With its graceful curves, elliptical wings and distinctive engine sound, the Spitfireis a British icon. A status solidified since its heroic efforts in the Battle of Britain in 1940. The Spitfire is the most famous fighter aircraft in British aviation history and has a fighting chance at perhaps being the most famous plane in history.
More than any other aircraft, it captured the hearts of the home front and became synonymous with the hope and protection of the British Isles.
Designed by Supermarine Chief Designer Reginald Mitchell, it was initially destined to be named the ‘Shrew’. Only after much discussion around a pub table was the iconic name the ‘Spitfire’ decided upon.
Sadly Reginald Mitchell died at the age of 42, having only ever seen a prototype of the Spitfire fly. Development of the aircraft was taken over by his successor at Supermarine, Joe Smith.
Between 1936 and 1948, over 20,000 Spitfires were produced. The design of the aircraft changed dramatically from the Mark I through to the F Mk -24.
Some modifications gave the Spitfire more power. In its final incarnation, the aircraft could produce up to 2,375 horsepower, more than twice the output of its original design.
Other alterations affected its manoeuvrability. The ‘clipped’ wings of the LF Mark V affected the aircraft’s ability to turn as tightly, but meant it could roll much quicker to evade German Focke-Wulf Fw 190s.
However, one decision early in the Spitfire’s development may have been especially crucial to its success and it was all down to a 13-year-old schoolgirl played a significant role in its design?
In 1934, the British Government took what some saw as an astonishing decision. The new fighter aircraft being developed would be armed with eight Browning machine guns, instead of four.
They had been convinced by Captain Fred Hill, a Scientific Officer in the Air Ministry. He had argued that a larger number of guns would be necessary to bring down enemy aircraft moving at speed.
Many believed that the extra guns would be too heavy for the Spitfire, affecting its speed and making it less manoeuvrable.
To persuade the government that the extra guns were required, Fred enlisted the help of an unlikely assistant. His daughter Hazel, a 13-year-old schoolgirl from North London.
Hazel though partially dyslexic and according to her son, perhaps because of this, was a gifted mathematician and helped her father to complete the complex calculations he needed to make his case to the Air Ministry. Sat around a small kitchen table, the two worked long into the night analysing the results of the latest firing trials.
They started on the assumption made by the government that the new plane was to have four guns that fired 1,200 bullets a minute but they realised that 256 bullets would be required in two seconds to bring down an enemy bomber at the increased speeds of the new aircraft and for this eight guns were required.
In July 1934, Fred presented his findings at a meeting of the Air Ministry. Only his superior officer knew about Hazel’s contribution to his work and for many years it remained largely unknown.
Had it not been for Fred’s persistence, the outcome of the Battle of Britain could have been very different. Had it not been for Hazel’s calculations, the legendary status of the Spitfire could have been far from assured.
After school leaving school, Hazel Hill studied medicine at a university in London and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps after graduating in 1943. At the end of the war, she became a GP and in 1948 married Chris Baker, who was one of the soldiers she had treated in the war. The couple moved to Wednesbury in theWest Midlands, where Hazel got a job setting up a child health clinic in the newly formed National Health Service. She later trained as a psychiatrist and published research into school phobia, anorexia and autism. Hazel had four sons: Robin, Richard, Frank and Ted. She died, aged 90, in 2010.