On June 11th 1937, an aircraft designer named R J Mitchell died of cancer at the age of 42. By then he had done something that proved vital to Britain’s survival and to the eventual World War II victory of the Allies. He had designed the Supermarine Spitfire.
Working for Supermarine, Mitchell had designed several of the seaplanes that had won the prestigious annual Schneider Trophy events. He feared the rise of Nazi Germany, especially of its growing air power, and wanted a high-speed monoplane fighter for Britain that could stand up to the best in the world.
Supermarine authorized him to go ahead, on a private basis, but the RAF soon became interested and funded them to build a prototype. Mitchell’s genius was to meld developments that had taken place elsewhere, including elliptical wings and underwing radiators, into a radically new aircraft. The prototype flew in 1936, achieving 349mph, and even before it completed its tests, the RAF ordered 350 of them. They called it the “Spitfire,” which Mitchell thought was “a bloody silly name.”
Mitchell never lived to see it in combat, though in the throes of his final illness he used to watch it be put through its paces. It proved its worth in the Battle of Britain, which could not have been won without it. Its superior performance made it a match for the German ME109 fighter escorts, while the Hurricanes took on the bombers. Has Britain not won that battle, it would not have been still in the war as a base for the build-up of supplies and troops that launched the D-Day landings.
It was the UK’s most produced WWII aircraft, with 22,685 built of its different versions. In 1943, a Spitfire XI reached 606mph in a 45-degree dive, and in the following year it achieved Mach 0.92, a record for a propeller aircraft. During its dive the propeller and reduction gear broke off, making the plane now tail heavy. Its pilot, Squadron Leader Martindale of the RAF Volunteer Reserve, blacked out with the 11g forces of its climb, and came to at 40,000 feet to find the plane now had slightly sweptback wings (originally straight). Martindale successfully glided it 20 miles to a safe landing at the airfield, and won the Air Force Cross for his exploits.
Mitchell himself was the subject of a biopic movie, “The First of the Few,” starring Leslie Howard, and is honoured today as one of the men whose dedication and patriotism saved the nation. His story is a timely correction to those who claim that history is shaped by impenetrable forces, and that the lives of individuals have no significance. He made his life matter.