Having identified the need for a fast long range Photo Reconnaissance machine, initial conversions were of ex-fighter command Spitfire Mk1s, and these were designated PR.1A through to PR.1G depending on configuration.
The Spitfire PR.1D was the 4th incarnation of the PR development and was largely considered the most impressive of the early PR Spitfires, so much so that it was the mainstay of single-engine PR operations from the middle of 1941 through to the middle of 1943 with the introduction of the PRXI. The production Mk1Ds such as AA810 were designated PR.IV, and were nicknamed the “Bowsers” because of their impressive fuel carrying capacity.
On top of the standard 85 gallon fuselage fuel tanks, the PR.IV carried an additional 66 gallons per side in leading edge fuel tanks, extending the range from 575 miles of a standard Mk1 to nearly 2,000 miles. By stripping the aircraft of all guns and armour plate, the lighter weight would compensate for the additional fuel. For the longer duration of flights this range brought additional requirements for engine oil, and an additional 18 gallons to the normal chin tank were carried in a specific tank in the port wing to continuously feed the engine.
AA810 was built in the most unlikely of places under a veil of upmost secrecy. The Vincents Garage right next to Reading train station sadly no longer stands, but back in 1941 the requisitioned garage was building Spitfires in secret. With the mostly female workforce working long shifts, the fuselages and equipment would be combined in the factory, with wings from the assembly site in Star Lane, Reading, and ancillaries from Great Western Motors coming together at Vincents for the final fit out.
AA810 was ordered as a Mk1 fighter in the 4th production batch of 500 Spitfires placed by the Air Ministry on 19th July 1940. Production of this batch was started in August 1941 and some 65 airframes from that order, including AA810, were allocated to be built as PR versions. Rolls Royce Heritage records show that AA810’s Merlin was built at the Derby works on the 27th August 1941, was tested satisfactorily on the 29th August, and was dispatched to Vincents on the 1st September.
Once ready for final assembly, the Spitfires were moved by Queen Mary truck along the narrow roads to the secretive Vickers final assembly hangar at RAF Henley-on-Thames some 8 miles away. Here a small group of experience fitters completed the final assembly and tests before she was cleared for flight testing. On the 17th October 1941 it was AA810’s turn to be tested in perhaps the most experienced of hands; Vickers Chief Test Pilot Jeffrey Quill. After just 20 minutes she was pronounced fit to enter service and on the 19th October was delivered the short distance by air to nearby RAF Benson.
AA810 was shot down on its 16th operational mission and only its 20th flight since being built, but a quiet life it did not have. Assigned to ‘C’ Flight of 1 PRU, AA810 spent the first 3 months of its life based at the satellite airfield of RAF Mount Farm utilising the hard runways in place there. Taking off on the 31st October 1941 with Sergeant Mervyn Jones at the controls, AA810 made a successful first operational sortie to the Knapsack area around Cologne. During the rest of November she regularly flew to the major German ports of Kiel, Bremerhaven, and even Copenhagen. The weather in December 1941 was poor across most of the UK and the Continent, and all the members of the PRU were quiet operationally. Flying again on Boxing Day 1941, she covered numerous French targets, and over the next week, detailed many areas of Northern France, Belgium and Western Germany.
With the Admiralty concerned with locating Tirpitz, AA810 started its long association with Norway on the 22nd January when Fred Malcolm flew her to Trondheim for the first time. Later that week Robert Tomlinson flew her back to Trondheim, and the very next day, Fred again flew her to take pictures of the Tirpitz in Aasfjord as well as the Luftwaffe airbases at Vaernes and Lade. Selected to be on detachment in Scotland, on the 1st February AA810 was found on strength at RAF Leuchars, flying just a single mission from there in the hands of Guy Morgan before transferring up to RAF Wick, arriving on the 28th February. She would fly just twice from RAF Wick, firstly with AFP Fane at the controls on the 4th March taking in Tirpitz again, and then again with Alastair, who lifted her from Wick’s runway at 0807 on the morning of Thursday 5th March 1942. The rest is history…