Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Shepley Spitfire

August 1940, and the Battle of Britain was entering its second month.

Among the pilots of 152 (Hyderabad) Squadron, defending the south coast - including the vitally important Portland naval base - was 22-year-old Douglas Shepley of Holmesfield, Derbyshire, who had married his fiancée only weeks before.

Douglas had already been credited with shooting down two German Me 109s, on 8th and 11th of August, when on the 12th 152 Squadron was sent to engage a German unit which had just bombed a radar station on the Isle of Wight. Unfortunately, two Spitfires never returned from the fray: P9456, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Withall, and Douglas’s K9999, both believed to have been shot down somewhere near the Needles.

For Douglas’s family this was the third devastating loss in less than a year. His sister Jeanne, a nurse in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, had been killed in October 1939 when the liner on which she was returning to England was sunk by a U boat near Gibraltar. Then, in May 1940, his elder brother, George Rex Shepley was shot down while dropping supplies to a garrison in Calais (for which he was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross).

In the face of this latest tragedy Douglas’s mother, Emily, and his widow, Frances, decided to commemorate Douglas and all he meant to them by buying a Spitfire for the RAF in his name.

The idea of military vehicles and weapons being gifted to the Forces was not new. During the First World War the government had encouraged people to donate money towards the purchase of tanks, ambulances, guns and other equipment, a strategy which had proved very successful and attracted funds from around the world. Indeed, 152 Squadron itself was named after the Nizam of Hyderabad, whose donation was big enough to buy a fleet of DH9As.  (The then Indian Territories provided many such ‘gift squadrons’, their origins being reflected in their names and in the design of their badges; 152’s badge depicted the Nizam’s head-dress and the words ‘Faithful ally’.)

Having proved so successful earlier, the ‘gifting’ campaign was revived during the Second War, in particular by Lord Beaverbrook when he ran the newly created Ministry of Aircraft Production. A list drawn up by the Ministry costed a single-engine aircraft (usually a Spitfire but sometimes a Hurricane) at £5,700, rising to £20,000 for a twin- and £40,000 for a four-engined plane.

Having set their sights on a Spitfire, Emily and Frances set to work raising public awareness about Douglas, organising event after event – dances, tea parties, whist tournaments and jumble sales, installing collection boxes in theatres and pubs. The people of Derbyshire and neighbouring south Yorkshire somehow found money to help: Bolsover miners donated a percentage of their earnings to the fund and Sheffield ARP held collections at all their posts. In just 15 weeks the family had raised enough to buy the Shepley Spitfire.

The aircraft chosen was W3649, built by Vickers Armstrong in 1941. The name Shepley was painted in yellow below the cockpit. After its inauguration flight in August, a little over a year since Douglas’s death, it became part of 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron, before serving with 303 (Polish) Squadron and then 485 (New Zealand) Squadron.  There, Shepley was requisitioned by Group Captain Francis Beamish, who used it as his personal plane, flown by him alone. Beamish survived several engagements in the Shepley Spitfire, but finally went down in the English Channel during a battle with 40 enemy aircraft on 28th March 1942.

As you would expect Douglas Shepley is commemorated on the RAF Memorial at Runnymede, in honour of those with no known graves, but a reminder of his and his family’s courage stands closer to home. When the brewer Hardy’s & Hanson’s built a new pub in Totley, near Holmesfield, it ran a competition to decide a name. Seymour Shepley, Douglas’s only surviving brother, nominated ‘The Shepley Spitfire’, and the brewery agreed. Seymour pulled the first pint at the pub commemorating his remarkable family in the winter of 1979.