On 26 May 1940, No 19 Squadron Leader Geoffrey Stephenson left RAF Duxford airfield in Spitfire N3200, piloting the aircraft on its first and only mission. Before the Battle of Britain, Duxford’s Spitfires were recruited in the defence of Operation Dynamo.
Dynamo was the emergency evacuation of the British Expeditionary Forces from the French port of Dunkirk by the Royal Navy, and had air cover from all available Royal Air Force aircraft – including Spitfire N3200.
Now, 82 years on, the recovered aircraft stands proudly at IWM Duxford, just a short walk from the very same hangar where the No 19 Squadron’s Spitfires were kept during World War Two. Spitfire N3200 has also been fully restored to flying condition.
But what happened to Spitfire N3200 in May 1940, and how did it return to its home at Duxford?
Duxford and the Spitfire
Built at Southampton in 1939, Supermarine Spitfire N3200 Mark 1a was issued to No 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford in April 1940. RAF Duxford’s No 19 Squadron was the first RAF squadron to re-equip with the new Supermarine Spitfire.
Before then, the squadron had been flying Gloster Gauntlets, small biplanes with open cockpits. The first Spitfire was flown into RAF Duxford in August 1938. It marked a radical change in the technique and capability of the RAF, with a closed cockpit and incredibly powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.
Nonetheless, the change to flying Spitfires took some getting used to, and a trip into Cambridge was even warranted to buy some car mirrors to attach to the new planes so that the pilots could see behind them.
At the same time the Spitfires arrived at Duxford, on 10 May, Germany invaded France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), as well as French and Belgian troops, were pushed back to the French port of Dunkirk.
By the end of May, Germany’s swift and ruthless advance through north-west Europe had the Allied troops backed onto the English Channel.
Spitfire N3200’s first (and last) operation
With Britain’s only trained troops stranded on the beaches of northern France, the situation was desperate. If these men were captured it would surely have meant an end to the Allied cause.
Therefore on 26 May 1940, the Royal Navy launched ‘Operation Dynamo‘ to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force, with air support provided by the Royal Air Force (RAF). Back at RAF Duxford, Geoffrey Stephenson mobilised No 19 Squadron on a patrol to cover the evacuation of Allied forces.
After shooting down a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber, Stephenson was himself shot down, crash-landing on a beach at Sangatte, near Calais. He was captured, remaining a prisoner for the rest of the war.
While Stephenson spent the war imprisoned, including a stint at the notorious Colditz Castle, Spitfire N3200 sank slowly into the sand.
Over 45 years later in 1986, Spitfire N3200 emerged from the sand on a French beach. Strong currents had revealed the crashed aircraft, and so began the process of excavating the wreck, which although largely intact, not much could be salvaged.
The Spitfire’s pilot, Geoffrey Stephenson, survived the war but was not able to see his aircraft dragged from the beach. He was tragically killed in America in 1954 during a test flight.
In 2000, Dr Thomas Kaplan and Simon Marsh commissioned Historic Flying Limited to restore Spitfire N3200 to its former glory. Only 4 years later, the aircraft returned to the skies.
Generously donated to the IWM and nation by Dr Kaplan, the Spitfire remains available to see at Duxford airfield.
Step back into summer 1940
Duxford Battle of Britain Air Show on 10 and 11 September 2022 is presented by IWM Duxford, the former RAF site that played a central role in some of the most dramatic days in 20th century history.
Serving as a base for many of the Spitfire and Hurricane pilots during World War two, IWM Duxford’s vast range of historic buildings, hangars, exhibitions, huge aircraft, tanks, boats and more will be available to explore.
From vintage aviation and the stories of those who served at RAF Duxford, to living history groups and entertainment from the era, see historic Duxford come to life at IWM Duxford’s Battle of Britain Air Show.