There are some contenders to the claim of most iconic invention of the twentieth century.
It was 100 years of non-stop advancement along the path of innovation fuelled by two world wars. Conflicts that had come and gone before even the halfway point of the century.
Most technological ‘moments’ that followed 1945 can trace some origin back to the Second World War … Apollo 11 and the Apple Mac personal computer being two classic examples of the evolution of tech born out of conflict.
But what really takes the crown - in Britain at least - what is arguably the significant invention or tech moment of the lot, is the 1936 Vickers Supermarine Spitfire.
Nothing can be thought of in a higher sense than the fighter planes that defended the skies over England primarily throughout the terrifying months of the Battle of Britain in 1940, but also the rest of the Second World War.
If the Royal Air Force had been defeated in 1940, a Nazi ground invasion of Britain would have ensued and who knows what that would have meant for the second half of the twentieth century.
Here, BFBS examines the iconic Spitfire and looks more closely at some of the incredible men who were responsible for bringing the aircraft to bear against the Luftwaffe.
We also speak to experts and gather their opinions of the aircraft’s legacy today, 80 years on.
Spitfire - Key Info
1,130 HP Merlin engine
29 feet 11 inches
36 feet 10 inches
8 x .303 MG
Rate of fire
160 rounds per second
A prototype Spitfire piloted by Captain Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summer was first previewed on March 5, 1936, at an air show in England. Two years later, the first examples of the aircraft were delivered to the RAF and 12 months after that, as the Second World War got underway, production of the machines intensified at key factories in Southampton and Birmingham.
The aircraft was nearly called something altogether quite different. Originally, it was intended the fighter plane would be named The Shrew. Another option was The Scarab.
Spitfire was the name given to an abandoned early prototype of the aircraft.
In today’s money, the Spitfire cost £800,000 to build per aircraft.
Frequently, instead of the government bearing the full cost of a plane’s production, communities came together to chip-in the funds collectively, aiding the war effort village by village, town by town.
An example of this was the employees of Marks and Spencer who, in 1941, raised enough funds between themselves to purchase a brand-new Spitfire on behalf of the Royal Air Force.
The Marks and Spencer funded Spitfire was named Marksman.
At the start of the war, Spitfire was fitted with four machine guns, not the eight it was designed to carry. This was due to a general shortage of Browings as the weapon had also been chosen as the main machine gun for land operations in France.
Although it was the case the aircraft eventually found itself fully operational with eight MGs, it could have been altogether different.
Initially, the pre-production designs that were drawn up for Spitfire allowed for a maximum of just four guns. But, thanks to the persistence of one RAF officer, and his 13 year old daughter, the plans were changed.
Within the RAF in the late 1930s was a scientific officer called Captain Frederick William Hill.
Hill produced a series of charts outlining the findings of calculations that proved Spitfire needed to carry at least eight guns with the capability of firing nothing less than 1,000 rounds per minute, if it were ever needed to take on the Luftwaffe and defeat it.
His evaluations were accepted by the Air Ministry and as such much credit has rightly been levelled at the officer for the RAF winning the Battle of Britain some years after he made those special calculations.
However, it was revealed in 2020 that Captain Hill was aided considerably in his calculations by his then 13-year-old daughter Hazel, who at the time was a schoolgirl in North London.
The BBC reported that Captain Hill was unable to properly nail down the precise calculations necessary and so he employed the brilliant mind of his daughter who was already excelling in the field of mathematics, albeit in the classroom.
There were also issues early on with the working parts of the guns freezing at high altitudes, something the weapons’ engineers had to fix by introducing hot air ducts behind the radiators on Spitfire’s wings.
To stop the ingress of dirt and other flak, red fabric patches were positioned over the gun ports which remained in place until firing.
Spitfire played other roles throughout the war including in Malta and Northern France, but it is chiefly the Battle of Britain the aircraft is renowned and loved for after its central performance in saving Britain from a would-be Nazi invasion.
Describing the era transcending legacy of such an impact, the treasurer of the Spitfire Society, Daniel Scott-Davies, used words such as "mythical" and "Excalibur" to paint a picture of how his organisation view Spitfire’s contribution to that famous battle. In an interview with BFBS, Daniel said:
“The legacy of the Spitfire today is multifaceted. The public on the whole see it as a British mythical weapon such as Excalibur that saved and protected a nation in its darkest hour, a similar perspective to the public during the Battle of Britain.
“The aircraft came to represent freedom not just in this country but also around the world as it played a role in liberating occupied countries and defending areas under attack such as Malta and Australia.
“It's also seen as the pinnacle of British aeronautical design and combination with the Rolls Royce Merlin engine demonstrated a high point in the evolution of aviation.”
Of course, the Spitfire did not fly itself.
Behind the controls of the aircraft, enclosed in the cockpit were brave men. Churchill called those pilots The Few, and it is those men that can truly take the credit for saving Britain from defeat.
One of the most iconic Spitfire pilots of the Second World War was Adolph Gysbert Malan, a man more commonly known by his nickname, Sailor.
Sailor Malan, who was originally from South Africa, was the leading Ace of the Royal Air Force by the time his fighting career ended in 1941. Malan led No. 74 Squadron during the Battle of Britain in 1940.
When his fighting career in the air ended, he counted 27 victories, seven shared victories, three probables and 16 damage engagements to enemy planes on his incredible service record.
Next year, Sailor Malan will be the subject of a new book by Battle of Britain historian Dilip Sarkar who recently discussed with BFBS the style of combat notable RAF Aces tended to exist by, revealing his research had identified a pattern among the backgrounds of those top Aces.
In the interview, Dilip said:
“The thing that sets Lock [another notable Spitfire pilot] and men like him apart is they are exceptional shots.
"Fighter combat moves quickly, and it centres around deflection shooting, shooting ahead of where the target will be. It is such a skill … you have a nanosecond to work these equations out – it’s a gift.”
“Lock grew up in a farm with a shot gun, as did other exceptional pilots such as Air Vice Marshal Johnnie Johnson and Sailor Malan, a South African born Spitfire pilot.
"They all grew up on farms and handled shotguns all their childhoods. They all share that commonality. They all grew up with shotguns in their hand.”
Sailor Malan maintained a close bond with the Spitfire all his life, visiting the aircraft on several occasions before his death to Parkinson’s Disease in 1963.
Today, a relative of his, Yvonne Malan, sits as Vice President of the Spitfire Society.
Talking to BFBS about Sailor and his life after the war, Yvonne said:
“He was quiet and reserved by nature. Not the type to seek attention or praise.
“He always deflected attention away from himself, pointing out thousands of pilots took part in the Battle of Britain and that so many people contributed to the war effort.
"He was embarrassed when people singled him out. And he never discussed the war after his return to South Africa.”
Yvonne also discussed the “fierce sense of justice” Sailor was known for, something he demonstrated upon returning to his native South Africa in 1946, becoming a vocal opponent to apartheid. She said:
“I first became aware at a fairly young age. Not only his role in the Battle of Britain, but also his post-war life opposing apartheid.
“Sailor had a fierce sense of justice, and no time for bullies. He’s always been someone I looked up to.
"He was willing to use his high profile to fight against apartheid as President of the Torch Commando, a group of war veterans against apartheid.”
Today, there are still 240 Spitfires in existence.
Of those 240, about 60 are fly-worthy, 70 others are static (in museums and private collections) and a further 110 are in storage or undergoing restoration.
In the UK, and if your pockets are deep enough, you can pay for a flight around notable Spitfire locations in the real thing, flying over places such as Beachy Head and Folkestone. Experiences start at £2,750.00 for a 30 minute flight.
There are also several locations around the UK where you can get up close and see one of the many static examples of Spitfire that have survived through to today.
In Birmingham, the Spitfire Gallery at Birmingham Museum in the city centre is home to one example – a homage to the nearby factory where so many were produced during World War Two.
Other locations include RAF Cosford, the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent and RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.
With so many static examples of authentic Spitfires scattered generously around the UK, Daniel Scott-Davies of the Spitfire Society has called upon enthusiasts to join the organisation and help keep Spitfire’s legacy in the public consciousness.
Speaking to BFBS, he said:
“The Society, with a number of partner organisations, are looking to raise awareness of the Battle of Britain to the wider public. Especially with regard to lesser known museums and sites as well as harnessing technology and social media to attract a younger audience.
“The Spitfire Society hopes to mark the centenary of the Spitfire in 2036 by creating a mobile simulator, construction of dual control Spitfire prototype replica and a full-scale flying version of the Spitfire K5054 prototype.”
For more information on the work of the Spitfire Society, visit its website at www.spitfiresociety.org