Spitfires Over China

Flt Lt Edward 'Ted' Powles

In Jan 1950 Flt Lt Edward 'Ted' Powles, who had trained on and mainly flown twin-engined aircraft, was rather surprised to suddenly be posted to RAF Finningley to complete a ‘refresher course’ on the Supermarine Spitfire PR14. His surprise was compounded by his build, 6ft 4ins and 180lbs, hardly ideal for squeezing into the confined cockpit of a Spitfire. Nevertheless, Powles completed the course and was then posted to RAF Leuchars in Scotland and trained to fly the Spitfire PR19 in high and low altitude reconnaissance sorties.

In Aug 1950, he was posted to RAF Tengah in Singapore, spending 4 months undertaking photo reconnaissance sorties and air strikes in Spitfire FR18s as part of Operation Firedog, the campaign against communist insurgents hiding in the Malayan jungle. In late Nov 50, Edward Powles transferred to 81 (PR) Sqn at RAF Seletar, continuing to fly a number of medium-level reconnaissance sorties over the Malayan jungle. Then just before Christmas 1950, the squadron CO informed Powles he had been selected to take a flight of two PR19s from Seletar to RAF Kai Tak in Hong Kong on 1 Jan 51. Exactly what his duties would be whilst he was operating from Kai Tak was never really explained, either by the CO at the time or at a later briefing by another senior officer from the RAF Headquarters at Changi, but such was the way of things sometimes in those far-off days.

Flight Sergeant Padden was selected to accompany Powles and both men carefully checked and air tested the two Spitfire PR19s assigned for this detachment, PS852 and PS854 fitted with split pairs of F52 cameras with 36in lenses, on New Years Eve - the day before departure. On 1 Jan 51, presumably after fairly muted New Year celebrations, the aircraft departed for Hong Kong and after an overnight stop in Saigon in French Indo-China and another refuelling stop in Tourane, both aircraft arrived safely at RAF Kai Tak in Hong Kong. After a couple of days spent flying around the local area to familiarise himself, Powles still had no orders or terms of reference and was no wiser about the purpose of this detachment - he was simply advised by OC Flying to await instructions. Eventually, after a couple of weeks flying sorties to assist the flights of Vampire jets being ferried into Sek Kong from Tourane, everything became clearer when Ted Powles was asked by a photographic interpreter, who was presumably acting with authorisation from higher authority, if he could take some aerial photographs of a number of Chinese islands in the local area.

Spitfire PR19 PS852

On 16 Jan 51 Edward Powles flew PS852 on his first sortie over Chinese territory and by the end of the month he had completed a further 3 sorties. Then in Feb 51 he was requested to take low-level oblique photographs of an airfield on the Chinese mainland and, after borrowing a Spitfire FR18, fitted with an oblique camera, from 28 Sqn he completed the sortie and later retained the aircraft for other low altitude photography. By mid May 51 Powles had flown 16 sorties over China, mainly over costal areas within 100 miles of Hong Kong, when he received his most difficult request to date – could he photograph the dock area and airfield on the island of Hainan, at the extreme range of the PR19. After carefully considering the possibilities, Powles decided that it would be possible with the assistance of a US Navy destroyer and an RAF Sunderland flying boat in the general area, who could provide accurate weather reports and would also give him some possibility of rescue if things went completely wrong. Nevertheless, as this sortie was at the limit of the range of the PR19, it was essential that Powles obtained the most accurate weather forecast to ensure he could take account of the high level winds in his planning. Unfortunately weather forecasting in the South China Sea area at this time was generally unreliable and the only really accurate reports were those obtained from incoming aircraft and ships. On the morning of 21 May the weather reports were good and Powles made the decision to attempt the overflight the following day.

Hainan Island overflight

On the morning of 22 May 52 at 1000hrs, Edward Powles took off in Spitfire PR19 PS852 and turned south-west heading out alone over the vast expanse of the South China Sea. As he slowly climbed to his cruising altitude of 30,000ft, Powles could see the weather was good, but after about 26 minutes when he made another course correction, he noticed the clouds building up to the west and 15 minutes later a heavy layer of cloud at about 20,000ft over the northern part of Hainan Island – not a good sign. Then just before he turned northwest towards the island, he called Tourane pretending to be an American and asked for a weather report – the Sunderland and the American destroyer were also listening out for this call which indicated Powles was in the area and about to commence his photo run over the island.

A photo taken by Edward Powles over Hainan Island showing a Chinese army barracks with servicemen on parade

As he was making the radio call, Powles also noticed a layer of cirro-stratus over the coast with a base of 28,000ft and decided to descend to get below the cloud to ensure he could complete the photo run, even though he was under strict instructions not to descend below 30,000ft. Running in towards Hainan Island, Powles levelled out at 27,000ft and, realising that he would need to make three runs, rather than the two originally planned, to cover all the target area, he marked the flight lines on his map and adjusted the interval settings on the Type 35 camera. Identifying the start point for the first run, Powles turned onto track and switched on the cameras, whilst continuously scanning the surrounding sky for approaching Chinese fighters. During the second photo run it became obvious to Powles that there was a large discrepancy between his map and the actual layout of the island and he had to adjust his track accordingly. The final photo run was even more difficult, as Yulin airfield had been considerably enlarged since Powles map was drawn, and then as he neared the end of the run he noticed the sun glint of a couple of aircraft approaching from the north at about 20,000ft on an interception course. Completing the photo run, Powles opened the throttles and climbed into the layer of cloud, turned south out over the sea, later when he emerged from the cloud and levelled off at 36,000ft and noticed no sign of enemy aircraft, he throttled back to the optimum cruise settings to conserve fuel and began the long flight back to Hong Kong.

A photo taken by Edward Powles over Hainan Island showing a walled and moated settlement

However, the unplanned third photo run over Hainan Island had eaten deeply into his fuel reserves and after making another radio call to indicate that he was clearing the area, Powles quickly calculated that he would only have about 5 minutes of fuel remaining when he reached Kai Tak. Powles then descended to 22,000ft, the PR 19’s optimum altitude when flying for maximum range, to eke out the remaining fuel. Unfortunately after 30 minutes he entered the cloud he had seen on the outbound leg and, as the aircraft began icing up, had no choice but to descend to 15,000ft to get below the cloud, increasing still further the drain on his fuel. When he finally came within radio range, Powles obtained an accurate steer towards Victoria Peak and the latest met information, a cloud base of 1,800ft. When he estimated he was 100nms from Kai Tak, Powles had empty wing tanks and only 30 gallons of fuel remaining in the main tank - insufficient for a normal approach. Fifteen minutes out from the airfield Powles called Hong Kong approach, explained he was low on fuel and started a descent on track to 7,000ft. Levelling out at 7,000ft, Powles was able to visually identify his position and continued descending to 1,700ft, whilst calling Kai Tak for an emergency landing on Runway 31 with only 5 gallons of fuel remaining. Unfortunately the crosswind was too strong for a landing on that runway and he was directed to use the much shorter Runway 07, on which overshoots were forbidden because of buildings and mountains – not that there was any chance of the aircraft overshooting. With the fuel gauge bouncing on empty, Powles maintained 1,700ft and turned finals over Kowloon Bay lowering the undercarriage, however, just as he was about to lower the flaps his fuel ran out and the engine stopped. Thanks to his superb airmanship, Powles had enough height and speed in hand to carry out a deadstick landing on the grass and bouncing onto the runway – the time was 1330 and he had been airborne for exactly 3½ hours.

On 27 Aug 51, again using PR19 PS852, Edward Powles conducted another long-range overflight of Hainan Island, this time to photograph the harbour, port and airfield at Haikou on the north-eastern tip of the island. Once again, despite thoroughly checking the weather conditions, he encountered strong headwinds and after completing the photo run and turning back towards Hong Kong, found himself 200nms from Kai Tak with only 50 gallons of fuel remaining. However, by carefully planning his return leg he again managed to position himself on finals for runway 13 at Kai Tak just as his engine spluttered and stopped when it ran out of fuel. Another deadstick landing followed and this time he even had the time to turn left and clear the runway before bring the Spitfire to a halt – flight time on this sortie was 3hrs 15mins.

A photo taken by Edward Powles from the Sunderland showing Chinese territory near Hong Kong

On 6 Nov 51 Edward Powles again flew his favourite aircraft, PR19 PS852, on another long-range overflight, this time over the Paracel Island which lie to the southeast of Hainan Island. This time the weather and wind conditions were good throughout the sortie and after taking off at 0900hrs and climbing to 30,000ft, Powles spent 40mins photographing all the larger islands, before returning to Kai Tak at 1210hrs. Later in 1952 he arranged for a second world war German telephoto lens, with a focal length of 60in, to be fitted into an RAF F52 camera body and mounted in an RAF Sunderland flying boat. On 29 May 52 the Sunderland, VML745, flown by Flt Lt Brand with Edward Powles on board, managed to stagger up to 16,000ft and whilst flying 3 nms off the coast of China, take some oblique photographs of Chinese territory. A further four flights were made using the Sunderland fitted with this unusual camera combination during which many oblique photographs of Chinese territory were obtained, but only with the inner starboard engine stopped and the prop feathered, to prevent the exhaust from blurring the picture and with a consequence, the Sunderland struggling to maintain 16,000ft.

Spitfire PR19 from port

By the end of 1951 Edward Powles had flown 63 PR sorties over Chinese territory. Amazingly he was given a special briefing for only 4 of these sorties and each time he was reminded that he had no authority to carry out the flight and that if anything should happen he was on his own – a quite unbelievable situation!! It is believed that Edward Powles colleague, Flight Sergeant Padden, did not undertake any overflights. However, when FS Padden was recalled to Singapore, he was replaced by Sgt Mutch, who was himself later replaced by Sgt Hood and these two pilots both flew PR sorties over Chinese costal islands. During Sep 52 Sgt Hood was replaced by Sgt Walker and by this time the PR19 detachment at Kai Tak had photographed practically all the important intelligence area along the coast of China, from about 400nm south-west of Hong Kong to 160nm north-east. A number of areas over mainland China, up to 100nm inland, were also photographed mainly from 30,000ft. Whenever aircraft contrails were sighted during sorties over the mainland, Powles climbed away from the aircraft towards the coast and then returned when he was certain the aircraft posed no threat.

Although neither of the Spitfire PR XIX’s used for these sorties, PS852 and PS854 survived, their sister aircraft PS853 does. After serving for many years with the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the aircraft is now operated by Rolls Royce from Filton. In Jun 52 Flt Lt Edward Powles was awarded the Air Force Cross in recognition of his work. The latter part of the citation sums up perfectly the ability and character he displayed when flying these sorties over China: “This officer, even when flying at altitude, often over the sea, alone in a single-seater aircraft, has always shown the greatest determination to complete his mission although this entailed returning to base with his fuel almost exhausted; he has repeatedly earned high praise for his skill, courage and high standard of airmanship.”