TO THE MOUNTAIN
Whilst researching the location of Spitfire AA810’s crash site Google offered up a gift. That being the existence of a dam within the locality of Surnadal. The dam was situated approximately 3 miles from Sandy’s crash site. But more importantly, the dam had a private access road up to it. It was this revelation a year prior to our arrival that had convinced Tony that an excavation of the crash site was in fact a very real and practical possibility.
We met with our Norwegian team mates on a forest road three miles from the end of which lay our Spitfire. On a bright warm Norwegian summer’s morning we shook hands, said our hellos then climbed back into our respective vehicles to begin the climb up to the Surnadal Dam.
I must confess that I had preconceived ideas of what a team of Spitfire hunters would look like. So far, my UK compatriots had delivered to that stereotypical assumption. The two Marks with their cerca 1990’s British army gear, Tony in his steel toe capped engineers boots and Peter in his green country classic waxed jacket and of course me in my swanky expedition t-shirt.
Our Norwegians on the other hand, rocked the stereotypical look far less.
Such is the folly of the English gentlemen that we began distributing the spades, metal detectors and general kit amongst the men. Frode (in orange) was quick to share out his burdens to Guro (pink) and Hege (purple). Frode knew what we would learn soon enough, that Guro and Hege were mountain machines. In-fact on one occasion I almost resorted to asking them to carry me!
Tony, ever the planner, had brought his own gate to lean on.
Eventually we approached our destination. Dropping down into a sheltered woodland glade, conversation petered out. This was it, we had arrived, what would we find in this lonely spot?
After establishing our camp we set about planning the dig.
Our intel was that Spitfire AA810 had smashed into the mountain pushing up a large bank of earth which over the years had created what I can best describe as a folly surrounded by trees.
Across from the folly was a grassy mound which we believed had been created by the Germans as they searched through the crash site throwing Spitfire panels into a stack to assess the interior workings of this rarest of aircraft, a PRU Spitfire, which was as yet unknown to the German intelligence.
It was at these two locations that we concentrated our efforts. The youngest members of our group, Eskil and Peder, set about with metal detectors. In no time at all the detectors started singing but over a much wider area than we had expected. We would have to spread ourselves out!
Almost immediately, the glade began to offer up her Spitfire.
A great find by Eskil , of the four compressed air bottles note the test date 11 09 39
Gura bagging up pieces with Eskils compressed air bottle to the rear and Radiator in the foreground.
I don’t think any of us ever called Gura by her name. She was known to us as Eskils Mum!
As each piece was unearthed our experts revealed the nature of each find, making for slow but fascinating progress.
Tony, Frodu and Lilli inspect the half Merlin engine block.
Tony stroking his Merlin.
So how exactly do you get half a Merlin engine block down from a mountain side?
Lilli came up with the perfect solution “Tomorrow I will bring my son”.
He was in all fairness a big lad, young enough and daft enough to do it. It took three of us to lift it onto his back.
As well as the large pieces, we were uncovering hundreds of small elements. Guro and Hege volunteered to run up and down the mountain ferrying rucksacks packed with Spitfire parts. That’s a six mile round trip three times a day, plus the walk in, made for more or less a marathon a day - half of which laden with Spitfire bits.
Boy did I feel stupid after offering to carry the spades for them.
Eskil’s Mum (Guro) with a rucksack full of Spitfire on her final descent of the day, carrying two spades!
For the next four days, our routine was set. Up early, drive to the dam, trek up the mountain, resume digging. After lunch, Gura and Hege would load their rucksacks and run down the mountain to the dam, unload their Spitfire parts and return for another load. Whilst we continued with the task of digging and collating.
As the excavation progressed it became apparent that Spitfire AA810 had not crashed in the position as believed, but was actually some six meters from the bank of soil. She’d crashed in the snow and as the snow melted she’d sunk into a bog below her. Yes we had to dig on our hands and knees in a bog. Cold, smelly work but we loved it.
At the end of each day we would gather our larger finds and trek down the mountain. A muddy, smelly band laden with trophies, the finds of that day.
At the end of our last day a melancholy descended on our group. This time spent working together had in some strange way created an almost spiritual connection with Sandy Gunn. We all felt that Sandy was watching and approved of our efforts. Finally, it was time to leave, we gathered ourselves, said a few words of gratitude and left our bog with a Spitfire shaped hole dug in it.
Have you ever tried to carry a Spitfire Radiator? Don’t, they are ridiculously heavy. But Lilli’s son was back to university and our arms, legs and backs where spent from the days of digging, plus the heat of the day was stifling. So after much anguish we opted to leave the radiator behind.
That night, we sat nursing our beers, feeling beaten by the radiator. Then Tony put it out there. “I’m going back for the radiator tomorrow at first light, who’s coming with me?”.
As the sun rose from behind our mountain, Tony, Frode and myself dropped down into Sandy’s wood. There waiting for us was the Radiator of Spitfire AA810, I imagined it smiling as we approached and greeting us with the words “I knew you’d be back”. I also imagined that Sandy was nodding in approval.
We lashed this lump of metal to a wooden frame, gathered our strength and began to drag our prize from out of the wood. Believe me when I say that this was no easy task. It took an hour to climb the few hundred yards out to the woodland. Finally, out from the shadow of the trees and a downhill trek before us, we assumed a two man up front, one man behind formation, chipping away at the miles 100 yards at a time between rests and changing of positions. For hours we brow beat our tormentor down the mountain. We had to be back in good time for in the afternoon we had arranged to show the Surnadal people what we had retrieved.
As we grunted and swore our way down the mountain, Peter was marking out the shape of a Spitfire on the stage of Surnadal’s theatre, along with the two Marks who were laying out the identifiable parts in the appropriate positions within the plan. That afternoon the three of us placed our radiator as one does the final piece in a puzzle. We sat back exhausted and looked at what we had achieved.
Note no tail section retrieved
That afternoon the community came out to us, honouring the amnesty to return their pieces of Sandy’s Spitfire. I watched on as Tony, Peter and the two Marks received each piece of treasure with glee and reverence whilst they listened to stories of grandparent’s water pumps, milking churns, tractor engines and garden gates all powered or made better by parts of our Spitfire. R J Mitchel would have been proud of the ingenuity.
The following day we loaded Sandy’s Spitfire into the back of a long wheel-based transit van and watched as Tony drove away. He would later tell of passing through customs at the Port of Dover and being asked what was in the van. His reply inspired the entire allocation of customs staff to descend upon his transit. With pats on the back and “good on you fella” Tony was sent on his way. To return Spitfire AA810 back to her home after 75 years in exile.
Thankfully this is a story without end. With Sandy’s Spitfire back home the second stage of our journey takes us into the rebuild to flight of Spitfire AA810. With awareness building week by week for the rebuild of Sandy’s Spitfire, progress is impressive and with the ongoing parts amnesty in Surnadal we have over 70% of the original aircraft.
In addition to the re build, great progress is being seen in regards to other aspirations of the project. After many months of ongoing work and with the incredible assistance of Luke Graham for Ochil and South Perthshire and his office, on June 27th 2019 Sandy and the PRU were recognised by the House of Commons, opening the door for a National Memorial to mark the significant contribution these men made.
This was a significant milestone to achieve in the project’s aims. For all the lives lost, for all those risked, and for all those men who are still missing.
House of Commons call for PRU National Monument
It is also wonderful to report that the Royal Aeronautical Society has joined the Sandy Gunn ACP team and will be attending the School Presentation Roadshows when they start in the Spring of 2020.
It is hard not to feel proud of my association and contribution however small. I will continue to post updates in regards to build progress and indeed all other aspects of Sandy’s legacy. As I finish writing this piece I am delighted to have received the following photograph. We may never know what happened to Spitfire AA810’s tail section, but no matter, Sandy’s Spitfire will soon have a tail again!
This just received from our friends at Airframe Assemblies Ltd who have been working hard on completing the skinning of our tail unit. These skins will now be removed for internal etching and painting and then after final riveting, the fin unit will be complete.
The kit of parts for the horizontal stabilisers is already made and we are just awaiting the associated machine fittings to arrive before construction of these occur.
Much much more to follow.