RJ Mitchell. A life in aviation.
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A biography of R.J. Mitchell

R.J. Mitchell with plans in the drawing office at Supermarine (Vickers)

Growing up

Reginald Joseph Mitchell was born on 20th May 1895 at 115 Congleton Road, Butt Lane, near Stoke-on-Trent. He was the eldest of the three sons of Herbert and Eliza Jane Mitchell (née Brain). His father, a Yorkshireman, served as headmaster successively in three Staffordshire schools and later established a printing business in the Hanley District of Stoke. Mitchell spent his childhood in Normacott, near Longton, and attended the Queensberry Road Higher Elementary School before moving to Hanley High School. This was where he first became interested in aviation; designing, making and flying model aeroplanes. His fellow students were said to comment "He's mad about aeroplanes".

At the age of sixteen Mitchell began an apprenticeship with a locomotive engineering firm; Kerr, Stuart and Co. at Stoke. His training started in the engine workshop and progressed to the drawing office. He also undertook evening classes in engineering drawing, mechanics and higher mathematics.


 

Joining Supermarine

Mitchell's interest in aviation persisted and in 1917, after completing his apprenticeship, he applied for a job as assistant to Hubert Scott-Pain, the owner and designer of The Supermarine Aviation Works, Woolston, Southampton. He was offered the position and sent for his belongings rather than travelling back to the Midlands. Within a year he was promoted to the post of assistant to the works manager. In the same year, 1918, he married Florence Dayson, headmistress of Dresden Infants' School, who he had been courting before his move to Southampton. They later had one son, Gordon, who was born in 1920.

In 1919, aged twenty-four, Mitchell was appointed chief designer and in the following year he was then made chief engineer. His short but illustrious career was to see him design and develop 24 aeroplanes over a 20 year period. From its formation in 1912, Supermarine had specialised in flying-boat manufacture, and Mitchell built on the company's tradition. Working through designs such as the Sea Eagle, the Scarab and the Swan, he progressed to an armed military boat called the Southampton. The Swan had effectively been the prototype for this new flying-boat and the Air Ministry took the then unusual step of ordering six ‘off the drawing board’ in August 1924, seven months before the Southampton's maiden flight on 10 March 1925. The Southampton equipped six RAF squadrons and remained operational until 1936, establishing Britain at the forefront of marine aviation and helping to transform Supermarine into one of the most profitable enterprises in the aircraft industry. The Southampton was eventually succeeded by such aircraft as the Walrus and the Stranraer, both of which saw action in the Second World War.

 

A brilliant designer and engineer

Despite the success of his flying-boats, Mitchell is more commonly associated with the design of high-speed aircraft for the Schneider Trophy races between 1922 and 1931. The first of such aircraft, a small biplane flying-boat named Sea Lion II, won the 1922 race achieving an average speed of 145.7 m.p.h. However, Mitchell was profoundly influenced by the American Curtiss seaplanes which dominated the race in 1923. He began developing a series of float seaplanes soon afterwards and produced four streamlined float planes. The S4 (the S stood for Schneider), although unsuccessful, provided invaluable experience for the development of its successor. The S5 recaptured the Trophy in 1927, the third aircraft, the S6 retained it in 1929 while the fourth and most famous, the S6B won the Schneider Trophy outright in 1931, averaging 340 m.p.h. around the course above the Solent. This aircraft went on to set a new world speed record of 407.5 m.p.h. Mitchell was awarded the CBE in 1932 for his contribution to high-speed flight.

The technical prowess of his flying-boats and seaplanes established Mitchell as the foremost aircraft designer in Britain. A ten-year contract, commencing in 1923, signified his indispensability to Supermarine, and a technical directorship followed in 1927. When Vickers acquired Supermarine a year later it was a condition of the purchase that Mitchell should be contractually bound to the company, without the option of terminating his service agreement, until 1933.

 

The legendary Spitfire

Perhaps Mitchell's greatest legacy was the Spitfire single-seat fighter, designed between 1934 and 1936. It was a hybrid of many diverse technical developments. Using high-speed flight experience gained through the Schneider Trophy successes, influences from the German aircraft manufacturer, Junkers, and learning vital lessons from Supermarine's unsuccessful Type 224, the Spitfire was a masterpiece of practical engineering design that Mitchell would never see fly in combat.

 

An unsung hero

R.J.Mitchell's Obituary in the Daily Echo - Click to enlargeMitchell shunned fame and publicity, and despite his outstanding ability, his name was not widely known outside of aviation circles during his lifetime. He was known for his kindness and humanity, and he commanded unerring respect, loyalty, and affection from his staff, to whom he was utterly devoted. In 1933 he was diagnosed with cancer, and a major operation left him with the serious physical difficulty of a permanent colostomy, a fact that his colleagues never knew. He showed enormous courage and refused to contemplate retirement. In fact it should be remembered that the whole time Mitchell was designing the Spitfire he knew that he was probably going to die and that he was working on the designs for a bomber aircraft right up to his untimely death. The plans for this bomber would never enter production as they were lost, along with a wooden mock-up, when the Supermarine factory was destroyed in a bombing raid at the start of the War. Mitchell died at his home, Hazeldene, 2 Russell Place, Portswood, Southampton on 11 June 1937, aged only forty-two. His ashes were interred at South Stoneham Cemetery, Eastleigh, Hampshire, four days later. It was incorrectly reported that, at his funeral, three Spitfires flew over in his honour. At that time there was only one Spitfire (the prototype) in existence!

Although Mitchell received no official recognition for his creation of the Spitfire by the award of a high honour, in January 2000 his son, Dr Gordon Mitchell, received a letter from 10 Downing Street stating "The Prime Minister fully understands your wish to see that your father's services to aircraft design are recognised with a posthumous high honour".

R.J. Mitchell, Schooldays to Spitfire by Dr Gordon Mitchell. Updated to December 2005 including all the events sponsored by the Sidney E Frank Foundation - Link to The History Press

View the R.J. Mitchell family tree - Click here

Gallery: Click pictures to enlarge
The most famous portrait of R.J. Mitchell the brilliant young designer - Click to enlarge
R.J. Mitchell in formal attire on the occasion of the presentation to him of the CBE in 1932 New Year Honours - Click to enlarge
R.J. Mitchell enjoying a pipe in the garden of his home, Hazeldene - Click to enlarge
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