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.”

Built at Southampton in 1939, this Supermarine Spitfire Mark 1a was issued to No. 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford in April 1940. On 10 May 1940, Germany invaded France and the Low Countries, pushing the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), along with French and Belgian troops, back to the French port of Dunkirk. By the end of May 1940, Germany's rapid advance through north-west Europe had forced Allied troops back to the coast of the English Channel.

Stranded on the beaches of the French port of Dunkirk, the BEF faced certain capture that would have meant the loss of Britain’s only trained troops and the collapse of the Allied cause. The Royal Navy hurriedly planned an emergency evacuation – ‘Operation Dynamo' – to get troops back to Britain.

On 26 May operation Dynamo began, which included the Royal Air Force sending all available aircraft to protect the evacuation. No. 19 Squadron Leader Geoffrey Stephenson piloted Spitfire N3200 on its first and only operation as he led his squadron on a patrol to cover the evacuation of Allied forces.

Spitrefire taking off from Duxford
IWM, Supermarine Spitfire Mark 1a, IWM Duxford

After shooting down a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber, Stephenson was himself shot down. He crash-landed on a beach at Sangatte, near Calais, and was captured. Stephenson remained a prisoner for the rest of the war, including a period spent at Colditz Castle, while his Spitfire gradually sank under the sand.

Stephenson continued his RAF career after the war but was killed in 1954 while test-flying in America. His Spitfire was recovered from the French sands in 1986 after strong currents revealed it, more than 45 years after it sank. The wreckage was excavated during the spring of that year and, though largely intact, very few parts could be salvaged.

The open canopy of a grounded Spitfire
IWM, Supermarine Spitfire Mark 1a, IWM Duxford

Following the recovery of the aircraft’s remains, Spitfire N3200 was acquired in 2000 by Dr Thomas Kaplan and Simon Marsh. Dedicated to the restoration of this historic aircraft, they commissioned Historic Flying Limited to undertake the intensive work required to return the Spitfire to its former glory.

After much work, this unique aircraft was restored to flying condition and returned to the air in 2014. In 2015 it was generously donated to IWM and the nation by Dr Kaplan and his family. This substantial gift enables the Spitfire to be treasured for generations to come, and for its story to continue to be told.

The Duke of Cambridge, on behalf of IWM, received the Spitfire during his visit to IWM Duxford on 9th July 2015. On this visit, the Duke of Cambridge watched an air display by the Mark 1a fighter, sat in its cockpit and visited Duxford’s Battle of Britain exhibition – housed in the very same hangar that No 19 Squadron’s Spitfires were kept during the Second World War.

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