History: Spitfire Tribute

A tribute to the Spitfire

As part of our website we are celebrating fantastic local history and bringing to life the past of the area, and joining it with the present.

Ask anyone with a modicum of historical nous as to which iconic British aircraft was behind Churchill’s rousing August 20 1942 tribute; “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” and most will proudly respond that it was the superiority of the Spitfire which saved the day. 

The Hawker Hurricanes may well have been more numerous, more powerfully sturdy and borne the brunt of five years of Luftwaffe attack but it was the legendary Spitfire which emerged from the clouds of Battle of Britain as the saviour of plucky Fighter Command.  

Those who have flown them describe the experience as being memorable: “simplicity and common sense enabling the high-performance machine to seemingly fly herself” which has done much to enhance the superb reputation of this uniquely British aeroplane.

Of the twenty thousand three hundred built between 1936 and 1948 around seventy are still flying with many more being grounded yet still able to provide moving static display memorials as to their previous military prowess.

The Spitfire was the only British fighter plane to have been in continuous production before during and after the Second World War.  It is a surely a measure of its superb design, effective operational record and advanced technical innovation that is still treated with such awe and respect. Yes, it’s place at the epicentre of the Battle of Britain deserves Pilot praise but spare a thought for all those men and women – the latter flying delivery sorties – who enabled this aeronautical legend to take its place at the top of the tree.

In front of Winston's famous bridge where Ray Hanna flew his Spitfire beneath

Image: In front of Winston’s famous bridge where Ray Hanna flew his Spitfire beneath

The Ground Crew required to fly WWII fighter aircraft comprised a complex huge hierarchy. Thousands of individual airfield personnel, flight engineers, refuelers, radar technicians, radio engineers, searchlight operators, chart plotters, telephone operators, telegraphers, runway repair crew, despatch riders, medical teams: all played their proud parts in ensuring that the aeroplanes they serviced were so revered; and none more so than the Spitfire.

The maintenance and repair of existing aircraft, overseen by Lord Beaverbrook the Minister for Aircraft Production, was hugely impressive. Thirty Five percent of all planes issued to pilots in the Battle of Britain were repaired rather than new; 61% of all damaged planes were returned to active service and the remaining 39% were put to further use providing spare parts.

Image: Member of St Andrew’s Youth invited to explore the aircraft which would became both nationally famous when visiting an air museum

In 1931 the, barely teenage, RAF sought a British designed and made modern fighter aeroplane which would be capable of achieving 250 mph. By 1934 Supermarine Aviation’s RJ Mitchell had created an open cockpit, monoplane with elliptical gull wings for the RAF tender but was beaten by the Gloster Gladiator biplane which was adopted by both RAF and Fleet Air Arm.

By 1935 Mitchell re-worked the design reducing the wingspan, enclosing the cockpit, streamlining the fuselage with inverted rivets, tweaked the propellor pitch for more take-off power, increased the machine gun firepower, created a retractable undercarriage and improved the Rolls Royce engine to achieve a top speed of 348 mph.

In 1936 The Air Ministry placed an order for 310 Spitfire Mark Ones and by 1938 the main assembly plant was built at Castle Bromwich on the outskirts of Birmingham The first Spitfires were duly inspected test flown by one of the team of twenty five approved personnel and delivered to the RAF in early 1940.

Alex Henshaw was the chief test pilot later recalling; “Personally, I never cleared a Spitfire unless I had carried out a few aerobatic tests s to see how good or bad she was” adding “I would take the Spitfire up in a full throttle climb of 2850 rpm to the rated altitude of one or both supercharged blowers. I would then put her into a dive at full power and, at 3300 rpm, trim her to fly, hands and feet off, 460 mph! ”

Only after such rigid tests would the aircraft eventually be delivered for full operational use.

The Spitfire and ‘the few’ that flew them soon became emblematic of Britain’s struggle against superior German air power.

The aircraft flown under Winston Bridge in 1988 by Ray Hanna was, and still is, a Mark Nine which actually saw service over Europe at the end of the Second World War which makes it extremely rare and a proven fully authentic historic aeroplane.

That Ray Hanna, a previous leader of the Red Arrows, should have had the nerve, the experience and the skill to have achieved a low-level flight under Winston Bridge surely deserves wider recognition and this is why, next time you are passing the bronze replica Spitfire atop the South West bridge parapet, you might like to quietly salute the achievement of both man and machine.        

In the 1969 WWII Epic film ‘Battle of Britain’ Hermann Goering the head of the German Luftwaffe asks his disenchanted and depressed returning pilots what can be done to more effectively destroy the enemy South Eastern English airfields to which one of his pilots replies:” Replace our Messerschmitt’s with a Squadron of Spitfires, Sir!”

The well-deserved reputation of such a legendary British aeroplane was obvious to those who flew them and was duly exploited by countless Ministry of Information media exposure in patriotic cinema newsreels, on proud posters and within carefully conceived wireless broadcasts.

Written by Mark Samuelson

Mark was fascinated by history from an early age; he still is. After a 1978 University B.A. in American History before working for The History Channel, after which he completed an M.A. in The History of the English Country House at Leicester University in 2011. Amongst a busy schedule of eclectic activities he now makes artisan cheese in Little Newsham.

April 24, 2022

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