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Saving the plane that won Battle of Britain


Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend by Leo McKinstry

Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend by Leo McKinstry

Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend by Leo McKinstry

To say that Neville Chamberlain got a bad press for his part in the run-up to World War II is a classic understatement.

He has been lampooned mercilessly as the man who returned from meeting Hitler at Munich waving a piece of paper and declaring 'peace in our time'.

But Belfast-born author Leo McKinstry offers some redemption for Chamberlain in his latest authoritative tome, Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend - an account of the development and exploits of probably the most famous fighter plane in history.

"I have tried to rehabilitate him a bit," 45-year-old McKinstry says.

"My research counteracts the image of him leaving the country defenceless in the face of the Nazis.

"In the late 1930s the strategy of the RAF was directed towards bombers. The RAF believed that the way to defend Britain was all-out retaliation in Germany. There was a belief that the Germans couldn't shoot the bombers out of the sky.

"Chamberlain thought that was nonsense and what Britain really needed was great fighter defence. He was part of the political driving force behind the development of the Spitfire.

"When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1931-37 he altered the defence budget to allow the building of the Spitfire.

"By comparison, Churchill, who is credited with winning the Battle of Britain, had little faith in the Spitfire in those days, preferring instead a two-seater fighter with a turret for a gunner to attack German bombers."

Mr McKinstry accepts that Chamberlain's policy of appeasement was " disastrous", but points out that even that won Britain valuable time to arm itself for war.

"By the mid-1930s when the Spitfire should have been in service, not a single one was built. Production difficulties, engineering problems and political in-fighting had all contributed to this sorry state of affairs," he says.

He argues that was it not for the Spitfire, the Battle of Britain " probably" would have been lost. Although, even at the height of its production it accounted for only about one-third of Britain's fighter capability (Hurricanes made up the rest), it was the only plane which could out-fight the Messerschmitt 109.

"It struck fear into the Luftwaffe. There was a famous exchange between Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering and one of his commanders, Adolf Galland, when it was clear the Germans were losing the Battle of Britain. Goering asked what was needed for victory," says Leo.

"Galland replied 'a squadron of Spitfires'. The Spitfire also boosted the moral of the British people because of its effectiveness and its sheer beauty."

In spite of being a serious political historian, McKinstry's affection for the plane shines through. He is also an unashamed admirer of its inventor, Reginald J Mitchell, an aviation expert way ahead of his time. Mitchell, according to McKinstry, married both a great practical understanding of aviation engineering to a very creative mind.

Before the war he was designing sea planes which could fly at up to 400mph at a time when the normal aircraft speed was between 85mph and 120mph.

McKinstry is also taken by Mitchell's courage. He suffered bowel cancer in 1933 and had to undergo major surgery which resulted in a colostomy.

Although in great pain and discomfort, Mitchell was soon back at his desk and many of those working with him were unaware of his condition.

He even designed his own medical appliances which found their way into medical text books.

McKinstry spent nine months researching his history of the Spitfire and three months writing it up. He uncovered a wealth of material - a significant amount previously unpublished - in the National Archives at Kew, the RAF Museum and the Imperial War Museum.

As well, he had a huge amount of previously published memoirs and diaries from former Spitfire pilots.

Of course this newspaper also has its niche in the development of the famous fighter plane. The Belfast Telegraph Spitfire Fund contributed £85,000 to the UK-wide fund-raising effort and 17 Spitfires were named after locations in the province.

Spitfire is the latest in a series of historical 'biographies' penned by the Belfast man.

Previous acclaimed books include Rosebery, the biography of the 19th century Prime Minister; Sir Alf, a fresh look at the man who led England to World Cup glory in 1966; Jack and Bobby, a biography of the footballing Charlton brothers and Geoff Boycott, the English cricketer.

History, politics and sport have been the great interests of his life.

He is the son of a leading Ulster architect, Robert McKinstry - who oversaw the restoration of the Grand Opera House in Belfast, Ballance House at Glenavy, the ancestral home of a New Zealand Prime Minister, and the north transept and military chapel in St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast - and Cherith McKinstry, an acclaimed Ulster artist, whose work included replacing the ceiling panels in the Grand Opera House. In spite of growing up in a house full of creative visual arts, he says he could never draw or paint. His elder brother, Simon, who still lives in Belfast, is a well-known artist and younger brother, Jason, works in the antique print business in London.

McKinstry was educated at Brackenber House, an exclusive preparatory school on Belfast's Malone Road which has since been demolished.

A direct contemporary was John Irvine, the ITN foreign correspondent, whom McKinstry remembers as a "fantastic left-arm bowler".

From there McKinstry went to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen and then to Cambridge where he read history.

It was at Cambridge that he became deeply involved in Labour politics, later working for Harriet Harmon, now deputy leader of the Labour Party, and also serving as a councillor on Islington Borough Council.

However, by the mid-1990s he became disillusioned with Labour - in spite of having once harboured dreams of leading the council and standing as an MP - and also lost his seat.

"I had become disillusioned by the waste of public money that went on in the council and I felt that the public was being taken for a ride. I decided to get out of politics and become a writer," he says.

His first article was on Labour spending for the Spectator and he has never looked back since then.

He writes regularly for the Daily Mail, Sunday Telegraph and Spectator as well as his books which he describes as "his children".

He and his wife, Elizabeth, a psychotherapist, have no family.

He may return to aviation for his next book. He is toying with the idea of a history of the Lancaster bomber, another great World War II icon.

"It is a harrowing story as those bomber pilots had a terrible job flying over Germany night after night.

"Like the Spitfire, the Lancaster was quite a revolutionary aeroplane."

Another possible project is a detective novel based on the theme of corruption in an English local authority.

Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend, by Leo McKinstry, John Murray, £20

Belfast Telegraph