The Supermarine Spitfire was an iconic British single-seat fighter used primarily by the RAF and many Allied countries through the Second World War and into the 1950s.
Produced by Supermarine, the Spitfire was designed by the company's Chief Designer R. J. Mitchell, who continued to refine the design until his death from cancer in 1937. Its elliptical wing had a thin cross-section, allowing a higher top speed than the Hawker Hurricane and other contemporary designs; it also resulted in a distinctive appearance, enhancing its overall streamlined features. Much loved by its pilots, the Spitfire saw service during the whole of the Second World War and subsequent years, in all theatres of war, and in many different variants.
More than 20,300 examples of all variants were built, including two-seat trainers, with some Spitfires remaining in service well into the 1950s. Although its great wartime foe, the Messerschmitt Bf 109, in its many variants, rivalled the Spitfire's production statistics, the Spitfire was the only British fighter aircraft to be in continual production before, during and after the Second World War.
The Air Ministry submitted a number of names to Vickers (the parent company of Supermarine) for the new aircraft, tentatively known as the Type 300, including the improbable Shrew. The name Spitfire was suggested by Sir Robert MacLean, director of Vickers at the time, who called his daughter Ann, \"a little spitfire.\" The word dates from Elizabethan times and refers to a particularly fiery, ferocious type of person, usually a woman. The name had previously been used unofficially for Mitchell's earlier F.7/30 Type 224 design. Mitchell is reported to have said that it was \"just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose\", possibly an oblique reference to an earlier, much less successful aircraft of his design that had been given the same name.
Design and development
Supermarine's Chief Designer, R.J. Mitchell, had won four Schneider Trophy seaplane races with his designs: (Sea Lion II in 1922, S 5 in 1927, S 6 in 1929 and S 6b in 1931), combining powerful Napier Lion and Rolls-Royce \"R\" engines with minute attention to streamlining. These same qualities are equally useful for a fighter design, and, in 1931, Mitchell produced such a plane in response to an Air Ministry specification (F7/30) for a new and modern monoplane fighter.
This first attempt at a fighter resulted in an open-cockpit monoplane with gull-wings and a large fixed, spatted undercarriage. The Supermarine Type 224 did not live up to expectations; nor did any of the competing designs, which were also deemed failures.
Mitchell immediately turned his attention to an improved design as a private venture, with the backing of Supermarine's owner, Vickers. The new design added undercarriage retraction, an enclosed cockpit, oxygen breathing-apparatus and the much more powerful newly developed Rolls-Royce PV-12 engine, later named the Merlin, powering all Spitfire Mk 1 to Mk IX variants after which the Rolls Royce Griffon engine was used.
By 1935, the Air Ministry had seen enough advances in the industry to try the monoplane design again. They eventually rejected the new Supermarine design on the grounds that it did not carry the required eight-gun armament, and did not appear to have room to do so.
Elliptical wing design
Once again, Mitchell was able to solve the problem. It has been suggested that by looking at various Heinkel planes, he settled on the use of an elliptical planform, which had much more chord to allow for the required eight guns, while still having the low drag of the earlier, simpler wing design. Mitchell's aerodynamicist, Beverley Shenstone, however, has pointed out that Mitchell's wing was not directly copied from the Heinkel He 70, as some have claimed. In addition to the Spitfire wing being much thinner with a completely different section, the matter is one of parallel development of the same technical solution; the elliptical planform is the most efficient in terms of lift distribution along the span, having a good qualities at stall as well — a fact which would not have escaped Mitchell. In any event, the elliptical wing was enough to sell the Air Ministry on this new Type 300, which they funded by a new specification, F.10/35, drawn up around the Spitfire.
The elliptical wing was chosen for superior aerodynamic attributes but it was a complex wing to construct and the Messerschmitt Bf 109's angular and easy-to-construct wing offered similar performance (model per model) to the Spitfire. It has been reported that the Bf 109 took one-third the man hours to construct compared to the Spitfire.
One flaw in the thin-wing design of the Spitfire manifested itself when the plane was brought up to very high speeds. When the pilot attempted to roll the plane at these speeds, the aerodynamic forces subjected upon the ailerons were enough to twist the entire wingtip in the direction opposite of the aileron deflection (much like how an aileron trim tab will deflect the aileron itself). This so-called aileron reversal resulted in the Spitfire rolling in the opposite direction of the pilot's intention.
A novel feature in the final Spitfire design was its wing washout. The trailing edge of the wing twists slightly upward along its length, from -1/2 degree at its root to +2 degrees at its tip. This causes the wing roots to stall before the tips, reducing the potentially dangerous rolling moment in the stall known as a wing drop, that may result in spin. When the root stalls, the turbulent separated slipstream, departing from the wing top side, shakes the elevator and thusly the aircraft's control column in a characteristic \"shudder\", warning the pilot that he is about to reach the limit of the aircraft's performance, while full control is retained at the wingtips and ailerons. This allowed even average pilots to hold the Spitfire in a steep turn right at the point of stall, hoping that the pursuing enemy would have to fall out of his own steep turn first or would have to follow in a more gradual turn, eventually appearing in the Spitfire's gunsight.
The prototype (K5054) first flew on 5 March 1936, from Eastleigh Aerodrome (later Southampton Airport) just four months after the maiden flight of the contemporary Hawker Hurricane. Testing continued until 26 May 1936, when Captain J. \"Mutt\" Summers, (Chief Test Pilot for Vickers (Aviation) Ltd.) flew K5054 to Martlesham and handed the aircraft over to Squadron Leader Anderson of the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE).
The Air Ministry placed an order for 310 of the aircraft on 3 June 1936, before any formal report had been issued by the A&AEE, interim reports being issued on a piecemeal basis. The British public first saw the Spitfire at the RAF Hendon air-display on Saturday 27 June 1936.
The early versions were fitted with the P8 Air Ministry magnetic compass, of a nautical design which was of over-engineered brass construction and mounted on 4 anti-vibration dampers. Internally it also had a pressure diaphragm to compensate for altitude changes. The unit was modified later in the war with the rare P8 M, and later the P11. After the war this type of compass was replaced with the new American \"Eyeball\" type seen in most aircraft today.
To build the Spitfires in the numbers needed, a whole new factory was built at Castle Bromwich, near Birmingham as a \"shadow\" to Supermarine's Southampton factory. Although the project was ultimately led by Lord Nuffield who was an expert in mass construction, the Spitfire's stressed-skin construction was a bit too complex and Supermarine and Vickers engineers were needed. The site was set up quickly from July 1938 - machinery being installed two months after work started on the site.
There were 24 marks of Spitfire and many sub-variants. These covered the Spitfire in development from the Merlin to Griffon engines, the high speed photo-reconnaissance variants and the different wing configurations. The Spitfire Mk V was the most common type, with 6,479 built, followed by the 5,665 Mk IX airframes produced. Different wings, featuring a variety of weapons, were fitted to most marks; the A wing used eight .303 machine guns, the B with four .303 machine guns and two 20 mm Hispano cannon, and the C or Universal Wing which could mount either four 20 mm cannon or two 20 mm and four .303 machine guns. As the war progressed, the C wing became more common.
Supermarine developed a two-seat variant to be used for training and was known as the T Mk VIII, but no orders were received for this aircraft and only one example was ever constructed (identified as N32/G-AIDN by Supermarine). However, in the absence of an official two-seater variant, a number of airframes were crudely converted in the field. These included an RAF Mk VB in North Africa, where a second seat was fitted instead of the upper fuel tank in front of the cockpit, although it was not a dual control aircraft and is thought to have been used as the squadron \"run-about.\" The only unofficial two seat conversions that were fitted with dual controls were a small number of Russian lend/lease Mk IX aircraft. These were referred to as Mk IX UTI and differed from the Supermarine proposals by using an in-line \"greenhouse\" style double canopy rather than the raised \"bubble\" type of the T Mk VIII.
In the postwar era, the idea was revived by Supermarine and a number of two-seat Spitfires were built by converting old Mk IX airframes with a second \"raised\" cockpit featuring a bubble canopy. These were then sold to the Indian Air Force and Irish Air Corps. Today, only a handful of the trainers are known to exist, including both the T Mk VIII and a T Mk IX based in the USA and the \"Grace Spitfire\" - ML407, a T Mk IX that is privately owned and operates out of Duxford, UK.
A naval version of the Spitfire, called the Seafire, was specially adapted for operation from aircraft carriers. Modifications included an arrester hook, folding wings and other specialized equipment. However, like the Spitfire, the Seafire had a narrow undercarriage track, which meant that it was not well suited to deck operations. Due to the addition of heavy carrier equipment, it suffered from an aft centre-of-gravity position that made low-speed control difficult, and its gradual stall characteristics meant that it was difficult to land accurately on the carrier. These characteristics resulted in a very high accident rate for the Seafire.
The Seafire II was able to outperform the A6M5 (Zero) at low altitudes when the two types were tested against each other during wartime mock combats. Contemporary Allied carrier fighters such as the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair, however, were considerably more powerful. A performance advantage was regained when late-war Seafire marks equipped with the Griffon engines supplanted their Merlin-engined predecessors.
The name Seafire was arrived at by collapsing the longer name Sea Spitfire.
The first Spitfire to enter service with the RAF arrived at 19 Squadron, Duxford, on 4 August 1938, and over the next few weeks, aircraft were delivered at the rate of one a week to both 19 and 66 Squadrons (also based at Duxford). The next to be equipped with Spitfires was 41 Squadron at Catterick, followed by a succession of squadrons stationed at Hornchurch in Essex. The public's first sight of the Spitfire in RAF colours was on Empire Air Day, 20 May 1939 during a display at Duxford in which the pilot \"belly-landed\" his aircraft having forgotten to lower his undercarriage and was consequently fined £5 by the Air Ministry. By the outbreak of the Second World War, there were around 400 Spitfires in service with the RAF, and a further 2,000 on order.
In an incident known as the Battle of Barking Creek on 6 September 1939, Spitfires were first blooded on a pair of unfortunate Hawker Hurricanes from no. 56 RAF Squadron. The Hurricanes were shot down by Spitfires of no. 74 RAF Squadron in a friendly fire incident over the Medway, leading to the death of P/O Montague Leslie Hulton-Harrop, the first British pilot fatality of the Second World War.
R.J. Mitchell and his Spitfire are often credited with winning the Battle of Britain. This is a view often propagated within popular culture, such as in the film The First of the Few. However, the maintenance of civilian morale under air attack is vital, and no doubt the Spitfire and its legend contributed to this.
The Spitfire was one of the finest fighters of the war; aviation historians and laymen alike often claim it to be the most aesthetically appealing. It is, however, frequently compared to the Hawker Hurricane, which was used in greater numbers during the critical stages of 1940. Although early Spitfires and Hurricanes carried identical armament (eight .303 inch / 7.696 mm machine guns), the placement of the Hurricane's guns was better, yielding a closer pattern of fire. A slower top speed, however, made the Hurricane more vulnerable against the German fighter escorts. Wherever possible, the RAF tactic during the Battle of Britain was to use the Hurricane squadrons to attack the bombers, holding the Spitfires back to counter the German escort fighters. In total numbers, the Hurricane shot down more Luftwaffe aircraft, both fighters and bombers, than the Spitfire, mainly due to the higher proportion of Hurricanes in the air. Seven of every 10 German planes destroyed during the Battle of Britain were shot down by Hurricane pilots. Losses were also higher among the more numerous Hurricanes.
The Mark I and Mark II models saw service during the battle and beyond, into 1941. Both of these used eight .303 machine guns and although having this number of guns sounds impressive, the fact is that this relatively small calibre armament was more suited to shooting down the wood/canvas machines of the First World War. It was relatively common during the Battle of Britain for the (metal) German planes to safely return to base with surprisingly high numbers of .303 bullet holes. The use of a smaller number of larger calibre guns would have been far more effective; this was rectified in later versions of the Spitfire. The Mark V entered service in early 1941, and was the first to feature an effective and reliable cannon armament (the Mark IBs of 19 Squadron were tried out with two 20 mm Hispano-Suiza cannon fitted in 1940, although frequent stoppages meant the types were replaced by conventionally armed aircraft in September 1940). The \"B\" configuration of two 20 mm cannon and four .303 machine guns was standard during the mid-war years.
Another contemporary, the Luftwaffe's Messerschmitt Bf 109, was similar in attributes and performance to the Spitfire. Some advantages helped the Spitfires win many dogfights, most notably maneuverability: the Spitfire had higher rates of turn than the Messerschmitt. Good cockpit visibility was probably a factor as well, as the early Bf 109s had narrow, panelled, heavily-framed cockpit windows. At this time, the Merlin engine's lack of direct fuel injection meant that both Spitfires and Hurricanes, unlike the Bf 109E, were unable to simply nose down into a deep dive. This meant the Luftwaffe fighters could simply \"bunt\" into a high-power dive to escape attack, leaving the Spitfire spluttering behind as its fuel was forced by negative \"g\" out of the carburettor. RAF fighter pilots soon learned to \"half-roll\" their aircraft before diving to pursue their opponents. The use of uninjected carburettors was calculated to give a higher specific power output, due to the lower temperature, and hence the greater density, of the fuel/air mixture fed into the motor, compared to injected systems. In March 1941, a metal diaphragm with a hole in it was fitted across the float chambers. It partly cured the problem of fuel starvation in a dive, and became known as \"Miss Shilling's orifice\" as it was invented by a female engineer. Further improvements were introduced throughout the Merlin series, with injection introduced in 1943. Production of the Griffon-engined Spitfire Mk XII had begun the year before.
The introduction of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in late 1941 along the Channel front proved a shock to RAF Fighter Command, the new German fighter proving superior to the then-current Mark VB in all aspects except turning radius. Losses inflicted on Fighter Command's Spitfires were heavy, as air superiority switched to the Luftwaffe through most of 1942, until the Merlin 61-engined Mark IX version started to see service in sufficient numbers. In an attempt to achieve some degree of parity with the Fw 190, some squadrons still operating the Mark V received specially modified versions that had four feet of wing-tip removed (to improve their rate of roll) and reduced supercharger blades on the Merlin for optimum performance at lower altitudes. These aircraft were designated LF Mark V officially, but were also known by their pilots as \"Clipped, Clapped and Cropped Spits,\" also referring to the fact that many of these Spitfires, thus modified, had seen better days.
The first Spitfires to see overseas service were Mark Vs flown from the deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle to Malta in March 1942. In the months that followed, some 275 Spitfires were delivered to the beleaguered island. To counter the prevalent dusty conditions, the Spitfires were fitted with a large Vokes air filter under the nose, which lowered the performance of the aircraft through induced drag. The Spitfire V and, later, much-improved, longer-ranged Mark VIIIs also soon became available in the North African theatre and, henceforth, featured heavily with the RAF, South African Air Force and USAAF during the campaigns in Sicily and Italy.
The first Griffon-engined Mk XII flew on August 1942, but only five had reached service status by the end of the year. This mark could nudge 400mph in level flight and climb to an altitude of 30,000 feet (10,000 m) in under eight minutes. Although the Spitfire continued to improve in speed and armament, range and fuel capacity were major issues: it remained short-legged throughout its life except in the dedicated photo-reconnaissance role, when its guns were replaced by fuel.
As the American strategic bombing campaign gathered momentum in mid-1943, the need for fighter escort meant much of Fighter Command's Spitfire force was utilised in this role while the US fighter groups worked up to operational status. The inadequate range of the Spitfire however, meant the RAF support operations were limited to northwestern France and the Channel. As the battle intensified over occupied Europe, USAAF fighters like the P-47, P-38 and P-51 bore the brunt of bomber protection. Spitfire IX squadrons had to bide their time until the invasion of Europe before engaging the Luftwaffe fighter force.
By then, the newer Griffon-engined Spitfires were being introduced as home-defence interceptors, where limited range was not an impediment. These faster Spitfires were used to defend against incursions by high-speed \"tip-and-run\" German fighter-bombers and V-1 flying bombs over Great Britain.
As American fighters took over the long-range escorting of USAAF daylight bombing raids, the Griffon-engined Spitfires progressively took up the tactical air superiority role as interceptors, while the Merlin-engined variants (mainly the IX and the Packard-engined XVI) were adapted to the fighter-bomber role.
After the Normandy landings, Spitfire squadrons were moved across the Channel, operating from tactical airfields close to enemy lines. As the Allied air forces achieved air supremacy, Spitfire pilots had fewer opportunities to combat German aircraft, concentrating their efforts on roaming over German territory, attacking ground targets of opportunity and providing tactical ground support to the army units. The Merlin's glycol cooling system proved particularly vulnerable to small arms fire, with one hit being enough to seize up the engine.
The newer, faster marks of Spitfire were retained in Britain to counter the V-1 flying bomb offensive in mid-1944, although these aircraft were deployed across the Channel before the war in Europe ended.
Although the Griffon-engined marks lost some of the favourable handling characteristics of their Merlin-powered predecessors, they maintained their manoeuvring advantage over nearly all contemporary German (and American) designs in Europe throughout their production.
The first Spitfires in the Far East were two PR IV photo-reconnaissance marks in October 1942. The threat of Japanese attacks on Northern Australia prompted the dispatch of Spitfire Vbs in late 1942. No 1 Wing RAAF (No 54 Squadron RAF, 452 and 457 squadrons RAAF) was formed in Darwin, the first kill being achieved in February 1943, and saw constant action until September 1943. Spitfire VIIIs were received in April 1944. In the Burma/India theatre, the first Spitfire Vs were not received until September 1943.
Spitfire pilots, used to European combat conditions, were shocked to find that they could not follow the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero through a turn. They were forced to adopt tactics similar to those used by the American pilots, akin to manoeuvers that German pilots had been forced to adopt when facing Spitfires and Hurricanes. British pilots in the Far East relied on their far higher speed, especially in a dive, and greater firepower to prevent Japanese pilots from using the Zero's turning advantage. Zeros could not tolerate dive speeds much higher than their maximum level flight speeds due to increasing aileron stiffness and wing structural limits.
Griffon-engined Spitfires and Seafires continued to be flown by many squadrons of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve until re-equipped in 1951/52. The last flight of a Spitfire in RAF service took place on 9th June 1957 by a PR19, PS 583 from RAF Woodvale as part of the Temperature and Humidity Flight. This is the last known flight of a piston engined fighter in the RAF.
Service in other air forces
Apart from the RAF, Spitfires served with most of the Allied air forces in the Second World War, especially the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), South African Air Force (SAAF) and Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). It was one of only a few foreign aircraft to see service with the United States Army Air Forces, equipping four groups in England and the Mediterranean. Several European countries also operated Spitfires based in the UK, including French, Norwegian, Polish, Dutch and Czechoslovakian squadrons in the RAF.
The RAAF, the Royal Indian Air Force and the RAF also used Spitfires against Japanese forces in the Pacific theatre.
There is evidence that the Luftwaffe also used captured Spitfires to attack Allied targets: one such episode was the strafing of civilians from the village of Grendon, Northamptonshire in 1940.
Following the Second World War, the Spitfire remained in use with many air forces around the world, including the Royal Australian Navy, Belgian Air Force, Union of Burma Air Force, Royal Canadian Navy as the Seafire, Czech Air Force, Danish Air Force, Egyptian Air Force, Armee de l'Air and the French Navy Aeronavale, Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force, Irish Air Corps, Israeli Air Force, Italian Air Force, Royal Netherlands Air Force, Royal Norwegian Air Force, Royal Thai Air Force, Portuguese Air Force, Swedish Air Force, Syrian Air Force, Turkish Air Force, Rhodesian Air Force, and the SFR Yugoslav Air Force.
Spitfires played a major role in the Greek Civil War, flown by the RAF and SAAF during October–December 1944, and by the Hellenic Air Force from 1946 to the end of the war in August 1949.
Spitfires last saw major action during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when — in a strange twist — Israeli Air Force Spitfires flown by formerly RAF pilots in World War II like Ezer Weizman were engaged by Egyptian Spitfires and Royal Air Force Spitfires. However, some air forces retained Spitfires in service until well into the 1960s.
Soon after the end of the Second World War, the Swedish Air Force equipped a photo reconnaissance wing, F 11 in Nyköping (just south of Stockholm), with 50 Mk XIXs, designated S 31. Several S 31 photographic missions in the late 1940s entailed flagrant violations of Soviet — and, at least once, Finnish — airspace in order to document activities at the air and naval installations in the Baltic region. At that time, no Soviet fighter was able to reach the operational altitude of the S 31. No Swedish planes were lost during those clandestine operations. However, by the early 1950s, Soviet air defenses had become so effective that such practices had to cease. The S 31s were replaced by jet-powered SAAB S 29Cs in the mid-1950s.
General characteristics ( Spitfire VB )