Sunday (17 October) marked the 80-year anniversary (to the day!) of the first flight of Spitfire AA810 from RAF Henley-on-Thames. Built in the utmost secrecy in Reading by a majority female workforce, Spitfires would be moved by truck to RAF Henley, for their final assembly and flight tests.
To commemorate the event, Tony Hoskins and team of Onor Crummay along with Meg Bowden brought the original Rolls Royce Merlin engine, along with parts such as a wing and camera from the plane to display in Henley Market Place.
Discovered buried in a Norwegian mountainside in 2018, the AA810 was part of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) that relayed vital information, such as arial photographs, taken whilst flying deep into enemy territory.
To enable the plane to hold more fuel and fly further, all ‘unnecessary weight’ was stripped out of the craft, including all guns, armour plate and radio. Due to the nature of the missions, the PRU suffered considerable casualties – statistically, it was the second worst unit to be in. Only two of the six operational pilots of the AA810 survived the war, with two still missing with no known grave.
The Herald caught up with Tony to understand how the flights and pilots of the AA810 are a proud part of history for the town. He said “I went looking for the aeroplane back in 2017, found it in 2018 and brought it back and started restoration in 2019. We’re hoping for it to be fully rebuilt to flying condition by 2024! We managed to get 75% of the wreck out of the ground, so use as much of that as possible and also try to find original wartime production Spitfire parts. I build Spitfires for a living, with 15 years’ experience in the industry, and the contacts and knowledge of how to source parts.
Flight Lieutenant Alastair ‘Sandy’ Gunn [pictured] was the last pilot to fly the AA810. Based at RAF Benson, Sandy was a regular at the Angel on the Bridge, The White Hart at Nettlebed and known visitor to Phyllis Court, where the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was based!”
On the morning of the 5th March 1942, Sandy piloted the Spitfire AA810, on a mission to report the location of the battleship Tirpitz. The plane was shot down, but he survived by bailing out. Sandy became a prisoner of war and in 1944, was part of the Great Escape of POW camp Stalag Luft III. Tragically, at 24 years old, he was among the 50 executed by the Gestapo, against the Geneva Conventions. Tony exclaimed, “He should have come home and maybe he would’ve even been alive today. I’ve researched Sandy for five years now, I have his diaries, letters home from the camp, all his school reports and met his family. In fact, I’ve met the families of all the pilots who flew the AA810.”
Tony then went on to talk about the supporting charity, Sandy Gunn Aerospace Careers Programme that supports schools and students with careers in the aerospace field. He said “There are so many different aspects of aerospace that young people can work in. We don’t just talk to them about what’s happening currently in the industry, but prepare them for the future and ‘fourth industrial revolution’. For example, tech security, human-computer interface, composites and moving structures that will change depending on environment – this is the level of tech they’re going to be working with and the organisation allows them to access all opportunities and training for free.”
Historically, STEM careers haven’t been encouraged for girls and women, however, Tony explains “At a school in London last month, almost half of the students who signed up for the after-school talk were girls. The outreach programme for a school the other day was around two thirds girls. We’re getting somewhere between 30 – 50% turnout of girls.”
When asked why Sandy Gunn is an important figure to be remembered, Tony remarked “When you read his diaries, you see he was very intolerant of unfairness to people. So to be murdered in the most unfair way, when he should have been legally protected…he should have come back from the war. At the point when I was trying to find his aeroplane, he was mentioned in two books and that was only by name, in a list of people who were killed. And I thought how could this whole life only be summed up by this? So I then started researching this man and his life and realised I had an item that linked so many different stories from the people who flew it. Sandy’s story, being so tragic, tells the story of the prisoners of war. Collectively, all these guys [pilots of the AA810] tell the story of unarmed squadrons of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. All unearthed from a name in a book.”