Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Spitfire fund: The remarkable story of this iconic warbird and emperor of the skies

As Belfast Telegraph readers once again dig deep to bring a Spitfire home to Northern Ireland, Richard Doherty on the remarkable story of this iconic warbird

A Spitfire in the air
A Spitfire in the air

When Hermann Goring, head of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, met some senior officers during the Battle of Britain, he asked if there was anything he could give them to improve the Luftwaffe's performance. Adolf Galland, Germany's leading fighter pilot of the Second World War, answered: "Give me a squadron of Spitfires."

Nothing sums up the iconic nature of the Supermarine Spitfire fighter more than that comment. Although Galland's remark has been taken out of context – he wanted captured Spitfires to help train his pilots – the legend had already been born.

What made the Spitfire so famous? Why did it become an icon of the air war? And why does it remain so revered?

The answers to those questions lie in the old aphorism: "If it looks right, it is right." Supermarine's designer, RJ Mitchell, had produced an aircraft that not only looked right, but looked elegant and beautiful. Its graceful lines suggested a work of art, rather than of engineering.

Those splendid elliptical wings and slender fuselage combined to produce something that would have graced an art exhibition.

However, the Spitfire looked most in place in its element – the skies. As it soared into the air, looped the loop, or barrel-rolled, there was no doubt that it belonged there. Pilots loved it. It handled beautifully and had few vices.

Oh, and its Rolls Royce Merlin engine was – is – a joy to listen to. There was music in the air as the Spitfire performed its aerial ballets. Not for nothing did John Gillespie Magee pen his famous sonnet, On High, while flying a Spitfire.

He told his parents that he had started writing at 30,000 feet. His concluding lines still evoke the allure of the Spitfire:

And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod

The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

For such a work of beauty, it proved a deadly machine of war. So efficient was it that it remained in production throughout the war and until 1948.

More than 20,000 were built, with so many improvements being made that the last Spitfires were radically different from the first. And about 100mph faster. All those improvements indicate the soundness of Mitchell's original design. Sadly, the genius behind the Spit died of cancer before his creation entered service and the developments were all overseen by Joseph Smith.

Spitfires served across the globe. In the British and Commonwealth air forces, the US air forces, the Red Air Force. Even the Luftwaffe used captured machines for special duties.

With its great rival, the Messerschmitt Bf109, the Spitfire remained in frontline service throughout the war and beyond.

It was flown by some of the most famous air aces, including Dubliner Brendan 'Paddy' Finucane, one of the RAF's leading aces at the time of his death. It also flew from Royal Navy aircraft carriers as the Seafire.

And my first sight of a real 'Spit' was of a late model Seafire, sitting on the tarmac at the Royal Naval Air Station, Eglinton more than 60 years ago.

The Spitfire's elegance and beauty captivated a nation at war. So much so that UK taxpayers, already taxed to the hilt, dug into their pockets to subscribe to a Spitfire Fund. Even schoolchildren broke open their piggy-banks to help buy a Spitfire.

And the Belfast Telegraph's contribution to the Spitfire story is itself remarkable. Presentation aircraft were nothing new in the RAF, but the Spitfire inspired many ordinary people to contribute to buying one.

No longer was the presentation aircraft the prerogative of the captain of industry, or wealthy aristocrat. Newspapers across the UK allowed their readers, and others, to help buy a Spitfire.

In all, the Belfast Telegraph's efforts raised £88,633 16s 5d – the equivalent of £2,886,803 today – enough for 17 Spitfires. The original cost of a single Spitfire had been £9,500, but, as production lines lengthened, that cost reduced to about £5,000.

The Telegraph Spitfires gave good service, one of them – City of Derry – even being flown by 315 (Deblinski) Squadron, a Free Polish squadron in the RAF.

City of Derry was flown by a number of Polish pilots and, in one action, on August 14, 1941, the squadron shot down eight Messerschmitt Bf109s in a battle over France.

As newer versions of the Spitfire came into service, those Telegraph planes that survived were relegated to other duties, such as training. City of Derry was destroyed in a flying accident in October 1941.

Its sister, Londonderry – named for the county – was also destroyed in a flying accident, in August 1943. Others were shot down, or crashed on active service. Only Fermanagh survived the war.

Appropriately, one of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) Spitfires was painted to represent Fermanagh. The BBMF's displays across the UK are a reminder of the role of the Spitfire and Hurricane not only in the Battle itself, but throughout the war.

And the music of their Merlin engines evokes the spirit of John Magee, who "danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings", the wings of a Spitfire.

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