These pages summarize shipping movements for the principal Spitfire exports.
Aircraft destined for overseas would generally proceed along the following route.
The aircraft would be test flown and inspected at the manufacturer. The Air Transport Auxilliary would then fly the machine to a Maintenance Unit ('MU') where weapons and other military equipment would be fitted.
They would then be flown to a Packing Unit for disassembly. These were designated MU's. There was one Civilian Packing Unit:- Crosby & Co at Odiham.
Spitfires were initially packed in two cases: one for the wings and one for the fuselage. Single crate packs were also used later in the war.
If the ship was due to leave immediately the aircraft would be sent to the relevant docks. Otherwise they would be sent to a Packed Aircraft Transit Pool ('PATP') for temporary storage.
Transport to the docks would generally be by road. Loading at the docks would be supervised by a RAF Embarkation Unit ('EU'). Some EU's had responsibility for several docks, so for example 21EU at Hull was also responsible for Immingham, Middlesborough, Sunderland and Newcastle.
Ships were often given code numbers, usually the prefix 'R' was given to RAF vessels carrying aircraft, or 'LS' for 'Liner service' charters. Other prefixes applied to vessels carrying other types of store.
Code names were used for some destinations, i.e. 'Aloud', 'Bluff'(Gibraltar), 'Hamble'(Gibraltar), 'Fever', Romsey', 'Penrith' and 'Hapmat'(USSR).
Unloading at the destination was also undertaken by overseas Embarkation Units. They would arrange transport to Maintenance Units for re-assembly. In Gibraltar a Special Erection Party was responsible for assembly.
Takoradi on the Gold Coast of West Africa was used as a base for delivering aircraft to the Middle East without having to sail around the Cape. Most of North West and Central Africa was under Vichy French control but an air route was devised across Nigeria to the Sudan and north to Egypt that minimized the distance flown over French occupied territory (French Equatorial Africa).
This was known as the Takoradi route, or West African reinforcement route. It covered over 3600 miles and 5295 aircraft were ferried to Egypt between 1940 and 1943, including 736 Spitfires, in 894 ferry flights.
Spitfires were generally ferried in batches with a twin engined escort for navigation.
Multi-engined aircraft could fly directly from the UK to Gibraltar, and these left from the Overseas Aircraft Despatch Unit ('OADU') at Portreath. Photo reconnaissance aircraft also had the range to reach Gib, although some were sent by ship.
The reinforcement of Malta with Spitfire aircraft in 1942 was undertaken by flying the aircraft off aircraft carriers. These were known as 'Club runs'. They commenced in 1940 with Hurricanes but in March 1942 Spitfire deliveries commenced. Initially aircraft were packed and sent to Gibraltar where they were loaded aboard HMS Eagle and equipped with 90 gallon overload tanks. About 700 miles from Malta the aircraft were flown off the carrier.
In May 1942 two trips were made by the USS carrier Wasp, loading aircraft at Glasgow. On the second trip she was accompanied by Eagle, which had loaded her aircraft at Gibraltar. Eagle made five further trips before she was sunk.
HMS Furious subsequently made three trips. At about the same time as her last trip (October/November 1942) 12 Spitfires were fitted with 170 gallon overload tanks and flown directly from Gibraltar to Malta. In addition two of the aircraft on board Furious became unserviceable and were returned to Gibraltar. These were subsequently fitted with long range tanks and flown to Malta. The Allied invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch) in November 1942 meant that further reinforcements could be made from Africa.
Aircraft supplied to the USSR were initially sent by ship to Basrah. From here they were either erected at Abadan and flown to Russia or sent by road and rail. From August 1944 deliveries were made by sea to Murmansk (or nearby ports of Archangel and Bakarista).
Aircraft Form 78 history cards (RAF Museum)
Aircraft serial number ledger cards (RAF Museum)
Shipping Movements cards (TNA BT 389 series)
Lloyds voyage cards (Guildhall Library)
Embarkation Unit record books (TNA AIR 29 series)
OADU record books (TNA AIR 29 series)
PATP record books (TNA AIR 29 series)
Notes re schedules:
The sailing date is the date the vessel departed the loading port, not from the UK. Vessels often sailed to a different port to join a convoy.
The Cargo column shows the quantity of each aircraft type loaded/unloaded according to the Embarkation Unit records, where available. If the Spitfire quantity differs from the total calculated from the history cards then the actual quantity identified from specific serials is shown in brackets.
Cargo codes: Au=Auster An=Anson Be=Beaufighter Bl=Blenheim D=Defiant F=Fairchild Fu=Fulmar G=Gladiator H=Hurricane L=Lysander M=Tiger Moth N=Harvard O=Sea Otter Sp=Spitfire Sw=Swordfish T=Tempest Tom=Tomahawk W=Walrus
X=Total quantity of aircraft, types not specified.
If cargo data is not available the known quantity of Spitfires is shown in brackets.
Principal overseas shipping Units:
PATP - Packed Aircraft Transit Pool
3PATP (Newhouse by Motherwell)
MU - Packing Unit Maintenance Units
222MU (High Ercall)
Crosby & Co: Civilian packing Unit (Odiham)
EU - Embarkation Units
Overseas Aircraft Dispatch Unit (for direct flights overseas)