A Spitfire Named “Llanelly”: the story of Spitfire W3236

Funds for the Spitfire

written by Caroline Streek

In the summer of 1940 Britain was more or less alone in the fight against Hitler. Invasion was threatened. The people were united in a determination to beat back the forces of Nazism, and here in Llanelly as in many other parts of the country, a fund was started to purchase an aircraft for the Royal Air Force.

In the Great War the town had raised money to provide no less than four submarines and eleven aeroplanes.

The 1940 fund was organised by Douglas Hughes, under the auspices of Mayor Theophilus Jenkins, apparently based on a suggestion from a Mr. T. Maurice Thomas who said “I am only a working man and I have to earn every shilling I get, but I am prepared to subscribe £5.” [a]

The project appears to have been greeted with enthusiasm by rich and poor, young and old. Children gave concerts at their schools and in back gardens; a nine year old girl sent in her savings of five shillings; even the Brownies chipped in. The Burry Port Workingmen’s Club was the first with a major contribution of £100; C.R. Mansel Lewis of Stradey Castle donated £25.

Cheque to H.M. Minister for Aircraft Production On 27th September, 1940 a cheque was sent to H.M. Minister for Aircraft Production for £5,000. A copy of the cheque and Lord Beaverbrook’s reply was published in the Llanelly Mercury on 10th October.

The Mayor said the balance of the fund which was expected from sports and concerts would be forwarded to Lord Beaverbrook to provide spare parts for the Llanelly aeroplane.

 Our Spitfire’s Career

written by Steven Jones

Spitfire W3236[b] first took to the air in May 1942. After her initial test flight she was handed over for operational use to 609 Squadron based at Gravesend on the Thames estuary.

Spitfire VB 92 Sqn top view c1941Our Spitfire was a Mark Vb [c] variant of the famous fighter plane. The Mark V was forced into production to counter the new type of German Messerschmitt 109. During the closing stages of the Battle of Britain in October, 1940, Messershmitt 109 was appearing in the skies over southern England. The Me109 (Me109F) was able to out-perform the Mark I and II versions of Spitfire, especially when it came to attaining altitude. While the Me109F could operate comfortably at 30,000 ft., the Spitfire and Hurricane could not.

To overcome this disadvantage British design engineers concentrated on up-grading the fighters’ Merlin engine to perform better in the thinner atmosphere at higher altitudes. The Mark III Spitfire, which in late 1940 was near completion, was scrapped, while the Mark IV never materialised. The Mark V however fitted the bill. Initially a much improved Merlin 45 engine was fitted to surplus Mark 1 airframes and re-named the Mark V before mass production of the Mark V started at factory level.

By the spring of 1941 Mark V production out-paced the rate at which test pilots could proof-fly Spitfires leaving the factories. This led to the circulation of an amusing story that Spitfires were now being tested by anchoring a wing tip to a steel hawser attached to a stationary telegraph pole. The pilot-less aircraft was then started up and allowed to rotate freely under its own power round the telegraph pole. Perhaps this story was released on 1st April, 1941!

On 17th September, 1941 Spitfire W3236 sustained severe battle damage after being attacked on four separate occasions by two Me109s while returning to base after a bomber escort sortie. Her pilot that day, Flight Lieutenant Jean Offenberg was the Commanding Officer of the squadron’s B flight. Despite the aircraft being riddled with bullet holes, Offenberg was uninjured and was able to make a safe landing. The damage to “Llanelly” was classed by the RAF as category C – just one step away from being written off.

After repair, “Llanelly” was transferred to 130 Squadron at RAF Perranporth on the north coast of Cornwall on 25th February, 1942 only to be passed on to 3120 Squadron, a Czech unit, also based at Perranporth a few days later.

In August she was flown to Biggin Hill to serve with the 307th Fighter Squadron of the United States Army Air Force [USAAF]; less than a month later she was transferred to 350 Squadron, a Belgian unit stationed at RAF Redhill in Surrey.

“Llanelly”’s service life ended just after dusk on the evening of 21st September, 1942 having been with 350 Squadron for only two weeks.

The events leading up to her loss began with a Mustang aircraft ditching in the English Channel just off Le Touquet in northern France. At 18.35 hours Yellow section of 350 Squadron consisting of “Lanelly” and another squadron aircraft, Spitfire BM230 [a], took off from RAF Friston a forward airfield on the south coast near Eastbourne in Sussex, as part of an air-sea rescue operation to locate the downed Mustang pilot. It is not known whether the downed pilot was saved, but in the fading light Yellow section was ordered back to base.

With concern over their low fuel levels, Yellow 2 [BM230] attempted to land at RAF Friston. Friston airfield had become unserviceable [possibly due to enemy action] soon after Yellow section had taken off from here earlier that evening and was unable to accept in-bound air traffic, but Yellow 2’s fuel situation was critical. In a desperate attempt to land his Spitfire before the engine cut out, the pilot of Yellow 2, Sergeant Heimes, mis-judged his height in the fading light, bounced heavily and badly damaged the aircraft’s undercarriage. He pulled back up into the air and was ordered by his leader, Yellow 1 (“Llanelly”) to gain height and bale out. He landed uninjured under his parachute near Tunbridge Wells at 19.40 hrs.

Yellow I piloted by Pilot Officer Venesoen also had a shortage of fuel. At 20.05 hrs. unable to find Redill airfield in the now dark and cloudy sky, he was following homing instructions to Redhill from a ground-based radar operator when the aircraft ploughed into the tops of trees on a wooded hillside south of Godstone village[d]; his aircraft had run out of fuel. Pilot Officer Venesoen was conveyed by ambulance to the sick quarters of RAF Redhill with cuts and fractures, but his injuries were not serious.

This time our Spitfire W3236, “Llanelly”, was a write-off.

Notes and Citations

[a] Llanelly Star, August 17th, 1940

[b] Serial numbers for aircraft were begun in 1918 and continue to the present day: usually located underneath the tail fin. Named Spitfires carried their names between the front of the cockpit and the exhausts.

 [c] Mk Va & Vb Spitfires were built from April to October 1941. The letter “b” which appears after the “V” Roman numeral indicated the Spitfire’s wing armament – in this case two Hispano 20mm cannon and four Browning .303 calibre machine guns. An “a” denoted an all machine gun armament; a “c” denoted four 200mm cannon.

[d] Location of the crash site of “Llanelly” is recorded in contemporary police records as being one quarter mile west of the junction between Rabies Heath Road and Tilburstow Hill Road. This is a short distance from Junction 6 of the M25 south of Godstone in Surrey.

Sources: Llanelly Star 3rd, 10th, 17th, 24th and 31st, 1940
Llanelly Mercury 10th October, 1940
Spitfire photo: This work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org

UK Inflation Rate, 1940-2017 (£5,000)
According to the Office for National Statistics, the pound experienced an average inflation rate of 5.28% per year. Prices in 2017 are 5174.0% higher than prices in 1940. In other words, £5,000 in the year 1940 is equivalent to £263,700.04 in 2017, a difference of £258,700.04 over 77 years.