After designing prize-winning racing seaplanes, the British aircraft designer REGINALD MITCHELL (1895-1937) developed one of the world’s deadliest and most admired fighter aircrafts, the Supermarine Spitfire. The Spitfire was a decisive weapon for Britain during World War II and until its retirement from active service in 1954.
Expectations were high when the Royal Air Force began the search in the early 1930s for a replacement for its Bristol Bulldog fighter plane. The new fighter had to be usable day or night, and to be capable of flying at a level speed of 195 miles per hour and to reach 15,000 feet in no more than eight and a half minutes. It also needed to carry oxygen, wireless equipment, at least four machine guns and 2,000 rounds of ammunition.
Many of Britain’s aircraft manufacturers pitched for the commission, which was won by Supermarine Aviation Works in Southampton, which specialised in the production of racing seaplanes and had yet to produce a land plane, let alone a fighter plane. Light, speedy and versatile, the Spitfire was distinguished by the sleek lines of Supermarine’s race-winning seaplanes. Not only did it prove to be a powerful weapon for Britain during World War II, the Spitfire had such character that it came to symbolise the nation’s fighting spirit.
The man who led the design team that developed the Spitfire did not live to see it in action. Reginald Mitchell was fighting cancer for most of the time he worked on the project, but lived to see the successful test flight in March 1936 and to start the preparations for the Spitfire’s production after the Air Ministry commissioned 310 aircrafts in the largest aircraft order ever placed in Britain. Reginald Mitchell died at the age of 42 on 11 June 1936, a year after the Spitfire order was placed.
Mitchell was born in 1895 in the village of Talke in Staffordshire in the heart of Britain’s pottery industry. His father was a headmaster who retrained to become a master printer. Mitchell attended the local school and then won a scholarship to Hanley High School. In 1911, at the age of 16, he left to become an apprentice engineer at Kerr Stewart & Co, a locomotive engineering company in nearby Stoke-on-Trent. He soon progressed to the drawing room, while continuing his education at night school where he studied engineering, mechanics and mathematics. Mitchell’s passion was aircraft design, a fledgling but fast-developing field, and in 1916 he was offered a job as a racing seaplane designer by Supermarine in Southampton.
After a year in the design studio Mitchell was promoted to become Supermarine’s chief designer. The most prestigious event in marine aviation was the Schneider Race. The International Aviation Federation decreed that the first country to win the Schneider trophy for three successive years or a total of four years could keep it. Hubert Paine, the owner of Supermarine, was determined to win the trophy for Britain and encouraged Mitchell to design the Sea Lion II, a streamlined monoplane, which won the 1922 race by setting a new world record for speed of 145.7 mph.
In 1925 the Air Ministry formed a High Speed Flight racing team at Felixstowe, Suffolk and commissioned Supermarine to develop a successor to the Sea Lion II. The result, the Supermarine S5, won the Schneider Race in 1927, followed by the Supermarine S6 which triumphed for third time in 1928. By then Supermarine had forged a collaboration with the aerospace engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce which developed a powerful 12 cylinder engine for the S6. That plane reached a winning speed of 328.63 mph, more than twice as fast as the record-breaking Sea Lion II six years earlier. Mitchell and his team then finessed the design of the S6 into the S6B for the 1931 Schneider Race. Equipped with new floats the S6B sped at full throttle throughout the race. It won the event for Britain and the right to keep the coveted trophy. A few weeks later the S6B broke the world speed record by flying at 407.5 mph, a record which remained unbroken for 14 years.
In 15 years of designing seaplanes for Supermarine in the intensely competitive arena of international racing, Mitchell had refined the defining characteristics of his work. Having entered aircraft design at a time when the industry was still relatively young, he relished the opportunity to experiment with emerging materials, design concepts and production processes. By necessity all aircraft are designed to exacting specifications, but the demands of racing seaplane design were exceptionally rigorous. Mitchell was schooled in a field where performance had to be optimised with even a few seconds making the difference between success and failure in a race. The relationship between shape and weight was critical, and every advance in technology had to be analysed for possible exploitation. The collaboration with Rolls-Royce had enabled Mitchell to work closely with exceptionally skilled engineers, while the showy side of international racing had encouraged him to design aircraft which were aesthetically pleasing, as well as supremely functional.
Impressed by Mitchell’s achievements in racing seaplane design, the Air Ministry invited Supermarine to tender for the replacement to the Bristol Bulldog fighter aircraft. Supermarine submitted his first design, the Type 224, in February 1932. It was a low-wing monoplane with cranked wings which met the demands of the Air Ministry for speed, weight and functionality. Yet Mitchell realised that other manufacturers had produced superior designs and insisted on overhauling the Type 224 into the more advanced Type 300.
In 1933 the Air Ministry sanctioned Supermarine to develop the Type 300 for production and gave the company ￡10,000 to produce a prototype aircraft. Mitchell, who was already seriously ill with cancer, ignored his illness to concentrate on his work. However after one operation he was forced to convalesce and travelled to Germany where he observed the Luftwaffe’s new fighter aircrafts. Aware that Germany was better prepared and equipped for war than Britain, he redoubled his efforts on his return to work at Supermarine.
Rolls-Royce developed a sophisticated new engine for Mitchell’s plane, the PV-12, later named the Merlin. The powerful Merlin not only enabled the Type 300 to fly faster, but to carry more ammunition, notably eight machine guns, rather than the four originally specified by the Air Ministry. The prototype emerged with a stressed skin construction, which was lighter and stronger than the original stick and fabric version, light alloy monocoque fuselage and elliptical wings that enhanced its aerodynamic efficiency. DeHavilland provided a two blade wooden propeller for the prototype. Mitchell preserved the sleek silhouette of his aircraft by concealing the radiator beneath the starboard wing. The ministry decided to call it the Spitfire, a name that Mitchell is said to have dismissed as “silly”.
The prototype Spitfire made its maiden flight in March 1936 piloted by Mutt Summers and Jeffrey Quill. As relations with Germany were deteriorating and the threat of a European war mounting, the Air Ministry placed its largest ever order for 310 aircraft. Supermarine fitted out its factory at Woolston in Hampshire for Spitfire production and organised a sub-contracting programme for component manufacturing on a then-unprecedented scale. Even so, it could not supply the planes as swiftly as the government required and an order for 1,000 Spitfires was placed with the Nuffield Group which built a new factory at Castle Bromwich near Birmingham to produce them.
Further refinements were required for the prototype design. For example, the DeHavilland propeller was replaced by an Airscrew Company version also with two blades, while DeHavilland developed a more efficient three blade propeller, which would add 5mph to the Spitfire’s top speed.
By spring 1937, a year after the test flight, Mitchell’s cancer was so advanced that he was given only a few months to live. He died on 11 June 1937, and Joseph Smith, who had worked on the Spitfire project since the outset, succeeded him as Supermarine’s chief designer. Smith oversaw the evolution of the Spitfire’s design throughout World War II when it served in every area of combat as a fighter and fighter-bomber, in reconnaissance and as a carrier-based fighter aircraft for the Royal Navy.
Conceived by Mitchell as a work in progress, the Spitfire was constantly upgraded and refined. The aircraft’s maximum speed increased by a quarter and its weight doubled during the development of 40 different versions of Reginald Mitchell’s original design. By the time it retired from active service in 1954, more than 20,000 Spitfires had been manufactured in Britain.
1895 Birth of Reginald Joseph Mitchell at Talke, Staffordshire.
1911 Mitchell leaves school to become an apprentice engineer at Kerr Stewart & Co in Stoke-on-Trent, where he enrols at night school.
1916 Moves to Southampton, Hampshire to join Supermarine Aviation Works as a designer.
1917 Mitchell is promoted to chief designer of Supermarine.
1922 Britain wins the prestigious Schneider Race with the Sea Lion II seaplane designed by Mitchell and manufactured by Supermarine. The Sea Lion II sets a new world speed record of 145.7 mph.
1925 The Air Ministry establishes a High Speed Flight racing team and commissions Supermarine to develop a new racing seaplane.
1927 The Mitchell-designed Supermarine S5 wins the Schneider Race.
1928 A second successive win of the Schneider Race for Britain with the Mitchell-designed Supermarine S6.
1931 The Schneider Race recommences after a hiatus and the Mitchell-designed Supermarine S6B triumphs – and then sets a new world speed record.
The Air Ministry invites Supermarine and other manufacturers to compete to develop a replacement to the Bristol Bulldog fighter aircraft.
1932 Supermarine submits Mitchell’s first design for the Type 224 fighter aircraft. He then modifies it into the Type 300 aircraft.
1933 The Air Ministry awards ￡10,000 to Supermarine to produce a prototype of Mitchell’s design.
1934 Seriously ill with cancer, Mitchell is ordered to convalesce after treatment and visits Germany where he is alarmed by the progress of the Luftwaffe’s fighter aircrafts.
1936 After the successful test flight of the new Supermarine aircraft – now named the Spitfire – with its Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the Air Ministry places a record order for 310 aircraft.
1937 Reginald Mitchell dies of cancer at 42.
He is succeeded by his colleague Joseph Smith who oversees the development of the Spitfire throughout World War II.
1938 The Spitfire begins its RAF service at Duxford in Cambridgeshire.
1939-1945 Constantly modified throughout the war, the Spitfire proves to be a decisive weapon in Britain’s military effort serving in every combat area as a fighter, bomber, reconnaissance aircraft and carrier-based fighter aircraft.
1954 The Spitfire retires from active service.
Visit the Imperial War Museum website at www.iwm.org.uk
C. J. Matthews, Temperamental Genius: Life of Reginald Mitchell, the Man Who Designed the Spitfire, Debony Publications, 1996
Donald MacDonnell, From Dogfight to Diplomacy: A Spitfire Pilot’s Log, 1932-1958, Pen & Sword Books, 2005
Douglas Bader, Fight for the Sky: The Story of the Spitfire and Hurricane, Pen and Sword Books, 2003
Eric B. Morgan, Edward Shacklady, Spitfire: The History, Key Books, 2000
Jeffrey Quill, Spitfire: A Test Pilot’s Story, Crecy Publishing, 1998
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run in collaboration by the Design Museum and the British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain