At this very moment 76 years ago, the Battle of Britain raged overhead in the skies of Southern England. The 10th of July is often considered the start date, with the Luftwaffe first focusing on attacking shipping, before moving on to Britain’s airfields, factories, and eventually residential areas. The Germans’ objective was to wipe out the RAF to gain air superiority and to pummel the populace in to submission, potentially making a seaborne invasion possible.
As Winston Churchill famously said, “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”, and so it was down to ‘the Few’ of the RAF to take on the might of the Lufwaffe and put a stop to any plans of invasion.
At the RAF’s disposal was the iconic Spitfire, very much a product of Southampton. Despite the fact there were more Hurricanes in operation, and more Hurricanes shot down enemy aircraft, pilots always seemed to prefer the Spitfire and it is the Spitfire that has captured the hearts and minds of people since.
The Spitfire was designed by Southampton resident R. J. Mitchell at the Supermarine factory in Woolston, and its prototype model, known as K5054, made its maiden flight on the 5th of March 1936 at Eastleigh Aerodrome, which is now Southampton Airport. The test pilot, Joseph Summers, landed the prototype after its eight minute flight and told the engineers “don’t touch anything”, meaning it was absolutely perfect. Despite this, Supermarine made many improvements and the Mk.1 eventually went in to production at Woolston. Sadly, R. J. Mitchell died in 1937 and was buried at South Stoneham Cemetery, he left a legacy that would help change the tide of a war that he would not live to see.
The Supermarine factory at Woolston began churning out Spitfire after Spitfire but it became apparent the factory there could not keep up with the demand, and so work was subcontracted out to other factories across England.
In August and September of 1940 the Luftwaffe made a concerted effort to wipe the Woolston and Itchen factories off the face of the earth, thus hampering Spitfire production, and they eventually succeeded. Tragically, over 100 workers lost their lives, with so many more injured. With Blitz spirit in full flow, Southampton did not give up. Spitfire production moved to other places spread out all over the town, including Hendy’s garage, a tram depot, and a laundry building among other places. Around 8000 Spitfires were built this way, with different parts being manufactured at different places across the town by the men and women of Southampton.
The airfield in Hamble was designated as a repair centre for the aircraft, and over the course of the war over 5000 were repaired here. My granddad was once strafed by machine gun fire from a Luftwaffe fighter as it came in to attack Hamble airfield!
Southampton continued to build and repair Spitfires for the war effort, eventually over 22,000 were produced.
In the air, the pilots loved the Spitfire. It was a delight to fly and fit like a glove. I read an anecdote whereby an RAF pilot went to a hospital to visit a German pilot who he had shot down. The German shook the Englishman’s hand, and said it was an honour to meet the Spitfire pilot who had got the better of him. “No, no, I wasn’t flying a Spitfire, I was flying a Hurricane”, the RAF man said. Well, the German wasn’t having any of it. They argued for a while, but the German eventually conceded that yes, he had indeed been shot down by a Hurricane. The Hurricane was a great machine too, but he was disappointed. He didn’t mind being shot down by the Spitfire, there was no shame in that… But a Hurricane?! He didn’t like it. The German then made the RAF pilot promise that, if he ever bumped in to any of his Luftwaffe comrades, he tell them that he was shot down by a Spitfire, not a Hurricane. I think is a nice testament to the Spitfire’s reputation, and to the people of Southampton who designed it, built it, and kept it flying.