80th Anniversary of the first flight of the Spitfire

The first flight of the prototype Spitfire took place on 5 March 1936 from Southampton Airport. It was designed by Reginald Joseph Mitchell, chief designer at Supermarine Aviation Works in Woolston, as a short-range, high-performance interceptor aircraft and was to become the most iconic aircraft of the Second World War.

Spitfires lined up on the fields at Tully Hall in Imphal, 15 December 1944 [MB2/N12]

Spitfires lined up on the fields at Tully Hall in Imphal, 15 December 1944 [MB2/N12]

R.J. Mitchell was born on 20 May 1895 in Butt Lane, near Stoke-on-Trent. He attended Hanley High School where he first became interested in aviation and spent much of his free time designing and building model aeroplanes. He left school at the age of 16 and began an apprenticeship with Kerr Stuart & Co., a locomotive engineering works at Stoke, where he trained in the engine workshop. Following his apprenticeship he progressed to the drawing office at the firm, during which time he attended evening classes in engineering and mathematics.

In 1917, at the age of 22, he joined the Supermarine Aviation Works where he acted as personal assistant to Hubert Scott Paine, the owner of the company. He advanced quickly and within three years of joining the company was made chief designer and engineer. During his time at Supermarine he designed and developed a range of aircraft. As the company specialised in flying-boat manufacture, these included racing seaplanes such as the record-breaking Supermarine S.6. However, his greatest legacy was to be the legendary Supermarine Spitfire.

The aircraft’s ground-breaking design and superior specifications gave the British a distinct advantage against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. The design also meant that the plane could be upgraded with new engines and armaments as the war progressed. As a result, the Spitfire came to hold a special place in the hearts of a generation living through uncertain times and became synonymous with British determination and resistance during the war. However, Mitchell did not live to see the success of the Spitfire. He died from rectal cancer in 1937, at the age of 42, and was buried four days later at South Stoneham Cemetery.

Spitfire fighter escort photographed from “Sister Ann” flying through Monsoon weather to Imphal, 9/10 September 1944 [MB2/N12]

Spitfire fighter escort photographed from “Sister Ann” flying through Monsoon weather to Imphal, 9/10 September 1944 [MB2/N12]

During the Blitz, the Southampton docks and the Supermarine works were key targets for air raids and the main reason why the city became such a major focus of attack. The Supermarine works at Woolston and Itchen were bombed in raids on 24 and 26 September 1940. Following the bombing, manufacturing was dispersed to sites across the South of England, while management operated out of the Polygon Hotel in Southampton and the design department occupied huts at the University. Soon after, the headquarters was moved to Hursley Park, near Winchester, where it remained into the post-war period.

While the Spitfire remains the iconic British fighter of the Second World War, it has taken a long time for its inventor to be properly honoured. Memorials commemorating Southampton’s links with Mitchell can be found both across the city and at the University. Examples of the University’s commemoration of Mitchell include the Spitfire Mitchell Memorial Scholarship [MS 1/3/476/213], awarded for research in the field of aeronautics, and the R.J.Mitchell Wind Tunnel.

UAV in the R.J. Mitchell wind tunnel

UAV in the R.J. Mitchell wind tunnel

The R.J. Mitchell Wind Tunnel, originally the Farnborough No. 2 tunnel, was built and used at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in the 1920s and donated to the University in the 1980s. Over the years the wind tunnel has been used extensively by industries including motorsport, automotive, aerospace, marine, maritime and performance sport. Today the tunnel serves many purposes including commercial testing, research and teaching.

The Annual R.J. Mitchell Memorial Lecture Series was established by the Southampton Branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1954. A special extension of the series came in the form of the 40th Anniversary Mitchell Memorial Symposium which was held at the University on Saturday 6 March 1976. Along with papers delivered by speakers who actually participated in the Spitfire story, the event included a Spitfire flying display at the College of Air Training, Hamble.

For those in the Southampton and Solent area for the 80th anniversary, the Solent Sky Museum showcases the international importance of aviation history in the region. It houses over 20 airframes on display from the golden age of aviation, including the Spitfire and the Supermarine S.6. The museum will be open on 5 March for special anniversary celebrations. Subject to weather and air traffic, the museum has also arranged for two Spitfires to perform a flypast over Mayflower Park in Southampton to mark the occasion. For more information see: http://www.solentskymuseum.org/blog/read_144342/special-event-at-solent-sky.html

Further information on R.J. Mitchell can be found at: http://www.rjmitchell-spitfire.co.uk/

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2 responses to “80th Anniversary of the first flight of the Spitfire

  1. Wonderful article – thanks for posting it

  2. Pingback: 2016: Year in review | University of Southampton Special Collections

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