From Prototype to Defender of the Skies: The Story of the Spitfire

The British Spitfire – the iconic, high performance aircraft, celebrated for its maneuverability, speed and fire power – helped the RAF turn the tide of the Second World War (1939-1945) in the Allies’ favour.

Spitfire prototype K5054
The Spitfire prototype K5054, pictured, made an eight minute history-making flight with Vickers Armstrong Chief Test pilot Captain Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers at the controls © IWM HU1659

Here we tell the Spitfire story and commemorate the 85th anniversary of its prototype K5054’s maiden flight at the former Southampton Municipal Airport (now Southampton Airport) on 5 March 1936.

The first spitfires

Portrait of Reginald J Mitchell
Reginald J Mitchell (1895-1937), the genius behind the Spitfire. Prior to the Spitfire, Mitchell had designed more than 20 aircraft, including bombers, flying boats and race-winning seaplanes. He died of cancer before the first Spitfire took to the skies and was succeeded by his long-term collaborator, Joseph Smith, who oversaw the Spitfire’s many developments over the years. It was a mark of the iconic status and glamour of the Spitfire that a film based on Mitchell’s story – ‘The First of the Few’ starring Leslie Howard – filled cinemas in 1942. Image in the Public Domain.

The Spitfire had its genesis in the 1930s at the Supermarine Aviation Works (Vickers), Southampton, where Mitchell was Chief Designer.

Mark I spitfire
The first Spitfire – the Mark I pictured – entered service with No. 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford, Cambridgeshire, August 1938. The Squadron flew Spitfires for the whole of the Second World War. Image © IWM

Mitchell and his design team created the Spitfire – with its light, stream-lined body, elliptical wings, Rolls Royce Merlin engine and eight wing-mounted Browning machine guns – in response to the Air Ministry’s call, in 1934, for a high performance fighter. 

Spitfire Mark VB  in flight
Spitfire Mark VB of 92 Squadron, Biggin Hill, Kent. By September 1940, the Spitfire was in service with 18 RAF squadrons. Image © IWM CH2929

Although the 1930s was a period of relative world peace, the government had grown increasingly alarmed about the scale of Germany’s rearmament after the accession of Adolf Hitler in 1933 and the likelihood of aggression from the air in any future conflict.

The Air Ministry put in an initial order of 310 Spitfires from Supermarine which hugely expanded and modernised its factory at Woolston, Southampton for Spitfire production. A sister factory was also built at Itchen nearby.

‘Shadow of factories’

Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory from above
The enormous new Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory, Birmingham (a ‘Shadow Factory’) which employed around 12,000 workers building Spitfires, as well as Lancaster bombers. Image in the Public Domain

Driven by concerns about the vulnerability of aircraft production to possible enemy bombing and the urgent need to maximise the production of aircraft and other military hardware, the government devised an official ‘Shadow Factory’ scheme in the lead up to the Second World War.

Existing manufacturers, particularly the motor industry in the Midlands with its skilled workforce and mass production capabilities, became ‘Shadow Factories’ – turned over to making different parts for aircraft, including the Spitfire. In addition, several new purpose-built factories were constructed. Plants and sites, some underground, were chosen well away from the south coast of England which was particularly vulnerable to German air raids.

Spitfire fuselage assembly shed with  hundreds of half-built spitfires
Spitfire fuselage assembly shed, Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory. Image in the Public Domain

Among them was the Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory. The Air Ministry had negotiated with the existing car manufacturer, Morris Motors at Castle Bromwich, and built a huge new factory on nearby fields next to Castle Bromwich Aerodrome.

Women workers sewing and lacquering the Spitfire rudders
Many women worked in Spitfire factories. Pictured are workers in the ‘Dope Room’ at the Castle Bromwich factory, sewing and doping (lacquering) Spitfire rudders to render them weatherproof. Image in the Public Domain

By the end of the war, the Castle Bromwich factory had become the largest manufacturer of Spitfires in Britain, producing over 12,000 at the rate of more than 300 a month.

Male and females workers in the canteen
Some of the thousands of employees in the Works’ canteen, Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory. Image in the Public Domain

Spitfire factories under enemy attack

During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe fought unsuccessfully to establish air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a prelude to Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain (‘Operation Sealion’).

A group of spitfire pilots resting, some sitting on the ground
Spitfire pilots from RAF 610 Squadron rest between Battle of Britain sorties, 29 July 1940; a Spitfire visible in the background. The courage of such pilots was celebrated by Prime Minister Winston Churchill who called them ‘The Few’. Images © IWM HU1062

During the eleven terrible weeks of the Battle of Britain, when the future of Britain hung in the balance before the RAF gained air supremacy over Germany, RAF Spitfires shot down a total of 529 enemy aircraft. 230 Spitfires were lost; their pilots, killed or injured.

Aerial view of the destruction of the Supermarine Aviation Works
Aerial view of the destruction of the Supermarine Aviation Works at Woolston, Southampton, following the air raids of 24 and 26 September 1940. Today, the slipway into the water, once used for flying boats and amphibians, and now Listed Grade II, is one of the last vestiges of the original Supermarine Aviation Works and a tangible link with Chief Designer Reginald J. Mitchell’s development of the Spitfire. Photograph C. Sweetingham

Germany wanted to annihilate Spitfire production, with the Supermarine Spitfire factories at Woolston and Itchen prime targets.

After concerted air raids on Southampton and its docks in 1940, the Luftwaffe bombers succeeded in hitting both factories on 24/26 September. On the 26th itself, 55 men and women were killed and 92 injured across the city. A large number of the casualties were aircraft production workers.

Aerial photograph taken shortly after the destruction of the Supermarine Aviation Works
RAF aerial photograph taken shortly after the destruction of the Supermarine Aviation Works (bottom centre). Numerous bomb craters are visible in the vicinity. Image © Historic England Archive RAF 110E/BR8 15295

Dispersal of Spitfire production

Immediately following the loss of the Southampton Supermarine factories, the Minister of Aircraft Production, Lord Beaverbrook, mandated a complete rethink of local Spitfire manufacture in order to maintain production.

In the months before the fatal raids, Supermarine – who recognised the vulnerability of their factories – had already begun identifying suitable local premises and moving equipment. Now, in a logistical and engineering feat, Supermarine’s Spitfire production was dispersed to 28 small requisitioned sites in and around Southampton – each making different parts and hidden away in workshops and garages, as well as in buildings such as the Hants & Dorset bus depot and the Sunlight Laundry.

Women working on a Spitfire in a secret factory
Women working on a Spitfire in a secret factory in Salisbury, Wiltshire. Image © IWM

The workforce, many of whom were new employees – including young men fresh from school and young unmarried women, all of whom who had to be trained up – operated in secret. Buildings were also requisitioned in towns and cities in southern England, such as Reading in Berkshire, and Salisbury and Trowbridge in Wiltshire. All would prove difficult for the Luftwaffe to spot from the air.

Southampton Municipal Airport aerial photo
Southampton Municipal Airport, Eastleigh in 1939 where, from the following year, Spitfires were assembled and test flown. The Supermarine hangars are centre right with black and white roofs; the white building centre top is the Flight Shed. Just visible top-left of the Flight Shed is a graveyard. It is the last resting place of the Spitfire’s inventor – Reginald J. Mitchell. Image © Historic England EPW/060855

Supermarine rented and constructed several hangars at Southampton Municipal Airport where the Spitfire components were delivered and assembled, before the finished aircraft were test flown and delivered to RAF stations by the civilian Air Transport Auxiliary.

Aerial image of the former civilian aerodrome
An aerial image of the former civilian aerodrome, High Post near Salisbury, which became a site for the final assembly and flight testing of Spitfires. The image shows a cluster of what may be Spitfire propellers. It is possible they were being used for blocking the airfield to prevent German landings. Image © Historic England Archive HLA 633 5162
Rows of Mark IX Spitfires
Rows of Mark IX Spitfires, with Lancaster Mark I bombers in the background, lined up at Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory, Birmingham in the 1940s. Image in the Public Domain.

The Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory in Birmingham, which had become the main centre of Spitfire production, survived the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids, remaining relatively unscathed throughout the war.

Spitfire fund

A poster encouraging the public to contribute financially to the production of Spitfires
A poster encouraging the public to contribute financially to the production of Spitfires. Image © IWM PST18495

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain was still grappling with enormous debt from the First World War (1914-1918) and the fallout from the Great Depression of the 1920s.

Lord Beaverbrook launched the Spitfire Fund in May 1940. The Spitfire was given a nominal value of £5,000. Donors were encouraged to buy a component – from a rivet for 6 pence, a spark plug for 8 shillings, a gun at £200 and a wing priced at £2,000.

A poster created for Malta - ‘Your ‘Spitfire’ in Action!’
A poster created for Malta – ‘Your ‘Spitfire’ in Action!’. Part of the text reads: ‘Subscriptions from Malta have bought ‘Spitfire’ fighter aircraft for Britain. These planes protect British homes and industries from aerial attack and harass enemy shipping and transport.’ The illustrations depict a Spitfire, along with three images of Allied fighter planes attacking German aircraft, shipping and ports. Image © IWM PST15851

The Spitfire Fund caught the public’s imagination. Donations poured in, from children contributing their pocket money, to fund-raising by voluntary organisations, churches and businesses; from appeals co-ordinated by local newspapers, to contributions from Allied countries abroad.

The money raised was probably used for the general war effort, rather than pay for actual Spitfires, but the fund was an important morale-booster for the British public at home.

Commemorating the Spitfire

Spitfire memorial with three of the aircraft peeling away into the skies
Spitfire memorial with three of the aircraft peeling away into the skies. ’Sentinel’, by sculptor Tim Tolkien, Spitfire Island, Castle Bromwich, Solihull, was unveiled 14 November 2000, near the former Spitfire works – the Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory (now Jaguar Land Rover). Image © Historic England DP141780

In total, over 20,000 Spitfires, encompassing 24 different marks and its naval variant the Seafire, were built by British factories for the RAF during the course of the war and up to 1948. The Spitfire also served in many theatres of war round the world, including the Mediterranean, the Soviet Eastern Front and the Pacific. The United States Army Air Forces’ 4th Fighter Group also flew Spitfires for a time.

There are memorials of many types round Britain commemorating the Spitfire, its development and its contribution to the Second World War.

Left: Plaque in the memory of Spitfire pilot, Brian Lane, missing in action and with no known grave. The plaque was unveiled at his former home in Pinner, Greater London, 25 September 2011. Right: Plaque honouring the Supermarine Aviation Works’ employees killed in the air raids of 24/26 September 1940. It is on the former factory site at Woolston, Southampton. The memorial was repainted and rededicated in 2018. Images via Wikimedia Commons/IWM

Memorials include restored aircraft, replicas, statues, monuments and plaques, as well as an unusual simple concrete shape of a Spitfire set flat on a grassy slope on Reginald Mitchell Way, two miles from Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent where Mitchell was born.

A sculpture of a Spitfire in flight trailing its 40 metre-high steel vapour trail has received funding and will be erected on Southampton’s waterfront in 2022.

Statue of Reginald J. Mitchell, made from 400,000 pieces of stacked Welsh slate
Statue of Reginald J. Mitchell, made from 400,000 pieces of stacked Welsh slate. He stands – a hands-on designer, sleeves rolled up – in front of his drawing board carved with the design of the prototype Spitfire – K5054. Image via Creative Commons

This life-size sculpture was created by the artist Stephen Kettle, who was born in Castle Bromwich and who liaised closely with Mitchell’s only son, Dr Gordon Mitchell. It was unveiled 15 September 2005 at the Science Museum, London, to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

An RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight silhouetted in a fly-past of five Spitfires
An RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight silhouetted in a fly-past of five Spitfires, with their distinctive elliptical wings, and two Hurricanes (centre and bottom far right), RAF Duxford, Cambridgeshire. Image in the Public Domain.

The mission of the RAF Memorial Flight, based at RAF Coningsby, is to maintain historic aircraft in an airworthy condition as a living memorial to those who lost their lives in the service of their country.

The Flight, which flies regularly to celebrate and commemorate public and military events, operates six Spitfires, two Hurricanes, a Lancaster, a C47 Dakota and two Chipmunk aircraft used for training.

Written by Nicky Hughes

Further Information

3 responses to From Prototype to Defender of the Skies: The Story of the Spitfire

  1. RH Bowdler says:

    Good for you, Nicky Hughes: great post on an enduringly interesting subject.

  2. Paul Stamper says:

    Well done Nicky. Some fantastic images, many of which I hadn’t seen before. Good to see HE hasn’t been entirely hijacked by fashionable agenda.

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