Happy Birthday

5th March 1936, first flight of K5054 the Supermarine Type 300 Spitfire prototype, or so the common theory says.

Jeffrey Quill in his book Spitfire: A Test Pilot’s Story is adamant that the first flight actually took place on 6th March,  because he flew Vickers’  Miles Falcon G-ADTD from Brooklands to Martlesham Heath, picking up  Captain Joseph “Mutt”  Summers (Vickers’ Chief Test Pilot) and transporting him to Eastleigh for the flight.  Quill also says he gave brief joyrides to Major H.J Payn,  R.J Mitchell’s Technical Assistant, and Stuart Scott-Hall, Air Ministry technical officer in place at Supermarine.  They were also at Eastleigh for the first flight.     It doesn’t help that Dr. Alfred Price when preparing Spitfire: A Complete Fighting History, quoted an account sheet with a note, hand written by Mitchell updating a line from “Not yet flown” to “Flew 5 Mar 36.”

While we’re in uncertain territory, what did “Mutt” Summers  say when he landed K5054 after that first flight?  Quill says he said “I don’t want anything touched”   which has been widely misquoted (the Wikipedia article says he said “Don’t touch anything”).   Bryan Swopes in This Day in Aviation quotes him as saying “Don’t change a thing!”    People wonder why I like being a history teacher.  What one person said in front of a group of witnesses 81 years ago is a matter of debate and interpretation.  Perhaps in the future our record keeping will be better, but somehow I doubt that important speeches and sayings will ever be clearly recorded or remembered.

I’m inclined to agree with Quill who says it’s unlikely  that after a test flight of a few minutes in which he didn’t even retract the undercarriage,  that Summers thought the aircraft was perfect and didn’t need any refinement.  It’s much more likely he didn’t want anyone fiddling with the aircraft before he flew it again.

Wherever the truth lies, at least we know how the story developed.


Spitfire Mark VB

Spitfire Mark VB (AD233, ‘ZD-F’) being flown on 25 May 1942 by Squadron Leader Richard Milne, Commanding Officer of No. 222 Squadron based at North Weald, Essex.
By RAF [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The Fundamental Things Apply

Eighty years since the first flight.   Which means it was twenty years ago this summer that I was sitting at Duxford with my late dad watching the Spitfire Diamond Jubilee Airshow.   And what would he have thought about the return of the two Mark 1 Spitfires?   He’d have  loved it.  I read somewhere years ago that there are more airworthy Spitfires now than there were in 1960.  This number must be steadily increasing.

Supermarine Spitfire Ia N3200 (G-CFGJ)

Supermarine Spitfire Ia N3200 (G-CFGJ)
By Alan Wilson from Stilton, Peterborough, Cambs, UK
CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Personally I always thought there was something exotic about the so-called “low-back” or bubble-canopied mark IX and Mark XVI  Spitfires. You saw them preserved  all over the place. I even took a few pictures of TD248 while it was still on top of a pole at RAF Sealand  in the 1980s.   I never thought I’d see one flying around,  and now we have three, at least since TE311 flies with the BBMF and RW386 is in Sweden.  I was going to include RW382  but I’d forgotten it was restored from low-back to high-back configuration.


Not up a pole any more. Spitfire LFXVIe TD248 flying at Duxford

The influx of Mark XIVs and Mark XVIIIs from India have given us a couple more exotic models.  I followed NH904 (now N114BP formerly G-FIRE) from England in the 1980s to Palm Springs,  California and took its picture in 2010.  It’s painted to look like a Mark 24 Spitfire of 80 Squadron for some reason.   At some point I ought to travel down to Dallas and catch the Mark VIII MT719 since there aren’t many of those around at all.

Spitfire FRXIVe NH 904

Spitfire FRXIVe NH 904 N114BP (formerly G-FIRE) at the Palm Springs Air Museum, June 2010. (Own Photo)

The Seafires have been an amazing addition, and we have somewhere down the line the prospect of EN224, the prototype Spitfire Mark XII, and one of the  Seafire FR46s that Peter Arnold recovered some time  ago also taking to the skies.   Anticipation is a wonderful thing.


Battle of Britain

I read somewhere that Trafalgar Day (21st October) has decreased in significance as the Battle of Trafalgar fades from collective British memory. We’ve just seen the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo (18th June), the centenary of ANZAC Day (April 25th)  and now the popular press has seized on the fact that it’s the 75th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain.   On a personal tangent, I can remember exactly what I was doing on May 10th 1980, which was the 40th anniversary of the start of the Blitzkrieg. I was just about to finish my undergraduate studies and on this day (it was a Saturday as I recall)  I was waiting for my parents to visit me and hoping that I had dispersed the usual male student smells from my room in the college residences.  I have no idea what I was doing two months later, which is a shame. July 10th is a significant date, and not just because it’s my wife’s birthday. It commemorates the ‘official’ start of the Battle of Britain, and is a bone of of contention with pilots who were wounded immediately before this date and failed to qualify for the Battle of Britain “Battle Clasp” on their medals.

“This was their finest hour” – the last page of Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons on June 18th 1940

I have collected books on the Air War since I was quite a small boy, but only in the last 20 years or so did I get a copy of Francis K. Mason’s Battle Over Britain, which for me is the definitive history of the period.  Even so I was dimly aware that 10th July was a fairly arbitrary date plucked out by the Air Ministry to give a firm date for the commencement of the conflict.  I don’t think the period itself can be so neatly divided, considering the headlong rush of the Wehrmacht on May 10th and the events at Dunkirk.  Winston Churchill stood up in Parliament on June 18th 1940 and delivered the speech which gave a name to the coming conflict.   Churchill had already promised “blood, toil, tears and sweat” on May 13th, and gave the assurance that “we will fight them on the beaches” on June 4th.

Francis K. Mason suggests, and who am I to disagree, that the Battle of Britain proper began at the end of June 1940 when German forces landed in the Channel Islands and commenced a direct offensive against the United Kingdom.  He also says that the suggestion of a lull in air operations after Dunkirk and through June 1940 are also inaccurate – elements of the RAF were extracting themselves from France until mid-June, and the units which had disengaged were utterly exhausted and lacking in equipment, spares and ground crews.

The period July 1- July 9  saw mixed weather conditions and a series of small attacks against coastal and other targets by the Luftwaffe . It should also be noted that in the first week of July a number of raids were mounted by Hampdens and Whitleys of Bomber Command against targets in northern Germany.

There is some indication according to Mason, that the pace of Luftwaffe operations increased on Sunday July 7th against convoys in the English Channel – and these intensified until Wednesday July 10th when the largest raid so far was carried out against convoy BREAD.  By July 10th, Mason says, the RAF had intercepted about 12 raids of more than 50 aircraft, and had lost eighteen aircraft and thirteen pilots.

I would like to note a trivial item related to this period. Spitfire Mk.1a P9444, still exhibited in the Science Museum, London, was written off the RAF inventory on July 6th 1940 while flying with 72 Squadron. Its pilot blacked out from lack of oxygen in flight. Although he recovered and landed safely the airframe was judged to  have been overstressed and the aircraft was recorded as having sustained Category 3 damage (destroyed) which is happily not the case. The original 1984 edition of Spitfire Survivors indicates it was sent to a Civilian Repair Unit and saw the light of day again, in military terms in March 1941 where it passed through a succession of training units and Maintenance Units until it was allocated for display purposes in 1949. Its 72 Squadron markings were re-applied in 1961.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Ia

Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Ia P9444 at the Science Museum, London.
P9444 was written off the RAF inventory on July 6th, 1940. Photo by Hugh Llewelyn
CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons