One could be forgiven for thinking that the model making community was a tranquil oasis amid our turbulent world: a place for calm, reflective pursuit. Yet this is not so – indeed, the pursuit of accuracy can create more online mayhem, hair-pulling and name-calling than a busload of boozed-up celebrities accessing their Twitter accounts at the same time.
Undoubtedly one of the greatest causes of model making fracas is the question of what colours the Spitfires which valiantly defended Malta against unspeakable odds during World War 2 were painted. These aircraft hold a semi-mythical status not only for the deeds done 70 years ago but also for their allegedly unique paintwork – and now one brave soul, Brian Cauchi, has revealed the results of his 14-year research into the matter.
Mr. Cauchi’s new book labours under the title Malta Spitfire Vs – 1942: Their Colours and Markings, which makes up for its lack of blockbuster appeal by delivering an accurate summary of the contents. Within we find forensic analysis of the many and various colour schemes captured in often poor quality photographs during the dark days of 1942, backed up with fragments of original paint from recovered wrecks and an array of accounts both firsthand and by respected historians on the subject.
The mystique of the Malta Spitfires stems from the fact that they have often been described as being blue – and a blue-painted Spitfire is far more exotic than the muddy tones of camouflage that typify its wartime history. The prospect of R.J. Mitchell’s timelessly beautiful fighter with its lines drenched in blue paint is one that has beguiled model makers for many years – and their interpretations have varied from mild to wild, thus sparking many a heated debate.
Why should we care about such minutiae? After all, the world has moved on and now we are preoccupied by reality TV shows and the Eurozone crisis and… oh, hold on. Let’s have another look at these Spitfires, shall we?
Malta was beseiged from June 1940 until November 1942, standing alone in the centre of the Mediterranean with 1000 miles of open sea between it and friendly soil – while the massed ranks of Italy and Germany sat just 60 miles to the north in Sicily. Despite being only the size of the Isle of Wight, the strategic importance of Malta was absolute as it was from here that submarines, aircraft and ships were able to all-but sever the supply routes to Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and in so doing safeguard North Africa, the Suez Canal and the invaluable oil fields beyond.
As Sir Winston Churchill put it; Malta was the master key to the entire British Empire.
The Luftwaffe devastated the Island in January-May 1941 but when these forces were redirected to the invasion of Russia, Malta was soon back in action. As a result the Luftwaffe returned to the Mediterranean in the winter of 1941-42 with even greater strength and made the Island the most bombed place on Earth. At its peak, during March-April 1942, the tonnage of bombs dropped on Malta was greater than that dropped on London during all 12 months of the Blitz.
It was in March 1942 that the Spitfires finally arrived; replacing the few outdated Hawker Hurricanes that hadn’t been shot out of the sky or blown up on the ground. They came in small numbers and were quickly bombed out of existence but in the weeks ahead more deliveries followed and, despite continued losses on the ground, the Spitfires began to hold the Luftwaffe to account and blunt its furious assault – while the hope which these aircraft brought to the beleaguered Maltese was more valuable still.
Were they painted blue? Yes – more or less. The reason was that they were ordered with desert camouflage of sandy yellow tones which stood out like a sore thumb over the Mediterranean, while flying against enemy forces which outnumbered them by a ratio of more than ten to one. As a result the Island’s defenders took it upon themselves to paint the Spitfires in a more suitable scheme for the unique conditions in which they fought.
Despite the unprepossessing title given to his work, Brain Cauchi’s book is beautifully laid out and his long years of painstaking research are brought to vivid life in the text, photos and colour profiles within. Ultimately there were almost as many different paint schemes worn by these celebrated Spitfires as there were aircraft themselves, because they were usually painted on an ad hoc basis under severe bombardment with whatever materials were to hand.
Even after all his hard work, Mr. Cauchi is at pains to point out that his hypotheses are still only the best guesses he can give in each case. It won’t end the grouchiness among modellers seeking to create an accurate Malta Spitfire but his book does bring some order to the chaos and gives non-modellers a much-needed insight into a story that is too often overlooked by the major historians of World War 2.
In 2005 a Hurricane and a Spitfire returned to Malta to commemorate 60 years since the end of the war in Europe – and both were painted to represent aircraft which flew from the Island. The Hurricane was spot-on but while the Spitfire was perhaps a touch too ‘Hollywood’ in recreating the mythical blue defenders it made for a stirring spectacle…