Throughout the air battles which raged across the world’s skies during the Second World War, the desire to gain air superiority was something of a preoccupation for military planners and when one side gained an advantage with a new upgraded aircraft variant or introduction of a completely new type, their adversaries would undoubtedly counter the move before too long. Perhaps the most enduring wartime aerial duels were fought between the British Supermarine Spitfire and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109, each a classic fighting aeroplanes in its own right and both relatively evenly matched for the majority of the war. That was especially true throughout the Battle of Britain and during the first tentative fighter sweeps over occupied northern France in the months which followed. The RAF needed a more capable Spitfire to clear the skies of Messerschmitts and they had an idea what it would take.
Their preferred option was to radically redevelop the existing Spitfire airframe, incorporating a new wing design and harnessing the power of the new Rolls Royce Merlin XX powerplant. Known as the Spitfire III, this new aircraft would take some time to develop and manufacture, but they desperately needed better Spitfires now, so whilst the development of the new fighter continued, Rolls Royce were asked to produce a ‘stop-gap Spitfire’, one powered by their new Merlin 45 engine – thank goodness they had this foresight.
The new interim Spitfire was known as the Mk.V and combined the additional power of the Rolls Royce Merlin 45 engine with the original Mk.I/II airframe, whilst at the same time including a number of design improvements already developed for the proposed future Mk.III. This new Spitfire was an excellent performer and proved to be more than a match for the latest Luftwaffe fighters in service. With the much increased production capacity offered by the new Castle Bromwich shadow factory in the Midlands, Spitfire Mk.V fighters would be produced at a spectacular rate, with this interim variant actually going on to be the most produced version of this famous fighter, with almost 6,500 aircraft manufactured. Seeing service in every theatre the Allies contested the war, the Spitfire Mk.V fought in the home defence and offensive fighter sweep roles, above the deserts of North Africa and over the jungles of the Far East. What started as a temporary measure produced the most effective ‘stop-gap’ aircraft the RAF would ever introduce – one aircraft they didn’t go on to introduce was the proposed Mk.III!
The magnificent box artwork featured above is being exclusively revealed to Workbench readers and has been produced in support of the forthcoming release from our 1/48th scale Spitfire Mk.Vb tooling. The kit will be supplied with two appealing scheme options, which we will take a closer look at now.
Initially joining the Royal Air Force in 1936, Eric Hugh Thomas was initially posted to No.19 Squadron Duxford, flying the beautiful Gloster Gauntlet fighter. After a short stint as a flight instructor at Cranwell, he would later to squadron flying with his parent unit, only to be posted away again, this time to No.222 Squadron at Hornchurch during the height of the Battle of Britain. September 1940 would prove to be a productive month for Thomas, as he managed to destroy three Bf 109 fighters and damage or share in the destruction of a further two Luftwaffe aircraft.
On 17th November 1941, he took command of No.133 ‘Eagle Squadron’ at Eglinton, where he would help to oversee the ongoing integration of American pilots into Royal Air Force service, following the unit’s establishment just four months earlier. He would personally lead the squadron’s first fighter sweep over France in April 1942 and oversee their conversion to the Spitfire Mk.Vb, before changing base ones more, this time moving to Biggin Hill. Now promoted to Wing Commander, he would take part in air operations in support of Operation Jubilee and the Dieppe raid, a maximum effort which would involve all three of the RAF Eagle Squadrons in providing air cover for the landing forces. He would relinquish his command of No 133 Squadron in September 1942 when all three of the RAF ‘Eagle Squadrons’ transferred to USAAF control, with his former No.133 Squadron becoming the 336th Fighter Squadron, part of the 4th Fighter Group based at Debden.
Supermarine Spitfire Vb BM260 was built at the Castle Bromwich factory and delivered to the Royal Air Force in March 1942. It was allocated to No.133 ‘Eagle Squadron’ the following month, becoming the personal aircraft of Squadron Leader Eric Hugh Thomas and later benefitting from some rather distinctive note artwork – at a time when few RAF fighters carried personal markings, Thomas decorated his aircraft with a jousting knight on the port side fuselage, just in front of the cockpit. It is also interesting to note that this Spitfire wears the revised RAF day fighter scheme adopted from mid-August 1941, a scheme which just very different from the aircraft which fought during the Battle of Britain.
Possessing an exemplary service record and having been awarded several decorations for his flying skill, Eric Hugh Thomas eventually left the Royal Air Force in September 1944 due to continuing health problems, with at least five aerial victories to his name and officially an ‘Ace’ pilot.
With the Spitfire continuing to prove such a popular modelling subject, the two fascinating scheme options included with this impending kit release will not only help to tell the story of this heavily produced ‘stop-gap’ variant of Britain’s most famous fighting aeroplane, but also how it was used by two airmen connected with one of America’s celebrated ‘Eagle Squadrons’. Scheduled for release early in the new year, this 1/48th scale kit (A05125A) is something that little bit different for your latest Spitfire build project.
The young Dominic Salvatore Gentile had always been fascinated by flight, but as he did not have the necessary college requirements for entry into the US military, he headed to Canada to undergo his military flying training. On successfully gaining his wings, he was posted to Britain, where he would join No.133 ‘Eagle Squadron’, the third and last of the famed US manned squadrons in the Royal Air Force. Flying the Supermarine Spitfire Mk.V out of RAF Biggin Hill, Gentile would score his first aerial victories on 19th August 1942, when he claimed a Ju88 and Focke Wulf Fw190 whilst flying operations covering the unsuccessful Dieppe Raid. It is also interesting to note that Operation Jubilee (the Dieppe Raid) was the only time that all three of the RAF’s Eagle Squadrons saw action on the same operation.
In September 1942, the pilots of the three RAF Eagle Squadrons transferred to the USAAF, with the former RAF No.133 Squadron becoming the 336th Fighter Squadron, part of the 4th Fighter Group based at Debden. Initially retaining their Spitfires, Gentile’s machine was called ‘Buckeye Don’ and featured rather distinctive nose artwork (based on the 4th FG badge), something which clearly illustrated his confident attitude to aerial combat. After only retaining their Spitfires for a few weeks, the pilots of the 4th FG were required to convert to the mighty P-47 Thunderbolt, a massive aeroplane in comparison to their diminutive Spitfires. Initially having serious misgivings about a fighter they referred to as the ‘Juggernaut’, the Thunderbolt may have been a bit of a heavyweight when compared to the Spitfire, but certainly possessed many impressive fighting qualities of its own.
Gentile would go on to be a celebrated aviation hero and became the leading USAAF ace in the ETO after scoring a ‘triple victory’ on 8th April 1944. Amongst his fellow pilots, he would also be known as the ‘Ace of Aces’, by virtue of the fact his victory tally had overtaken that of Great War US Ace Eddie Rickenbacker (ground victories were also counted). Ultimately though, his tour of duty would end in inglorious fashion, as he simply could not suppress his urge to show off. Whilst performing a demonstration flight at Debden for a crowd of dignitaries and members of the press, Gentile flew his Mustang ‘Shangri-La’ in a series of ever faster and ever lower passes and it was almost inevitable what was going to happen. Striking the ground, the fighter came to rest in a heap, but thankfully with the pilot miraculously emerging unhurt, other than his bruised ego. Furious, his commanding officer grounded him and sent him back stateside to work the war bond circuit.