Harrogate’s Magnificent Spitfire Campaign.
In the late summer of 1940, England’s blue skies were patterned with the exhaust fumes of fighter planes as two opposing forces of the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe flew and dived in a deadly battle for supremacy.
Probably the entire population of this country knew what was at stake, and realised the enormous importance of the Spitfire in maintaining Britain’s control of its own airspace. Despite the success of the Spitfire pilots in repelling Hitler’s hostile moves, the RAF’s losses were sufficiently worrying to require a special national effort to replace planes destroyed in battle.
As Harrogate was the headquarters of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, interest in the town was intense, and although many citizens contributed to the national campaign, the Mayor of Harrogate, Coun JC Topham, believed that Harrogate could achieve something extra-special. Accordingly, he launched a campaign for the town to buy an entire Spitfire plane, which would aid the war effort, and also boost local morale. Not that the town was short of appeals. There was already a Home Guard Equipment Appeal, a Red Cross Appeal and the Scrap Metal Drive.
Then, on Wednesday, August 21 1940, the mayor launched the Harrogate Spitfire Appeal with the full support of the Harrogate Advertiser, the goal being to raise the sum of £5,000. Within less than one week, the people of Harrogate had contributed nearly £1,500, which included 9s/8d collected in coppers by two schoolboys.
So confident was the committee that the full sum would be raised, that they talked of sending Hitler a Christmas present in the form of the Harrogate bomber they would buy after the Spitfire had been obtained. By September 11, £3,400 had been raised, thanks to the efforts of Mr GG Stephenson, the borough treasurer, who was honorary organiser for the campaign. Several local sports organisations organised fund drives, the whist and bridge drives in the Sun Pavilion raised further funds, and the campaign received a boost when the Advertiser published an account of the exploits of Harrogate Sergeant-Pilot Ronald Fairfax Hamlyn, youngest son of Mr and Mrs WH Hamlyn of Dolvean, Leeds Road. Sergeant-Pilot Hamlyn had shot down eight Nazi planes in three days, for which he received the DFM.
A Royal Hall dance organised by Mr J Habesch raised the huge sum of £92.0s.8,and collecting boxes in the local hotels and pubs increased the fund substantially. A wonderful example of enterprise was shown by a James Street retailer who allowed one of the unexploded bombs that had fallen on the Majestic to be exhibited on his premises, with the small viewing charge being donated to the fund.
The climax of the campaign was the Spitfire Concert in the Royal Hall on Sunday, October 13 1940, which was prefaced by nine planes swooping and diving over the Royal Hall in a bravura piece of aerial display. Compered by Mr. WW Kemp, the concert was backed by Mr. Roland Powell’s Broadcasting Octet, with many individual contributions, ending with a mass performance of Lupino Lane’s hit number The Lambeth Walk.
By the time the fund closed on October 26 1940, the impressive sum of £7,000 had been raised, a full £2,000 in excess of the original total. Finally, on November 2 1940, the Mayor of Harrogate, Coun J Carus Topham, wrote a letter to Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production, which included a cheque for £7,000.
The result of this extraordinarily successful campaign was that one of the Spitfires that rolled of the assembly line in 1941 was named the Harrogate Spitfire, a photograph of which is reproduced with this article. The second photograph shows the unique plaque that the Government awarded Harrogate for its great patriotism, which was hung in the council offices with great pride. I haven’t seen it for some time, so I hope it is safe, as it commemorates those unforgettable months when Harrogate rose to the defence of the British Nation.