Southampton is the true home of the Spitfire. RJ Mitchell started working for Supermarine in Woolston in 1917. He had a passion for racing aircraft and this passion would drive him to develop the Spitfire.
The prototype was completed in 1936 and fabricated in the Woolston factory. It made its maiden flight from Eastleigh airfield (now Southampton Airport) on 5th March of the same year. After the initial test flight Supermarine’s Chief Test Pilot Captain Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers famously said, “Don’t touch anything.”
The people of Southampton delivered the first operational Spitfires to the RAF on 4th August 1938 and the Woolston factory continued to be the only supplier of Spitfires until the summer of 1940 when, during the Battle of Britain, it was catastrophically bombed with the loss of 100 lives.
Even after the bombing of the Supermarine factory, the people of Southampton continued to produce the Spitfire, dispersed to locations throughout the city, for the duration of the war.
The Spitfire and Southampton are inseparable and it is the attitude of perseverance, ingenuity and patriotism that really does embody the Spirit of the Spitfire.
The Spitfire really was ahead of its time. Planes of the day were still being made with a stretched fabric fuselage, the norm for the 1930s. When RJ Mitchell envisioned an aluminium body for his revolutionary elliptical wing design, the Spitfire really was uniquely innovative.
RJ Mitchell was obsessed with speed and refined the aerodynamics of the aircraft so as to get as much speed out of it as possible. Amongst his innovations, Mitchell made the wings thinner than its contemporaries and put covers on the landing gear housing to reduce drag – common sense now but really forward-thinking at the time.
Rolls-Royce developed the Merlin engine for the Spitfire.The norm at the time was to angle the exhaust away from the fuselage but with the Merlin, in keeping with the innovative Spirit of the Spitfire, the exhausts ran parallel to the body of the plane giving more thrust – yet another innovation that made the Spitfire stand out from the pack.
With these and many other key design features, the Spitfire could achieve top speeds of 362mph against 328mph of the Hawker Hurricane. This meant the Spitfire could outmanoeuvre her German enemies in speed, aerobatic ability and most crucially its turning circle – key attributes that lead to people to believe there was hope that the nation could win the Battle of Britain.
The people who devoted their lives on the home front to building the Spitfire really do embody the Spirit of the Spitfire. The dedication and fortitude of the men and women, most of whom were not professional aircraft fabricators, really was remarkable.
When the Supermarine factory was incessantly bombed during the Battle of Britain, with the death of 100 workers, this did not stop the tireless efforts of the workers.
Key sites were requisitioned throughout the city so as to disperse the building of the aircraft. Manufacturing never stopped. In total, the people of Southampton produced 8000 Spitfires throughout the lifetime of the aircraft.
Their resilience is celebrated through the lasting landmark to be built in Southampton.
The pilots of the Spitfire are rightly remembered, primarily for their pivotal role in the Battle of Britain. At the height of the war, the average life expectancy of a new pilot was only four weeks and it is entirely appropriate that their sacrifice to safeguard our freedom and democracy is remembered with this monument.
Just as ‘the few’ inspired generations to become pilots themselves, so this monument will capture their bold and patriotic spirit to inspire future generations to serve their country.
More than 30 nations flew the Spitfire throughout its career. Allied air forces even flew in Spitfires alongside the RAF during the Battle of Britain.
There is no doubt that the Spitfire inspired a nation to believe that there was hope. The victory in the Battle of Britain halted the advance of the Axis forces that, after a year of defeats, was a turning point in the public mentality in the UK and around the world.
The Spitfire played its part in securing democracy for the free world in the face of a potent enemy. It was the only aircraft in production before, during and after the Second World War and was exported around the world.
This international landmark will greet visitors from all over the world and will remind them of the importance of freedom and democracy today.