Monday, 2 May 2011

pru spitfire by corgi

It was painted sky-blue, spent most of its time at altitudes of around 25,000-30,000 feet and belonged to No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) stationed at RAF Benson near Wallingford in Oxfordshire. It had hollow wings filled with petrol, about 66 gallons each side, and when these tanks were full, the fuel could often be seen dripping from the wing tips. It could well be described as a flying Bowser.

On the credit side it had various versions of extremely reliable Rolls Royce Merlin Engines, which were updated from time to time to take account of the improvements made by the Germans in their Fighter Aircraft. Paradoxically, the Aircraft available in 1942 (Spitfire Mark 5B) had the greatest operational range, as the engines were the most economical. At an average speed of only 240 mph, and flying time limited to something over 51/2 hours, it could still reach targets as far as Danzig in the North, and the Franco-Spanish border in the South.

The PRU Spitfire was provided with the Mark XI engine in 1943, which produced great changes. These upgraded engines, with built-in superchargers, which automatically cut in at about 20,000 feet, increased its average flying speed to about 340-360 mph. For the first time too, all aircraft were fitted with radio. On the debit side, petrol consumption increased substantially, and to offset this, if long flights were envisaged, the aircraft could be fitted with disposable drop-tanks. These contained additional fuel of 45 or 90 gallons. The latter were not popular with pilots, as they made a Spitfire unstable, and were regarded as hazardous on take-off. The routine was to use the fuel in these tanks first, after which they were jettisoned, no doubt to the surprise of the unsuspecting public of the Third Reich. After these modifications, it was possible for a Spitfire to achieve a return journey to Berlin in just over 41/2 hours.

Towards the end of the War in 1944-45, the third and last Photographic Spitfire appeared (Mark XIX). This had a viciously powerful motor and a five bladed propeller, which went round the ‘wrong’ way. Performance for out-manoevring enemy fighters was very good, but its petrol consumption high. Range was therefore reduced, but by this time Spitfire coverage of more distant targets could be achieved by twin-engined Mosquitoes.

In retrospect PRU Spitfires had another rather surprising feature – namely the quality of the cameras. Before the War, the Germans were generally considered leaders in camera expertise, but the British seem to have caught up very quickly. PRU Spitfires were provided with vertically fitted automatic units with up to 36” lenses, which were extremely reliable and produced very clear stereo-definition for the interpreters.

What these Spitfires did during the War would fill a large book on its own, but put briefly they could well be described as the flying arm of all the British Intelligence Services. Photographs were needed for both strategic and tactical purposes. The former carried the greater priority in the earlier years, but short-term tactical needs assumed greater importance as the date of the Normandy Invasion grew nearer. Clients of the PRU Spitfire service included Navy and Army Intelligence, RAF Bomber Command and even the S.O.E., who required detailed coverage of obscure fields in Central France to be used for the dropping or recovery of secret agents.

High level long distance Spitfires obviously required pilots to fly them. Numerically these were not very many, as even at the height of the air war, there were probably less than 40 at any one time. A very few of these were fully trained pre-war regular RAF officers, but the majority were partly trained personnel from a range of different countries, who had to learn by experience. Most of them were of junior rank, below that of Flight Lieutenant. Whatever their status, however, all had a great interest in the work they were doing, not least because it provided a good insight into how the war was going. On the practical side they were full of praise for the performance and reliability of their remarkable sky-blue aeroplanes, which time and again brought them safely home.

A nice addition to the Benson War-Time History happened in 1945 when, following a visit by a Representative of the College of Arms, the PRU units were awarded official Royal Air Force Squadron Shields, one of which had at its centre a small flower. This was the “Birds Eye Speedwell” and below it was inscribed the motto: “One above all”. This seemed more than appropriate

No comments:

Post a Comment