Search for World War Two Spitfire, crashed by pilot during routine flight in 1940, begins in Cambridgeshire

By Ben Miller | 05 October 2015

Archaeologists launch excavation to find World War Two Spitfire crashed in Cambridgeshire in 1940

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig for a Spitfire at a fenland site in Cambridgeshire
Archaeologists getting down to the layer of clay beneath the peat on the first day of digging at Holme, in the Great Fen© Matt Lodge
A week-long excavation to unearth a Mark 1 Spitfire which crashed on a routine training flight during the Second World War has begun, with archaeologists calling the timing of the dig, on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, an “ideal opportunity”.

Pilot Officer Harold Edwin Penketh died when he crashed the Spitfire X4593, of the 266 Rhodesian Squadron RF, after breaking formation from a dive above Holme Lode, in the Great Fen, on November 22 1940.

Witnesses stated that his aircraft partially recovered at around 2,000ft but then re-entered a dive and struck the ground vertically. Penketh, who did not attempt to use his parachute, had his body returned to his home town of Brighton. Investigations concluded that either a failure of the oxygen system or other physical failure had occurred.

A photo of various small finds assembled by archaeologists during a dig for a Spitfire at a fenland site in Cambridgeshire
The first small finds have been removed from the site© Matt Lodge
“We only expect to find the engine and armaments, which we hope will be reasonably well preserved in the fen soil, as well as fragments from the fuselage,” says Stephen Macaulay, of Oxford Archaeology, who will manage the project alongside recovering military personnel from the Defence Archaeology Group and aviation experts from English Heritage.

“Although we don’t know exactly what to expect, we think that the engine and other parts of the plane are likely to be quite well-preserved because the plane crashed into peat.

“This has been confirmed by the geophysical survey which revealed the engine at a depth of about two to three metres.”

Material from the excavation site, which will remain the property of the Ministry of Defence, will be removed for sorting and cleaning.

The crash

A photo of a large and grassy fenland site in Cambridgeshire
The excavation is part of a wider project to conserve the fen landscape© Matt Lodge
The plane was based at RAF Wittering. At the controls for what was intended to be a routine training flight, Pilot Officer Penketh climbed to altitude with two other Spitfires before being seen to break formation.

There is good evidence about the location of the crash site of thanks to a geophysical survey and metal detecting, carried out by Cranfield University in August, which located the aircraft.

Although Pilot Officer Penketh was a new pilot with 266 Squadron, with only some 13 hours experience on Spitfires, his Station Commanding Officer stated that he could fly it quite well and was fully conversant with the oxygen system.

It was assumed that his oxygen system was working as he had reached 28,000ft without any apparent problem. Investigation concluded that either a failure of the oxygen system or a physical failure had occurred.

Penketh’s body was recovered from the wreck of his spitfire and returned to Brighton, where he had previously worked for the Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation. His obituary in the staff magazine ended thus: “He was of a charming disposition and his loss was keenly felt by those who knew him.”

His name is recorded on a memorial at Brighton’s Woodvale Crematorium and Cemetery. He died aged only 20.

Eyewitness accounts

A black and white photo of a First World War RAF Spitfire plane in the air in 1942
K9795, the 9th production Mk I, with 19 Squadron in 1938© Imperial War Museums
John Bliss: “I saw the Spitfire crash, I would be nine I guess; I was down Short Drove up a tree, several of us were there at the time.

There were half a dozen spitfires in the air above the village, and they were having a practice; suddenly this aircraft peeled away from the rest of them and came spiralling down. Then it levelled out, then went straight in to the fen just the other side of the wood.

I didn’t think a great deal of it at the time. It was more excitement than being really upset because the pilot had died.

I went down there with my father and the policeman – there was an enormous crater which was slowly filling up with water while we were there.

At Holme Fen the water table is very high, and if you dig a hole it’s not very long before it fills up. There was quite a lot of steam coming out of the hole as obviously the engine was very hot.

We had quite a lot of crashes around here, especially on the airfield, but when you’re very young you don’t feel the remorse of losing the pilot.

But now I am older it was a very traumatic time and it was very sad. They died defending us.”

Tony Redhead: “The sky would be full of planes, I don’t know whether they gathered here or what, but there’d be hundreds of them all getting ready to go to Germany - Lancasters and that sort of thing - hundreds of them, the sky was full.

I saw the Spitfire that crashed just the other side of the woods; I was sitting on the front door step, it was in the sky and all of a sudden the engine stopped and it just spun round and went into the Fen ground, it just went straight in.”

The plane

A black and white photo of an RAF plane at a base during the Second World War
The X4593© Aviva Group archives
Spitfire registration number X4593 was built at Eastleigh, Hants as a Mark 1A Spitfire with a Merlin III engine, first flying on October 1 1940.

It was a presentation Spitfire paid for and named by the Madras Mail – the English language daily evening paper, published between 1868 and 1981. It was the first in a trio of Mark 1s named by their readers.

The plane was called ‘Kerala’ (after the south-west Indian state) and allocated to 266 Squadron, a Rhodesian squadron. The other two planes were X4594ANDHRADESA  and X4595TOMILAND.

It was issued new to 603 Squadron on October 8 1940, but passed to 266 Squadron nine days later as part of a swap after 603 received the superior Mark 11As. X4593 crashed on a training flight on November 22 1940 at Holme Lode, Cambridgeshire.

The Spitfire was designed by Reginald Mitchell, of Supermarine Ltd, in response to a 1934 Air Ministry specification calling for a high-performance fighter with an armament of eight wing-mounted 0.303-inch (7.7-mm) machine guns.

The plane was a direct descendant of a series of floatplanes designed by Mitchell to compete for the coveted Schneider Trophy in the 1920s. One of these racers, the S.6, set a world speed record of 357 miles (574 km) per hour in 1929.

Designed around a 1,000-horsepower, 12-cylinder, liquid-cooled Rolls-Royce PV-12 engine (later dubbed the Merlin), the prototype Spitfire first flew on March 5 1936 and entered service with the Royal Air Force in August 1938, with 19 squadron based at RAF Duxford.

By the outbreak of World War Two there were 12 squadrons with a total of 187 Spitfires, with another 83 in store. Between 1939 and 1945, a large variety of modifications and developments produced a variety of Mks from I to XVI.

The Mk II came into service in late 1940 and, in March 1941, the MkV came into service. It had superb performance and flight characteristics, and deliveries to operational RAF squadrons commenced in the summer of 1938.

A more radical design than the Hurricane, the Spitfire had a stressed-skin aluminum structure and a graceful elliptical wing with a thin airfoil that, in combination with the Merlin’s efficient two-stage supercharger, gave exceptional performance at high altitudes.

It has been estimated that around 10,000 military aircraft were lost during the 20th Century over the United Kingdom. Of these, only about one fifth are recorded on heritage databases.

Although various wartime records of these losses do survive, their precise location was often poorly recorded or is not now obvious.

The squadron

A black and white photo of a Royal Air Force squadron during the Second World War
No 266 Squadron pictured in May 1944© MacDonald, JF, The War History of Southern Rhodesia 1939-1945. Volume 2. Bulawayo: Books of Rhodesia / Wikimedia Commons
No 266 Squadron was formed on September 27 1918 from Nos 437 and 438 Flights at the seaplane station at Mudros (on the Greek island of Lemnos), for anti-submarine patrols over the Aegean.

On September 1 1919 the squadron disbanded. On October 30 1939, No 266 Squadron reformed at Sutton Bridge, Lincs, intended to be a Blenheim squadron. None were received and after training with Battles, it began to receive Spitfires in January 1940.

It took these into action for the first time on June 2 over Dunkirk and was based in south-east England during August before returning to Wittering.

266 Squadron became a Rhodesian fighter squadron within Fighter Command and went on to establish a fine reputation in the skies over western Europe. In October 1939, Sqn 266 was reformed as a fighter squadron at Sutton Bridge, flying battles until they were supplied with Spitfires in early 1940.

They moved to Martlesham Heath, near Ipswich, in March 1940, then to Wittering in May 1940, having been re-equipped with Spitfires. They were active in the evacuation from Dunkirk, and flew coastal patrols and convoy escorts until fighting in the Battle of Britain in August and September 1940.

Sqn 266 began an intensive operational training programme in September for the many new pilots, when patrols over the Thames Estuary permitted. 266 Squadron’s crest has a motto: Hlabezulu, meaning ‘The stabber of the sky’.

What was it like to be a pilot?

A photo of Pilot Officer Harold Edwin Penketh, who crashed the Spitfire X4593 during the First World War
Pilot Officer Harold Edwin Penketh© Aviva Group archives
Alec, a 91-year-old Cambridgeshire pilot, described his time as a trainee RAF pilot. He joined up in 1942/43 as a PNB (Pilots, Navigators, Bomb Aimers). These young men, mostly 18-early 20s, all went through the same basic training at Newquay; 75% of the group passed and went to Grading School for 12 hours instruction on Tiger Moths.

After leave, all went to Heaton Park, Manchester for further training at the end of which Alec was told he had been selected as a pilot, and would be going abroad for further flying training. Tropical kit was issued, so he knew he would be going to South Africa.

Travel was by convoy, a five-week journey to Durban, during which he remembers an opera singer who “sang the troop ships in and out of the harbour, to cheer the men up”. Training included Bush survival training and three months of flying Cornell trainers, before he was flying Oxfords in early 1945.

After peace was declared, Alec was sent to Tibbenham, Norfolk to dispose of equipment and demobbed in 1947. Although he had completed his pilot training, he never actually flew in combat.

Many trainees were killed, sometimes because the training units used old planes. Bad weather and collisions with high ground claimed many, as well as inexperience on the part of the pilots.

Alec says that although oxygen was used over 12,000 feet, the pipes could block up with condensation from your breath. He observes that if a Spitfire engine stalls it drops like a brick. It doesn’t glideL the only chance a pilot has is to drop the nose to increase air speed and hope to get down somewhere.

Pilot training was carried out at Flying Schools in Canada, South Africa and Rhodesia, away from enemy conflict areas. Pilots then returned to the UK to complete combat skills. This is what Pilot Officer Penketh would have been doing on his final flight.

The Excavation

A photo of archaeologists carrying out a dig for a Spitfire at a fenland site in Cambridgeshire
The aircraft could be mechanically excavated this week© Matt Lodge
The remains of the Spitfire will initially go to the Pathfinder Museum at RAF Wyton for storage, conservation and preservation with the long term aim to present the remains in the Great Fen Visitor Centre. It is expected that the work will be completed in a week and the major finds, such as the engine, will be removed on Wednesday or Thursday.

The archaeological dig will be used as a test case for updating guidance on the recovery of crashed aircraft and to test a more archaeological approach to their recovery.

It is likely that the major airframe components will need mechanical removal. Volunteers from the Great Fen archaeology group, plus the local community and schools will also be involved in the project.

Geophysical survey

In August 2015, Peter Masters, a Research Fellow at Cranfield University Forensic Institute, undertook the geophysical survey of the field to pinpoint where the Spitfire crashed.

He found what is hoped will be a well-preserved engine around two to three metres below the surface. A magnetometer – a device with two vertical white poles (sensors) connected by a horizontal pole, looking like a small rugby goal post, was used.

The horizontal bar includes a small box which collects and stores the data. The machine, which is so sensitive that operators must wear clothing without metal zips, buttons and more, is used with a harness around the body to support it, holding the machine in front of the wearer while they walk up and down the designated area taking readings.

“We are always considerate of the fact that someone lost their life in any site like this,” says Masters. “The Protection of Military Remains Act protects them and it is important that the site is considered properly.

“I have worked on several aircraft sites in the past including the Salisbury Plain Spitfire excavation in 2013. We anticipate that, because this plane crashed into peat, the engine and other parts of the plane are likely to be quite well-preserved.”

Ground Penetrating Radar was also used to give additional information, pulsing an electromagnetic energy signal into the ground up to 40 metres deep.

  • Visit the Fenland Spitfire excavation page for the latest updates. The Great Fen Discovery Day, at Holmewood Hall, Peterborough, will tell the story of the excavation and display finds from the excavation on October 17 2015. The Heritage Lottery (HLF) is funding the excavation and supporting the post-dig land restoration.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to see aviation history in

Manx Aviation and Military Museum, Isle of Man
Dedicated to the Manx men and women who served their island in the cause of freedom, people of other nations who were brought to our shores by wartime service and to all those who, in war and peace, have lost their lives in the Isle of Man in aviation accidents.

Carpetbagger Aviation Museum, Northamptonshire
A vivid display of the work carried out by the 801st (Provisional) / 492nd Bomb Group of the US Eighth Air Force, especially during Operation Carpetbagger, and their secret missions to deliver agents and supplies to resistance groups in Occupied Europe during the Second World War.

Solent Sky Aviation Museum, Southampton
The Hall of Aviation depicts the history of aviation in the Solent area and Hampshire. The Museum tells the story of 26 aircraft companies including the Supermarine Aircraft Works where RJ Mitchell's famous aircraft, the Spitfire, was designed and built, also the Schneider Trophy winning aircraft the S6B.
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Brave men doing what they had to do with no complaints , RIP Sir , gone but not forgotten.
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