Christopher Nolan’s latest movie, Dunkirk, will premiere in theaters this upcoming Friday, July 21. And although you may know it stars actors such as Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, and Cillian Murphy, you may not know that the National Air and Space Museum houses examples of two of the main airplanes featured in the film. We have a Royal Air Force (RAF) Supermarine Spitfire and a Messerschmitt Bf 109 of the Luftwaffe, although the Museum’s aircraft are slightly younger than those that participated in Operation Dynamo.
By May 26, 1940, the Germans had forced French, British, and Belgian troops to the port of Dunkirk, isolating them on the beaches. Completely surrounded, the Royal Navy put into motion Operation Dynamo in order to rescue the soldiers who were seen as easy targets for the German Stukas dive bomber and Bf 109 fighter units.
In fact, Dunkirk could have easily been a tragedy rather than a successful tale of evacuation had it not been for the RAF and, consequently, the 15 Spitfire squadrons sent into battle. Nolan’s film emphasizes this point by not only telling the story of the Royal Navy, but of the pilots whose coverage played an equally large role in saving nearly 350,000 Allied troops. So, we wanted to take a deep dive into the history of Dunkirk’s hero and British legend, the Spitfire:
- Its direct ancestors were air racers
Designed by Reginald J. Mitchell to participate in Schneider Trophy races — a competition specifically for racing seaplanes — Supermarine racers flown by RAF pilots permanently brought the prestigious Schneider Cup home after winning three consecutive races. Once the interest in high-speed competitions waned, Mitchell transferred his knowledge to create the Supermarine racers into a fighter powered by a new Rolls-Royce V-12 engine called the Merlin.
- It changed throughout the war
The Spitfire prototype came about after the need for a fighter plane with eight machine guns as opposed to just two or four. Throughout the war, multiple versions of Spitfires flew off the assembly line. The plane served many purposes: they could fly high to combat the Bf 109s; they could fly extremely low in order to take on the Focke Wulf Fw 190s; they were used in reconnaissance to watch German movements; and one was even designed for sea-air rescue operations to save pilots from drowning at sea.
- It wasn’t just flown by British pilots
Besides British and Commonwealth pilots, Spitfires were flown by an international cadre of pilots from France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, and the United States. On October 19, 1940, American volunteers formed the first Eagle Squadron, which flew and fought with Spitfires.
- The Museum model is 1 of 140 Mark VII’s ever made
This particular Spitfire model, or “mark” as the British would say, had the ability to operate at high altitudes and could fly as fast as 408 mph at 25,000 ft. The Mark VII’s were most often used for performing defensive operations. The Mark VII, used by 124 Squadron, was responsible for the destruction of 123 Bf 109s while protecting Mitchell bombers. On March 13, 1943, the Museum’s Spitfire was shipped straight from the factory to No. 47 Maintenance Unit at RAF Sealand, Flintshire, by Liverpool. It was sent to the United States where it was received by the Army Air Forces on May 2, 1943. This particular plane has been with the Museum since 1949.
- Dunkirk was the Spitfire’s first big battle
The Spitfire units were sent to Dunkirk in order to protect the troops and the ships — Navy and volunteer yachts alike — that went to the beaches where the soldiers were stranded. On May 23, as Luftwaffe bombers prepared to attack, Spitfires of No. 92 Squadron were able to take down 17 German aircraft consisting of both Bf 109s and 110s. Two days later, the same squadron took on a group of Junkers Ju 87s covered by Bf 110s, but the RAF was able to heavily damage these planes again, allowing Operation Dynamo to be well underway. Two ace RAF pilots, Alan Deere and Robert Stanford Tuck, claimed 6 enemy planes each at Dunkirk.
You can catch Dunkirk and its RAF pilots in action at the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater at the Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Airbus IMAX Theater at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.