What’s in a Name – Great Britain

It’s the sort of bloody silly name they would give it…” RJ Mitchell, head designer of the Spitfire

Uniquely among the wartime powers Great Britain used names as the primary designation for all production aircraft.  Let’s take a brief look at the British system.

I could make this a very short essay.  The British named their airplanes, end of story.  But there were rules used in naming, and what about those “Mk numbers” that always follow the name?

To start, the naming process was a collaborative process between the manufacturer and Air Ministry.  The Hawker Company liked naming their fighters for storms; which led to their wartime designs of Hurricane, Typhoon and Tempest. The “they” in RJ Mitchell’s famous quote at top seems to have been Supermarine Corporate, and the wartime Spitfire was actually the second RJ Mitchell aircraft to be given that label (the first was a failed prototype also known as the F.224 project).

Hawker Hurricane Mk I.  There were several changes during Mk I production.  Early Hurricanes had a 2-bladed propeller and a fabric covered wing with a different layout for the eight .303 MGs.  There were also two differen 3-bladed propellers used, and several different varients of Merlin engine. It wasnt until the XX series Merlin was added that the designation changed to Mark II.

Hawker Hurricane Mk I. There were several changes during Mk I production. Early Hurricanes had a 2-bladed propeller and a fabric covered wing with a different layout for the eight .303 MGs. There were also two different 3-bladed propellers used, and several different variants of Merlin engine.
It wasn’t until the XX series Merlin was added that the designation changed to Mark II.

One rule in naming was that medium and heavy bombers were named for cities (Lancaster, Halifax).  American bombers in British service were initially named for American cities (Boston, Hudson).  Later, when American bombers were acquired that already had American names (Liberator, Fortress) those names were retained.

Trainers were named for schools (Oxford) and those acquired from the US were named for American schools (Harvard, Yale).

Supermarine Spitfire Mk Vb.  The most produced version of the famous fighter.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk Vb. The most produced version of the famous fighter.

Royal Navy aircraft were named for fish and marine life (Swordfish, Barracuda) or sea birds (Sea Gull, Skua).  No surprise this system is pretty similar to the Royal Air Force since the Air Force was actually responsible for purchasing Royal Navy aircraft until a few months before the start of the war.  No doubt this was a terrible system, the Royal Air Force had little interest in spending time and resources in aircraft for the Navy (specifically here the Fleet Air Arm or “FAA”). American sourced aircraft initially followed this same convention, but later all such aircraft were renamed to match American usage (Martlet became Wildcat, Tarpon became Avenger).

Spitfire Mk Vb trop.  The large sand filter under the nose is what makes this a trop.  Such work was done at depots, and it is part of the fun of model research to get the right shaped filter depending on which depot modified the particular aircraft you are building.

Spitfire Mk Vb trop. The large sand filter under the nose is what makes this a trop. Such work was done at depots, and it is part of the fun of model research to get the right shaped filter depending on which depot modified the particular aircraft you are building.

As is often the case in these essays numerous exceptions exist. De Haviland’s popular light training aircraft were all named for Moths; Tiger Moth and Gypsy Moth being major types.  And many types seem to have been assigned names someone in influence took a liking to.  Back to Supermarine’s most famous product; the Air Ministry apparently favored the name Shrew.  But the company pushed hard for Spitfire even though that name had already been used by an earlier failed project.  RJ Mitchell once said “they can call it Spitblood for all I care”.  Apparently RJ Mitchell was full of colorful quotes.  Maybe he was in the “Shrew” camp?

Anyone who’s ever read about British aircraft has probably noticed the Mark (Mk) number that nearly always follows the name.  This means about what one would expect, but as always sequences sometimes became jumbled as different projects sometimes took more or less time and some never made it off the drawing board. During the war these Mk numbers were always in Roman Numeral form, post war the British switched to standard numbers.  Sometimes an abbreviation for the aircraft role will appear before the Mk number, especially if the role is different than most of the type.  So while a common Beaufighter night fighter might be shown as a Mk VI; many Beaufighters were assigned to Coastal Command and modified for general reconnaissance work and might be listed as a GR Mk VI.  Mosquitoes were legendary for their versatility and B (bomber), PR (Photo Recon), NF (Night Fighter), FB (Fighter-Bomber) and T (Trainer) could all show up in the designation.  In every case this represents a slight variation from other aircraft with the same mark number.

A lower case letter sometimes follows the Mk number.  I believe this is always a variation in armament or possible armament.  So a Hurricane Mk IIa has eight machine guns; a Mk IIb has 12 machine guns; a Mk IIc has four 20 mm cannon; and a Mk IId has two machine guns and two 40 mm cannon.  But this does get a little weird sometimes; a Spitfire Mk Vb and Mk Vc might have the same armament, but the wing’s fitting are different so the range of choices are different.  I think.  Spitfire nomenclature gets very odd; I’ve read several books on the subject and I hesitate to say much with too much certainty.

A “Trop” suffix sometimes was used for types that were tropicalized.  This typically just means a sand filter was added to the air intake.  This is a bigger deal than it sounds, and “Trop” aircraft were often several knots slower than their standard siblings.  I believe “trop” is  a quasi-official suffix.  In British use it represents a modified aircraft and not something on the factory spec.  The Germans also deployed “trop” aircraft that were a more standardized factory modification.

de Havilland Mosquito NF Mk VI.  "NF" means night fighter.  The similar "FB" (fighter-bomber) version did not have radar, and consequently was a few knots faster.

de Havilland Mosquito NF Mk VI. “NF” means night fighter. The similar “FB” (fighter-bomber) version did not have radar, and consequently was a few knots faster.

The Spitfire may be worthy of a post all its own on the subject.  It was developed over a very long period, and later Marks apparently had no interchangeable parts with early Marks.  It would have been fun to see what the quotable RJ Mitchell might have had to say about this, but sadly he died in 1937 having only seen his first prototype fly.  At a certain level of change a new name was typically bestowed.  But as with other political governments the British were not always consistent on what criteria earned a new name.  Going from the Typhoon to the early Tempest only the wing form really changed (fuselage and power plant were the same). Yet the Spitfire changed in engine, fuselage and wing during its growth.  I suspect the Spitfire name had political capital all in itself.

I think that hits the basics. This is likely the last post I’ll do in this series.  I may get ambitious and try Russia or Italy some day, but for now that’s not planned.  Obviously most of this was off the top of my head, my apologies if any more scholarly types are offended (!).  Questions and discussion are always welcome.  And I appreciate the challenge if actual research is required!

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About atcDave

I'm 53 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 30 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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4 Responses to What’s in a Name – Great Britain

  1. Theresa says:

    Dealing with official nomenclature is always a big challenge. Because there were so many different variants along with configurations of air frames, wings and armament.

  2. Great post Dave. It is good to see the often confusing British aircraft classification system put in such a clear and concise manner. We British aren’t known for our continuity!

    • atcDave says:

      Ah so you’re one of them!
      It certainly does have a random, but colorful (or is that colourful?) feel to it. I think it’s better suited to PR than the more technical seeming US system. British news stories about Spitfires, Hurricanes and Defiants just screamed for attention. No doubt that’s why the US military scrambled to name everything in 41-42.

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