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Old 06-06-2021, 07:36 PM   #3 (permalink)
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The Man Who Won the Battle of Britain. Sort of.

Winston Churchill once famously said “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. He could technically have replaced the last word with “one”, for without the man whom I’m about to profile in this article, we could all have been speaking German now. Well, not me: I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it, as the Nazis had some very firm ideas about anything seen as other than perfection, so I guess I’m lucky. Along with the other few billion people in the world. But while I don’t in any way wish to take anything from nor minimise or cheapen the sacrifices made by the brave men who gave their lives in the skies over England in the summer of 1940, as they endeavoured to keep their island free of the Nazi invasion and prevent the war coming to a sudden and decisive end, it’s nevertheless true that without this man their task would have been that much harder, perhaps even insurmountable.

Reginald Joseph Mitchell, more commonly known by his initials, R.J., was an aircraft designer who had a passion for racing seaplanes, but who is remembered for the design and development of one of the crucial fighter aircraft of World War II, the Supermarine Spitfire. Beloved of pilots, the terror of the Luftwaffe, in partnership with the Hawker Hurricane this nimble and deadly aircraft waged war against Hitler between July and October of 1940, as the fate of the Second World War hung in the balance. Its superior design, speed and manoeuvrability allowed its pilots to outfly and outfight the Messerschmidt BF-109s and Focke-Wulf FW190s of Goerring’s Luftwaffe and, despite being outnumbered, enable the RAF to hold out against the Germans until the invasion of England was eventually postponed by Hitler.

Through one of those nasty quirks of fate, Mitchell would not live to see his finest creation earn its reputation and take its place in history, as he died two years before the outbreak of war, but he has been rightly celebrated as one of the greatest aircraft designers of his time, and a man without whom the war might not have been won.

A keen engineer from an early age, Mitchell served his apprenticeship at 16 in a locomotive works, later gaining a position in the Supermarine Aviation Works in Southampton, where he would remain for the rest of his career. Supermarine were a company that serviced the seaplane and flying boat industry popular at this time (1917) and so the bulk of Mitchell’s projects were of that nature, with aircraft such as the Walrus, Sea King, Sea Eagle and Stranraer. Some of these were built to military specifications, some for the private sector. Some, like the Stranraer, when retired by the military went on to be sold to embryonic airlines and served as passenger aircraft, with the Stranraer and the Walrus flying up to the end of the 1950s.

Supermarine also specialised in designing racing seaplanes, and were well known for producing models which performed well at the annual Schneider Trophy, a race for seaplanes and flying boats. Mitchell designed the S6 and S6B, both of which won the race in 1929 and 1931, the latter breaking the airspeed record when it attained a speed of 407.5 MPH (655.6 KPH). an astonishing achievement in an era where “fast” aircraft typically reached speeds in the low to high two hundreds of miles per hour, and even the Spitfire, which was based on the S6B, could only manage around 370 mph.

After this though Supermarine were tasked by the British government to design a “modern, all-metal, land-based fighter aircraft”. With an eye on developments in Europe, and especially Germany, the British Air Ministry worried that its ageing fleet of Hawker Hurricanes would not be enough to repel an expected/feared German invasion of England. Mitchell’s offering, the Type 224, was not accepted by the Ministry. It was big and bulky, with fixed undercarriage and an open cockpit, gull-like wings similar to the later Grumman F4U Corsair, which saw action in the Pacific and proved something of a mainstay of the USAF, and could only attain a top speed of 228 mph, which was well below the Ministry’s required target of 245. The final indignity for Mitchell was, perhaps, the fact that the design chosen was a biplane, the Gloster Gladiator, which though it saw service throughout World War II and acquitted itself well, was well outmatched by the more modern designs flown by the Luftwaffe. As a consequence, it became the last biplane the RAF ordered.

Disappointed, Mitchell turned to working upon a private project which had been commissioned by Supermarine for an updated Type 224, and adding retractable landing gear and also shortening the wingspan led to the Type 300. This was submitted to the Air Ministry but rejected again. However with the addition of an enclosed cockpit, even shorter and thinner wings and the new Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the Air Ministry approved its development and with finance secured Mitchell produced the prototype of what would become known and loved as the Spitfire.

Three months after its maiden flight in March 1936, the Air Ministry ordered 310 of the aircraft. It was to prove pivotal in the fight to maintain air superiority in the skies over Britain as the famous Battle of Britain played out from June to October of 1940, denying the Nazis the opportunity to launch Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of England. Some examples are still flying, maintained by enthusiasts, and the Spitfire is a regular and welcome sight at most British and other airshows.

Although he was able to watch the test flights of his new aircraft, Mitchell was diagnosed with rectal cancer and died in 1937, never to see the long-term effects his design would have not only on the coming war, but history itself. He was survived by his son Gordon until 2009, when he too passed away, aged 88.

Various monuments were erected to the memory of R.J. Mitchell, one of which stands in London’s Science Museum, another, this a sculpture of his finest work, the Spitfire, takes pride of place in Southampton Airport, although Gordon Mitchell’s efforts to have the airport renamed in honour of his father failed. Mitchell’s high school, however, was renamed as the Reginald Mitchell High School, while the primary at which he was taught also took his name. The Mitchell Arts Centre in Stoke-on-Trent, his hometown, was constructed in his honour and opened twenty years after his death, in 1957.
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