Play / pause The Spitfire Mathmetician

The Spitfire Mathmetician

  • Felicity Baker and Edward Baker
  • Interview by: Jess Boydon


(plane engine roaring)

I work as a journalist at BBC,

and I always remember when I was younger,

knowing that my grandmother, Hazel,

had done some maths on the Spitfires.

That's kind of how I remembered it.

I never really understood what it meant.

It was only kind of recently,

when I stopped working at BBC,

it's in the back of my mind,

that we should start

looking into what that story was.

It was mainly down to my dad and his three brothers,

who, after Hazel passed away,

started looking into what her contribution

and Fred's contribution had been.

The theory was, in the mid 1930s,

Captain Fred Hill,

who's my great-grandfather,

worked in the Air Ministry.

They'd come up with this new specification

for the new generation of fighter planes;

the Spitfires and the Hurricanes,

which were originally

designed to carry just four guns.

But Fred, he'd looked a lot of analysis

and he realized that four guns

probably wouldn't be enough.

He was struggling to make his case

because a lot of his superiors

at the Air Ministry

just didn't think that would work.

So, he had to prove his case in his own time.

He took home some of the latest firing analysis,

and asked his daughter, Hazel, my grandmother,

who was 13 years old at the time,

to help him with the mathematical calculations

which proved that the new fighter planes

could carry eight guns,

and in fact, would need to carry

at least eight guns,

firing 1000 rounds a minute,

in order to bring down the German planes.

From the calculation which Hazel did,

he turned it into two graphs,

which he presented at a meeting

at the air ministry,

on the 19th of July 1934,

a kind of a famous meeting.

They were won over by his argument, finally.

It was at that meeting that

the decision was made,

the new planes with eight guns.

I went with my brothers, my three brothers,

to the National Archives in Kew,

and found the graphs that had been drawn

for that meeting in July, 1934.

There they were, hand drawn

in my grandfather's handwriting.

These graphs have been classified for many years.

They have top secret written on them and things.

I didn't realize quite how vital they were.

If you read accounts of that meeting

and people are in that meeting saying

that the graphs were really the evidence that may

make people face up to the reality

they need to have more machine guns in it.

Then you look at the battle of Britain,

the start-up session about Britain,

you realize how important the eight guns were,

and how marginal the victory was.

A gun was only just enough

for us to have the edge over Germany.

It was only just enough for us to win.

If we'd gone with last, if we'd gone

with the four guns or even six,

if you're compromised but made it six,

we would have likely

lost the battle to Britain and

potentially the war, because the battle

was seen as a big turning point

in the second world war,

and our win was so important.

I think she would have secretly

been very proud and probably happy

that it had been recognized,

but I think that would be the important bit,

wouldn't it? she'd want to

knowing that her work had inspired

other young girls,

which I really think it has,

some kind of the messages I've had

probably would have meant an awful lot to her.

Yeah, I'm sure.

And she never lets the fact she was a woman get in her way.

She just kept on going

and powered through things

and didn't accept any resistance.

But I know, which speaking to her privately,

she often did see a lot

of resistance to her role as a woman.

I think the fact that

the girls taking inspiration

from her story, would be really, good for her.

I mean, she'd have loved that.

  • Hazel Hill

    © RAF Museum

  • Hazel Hill

    © RAF Museum

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