R.J. Mitchell was born at 115 Congleton Road, Butt Lane, Kidsgrove, Staffordshire, England. After leaving Hanley High School at the age of 16 he gained an apprenticeship at Kerr Stuart & Co. of Fenton, a locomotive engineering works. At the end of his apprenticeship he worked in the drawing office at Kerr Stuart and studied engineering and mathematics at night school.
In 1917, he joined the Supermarine Aviation Works at Southampton. Advancing quickly within the company, Mitchell was appointed Chief Designer in 1919. He was made Chief Engineer in 1920 and Technical Director in 1927. He was so highly regarded that, when Vickers took over Supermarine in 1928, one of the conditions was that Mitchell stay as a designer for the next five years.
Between 1920 and 1936, Mitchell designed 24 aircraft including light aircraft, fighters, bombers, several seaplanes and flying boats such as the Supermarine Walrus and Supermarine Stranraer. However, he is best remembered for his work on the Supermarine Schneider Trophy series of racing aircraft culminating in the Supermarine S.6B and the Supermarine Spitfire.
R.J.Mitchell (centre) at the Supermarine factory Southampton in 1922.
After winning the Schneider Trophy outright In 1931. Lady Houston (front centre) and R.J.Mitchell (back right) L.S. Snaith (front far right).
The winning S.6B S1595 later flown by Flt. G.H. Stainforth at a world record speed of 407mph.
The S.6B won the Schneider Trophy in 1931 and later broke the world air speed record. Mitchell was awarded the CBE in 1932 for his contribution to high-speed flight. Mitchell’s experience with high speed aircraft such as the S6B prompted the Air Ministry to issue specification F7/30 to Supermarine, primarily a seaplane manufacturer, for the design of a new fighter aircraft.
The Vickers-Supermarine team relax around R.J’s car at Eastleigh after the maiden flight of Spitfire K5054.
Left to Right, Captain Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers, ‘Agony’ Payn, R.J. Mitchell, S. Scott Hall & Jeffrey Quill.
The still unpainted Spitfire protoype, K5054, shortly before its first flight
On 20 February 1932, Mitchell submitted his Type 224 design. Mitchell referred to the Type 224 as “The Shrew”. It first flew on 19 February 1934, but was eventually rejected by the RAF because of its unsatisfactory performance. While the 224 was being built, Mitchell was authorised by Supermarine in 1933 to proceed with a new design, the Type 300, an all-metal monoplane that would become the Supermarine Spitfire. This was originally a private venture by Supermarine, but the RAF quickly became interested and the Air Ministry financed a prototype.
Many of the technical advances in the Spitfire had been made by others: the thin elliptical wings were similar to those of the Beverley Shenstone as well the Heinkel He 70 Blitz, the under-wing radiators had been pioneered at the RAE, while monocoque construction had been first developed in the United States. Mitchell’s genius was bringing it all together with his experience of high speed flight and the Type 224.
The first prototype Spitfire, K5054, (right) flew for the first time on 5 March 1936 at Eastleigh, Hampshire. In later tests, it reached 349 mph, consequently, before the prototype had completed its official trials, the RAF ordered 310 production Spitfires. Mitchell is reported to have said that “Spitfire” was “just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose.”
Supermarine Spitfire Mk.XIX in 2008
Late in 1933, Mitchell underwent a colostomy to treat rectal cancer. Despite this, he continued to work, not only on the Spitfire, but also on a four-engined bomber, the Type 317. Unusual for an aircraft designer in those days, he took flying lessons and got his pilot’s licence in July 1934.
In 1936, he was diagnosed with cancer again. Mitchell gave up work in early 1937, though he was often seen watching the Spitfire being tested. He went to the American Foundation in Vienna for a month, but died in June 1937. His life and the sacrifices he made to keep going despite pain and impending death were the subject of the 1942 Leslie Howard film The First of the Few. The film created some myths. In particular, Mitchell did not work himself to death; he led a full life, and was working mainly on the bomber project in his final years.
Mitchell was succeeded as Chief Designer at Supermarine by Joseph Smith, who was responsible for the further development of the Spitfire. Nevertheless, Mitchell’s design was so sound that the Spitfire could be continually improved throughout the Second World War, whereas its contemporary, the Hawker Hurricane, quickly became obsolete. Over 22,000 Spitfires and derivatives were built.
In 1918, Mitchell married Florence Dayson. They had a son, Gordon. While working on the Spitfire at Woolston and Eastleigh, Mitchell and family lived in Portswood, Southampton, at 2 Russell Place. Eventually Mitchell was diagnosed with rectal cancer, and in August 1933 had a colostomy. In 1936, Mitchell’s cancer returned and he died on 11 June 1937 at age 42.
Mitchell’s son, Dr. Gordon Mitchell was left to tell his father’s story in two books, R.J. Mitchell: World Famous Aircraft Designer and R.J.Mitchell: Schooldays to Spitfire. In 1946, Gordon married Alison Barrow and they had three children: David, Adrian and Penny. They spent the majority of their life in Tilehurst, Reading. On 30 April 2005, Alison died after a long illness. Gordon Mitchell died on 24 July 2009 two weeks after suffering a fall in his home in the Cotswolds.
In the late 1980s, Gordon’s daughter Penny gave birth to two children, Nick and Emma. In September 2005, all of Mitchell’s family went to London to watch the dedication of a statue made by Stephen Kettle that was displayed in the Science Museum until January 2008.
|“||If anybody ever tells you anything about an aeroplane which is so bloody complicated you can’t understand it, take it from me: it’s all balls.||”|
|— R. J. Mitchell, a famous quote of Mitchell’s, advice given about his engineering staff to test pilot Jeffrey Quill during prototype trials.|
The First of The Few
The First of the Few was a British film produced and directed by Leslie Howard, with Howard in the starring role of R.J. Mitchell. It tells the story of Mitchell’s life and how he developed the design for the famous RAF fighter. This was to be Howard’s last film before he was killed purportedly by a German Junkers Ju 88.