Three Fleet Air Arm pilots wearing 'Mae West' life-jackets wait for the order of the day on board an aircraft carrier. A Supermarine Seafire can be seen in the background.
© IWM (TR 1121)

This rare Second World War colour photo, probably taken aboard the British aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable in May 1943, shows three pilots awaiting their orders. Sadly, the names of these three men are currently unknown. They wear yellow lifejackets, known as ‘Mae Wests’, after the popular actress of the same name. The right-hand man, a Sub-Lieutenant, wears the chain-like insignia of the Royal Naval Reserve, with a pilot’s ‘wings’ badge; the man on the left, also a Sub-Lieutenant, wears the ‘wavy’ insignia of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). The letter ‘A’ indicates he is a member of the RNVR’s Air Branch.


Flying Trials

© IWM (A 9728)

In the background of this photo is a Supermarine Seafire, a naval fighter aircraft based on the famous Spitfire. Unfortunately, the design of the Spitfire – a superb land-based interceptor - was not well suited to adaptation as a naval fighter. The Seafire lacked the operating range and robustness of purpose-built carrier fighters.




Even so, the Seafire remained in service throughout the Second World War, seeing action in the Mediterranean, the North Sea, and during the D-Day landings. The Seafire also fought in Pacific, defending against Japanese pilots mounting suicidal kamikaze attacks.

Seafires would see further action during the Korean War in the early 1950s, before being retired in favour of newer designs, such as the Sea Fury.


Flying From Carriers

© IWM (TR 285)

These men are members of the Fleet Air Arm, a branch of the Royal Navy that operated aircraft from navy ships. During the Second World War, aeroplanes became a key weapon at sea. Flying from carriers, aircraft armed with bombs or torpedoes could sink ships at distances of hundreds of miles.




The long range striking power of aircraft made it possible to attack enemy fleets in harbour, a tactic used by the Fleet Air Arm in attacking the Italian Navy at Taranto in November 1940, and by the Japanese against the Americans at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

By the end of the war, the aircraft carrier and the aeroplane had overtaken the battleship, with its heavy artillery, as the most powerful offensive weapon at sea.

The Spitfire Lost For 50 Years


John Delaney: “The aircraft behind me is a Spitfire 1a, which is the only flying exhibit owned and operated by the Imperial War Museum.

This is a Spitfire 1a which is an eight -gun Browning version, which is the mainstay Spitfire aircraft of that period. It was flown by Squadron Leader Geoffrey Stephenson who was the Squadron Leader of 19 Squadron at the time and unfortunately flew it on its one and only mission and was shot down and crash-landed on the beach at Sangatte near Calais as part of the Operation 'Dynamo' Dunkirk evacuation.

The letters on the fuselage, QV, relate to 19 Squadron which is the Squadron based out of Duxford. In fact, this very aircraft flew from this very hangar on the day it was lost. After the aircraft was shot down and crash landed on the beach at Sangatte, it became something of a tourist attraction for the German soldiers in the area.

They all used to go along and have their photograph taken with it crashed on the beach and inevitably they would take a souvenir, i.e., part of the aircraft, they'd take away with them as a souvenir on the day, and as the war went on more and more of the aircraft went missing and the remaining superstructure and the engine and the cockpit section sank underneath the beach and remained there until 1986 when it was recovered. It was brought back to the United Kingdom in 2000 and the restoration commenced shortly thereafter, and it took 14 years almost to the day for it to be restored back to flying condition. It flew again in March 2014.

This is one of only four flying Spitfire 1a's left in the world of the Battle of France, Battle of Britain era so it's very important and it's important to the Imperial War Museum because it gives a real sense of what an aircraft looked like and sounded like when it was flying and this one regularly flies out of Duxford on Air Show days to demonstrate to the public what it was like, and especially the sounds of what it would have sounded like to have a Spitfire flying over your head in the Battle of Britain.”

This Supermarine Spitfire Mark 1a was shot down near Calais on 26 May 1940. After spending decades buried in the sands it was restored to full flying condition and can now be seen at IWM Duxford.

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