Spitfire: the birth of a legend
My first memories of the Spitfire were as a young boy growing up in the village of Duffield in Derbyshire. Every so often, you would hear that distinctive roar and you would rush outside to watch as the aircraft pirouetted in the skies above. I was captivated.
“When you see that wing shape in the air; you know it’s a Spitfire”, says Ian Craighead, Head of Corporate Heritage at Rolls-Royce. “Sometimes the aesthetic improves the technology; it’s what transforms it from a fantastic aircraft into an icon.”
Next year marks the eightieth anniversary of the first ever Spitfire flight, which took place on 5 March 1936. Four years after it first took to the skies, the Spitfire played an important role in the Battle of Britain and it has remained a symbol of British courage in the face of adversity to this day.
But what made the Spitfire so successful and how did it achieve iconic status?
Ian Craighead at the Rolls-Royce Heritage Centre
“The Spitfire was modern, sleek, glamorous and at least a match for the main German fighter, the Messerschmitt BF109”, says Geoff Simpson, trustee of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust and World War Two author, “it was such a brilliant design that it continued to be developed throughout the war.”
Ian agrees: “People talk about the Hurricane, which was a fantastic aircraft, but it didn’t have the longevity of design to keep it going all the way through the war. With the Spitfire you could add a little bit more power here, a little more speed there, it was an aircraft that could be continually developed.
“It’s not just the fact that it could do the job. It was a thing of beauty as well and I think that’s why it gained its iconic status.”
The Battle of Britain, 1940
“The Battle of Britain was important because it was seen as the next stage in Germany’s westward advance”, says Dr Whitehead, Head of Literary, Historical and Cultural Studies at the University of Derby. “It started off quite well for the British, in the sense that they were better prepared than they first realised. But the sheer weight of German bombing on the airfields meant that by the end of the summer the tide was beginning to turn in Germany’s favour. However, Hitler’s decision to switch the target to London gave the RAF some breathing space.
“The RAF was the first serious opposition the Luftwaffe had faced and I think this was compounded by the fact that Göring (Head of the Luftwaffe) had consistently overstated the capacity of the German air force. By contrast, the British enjoyed several advantages. Being in their own airspace, for instance, meant pilots could remain in combat for longer without having to worry about re-fuelling.”
How did the Spitfire become an icon?
However victory came at a cost, Geoff notes: “The casualty rate was high. Some people died on their first operational sortie, others within a few days. Pilots on the front line achieved much by surviving for two weeks – they could be regarded as veterans.”
Winston Churchill famously praised the airmen in a speech on 20 August 1940: “Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few.”
The industrial war effort
Supporting these ‘few’ were the many who worked behind the scenes to keep the RAF flying, such as those who worked in the factories to produce much-needed equipment. In Derby, the Rolls-Royce factory played an important role in keeping the Spitfire in the air.
“Derby was one of the main production sites for Rolls-Royce during the War,” says Ian, “it produced over 30,000 Merlin engines [used in the Spitfire]. It was also the hub for engine development work, the place for getting those milestone leaps in performance. The heart of evolution was Derby; it’s the birthplace of the Merlin.
“You certainly could never have won World War Two with the equipment that was in existence in 1939, you always had to look for that little innovation that could give you the edge over your adversary.”
These innovations were closely guarded and Rolls-Royce used a number of secret locations for development and storage of confidential information, as Ian explains: “Some of the most secret work was actually done in smaller places where it was easier to control access, like Duffield Bank, Littleover Hall and Belper. If specific technological advances were required then that team would essentially develop in isolation. If you needed to know about it, you would know.”
One of the secret locations used to hide Spitfire plans during the War
I spoke to Helen, a lady who lives on Duffield Bank, who has one of these hideaways in her garden: “My understanding is that somebody who worked at Rolls-Royce lived in this house, sometime between the First and Second World Wars. They built a manmade cave in the garden in order to hide the lighting plans for the Spitfire, so that they would be protected if a bombing raid took place.”
The cave itself is cut into the rock of an abandoned quarry and goes back about 25 feet, where it opens up into a small chamber.
Helen continues: “This house was originally owned by my in-laws and they had a German au pair after the War, whose uncle had served in the Luftwaffe and had been trying to find locations such as this during the war. They knew these secret locations existed and they tried to bomb them, but they never got to do it.”
Eighty years after it first flew, it’s clear that the Spitfire has made its mark upon history. It proved its worth as a capable and adaptable fighting machine during the Battle of Britain and its distinctive profile has gone down as a design classic. Modern aircraft may be more technologically advanced, but none can match the Spitfire as an icon, and perhaps that explains its enduring appeal. The Spitfire stands for a certain Britishness – bravery, fortitude, sacrifice – that we admire and aspire to.
Writer: Jeremy Swan
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