A long-lost Second World War spitfire flown by a pilot who was part of the “Great Escape” has been found almost entirely intact on a Norwegian mountain – 76 years after it was shot down by Nazis.
The discovery is the first time for more than 20 years that a substantially complete and previously unknown Spitfire from this period has been found anywhere in the world. Its pilot was captured and ultimately executed by the Nazis for taking part in the war’s most famous prisoner-of-war breakout, immortalised in classic movie The Great Escape.
Of substantial historical importance, the find highlights a normally ignored aspect of the Second World War – the RAF’s ultra-secret aerial wartime espionage missions.
The substantially complete Spitfire discovered in Norway is therefore an extremely rare and unusual find.
After 11 months of detailed research, the long-lost aircraft was located and identified by a Sussex-based Spitfire historian and restorer, Tony Hoskins, with help and information from local people, on a mountainside, 56 miles southwest of Trondheim.
The location is remote – and normally covered by deep snow for 80 per cent of the year. Despite being mainly intact, the aircraft had to be extricated piece by piece from the bog in which it was submerged before being carried down the mountain.
The secret operation the plane had been involved in was typical of the thousands of similar missions the RAF’s PRU flew throughout the war.
Spitfire AA810 had taken off from Wick in Northern Scotland at 8.07am on 5 March 1942. Piloted by Scotsman, Alastair “Sandy” Gunn, it then flew 580 miles across the North Sea to Faettenfjord on the Norwegian coast. Gunn’s mission was to photograph the famous German battleship, the Tirpitz which was sheltering in that fjord.
Spitfire AA810 was shot down by two Messerschmitt 109 fighters. An archaeological excavation of the plane has revealed it was hit by 200 machine gun bullets and 20 rounds of cannon fire. Before it hit the ground at around 20 degrees, its engine had stopped and its starboard side and nose and cockpit were both ablaze.
Because of its shallow angle of impact – and because the ground, on the side of a mountain, was covered in deep soft fresh snow – the aircraft survived relatively intact.
Gunn, who had facial and other burns, had succeeded in bailing out. Local Norwegian civilians found him and discussed with him the possibility of him escaping over the mountains to Sweden. But he did not know how to ski and it would have been a 110-mile long trek across very difficult terrain.
Gunn therefore decided against the idea – and made the fateful decision to surrender to the Germans. He then walked down the mountainside to a local village where German troops found him.
He was then flown to Oslo and then to Frankfurt, where he was interrogated by German military intelligence for four weeks.
Gunn was then sent to a POW camp, Stalag Luft 3 (in what is now Poland), where he participated in the Second World War’s most famous PoW breakout – the Great Escape (March 1944). So furious was Hitler over the escape attempt that he ordered that a majority of the escapees should be executed. Gunn was shot by Gestapo executioners in April 1944 – along with 49 other RAF fliers – including 11 Spitfire pilots.