Get a glorious glimpse of the iconic plane that inspired a generation

7 mins read

But while the bravery and sacrifice of The Few were key, they might still have failed had it not been for one vital weapon in their armoury – the Spitfire. Its speed, agility and technical prowess enabled the RAF’s fighter pilots to outmanoeuvre the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Me109 in the skies above southern England.

Kent and Sussex, as well as being the gateway to London, stood guard over the English Channel. Adolf Hitler needed to secure this vital stretch of water for a planned invasion he had codenamed Operation Sealion. It truly was a battle for Britain.

But while it may have been pilots and engineers the Prime Minister had in mind as he made that speech, it was actually the ordinary people of Britain who had helped build those aircraft, in what amounted to the world’s first crowdfunding scheme.

Led by the Minister of Aircraft Production and owner of the Daily Express, Lord Beaverbrook, the national Spitfire Fund asked members of the public to club together to pay for the new Supermarine Spitfires.

The country’s coffers had been depleted by the First World War so, to raise the £12,000 price of each additional and much needed Spitfire (Hitler’s air force outnumbered ours by nearly four to one), Beaverbrook appealed to patriots to save the day.

Businesses, associations, even whole towns, worked together to raise money for the individual parts of each aircraft. An engine cost £2,000, a propeller £350 but a rivet was just sixpence, meaning almost everyone could afford to chip in.

Those who donated enough even got to name the aircraft they had financed. The Kennel Club called theirs The Dog Fighter.

In total, the scheme raised £13million (equivalent to around £650 million today) and helped pay for more than 2,500 aircraft.

Whilst our victory was also due to the less glamorous Hurricane fighter and our use of radar, it is aero-designer Reginald Mitchell’s Spitfire that even today still gets the glory.

Now, in a special Battle of Britain Airshow in Duxford, Cambs, on September 10 and 11, the Imperial War Museum will pay tribute to all the aircraft and the people who helped turn back the Nazi onslaught.

Featuring stunning aerobatic displays and simulated aerial dogfights, the show will also celebrate Duxford’s special connection with the Spitfire.

The first ever model to enter service with the RAF was deployed at Number 19 Squadron, based at Duxford. Phil Hood, Airshow Event Manager at IWM Duxford, says that the shows, now in their 49th year, are an emotional experience for many.

“We really take Duxford back to the 1940s,” he says, describing how the staff, and many visitors, dress in uniforms and “civvies” from that period.

“We give our guests a glimpse of what it would have been like as a fighter station at that time when Spitfires were scrambling from here to do battle in the skies over Britain.And it’s those very aircraft that inspired a generation to go out and defend their country.”

Phil is aware that the show’s finale, a dramatic mass flypast by up to 20 Spitfires all at once, brings a lump to the throat of many spectators.

“You see all these aircraft coming over the horizon and everyone is silent in respect. Sometimes people even burst into tears.

“It’s a very powerful moment. Such a prominent part of history which we learn about at school, brought back to life”. That the show happens at all is due in no small pS part to the skills of aircraft engineer Paul ‘Spike’ Rivers and his colleagues.

But he’s just thrilled that he gets to relive his boyhood every day. As a lad, he made Airfix kits of Spitfires. Now he gets to work on the real thing, repairing and rebuilding those on display at IWM Duxford, both at the airshow and in the museum which is open year-round.

“I don’t know anyone who didn’t buy a Spitfire as their first Airfix kit,” Spike tells me as I watch him working on a Mk I plane which flew in the Battle of Britain and will be part of September’s flypast.

“Nobody gets a Hurricane, great as they are, as their first. The Hurricane was the workhorse of the RAF but the Spitfire is the Queen Bee.

“There’s something pretty about them, sexy even.”

Spitfires, despite their age, are actually fairly trouble-free aircraft, he reveals, aside from the original Merlin engines which tended to overheat.

“It’s not that much different to working on a lot of classic cars and motorbikes,” Spike shrugs.

“The only other real cause we have for repairs is when the pilots bump them too hard onto the runway!”

Surprisingly, getting specialist parts for the Spitfires is relatively easy. “It’s actually getting nuts and bolts that is the hard part,” he says, referring to the current global supply chain crisis.

“And they are not any more complicated than an Airfix kit, just bigger.

“But unlike Airfix kits, when you’re putting one of these back together, there are no neatly printed instructions inside the box,” he explains.

“You’re having to work from old drawings that go back as far as 1935.”

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