RAF Reconnaissance pilot who flew a top-secret Arctic mission in a modified Spitfire to locate the Tirpitz
WING COMMANDER TIM FAIRHURST
Fairhurst recently awarded the Arctic Star at Russia's embassy
, who has died aged 91, flew modified Spitfires on a top-secret mission in the Arctic to track down the German North Sea Fleet, which was known to be operating in the waters north of Norway.
Three Spitfires fitted with cameras, but with their guns removed to allow extra fuel tanks to be installed, were assigned to the operation, which took place in the summer of 1942, and was supported by a small ground party. Their destination was Vaenga, 170 miles inside the Arctic Circle.
The first thing Fairhurst
had to do was prepare a flight plan for the 1,200-mile flight. He was first amused, and then dismayed, to find that the maps for the region supplied by the RAF contained large blank areas marked "uncharted territory". He commented: "The White Sea was plain enough, so we would head straight for it when the town of Kandalaksha would provide a pinpoint, and then we would turn left to find the airfield at Afrikanda before flying on the next day to Vaenga."
The three Spitfires set off at five-minute intervals on the morning of September 1, with Fairhurst
leading. The weather was clear over Norway but cloud covered North Russia, and Fairhurst
was relieved to see the White Sea when he let down below the overcast. Shortly afterwards he landed after a five-hour flight, and his two colleagues soon joined him.
The RAF ground party met the Spitfires at Vaenga, where the RAF roundels on the aircraft were replaced with red stars. On September 10, Fairhurst
took off on the first operational sortie and headed for the fjords of northern Norway with the prime object of locating the battleship Tirpitz. He photographed the capital ships Scheer and Hipper and the cruiser Koln, but the Tirpitz had been moved further south. Over the next few weeks, Fairhurst
and his two pilots continued to keep track of the ships as the convoy PQ 18 headed for Murmansk. One of the Spitfires was shot down with the loss of its pilot.
During a lunch with General Kutznetzov, the Russian commander of the region, German bombers attacked. Fairhurst
was standing on a balcony next to the general, who grabbed a radio set and personally directed his fighters as they tried to intercept the enemy. When the raiders departed, the lunch continued. The general later inspected the Spitfires, which were to be left behind for the Russians, and expressed his dismay that such good fighter aircraft did not carry guns.
and his small party returned to Britain by sea on October 23 and shortly afterwards Fairhurst
was awarded the DFC
Edward Armytage Fairhurst
, always known as Tim, was born on April 14 1918 at Mirfield in Yorkshire and educated at Shrewsbury School. He joined the Territorial Army in 1936 and was commissioned into the 7th West Yorkshire Regiment. With little activity after the outbreak of war, he responded to a request for Army officers to transfer to the RAF to train as pilots. He completed his flying training in November 1940 when he was posted to No 4 Squadron
, flying the Lysander.
Frustrated by the lack of action, he volunteered to join the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU
), a somewhat maverick organisation that suited Fairhurst's
temperament and sense of adventure.
Over the next 12 months, he flew many long-range sorties over Germany and Norway in his unarmed Spitfire. The biggest enemy was the cold - on numerous occasions his oxygen supply froze and he was forced to squeeze the tube to his mask to release the ice and allow the oxygen to flow. He once flew for six hours and landed with only five gallons of fuel.
After his Russian adventure, Fairhurst
went to America to brief the USAAF
on photographic operations before returning to the reconnaissance world, first on Mosquitos and then in command of No 541 Squadron. By the end of the war he had flown 88 long-range photographic sorties. He was twice mentioned in despatches, was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre avec Palme and received the Territorial Decoration. In old age he was invited to the Russian embassy to be presented with the Arctic Star.
After two years as a civilian, Fairhurst
rejoined the RAF in May 1947 and flew Spitfires in Malaya before going to Hong Kong. Following a period selecting men for officer and aircrew training, he spent the final two years of his service as the permanent president of a court martial standing board. He retired in 1965, when he became a civil servant and worked for the MoD as a positive vetting officer.
A gregarious man with a penchant for wearing red socks, Fairhurst
was a great traveller and a devoted family man. He worked on his family tree and traced his history back to an 18th-century corn miller in Warrington who died on account of imbibing too much ferment of his own grain.
died on April 25. His wife Wendy, whom he married in 1945, died in 1996. A son died in infancy. He is survived by three other sons, one of whom was nearly lost during the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 when 61 of his colleagues perished.