Painful Truth: Jet lost in fight with Spitfires

Reporter Matthew Claxton delves into some Second World War fighter plane history.

Oct. 5 marked an unusual anniversary in Canadian military history.

On this date in 1944, RCAF fighter pilots became the first in the world to shoot down a jet aircraft.

The 401 Squadron had fought in the Battle of Britain, one of the first Canadian units of fighter pilots to take to the skies during the Second World War.

For much of the war they flew Spitfires. The Supermarine fighter planes were, at the time, a match for anything in the air. They were fast and sleek and had plenty of guns, and once their pilots figured out how to use them effectively, they knocked down a lot of German bombers and fighters.

After D-Day, the unit moved over to France. With the German armies being rolled back through Normandy, then the rest of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, 401 Squadron was put to work doing a lot of fighter-bomber duty.

This typically meant flying very low, and attacking targets like German trains and officers’ staff cars. Pilots who did this kind of work have written about having to watch out for telephone lines – that’s how low they often flew.

The arms race in fighter aircraft had swung back and forth throughout the war. The British and Germans started out roughly equal, then the Germans pulled ahead for a while, then the British. Spitfires got faster and faster as engineers upgraded their engines.

By 1944, the Allies had planes that were better or as good as anything the Germans had built, and they had a lot more of them. The Nazis tried to fight back with the first jet-powered fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 262.

By October, the Me 262s had shot down a number of Allied aircraft, but none had been destroyed in turn. U.S. pilots had managed to drive a few down or force them to crash, but there hadn’t been any decisive dogfights.

That changed when a dozen pilots from 401 patrolling over the Dutch town of Nijmegen spotted a jet.

The squadron’s account of the fight is… terse.

“The enemy aircraft seemed inclined to show fight and returned fire on many occasions but hit nothing. The enemy aircraft burned in the air and crashed in friendly territory…”

Implied but not said is that the patrol ganged up on the much faster jet fighter. Five pilots – Smith, Davenport, Everard, Mackay, and Sinclair – shared credit, in polite Canadian fashion.

Read Bob Groeneveld’s Odd Thoughts at

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