Spitfire AR501

Michael Burns charts the crowded history of the Shuttlesworth’s Spitfire V AR501. ‘Flypast’ artist Bill Bennett produced the superb cutaway.

SUPERMARINE SPITFIRE MK V, AR501 was built in 1942 as a Mark VC, one of a production batch of 300 Spitfires ordered under Contract No. 1305/40 of August 1940 from Westland Aircraft, Yeovil, Somerset. Serial range of the batch was AR212 to AR621.

Originally ordered as 300 Mark I’s, but typically, as modification and more powerful Merlin engines became available, the contract was modified several times to cover the production of later marks. The batch was delivered from July 11, 1940, and comprised: 50 Mark IAs, several of which were later converted to PR Mark IV and Mark V standard; 140 Mark VBs, of which two, one during production and one later, were converted to Seafire Mk IBs by Westland, and another was later converted to PR Mark XIII; and 110 Mark VCs, of which AR501 was one.

Most of the Spitfires from this batch, following delivery to Maintenance Units, were sent to the Middle East and (Mark VCs only) to Australia, two Mark VBs AR511 and AR567, were delivered to the Portuguese Air Force. Westland built a total of 685 Spitfires, 50 Mark Is and 635 Mark Vs, before concentrating on Seafires.

As an F Mark VC, the prefix indicating a general altitude fighter, the suffix that it had the universal armament wing, AR501 was fitted with a Rolls-Royce Merlin 46 engine, developing 1,415 hp maximum, with an altitude rating of 19,000 feet.

AR501 was delivered to 8 Maintenance Unit (MU) at Little Rissington, Glos, on June 22, 1942, and passed to 6 MU, Brize Norton, Oxon, on July 7, which issued it to 310 (Czech) Squadron, RAF on July 19. The squadron was based at Exeter, Devon, and commanded by Squadron Leader F. Doležal, DFC. AR501 was on occasions the CO’s mount.

Doležal had escaped from German occupied Czechoslovakia to France in 1938. Joining the Armee de l’Air, he destroyed two German aircraft in combat during the Battle of France before fleeing to England in June 1940. Quickly converting to Spitfires, he flew with 19 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, destroying a further three German aircraft and claiming two as probably destroyed. Posted to 310 Squadron in January 1941, he was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader in April 1942, and became the Squadron’s CO.

310 had formed at Duxford, alongside 19 Squadron, on July 10, 1940 on Hawker Hurricane Mk Is, as the first Czechoslovakian squadron in the Royal Air Force. Declared operational during the height of the Battle of Britain, it began to convert to Spitfires in October 1941.

Although AR501 flew with the squadron on routine coastal and convoy patrols (Jim Crows, after a ship’s look-out) in 10 Group, Fighter Command’s air defence area, 310 Squadron had gone over to the offensive in July 1942, in common with other offensive based fighter squadrons. It undertook regular fighter sweeps, designed to provoke the enemy into the air to be shot down, and to force the Luftwaffe to deploy in France fighter, ground defence and support units required elsewhere, and, also, to harass the enemy and show the roundels.

Circus operations were flown by one or more wings of fighters in support of medium bomber attacks, and were carefully orchestrated. Rhubarbs, flown at low-level (‘down among the rhubarb’) were single sections of two or four aircraft slipped across the Channel under poor weather cover to attack anything they found of the enemy’s war machine. Essentially spontaneous, but requiring Group approval, the results achieved by Spitfires on Rhubarbs did not justify the losses of aircraft and pilots to ground fire.

On August 18, 1942 came the largest offensive operation in the North-Western Theatre since 1940 with the exploratory and disastrous Operation Jubilee, the amphibious landings of British, Canadian, and a few American troops at Dieppe.

RAF gave close air support, fighter cover, and diversionary support throughout the landings, and largely prevented the Luftwaffe from attacking the choice array of destroyers, transports and landing craft, although the Luftwaffe’s tardy response contributed to the RAF’s in success. 310 Squadron was heavily engaged in Operation Jubilee, covering anti-E-Boat Hurricane sorties, and providing air cover over the troop landings. The squadron claimed one enemy aircraft destroyed, and three probably destroyed, and six damaged in this operation.

Doležal, possibly flying AR501, claimed a Do217 probably destroyed and one FW 190 damaged. It was the first time that the FW 190 had been encountered in force, and it was evident from the pilot’s reports and was superior to the Spitfire Mk V. Only the Hawker Typhoons, committed to action for the first time in force also, matching it a fortnight later, on 28 August, Doležal shared in the destruction of a Bf 109E, although not in AR501.

Operations from the West Country thereafter were increasingly hampered by the autumn weather, and by the end of the year 310 Sqn had reverted to its earlier defensive role. It flew anti-Jabo patrols against the Luftwaffe’s high speed, low-level FW190 and Bf 109 Jabos (fighter bombers) which were making hit-and-run raids against coastal installations. Chances of interception were remote, and the unit claimed no victories during this phase.

Selected items from AR501’s Operations with 310 Squadron:

10/09/42, S/Ldr F. Doležal, Green Section:

Rear cover for 4 Whirlwinds. from Bolt Head. Set course 175° for 18 min climbing to 18,000′ orbiting for 15 min did not see 312 Sqn, returned to Exeter.

Time Up/Down: 18:30/19:40

18/09/42, S/Ldr F. Doležal, Red Section:

Squadron took off from Exeter for Non-operational formation practice. At ll:35 ordered to intercept 6 bandits over Teignmouth, being told shortly afterwards that they were at Danmouth. Sqn at 8,000′ above 10/10th cloud. Doležal ordered Sqdn to regroup diving through cloud arrived 15 miles E of Dartmouth – followed coast for 30 secs – 2 FW 190s seen 1½ miles distant flying S.E. at 3000′. 310 at 1000′ turned left and right in pairs abrest behind e/as of whom 4 more were seen 2 travelling S., rest S.E. Sqdn chased and fired at range of 250-700 yds. No results observed. With Sqdn full out FWs left Spit VC standing. Sqdn. ordered to return. Disappointed!

Time Up/Down: 11:15/12:05

08/11/42, F/Sgt V. Popelka, White Section:

Air-Sea Rescue search for P/O Doucha missing after baling out of AR502 25 mls. S.W. of Eddystone Light after being attacked by FW190 on 7/11.

Time Up/Down: 8:35/10:10

22/01/43, F/Lt R. Borovec, White Section:

Anti-Rhubarb patrol off Torquay.

Time Up/Down: 10:10/11:50

23/01/43, S/Ldr E. Foit, Red Section:

10 Group Ramrod 48 – bombing Lorient supplying cover at 23,000′.

Time Up/Down: 12:35/14:15

26/01/43, W/O F. Trejtnar, White Section:

Wing to escort l2 Venturas, set course at sea level until 50mls. from French coast – climbed to 11,000′ near Ile de Batz. Owing to low cloud mission cancelled.

Time Up/Down: 14:50/16:15

27/02/43, F/Lt H. Hrbáček, Red Section:

low cloud mission cancelled, From Predannack Foryess & Liberator raid on Brest (Ramrod 54). Engine found cutting at height returned to base.

Time Up/Down: 13:45/15:30

Prop, exhaust stubs and rear-view mirror, all non-standard on a Mk V and explained in the test (Duncan Cubitt)

On December 1, 1942 AR501 went for minor repair in works at Air Service Training. Awaiting collection on December 3, 1942, it was again on the charge of 310, still based at Exeter, two days later. In January Squadron Leader F Vancl took command of the squadron, remaining until March 1943.

The unit again returned to offensive operations in January and on January 29 was involved in a complex fight over Merlaix airfield, Northern France. The squadron lost two pilots, but claimed an FW destroyed and one probably destroyed and one damaged. However, the squadron’s main orientation was shipping and convoy patrols, with sweeps when called upon.

While parked in a dispersal some 200 yards off the runway, AR501 was hit by Mosquito PR3 DD634 at 1100 hours on March 15. The Mossie, from 307 (Polish) Squadron, careered off the runway during an overshoot. AR501 (and Merlin 46 90621 A.339581) was damaged to Category B status. It was issued to 67 MU at Taunton on March 22, and moved on for repair in works by Westlands the following day. It was ‘awaiting collection’ on July 3.

AR501 was taken on charge by 33 Maintenance Unit Lyneham, Wilts, on July 17, 1943 and then by 3501 Servicing Unit at Cranfield, Beds on August 6. 310 Squadron had been transferred to the North of Scotland in June and had also re-equipped with Spitfire HF Mk Vls.

However, on August 18 AR501 was issued to 504 (City of Nottingham) Squadron, based at Church Stanton (Culmhead), Somerset since June 1943.

Under 11 Group, 504 was on offensive operations over France, led by Sqn Ldr P J Simpson DFC. However, 504 was being transferred to Redhill, Surrey, and converting to the new Spitfire Mk IXs. It is unlikely that AR501 bore 504’s code. ‘HX’. and on August 20, 1943 AR501 was taken on charge by the Station Flight.

AR501’s combat career, however, re-opened on October 10, 1943 when it was taken on charge by 312 (Czech) Squadron, which had arrived at Church Stanton in September following some months based at Skeabrae, providing air defence for the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet base at Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands.

Sqn Ldr A Vybíral was succeeded as CO by Sqn Ldr F Varnel DFC, in November 1943. The squadron was engaged on bomber escorts from its arrival at Church Stanton, protecting the increasing number and weight of bomber raids across the English Channel against V-1 rocket launching sites.

A number of other aircraft from AR501’s production batch, including AR550 and AR614, also served with this unit. The Squadron transferred to Ibsley, Hants, in December 1943, remaining there until February 1944 when it moved to Mendlesham, to convert to Spitfire Mk IXs.

On February 26, AR501 was transferred from 312 Squadron to 144 Fighter Affiliation Flight and was allocated the following day to 422 Squadron, RAF Coastal Command, a Short Sunderland equipped maritime patrol unit at Castle Archdale, Northern Ireland, AR501 was probably used for fighter affiliation and for acclimatising air gunnery, and aircrews, to fighter attack (see notes).

On March 30, 1944 AR501 was taken on charge by 58 Operational Training Unit, based at Grangemouth, Midlothian. AR501’s front line days were now definitely over, the Mark V being obsolescent in the North West European Theatre, 58 OTU was one of the OTUs disbanded before mid-1944, and it seems likely that AR50l was struck offcharge shortly before the unit closed, and only shortly after the aircraft’s arrival.

On April 26, 1944 AR501 was taken on charge by I Tactical Exercise Unit, based at Tealing, Angus, I TEU had formed on October 3, 1943 from 56 OTU. which had in turn been formed from 6 OTU at Sutton Bridge on November 1940, moving to Tealing on March 27, 1942.

AR501 was re-allocated to 61 OTU on July 4, 1944, and I TEU ran-down and disbanded on July 31, 1944, 61 OTU had been based at Rednal, Salop, since April 15, 1942 and used Spitfire Mks I, II, V and IX, Miles Magister Mk IIs, Harvard Mk IIIs and Mustang Mk IIIs.

Sketch to show the flap arrangement on the MkV. (Bill Bennett)

AR501 suffered a Category B Flying Accident on September 9, and on September 22 was delivered to Air Service Training at Exeter for repair in work. AR501 reappeared as an LF Mark VC, with the fitting of a 1,585hp Merlin 45M, essentially similar to the medium altitude 45 and 46, but rated for low-altitude duty, and ‘clipping’ the wings to improve low-altitude performance by removing the wing tip panels and substituting a wooden or metal fairing, incorporating the navigation/formation lights. It made its first test flight following conversion on November 22, 1944.

During this period of repair and conversion, AR501 also acquired a number of features normally only seen on late production Mark Vs and Mark IXs, which contribute to making AR501 an interesting survivor. It was policy to update aircraft that came in to service units for major repairs, but in any case, by 1944 many replacement Mark V parts would have been to later specifications.

AR501 was fitted with six ejector stub exhausts on either side of the Merlin instead of the earlier standard Rolls-Royce triple ejector exhaust manifold with which she had previously been equipped, and her narrow blade propeller was replaced by a broad root unit Both these changes accompanied the Merlin 45M.

When AR501 was struck off RAF charge in 1946 she also had a number of other modifications from her original specifications, which were almost certainly made during this period of repair and conversion, because there was not substantial opportunity, or requirement, later. An elevator with horn balanced tips of increased area and accordingly modified stabiliser were fitted, aiding low-altitude performance. IFF aerials between the fuselage and tailplanes were replaced by a rod aerial below the starboard wing panel. A later style windscreen with an internal bullet proof screen superceded the earlier external screen. Link-type oleo legs were fitted, together with ‘bowed’ undercarriage doors that enabled the wheels to sit lower in the wells when retracted and thus eliminated the bulges on the upper main planes over the wells, but two stiffening strakes were rivetted over the panel above the wells, which was a service modification.

View at Duxford showing the strengthening strips on the wing. (Bill Bennett).

It should be noted that it is a Spitfire’s fuselage centre section – the monocoque – which carries the continuity of its identity. The tail section, engine bearers and engine, and starboard and port main wing panels could each or all be replaced, and were, but the Spitfire would still bear the same manufacturer’s construction number and RAF serial number as before the interchange, for all practical and record purposes.

Other noteworthy features on AR501 today are a rectangular type rear-view mirror (fitted in 1968), and the lack of a formation light behind the radio mast and of a radio wire from radio mast to rudder, and of a support for a radio wire on the rudder.

AR501 was listed as awaiting collection from Air Service Training on 23 November 1944 and on 2 December 1944 she was flown to 33 MU at Lyneham, pending allocation. She was taken on charge by the Central Gunnery School at Catfoss, Yorks, on April 24, 1945. A taxying accident on July 15, necessitated the fitting of new propeller No. 21435. Flight time with CGS at this point was only nine hours 35 minutes.

On August 22, 1945 AR501 was ferried to 29 MU at High Ercall, Salop, for storage. On March 21, she was declared suprlus to RAF needs and struck off charge.

AR501 escaped the melting pot and was flown to the Department of Aeronautical Engineering at Loughborough Technical College, Leics, by Flt/Sgt D R Reynolds on March 21, 1946. At this point Merlin 45M No.702 70239/N80732 fitted had logged sixteen hours forty minutes. Total airframe hours for AR50l came to 511 hours, 35 minutes.

At Loughborough AR501 was a training airframe for students, along with Hawker Hurricane KX829, a Sea Hurricane Mk I Z7015 and a Grumman Martlet AL246 until it was given on permanent loan to the Shuttleworth Trust, based at Old Warden Aerodrome, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, where it was stored and also displayed to the public in static condition.

Busy scene at Loughborough with students working on AR50l. Martlet 4L245 in background - now at Yeovilton. (Peter R Arnold collection).

When AR501 arrived at Loughborough, it was fitted with the Rotol RX5/10 (broad root) prop that was fitted at Catfoss in July 1945. (The Form 70 for this prop runs as follows: Sent to 35 MU following repair and overhaul, received January 31, 1944. Sent to Hutton Cranswick March 1, 1944 and returned to 35 MU April 26. To Catfoss on December 13, 1944). This prop was swopped with Sea Hurricane Z7015, and AR501 took on a DH narrow blade unit Z7015, now at Duxford, still has this prop. It is thought AR501’s prop came from MK IV KX829, indicating a complex swop-around at Loughborough.

In 1967 Hamish Mahaddie of Spitfire Productions Ltd was collecting together aircraft for the film Battle of Britain. He had gathered nine airworthy Spitfires – five Mark IXs, one Mark XIV, and two PR XIXs, but only one early ‘short-nose’ Spitfire, Mark VB AB910 (G-AIST), lent by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight for the film.

As the budget permitted it Mahaddie decided to restore to flying condition three early mark: Mark I AM213 (G-AIST), purchased from Air Commodore Allen Wheeler who had had it in store at Old Warden; Mark IIA P7350 (G-AWIJ), an exhibit at RAF Colerne which the RAF made available and which was presented in airworthy condition to the Memorial Flight after the film, fittingly; and AR501, which was loaned by Shuttleworth.

Restoration to airworthy condition was undertaken by Simpson’s Aeroservices and Spitfire Productions Ltd at RAF Henlow, Beds. Like the other aircraft in the film, AR501 was entered on the civil register, as G-AWII, by her new operators, Spitfire Productions Ltd of Pinewood Studios, Iver Heath, Buck. AR501 flew some fifty hours during the film, in various guises in spring and summer 1968.

For the Battle of Britain, AR501 was given full elliptical wing tips replacing her clipped wing tip fairings, which were inauthentic for the 1940-period. Her cannon were removed, as only one squadron of Spitfires, 19, used cannon-armed Spitfires, Mark IBs, and for only a few days, during the Battle.

Spitfires in the films were allocated fictitious squadron codes, selected to ensure that none had been used in the Battle itself, of ‘AI’, ‘CD’, ‘DO’ and ‘EI’, and were allocated serials in the range N3310 – N3329, originally allocated by the Air Ministry to Boulton Paul Defiants, but which had not been taken up.

Unit codes were made of a self-adhesive Fablon materia| and could be stripped off after each flight and replaced by other codes, because only twelve Spiifires – roughly two-thirds of a 1940 squadron’s strength – took the role of the whole of Fighter Command. However, the code’s colour was a slightly inauthentic shade of the Medium Sea Grey used for the 1940 codes – white!

After filming was complered, AR501’s briefly acquired wing tips were returned to their donor aircraft and it was ferried by Dickie Millward to RAE Bedford for storage on behalf of the Shurtleworth Trust via a low level display at Old Warden. At RAE she remained until she was dismantled and flown to West Germany for use by the Canadian Armed Forces at a colour presentation ceremony.

At RAE Bedford following use in the film

AR501 returned to the UK in the same manner as she had departed, in the hold of CAF C-130 Hercules. The Herc brought the Spitfire to Duxford for complete rebuild. Note: Stuart MacConnacher is not convinced of the allocation to 144 FAF, no matter how brief. A signal from HQ 2nd TAF dated February 15, 1944, transfers AR501 to 144 Airfield (Digby) for three new Canadian units (441, 442 and 443) being formed there. 144’s ORB shows the first Mk Vs arriving on February 19.

AR501’s record card shows onword transfer to 422 Squodron os February 27. Stuart believes this to be a clerical error for 442 Squadron, which was of course then at 144 Airfield. The next transfer, to 58 OTU, coincided with the 144 Airfield ORB showing requipment of its units with Mk IX Spitfires. Stuart points out that all things are possible since 442 Squadron was an RCAF unit and who better to borrow a Spitfire for fighter affiliation from than a working-up Canadian unit The 422 Squadron ORB made no mention of Spitfires, but on February 20, 1944, Sunderland III W6028 crashed during a fighter affiliation exercise).

At this point Stuart MacConnacher takes up the story of AR501’s restoration at Duxford.

Rebuild started in 1973 with a group of enthusiasts who eventually became a joint Duxford Aviation Society/Shuttleworth Veteran Aeroplane Society group known to all as the Spitfire Crew. Leading lights were Keith Taylor, Bob Tinkler and Steve McManus – becoming some of the most knowledgeable amateur Spitfire/Merlin restorers in the UK.

My role was liaison link with the workshops at Old Warden and the aircraft’s historian.

Very rare shot of AR501 wearing its civil markings - briefly at Duxford. (Stuart MacConnacher)

The crew’s aim was total authenticity including matt paint finish to correct shades, wheel covers and restoration of the cannon stubs which had not been thrown away after the removal at Henlow. With Peter Arnold’s help a gunsight was obtained from Canada and the cannon fairings which attach to the stubs were a fortunate find in the Old Warden stores. believed to have been from a Mk XVIII.

The only area where we could not change AR501 back to our desired restoration of Squadron Leaders Doležal’s 310 Squadron aircraft of October 1942 was the wing tips and the propeller. This era was chosen as it was the high-point of its career and the fact that both Doležal and 310 Squadron had Duxford connections was a bonus.

We never obtained any wartime photographs of AR501 which might have influenced our choice of markings. Research carried out in 1970 at the AHB had shown that no individual code letter was easily obtainable. The concensus we arrived at was that by cross-checking known serial number/code letter tie-ups with Peter Arnold our choice of ‘D’ for Doležal and Duxford did not conflict over the dates of AR501’s service with 310 Squadron.

The Czech emblem on the cockpit sides cannot be confirmed but the use of the code letter under the nose was a common feature at the time. The quest for authenticity by The Spitfire Crew went as far as the gun patches where red doped patches of linen were used rather than the neatly taped bright red squares usual at the time.

AR501 flew again in the hands of Niel Williams on June 27, 1975 – a tribute to those who rebuilt her at Duxford and those airmen from Eastern Europe who fled their homeland and helped us in hour of need.

Reproduced from the May 1986 edition of Flypast with kind permission from the publishers, Key Publishing Ltd. www.flypast.com

This entry was posted in 310 Sqd, 312 Sqd, Aircraft. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Spitfire AR501

  1. Andrew Lawson says:

    I did my apprenticeship at RAE Bedford between 1972 and 1976. One of our apprentice masters was John Stoddard who was also one of the Duxford Spitfire crew and he used to bring items and components from Duxford for us apprentices to restore. One of my jobs was to apply those red doped linen patches on the gun oriffices. I was there when Neil Williams flew the aircraft from RAE Bedford and remember the glorious sound of the Merlin as it took off, gear up 10 feet off the ground for the full length of the runway before climbing away for a test flight around Bedford and Cambridgeshire. When the aircraft returned the post flight inspection found bits of straw and hay in the underwing radiators (so must have done some very low level passes!)

  2. Chris Whitelock says:

    Can you please explain why Ar501 has the duxford number on the side instead of NNA
    Which I also have a story about

  3. Marion Taylor says:

    My husband was crew chief on the restoration.

  4. Pavel Kopecek says:

    Fascinating and impressive research. It would have been interesting to know who flew the aircraft whilst it was with 312 Squadron.

    [Moderators note: – Czechoslovak 312 Sqn pilots known to have flown AR501 are : – Hugo Hrbacek, Antonin Skach, Frantisek Mlejnecky, Frantisek Trejtnar Rudolf Borovec Jan Stefan and Karel Kosina]

  5. tony Hogben says:

    nice to find this plane as today i purchased a rather.. nice resin model of this air craft,, NNA….AR501,,,nice to find i could actually find the pilot who had flown it all those yrs ago…good old world wide web

  6. Mike Churchill says:

    I was one of those students at Loughborough College (now Loughborough University) who worked on AR 501 in 1953/54. I particularly remember riveting a ‘patch’ on a wing panel. I hope that has been replaced by now!!

    • David Topham says:

      I also was a Loughborough student who worked on AR 502, in 1955/56. We also added further patches! We knew nothing of AR 501’s flying history, so it was interesting to learn so much.

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