Southampton is integral to the story of the Spitfire. The prototype Spitfire first flew from Southampton Airport and production of the earliest models was based at the Supermarine factory in Woolston. This was bombed in the Second World War with great loss of life to local workers.
Production continued in and around Southampton, dispersed in locations as varied as bus garages and launderettes. The bravery of Southampton people in continuing to build the Spitfire under constant threat of enemy bombing raids was crucial in the protection of England, and the Allies' eventual victory.
The Supermarine factory at Woolston
The prototype Spitfire was designed by R J Mitchell and first took to the air at Southampton Airport on 5 March 1936. With a powerful Rolls Royce Merlin engine and eight machine guns it was a formidable fighting aircraft. Sadly, Mitchell was to die before seeing the aircraft go into operational use.
The Air Ministry ordered 310 Spitfires to be produced at the Supermarine factory at Woolston in Southampton. By 1940 the area was at fever pitch with the production, development and operation of all sorts of fighting aircraft. The industry was now employing thousands of technicians and engineers. Production of the Spitfires at Woolston was at full capacity. This was now an open-ended order for the aircraft to replace many of which were lost during the Battle of Britain. September 1940 could perhaps be described as this country's darkest hour; in two daylight raids the Woolston works were destroyed, killing 110 people.
The Blitz on Southampton was devastating and the town was hit time and time again, not only because of its aircraft industry but because of its docks and its many other strategic targets. It is an irony that the maps the German pilots used to navigate and accurately attack the target were originally produced at the Ordnance Survey in Southampton. The situation was extremely grim. Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister for Aircraft Procurement, came to Southampton and insisted that the Spitfire must be produced locally in any location where aircraft could be built. In a very short time, laundries, bus stations, garages etc. were requisitioned and within a few weeks the aircraft was back in production all over Southampton.
By the end of the war, 8,000 Spitfires had been built this way, having been constructed in pieces and taken to airfields for assembly and test flying. At this time the Spitfire possibly touched the lives of almost every family in Southampton. The difficulties in building the Spitfire in this way should not be underestimated when one considers the fact that this was done during the height of the Blitz and very often by unskilled labour. A large part of the workforce were women and young men, as most eligible men were out fighting for their country. The Spitfire was to remain in production throughout the entire war and eventually over 22,000 of the aircraft were built.