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May 2021

"We Saddled Our Fates to a Wild Mustang”

268 Squadron Mustangs Gary Eason websize
268 Squadron Mustangs © Gary Eason / Flight Artworks

Colchester, 5 May 2021

I knew almost nothing about the WWII Allison-engined P-51 Mustang aircraft so it was fascinating to undertake this commission from Colin Ford, Historian No.268 Squadron Royal Air Force 1940-1946. 

In this guest blog, Colin Ford describes the aircraft.

The artwork shows a formation of four North American Mustang aircraft of No.268 Squadron Royal Air Force, representative of the Mustangs flown by that squadron from 18 April 1942 to 14 August 1945. They are shown flying over the Normandy region of France, an area over which they conducted many significant operational sorties. 

The title is based on the trust and affection felt by the pilots who flew these Mustangs operationally during the Second World War on low level tactical and photographic reconnaissance sorties. It also references a radio interview conducted with squadron pilots and senior maintenance NCO in early 1943 where they talked about their Mustang aircraft and how, on hearing they were to receive them, had put in requisitions to obtain saddles, boots and spurs to handle their new mounts. 

No. 268 Squadron RAF was the longest, continual operational user of the Allison engine versions of the North American Mustang in RAF service. They received their first Mustang Mk.I aircraft on 18 April 1942 and relinquished their last operational Mustang Mk.II on 14 August 1945 – a few days short of 40 months of using the Mustang as their primary operational type. 

The artwork depicts four Mustang aircraft that represent four eras in the squadron's operational use of the Mustang and four aircraft with significant places in the squadron's history. 

AG416 NM-E

North American Mustang Mk.I (NA-73) AG416 NM-E was issued to No.268 Squadron RAF on 27 May 1942. It became the semi-regular aircraft of Pilot Officer RA 'Tony' Bethell RAFVR and as such carried a personal mascot painted onto one of the aircraft's cowlings. The aircraft was also regularly shared with another pilot in the Squadron, Pilot Officer MM Sinclair RAAF. 

Pilot Officer Bethell is notable in the Squadron's history as claiming the Squadron's first air to air combat kills on 26 November 1942, near Oldebroek in the Netherlands. He would be shot down by German flak on 7 December 1942 near Alkmaar in the Netherlands, crash land and be made a prisoner of war. He was sent to Stalag Luft III at Sagan and was a participant in the mass escape from that camp in April 1944 (the Great Escape), but was recaptured and remained a PoW for the remainder of the war. 

AG416 would remain with 268 Squadron until March 1943 when it was sent for major repairs and servicing and was then subsequently issued to No.414 (RCAF), No.306 (Polish) and No.303 (Polish) Squadrons as well as No.41 Operational Training Unit, before finally being retired in late 1945 – a long service life. 

FD551 'O'

North American Mustang Mk.IA (NA-91) FD551 'O' was issued to No.268 Squadron on 30 June 1943 as a part of the initial batches the squadron received as they converted from the Mustang Mk.I to the Mk.IA. The primary difference between the two subtypes was the mixed heavy and light machine gun armament on the Mustang Mk.I and the all 20mm cannon armament of the Mk.IA. 

FD551 was used primarily as the regular aircraft of Flying Officer GEC Pease RAFVR. He flew a number of operational sorties in it, including several over northern France and Belgium during Operation Starkey (an operation designed to simulate a potential invasion of northern France) in late August to early September 1943. Flying Officer Pease was flying this aircraft on a 'Ranger' train-busting sortie in the area around Rouen in France on 26 September 1943, when he and his wingman were intercepted by a flight of at least six FW-190s of I/JG2. 

Flying Officer Pease's wingman was shot down and killed in the initial attack, and he himself was soon shot down whilst attempting to evade the attack at low level. His aircraft crashed in a farm field and he was severely injured. He was helped from the wreckage of FD551 'O' by French farm workers. German soldiers were soon on the scene and he was taken prisoner and conveyed to the German PoW ward at Rouen Hospital, where he commenced his captivity as a PoW of the Germans for the remainder of the war. As of 2021, Flight Lieutenant Pease was the last known surviving WWII  member of the squadron still alive. 

FD535 'X'

North American Mustang Mk.IA (NA-91) FD535 'X' was issued initially to No.170 Squadron RAF on 30 September 1943, then was passed to No.268 Squadron at the end of January 1944 when 170 Squadron was disbanded. FD535 was given the individual aircraft identification letter 'X' which it would carry through its long and distinguished operational history with the squadron. It was notable in being one of the Mustang Mk.IA aircraft modified to carry not only the oblique F.24 reconnaissance camera, located immediately behind the cockpit, but a vertical reconnaissance camera in the tail, in a bay between the radiator outlet and tail wheel. 

FD535 was heavily used on operational sorties. It was recorded as flying twice on D-Day and flying many sorties during the battle of the Falaise Gap, being damaged by flak on a number of occasions but repaired and repeatedly returned to service. Its last recorded operation with the squadron was on 13 April 1945, by which time it had completed 179 sorties, a remarkable achievement. 

FR900 'M'

North American Mustang Mk.II (NA-99) FR900 'M' was issued initially to No.II(AC) Squadron RAF on 2 May 1944 as part of their first batch as the squadron converted from the Mk.IA to the Mk.II. The aircraft was given the identification code letter 'M' and was soon adopted as the regular aircraft of the Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader MJ Gray DFC (M for Mike). It was equipped with both oblique and vertical camera mounts. In late July 1944 it was passed to 412 Repair and Salvage Unit for major servicing and to have a Malcolm Hood fitted. 

FR900 returned to service with No.II(AC) Squadron in mid-August 1944, to become the regular aircraft of the new CO, Squadron Leader CA Maitland DFC, from early September. In late November 1944 it was passed on to No.268 Squadron as No.II(AC) Squadron converted to the Supermarine Spitfire FR.XIVb. Once with No.268 Squadron it was used operationally by a number of the Squadron's pilots but was soon taken up to be the regular aircraft used by the Commanding Officer of No.35 (Recce) Wing, Group Captain AF Anderson DSO* DFC and his Senior Wing Operations Officer, Wing Commander WEV Malins DFC – both of whom had previously served with No.268 Squadron. 

It continued to be used operationally up to and beyond VE-Day and was even the subject of experiments conducted by Group Captain Anderson for a forward facing 35mm cine camera or F.24 reconnaissance camera in a modified Hawker Tempest drop tank fitted under one wing of the Mustang. It was eventually retired from Squadron service in mid-July 1945 following a long and illustrious operational career. 

Front to rear

Mustang Mk.I AG413 NM-E is represented in the markings, including personal mascot, that the aircraft had when it was regularly flown by Pilot Officer Bethell in October - November 1942. 

Mustang Mk.IA FD551 'O' is represented in its markings when flown by Flying Officer Pease in the period July to September 1943. 

Mustang Mk.IA FD535 'X' is represented in the markings it carried in late August to the end of December 1944, with the reduced 'distinctive markings' for Allied aircraft at that time. During this timeframe the aircraft was flown by many pilots attached to the Squadron including those of the RAF, RAAF, RCAF, RNZAF, Polish Air Force and Indian Air Force – the last being Squadron Leader KK Majumdar DFC IAF who became the most highly decorated member of the Indian Air Force in WWII, being awarded a Bar to his DFC for his time with No.268 Squadron. 

Mustang Mk.II FR900 'M' is represented in the markings it carried from early January 1944 – after the changes in camouflage and markings directives for aircraft in 2TAF following the New Year's Day 1945 attacks on Allied airfields by the Luftwaffe – which included the use of modified national markings to increase their visibility to other Allied aircraft. The primary user of the aircraft then was Group Captain AF Anderson DSO* DFC, Commanding Officer No.35(Recce) Wing, who had been the CO of No.268 Squadron when they initially re-equipped with Mustangs and conducted some of their early long-range sorties in the type in 1942. 

© Colin Ford 2021

See also No.268 Squadron RAF History:


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