LONDON—If Winston Churchill had to supplant a bunch of appeasers and defeatists when he came to power in May 1940, which he did, how come that the country was equipped to win the Battle of Britain that came weeks later?
After all, you can’t just whip up a superior air force overnight, or provide it with a decisive technological edge.
Somehow this question has just slipped by unasked in the Churchill-as-miracle-worker view of history that now flourishes in the wake of two movies, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour.
One part of the answer lies in the little-known actions of a remarkable woman, and it concerns the most legendary of Britain’s warplanes, the Spitfire fighter. The Spitfire came to acclaim as much more than a mere machine, it became a symbol of national bravura in desperate days that Churchill was quick to cultivate.
And yet it might never have happened but for the intervention of Lady “Poppy” Fannie Lucy Houston.
The mouthful of a name suggests an aristocrat but, in fact, Lady Houston began a vigorous social ascent as a seductive chorus girl in late Victorian London, steadily acquiring a fortune and lofty social status through the love of four men.
The first involved an affair with a one of the country’s richest brewers who left her an annuity of £6,000 a year for life when he died in 1882, aged 42. The second was the son of a baronet but she divorced him in 1895. The third was the ninth Baron Byron of Rochdale, whom she married in 1901, who left her little but the title of Lady Byron when he died, aged 63, in 1917. The fourth time she hit the jackpot by marrying a wealthy shipowner, Sir Robert Houston, whom she married in 1924 and who died in 1926, leaving her the massive fortune of £5.5 million.
But such fiduciary details give little sense of the lady’s energy and flamboyance. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes her, somewhat euphemistically, as “a beautiful young coquette with impudent speech and a tiny waist who became expert in Parisian fashion and manners.”
She was also a keen nudist, supported the suffragette movement and became a benefactress for nurses who served at the front during World War I – for which she was by royal decree given the honorary title of dame, in the first such list of exceptional women.
This was clearly someone not to be taken lightly even in her seventies, as she was in 1931, when she found another needy cause that needed her urgent attention.
The Supermarine company was one of a number of relatively small British businesses, based on little more than a hangar and a cluster of workshops, that were struggling to become significant in the development of military airplanes. They had, however, outshone all others in one respect: speed.
In the late 1920s Supermarine produced a series of hot rod seaplanes that competed in the annual races for the Schneider Trophy, the world’s most competitive event for high-speed flight. By the time the company caught Lady Houston’s attention they had won two successive races and were planning to win a third, which would mean winning the trophy outright and, probably, establishing a new world air-speed record.
Supermarine’s chief designer, Reginald Mitchell, had stripped down airplane design to a minimalist simplicity of line, decisively rendering the biplane obsolete with a knife-thin single wing and—the other essential part of a winning formula—he sculpted the sharp end of his speedster around a new generation of engines produced by Rolls Royce.
Anybody with the slightest knowledge of the future of military airplanes could see, simply by looking at the Supermarine S6, that it was a potential prototype for a powerful new generation of fighters. That kind of vision did not, however, extend to the British government in 1931.
When Mitchell went to the air ministry requesting a development grant of £100,000 (around $5 million today) to cover research and production for the racer he was turned down. The racers had all been flown by Royal Air Force pilots and the air force brass, dismayed by the political decision, saw the chances of developing their future fighter evaporating.
Enter Lady Houston, offering to pony up the £100,000 and declaring, “Every true Briton would rather sell his last shirt than admit that England could not afford to defend herself.”
The government, even while trying to cope with the economic ravages of the Great Depression and embarked on a punitive austerity program, was shamed into submission and changed its mind. The Supermarine racer won, smashing the world air speed record with a run at 407 mph. Breaking the 400 mph barrier with a propeller powered airplane was akin to Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier for the first time with a jet in 1947.
Lady Houston died in 1936 at the age of 79. In the same year the Spitfire prototype made its first flight. Mitchell died of cancer in 1937, aged 42.
As it turned out, there were fewer Spitfires ready to fight in the Battle of Britain than of the country’s other frontline fighter, the Hurricane. But the Hurricane was a one-battle weapon, incapable of further development, whereas the Spitfire was continually improved and it was the Spitfire that most spooked the German bomber crews who were sent to soften up Britain in preparation for invasion, a psychological triumph as much as a technical one.
The other indispensable technical leap that Churchill inherited in 1940 was the first integration of a radar network into an air defense system: the Spitfires and Hurricanes were efficiently and sparingly deployed to intercept the bombers at the most vulnerable stage of their flight over English soil through a combination of early warning radar and precise estimates of their numbers and direction made by trained observers on the ground.
Churchill’s predecessor as prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, is still widely reviled for signing a so-called “peace in our time” deal with Hitler at Munich in 1938. But whether intended or not, Chamberlain had, in effect, bought time in which his country was able to re-arm with battle-winning technology in the air, a battlefield that had never before decided the fate of nations - or with so few combatants, the R.A.F. pilots immortalized as “The Few.”
It was a close-run thing. “We were just about able to prepare in time for Hitler’s air armada, but we got away with it only by a gnat’s eyebrow” the president of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, has admitted.
The air force was the best led of the three services. As by far the youngest it was also more open to innovation and more alert to how quickly equipment and tactics could become obsolescent when technology was molten.
The first tentative steps to build a radar system were carried out in 1935, using a single R.A.F. bomber flying between two BBC short-wave radio transmitters. And by 1937 the Chamberlain government had authorized spending £10 million on a coastal chain of radar stations. In 1939 Churchill had been out of the government for 10 years but was pressing hard for military readiness. He was told then that all the basic problems of making radar effective in any weather conditions had been solved and he used his influence to keep the funds flowing.
In 1940, with the first and most crucial battle won, Churchill saw the charismatic value of the Spitfire as a way to engage his people in helping to fund the war. He personally promoted the Spitfire Fund, in which people were asked to make donations, no matter how small, toward producing the fighters. “Spitfire Dances” were held all over the country to boost the donations.
The results were astonishing. By 1941 £13 million in individual donations had flowed into the air defense budget, at a rate of £1 million a month, the equivalent of £650 million today. The nominal price of a Spitfire was £5,000. People were told they could buy a wing for £2,000 or a gun for £200.
This can surely be seen as an early example of crowd funding. It gave millions of people a feeling of making a very personal investment in turning around the course of the war, from the low point of the retreat from Dunkirk and fear of imminent invasion, to being able to look up in the sky and say “I bought a bit of that Spitfire.”
Nobody needed to tell Churchill the value of the Spitfire to national morale. He was also instinctively open to original, free thinking technical ideas from people often regarded as mavericks – since he was, to some extent, a maverick himself.
He knew to a degree that few members of the public ever realized that the country had been saved by the persistence of engineers and scientists dedicated to reinforcing Britain’s defenses while many of his fellow politicians, members of the aristocracy and some leaders of industry had been deluded enough to believe that they could avoid war by making a deal with Hitler.
Once in office he welcomed another breakthrough idea that had huge consequences on the future: the development of the jet engine. A much-beleaguered R.A.F. officer, Frank Whittle, had fought for years in the 1930s for funds to build a prototype engine and design an airplane around it – against others who thought that an airplane without propellers was, at best, fanciful, and, at worst, a waste of money. (Whittle’s engine and radar technology were both passed on to America after Pearl Harbor.)
But for every naysayer there was always a Poppy Houston, or a Reginald Mitchell, enablers and visionaries who, in combination, never gave up. And, eventually, a prime minister who not only inherited the achievements but knew how to use them to win a war.