Introduced in 1941, the improved Spitfire Mk. V proved to be dangerously inferior to the newest German fighter, the Focke-Wulf FW 190.
[via Australian Department of Defence, Commonwealth copyright]
In October 2011, a group of amateur aviation historians have unearthed the wreckage of a Spitfire in Northern France near the village of Hardifort. The remains of the plane, which turned out to be a Spitfire Mk. Vb, were dug up from beneath five metres of soil. Its discovery was accidental: a film crew making a World War Two documentary was excavating what they believed was the wreckage of a downed Czech aircraft when they realised that they came across a different World War II crash site.
The Spitfire appeared to have slammed nose-first into the ground. Remains of a pilot were found inside the cockpit. The officials from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), an organisation which manages war cemeteries for citizens of British Commonwealth nations who died during World War I and II, have been called to take charge of the pilot’s remains for burial.
Closer investigation revealed the identity of the airman as Sergeant William Smith, an Australian serving with No. 457 Squadron. His identification disc, service number 400942, was found at the site along with a cigarette case, a tunic button and a map.
His Spitfire, BM180, did not return from a mission on 9 May 1942.
But let’s start at the beginning.
William James Smith
Sergeant William James Smith 400942, RAAF Spitfire Pilot
[RAAF Heritage collection]
Young Bill Smith was born in Kalgoolie, WA on the 10 December 1917. He was the son of Samuel William and Freda Constance Adelaide Smith of Whittlesea, Victoria, Australia.
Following the call for Commonwealth pilots, he enlisted with the RAAF on the 11 November 1940, at the age of 22.
After the initial flight training, Bill was posted to Britain to join No. 452 Squadron RAAF. No. 452 was the first Australian fighter unit formed in Britain during World War II. It is likely that Smith was among its “founding” group of personnel which gathered at RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey on 8 April 1941. The squadron became operational there on 22 May of that year, flying Supermarine Spitfires.
The unit rapidly developed a formidable reputation in operations against German forces. They were involved in many different kinds of operations; one of the most unusual was escorting a bomber that dropped a reserve artificial leg for the use of the British ace Douglas Bader, who was shot down a few days previously and became a prisoner of war.
To his squadron colleagues, Smith had become known as a good and popular pilot, “whose quiet calm way of going about his duties gave confidence to his fellow pilots”.
In March 1942, No. 452 Squadron was replaced in Redhill by the second RAAF fighter unit in England, No. 457 Squadron. This coincided with William’s posting to that squadron.
With the onset of spring, Fighter Command had received authorisation to launch a full-scale offensive campaign against German air units, and No. 457 was engaged in this effort as part of the Kenley Wing. The squadron first saw action on 26 March when Peter Brothers, squadron’s CO, shot down a Bf 109 during a multi-squadron fighter sweep over France. One Spitfires was lost in this action.
By the end of its first week of operations No. 457 Squadron had shot down three German aircraft and inflicted damage on several others and it went on to conduct 32 operations over German territory by 26 April. These operations often encountered fierce opposition. The new German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters, which for the first time appeared in force during the period, proved superior to the Spitfire Mark Vs that most of the British squadrons were equipped with.
Group photo of No. 457 Squadron’s pilots at RAF Station Redhill in 1942
[Australian War Memorial]
Constant contact with enemy fighters and enemy anti-aircraft defences saw squadron losses mount.
Then came the fateful mission of 9 May 1942.
On that day, No. 457 had been flying a in support of a Circus 168 bombing mission to Hazebrouck rail yards in Belgium (not Bruges as has been stated elsewhere – Bruges was a target of Circus 170 conducted later in the afternoon on the same day, hence the confusion).
The close escort involved no less than four Spitfire squadrons protecting a mere six Bostons Mk. III. The rendezvous time was set to 1300 hrs and the high cover was provided by the Kenley Wing with No. 457 Squadron.
Around 13:35, minutes after turning back towards England, the British squadrons were attacked by a group of Fw 190s (some pilot reports also indicate Bf 109s) zooming in from high altitude. Pilot reports indicate that there were about 25 of the enemy fighters. In fact, it could have been more: according to the German records, several staffeln of both JG 26 and JG 2 were engaged in combat that day.
Disaster struck on No. 118 Squadron from Ibsley which was flying Target Support. They were caught unaware of the impending attack and lost six Spitfires in quick succession. Four pilots – S/L Walker with Sgts Green and Shepherd and F/Sgt Rough – were lost. Another Spitfire was severely damaged and barely made its way to Manston while a sixth ran out of fuel and crash-landed near Tangmere.
The high-cover No. 457 Squadron was the second to bore the brunt of the German attack. They were successful in turning against the attacking Focke-Wulfs and engaging them in a dogfight.
That’s where Sergeant Smith was last seen by his squadron peers, engaged in a dogfight with a group of German fighters at approximately 20,000 feet.
In this uneven combat, No. 457 lost two Spitfires. Bill Smith’s BM180 and AA851, piloted by Sgt R.A.G. Halliday. Both pilots were killed. Significantly for the superiority of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 over the Spitfire during the period, the Australians could only claim one Fw 190 damaged. In fact, none of at least six RAF Spitfire squadrons engaged in the battle during the mission could report any success. In contrast, the Germans claimed 9 Spitfires destroyed during the day. It is likely that BM180 fell to the guns of Oblt. Josef Haiböck of 1./JG 26, who reported a victory at 13.40 “2km north of Cassel” at 16.000 feet.
Spitfire Mk. V under fire. Photograph from a German gun camera
Sergeant William Smith died in his aircraft just less than 2 years after he joined the RAAF.
Only three weeks later, on 28 May 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed to an Australian Government request to dispatch three fully equipped Spitfire squadrons to Australia. No. 452 and No. 457 Squadrons were withdrawn from No. 11 Group and began to prepare for the move back to their homeland, which began in June of that year.
Sergeant Smith is the second missing World War II Australian pilot whose body was found and identified in the last years. The find of his remains follows the discovery of another Spitfire in the Orne River in northern France in 2010 with the remains of Flight Lieutenant Henry ‘Lacy’ Smith, who was buried with full military honours in Normandy, France in 2011.
The identification of William Smith means that he will receive a burial with the dignity and respect he deserves. The ceremony is planned for April next year at the Arneke war cemetery, also in northern France.
Until then, if you travel to the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey, UK, you will find Bill’s name on Panel 113.
Identification tag and charms belonging to Bill Smith, recovered in October 2011
[Australian Department of Defence, Commonwealth copyright]