RAF fighter pilot Bob Spurdle had a miraculous escape when his Spitfire plunged at high speed into the ground on Hadlow Estate, after coming under fire at the height of the Battle of Britain.
Incredibly, the Pilot Officer, known as ‘Spud’ to his fellow pilots in 74 ‘Tiger’ Squadron, had managed to bale out before his plane began to disintegrate in mid-air, as it travelled in excess of 650 mph.
Even as he parachuted down, Bob came under fire from the same German ME109 fighter plane he, and his fellow squadron members, had been locked in an aerial duel with only minutes earlier.
As he frantically tried to pull his revolver from its holster in a last ditch bid to protect himself, his fellow RAF pilots flew to his rescue and shot down the enemy fighter, leaving Bob to land safely in a field at Hadlow Place, Tonbridge, where hop pickers came to his aid.
Remarkably, Bob, a New Zealander by birth, escaped the crash completely unhurt and was back flying missions again just a few days later, after taking some well-earned leave to enjoy London’s nightlife.
October 22nd 2022 marked the 82nd anniversary of this dramatic World War Two incident, which Bob gives a detailed account of in his own memoir, The Blue Arena. First published in 1986, the book recounts his extraordinary operational career as a Spitfire pilot with 74 Squadron, based at Biggin Hill.
Kate Teacher, Hadlow Estate, discovered the memoir during online research after she first spotted a small, three-line entry about Bob’s crash in her own copy of Aircraft Casualties in Kent. Part 1: 1939 to 1940.
She has been researching the Estate’s historical connection to the Battle of Britain for the past two years, since learning about a German Messerschmitt 109, which crashed at Bank Farm, Tudeley in 1940.
Now, Kate has been able to read Bob’s own remarkable story on how he survived a crash which left the tail and fuselage of his aircraft lying 10 miles apart.
Bob, who landed somewhere between the two pieces of his plane, also later learned the speed at which he was flying had caused a phenomenon known as ‘buffeting’, which had literally shaken the aircraft to pieces.
Eighty-two years on, that makes Kate’s next task of trying to find the specific location of Bob’s crash something of a challenge and she is hoping locals might be able to help her fill in the missing details.
She is keen to establish where the plane came down so she can mark the spot with a memorial to all those who fought, and those who gave their lives in the great Battle of Britain.
“It seems almost unbelievable that Bob made it out of the crash alive, let alone completely unhurt,” said Kate.
“It would be good if we could pin down where the crash happened, but usually when something like this took place, the debris would be cleared very quickly, because it obviously wasn’t very good for morale to see crashed RAF planes.
“If we could narrow down the location, I would love to put up some kind of memorial. I have asked some of the older farm team members if they remember anyone talking about it.
“If there is anyone living locally with information, I would be really interested to hear from them.”
During her extensive research, Kate also discovered a link to the Battle of Britain London Monument website that also featured Bob’s story.
Born in Wanganui, New Zealand, on March 3rd 1918, Bob sailed for the UK in June 1940 on the ship RMS Rangitata and first joined 74 Squadron at RAF Kirton in Lindsey, in Lincolnshire.
However, the squadron is particularly known for its role in the Battle of Britain while based at Biggin Hill in Kent, where it was responsible for destroying 38 enemy aircraft between November and December 1940.
Bob is estimated to have destroyed nine enemy planes and damaged several more. On his first mission back after the dramatic crash on October 31st, he claimed an Me109 as ‘probably destroyed’ and a second as ‘destroyed’ on another mission, just two days later.
He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in August 1942 and later a Bar to that DFC in January 1945, which followed his last aerial encounter with the Luftwaffe in December the previous year, when he damaged two enemy Junkers Ju188s.
After training as a Pilot Attack Instructor, Bob finally sailed for New Zealand in late September 1945 on the same ship he had arrived in the UK on, five years earlier, the RMS Rangitata. He passed away in 1994.
Kate is continuing her research in the hope of finding further Battle of Britain links to both the Estate and surrounding area.
“Whilst I knew about World War Two in general, I didn’t know much about the Battle of Britain, but what I have learnt has made me appreciate quite how courageous the aircrews were, going out on sorties day after day, and quite how much we owe pilots like Bob and the rest of The Few,” added Kate.
“I can see a horrible space where the starboard wing should be”
The following is an edited extract of Bob Spurdle’s own account of his dramatic escape from the Spitfire, which he refers to as ‘R’, part of the letter identification coding that was used on all aircraft.
The 109 was the enemy fighter, the German Messerschmitt, the Spitfire’s greatest adversary during the Battle of Britain.
Image of Pilot Officer Bob Spurdle at the top of this article, courtesy of the Battle of Britain London Monument.