When Royal Australian Air Force Flight Lieutenant Henry Lacy Smith’s Spitfire Mk.IXb was hit by flak during a strafing mission over Normandy five days after D-Day, he radioed, “I’m going to put this thing down in a field.” He might have lived had he been able to, but instead he went down in a tidal flat off the Orne River near Caen. His flight mates saw the airplane skid across the water briefly, then nose down and slowly turn onto its back. Smith was trapped in the cockpit and drowned.
Sixty-six years later, his remains—and the hulk of his airplane—were recovered from the mud flat by a team led by Brigitte and Fabrice Corbin, who run a World War II tourist museum overlooking the D-Day beaches in Ouistreham, in the blockhouse that once served as Wehrmacht headquarters for the Atlantic Wall fortifications (see musee-grand-bunker.com/englishversion.asp).
Initial reports of the recovery placed the crash in the Orne River, but the wreck was in fact dug out of the mud just off the town of Sallonelles, brought to the surface at high tide by large floats, and then tidal currents carried it out to the Orne before full recovery could be attempted.
It is possible that Smith had extended his gear in hopes of reaching a landable field—an act that sealed his doom when he ditched instead. Norman locals had for years known of the Spitfire’s existence because the mainwheels of the inverted airplane appeared above the mud at low tide.
Brigitte Corbin told Aviation History that Smith’s remains will be buried in France (at Ranville War Cemetery) rather than being sent back to Australia, and that the wreckage of his Spitfire will remain in Normandy. “We do not know yet if the plane will be exhibited in our museum,” she explained. But the Corbins have one very valuable piece of the airplane—the dataplate with its serial number, LF IXb MJ789—and restorers are surely bidding for it already. An “authentic” Spitfire can be built from scratch around an original dataplate, which has already been the case with several recovered but unrestorable Spits.