Nicknamed BONDOWOSO, Spitfire MK. Vb serial no. BL676 started its life as ordinary series-production fighter, but came to play a pivotal role in the development of the Seafire, a seaborne variant of Supermarine’s legendary aircraft.
BONDOWOSO was one of the presentation aircraft purchased by the Dutch West Indies Spitfire Fund. Before this Dutch colony itself fell victim to the Japanese attack, its population inhabitants had been particularly active in supporting the RAF war effort. Through an unprecedented act of spontaneous solidarity with the fighting Britain, enough funds had been assembled to purchase 40 Spitfires. This resulted in many memorable but exotic names carried by the Spitfires during 1941 and 1942 – such as MOESI ILIR, KRAKATAU, BONDOWOSO, WONOSOBO, TELING TINGGI, BESOEKI or OGANILIL. “Dutch” presentation Spitfires were flown by British, Polish, Czechoslovak, Belgian, Canadian and American pilots – but notably no Dutch.
The name BONDOWOSO refers to a village in East Java, between Banyuwangi and Probolinggo, almost at equal flight distances to Surabaya and Denpasar. More importantly, it was also a name of a legendary figure of Bandung Bondowoso, a prince in Central Javanese folklore who possessed magical powers. Legend has it that Bondowoso fell unhappily in love with a beautiful princess. Seeking acceptance for his favours, he took on a challenge of building one thousand temples during a single night. He was well underway in his task, when the princess decided to trick him. Upon her orders, the villagers woke up the roosters and started large bonfires, which lit up the eastern horizon. Hearing the roosters crow, and seeing what he believed to be the sunrise, Bondowoso thought that he failed and resigned from his task just before the very last temple could be completed.
In today’s Indonesian jargon, a “Bandung Bondowoso” refers to a challenge of gargantuan proportions and tight deadlines. It was perhaps a fitting name for the challenge that the Royal Navy faced with its lack of a modern fighter, and the attempt to adaptthe Spitfire into this role.
By mid-1941, Royal Navy’s shortage of fighter aircraft had become so critical that it was finally decided to rush the Sea Spitfire project with some degree of urgency. Throughout 1940 and 1941, the Navy had been turning every stone to get at least some modern aircraft – including acquiring ex-French Martlets and some Brewster Buffalos found in Egypt. A limited number of Sea Hurricanes came into service and attempts were made to purchase whatever materiel was available from the Unites States. But clearly, something had to be done or the offensive capability of the Royal Navy carriers would collapse.
Ever-reluctant for diverting resources from the RAF, the Air Ministry finally agreed in the Autumn 1941 that 48 new-production Spitfires Mk Vb plus a number of ageing Spitfires Mk. I would be released to the Navy. In order to save time, it was agreed that the Spitfire would be “navalised” through a minimum of adaptation. Previous Supermarine proposals, which included folding wings, would be put aside until later – MUCH later, as it eventually turned out.
It must be admitted that once the decision was reached, work on the new Spitfire variant commenced without further delay, much to the credit of the Admiralty, who was most eager to provide any help necessary. On 14 October 1941, Supermarine was presented with drawings of Chance Vought Chesapeake’s arresting gear, together with another drawing of a new gear projected at RAE and asked if a similar arrangement could be used on a Spitfire. Supermarine estimated that installation of an arrestor hook would be a straightforward operation, but that provision for a catapult launch would require some strengthening of the airframe.
Three Spitfires Mk. Vb – AD205, AD371 and BL676 were initially selected as trial aircraft. Of these, AB205 was the first to receive an arrester hook. Although it made its first flight on 13 December, the installation was designed for trials of the hook rather than the aircraft itself. The arrester gear trials, conducted at Farnborough, were probably limited to high-speed taxiing of the aircraft into the wires.
The second aircraft, AD371 went to Vickers for full installation of spools and hook plus other adjustments to naval requirements. It eventually emerged in the end of February 1942 as the prototype Seafire Mk. IIC.
The excess of time required for preparation of AD371 caused additional concern by the Admiralty, who was eager to get their fighters as quickly as humanly possible. To speed up development, the aforementioned third Spitfire BL676 BONDOWOSO received something of a partial treatment by Vickers. By the end of October, it was fitted with ‘A’ frame hook and sent to Naval Service Trials Unit at Arborath. There, Lt Cmdr H P Bramwell made a series of ADDLs (Aerodrome Dummy Deck Landings) on the airfield’s runway, painted to represent a deck of a carrier.
In November, Bramwell took the aircraft to the Clyde where on 19 January 1942, he attempted the first landing of a Spitfire onboard an aircraft carrier – HMS Illustrious. The urgency of the entire programme is shown by the fact that the Illustrious had received considerable damage to her flight deck in an Atlantic convoy only ten days previously. In spite of these difficulties, Branwell successfully completed the tests, which included both landings and catapult launches. His report was generally favourable, but he pointed out the poor forward view as inadequate for deck landings.
And so the BL676 has a distinction of becoming the first Spitfire to perform successful deck landings. This fact did not make it a Seafire, however – according to specifications agreed with Supermarine on 5 November, series aircraft would require additional strengthening of the mountings, full tropical equipment, naval radio, overload fuel tankage, immersion oil heater plus provision for catapult and hangar lashing gear.
On 10 January 1942, BL676 was handed over to Air Service Training in Hamble for complete conversion to the specifications. There, it received a tropical filter and naval equipment. It can be seen on the photo in this configuration, flying with 20 gal slipper tank.
The visible “fairing” over the hook has been the subject of some debate. While some sources implied that BL676 only carried a mock-up of the hook, I believe that there was no need for a mock-up at this stage: perhaps the “business end” of the gear was protected by some sort of tarpaulin sleeve when not in use.
Another noteworthy detail of the aircraft is its integral armoured windscreen, usually coupled with Mk. VC Spitfires, which in this case has apparently been added post-production as it is unpainted on the photo. Other than that, the aircraft is a rather ordinary Spitfire, down to the RAF day fighter camouflage of Mixed Grey (probably), Dark Green and Mdeium Sea Grey lower surfaces.
After official trials, which lasted until the beginning of March 1942, BONDOWOSO received a new serial number MB328 and was officially redesignated as Seafire Mk. IB. Thus it became the first Seafire ever completed, even though it had beaten the AD371 to this title only by days. The official trials of the Seafire Mk. IIC were finalised later during the same month.
The Seafire Mk. IB and Mk. IIC entered service simultaneously, in June 1942. All Mk. IB’s were conversions from existing Spitfire Vb airframes. 112 service aircraft were converted, plus 48 “hooked” Spitfires used for ADDL training ashore.
The Seafire IIc were but built as such from the outset and became the naval equivalent of the Spitfire Mk. VC with “universal” wing. 402 Seafire IIc’s were built, but the production was slow in forthcoming, justifying the provision of the “interim” Mk. IB.
Interestingly, information on the service record of these earliest Seafires Mk. IB remains extremely sparse, as records have been lost or been destroyed. The mark had a limited frontline career. No.801 Squadron was fully equipped with the type by the time in embarked on HMS Furious in October 1942. No.842 Squadron also received a number of Seafire Ibs before joining the Furious in the summer of 1943. The Seafire Ib was also used in small numbers by No.1 and No.2 Naval Fighter Schools, the School of Naval Warfare, RNAS Lee-on-Solent, RNAS Stretton, and No.760 (Reserve) Squadron.
The Seafire, although far from well-suited for deck operations, went a long way towards improving the Royal Navy’s air arm.