Spitfire: The Biography

Book Review

Spitfire: The Biography
by Jonathan Glancey
Atlantic Books
260 pages, hbk
US$26.35, £17.99

After all the hundreds of books and thousands of words dedicated to the Spitfire, here is another book on Supermarine’s famous fighter. Ostensively aimed at the casual reader, this title attempts to portray the history of the Spitfire from initial conception to post-war legend. The author, Jonathan Glancey, is the architecture and design editor for The Guardian newspaper – not a background you would think well suited to this task, but he is also a pilot and Spitfire enthusiast.

The introduction gives an overview of the Spitfire Legend and the author’s growing interest in the aircraft from his earliest schooldays. This is followed by a chapter on the life of the Spitfire’s chief designer, R.J. Mitchell, and the origins of the design. Many pages are filled with a description of all the Schneider Trophy races, but few words (if any) are spent on the lessons learnt that were applied to the Spitfire. Similarly, frequent mention is made in the text to the thin wings of the Spitfire, but no explanation is given as to why Mitchell wanted a thin wing. On page 28 the author confuses radial and rotary engines, and then goes on to imply that the Roll-Royce Kestrel engine was a derivative of the Curtiss D-12.

By now it is clear that the book is more about the legend than the facts. No opportunity is missed to sing the praises of the design, and much space is wasted waxing lyrical on its shape, handling and firepower. The next chapter covers the production and entry into service of the Spitfire and it’s role in the Battle of Britain. Little mention is made of the difficulties in getting the Spitfire into mass production, and the Hawker Hurricane’s role in the battle is suitably denigrated.

The following chapter describes the Spitfire’s role in the Battle for Malta and elsewhere, including its successful use in the war against Japan. The RAF and Royal Navy’s postwar use of the Spitfire and Seafire, and its service with overseas operators such as Israel are described in a separate chapter which culminates in the Indian Air Force’s retirement of the type in 1958. The chapter First Among Equals then spends 45 pages describing rival German, American, Russian, Italian and Japanese fighters of World War Two. The text is quite detailed, but spends little time on direct comparisons with the Spitfire.

A lengthy chapter entitled Spitfire Spirit explores the role of the Spitfire in modern popular culture, from movies and comics to Airfix kits and Triumph cars. The execrable propaganda movie ‘First of the Few’ is described as touching and moving. The Epilogue features Diana Barnato-Walker and her memories of her time as an ATA pilot delivering Spitfires to RAF airfields. The book is concluded by a section entitled Technical Specifications, a Select Bibliography and and index. The former lists each mark of Spitfire and Seafire with an in service date, total built and a brief note on the modifications applied. Major variants also get a side view line drawing and selected technical data. The Mk.IX is illustrated by a 4-view line drawing.

A little hint of the tone of the book is given early on, in the dedication, which includes the phrase “…to the infamous memory of Britain’s New Labour governments, their love of ill-founded war and their authoritarian fight…”. Quite what this polemic is doing in a Spitfire book is a mystery, although Guardian readers will love it. The book is slavishly politically correct, with lots of “Good Germans” flying with the Luftwaffe, some paragraphs on the role of women as ATA pilots and production-line workers, and another box is ticked with the mention of ethnic minority pilots. The Air Ministry and RAF senior officers are portrayed as ignorant ‘desk jockeys’, so we must assume that it was merely an accident that the RAF got the right aircraft at the right time in sufficient numbers.

The book seems to be entirely based on secondary sources and a handful of interviews with surviving pilots, hence the historical distortions presented must be attributed to the current author. The narrative jumps from theme to theme and often diverts down blind alleys which do not add to the overall story, such as a list of the owners of RAF Bentley Priory back to the 1840s, and the identity of the driver of the bus in the Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour.

Twenty-eight b+w photographs illustrate the book, but only twelve of these depict Spitfires – one is a model. There are no colour illustrations at all. The book is printed entirely on matt paper, but reproduction of the illustrations is reasonable. Unlike the writing, the typography appears to be error-free.

This rambling fractured hagiography adds nothing to the existing body of knowledge on the Spitfire, and does not present it in a new way. Probably less than two-thirds of the book is about the Spitfire itself, and much of this is presented in an off-hand uncritical manner. Do we need another book on the Spitfire? Not this one we don’t.

– John Hayles

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One thought on “Spitfire: The Biography

  1. Owning -and having read- some 70-odd books and publications about the immortal Spitfire myself, I can vouch that this book is indeed not in my top-10 of most relevant Spitfire publications.

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