Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend
John Murray, 2007 (first published in paperback 2008), 435pp., £8.99 in paperback
On the strength of Leo McKinstry’s excellent book about Geoff Boycott, I bought this book about the Supermarine Spitfire. I didn’t find it quite so entertaining as that first one, but I kept reading, and I kept learning things that I didn’t know about this famous airplane.
The basic problem with the Spitfire story, as a story, is that almost all of the excitement comes at the beginning. How was it designed and by whom? Once designed, will it be ready in time for the world-shaping, civilisation-saving contest which all readers know will soon erupt? Well, we know that it will be ready, but how? In what numbers? Who were the insufficiently sung heroes of this story, and who the insufficiently damned villains? And, in the great battle, how exactly did it do? That’s the heart of the story, and McKinstry tells it well, or at least (to an airplane ignoramus like me) convincingly. But the Spitfire carried on being manufactured right through the war, all the while being speeded up, enlarged, having its shape made uglier, its armaments made fiercer, its range improved, its weight greatly increased, and its task list expanded. Had McKinstry ignored all this later stuff it might have made a more entertaining book, but that would not have been the story of the Spitfire. As it is, the Battle of Britain only ends more than half way through the book, after which McKinstry takes us on a tour of all the other dramas and developments as efficaciously as he can. I can’t hope to tell you whether McKinstry has all the technical details of the Spitfire story right. Go elsewhere for that kind of review. What I can tell you is a few of the things that stuck in my mind after reading this book, which counts for something because it was actually a while ago that I finished reading it.
A big point that McKinstry makes is that the Spitfire was not in any straightforward sense a triumph of the private sector or a simple case of the public sector being rescued by the private sector. Free marketeers of my acquaintance have often made much of the fact that the ancestry of the Spitfire is to be found in the privately sponsored Schneider Trophy races of the 1920s and 1930s, and of a donation that was made in 1931 by a certain Dame Fanny Houston which kept Supermarine’s participation in this contest on track at a time when the government reckoned the Schneider Trophy to be too frivolous to bother with in such economically straightened times. But the idea was always to build airplanes that would eventually be paid for by the government, to fight battles between states and in the meantime to threaten to fight battles between states, rather than merely to win privately organised sports contests.
Besides which, there is a huge difference between building an airplane that is merely fast, and one that is fast and can fight effectively against other fast airplanes. The Spitfire was a huge advance on anything Supermarine or anyone else had built only a few years earlier, and the reason it was built was that warriors and bureaucrats in the RAF and in Whitehall decided that they wanted such a airplane. It was in the context of these governmentally expressed demands that the legendary chief designer of Supermarine, R. J. Mitchell, went to work making his masterpiece.
Mitchell’s first effort at a fighter airplane, the Type 244 – as it never got beyond being called, looked a lot like the Stuka, especially from front on, with its down and up wings and its clumsy fixed undercarriage. It was not a success, but Mitchell learned fast.
R. J. Mitchell was a type who is perhaps more familiar in our culture, dominated as it is now by computers and computer graphics, than he was in his own, namely the quasi-artistically motivated techy driven by the desire for design elegance rather than just money, immersed in the relevant technology but anything but your boring boffin in a white coat saying dourly why this dull thing can be done but that interesting thing cannot. A friend enthusing about his iPhone reminded me recently that Steve Jobs is a similarly visionary and driven type of person to Mitchell. Mitchell’s working world was more like a genius artist’s studio than most people’s idea of a technological powerhouse. Paperwork was in a state of permanent derangement. The management of subordinates was haphazard and instinctive, involving long periods during which Mitchell was not to be disturbed. The one oasis of calm and beauty and efficacy was the design itself that he was working on.
Between R. J. Mitchell’s body and the mind at the top of it there was a similarly extreme contrast, by the time he got around to working on the Spitfire. He did live to see his greatest creation take its earliest flights, but did not live long enough to witness its great triumph in 1940. This was because he had a particularly unpleasant form of cancer which killed him in the summer of 1937, at the age of only 42. I don’t recall hearing the words “colostomy bag” in The First of the Few, the movie they made after the war about Mitchell and the Spitfire, but in this book you get a medically clearer and even more depressing idea of what his last few years and months were like, which only makes you admire him all the more.
The making of the Spitfire in large numbers was the story of Mitchell’s studio, scrawled large. Throughout the early chapters of this book, we oscillate between the chaos of the various efforts to have the Spitfire ready for the war in time and in numbers, and the raptures experienced by the few pilots lucky enough to fly one of them at this early stage in the story.
If at any point in this book McKinstry actually explained the technological ins and outs of why the Spitfire’s beautiful shape made it such a beautiful plane to fly, I missed this, but beautiful it was, both to fly and to look at. In particular, the Spitfire’s controls were incredibly responsive, which made it an excellent platform from which to fire guns accurately, despite the Spitfire not being able (for some complicated reason which I couldn’t follow) to have cannons instead of more feeble machine guns. But its guns could not have been fired at all if a decent number of Spitfires had not been ready by the time the battle began, and that story, at any rate to begin with, was a nightmare of confusion and incompetence. That the Spitfire was so small didn’t make manufacturing it quickly any easier. Too many workers at once merely got in each others’ way.
A succession of men, many of them with hyphenated names and with what we would now call anger management issues, grappled desperately throughout the late 1930s with Spitfire production problems. Seriously, the aircraft industry at that time seemed to consist to an amazing degree of double barrelled chaps yelling at each other, either face to face, or on the telephone, sometimes even driving themselves or each other to suicide.
There were various villains in this story, villains because of their failure to realise the potential value of the Spitfire, and because of the then widespread idea that the wars of the future would be won by bombers rather than fighters. The Trenchard doctrine loomed over the 1920s and 1930s much as the updated nuclear version of the same notion loomed over the world from the late forties onwards. The bombers would always get through, and once through would wreak frightful havoc and end the war in a few hours. Many reacted to the promise of the Spitfire much as a later generation of war theorists were to react to the idea of using laser guns to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles. It won’t work so why bother? The point is to have your own bombers, so that you can frighten the other fellow’s bombers into inactivity. But enough people who mattered were convinced for the Spitfire to be designed, and flown by instantly enraptured test pilots of it, like Jeffrey Quill (David Niven in The First of the Few), and for a large order to be placed with Supermarine.
Which was when the trouble really started. The prototype Spitfire was a wonder, but making lots of Spitfires was something else again. It had an elegantly shaped all metal body, which may have been beautiful to behold and a wonder to fly, but was the very devil to manufacture until you were thoroughly used to it.
Especially if you were Supermarine, as managed by people like R. J. Mitchell. A succession of duller but more organised organisers wrestled with the paperwork situation, and with factories filled with random piles of Spitfire parts in random places, and with trying to make sure that, just as a for instance, wings made in this small factory in the south of England would fit onto fuselages made in other small factories, regularly, as I say, losing their tempers with one another. In Whitehall, Air Ministry officials and RAF high-ups fretted, as money disappeared month after month, with very little in the way of finished Spitfires to show for it, and of course, as Hitler’s airforce grew ever more menacing.
One of the many Spitfire heroes was Neville Chamberlain. It is now clear that Chamberlain was doing a lot more than merely playing for time in his negotiations with Hitler, but to his great credit, Chamberlain did at least understand the value of fighter defence. Way back in 1934 when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he had pushed scarce resources at Fighter Command and at the design effort that would bring forth the Spitfire.
Another Spitfire hero was the suitably double barrelled Philip Cunliffe-Lister, Lord Swinton, Air Minister from 1935 to 1938 and the main political driving force behind the Spitfire programme. All of which was no thanks to Spitfire villain, Trenchard doctrine enthusiast, and Chief of the Air Staff Sir Edward Ellington, of whom Spitfire hero Sir Wilfred Freeman said: “he never made the least attempt to do his job or to get to know politicians. He pretended to despise them, but was in fact frightened of them.”
Another Spitfire villain, but of a very different sort, was motor car tycoon Lord Nuffield. Nuffield grandly promised to build an entirely new Spitfire factory at Castle Bromwich, near Birmingham, and he did. How different, he argued, could mass producing Spitfires be to mass producing motor cars? Very different, it turned out, and for a vital year or two, Castle Bromwich produced nothing but bills and obfuscation. Even if he had been suited to mass producing Spitfires, Nuffield was by this time too old for such a task, but too rich and grand to be sacked.
Until, that is, Lord Beaverbrook sacked him. The story I have always been told was that Lord Beaverbrook made a vital difference to Spitfire production, and McKinstry endorses this orthodoxy. Beaverbrook was definitely another big Spitfire hero. Appointed by Churchill as his Minister for Aircraft Production, Beaverbrook at once started shouting down the telephone at everybody in the proper aviation industry style. McKinstry tells how Beaverbrook once rang up the boss of Supermarine, a man called Craven, at a time when Craven was answering the call of nature. I don’t care what he’s doing, get him, yelled Beaverbrook. Craven replied, when disturbed in the toilet by the wretched secretary in the middle of this shouting match, that he could only deal with one shit at a time.
Beaverbrook also shouted at Nuffield, and Nuffield decided to put this silly little Canadian newspaperman in his place. Perhaps he, Beaverbrook, would prefer it if he, Lord Nuffield, were to stand aside from the Spitfire programme? Yes, good idea, said Beaverbrook. Exit Nuffield.
No Spitfires were allowed to fight in France in 1940, but come the summer, there were just enough, just a Few, you might say. And the ultimate Spitfire heroes, the pilots, duly won their battle, and their place in history.
I found McKinstry’s description of the Battle of Britain particularly interesting, because I’ve always been interested in that big Big Wing row, as publicised in the movie The Battle of Britain, and which has rumbled on ever since the battle. The most persuasive things I had so far read about this argument have come down pretty firmly against the so-called Big Wing tactic, espoused by 12 Group commander Leigh-Mallory, but vehemently opposed by Park, commander of 11 Group, which was the Group that fought most of the battle, between London (rather expansively defined) and the south coast. Len Deighton, in his book Fighter, for instance, says that the sacking of Dowding and sidelining of Park just after they had won their battle was outrageous. Park’s objection to Big Wings, eloquently expounded by Trevor Howard, playing Park in The Battle of Britain, was that large numbers of attacking fighters were all very fine, but that such numbers took far too long to assemble, and by the time they had assembled the German bombers had already bombed. Which was all too liable to mean that they had bombed Park’s airfields.
McKinstry doesn’t seriously dissent from that judgement, but he does say that Dowding, in overall command, could have been a whole lot more decisive in his handling of this dispute, and a whole lot more flexible in his use of the available pilots and squadrons, than he actually was. The picture McKinstry paints of Dowding is of a backroom bureaucrat of genius, but of a somewhat ineffectual battle commander. Dowding supervised the creation of that famous system of command and control that won the Battle of Britain, and he was one of the first senior RAF officers to spot the importance of the Spitfire, and for that alone he deserves all the garlands he has since had bestowed upon him. But as a day to day battle commander, says McKinstry, he was not the real deal. My take on Dowding, having read McKinstry’s take on Dowding, is that Dowding wanted his beloved system to do the job all by itself. For him to tinker with the system as it was doing its thing would be, to him, an admission of the system’s imperfection. Which was not really the point, was it? Anyway, fair or unfair, I was glad to read McKinstry’s reservations about Dowding, because until now, none of the antagonism that surrounded Dowding at the time has has made much sense to me. McKinstry also expresses reservations about Park, calling him vain and territorial. Basically, McKinstry says that the quarrelling between Dowding and Park and Leigh-Mallory reflected little credit on any of them. The methods they each insisted on might have complemented each other, instead of just being the basis of an ongoing quarrell. Clearly Dowding’s system was a wonder, but Big Wings, says McKinstry, had their place. On those occasions, the climactic September 15th battles being one such, when Douglas Bader’s huge Duxford Wing was able to get seriously stuck into the Germans, it played havoc with their morale, for the German airmen had been assured that the RAF had been all but wiped out. It was around then that a German famously said: “Here come those last fifty Spitfires”, and McKinstry makes that one of his chapter headings. Clearly the feuding British commanders had been doing something very right, to say nothing of the people making the Spitfires.
You can’t talk Spitfire without also talking Hurricane. McKinstry reasserts the orthodox view, which states that the Spitfire was better. The German pilots certainly feared it more, much preferring to have been shot down by a Spitfire than by a Hurricane. A few Hurricane pilots who had got used to their Hurricanes but then switched to Spitfires and found it hard to adapt to carried on saying that the Hurricane was the equal of the Spitfire, or even superior. But few others now believe this.
However, the Hurricane did have one huge short-term advantage over the Spitfire. Being made in a more primitive way than the Spitfire, with wood and canvas (rather as I remember assembling model airplanes in my childhood with balsa wood and paint-tightened tissue paper), it was cheaper and above all easier to make. While early Spitfire making stuttered frighteningly, Hurricane building proceeded far more smoothly and rapidly. There were thus Hurricanes to waste in France in early 1940, and plenty more in time for the Battle of Britain. The Hurricane could not have won the Battle of Britain on its own, but without it, the battle might well have been lost. Further proof of the Hurricane’s inferiority to the Spitfire is that the Hurricanes were mostly given the job of shooting down the incoming bombers, while the Spitfires tackled the far more formidable fighter escorts. This boosted the kill numbers achieved by the Hurricanes, which was then used by some to argue that the Hurricane was as good as the Spitfire, but of course it proves no such thing.
The biggest difference between the Hurricane and the Spitfire was that the Hurricane was a technological dead end, while the early Spitfires were but the first of many versions. By the end of the war, many thousands of Spitfires had been made, and the manufacturing process, although never easy, always rather unwieldy, soon became as smooth and efficient as it had at first been chaotic. A story I knew nothing about until now concerned the original Supermarine Spitfire factory in Southampton. This was bombed towards the end of the Battle of Britain, but rather than rebuild it, perhaps to see it bombed into rubble again, they decided to disperse Spitfire production into the surrounding area, Vietcong style. It worked. What had begun as a nightmare of disorganisation eventually got smoothed out into a miracle of coordinated effort, much as the war effort as a whole went from absurdity to triumph, albeit at huge cost. And of course, the post-Nuffield version of the Castle Bromwich factory likewise got into its productive stride.
The most glorious and important battle fought by the Spitfire after 1940 was the defence of Malta. There were many crucial moments (I recommend googling the word “Ohio” together with “Malta” if you want to learn about another such) which enabled Malta to hold out and continue to serve as a staging post for supplying the allied armies in North Africa and for disrupting the supplies of the Germans fighting against them. But undoubtedly one of the crucial moments in Malta’s wartime story was when the first Spitfires arrived.
Not that the high-ups in Fighter Command (the ones who had replaced Dowding and Park) were much help. It took a scandalously long time for any Spitfires to switch from pointless Big Wing forays across France, to meaningful action in Malta. I recall reading in my long ago youth, in Paul Brickhill’s Bader biography, about huge Bader-lead expeditions over France. But why did the Germans bother to attack such formations, and thereby allow themselves to be shot down? I mean, what was being attacked, and what defended? According to McKinstry, the Germans mostly didn’t attack and these forays were a nonsense.
Meanwhile, it definitely says something about the Spitfire that its most glorious battle after its first and greatest one was also defensive. The basic task of the Spitfire in 1940 was to take to the air, and immediately to start shooting at incoming attackers, helpfully tracked by radar. That the Spitfires couldn’t carry very much fuel was not an insuperable problem. Running out of fuel? Okay. Land, refuel, and then take off again and rejoin the battle. Very hard on the pilots, who would find find themselves flying half a dozen sorties in one day, but basically: doable. The same formula was repeated in Malta.
The Spitfire fought just one other particular battle of significance, towards the end of the war, against the V1 rockets. By the time the V1 appeared, Spitfires had become fast enough to chase after them. But rather than shoot a V1 down and perish in the resulting explosion, the Spitfire would put a wing under the V1’s wing and shove it upwards, thus sending the V1 off course. I did not know that.
But the biggest and most important thing, from the war winning point of view, that the later versions of the Spitfire did was to support the allied armies as they slowly advanced towards Germany. They helped to supply that extra dimension of misery to the Germans, by shooting up armoured convoys, wrecking trains, and generally making a nuisance of themselves to every manifestation of Germanity they were able to spot.
Not that spotting from a Spitfire was that easy. Did I mention the Spitfire’s engine? This was the great Rolls Royce Merlin, and really, getting on for half the credit for the Spitfire design should go to Rolls Royce, for making the Spitfire possible. But this mighty engine did come with a rather odd price attached to it. It was very big, as fighter engines go, and right bang in the middle of what should have been the pilots field of vision. So, spotting from a Spitfire, if the ground is what you are trying to spot, was not that easy. It also made landing a problem. What they did was come in at a curve, thus enabling the pilot to see where he was going to land past the side of the engine.
This huge engine also made the Spitfire no use as a night-fighter, as the inhabitants of London discovered to their cost soon after the Battle of Britain, when the Germans switched from daylight attacks on airfields and radar stations to night-time attacks on London. The problem was that the Spitfire’s engine emitted such dramatic flames and sparks that at night the pilot could see nothing else. That Dowding had nothing to offer by way of defending London was all part of why he got the sack, but it was hardly his fault. He simply didn’t have the planes for the job.
Despite such limitations, the Spitfire did perform aerial reconnaissance with great distinction. It is fun, although confusing at first, to read a book where the the acronym PR stand not for the superficialities these letters stand for now, but for photo reconnaissance. What the Spitfire could not do with any distinction at all was protect bombers over Germany. It didn’t have the range. McKinstry tells of how a Spitfire was forced to make a landing at a US airbase, and then to beg for fuel to get home, and of how the Americans there laughed out loud at the Spitfire’s paltry fuel appetite. Drop tanks were attached, but never very satisfactorily, and besides, more petrol meant less in the way of guns and ammunition. Only for PR did the tanks really work properly, because in that case guns were positively discouraged, the point being to get the pictures back rather than to get involved in any shooting.
So, why did the Spitfire continue to be developed? Why did they not develop other planes more suited to the tasks of war winning rather than merely not war losing? Well, they did develop more planes, such as the Typhoon, the Mosquito, and so on. But entirely new airplanes are hard, and very expensive, to get into production, as the story of the Spitfire itself well illustrates. Every time they were about to forget about building more Spitfires, Supermarine would introduce some apparently rather unpromising Spitfire modifications or apparently minor improvements, and, much to the delight of all the pilots concerned, an extra dose of life would be found in her. Meanwhile, some new airplane which on the face of it had seemed a better bet, for whatever it was they wanted it for, would run into difficulties. So it was that the Spitfire carried on, and on, and on. By the end of the war, both the Russians and the Americans each had over a thousand of them, and the RAF had nearly six thousand. Measured by numbers produced, the Spitfire was the most successful British airplane ever. It carried on in active service into the late 1950s, shooting up Communist insurgents or photo-ing similar efforts by others. The Spitfire continues to delight nostalgic crowds at air displays and ceremonial flypasts.
Talking of finding more life in “her”, the pilots did indeed talk of the Spitfire as a she, and in general as a very sexy machine. And the Spitfire was sexy in another way. There is a bit in this book which reminded me of the passage in The Right Stuff where Tom Wolfe explains how some of America’s most beautiful girls found their way to top secret airbases for trysts with the early jet pilots. Much the same went on at Spitfire bases. And when away on leave, any young man with the magic of a set of wings on his uniform, and, better still, who was able to say: yes I am as a matter of fact, when asked if he was a fighter pilot, and: yes I do as it happens, when asked if by any chance he flew Spitfires, was usually well taken care of, so to speak. The young men who flew Spitfires were the alpha males of their generation, much as Grand Prix drivers and Rock Stars are now, the technical back-up for a Spitfire being not unlike what goes on now in the pits at Formula 1 races.
Nor were the Spitfire pilots held back from such pleasures by much in the way of poshly educated reticence, because most of them were not from posh schools. The army had and has posh officers, especially in its posh regiments. But the wartime RAF was much more meritocratic. Could you fly, and when flying, could you kill? That was what mattered. It turned out that most couldn’t fly and kill well enough, but that those who could were, socially, a very mixed bunch. Many were definite mavericks, to echo Tom Cruise’s call sign in Top Gun, and there was a distinct tendency for the RAF’s top guns during the war to be from the colonies, such as the New Zealander Al Deere and the South African Sailor Malan, perhaps so-called because “Sailor” presumably worked so much better than his original first name: Adolphe. Poles and Czechs were also heavily involved in the Battle of Britain, and in the Spitfire story in general, fuelled by a ferocious desire for national revenge.
This book abounds with descriptions by the pilots of their many adventures and near things, my favourite being one when a WAAF who had been doing some maintenance on a Spitfire found herself still sitting on it when it took off. They told the pilot to land, and indeed something did seem to him a bit wrong with how the plane was handling, but they didn’t want to worry him by telling him exactly why. She lived to tell her tale, as did many, many more, quite a few of them to McKinstry. In general this book is stronger on human interest anecdotage than in technical explication. There is a definite air in this book of “let’s get these stories written down before the people who can tell them to us have all died”, and quite right too.
Us Brits now feel a whole lot better about how we contrived not to lose World War 2 at its beginning than we do about the fact that we ended up coming a rather distant third, with our last throw as a military superpower being to participate enthusiastically in the mass incineration of German civilians. Few of us minded this much at the time, but most of us are unhappy about all that now and prefer to hark back to 1940. Yet, oddly, Dowding, who commanded the British side in the Battle of Britain, is not now that well remembered. He was no Nelson with his band of brothers, brotherliness being the exact quality that Dowding so crucially failed to instill into his key subordinates, and nor was he much good at schmoozing with superiors, or with politicians. Dowding, whose nickname was “Stuffy”, lacked the knack of eliciting a warm and spontaneous human response. Simply, he was not loved.
But there was nothing stuffy or unlovable about the Spitfire. As McKinstry says, it is indeed odd that the principle weapon of the victorious side in the Battle of Britain is now better remembered than the man who actually commanded the victorious side. Yet so it is, and so it probably always will be. The perfection and simplicity, and sublime individuality, of the Spitfire’s shape, and the decisive contribution it made to the victory, will always ensure this.
Oh dear, I too am harking back to 1940. But it is that kind of book, I’m afraid. I found the 1940 stuff very intriguing, and the stuff before it, when they were building Spitfires for the first time, downrght fascinating. After 1940, I continued reading more as a duty, to find out if anything more of overwhelming interest was said so that I could pass it on here. The later chapters of this book certainly have their moments, in Malta, and when those V1s were being shoved off course, by hand as it were. But as I said at the beginning of this review, the beginning of this story is where the best bits are.