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October 05, 2006

The Spitfire at the Science Museum: Christopher Peachment marvels at a beautiful object which - whatever some historians might now say - saved Britain from Nazi domination

Posted by Christopher Peachment

The Spitfire
at the Science Museum, London
Daily 10am - 6pm

My Telegraph recently reported (so it must be true) that various military historians were now of the opinion that it was the Royal Navy who won the Battle of Britain. They were arguing that, in spite of the fact that most of the Navy's ships were in Scapa Flow, kept there for fear of enemy mines, submarines and aircraft, they still posed sufficient threat to Hitler's invasions plans for him to call it off, whatever the RAF had or had not done in the summer of 1940.

I find this new form of "what if" history teaching fascinating. No doubt there are whole academic faculties devoted, not just to re-writing history by taking previous wisdom and inverting it (they've been doing that for years) but to inventing history which might not have happened but was at least possible.

Prof Gary Sheffield, the JSCSC's (Joint Service Command Staff College) land warfare expert, said that:

while some Germans might have got ashore, it would have been near impossible for them to be re-supplied with the Navy so close by.
I am sure he is correct but it is worth noting the phrases "might have" and "would have been" and "near impossible". In other words none of these events took place.

It now seems that the simple existence of a military force was enough to win a battle, whether they were anywhere near the fighting or not. Surely then some credit must go to the vast Commonwealth forces, biding their time in their own countries, but surely constituting a huge threat to Hitler. And also to America, not yet in the war at all, but thinking of the possibility. Hitler must have been aware of that threat.

And now at last I too can take some credit for winning the Battle of Britain. Never mind that I was not born until some years after the war, nonetheless, Hitler must have sat and brooded upon the generations of Englishmen as yet unborn who would surely take to the hills and blow up German columns if he ever invaded.

Perhaps in the future we will fight virtual wars. It would save much time, trouble, and death. It would also save my father, who was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot, from apoplexy.

However for those who wish to set eyes upon the aircraft which was responsible in large part for the victory, and for keeping this island safe from Nazi invasion, a trip to the Science Museum will provide huge pleasure. It has a small exhibition dedicated to R J Mitchell, who wasn't quite the only man responsible for the Spitfire, but was certainly its fons et origo.

One side of the exhibition space is devoted to his history and has on display personal effects as well as other artefacts related to the invention and development of the Spitfire. I always find it fascinating to look on the most banal objects, a briefcase or a pen, knowing that it once belonged to the great man. It may not be up there with Schliemann's "I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon" after he found an old helmet at Troy, but still you can't help but imagine the drawings of the prototype Spitfires which that briefcase contained as he carried it in to the office each day.

There are many other artefacts relating to the aircraft, including pots and pans collected from families who were keen to donate aluminium to be melted down for Spitfires. We now know they were never used, but no doubt morale was kept up. There are written testimonies from pilots about the Spitfire's brilliance in the air and newsreel footage from the period, which reminds us that most airfields of that period were grass strips and undercarriages had to be heavy duty. And photos which show that the old cliché from a hundred movies is true. They really did sit around in deck chairs in their Mae Wests, listening to the radio and waiting for the "Scramble" over the tannoy. Some of them even had black Labradors. All of them look far too young to be taking part in anything as serious as saving this island from speaking German.

The best part of the exhibition however is on the other side of the exhibition space. On display here is a Spitfire, separated out into its major component parts. The elliptical wings are disconnected from the fuselage, and there are cutaways to show the interior workings. An undercarriage leg, a miracle of engineering in itself, is posed separately, as are various other sub-assemblies, such as the propeller.

The lovingly restored aircraft is in fact a Mark 22, which came later in the war, rather than one of the earlier marks which fought in the Battle of Britain, and it had the later Griffon engine rather than the famous Rolls Royce Merlin. Its outline has changed a little from the early marks, to accommodate the different engine and the advances in aerodynamic science, but it is still a machine of incomparable beauty. It is always startling to be reminded just how small fighter aircraft of that period were. This was before the days in which they were expected to fulfil the many other roles which are demanded of modern, expensive jets. The point of the Spitfire was to get eight machine guns aloft, in as little time as possible. It was a pure interceptor, and there wasn't anything else for it to do. Fuel endurance was well below an hour and range was short.

I once bought a Jaguar XJ6 simply because it was the nearest thing I could find to a Spitfire. The massive six cylinder engine looked like one half of a Rolls Royce Merlin. And unlike most cars, the Jaguar driver was hemmed in by a massive transmission tunnel on the left and the door close up on the right. His legs were encased in a narrow tunnel. There was no room for movement. So too with the Spitfire. It is designed to fit tight around the pilot, not to allow him to shuffle around, fix his hair in the mirror and park a soft drink on the dash.

I remember my father saying that you felt you were wearing it rather than flying it. He also told me the way to spot an expert Spitfire pilot. Just after takeoff, there is a tricky moment when you have to swap hands on the control column in order to reach some lever. If the aircraft doesn't do a momentary dip, then the pilot knows what he is doing.

I stood there for ages in happy contemplation of this aircraft. It provides the same aesthetic pleasure that you get from a good work of art, along with the frisson of being close to something that took such a momentous part in your history. I know it was flying and fighting before I was born. But, to play the "what if" game once more, it looks like one of the many reasons that I could be born.

Strangely I couldn't find any mention of another great aircraft, closely connected to the Spitfire, of which the museum has a perfect example. Go one floor up above the Spitfire exhibition to the Museum's permanent collection of aircraft, and you will find the Supermarine S.6B. Mitchell designed this to win the Schneider Trophy in 1931. It did so with a world record speed and gained us the Trophy for all time. It is the direct progenitor of the Spitfire, and without it the Spitfire would never have become what it was.

Again it is a machine of great beauty. It has long polished floats and a massive airscrew fixed at maximum coarse pitch for high speed, which was the reason for the floats. Because of the coarse-pitched propeller, initial acceleration was slow and there were no runways long enough for its lengthy take-off run. Also, for reasons of streamlining, there is no bulky radiator inlet. The engine's cooling tubes are arranged lengthwise on the surface of the fuselage. This would have made the Spitfire too vulnerable to enemy fire, and so it reverted to the original practice of a separate radiator. But still, the Spitfire's lines are unmistakably there in Mitchell's earlier design. Like the Spitfire, it obeys the old engineers dictum: Whatever looks right is right.

If you have an eight year old boy, take him along and show him one large part of what won the Battle of Britain. And tell him also about the Battle of the Atlantic and the Russian convoys, which would have been won by the RAF if only they had been there.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

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No pictures?

Posted by: L at October 8, 2006 08:53 AM

I think the Telegraph overstated things a bit, but there is more truth to that statement about the Royal Navy than you allow. The whole reason why the RAF HAD to be destroyed, rather than just kept away from the landing beaches, was because the Nazis calculated that they would need the full weight of the Luftwaffe to keep the RN away from the Channel to give the invasion a fighting chance.

I should be noted that this doesn't detract from the central importance of Fighter Command; its pilots, its superb fighters, or its professional organisation. Revisionism is important to the extent that it has to be remembered that those Hurricanes and Spitfires weren't Britain's only fighting force - even the Army had been able to have 16 divisions to oppose an invasion by September, a remarkable performance so soon after Dunkirk. Even Bomber Command mounted frequent attacks on the potential invasion ports across the Channel. The key factor, though, is that the Germans did think they could mount an attack if the RAF could be destroyed: thinking that the Royal Navy could be either held off, or sufficiently weakened. All this depended on total control of the air being achieved. I should be possible to have a fully three dimensional appreciation of the situation of 1940 without detracting from the central truth of Fighter Command's achievement. This is what I usually don't like about "revisionist history", whilst it reminds us of things we've often forgotten, or failed to consider, it sometimes is so unbalanced in its discussion to apparently deny a genuine truth.

Incidentally, the RAF did play a vital role in defeating the U-Boat's, with Maritime Command's air patrols severely disrupting Donitz’s force.

Posted by: Paul T at October 9, 2006 01:05 AM
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