Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The naming of the Shrew... or the prototype that became the most famous combat aircraft in history - the Supermarine Spitfire

Prototype number K5054 took off from Eastleigh Aerodrome, Southampton, for its first flight on March 5, 1936. After just eight minutes, Captain Joseph "Mutt" Summers, chief test pilot for Vickers, landed the plane and said: "Don't touch anything."

It was to become the most famous combat aircraft in history: the Supermarine Spitfire.


One of the names submitted by the Air Ministry for its sexy new fighter just before the Second World War was the "Shrew". Um, try again boys!

Spitfire was suggested by Sir Robert McLean, director of Vickers-Armstrongs, who called his daughter "a little spitfire" – meaning someone with a fiery personality.

The name had been used before, unofficially, by the aircraft's designer, R. J. Mitchell, on an earlier design – because, he said, it was "just the sort of bloody silly name they [the RAF] would choose".

Spitfire then, helped by the right name, shrewd PR [propaganda], the "Spitfire Fund" organised and run by Lord Beaverbrook, plus being slightly more curvy than her older sister, became the most glamorous aircraft of World War Two.

So glamorous, in fact, that British fighter pilots used to lie down the pub about what planes they flew and even captured Germans claimed to have shot her down when they hadn't.

Yet, she wasn't actually the best combat aircraft. Although slower in a straight line, the more numerous, more manoeuvrable and tougher Hawker Hurricane was flown by most of the Allied fighter aces and outscored the Spitfire in the Battle of Britain.

And what of the brilliant designer R. J. Mitchell? He didn't live long enough to see his creation soar to such lofty heights, dying of cancer on June 11, 1937.

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