The Black Horse Spitfire
In search of The Black Horse
In 2015 archaeologists began unearthing The Black Horse Spitfire at the crash site near Weston-super-Mare on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
The Black Horse is one of the so-called "Presentation Spitfires" that were built after the British Government asked for donations from the public to help increase fighter aircraft numbers. Both private individuals and British businesses were keen to make contributions to help the fight against Hitler.
With this in mind, the British government launched a fundraising campaign for the air force where, for a contribution of £5,000, fundraisers could name a Spitfire. These planes were known as Presentation Spitfires. There were 1,500 of them built in total.
Together, staff and directors at Lloyds Bank raised £7,000 in just six days. Sydney Parkes, Chief General Manager of Lloyds Bank, sent a telegraph to Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, in August 1940 with the message: ‘The Directors and staff of Lloyds Bank will give a Spitfire to our gallant Royal Air Force and would like it to be named "The Black Horse" after our sign in Lombard Street'.
The plane took part in patrols protecting naval convoys and in July 1941 it began escorting bombers to and from their targets, and on the summer of 1941 it shot down a German Messerschmitt ME109 fighter plane near Calais on a sweep into German-occupied northern France.
The plane experienced a number of crashes during its lifetime, including a crash caused by engine failure, a belly-landing when its undercarriage failed to deploy, and a crash-landing due to strong cross-winds. The plane was eventually retired in December 1941 as the new MkVb Spitfire model was introduced.
After its retirement The Black Horse was used as a training plane for young Spitfire pilots in the West Country. However, in July 1942 it collided mid-air with another Spitfire - The Enfield Spitfire - bringing The Black Horse’s career to an end. The crash site was eventually located in 2015 after years of research by Spitfire experts.
'The Black Horse over Bamburgh' Painting by Mark Postlethwaite ©2019 - posart.com
The last pilot to fly The Black Horse was Sergeant William James Johnston, who was born on February 12 1918 in Co. Tiperrary, Ireland.
In July 1942 Johnston bailed out of The Black Horse, parachuting to safety, during a training session after the plane crashed mid–air over Draycott in Somerset. Johnston went on to fly in numerous squadrons, serving in Sicily, France and Nigeria.
In June 1944 he was listed "missing in action" after radioing to say that his oil pressure was dropping, and that he would have to bail out by way of a forced landing in Tunisia. He hid from the Germans in a corn field until he was able to make it back to his squadron.
After the war Johnston moved to Rhodesia for work, eventually ending up in South Africa where he died in 1985.
Finding the plane
Experts discovered the location of The Black Horse after decades of research, using specialist equipment to identify its exact position. The plane was believed to be about 20ft (6m) below ground, and one of the best preserved Spitfire crash sites in the UK.
During the excavation in 2015, TV presenter and historian Dan Snow took part in the dig and streamed it live over his History Hit YouTube.