Royston Smith is the MP for Southampton Itchen. Before his parliamentary career, he served as an engineer in the RAF
2020 marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, which was the first major military campaign fought entirely by air forces. The contribution of the Spitfire to defending Britain, at one of the bleakest times in the Second World War, and its boost to our collective morale, is something that should never be forgotten. Yet the number of remaining Spitfire pilots is now less than five and there is a risk that a vital link between our past and future generations will be lost.
This is why I believe that now is the most pertinent time to build a monument dedicated to the indelible mark this magnificent aircraft left on the course of British history.
One of the reasons Southampton is not as architecturally interesting as other English towns and cities is because of the extensive bombing during the Second World War. Over 470 tonnes of high explosives were dropped on Southampton during the war, damaging nearly 45,000 buildings. Southampton was a strategic target for the Luftwaffe because of our docks and more importantly, the Supermarine factory in Woolston where the Spitfire was manufactured.
In September 1940, during two daylight raids, the Woolston works were destroyed, killing about a hundred people. The Minister for Aircraft Procurement at the time visited Southampton and insisted that Spitfire production continue. As a result, laundries, bus stations, and garages were requisitioned. Within a few weeks, the Spitfire was back in production in Southampton’s shadow factories. If you come to Southampton and speak to local residents, you will find that almost everyone has a personal or family story about the Spitfire.
The significance of R. J. Mitchell’s Spitfire should not be underestimated. The Spitfire is the epitome of what it is to be British: the plucky underdog who saw off the Nazi aggressor. It is a symbol of British innovation and courage. It is the reason we are free, but there is no national memorial to the designer, those who built it, and the brave pilots who flew it in battle.
The average age of a Spitfire pilot during the Second World War was 20. The youngest Spitfire pilot was Sqd Ldr Geoffrey Wellum who was only 18. They risked and, all too often gave their lives, so that we can enjoy the lives we have today. It is claimed that the average life expectancy of a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain was just four weeks. There is no definitive evidence of this, but what we do know is fewer than half of those who flew Spitfires survived the war.
The Spitfire’s maiden flight was from Southampton Airport on 5 March 1936 and it entered service with the Royal Air Force in August 1938. Of the 20,000 Spitfire that were produced, over 8,000 were built in Southampton by the time production ceased in 1948.
‘South coast of England’ conjures up images of quaint market towns with access to the coast. Nothing could be further from the truth. Southampton is home to 230,000 decent, hardworking people; they are anything but wealthy. The main industries that gave them long-term, well-paid employment are long gone and Southampton is now too dependent on service industries. To put it into context, Southampton is a typical Northern industrial town located in the prosperous South. It is for this reason that people from Southampton feel successive governments have overlooked them.
Southampton has a past to be proud of. First settled by the Romans over 2000 years ago, Southampton has been a major British port ever since. It was from Southampton that the Mayflower set sail to the New World 400 years ago and where the Titanic began its fateful maiden voyage in 1912. But perhaps the most important claim to fame for Southampton was the design, test flight, and manufacture of the iconic Spitfire.
The people of Southampton deserve recognition for their courage, determination, and selflessness for this country. Instead of commemorating a tragedy such as the sinking of the Titanic, it is more important that we celebrate achievements embodied by the Spitfire.
I believe we have not properly and permanently honoured those who defended our freedom and democracy; not just those who flew the Spitfire but those who worked and sacrificed themselves in the Supermarine Factory in Southampton. As Churchill so eloquently put it, “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. It is long past time we commemorated the Spitfire, a significant player in the saviour of western freedoms and democracy and symbolic of the few. It is time for a national memorial to the Spitfire in its home town of Southampton.