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The mystery of the missing 'Wulfrun' Spitfire

By Toby Neal | Wolverhampton | News | Published: | Last Updated:

Somewhere at the bottom of the sea off the French coast lies undiscovered whatever remains of Wolverhampton’s forgotten Spitfire.

Flight Lieutenant Johnstone, the pilot of "Wulfrun," pours a cuppa for a colleague shortly before his death. Picture: Canadian Archives.

It took the name of the city to war in a rather short, and ultimately tragic, campaign

“Wulfrun” was one of two Spitfires paid for by the people of Wolverhampton in the dark days of the conflict and, being the second, received less publicity and according to aviation enthusiast and historian Stephen King has totally slipped into obscurity.

“It’s a shame that it’s been forgotten,” said Stephen, from Whitmore Reans, who has been researching the story of “Wulfrun,” the Spitfire which carried the ancient name from which “Wolverhampton” is derived.

"The Inspirer," which was Wolverhampton's first Spitfire. No picture of the second, "Wulfrun," has come to light.

He added: “It’s totally unknown. I have read every book on Wolverhampton history since World War Two and Wulfrun doesn’t get a single line.”

Let’s start at the end, on April 14, 1943, with “Wulfrun’s” Canadian pilot Flight Lieutenant William Thomas Johnstone being spotted waving from his dinghy as he drifts in the sea.

“Wulfrun” had been on a strafing mission over enemy-occupied France but was shot down off the Normandy coast, either by anti-aircraft fire or by German fighters.

“He was never seen again. He was never found, no body, nothing”, added Stephen.

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Johnstone, far left, possibly during training. Picture: Canadian Archives.

To compound the tragedy, his Squadron Leader, Don Ball, was shot down and killed while looking for him.

Stephen said: “Wulfrun is in the sea somewhere. There’s probably little left of it now.”

One of the frustrations of Stephen’s research is that so far he has not found a single photograph of “Wulfrun.”

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“An official print would have gone to the mayor, and a plaque at the same time, for display in the mayor’s office in the town hall," he added.

Many Spitfires, like this one, bore the names of places which had raised the money for them. This picture came from the late Wally Milne, who recalled flying a Spitfire called "Shrewsbury" bought by the people of Shrewsbury – sadly, no known picture exists.

However his extensive researches have proven its existence, as the fighter was in a prang, as the RAF used to say, and was identified as “Wulfrun” in the official accident card.

It was a standard Spitfire Vb, serial P8715, and with the code DB-O on the fuselage. Although without a photo we cannot know for sure how its Wulfrun identity was marked.

Stephen said: “It would have had the Wulfrun name in yellow on the cowling by the cockpit.

“Some of the towns had a crest with the name, but the Wolverhampton crest might have been too difficult.”

The first of the Spitfires for which Wolverhampton folk raised money in 1940 was called “The Inspirer,” and because that appeal was so successful the mayor called for a second Spitfire fund to be raised.

He added: “That second Spitfire was Wulfrun, and maybe it’s because it was the second that its prominence was not that great in the contemporary Express & Star. I’ve been through every Express & Star and can’t find any naming ceremony.”

“The aircraft appears to have been delivered in 1941 from the Castle Bromwich factory.”

In 1942 “Wulfrun” was in a landing accident at RAF Ludham in Norfolk, which put it out of action for some considerable time, which included a period of being at 9 Maintenance Unit at RAF Cosford for repair, and it was over a year later that it returned to service

Eventually it was transferred to 411 Squadron and was taking part in an attack in the area of Bayeux and Carentan when it was lost.

“The Inspirer,” which was also paid for by the people of Wolverhampton, came to an unhappy end as well. The Spitfire crashed while force landing near Dover on April 28, 1942. The pilot, Gerald Whitney, was an American volunteer with the Royal Canadian Air Force and was killed. Stephen wants to see the story of those Wolverhampton Spitfires marked in some way in the modern-day city.

“There should be blue plaques in the town hall to remember Wulfrun and The Inspirer.”

Wulfrun incidentally comes from Lady Wulfruna or Wulfrun, first referred to in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles for 943AD, who founded Wolverhampton, with the city’s name believed to be derived from Wulfruna’s Heanton – Wulfruna’s town on the hill.

Wolverhampton folk are called Wulfrunians.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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