SALUTE TO THE SPIT­FIRE

A HEART-STIR­RING SOU­VENIR PULL­OUT TO CEL­E­BRATE 100 YEARS OF THE RAF

Scottish Daily Mail - - Front Page - by Leo McKinstry AU­THOR OF SPIT­FIRE: POR­TRAIT OF A LEG­END

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.