The Supermarine Spitfire

The Spitfire is the British single-seat fighter aircraft which has achieved iconic status and epitomises RAF Fighter Command during WW2.

It was designed as a short-range, high-performance interceptor aircraft at the Supermarine Aviation Works, which operated as a subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrong from 1928. The Spitfire’s distinctive elliptical wing had cutting-edge sunken rivets allowing the thinnest possible cross-section. This helped to give the aircraft a higher top speed than several contemporary fighters, including the Hawker Hurricane.

The Spitfire’s first flight was on March 5 1936 and it entered service in the RAF on August 4 1938. Production was slow at first, but by September 1940 it was in service with eighteen RAF squadrons.

The Battle of Britain

When Nazi Germany rapidly overwhelmed France and the Low Countries, Great Britain was left to face the threat of invasion by sea. The German high command recognised the logistic difficulties of a seaborne attack and its inpracticality while the Royal Navy controlled the English Channel and the North Sea. On July 16 Hitler ordered the preparation of Operation Sea Lion, an amphibious and airborne assault on Britain. But first the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, had to establish air superiority over the Channel.

So the Battle of Britain began, the first major military campaign fought entirely by air forces. This campaign included the period of large-scale night attacks known as the Blitz and finally ended on May 11 1941. The Luftwaffe’s failure to overwhelm the RAF forced Hitler to postpone and eventually cancel Operation Sea Lion.

Germany’s failure to destroy Britain’s air defences to force an armistice, or even an outright surrender, was the first major German defeat in World War II and a crucial turning point in the conflict.

During the Battle of Britain the general public perceived the Spitfire to be the main RAF fighter, though the more numerous Hurricane airplane shouldered a greater proportion of the battle against the Luftwaffe. However, Spitfire units had a lower attrition rate and a higher victory-to-loss ratio than those flying Hurricanes because of the Spitfire’s higher performance. During the battle, Spitfires were generally tasked with engaging Luftwaffe fighters—mainly Messerschmitt Bf 109E-series aircraft, which were a close match for them.

Spitfires shot down a total of 529 enemy aircraft, but lost 230 of their own.

The Spitfire Fund

The popularity of the Spitfire continues. Around sixty Spitfires are still flying and many more are on display in museums around the world.

Probably the main reason for this is because during WW2 people literally dug into their own pockets to pay for its production. During the early stages of the war the people of Britain wanted to believe in something positive and British “and the Spitfire, with that combination of beauty and power, was the great saviour. This ability to amaze and inspire was embodied by the Spitfire Fund movement, which obsessed much of Britain and beyond.”

In early 1940 Lord Beaverbrook came into the government to speed up aircraft production. He promoted the idea of public appeals to help with the war effort. The publicity given to these combined with that about the new fighter-plane the Spitfire, led to the launch of the Spitfire Fund in May 1940.

With echoes of today’s policy in relation to the COVID pandemic, only after the government had ensured that production had been scaled-up did they worry about how to pay the bill. The Spitfire Fund made a major contribution to that.

To produce a Spitfire cost about £9,500, but a notional “price” of £5,000 was established for the Fund. Within weeks funds were set up by councils, businesses, voluntary organisations and individuals. An enormous boost to the campaign was given by the sight of German planes overhead during the Battle of Britain.

In total more than 1,400 appeals were set up. Towns, villages, and organisations in South Buckinghamshire were at the forefront of the campaign. As reported in the Nostalgia page on August 28 a Spitfire Fund had been launched in High Wycombe by the Mayor Cllr A.C.White, who made a personal gift of £50 (value £3,250 today) and the Deputy Mayor Alderman O.Haines £25 (£1,625), two very generous contributions.

The factory-owners in the town could of course afford to be generous because many of their factories had converted from the manufacture of chairs and furniture to supporting the war effort, with guaranteed contracts from the government. Other factories had been taken over entirely by the Ministry of Defence for the production of vital supplies, including components for Spitfires.

Production of Spitfire propellers

One such factory was that of Castle Brothers on the Cressex Industrial Estate, which was taken over for the duration of the war by the Airscrew Company Ltd of Weybridge in order to manufacture wooden propellers, such as used on the Spitfire aircraft,. Amongst the men working there was the photographer Maurice W Keen, and my father who before the war had been a cabinet-maker.

The Castle Bros factory had been built just prior to the war, and equipped with all new machinery and modern facilities. The management had great expectations for this modern purpose-built factory, but the onset of WWII meant that the Government needed to make use of the skilled craftsmen of the Wycombe furniture trade to manufacture the wooden components of aircraft, including propellers. Initially the Airscrew Company had entered into negotiations with Castle Bros, but the inability to agree what constituted a fair rent for the factory resulted in a Government-backed requisitioning of the premises.

The factory worked twenty four hours a day, seven days a week for most of the war period. The production of wooden propellers was a skilled and precise job. The highly stressed root section of the propeller was made of a product known as ‘’Jicwood’’. This was a material made up of highly compressed laminations of birch wood, which were scarfed to spruce boards of natural density to form a complete blade, which was then roughly shaped on a copy lathe following a master pattern. Final shaping and balancing was achieved by hand-crafting, a vitally important task undertaken only by highly skilled craftsmen. Blades were then checked for weight and matched up in sets that were fixed to the hub of the propeller with hollow, steel root blade adapters.

To be continued

Did High Wycombe succeeded in raising sufficient funding to have its very own Spitfire? This will be revealed in the second part of the article, which will also look at Spitfire Funds in other parts of South Bucks.

I will be very pleased to hear from any reader who has information about local Spitfire Funds, or about the Airscrew Company’s operations on the Cressex Estate, contact me at or 01628 525207.