Loch Doon Spitfire P7540

The Loch Doon Spitfire is found.

by Peter Moran

The Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Group located the wreck of Spitfire P7540 in Loch Doon in the summer of 1982 after a five year search.

Finally ashore and P7540 dries out in the July sunshine. The hardstanding on which it is placed and on which the diving teams erected their base camp has a long connection with aviation, having been built round about the time of the First World War when the floatplanes of the School of Aerial Gunnery operated from the loch.

A five year search for a missing aircraft was brought to a successful conclusion in the summer of 1982 with the discovery of Spitfire P7540 in Loch Doon in the Galloway Hills of south-west Scotland. Divers have now recovered approximately 90% of the aircraft, including the complete rear fuselage and tail section and a Merlin engine in remarkable condition.

The story begins on Saturday October 25 l94l when a lone Spitfire from 312 (Czech) Squadron, on a training flight from RAF Ayr, winged its way south down the six mile length of Loch Doon. Flying just above the water the pilot, F/O František Hekl, banked the aircraft and his starboard wing struck the surface. ln an instant the Spitfire was lost to view from the shore as it disintegrated in a flurry of spray.

One of the few people to witness the event, and a man who was to prove a valuable source of information in the search 40 years later, was the water bailiff in charge of Loch Doon. Having seen the crash he cycled the five or six miles to the village of Dalmellington to alert the local constable. When, some time later, the two men arrived back on the shores of the loch there was nothing to be seen apart from an oil patch.

The week prior to the crash had seen exceptional rainfall and storms over south-west Scotland and in consequence the Galloway hill lochs were at record high level. At Loch Doon, part of a chain of lochs supplying water for hydro-electric production, this surplus water was being run off via the outfall on the eastern bank. An RAF salvage crew brought a boat to Loch Doon and spent several days half-heartedly trying to trawl up the wreckage. Predictably, with the Spitfire then lying in something like 25 metres of water, and the actual position of the wreck unclear due to surface debris and the oil slick having been drawn towards the outfall, this venture was doomed to failure from the outset.

After 4l years the murky waters of Loch Doon finaly relinquishes its hold on its victim. The fuselage of Spitfire P7540 is raised using air bags and is then carefully towed towards the shore.

The search for Spitfire P7540 was not resumed again until l977 when Bruce Robertson of the Dumfries & Galloway Aviation Group interested a number of local divers from the Dumfries branch of the Scottish Sub-Aqua Club, led by David Greenwood, in looking for the missing aircraft.Later, in August 1979, divers from various clubs in the Northern Federation of British Sub-Aqua Clubs (NORFED) joined the hunt with the Blackpool branch becoming project organisers.

The initial search area was to the north-east of the water outfall, at a position indicated by eye witnesses of the crash. Over a period of many months several 100 metre square areas of the loch bed were scoured, the search gradually extending to the north and west. RAE West Freugh loaned a sophisticated locator device to the team but this proved impractical as more time was spent in un-snagging the probe from the huge boulders which litter this part of the loch floor than in actual searching.

As time progressed, with dives being carried out at weekends and holidays, the search pushed out to the west, then the north and finally to the south. When 1982’s campaign got underway a decision was taken to shift the area of search to a point to the north-west after further consultation with various witnesses. The loch bed here was quite different, the huge boulders having given way to soft silt. At the same time the method of search was changed, with the old method of circular sweeps around fixed buoys giving way to a line search pattern whereby six divers would swim in line abreast down a 15 metre wide lane 150 metres long. The new plan was rewarded with immediate success.

A map of Loch Doon showing the search areas numbered progressively and the sector to the north-west where the Spitfire was eventually located.

Ironically, this summer Loch Doon was at a record low level, with only about eight metres of water covering the point where the wreck lay compared with a more normal l0 to l2 metres. The first part of P7540 to be found was the rear fuselage and tail section, intact up to the rear cockpit bulkhead. This lay inverted on top of the mud in contrast to all later finds which were buried. Over the ensuing weeks more and more of the Spitfire was found; the wreckage was scattered along a line about 200 metres long, on a track of approximately 170 degrees. The tail section was at the extreme south-east end of the trail of wreckage, having travelled furthest, while the engine – found accidentally when a diver sat on it (!) – was at the opposite end.

The Merlin XII engine has been well preserved buried in the peaty silt on the loch floor, but proved difficult to raise to the surface. Once on the water's edge it was manhandled onto an old car bonnet and towed ashore by two Land-Rovers.

Each find was carefully charted and then brought to the surface, the heavier items being raised with air bags. The wings were found to be extremely badly smashed and the D&GAG will be no doubt on the lookout for fresh wings when the rebuild of P7540 finally gets under way. In contrast the Merlin XII engine proved to be in excellent shape with reduction gear and propeller boss still attached and even the paintwork intact on the rocker covers and ancillaries.

Corrosion, generally, was found to be very low, only the aircraft’s wheels and a few other magnesium pieces having completely disintegrated. All the wreckage so far recovered – about 90% having been brought out by early September- has been transferred to the D&G Aviation Museum on the former airfield at Tinwald Downs where each piece has been treated with the rustproofing solution ‘Waxoyl’, a quantity of which was donated to the group by the makers, Finnigan’s Ltd.

The badly broken wings are laid out ashore while a diver recounts his adventures to Bruce Robertson in the background.

Very little now remains to be done at Loch Doon. Several dives will be carried out this Autumn to ensure that no sizeable portions of the Spitfire remain and then the onus will be on the D&GAG to preserve and restore this remarkable find.

Some figures compiled by Bernard Scott, Vice Chairman of NORFED, illustrate the scale of diving operations since their involvement began in 1979. No less than 567 separate dives have been carrried out by 109 individual divers, a total of 337 hours being spent underwater searching a total area of a 1/4 square kilometre. The D&GAG have immense praise for the perseverance of all the divers who took part, many of whom travelled long distances to take part.

Restoration of DGAM's first Spitfire Mk II P7540, salvaged from Loch Doon, attracts much attention at Tinwald Down airfield.

The Loch Doon Spitfire – Mk II P754O
Oct 20, 1940 Built at Castle Bromwich, issued to 6 Maintenance Unit at Brize Norton.
Oct 29, 1940 Into service with 66 Squadron at Gravesend. unit moved to West Malling the following day.
Feb 24, 1941 Transferred to 609 (West Riding) Squadron RAuxAF which moved into Biggin Hill that day.
Jun 14, 1941 To 266 Squadron at Wittering.
Jul 6, 1941 Transferred again, this time to 312 (Czech) Squadron initially at Marlesham Heath, moving to Ayr on August 19.
Oct 25, 1941 Crashed into Loch Doon, Ayrshire. Aircraft struck off charge on November 2 with a total flying time of 21 hours 25 minutes.
1982 Wreckage salvaged by the Dumfries & Galloway Aviation Museum and moved to Tinwald Downs, Dumfries for restoration and display.
Compiled from entries in Spitfire: The History, by Eric Morgan and Edward Shacklady and published by Key Publishing. within the work’s staggering 634 pages can be found the potted history of every Spitfire built.

Reproduced from the December 1982 edition of Flypast with kind permission from the publishers, Key Publishing Ltd. www.flypast.com

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