Supermarine Spitfire Mk 1a, with early underside colour scheme.
Flt Lt. James Leathart, Plt Off. Colin Gray (right). Plt Off. Alan Deere (left).
With the British Government’s declaration of war against Hitler’s Germany had come the realisation that an untested fledgling Royal Air Force Fighter Command would soon be heavily involved in aerial combat. Their counterparts would be the Luftwaffe: a formidable group of fighter pilots, many of whom had already seen action with the Condor Legion in Spain and with the Blitzkrieg invasion of Poland. The pilots of the Messerschmitt Me 109 fighter would prove to be deadly opponents.
As far as possible no young RAF fighter pilot was to be left unprepared.
So began a thorough series of regular combat training sorties, performed in every hour of daylight the winter months could provide. The Flight Commanders’ knowledge was gleaned from flying aircraft the new generation of monoplane fighters had rendered utterly obsolete. Thus barely experienced themselves, they instructed fresh-faced youngsters newly arrived from flying training. Nonetheless, it was a beginning that welded the squadrons together.
The Hawker Hurricane Mk 1 was easy to mass produce and it was soon equipping frontline squadrons. By contrast, the brand new all-metal Spitfire, had proved to be a difficult and complex engineering challenge to build in quantity. However, almost at the 11th hour, and within a whisker of being scrapped by Parliament, it began arriving to equip nineteen squadrons.
54 Squadron, based at Hornchurch, was one of these first early Spitfire Mk 1 units.
Simon’s evocative painting beautifully captures the contrast between this small, elegant fighter and the vast, near-limitless space of sky and air above southern England that was soon to be one of the fiercest arenas of battle in the whole history of British warfare.
Flight Lieutenant James Leathart leads a classic V-Vic formation of three 8-gun Spitfires into a hard, steep Climb-To-Intercepting manoeuvre, in the late afternoon light of a day in February 1940. With him this day are two New Zealanders, Pilot Officer Colin Gray and Pilot Officer Alan ‘Al’ Deere who are only just becoming familiar with their Spitfires’ handling and flying characteristics.
Tight Vic formation flying was intended to bring a combined twenty four machine gun battery to bear on large formations of enemy bombers. German fighter formations however, would soon render this strategy utterly and fatally useless.
Yet by May 1940, ‘Prof’ Leathart would be promoted to Squadron Leader and would take command of 54 Squadron, making it one of Fighter Command’s most successful Spitfire squadrons. By the end of the long summer of 1940, these three young pilots would have risen to be among the RAF’s top-scoring Spitfire aces of the Battle of Britain.