Although the Me 163 rocket powered fighter had a frighteningly high-top speed and rate of climb, its endurance was very limited.
The Mark XI was essentially a Mark IX Spitfire interceptor modified for photographic reconnaissance (PR) with cameras, a more powerful engine and a larger oil tank in the nose. All guns and armor were removed and the fuel capacity was greatly increased; speed was the unarmed Mark XI’s defense. A total of 471 Mark XIs were built between April 1943 and January 1946. Great Britain and its allies flew various photo-reconnaissance versions of the Spitfire with great success in all theaters during World War II.
As told by Andrew Fletched in his book Spitfire Photo-Recce Units of World War 2, on May 29, 1944 Flt Lt G R Crakanthorp of No 542 Sqn was tasked with covering the German North Sea ports in Spitfire PR XI MB791. After refuelling at Coltishall, the pilot set course for Germany, where he photographed Bremen, Hamburg and Wilhelmshaven from 37,000 ft without incident.
As he left the Wilhelmshaven area, he observed what he identified as a Me 163 climbing rapidly at about 3000 ft per minute. Crakanthorp immediately began to climb, and as he reached 41,000 ft the enemy aircraft was only a few thousand feet below him. As he readied to turn into the anticipated attack, the exhaust plume on the Me 163 stopped and it turned away without gaining further height. He soon lost sight of his pursuer and set course for Coltishall to refuel.
‘After covering Wilhelmshaven, I observed an aircraft climbing rapidly at about 3000 ft per minute. I climbed as soon as I saw him, and as I reached 41,000 ft he was only 1000 yards to the south of me, but still a few thousand feet below. As I readied to turn into his attack, the exhaust plume on his aircraft stopped and he turned away without gaining any more height.’
Crakanthorp had encountered a Me 163 of Erprobungskommando 16, based at Bad Zwischenahn. The rocket powered fighter had commenced combat trials earlier that month, and this was the first known instance of a PR Spitfire being intercepted by the type. It seems likely that the Me 163 ran out of fuel just as the pilot was about to commence his attack.
Although it had a frighteningly high-top speed and rate of climb, its endurance was very limited. Fortunately for Crakanthorp, he had been intercepted west of Wilhelmshaven, so the Me 163 was operating at the limit of its endurance and the extra few thousand feet he gained probably saved him from being attacked.
Spitfire Photo-Recce Units of World War 2 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Gareth Hector via Osprey