The difficult birth of the Spitfire – and how the WW2 fighter almost missed the battle of Britain
Adored by its pilots and feared by the Germans, the Spitfire is rightly seen as the greatest British fighter ever built. However, as Leo McKinstry reveals, bureaucratic bungling meant that this iconic aircraft nearly remained on the ground
At the height of the battle of Dunkirk in May 1940, the brilliant New Zealander Al Deere was on patrol in his RAF Spitfire over the French coast. Suddenly, through the haze of smoke drifting upwards from the raging combat on the ground, he spotted a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter below him. He instantly gave chase. Soon, both planes were descending earthwards at high speed. “Down we went, throttles fully open, engines roaring and each determined to get the last ounce out of his straining aircraft. From 17,000 feet down to ground level I hung to his tail,” recalled Deere.
Desperate to shake off the Spitfire, the Bf 109 dramatically changed course, levelling out from his dive and then going into a steep climb. But Deere could not be beaten. “I continued to close range until at about 15,000 feet I judged that I was near enough to open fire. A long burst produced immediate results. Bits flew off his aircraft.” Moments later, Deere watched the Bf 109 plunge into a field near Saint Omer and “explode with a blinding flash”.
Engagements like this were typical of the Spitfire’s formidable combat performance during the retreat from Dunkirk. The battle was the first time during the war that the plane had engaged the Luftwaffe in significant numbers, and the results shook the Germans, undermining their belief in their own invincibility. The effectiveness of the Spitfire was demonstrated even more graphically in the months that followed, as the aircraft played a central, heroic role in the defeat of the Luftwaffe during the battle of Britain. Adored by its pilots and feared by the Germans, it grew into an enduring symbol of British determination in the struggle against Nazi tyranny. The Vickers Supermarine Spitfire is rightly seen as the greatest British fighter ever built, an inspiring blend of elegance, power and speed. So successful was the plane that over 22,000 were manufactured in 19 different marks and 52 variants, with production lasting right up to 1948.
Supermarine Spitfire: 8 key dates in the making of an icon
October 1931 | The Air Ministry issues specification F7/30, calling for a new day and night fighter to replace the ageing Bristol Bulldog. Supermarine’s chief designer, RJ Mitchell, comes up with an all-metal monoplane, the Type 224. Though not a success, the lessons learned lead to the creation of the Spitfire.
5 March 1936 | The maiden flight of the only Spitfire prototype, K5054, takes place at Eastleigh near Southampton. “The handling qualities of this machine are remarkably good,” writes Supermarine test pilot Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers. The Air Ministry is so impressed that 310 are immediately ordered.
October 1938 | After severe production difficulties and political crises, the Spitfire finally goes into service with the RAF. No 19 squadron, based at Duxford, is the first unit to receive the plane, and pilots are reportedly delighted with the new fighter.
16 October 1939 | Spitfires go into combat against the Luftwaffe for the first time, when aircraft from 602 and 603 squadrons take on nine Ju 88 bombers over the Firth of Forth. At the first sight of the Spitfires, the Germans turn and try to escape across the North Sea. As one surviving German pilot later recalls, it was “not a pleasant experience”.
15 September 1940 | The Battle of Britain reaches its most climactic day, with Spitfires playing a key role in turning back a massive Luftwaffe attack on London. The German high command mistakenly believes that the RAF is almost broken. In truth, Britain’s fighter forces are stronger than earlier in the battle.
7 March 1942 | Spitfires take off from HMS Eagle in the western Mediterranean to fly to Malta, where the strategically vital island is under siege. They fight heroically against the superior Luftwaffe and Italian forces, and with regular reinforcements arriving from aircraft carriers, begin to turn the tide. Their victory in the skies above Malta marks the beginning of the end for the Axis in the west.
May 1942 | The Spitfire Mark IX is unveiled. With its two-stage, two-speed Merlin 61 supercharged engine, it is widely regarded as the greatest of all Spitfire marks. Squadron Leader Ron Rayner described it as “marvellous, absolutely incredible”. Throughout the war, the Spitfire is in a constant state of evolution.
1 May 1951 | The final combat flight of the Spitfire is undertaken by Wing Commander Wilfred Duncan Smith during the communist insurgency in Malaya. Spitfires assist with meteorological reports until 1957.
Why Britain almost sidelined the Spitfire
Yet perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Spitfire story, rarely told before, is that the aircraft was almost sidelined by the government before 1940. With hindsight it is astonishing to find that the fighter, which developed into as great an icon of national resistance as Winston Churchill himself, was regarded in the Air Ministry with disdain at the outbreak of war. Some saw it as a stop-gap until the arrival of supposedly more powerful fighters. Others viewed it as little more than a commercial venture for raising revenue from exports.
As early as 1938, barely two years after the Spitfire prototype had flown, the plane was described by a senior figure in the Ministry as “obsolescent”. A few months later, Chief of the Air Staff Sir Cyril Newall was trumpeting the virtues of the twin-engine Westland Whirlwind prototype, which he claimed represented “a considerable advance” on the Spitfire. In the same vein, the Air Ministry discussed at the start of 1940 the possibility of phasing out the manufacture of the Spitfire at the main Supermarine plant in Southampton, switching production instead to the Bristol Beaufighter.
It now seems incredible, looking back on the period up to March 1940, to see how little the Spitfire featured in the Air Staff’s long-term thinking. The main aim appeared to be to reduce production numbers of the aircraft and promote foreign sales rather than burden the RAF with an unwanted fighter. In June 1939, just months before the outbreak of war, Sir Wilfred Freeman, one of the most senior figures in the RAF, argued that from March 1940 sales abroad “should take up the whole of Supermarine’s output”.
Part of the reason for this indifference towards the Spitfire was strategic. Before 1940, planners at the Air Ministry had not envisaged the kind of aerial combat between fighters that was to take place during Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. They hadn’t foreseen the rapid fall of France and so believed that the Luftwaffe would have to operate from bases within Germany. This in turn meant that the deadly Bf 109 fighter would not have the range to reach Britain. The Air Staff therefore perceived the main threat to be the German bomber force.
In the putative contest between RAF fighters and Luftwaffe bombers, manoeuvrability and rate of turn – two of the Spitfire’s greatest assets – were seen as less important than firepower. And here both the Whirlwind and the Beaufighter, armed with cannon, appeared, in theory, to be more lethal than the Spitfire whose early versions carried less penetrative Browning machine guns.
Winston Churchill himself, though an eloquent advocate of a strong RAF throughout the 1930s, was guilty of this kind of flawed thinking. He too had little faith in the Spitfire before 1940, preferring to pin his hopes on two-seater fighters with rear-mounted turret guns. Typically, in 1938 he urged the Air Ministry to build “heavily armed” turret fighters “in as large numbers as we can”. His request was driven by the fact that the forward-firing Spitfire had only one mode of attack and so in any pursuit was too easily exposed “to destruction”. But there were other practical and political reasons for the mounting disillusion with the Spitfire.
In the four years after the maiden flight of the prototype in March 1936, the production of the plane was in a state of near permanent crisis, plagued by technical difficulties, gross mismanagement and recalcitrance in pockets of the workforce. Orders from the Air Ministry were not met; promises on deliveries were unfulfilled. Meetings of the Air Staff were filled with complaints about the alarming delays in equipping RAF squadrons with this new fighter. At one stage in 1938, the secretary of state for air, Viscount Swinton, described the shambles of the Spitfire programme as “a disgraceful state of affairs”, while his military chiefs echoed this sentiment by attacking Supermarine’s approach as “totally unacceptable”.
All this was a far cry from the excitement engendered by the Spitfire when it first took to the sky. With its phenomenal speed of 350mph, metal finish and sleek aerodynamic lines, the prototype appeared to be the harbinger of a new era for the RAF, then still largely equipped with fabric-covered biplanes capable of little more than 200mph. The plane was the work of Supermarine’s chief designer, RJ Mitchell, whose genius combined engineering practicality with creative flair. The Spitfire’s maiden flight, on 5 March 1936, confirmed its awesome potential. “It really looked as if we were going to have something that could match up to anything the Germans could build,” recalled RAF Intelligence Officer Group Captain Frederick Winterbotham.
Delighted with the success of the prototype, the Air Ministry had placed an order with Supermarine, part of the Vickers group, for 310 Spitfires. Sir Robert McLean of Vickers promised that deliveries would start in September 1937, reaching at least 60 aircraft by the end of that year. But, as the months passed, it became obvious that McLean’s forecast was wildly optimistic. The schedule fell badly behind, and in January 1937, Chief of the Air Staff Sir Cyril Newall complained that Supermarine “had frankly miscalculated the magnitude of their task. The situation was most disquieting”.
There were two factors at the heart of the production problems: one lay in the nature of the aircraft itself, the other in the running of Supermarine. The Spitfire was a far more advanced plane than any fighter previously built for the RAF, hence the techniques used in its manufacture were often highly complex, sometimes untested. An array of engineering difficulties were created by everything from the hydraulics for the retractable undercarriage to the curved leading edge of the elliptical wing, the Spitfire’s most celebrated feature.
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The other factor was logistical. In the mid-1930s, Supermarine was a small company with no experience of delivering a major contract. The firm had been established in 1913 in Southampton by the eccentric aeronautical pioneer, inventor and neo-fascist politician Noel Pemberton Billing, and for most of its existence had specialised in flying boats and seaplanes. When it won the contract for the Spitfire, it was short of facilities, space, equipment and staff. It was, in the words of Denis Webb, a Supermarine manager, “a low-key set-up”. To meet the new demands from the Air Ministry, the company not only had to expand its works and its payroll, but also sub-contract much of the Spitfire production.
By 1938, almost 80 separate contractors were involved in the Spitfire order. These arrangements turned out to be a recipe for chaos, with the subcontractors complaining about the late delivery of drawings and material, and Supermarine grumbling about the slow manufacture and poor quality of vital parts. The disarray was compounded by the building works at Supermarine. “The place reminded me of Dante’s Inferno, except that in winter it was bloody cold with at times no roof and at other times no walls,” wrote Webb in his private memoir.
A race against time
By May 1938, with still no Spitfires in service, the deepening shambles over the contract prompted a full-blown political crisis. Viscount Swinton, a tough Yorkshire squire, had been the driving force within government over the award of the Spitfire contract, but he now had to pay the price for the failure of Supermarine to deliver. The mood of panic at Westminster had been exacerbated by the increasing menace of highly militarised Nazi Germany, which had seized Austria in March and was threatening Czechoslovakia. As the row mounted and the Labour opposition pressed for answers on delays in the air programme, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain forced Swinton out of the cabinet. Ironically, the first production Spitfire flew at Southampton on 14 May – the day of Swinton’s departure – but it was too late to save him.
Swinton’s replacement as air secretary was Sir Kingsley Wood, who immediately took a dramatic step that was aimed at transforming Spitfire production. He instructed the industrialist Lord Nuffield, founder of the Morris cars empire, to build a huge new factory to fulfil an initial contract for 1,000 Spitfires. Having promised to turn out 60 Spitfires a week once the £2 million factory was completed at its site of Castle Bromwich in Birmingham, Nuffield assured Wood that “no effort is being spared to make the ultimate issue a successful one”.
Rarely has a pledge been left so unfulfilled. Lacking the dynamism of his youth, Nuffield proved a disastrous organiser of the project. He resented outside interference, moaned about the quality of drawings from Supermarine, complained about modifications to the Spitfire’s design and failed to control the Castle Bromwich workforce or his expenditure, which shot up to £7 million by March 1940 without a single plane coming off the assembly line.
It was obvious by then that Nuffield had lost his grip. When the bombastic press tycoon Lord Beaverbrook became minister for aircraft production in May 1940, on the creation of the Churchill government, he dismissed Nuffield and handed over management of Castle Bromwich to Vickers.
A report commissioned by Beaverbrook showed how woeful the Nuffield regime had been. The study, written by aircraft manufacturer Sir Richard Fairey, painted “a picture of extravagance and an inability to understand the problems of aircraft production”. Large sums of public money were wasted on machinery that was not used. Record-keeping was chaotic, management cowardly. The workforce was “in a very bad state. Discipline is lacking. Men are leaving before time and coming in late. There is every evidence of slackness,” wrote Fairey.
Castle Bromwich was soon turned around by Vickers, helped by a spate of sackings, and the factory produced 13,000 Spitfires during the war. But Nuffield’s legacy, combined with Air Staff indifference and the earlier production problems at Supermarine, stretched Fighter Command to the limit in 1940. National survival would have been more assured had the Spitfire been available in greater numbers. As Sir Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command, put it after the war: “The main trouble was that we had such a tiny output of fighters”.
Who designed the Spitfire?
The Spitfire may have been the most advanced British aeroplane of its time, but it was designed and built in primitive conditions at the Southampton plant of the Supermarine company. Space was tight, the workforce small and facilities limited.
An atmosphere of penny-pinching and disorganisation prevailed. “There was no proper recording system and parts were not stored in any order,” recalled the Supermarine employee Denis Webb. One manager was so exasperated by the outdated equipment that he bought a machine tool out of his own pocket, while on another occasion a hair dryer had to be used as a makeshift wind tunnel when testing a specialised version of the Spitfire with fuel drop tanks.
Due to Supermarine’s lack of capacity, much of the Spitfire’s production had to be sub-contracted to other firms, which led to chaos over drawings and delivery of parts.
When the Southampton factory was bombed in September 1940, the entire Supermarine operation had to be dispersed around the south of England. Tiny airfields and pre-war flying clubs were used for assembly but by far the grandest of the new sites was the 18th-century colonnaded Hursley House near Winchester which became the firm’s administrative headquarters. Hangars were put up in stable yards, the linen room was turned into a laboratory, the wine cellar became a dark room and the ballroom was the drawing office.
Here are five of the press barons, politicians and pioneers who saved the Spitfire...
The creative genius behind the Spitfire was born in Stoke in 1895 and trained as a locomotive engineer then joined Supermarine in 1917. He designed a series of record-breaking seaplanes before the Spitfire. Tragically, he died of cancer in 1937, before the Spitfire went into service.
Smith succeeded Mitchell as designer for Supermarine. He lacked Mitchell’s originality, but had the vision to see the huge potential of the Spitfire. While Ministry officials continued to dream of new designs, Mitchell reassured Supermarine that the Spitfire “will see us through the war”.
Sir Hugh Dowding
Head of Fighter Command during the battle of Britain, Dowding spotted the awesome potential of the Spitfire earlier than anyone in the RAF. However, he became over-cautious towards the end of the battle and was forced to retire from his post in November 1940.
The Canadian press tycoon became Minister for Aircraft Production in May 1940, when Britain faced its gravest threat. With a mixture of bombast and threats, he turned round Spitfire production. Loathed by many for his autocracy, he was greatly admired by Churchill.
The Tory Cabinet minister who became Secretary of State for air in 1935 took many crucial decisions that put the Spitfire in the sky in 1936. He decided that 310 Spitfires should be ordered after its maiden flight. He was forced to resign in 1938 over delays in production.
Leo McKinstry is a journalist, historian and author. His books include Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend (Hodder & Stoughton, 2007)
This article was first published in the November 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine