Now and then I write a post just for me, since even though nobody will read it, it does the heart good to write it. I needed some mental comfort food today.
The attached video features a vintage Supermarine Spitfire, the plane my Dad taught me to love, and probably the most famous aircraft ever flown. It wasn’t, from the standpoint of cold objectivity, the best fighter aircraft of the Second World War – very nearly, mind you, but not quite – but it was certainly the most beautiful. It is actually, most people would agree, the most beautiful aircraft ever designed, period, and more even than that – I fully agree with Jeremy Clarkson, of Top Gear fame, who looked past his beloved automobiles and opined that the Spitfire was probably the most beautiful machine ever designed for any purpose, bar none.
Its most recognizable feature was that big, graceful, elliptical wing, the design of which sacrificed ease of manufacture in favour of aerodynamic perfection. Amazingly, it’s almost certain that this quintessentially British feature was actually based on the design of a German aerodynamicist named Prandtl, who came up with it in the interwar years. One of those little ironies.
The Spitfire mystique owes much to its extraordinary, perfectly harmonious lines, and also to the key role it played in winning the Battle of Britain, though its more workmanlike stablemate, the Hawker Hurricane, did the lion’s share of the grunt work, chasing after the bombers while the Spits hogged the glory going toe to toe with the vaunted Messerschmitts. The Spitfire’s legend is also buttressed by the remarkable longevity of its design, which kept it front and centre as the years passed and a new generation of fighters came on line. Though it was prototyped in the late 1930s, before the war, it remained a front line fighter throughout, being continuously improved and built in successive marks until the entire line went from marks I to XXIV. Whenever the current model was outclassed, as Mark V Spits were by the new German FW-190s, a new mark with a more powerful engine, higher speed, and better armament would soon take to the skies. Thus the FW-190, so overwhelming upon its appearance that Allied pilots nicknamed it “the butcher bird”, soon found itself fully stripped of its superiority by the Spitfire Mark IX. At no point, prior to the advent of jets at the very end of the conflict, did any fighter on either side outclass a Spitfire.
If you’re an aficionado, you’ll have your favourite Mark. Mine is the just mentioned Mark IX, the quintessential Spitfire, boasting a perfect mix of the original’s virtues of agility and viceless flight characteristics with the power, speed, and hitting power of the more advanced variants. It was capable of over 400 MPH and armed with 20mm cannons.
It’s terrible, I suppose, that such an aesthetic masterpiece was produced not for display as a form of kinetic art, but as a ruthless, vicious killing machine. Perhaps nothing was ever cloaked in a form that was less evocative of its true function. It wasn’t there to be admired. It came out of the Sun to murder you. Literally thousands of enemy pilots died by running afoul of Spitfires, and one doubts many of them took a moment to admire the lines of the thing that was cutting them to ribbons. As a weapon, it was no less brutal and effective than a broadsword made of blue steel, and woe to the many poor souls turned into ground chuck by those 20mm cannon, yet still, despite what you know about the ugly realities, its perfect beauty is all you can see.
And why shouldn’t that be fitting? The Spitfire was, after all, a righteous instrument of justice, a deadly defender in service of the beleaguered core values of humane civil society at what may well have been the darkest moment of the 20th Century. When Hitler, fresh off a string of victories culminating in the conquest if France, turned his rapacious attentions to The British Isles, it was Spitfires that rose to blunt the assault, the stalwart Hurricanes offering robust support, but unable to win on their own. During that high summer of 1940 everything was on the line, history was balanced on a knife edge, and it was a near run thing. Britain should not have been able to hold on. Nobody thought it could, not really. Yet every time Goering’s air fleets crossed over the White Cliffs, they were met with ferocious resistance, and took worse than they gave until finally, weary of the stalemate, they stopped trying. You could put it to any German fighter pilot what stood in the way, and be told the same thing. When Goering, meeting with his fighter leaders at the peak of the campaign, asked ace commander Adolph Galland what he needed to win, Galland answered without hesitation: “Spitfeuren“.
It’s quite impossible, even from the distance of almost 80 years, to think about all that was rescued by the kids who flew those Spitfires and Hurricanes, and feel anything but deep emotion towards them and their aircraft. They saved civilization. In the decisive moment, they were the last bulwark of human decency. Their mounts, which perhaps began operations as mere killing machines, were elevated by victory over the Nazis to become something much closer to sacred.
To watch one perform a fly past today, at an air show or some ceremonial occasion, elegant, still impressively fast, and giving off the ineffably smooth yet throaty roar of its Rolls Royce Merlin engine, is to feel a little catch in the throat, a little wetness around the eyes.
There’s just no other way to feel about it.