The Beer that Won the War

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Jun 28, 2013 | By David Ethier

Still reeling from our Vintage Aircraft experience, we found ourselves falling down internet rabbit holes that were all things airplane. We’d known about the iconic WWII-era Supermarine Spitfire—the Spitfire played a significant role in the Battle of Britain, and became as beloved by the public as it was by its pilots. By October of 1940, the Spitfire was the backbone of the RAF Fighter Command and was the only plane manufactured continuously throughout the war.

But that was what we knew. What we didn’t know was that apart from being an interceptor, fighter-bomber, carrier-based fighter, trainer, and tool for photo-reconnaissance, the Spitfire was also a…delivery aircraft.

Getting vital supplies into Normandy after D-Day was, naturally, a challenge. As a result, logistical planning for luxury items like beer wasn’t at the top of the list, even though the Heneger and Constable breweries had been donating it to the troops for free.

You can see where this is going.

A later model of the original, the Spitfire Mk IX had pylons under the wings, meant for bombs or tanks. Several unnamed, crafty pilots figured out that kegs of beer could also be secured to the pylons. Others decided to repurpose the Spitfire’s long-range fuel tank. Given the official designation of Mod. XXX, the tank itself would be replaced with beer.

Mod. XXX and pylon Spitfires were sent, one at a time, back to Great Britain for “maintenance” or “liaison” purposes about once a week. The ground clearance for planes carrying kegs was severely limited. In his book, Dancing in the Skies, RAF pilot Tony Jonsson says he hated the beer runs because everyone would watch the landing; if you dropped the tanks, you’d be a hated man for the week.

Of course, the British Revenue of Ministry and Excise got involved, claiming that the breweries were violating the law by exporting beer without paying the relevant taxes (haters). The bootlegging continued on, albeit less frequently and from strategic “negligence” on the part of some higher ups.

Our favorite part of the story? When the Spitfires flew high enough, the beer arrived ready for consumption – the cold air at altitude had already chilled it.

On the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Shepherd Neame, Britain’s oldest brewery, began production of the aptly named Spitfire Premium Kentish Ale. We find it an appropriate liquid memorial for the crucial victory. Their ads are below. Cheers.

Spitfire plane images via The Spitfire Site. Spitfire beer ads by Spitfire Ale. Hat tip to @mikepetrucci for turning us onto the story.