Reginald Mitchell designed the Spitfire, the plane most associated with the Battle of Britain. Mitchell produced a plane that was revolutionary and the Spitfire remains to this day one of the most celebrated planes ever developed. Reginald Mitchell did not live to see his plane fight in World War Two and though the name of his plane is known by many, the man who designed it is less well known. However, his importance to Britain and Fighter Command in World War Two cannot be overstated.
Reginald Mitchell was born in Butt Lane, Staffordshire on May 20th 1895. On leaving school in 1911, Mitchell joined a locomotive engineering company called Kerr Stewart and Co in Stoke. He continued to develop his education by going to night school where he studied engineering, mechanics and higher mathematics. On a practical level, Mitchell learned how to use a lathe.
In 1917, Mitchell joined a company whose name was to become synonymous with his Spitfire – the Supermarine Aviation Works. He was employed as a designer. Just one year after joining Supermarine, the company promoted him to Chief Designer – recognition of the skills that he had.
Supermarine designed and manufactured seaplanes. It was in this area that Mitchell first found fame. He redesigned the company’s Sea King II and created the Sea Lion II. It was this plane that broke the grip the Italians had on the Schneider Trophy.
This trophy was a speed contest between companies manufacturing seaplanes. Italy had won the trophy in 1920 and 1921. If Italy had won the trophy in 1922, she would have kept the trophy as an outright winner.
Mitchell’s Sea Lion defeated the Italian entry and broke four speed records in doing so.
In 1925, the Air Ministry decided to establish a High Speed Flight racing team at Felixstowe and worked with Supermarine to develop an aircraft that built on the Sea Lion’s design. The end result was the S5 that flew in 1927. Mitchell improved on this design and in 1931, the S.6B won the Schneider Trophy with an average speed of 340 mph.
Mitchell had completely changed the face of seaplane design and as a result of his work, he was invited by the Air Ministry to put in a tender for the new fighter plane they wanted to replace the biplanes used by the RAF. In February 1932, Mitchell submitted his Type 224 design.
In 1933, he was given the go ahead to proceed with the development of the 224 but with modifications. The 224 was to have an all-metal construction and it was a monoplane. The days of the biplane were clearly numbered.
However, by 1933, Mitchell was a sick man. He had abdominal cancer and had nearly died during an operation on his abdomen. He did survive but he never made a full recovery and he remained a weak man for the rest of his life.
In 1934, as part of his convalescence, Mitchell travelled to Germany. It was on this trip that he realised that the RAF was far behind the growing Luftwaffe and that Britain would be open to attack if she did not possess a potent fighter plane to oppose any air assault.
Rather than take things easy after his cancer ordeal, Mitchell threw himself into his work. As his health declined, the plane that was to be called the Spitfire developed. He usually failed to respond to advice to slow down and the more he worked, the more his health suffered. However, Mitchell was a driven man. He probably knew that he had only a few years left, and such a thought seemed to drive him on to the benefit of his work. The first prototype Spitfire flew in 1936. It design was to revolutionise fighter plane design.
In March 1937, Mitchell entered a specialist clinic where he was told that he had just three months to live. In April, he left Britain and went to the American Foundation in Vienna. However, his stay in Vienna was short and in May he returned to Britain. Reginald Mitchell died on June 11th 1937, aged 42.