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 to 1945) in the Allies’ favour.
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
The Spitfire had its genesis in the 1930s at the Supermarine Aviation Works (Vickers), Southampton, where Mitchell was Chief Designer.
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.
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’
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.
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.
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.
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’).
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.
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 26 September, 55 men and women were killed and 92 injured across the city. A large number of the casualties were aircraft production workers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain was still grappling with enormous debt from the First World War (1914 to 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.
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
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. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 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. Source: 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.
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.
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