Every year during the Royal Three Counties Show in Malvern, the ears are assailed by a strangely familiar roar. Is that a…? No, surely not. Yes, it is! Swooping and soaring in the sky above is the instantly recognisable shape of a Spitfire. Necks crane upwards and every pair of eyes – without exception – is fixed on the stunning aerobatics of Britain’s most famous and most loved aircraft. Notwithstanding its place in the country’s heart for its role in our island nation’s history, the Spitfire is, above all else, a thing of beauty. With its distinctive elliptical wings, developed as a well-balanced, high-performance fighter aircraft, powered by that Merlin engine with its throaty roar, it was, by all accounts, a dream to fly. It is doubtful that those brave, young airman had time to marvel at its manoeuvrability and firepower, even if deep down they were grateful for its revolutionary design when returning safely to base. Incidentally, those silk scarves that the pilots wore was no mere affectation. It was said that any pilot who did not look around for enemy aircraft every few seconds was dead in the water. Well, no doubt he would have been if he had been shot down over the Channel, which indeed many were. The silk scarf prevented chafing at the neck from those thick, serge, light-blue uniforms they wore.
In my more ruminative moments, I consider why and how a machine designed to kill can ever be considered a thing of beauty. The squat shape and deadly proboscis of a tank would not be high on anybody’s list of beautiful objects. To an engineer, however, anything man-made that fits the bill, works perfectly and is easy to handle, basically doing what it says on the tin, can, in its own way, be considered rather splendid for the purity of its design. The iconic Spitfire fulfilled its dual purpose to perfection, a beautifully balanced aircraft that literally spat fire.
It was Winston Churchill (who else?) with his stirring speeches in the House of Commons who gave name to the Battle of Britain, indelibly fixing its legendary status in the minds of the British people.
“What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin……Let us brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say this was their finest hour.”
It was a month or two later when the battle in the skies above Kent and Sussex was raging at its fiercest that he made his most famous utterance in a speech to the House:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
The ‘few’ of course were the brave young men of Fighter Command of the RAF, going toe to toe in murderous dogfights with the mighty German Luftwaffe.
It is perhaps understandable, given the lengthening time from those dark days of 1940 to the present day, that the pivotal importance of the Battle of Britain in the history of the Second World War is often lost. At the time, Britain was the sole country in Europe undefeated by Germany (though Hitler and his General Staff, to say nothing of a significant minority in British political circles, believed that it was only a matter of time before Britain was forced to capitulate). Hitler was poised to invade England. The generals even had plans drawn up for a victory parade through the streets of London. But it was accepted by military strategists that invasion was impracticable until and when the Luftwaffe had control of the skies. That they were denied has gone down in folklore as the ‘few’ saving this country from defeat and allowing the conflict to continue until eventual victory had been achieved.
This is where the legend of the Spitfire was born. The fighting capabilities of the aircraft were superior to those of its adversary, the Messerschmidt 109, which allowed it to overcome inferior numbers and prevail. But like many myths, it only tells half the story. In point of fact, more Hurricanes than Spitfires were in operation during the Battle of Britainand contributed the majority (60%) of all enemy ‘kills’ during the battle. To put it bluntly, the Hurricane was considered the workhorse of Fighter Command, while the Spitfire was more of a thoroughbred. The Hurricanes were scrambled to intercept the German bombers whereas the Spitfires took on the enemy fighter escorts, the Me 109s.
For better or worse – and perhaps unfairly - the Spitfire embedded itself in the public consciousness, certainly in the public affection, as the nation’s favourite fighter aircraft of WW2. Certainly, the Hurricane had an ungainly look compared to the sleeker Spitfire and lacked the acceleration of its more favoured cousin. But it could out-turn both the Spitfire and the Me 109 and without it, the RAF would surely have been defeated. In the same way that Eric Morecambe was not so funny without his ‘straight man’ Ernie Wise and Fred Trueman was more effective with his sidekick, the indefatigable Brian Statham, bowling at the other end, so the Spitfire could not have gained its glory and renown without the unglamorous Hurricane taking on the lumbering German bombers. Perhaps a better analogy from cricket might have been provided by the contrasting styles of the Australian fast bowlers, Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall, the mercurial Miller complementing the relentlessly hostile Lindwall. Why better? Because it was famously Keith Miller, who saw active service during the War flying Mosquito fighter-bombers, when asked about the pressure of playing in an Ashes Test match, retorted, “Pressure? Pressure is when you have a Messerschmidt up your arse!”
There are currently 54 serviceable Spitfires taking to the air, one of which buzzes us over Malvern every year. It is a measure of their popularity that so many are privately owned, faithfully restored and meticulously maintained, at considerable cost…. The latest Spitfire sold at auction cost £3.1 million. Those 54 are the only surviving aircraft of the 20,341 built in total, exceeding the number of any other British combat aircraft built in the 2WW and since. By contrast, 14,483 Hurricanes were built, of which only 12 remain airworthy. At that unforgettable Battle of Britain Memorial Flypast over Buckingham Palace in 2005, with the giant Lancaster bomber flanked by a Spitfire and a Hurricane, it was the Spitfire that caught the eye – and held it. There is an old saying in the aircraft industry: if a plane looks right, it generally is. A thing of beauty which just may have saved Britain from the jackboot. No wonder we love it.