Introducing the Spitfire

In lieu of a more substantial post, here are some flying aeroplanes. Clicking the above picture will take you to a British Pathé newsreel issued on 7 July 1938, showing 'Britain's latest air fighter', also known as the Supermarine Spitfire Mk I. Unfortunately the narration is missing, but I think this is the first production Spitfire, K9787 (at least, I can make out a -87 serial number in places), which first flew in May 1938. That looks like Jeffrey Quill in the cockpit about a third of the way through. A photo on page 18 of the 28 June issue of The Times shows a Spitfire in flight, noting that it was 'undergoing acceptance trials', and the newsreel footage was presumably part of the same Air Ministry propaganda exercise. Other newsreel companies produced similar items.

This was the British public's introduction to the Spitfire, at least on a large scale. The prototype, K5054, was on display at the 1936 RAF Pageant, but it took two years to get into production, and in those years biplanes still formed the air defence of Britain. I'm surprised that the British government didn't make more of their fast new fighters (the Hurricane debuted only a little earlier) in propaganda terms in late 1938. Of course, there weren't very many of them yet. But just the sight of them cavorting across cinema screens might have increased public confidence in Fighter Command, and weakened support for appeasement. On second thoughts, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised after all.

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25 thoughts on “Introducing the Spitfire

  1. J Campbell

    Given the production problems at the time they probably didn't want to draw too much attention to the Spitfire.

    IIRC they had about 200 complete except for wings and making the wings was a bit of an issue. Don't fully understand the wing problem but the structure was not a (by that time) normal stressed skin. The spar being described as a "Russian Doll" needing all sorts of precision machining on a large scale.

  2. The wing designed was a constant issue for the Spirfire and caused production problems. Eventually as the Spitfire became more powerful the design became more of a problem and by the time we arrive at the later mark Spitfires they had introduced a redesigned wing.

    The planned replacement for the Spitfire, the Spiteful, dealt with this problem by introducing a fully redesigned laminar flow wing and a new tail section that was used on late mark Spitfires. Even though it did not go into production elements of the design ended up being used in Supermarine's first jet, the Attacker.

    In terms of production, the real problem for Supermarine was that they simply did not have the facilities to produce the numbers ordered and a new shadow factory in July 38 at Castle Bromwich had to be set up, which was not fully set-up until 1940.

  3. I think they made a great deal of (known - subsequently in the RAF - as 'Downwind') Gillan, and the Hurricane was the fighter on every schoolboy's lips in the late 1930s.

    "On 10 February 1938, Number 111 Squadron Leader John W. Gillan flew his Hurricane from Turnhouse, Scotland, to Northolt, covering 526 kilometers (327 miles) in 48 minutes. This gave an average speed of 658 KPH (409 MPH), and introduced the Hurricane to the British public with a splash of publicity. Such a high speed was a good margin above the Hurricane's normal limits of performance, but there had been a strong tailwind, not mentioned in the newspaper articles. Gillan would known as "Downwind" Gillan from then on."

    The Spitfire's nested spars* and wing structure were a challenge to manufacture - especially in a semi-hand-built manner rather than full mass production. Even mass producing Hurricanes - a more straightforward aircraft and technologically familiar (from earlier Hawker types) in its factories - was tough in the time and volume required. The much more (I'd say over-)complex Spitfire, which Joe Smith had to redesign for production was an even bigger stretch for the builders. It was a close run thing having enough of either Spitfires and Hurricanes by the Battle of Britain, but the production during kept up. The marginal area there was pilots. The RAF even ended up using sailors as well as foreigners!

    *Think of inserting five square section tubes inside each other, the thickest one being shortest, with each decreasing diameter extending further outboard.

    "A design aspect of the Supermarine Spitfire wing that contributed greatly to its success was an innovative spar boom design, made up of five square concentric tubes which fitted into each other. Two of these booms were linked together by an alloy web, creating a lightweight and very strong main spar."

    (The 'dumb-bell' construction element - described in the previous sentence - was pretty normal for the period, and used without the more complex nesting element by Hawker. But the Hurricane's wing was a simpler end-of-an-era design, and the Spitfire's had a greater performance and future ahead of it.

  4. Erik Lund

    Just to be clear here, while not every blurb mentions it, check out the coverage in _Flight_, 17 February 1938. "Squadron Leader Gillan flew on a bearing of 167 degrees true, while the following wind, which was blowing at a strength of at least 50mph , was on a bearing of 310 degrees true. The engine was not run at full throttle...."
    The Hurricane was a _fast_ plane in its era, especially stripped down, as this one was.
    So was the Spitfire. And I think Brett has the right of it. It's hard to follow the coverage in a granular way in a weekly, but there is a definite ramping-down of bellicosity in _Flight_ going into Munich, and a pick-up in the spring of 1939.
    As for the manufacturing difficulties in the Spitfire, as long as a "big" fighter contract is for 2--300 planes, it hardly makes sense to start rationalising the production, "Fordist" style --not that that often worked out very well, anyway. It has long been suspected that the very high labour-hours input into the first few Spitfires, which feature so prominently in Postan's _Design and Development of Weapons_ , and subsequently Barnett's screed, was a product of creative accounting at Vickers-Supermarine.

    Which isn't to say that there weren't problems with the wings, but they were hardly out of line with the expected course of aeroplane development in the era.

    Now, about that narrow-track undercarriage.....

  5. Post author

    Actually, the tailwind was mentioned in some newspaper articles, eg in The Times, 11 February 1938, 14: 'The unusually high speed was helped by the wind, though this was not a pure tail wind', noting its strength as 50 mph. (The Manchester Guardian's article mentioned it too, 11 February 1938, 11.) Another article on 4 May, page 9, about the lifting of some of the secrecy about the Hurricane, also notes the tail wind. The aeronautical correspondent -- E. Colston Shepherd -- then deduced the top speed of the Hurricane to be at least 330 mph, dubbing it the 'world's fastest fighter'.

    But again, the Air Ministry made surprisingly little of the Hurricane. There were evidently occasional photo opportunities over the spring and summer of 1938, as when a squadron of Hurricanes flew to France in July. But after that they seem to dry up, until early November 1938 -- The Times has a half-page spread of aerial shots of Hurricanes in the 4 November 1938 issue on page 18, noting how fast and well-armed they were. If they'd done that six or seven weeks earlier it might have reassured some people. Very few people rated air defence during the Sudeten crisis, if the press is any guide; it just wasn't on the public's radar yet (so to speak).


    I have surprisingly few posts about Spitfires, I've realised!

  6. Erik Lund

    Another point to consider here: when Neville Chamberlain brought in the Defence Loan in the spring of 1937, the conventional view was that 1.2 billion pounds was more than needed, not less. But when you add up all the pressing Service needs, _something_ had to give.

    I don't think that it has ever been honestly and seriously investigated, but the "Saturday Night Massacre" of the Army Council in December makes it pretty clear that it was the Army, even if we had any doubts looking back as the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of France roll on day-by-day.

    Chamberlain, however, was a very wily fellow. It wasn't a matter of downgrading the army, notwithstanding the fact that while the RAF estimates went from (uhm, less than 40. I swear that I can look this up by walking across a room, but it seems like too much work) million pounds in April of 1937 to 220 million in April of 1939, the Army Estimates went from around 50 to 140 million.

    It was a matter of providing for the AA defence of the realm! That made bombers, in effect, the argument against the BEF. And thus, the argument against the French commitment. So saying that Hurricanes and Spitfires could defence Great Britain was admitting that there was really no reason not to spend money on guns and tanks. And once Paris hears that Britain is beefing up the BEF again, who knows what those French will do?

    Remember the next time the horrors of the Holocaust come home, that there is no particularly compelling manpower or industrial* reason that Gort could not have launched himself into Belgium on 10/05/40 with 12 divisions instead of 9, with an armoured division covering his advance instead of 5 regiments of divisional cavalry, with three Army Tank Brigades in reserve instead of 2/3rds.
    Whether having more force in the wrong place would have made a difference is, admittedly, another question.

    *The Matilda II was built by a firm just outside Liverpool, where unemployment stood at 14% through 1938! You'd think that borrowing enough money to double Vulcan Foundry's contract would have paid off in lowered dole payments alone.

  7. Erik Lund

    In case anyone is interested, the last five prewar service estimates (including the ones that went into effect on 1 April 1939 (Air Force/Navy/Army); 19/58.6/39.4; 31/62.9/44; 51/72.7/54; 88.6/108.2/72.7; 126.4/127.34/106.5; 220.6/153.6/148.2.

    I think that if I'd only known in 1936, I might have bought some Hawker shares.

  8. Post author


    Interesting counterfactual. But how easily/quickly could the Army have been expanded compared with the RAF? Not that the latter was easy, but its expansion had been going on for three or four years by 1937/1938. Adding another three divisions would mean lots of recruitment, more barracks, training areas, not to mention artillery and lorries and so on. Was 1938 too late for efficient Army expansion by 1940? (I don't know.)


    That's okay, I understand your need to brag :)

  9. Erik Lund

    The thing is how barely it is a counterfactual. Remember that the force structure of the British army is built around the dual poles of the Indian garrison and the large European expeditionary force. The units, infrastructure, recruiting and nominal training was there to send 5 infantry and 1 mobile division of the regular army to Europe upon the commencement of hostilities, and the Territorial Army of 12 (13) infantry divisions and I mobile division in increments thereafter. (Leaving lots of complications about doubling formations and Kitchener and how many battalions to the division out of it for a moment.) IV Corps reached France in 12/15, bringing the First BEF up to 12 divisions and two armies in the 6th month of hostilities. The second IV Corps was scheduled to arrive in France in 06/40, a month too late, and in the 9th month of hostilities. 1st Armoured Division, the descendant of the BEF's 1st Cavalry Division, was even slower off the mark. Its movement to the Continent was interrupted by the German offensive, making it 8 months late by comparison with its WWI equivalent.
    This is in spite of the Regular Army reaching a target strength of 220,000 in May of 1939 (460,000 with all reserves counted). I do not have the 1914 Vote A strength before me, so I may be sadly mistaken in assuming that it is in the same range. The Territorial Army was similarly at an all-time high of 240,000 men (and much larger than its WWI equivalent), and perhaps not surprisingly given the introduction of conscription, was up to strength for a change.
    That's a big army, even before peacetime conscripts, the large pool of veterans, and the intake of wartime conscription is included. The reason that IV Corps --and for that matter Vth, and two more armoured divisions-- wasn't at the front was that it had not completed its training.

    And by "it" I mean, or suspect that I mean specifically that the Territorial Army (and the Regulars to a lesser extent) had somehow not managed to field training cohorts for signals, artillery and transport. And the reason for that is that of the 240,000 Territorials, 100,000 were in AA Command, using some of the searchlights, barrage balloons, 300 reconditioned old guns, and roughly 2000 new guns that had entered service in the last three years, and, in fact, mostly in the last. To use all of that highly modern and sophisticated equipment, the RE, RCS and RA had given up substantial cadres to AA Command.

    Now, if I were Corelli Barnett, I suppose that I would gesture at some random facts and suggest that it is all mooot, because British industry couldn't build as many tanks as, say, Czechoslovakia. But I think that it suffices to note that in 1937, Vulcan Foundry got a contract to deliver 75 Matilda IIs to the Army. In 1939, it delivered those tanks, in the absolutely bog-standard timeframe for a tank development and produciton contract of the Second War. Back in, 1931, Vulcan delivered 100 locomotives. Locomotives are not tanks, but it is hard to imagine two industrial products that are closer, and it is not like Vulcan was the only locomotive maker eager for work.

    If there is a place in the world for historicised strategic thinking, it starts with asking what went wrong, and why, in the places and times where policy could have prevented foreseeable and highly undesireable outcomes. From 1885 on, the British army had been structured, and the British taxpayer had spent the money needed to get IV Corps to the Continent as quickly as possible. In 1940, it was a month late for the Battle of France, not to speak of the fiasco of the armoured division.

    That's a claim that deserves more attention than it gets.

  10. Post author

    Thanks, very interesting. The choice to make the Territorials responsible for AA duties must have come at the expense of other military abilities, that much seems fair to say. That portion of the war estimates should really be counted as a supplement to the air estimates.

  11. Chris Williams

    On the other hand, the BEF of 1939 was a far more complex and mechanised one than its 1914 counterpart. Horses are, as the Germans demonstrated up to 1943, pretty straightforward things to keep in the field (fodder, farriers, vets), and even more straightforward to replace (1. See the horse. 2. Take the horse. 3. Issue the receipt*. *Optional). 1930s lorries, not so much on either count. Had the BEF mechanised its transport earlier than 1938, or not mechanised it at all, it would probably have done a better job with getting into position.

  12. Erik Lund

    JDK: Other people can play with my horse, too. On special occasions. if they follow my rules, and let me watch.... No, it's not an unhealthy relationship at all...
    Chris: the Agricultural Census shows the number of horses in Britain falling from, IIRC from Pedder, 2.5 million in 1923 to 25,000 in 1938. Trucks it is! Since the army was able to replace the 60,000 vehicles taken up from trade during mobilisation before the German attack, materiel is not the issue.
    Remember that of the units in my counterfactual, 1st Armoured, IV Corps were all ready, or nearly ready to deply. 1st Armoured and 2 divisions of IV Corps actually got to France as part of the 2nd BEF. Only 8th RTR never quite made it over.

    Trained manpower is the issue. Comparing the Vote A strengths by corps for the 1924--5 and 1939--40 Estimates, the strength of the infantry, cavalry and armour has fallen from 60 to 55%; that of the artillery has risen from 16.7 to 17.8%; the "tail" arms (Ordnance and Service) have risen from 6.7 to 8.67%; and the Signals strength has risen from 3.35% to 3.9%. It looks like the Regulars have got a whole lot more technical over this 15 year period.

    _Except_ that the RE has fallen from 4.7% to 3.74% in this period. In fact, the preeminent technical corps has fallen from 10,143 men in 1938 to 6,722. (The RE on strength in India and Burma is unchanged year over year.)

    Traditionally, the army had made up shortfalls of men from the virtually-no-peacetime-obligation Supplementary Reserve, and traditionally those shortfalls were in the infantry and cavalry. I could dilate on this at length, but the long and the short of it is that with these Estimates, the government finally gets off its arse and begins recruiting a new S.R. in the automotive factories, but is as yet well short of its 60,000 man (again, IIRC) target at 7,500.

    On the other hand, AA Command is up to strength. Which would be my point. Oddly enough, it looks like the main drain on regular "tail" branches was the searchlight regiments, not the actual guns! (Although it may be that when more carefully observed, the RA and RAOC are not growing fast enough.)

  13. Chris Williams

    Eric, you're right, and I hope that my noting the point about mechanisation being a factor doesn't obscure the very important point that you've made about the relevance of AA Command, and the fact that it was intended for home defence rather than defence of the army in the field.

  14. Neil Datson


    I'm interested in this snippet:

    'Agricultural Census shows the number of horses in Britain falling from, IIRC from Pedder, 2.5 million in 1923 to 25,000 in 1938'

    Can you elucidate? ie I take it that this is the number of horses working in agriculture and ancillary trades (forestry etc), and takes no account of race horses, hunters, general hacks etc. (And what about barge horses? I've got an inkling that the canals more or less collapsed - so to speak - during the inter-war years, but as we historians say, it's not my period.)

    Anyway, assuming it's true it's a staggering drop. As the inter-war years were just about one long depression for UK agriculture it must be feasible, but it's still a staggering drop.

  15. Erik Lund

    Here's my intended citation:

    Perren, Richard. Agriculture in Depression, 1870-1940. A volume in the New Studies in Economic and Social History series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995

    The actual numbers from Perren is 2.1 million in 1905; 200,000 in 1938. (I didn't exagerate much --just a factor of 10 or so!)

    And here's the problem as I phrase it in full in a quarter --to be optimistic-- done manuscript (here my interest is on the relationship between rural unemployment and military moibilisation, not the rise of motor traction):

    In 1914 there were 3 million registered agricultural labourers in the United Kingdom, a robust recovery from a low of 2.3 million in 1900 thanks to the long-delayed end of the agricultural depression, but nevertheless only about 15% of the English workforce was on the land compared with 20% in Germany in 1939. The shortage of horses that emerged during the South African war might have served as a warning, however, that war was to reveal, or cause, a catastrophic and irreversible decline in labour-intensive British agriculture. Whereas the German equine population recovered from the WWI hecatomb and expanded so that it could mobilise 2.7 million horses in 1940, compared to 1.4 million horses in 1914, the number of horses in the United Kingdom, after rising modestly in 1875–1905 from 1.8 to 2.1 million, fell to only 200,000 in 1938. English farmers could no longer afford to plough even with internal combustion, much less horse and man. More and more arable land was going into pasture for fatstock and dairy, and without ploughing to absorb the labour, there were only 300,000 registered agricultural labourers in 1939

  16. Neil Datson

    Erik, thanks for coming back on that. I wasn't questioning your figures, but they did raise my eyebrows, obviously with reason.

    I'm inclined to speculate that Perren somewhat overdoes the reverson of land to pasture, and that British agriculture was well ahead of German and other continental agricultures in its mechanisation. There was a lot of steam ploughing (and lighter cultivations) done in the 1930s, probably far more than on the continent. I recollect that Ransome, Sims & Jefferies of Ipswich was the largest farm machinery manufacturer in the world in 1917, but that the Imperial Russian government owed them huge sums and so the revolution almost put them out of business.

    Another issue. I'm bit confused by the figures for agricultural employment. Britain 15% of the workforce, but only 300,000 registered labourers? Surely something's not quite right there. 15% sounds too high, 300,000 sounds too low. Germany, would have had far more peasant farmers and thus more self-employed land workers, in which context 20% sounds about right. But in British agriculture there must have been markedly more employees than farmers in 1939.

    Anyhow, one conclusion is inescapable. The British Army had to mechanise its transport in the 1930s as there were almost no horses to be had.

  17. Erik Lund

    The employment numbers are straight out of Perren, and I don't have the breakdowns before me, but I suspect that 15% is the total for agriculture, fishery and food processing, while the 300,000 would come out of labour exchange returns and would probably exclude seasonal labour as well as a whole host of of "labouring" positions within the industry. At a guess.
    Compare with the 7.1 million in manufacturing, about a third of employment.
    As for the question of pasture versus arable, Perren labours at length on this point, IIRC. The rise of mechanical traction is a red herring. Leaving aside that most of the soft-bottomed land that would have benefitted most from mechanical traction was in permanent pasture even before this trend got underway, there is room for the industry to be comparatively large and still not serve the predominant form of interwar agriculture.
    As a general rule, though, you'll find dairy and market gardening flourishing prosperous cities when grain prices are low. Which describes the British Isles and the 1930s to a tee.
    In short, you are not gong to be able to lay your hands on lots of likely young country boys to fill out your infantry regiments when war is declared, and it would be best to find your war-winning firepower elsewhere. In that sense, airmindedness makes sense. It is laying on AA on top of your fighters and bombers that looks a little crazy in retrospect.

  18. Post author

    But maybe only in retrospect. AA was part of a balanced response to the threat of a KOB, along with bombers, fighters, balloons, ARP, dispersal. It wasn't entirely clear what was the most effective defence so it made sense to hedge your bets. So it's the overrating of the possibility of a KOB which is the main problem; a more realistic appraisal would have allowed that manpower tied up in AA to be used for infantry or armour.

  19. Neil Datson

    Absolutely right that there weren't the agricultural labourers to be turned quickly into cannon fodder. So WWI was an aberrant episode, and the Brits try to go back to their traditional way of fighting continental wars - technology - but instead of 74s they build bombers.

    Nevertheless, I must come back about steam cultivation. It's really off subject, but it's an interesting snippet.

    The perennial problem for English farmers ever since the industrial revolution was competing with industrial wages. It was not a problem faced by German peasants, who didn't pay wages. So the only way to stay in the game was to mechanise and cut jobs. There was an extra push for this during WWI when ploughing engines (which were already quite common before the war) were manufactured in large numbers. Now what they needed above all else was large fields (so peasant farmers can't use them anyway). So they only really caught on in Britain (not even in north America, don't know why not). They were the most labour efficient way to plough at the time, beating early tractors hands down.

    Furthermore, the relative benefits of ploughing engines were greater on heavy land, rather than easily worked land.

    There was a deal of steam cultivation done by British cereal growers in the inter-war period, but very little in the rest of the world.

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