Sunday, March 5

The first Spitfire

This day, exactly seventy years ago, at 4.35pm on 5 March 1936, the first ever Spitfire lifted from the grass strip at Eastleigh Airport, home of Supermarine Aircraft, on its maiden flight.
In the hands of Captain "Mutt" Summers, the flight lasted just eight minutes. Afterwards, he stepped from the aircraft and tersely conveyed to the assembled crew that he had found no problems - then he added "I don't want anything touched" - and so the first official Spitfire was born, the cost of development to that date amounting to the sum of £14,637. This was the aircraft, alongside the Hawker Hurricane, which was to play a pivotal part in winning the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Back in 1936, so impressed was the Air Ministry with it that, even before the full test programme had been completed they issued a contract for 310 Spitfires on 3 June.
The aircraft alone, however – superb though it was – would never have performed without the parallel development of the 12-cylinder Rolls Royce Merlin engine. But there were two other developments which gave it the edge over the Messerschmitt bf 109 – one British, the other American.
The first was the three-bladed, variable-pitch propellor, manufactured by Rotol, and the other was leaded petrol. A consignment of the vital tetra-ethyl lead was rushed over to the UK, just before the Battle of Britain. With it, Roll Royce were able to increase the power of their Merlins, which gave the aircraft those extra few knots that made all the difference.
Behind the fighters, of course, there was that other British invention, the chain of early-warning radars, linked in with a then unique system of fighter control, which enabled the embattled Royal Air Force to prevail against the greater might of the hitherto unbeaten Luftwaffe.
Interestingly, seventy years later, the Spitfire has come in the top three in the Design Museum contest for greatest British design since 1900, the other two being Harry Beck's 1931 London Underground map and, perversely, the Anglo-French Concorde.
In a hundred years time, if the Design Museum runs another contest, this one for the greatest British design since 2000, you can almost guarantee that there will not be a Spitfire-equivalent. In this era of European "co-operation", the days when we built our own war machines have long gone.
Lest we forget.


Anonymous said...

There is not enough drivel written about this aircraft. As a frontline combat fighter it had a few useful years. Far more Hurricanes than Spitfires were present at the Battle of Britain.

As soon as the RAF and USAAF forayed further into Europe the Spitfires piteful range let it down and in came first the P47D Thunderbolt and the P51D Mustangs which had much longer ranges and were easier to fly, service and had a wider choice of ordinance.

By the time it was based in Europe again and able to strike at Germany it was a completely different aircraft. Powered by a Griffon engine and not the Merlin, with a different wing and changed fuselage and then latterly a bubble canopy. That aircraft had more in common with the latter Spiteful than the earlier Spitfire.

The Spitfire myth is part of a nostalgic Britain long cherished and long gone. The Messerchmitt Bf 109 however has a far more traceable and consistant lineage than that which is bestowed by just an evocative name.

In front line service from the Spanish Civil War to ending up as trainers and anti insugency aircraft in the Spanish airforce in 1965 the Bf 109 traces thirty years of combat use in a wide variety of air forces.

The favourite mount of Germanys top scoring ace Erich Haartmann with 352 kills you see the Spifire and RAF top scorer Johnny Johnson with 36 and 1/2. Even the South African Air Forces Pat Pattle in a Gloucestor Gladiator manage to score 50. So why the hype about the Spitfire?

It seems that a lot of people have got a lot invested in maintaining a myth about Britain and our "great" achievements. This gets the UK perspective on things totally out of wack and into the beer goggle zone which we are so capable of doing when it comes to, for example football.

Let me put a true and verifiable perspective on this and back to WWII which we were so good at winning (with a lot of help). One young Gernman pilot in N.Africa, Hans Jocheim Marseille is now pretty well acknowledged as one of the best combat pilots of WWII and was tragically killed in an aircraft fire and forced bailout in 1942. Not enemy action.

On the 1st September 1942 he shot down 17 aircraft in one day. This was catagorically denied by the British who claimed that on that day they had not lost one aircraft.

In fact as the records recently released prove that they had lost over thirty. The usual establishment lies which we lap up like puppies. But notice the records have only recently been released. What are they afraid of, that our myths would die.

The Supermarine Spitfire Mks 1 through IX is a gracefully designed, pleasing to the eye and in the right circumstances a potent fighter. Mks XIV onward is a different and heavily redesigned fighter which was much less manouverable, heavier and less forgiving.

It however never realised the flexability of the P51D Mustang or the utilitarian nature of the Messerchmitt Bf 109. Without a doubt the P51D comes out as the best overall fighter and by sheer doggedness and strength of design the Bf 109 runs a close second. The Spitfire, a pretty also ran.

Peter Troy said...

Adolf Galland the Luftwaffe Group Fighter Comander (later General) during the Battle of Britain said to Reichmarschall Herman Goering at the hight of the Battle when questioned as to Luftwaffe needs during the Battle, that a squadron of Spitfires would greatly benefit the performance of his Gruppe.

What more can be said.