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The Spitfire by Bert Martin

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1943. Bert Martin (1910-1994).
1943. Bert with his family.

See Supermarine: Spitfire

Bert Martin was a toolmaker at Follands during WW2 responsible for the Spitfire tail portion. He recorded his memories in this short essay below. We are indebted to Bert's son, Tony Martin, for allowing us to publish this story.

The Spitfire

"Reginald Mitchell’s Spitfire fighter, is now a part of Britain’s heritage – history itself. Our history. And when I say our, I don’t mean a common market 'our', but a “Britain I’m proud of it” our. We can make friends with our once-enemies, but still retain our national pride, as can they. That is as long as it is possible to be as proud of our country as we once were. It is the stuff that puts VIRILITY into a Country: without which it can only be a cabbage. And we were far from being cabbages during WW2. Which was just as well...

Things are largely known by the larger-than-life popular fiction of them. Most people believe that what was called the Battle of Britain was won by the Spitfires and their pilots. Which in some ways it was: but in other ways, it wasn’t. For if regarded in terms of “those shot down” the Hurricane total was the higher of the two, largely because there were more of them at that time. Which in no way detracts from their individual glory, if that is the right word.

For the then Spitfire, the Mk1’s were on just about overall level terms with the bomber escorting Me 109’s (called Bf 109’s by the Germans) when all the good and bad points were taken into account. Also it was a lively responsive plane to handle. Perhaps its best feature. Whereas the Hurricane was about 30 mph slower and no match for the better armed 109’s. As for the German bombers, the Heinkel 111’s, which most were, were relatively slow, and couldn’t go flat out because they had to get back home on scanty fuel. There can be little doubt that if at the time we had three times the number of fighters and Cannon equipped fighters at that, very few would have made it home at all. But when they came in, “Armada” fashion, as they did in the all-out daylight raids of August 1940, then there were hundreds of fighters both above and below them. Just waiting for “us” to take them on. Nor did we read about this in books. We saw it all at first hand.

So at the time the cards were very much stacked against our pilots. In addition to which, the radar station at Ventnor I.O.W was soon “taken out”- by Stukas I believe – but at high cost to the Stukas, which deterred the usage of them. But this was also a great warning loss to us. For very often the “stuff” was on the way down before even the siren had sounded. And in any case, when a massive attack was mounted, it was just plain suicide for any single fighter to take them on. By this time, we all knew of the “grossly inflated for public morale” German loss figures. But even so their losses were high enough to decimate the Luftwaffe numbers and their pilots, as well as their enthusiasm for the task. Nor did we know of all the damaged and out of fuel planes that didn’t quite make it. But even Churchill admitted that “it was a damned close run thing”. But the public never knew of just how close it really was. But those in the highly vulnerable aircraft factories did. For there was a lot that the public was never told: nor has it been mentioned since. For the Spitfire and its designer are a veritable enshrinement of our battle history. Nor have I any wish to detract from the overall magnificence of it or its performance in any way at all. But only to present the very difficulties that were a never heard part of the legend itself. But they were very real to us at the time: alarmingly so. For when in 1940, the Luftwaffe fairly pounced on us, day after day with great severity, it very quickly found out what was wrong with the Mk1 Spitfire at that time. But before we deal with this it would be best to get things in some kind of perspective.

From a “flyworthiness” point of view the Spit was an excellent machine and the later marks even better, since the basic design was highly versatile. But from a manufacturing point of view, its design could hardly have been worse. And as an Engineer myself, I have to say unnecessarily so. With details drawn up by those with little or no idea of the difficulties associated with the forming of sheet metal. For the same job, with the same strength and the same weight, could have been accomplished in half the manufacturing time and with a corresponding reduction in servicing time. For some aspects of the detail design were sheer monstrosities.

The manufacturing time of the Me 109’s was half that of the equivalent Spitfire. But fortunately for us, the Me 110 fighter bomber, which could deliver a 1 ton load, had manoeuvring problems as a fighter. But to return to the Spitfire. I well remember the prototype “doing its stuff” for both the Ministry and the interested foreigners at Eastleigh Airport, where the Supermarine had a hanger. It was a fantastic sight for those times. And where from a vertical falling tailspin it would quickly come out which not all planes would. When first made, its tailwheel was left free to “castor”. But it shimmied so badly, in the same way that supermarket trollies have been known to do, that it was then fixed to little or no detriment.

At the time of the Battle I was working as a toolmaker at Folland Aircraft of Hamble. And being very much “a stick your neck out” capable-versatile I was soon in the trouble! All hands to the pumps! Front line. And trouble there was: lots of it. An adjoining firm, called A.S.T. – which was short for “Air Service Training” - had been equipped to repair damaged fighters and I was very often called over there concerning the supply of replacement parts. And with this as quickly as possible, for fighter planes were very much at a premium as can be well imagined.

Now Follands had repeated “300 at a time” contracts for the supply of the rear portion – as it was called – of the Spitfire fuselage. “Part No 30027” as it was known to us. All told Follands were to make over 15,000 of these out of a total of 23,000. And I soon found myself saddled with the responsibility of their manufacture, totally unpaid for such responsibility, and their later dispersed manufacture. Things were like that during the war and have been since.

And the trouble arrived at the same time as the Germans. For the design of the tailwheel mounting was so weak that a hardish landing on non-even ground would push the tail-wheel right back up into the fuselage. At the time of the desperately fought Battle of Britain we had 300 stern portions in such a plight. Nor was it a simple thing to put reinforcing plates on. So that frantic repairs were going-on night and day. Now the German planes were all metal which ours were not. The “Hurri” was fabric covered aft of the cockpit whilst all of the control-surfaces on the Spit were also fabric covered: ailerons, elevators and rudder. One cannon shell anywhere near them would blow the lot off. I remember seeing a Spit coming in to land at A.S.T. – which they often did for garage type repairs with no fabric at all on its elevators or rudder. I mentally gave the pilot full marks for even being able to land such a craft. But he did.

Now at this time Southern England was being furiously and non-stop attacked. And quite naturally the public were somewhat alarmed – which means frightened- at what might happen next. This was especially so in the dangerous aircraft factories for we had a very good idea of our weaknesses but also of the very strength of the enemy. And people tend to work “fast and furious” at such times. They do not use the “abject terror” of television writers and producers who seem to be obsessed by the neuroticism that belongs to the few only. And I write from my experience of such aspects and not from my hopefully sensational imagination. Of course we were frightened but not out of our wits or anything like it. And we still had to get on with the job but now in frantic haste. For it had to be. So that inside a week we had improvised tools and the beginnings of production on metal covered control surfaces, and the mod to the mass-balance. And full scale production a week later.

The fitting of the stern portion to the main fuselage was about as stupid a design as anyone could imagine. So that dwarfs or “very small people” had to crawl up inside the confined fuselage in order to insert and tighten the many bolts. There are other – and easier – ways of doing just as strong a job.

Then the Germans “had a go” at Fort William in Scotland where the aluminium forgings used on the Spitfire and other planes were made. So back to the “action stations” once again in order to make improvised substitutes out of steel pressings, made from tools that didn’t then exist. But we soon had them. We in the Spitfire factories were scared stiff that the Germans would bomb the Pressed Steel factory at Oxford where the leading edges of the wings were stretch pulled. But they never did. By this time other problems were raising their heads. For whilst we were making Spit rear portions as fast as we could this was nowhere near enough. The jig assembly time for them was 3 days’ so that even with a dozen jigs Follands could only get out 4 a day and with this not allowing for repair work. Which meant only about 1,000 a year; and the very escalation of hostilities required many times such a number in a hurry. It was here that I “stuck my neck out”, at a time when I had been working with Ernie Craker and Eric Watts –both highly-skilled and industrious workers – making up a gang who I cartooned as “The Three Musketeers”, putting portable solo jigs together, and which was taking about a month per jig. And I could clearly see that as far as the war was concerned, this would never do.

And so I approached the Planning Dept. with both my case for it and the arithmetic of it. Saying that unless we could quickly find a way of producing one jig a day, then any idea of sensibly stepping up production had better be forgotten. For the war – and the enemy – would not only keep up with us but leave us far behind. For as an engineer, I had great respect for the Germans. They immediately saw the sense of it but had no idea how to set it all in motion. But I did, for I had thought it all out and all I wanted was a free hand in the matter – which strange to say - they agreed to. I said that all I want is for you to make out the purchasing orders for the material and the necessary outside machining. I’ll tool every bit of it up nor will I need drawings from anyone. And which I did. And it worked like a charm with the firm making huge profits on them but not giving me a single penny for my enterprise and expertise. Within a few weeks I had an assembly line going for the manufacture of the jigs. The first one of which, with a mate, I assembled in 28 ½ hours.

So that when the orders came in for more and yet more stern portions and later versions of them, Follands were “sitting pretty”. As a side note when after the war, H. P. Folland was awarded the OBE this was freely translated by the workers as “Our Bloody Efforts”, perhaps with some justification. The next thing that jig happened was their modification to take the Mk 111 Spitfire modification which had a retractable tail wheel claimed to increase the top speed by 18 mph. To the best of my knowledge few Mk 111’s were ever made but the 5’s, 7’s and 9’s were and very successfully too. But by this time both the Woolston and Itchen Supermarine factories a few miles away had been well “taken out” by the Germans and dispersion far and wide was the order of the day after these disasters and with this as quickly as possible. I found myself sent down to Taunton, Somerset, to set up stern portion production there, entirely on my own, assisted only by a “mate”.

By then the “Hurri” was very much out of favour and the now doubled requirement for Spits very much in but with no means of making them at the time. My task was to set-up the assembly jigs and show them how to use the 2,000 tools and how to go about the working of sheet metal, that they were then totally unfamiliar with, into usable Spitfire parts. And my reward for all this? £8 per week and where the girls on the swing-around light fly presses there were being paid £10 per week. Wars have strange anomalies as well as strange bed-fellows.

I was down there for several months and was offered the in-charge job but I didn’t want to settle down for I have always been a new picture painter and not a toucher up of the same old one. But to give them their due the previously mostly farm workers were making stern portions that were every bit as good as the home produced ones and every bit as speedily made. During the war I was to make further visits there to accommodate the “tail wheel mod” and later the “contra- prop mod” when the much larger engine was fitted to the Spit. The forward weight of which was so heavy that 70 lbs of quite useless ballast lead had to be mounted on the now larger tail fin. I liked both Taunton and its people but not Cheltenham which I also visited several times.

Now to discuss the Spitfire itself in its many war-outlasting versions. These even included an experimental “float equipped” for hopeful lift on board convoy protection. It was my task to assemble the jig for just such a purpose. But the experiment was not a success in that the drag was so great that the speed was so reduced as to affect its chasing qualities. Only a handful were made and I can still remember the toil sound of the engine as though it was dragging a line of washing behind it. The Mitchell designed wings were very thin which is largely were the speed came from. But at the same time they were very strong and the early models wing loading was only 2/3 rds that of the 109’s. This meant that if chased a Spit could pull upwards on a much tighter curve than could a 109 which would then undershoot it, having no option, after which IT would be in front of the Spit. Also a Spit could power dive and pull out at the bottom with its wings still in place. At A.S.T. they had a pair of Spit wings that were bent upwards by 4 inches at the tip during just such an escape act. Whereas a 109 pilot trying the same thing stood a good chance of taking his wings off. The plane and not those on his tunic as some were said to have found out.

But the snag with the thin wings was that it was difficult to fit the cannon that were necessary in order to catch up with the armament of the opposition. So that they could then take on a 109 at a much greater distance, an advantage which the enemy already possessed. For when 4 were fitted to the wings this so weakened them that they broke across the cannon bay whilst in flight. So that a strengthening mod was required to first fit a single cannon in each wing and very much later a pair of them. Nor did it end there for there were also ammo stowage problems. But the original very low wing loading of the Spit enabled larger – and very much heavier - engines to be fitted, resulting in a later Mk 14 which was a “mess of protuberances” but which could still fly at 450 mph and take on the best that the Germans could offer.

As an aircraft carrier plane the Seafire, with its folding wings for stowage, was not robust enough for awkward deck landing and in any case its wheel base was too narrow. It was basically a racehorse that was designed as a racehorse and as such it couldn’t be converted into a more robust carthorse but where “those at the top” thought that it could. But in its P.R.U. – photo reconnaissance unit – form with long range extra tankage and no armament the Spit was very much a winner. And the leading edges of these wings – largely a huge tank – were made at Follands. In contrast to the German PRU’s, which lost many, I believe that only 5 of our PRU’s were lost to enemy action during the entire and highly active war. Their base was at Benson where they found that by painting and rubbing down until everything was smooth sleek, an extended tip Spit could fly very high at around 390 mph: a hard speed to catch at that time. In addition to which the end profile of the Spit offered very little in the way of a target.

I will ask my reader to consider the previous paragraph in relation to the oft told TV story that “half peas” were stuck to the surface of ordinary Spits in order to simulate proud riveting and they found that this made no difference at all. Benson thought otherwise and Benson was right. The record of our PRU’s and their pilots during the war was fantastic but at the same time just simply accepted as so many things are. But for myself I take my hat off, in a manner of speaking to both the pilots and their highly versatile aircraft. For in fairness to list the little that was wrong should not diminish the glory – and it was a glory – of what was right. As I said before it was the thin wing of the Spit that gave it both its speed and its problems. And it was a clever wing in that it had 5 degrees of lift inboard but only 2 ½ degrees at the tips. This gave it excellent “anti-stall” characteristics, since stalling starts near the fuselage and then progresses. The wing tips could be snubbed off for high speed low level ground attack or well extended for high altitude flying – as simple as that. The later larger engined and heavier Spitfire soon found that a larger rudder was necessary. I found myself mixed up with the speedy innovation of that. Later in the war the Americans produced a new version of the mustang in range at least could well outshine the good old Spitfire which saw the war in and saw the war out: a most unusual record and a tribute to Mitchell. Nor could it outfly the Spitfire as they were about equal in all-out speed.

The Mustang was a most beautiful plane to look at and it had the innovation of laminar flow wings which were far more suitable for high speeds. Supermarine tried to make a better Spitfire called the Spiteful but it had its problems and the prototypes crashed. I saw the last of the Spitfire line - a Mk 47 – flying at South Marston near Swindon. A most beautiful sight which to me could not have looked better if nature herself had designed it

I was known as “Rear Portion Martin” and happily so. For when we heard the familiar wang of the Merlin engine – an unforgettable noise – followed by the victory roll, I said to myself – there’s a little bit of me up there and there must have been many others who felt the very same way. As can be seen from this essay to me the Spitfire was very much a part of my life which it could never have been if I had not left the Power Boat Co at Hythe. To quote Shakespeare;- “There are tides in our lives which if taken at the flood leads on to fortune". Which most interpret as money, which I don’t, for my Spitfire experience – ALL of it was quite an experience. In such a way I have lived my life and ended up in a position to tell quite accurately both sides of the Spitfire story".

Bert Martin

1910 Albert, William (Bert) Martin was born in Glasgow.

He was a self-taught engineer and some examples of his work are part of the national collection in the Science Museum in London. Read more about his personal life at The British Power Boat Co -here.

See Also


Sources of Information

  • Content kindly provided by Tony Martin