Inside a Spitfire! (Stripped down) © Justin Williams.
Dianne Cutlack says chocks away! and lands in the Science Museum.
The Science Museum heads for the clouds this autumn with a new exhibition celebrating the legendary Spitfire aircraft, one of the most enduring and potent symbols of World War II.
Inside the Spitfire, which runs until January 31 2007, features personal stories, photographs and memorabilia from those who flew, built and maintained the only Allied fighter to see continual frontline service throughout the war.
As its centrepiece, the exhibition contains a Spitfire Mk 22, on loan from the RAF Museum, which has been disassembled and stripped to its essential components. Each pioneering feature of the aeroplane’s design is described.
Groundcrew wheeling out a Spitfire aircraft. © Science and Society Picture Library.
The aircraft that inspired devotion from pilots and mechanics alike, and such statements as “she really was the perfect flying machine; she hadn’t got a vice at all”, was also admired by those on the ground. In propaganda posters and illustrations, the Spitfire represented Britain’s defiance and commitment to ultimate victory.
A section of the exhibit is devoted to the Castle Bromwich aircraft factory in Birmingham, where an astonishing 12,000 Spitfires were produced. At its peak in 1943, the Castle Bromwich works employed a workforce of nearly 16,000.
Along with photographs of Winston Churchill touring the works is a staff photograph taken by Lily Holder, who worked as a riveter. This picture is particularly poignant as it was taken shortly before the factory was bombed and 11 of Lily’s co-workers lost their lives.
Mrs Jean Fergus worked on production of Spitfire dimming screens at the Castle Bromwich Aerodrome Factory. Courtesy the Science Museum.
In tribute to the many women who took jobs in aircraft factories during World War II, the exhibition shows a propaganda film from 1942, ‘Jane Brown Changes Her Job’. Although the film barely manages to contain its astonishment that women were capable of the work involved, it marks the invaluable contribution they made to the assembly lines.
The Spitfire contained many design firsts, but was also a work in progress. Engineering drawings on display show how regularly the Spitfire was redeveloped. All in all, 24 variants of the Spitfire were used in combat.
Keeping up with these changes was a continual battle in itself. Copies of updated installation notes and schedules of parts are displayed, along with the tools that kept engines, airframes, guns, radios and instrumentation functioning.
Restoration engineer Mike Terry of the Aircraft Restoration Company works on a Mark 22 Spitfire PK664. © Justin Williams
The exhibit contains many contributions from Spitfire pilots. Amongst the flying jackets, helmets, medals, training notebooks and personal diaries are details from the pilots’ flying logbooks. Particularly startling is the entry of Group Captain Hugh Dundas, recording the loss of Douglas Bader whilst flying his Spitfire on patrol over France.
Squadron Leader Philip Cunliffe-Lister gives an account of his own less-than-perfect aircraft: “The engine cut out five times on the runs. Guns failed after the first five second burst and the starboard wheel failed to come down when wanted. Total damage incurred in the ensuing forced landing: one wing tip and flap.” (And possibly the pilot’s pride.)
The Spitfire was the brainchild of aeronautical engineer RJ Mitchell. Details of Mitchell’s early career with the Supermarine aircraft company at Southampton, and his initial designs for the Spitfire, are accompanied by a specially commissioned statue of Mitchell, created out of Welsh slate by artist Stephen Kettle.
Squadron Leader Hughie ‘Cocky’ Dundas with his labrador and fellow RAF men in January 1942. © MOD Air Historical Branch.
The life-sized statue, which portrays Mitchell standing before a drawing board with his sleeves rolled, was created from photographs contributed by Gordon Mitchell, the designer’s son. Mitchell is here portrayed in the summer of 1936, three months after the Spitfire’s prototype had flown for the first time. Mitchell, who would succumb to cancer in 1937, never lived to see his invention become Britain’s frontline of defence.
The exhibition also describes Spitfire funds set up to pay for the planes through public donations. The Spitfire badges on display were produced and sold to raise money for these funds. Each donor who achieved a target figure received photographs of the plane and a presentation plaque.
A quotation from Isaiah 40:31 inscribed on one of these plaques – “they shall mount up with wings as eagles” – seems a fitting tribute both to the pilots who flew them and the aircraft themselves. Long after the birth of the jet engine, the Spitfire remains a beautiful, innovative flying machine.
Dianne Cutlack is a freelance writer who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org