Plans for a Battle of Britain Memorial at a Kent estate have been shared with the family of wartime fighter pilot Bob Spurdle, the New Zealander who miraculously escaped a Spitfire crash there 82 years ago, while serving in the RAF.
Kate Teacher of Hadlow Estate has traced Bob’s grandson in Auckland, after coming across a newspaper article he had written on his grandfather’s wartime exploits during her online research into the crash on October 22nd 1940.
Children’s author James Russell was able to tell Kate that his grandfather, who passed away in 1994, also has two surviving children still living in New Zealand, John Spurdle, 60, and his 77-year-old sister Anne Thomas, who was born in Birchington-on-Sea in Kent while Bob was based there. Bob’s other child Elizabeth sadly died in 2004.
During a recent Zoom call with James and Anne, Kate shared details of how she came across Bob’s remarkable story in his memoir, The Blue Arena. For the past two years, she has been researching Battle of Britain crashes on the Estate, as well as Kent’s role in the most famous aerial conflict of World War Two.
She was also able to tell them of her plans to put up a memorial plaque in the Estate office on Battle of Britain Memorial Day this September, as a tribute to Bob and all the brave pilots, known as The Few, who both fought and gave their lives in the air battle.
“It is very kind gesture indeed of Kate to put up this memorial as a lasting tribute to all those pilots who fought and died in the Battle of Britain,” said James, who is hoping to make the 18,000-mile trip to Hadlow from New Zealand in the future.
“My grandfather was extremely fortunate to survive World War Two and make it back home to New Zealand, when so many others lost their lives defending our liberty. It would be lovely to visit Hadlow at some point too.”
Kate said she hopes members of Bob’s family will be able to make the trip to Kent and she would be more than happy to show them around the Farm, where Bob parachuted to safety all those years ago.
“It was fascinating to meet both James and Anne, and a privilege to be able to share with them the information I had gathered on the circumstances of Bob’s crash here at Hadlow,” said Kate.
“It would be fantastic if James is able to visit Kent, as it would also give him the opportunity to see the wonderful Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel Le Fearne on the Kent coast and the Shoreham Aircraft Museum.”
During the Zoom call, both James and Anne were able to share their memories of Bob, who had six grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. Although the great grandchildren didn’t meet Bob, Anne said they know all about his amazing wartime adventures.
Anne also shared with Kate a poignant letter Bob wrote to his mother, less than two weeks after the crash at Hadlow. In it, Bob, aged just 22, talked about the dangers he and his fellow pilots were facing.
She also sent Kate a wartime photo of Bob relaxing with his dog Sailor, named after his Squadron Leader, the highly decorated and respected A G ‘Sailor’ Malan, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order.
Bob remarkably escaped unhurt when his Spitfire began to disintegrate in mid-air, during a dogfight with a Messerschmitt 109 over Hadlow. He parachuted to safety, landing near a hop garden at Hadlow Place Farm, so Kate is currently studying historical maps to try and pinpoint where he actually came down.
Bob gives a remarkable, first-hand account of the crash in The Blue Arena and grandson James said he vividly remembered how he felt when he read it for the first time.
“My heart was in my mouth. It’s a really visceral read – you can really sense the ever-present fear they all lived with,” said James, who first met his grandfather at the age of 12 and was instantly smitten with him.
“He was an absolute character, and the best grandfather a boy could hope for. He had quite a life when he got back from the war too. He built a catamaran in his back yard and sailed it to Japan, which resulted in another book ‘Into the Rising Sun’, which is also an amazing read.”