In the early spring of 1936, people taking a stroll in the quiet, bucolic lanes of Hampshire, in southern England, would occasionally hear the roar of a powerful airplane overhead and—if lucky—would catch a glimpse of a startling new shape in the sky, a fighter with wings shaped like a broad and sharp knife blade.

The fighter was one of Britain’s most closely guarded secrets at the time. Its role would be more consequential to the future of Britain than any war machine before it—in fact, it was to be decisive in 1940, in the Battle of Britain, a victory that not only saved the country from invasion from Nazi Germany but, in its lasting effects, kept freedom alive in western Europe.

At that time, 80 years ago this month, when the lone prototype of the fighter was making its first test flights, it had no name, just a number, K5054. But a month or so later the Air Ministry agreed to the suggestion that it should be called the Spitfire. Hearing this, the chief designer of the airplane, R. J. Mitchell, said, “It’s the sort of bloody silly name they would give it.”

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