The first of the many?

Scale models of The Inspirer and Wulfrun Spitfires

The Inspirer Spitfire AB917 (front) and Wulfrun (P8175) scale models created by Neil Willis and Andy Walker for the 80th anniversary of the Wolverhampton Express & Star and Wolverhampton Mayor’s Fighter Funds

By Stephen King and Jim Barrow

An exhibition marking the 80th anniversary of what may have been the first World War II fighter aircraft fund of any UK town, a second fund, two Spitfire aircraft and their pilots had to be called off due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

However, it has ‘gone virtual’ with a talk due to be give at Wolverhampton’s Central Library on Saturday June 13, 2020 now available on YouTube at The First of The Many? talk

Thousands of people in Wolverhampton, the Black Country, Shropshire, Staffordshire and the West Midlands contributed to two fundraisers in 1940 which were due to be commemorated to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the first fund.

This started when the Wolverhampton Express & Star newspaper published a letter from ‘Quaestor’ in Letters to The Editor on Saturday June 15, 1940. Quaestor – Latin for one who asks questions – was the pen name used by Wilfred Byford-Jones as foreign correspondent and, by then, the newspaper’s news editor– so he was actually writing to his boss – and the readers.

By the 27 September he had an emergency army commission as a 2nd Lieutenant, advanced to be temporary Lieutenant Colonel by 1946 and was a field officer on Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s intelligence staff as well as, in Greece, in charge of censorship and correspondents. He was also in Berlin after the Nazis’ surrender.

He wrote to the Ministry of Supply, which absorbed the Ministry of Aircraft Production in 1946, in 1951 saying he thought he could prove the fund was his idea. Minister George Strauss wrote to Wolverhampton North East MP, Captain J Baird: “I am afraid that I still cannot accept his claim. 

“I readily accept his claim to be the inaugurator of the Wolverhampton Spitfire Fund, but the fact is that a fortnight before he suggested in the Wolverhampton Express and Star that a fund should be raised to buy Spitfires, we received £10,000 from Jamaica to buy a Spitfire. Incidentally, we received another £10,000 from this colony on the 7 June (1940).

These donations seem to have been the result of a letter published in the Jamaican Gleaner but accounts blur the line over whether it was for a war plane, fighter or bomber and does not deal with the claim of the first fund being the first in the UK in WW2.

Under the headline ‘We Must Have More Planes’ Quaestor wrote: “Here’s an idea. If every area like this in the country bought a plane for service in the war the Government would be helped and the men would be heartened not only by the spirit of sacrifice of those who were at home but by the close personal touch they would have with their home towns and people.

Letter appealing for funding for an aircraft

“Could we in the West Midlands raise the money in one Blitzkrieg effort sufficient to buy a fighter or even a bomber? There are many rich industrialists in this area and they could easily set a splendid example not only to their fellow townspeople but to the country. Our plane could be the first raised by public subscription.”

He finished by saying a day’s delay was dangerous and urged people to telephone or write to the Express & Star. The response over the weekend and produced another mention in the newspaper.

The Wolverhampton Express & Star of Monday June 17, 1940 reports on the response to the appeal for a war plane fund.

By Monday June 17 –£1,250 towards the purchase of a fighter – a Spitfire was not specified then – was offered. The front page article said: “The sum required would be in the region of £13,000.”

However, a front page article on Thursday June 20, 1940, by Quaestor said: “Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, who read in The Times of the effort of Express and Star readers to raise the cost of a fighter aircraft, has shown great interest in the scheme.

“The Express and Star was informed by the Ministry today that the cost of a fighter aircraft ready to take to the air would be £9,500 to £10,000, and not £13,000 as we had been given to understand. This should stimulate our readers to subscribe the sum still required in the next few days.”

On Monday June 24, 1940, the paper carried a picture of a telegram dated June 23 from Beaverbrook and an article beneath it headed: “Our Readers’ £6,600 Plane Will Surpass Hitler’s Finest Product.”

It said: “With six thousand pounds you have collected we will build equip engine and arm a fighter aircraft surpassing the finest products of German industry Stop It will ward off many a blow aimed our homes Stop So at this moment when the battle is about to break in our skies I send warm thanks to your newspaper and the contributors to the fund. Stop. Beaverbrook. Ends.”

The fund actually reached a final total of £6,746 and the amount above the £6,000 for the fighter was to be spent on ammunition: “to be fired at the first enemy bomber your machine encounters.”

Other towns, cities, companies, individuals and overseas groups joined drives to provide war weapons. Chesterfield was first to specify Spitfire in fundraising on the July 5 1940. A day after this the National Cyclists’ Union started a fund to buy a Spitfire – The Fighting Cyclist. On July 10 the Battle of Britain was being fought above Britain.

Front page article with photograph of thank you telegram from Lord Beaverbrook for the money raised for a fighter aircraft.

The later Mayor of Wolverhampton’s fund to specifically buy a Spitfire raised £5,076 – so just above the £5,000 target set by the Ministry of Aircraft Production (possibly £277,579 in today’s prices) – although the actual price in February 1940 was about £8,897.6s 6d.

Canadian Press Baron Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), owner of the national Express group of newspapers – not the Wolverhampton Express & Star – knew simple messages had most impact.

Political opponent J H S Thomas said: “Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) was born in Newcastle, New Brunswick, Canada. It was too small for him so he went to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“It was too small for him. He left for Montreal, the commercial capital of Canada. It was too small for him. He came to London. It is too small for him. He will go to hell. It won’t be big enough.”

Although aircraft costs might be broken down to fine detail from wings to nuts and bolts and screws a figure of £5,000 came after fellow Canadian millionaire Sir Harry Oakes asked what a Spitfire cost. Sir Harry donated £20,000 for four Spitfires named Sir Harry & Lady Oakes I-IV.

The £5,000 was similar to the modern healthy eating message of five-a-day portions of fruit and vegetables. It should be seven or more but five was thought to trip off the tongue more easily and be more memorable.

Funds raised for aircraft, destroyers and other military equipment went into a general fund and was not specifically allocated to Spitfires (thought the most glamorous after Supermarine’s pre-war speed competitions success), Lancasters, Hurricanes, Defiants etc. However, having your own or a relative’s name, your town or city’s, your company’s name on a plane was a big pulling point.

Wolverhampton Alderman Morris Christopher was said to have told the editor of the Express & Star that it might be good for Wolverhampton to try and buy a Spitfire and present it to the nation. “I read that they cost about £5,000,” he is alleged to have said. “Here is my cheque for the first £50.”

The Monday June 17 Express & Star shows Alderman Christopher offering £52 10 shillings and said: “Mr Frank Farrer, Sir Robert Bird, Alderman Morris Christopher and Miss Osgerby who had contributed £5 are intensely interested in the project and “Quaestor’s” suggestion that the idea be extended to every newspaper in the country. “

The Inspirer in Gifts of War, Spitfires and Other Presentation Aircraft in Two World Wars written by Henry Boot and Ray Sturtivant and published by Air-Britain in 2005

The ‘Presentation’ Spitfires – The Inspirer (allocated to the Express & Star fund) and Wulfrun (mayor’s fund) – were ‘bought’ for the area and nation in 1940 – a time when times were hard.

The plaque for the Express & Star appeal survived to be curated at the RAF Museum Hendon and at the time of writing the museum said that it was being held in storage at RAF Stafford.

Wording may be misleading as their appeal was aimed at the whole circulation area – not just Wolverhampton.  The paper reported – on page 6 on Friday November 29 – that they received the plaque from the Ministry of Aircraft Production the previous day – Thursday November 28.

411 Squadron at RAF Digby in 1941
Canadians who flew Spitfires with 411 Squadron when they were based at RAF Digby in 1941

The loss of the pilots of the Spitfires, their photographs and details of their lives were in the Press in Fort Worth, Dallas, Texas, USA, and Calgary, Alberta, Canada, shortly after their deaths.

The Inspirer pilot – Gerald Bickle Whitney Junior – was born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, the son of First World War fighter pilot Gerald Bickle Whitney senior and Irene Rowland Whitney, but was brought up and schooled in Fort Worth.

He attended South Hi Mount Elementary School and graduated at Arlington Heights High School, Fort Worth, in 1940 being part of the Yearbook team and ‘The Yellow Jacket’ football squad of 1939. He is featured and pictured throughout the 1940 Yearbook.

Records show he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in Ontario in Summer 1940. His interview report says: “Good looking. Good manners. Would appear to be ideal material for Pilot.

Whitney completed almost 200 hours flight training and went to England to join 1/401 “City of Westmount” Squadron of the RCAF -The Rams. They formed on March 1, 1937 at Trenton, Ontario. 

The War Diary of 1/401 squadron – High Blue Battle – was edited by Canadian writer Dave McIntosh, who served with 418 Squadron. It was published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 1990 as they were the only Canadian squadron – but not the only Canadians – taking part.

They took delivery of seven Hurricane fighters sent from the UK to Vancouver in crates, assembled and then flown by squadron pilots to Calgary, their based at that time. As war broke out No.1 Squadron moved to St Hubert, near Montreal, Quebec, in September 1939, acquiring three more Hurricanes including one on static display at the Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto.

After flying to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, in November they were amalgamated with 115 Fighter Squadron of Montreal and joined by other Nova Scotia-based personnel. In June 1940 they sailed in convoy to England to be air support to the Canadian Army’s 1s Canadian Division along with No.110 Army Co-operation Squadron, in Britain since February 1940.

However, the Nazis’ drive through Holland, Belgium and France stopped any move to the continent and they were in the Battle of Britain in August from their main base at Northolt, northwest of London.

They had 27 officers, 21 of them pilots, and 314 airmen to fly and maintain 20 Hurricanes. After being posted to Middle Wallop in June they moved to Croydon the next month but had a tragic start as they shot down two RAF Coastal Command Blenheim aircraft. Three Luftwaffe Dorniers were downed and three damaged on their second mission. 

From August until September they had losses and were down to six operational aircraft at the end of September. They moved again to RAF Prestwick, Scotland, on coastal patrols before going to RAF Digby, Lincolnshire, in February 1941 being renumbered 401 Squadron on 1 March and getting Spitfires for Hurricanes from September on before moving to RAF Biggin Hill from October .

Zoran Petek has a film clip on YouTube of the squadron in the UK.

On September 27 they could only put up six planes but shot down five bombers. Over 53 days they shot down 30 planes, probably destroyed eight and damaged 35, losing three pilots killed.

They won three Distinguished Flying Crosses – the first RCAF gallantry awards in the war. By 1944 nearly 30 per cent of RAF aircrew were Canadians with 40 Canadian squadrons sent to Britain. 

Colour photograph of Gerald Bickle Whitney's names at the top of the roll of honour for 401 Squadron at Biggin Hill Chapel
Gerald Bickle Whitney’s names at the top of the roll of honour for 401 Squadron at Biggin Hill Chapel

The diary tells how Gerald Whitney, aged 21, was shot down on October 27 1941 in a Fighter Sweep over France in Spitfire Vb W3452 Midnight Sun – a Presentation Spitfire attributed to ‘Forces in Iceland’.

The squadron took off at 11.35 with 609 Squadron to rendezvous with 72 Squadron before heading over the Channel to France. The Squadron Leader and another pilot had to return as one had oxygen problems and the other engine trouble. 

Later Spitfires were seen to go down out of control and several Messerschmitt 109s dived down, one of which got two bursts of fire from Pilot Officer Al Harley and was seen pouring out black smoke before Harley found himself alone and returned to base.

High Blue Battle says: “It later turned out that the Wing had been jumped by about fifty e/a (enemy aircraft).” It added: “S/P Whitney baled out and landed near Sandwich. He baled out at 600 feet but his ‘chute did not open until he was within approximately 100 fleet of the ground. He landed quite heavily but was uninjured.

“All in all the worst day the Squadron has ever experienced (or was ever to experience) and five familiar and popular faces missing from our entourage – we still have hopes of hearing from some of them, though. It was certainly a blue Monday for the Squadron.”

The next day the diary says: “Sgt Whitney was flying back from France at 20,000 feet, behind F/L Connell and Sgt Thompson when he was attacked from out of the sun by e/a who hit his a/c (aircraft) with cannon fire. He turned sharply to port to evade but was again hit.

“He limped along to the English coast and was forced to bale out when his engine broke into flames. He got clear at 500 feet, his parachute opening at 100 feet.”

On December 2 the diary says: “F/L Neal and Sgt Whitney travelled by train to Halton to visit Sgt Golden, in hospital there since his crash. “Goldie” is improving, though he will be trussed up for some time to come.”

The December 8 entry reads: “At 1355 the Squadron again took off on a Channel sweep to protect rescue launches trying to locate the pilots who had come down in the Channel during morning operations. Three of four ME109s dived to attack Blue Section and were in turn attacked by our other sections, and a series of dogfights took place.

“Sgt D R Morrison destroyed one ME-109, the e/a crashing in the Channel, and he also damaged another. P/O Don Blakeslee and Sgts G.B. Whitney and W D Haguard damaged one each. There were no casualties in our Squadron.”

On January 26 Squadron Leader A G. Douglas, RAF, a former commanding officer of 403 Squadron took over to become 401 Squadron’s only non-Canadian commanding officer. He had taken part in more than 40 wing sweeps over France and had several enemy aircraft to his credit, the diary said.

On Monday March 9 it said: “While executing a practice roll over Fairfield, Kent, Sgt A D Blakey remained in an inverted position. A large part of his port wing fell off and the a/c went straight down from 5,000 feet, crashed and burst into flames. The pilot remained in the a/c and was killed.”

Sgt Alexander Douglas Blakey (R/78705), aged 21, of St Thomas, Ontario, was photographed standing on the wing of The Inspirer in an image held by the Imperial War Museum. He had been flying a Vb Spitfire BL538.

He was born on the 23rd September 1920 in Elgin County, the son of Herbert Douglas and Mable Daisy Blakey (nee Harmer) at 85, Maple Street, St Thomas, Ontario. His grave inscription at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Grave 36.G.8 reads: “In Our Lonely Hours Thoughts Of Him Are Always Near. Our Son.” He had 217 flying hours – 44 were test flights of the type in which he died.

Gerald Whitney was on bomber escort duty – called a Circus – in The Inspirer somewhere over the English Channel after 20 successful missions, usually on similar escort missions. Circus 144 to St Omer was being carried out during the middle of the afternoon on April 28, 1942, when he was one of two pilots lost after he and a colleague peeled off to attack German fighters.

His aircraft was hit. He did not bale out and The Inspirer crashed onto Manchester Road, Whitfield, near Dover, Kent. A report on the crash said: “Several eyewitnesses describe having seen the aircraft at low altitude. Fragments were breaking off as it went into a slow spiral and crashed.”

The diary records what happened on that day.

He was buried in Section 37, Row 1, Grave 2, at Brookwood Military Cemetery, near Woking, Surrey.

Squadron Leader Douglas wrote to his family: “My deepest sympathy and that of the squadron goes out to you in your bereavement. I realise there is little which may be said or done to lessen you sorrow but it is my hope that these ‘Wings’ indicative of operations against the enemy, will be a treasured memento of a young life offered on the altar of freedom in defence of his Home Country.”

His father died in Forth Worth in 1973. A newspaper obituary said death was due to suicide.

Colour image of Group photograph of 401 Squadron including Gerald Whitney with the mocked-up version of The Inspirer, Whitney and his grave.
Group photograph of 401 Squadron including Gerald Whitney with the mocked-up version of The Inspirer, Whitney and his grave.

The Mayor of Wolverhampton’s fund was specifically for a Spitfire not just a fighter as in the first fund. On Thursday September 26, 1940, an Express & Star page 8 report said seven Wolverhampton cinemas would open that Sunday for special shows in aid of the mayor’s Spitfire fund.

Mayor, Councillor Harry Austin White, hoped to visit two to speak about the fund and four others said they would hold a Sunday show on a future date. Just below the report another article says Walsall’s Spitfire fund stood at £8,800 after a dollar bill donation from a lady with Staffordshire associations. A further article said Birmingham hoped to raise the price of 250 bombers – £5million.

By October 5 the newspaper was reporting that the Wolverhampton mayor’s fund had passed the £3,000 mark and that special cinema showings raised about £300. Seven days later latest donations were listed and ranged from just over £194 to multiple ones of £5 from individuals and companies.

Wednesbury was fundraising for a Spitfire fund, Bilston aimed to fund a Wolverhampton-made Boulton Paul Defiant fighter aircraft and Willenhall needed £849 for a Spitfire. However, Wolverhampton aimed to raise £1m in a War Weapons Week from November 16 to November 23.

The Express & Star of Thursday October 17th (on page 3) recalled that in 1918, during WW1, Wolverhampton had a Tank Bank Week from February 4th and a Guns Week from October 28th to November 2nd in which £1,425,578 was raised by the first effort and £920,000 by the second.

On the following day the newspaper pictured four girls with a doll’s house which they hoped would help raise funds for the mayor’s fund and reported that the mayor was hoping for more donations when a downed German Luftwaffe Messerschmitt 109 fighter was put on display.

Councillor White said: “The Messerschmitt loaned to me will be on view on a space adjoining the education offices on Monday. A charge of 6d will be made to view the machine, and for an additional 6d residents will have the opportunity of sitting in the cockpit.”

Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club historian Graham Hughes visited the aircraft, previously on display in Dudley, and had helped to raise more than £500 there. He also recalls small Spitfire lapel badges being given to people donating to the fund near to the Molineux Hotel – now Molineux House Wolverhampton’s Archives Service.

He previously put two of these on display in a display cabinet in the foyer of the reception area of the Billy Wright stand at Molineux. Other areas had similar pin badges and more detailed enamel badges often worn by people fundraising. The mayor’s fund had passed £4,000 by the end of October.

It was a time when there were many calls on people’s pockets as the Express & Star of Friday October 18 said War Weapons Week would be a “Navy Week” to try and Raise £1m to buy two destroyers. The article about this was above a photograph of Mrs H M Smith of Parkville, Stowheath Lane, Wolverhampton, with some of her pictures made out of silver paper to help the mayor’s fund.

On Saturday November 9 the paper said that Councillor White: “Said he could state definitely that a cheque for £5,000 for this second Spitfire fund would be sent to Lord Beaverbrook.” However, it was not until Thursday December 19 that two paragraphs on the front page said money had been sent.

If official photographs and plaques might have been presented to the town or mayor in recognition of the fund attributed to Spitfire Mk Vb P8175 Wulfrun they have not come to light. Wulfrun’s RCAF pilot – Flight Lieutenant William Thomas Johnstone – was killed in action on April 14, 1943 while flying The Wulfrun Spitfire Mk Vb P8715 with 411 Squadron – also over the English Channel.

Boot and Sturtivant’s ‘Gifts of War’ says: “Wulfrun. Presented with a donation of £5,076 by the Wolverhampton Spitfire Fund. ‘Wulfrun’ being local dialect for the name of that city. Mk Vb P8715 was taken on charge at No.39 MU Colerne on 5 July 1941, and held at No.2 SLG Starveal Farm from 22 July until 7 September when it returned to No.39 MU.

“The aircraft was allocated on 8 December to No19 Squadron at Ludham (Norfolk), engaged on sweeps and Circus operations.” The name was actually probably derived from Wolverhampton’s founder – Lady Wulfrun/Wulfruna.

Spitfire P8715 had the code DB-O on the fuselage and – like The Inspirer – made at the Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory or CBAF, near Castle Bromwich Aerodrome – the largest aircraft production plant in wartime Britain and the main source of the Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane and the Avro Lancaster bomber.

After leaving the factory it was taken on charge at No.39 Maintenance Unit (39MU) RAF Colerne, on the outskirts of the village of Colerne, Wiltshire, on 5 July 1941 and then to No.2 Satellite Landing Ground Starveall Farm, a nearby storage site for 39 MU from the  July 6 to September 7 when it was returned to 39 Maintenance Unit.

It went to No19 Squadron on December 8, 1941 for sweeps and Circus operations – where bombers heavily escorted by fighters went to continental Europe to draw enemy fighters to combat.

On 10th February 1942 it went to 416 Squadron but needed repairs after being involved in a landing accident on an icy runway at RAF Ludham, Norfolk, which required the attention of 9 Maintenance Unit at RAF Cosford, Shropshire, near Wolverhampton.

It didn’t go back into service until more than a year later being sent to RAF Kenley, near Croydon, Surrey, for bomber escort duties before transfer to 416 – City Of Oshawa – Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The squadron, formed as a fighter squadron in November 1941 at RAF Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, used images of a leaping lynx superimposed on a maple leaf. Its motto: “Ad Saltium Paratus” translates as “Ready to Leap.

It was made up of individuals trained in the British Commonwealth Air Training Programme (BCATP) which was initiated in 1939 and launched in 1940. Pilots, mechanics, navigators, radio operators, logistic personnel and ground crew members and more were to be trained for service in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – but well away from hostilities.

Over five years 360 schools were established at more than 200 sites across Canada and 131,533 graduated with men and women participating.

He was a graduate of Tuxedo, Balmoral, Crescent Heights high schools and Mount Royal College who enlisted in October 1940 and received service number J/6823. His overseas service started in August 1941 and he was posted to 416 Squadron at Peterhead at the end of November 1941.

He was shot down off the coast of northern France on April 14, 1943 while serving with 411 Squadron.

He baled out and parachuted into the sea where he was seen alive and in a dinghy 4 miles from the coast at Baie de la Seine, off Le Havre, but the search failed to find him.

Squadron Leader D.G.E. Ball and another pilot were killed while searching and being shot down by Focke Wulf 290s north of Bayeux.

In 1968 Spitfire RW 388 was mocked up to look like The Inspirer with the serial number AB917 to appear at the Royal Tournament, the Royal Edinburgh Tattoo and the Earls Court Exhibition.

Why was this done? Might this special Spitfire be being commemorated as the first UK Gift of War presentation Spitfire for the nation?

At the time in 1968 the local Press mentioned this ‘new’ Inspirer’ but only vaguely refers to the original Inspirer’s wartime loss “over enemy territory.”

The Wulfrun Spitfire was said to have had the words Slow Freight marked on it – possibly a joke by pilot Johnstone on his Mark Vb Spitfire wishing for an upgrade to a new version of the Spitfire (of which there were many).

These would have better performance, range, firepower etc. Pilots of all squadrons would always be wanting the newest and best machines

It is thought there were at least around 1,500 WWII “presentation” named aircraft including The Inspirer and Wulfrun. They should not be forgotten.

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