Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Supermarine Spitfire - Classic RAF Fighter

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Spitfire R6923 QJ-S over southern England, May 1941

The Supermarine Spitfire is one of the legends of World War II. It was the backbone of the Royal Air Force during some of the darkest days of World War II. It also was admired by its Luftwaffe enemies, who could be heard by both sides on their radios yelling 'Achtung Spitfeurer! Spitfeurer!' during actions over the Channel. Among all of the fighters of the conflict, the Spitfire was the one that has endured the longest in public memory, along with the North American P-51 Mustang.

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The Spitfire is one of the top choices for model kit builders everywhere due to its peerless style and grace.

For some, the word 'Spitfire' is virtually synonymous with the word 'fighter.' It easily is the most beautiful plane of a romantic period in aviation. Was it the best fighter of the war? Perhaps, though I personally prefer the Mustang. I would agree that it is probably the most famous fighter of the conflict, and deservedly so.

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The Spitfire was designed primarily by R. J. Mitchell, chief designer at Supermarine Aviation Works (a subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrong from 1928). Supermarine was a successor to a pre-Great War company that designed seaplanes. The genesis of the Spitfire came about in 1931, perhaps the earliest of any of the elite World War II fighters. The final version bore little resemblance to its open-cockpit earlier iterations. However, from the start it had the essential elements of a streamlined fuselage and the genesis of the famed eliptical wings, which were dreamed up by designer B.Shenstone.

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The story of the birth of the Spitfire is a remarkable tale. In the early days of aviation, there was a competition called The Coupe d'Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider, commonly called the Schneider Trophy. It involved time trials for seaplanes. The hope was that the competition would spur airplane development. Trophy races began in 1913, and the competition was to be held every two years until one aero club managed to win it three times in a row. It was vaguely similar to the America's Cup, except for that last part. Supermarine won the competition in 1927 and 1929. With 1931 coming up, it appeared quite possible that it would win again and own the cup for England.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Supermarine S.5 (1927) was a 1920s British single-engined single-seat racing seaplane built by Supermarine. Designed specifically for the Schneider Trophy competition, the S.5 was the progenitor of a line of racing aircraft that ultimately led to the Supermarine Spitfire.

However, times were tough during the Great Depression, and the company (which sponsored its own aero club to qualify for the competition) needed financial support to compete. The government refused, saying that it was a matter for private individuals. Naturally, there were few of these to be found at the time. It all looked hopeless. However, someone stepped up late in the game to save the glory and honour of England, and a most unlikely someone at that: Lucy Lady "Poppy" Houston.

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After winning the Schneider Trophy outright, the men and lady behind it posed for this victory photograph in 1931. Lady Houston (front centre) and R.J.Mitchell (back right) L.S. Snaith (front far right).

The tale of Lady Houston and how she became the mother of the Spitfire is deserving of more attention than it receives. Having outlived previous wealthy husbands, she had cash to burn, was good friends from the old days with Winston Churchill and had a great well of patriotism. Her good works had, among other things, enabled her to become a Dame of the British Empire at a time when that really meant something. In any event, Lady Houston heard of the possibility of England winning the trophy outright and of the financial issues that might prevent this from happening. She stepped up when nobody else would and wrote a cheque for £100,000.

The Schneider Trophy, England's since 1931. The Schneider Trophy races were revived in the 1980s and continues annually to this day, but the original trophy has been retired and now a replica is awarded.

Thus properly financed, the Supermarine team designed and built the Supermarine S.6B, which not only won the trophy on 13 September 1931, but also subsequently set a new speed record of 655.8 km/h (407.5 mph).

The winning S.6B.

The Schneider trophy now sits in the Science Museum, South Kensington, London. One could argue that Lady Houston's contribution not only secured the trophy, but led to the classic, aerodynamically pure streamlined forms embodied in several of the Allies' top fighters of World War II. It was one of the most far-reaching philanthropic gestures in aviation history.

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No 19 Sqn, early 1939 - the first unit to receive Spitfires. The aircraft are still using two bladed fixed pitch airscrews: few of these remained by the outbreak of war in September. They are nicely camouflaged, however. Only a relatively small fraction of squadrons, about a third, were equipped with Spitfires when they were most needed, in the summer of 1940. This is a squadron cruise formation, in combat the British quickly adopted a finger four formation which had been developed by the Germans, shown below.

Mitchell remained in charge of development until his death from cancer in 1937, whereupon Joseph Smith took over as chief designer. Smith took a promising design and turned it into a war-winning weapon as a short-range, high-performance interceptor aircraft. Development lasted through many generations that outlasted the war itself.

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Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm aircraft. A Seafire, then a Vought F4U Corsair. The third aircraft from the bottom is known as a Grumman F4F Martlet. On the right are Fairey Barracuda. At the top, facing head-on, is a Hawker Hurricane. I do not know the provenance of this classic shot, all I can say is that it looks contemporary to the war.

One of the little known wars-within-a-war was the constant competition between the German and British aircraft designers. The British Spitfire, German Bf 109 and Focke Wulf 190 (once it came along in 1941) constantly evolved through successive versions, some being quite major transitions involving different engines, armament and even structural changes.

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World War Two British infographic. The Supermarine Spitfire. Hurry up and memorize it, you don't go up for training tomorrow unless you have it down pat - and we only ask once, son.

Each side gained slight, tenuous superiority as new models entered squadron service, soon to be lost as the other side made its own adjustments.

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Mitchell envisioned the Spitfire's distinctive elliptical wing to have the thinnest possible cross-section, which was the key to the design. The extremely thin wings gave the Spitfire a very high speed. Other than the general shape of the wings, though, practically everything else about the design changed repeatedly during the planes long life that was full of constant modification.

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An aerodrome with Spitfire Vs.

The Spitfire's first test flight was by legendary Supermarine Chief Test Pilot Joseph 'Mutt' Summers (who also worked on the 1943 Dambusters project). While the Spitfire made its public debut on 27 June 1936 at a Herndon air show, and an order was placed earlier that month, the plane faced numerous teething difficulties. Perhaps the biggest was that the company itself, located in Woolston, Southampton, was too small to ramp up production sufficiently to equip the entire RAF. Even though the plane's production was contracted out, it still took two years for the first production model to fly. The plane also came in seriously over budget at a time when the RAF was counting its pennies. Of course, a few years later, no price was too high to pay for the valiant service of these aircraft.

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The RAF understood the plane's obvious quality. In order to ramp up production, the Air Ministry enacted a 'shadow factory' plan under which factories were built ostensibly to supplement the British auto industry, but with the understanding that the factories could be swiftly converted to aircraft production. The first and most important one was at Castle Bromwich Aerodrome in Birmingham, which finally began cranking out Spitfires in mid-1940 after problems with the factory's management.

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Thus, at the time of the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire was still in relatively short supply. The load during that battle instead was carried by the Hawker Hurricane. However, the Germans knew the value of the Spitfire, as its performance clearly was superior to the slower Hurricane despite being in short supply.

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Supermarine Spitfire engine - Rolls Royce Merlin

The Luftwaffe mounted several raids specifically against the Spitfire factories and destroyed some of them on 26 September 1940. Production, however, had been dispersed; despite tragic loss of life by aircraft workers, production continued. The effort was aided by Lord Beaverbrook's famous 'Spitfire Fund' which encouraged private donations.

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Given their superior performance, Spitfires were sent against the Luftwaffe fighters while Hurricanes took on the slower bombers. German pilots soon recognized the distinctive Spitfires, and cries of  'Spitfeuer! Achtung Spitfeuer!' filled the airwaves during dogfights. Another important but little-known achievement of the fighters was as high-speed reconnaissance aircraft. They photographed several of the German secret weapons such as the V-1 very early in their development.

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The Germans in KG-200 - their 'secret ops' unit - were known to have several Spitfires that they had captured or repaired after crashing (along with literally dozens of Allied bombers). The Germans used them for flight testing and clandestine missions behind enemy lines. The Germans also captured some American bombers and fighters and used them until the last days of the war. Among the later variants of the supremely adaptable Spitfire airframe were Griffon-engined Mark XIIs (the Griffon replaced the legendary Rolls Royce Merlin engines in the initial variants) which maximized the airframe's potential. This mark could fly at 400 mph (640 km/h) in level flight and climb to 33,000 ft (10,000 m) in under nine minutes. They were fast enough to catch the 'buzz bombs' and knock them off course.

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The Spitfire was so useful that it also was put to work at sea. The Seafire was a version modified for use on aircraft carriers. Another experimental version during the war even had pontoons and was used as an outright seaplane, hearkening back to the plane's roots. These were creative versions, but not the best in their class by a long shot.

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The Spitfire was revised straight through the end of the war and beyond. The final version, the Mark 24, came out in 1946. Spitfires served with the RAF until June 1957, but remained useful for testing purposes long afterwards. Several dozen other countries used the aircraft and used them for decades afterward. There are over 50 Spitfires that remain in flying condition to this day, with numerous others on static display in museums around the world.

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I believe that the Spitfire is one of a handful of planes that can be said to best represent aviation during the 20th Century (include the North American P-51 Mustang and the Junkers Ju-52 in that list from World War II). It stayed in service for decades and is emblematic of a time when planes were daring and flying them took incredible bravery. When historians in distant times draw up their short lists of greatest, most memorable planes of aviation, the name Spitfire should be included.

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Friday, March 6, 2015

The Last World War II Leader - Michael I

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His Majesty Michael I, King of Romania

It is March 2015 as I write this. World War II is a distant memory for some; to others, it is just another boring topic in history class.

The people who served in the war and even guided it are not all gone, however. Seventy years on, there is one national leader who remains in power from that time, technically retaining the same title, and still a dominant figure in public life in his own country though largely unknown in the West. He also directly influenced, by his own hand, the course of the war, shortening it by many months and saving countless lives - including American and British ones. He is the last lion.

His name is His Majesty Michael I, King of Romania.

King Michael I Romania worldwartwo.filminspector.com
King Michael of Romania of the House of Romania née Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen with the Queen Anne at Elisabeta Palace and surrounded by the Queen and four of their daughters: Princesses Margarita, Elena, Irina and Mary.

Events in Romania never were very well publicized in the West during World War II, or afterward. The two facts are conjoined, because the Iron Curtain prevented the dissemination of pre-war information that otherwise would have been disclosed, if not by actual documents, by memoirs and the like. The Western Allies never recovered document troves from Romania, as they did in Germany; whatever the Soviets found, they destroyed or secreted away in their still-hidden archives. Aside from British agents, not a single western military figure ever set foot in Romania during or immediately after the war except for shot-down air force personnel.

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King Carol II and Michael

Events in Romania before the war were confused no matter how you look at them. Michael was born Mihai on 25 October 1921 to Crown Prince (future King) Carol II and his wife, Princess Elena. Very quickly, Mihai became embroiled in palace intrigue. His father eloped with his mistress Elena "Magda" Lupescu, and when the reigning monarch, King Ferdinand, passed away in 1927, Mihai became King Michael I. Michael's father came back a few years later and assumed the throne, and young Mihai went back to being the heir apparent. King Carol made sure to give young Michael a full education, though, for the first time in Romanian royal history, that did not include learning German, but rather Romanian. Royalty theretofore had lived apart from the people, but times were changing.

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Hitler and Antonescu discuss strategy

The events before Romania's entry into World War II are very confusing unless you pay close attention to the detail. On April 13, 1939, France and Britain pledged to ensure the independence of Romania, which illustrated the deep the bonds between the nations. However, negotiations on a similar Soviet guarantee collapsed when Romania refused to allow the Red Army to cross its frontiers. This refusal began the long, slow descent of Romania into chaos. On August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany signed their famous non-aggression pact. Often overlooked is that the pact contained a secret protocol (not revealed until many years later) giving the Soviet Union the Balkans as its sphere of influence (beyond the portion apportioned to Germany). Freed of the Soviet threat, Germany invaded Poland on September 1, with the USSR following a couple of weeks later, and quickly finished it off. Since France and Great Britain also had guaranteed Poland's independence, the implications to Romania were obvious.

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Horia Sima, leader of the Iron Guard and deputy prime minister of the Romanian government

The Ribbentrop/Molotov Pact of August 1939 and Germany's three-week blitzkrieg against Poland, with assistance from the dreaded Soviets, panicked Romania. It acted in good faith, granting refuge to members of Poland's fleeing government, but time for it was rapidly running out. Romania's premier, Armand Calinescu, proclaimed neutrality, but events were running too fast to be stopped. Antonescu's Iron Guards assassinated Calinescu on September 21, 1939. King Carol tried to maintain neutrality for several months more, but France's surrender and Britain's retreat from Europe rendered meaningless their assurances to Romania. Great Britain and France obviously would be unable to help Romania at all in the foreseeable future. Carol decided to strike a deal with Hitler, though how much that was his idea and how much Antonescu's is open to conjecture.

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King Michael in 1947, the year of his ouster

Things changed again in September 1940. Pro-German anti-Bolshevik Prime Minister Marshal Ion Antonescu staged a coup d'état against Carol II, whom the Marshal claimed to be 'anti-German'. Carol (with his mistress) went into exile. Young Michael was reinstalled as King, but he was only a puppet to the Prime Minister and his fascist Iron Guard cronies. Michael remained king throughout the war, powerless.

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Marshal Zhukov (standing, back seat, closer to the camera) salutes welcoming crowds during the bloodless invasion of Bessarabia in mid-1940. A Romanian province coveted by the Soviet Union, Bessarabia was "liberated" by Zhukov after Romania had no choice but to capitulate when her appeal to Germany for help went unanswered thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Even so, the invasion stoked resentment against the Soviet Union and pushed Romania solidly into the German camp as a member of the Axis.

Antonescu was never very popular, but he had the reins of power via 'royal decrees' which he drafted himself. After various provocations by the Soviets, such as their occupation of Bessarabia in 1940, Antonescu committed the country to a massively self-destructive war on the Soviet Union with the Germans in the hopes of winning territory in the East. Romania had held territory in the southern Ukraine during the middle ages, and it still felt that it deserved title to it. Thus, to many Romanians, Romania was not 'conquering' territory, it was simply recovering territory that had been stolen from it hundreds of years ago. That kind of sentiment is what leads to wars.

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Romanian territory at its greatest extent in 1942-1943. 

Thus, the Romanian desire to recover that territory is understandable to Romanians, even if the means that Antonescu and his cronies employed to effect that recovery were completely abhorrent, illegal and wrong-headed.

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King Michael - who always loved cars - testing a jeep in April 1946.

However, with Soviet troops advancing on the capital, on 23 August 1944 Michael collaborated with others and ordered the palace guard to arrest Antonescu, just like King Victor Emanuel of Italy had arrested Benito Mussolini the year before. After Adolf Hitler, who liked Antonescu, had the Luftwaffe bomb Bucharest in retaliation, Romania declared war on Germany. It claimed to suffer 1.7 million casualties while fighting the Germans and driving them out of the country.

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King Michael recently with his daughter, Princess Sophie.

Michael remained king after the war, but the Soviets were in complete control and decided everything. Their ultimate aim was to extinguish any remaining national spirit and pride; among their petty acts was to abolish celebration of May 10, the actual date of founding of Romania as a principality, and move the date to 1 December, a date which has virtually no historical resonance. They had no use for a king, especially one who was a bona fide war hero.

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Kings Carol II and Michael I

On December 30, 1947, with King Michael contemplating a marriage, he was called to the royal palace on a pretext. Upon arriving there, he was coerced by Soviet officials into abdicating the throne. Michael was forced to leave the country and became an émigré for over 40 years. He was only allowed to return to the country briefly on 25 December 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Subsequent short visits followed - delayed by the fear of then-President (and Communist) Ion Iliescu that Michael was becoming too popular. Only after Iliescu's defeat was Prince Michael's citizenship restored to him in 1997. His Majesty now is free to remain in his own country.

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TIME Cover - Vol. 10 Nº 5: King Michael I | Aug. 1, 1927

However, His Majesty King Michael I of Romania (his proper title) was not completely forgotten or ignored by the Allies. After the war, he was awarded, inter alia:

  • Soviet Union: Star of the Order of Victory
  • United Kingdom: Knight Grand Cross with Collar of the Royal Victorian Order
  • United States: Chief Commander of the Legion of Merit
  • France: Knight Grand Cross of the Légion d'Honneur
  • Poland: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the White Eagle
  • Italian Royal Family: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown of Italy
  • Malta: Knight of the Order of St. John

The 1946 Soviet Order of Victory apparently was used for political purposes by the Communist regime to foster the illusion that His Majesty Michael had voluntarily "given away as a gift" Romania to the Soviets. The other medals were in recognition of the fact that King Michael's personal acts measurably shortened the duration of the conflict, by some estimates up to six months.

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The future Queen Elizabeth during World War II. She finally became Queen of England in 1952, 25 years after King Michael. She is Michael's third cousin.

While Michael is no longer acknowledged officially as King, the monarchy having been abolished, he remains extremely popular in his country to this day. In fact, his popularity has been increasing in recent years. By some polls, his popularity approaches 50%, with a small fraction of respondents having a negative opinion. In October 2012, celebrating Michael's 91st birthday, a square in Bucharest was renamed after him.

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Romanian Greek Key Tiara worn by Queen Helen in the 1930s. The tiara fits low across her forehead in a distinctly 1930s style. That is Crown Prince/King Michael of Romania beside her.

With his distant relation Queen Elizabeth II of England (both descended from Queen Victoria), they are the only two remaining rulers from the World War II era (King Simeon II of Bulgaria survives, but the monarchy in Bulgaria - unlike in Romania - was officially terminated in 1946, and the Dalai Lama remains but was never involved in the conflict). Considering that Queen Elizabeth was working in a motor pool during the war while Michael was King of Romania, he remains the only true world leader from the period of World War II, and one who personally influenced key events.

King Michael I Romania worldwartwo.filminspector.com


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Musashi Found by Paul Allen

The story of the Musashi is one of the epics of World War II naval warfare. It was one of a trio of Yamato-class massive battleships built by the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) during the war. It was 263 metres (863 feet, almost three football fields) long. They were the biggest battleships ever - and completely ineffective.

American warplanes sank the Musashi on October 24, 1944. It was sent on a suicide mission (not enough fuel to return to home port) at the height of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Leyte, of course, was the the largest naval encounter of the war, despite being a one-sided American victory. US and Australian forces both participated. Reportedly, the battleship was so overwhelmed by American torpedo bombers that it vainly fired its nine 45-calibre 46 cm (18.1 in) Type 94 guns mounted in three triple gun turrets to try to disperse them.

A gun turret

Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen announced on 3 March 2015 that he had found the long-sought wreck of the Musashi. Allen discovered it with his M/Y Octopus exploration vessel one kilometre (1.6 miles) deep on the floor of the Sibuyan Sea not far from the Phillipines. No doubt, there are many IJN sailors entombed within its massive hulk.

An engineering valve

Allen is a big World War II fan. I have written previously about his determined effort to get one of the few remaining Panzer IVs for his museum after an online auction gone wrong. While that transaction still appears uncertain, there appears to be no question that he has indeed found the Musashi.

The bow, with a spot for the Chrysanthemum seal

"Since my youth, I have been fascinated with World War II history, inspired by my father's service in the US Army," Allen said.

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26-inch thick armor from a Japanese Yamato class battleship, pierced by a US Navy 16-inch gun. The armor is on display at the US Navy Museum.

"The Musashi is truly an engineering marvel and, as an engineer at heart, I have a deep appreciation for the technology and effort that went into its construction."

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