Mystery of Harrogate's Spitfire solved by local historian

With the anniversary of the Battle of Britain only weeks away, Harrogate’s leading historian has solved the mystery of what happened to the town’s own legendary Spitfire.

Sunday, 24th May 2020, 1:18 pm
Updated Sunday, 24th May 2020, 1:22 pm
The only picture - The Harrogate Spitfire in the Harrogate Advertisers sister newspaper the Harrogate Herald on August 27, 1941.

The recent appearance in Harrogate of one of only three NHS Nightingale hospitals to be built during the coronavirus pandemic is not the first time the town has shown it can play a leading role at a national level.

Eighty years ago, its citizens rose to the challenge of the Second World War when the call went out from Chuchill at an early turning point in the conflict.

When the RAF stood alone against the Luftwaffe in the early summer of 1940, the need to step up the production of fighter planes to give Britain a fighting chance became imperative.

How the Harrogate Advertisers sister newspaper the Harrogate Herald wrote about the Harrogate Spitfire on August 27, 1941.

The aim was simple: to build aircraft faster than the Germans could as the battle raged from July to October 1940 above the skies of southern England and over the English Channel.

While the RAF Hurricanes, with their sturdy frames, took on the bombers, the Mark I Spitfires, with their speed and agility were sent up to confront the cream of the Luftwaffe’s fighter planes bidding to make the skies German.

Local historian Malcolm Neesam explained: “To compensate for planes lost in combat, the British Government started a campaign for communities throughout the land to raise funds to build more Spitfires.

“They needed to produce aircraft around the clock in Supermarine workshops across the country to give the RAF any hope of victory against the German air force.

“Harrogate residents heeded the call, raising a then astounding figure of £7,000.”

Indeed, so impressive were Harrogate’s efforts that one of the aircraft it had paid for was named after the town.

Mr Neesam said: “The Government named several Spitfires after communities which provided unusually high financial contributions.

“Only towns which had done exceptionally well in raising funds for Spitfires had this honour.”

The Harrogate Spitfire had the word “Harrogate” inscribed offically on its fuselage between the cockpit and the propeller.

By the end of those bitterly fought four months, the better organised RAF and its brave and skilled pilots had defeated the Luftwaffe, losing 1,023 planes to Germany’s 1,887 planes.

To commemorate the town’s unique contribution to victory in the Battle of Britain, a plaque was also awarded to Harrogate.

Originally unveiled in 1942, it was presented to the Harrogate Mayor in 1941 and proudly displayed in the old Council Offices in Crescent Gardens.

That much is known, explains Mr Neesam, or was known until now.

What happened to the Harrogate Spitfire and the plaque itself was lost in the mists of time.

But Mr Neesam, the author of a string of acclaimed historial books about Harrogate, believes he is now as close an anyone to filling in the gaps of this particular story.

Mr Neesam said: “The only images that exist of either the Harrogate Spitfire or the original plaque are those published in 1941 in the Harrogate Herald, sister paper of the Harrogate Advertiser.

“But I have been informed that the Harrogate Spitfire disappeared over the North Sea during the war.

“It was declared lost at sea and was presumed to have been shot down.

“But that this was kept from the public to preserve morale.”

As for the town’s Spitfire plaque, Malcolm Neesam has been part of a group of Harrogate people working to recreate and re-erect it.

Costing nearly £1,000 to complete, the replica project’s success has been guaranteed by contributions from the likes of Harrogate Civic Society and the Harrogate RAF Club, not to forget a phone call out of the blue.

Mr Neesam said: “It is important to stress that the entire cost is being met by voluntary donations, rather than the public purse.

“I recently received a phone call from a lady who has offered to complete the appeal for the Spitfire plaque, so that all the required monies have been collected.

“The replica of the plaque will be made by Leander Architectural, Harrogate Borough Council’s preferred plaque manufacturer, and will become the property of the town.”

The aim is install the new version of the plaque on the external facade of Harrogate’s Crown Hotel which was occupied by the Ministry of Aircraft’s Production Department in the Second World War.

The exact date is yet to be decided but it is set to be unveiled as part of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

There are hopes a senior figure in today’s RAF may even be able to attend.

If that does happen, he or she will once again be able to see the words first inscribed in 1941 in tribute to the Harrogate Spitfire and the town’s incredible war effort.

he words on the plaque say simply: “In the hour of peril, people of Harrogate earned the gratitude of the British nations sustaining the valour of the Royal Air Force and fortifying the cause of freedom by the gift of Spitfire aircraft. They shall mount up with wings as eagles.”

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