SALUTE TO THE SPITFIRE
A HEART-STIRRING SOUVENIR PULLOUT TO CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF THE RAF
At the height of the Battle of Britain in 1940, as the Germans sustained increasing losses in the face of the heroic RAF, Reichsmarschall hermann Göring summoned the top Luftwaffe fighter ace Adolf Galland to his headquarters.
Frustrated by the Reich’s failure to gain aerial supremacy over southern england, a vital precursor to hitler’s planned invasion, Göring asked Galland what he needed. ‘Give me a squadron of Spitfires,’ came the reply.
those words perfectly encapsulate the unequalled reputation that the fighter plane had earned in combat. Its power, speed and manoeuvrability were a source of terror to the Germans and reassurance to the British.
A revolutionary aircraft that transformed the capability of the RAF, the Spitfire rightly became a symbol of national defiance, turning what could have been Britain’s darkest hour into our finest.
Never was a British plane so cherished by its pilots or so adored by the public. Its very name became synonymous with victory in the air. Its unique appeal made it an invaluable tool of Allied propaganda, starring in a deluge of newsreels, films, posters and broadcasts.
the British people’s devotion was reflected in the phenomenal success of the Spitfire Funds, established in June 1940, to raise money for fighter production. Soon more than £13million (around £650 million today) had been contributed voluntarily.
the great pilot Alex henshaw, who tested more
than 2,000 Spitfires, said it: ‘Probably had a greater impact on the will of the people to survive and put more heart into their morale, when it was at its lowest ebb, than anything created in modern times.’
The Spitfire’s elegance gave it a unique charisma, but, throughout the war, the plane also proved its brilliance as a fighting machine. ‘She was so smooth and held no surprises in any way,’ recalled U.S. pilot Lee Gover. ‘I often marvelled at how this plane could be so easy to fly and yet how it could be such an effective fighter, able to hold its own with any plane in the world.’
When it first entered service in 1938, the Spitfire was not only the first allmetal monoplane but also by far the fastest aircraft in the RAF, able to reach 350mph. In later marks, the Spitfire’s maximum speed was increased by 35 per cent and on one occasion in April 1944, a photo reconnaissance variant flown by Squadron Leader ‘Marty’ Martindale flew at an incredible 606mph in a dive from 40,000ft, close to the speed of sound.
In addition to its unparalleled speed, it was also well-armed compared to previous British fighters. Early versions carried eight .303 Browning guns, each with 300 rounds, though later types also had cannon that packed an even deadlier punch.
A German bomber airman, shot down over Malta, said the ‘most terrifying thing’ that he experienced in combat ‘was the sight of 12 Spitfires all firing cannon and machine guns and coming head-on at our formation. All the front gunners had frozen stiff with fear’.
BUT perhaps the Spitfire’s greatest asset was its manoeuvrability, due to its sleek, aerodynamic design, its thin, elliptical wings and the responsiveness of its controls. ‘There was no heaving or pushing or pulling or kicking. You breathed on it. I’ve never flown anything sweeter,’ said George Unwin of 19 Squadron.
Spitfire pilots often spoke of their almost physical attachment to the plane. ‘It was a bit like a love affair,’ said Nigel Rose, who joined the RAF in 1938. Another Battle of Britain veteran, Wilfred Duncan Smith (father of Tory politician Iain) remembered how he ‘felt part of the Spitfire, a oneness that was intimate’.
The Spitfire’s agility made her not only deadly in a dogfight, but also good at evasion. ‘The bastards make such infernally tight turns. There seems no way of nailing them,’ complained a German fighter pilot.
The Spitfire was in action from the start of World War II, shooting down its first enemy planes, two JU88 bombers, over the Firth of Forth on October, 16, 1939. ‘The general impression is that the Spitfires are wonderful machines and that the Huns hate them,’ stated an Air Ministry report at the time.
But it was during the savage aerial battle above Dunkirk at the end of May 1940 that the Spitfire really proved it was a match for the Luftwaffe. RAF pilot B.J. Allan left this description of his first mission over Dunkirk: ‘I picked out one dive bomber and got on his tail, staying there as he twisted and turned this way and that, trying to avoid the eight streaks of tracer from my guns. Finally he pulled up and stalled, rolled over and plunged headlong towards the sea out of control.’
The Spitfires had helped to thwart German efforts to halt the evacuation from the French beaches. It was the first setback the Reich had experienced in the war. ‘The days of easy victory were over,’ complained one German pilot.
Yet even more decisive was the role that the plane played over the following months in the pivotal battle to defend Britain’s island home. Although the Spitfire made up only 40 per cent of Fighter Command’s strength in the summer of 1940, its pace and agility meant it was given the harder task of taking on the lethal Messerschmitt 109 fighter, while the slower, more bulky but robust Hawker Hurricane took on the German bombers. Fighter pilot Richard Hillary wrote vividly of his squadron taking on a German formation at 25,000ft in August.
‘One after another we peeled off in a power dive,’ he said: ‘I picked out one machine and switched my gun button to “Fire”. At 300 yards I had him in my sights. At 200 I opened up with a long four-second burst and saw the tracer going into his nose.’
The Spitfire’s effectiveness in the Battle was matched by the heroism of its pilots, who often had to fly five sorties a day.
Pilots on standby could be expected to be in the air ‘within two-and-a-half minutes at the most from the call’ to scramble said John Bisdee of 609 Squadron. The orderly would bawl out something like: ‘Squadron, scramble, Angels Fifteen (altitude 15,000ft).’
Flying ace Dizzy Allen recalled: ‘There was always a sound and
fury . . . a crackle of the Merlins starting up and the roar as the propellers began to rotate, dust blowing from behind the Spitfires, white smoke billowing from the exhaust stubs, airmen running, pilots job-trotting, start batteries being pulled out of harm’s way, chocks being heaved away and pilots roaring their engines as they moved out of line.’
In the air, heroes included Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan, of 74 squadron, a highly disciplined South African who was awarded the Distinguished Sevice Order in 1940 for his ‘brilliant leadership, skill and determination’ and Brian Lane, the leader of 19 Squadron, renowned for calmness under fire.
Spitfires were flown with equal courage by Czechs and Poles (including the plane shown on the cover), as well as Commonwealth pilots such as New Zealander Al Deere. During the summer of 1940, in the process of destroying 17 German planes, he was shot down seven times, bailed out three times, collided with a Messerschmitt 109 and had one of his Spitfires blasted at 150 yards by a bomb. Another exploded just seconds after he had scrambled clear of the wreckage.
The climax of the battle came on September 15, when the Luftwaffe lost 56 planes, forcing Hitler to abandon his plans for the conquest of Britain. But the Spitfire fought on. As ever more powerful, faster versions were developed, it turned out to be crucial in a host of different theatres, including the success-
ful campaign against General Rommel — the Desert Fox — in North Africa in 1942, the fight against Japan in Burma, the drive through western Europe after D-Day, and the destruction of German V-weapon sites in France.
The greatest Spitfire ace of them all, Johnnie Johnson, claimed his record-breaking 33rd kill during the summer of 1944, when he shot down a Messerschmitt 109 over northern France. ‘I hit his ugly yellow nose with a long, steady burst,’ said Johnson, who recorded 38 kills in all during the war.
It is a tribute to both the Spitfire’s modernity and quality that it was manufactured throughout the entire war.
In fact, production did not end until February 1948, long after the RAF’s first jet fighters had gone into service. Altogether 22,789 Spitfires, including seaborne versions, were built — by far the highest total for any aircraft in British history. Yet, given this extraordinary output it is remarkable what a troubled beginning the Spitfire had.
The plane was the brainchild of Reginald Mitchell, a former locomotive engineer from Stoke, whose passion for flying had made him the youthful chief designer at Supermarine, a Southampton-based company that specialised in maritime aviation.
Described by one of his managing directors as ‘a curious mixture of dreams and common sense’, Mitchell had gained international renown with a succession of fast seaplanes which had thrice won the coveted biannual Schneider trophy for racing over water.
In 1931 Mitchell’s final Schneider Trophy winner, the Supermarine S6, had attained an astonishing speed of 407mph, smashing the world record. It was this achievement that led the Air Ministry to encourage Supermarine to build a new military fighter that incorporated this cutting edge technology.
But Mitchell’s initial effort was a dismal failure. Called the Type 224, it featured a thick cranked wing, fixed, trousered undercarriage and the unreliable Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine that used a complex evaporative cooling system. The test pilot Jeffrey Quill described it as ‘a dog’s breakfast, just not a very good design.’
WHAT hindered Mitchell was not just his inexperience with land planes but also his poor health. In 1933 he was diagnosed with cancer, for which he had to undergo major surgery and the installation of a permanent colostomy bag. But he was a resilient, determined man. Having returned to Supermarine, he came up with a far more streamlined, faster plane, complete with a retractable undercarriage and elliptical wings.
There was also a much more efficient, powerful engine, the newly created Rolls Royce Merlin, which was to become the mainstay of the wartime RAF. The revamped design looked like a potential winner, a belief that was reinforced by the maiden flight of the prototype on March, 5, 1936, by test pilot Mutt Summers. ‘I don’t want anything touched,’ he declared once he had landed.
Amid all this praise, Mitchell’s only objection was to the title of the new plane. He favoured the Shrew or the Snipe, but the Supermarine management insisted on Spitfire. ‘Just the sort of silly name they would think of,’ Mitchell said.
The Government, deeply concerned about the pace of Nazi rearmament, was delighted with the early trials and placed an initial order for 310 Spitfires.
Mitchell had fulfilled expectations, though tragically he did not live long, succumbing to cancer in June 1937. By then, the contract had run into severe difficulties. For all its technical expertise, Supermarine was a relatively small company without the facilities for mass production.
Much of the work therefore had to be farmed out to subcontractors, many of which had little experience in aero engineering. One firm put no fewer than 15,000 queries through to Supermarine in 18 months.
The delays over the delivery of the first Spitfire contract caused official frustration — ‘a disgraceful state of affairs’ said one Government report — and political outrage, ultimately forcing the resignation of the Air Secretary, Lord Swinton in early 1938.
His successor Kingsley Wood, in a bold attempt to galvanise production, ordered the creation of a vast Spitfire factory at Castle Bromwich, Birmingham.
Run by Morris cars magnate Lord Nuffield, this colossal plant was meant to have turned out 1,000 Spitfires within two years. But by June 1940, not a single plane had emerged from Castle Bromwich, thanks to gross mismanagement and a recalcitrant workforce.
A secret inquiry found that there was ‘every evidence of slackness’ and ‘labour is in a very poor state’.
Fortunately, some of the shortfall in production was made up as Supermarine resolved its teething problems, so that by the outbreak of war at least ten RAF squadrons had been equipped with Spitfires.
Nevertheless, the early Castle Bromwich fiasco left a serious deficiency of the plane within Fighter Command on the eve of the Battle of Britain — just when it was needed most.
New management under the Vickers industrial giant, combined with political leadership from the newspaper tycoon Lord Beaverbrook, whom Churchill appointed as his Minister for Aircraft Production, brought a swift change at Castle Bromwich. Soon the factory was operating efficiently.
At its peak in 1943, the 14,000strong workforce — 40 per cent of whom were women — was building 300 Spitfires a month.
Supermarine had also undergone a major expansion since the Battle of Britain, not least because the bombing of its Southampton factory forced the dispersal of production across southern England.
Warehouses, rolling mills, bus depots, car showrooms, a steamroller works, a strawberry basket factory and a stately home were all commandeered for this purpose.
Throughout the war, the Spitfire underwent continual improvements. In all, there were 19 different marks and 54 variants as new weaponry or engines were introduced and the airframe was altered to meet new requirements, such as photo-reconnaissance or use on aircraft carriers.
Some Spitfires were converted into fighter bombers, proving highly effective against German supply lines in the African desert and in Northern Europe.
The final land version produced during the war, the Mark XIV, was more than 3,000lb heavier than the original Mark I that went into service in 1938.
Test pilot Alex Henshaw, commenting on one of the last marks, felt something of the original spirit had been lost in the quest for more power: ‘The genius of Mitchell had died. The beautiful symmetry had gone. In its place stood a powerful, almost ugly fighting machine.’
Even so, the changes meant the Spitfire, unlike the Hurricane, never became obsolete in wartime. When the Mark IX was developed in 1942, largely to counter the new German Focke-Wulf 190 fighter, RAF pilots were thrilled.
With its roaring two-stage, two-speed supercharged RollsRoyce Merlin 61 engine, the Mark IX was ‘the supreme’ Spitfire, according to Al Deere.
When Brian Kingcome first flew the Mark IX he said: ‘It took my breath away. It was exhilarating, a feeling I could never forget. I yearned for a chance to demonstrate this astonishing new tool to the Germans.’
OTHER later versions, including those powered by the mighty Rolls-Royce Griffon engine, never invoked such enthusiasm.
The Spitfire remained in British service after the war, even taking part in the campaigns in Korea and Malaya, and not finally retiring until 1955, when it bowed out in Hong Kong.
In one strange twist of history, it was involved in the ArabIsraeli conflict of 1948-9, serving not only with the RAF, which was leaving Palestine, but also with the Egyptian and Israeli air forces. In January 1949, three RAF Mark XVIIIs were shot down by Israeli Spitfires.
All this was a far cry from the glory days of the plane during World War II, when it served as an instrument of freedom.
Without the Spitfire, the course of European history might have been very different.
Pilot Neville Duke wrote that in the plane he felt ‘part of a fine machine, made by a genius’.
He added: ‘It is said that the Spitfire is too beautiful to be a fighting machine. I sometimes think that is true but then what better fighter could you want?’
Spitfire: portrait Of A Legend, by Leo McKinstry, £12.99, John Murray.
A masterpiece of engineering, the Supermarine Spitfire Mk1 was developed from the plane that broke the world speed record in 1931 and won the international seaplane race The Schneider Trophy. Supermarine’s chief designer, Reginald Mitchell, left, added the awesome Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and gave the wings their iconic shape to create the greatest combat aircraft in history…
Reach for the sky: Spitfire pilots rush for the planes as the klaxon sounds at Duxford Aerodrome in 1939