|Status||Retired 1955 (RAF )|
To anyone who has read or heard about the Battle Of Britain in 1940, the Spitfire epitomises Britain's stand against the might of Hitler's Luftwaffe. It was an iconic aircraft - beautiful to look at, and extremely effective at the job it was designed to do.
The brainchild of R.J. Mitchell, chief aircraft designer at the Supermarine division of Vickers-Armstrong Ltd, the airframe was developed during the Schneider Trophy seaplane racing series of the mid-1930s. The S6B is generally regarded as the forerunner of the Spitfire.
The thin metal skin that gave the Spitfire its awesome aerodynamics was state of the art at the time but was (according to my grandfather who built the things) "an absolute sod" to get on the airframe.
By 1940, the Mk I Spitfire was in squadron service with the Royal Air Force. Mk IIs carried out several courageous sorties over Dunkirk in June of that year, inflicting casualties on Nazi dive-bombers and fighters attacking the embarking troops on the beaches.
As the defence of Britain became a priority, Spitfire production was massively increased. Lord Beaverbrook was put in charge of a huge manufacturing programme, which saw the Ministry for Aircraft Production break records for turning out fighters. For all these efforts, during the Battle Of Britain the Spitfire was outnumbered by the more stolid, durable Hawker Hurricane almost 2 to 1.
As the Allies moved to an offensive footing from 1942 onwards, the Spitfire's original role as a short-range interceptor changed to that of a roving marauder. RAF Fighter Command undertook fighter sweeps over France and Holland. These raids, like the earlier Commando operations, achieved little of strategic significance. Their value lay in the perception of offensive action demonstrated to the civilian populations in the occupied countries - and, of course, to the enemy garrisons of those countries.
The clipped-wing, low-altitude variant (Mk VB) developed for these tasks, was regarded by the Spitfire design team as equal to any fighter in the world at the time. They received a rude shock when the first Focke-Wulf 190s appeared over France in 1942. Having engaged in developmental warfare with the Messerschmitt 109 since 1939, they had been completely blindsided by the stubby, radial-engined "Fleischervogel" ("Butcher-bird") designed by Kurt Tank.
Of the contemporary British fighters, the Hurricane had found a niche as a tank-busting, rocket-firing ground-attack aircraft (having distinguished itself in the Battle Of Britain by targeting the bombers, whilst the faster Spitfires handled the fighter escorts.) The troubled development programme of the Hawker Typhoon (suffering fuselage weaknesses in dogfight conditions), meant that no answer to the FW 190 was immediately available.
Eventually, the Mk IX restored parity with the German fighters. By that time, however, American designs such as the long-range North American P51 Mustang had appeared. An American version of what a RAF fighter should be, the A36 (a ground attack version), the P51 and P51A, all with the Allison engine, were not outstanding fighter aircraft. The P51B and subsequent versions - re-engined with the Rolls-Royce Merlin - were. They were a match for the FW 190 and the latest Messerschmitt Bf 109G.
As the Allies rolled into Europe in June 1944, the Spitfire again came into its own. With range no longer a consideration as they operated from captured German airfields, the Spit was once more active in support of the ground offensive. The type was by now equipped with a choice of 3 armament mixes. It could carry either 2 x 20mm Hispano cannon plus 4 x .303" Browning machine guns; 4 x 20mm Hispano cannon; or the original Battle Of Britain fitting of 8 x .303" Brownings.
A famous Spitfire pilot - Wing Commander Douglas Bader - hated cannons. He even insisted on flying an all-Browning equipped Mk VA when the rest of his squadron was given cannon-armed Mk VBs. (Bader once claimed that he missed a kill whilst flying a cannon armed Spitfire because the rounds went either side of the fuselage. The shotgun effect of eight .303"s, he claimed, would have seen the target off. Later experience proved Bader wrong on the cannon v MGs debate).
With the Luftwaffe growing weaker, the classic dogfights in which the Spitfire had achieved fame, became a thing of the past. As aerial combats dwindled, the abundance of targets on the ground attracted the fighter pilots' attention. With their 20mm cannon, the Spitfires were able to inflict enormous damage on ground defences, vehicles and installations.
Notable modifications to the type, included the floatplane variants hurriedly prepared for the Norwegian campaign. The Mk Is converted for this task were not successful. In 1943 a redesign of the concept, using Mk V & Mk IX airframes, was an outstanding success. Developed for Far Eastern service, they were the fastest floatplanes of the war (top speed around 377mph). The Spitfire had ironically returned to its roots as a world-beating seaplane.
The Spit was also modified with a strengthened tail unit and an arrestor hook, as the Seafire. As a carrier aircraft, the Seafire was a success. Its ground handling vicissitudes, however, were problematical on board ship. That long, elegant nose completely obscured the pilot's forward view. And the narrow-track undercarriage gave the plane a tendency to swing off-line under the torque of the engine. Experienced pilots, however, overcame these faults and flew the Seafire with great success in the Mediterranean and Far Eastern theatres.
Spitfires, in 40 major variants, served in every theatre of the war. Obviously, an aircraft designed to operate over the British Isles as a defensive interceptor, was not going to be a world-beater when faced with much bigger skies - such as those over Darwin, the northernmost city in Australia. In August 1942, No 1 (Fighter) Wing, Royal Australian Air Force, was born. It consisted of Nos 452 & 457 Squadrons RAAF, and 54 Sqn RAF - all equipped with Spitfire VCs sporting 2 x 20mm cannon and 2 x .5" machine guns. They were posted to the Top End of Australia after heavy Japanese bombing of Darwin throughout 1942.
The Aussie Spits formed an operational partnership with the heavier, more robust Curtiss P40 Kittyhawks already in service in Australia - as they had with the Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain. The Aussie wing, under the command of Wing Commander Clive Caldwell, scored some 55 kills against the Japanese. 44 Spitfires were lost in action, but many of these can be attributed to running out of fuel during or after combat, rather than enemy air superiority. In most respects, the Spitfire bested the Japanese fighters in air-to-air combat. If they dived away from the Spits, the Kittyhawks were waiting for them down below.
By the end of 1944, the type was reaching the end of its design potential. In June that year, work began on testing a new laminar-flow wing for use on the latest Griffon-engined Spitfire. The resultant aircraft was so dissimilar to the Spitfire, it was renamed Spiteful.
It reached a speed of 494mph - the fastest piston-engined aircraft ever. The Spiteful also looked the part: gone were the graceful lines of its thoroughbred forebear. This thing looked as brutal as it was. War's end also saw the end of the Spiteful project. Jet fighters such as the Gloster Meteor would be the way forward.
The key to success for what, superficially, was a limited design, was the choice of wing designs with which the Spitfire could be fitted. Generally speaking, five different wing options were available, as listed below:
Wing Type A - 8 x .303" Browning machine-guns.
Wing Type B - 2 x 20mm Hispano cannon, plus 4 x .303" Browning machine-guns.
Wing Type C - Choice of: 8 x .303" machine-guns; or 2 x 20mm Hispano cannon, plus 4 x .303" machine-guns; or 4 x 20mm Hispano cannon.
Wing Type D - No armament - extra fuel tanks for high-altitude photo-reconnaissance aircraft.
Wing Type E - Choice of: 4 x 20mm Hispano cannon; or 2 x 20mm Hispano cannon, plus 2 x 0.5" Browning machine-guns.
There is no intention, in this article, to encyclopaedically list performance statistics for every Spitfire variant ever built.
It is more informative to compare Spitfires at the start and the finish of WW II, thus: The Battle of Britain Spitfire Mk I weighed 5280lbs. The Seafire 47 of 1945, was 10300lbs. As an interceptor in the Battle of Britain, Spit I flew at a maximum speed of 360mph; Seafire 47 reached 451mph. Maximum horsepower from the Merlin III of Spitfire Mk I, was 1030 - Seafire 47 had a Griffon 87 or 88 giving 2375hp. Maximum climbing rate went from Spit I's 2500ft/min, to Seafire 47's 4800ft/min. Of course, time to reach 20000ft almost halved - from Spit I's 9.4mins to Seafire 47's 4.8mins. Internal fuel capacity hampered the Spitfire's development; this went from 85galls to 154galls. The most impressive improvement, in terms of fighter manoeuvrability, was the roll rate. The Spitfire could roll at a rate (quite respectable in 1940) of 14 degrees per second. Seafire 47 did the same trick at 68 degrees per second.
In conclusion: No other combat aircraft in history has started from such a limited mission statement, and improved its performance as emphatically and impressively during its service life.
A number of Spitfires remain airworthy, some in private hands or collections, but the most widely seen today are in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight together with the Hawker Hurricane and the Avro Lancaster.