R. J. Mitchell

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For the author, see R J Mitchell (author).
R. J. Mitchell
Reginald Mitchell Spitfire designer.jpg
R. J. Mitchell, aeronautical engineer
Born 20 May 1895 (1895-05-20) [1]
Butt Lane, Kidsgrove, Staffordshire, England
Died 11 June 1937(1937-06-11) (aged 42)
Portswood, Southampton, Hampshire, England
Occupation Aeronautical engineer
Spouse(s) Florence Dayson
Children Gordon Mitchell
Parent(s) Herbert Mitchell[1]

Reginald Joseph Mitchell CBE, FRAeS, (20 May 1895 – 11 June 1937) was an English aeronautical engineer, who worked for Supermarine Aviation. Between 1920 and 1936 he designed many aircraft. He is best remembered for his racing seaplanes, which culminated in the Supermarine S.6B, and an iconic Second World War fighter, the Supermarine Spitfire.

Early life[edit]

R.J. Mitchell was born at 115 Congleton Road, Butt Lane, Kidsgrove, Staffordshire, England.[2] After leaving Hanley High School, a co-educational grammar school in Stoke-on-Trent, at the age of 16, he gained an apprenticeship at Kerr Stuart & Co. of Fenton, a locomotive engineering works.[1] At the end of his apprenticeship he worked in the drawing office at Kerr Stuart and studied engineering and mathematics at night school.

Early career[edit]

Supermarine Walrus (1935)

In 1917 he joined the Supermarine Aviation Works at Southampton. Advancing quickly within the company, Mitchell was appointed Chief Designer in 1919.[1] 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. As Supermarine was primarily a seaplane manufacturer, this included several flying boats such as the Supermarine Sea Eagle, the Supermarine Sea King, the Supermarine Walrus, and Supermarine Stranraer, and racing seaplanes. Mitchell also designed light aircraft, fighters, and bombers.

He was first noted in this period for his work on a series of racing seaplanes, built by Supermarine to compete in the Schneider Trophy competition. The Supermarine S.4 was entered in 1925, but crashed before the race. Two Supermarine S.5 aircraft were entered in 1927, and finished first and second. The Supermarine S.6 won in 1929. The final entry in the series, the Supermarine S.6B, marked the culmination of Mitchell's quest to "perfect the design of the racing seaplane".[3] The S.6B won the Trophy in 1931 and broke the world air speed record 17 days later.

Mitchell was awarded the CBE in 1932 for his contribution to high-speed flight.

Supermarine Spitfire fighter[edit]

The technical skill that Mitchell used in the design of the Spitfire was developed in the evolution of the Schneider Trophy seaplanes. The significance of the many earlier planes is often overlooked when people refer to Mitchell, as is the fact that he was very concerned about developments in Germany and feared that British defence needed to be strengthened, especially in the air.

In 1931 the Air Ministry issued specification F7/30 for a fighter aircraft to replace the Gloster Gauntlet. Mitchell's proposed design, the Type 224 was one of three designs for which the Air Ministry ordered prototypes.

The Supermarine Spitfire prototype, K5054, prior to its first flight

The Type 224 first flew on 19 February 1934, but was eventually rejected by the RAF for 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 designed by Canadian aerodynamicist Beverley Shenstone, and shared some similarities with the Heinkel He 70 Blitz; the under-wing radiators had been designed by 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, serial K5054, 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."[4]

Later years[edit]

In August 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. Unusually for an aircraft designer in those days, he took flying lessons and got his pilot's licence in July 1934.

In 1936 cancer was diagnosed again, and subsequently, in early 1937, Mitchell gave up work, although he was often seen watching the Spitfire being tested. Mitchell went to the American Foundation in Vienna for a month, but died on 11 June 1937 at age 42. His ashes were interred at South Stoneham Cemetery, Hampshire four days later.[5] Note; South Stoneham cemetery is not located at either South Stoneham Church or North Stoneham Church. The cemetery where Mitchell is buried is located approximately 1km between both churches.


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 was continually improved throughout World War II. Over 22,000 Spitfires and derivatives were built.

Mitchell's career was depicted in the film The First of the Few. He was portrayed by Leslie Howard.

The school Mitchell attended, Hanley High School, was renamed Mitchell High School in his honour in 1989. He is commemorated by plaques at his birthplace and at his subsequent home in Southampton. Also, the primary school just by his birthplace (in Butt Lane, Kidsgrove, Stoke-on-Trent; built in 1909) was dedicated to him as Reginald Mitchell County Primary School.[6]

In 2012, a road at the Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP) in Rotherham, England was named Mitchell Way in honour of the Spitfire designer. All roads at the AMP are named after famous engineers and designers.

Personal life[edit]

In 1918 Mitchell married Florence Dayson. They had a son, Gordon. While working on the Spitfire at Woolston and Eastleigh, Mitchell and his family lived in Portswood, Southampton, at 2 Russell Place.[7]

Mitchell's family[edit]

Mitchell's son, Dr. Gordon Mitchell (1920–2009)[8] was left to tell his father's story in two books, R.J. Mitchell: World Famous Aircraft Designer (ISBN 978-0947750053) and R.J.Mitchell: Schooldays to Spitfire (ISBN 978-0752437279). On 5 March 2004, Dr. Mitchell unveiled a 3/4 scale representation of the prototype Spitfire K5054 at the entrance to Southampton Airport (formerly known as Eastleigh Airport), Southampton, on the 68th anniversary of its first flight. Gordon lived most of his life Tilehurst near Reading, with his wife Alison and his three children (Penny, Adrian and David). Penny has two children, Nick and Emma. Alison died in 2005, and Gordon died on 24 July 2009 in Cheltenham General Hospital.


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, advice given about his engineering staff to test pilot Jeffrey Quill during prototype trials.[9]


  1. ^ a b c d Price 1982, p. 11.
  2. ^ Ritchie, Sebastian. "Mitchell, Reginald Joseph (1895–1937)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004. Retrieved: 21 August 2010.
  3. ^ Price 1977, p. 11.
  4. ^ Deighton 1977, p. 99.
  5. ^ Mitchell, Gordon. "R.J. A life in aviation." rjmitchell-spitfire.co.uk, 2009. Retrieved: 21 August 2010.
  6. ^ Jamieson, Alastair (27 February 2011). "Family of Spitfire designer angry over renamed school". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 25 July 2015. 
  7. ^ "Designer of the Spitfire commemorated with Blue Plaque." English Heritage press release. Retrieved: 18 September 2009.
  8. ^ Gordon Mitchell : Obituary
  9. ^ Quill (1983), p. 102.


  • Deighton, Len. Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain. London: Grafton, 1977. ISBN 0-7858-1208-3.
  • Dibbs, John and Tony Holmes. Spitfire: Flying Legend. Southampton, UK: Osprey Publishing, 1997. ISBN 1-84176-005-6.
  • Eforgan, Estel. Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2010. ISBN 978-0-85303-941-9.
  • McKinstry, Leo. Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend. London: John Murray, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7195-6874-9.
  • Mitchell, Gordon. R.J. Mitchell: Schooldays to Spitfire. London: Tempus Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0-7524-3727-5.
  • Palfrey, Brett R. and Christopher Whitehead. "Supermarine Spitfire: History of a Legend." Royal Air Force (RAF). Retrieved: 27 December 2006.
  • Price, Alfred. The Spitfire Story. London: Silverdale Books, 1995. ISBN 1-85605-702-X.
  • Price, Alfred. Spitfire: A Documentary History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1997. ISBN 0-684-16060-9.
  • Quill, Jeffrey. Spitfire: A Test Pilot’s Story. London: Crécy Publishing, 1998; Air Data, 1996; John Murray, 1983 (first edition). ISBN 9-780947-554729.
  • Shelton, John (2008). Schneider Trophy to Spitfire - The Design Career of R.J. Mitchell (Hardback). Sparkford: Hayes Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84425-530-6. 

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