A Spitfire recovered from the murky depths of a Scottish loch has been restored to its former glory, 35 years since it was found, writes Alex Bowers.
P7540, which had been in a state of disrepair since its 1982 discovery, has recently undergone extensive restoration work to ensure its history is maintained for future generations despite a number of ‘false starts’ before the vital work was successfully carried out. The aircraft was unveiled to a crowd of 2,000 visitors at the Dumfries & Galloway Aviation Museum during their military vehicle show, and is now on permanent display in its own hangar. The unveiling was carried out by Curator David Reid, and the Czechoslovakian Honorary Consul General, Dr Paul Millar.
Spitfire P7540 was built in October 1940 at Castle Bromwich, and was issued to 66 Sqn at RAF West Malling, Kent. A veteran of the Battle of Britain, arriving in time for the closing stages of the decisive aerial action, P7540 was flown by (among others) F/Lt Bobby Oxspring with whom it saw combat on several occasions. It also flew with 609 and 266 Sqns at Biggin Hill, Kent, and Wittering, Cambridgeshire, near Stamford.
The aircraft later was redeployed to Scotland for use as a training aircraft to train fledging pilots of the Free Czechoslovakian Air Force. While stationed near Loch Doon, South Ayrshire, P7540 was last flown by 26-year-old pilot, Frakišek Hekl, on 25 October 1941.
Flying Officer Hekl
František Hekl was born on 24 January 1915 in Nemojany, in the Moravian region of the former Czechoslovakia. In the mid-1930s, he graduated from military academy as a Lieutenant in the Air Force. After training and a fighter conversion course, he served with 32 flight, No.1 Group, Czechoslovak Air Force, flying Avia B.534 fighters. He took part in two mass mobilisations in May and September 1938 – before and during the Munich crisis.
When his homeland was occupied by Nazi troops on in March 1939, Hekl crossed into Poland. He wasn’t alone, hundreds of his brothers-in-arms did so to continue the fight. František Hekl belonged to a group of Czech airmen who joined the Polish Air Force at Deblin in August 1939 and fought against a Luftwaffe attack on 2 September.
The airmen then retreated south-east to reach Romania but were caught by the Soviet Army advancing from the east, and they were sent to be interned. Hekl managed to get onto a train which left Russia in July 1940 and after a dangerous journey through Turkey, Egypt and India, he finally reached Britain.
Hekl joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve on 6 November 1940 as a Pilot Officer and returned to flying in February 1941 with a refresher course at No.2 Signal School in Yatesbury, flying Percival Proctors, where he was promoted to Flying Officer. In May, he was transferred to fly Lysanders at the School of Army Cooperation and in July 1941 underwent a fighter conversion course on Hurricanes with 52 OTU at Debden. On 28 August he joined 312 (Czechoslovak) Sqn stationed at RAF Ayr, becoming an operational fighter pilot on 9 September.
The squadron was to convert to the Spitfire MkVb over Christmas 1941 and, to assist in this, six Spitfire MkIIa were delivered on the 20 October, including P7540, transferred from 266 Sqn.
Hekl first flew a Spitfire, P8081, on 24 October. The following day, at 10.25am, he took off in Spitfire P7540 for his second, and final, Spitfire sortie. Hekl made his way south to Loch Doon and flew low and fast over the water. He made a banking turn to the right but his starboard wingtip struck the surface and the aircraft was lost to sight in an explosion of spray. Eyewitnesses reported that the only trace remaining when the waters had settled was a light oil slick.
After radio contact was lost, the tragedy was confirmed by a phone call reporting the accident. At 12.20pm, F/Lt. Tomáš Vybíral took off from Ayr to search for the lost aircraft and for Hekl but nothing could be seen from the air. Despite a thorough search operation, the only remains which were recovered were a boot and a glove.
Lost For 40 Years
While Spitfire P7540 was lost for 40 years, nothing more was ever found of František Hekl. He still lies in the quiet waters of Loch Doon.
For several days, salvage crews attempted to find the missing aircraft which lay approximately 25 metres underwater, however extensive rainfall made recovery operations especially difficult and eventually, the search was called off – for decades. In 1977, however, Bruce Robertson, of the Dumfries & Galloway Aviation Group, organised for local divers from the Dumfries branch of the Scottish Sub-Aqua Club to begin examining the suspected crash site.
Led by David Greenwood, the initial search area was to the north-east of the water outfall, at a position indicated by eye witnesses to the crash. This was eventually extended, the search area stretching north and west, but for five years the search remained unsuccessful. David Reid, Chairman of the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum, said: “We were expecting them [the diving teams] to find it the first weekend – they found a syrup tin.”
When the 1982 campaign got underway, new methods were incorporated to the search process. This, as well as further extending the search perimeter, ensured the aircraft was found almost immediately!
Eventually, around 90% of P7540 was recovered, including the rear fuselage, tail section, and Merlin engine – all found in remarkable condition. Now brought together with the recent restoration project, P7540 has been given a new lease of life. In a statement, the Museum said: “We had a fantastic response on the day with visitors speaking to all our staff to say how thrilled they were to be able to see the Spitfire looking so good, and to be able to get close to it with their families. We have had lots of lovely comments on social media about it and we really hope lots more people will come and see it.”
Although the exterior of the plane has been largely completed, further work is required inside the cockpit. “Hopefully within the next couple of years we will be able to let people actually sit in a genuine Battle of Britain survivor,” said Mr. Reid.
The project was made possible with the involvement of volunteers, as well as outside groups and local businesses. Fuselage work was carried out by the Aircraft Restoration Group in Yorkshire, while the replica wings were supplied by Gateguard UK. In addition, local firm, NH Commercial Painters, were tasked with restoring the Spitfire’s historical bodywork.
František Hekl is mentioned on panel No.36 of the RAF Memorial in Runnymede, and is commemorated by a memorial stone at the side of Loch Doon. He was posthumously decorated with the Czech War Cross 1939 and the Polish Virtuti Militari. In 1991, he was promoted to Colonel in memoriam.