This Supermarine Spitfire Mark 1a, built in Southampton in 1939, was replaced by the No. 1 at RAF Duxford in April 1940. He was assigned to the 19th Squadron. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded France and the Lower Countries, pushing the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French together. and the Belgian troops returned to the French port of Dunkirk. At the end of May 1940, the rapid advance of Germany in northwestern Europe forced the Allied troops to return to the shores of the English Channel.
Stranded off the coast of the French port of Dunkirk, the BEF faced a decisive capture that would mean the loss of Britain’s only trained troops and the collapse of the Allied cause. The Royal Navy has hastily planned an emergency evacuation – ‘Operation Dynamo’ – to bring troops back to the UK.
On May 26, Operation Dynamo began, which involved the Royal Air Force sending all available aircraft to protect the evacuation. No. 19 Squadron Leader Geoffrey Stephenson piloted the Spitfire N3200 on its first and only operation while patrolling his squadron to intercept the evacuation of Allied forces.
After shooting down a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber, Stephenson was himself shot down. He crash-landed on a beach at Sangatte, near Calais, and was captured. Stephenson remained a prisoner for the rest of the war, including a period spent at Colditz Castle, while his Spitfire gradually sank under the sand.
Stephenson continued his RAF career after the war but was killed in 1954 while test-flying in America. His Spitfire was recovered from the French sands in 1986 after strong currents revealed it, more than 45 years after it sank. The wreckage was excavated during the spring of that year and, though largely intact, very few parts could be salvaged.
Following the recovery of the aircraft’s remains, Spitfire N3200 was acquired in 2000 by Dr Thomas Kaplan and Simon Marsh. Dedicated to the restoration of this historic aircraft, they commissioned Historic Flying Limited to undertake the intensive work required to return the Spitfire to its former glory.
After much work, this unique aircraft was restored to flying condition and returned to the air in 2014. In 2015 it was generously donated to IWM and the nation by Dr Kaplan and his family. This substantial gift enables the Spitfire to be treasured for generations to come, and for its story to continue to be told.
The Duke of Cambridge, on behalf of IWM, received the Spitfire during his visit to IWM Duxford on 9th July 2015. On this visit, the Duke of Cambridge watched an air display by the Mark 1a fighter, sat in its cockpit and visited Duxford’s Battle of Britain exhibition – housed in the very same hangar that No 19 Squadron’s Spitfires were kept during the Second World War.