This beautiful war-bird turned 75 years old recently, hitting the 75th milestone in August 2018, still airworthy she’s been a regular on the Battle of Britain Heritage Flight line ups and air-shows for decades, she’s even a movie star, she made her most famous film appearance in what is regarded as the best WW2 film ever made ‘A Bridge Too Far’, where she flies over the young Dutch boy on a bicycle and waggles her wings.
But little known to the tens of thousands of admiring fans in Britain that have seen her flying overhead in countless commemorations is her remarkable South African wartime heritage, she’s the Spitfire which saw one very brave South African fighter ace fly her into combat.
Little known to many South Africans, who do not have an airworthy Spitfire in any collection in South Africa anymore, is that there is in fact a South African’s Spitfire still flying today – they can take some comfort in that.
Royal Air Force Spitfire MH434 is arguably one of the most famous flying Spitfires around, she was built in 1943 at Vickers, Castle Bromwich. What’s remarkable about her? She is remarkably original, having never been subject to a re-build and still flying in her original paint scheme. For her inaugural flight in August 1943 was also noteworthy, MH434 was air tested by the legendary Alex Henshaw – a record-breaking pilot from pre-war days and Chief Test Pilot for Supermarine.
But what is more remarkable is her first war-time pilot, South African – Henry ‘Pat’ Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar and the Squadron she cut her teeth in – the Royal Air Force’s 222 Squadron – the ‘Natal Squadron’.
222 (Natal) Squadron
Formed during WW1, 222 Squadron was reformed at the onset of WW2 at Duxford on 5 October 1939 and in March 1940 the squadron re-equipped with Spitfires. It initially took part in the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain. Later in the war it would participate in Overlord and the D-Day landings as well as Operation Market Garden.
The Natal Squadron is named as such as it was regarded as the Natal Province ‘gift’ Squadron to the Royal Air Force. During the war funds were raised to ‘sponsor’ Spitfires in Natal and equip this squadron. As a representative of the South African province and old British colony, the squadron emblem consisted of wildebeest which is Natal’s official animal and was represented in the Natal province emblem. The squadron motto was ‘Pambili Bo’ (Go straight ahead). The wildebeest also symbolises speed.
Flt Lt Henry ‘Pat’ Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar
Now, MH434’s first combat pilot was truly special, Pat Lardner-Burke was born on 27 June 1916 in Harrismith, Orange Free State, South Africa. He joined the Royal Air Force at the onset of the war in spring 1940.
Pat Lardner-Burke was posted to No.19 Squadron in early 1941 where he flew Spitfires and thereafter Hurricanes with No. 46 squadron. In June the Hurricane Squadron left the UK for Malta forming No.126 Squadron. In the extensive combat and defence of Malta, Pat would see considerable action in the air, mainly against Axis force Italian Regia Aeronautica bombers as they attempted to bomb Malta into submission.
On the 19th August 1941, flying his Hurricane high above Malta Pat sighted enemy aircraft flying at 23,000 feet, turning in to attack the formation of 12 Italian Macchi 200 fighters, Pat fired a short burst which saw one Macchi go down. Pat climbed out of the attack and engaged another Macchi shooting it down in addition to the first.
A week later Pat would destroy another Macchi 200 near Sicily, when the Italian fighter broke off from the its main formation and he pursued it in a steep dive towards the coast of Sicily, shooting it down.
Then on the 4th September 1941 he would claim another as nine Hurricanes met approximately 16 Macchi 200 fighters flying at 22,000 feet to the east of Malta. He spotted an enemy Macchi on the tail of a fellow Hurricane pilot in hot pursuit of another Macchi and destroyed it – effectively saving his colleague’s life.
Bravery and survival in the extreme
On the 8th November 1941, Pat became an ‘Ace’ (which requires a tally of 5 enemy aircraft to qualify), but it came with a most extraordinary act of bravery and nearly killed him.
Pat’s Squadron was involved in one of the biggest dogfights seen over Malta. 18 Italian Macchi were intercepted whilst they were escorting their bombers bound for Malta. Flying Hurricane BD789 he engaged and shot down a Macchi 202 near Dingli, but as he was engaging the Macchi another one engaged him from behind. The result was a 12.7 mm bullet from the Italian fighter which penetrated his seat armour and passed out of his chest.
With a punctured lung and bleeding heavily, Pat drew on all his skill and managed to land his Hurricane at his aerodrome on Malta. A fellow officer, Tom Neil witnessed his landing, ran to the aircraft and pulled Pat free from the damaged Hurricane, he remarked later;
“The pilot still had his face mask attached but I recognised him immediately as Pat Lardner-Burke. I heard myself shouting, ‘Are you all right?’ – then knew immediately that he wasn’t. Pat’s head was bowed and his shoulders slumped”.
Pat was laid onto a stretcher, an ambulance took him to hospital. Tom Neil then took time to inspect Pat’s hurricane, several bullets that had hit the side of the aircraft behind the cockpit. However Tom was shocked as he noted one had punched a hole in the armour-plate and penetrated the back of the seat, where it had passed right through Pat and carried on through the cockpit’s dashboard and then through some more armour-plate in front. Neil and the other pilots in the squadron were literally shaken by the knowledge that the Italian’s were using some very powerful ammunition.
Pat survived and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, his citation reads;
Distinguished Flying Cross
Pilot Officer Henry Patrick LARDNER-BURKE (87449), RAFVR, No. 126 Squadron.
In November 1941, this officer was the pilot of one of 4 aircraft which engaged a force of 18 hostile aircraft over Malta and destroyed 3 and seriously damaged 2 of the enemy’s aircraft. During the combat Pilot Officer Lardner-Burke, who destroyed 1 of the enemy’s aircraft, was wounded in the chest and his aircraft was badly damaged. Despite this, he skillfully evaded his opponents and made a safe landing on the aerodrome; he then collapsed. Throughout the engagement, this officer displayed leadership and courage of a high order. He has destroyed 5 enemy aircraft over Malta.
Back in the fight
Fully recovered from his wounds in England by May 1942, Pat went strait back into the fight, initially as instructor in the Gunnery Instruction Training Wing.
Pat Lardner-Burke’s combat record in MH434
By August 1943, Pat Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar had transferred to 222 (Natal) Squadron as a temporary Squadron Leader and was allocated MH434 code letters ‘ZD-B’ as his regular mount. MH434 first took to the sky in anger on the 7th August 1943.
On the 27 August in the St Omar area over France, Squadron Leader Pat Lardner-Burke, flying in our heroine ‘Spitfire MH434’ clocked up her first kill, flying high escort cover he shot down a German Focke-Wulf FW-190 and damaged a second during a mission escorting USAAF B-17 bombers on their way to bomb the St. Omer Marshalling Yards.
During the mission, 13 Spitfires of No.222 Squadron and 13 Spitfires of No.129 Squadron spotted nine German Focke-Wulf 190s dive on the American B-17 Fortresses and engaged them. Pat shook a FW 190 off his bomber attack damaging it on the starboard wing and tail. Pat then turned onto another FW 190, and at close range he engaged it, shooting it down.
On the 5 September 1943, Pat again shot down another FW-190 in the Nieuport area, on this mission 222 (Natal) Squadron’s Spitfires were acting as high escort to 72 B-26 Marauders which were to bomb the Marshalling Yards at Ghent/Meirelbeke.
On completing the bombing run, the Marauders were attacked by approximately 20 German Focke-Wulf (FW) 190s. Pat climbed to head off half of the FW 190 fighters, one German FW 190 turned in front of his Spitfire’s nose and he promptly shot it down in flames and it went into the ground in an uncontrollable spin.
Again on the 8 September 1943 Pat claimed a half share in the downing of a Messerschmitt Bf-109G in Northern France. On this mission 25 Spitfires of 222 (Natal) squadron were flying as high cover to a formation of Allied bombers that were detailed to attack targets in the Boulogne area in France. They spotted and engaged 12 German Messerschmitt 109Fs, two of which dived away from their formation. F/Lt. Pat Lardner-Burke and his wing-man F/O. O. Smik dived down on the leading enemy aircraft taking turns firing on it until the starboard wing tip fell off and it dived straight into the ground.
Give the man a bar!
For his actions and bravery flying in 222 (Natal) Squadron – flying our heroine MH434, Acting Squadron Leader Henry ‘Pat’ Lardner-Burke DFC received a DFC Bar to his existing DFC decoration. His citation reads;
This officer continues to display a high degree of courage and resolution in his attacks on the enemy. Recently, he has led the squadron on many missions in the Ruhr area and throughout has displayed great skill and tenacity. Squadron Leader Lardner-Burke has destroyed seven enemy aircraft in air fighting. He has also most effectively attacked enemy targets on the ground.
Pat Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar received a new posting to Fighter Command’s Head Quarters, at Stanmore, serving with Group Captain Bobby Oxspring, DFC and two Bars, who said of his new South African recruit’s typical South African demeanour;
“The third desk was the domain of Pat Lardner-Burke, a rugged South African who, with Hornchurch sweeps and Malta behind him, displayed a refreshingly irreverent attitude to all senior officers with whom he disagreed”.
In April 1944 Pat took command of the Royal Air Force’s No.1 Squadron, and finally taking command of RAF Horsham St Faith airfield and then RAF Church Fenton as a Wing Commander.
Give the man another ‘bar’
After the war this remarkable South African fighter ace settled on the Isle of Man with his wife, Mylcraine, where they ran a pub (an English ‘Bar’). Pat tragically died at a relatively young age on the 4th February 1970 of renal failure.
MH434’s career after Pat Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar
In 1944 MH434 was transferred to 350 Sqn. Hornchurch, before being returned to 222 Sqn. Pat Lardner-Burke had by now been posted on, and the aircraft was next assigned to Flt Sgt Alfred ‘Bill’ Burge. He flew another 12 operational sorties in the aircraft before the Squadron’s existing Mk IXs were exchanged for a modified variant that could carry rockets. After over 80 operational sorties, MH434 was stood down in March 1945.
Post War Movie Star
After the Second World War, Spitfire MH434 was transferred to the Royal Netherlands Air Force in 1947. After a crash-landing in Semarang, Java she spent some time in storage, repaired she flew again in Holland on the 10 March 1953.
The Belgian Air Force became the next owner of this Spitfire, on the 26 March 1956 MH434 was put up for sale and bought and brought back to Britain by airline pilot Tim Davies. Overhauled the aircraft was flown purely for pleasure and took part in its first movie role, Operation Crossbow.
November 1967 saw MH434 join the motion picture airforce of Spitfire Productions Ltd, where she starred in the ‘Battle of Britain’ in 1968. At the end of the movie MH434 was sold again to Sir Adrian Swire, Chairman of Cathay Pacific Airways, had the Spitfire painted in 1944 camouflage colour scheme with his initials AC-S, as squadron codes.
There were several film and television appearances during this period, including her iconic role in ‘A Bridge Too Far.’
The opening of a Bridge Too Far sees a young Dutch boy cycling along a road when MH434 does an extremely low fly over after reconnoitring a German Panzer (tank) placement nearby. To the entertainment of the young Dutchman she waggles her wings in acknowledgment of his waving . It’s an iconic firm history moment as to the boy the Spitfire symbolises liberty from German occupation – it’s his first sighting of ‘freedom’ and it arrives with its Merlin engine in full song – if you’ve not seen the movie here’s the clip:
In April 1983 MH434 was sold at auction to it’s most illustrious owner, Ray Hanna (Nalfire Aviation Ltd). MH434 has become a regular movie co-star and airshow performer and when not in make up for a role she is now flown in the authentic 222 (Natal) Sqn, with the Codes ZD-B, Squadron Leader Pat Lardner-Burke’s call sign.
A lasting legacy
Today Spitfire MH434 is located at the Duxford Imperial War Museum near Cambridge. MH434 is still painted in No.222 ‘Natal’ Squadron markings with the code letters ‘ZD-B’. The name ‘Mylcraine’ which Squadron Leader Pat Lardner-Burke christened her in August 1943 (named after his wife) is still painted on her, so too is Pat Lardner-Burke’s personal ‘scoreboard’ which have been painted on the port side of the cockpit – all to replicate this South African’s markings in 1943.
His victories, in all Pat Lardner-Black shot down five Italian MC200’s, two MC 202’s, three German FW 190’s and one German Me109 achieving the status of ‘fighter ace’. – one of a handful of South Africans to achieve this.
RAF Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX MH434 is and remains one of the most beautiful aircraft ever built, and we hope it continues bringing entertainment, joy and awe to thousands of admirers, but more importantly we remember her very proud South African legacy and a very remarkable South African hero whose soul lives on in her.
Researched by Peter Dickens, with additional assistance from Sandy Evan Hanes.
Related Work and Links – South Africans in the RAF
Sailor Malan; Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!
Zulu Lewis; ‘Ace in a Day’ TWICE! … Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis
References include; Man and Machine by Christopher Yeoman 2011. Clip from ‘A Bridge Too Far” Joseph E. Levine Productions, United Artists. The Old Flying Machine Company – Supermarine Spitfire IX MH434, history on-line. Photo copyrights include Imperial War Museum and John Dibbs.