UK Skies
Your guide to the UK's Aircraft Past & Present

The Supermarine Spitfire


Euro Fighter Typhoon

The above photo showing a Supermarine Spitfire was taken at Duxford D-Day Airshow in the UK on 25th May 2014.

Without a doubt, the Supermarine Spitfire has become synonymous with World War II and widely recognised even today as one of the most iconic aircraft ever built.

Immediately recognisable for its beautifully designed elliptical wings, the Spitfire defended the skies over Britain, most notably during the Battle of Britain where it was a symbol of defiance against the Nazi’s and Adolf Hitler as well as a beacon of hope as it sent German aircraft spiralling toward the ground in flames.

No wonder then that it became the most produced fighter aircraft in the United Kingdom during its service lifetime. In fact, 20 351 of these remarkable machines were built over a ten year period from 1938 to 1948 when propeller-driven aircraft were phased out by the jet age.

The early years

The Spitfire was the brainchild of a very talented aircraft designer – Reginald Mitchell. Mitchell had spearheaded Britain’s dominance of the Schneider Trophyair race. Held every two years, the Schneider Trophy pitted aircraft from Britain, Italy, France and Germany against each other. Interestingly, only seaplanes could contest the race. The Mitchell designed Supermarine S5, S6 and S6.B gained a hat-trick of victories from 1927 – 1931.

Mitchell used the knowledge he gained here, specifically in terms of monoplane and high-speed flight designs, in his next project.

Designing fighter aircraft

With the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, the British Air Ministry called for the design of a new, all-metal monoplane fighter aircraft to replace the ageing biplane designs of their current fighter squadrons. These aircraft designs were to take advantage of the more powerful aircraft engines that were to be produced, particularly those that Rolls Royce were working on, including the famed ‘Merlin’.

However, even a genius like Mitchell didn’t succeed at first. His first design for the Air Ministry was the Supermarine Type 224. Although chosen as one of the three aircraft to vie for the contract, the Type 224 didn’t live up to expectation. One of the reasons for this was due to the engine preferred by the Ministry at the time, the Goshawk II. For various reasons, this engine just did not work effectively in the Type 224. This was mostly due to the fact that the evaporative cooling system had to be placed on the fairings of the undercarriage. Because of this, it often failed and this led to poor performance.

Other than that, the Type 224 was a unique gull-wing design. It didn’t feature retractable undercarriage, another downfall which adversely affected performance. In fact, performance was so poor that the Type 224 took a full two more minutes to climb to 15 000 feet than the prescribed time set by the Air Ministry. It also could only reach a top speed of 228 mph, which was far too slow.

Although Mitchell knew he could improve the aircraft, the Air Ministry had made up their mind. Incredibly, they chose another biplane, the Gloster Gladiator as their next fighter, even though their design mandate stated the need for an all-metal monoplane aircraft.

Luckily for Mitchell, the Air Ministry would consider private designs in the future. Mitchell immediately began to work on his next project, the Spitfire!

The birth of the Supermarine Spitfire

Code named the Supermarine Type 300, the prototype Spitfire was soon on the drawing board. It was immediately noticeable for its elliptical wings but featured a closed cockpit, retractable landing gear and four 0.303 machine guns, all the trademarks of a modern fighter plane. More importantly, it would feature the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, a massive improvement over the Goshawk II.

K5054, the first ever Spitfire took to the air on 5 March 1936. Flown by Supermarine’s legendary test pilot, Mutt Summers, the Spitfire was born. Many test flights followed with minor changes and adjustments made. All in all however, the Spitfire was relatively unchanged from Mitchell’s original design.

During flight trials, the Air Ministry were impressed enough to make their first order – 300 Spitfires which together with the Hawker Hurricane would form the backbone of Fighter Command for the foreseeable future.

Tragically, Mitchell would never see how his incredible machine would capture the imagination of the public during the Second World War and beyond. He died of cancer on 11 June 1937.

War!

As the Spitfire started to reach operational fighter squadrons based in Britain, the Nazi’s expansionist policies continued. War was on the horizon and many in the British Isles knew it. By the time war was declared on Germany on 3 September 1939, around 306 Spitfires were ready to defend Britain. At this point, it was outnumbered by the Hurricane which proved far easier to manufacture. The Spitfire however, was more of a match for the Messerschmitt BF 109, the German fighter of the time although, in air combat, luck played a major part in gaining a kill, no matter what aircraft you flew.

And soon the battle was commenced with Spitfires claiming their first kills of the war – two Junker Ju 88 bombers shot down while attacking a fleet of ships near Scotland. Combat sorties in defence of France, as well as the evacuations of British Forces at Dunkirk, saw the Spitfire up against the Messerschmitt BF 109 almost every day. In this time, around 67 Spitfires were lost, not only to the 109 but ground fire as well.

With Europe under his control, Hitler now wanted to crush Britain. He would do this by instructing Herman Göring, the commander of the Luftwaffe to defeat the Royal Air Force first.

The Spitfire legend is born

And so began the Battle of Britain. Although the Hurricane filled more squadrons than the Spitfire and shot down more enemy aircraft during the battle, the legend of the Spitfire was definitely born during this period. Why? It’s difficult to say but it could be something as simple as looks – there is nothing prettier than a Spitfire! What can be said however is that to this day, it holds a special place in the heart of the British public.

The Battle of Britain was a crucial point in World War Two. No country had yet been able to resist Germany up until that point. With the Luftwaffe first attacking coastal convoys, dogfights were few and far between in the early days. It was then that Göring turned his attention to destroying the Royal Air Force. If he could do this, his bombers would have free reign over the British Isles, destroying vital installations and making an invasion easy.

The Battle of Britain had begun in earnest.  Göring decided that the British fighters needed to be destroyed in the air and if that did not occur, their bases had to be levelled. On 13 August 1940, the Luftwaffe launched a massive raid to carry out this plan. Called Adlertag (Eagle Day), huge formations of Luftwaffe bombers flew over England with their fighter escorts.

They were tasked with destroying British airfields and any fighters they could catch on the ground. Despite considerable success on both Adlertag and over the next few weeks that had brought the Royal Air Force to its knees, German tactics changed. This was due to the fact that Churchill ordered a bombing raid on Berlin because some German bombers trying to return to their bases had jettisoned their bombs over the outskirts of London.

Hitler was beyond furious and ordered Göring to begin attacking the British capital which gave Fighter Command the necessary reprieve it needed. More and more fighter pilots were trained in WWII, Spitfires built and over time, Fighter Command was back at full strength when just months before it was at breaking point.

During all this time the Spitfire performed admirably. It was more than a match for the Messerschmitt BF 109 despite poorer armament. In a dogfight, nothing could out turn it. In fact, German pilots soon learnt not to get into a turning encounter with a Spitfire.

With the Royal Air Force still operational, Hitler was forced to cancel the invasion of the British Isles indefinitely. The Spitfire and the Hurricane had certainly played their part in his decision.

Many variants

The Spitfire served in every theatre of the Second World War and continued to be developed until the end of the war and beyond. There were many upgrades made to the aircraft including changes to the wings (some models even had clipped wings for better roll rate at low level), more powerful engines (like the Rolls Royce Griffon) and changes to the aircraft’s tailplane. The Spitfire also performed many roles including as an out-an-out fighter as well as a fighter-bomber, especially in Africa and later once the Allies had invaded France.

With over 50 Spitfires still flying in the world today, the public still gets to see this fantastic aircraft in action. Our love affair with it will never end. It truly is a legend of the sky and the most produced British aircraft during World War Two.