R. J. Mitchell

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Reginald Joseph Mitchell
A portrait of R. J. Mitchell taken in 1933.jpg
Mitchell in c.1933
Born20 May 1895 (1895-05-20)
Died11 June 1937(1937-06-11) (aged 42)
OccupationAeronautical engineer
Known forSupermarine S.6B
Supermarine Spitfire

Reginald Joseph Mitchell CBE, FRAeS, (20 May 1895 – 11 June 1937) was a British aircraft designer who worked for the Southampton aviation company Supermarine from c.1917 to 1936. He is best remembered for designing racing seaplanes such as the Supermarine S.6B, and the Supermarine Spitfire.

Born in Butt Lane, Staffordshire, Mitchell attended Hanley High School and afterwards worked as an apprentice at a locomotive engineering works, whilst also studying engineering and mathematics at night. In 1917 he joined Supermarine, where he was appointed Chief Engineer in 1920 and Technical Director in 1927. Between 1920 and 1936 he designed 24 aircraft, which included flying boats and racing seaplanes, light aircraft, fighters, and bombers. From 1925 to 1929 he worked on a series of racing seaplanes, built by Supermarine to compete in the Schneider Trophy competition, the final entry in the series being the Supermarine S.6B. The S.6B won the trophy in 1931, and that year he was awarded the CBE. When in 1931 the Air Ministry issued specifications for a new fighter aircraft, Supermarine submitted Mitchell's design, the Type 224, but this was rejected by the RAF. Mitchell was then authorised by Supermarine to proceed with a new design, the Type 300, which went on to become the Spitfire.

In 1933, he underwent surgery to treat rectal cancer. He continued to work and earned his pilot's licence in 1934, but in early 1937, he was forced by a recurrence of the cancer to give up work. After his death that year, he was succeeded as Chief Designer at Supermarine by Joseph Smith.

Early life[edit]

Reginald Joseph Mitchell was born at 115 Congleton Road, Butt Lane, in Staffordshire. He was the eldest of three sons. His father was Herbert Mitchell, a school teacher from Yorkshire who became headmaster of three Staffordshire schools in the Stoke-on-Trent area before he established a printing business in Hanley. His mother Eliza Jane Brain was the daughter of a cooper. The family lived in Normacot.[1]

Mitchell attended Hanley High School, where he developed an interest in making and flying model aircraft.[1] After leaving school at the age of 16, he worked as an apprentice for Kerr Stuart & Co. of Fenton, a locomotive engineering works.[2] After completing his apprenticeship he worked in the drawing office at Kerr Stuart, whilst studying engineering and mathematics at a local technical college, where he displayed a talent for mathematics.[1]

Career at Supermarine[edit]

Early career[edit]

In 1917 Mitchell joined the Supermarine Aviation Works at Southampton, which its formation in 1912 had specialized in building flying boats. He became assistant to the company's owner and designer, Hubert Scott-Paine.[1] Advancing within the company, Mitchell was appointed promoted to the post of assistant to the works manager within a year,[1] chief designer in 1919.[2] and chief engineer within three years of joining the company.[3] In 1923 he was given a 10-year contract, a sign of his indispensability to Supermarine.[1]

Design and development of military flying boats[edit]

Supermarine Walrus (1935)

Mitchell's career was founded on the design of flying boats for the Royal Air Force (RAF). He became the company's technical director in 1927. The quality of Supermarine's aircraft established Mitchell as the foremost aircraft designer in Britain, and when Vickers took over Supermarine in 1928, one of the conditions was that he remained as a designer for the next five years.[1]

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. He also designed light aircraft, fighters, and bombers.[4] He designed the Supermarine Southampton, a military flying boat which first flew in 1925. The Southampton established Britain equipped six RAF squadrons up to 1936.[1]

Schneider trophy races (1922–1931)[edit]

The Supermarine S.5, winner of the Schneider Trophy at Venice in 1927

Mitchell worked on a series of racing seaplanes, built by Supermarine to compete in the Schneider Trophy competition, which took place between 1922 and 1931. His initial design was for a biplane flying boat, Supermarine Sea Lion II, which won in 1922 when it flew at an average speed of 145.7 miles per hour (234.5 km/h).[1]

After the success of the United States in 1923, whose Curtiss seaplanes dominated the race, Mitchell developed new seaplanes and produced four racing monoplanes.[1] The Supermarine S.4 was entered for Great Britain in 1925, but it crashed before the race for reasons that were never clearly established.[5] Mitchell used the practical experience gained from the S.4 when he designed its successor, the Supermarine S.5.[1]

Two 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".[6] The S.6B won the Trophy in 1931 and went on to break the world air speed record when it reached a speed of 407.5 miles per hour (655.8 km/h) that year.[7]

Mitchell was awarded the CBE on 29 December 1931 for services in connection with the Schneider Trophy Contest.[8]

Supermarine Spitfire[edit]

Mitchell led the team that designed the Spitfire single-seat fighter between 1934 and 1936. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, his most direct personal contribution originated from his "unparalleled expertise in high-speed flight .. and a brilliant practical engineering ability, exemplified in this instance by the incorporation of vital lessons learned from Supermarine's unsuccessful type 224 fighter". 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 achievement lay in the merger of these different influences into a single design.[1]

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.

The K5054 prototype in 1936 (Air Historical Branch-RAF/MOD)

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 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 became the Supermarine Spitfire. This was originally a private venture by Supermarine, but the RAF quickly became interested and the Air Ministry financed a prototype.

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.[9]

Mitchell's design was so sound that the Spitfire was continually improved throughout World War II. Over 22,000 Spitfires and derivatives were built.

Illness and final years[edit]

In 1933, Mitchell underwent a permanent colostomy to treat rectal cancer, which left him permanently disabled and in acute discomfort for the rest of his life.[1] Despite this, he continued to work on the Spitfire and 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.[10]

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. In April 1937 Mitchell flew in a chartered plane from Southampton to Vienna for specialist treatment. He remained in there for a month, but returned to England after his treatment proved to be ineffective.[11] He died at home in Portswood, Southampton,[1] on 11 June 1937 at the age of 42.[11]

His ashes were interred at South Stoneham Cemetery, Hampshire, four days later.[1][a] He was succeeded as chief designer at Supermarine by Joseph Smith, who became responsible for the further development of the Spitfire.[12]

Family life[edit]

In 1918, Mitchell married a schoolteacher, Florence, the daughter of a farmer. They had one son, Gordon. A man who avoided fame and publicity—he was not widely known until after his death—Mitchell was known for his quiet, reserved, and modest manner.[1]


Statue of Mitchell in Hanley, Staffordshire

Mitchell's career was dramatized in the 1942 film The First of the Few. He was portrayed by Leslie Howard, who also produced and directed the film, released in the United States as Spitfire (1943).[13] The Mitchell Memorial Youth Theatre, now known as Mitchell Arts Centre, was opened in Stoke-on-Trent in 1957 after £50,000 was raised by public subscription.[14][15]

Butt Lane Junior School, was renamed as the Reginald Mitchell County Primary School in 1959,[16] and Hanley High School was renamed Mitchell High School in 1989.[17] The R J Mitchell Primary School at Hornchurch is also named in his honour.[18]

In 1986 Mitchell was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.[19][page needed] The American philanthropist Sidney Frank unveiled a statue of Mitchell at the Science Museum, London in 2005.[20] The slate drawing board's surface depicts the drawing of the prototype Spitfire K5054 from June 1936. The stone sculpture was created by Stephen Kettle and given to the museum by the Sidney E. Frank Foundation.[21]

There are plaques dedicated to Mitchell at his Southampton home,[22] and his birthplace in Butt Lane.[23]


  1. ^ South Stoneham cemetery is not located at either South Stoneham Church or North Stoneham Church. The cemetery where Mitchell is buried is located approximately 1 km between the two churches.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Richie 2004.
  2. ^ a b Price 2002, p. 11.
  3. ^ Glancey 2014, p. 18.
  4. ^ Glancey 2014, p. 19.
  5. ^ Glancey 2014, p. 24.
  6. ^ Price 1977, p. 11.
  7. ^ Andrews & Morgan 2003, p. 8.
  8. ^ "To be commanders of the Civil Division of the said Most Excellent Order". The London Gazette (Supplement: 33785). 29 December 1931. p. 8. Retrieved 4 October 2020.
  9. ^ Deighton 1977, p. 99.
  10. ^ Glancey 2014, p. 36.
  11. ^ a b "Death of R.J Mitchell At Age of 42". Southern Daily Echo. 11 June 1937. Retrieved 6 August 2021.
  12. ^ Glancey 2014, p. 46.
  13. ^ "The First of the Few". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on 12 July 2012. Retrieved 22 November 2020.
  14. ^ Mitchell 2002, p. 250.
  15. ^ Kent-Baguley, Peter (2007). Mitchell Memorial Youth Theatre 50th Anniversary. Stoke-on-Trent City Council. p. 9.
  16. ^ Mitchell 2002, p. 251.
  17. ^ Mitchell 2002, p. 253.
  18. ^ "History of our School: R.A.F. Hornchurch and R.J. Mitchell". The R J Mitchell Primary School. Retrieved 22 December 2020.
  19. ^ Sprekelmeyer 2006.
  20. ^ "Fitting tribute to the man who created the Spitfire". Birmingham Post. 16 September 2005. Retrieved 16 December 2015.
  21. ^ "Stone sculpture of R. J. Mitchell". Science Museum. Archived from the original on 22 December 2015. Retrieved 17 December 2015.
  22. ^ "Plaque for Spitfire man's city home". Southern Daily Echo. 8 September 2005. Retrieved 4 October 2020.
  23. ^ Mitchell 2002, pp. 253–254.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]