THE BIRTH OF THE SPITFIRE


The first Spitfire flown from Eastleigh in front of a hanger built for the USNAFin 1918

The film 'First of the Few' which starred Leslie Howard  was a wartime propaganda film with the Howard playing Reg Mitchell.

Reginald Joseph Mitchell was blonde and blue eyed just like Howard and he was, according to Dr Gordon Mitchell, (the editor and part author of R.J.Mitchell published in 1986 by Nelson and Saunders), ''forceful, strong, quick-tempered and very much awake all the time."

Sadly though neither Howard nor Mitchell whose Spitfire turned the outcome of the Battle of Britain upside down was to see Nazi Germany defeated, as Mitchell died in 1937 of cancer at the age of 42 and Howard whose plane went missing in 1943 was never heard of again.

Mitchell was born in 1895 at Stoke on Trent where there is a school named in his honour and also a Spitfire Museum, and he started life as a locomotive engineering apprentice. He had always been keen on aircraft and he became the personal assistant to Hubert Scott-Paine at Supermarine Aviation in Woolston Southampton in 1917. After serving two years there he became its chief designer.

R. J. Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire, 
at Eastleigh with 'Mutt' Summers, test pilot, 
H. R.P ayne Assistant, S. Hall, Air Ministry Officer,
and J. Quill, test pilot


Mitchell's boss was obsessed with winning the Schneider Trophy, which was an international award that was presented to the nation who raced the fastest seaplane over a measured course.

It was in 1922 that Supermarine beat the Italians with Sea Lion II, which had been redesigned by Mitchell from the company's entry of 1919. And practically the whole of Southampton lined the route with the Floating Bridge decorated with flags as it carried the cup over the Itchen to the Supermarine factory.

A year later the Americans beat Sea Lion III and this was a setback for Mitchell but in the next year he signed a contract for ten years as the company's chief designer and engineer and this was the start of a time that would see many triumphs.

Mitchell was with Supermarine for twenty years and "Mitch" as he was affectionately known as designed 24 aircraft, flying boats, amphibians, racing seaplanes and small light aircraft as well as the Spitfire and a bomber which he was working on when he died.

Mitchell's S4 streamlined monoplane met with an accident during trials but in the 1927 contest he regained the Schneider Trophy for Britain with the S5 at Venice. But he was the type of man who would not take advantage of his win and regarded himself as a member of a team.

Vickers eventually took over Supermarine in 1929 and entered the S6 in the contest which was now held on alternate years. The day of September 7th was to see the roads of the area jammed with traffic and the Solent crammed  boats of all sizes and types eager to get the best view. This turned out to be another win for Britain.

The S6 was equipped with a Rolls Royce engine and the firm presented R.J. Mitchell with one of its cars in appreciation. He was by now a fairly affluent person and had a house built to his own design  in Russell Place, Highfield, which was an affluent area of Southampton.

The country was in a depressive mood and the Schneider Trophy races must have given the people something to grasp hold of, but in 1931 the government of the time did not want to spend out on this type of entertainment, but Lady Houston who was an anti-socialist millionairess, offered to put up the sum of 100.000, and the S6B won the Trophy outright which meant for all time.

The Supermarine company due to its Schneider successes continued with the production f marine aircraft and the staff at Woolston was increased, this was at a time when other firms were laying men off due to the Depression. At this time Mitchell was working on what would become the most famous aircraft in the world, the Spitfire, when in 1933 he was suddenly taken ill and was rushed to hospital for an operation for cancer. But "Mitch" carried on heroically and a year later he managed to get his pilot's licence.

Sir Robert McLean the chairman of the company was ready to test the first prototype Spitfire in the early part of 1936, it was he who thought of the name, which incidentally Mitchell said was "bloody silly".

The fighter first flew on 5th March 1936 from Eastleigh Airport, which today is Southampton International Airport. The local Echo reported: "Even the uninitiated have realised when watch-ing the streamlined monoplane flash across the sky at five miles a minute (300 mph) that here is a plane out of the ordinary."

The Spitfire went on to play a vital role and around 23,000 Spitfires and Seafires were constructed. But Mitchell did not see them as he died in 1937.

Southampton has honoured R.J. Mitchell in various ways and so has his home town, with a youth centre, museum, scholarships, schools and lectures, a road and an office block have also been named after him, thus ensuring that this ''forceful, strong, quick-tempered and very much awake all the time." man will never be forgotten like the "Few" who piloted this much acclaimed aircraft will also never be forgotten.

The first Spitfire to fly was from Eastleigh Airport on 5th March 1936 flown  by Test Pilot Mutt Summers, the sculpture is modelled on that particular aircraft. The Sculpture was designed by Alan Manning. The Sculpture was unveiled by Mitchell's son on 5th March 2004 68 years later. His son is now trying to get a posthumous award for his father in recognition of the
spitfire which dramatically changed the tide of WWII.