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My Spitfire Odyssey – Part 1. The Year I Became A Spitfire Hunter - YES!

Ian Hewitt.

YES!

In Spring 2018 whilst travelling to one of the early season air shows I received a call from an unknown number, little did I know that the chap on the other end of the line was to become a friend and involve me in a story that I will no doubt tell for the rest of my life.

After a brief introduction Tony Hoskins launched right in. Leaving little room for interjection, which I was to come to learn is very much Tony’s way, Tony laid out his plan and how I could help make it happen.

With the full plan told I simply spoke a single word. I had no need of due consideration, no need for further time to assess the proposal, no need to number crunch, no diary that would not re work around the dates.

“Yes”….But I did have a condition. Tony’s expedition was to accommodate an additional team member.

Tony is a details person, he’d done his research on me and had pre assumed the likely hood my one condition and therefore he too had no need for due consideration.

“Yes…we leave in three months, welcome aboard”.

And that was it, as simply as that I was enrolled as part of an expedition to Norway to find and dig up a Spitfire. I hung up my phone, punched the ceiling of the car and spoke the word again…”YES”.



SANDY’S STORY The story that had drawn me in so quickly was that of a very special Spitfire, a rarest of breed Spitfire you might say, one of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. Spitfire AA810’s story was entwined with the life of the last pilot to fly her, a young man by the name of Alistair ‘Sandy’ Gunn.


For the purpose of this story I will outline the tale of Sandy Gun and Spitfire AA810, however the full story is told in its entirety in Tony’s book Sandy’s Spitfire.


On 5th March 1942 Pilot Alistair Gunn lifted PRU Spitfire AA810 off the runway at Wick in Scotland and climbed to 25,000 ft. His mission, to photograph the infamous German battle ship the Tirpitz.


PRU Spitfires flew armed only with cameras. Their armaments having been replaced with cameras and additional fuel tanks to achieve the greater distances required of reconnaissance missions.


At around 12 noon Sandy dropped Spitfire AA810 down into the Trondheim Fjord to be picked up immediately by two waiting ME109 German fighter aircraft.

Flying as a pair the ME109’s took out AA810’s fuel lines, soon Alistair was on fire.

Leaving it as late as possible, Alistair bailed out suffering burns to his hands and his face in the process. He descended by parachute landing on the hills above Surnadal not far from where his Spitfire had impacted the snow covered mountain.

At the age of 22 years Alistair ‘Sandy’ Gunn found himself alone in the harshest of environments behind enemy lines. With his parachute having drawing the attention of the local Surnadal garrison, his situation was hopeless.

On his capture Sandy was driven from Trondheim to Oslo where he was interrogated for almost a month. Finally, he was sent on to the new Camp Stalag Luft III.

As one of the first prisoners to arrive Sandy was soon joined by others and between them they hatched a plan to escape.



Alistair joined the tunnelling committee, although their first tunnel was discovered they were soon put to work on a second longer tunnel, codenamed Harry, and Harry was to become known the world over, made famous by the film The Great Escape. Alistair was paired with Mike Casey to be the 63rd pair to enter the tunnel. On 24th March 1944 Alistair and Mike disappeared into the night. Travelling to the Swedish border by hanging onto the underside of freight trains the two got to within 25 miles from Stettin, but were sadly captured by the Gestapo late on the 26th March.




Hitler was infuriated by the Stalag Luft III escape and order that 52 of the captured escapees be executed. On 6th April 1944 at the age of twenty four pilot Alistair ‘Sandy’ Gunn was murdered by the Gestapo. He rests in peace alongside his fellow murdered prisoners in the Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in Pozna.

Seventy years after Sandy’s death I found myself flying out to Trondheim, as part of an expedition to locate, retrieve and repatriate Sandy’s Spitfire. Travelling to the edge of the Arctic Circle to dig up and return the remains of a historically important Spitfire is the stuff of comic book 'Boys Own' dreams. I felt humbled and honoured to be involved.


I’LL SEE YOU IN HELL!

Excluding yours truly Tony had put together a crack team of UK Spitfire Hunters. I would meet the team for the first time in a hotel at midnight in a town called HELL!