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The Spitfire

The Spitfire - a Biography

The Spitfire fighter plane occupies pole position in the history of British combat aircraft.

A Spitfire, exploded view
A Spitfire, exploded view
Although it was developed at the same time as its great rival, the Hawker Hurricane, which played an equally heroic role in the Battle of Britain, it remains the plane most readily associated in most people’s minds with the aerial defence of the country.

Its famous silhouette, all smoothly contoured lines and oval wings, helped to lodge it firmly in the public mind as the most instantly recognisable aircraft of the second world war.

It was designed by RJ Mitchell for the Supermarine Aviation company in 1936, in response to a request from the Air Ministry for a new generation of faster and more effective planes. Earlier prototypes were rejected for not being able to carry enough firepower. The version that met with final approval, Mark I, was armed with eight .303-inch machine guns, and had a top speed of 361mph – as against the more sluggish 250mph or so of its predecessors.

The strong points of the new plane were its unmatched speed, heavy firepower and manoeuvrability. It was a sleek, all-metal machine with low-mounted wings, a single engine and a compact cockpit big enough for just one pilot. Its drawbacks were that it required a huge quantity of fuel, and therefore a disproportionately large tank. This meant that it tended to burn up quickly when hit, and the cockpit wasn’t easy to get out of in a hurry.

Over the next two decades, more than 22,000 Spitfires, all the way up to a Mark 24 model, capable of 440mph, would be built. At the end of its career, in 1954, it was being used primarily as an unarmed photo-reconnaissance plane. The various redesigns were led by Joseph Smith, who became chief designer when Mitchell died in 1937.

The man behind the myth

Sir Douglas Bader by Paul Laib, 1950s
Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader by Paul Laib; 1950s; whole-plate film negative;

Reginald Mitchell was born in the small village of Talke, near Stoke-on-Trent, in 1895. He started his working life as an apprentice to a locomotive works, where he quickly rose to become assistant engineer. In 1917, he joined Supermarine Aviation Works of Southampton, where he remained for the rest of his career – occupying the position of director for the last ten years.

In 1934, while recovering from abdominal cancer, Mitchell made a convalescent trip to Germany. His experience of Nazism at first hand was enough to convince him of the need to prepare against German rearmament.

Building the plane

The Spitfire was born of a hybrid of two aircraft designs: the S6-B and the Type 224. The Air Ministry, in the person of Air Vice Marshal Hugh “Stuffy” Dowding, liked the plane but with one major reservation: he wanted an aircraft with eight guns, each capable of firing 1,000 rounds a minute, while Supermarine’s latest design only had four. It was thought at first that increasing the firepower would necessitate increasing the strength (and thus the thickness) of the wings, which would in turn slow the plane down. This problem was solved by means of an elliptical wing design, capable of carrying four guns on each side.

The new plane made its maiden flight, with Joseph “Mutt” Summers at the controls, at Eastleigh airport, near Southampton, on March 5, 1936. Mitchell was disappointed with its performance, having confidently predicted it would attain a speed of 350mph. Summers reported that the handling was perfect, however, and recommended that no alterations be made to the design. Once successive test flights had got its speed up to 348mph, the Air Ministry placed an order for 310 planes that June.

What's in a name?

Not the least important task now facing the design team and the government was to name the new plane. Sir Robert McClean, chairman of Vickers (which was co-ordinating supplies to the government), suggested that the name for the new fighter should be something “venomous”, and that it should ideally start with the same letter as the name of the manufacturer, Supermarine. Early suggestions were the Shrike and the Shrew, before the name Spitfire was hit upon. It was “just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose”, thought Mitchell, but Vickers and the Ministry had made up their minds.

A “spitfire”, first recorded in 1600, was a colloquial term for a fiery-tempered person, easily aroused to anger. The word was a more polite replacement for the earlier “shitfire”. There is also an English usage, first recorded in 1611, to mean any device that “emits or vomits fire, especially a cannon”. So when Supermarine’s fighter plane was named, the word had already been in use for over three centuries to denote some form of weapon.

The first plane was delivered to 19 Squadron RAF Duxford in Cambridgeshire in August 1938, and by the following May, a fleet of 16 planes was fully operational.

Mark 24 was a fully-fledged ground attack aircraft with short-barrelled guns. These were operated by 80 Squadron, part of the British presence in post-war Germany. They were taken to Hong Kong, where they were stationed at the old Kai Tak airport, and were probably bulldozed into the sea during the land reclamation that took place when the airport runway was lengthened in January 1952.

Where are they now?

There are currently around 50 Spitfires in active flying condition. The oldest still in operation is a Mk II first delivered in August 1940. It serves with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire. There is one Mk I left in action, although it dates from July 1941, by which time it had already been superseded.

Wing Commander Raymond Myles Beacham Duke-Woolley describes the experience of the solo fighter pilot on www.thehistorynet.com:

“The cockpit was so narrow that his shoulders brushed against the sides whenever he rubbernecked for enemy fighters (which was constantly); his flying helmet, with his radio headset, covered his ears; his nose and mouth were covered by an oxygen mask, which also contained his microphone. He could not hear very well – even the engine roar was muffled; his vision was severely restricted, and his entire body was boxed in by the confines of the cockpit. He was, in short, not only lonely but also extremely uncomfortable.”