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28 Nov 2016

Peter Bickers gives another first class talk

Peter entertained us at club night with the story of the Spitfire fighter and his direct experience of flying in one.

The designer of the Spitfire was Reginald Mitchell, born in 1895. After training as a Steam Locomotive engineer in Stoke he moved to Supermarine Aircraft  and became their Chief designer. By the end of the 1920’s  Mitchell was well known for his racing seaplanes which won the Schneider Trophy races three times in 1927, 1929 and 1931.  His 1931 winning monoplane, reached a top speed of  407mph, a phenomenal speed when considering the latest British military aeroplanes  were still biplanes and struggled to reach a top speed of 150mph

The Spitfire was designed with an elliptical wing, which gave not only excellent strength, but aerodynamically had many advantages. Mitchell was fortunate because  at this time Rolls Royce were developing a new 27 litre engine rated at 1000hp. This was to become the Merlin which powered the Spitfire and many successful WWII warplanes. In the 1920’s Supermarine had been bought out by Vickers-Armstrong and the Chairman Sir Robert McLean claimed the name Spitfire was based on calling his youngest daughter "a little spitfire", Mitchell thought the name was silly, but it stuck and became famous for all time. 

The prototype took to the air in March 1936 and within 25 days a production order for three hundred aircraft was placed. The contract stipulated a production rate of forty per month starting mid-1937. By now Mitchell was not well having been diagnosed with cancer three years earlier. He died in the summer of 1937. To compound  matters, serious management and assembly problems delayed the first production Spitfire until May 1938, nearly a year late.  It took a further two months before the second aircraft flew and it wasn’t until late 1939 that output reached the contractual  delivery  rate. The first Spitfire Mk I, was delivered to the RAF at Duxford in August 1938.

With war imminent, Lord Nuffield, the owner of Morris Motors, was asked by the Government to build a shadow factory and 1000 Spitfires for an overall cost of £9 million. The factory was set up at Castle Bromwich; however despite vast expenditure and a workforce of 6000 no Spitfires had been produced by the spring of 1940, just weeks before the Battle of Britain. Within a few days of being appointed, Minister of Aircraft Production, Lord Beaverbrook, relieved Nuffield of responsibility for Spitfire production.  Under new management, Castle Bromwich was very successful and went on to produce over 13000 Spitfires and also many other aircraft including Lancaster’s.

During the Battle of Britain the Spitfire Mk I had eight 0.303 inch guns.  Its main opponent, the Messerschmitt Me109E had a 20mm cannon firing through the airscrew boss as well as machine guns which meant the Spitfire was seriously out-gunned. Fitting cannons into the Spitfire wings was not easy, but within six months Supermarine introduced a two cannon Spitfire and later a four cannon version. From now on until the end of the war the Spitfire was constantly being upgraded to meet new demands and new roles throughout the war. This was achieved with a close partnership Rolls Royce, who continuously improved the performance of the Merlin and also introduced the massive Griffon engine which had a 37litre capacity and powered later versions of the Spitfire.

In late 1940 the Luftwaffe introduced the Me 109F, which could out climb and out manoeuvre  the latest Spitfire Mk II. Supermarine and Rolls came up with a stop gap solution which became the Spitfire Mk V. It was so successful it became the most produced Spitfire with 6700 being built. The Mk VII was a high attitude version and with its wings extended by six feet and could reach an altitude of over forty thousand feet.

In 1942 the Luftwaffe brought in the Focke Wulf 190 which was faster and could out climb the Spitfire Mk V. To counter  this new threat, Supermarine and Rolls quickly introduced the Spitfire Mk IX. It had an upgraded Merlin with a two speed, two stage supercharger  giving, at max boost, 1600hp. The fuselage was lengthened by 9 inches to accommodate the new Merlin. Not only did the Mk IX counter the FW 190, it caused the Luftwaffe pilots to become very cautious when attacking Spitfires, as they could not easily tell if a Spitfire was a Mk V or a new Mk IX, Again it was very successful and became the second most produced Spitfire with 5700 being built.

In 1943, Griffon powered Spitfires were introduced, starting with the Mk XII which was specifically built to intercept low altitude raiders, this was followed by the Mk XIV which was powered by a Griffon engine approaching 2000hp.  By the end of the war the latest Spitfire Mk 24 was powered by a 2400hp Griffon. This was deadlier, twice as powerful and nearly twice the weight of the Battle of Britain Spitfire. Due to the prodigious power produced by the latest Griffon engines, pilots found them quite a handful. The days of the agile and feather touch Spitfire were over. Mitchell's original design concept and his distinctive Spitfire shape was to shine through all versions  from the Spitfire Mk I to the Spitfire Mk 24. 

In all, some 22000 Spitfires were produced. It was the only allied aircraft to stayed in production throughout the war; not because of some romantic attachment inspired by the Battle of Britain but because it proved itself time and time again in combat. Today there are many Spitfires in Museums around the world and at least 50 Spitfires still flying.

Spitfires served all allied air forces during the war including Europe, the Mediterranean and the North African Campaigns. They also served the Far East where Spitfires, and the naval version, the Seafire, fought in Burma,  and Pacific campaigns. In August 1945 over Tokyo Bay, a Seafire destroyed the last enemy aircraft to be shot down in WWII. Also Spitfires served on the Eastern Front; over one thousand three hundred Mk V and Mk IX Spitfires were flown by the Russian air force. After the end of WWII a batch of these Russian Spitfires ended up in the newly formed Peoples Republic of China.

Peter finished his talk by showing us a video of a flight he took earlier this year in a two-seater version of a Spitfire Mk IX which was built in December 1943 at Castle Bromwich. It was flown operationally in 1944 by Squadron 441 of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Peter flew from Biggin Hill towards the south coast and was able to show us the amazing spectacle of flying along the white cliffs from Newhaven to Beachy Head.  During the outward journey, the pilot handed over the controls and permitted Peter to fly the Spitfire. On the return journey, the pilot gave Peter the thrill of a lifetime by doing a "victory" roll just before landing at Biggin Hill.

A superb talk, very well illustrated and the fifty plus audience gave Peter a resounding round of applause.

If you would like to experience a Spitfire flight, then go to, and they have an advert on page 59 of the November 2016 PP.

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