In the second of his new occasional series, TV producer and historian Taylor Downing reviews a wartime Spitfire classic.
On 16 August 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited the control room of RAF Fighter Command’s 11 Group at Uxbridge. The Battle of Britain had just gone up a gear as Goering had ordered his Luftwaffe bombers to strike at the RAF airfields in order to destroy Britain’s air defences as a prelude to invasion.
Churchill was visibly moved as he watched the WAAFs calmly sliding markers across the big table map at the centre of the room. One set of markers indicated the arrival of a fleet of German bombers with their fighter escorts. Another set marked the squadrons of RAF fighters scrambled to intercept them. Churchill could vividly imagine the terrific battle raging in the skies above southern England, watched by millions on the ground below.
When he left in his official car with General Hastings Ismay, Churchill was silent for some minutes. Then he turned to Ismay and said: ‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.’
Ismay was struck by the memorable phrase. Four days later, Churchill used a slightly more polished version of this sentence in a speech to the House Commons. The ‘Few’ instantly became the iconic term to describe the RAF fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain. And the film made two years later picked up on this word to tell the story of R J Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, and the test pilots and teams who first flew and produced the aircraft that came to define the ‘Spitfire Summer’ of 1940.
The Battle of Britain, with its heroic David-versus-Goliath overtones (even if this was not altogether accurate), was one of the central events in the early part of the war. But the feature-film makers of the time avoided it. The first treatment of the battle in a British film came in 1952 with Angels One-Five – a rather tight-lipped drama that was far from a classic. The all-star 1969 British blockbuster The Battle of Britain was a decidedly Sixties take on the battle, and its most distinctive feature was the aerial dogfight scenes shot in colour using several replica and some real wartime aircraft.
But in the summer of 1941, after Hitler’s invasion of Soviet Russia, when the Battle of Britain was already beginning to recede in popular memory, Leslie Howard started to direct a film that would celebrate R J Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire.
Howard was a famous actor-director who had made his name on Broadway in the 1930s and had gone on to Hollywood, where he became a close friend of Humphrey Bogart, and played in, among other hits, Gone With the Wind (1939). He returned to Britain at the start of the war to do his bit. Two stalwarts of the British film industry, Miles Malleson and Anatole de Grunwald, wrote the script for the Mitchell film.
The Air Ministry read the script and saw the film as good propaganda, so they provided full support and made available a squadron of Spitfires for the use of the film makers. They were filmed talking off, landing, and performing aerobatics at RAF Ibsley near the New Forest and at RAF Warmwell in Dorset. David Niven, who was working in America at the time, was released by Samuel Goldwyn from his contract at MGM to return to Britain to play the part of Group Captain Geoffrey Crisp. Leslie Howard himself played the role of R J Mitchell.
The film begins with newsreel scenes showing the German occupation of much of northern and western Europe. Hitler and Goering threaten that Britain will be the next country to be crushed by the Nazi jackboot. The film then moves to newsreel footage of RAF Fighter Command headquarters on 15 September 1940 as the controllers struggle to scramble the fighter squadrons while fleet after fleet of German raiders are picked up approaching the British coast.
Then, moving to an imaginary RAF airfield named Seafield, a squadron of Spitfires comes in to land after a heavy skirmish with the German bombers. The RAF pilots, some played by actors but others playing themselves, are full of the lingo used by airmen at the time. Downplaying the whole business, one of them describes the battle as ‘Quite a picnic, sir!’
Relaxing for a few minutes they start to talk about the Spitfire with their station commander, Group Captain Geoffrey Crisp (David Niven). The pilots repeat all the mixed-up rumours about how the aircraft had been designed. ‘It was designed in two hours at a golf club, wasn’t it sir?’ asks one. Crisp decides he has to tell the young pilots the full story of the birth of the Spitfire and the film flashes back to the summer of 1922 to start its core narrative.
The film shows Howard playing R J Mitchell as a young aircraft designer at Supermarine, a small company in Southampton trying to design seaplane aircraft fast enough to win the Schneider Trophy, the international air-speed race. But Mitchell has a passion to produce a single-bodied streamlined aircraft based on his observation of how birds fly. He tells his old school friend, Geoffrey Crisp, ‘I believe I’ve discovered the secret of real flying, the secret of the birds … not building something in parts and held together with wires, but one continuous body all in one piece.’
This obsession to design an entirely new type of aircraft brings him into conflict with the board of directors of Supermarine, who want a more conventional bi-plane, and Mitchell resigns from the company. But the directors cave in and call him back to work up his design. The consequence is a series of successes for Mitchell and Supermarine at the Schneider Cup. During this period the company is bought by Vickers, the big arms-manufacturing company, who are presented as bringing the capital and investment necessary to support Mitchell’s new aircraft designs.
After winning the Schneider Cup for the third time, Mitchell is seen as a man without a mission, spending his time gardening. It is only when his friend Crisp takes him to Germany for a holiday that everything changes.
There, he attends a dinner at the Richthofen Club and meets Willy Messerschmitt, the German aircraft designer. The rather ham-fisted Nazis convince Mitchell that they are determined to win mastery of Europe and he returns to England with a new passion: to design a fighter aircraft based on the streamlined design of his S6B to defend the country from the Luftwaffe. Exhausted by an un-named disease, Mitchell pushes himself to an early death, working all hours to complete the design of the Spitfire. On the day the Air Ministry finally confirm their order for hundreds of the aircraft, Mitchell, exhausted by the struggle, passes away.
The real Mitchell
The First of the Few takes many liberties with the truth. Although Leslie Howard plays Mitchell as a gentle, upper-middle-class romantic with a dream to design fast aircraft, he was, in reality, from a working class background and had a fierce temper. The disease from which he suffered and in the end died was colon cancer, though this is never revealed in the film. In 1932 he had a major operation, and it was while convalescing that he visited Germany – but he never met Messerschmitt.
Mitchell’s genius was to replace the wood, wire, and fabric of the conventional bi-plane with a stretched lightweight aluminium covering over a metal frame. And the elliptical wing shape tapering to a point at the end gave the aircraft extra manoeuvrability. When this futuristic looking airframe was combined with the new Rolls Royce PV-12 engine, later known as the Merlin, Mitchell and his team were on to a winner.
But the process was desperately slow. There was no easy transition from the Schneider-winning S6B seaplane to the World War II fighter. Mitchell worked on his first design in 1931. The prototype, known only as K5054, first flew on 5 March 1936 at Eastleigh in Southampton. But it was slower than expected and there were several problems that needed to be ironed out. Mitchell, supported by his deputy Joe Smith, went back to the drawing board.
‘A bloody silly name’
Supermarine decided to call the new aircraft the ‘Spitfire’. Mitchell was not impressed and is supposed to have commented caustically ‘Sort of bloody silly name they would give it.’
In June 1936 the Air Ministry ordered 300 Spitfires (at the same time they ordered 600 Hurricanes). By now, Mitchell was seriously ill with his cancer and Joe Smith supervised most of the final tests and redesigns. Mitchell died, not as in the film on the day the order was confirmed, but a year later on 11 June 1937. He was aged only 42.
For Supermarine, the problems were only beginning. They were simply too small and too specialised to fulfil an order of this scale. So radical was the design for the Spitfire that new jigs had to be constructed and the use of new metals had to be learnt. Even with the backing of the giant armaments company Vickers, production of the Spitfire fell way behind schedule.
The fuselages were made in Southampton. The wings, which proved particularly difficult to mass produce, were sub-contracted out. At one point there were 78 fuselages but only three sets of wings available in the assembly plant. Things got so bad that in June 1939 the Air Ministry considered abandoning production of the Spitfire altogether. Fortunately they did not and there were just enough Spitfires in existence by the summer of 1940 for this beautiful, high-speed marvel of a flying machine to play its part in helping to win the Battle of Britain and to become the most legendary British aircraft of all time.
The part of Geoffrey Crisp, dramatically played by David Niven in The First of the Few, is a composite character. Crisp becomes the test pilot for Mitchell’s Schneider Trophy-winning seaplanes and then an RAF fighter pilot. The principal test pilot for the Spitfire was in fact Jeffrey Quill. His early enthusiasm for the Spitfire did much to boost the confidence of Supermarine in their new fighter.
During the war Alex Henshaw was the chief test pilot at Supermarine, flying every mark of the aircraft produced. By 1949, although 24 different versions of the Spitfire had been manufactured, Mitchell’s basic design principles remained, and more than 22,000 in total had been built.
At the height of the Battle of Britain, in September 1940, Goering called his Luftwaffe pilots together to discuss what was going wrong with their campaign to destroy the RAF. Partly because German intelligence constantly exaggerated the losses being inflicted on the RAF, the pilots were amazed when another squadron of British fighters were waiting in the skies over southern England to attack them.
Despairing, Goering turned to his pilots and asked what it was they needed to win the battle. Adolf Galland, one of the top Luftwaffe aces, replied immediately ‘Spitfires!’