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Names on a plane

The Museum recently announced a fund raising initiativeNames on a Plane” it recalls a precedent of aircraft naming by public donation set over a century ago and which reached a zenith in the early years of the Second World War with the flourishing of Spitfire funds not only across the country but across the globe. 

The first offer of an aircraft bearing a chosen name came from William Cain (later Sir William Cain of the Cain brewing family of Liverpool). In 1914 he offered a Bleriot aircraft to the Australian Government in recognition of their support of Britain in the war stipulating that it should bear the name “The Liverpool”. In the event the Bleriot was not accepted but a B.E.2c 1748 was gifted to the Australian Commonwealth by him and they in turn presented it via the Imperial Air Fleet Committee to the War Office on the 23rd December 1914 at a ceremony held at Farnborough.  The aircraft was christened “Liverpool” by the wife of the Australian High Commissioner and a small bottle of Champagne was broken on its propeller. A report in “Flight” reported that the aircraft ”is to be held in trust for the use of the Royal Flying Corps, and it is to be forwarded to the front immediately” where it saw service with 6 Squadron.

Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c (1748) 'Liverpool' at the naming ceremony, rear port side view on ground, Farnborough. (P014171)

The government encouraged donations as a public relations exercise where monies raised or donated could be given toward the purchase of various pieces of military equipment such as a tank, an artillery piece or an aeroplane.  Donations were not raised for any particular aircraft, but a scale was produced to indicate to the public what their money could buy, £1500 would buy a B.E.2c,  £2250 a Vickers Gunbus and £3500 a Short floatplane.  

Aircraft were selected randomly for naming, the presentation aircraft being named at either a factory or an aircraft acceptance park.  By 1918 there were so many presentation aircraft that one story has it that rather than painting an individual aircraft, batches of doped aircraft fabric would be prepared with the chosen names and the fabric then hung from the side of any aircraft that was to hand to be photographed for the benefit of the donors.

Largely presentation aircraft were gifted from nation states or wealthy individuals, a large majority being gifts from countries of the empire with names such as “Gold Coast”, “Johore”, “Bikanir”, “Punjab” and “Zanzibar” .Some presentation aircraft tended to have rather descriptive and prosaic names such as  “New South Wales No.14 Women’s Battleplane. Subscribed & collected by women of New South Wales”.

Airco D.H.5, serial A9242, 'New South Wales No. 14 Women's Battleplane Subscribed & Collected by Women of New South Wales' starboard front view, 68 Squadron, RFC (X003-2602/4984)

In 1918 the Nazim of Hyderabad donated enough money to purchase 18 D.H.9As which re-equipped 110 Squadron becoming the first squadron to be equipped with this aircraft type. Each aircraft carried the inscription “Presented by his Highness the Nizam of Hyderabad, Hyderabad No…” The Museum’s example being the thirteenth aircraft, for superstitious reasons it was numbered 12a.  

De Havilland D.H.9A 'Hyderabad No.12a (77/A/921)

The Air Council investigated giving a silver model aircraft to each donor as a souvenir, it was hoped that the models would be paid for by surplus donations, but after receiving quotes from the likes of Mappin & Webb it was discovered that there was not sufficient money to pay for the models so the scheme was scrapped.  With peace and the rapid rundown of the air force the presentation scheme ended.

The public response to war in 1939 was less enthusiastic than it had been in 1914, and there was no rush to donate money to the war effort. However, the threat of invasion following the fall of France in the summer of 1940 spurred the public into action. Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production, when asked the cost of a Spitfire by Canadian millionaire, Sir Harry Oakes, came up with the nominal figure of £5000.  In reality the cost of a Spitfire in February 1940 was £8,897.6.6, but the Government accepted the figure for the “purposes of public engagement” [1]. Other presentation aircraft were also given nominal values, a twin-engined aircraft was given the value of £20,000 and a four-engined aircraft £40,000. Sir Harry Oakes would eventually donate £20,000 for four Spitfires which were named ”Sir Harry & Lady Oakes” I-IV.

Chatham Spitfire fund lapel flag (A61)

Understanding that not everyone could aspire to raise the funds for an aircraft it was decided to break down a Spitfire into its constituent parts so that members of the public whether rich or poor, old or young could feel that their donation was making a real contribution, for example a rivet or six screws were 6d, a spark plug 8s, a petrol tank £40 and a Merlin engine £2000.
The Spitfire above all other aircraft types caught the public imagination and many ad hoc Spitfire funds were set up across the country in the summer of 1940. They were established by many diverse bodies, from local authorities, places of work, newspaper readerships and societies, often friendly rivalries would ensue as to who would raise their £5000 first. The government sought to exploit the propaganda value of the public’s enthusiasm for fund raising for the war effort and to this end the Ministry of Aircraft Production appointed Albert Marsh as a public relations officer to coordinate the scheme, formalising the administration of donations and acknowledging contributors.   

The Museum has a small collection of items relating to these funds, one particularly relevant to the London site is the Hendon Four Fighter Fund which raised in three months, from August–November 1940, £20,000 for four Spitfires. 

Hendon Four Fighter Fund card of honour, belonging to Peter Davies (A1281)

The Hendon Four Fighter Fund introduced a stamp ‘Card of Honour’ which was filled by purchasing stamps of different values to complete the card, a charity shop was opened in Mill Hill and a week after being shot down over Croydon Messerschmitt Bf 110 S9+CK was exhibited in Hendon Park in order to raise money for the fund. Maurice Rowlandson who worked in the charity shop said of his efforts “It was a significant moment in my life, and one to which I always look back to with happy memories”.[2]

Exhibition of Messerschmitt 110: Official Programme (X001-2303)

Popular entertainer Will Hay and Hendon's Messerschmitt 110, August 1940 (X003-0245/002)

The first of Hendon’s presentation aircraft, W3505 “Hendon Endeavour”, was donated largely by a Mrs George Hancock, who donated £4,999 in memory of her son Sgt Bruce Hancock who allegedly rammed a Heinkel 111 when on a solo training flight in an Avro Anson over RAF Windrush in Gloucestershire, although post-war research indicates that the two aircraft might have actually collided by accident. "Hendon Endeavour" was allocated to 485 Squadron in August 194 and was transferred to the 109th Squadron, 67th Observation Group of the USAAF in 1942 where it was involved in a collision with another Spitfire from the same unit, the pilot, Lt Donald Lambert managed to bale out safely, the pilot of the other aircraft was sadly killed.  

Supermarine Spitfire Mk. VB (W3505) 'Hendon Endeavour', close-up of presentation marking (P009843)

Close to the Museum’s sister site at Cosford the readers of the Wolverhampton Express & Star raised £6,746 for the purchase of Spitfire AB917 named “The Inspirer” it was allocated to 401 Squadron in early 1942. The aircraft crashed near Dover killing the pilot, Plt Off Gerald Whitney Jnr, an American volunteer with the RCAF on 28 April 1942 after being damaged whilst on a bomber escort mission. 

Ministry of Aircraft Production, People of Wolverhampton (through the Wolverhampton Express and Star) commemorative plaque, 1940 (X004-4347)

As with the First World War there were many donations of aircraft from countries of the Empire and wealthy individuals a particularly well known story of such a wealthy individual is that of Lady Rachel MacRobert; her eldest son Alasdair lost his life in a civil flying accident in 1938 when he was 26. His brother Roderic, a serving RAF officer was killed at the age of 26 when piloting a Hurricane of 94 Squadron in action over Iraq in 1941.  Six weeks later her last son Iain failed to return from a search and rescue operation with 608 Squadron.  Lady MacRobert donated £25,000 for a bomber aircraft to commemorate her three lost sons.  Short Stirling N6086 was named “Macrobert's Reply” the name was later transferred to Stirling W7531.  “MacRobert’s Reply” was allocated to XV Squadron a tradition which is continued today with a Tornado GR4 of the squadron still carrying the name.  Lady MacRobert would donate a further £20,000 for four Hurricanes, three named after her sons and the fourth carried her name. Post-war Lady MacRobert established a charitable trust to help young people, a trust that exists today.

Short Stirling Mk. I (N6086 LS-F) of 15 Squadron, close up starboard view of nose, showing 'MacRobert's Reply' marking, 10 October 1941 (P014522)

Again the Empire was a major contributor of presentation aircraft, in September 1940, The Aeroplane published that over £4,000,000 had been donated to date and that over £3,400,000 had come from overseas. The Nazim of Hyderabad enquired as to how his squadron would employed, but embarrassingly his donation had been forgotten, the Air Ministry informed him that his donation from 1918 would only cover the cost of two aircraft, he promptly sent enough money to raise two squadrons of Spitfires 152 and 253 squadron, hence three squadrons bore the name Hyderabad in their titles.  

An example in the Museum’s archive of one of the more intriguing organisations who took to fund raising with real enthusiasm was the Fellowship of the Bellows. Established in Argentina in October 1940 membership was comprised 30 % from the British community, 40% Argentinians and 30% other expatriate nationals. One joined as a Whiff, but could progress on giving through a rank structure linked to the number of German aircraft lost in a month or the amount one had pledged to give each month, a Whiff would progress to a Puff,  then a Gust and lastly Hurricane.  The rank structure expanded during the war to thirteen ranks with titles such as Typhoon, Hedge Hopper and Knight Bomber. Donations were welcomed but these could not buy promotion which was strictly linked to aircraft losses or ones stated monthly contribution. Non-members were known as Snuffs and looked upon as being “infinitely worse that a cross-eyed toad with athletes foot”.[3]

Fellowship of the Bellows membership booklets (X001-3521)

The fellowship with its jocular attitude was run by an anonymous committee, with humorous names; president – High Wind, treasurer- Receiver of Windfall, assistant treasurer – Keeper of the Windbag, - and Decorative Lady Member- Windlass!  There was a badge, a secret salute and passwords on how to greet a fellow member ”Hello Fellow Bellow”.  Membership in Argentina reached over 60,000 with large fellowships established in other South American countries such as Uruguay and Brazil.  The fellowships philosophy was “Funds through fun” in their accounts published for the winding up of the Argentine branch of the fellowship funds raised from 14th October 1940-31 August 1945 was $3,140,713.46. The total raised by all branches of the fellowship was $9,542,734.58. Four Squadrons of aircraft were donated 263 Squadron in April 1941, followed by 137 Squadron in 1942, 193 Squadron in 1943 and lastly 692 Squadron in 1944.  

Fellowship of the Bellows discharge certificate (X001-3521)

Asst Sect Off Patricia (Patsy) Pilling presenting a set of bellows to AVM Donald Bennett, being watched by Sir Arthur Harris at the 692 Squadron naming ceremony, RAF Godmanchester (X001-3521)

Although on the whole the funds were publicly supported there were some who believed that the effort was misplaced, the Lord Provost of Glasgow with significant public support  refused to back a local Spitfire fund on the grounds that it was the Government’s job to provide planes.  The Aeroplane magazine was also sceptical and produced cartoons highlighting the generosity of giving toward fighter funds but ignoring the plight of those made homeless by bombing.  Despite the flood of funds production could not be speeded up beyond what the industry was already capable of and the focus on Spitfire production had a detrimental effect on the production of other aircraft and other equally important military manufacturing. 

With the end of the war the presentation aircraft scheme came to an end, nearly 1,500 Spitfires had been presented as well as hundreds of other types varying from link trainers to Sunderlands. The increasing complexity of aircraft since the end of the war has meant that the cost of an aircraft was well beyond what the public or even a wealthy individual could realistically expect to raise or afford, the RAF’s next generation fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, is expected to cost an estimated £58m each [4] so unless you have that sort of money sitting around, the Museum’s “Names on a Plane” campaign may be the only way you will get your name on a Royal Air Force aircraft.

[1] P.232 “The Good fight” by Garry Campion 
[2]  retrieved on 23/6/16
[3] “Time” magazine 30 December 1940


“Gifts of War” by Henry Boot and Ray Sturtivant, published by Air-Britain, 2005
“The good fight” by Garry Campion, published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
“Birth of a Spitfire” by Gordon Beckles, published by Collins, 1941
“Presentation Fighters” by Ian Huntley, published in Scale Aircraft Modelling, Vol 5, No. 11, August 1983
“A present from…” by Bruce Robertson, published in Aeroplane Monthly, May & June 1986
“Overseas and United Kingdom presentation aircraft 1918-18” by Raymond Vann and Colin Waugh, published in Cross & Cockade, Vol14. No.2, 1983
“World War One presentation aircraft” published by Aeromilitaria, Issue 1, 1975.
“Flight” 1st January 1915

Andrew Dennis : Assistant Curator
About the Author

Andrew Dennis : Assistant Curator

I work in the Museum’s archive and library and am also the curator responsible for the Museum’s fascinating periodicals collection. This collection encompasses a wide variety of station and unit magazines, aircraft manufacturer’s in-house journals as well commercially produced magazines. I joined the Museum in 2009.

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