Raising The Bar

Raising The Bar

by Robert Veitch

As a star of World War Two, the Spitfire has a well deserved reputation. The aircraft was also used in another, more secretive role, much to the delight of the troops in Normandy.

The Spitfire first flew in March 1936, entering service with the RAF in 1938. At the time it was at the cutting edge in aerospace technology, designed as the best fighter aircraft of the era. It would go on to become a legend of the skies during WWII. It would also come to have another, less lauded role, a role that was greatly appreciated by soldiers on the ground.

After D-Day in 1944 supplying the troops in Normandy proved to be a logistical challenge, which meant the arrival of luxury goods was a rarity. Some troops might have viewed a pint of beer as more of a necessity than a luxury, after all alcohol of some sort had helped fuel troops of all nations for millennia.

During WWII only brewers over thirty years of age were exempted from conscription. As a result the quality of beer briefly declined as breweries lost some of their best men to the war effort. The loss of men to the forces opened the door for women to become involved in the brewing industry. British breweries set up a ‘beer for troops’ committee in the summer of 1942 and brewers saw it as their duty to supply the troops with beer, when they were able to.

Despite the logistical challenges to the supply lines, Spitfire pilots wanted to help and they came up with their own solution to help their colleagues on the ground. The Mk IX Spitfire was developed with modified pylon mountings on the underside of the wings. These pylons were designed to carry bombs or auxiliary fuel tanks. Thanks to some RAF ingenuity, they also had another use. Instead of delivering fuel and bombs, these aircraft could deliver beer barrels to the troops in Normandy.

The Spitfire wasn’t designed to be a glamorous waitress or a fast-moving bartender from the heavens, but that’s what some of them became. The modification was known as Mod XXX and each auxiliary tank had a capacity of eighteen gallons (144 pints /82 litres). Apocryphal stories suggest tanks were filled with Bitter underneath one wing and Mild under the other. Pilots had to be careful to ensure they retained enough ground clearance for take-off.

Modified Spitfires usually shuttled between northern France and the UK on the spurious basis of ‘liaison’ or ‘maintenance’ flights. Beer runs were infrequent, about once a week or so, although others suggest flights departed on a daily basis. Pilots delivering beer were popular, but woe betide the pilot who made a rough landing and shook the beer, or worse still caused the barrels to fall off and burst.

It was rumoured if the pilots flew high enough, beer would arrive at the destination freshly chilled by the colder, higher altitude. On the downside, some troops recalled the beer had a metallic taste.

Once the British Revenue of Ministry and Excise got wind of what was going on and became involved, breweries were told they were exporting beer without paying tax. Official Beer runs stopped abruptly, although they would carry on with a nod and a wink and the say so from higher powers.

As well as the barrels of beer beneath the wings, Spitfire pilots would squirrel away bottles of beer, wine and champagne in the cockpit, in ammunition boxes and in the luggage compartments. It became apparent fairly quickly that Champagne in particular did not react well to the vibrations of flight and as a consequence it did not travel well. When champagne arrived in France and the bottles were opened, popped corks were rumoured to peak at very low altitudes. More fizzled out, than fizz.

The Spitfire remained in service until 1955 and just over 20,000 airframes were built. It operated with many air forces all over the globe and remains a hugely popular aircraft wherever it flies today. Worldwide, fifty-four Spitfires remain in an airworthy condition, none of which currently (officially) operate a beer run.