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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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.

Unlike idolized Spitfire designer Mitchell, Hurricane designer Sydney Camm did not inspire the making of any wartime biopic. For one thing, Camm was alive and continuing to be his difficult self. "An odd combination of arrogance and diffidence—each characteristic feeding the other" is how one Air Ministry civil servant described him. Yet despite Camm's daily tongue-lashings, the young men who crowded the design office at Hawker worshipped him, according to Fozard, who was one of Camm's apprentices. "Most of us would have walked on glowing coals if he had asked us so to do in the interests of the job," wrote Fozard in his book. Camm, or Sir Sydney, as he became after the war, lived a long, honored life, continuing as chief designer for Hawker-Siddeley until his death in 1966. Camm led Hawker into the Jet Age with the Hawker Hunter fighter and pushed the company into short-takeoff-and-landing technology with the P.1127 project, which evolved into the Harrier jump jet.

Yet Camm is remembered today for the Hurricane, which in turn is remembered as the Battle of Britain fighter that was not the Spitfire.

In truth, the fighters had much in common, starting with the engine they shared, the experimental Rolls-Royce PV-12 that became famous as the Merlin. Both fighters were the product of the frantic rearmament race set off by Hitler's chilling 1934 debut of the Luftwaffe, with its bristling array of swift, low-drag monoplane designs. In 1934, the Royal Air Force's frontline fighter was the Hawker Fury biplane, with a top speed of 200 mph. It had two machine guns, an open cockpit, no oxygen system, and an ineffective radio. The Air Ministry needed a more advanced fighter—quickly. The leading designers were Mitchell at Vickers Supermarine and Camm at Hawker.

Camm came up through the ranks of the Hawker drafting office in the 1920s, working on a series of Royal Air Force biplane designs. Camm's design for the Fury, which he developed in 1931, marked him as a master of Hawker's tradition of building airframes from struts and wire. When the big hurry-up began in 1934, Camm decided against a radical retooling for the new monoplane interceptor. He figured he would have his hands full dealing with the long, liquid-cooled Rolls-Royce engine and his first retractable landing gear.

Before it was bought by Vickers in 1928, Supermarine had been a small niche designer, filling contracts for flying boats. Mitchell also followed the draftsman's route into the aircraft business, rising quickly as an apprentice designer on Supermarine's amphibian projects. In 1925, Mitchell designed the startling Supermarine S.4, a single-seat seaplane racer. To the modern eye, the S.4 looks like a Spitfire on floats. It's not, but if airplanes can be said to have genes, the S.4 is the Spitfire's grandfather. A mid-wing monoplane, the S.4 is driven by a long, narrow, liquid-cooled engine and sits on fully cantilevered floats. There are no bracing wires.

Designing for Supermarine, Mitchell learned how to build in metal. Supermarine's bread-and-butter product in the early 1920s was the two-engine Southampton flying boat. The original, with a hull of double-skin, diagonal mahogany planking, was a fine specimen of traditional boatbuilding but monstrously heavy. Mitchell duplicated the hull but used a light metal alloy that maintained strength, cut weight, and improved performance. Under the skin, his S.4 racer had a conventional strut-and-wire construction, but each succeeding S racer design incorporated more sheet metal. By the time the Air Ministry sounded the alarm in 1934, Mitchell was already working on an all-metal airplane in which the metal skin would serve as the frame: a monocoque design.

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