R. J. Mitchell

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Reginald Joseph Mitchell
Reginald Mitchell Spitfire designer.jpg
R. J. Mitchell, aeronautical engineer
Born20 May 1895 (1895-05-20)[1]
Died11 June 1937(1937-06-11) (aged 42)
OccupationAeronautical engineer
Known forSupermarine S.6B Supermarine Spitfire
Spouse(s)Florence Dayson
ChildrenGordon Mitchell
Parent(s)Herbert Mitchell and Eliza Jane Brain

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 1920 to 1936. He is best remembered for designing racing seaplanes and the Second World War fighter, 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.[2] After leaving Hanley High School, a 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 on 29 December 1931 for services in connection with the Schneider Trophy Contest.[4]

Supermarine Spitfire[edit]

..If anyone tries to tell you something about an aeroplane which is so damn complicated you can't understand it, you can 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[5]

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 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.

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.[6]

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 the age of 42. His ashes were interred at South Stoneham Cemetery, Hampshire, four days later.[7][a]


Statue of R. J. Mitchell in Hanley town centre against the Potteries Museum
Sculpture at Southampton Airport, formerly Eastleigh Aerodrome, site of the Spitfire's first flight, 5 March 1936

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 dramatized in the biographical film The First of the Few (1942). He was portrayed by Leslie Howard, who also produced and directed the film, released in the United States as Spitfire (1943).

The school Mitchell attended, Hanley High School, was renamed Mitchell High School in his honour in 1989. 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.

While working on the Spitfire at Woolston and Eastleigh, Mitchell lived with his wife and son in Portswood, Southampton, at a home he had built to his own design, Hazeldene, at 2 Russell Place. An English Heritage blue plaque was dedicated there on 8 September 2005, a week before the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.[8] Earlier that year a blue plaque from the Newcastle Civic Society was dedicated at Mitchell's first home in Butt Lane.

In 1986, Mitchell was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.[9]

On 14 November 2000 Sentinel (sculpture) (grid reference SP13789065) is a 16m high sculpture by Tim Tolkien, installed upon Spitfire Island, a roundabout at the intersection of the Chester Road and the A47 Fort Parkway at the entrance to the Castle Vale estate in Birmingham, England.

On 5 March 2004, Gordon Mitchell unveiled a 3/4-scale representation of the prototype Spitfire K5054 at the entrance to Southampton Airport (formerly known as Eastleigh Aerodrome), Southampton, on the 68th anniversary of its first flight. The sculpture was created by Alan Manning.[10]

American philanthropist Sidney Frank unveiled a statue of R. J. Mitchell at London's Science Museum on 15 September 2005. Made from hundreds of small pieces of Welsh slate, the statue shows Mitchell standing at his drawing board.[11] The slate drawing board's surface is incised with the image of the June 1936 drawing of the prototype Spitfire K5054.[12] The stone sculpture was created by Stephen Kettle and given to the museum by the Sidney E. Frank Foundation.[13] Frank also commissioned a web site commemorating Mitchell's life and achievements.[14]

In 2006 Gordon Mitchell received a letter from Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, supporting his efforts to rename Southampton Airport in honor of his father. A tireless proponent of his father's legacy, Mitchell died in 2009, aged 88.[15]

The Mitchell Arts Centre in Stoke-on-Trent, opened in 1957, was constructed in his honour.[16]

In 2012, a road at the Advanced Manufacturing Park in Rotherham, England, was named Mitchell Way in honour of the Spitfire designer.[17]


  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 Price 2002, 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. ^ "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.
  5. ^ Quill (1983), p. 102.
  6. ^ Deighton 1977, p. 99.
  7. ^ Mitchell 2002.
  8. ^ "Plaque for Spitfire man's city home". Daily Echo. 8 September 2005. Retrieved 4 October 2020.
  9. ^ Sprekelmeyer, Linda, editor. These We Honor: The International Aerospace Hall of Fame. Donning Co. Publishers, 2006. ISBN 978-1-57864-397-4.
  10. ^ "It's so plane to see German link to Spitfire tribute". Daily Echo. 4 March 2004. Retrieved 4 October 2020.
  11. ^ "Fitting tribute to the man who created the Spitfire". Birmingham Post. 16 September 2005. Retrieved 16 December 2015.
  12. ^ Mitchell, Gordon (2009). "RJ Mitchell Statue at the Science Museum". RJ Mitchell. A life in aviation. Retrieved 17 December 2015.
  13. ^ "Stone sculpture of R. J. Mitchell". Science Museum. Archived from the original on 22 December 2015. Retrieved 17 December 2015.
  14. ^ "About Sidney Frank". RJ Mitchell. A life in aviation. Retrieved 17 December 2015.
  15. ^ "Son of Spitfire designer dies". Gloucester Citizen. 27 July 2009. Archived from the original on 22 December 2015. Retrieved 15 December 2015.
  16. ^ Kent-Baguley, Peter (2007). Mitchell Memorial Youth Theatre 50th Anniversary. Stoke-on-Trent City Council. p. 9.
  17. ^ "Mitchell Way". Google Maps.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.
  • Palfrey, Brett R. and Christopher Whitehead. "Supermarine Spitfire: History of a Legend." Royal Air Force (RAF). Retrieved: 27 December 2006.
  • Pegram, Ralph (2016). Beyond the Spitfire - The Unseen Designs of R.J. Mitchell. Brimscombe Port: The History Press. ISBN 9780750965156.
  • Shelton, John (2008). Schneider Trophy to Spitfire - The Design Career of R.J. Mitchell (Hardback). Sparkford: Hayes Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84425-530-6.

External links[edit]