Spitfire PM631

Spitfire PR (Mk XIX)

Spitfire PM631 is presented as a Spitfire PR XIX of No 541 Squadron flown by Flight Lieutenant Ray Holmes.

Of all the roles undertaken by the Supermarine Spitfire, one task in which it excelled was photographic reconnaissance (‘photo-recce’ or ‘PR’). The final variant of the Spitfire family to be built specifically as a specialist photo-recce aircraft, optimised for flight at high speed and high altitude, was the Spitfire PR Mk XIX. Of the total of 20,341 Spitfires produced only 225 were built as PR XIXs and some might argue that these are the most elegant-looking of all Spitfires. Today, there are only four examples of this ultimate Spitfire in the world in airworthy condition, two of which are proudly operated by the BBMF.

The Spitfire PR Mk XIX was completely unarmed, carrying additional fuel in place of the guns of the fighter versions giving it an operational range of 1,500 miles. The Rolls-Royce Griffon, 37-litre, V-12 engine, producing over 2,000 horse power, provided the power fundamental to the incredible performance of the Mk XIX. The combination of the ‘slippery’, low-drag airframe and the enormous engine endowed the aircraft with the ability to cruise routinely at 280 mph at 26,000ft using only 27% of the available power, and to reach 370 mph at 40,000ft and 445 mph at lower altitudes. After the initial batch of 22 production aircraft, Mk XIXs were fitted with a pressurised cockpit, allowing prolonged flights at high altitude. The aircraft’s operational equipment consisted of split pairs of 20-inch or 36-inch focal length cameras for vertical or oblique photography, taking overlapping ‘stereo’ (3-D) images for intelligence gathering purposes.

This aircraft was a very different beast from the point defence fighter that the Spitfire was originally designed to be, and the pilots who flew these potentially crucial but high-risk aerial spying sorties needed very different skills from those of the fighter pilot. Dog-fighting and an aggressive temperament had no place in the world of photo-recce. As the PR Spitfires were unarmed it was impossible to engage the enemy and the pilots’ aim was to avoid being engaged if at all possible.

Studying photos Height and speed were the PR Spitfire pilot’s salvation, but flying 7 miles above enemy territory, covering 6 miles every minute, required great discipline and skill. Condensation vapour trails, ‘contrails’ in pilot jargon, had to be avoided as these would give the clearest indication of the Spitfire’s presence and track to the enemy. The Spitfire’s low wing loading meant it had a great degree of agility at all altitudes and could turn to avoid engagement by high speed interceptors, such as the German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter or the Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket-powered fighter, which, with their higher wing loading, would be unable to turn so tightly and would overshoot. Against slower opposition a good escape option was a gentle and persistent dive, building up speed to outrun the enemy.

Attention to detail in every phase of each photo-recce flight was vital. Routes had to be carefully planned with the approach to each target arranged to keep the enemy guessing about the eventual destination and the exit direction. Good pre-planning and meticulous flying could make the difference between a return to the mess for bacon and eggs, or oblivion. In the air, careful engine and fuel management were essential as the aircraft were often being operated to the limits of their range. These long sorties, often 4 hours or more in duration, required the pilots to navigate solo to targets four or five hundred miles behind enemy lines. As the pilots were sometimes forced to take-off and land back at their own airfields in very poor weather and might have to fly much of the route in cloud, their instrument flying techniques also had to be faultless. The margins between success and failure were as thin as the air in which they flew but the right pilot could minimize the risks, and frequently the information gleaned from the resulting photographs was beyond price.

From 1941, RAF Benson in Oxfordshire was the HQ of the RAF’s reconnaissance forces. No 541 Squadron was one of the PR squadrons based at Benson and, from January 1944, it operated Spitfire PR Mk XIXs alongside other earlier marks of PR Spitfires. One of the pilots who flew with 541 Squadron was Flight Lieutenant Ray Holmes, who joined the unit in February 1945, after training in photo-recce with the Spitfire XIX at Aberdeen Dyce and with 309 Squadron at Benson.

Ray Holmes, sometimes known in the RAF as ‘Arty’, due to his christian-name initials being RT, was born in Wallasey in 1914. He joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) soon after its formation in 1936. Indeed he was only the fifty-fifth man to join.

Ray Holmes By 1940 Ray was a highly experienced fighter pilot, flying Hurricanes with 504 Squadron from Hendon airfield. In one of the most celebrated episodes of the Battle of Britain, the then Sergeant Pilot Ray Holmes became something of an overnight hero when, out of ammunition, he rammed a Dornier Do17 bomber over London to prevent it, as he had reason to believe, from dropping its bombs on Buckingham Palace. His Hurricane sliced the whole tail plane off the Dornier, which plunged vertically into the forecourt of Victoria Station. Ray’s Hurricane was also badly damaged in the impact with the bomber and he was forced to bale out desperately low over Chelsea, ending up with his parachute lines snagged on the drainpipe of a block of flats, suspending him comically over an open dustbin in the back garden. Meanwhile, his Hurricane had crashed in Buckingham Palace Road at 400mph, burying itself many feet below the surface. Mercifully, there were no casualties on the ground from either the Dornier or the Hurricane crash. Two of the Dornier’s crew of four were killed but, miraculously, the other two baled out safely and were taken prisoner.

In early 1941, Ray was briefly loaned to the Air Transport Auxiliary (the ATA) for ferrying duties, delivering new aircraft to their allocated units. In the 26 days he was with the ATA, Ray flew 56 flights, landed on 43 different airfields and piloted 8 different types, including a Spitfire for the first time. Then, when Fighter Command went on to the offensive in the spring of 1941, Ray flew fighter sweeps over occupied France in Hurricanes with 504 Squadron. Subsequently, he was sent to Murmansk in Russia with 81 Squadron to instruct Soviet airmen on the Hurricanes that were being delivered to them via the Arctic convoys, also escorting Soviet bombers on air raids over German occupied territory. On his return from Russia, he qualified as a flying instructor and spent two years training future fighter pilots in the skills they would need to fly and fight.

It was after this that Ray became a Spitfire photo-recce pilot, flying reconnaissance sorties with 541 Squadron to photograph targets such as Mannheim, Ludwigshafen, Hamburg, Kiel, Berlin and the railway viaduct at Bremen immediately after it was bombed by Lancasters on a daylight operation. Typical of the sort of highly-experienced pilots that were posted to photo-recce duties, Ray by now had 2,000 flying hours in his logbook. Experience alone did not make the work any safer though and during his time with 541 Squadron many of his fellow pilots, friends and colleagues went missing, four of them in only four days in March ‘45.

In his autobiography ‘Sky Spy’, first published in 1989, Ray described some of his Spitfire photo-recce missions; in particular one to Hamburg, a top-priority target that had previously cost the lives of three 541 Squadron pilots. His account of this sortie gives a clear idea of what these highly-secret missions were like to fly and also explains why he subsequently said that, though he could never have guessed it at the start of his tour, “it was to be quite the toughest time of my war”.

Spitfire PM656 This was Ray’s first trip to Hamburg and, after being briefed thoroughly on the intelligence situation and meteorological conditions, he planned his sortie carefully. When he took off from Benson under the usual radio silence, the weather was “filthy”. His fully-fuelled Spitfire PR Mk XIX, with a full 90 gallon drop tank fitted, entered cloud at only 150ft and Ray had to go straight onto instruments. He set course eastwards and continued to climb steadily until he levelled off at 28,000ft, just below the forecast condensation layer and still in cloud. With 2,250 RPM set and the throttle fully open, the Spitfire’s cruising speed was 410mph, racing towards enemy territory.

Still in cloud when he estimated that he was approaching the Dutch coast, Ray switched on his radio and listened. Almost immediately there came the familiar faint wail as the enemy’s invisible radar beam swept past. The wail was repeated a second or two later, then again faster, then louder and eventually continuously as several radar beams locked onto him and he became a plot on a German operations board. The enemy knew he was coming and could now follow his every move. Guns, radar and aeroplanes, all manned by people intent on killing him, were now seeking him out. “Sod that noise” he thought and switched the radio off.

Ray navigated blind, by dead reckoning, as he continued to fly in cloud. After another 10 minutes, when he reasoned that the Germans would have worked out that he was tracking towards Hamburg he decided to sow some confusion by altering heading, initially so gently that the German radar operators would take time to notice and eventually with a sharp change of direction through 90 degrees. He hoped that it would now look as though his target was Bremen and any enemy aircraft that had been scrambled to intercept him over Hamburg would be diverted southwards. Ray then decided that he had laid enough ‘red herrings’ for one day and concentrated on getting straight to his target but not before he had jettisoned his drop tank over Bremen. He thought this would make a useful little petrol bomb and, should he be intercepted over Hamburg, he would need full manoeuvrability, which the drop tank would limit considerably.

As he neared the Hamburg area, the cloud quite suddenly thinned and the rain stopped beating on the windscreen. Just as he was thinking that it looked as though the met man would be right and it would be clear over the target, the cloud cover broke completely, the sun blazed into the cockpit, dazzling his eyes and there below was the ground. Not just the ground! Ray’s navigation had worked like a dream, there was the River Elbe and three minutes flying time to the north were the docks of Hamburg.

Suddenly his heart gave a bound for above him was a twin ‘contrail’, probably a Me 262 jet fighter – very fast and armed with four deadly 30mm cannons. His reception committee were in attendance! Perhaps his ruse had not been so clever after all. Ray weaved his Spitfire to be quite sure that he was not leaving a ‘contrail’ and then headed straight for the target. The pilot of the jet appeared not to have spotted him yet. With full power set and diving slightly for extra speed, Ray headed for the quaysides where the ships were berthed. As he took in the scene below he realised even from five miles up that the quays were a mass of dust and rubble, not a building standing. This, he thought, was Bomber Command’s revenge for the Luftwaffe’s blitzes on Coventry, Liverpool, Birmingham and London.

Ray banked the Spitfire vertically to sight his run along the east bank of the river, picked a cumulus cloud to aim at and levelled out pointing at it. He switched on his two vertical cameras to take photographs at two and a half second intervals. A flashing green light confirmed when each exposure was made to produce pictures in stereo pairs.

ME 262 The Messerschmitt pilot had now spotted him and was diving in angrily from the rear with tremendous overtaking speed. With no guns to fight back and no chance of outpacing the German jet, the Spitfire’s only chance was evasion. Ray slammed the throttle closed. The engine backfired as though it had already been shot. The speed dropped to 300, 250, 200mph. Through the blister hood Ray could see the German jet now less than 2,000 yards away and closing the gap fast. It would open fire at 1,000 yards. With his speed now well under 200mph, Ray yanked the Spitfire into a vertical right-hand bank and then hauled the control column back into his belly until his eyeballs seemed to be rolling down his cheeks. Momentarily he lost all vision as he blacked out from the high G forces and he kicked on hard right rudder. His Spitfire went into a fit of convulsions at this ill-treatment. Streamers flew off its wingtips and it spun down vertically off a high speed stall. However, it had the desired effect. At three times the speed of the Spitfire the Messerschmitt pilot could never turn tight enough to get the necessary deflection and the tracer streams marking the flight of the shells from his guns were all passing harmlessly behind the Spitfire. Ray was surprised that he could actually hear the throaty bark of the Messerschmitt’s cannons as it flashed behind and he eased out of the spin.

The German would take about ten miles to complete his turn at that speed and would probably even lose visual contact with the Spitfire in the process. There was certainly time for another run over the Hamburg docks. The cameras were still running. “Bad show”, thought Ray, wishing he had remembered to switch them off in the excitement, but there were 500 exposures available in the magazines, leaving enough for a second run along the west bank of the river. Then, job done, he raced for the protection of the cloud bank, making its welcome cover just as a second Me 262 was positioning for an attack, no doubt called in by the leader.

Ray tells us that he sang most of the way home – crazy songs with made-up words, mostly rubbish, but he was jubilant that he had survived the enemy’s best efforts to kill him and it eased the tension.

He started to descend after crossing the English coast and was down to 2,000ft in thick cloud by what he reckoned was overhead Oxford. Control vectored him over Benson and then with his wheels and flaps down they sent him out on a wide loop to bring him in lined-up with the runway from three miles out. He did not break out of cloud until 150ft and, as he did, he saw the runway immediately ahead. Muttering a prayer of thanks he gently closed the throttle, held off and was down with the welcoming sound of the wheels rumbling along the tarmac.

After taking his camera magazines up to the photographic section himself, he went for a debriefing. Bomber Command was delighted with the pictures. Ray was given a set too and, as he said, “an egg for lunch”!

Ray Holmes was demobilized in October 1945 returning to the Wirral and to his pre-war career of journalism. He died in 2005, aged 90. The BBMF Spitfire PR Mk XIX PM631 is now presented as one of the No 541 Squadron Spitfires that Ray Holmes flew during his dangerous tour as a photo-recce pilot in the final stages of his long war. Ray was a remarkable man and an exceptional pilot who made a courageous personal contribution to the eventual victory over tyranny in World War Two. Like many other wartime RAF heroes, Ray was a supremely modest man, an ordinary man who was called upon to do extraordinary things in wartime. He would be the first to point out that although he was one of ‘The Few’, he was only one of many and he was one of the lucky ones, able to live his life out naturally.

Spitfire PRXIX


Header Image: Spitfire PRXIX on the ground, wartime.

Image 1: RAF PI’s studying PR photos.

Image 2: Ray 'Arty' Holmes in Hurricane P2725 TM-B, Hendon, 1940.

Image 3: Spitfire PRXIX PM656, wartime.

Image 4: ME 262 jet fighter.

Image 5: Spitfire PRXIX in its element.

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