Council Buys Print of Henley Built Spitfire with Great Escape Story

Henley Town Council have purchased a limited edition signed print of Spitfire AA810 — a plane with links to both Henley and Hollywood. The plane first flew from RAF Henley-on-Thames in 1941, and its last pilot was Sandy Gunn, one of the 76 men who took in the famous “Great Escape” (later immortalised in the 1963 film of the same name). The limited edition print depicts the AA810’s first flight from Henley, and proceeds from print sales will go towards the restoration of the plane.

The print, one of just 25, was presented to Mayor Sarah Miller by Tony Hoskins, Executive Director of Spitfire AA810 Restoration Ltd. The print is of an original painting by artist Ben Holmes, named ‘Unarmed Warrior’, showing the AA810’s first flight on 17th October 1941

Spitfire AA810 was built in secret in Reading in 1941. Originally intended to be a Mk1 fighter, it was selected to be an unarmed, unarmoured, photo reconnaissance aircraft designed to take photos and gather intelligence across Europe. It was assembled and flown for the first time in October 1941 from RAF Henley-on-Thames by Supermarine Chief Test Pilot Jeffrey Quill. His daughter, Sarah, has signed the print.

The plane operated from nearby RAF Benson and RAF Mount Farm (now Berinsfield village) before being sent to RAF Wick in northern Scotland. Its final pilot was a young man from Scotland: 22 year old Alastair ‘Sandy’ Gunn, who had been selected to take part in the photo reconnaissance missions. Although he was based at RAF Benson, Sandy used to visit Henley on nights out, regularly drinking in The Angel, Phyllis Court, and the White Hart in Nettlebed. His diary notes his excursions in Henley, including what he calls the worst Christmas dinner he’d ever had at The Angel on Christmas Day 1941!

Sandy Gunn was shot down flying over Norway in the Spitfire AA810 on March 5th 1942. He was then captured by the Germans, interrogated and sent to a prison camp in Poland. It was here that he teamed up with Roger Bushell, and a number of other men, to plan the Great Escape. Sandy was on the tunnelling team for ‘Tunnel Harry’, through which he and 75 other officers escaped on 24th March 1944. He was on the run for two days before he was captured by the Germans and taken to Görlitz prison to be interrogated. Sandy was one of the 50 escapees who were then murdered by the Gestapo. Sandy’s story has since been immortalised in the 1963 film, ‘The Great Escape’. His nephew, Alastair Gunn, has signed the print.

The print sales are part of a £3.5m project to restore Spitfire AA810. The aim is to get the plane back in the air by 2024 to mark 80 years since Sandy Gunn’s murder. Once back in flying condition, Tony Hoskins hopes that is might return to the site of its first flight, as depicted in the painting: the hills above Henley, near Cockpole Green.

Sarah Miller said about the print, “It’s such a strong link with Henley and it’s an honour to have this. I can’t wait to get it framed and put it somewhere prominent on the wall in the Town Hall. This is something very special, so whatever we can do to support this, we will.”

People can support the Spitfire AA810 restoration either via their webshop, or with individual and corporate sponsorship. For more information, visit their website.