In the Spitfire, R. J. Mitchell produced a plane that was revolutionary and it remains to this day one of the most celebrated planes ever developed. Reginald Mitchell did not live to see his plane fight in World War Two and though the name of his plane is known by many, the man who designed it is less well known. However, his importance to Britain and Fighter Command in World War Two cannot be overstated.
Reginald Mitchell was born in Talke near Stoke-on-Trent on May 20th 1895. On leaving school in 1911, Mitchell joined a locomotive engineering company called Kerr Stewart and Co in Stoke. He continued to develop his education by going to night school where he studied engineering, mechanics and higher mathematics. In 1917, Mitchell joined the Supermarine Aviation Works. He was employed as a designer. Just one year after joining Supermarine he was promoted Chief Designer.
Supermarine designed and manufactured seaplanes. It was in this area that Mitchell first found fame. He redesigned the company’s Sea King II and created the Sea Lion II. It was this plane that broke the grip the Italians had on the Schneider Trophy and broke four speed records in doing so.
Mitchell had completely changed the face of seaplane design and as a result of his work; he was invited by the Air Ministry to put in a tender for the new fighter plane they wanted to replace the biplanes used by the RAF. In 1933, he was given the go ahead to proceed with the development of an all-metal monoplane. The days of the biplane were clearly numbered!
However, by 1933, Mitchell was a sick man. He had abdominal cancer and had nearly died during an operation on his abdomen. He did survive but he never made a full recovery and he remained a weak man for the rest of his life. In 1934, as part of his convalescence, Mitchell travelled to Germany. It was on this trip that he realised that the RAF was far behind the growing Luftwaffe and that Britain would be open to attack if we did not possess a potent fighter plane to oppose any air assault.
The statue of Mitchell is made of approximately 400,000 individual pieces of stacked Welsh slate and took over 2000 man-hours to create. The artist, Stephen Kettle, has captured an astonishing likeness as well as the physical and spiritual presence of R.J. Mitchell standing at his drawing board in the summer of 1936.
Rather than take things easy after his cancer ordeal, Mitchell threw himself into his work. As his health declined, the plane that was to be called the Spitfire developed. He usually failed to respond to advice to slow down and the more he worked, the more his health suffered. However, Mitchell was a driven man. He probably knew that he had only a few years left, and such a thought seemed to drive him on to the benefit of his work. The first prototype Spitfire flew in March 1936 piloted by Mutt Summers and Jeffrey Quill. Its design was to revolutionise future fighter plane design. Refinements were required to the prototype design. For example, the de Havilland propeller was replaced by an Airscrew Company version also with two blades, while de Havilland developed a more efficient three-blade propeller, which would add 5mph to the Spitfire’s top speed.
The Air Ministry placed its largest ever order for 310 aircraft. Supermarine fitted out its factory at Woolston in Hampshire for Spitfire production and organised a sub-contracting programme for component manufacturing on a then-unprecedented scale. Even so, it could not supply the planes as swiftly as the government required and an order for 1,000 Spitfires was placed with the Nuffield Group that built a new factory at Castle Bromwich near Birmingham to produce them.
Reginald Mitchell died on 11th June 1937, aged 42, and Joseph Smith who had worked on the Spitfire project since the outset succeeded him as Supermarine’s chief designer. Smith oversaw the evolution of the Spitfire’s design throughout WWII when it served in every area of combat as a fighter and fighter-bomber, in reconnaissance and as a carrier-based fighter aircraft for the Royal Navy. The Spitfire was constantly upgraded and refined. The aircraft’s maximum speed increased by a quarter and its weight doubled during the development of 40 different versions of Reginald Mitchell’s original design. By the time it retired from active service in 1954 more than 20,000 Spitfires had been manufactured in Britain.
One wonders that if R. J. Mitchell had survived would the Spitfire design have been allowed to follow its eventual development course or been replaced by a completely new design? What would have this design genius further contributed to the world of aviation? His insight was certainly missed when Supermarine entered the jet age with the Swift.