Best of the Battle of Britain
In this corner, the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire; across the ring, the Hawker Hurricane. Which is the more valuable restoration?
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, March 2008
(Page 3 of 6)
Warbird intoxication is a widespread ailment, even if most of the afflicted get no closer than photographs or static aircraft displays and flybys at airshows. For those who can afford a serious case, there are few more dangerous afflictions than Spitfire fever. It burns brightly in hearts across the old Commonwealth, including India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, but also in places like the Netherlands and Israel, where after the war Spitfires served as air force founding fighters. Americans are susceptible too: U.S. Army Air Forces squadrons flew Spitfires out of England and in the Mediterranean theater until well into 1944. Not surprisingly, though, Spitfire fever is strongest in the United Kingdom.
For Britons of a certain age, the very name recalls a historic pageant: Dapper young pilots scramble from lawn chairs, London burns, and Luftwaffe aircraft break apart in gun camera films, all against a soundtrack of sirens, whistling bombs, and Winston Churchill growling his way through the Few, the Many, the Finest Hour, etc. Slicing down the middle is the Spitfire, the airplane that won the Battle of Britain.
Well, not exactly. Such a statement leaves out the Hawker Hurricane, the other frontline fighter the Royal Air Force fielded in the battle. In July 1940, when the fight began, the RAF Fighter Command had 396 operational Hurricanes and 228 Spitfires. That ratio, three Hurricanes to two Spitfires, held through the summer. Fighter Command tended to steer Spitfires against the Luftwaffe's high-altitude fighters, freeing the Hurricanes to attack the slower, lower-flying German bombers. By the battle's nominal close, at the end of October, Hurricanes had claimed 656 enemy aircraft, versus 529 for Spitfires.
Yet Spitfires got top billing. In the "after myth" of war, Hurricane supporters have long complained that their fighter was denied full credit. They even name the villain, British actor Leslie Howard, and the 1942 film he directed and starred in, The First of the Few. A half-century after its first run, John W. Fozard, a retired Hawker designer and aviation historian, wrote a book titled Sydney Camm and the Hurricane, in which he denounced First of the Few as the "infamous wartime movie…that fixed forever in the public mind the image of the Spitfire as the winner of the Battle of Britain thus performing a permanent assassination job on the Hurricane."
You can still catch The First of the Few, which has been released on video. It's a creaky, old-fashioned biopic about the Spitfire's designer, R.J. Mitchell, who died of cancer at age 42. (In the film, though, Mitchell succumbs to what the physician character refers to as "overdoing it, old boy.") Mitchell lived to see his prototype fly, but not the operational Spitfire squadrons that were filmed for the movie's opening montage. There is not a single Hurricane in sight.
Even today, the Battle of Britain is thickly barnacled with myths and celluloid memories, and historians approach the subject warily. Richard Overy, a professor of modern history at King's College, London, is one of the brave. Overy has chipped away at some of the crustiest legends: that the British public was 100 percent behind its bulldog prime minister (the government's top-secret surveys showed that the average Londoner's enthusiasm for Churchill was inversely proportional to how heavily he or she was being blitzed every night) and that Adolf Hitler was champing at the bit to invade England in 1940 (Hitler was an opportunist, says Overy, but was more interested in forcing the British into a one-sided "peace" treaty so he could devote all of his resources to conquering Russia).
On one point, Overy remains a True Blue about the battle. "Britain was forced to fight with what she could produce herself in 1940," he writes in his 2004 book The Battle of Britain. "The aircraft available were among the very best fighter aircraft in the world. There is no myth surrounding the performance of the Hawker Hurricane and Vickers Supermarine Spitfire, which between them formed the backbone of Fighter Command."
No matter what they flew, British pilots faced grim odds. Of the 2,917 men who flew for Fighter Command that summer, 544 —almost 20 percent—were dead by the end of October.