Monday, 6 March 2017

Naming the Spitfire

Type 224 – the first "Spitfire"

When did R. J. Mitchell say that "Spitfire" was "a bloody silly name" for his fighter ? Dr. Alfred Price (The Spitfire Story) noted, via the logbook of test pilot George Pickering,, that the earlier Type 224 was known as the Spitfire some time before July, 1935 and so Mitchell’s remark might have been made about this time or earlier – when this fighter was so designated in a brief announcement by Supermarine in 1934:
The ‘Spitfire’ is a single-seat day and night fighter monoplane built to the Air Ministry specification. It is a low-wing cantilever monoplane with the inner sections sloping down to the undercarriage enclosures. It has a Rolls-Royce ‘Goshawk’ steam-cooled engine with condensers built into the wing surfaces. Armament consists of four machine-guns. No further details are available for publication.
Unfortunately Type 224, depicted above, was not a success, mainly because of engine cooling problems and Air Ministry requirements that militated against an efficient machine.

Thereafter, the revised thinking about a fighter, Type 300, was usually referred to at the works as "the fighter" and Gordon Mitchell’s book copies a Supermarine document of 29 February, 1936, in which the soon-to-fly aircraft was referred to merely as the ‘Modified Single-seater Fighter K5054’; and his father  on occasions, erroneously  referred  in his diary  to  his machine as F.37/35*. Thus, when the new fighter was named "Spitfire"**, at the end of April, 1936, it is likely that this was the time when Mitchell made the well known comment – perhaps he didn’t want reminding of the disappointment of the first Spitfire and/or, after two years, the name had faded from his mind, which was looking towards the success of the new Type 300  and the 8-gun specification of F.10/35.

Supermarine publicity in 1936 now reads:
The ‘Spitfire’ is a single-seat day and night fighter monoplane in which much of the pioneer work done by the Supermarine Company in the design and construction of high-speed seaplanes for the Schneider Trophy Contests has been incorporated. The latest technique developed by the Company in flush-rivetted stressed-skin construction has been used, giving exceptional cleanliness and stiffness to wings and fuselage for a structure weight never before attained in this class of aircraft. The ‘Spitfire’ is fitted with a Rolls-Royce ‘Merlin’ engine, retractable undercarriage and split trailing-edge flaps. It is claimed to be the fastest military aeroplane in the world.
No further details of the machine are available for publication.

It is interesting to note how, for the very first time with an entirely new Supermarine design, the aircraft had been designated a Mark One. It might be that the company was merely wanting to avoid any further references to Type 224, and thus to draw a line under this less than successful machine but, in view of the many variants to be produced in the next nine years,  one likes to think that the designation was prophetic.

* A confusion between Spec F.37/34 actually drawn up for the (quote) "Experimental High Speed Single Seat Fighter", the 4 gun aircraft that was gradually taking the shape we all know as the Spitfire,  and the slightly later F.10/35 requirement for an 8 gun machine. It would seem likely that the "F.37/35" in Mitchell’s  diary revealed that his elliptical wing layout was influenced by the wish to compete with the new round of prototypes for this requirement and that when the Air Ministry representative, Sqn. Ldr. Sorley, asked him if he could accommodate extra guns Mitchell already had a positive answer ready.

** Vickers’ suggestion of a name for the new fighter was accepted by the Air Ministry, in all probability inspired by Ann McLean, the chairman’s daughter, who had habitually been referred to as ‘a right Spitfire’. The name "Spitfire" was now reallocated to an aircraft that had the promise which its predecessor, the Type 224, had so sadly lacked. As well as the comment ’It’s the sort of bloody silly name they would give it", Mitchell was also reported as saying that it could be called ‘Spit-Blood’ for all he cared. ‘Shrew’ and ‘Shrike’ had also been considered and it is a matter of speculation as to whether our Chief Designer would have preferred either of these – in the works it as known as ‘the fighter’ and, after all, his most beautiful racer was only ever known as the ‘S.4’ .
    By this time, the Aircraft Nomenclature Committee was no more and names were now selected, in discussion with the manufacturer, by the Air Member for Supply. For fighters especially, words indicating speed and aggression were now being chosen (Fury, Gladiator, Gauntlet, Whirlwind, Hurricane etc.) and "Spitfire" more or less fell into this general category. However, it also had a ‘British’ pedigree as well: it had been applied in previous times to cannons emitting fire, to angry cats, and to anyone displaying irascibility or a hot temper – especially women, as evidenced in 1762 when Lord Amhurst is quoted as saying to his mistress: ‘Not so fast, I beg of you, my dear little spitfire’; and Shakespeare echoed the general sentiment when King Lear defies the elements: ‘Rumble thy bellyful! Spit fire! spout rain!’. In 1778, a Royal Navy galley was named ‘Spitfire’ – a euphemistic rewording of ‘Cacafuego’, a Spanish treasure galleon captured by Sir Francis Drake; thereafter the Navy used the name eight other times until 1912. It was also used in the titles of six pre-war films and thus at that time was not just a forgotten part of the English vocabulary, as it probably would be today without the wartime actions involving Mitchell’s fighter.

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For reference sources, see my Blogpost: “Source Material and References" – an extended bibliography is included in my R.J.Mitchell at Supermarine; Schneider Trophy to Spitfire which also provides material for wider reading, grouped according to specific areas of interest. 

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