“Spitfire: The History”


Sometimes a myth becomes so powerful that it takes on a life of its own – and you end up with a legend. Reginald Mitchell’s masterpiece, the Supermarine Spitfire, had a difficult birth. The first Rolls-Royce Goshawk-powered Type 224 aircraft to Specification F.7/30, with it’s heavy cranked wing and trousered undercarriage legs, looked really bad and performed even worse! Fortunately for all concerned, including the people of Britain, Reginald Mitchell and his design team ‘righted the ship’, and by the time the first Spitfire Mark I aircraft reached No 19 Squadron at Duxford, on the 4th May, 1938, the Royal Air Force found itself with a world class fighter. There were difficulties, of course, in that the first examples had a two-bladed fixed pitch propeller (which limited performance), and a hard-to-construct elliptical wing of stressed skin construction, which posed manufacturing challenges.

When the Second World War began, it was the Spitfire’s stablemate, the rugged Hawker Hurricane which was sent to France with the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force. Despite hard fighting and excellent results, it was squadrons of Spitfires which the French authorities asked for, when the flow of battle turned against them. They never came, although the ‘Spit’ fought over Dunkirk in the final days of the Battle of France. Strangely, despite the fact that there were 27 squadrons of Hurricanes and only 19 squadrons of Spitfires available to the RAF during the Battle of Britain, it was the charismatic Spitfire which the Luftwaffe was said to fear, rather than the Hurricane, which made the majority of ‘kills’ against the enemy. It was the start of a trend. By the time D-Day rolled around, the obsolescent Hurricane was only surviving in minor theatres of war, such as Burma, whilst the Spitfire had been re-engined with the mighty Rolls-Royce Griffon, or two-stage Merlin, and could be found making ultra long range photographic sorties over Europe, covering the invasion beaches, and performing as a fighter-bomber in Italy. Post-war, the ultimate versions of the Spit (and its sea-going cousin, the Seafire) carried the legend into the early days of the jet age.

How then to tell the story of such an important fighter? Many have attempted, but until Key Publishing commissioned a new work in 1987, there was nothing – in one volume – that did justice to this iconic aircraft. Here you can see the result; the front cover of the 1st edition of this book is shown (my own copy lies around 4 feet away in one of the bookcases). ‘Spitfire:The History’, Eric Morgan & Edward Shacklady, Guild Publishing (by arrangement with Key Publishing), 1988, ISBN 0946219109, is a meaty book (Quarto;634 pages) and, according to the Foreword by Jeffrey Quill, the test pilot who undertook most of the testing of the prototype, K5054,‘…it is not a book for light reading, but will be an essential on the shelves of serious aviation historians.’ Eric Morgan, who served as an Electronics Officer in the postwar Royal Air Force, and Edward Shacklady, the former Editor of ‘Air Pictorial’ and the founder of Profile Publications, were the ideal pair to deal with this important subject. Containing chapters with titles such as ‘Low Level Photography’, ‘A Useful Interim Type’ and ‘Blow The Spitfire’, this tome covers all variants, all color schemes, and every major and minor technical detail. To my amazement, I found that the book lists every single aircraft of the type, more than 20,000 of them, and what happened to them (admittedly, in very small type). I shall leave it to Jeffrey Quill – the ultimate Spitfire pilot – to give the final assessment, ‘As definitive a history of the Spitfire as is ever likely to be written’

So, you are thinking, how come I ended up playing a small role on the periphery of this project? Simply this; I was on staff at East Midlands International Airport at the time, and by a stroke of luck, Ronald Fraissinet kept his Spitfire PR.XI, PL983, (the one in the background in the photograph) at the airport, and Rolls-Royce hangared their powerful Mk XIV, RM689 (shown in the foreground) at EMIA, too. The publishers wanted an air-to-air shot of both types of Spitfire for the cover of the book, and it so happened that a small engineering company at East Midlands was involved with the restoration of aircraft, and had a twin-engined Piper Aztec, which could be flown as a chase ‘plane with the rear door removed, giving the publisher’s staff photographer a clear shot. I acted as a facilitator, and the sortie was co-ordinated with Rolls-Royce, so that BOTH the Spitfires and the chase ‘plane could fly low over the Rolls-Royce Main Works in Derby, about 12 miles to the north of the airport (we timed it for lunchtime, and the workers literally BOILED out of the buildings on site!) It was on our way back from Derby, at about 5,000 feet, that the lovely photograph you see here was taken. Whilst all this was happening I was in the co-pilot’s seat, (about 90 feet away from the other two aircraft) having the time of my life.

I got a copy of the book, and some great memories out of this. Now THAT’S how to get a 1st Edition!

Sadly, BOTH of the these beautiful aircraft were later destroyed in fatal crashes at air shows. Ronald Fraissinet, who was flying the blue photo-reconnaissance Spitfire, was killed in a helicopter crash in the French Alps, shortly after selling his Spitfire; it later crashed at a French air show, at Rouen, on the 4th June, 2001 when the new owner, Martin Sargeant, suffered an engine failure and with smoke pouring from the aircraft, and seeing that he was going to land amongst spectators, deliberately crashed the aircraft as far away as possible; he was the only person killed, no-one else was injured.

My friend David Moore, the company pilot of Rolls-Royce’s beautiful Spitfire Mark XIV, sadly mis-judged a loop (he was fuel-heavy for his next sortie) and crashed at Woodford Air Show, near Manchester on the 27th June, 1992. That was a terrible loss. These, and other accidents which show up regularly on the nightly news these days, remind one that display flying is a risky business.

I am given to understand that Rolls-Royce are undertaking a VERY slow re-build (complete with a new fuselage) of RM689, so we may, eventually see this historic aircraft back in the air once again.

‘Spitfire: The History’ is a stunning achievement, and I, too, don’t think that it is going to be surpassed, any time soon.

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4 comments on ““Spitfire: The History””

  1. This book seems to be the single source book on Spitfires — thanks for the excellent review making us aware of it. Even better is the story behind the cover photo, good show Ross! Tragic regarding both pilots, of course.

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    • It is a magnificent book (now in a 2nd edition, with a different cover shot), but not one you pick with a single hand! It is a true masterpiece, and contains thousands of photographs, diagrams and original documents. However, it is now out of print, I think, and is wildly expensive on the ‘after market’ Still, it is THE book on the Spitfire.

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  2. We second Joe May’s remarks (above)! As “war babies” we observed this magnificent aircraft flying from local RAF aerodromes in North-East England, and the “Spit” and Hurricane pilots of the Battle of Britain were some of our heroes of WWII. Thanks, Ross! Per Ardua Ad Astra…

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    • Dear Mac, I remember going to Rolls-Royce’s own airfield at Hucknall, Nottinghamshire (about 15 miles away from where I was born) and seeing various Spitfires and Seafires come and go at times. The closest air show to me was held annually at Tollerton (Nottingham) Airport, and you could guarantee to see a Spit there! Hope that you are well…………. R.

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