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Courage under Fire

This article was published in the Heritage, May 2009
Seventy years after it first soared into British skies the Spitfire plane is more than a weapon, it’s a national icon, a cultural phenomenon and a focus of post-war pride, writes Ivan Rendall

The Spitfire was born in controversy. In the early 1930s there was a debate between air power theorists, who believed as the politician Stanley Baldwin despairingly put it, that “the bomber would always get through” and those, most notably Air Vice Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, who believed there was a defence against air attack.

Dowding also faced opposition from air power enthusiasts within the RAF for whom open-cockpit, biplane fighters were the way ahead.

One such fighter, the Hawker Fury; had just been introduced, but it was only marginally faster than the bombers it had to attack and could only be deployed in small numbers because Britain was broke.

Dowding wanted fighters with speed and manoeuvrability and after much thought and experiment, he turned to Reginald J Mitchell, the designer of the Supermarine racing seaplanes which had won the Schneider Cup for Britain and held the World Speed Record.
Mitchell had never designed a fighter, but he was a master of innovation.

The basic design was a monoplane with a closed cockpit, retractable undercarriage and a version of the Rolls Royce Schneider Cup racing engine, but the key to the Spitfire’s success was that Mitchell made no compromises, always looking for the best technological answer. The result was a pilot’s dream:
the fastest fighter in the world with a thin, tapering, elliptical wing making it responsive to the lightest touch on the controls and a stable gun platform.

Enduring image

The Spitfire was also strikingly good-looking – the ultimate paradox – a beautiful weapon and the crowds at pre-war air shows adored it. The sight and sound of a Spitfire still has meaning in Britain. Like tattered regimental colours hanging in a side chapel and poppies on Remembrance Sunday, its iconic status has evolved out of its central role in a battle of national survival and the way in which it embodied the character and continuity of the British nation.

True icons transcend mere fame and celebrity. They stand for something and the Spitfire represents very British qualities: it is powerful but restrained, elegant but unfussy, purposeful but quietly so, never drawing attention to itself Part of an enduring British narrative, it is a symbol of defiance of Britain alone and at its most resilient.

Beauty and a beast

Uniquely, the Spitfire combines ancient mythology with modem functionality More than a national treasure or historical artefact, it has become a modern Excalibur, a weapon wielded in defence of British freedoms and heritage. In form and image, the elliptical wings, the bubble canopy and the growl of its Merlin engine are not just familiar, they radiate a physical and emotional presence.

Why is the Spitfire such a powerful national icon? Because it played a primary role in Britain’s salvation in 1940, the means by which Fighter Command pilots expressed Britain’s warrior spirit through their courage in the air and whom Churchill immortalised as “The Few”. However, while some aces were known by name, the RAF did not as a rule identify individual heroes, preferring to emphasise its collective ethos.

Consequently, the Hurricane and Spitfire became leading characters in the battle. While Hurricanes fought and shot down more German aircraft, it was the higher performance Spitfire, with its prowess in aerial combat against enemy fighters that gave “The Few ” the crucial edge over the Luftwaffe.

A growing confidence

In reality, pilot and aircraft were indivisible. To fight in the air requires the pilot to bond with his machine, to attack the enemy as one in a single, flowing movement. Pilots found it easy to bond with the Spitfire, and their faith in their machines spread through the RAF by word of mouth. Wing Commander William Duncan Smith told pilots: “You don’t strap yourselves in, you buckle the Spitfire on, like girding on armour.. the Spitfire [is] an integral part of, and extension of, one’s own sensitivity.”
The feeling that the Spitfire was special permeated from “The Few” to “The Many”. Pilots passed their confidence in the aircraft on to fitters, riggers and armourers on frontline squadrons and by radio to the telephonists, radar operators and controllers at Fighter Command. In factories and repair depots the idea that the Spitfire was the best fighter in the world was spread by test and delivery pilots, including many women, to charge hands, draughtsmen, clerks, mechanics and painters. Hundreds of thousands of people were involved in keeping Spitfires flying and building them in small, hastily improvised shadow factories across southern England: a converted bus station here , a municipal depot there. Workers at Castle Bromwich, the biggest single production line, drew strength from their association with the plane.

However small their individual job, people felt they had a stake in victory through the Spitfire, and that feeling gave it a unique place in the social and industrial fabric of the nation. Frank Edwards, a factory buyer who kept a diary for Mass Observation, recorded using his day off to see “a Spitfire which went through the Battle of Britain. I joined a very long queue to gain admission to the hall, which I estimated as been visited by some thousands of people today”.

Spitfires carried cultural identification with them far beyond the factory gates. June 1940, Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production, initiated a Spitfire Fund to attract much-needed cash donations to buy them. Millions of people in Britain and the Empire were as eager to become stakeholders in the fighter as those who worked on them, and they responded with unexpected generosity and enthusiasm. The Fund raised £14m in its first year, some from individuals who could afford the £5,000 to buy one outright to schoolboys who raised pennies busking on street corners.

Honourable service

The Spitfire was a ray of hope at a dark time for Britain as it was the only Allied aircraft to remain in production and development throughout the war It was always there when needed, to protect Britain from air attack and fight for air superiority in all the major overseas theatres.
Spitfires flew off carriers to save Malta, the key to victory in North Africa, and provided air superiority over the beaches on D-Day. It performed roles far beyond its design parameters, from ground attack to long-range, maritime photo reconnaissance. Military personnel knew that the plane delivered.

The Spitfire’s iconic status owes much to the fact that it is still flying. It remained operational until the mid-1950s, and today, the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight has five flying Spitfires which make around 700 appearances each year, giving new generations a chance to see them in action. More are privately owned, bringing the total worldwide fleet of airworthy Spitfires to around 50.

A long love affair

Despite a price tag of £1m and running costs that would bankrupt most, enthusiasts continue to pay princely sums for the experience of flying in what is arguably the world’s most famous aircraft.

A media star, the Spitfire has synthesised into British civil culture and military heritage. Possibly the greatest tribute to its cultural significance came in Humphrey Jennings’ commentary to his 1942 film Listen to Britain, in which it is the only weapon mentioned: “Blended together in one great symphony is the music of Britain at war: the evening hymn of the lark, the roar of Spitfires… the trumpet call of freedom.”

Spitfire: Icon of a Nation by Ivan Rednall is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, part of the Orion Publishing Group, priced £25 in hardback

This article was published in the Heritage, May 2009