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The Spitfire Fund - how philately and a French Colony contributed to the production of a legendary fighter aircraft.

Amongst collectors of the French Colonies and of Wartime stamp issues the French Cameroun ‘Spitfire Fund’ stamps occupy an unusual and desirable position, but what is the link between cash contributions received from many different sources and locations throughout the British Isles during World War II, the need for top-up production funding to help build more ‘Spitfire’ aircraft and a remote waterfall situated on the M’Bam River, near Banyo in the former French West African Colony of Cameroun?

There are many different images of the RAF’s famous ‘Spitfire’ fighter plane. The mention of its name evokes the notion of defiance in the face of the seemingly overwhelming odds faced during the ‘Battle of Britain’ fought in the skies over South East England between July and September 1940. It cost approximately £10,000 to produce an operational ‘Spitfire’ which in 1938 was a significant sum of money, equal to an amount of nearly £400,000 at to-day’s values. As the ‘Battle of Britain’ escalated there was a desperate need for more ‘Spitfires ‘and funds were launched to raise funds throughout the country.

Following the German retreat in September 1940, the Commander of the Luftwaffe, Field Marshall Hermann Göering is reputed to have said that he also ‘needed’ them and blamed German aero-nautical engineers for their failure to design a plane capable of providing the Luftwaffe with the supremacy needed to allow Adolf Hitler’s invasion plan to proceed. Some historians have suggested that it was the German failure to link their formidable science and engineering know- how with the military that slowed many of the Reichs developments at this time.

In 1940, after consultation with Genéral De Gaulle, the leader of the Free French Forces, it was agreed that four of the Cameroun 1939-40 definitives stamps, each depicting the same powerful image of the Banyo Waterfall dwarfing a single onlooker standing on a nearby shore could be used as a means of generating additional revenue to pay the costs incurred in producing ‘Spitfires’ at the main factory in Castle Bromwich, Birmingham. The chosen denominations, 25c, 45c, 60c and 70c; each bore a hefty surcharge in black ink inscribed with the words:

“+ 5 Frs. SPITFIRE”

The cash raised by this surcharge was paid to the ‘The Spitfire Fund’ that also included the contributions from many towns and cities, companies, private groups, clubs and individuals with their own local ‘Spitfire Funds’.

In addition to the initial contribution, Cameroun provided further support in February 1941 when two examples of the New York World Trade Fair 1939 horizontal stamp ‘Exposition International New York’ with values of 1 Fr.25 and 2Fr.25 were released with even heftier surcharges reading:

“SPITFIRE 10Frs. Genéral de GAULLE”

In Great Britain a ‘Cinderella’ issue was made available and offered for sale to the general public. This was in a booklet format of 24 stamps that sold for 1 shilling. This was a commercial enterprise that promised 50% of receipts would go to ‘The Spitfire Fund’. Concerns for the probity of such a non-government backed issue were such that the matter was raised in a House of Commons debate with the Home Secretary confirming that he was aware “...... that the company is offering for sale adhesive labels described as ‘Spitfire Fund and Empire Propaganda Stamps’....... I have no information to show there is any misrepresentation, but members of the public who wish to subscribe to aeroplane funds would, I suggest, be well advised to make their contributions directly to such funds....”

Just over 20,000 Spitfires were produced between 1940 and 1946. Currently there are 47 that are certified air-worthy though numbers are slowly increasing as painstaking renovations are completed by enthusiasts. The fact that so many were built is testament to the success of the numerous ‘Spitfire Funds’ that were established and with it the fact that the plane and the pilots that flew in the ‘Battle of Britain’ did indeed “grab success from the jaws of disaster”.

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