“Let thunder rumble! Let lightning spit fire!”
Act 3, Scene 2, “King Lear”, William Shakespeare
Alphen, Netherlands, 7 March. In September 2014 I had the distinct honour to accompany General Mick Nicholson, then commander of the legendary US 82nd Airborne Division to the British war cemetery at Oosterbeek, Arnhem, here in the Netherlands. The event was to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of Operation Market Garden and the massed airborne assault by British, Polish, US and other Allied troops in what proved to be a failed attempt to secure three major bridges and thus open the door to Germany for Field Marshal Montgomery’s XXI Army Group. It was a great honour and deeply moving to be amongst the veterans of so many nations, including Germans – a day of respect and of reconciliation – organised wonderfully by the Dutch. Towards the end of the ceremony a murmuring thoroughbred thunder echoed across the respectful throng. It was a sound that for most Britons of a certain age immediately sets hairs on the back of necks a-tingling. Suddenly, the signature Rolls-Royce Merlin engine soared high in salute. Spitfire!
Eighty years ago this weekend the first prototype Spitfire took to the skies from what is today Southampton Airport. K5054 was the genius of Supermarine Aviation’s Chief Designer R.J. Mitchell, who would be dead from cancer a year later. Thankfully, development of the Spitfire was taken on by the equally brilliant Chief Draughtsman Joe Smith. The Spitfire went on to play a crucial role in the RAF’s victory in the 1940 Battle of Britain against the Luftwaffe, and to play a vital role in establishing Allied air supremacy later in the war.
Much has been written about the Spitfire, and a lot of myths made. Indeed, propaganda dictated that the Spitfire was already a legend early in its lifetime. In fact, the Spitfire really was one of the greatest single-seat fighters ever built; the ultimate symbol of British defiance, brilliance, innovation, and power. However, whilst the combination of Mitchell’s brilliant design, the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, and eight Browning 303 machine guns made it a powerful weapon the ‘Spit’ was by and large matched by the Messerschmitt Bf-109E, its primary adversary in the early stages of World War Two. Indeed, armed with heavier cannon and a fuel-injected engine the Me109 was in many ways a superior aircraft.
What made the Spitfire truly great was the flexibility of its design airframe. Whilst in 1940 the Me109 had just about reached the limits of its design upgrades the Spitfire was just getting started. By the end of World War the Spitfire Mk XXIV was a wholly different aircraft to the Spitfire MkIIa which fought the air battles of the Battle of Britain alongside its more rugged companion the Hawker Hurricane.
German fighter ace Adolf Galland tells an apocryphal story in his memoirs. In early 1943 he dived to attack what he thought was a squadron of Spitfire MkIXs. Armed with the new Focke Wulf 190, which had been specifically designed to negate the advantages of turn the Spitfire held over the Me109, Galland expected an easy victory. Suddenly his targets not only began to out-turn him at one point. as he climbed to escape a Spitfire piloted by fellow ace Stanford Tuck, his enemy rose alongside him. The new Spitfire Mk XII he had just encountered looked pretty similar to a Mk IX, but was to all intents and purposes a new more powerful, and more agile fighter. Indeed, from June 1940 onwards Spitfires had been progressively re-armed with harder-hitting cannon.
22,759 Spitfires and Seafires were constructed between 1936 and 1948. The last production Spitfire –F Mk XXIV VN496 - left the production line at Castle Bromwich on February 20th, 1948. Between 1936 and 1948 the Spitfire was re-engined with the more powerful Rolls Royce Griffon power-plant, and spawned a host of spin-offs, most notably the Seafire, a navalised Spitfire, and the Spiteful which bestrode the piston-engine and jet engine ages.
There has also been much movie-induced myth-making about the role British technology played in the winning of World War Two. One key myth is that British technology was consistently ahead of German technology and that the Spitfire was proof of that. This is patent nonsense. There were key areas of innovation, such as rocket, missile and jet technology, in which the Germans held a distinct advantage. However, when I was writing my Oxford thesis on British policy and the coming of war I found the cabinet minute that would lead to the Spitfire. It sat in the record close to 1934 decisions that would also eventually lead to the Chain Home radar system, the Lancaster bomber, and key decisions to better prepare British industry for war.
Therefore, placed in its proper policy context the Spitfire demonstrated one vital British advantage over Nazi Germany; the British better allied policy, strategy, and technology than their German counterparts. When a proven design was found it was exploited to the full as part of realisable strategy. Whereas the German approach was too often hampered by fantasy strategy that led to competing designs by competing factions resulting in fabulous technologies that were ultimately marginal to the winning of the war.
Not far from where I live there is a single, lonely grave in a provincial Belgian cemetery. It is cast from the same white Portland stone that marks the final resting place of hundreds of thousands of British servicemen who gave their lives for the freedom of the part of Continental Europe in which I live. It is the grave of a young RAF Spitfire pilot who died in October 1944 for the liberty of Belgium, the Netherlands…and Luxembourg.