Chronicles of Courage: Spitfire

Air Date: 05/23/2017
Source:
NBC Learn
Creator:
Kate Snow
Air/Publish Date:
05/23/2017
Event Date:
1940
Resource Type:
Science Explainer
Copyright:
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
Copyright Date:
2017
Clip Length:
00:06:18

Ken Wilkinson is a flying officer with the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force during World War II. He flies the Supermarine Spitfire, and thanks to a new technology called radar, he knows when and where to intercept German planes. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.

Chronicles of Courage -- Spitfire 

KATE SNOW, reporting: 

At the start of World War II, Adolf Hitler is conquering Europe with victory after victory-- and has set his sights on invading Great Britain. The Battle of Britain erupts and cities across England are Germany's target. The Nazi air force, called the Luftwaffe launches wave after wave of deadly attacks from the sky. 

NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: Hundreds of planes! Bombers! Fighters! Dive bombers! 

SNOW: The bombs level homes and buildings. Families seek shelter in the train tunnels of the London Underground. The death toll is in the thousands. 

KEN WILKINSON (Pilot, Royal Air Force): To see London in those days, it was awful. There were so many cases of widows and thousands of people being bombed. 

SNOW: Ken Wilkinson is a 22 year-old flying officer in the Royal Air Force, or RAF. His squadron fights day and night to defend Great Britain from the Luftwaffe’s relentless bombing attacks. 

WILKINSON: Whenever there was a raid coming in over, I’d be scrambled and go off to intercept. 

SNOW: Wilkinson flies one of the RAF’s most famous airplanes-- the Supermarine Spitfire.  

WILKINSON: The Spitfire was designed absolutely new. It was faster, it could fly higher. 

CORY GRAFF (Curator, Flying Heritage Collection): The Supermarine Spitfire was a fighter pilot’s plane. It was little and it was maneuverable. It was very, very popular and very effective.

SNOW: The Spitfire uses its firepower and maneuverability to shoot down the less nimble German aircraft. Known for its sleek body and elliptical wing, the Spitfire is equipped with blazing Browning 303 wing guns, and a Rolls Royce Merlin engine boasting 1,600 horsepower. 

WILKINSON: An awful lot of power. They were such good engines. You got full power in next to no time. 

SNOW: Despite the Spitfire's powerful engine and advanced design, the RAF still faces a daunting challenge from the Luftwaffe. The Germans attack targets throughout southern England, launching their planes from several places in Western Europe. With this wide range of approaching enemy aircraft, it’s extremely important for Wilkinson and his fellow pilots to know where to intercept these attacking planes. To accomplish this, the RAF relies on an innovative technology that the Germans do not yet possess. 

GRAFF: One of the huge advantages England had was the ability to use radar.

SNOW: Radar is an acronym for radio detection and ranging. It uses a series of radio waves to detect the presence of incoming objects. All along England's eastern coast, the RAF constructs a series of early warning radar stations, using metal towers or pylons, codenamed Chain Home. 

WILKINSON: We had all those pylons all around the coast. At first they were very hazy, but later on they got to be quite clear. Radar meant that we knew pretty well who was coming, generally, in what sort of numbers. 

SNOW: A radio transmitter in these massive metal pylons creates radio waves, which increase in size, or wavelength, as they travel away from the transmitter.

WILKINSON: The signal would do an arc, an arc, an arc, like that, increasing.

SNOW: The waves reflect off of the incoming plane to determine its speed, velocity, size, and the direction it's traveling. This data is sent back to a receiver, where the information is tracked by RAF observers. 

GRAFF: They could actually sniff out these German airplanes that were coming and scramble their few fighters up to intercept them. 

NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: The Spitfires went up to meet the enemy.

SNOW: With the knowledge of when and where to engage incoming German planes, Wilkinson and his Spitfire squadron take off to intercept a group of German Messerschmitt Bf 109s. 

WILKINSON: I went in for a steep turn, because there was a 109 behind me. And then nothing happened. So, I sort of came out of the step turn. And I was all alone in the sky. That was how fast air fighting moves. Just goes like that. 

SNOW: Separated from his squadron, but unharmed, Wilkinson returns to base. With the innovative Chain Home radar system patrolling the skies from the ground, and the sleek and fast Spitfires fighting the Luftwaffe in the air, the RAF eventually wins the Battle of Britain. Their victory is a turning point of the war. 

WILKINSON: We were aware, very much indeed, that we were fighting to save England. We were the only force capable of resisting the Germans.

 

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