PR Spitfires in Bengal

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Here is one of those wartime photographs which at first glance raise more questions than answers. What we have here is a very anonymous photo-reconnaissance Spitfire, unidentified machine of an unidentified unit...

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Here is one of those wartime photographs which at first glance raise more questions than answers. What we have here is an anonymous photo-reconnaissance Spitfire, unidentified machine of an unidentified unit.

Having received a scan of the original photo from Mr. Hugh Barnes with request for some information about it, I admittedly felt somewhat lost. The depicted Spitfire is a PR Mk. XI, or it could be one of the few PR Mk. IXs which preceded it in the photo-reconnaissance lineage of the type. The difference between the two would be difficult to tell from this angle, especially as the lower part of the nose and the wing armament – or lack thereof – are obscured. The aircraft had both vertical cameras (an opening is visible in the lower fuselage behind the wing root) and oblique one (behind the open hatch).

Upon second look, there is evidence of a warm climate – the bare-chested man in shorts would be an unlikely sight in Britain, and the wide-brimmed hats look a bit strange. Where was the picture taken? Italy, Africa, south of France? Was it a British or Commonwealth personnel?

Unlike the Fighter Command, photo-reconnaissance arm of the RAF employed a strictly limited number of squadrons, even at the peak of its operations during 1944-1945. Its units were also widely dispersed around the World and employed a variety of aircraft types and marks. I decided that a systematic walk-though of PRU squadron histories might provide some further help.

I started with identifying all photo-reconnaissance units that operated Spitfires PR Mk. IX/XI. These were subsequently shortlisted to units which operated overseas. Luckily, these two steps narrowed down the search to four squadrons.

No. 682 Squadron operated the Spitfire PR.XI from in support of the campaign in Tunisia, Sicily, and then Italy. Their African airfields included Maison Blanche, Algeria and, from June 1943, La Marsa, Tunisia. No. 680 Squadron, also in the Mediterranean, was based in Heliopolis, Egypt, with detachments to Cyprus and Libya. The third alternative points to India, where No. 681 Squadron flew Spitfires PR Mk. XI during the period from October 1943 until the end of hostilities. Lastly, it could be No. 683 Squadron on Malta, which received PR Mk. XIs in February 1943, operating from Luqa.

I felt that the third alternative, India, constituted the best match with “field” conditions and clothing. Actually, the element tipping me towards this conclusion was.. the two men in hats. Hats of this type were common outfits in the Burma theatre but would look slightly unusual in Africa. Working with this as a hypothesis, I took another long look at the photo and… there is a white SEAC band on the wing, partially obscured by the sitting man, yet discernible upon closer scrutiny. Bingo!

Another interesting detail is the fuselage roundel, which is notably small in diameter and therefore could be a standard 16-inch diameter SEAC roundel with light blue rather than red centre spots.

I believe that these circumstances together point to the conclusion that the photo indeed shows men and aircraft of No. 681 Squadron. The place could be Dum Dum, Chandina or Alipore in West Bengal, India.

A PRU camouflage of light-grey-over-PRU-blue, white SEAC bands, small, blue SEAC roundels and white individual letter “F” make an attractive and unusual paint scheme for a Spitfire.

No. 681 was formed out of No. 3 PRU, at Dum Dum in January 1943. It provided vital photo reconnaissance capability for the South-East Asia Command. Initially it was equipped with very outdated Hurricanes PR Mk. II (fighter converted to PR role) and Spitfires PR.Mk.IV. There was also a Dutch element in ‘C’ flight that operated North American Mitchells, which gave excellent service.

The up-rated Spitfires PR Mk. XI and Mosquitoes PR Mk. IXs arrived towards the end of 1943. In November 1943, the growing unit was split into two squadrons. The twin-engined elements formed No. 684 Squadron RAF. No. 681 Squadron, which was now entirely equipped with the Spitfire PR.XI, moved to RAF, Bengal in May 1944.

That’s it for my analysis. And you, dear visitor who has been patient enough to read until this point, can you confirm or deny my conclusions? Or perhaps help recognize any of the men on the photograph? Your comment will be greatly appreciated.
[Hugh Barnes coll.]

11 Comments | Add New

By John Engelsted  |  2011-03-24 at 06:54  |  permalink

It looks like PL781 of 681 Squadron. There is a profile of this particular a/c here:

By Editor  |  2011-03-24 at 11:34  |  permalink

@John, thank you for this info. I forgot to add that the photo had obviously been staged in a fashion rather typical for press photographers of the day. For this reason it is pretty likely that more images have been produced on the same occasion, and some of them may have been published (I have no idea if the one above was). Apparently so – thanks for the info – and confirmation of my reasoning, which makes me a little proud of myself!

By Andy Fletcher  |  2011-04-20 at 20:23  |  permalink

It is definitely PL781 and was taken at Kuala Lumpur in 1945. The individual standing directly behind the camera is W/C D.B. Pearson who was o/c 681 Sqn.

The correct spelling of Garbut’s surname is Gabbutt.

By Greg Esson  |  2011-07-25 at 21:57  |  permalink

Andy, can you help?

You say that the picture contains W/C D.B.Pearson. I have just purchased (at a local auction) a couple of photographs and a pastel portrait. The portrait is of an RAF gentleman, and the photos are of a single Hurricane and of a pair of Hurricanes. The single photo has (written by hand under the mount) ” S/LDR D.B.PEARSON O.C. ‘S’ FLIGHT No 3 P.R.U. 1942 “. Similarly, the twin picture has ” TWO HURRICANES OF ‘S’ FLIGHT No3 P.R.U. DUM DUM “.
It appears that the gentleman in my portrait and photo(s) are one and the same as the individual you mention in this picture.
I would like to find out more about him, and his career. The photos I have seem to have been mounted and framed in Nairobi, so it looks like he travelled somewhat.
I am in the process of cleaning and remounting the pictures, and would like to be able to add some more history to them.

Hope you can help.

By Andy Fletcher  |  2011-08-31 at 12:13  |  permalink

Hi Greg,

I should be able to find out some more info on Pearson from my records.

Drop me a line at:

(replace AT with @)

Best Regards

By Mark Haselden  |  2012-01-08 at 03:49  |  permalink

Hi Greg,

Please contact me at mark_rae[AT] for some info about Wg Cdr Pearson.

Kind regards,

By Antoni Lachetta  |  2011-03-24 at 18:22  |  permalink

The photograph looks like it might have come originally from Jack Garbut. There is a similar one of the same Spitfire with members of A Flight 681 Squadron ground crew. It might be that there are some of the same people in both photogrpahs. It is possibly PL781, late 1944 or 1945.

Jack Garbut was a photographic technician with 681 Squadron.

By shaun  |  2013-05-21 at 16:07  |  permalink

I am trying to find out what aircrafts my grandad worked on during his post in India.
I believe he worked on spitfires but am interested in finding out the specific model.
His name was Corporal Eric William Buck he was stationed in India during 1944.
If anyone reading this can help fill in the blanks or point me in the right direction for further research I would be most great full.

By George Griffiths  |  2016-07-31 at 19:44  |  permalink

Looks like a 681 Squadron Spitfire at Alipore. My father flew with this squadron in 1942-1943. His Spit had the letter “H”. A very hairy posting. He started with 3 squadron at North Weald and then with 607 Squadron at Martlesham Heath and then Manston in 1941 where he flew “Hurri-bombers”

By Andy Fletcher  |  2020-02-15 at 14:48  |  permalink

Hi George,

What was your father’s name and what dates was he with 681 Sqn.

Best Regards

Andy Fletcher

Reply to George Griffiths