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Mark II Spitfire: Dig to recover rare plane from farmer's field

By Claire Hayhurst

Published 10/07/2015

Archaeologists unearthing a rare Mark II Spitfire which crashed in a farmer's field in 1942 in Somerset.
Archaeologists unearthing a rare Mark II Spitfire which crashed in a farmer's field in 1942 in Somerset.
Dan Snow at the site in Somerset where a team of archaeologists are unearthing a rare Mark II Spitfire which crashed in a farmer's field in 1942.
Archaeologists unearthing a rare Mark II Spitfire which crashed in a farmer's field in 1942 in Somerset.

A team of archaeologists have begun unearthing a rare Mark II Spitfire which crashed in a farmer's field in 1942.

TV presenter Dan Snow and the pilot's family joined experts as they started to excavate the Spitfire site in Somerset.

The plane was bought in July 1940 by staff and directors at Lloyds Bank, who raised £7,000 in just six days to boost Britain's war effort.

It took part in patrols protecting naval convoys, conducted sweeps, escorted bombers and shot down a Messerschmitt over northern France in 1941.

But on July 12 1942 - almost exactly 73 years ago - the plane, named The Black Horse after the Lloyds Bank logo, collided with another Spitfire in mid-air.

The pilot, Sergeant William James Johnston, safely parachuted to a nearby village - but the plane was lost in countryside.

Last year, Spitfire experts narrowed down the location of the plane after decades of research and specialist equipment was used to confirm its exact position.

It is believed the plane, which is situated around 20 feet below ground, is one of the best preserved Spitfire crash sites in the UK.

Today, Mr Snow and Irish volunteer pilot Mr Johnston's family watched as parts of the Spitfire were pulled from the mud.

At 11.30am, a Spitfire performed a fly past over the site to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge speaks with pilot John Romain as he visits the Imperial War Museum Duxford to receive a newly restored Supermarine Spitfire Mark I N3200 on behalf of the museum, at IWM Duxford on July 9, 2015 in Duxford, England. (Photo by Geoff Pugh - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Prince William, Duke of Cambridge speaks with pilot John Romain as he visits the Imperial War Museum Duxford to receive a newly restored Supermarine Spitfire Mark I N3200 on behalf of the museum, at IWM Duxford on July 9, 2015 in Duxford, England. (Photo by Geoff Pugh - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
The Duke of Cambridge (left) during a tour of the Imperial War Museum in Duxford where he received a newly restored Supermarine Spitfire Mark I N3200 on behalf of the museum. Photo: Geoff Pugh/Daily Telegraph/PA Wire
Undated handout file photo issued by Christie's of German soldiers sitting on the fuselage of a downed Spitfire on the Calais coast, as the restored plane has sold for a record price at auction - with the multi-million-pound profits donated to charity
Handout photo dated 1940 issued by the Imperial War Museums of German soldiers inspecting the N3200 Spitfire after it was shot down on a beach at Sangatte, France.
Undated handout file photo issued by Christie's of a restored Spitfire that has sold for a record price at auction - with the multi-million-pound profits donated to charity

Mr Johnston's son Richard, 61, a primary school teacher, attended the dig with his wife Sandy and children William, 23 and Erin, 25.

"Words can't really describe it," Mr Johnston, of Carrigaline in Ireland, said.

"My father just didn't talk about the war at all, even to my mother, Pat.

"I recently spoke to a cousin, the only relative alive who knew him at the time and she didn't know anything about this.

"Two weeks ago we had a phone call from a local historical society and we all took the ferry last night.

"It is just amazing to be here to see this, especially for my children as they sadly missed out on meeting their grandfather.

"William is named after my father. He is 23 now and my father would have been 24 at the time of this crash. It is very moving."

Mr Johnston, a flour miller by trade, trained to fly in Canada after signing up to the Royal Air Force in 1940.

He was piloting The Black Horse when it collided with another Spitfire, The Enfield Spitfire, on July 12 1942.

Following the incident, Mr Johnston - a father-of-two, flew in numerous squadrons and served in Nigeria, Sicily and France.

He worked in then Rhodesia after the war ended and lived the rest of his life in South Africa, where he died aged 68 in 1985.

His treasured pilot's log book, photos and certificates were passed down to his son, who brought them to the Spitfire dig.

The entry for the date of the crash simply reads: "12 July 1942: baled out tail cut off by Sgt Rogers (Draycott Moor, Somerset)".

"The next entry is the following day," Mr Johnston said. "So a day after the crash he was back flying again."

On August 6 1940, Sydney Parkes, chief general manager of Lloyds Bank, telegraphed Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production.

He wrote: "The Directors and staff of Lloyds Bank will give a Spitfire to our gallant Royal Air Force and would like it to be named 'The Black Horse' after our sign in Lombard Street."

The plane was delivered to RAF Kinloss in the north of Scotland on March 14 1941.

It suffered a number of crashes during its lifetime, including engine failure and crash landing in strong cross-winds, before its final flight in 1942.

Mr Snow said: "Presentation Spitfires have such a unique and personal history.

"They were paid for by the British public, organisations and businesses - to attempt to recover one and showcase it to people today is an opportunity I couldn't resist.

"These aircraft played such an important role during World War II, and this excavation, at such a poignant time marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, symbolises that we will never forget, and will continue to educate others and commemorate the efforts of those involved."

The dig is being live streamed on the History Hit YouTube Channel, allowing members of the public to witness the excavation as it happens.

Tom Clifford, CEO of Ballista Media, added: "By using our History Hit YouTube Channel, we are able to give the public a minute by minute update on what could be one of the last ever digs of this kind.

"It's a moment in history that we want to share with as many people as we can and by using social media and instant broadcast channels, we are able to offer a unique viewing experience to commemorate an event which is fundamental part of the history of this country."

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