The Spitfire is synonymous with the Battle of Britain, the air war that started today, July 10, 75 years ago. The single engine fighter was at the frontline of British defence against countless waves of German bomber’s nightly attacks that lasted for three months and three weeks.
Yesterday, a restored Vickers Supermarine Spitfire Mark.1A, P9374, sold for a record £3,106,500 ($AU6.4 million) in London overnight, more than £500,000 above its top estimate. It was auctioned by Christie’s.
The plane is just one of two airworthy Mk.1 Spitfires and over the past several decades it’s been on an extraordinary journey thanks to American gold investor, philanthropist, plane buff and unabashed Anglophile Thomas Kaplan, chairman of the New York-based Electrum Group.
P9374 was the 557th RAF Spitfire to roll off the production line of 22,000, but it crashed on a beach near Calais on May 24, 1940, when Flight Officer Peter Cazenove, of the famed London stockbroking family, was on his first combat mission. Before belly-landing on the beach, Cazenove had radioed that he was OK, and: “Tell mother I’ll be home for tea!”
Cazenove managed to link up with a British regiment, but was captured when the Germans overran Calais. He became a POW, ending up in the notorious Stalag Luft III, on the German-Polish border, where he helped organise the legendary Great Escape, which saw 76 POWs escape in March 1945. Cazenove was a big man and wouldn’t fit in the tunnel. Coincidentally, 92 Squadron CO Roger Bushell, also known as “Big X”, the mastermind of the Great Escape, was among eight pilots who also flew P9374 before the crash.
Bushell was among 50 escapees executed by the Gestapo. Cazenove survived the war and died in 1981, still wondering what happened to his Spitfire.
The plane disappeared under the sand for the next four decades until heavy tides scoured the beach and the heavily corroded, barnacle-encrusted yet still intact wreckage made a return in September 1980, only to be heavily damaged by souvenir hunters and a salvage crew. The remains ended up at the Musée de l’Air in Paris, and was subsequently passed around until Kaplan got wind of the find in 2006. He bought the wreck and embarked on a three-year restoration costing millions of dollars at the Aircraft Restoration Company in Duxford, England. P9374’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine roared back to life in 2011 and it returned to the air.
Kaplan’s next step was even more remarkable. He put the Spitfire up for sale, pledging to donate the proceeds to charity. The $6.4 million raised from the sale of Spitfire P9374 has gone to the RAF Benevolent Fund, leading wildlife conservation charity Panthera, WildCRU and Stop Ivory.
The 52-year-old entrepreneur and his wife, Daphne, didn’t stop there. They also owned the only other flying Spitfire Mk.1, N3200, and donated it to the Imperial War Museum Duxford.
Kaplan said he embarked on the project with his childhood friend, Simon Marsh, to pay homage to the pilots Churchill called “the Few”, standing against the might of Hitler’s bomber force.
“The knowledge that P9374 has found a fine home, combined with the return of N3200 earlier today to the Imperial War Museum Duxford, marks the end of a profound journey of remembrance for us,” he said.
“Today’s events are, more than anything else, concrete gestures of gratitude and remembrance for those who prevailed in one of the most pivotal battles in modern history. History tells us all that there comes a time when one simply has to step up… to act with passion, and to remember with gratitude the few that actually do.
“And so it is with full hearts that we congratulate the buyers at the auction, as well as the Imperial War Museum, for their new acquisitions… and the wonderful causes which will be the recipients of these truly extraordinary auction proceeds.”