June 2021 meeting: Spitfires over Oxfordshire

On 14 June Nic Vanderpeet, learning and outreach officer at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock, described the wartime reconnaissance missions of the Spitfires based in Oxfordshire.

Reginald Mitchell (1895 – 1937) of Supermarine Aviation, Southampton, designed the Spitfire as an evolution from the firm’s successful seaplanes. After the flight of the prototype in March 1936, the test pilot commented ‘Don’t change a thing.’

The Spitfires in Oxfordshire were deployed in training and reconnaissance roles, based at RAF Benson, RAF & USAAF Mount Farm (around what is now Berinsfield), and RAF Bicester. The planes were equipped with stereoscopic cameras. Teams including many women, notably the famous Constance Babington Smith, identified features on the photographs in interpretation centres at Nuneham House and Medmenham (nearby in Buckinghamshire).

Key intelligence included sightings of the German battleship Bismarck in 1941, the construction of the ‘Atlantic Wall’, confirmation of the damage done by Allied bombing raids, and reconnaissance of the territory inland from the D-day beaches.

John Hugh Saffery, based at RAF Benson, recorded the hazards of flying at high altitude, including extreme cold and lack of oxygen. On YouTube, you can find a short film Spitfire 944 in which US pilot John Blyth describes his experiences at Mount Farm, including a crash landing. At ncap.org.uk the National Collection of Aerial Photography is available online.

Reports of earlier meetings