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?

Here, the Spitfire leads; World War II statistics say otherwise. (John Dibbs)
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It was no problem. From a roll-up step platform, Henocq coached me on how to climb into a Spitfire. "You put your left foot there on the edge," he said. "Then with your right foot, stand on the seat. Now hold here." He guided my hands to a grip as I swung my other foot on board and lowered myself into the seat. "Do you see those shiny stripes down there?" he called out. "You want to put your feet up above them on the pedals." And there I was, sitting ear-deep in a Spitfire cockpit.

Henocq called out to his shop guys: "All clear on control surfaces? All clear on electrics?" Then he showed me how to swing the rudder, pull back on the stick, and break right and left. "If you reach down there on your right, you can throw the power switch," he said. Red lights blossomed around the cockpit. "And here's your gun button." Henocq adjusted the anti-glare gunsight screen and flipped a switch to project crosshairs onto the windscreen.

And here the illusion stopped: The crosshairs didn't light up.

Henocq studied the gunsight. Apparently a new bulb was still to be installed. It was just as well or I might have swooned.

Instead, I squinted down the Spitfire's long Merlin-filled nose, through the three-blade prop, to scan the clouds swirling over Duxford. Tally-ho! Bandits at six

o'clock! My left hand went for the gun button, but I swear I didn't say "Rat-a-tat-tat." (At least not out loud.)

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."

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