Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 November 2019

Reach for the sky: how the Arabian Gulf helped defeat Hitler's airforce

Gulf countries raised funds to buy a squadron of Spitfires

The Silver Spitfire. Courtesy: IWC
The Silver Spitfire. Courtesy: IWC

This month the skies over the UAE will reverberate to the unmistakable sound of a V12 27 litre Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.

It will herald the arrival of the Silver Spitfire, on its latest leg of a round-the-world voyage that will take to the end of the year to complete.

Arguably the most famous fighter aircraft of the Second World War, and perhaps of all time, the Spitfire legend began with the Battle of Britain and the defeat of Hitler’s Luftwaffe.

Its dramatic aerial dogfights over England’s home counties secured its place in allied hearts and proved a turning point in a war which threatened all Europe with Nazi domination.

As early as 1940, with RAF fighters still engaged in a life or death conflict over southern England, the Spitfire’s power as a propaganda tool was almost potent as its eight Browning machine guns.

It was the newspaper publishing magnate Lord Beaverbrook who conceived of the idea of a Spitfire Fund, encouraging ordinary people to donate money to build more of the aircraft and boost war production without further draining government coffers.

The 'silver spitfire' was built in 1943 and flew dozens of combat missions. EPA / British Ministry of Defence
The 'silver spitfire' was built in 1943 and flew dozens of combat missions. EPA / British Ministry of Defence

It was also a way for countries not directly involved in the conflict to show their support for Britain and the Allied cause.

The Gulf Fighter Fund would eventually raise enough money to build at least 11 Spitfires.

It also saw the creation of the 126 “Gulf” Squadron, operating from the Mediterranean, and commanded by “Johnny” Plagis.

Plagis was born in what is now Zimbabwe to Greek parents, and his Spitfire had the word “Muscat” in English and Arabic emblazoned on the fuselage.

In the Siege of Malta, he shot down four enemy aircraft in the space of a few hours.

A depiction of a Sea Spitfire, or Seafire, flying over a British aircraft carrier. Courtesy IWM
A depiction of a Sea Spitfire, or Seafire, flying over a British aircraft carrier. Courtesy IWM

Oman was one of several countries who contributed to the Gulf Spitfire Fund, along with Bahrain and Kuwait.

By 1940, British officials in the Gulf were able to report to London they had collected £10,000 - enough to buy two Spitfires.

“Inauguration of the fund has aroused great interest and response from Arabs, Indians has been most gratifying,” the report noted. “We should be glad if the planes could be named Bahrain and Kuwait respectively.”

A radio broadcast in Arabic in September 1940 announced the deployment of the first Gulf Spitfire. Britain also produced several Arabic language propaganda posters showing the aircraft in action, with German aircraft crashing in flames.

Bahrain was particularly generous, with the Ruler, Sheikh Hamad Al Khalifa, personally donating 30,000 Gulf rupees, the currency of the time, and equal to nearly £2,500, or half the cost of a Spitfire. In total, Bahrain purchased at least six of the fighter aircraft.

Four images depict fighter planes involved in aerial attacks on German aircraft, ports and shippping. Courtesy IWM
Four images depict fighter planes involved in aerial attacks on German aircraft, ports and shippping. Courtesy IWM

In part this was spurred by the kingdom’s proximity to the conflict. It became the only Gulf country to be directly attacked in the war when, in October 1940, a squadron of long-range Italian bombers launched an audacious attack on its oil facilities.

After flying over 4,000 kilometres, the four bombers caused severe damage to American-operated oil installations, although without casualties.

The news that Bahrain was buying Spitfires for the RAF prompted threats of further air raids, although these never materialised.

Silver Spitfire pilot, Steve Brooks. Courtesy IWC
Silver Spitfire pilot, Steve Brooks. Courtesy IWC

By the end of the war, the Gulf Rulers were given a chance to see what they had purchased, with Spitfires flown to both Kuwait and Bahrain in 1944 and 1945.

These were far from the first Spitfires to pass through the region. Sharjah, then one of the seven Trucial States under British authority, was an important RAF base both during the war and until the creation of the UAE in 1971.

While RAF Sharjah operated light bombers rather than fighters during the conflict, it was a crucial refuelling link for aircraft being moved from Europe and the Middle East to Asia.

There are no records of how many Spitfires passed through Sharjah. A report by the political officer for July 1945 notes that “on the third a Spitfire made a forced landing at Sharjah as one of its wheels had burst at a previous aerodrome. The propellers of the plane sustained some damage but there were no casualties.”

Over 20,000 Spitfires were built, with the aircraft in service as late as 1961, where it was still used as a trainer for the Irish Air Corps.

In total, it was flown by more than 30 air forces, and was even considered for purchase by Afghanistan in 1947.

Other countries included Egypt and Israel, where Spitfires engaged in dogfights with each other during the 1948 war.

The Silver Spitfire now making the aircraft’s first circumnavigation was built at the Castle Bromwich factory in the English Midlands in 1943.

It fought over 50 combat missions and was flown by pilots from five countries, including Australia, Norway and Trinidad before being fully restored 70 years later, with a polished fuselage that gives it its name.

To date it has crossed the Atlantic, visited Canada and the US, reached Russia over the Bearing Strait, dodged Typhoon Hagibis in Japan and made its way across Asia.

It will arrive in the Gulf via India and Pakistan. After four months and around 20,000 nautical miles, it will be a kind of homecoming.

Updated: November 10, 2019 01:13 PM

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