Supermarine Spitfire

Reginald J. Mitchell developed a racing seaplane, the Supermarine S6B, which won the Schneider Trophy on 13th September, 1931. During the contest the aircraft reached 340 mph (547 km/h).

In 1934 the Air Ministry announced that it was looking for a new fighter plane. Mitchell, whose company was now part of Vickers Aviation, decided to adapt his Supermarine seaplane, in an attempt to meet the requirements of the Royal Air Force.

The new all-metal single-seater fighter plane, the Supermarine Spitfire Mk. I, had several technical features of the earlier racing seaplane. It had the same structure and aerodynamic lines. However, it had a new engine, the 1,030 hp Rolls Royce Merlin II and carried 8 machine-guns.

The first Spitfire prototype appeared on 5th March, 1936 and flew at 350 mph (563 km/h) and could ascend at approximately 2,500 ft (762 m) per minute. With its slender aerodynmamic lines and elliptical-plan wings, it was claimed at the time, to be the smallest and cleanest aircraft that could be constructed around a man and an engine.

The Royal Air Force was impressed with its performance and in June, 1936, it ordered 310 aircraft. The Supermarine Spitfire Mk. I went into production in 1937 and was operational in June, 1938. Vickers Aviation could not keep up with demand and most of Britain's manufacturers began building Spitfires. By October, 1939, the Air Ministry had ordered over 4,000 of these aeroplanes.

The Supermarine Spitfire Mk. II went into service in late 1940. These had a 1,150 hp Rolls Royce Merlin XII engine. Other versions appeared throughout the Second World War. This included Spitfire Mk. IV that was a photographic reconnaissance aircraft. The Spitfire Mk. VC was the first model to be used as a fighter-bomber and carried 500 pounds (226 kg) of bombs.

At the beginning of the Battle of Britain the RAF had 32 squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes and 19 squadrons equipped with Spitfire. It was decided to use the Hurricanes against the massive bomber formations of the Luftwaffe whereas the Spitfires were employed against German fighters.

This Luftwaffe outnumbered the RAF by four to one. However, the British had the advantage of being closer to their airfields. German fighters could only stay over England for about half an hour before flying back to their home bases. The RAF also had the benefits of an effective early warning radar system and the intelligence information provided by Ultra.

The Focke Wulf Fw 190, which appeared in July 1941, was superior to the Spitfire being used by the RAF at the time but this changed with the production of the Supermarine Spitfire Mk. XIV . Powered by a Rolls-Royce Griffon 65, 12-cylinder, 2,050 hp engine, it could reach a speed of 448 mph (721 km/h) and could reach a ceiling of 44,500 ft (13,560 m) and had a range of 460 miles (740 km). It had two 20 mm cannons; four machine-guns; 1,000 lb (454 kg) of bombs.

The Spitfire was constantly improved during the Second World War. The Supermarine Spitfire F.22 that was used in 1945 could fly at more than 450 mph (724 km/h) and could ascend at twice the speed of the Supermarine Spitfire Mk. I.

Spitfires continued to be produced after the war and by October 1947, 20,334 had been manufactured. The last operational flight of a Spitfire, the Spitfire PR-19, took place on 1st April, 1954.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk.I
Supermarine Spitfire Mk.I

Primary Sources

(1) Douglas Bader first flew a Supermarine Spitfire in February, 1940. He wrote about it in his book, Fight for the Sky (1973).

The Spitfire looked good and was good. But my first reaction was that it was bad for handling on the ground; its long straight nose, uptilted when the tail wheel was on the ground; its long straight nose, uptilted when the tail wheel was on the ground, made taxing difficult since it was not easy to see ahead. It was necessary to to swing from side to side to look in front. The view at take-off was restricted in the same way until you were travelling fast enough to lift the tail; only then could you see over the nose.

Once accustomed to these minor inconveniences, they were no longer apparent, and once in the air, you felt in the first few minutes that here was the aeroplane par excellence. The controls were light, positive and synchronized; in fact, the aeroplane of one's dreams. It was stable; it flew hands and feet off; yet you could move it quickly and effortlessly into any attitude. You brought it in to land at 75 mph and touched down at 60-65 mph. Its maximum speed was 367 mph. You thus had a wide speed range which has not been equalled before or since.

It had eight machine guns of .303 calibre each, mounted four in each wing. The guns were spaced one close to the fuselage, two mid-wing, one further out. The eight guns were normally synchronized to 250 yards. In other words the four in each wing were sighted so that the bullets from all eight converged at that distance, in front of the Spitfire. Experienced fighter pilots used to close the pattern to 200 yards. The successful pilots succeeded because they did not open fire until they were close to the target.

(2) Richard Hillary wrote about flying a Supermarine Spitfire for the first time in his autobiography The Last Enemy (1942)

The Spitfires stood in two lines outside 'A' Flight pilots' room. The dull grey-brown of the camouflage could not conceal the clear-cut beauty, the wicked simplicity of their lines. I hooked up my parachute and climbed awkwardly into the low cockpit. I noticed how small was my field of vision. Kilmartin swung himself on to a wing and started to run through the instruments I was conscious of his voice, but heard nothing of what he said. I was to fly a Spitfire. It was what I had most wanted through all the long dreary months of training. If I could fly a Spitfire, it would be worth it. Well, I was about to achieve my ambition and felt nothing I was numb, neither exhilarated nor scared I noticed the white enamel undercarriage handle "Like a lavatory plug," I thought.

Kilmartin had said "See if you can make her talk." That meant the whole bag of tricks, and I wanted ample room for mistakes and possible blacking-out. With one or two very sharp movements on the stick I blacked myself out for a few seconds, but the machine was sweeter to handle than any other that I had flown. I put it through every manoeuvre that I knew of and it responded beautifully. I ended with two flick rolls and turned back for home. I was filled with a sudden exhilarating confidence. I could fly a Spitfire; in any position I was its master. It remained to be seen whether I could fight

in one.

(3) After being involved in a dogfight with a German pilot Alan Deere wrote a report on the relative merits of the Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, and Messerschmitt Bf109.

In my written report on the combat I stated that in my opinion the Spitfire was superior overall to the Me 109, except in the initial climb and dive; however this was an opinion contrary to the belief of the so-called experts. Their judgement was of course based on intelligence assessments and the performance of the 109 in combat with the Hurricane in France. In fact, the Hurricane, though vastly more manoeuvrable than either the Spitfire or the Me 109, was so sadly lacking in speed and rate of climb, that its too-short combat experience against the 109 was not a valid yardstick for comparison. The Spitfire, however, possessed these two attributes to such a degree that, coupled with a better rate of turn than the Me 109, it had the edge overall in combat. There may have been scepticism by some about my claim for the Spitfire, but I had no doubts on the score; nor did my fellow pilots in 54 Squadron. Later events, particularly in the Battle of Britain, were to prove me right.

(4) In his autobiography, Tale of a Guinea Pig: The Exploits of a World War II Fighter Pilot, Geoffrey Page compared the merits of the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.

Although the Spitfire and the Hurricane were basically alike, inasmuch as they were low-wing, single-seater monoplanes, powered by Rolls-Royce Merlin engines; to the fighter pilot's eye, the similarity ended there. Whereas the Spitfire had all the speed and grace of the greyhound in its sleek appearance, the Hurricane portrayed the excellent qualities of the bulldog, being slower but much more solidly built than the other. To the Spitfire pilot there will be only one machine, and similarly to the man who flew the Hurricane.

(5) Douglas Bader first began to fly a Hawker Hurricane in June, 1940 when he became squadron leader of 242 Fighter Squadron.

The Hurricane was slower than the Spitfire, with a maximum speed of 335 mph against 367 mph. The Hurricane also was less elegant to the eye, but then there has never been such a beautiful areoplane as the Spitfire. For all that, like other fighters from the Hawker stable, and the result of the design genius of Sydney Camm, the Hurricane was a thoroughbread and looked it. Like the Spitfire it was immensely strong: a pilot had no need to fear the danger of pulling the wings off, no matter how desperate the situation became.

When I first flew the Hurricane in June 1940, I was agreeably surprised at the compact feel of the aeroplane. It had seemed big on the ground in comparison with the Spitfire; in the air it felt nothing of the sort. You could see out of it better and the controls were perfectly harmonized. It climbed steeply and at a lower speed but required a good deal of right rudder in the climb, to counteract the engine torque. I found this a considerable nuisance on a long climb.

Like all pilots who flew and fought in the Hurricane, I grew to love it. It was strong, highly maneuverable, could turn inside the Spitfire and of course the Me 109. Best of all, it was a marvellous gun platform. The sloping nose gave you a splendid forward view, while the eight guns were set in blocks of four in each wing, close to the fuselage. The aeroplane remained rock steady when you fired. Unlike the Spitfire with its lovely elliptical wing which sloped towards the tip, the Hurricane wing was thicker and straight. The Spitfire was less stead when the guns were firing because, I have always thought, they were spread further along the wing, and the recoil effect was noticeable.

(6) Lettice Curtis, Forgotten Pilots (1971)

In the air the Spitfire was forgiving and without vice, and I never heard of anyone who did not enjoy flying it. It had a personality uniquely its own. The Hurricane was dogged masculine and its undercarriage folded inwards in a tidy businesslike manner. The Spit, calling for more sensitive handling, was altogether more feminine, had more glamour and threw its wheels outward in an abandoned extrovert way. From the ground there was a special beauty about it.

The cockpit of any single seater aircraft is a very snug private world, but to sit in the cockpit of a Spit, barely wider than one's shoulders, with the power of the Merlin at one's finger tips, was sheer poetry - something never to be forgotten by those who experienced it.

(7) Johnnie Johnson later recorded how he was told to fit bombs onto his Supermarine Spitfire.

At this time the Spitfire IX was the best air fighter in the world. In my view it was not suitable for beating up the ground targets because its Merlin engine was cooled by a liquid called Glycol, which was held in a small tank just below the propellor. This Glycol tank and the radiator were always exposed to ground fire, at which the Germans were very adept. A single machine-gun bullet through either the radiator or the Glycol tank meant that the engine caught fire or seized up within a matter of a very few minutes. After four years of air fighting, and still remaining sound in wind and limb, the prospect of being shot down by a few rounds fired by some half-baked Kraut gunner did not appeal to me in the least!

The first time I saw my lean and graceful Spitfire with two 500 lb. bombs hanging beneath its slender wings, it seemed to me that she was intolerably burned, and that the ugly blunt bombs were a basic contradiction of all the beauty and symmetry of the aircraft. It was like seeing a beautiful racehorse harnessed to a farm cart.