The Withiel Spitfireby Elaine Herbert on 09/10/16
The Withiel Spitfire
By: Patrick Malone
From the Withiel Parish Magazine
Strange things happen in Withiel, but one project currently nearing completion in the Parish must rank as one of the oddest – a group of experts are building a full-sized replica Spitfire fighter plane for the people of the Kingdom of Lesotho.
The work is going on in the boatshed in Victoria Square – Withiel Parish stretches along the old A30 to beyond the Newquay-Par rail line – where the Spitfire Heritage Trust is building the plane to mark the 50th anniversary of Lesotho’s independence, and to thank the people of that country for their support during the Second World War.
This takes a bit of explaining, but when war broke out Britain’s defence had been so badly neglected that we sent the begging bowl around the Commonwealth for money to buy Spitfires. The most generous response of all came from the people of Lesotho – then called Basutoland – who despite their abject poverty sent us 24 Spitfires and a Hurricane. They also sent 10,000 men out of a total population of fewer than 400,000 to fight a white man’s war half a world away, and we have never adequately thanked them for their sacrifices.
Even in Lesotho, the facts are not widely known. Former RAF intelligence officer David Spencer Evans, who runs the Spitfire Heritage Trust, raised this issue with His Royal Highness Prince Seeiso Bereng Seeiso, King Letsie III’s brother, at a drinks reception at the Lesotho High Commission in London, and it came as a surprise to the Prince, despite the fact that his grandfather had been the moving force behind Basutoland’s Spitfire Fund.
The people of Lesotho remain desperately poor, and many have never seen an aeroplane close up – they call them sefofane, “a thing that flies that is not a bird”.
David Evans and his colleagues decided to build the replica Spitfire as a centrepiece for Lesotho’s independence anniversary celebrations in October and November, and Withiel was chosen because Paul Ching, whose business premises are at Victoria Square, was a Spitfire buff who has special knowledge of working with composite materials, and has space to spare for the build. The aeroplane will shortly be put on a freighter for Durban, its passage paid for by Diamond Gem, a mining company with interests in Lesotho.
In recognition of their gift, one of the two RAF Squadrons equipped with the donated Spitfires was named 72 Basuto Squadron, and coincidentally Withiel resident Group Captain Simon Coy later became Commanding Officer of ‘A’ Flight, 72 Squadron, when it was flying Wessex helicopters in the late 1960s – and even he did not know the full background.
The replica is correct in every detail, with moulds having been taken from a privately-owned Spitfire. It’s been quite expensive, and the small team at the Spitfire Heritage Trust have taken on their own debt load to fund it. Curiously, they’re marketing an expensive drink, Spitfire Heritage Gin, as part of their fund-raising efforts. Worth trying, even at £45 a bottle!
There’s much more to it than this, of course – David Evans and his team have tied the project up with education and training initiatives to help the people of Lesotho, and the project also aims to impress upon people at home that international aid is not a one-way street. For most Britons, Lesotho is as remote today as it was in 1940, and its people never cross our minds. But they were there for us when we needed them most, and they gave generously out of all proportion to their resources.