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How is it that a piece of metal from a Spitfire that crash-landed in boggy French farmland in 1941 finds its way into a limited-edition watch nearly 80 years later? With the help of flight logbooks, navigation charts and pilot testimonies, historians can generally piece together a sequence of events. Yet in the case of 303 Squadron’s Spitfire P8331 RF-M ‘Sumatra’, sheer good fortune not only helped with locating the arming panel that sits in the backplate of TRI-05; it revealed a whole new dimension to its story beyond those scribblings on a page.
Spitfire P8331 RF-M ‘Sumatra’ was one of the initial ten Mk IIB aircraft delivered to No.303 Squadron at RAF Northolt on 13 May 1941. It was flown by at least 15 pilots, the majority being Poles within 303 Squadron; it is credited with taking down two Messerschmitt Bf 109s – one destroyed and one probably destroyed, plus another damaged over its 52 sorties.
Its final flight would take place on 27 June 1941, piloted by Acting Wing Commander Piotr Łaguna as part of an operation with Circus 25 (Z.181) to target a steel factory in Lille. With conditions worsening, orders were altered to “Rhubarb” – searching for enemy troops, vehicles and choice targets at ultra-low level in the Gravelines area. Having located a Luftwaffe airfield near Coquelles, just outside of Calais, the flight destroyed three enemy fighters, but German Anti-Aircraft fire came in response. P8331 was directly hit by a shell, with its flaming wreck last seen diving sharply towards the earth. Piotr Łaguna was killed whilst attempting to bail from his aircraft and subsequently buried in grave no. 9, row A, at Pihen-les-Guines Military Cemetery.
This was about as much as we knew – until the research of the Łagunas Spitfire Legacy Project revealed more of P8331’s story. They made contact with Frenchman JP Duriez, the man who helped positively identify P8331 during its excavation in June 1986. The wreckage was found lodged some 3 to 4 metres under boggy farmland. Eyewitnesses interviewed in 1986 were able to tell the tale of one German soldier who threw his cigarette into the liquid left on the surface of where the aircraft had crashed into – unaware that it wasn’t water but fuel! It set alight, singeing his and his colleagues’ eyebrows and hair, much to the amusement of the locals…
Following its excavation, P8331 would be on the move again – but at a far slower pace. Identifiable parts like its engine and propellers were moved to the Calais War Museum; its dials and cockpit instrument panel were on display in another museum south of Calais. The remaining remnants of twisted metal recovered were even stored in a farmer’s barn until the 1990s before being scrapped! Thanks to the efforts of French regional aviation archaeologists who helped in the recovery and curation of the aircraft in 1986, Łaguna’s Spitfire Legacy Project were able to locate the majority of remaining material left of the recovered P8331, including the arming panel that features in our TRI-05 watch.
Thanks to its distinctive shape and size, and the presence of quick-release fasteners, this arming panel section was one of the most easily identifiable parts of the aircraft. Having received the panel from the Łaguna Project, we here at TRIBUS set about carefully stamping out 303 pieces of metal from the panel – each one 16.7mm across.
We’ll be honest, the release of the TRI-05 303 Squadron P8331 Limited Edition to coincide with the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain couldn’t have been more perfect. A 303-piece limited edition that tells many stories within its 41mm case, it highlights the crucial role the Polish Air Force played during the Second World War. Just as significantly, its 2020 release coincides with the first time Polish veterans will join in commemorating Victory in Europe Day after being controversially snubbed from the British Victory March of 1946.
Its backplate contains a piece of metal recovered from Spitfire P8331 RF-M ‘Sumatra’, an aircraft belonging to 303 Squadron based at RAF Northolt. Famous for downing the most enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain, the squadron was largely comprised of Polish airmen who had previously served in the 1st Air Regiment at Warsaw. Spitfire P8331, flown by Acting Wing Commander Piotr Łaguna, would be shot down over Gravelines in France on 27th June 1941.
Surrounding the piece of precious metal, the Polish motto “Za naszą i waszą wolność - for our freedom and yours” has been engraved into glass, allowing a view of the Swiss-made Sellita SW200 movement inside. The red and white checkerboard of the Polish Air Force serves a nod to over a century of Polish aeronautical history, whilst remaining in use today.
The 303’s dial is reminiscent of the highly legible aviation watches worn by pilots during the Second World War, with green-emission lume used on its Arabic numerals and hands. The final nod to the Polish story at the heart of this watch features at 6 o’clock on the dial, where the Kościuszko badge is present. Tadeusz Kościuszko, a national hero who served in the American War of Indepence and led an 18th century uprising against the Russian Empire, would be remembered on many Polish Air Force aircraft – including the Hurricanes, Spitfires and Mustangs of 303 Squadron that would ultimately secure the victory of the Battle of Britain.