Seventy-one years ago, an RAF Spitfire, piloted by a raffish recently-bankrupted Old Etonian on his first combat mission, crash-landed on a beach near Calais. Fuming but unscathed, Flying Officer Peter Cazenove made a rapid exit from the scene, while his plane began a more leisurely disappearance into the wet sand. By the end of the war, there was little to see of it but a few inches of tail fin and a propeller tip.
Last week, Supermarine Spitfire P9374 was back in the air – restored to factory condition in one of the most intricate aircraft rescue projects ever attempted. As it wheeled and banked in the sunshine over Cambridgeshire, the thrill of watching a classic plane reborn was laced with a sense of poignancy that the accident-prone Cazenove, who died in 1981, was haunted to the end of his days by the fate of his aircraft.
Born into the illustrious City stockbroking dynasty, best known for managing the Royal family’s money, young Cazenove cut exactly the kind of dashing figure that movie portrayals of wartime fighter pilots have tried to capture. Tall and powerfully built, he had been a star rugby player at Eton, and his good looks had secured him a steady supply of society belles.
After leaving school, he had joined his father in a new stockbroking venture and later joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as a “weekend flier”.
There have to be some doubts about his abilities as a financier. The father-son venture went bust, obliging Cazenove to declare bankruptcy and, as a matter of honour, resign from the Reserve. But, with the outbreak of war in 1939, came a second chance to get back into the air. He was 32 – ancient by the standards of the RAF pilots of the time – but panting for action, and he quickly landed a posting with 92 Squadron, based at RAF Northolt.
The planes were Mark I Spitfires – the first production run of the Second World War’s most celebrated aircraft. Later models were far more sophisticated, better armed and nearly twice as heavy, but to aviation purists the Mark I is the true Spitfire. Cazenove reportedly had difficulty squeezing his big frame into the cockpit, but when, on May 23, 1940, orders came through for a combat operation, he was raring to go.
The squadron flew first to RAF Hornchurch, Essex, where it was briefed to fly sorties aimed at intercepting German bombing raids against the British and French forces trapped by the German advance into Northern France.
Cazenove took off in P9374 at 8.05am. According to military historian Andy Saunders, author of a forthcoming book about the pilot and his plane, it is most likely that the Spitfire was shot up by the tail-gunner of a Dornier bomber. “It didn’t take a lot to bring a Spitfire down,” he says. “One bullet in the right place could have done it. Most likely, the engine was damaged and he lost power.”
High above the coast, Cazenove considered his limited options. He could try to glide back to Britain, with the risk of going down in the Channel, look for a friendly ship to ditch near to and hope to be rescued, or make a crash landing in British-held territory. At about 9am, he bellyflopped on to the beach. His career as a fighter ace had lasted just 55 minutes.
There, the Spitfire’s story seemed to have ended. The shifting sands devour almost anything left in them, and, while the advancing German troops were happy to be pictured sitting on the wreck, their commanders showed no interest in recovering it.
It was 40 years later that P9374 made an unexpected re-appearance. Unusually strong tides pushed the plane back above the surface. It was barnacled and corroded, but otherwise mostly intact. “One day,” says Saunders, “I got a phone call from the manager of the hovercraft port at Calais. He was an aircraft enthusiast, and he said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but there’s a complete Spitfire lying in the sand outside my office.’ He was right: I didn’t believe it.”
Saunders raced to the scene, but the word was already out. “A local newspaper had done a story, and the souvenir hunters had got there before me,” he says. “The thing was being torn apart. People were taking away anything they could.” To get at the plane’s Browning .303 machine guns, the starboard wing had been smashed open and three of the four guns removed.
What happened next was even more destructive. A local salvage team decided to drag the plane ashore using cables and a bulldozer. Already fragile, and filled with wet sand, the airframe simply came apart. It now looked less like a Spitfire than a heap of mangled scrap. The sorry remnants were given a token clean up and transported to the Musée de l’Air in Paris.
They might still be there had the excited chatter of British enthusiasts not reached the ears of billionaire American gold-trader, Tom Kaplan. The 48-year-old New York-based investor, who has ridden the current gold price boom more profitably than perhaps anyone else, is both a vintage aircraft buff and an Oxford-educated Anglophile. He and a partner, Simon Marsch, persuaded the museum to sell them the plane and in 2006 set in motion the long process of restoring it to complete airworthiness.
The work has been done by the Aircraft Restoration Company, based at Duxford Airfield, Cambridgeshire. “It’s been an incredible project,” says chief engineer Martin “Mo” Overall, 36. “Everything that could possibly be used from the original plane has been used, and everything else has come from other Spitfires or been made to the exact original designs.
“This was the 557th Spitfire made out of about 22,000, so it’s very early stuff. They were upgrading and refining them throughout the run. This is about as close as you can get to how the original plane was. The important thing was to get absolute authenticity. We had the drawings for the Dunlop tyres, but Dunlop no longer had the moulds. So they built new moulds and made the tyres for us, exactly as they were on this Spitfire. The engine work was done in Gloucestershire, the fuselage restored on the Isle of Wight.”
Asked what all this cost Mr Kaplan, people involved in the project tend to wince and say: “A lot.” Certainly, the total runs into millions. The original planes were bought by the Ministry of Defence at £9,500 each.
On the airfield, P9374 is ready for take-off. A hefty belch of smoke erupts from its Rolls-Royce Merlin engine as it skips across the grass and, with beguiling lightness, takes to the sky. As John Romain, ARC’s boss and a seasoned Spitfire pilot, swoops low over the workshops where the plane was brought back to life, Saunders is visibly moved.
“Seeing it back in the air is something you couldn’t have dreamed of 30 years ago,” he says. “It’s extraordinary.”
As, in a way, was the subsequent life of Peter Cazenove. After the crash, he walked into Calais, where, still in his damp flying suit, he found a British regiment and joined it in an unsuccessful attempt to fight off the Germans. When the town fell, he was captured and sent to a succession of POW camps, including Stalag Luft III, the notorious camp for Allied airmen, where he helped organise what became known as the Great Escape.
“Cazenove couldn’t escape himself because he was too big to get through the tunnel,” says Saunders. “The worry was that he’d get stuck and block all the others. But we know that he did make at least three other escape attempts.”
After the war, he returned to England, married Edna, and – perhaps scarred by his previous experience in the family business – took up farming. Yet he failed to settle. Later, the Cazenoves moved to Kenya, setting up as ranchers, but their time there coincided with the violent Mau Mau rebellion against British rule, and they returned home, eventually settling on the South Coast. He had no children.
“When I finally tracked him down,” says Saunders, “Edna answered the phone and told me he had died just a few days earlier. One of the last things he had said to her was that he would have loved to have known what had happened to his old Spitfire.”
Peter Cazenove died on 7th december 1980.
With its return to the skies over its homeland on August 30, 2011, P9374 is the earliest Mark of Spitfire flying anywhere in the world. If you would like to own it, the aircrafft is now available for purchase.
By William Langley 17 September 2011