A casualty of a “Rhubarb Mission?”

C ollecting articles from any historical period can be interesting, particularly when you can track down the human story behind the pieces. The stories that salvaged pieces from airplane wrecks can tell, sometimes underline the drama of combat.

Debris from the Battle of Britain is spread across southern England. Many stories are still told such as “Uncle Bert had a Spitfire engine in his back garden for years,” “a Heinkel came down on our street” or “a Focke Wolfe ended up in the pond.” All of these stories are good enough to make a collector salivate!

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This part was recovered from the crash site of Pilot Officer Charles Lloyd MacDonald’s Spitfire crash site in France. Was MacDonald (center) on a rhubarb mission or escorting bombers at the time of his death?

Interesting Allied or German airplane bits are available from a wide list of military dealers in North America and Europe. In most cases, the dealer will often be able to give specific information regarding the circumstances of a particular piece.

The Spitfire part pictured in this article seems to be a piece from an internal spar of the plane. The piece was recovered from a wreck site in France. The dealer who sold the item provided research to show that the piece came from the Spitfire of the downed Pilot Officer Charles Lloyd MacDonald

MacDonald, a pilot with 129th Squadron, flew his Spitfire out of Westhampnett on the south coast of England. In 1941, Spitfire pilots were taking the fight to the Germans, flying harassing “rhubarb” missions over the French coast, disrupting trains, shooting up airfields and generally being aggressive. In his memoir, Wing Leader, Group Captain Johnny Johnson described his loathing for the rhubarbs, feeling the risks and losses were not worth the results. Johnson wrote that their efforts “would usually yield no more than a staff car, which could just have easily been a French civilian vehicle.” Three years later, Canadian Charlie Fox, flying a Spitfire on a mission over France shot up another German staff car. This one carried Erwin Rommel and effectively put the Field Marshal out of the war. Still, Johnson wrote that the majority of pilots felt privately that the dividends of these missions fell far short of the costs in valuable airplanes and trained pilots.

The 129th arrived at Westhampnett on August 29, 1941, flying Spitfire Mark Vs. Johnson noted Westhampnett, at the time, was a satellite field of Tangmere and was little more than a “fair sized grass meadow.”

Wing Commander Douglas Bader was flying out of Tangmere in the late summer of 1941 conducting sweeps across Northern France when he was shot down on August 9 and taken prisoner. Just over one month later, Pilot Officer Charles Lloyd MacDonald (service number J/5039) met the same fate, but did not survive. On September 21, 1941, the day MacDonald went down, Flight Leader James Henry Whalen (service number J/5005) of 129th Squadron shot down an Me 109. Could it have been during the same fight? Did Whalen get the German pilot who shot down MacDonald or was it flak that caused his demise? Perhaps he was on a bomber escort mission and not a rhubarb. Speculation and imagination are part of the fun of holding an object you know was there at the crucial moment, but there’s always room for more research to bring the full picture of one man’s death into focus.

THE FATE OF A SPIT PILOT

Charles Lloyd MacDonald is buried a long way from his home town of Antigonish Nova Scotia in Boulogne Eastern Cemetary, Pas Des Calais, France (plot 11, row A, grave 18). He is commemorated in the Book Of Remembrance which is on display in the Peace Tower of the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. Each day a different page is turned for viewing. By accessing the Web site, www.vac-acc.gc.ca and following the appropriate links, the page bearing Pilot Officer MacDonald’s name can be viewed. His grave in France is awaiting visitors who wish to spend a quiet moment thinking of a young airman who never returned home.

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