Two great planes defended their nations in WW2
The Spit: Loved by a Nation
Probably, the name of no single machine in any nation’s history evokes as much sentiment and affection as does that of the WW2 fighter plane, the Spitfire, to the British. Many say, with some reason, we wouldn’t have been able to hold-out against Germany without it, and that nation would have beaten us in the air and on the sea as they had on the land at Dunkirk in the opening chapter of this horrendous conflict and forced an early surrender before the USA had time to turn round, never mind spring to our aid.
I have a personal stake down memory lane where the Spitfire is concerned. And a far from happy reminiscence, I’m afraid, as my uncle, Robert Turner Deighton Mercer, crashed and burned to death in a Spitfire not far from Hawkinge in Kent during the Battle of Britain in the early days of the war. He ran out of fuel; landed on one of our mined beaches and was blown up by “friendly fire,” so to speak, as it was one of our own beach mines that killed him.
My uncle was only one of hundreds of enlisted men, frantically pressed into the air as “sergeant pilots,” after a few brief weeks of training, along with full officer cadet pilots who met the same fate. My uncle had three “kills” to his name when the same fate caught up with him.
R. J. Mitchell was the inventor of the ‘Spit, as it was fondly called. In fact, he wasn’t a bit enamored with the name “Spitfire,” propounded by “some cove flying a desk in Whitehall,” as he grumbled. The first prototype - E.37/34 - was actually designated “Supermarine Type 300 Monoplane.” As it turned out the “cove” was actually Sir Robert McLean, the chairman of Vickers Aviation, who named the plane after his daughter Ana, who he said was a “right little Spitfire,” or so the legend has it.
Rolls Royce itself was responsible for naming the heart of the plane, it’s mighty 1000 hp, Rolls Merlin engine. This, in fact, gave the nod to our future allies in the war, as it was named after the American avian raptor, the Merlin, rather than a wizard of King Arthur’s’ Court. RR had the habit of naming its power plants after birds of prey, hence the Eagle, Peregrine, Kestrel and, perhaps with less panache, the Vulture, all engines fitted to RAF warplanes at some date in the company’s history.
Like its mighty engine's namesake, the Spitfire had thin wings which allowed it to attain great diving speeds (in 1943, a later adaptation of the marque was close to breaking the sound barrier! Not, in fact, achieved by any piston engine airplane).
It might be considered lucky, designer Mitchell did not have the honor of naming his creation, as he wanted to call it “The Shrew.” Perhaps a touch of the misogynist could be detected in Mitchell’s makeup as Shrew was a common name for a nagging hag. In the small mammal’s case, it is a gutsy predator with a short life, so in some respects the name would have suited the designation. But it was happily not to be and the plane was christened Spitfire, a name that would become part of the lingua franca of an embattled nation.
Even today, the fighter and its pugnacious name refuses to die. Go round any boot sale (flea market) in the UK and you will find dozens of paintings, posters, calendars, old magazines, greeting cards and other memorabilia of the ’Spit. Of the Hurricane fighter plane, which actually put paid to more enemy aircraft that it’s brother in arms, you find much less. At least a goodly part of this must be due to the apt, in-your-face name, as well as what the plane and its pilots achieved.
Although Britain and its Allies associate the Spitfire with the Battle of Britain and little else, the plane actually went on nearly 20 years after WW2 and saw action in several Middle Eastern countries as well as being used again by Britain against targets in Malaysia and by the French in Indo China. The plane is part of folk lore in many other nations whose pilots joined the RAF and saw action against the Luftwaffe - they are too numerous to list here.
The argument still continues today among the few remaining seniors who still remember the war, or recall what their parents said about it, as to whether the Spitfire or the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 was the better plane. It seems to me that the answer lies either in the heart or in the head. The Bf 109 was an easier and cheaper plane to build and perhaps to fly. It was more a prefabricated product of always excellent German practicality of design and production. More of them were built - more than 30,000 Messerschmitt to just 22,000 Spits. So the logic favors the German machine, especially as Luftwaffe aces had many more kills that their contemporaries flying British planes. But the Spitfire was also very effective, and much easier on the eye - perhaps even a work of art, and it went from strength-to-strength as the war wound on and the tide turned, limiting German production of aircraft, and they threw all their last resources into V1’s and V2’s. And…which plane won the war!! It was extremely fortunate we managed to force them into surrender before the V2 attacks on British cities reached the heights the Germans had planned.
When they think of the Spitfire, most people envisage just one aircraft. Indeed, the shape changed little compared to the engine, the armament and the overall performance of succeeding models from the first in 1936, until the ultimate in 1947.
Actually, the very first prototype arrived in 1934 resulting in the Mk1 going into production in the summer of 1936. The general dimensions were: wings 36’10’’ - length 29’11’’ - weight empty 4341 pound (loaded, 5720) - Engine RR Merlin 11 or 111 - over 1000 HP - Speed level flight, 18.000 feet, 362 MPH - ceiling 34,500 feet. etc. Also equipped with 8 .303 Browning machine guns (or 2 20-mm Hispano cannon and 4 Browning)
There were 1500 plus Mk 1 Spits built, then the plane went through modifications after 1939 - the Mk2, Mk3, Mk4.
The first serious change was with the Spitfire Mark 5, from 1939 to 1941, this is the plane that came in at the end of the Battle of Britain, nobly fought by the Mk 1 and Mk 2 machines.. It was much more powerful and faster, with a speedier rate of climb and it had a higher operational ceiling. Then we saw the Marks 6, 7 and 8 (easier than pesky Roman numerals…when in Rome, do what the effing Romans do say I - drink and shag all day and fall in the Trevi Fountain: we‘ve got wars to fight over here, god pity us).
The best Spit was the Mk 9 arriving in time to attack the waves of bombers over the S.E. of Britain. With the latest, 1650 HP Merlin it was much faster at 408 MPH at 25,000 feet and a climb to 20,000 feet of just over five minutes and a ceiling of 43,000 feet, enabling it to get above most of the opposition. Several more marque preceded the Mk 14, which went on till the end of hostilities, including several derivates and the Seafires, which were carrier based and part of the Fleet Air Arm. This totals 25 Spitfires, including the major models and all the other marques with minor changes as well as 8 Seafires. Total, 33 in all - and weren’t our factories busy making all these planes along with the Hurricanes and Mosquito’s, etc., etc. that were needed to repel the German hordes, so to speak. It is interesting to relate that perhaps the great unsung heroes were: one, the ground staff who kept them flying and, two, the people at Browning and Hispano whose guns were fitted to nearly every model in the war.
This humble article is not so much about the pilots but about their steed, the indomitable Spitfire. One cannot better Churchill’s famous quote, “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
And in this spirit I dedicate this hub to Pilot Sergeant Robert Turner Deighton Mercer, killed at just 23 years of age in defense of this land, and all the other courageous, wonderful young men in their flying machines.
I never even met him. God damn these senseless wars.