Travelling 50 metres above the water, railway passengers crossing the Firth of Forth in Scotland have a grand view travelling from Edinburgh to Fife.
But 80 years ago this month, railway passengers found themselves staring not at the scenery, but at an air battle raging above and around them as the RAF drove off an attack by German bombers on shipping in the strategically vital waterway.
The RAF won that encounter, shooting down the first German aircraft to be lost over the United Kingdom.
Among the RAF squadrons taking part was 602 (City of Glasgow) Sqdrn.
The squadron was equipped with Spitfires, but losses of aircraft and pilots were heavy and needed to be constantly replenished as the war continued.
So it was that two years later, 602 Sqdrn was sent yet another new Spitfire, a MkVb equipped with two 20mm cannon and four machine guns.
Emblazoned on her nose were the words ‘Queen of Sālote.’
Where, the RAF crew wondered, was Sālote? Eventually the matter was sorted out and depending on which source you read the offending script was either re-painted or carefully erased when official photographs were released.
The ignorance of some palagi in England might have caused Queen Sālote to raise a royal eyebrow, but she had more pressing issues to attend to.
It was now 1942 and her kingdom had been virtually invaded by the Americans who were using the islands as a base for their advance against the Japanese.
The Americans were not too bothered about respecting her rights as Queen or being polite to the New Zealand and British officers and officials in the islands.
Her Majesty did what she could to keep the peace, even at a distance, and found ways to channel local skills into producing handicrafts that could be sold at a profit to the bored and often undisciplined American troops.
One of the items that has survived and is now in the Te Papa museum in Wellington is a piece of ngatu (tapa) cloth covered in images of allied aircraft, including a twin tailed American Lightning and a Spitfire labelled Queen Sālote.
Following Queen Sālote’s lead, Tongans collected enough money during the war to buy several Spitfires for the RAF. Local businessman Willy Cocker gave £2,000 towards the first aircraft. A total of three Spitfires were commissioned, named Queen Salote, Prince Tungi Tonga II and Tupou I. Some sources refer to the second aircraft as Prince Tungi, but the longer name is clearly painted on the side of the aircraft in wartime pictures. Some sources also claim enough money was raised to buy four Spitfires, but the amount universally recorded amount is £15,000. Since the going price for a Spitfire paid for by public prescription was £5,000 three Spitfires would seem to be the correct figure.
The ngatu cloth held at Te Papa clearly shows the Queen Sālote with the registration letters LO-W. The W was the personal registration of the Queen Sālote’s most famous pilot.
On March 16, 1942, The Queen Sālote had been taken over by one of the RAF’s youngest and most famous aces, the Irish pilot Paddy Finucane, who chose the ‘W’ as his personal letter. As an Irishman he also liked to have a shamrock painted on the nose of his aircraft.
Finucane flew the Queen Sālote on many missions for the next three months. He is believed to have flown her until June 18, 1942, when she hit the ground with a wingtip while landing. Records show it as having been repaired on July 13.
On July 15, 1942, while returning from a mission over France in a different Spitfire, his aircraft was damaged and by ground fire. He ditched in the English Channel and was drowned.
For the rest of the war, the Queen Sālote appears to have served with six other squadrons, including 303 (Polish), 402 (Canadian) and 345 (Free French).
She is believed to have been struck off charge – and presumably scrapped – on April 25, 1945.
The second Spitfire was a MkIX, armed with four 20mm cannon. The Imperial War Museum in London has a photograph of her at No. 33 Maintenance Unit, Lyneham, shortly before delivery to No. 485 (New Zealand) Squadron RAF at Drem, Scotland.
The aircraft also served with Nos. 349, and 332 Squadrons of the RAF during 1944 and in 1945 joined the Mediterranean Allied Air Force in Italy.
She ran out of fuel and belly-landed near Catania on the east coast of Sicily on April 14, 1945, only a few weeks before Germany surrendered. She was struck off charge on June 14, 1945.
As veteran Pacific affairs journalist Michael Field points out in his own writing on the Tongan Spitfires, there seems to be no record of what happened to Tupou I and somewriters have suggested that only two of the Tongan aircraft flew in combat.
Field’s article contains a copy of a poster sent to Tonga during the war as a thank you for the gift of the three Spitfires. The poster shows four scenes with Spitfires in action, each with a caption. It is perhaps worth quoting it in full to capture some of the flavour of the times and the days when the tiny kingdom in the South Pacific made its contribution to a great battle on the other side of the world:
“Subscriptions from Tonga have bought a Spitfire fighter aircraft for Britain. Spitfire fighters protect British homes and industries from aerial attack and harass enemy shipping and transport. When enemy bombers approach Britain, the fighters go up to drive them away. Here is a Spitfire shooting down an enemy bomber over one of Britain’s industrial towns. Fighter aircraft also take part in offensive sweeps over enemy-occupied territory and cause much damage to shipping and transport and communications with their machine-gun fire. In addition, Spitfire fighters protect Allied merchant ships from hostile aircraft. Many vital cargoes have reached port only because of the watchful presence of fighter planes. Thank you, Tonga! Other war gifts from Tonga include contributions to the British Red Cross and St. John Fund, the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Society, the Royal Navy Dependants’ Fund, the Merchant Navy Comforts Fund, and the Seamen’s Hospital Society.”