R J Mitchell, Designer of the Spitfire
by Bodwyn Wook
[In the photo are shown, left to right: Captain Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers; ‘Agony’ Payn; R J Mitchell (seated); S Scott Hall; Jeffrey Quill]
This videogramme is about the short life and historically decisive aeronautical design work of Spitfire fighter-designer Reginald Mitchell:
What is of importance in the biography of History is character, both attributes of the personality and its moral function. Mitchell’s key attributes as an aeronautical engineer appear from the foregoing to have been three:
First must be noticed his ability to ‘see the big picture’ and to locate projects in a larger field, in this case the political as well operational demands of miltary aviation under conditions of an urgently paced re-armament.
Secondly, Mitchell had not only the artistic eye of a brilliant designer, his mathematical and engineering skills were utterly top-flight; this is of all the more importance in that re-armament of the RAF was happening in the context of at least three paradigm shifts, namely the emergence of the high-speed combat monoplane with its demand for new powerplants burning 100 octane aviation fuels, and the coming of airborne radiotelephony, or RT. We can safely say that Mitchell was aware of this last issue, too, as he was in contact throughout the Spitfire project with Hugh Dowding, then in charge of procurement and who had done air-to-ground radio work in the air force since early days.
The early radios with vacuum tubes were heavy affairs. Thus, any fighting aeroplane being designed for the sake of good balance and trim for any foreseeable service-future had to be of such balance that it could readily accomodate new equipment loads in the offing, although details as yet were not entirely available; it is this sort of thing that engineering mathematics is for, above all.
After all, these same maths had been employed by Mitchell already in his re-design of that gorgeous elliptical wing so necessary to provide for Dowding’s demand on the Air Staff that eight machine guns be mounted in both of the new fighters, the Spitfire now, as well as its older brother, the Hurricane!
And, this brings us to the third quality as an aero engineer that Mitchell held to such a high degree, namely his widely respected attention to detail; that was there, and as we have seen in the case of the coming of the RT equipment, it was most of all forward looking. And, to round the circle, without the grasp of the big picture and the mathematical skills, such effective attention to the details of the future would have simply not been possible for Mitchell.
These are some attributes of the mind of Mitchell; now, we come to the perhaps even more historical question, of how that mind functioned in terms of its own larger standpoint.
This is where the question now enters as it must into any History that is at all essentially human, of character; and when we learn that in spite of a lethal diagnosis of cancer, Mitchell continued his active work as project engineer, well, we are entitled to respect that. Now arguably Mitchell kept working simply because not to have done would in itself have been intolerable; perhaps, we may say, he was more afraid to sit alone for the last months of his life in pain and idleness.
So be it.
That is what character is, after all, namely the unfolding of the personality; and, this unfolding surely must include that which appears out of the person in the World under duress. As to fear, the variable factor that we call ‘courage’ may be in the last analysis simply a following through on the promptings of fear. Again, these appear in the World nowhere else than in ones decisions as to ‘what must be done’; and, the worth of any of that can only be assessed in the effects.
Afraid Mitchell may or may not have been in the face of his final illness, but the effects of his continued work, for the air force, England, victory in the coming war, all of these were good; more than good, they formed yet another part of that bigger picture that no one in the 1930s, not even Mitchell and really not even Churchill, could wholly see. For example, without the Hurricane and the Spitfire, the Battle in 1940 might have proven simply unwinnable.
This is not to say that either aeroplane was ‘indispensable’; without the Spitfire, of course there might have been that many more Hurricanes and, indeed, they bore in their numbers the brunt of the Luftwaffe attacks in the late Summer of 1940.
But, there might just as well have been no more Hurricanes simply because there was no Spitfire.
After all, the English Air Staff has at best a spotty record as an above-all political grouping in its uniformity of foresight in the run-up to the Hitler war; and, they were under relentless pressure from many rival constituencies, including partisans of appeasement of the Hitler power; and, protagonists of more and more heavy bombers, in a sort of pre-atomic version of mutually assured aerial destruction by counter-bombardment. This was the tug of war of conflicting political motives and purposes, the feud between many versions of the strategic past and future.
Mitchell on the other hand had to deal with political matters, too, and on his level had an essential political skill that, again in its effects, must be credited to the historical worth of his moral character. Mitchell, we are told in the videogramme above, was a good effective team leader who did not order people unduly about; he brought together skilled people and kept them up to the mark despite the mixed of messages coming down from the government above.
So this is where Mitchell’s life and work, his mental and moral qualities in a host of ways probably not even knowable by him in the front of his brain, fits so wonderfully into the story that lay ahead and beyond the sad immediacy of his death in June of 1937.
And, this is where we can take pleasure in a certain non-rational note in History that, sometimes at least, can be consoling:
Mitchell in his foresightedness, his knack for listening to others and taking into account their positive contributions, in his steadfast work right through the pain and grief of the early end of his life, may not have been on the side of any gods, but it is safe to note that he was on the side of the way certain synchronicities of events were running at the end of these locust years.
And these synchronicities it were just enough in 1940.
[all rights revert to holders
[29 June 2013]