The Marks & Spencer MkV Spitfire was called The Marksman. Credit: Marks & Spencer Company Archive.

Marks & Spencer staff members raised enough money to purchase a Mk V Spitfire. It was named The Marksman. Credit: Marks & Spencer Company Archive.

WWII

VE Day: How Marks & Spencer Bought A Spitfire In The War

The story of how the 1941 workforce at M&S gave their own money to help defend the skies over Britain

The Marks & Spencer MkV Spitfire was called The Marksman. Credit: Marks & Spencer Company Archive.

Marks & Spencer staff members raised enough money to purchase a Mk V Spitfire. It was named The Marksman. Credit: Marks & Spencer Company Archive.

In the midst of the Second World War Blitz, the workers of Marks & Spencer decided to unite and raise money to help the national war effort.

Over the Winter months and into the Spring of 1941, air raids on key cities across the UK claimed the lives of 32,000 people.

A further 87,000 were seriously injured in the petrifying bombings at the hands of the Luftwaffe.

The 1941 Marks & Spencer workforce, which was at the time largely made up of the wives and mothers of British servicemen engaged in the fighting at home and abroad, succeeded in their efforts and raised an incredible £5,000 – in those days enough to buy a Spitfire.

And that’s exactly what they did with the money.

The Battle of Britain also saw heavy losses for the Royal Air Force.

By the end of October in 1940, the RAF had lost a staggering 1,547 planes and almost 600 men.

With the £5,000 raised by its staff members, Marks & Spencer Ltd (as it was then) purchased a Mk V Spitfire to help the Royal Air Force protect the skies above Britain.

The aircraft was constructed by Vickers Armstrong and handed over to the RAF on May 16, 1941. On June 1, The Marksman joined B Flight of 609 West Riding Squadron, stationed at Biggin Hill.

This incredible wartime act is now being commemorated by the retailer to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day.

Marks & Spencer have introduced a limited edition commemorative tin of biscuits to mark VE Day 75. Credit: Marks & Spencer
Marks & Spencer's limited edition commemorative tin of biscuits to mark VE Day 75. Credit: Marks & Spencer

VE Day 75 will be celebrated across Britain and the world on Friday May 8, 2020, exactly 75 years on from the moment guns fell silent across Europe - the day Allied Forces defeated Hitler’s Germany.

M&S have produced a special limited-edition tin of Scottish shortbread biscuits to pay tribute to their colleagues from yesteryear who raised the money for the aircraft, and to the ‘Marksman’ Spitfire itself.

Marksman proved to be an apt name for the fighter plane.

Soon after entering service, a pilot named Sergeant ‘Tommy’ Rigler found himself engaged in fierce fighting above the beaches of Dunkirk while flying the M&S-bought Spitfire.

Sergeant Rigler and his Mk5 Spitfire shot down and destroyed three enemy aircraft at 20,000ft in the skies above the French town.

Below the action, thousands of men on the beach had been constantly exposed to aerial bombardment by the Germans. The Sergeant’s heroic actions while at the controls of The Marksman earned him the Distinguished Flying Medal and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Tommy Rigler survived the war years and eventually retired holding the rank of Squadron Leader.

Marks & Spencer isn’t the only example of the Home-Front’s fundraising endeavours during WWII.

To help the war effort, many community-led initiatives took place throughout the years of the Second World War.

‘Warship Weeks’ were fashioned for whole cities or towns to collectively raise enough money to fund the construction of a Royal Navy ship. Those cities or regions would then have their name attached to the vessels upon entering service.

Home Front initiatives also included ‘Tanks for Attack’ and ‘Wings for Victory’ weeks based on the same model of community fundraising.

In October 1941, The Marksman was transferred to 411 ‘Grizzly Bear’ Squadron of the Royal Canadian Airforce, flying from Digby in Lincolnshire and later Southend. During this time, The Marksman mainly flew convoy protection patrols over the English Channel.

In March 1942, while being flown by 21-year-old Canadian Pilot Officer John Sills, The Marksman was attacked by enemy fighters.

The Spitfire was shot down and sadly, John Sills was killed in action. He was interred in the military section of Pihen-lès-Guînes cemetery near Calais.

A plaque hangs to this day in Marks & Spencer's head office in recognition of the employees of 1941. Credit: Marks & Spencer
A plaque hangs to this day in Marks & Spencer's head office in recognition of the employees of 1941. Credit: Marks & Spencer

In recognition of the employees and their fundraising-contribution to the war effort, the Ministry of Aircraft hung a plaque in Marks & Spencer’s London head office. It is still there today, and reads:

“In the hour of peril Marks & Spencer Limited earned the gratitude of the British nations, sustaining the valour of the Royal Air Force and fortifying the cause of freedom by the gift of Spitfire Aircraft. ‘They shall mount up with wings as eagles.’”

James Olszowski, Head of the M&S Veterans Network said:

"The VE Day 75th Anniversary is an opportunity for us all to honour and truly give thanks to our veterans and the sacrifices made during WW2.

"To mark this occasion, our food team have produced a limited edition, collectable, VE Day Shortbread Biscuit Tin with 5% of total proceeds being donated to the Royal British Legion – an organisation we’re incredibly proud to partner with."

Marks & Spencer’s limited-edition shortbread can be bought in food stores (which are open during the Coronavirus lockdown), or online as part of a special VE Day 75 tea and biscuit set.