Supermarine Spitfire BP923 Restoration


Supermarine Spitfire P.R.IV BP923 is under active restoration to airworthiness. This very unique Spitfire has a combat history both with the RAF and the Soviet Air Force. When completed, it will be the only flyable Spitfire P.R.IV in the world. Only 229 Spitfire P.R.IVs were built between 1941 and 1943. This particular Spitfire, serial number BP923, was delivered to the RAF on 30 March 1942. Initially, BP923 served with the 1 Photo Reconnaissance Unit (1 PRU), based at RAF Benson, Oxfordshire. The RAF Spitfire P.R.IV pilots flew highly dangerous sorties, “unarmed, unafraid and unaccompanied” all over German-occupied Europe. The photographs these brave pilots brought back were of vital importance to the British High Command.


Convoy support


After the Russian-bound convoy PQ17 had been almost wiped out, it was decided to send RAF detachments to the Soviet Union in support of the next convoy, PQ18. Code-named Operation Orator, this involved Handley Page Hampden torpedo bombers, Catalina maritime patrol aircraft and Spitfire P.R.IV’s. The Spitfires were to provide up-to-date reports on the presence of German naval vessels, including Tirpitz, as well as Luftwaffe air bases in northern Norway. In August 1942, BP923 was one of three Spitfire P.R.IV’s to be selected to fly to the Soviet Union as part of Operation Orator. On 31 August 1942, BP923 was ferried to RAF Wick in Scotland, continuing to the Russian airbase at Afrikanda near Kandalaksha via Sumburgh on the Shetlands the following day. The distance between Sumburgh and Afrikanda was more than 2,100 km (1,300 miles), with the flight lasting for 4½ hours, flying across northern Norway, neutral Sweden and Finland. On 9 September, one of the Spitfires was damaged in a Luftwaffe bomb raid. A replacement Spitfire was ferried from the UK ten days later, on 19 September. Before that, another Spitfire was slightly damaged by a Russian fighter, with the Russian pilot claiming that he had merely been ’testing his guns!’ One Spitfire PRIV, serial number BP889, was shot down by a Fw 190 on 27 September, with Flying Officer Walker being killed. The final photo reonnaissance sortie was flown on 15 October.


In Soviet service


Operation Orator completed, BP923 was handed over to the V-VS (Soviet Air Force) on 18 (or 20) October 1942. Between 1942 and 1944, 11 Spitfire P.R.IVs were transferred to the V-VS. BP923 was one of several Spitfire P.R.IVs serving with the 118 Otelniy Razvedyvatelniy Aviatsyonniy Polk (118 Independent Reconnaissance Air Regiement).  The Spitfire P.R.IV’s were quite popular with the Russian pilots, who considered the aircraft to have an excellent maneouverability, high altitude performance, as well as speed. Spare parts was a problem, with tyres being replaced by MiG-3 units, with the propellers being preplaced by Catalina propellers that had been cut down in size. The best-known sortie flown with a 118 ORAP Spitfire P.R.IV took place on 12 September 1943, when Capt. L.I. Yel’kin photographed the Kriegsmarine naval base at Altenfiord. The famous battleship Tirpitz and the cruiser Scharnhorst were hiding out at Altenfiord, representing a huge threat to Allied convoys. Only a few days before, a 118 ORAP Spitfire P.R.IV crashed in northern Norway. The pilot, Vladimir Solovkin, was killed.


In September 1944, Spitfire P.R.IV’s of the 118 ORAP participated in the preparations for Operation Paravane, the RAF deployment of two RAF Lancaster to Yagodnik. On 15 September 1944, the Lancasters bombed the battleship Tirpitz. Spitfire P.R.IV’s remained in Soviet service until the spring of 1945, with the final one being handed over to Northern Fleet Museum at Murmansk. It seems likely that this Spitfire P.R.IV was consigned to the scrap heap shortly afterwards.


Discovery, recovery and restoration


The wreck of Solovkin’s Spitfire P.R.IV was discovered in 1972, with the wreck not being recovered until 1989. With the Spitfire having not served with the Royal Norwegian Air Force, the remains were sold to Sweden. This truly historic Spitfire P.R.IV is now under restoration to airworthiness.


Jan Forsgren