland near Hailsham, East Sussex, on 5 August 1944 but that unit exchanged its aircraft with those of No. 350 (Belgian) Sqdn at Hawkinge on 9 August. After a very short time No. 350 Sqdn engaged incoming V-1’s on “Anti Diver” patrols and RM747 was first flown as such by F/O Verpoorten on the afternoon of 13 August. It is believed to have been coded “MN-D”. Its last sortie with No. 350 was in the late afternoon of 31 August when the squadron provided top cover for a force of 100 Lancasters bombing St Omer.
Although there is no record of any damage being incurred, RM747 is thought to have sustained Cat. B damage on or about 1 September and was dispatched to Air Service Training, probably at Hamble, for repairs on 9 September. The repairs were not completed until 10 March 1945 and it is interesting to note that RM873 was also receiving attention at AST between 8 December 1944 and 15 January 1945.
RM747 was allocated to No. 451 (Australian) Sqdn on 29 June 1945. The unit was part of the British Occupation Forces and was based at Fassberg, Germany, until disbanded the following month, RM747 returning to the U.K. for storage at No. 29 M.U., High Ercall, on 29 July 1945. RM873 meanwhile remained in Germany with No. 401 “Ram” Sqdn RCAF until it was returned to Brize Norton on 20 March 1946, joining RM747 at High Ercall a month later.
Both aircraft were selected for sale to Vickers Armstrong in May 1950 and following reconditioning it now becomes clear that it was RM747 which was air-tested as G-15-115, before taking up the Thai serial U14-5/93, whilst RM873 was G-15-116 and became U14-6/93. It is presumed that at some time after delivery took place both aircraft were damaged and parts were combined to make one good flyable airframe.”
The Vintage Wings website will soon be updated to reflect the change in the Spitfire’s identity and our tour guides will be informed. I, for one, will be looking for another dramatic ending to my tours. Somewhere, Belgians, Dutchmen and Australians are rejoicing at the news that part of THEIR aviation heritage still exists.
The truth is, if we only wanted a Griffon-powered Spitfire, no matter what the provenance, it would be far cheaper, in cash and time, to buy a fully restored one and paint it as a Canadian. We purchased this hulk and took on the daunting task of bringing her back to life for the singular reason that she had a Canadian combat record.
Will we continue with the restoration? We will decide soon, but the heart of her has been torn out.
It is interesting to note that the Warbird Registry website claims that Spitfire RM797, which was once owned by Garry Cooper, has construction number c/n 6S–432296. This is completely impossible as that particular construction number and the plate it was on was taken directly from the Sawankhalok Spitfire in 1989.
Here are a few images of the Sawankhalok Spitfire, now positively identified as Spitfire Mk XIV RM747 as she is today, resting in the Vintage Wings of Canada hangar at Gatineau, Québec.
Over the past couple of years, we have had a chance to work on a few things including a 100% finished seat, scratch built by Ken Wood and Korrey Foisey. Photo: Dave O’Malley
Frame 5, the most important structural component of the fuselage of any Spitfire, has been removed and shipped to fabricators in Europe where it nears completion. Photo: Dave O’Malley
The top cowling which came with the hulk is marked PK515 on the underside (in the same manner as RM873 was when Arnold visited Bangkok) is from a Mk XXII/XXIV sent to a smelter from 9 Maintenance Unit in 1956. The cowlings from the Sawankhalok Spitfire marked RM873, together with the engine, bearer and fittings, were retained by the Thais for their restoration of PM630 and PS836 and are now located at the Crown Prince’s palace and the Thai Air Museum, respectively. Photo: Dave O’Malley
Photo: Dave O’Malley
Photo: Dave O’Malley
Sad to say... but we removed this sign. Photo: Dave O’Malley