RJ Mitchell’s baby on its 70th

The superlative Spitfire roared over the south of England today as it did seven decades ago, marking the 70th anniversary of RJ Mitchell’s elegant creation. I still remember the movie First of the Few, made during the war so containing a fair bit of propoganda, but still a classic British war movie. Mitchell, knowing his time was limited by his growing cancer, feverishly finishing the design of his masterpiece with the line ‘they are going to need it soon’ and the touching scene where the test pilot (an impossibly young David Niven) flies her (because all Spits are ‘hers’) over the dying Mitchell’s home to show her in her full glory.

That line may have been inserted as war-time propoganda, but it doesn’t change the essential truth of it – the Spitfire was needed. And therein lies the reason why this anniversary was being celebrated – not just because the Spitfire is a design classic, mixing function with a simple elegance, not just because it was probably the best fighter plane of the war but because that distinctive silhouette with the gorgeous, elliptical wings, is built into the British DNA. Despite the fact the redoubtable Hurricane made up most of the RAF’s numbers during the Battle of Britain it is the photogenic Spitfire which is imprinted into our collective memories as one of the symbols of British defiance of Nazi tyranny.

There may be multiple layers of mythologising added onto the Spitfire, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that it is an image of that ‘finest hour’ when a desperate free world was shown that a few determined people in a small group of islands could and would stop the seemingly irresistible advance of the Nazi forces marching across the world. For the first time in the history of the world a battle was fought entirely in the air with the Nazi hordes outnumbering the RAF vastly, the British relying on the home ground advantage, the new device called radar and well-designed aircraft to beat back that monstrous evil. And the people who built them and the young men who flew them – as Mitchell himself said, with his customary humility, without a pilot even a Spitfire would just be a piece of metal.

Today when we are embroiled into a moral mess of international conflicts which we struggle to define let alone prosecute the Spitfire reminds us of a time when we faced a far more dangerous foe but a danger far clearer, good against evil; outnumbered and isolated by an enemy who wanted nothing less than world domination, the eradication of freedom and democracy, the crushing of free civilisation and the extermination of anyone seen as diffrent. A clear cut struggle between the hordes of darkness and a small but determined group of good guys who wouldn’t let them win. Makes you nostalgiac for a time you never even knew, doesn’t it?

Besides, since I was a boy I’ve always wanted to fly in one. Go on, be truthful – how many guys reading this are thinking just that? Some childhood dreams you never grow out of; I still want to be an astronuat, I still want to see a living dinosaur and I still want to fly in a Spitfire.