Spitfire Va Bader

Airfix 1:72 Supermarine Spitfire Va A02102 – built as W3185 – the personal aircraft of W.Cdr Douglas Bader, Tangmere wing August 1941.

“Who Shot down Douglas Bader”

The Aircraft

One of a batch of 20 VAs built at Supermarine’s Southhampton factories (which is quite unusual as most were built at Castle Bromwich near Birmingham) under the ongoing contract B19713/39 (which ran throughout the war). Referred to internally as the Type 331 this production batch of VAs were allocated serials W3168 to W3187 and were a number of only 94 Spitfire VAs built.

The VA was basically a Mk.I fitted with the new Merlin 45 engine which delivered 1440hp rather than the 1030hp of the original Merlin Mk.II and was intended to counter the new pressurised version of the Ju86P aircraft which heralded a renewed high altitude bombing campaign. The Spitfire V series could reach a top speed of 375 mph (603 km/h) at 20,800 ft (6,300 m), and could climb to 20,000 ft (6,100 m) in 7.1 minutes.

The VA variant retained the “A-wing” from the older Mk.I and Mk.II spitfires, which still housed 8 Browning 303 machine guns.

W3185 first flew on 10 May 1941, 145 Sqn 30 June, 616 Sqn 28 July as personal aircraft of Wing Commander Douglas Bader. It was lost in action 9 August over Northern France.

The pilot

Having lost his legs in a flying accident whist undertaking unauthorised aerobatics (below the 2000ft minimum altitude as given in strict standing orders) in a 23 Sqn Bulldog IIA on 14 December 1931. Having had a pair of prosthetic legs made and also despite having demonstrated his ability still to be to fly (and drive, dance, play golf etc.) and also having passed an RAF medical passing him as fit to fly he was discharged from the RAF in April 1933 as the exceptions made for him were not covered by King’s regulations.

With tensions rising in Europe prior to the outbreak of war Bader petitioned the Air Ministry to reconsider his situation and finally on October 1939 was asked to attend the Central Flying School as was eventually passed as fit for operational flying in November.

His early war and Battle of Britain history is readily available online (and very extensive), but after the Battle of Britain was over, he headed up one of 3 Big Wings (his based at Tangmere) which were assigned to harass the Germans over the channel in France and to escort the medium bombers attacking their airfields. Given how small the payload of these bombers was some doubt has been raised as the effectiveness of the campaign and if the assets used could have been better deployed in the Mediterranean or Far East – they did however give some “local” action to help moral.

The VB was the main equipment of choice for Spitfire squadron in Fighter Command at this time and all 3 squadrons at Tangmere had indeed already been equipped with them, but Bader disliked the cannon armed version preferring to get in close in combat and use the higher firing rate of 8 machine guns to greater effect. Needless to say Bader had a VA assigned to himself. 

It was on one of the “Circus” (as they were known) missions on 9 August 1941, that Bader’s wing became involved in combat with a flight of Bf109Es from JG26.

After becoming separated from the rest of his flight, Bader engaged 3 109s, destroying one and possibly damaging another. It was in the aftermath of this dogfights that he believes he was involved in a mid-air collision which removed the tail end of his aircraft. Falling rapidity in a slow spin he jettisoned the canopy but his right artificial leg became jammed and he struggled to get free of the arcraft. Eventually at less than 4000ft he pulled the release on his parachute (whilst his leg was still jammed in the cockpit), the additional strain from the deployed parachute eventually broke the leather straps holding his leg in place and he fell free to parachute into captivity for the rest of the war (including time at Colditz).

The wreckage of W3185 has never been found (probably due to it starting to break up in midair) but it is thought to lay under Mont Dupil Farm near the French village of Blaringhem.

So onto the controversy…..
The records of JG26 have been examined and Feldwebel Max Meyer of II./Jagdgeschwader 26 flying a Bf 109 had claimed him shot down that morning. Furthermore, Meyer mentioned that he had followed the downed Spitfire and watched the pilot bail out, something which seems to match this passage in Bader’s memoirs:
“I was floating in the sunshine above broken, white cloud … I heard an aeroplane just after I passed through. A Bf 109 flew past.|
However in 2003 another combat record came to light (air historian Andy Saunders wrote a book Bader’s Last Flight, following up with a Channel 4 documentary Who Downed Douglas Bader?, which first aired on 28 August 2006), describing the shooting down of an aircraft whose tail then came off, whose pilot struggled to bail out but eventually jumped free… all well and good – at least some tangible evidence has come to light….. 

Unfortunately the record was posted by Flight Lieutenant “Buck” Casson of 616 Sqn. Casson was also shot down and captured that day but in a letter to Bader 28 May 1945, Casson explained the action. While this source made it into the public domain, it was severely edited. The nature of the letter, that it was from Casson to Bader, was removed. Crucially, an entire paragraph, which mentioned specifically the tail coming off “a Bf 109” and the pilot struggling to get out of the cockpit, was completely omitted from the original source, (still in the Casson family’s possession).

On 21 July 1946, Bader retired from the RAF with the rank of group captain. He was included in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 1976 was appointed a Knight Bachelor “for services to disabled people” He continued to fly until ill health forced him to stop in 1979. Three years later, at the age of 72, Bader died on 5 September 1982, after a heart attack

The model.

This is Airfix’ new tool 1:72 VA and is essentially their Mk.I/II model with an extra sprue including the VA’s spinner and prop.

Accuracy wise the model should probably should have metal ailerons, as these were fitted to all Spitfires from may 1941 onwards – as the one I am depicing was actually built in May it is right on the crossover point so I left them fabric covered 😉

The antenna blade behind the cockpit has a small triangular mounting at the top – this was for the older HF antenna(the wire that ran to the tail) the small mounting should be removed (leaving the mast and small stub on the tail) and no-HF antenna cable fitted as these were replaced with VHF radios as standard from late 1940 onwards).

IFF antenna wires fitted from September 1940 onwards and run from each side of the aft fuselage to the tail planes.

I painted this in 3 Hataka Acrylic colours , A009 Dark Earth, A016 Dark Green and A026 Sky “Type S”. As the aircraft was still pretty new when it was shot down I have limited any weathering to just some light exhaust stains.

The decal sheet containing Bader’s aircraft came from “Lifelike decals” (Supermarine Spitfire Pt.4) but I have used the Airfix stencils. I think Airfix did issue an old tool Spitfire with these markings at some point in 1:72 (I know they did a “Help for Heroes” edition in 1:48 with them).

The colours are a little different to those normally seen on the VA and VB Spitfires. The change in colour scheme from Dark Green/Dark Earth to Dark Green/Ocean Grey was stipulated for NW Europe theatre fighters sometime in Mid 1941. As W3185 was built in May 1941 it would have JUST sneaked in in the old livery, certainly any build references to it always show it in these colours….