Tag Archives: Air warfare

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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Battle of Taranto, 11-12th November 1940

The 11th November 2015 is the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Taranto, the most significant Royal Naval air victory of World War II. On that date in November 1940 twenty Swordfish planes made the 170 mile flight across the Mediterranean, at night, from the aircraft carrier Illustrious to Taranto harbour, an important Italian naval base in southern Italy. This courageous attack crippled half the Italian battle-fleet for the loss of two aircraft [MB1/M12]. It was ‘the Fleet Air Arm’s greatest ever triumph’.*

Front cover, and inside view, of the programme for the 12th Anniversary Taranto dinner, 11th November 1952, including a photo of a Swordfish plane [MB1/M12]

Front cover, and inside view, of the programme for the 12th Anniversary Taranto dinner, 11th November 1952, including a photo of a Swordfish plane [MB1/M12]

Earl Mountbatten of Burma took up the post of Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean (CINCMED) in May 1952, in charge of the British fleet in the Mediterranean and based at Malta. At the end of 1952, he was also created Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Mediterranean (CINCAFMED). So it was appropriate that Mountbatten found himself attending the 12th Anniversary Taranto dinner.

The papers of Earl Mountbatten held in Special Collections at the Hartley Library include a commemorative programme for the dinner, his notes for his speech on that occasion, and related papers. Ten of the forty pilots and navigators who had flown the mission were present at the celebrations. By 1952, sixteen had been killed in action or on active service; nine had retired; but thirteen remained in the Service and details of their subsequent careers survive in the file. Mountbatten used his speech to recall the story of the great battle. He quoted Admiral A. B. Cunningham (CINCMED 1939-42) who had overseen the operation, on its significance:

“Taranto and the night of November 11th/12th 1940 should be remembered forever as having shown once and for all that in the Fleet Air Arm the Navy has its most devastating weapon.

In a total flying time of about 6 ½ hours – carrier to carrier – 20 aircraft had inflicted more damage upon the Italian fleet than was inflicted upon the German high sea fleet in the daylight action of the Battle of Jutland.”  [MB1/M12]

Looking to the future, Mountbatten exhorted his men to show “Taranto spirit” that “Bold, offensive spirit in planning and execution; [the] same spirit which I as Commander in Chief require today. I want you to fly fearlessly and boldly in all weathers, by day and night – in the hope that by being known to be strong we may avoid a Third World War.” [MB1/M12]

Photo of the Short S.27 biplane in which Mountbatten, his parents and sister took a trip in July 1911. [MB2/C7/142]

Photo of the Short S.27 biplane in which Mountbatten, his parents and sister took a trip in July 1911. [MB2/C7/142]

The annual ‘Taranto Night’ dinner, become an established event in the naval calendar, and Mountbatten attended on several occasions. His papers demonstrate the historic significance of the battle and his affection for the Fleet Air Arm. His interest in flight perhaps sprang from an early personal experience at Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey; in July 1911 he had been taken up in a Short S.27 biplane by Lieutenant Longmore, a pioneer of naval aviation (and later, Air Chief Marshal). The plane was a flimsy wooden structure, covered with fabric – not a ride for the faint hearted!

*Michael Simpson, Oxford DNB ‘Cunningham, Andrew Browne, Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope 1883-1963’

Reflections on war and warfare: week 19 (7 – 13 July 2014)

As of March 2014, we are posting weekly extracts of writings on war and warfare drawn from our manuscript and printed collections. Ranging from items on the Maratha wars to the Second World War, the extracts will reflect opinions both from the battle front and from those at home.

10 July 1808 Waiting to set sail for the Iberian Peninsula
In June of 1808 two Spanish delegates arrived in London. They were there to appeal for support following uprisings against the French which had taken place across Spain. Their arrival was met with great excitement throughout Britain, with the government coming under pressure to seize the opportunity. On 14 June, Arthur Wellesley was formally appointed to command an expedition to support the Spanish in fighting against French forces in the Iberian Peninsula. In the passage below, as Wellesley waits to set sail from Cork, a sense of urgency can be felt. The expedition at last got out with a fair wind on 12 July, arriving in Coruña on 20 July.

“The wind is still contrary, but we hope it will change so as to sail this evening. We are unmoored, and will not wait one moment after the wind will be fair.

I see that people in England complain of the delay which has taken place in the sailing of the expedition; but in fact none has taken place; and even if all had been on board we could not have sailed before this day.”

WP1/208 Copy of a letter from Lieutenant General Arthur Wellesley, Cove, to Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, 10 July 1808


10-11 July 1940 Start of the Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain, the struggle between the German Luftwaffe and the British Royal Air force, raged over Britain between July and October 1940. It was the first major military campaign to be fought entirely in the air. It was part of a German plan to win air superiority over Southern Britain and the English Channel by destroying the British air force and aircraft industry as a prelude to the invasion of Britain.

10 July: “Today was the day prophesied as that of the invasion – the beginning of the battle of Britain.”

11 July: “The news today as other days of superiority of the RAF – parts of England bombed – ‘a few’ deaths – no numbers given anymore – today an English railway siding – a number killed. But our bombers go to their places and bomb with precision.”

MS 168 AJ217/36 Journal of Samuel Rich, 10-11 July 1940


12 July 1793
The surrender of Condé
The siege of Condé lasted from three months and was part of an Allied campaign on the borders of France in the spring and summer of 1793. By April French republican controlled Condé was under blockade from the Prussians under General Knobelsdorf, by a force of 12,000 men commanded by Clairfayt to the south, and to the north by the Prince of Würtemberg. A small British contingent, under the Duke of York, was also in the area.

Condé held out until 10 July, before surrendering after a severe bombardment. remained in Austrian hands until 30 August 1794.

“On the 10th Condè surrendered. The garrison is to march out this day with honors of war, to pile their arms and to be conducted prisoners of war, the officers to retain their swords. The number surrender’d is 4008. They are to be conducted to Antwerp I believe. A great quantity of fine artillery is found. The garrison was distress’d for provisions having subsisted some time on a small quantity of bread & 2oz of horse flesh daily.”

MS 62 Broadlands Archives BR11/20/10 Letter from Benjamin Mee to his brother-in-law Henry Temple, second Viscount Palmerston, 12 July 1793


12 July 1917 Improvements in aircraft and anti-artillery to conquer air warfare
As a result of heavy casualties for the Royal Flying Corps at the Battle of Arras, drastic change was needed in the British anti-artillery and aircraft. This was done through the use of barrage balloons and the development of aeroplanes.

Barrage balloons were large balloons fastened with metal cables used to obstruct aircraft attack by damaging the aircraft on collision with the cables. Some carried explosive charges that would be used against the aircraft to ensure its demolition.

The development of strong aircraft included the creation of the South Experimental 5, the Sopwith Camel and the Sopwith Pup. The South Experimental 5 could be dived at high speeds, and its squarer wings improved lateral control at low airspeeds. The Sopwith Camel was a single-seat biplane fighter which had a short-coupled fuselage, a heavy powerful rotary engine, and concentrated fire from twin synchronised machine guns. The Sopwith Pup was also a single-seat biplane fighter, which had excellent flying characteristics and good manoeuvrability. This was due to its low wing loading. Its light weight and substantial wing area gave it a good speed of climb, and its nimbleness was enhanced by installing ailerons on both wings.

“We hear cheering news of having more aeroplanes over here now to protect us. Everyone is fearfully jumpy, especially in the East End, as rumours are continually afloat, any people who are caught spreading rumours will get it pretty hot I fancy.”

MS 132 AJ 322 2/1 Letter from Sybil Henriques to Basil Henriques, 12 July 1917