Group Captain Douglas Bader’s VS Spitfire Mk.IXe – Serial RK917. September 15th 1945.
Described by Les Piper
I’ve always been a big fan of Douglas Bader and I’ve wanted to build a series of models depicting his wartime career for some time, I’ve made his 242 Squadron Hurricane, his Spitfire Mk.IIa and the Spitfire Va in which he was shot down, but the period of his career which was of greatest interest to me was during the post-war years before he retired from the RAF. He was promoted to Group Captain and put in charge of the then “Essex-Sector” of Fighter Command based at North Weald.
The particular aircraft I wanted to model from this period was the Spitfire Mk.IX he flew when he led the 5th anniversary fly-past over Central London to commemorate the Battle of Britain, September 15th 1945.
I bought the SAM Monograph No.1 on post-war RAF fighters by Paul Lucas when it first came out, and was very pleased when I noticed a profile of Bader’s Mk.IX – RK917 – on page 36.
However there are a number of errors with the interpretation. Don’t get me wrong, I like the book, indeed the whole series, and have a great deal of respect for Paul for his efforts, but all the same the subject is a bit of a specialisation for me so I thought I’d share my experiences and what I’ve discovered about Bader’s Last Spit.
The aircraft – known history
RK917 was a standard Supermarine Spitfire HF Mk.IX. It was built between August and October 1944 by Supermarine Aviation and was one of a mixed production order of Mk.IXs and Mk.XVIs.
The aircraft was initially delivered to 45MU in early October of 1944 where it was stored for a while before being passed on to Essex Sector based at North Weald in March 1945. It was transferred to the SAAF in February 1949 where we must assume it ended its days.
While it was with the Essex Sector station flight Bader adopted RK917 as his personal aircraft. As such it differed in markings, equipment and weaponry in comparison to an aircraft serving with a squadron.
Equipment fit on the day – Fuselage
RK917 was equipped with the long Aero Vee carburettor intake and filter which had become a standard fitting for two-stage Merlin variants of the Spitfire.
No navigation light was present on the fuselage spine and the aerial mast carries the two-hole ‘pennant’ style attachment for a flying lead.
The canopy was the later “blown” type and the windscreen had an internal armoured panel and the regular circular rear-view mirror.
Being Supermarine built RK917 didn’t have the transverse panel line across the top cowl panel, this is often confusing but that line seems to be far more common in pictures of Castle Bromwich built machines and is, I think, an example of differing production techniques at the two locations.
The photograph, donated by Olav Hungnes supports the documentary evidence that RK917 was built with a late pattern “e”, or “universal” wing. The picture is dated somewhat after the event though, in comparison to images taken on the day it is clear that the underwing serials have been added and the roundels moved outboard to accommodate them.
The absence of shell ejector ports under the outboard gun bays, while not conclusive, would appear to indicate an “e” wing which was not fitted for guns in the outer bays. In fact the aircraft seems to have been completely unarmed at the time of the flypast, the cannon stubs on both wings were sealed with domed covers, though it is unclear from available images if the inner stubs, usually fitted with a .50 cal weapon, were also empty and covered.
Despite being unarmed it is clear from newsreel footage stills that RK917 was fitted with the standard pattern of cannon access panel associated with the “universal” wing, the bulge to clear the cannon breech is outboard of the panels centre line.
The small bulged fairings at the wing roots, just aft of the cowling side-panels, are also visible in the images and are commonly associated with Mk.XVIs. In fact they were present on all two-stage Merlin Spitfires.
These bulges provide clearance around fuselage frame 5 for an oil-breather pipe on the port side and a smaller pipe and electrical wiring on the starboard side, the starboard fairing is slightly smaller because of this.