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I fell in love with her the moment I was introduced. I was captivated by her sheer beauty; she was slimly built with a beautifully proportioned body and graceful curves just where they should be.
- Lord Balfour, Under-Secretary of State for Air, 1938
Lord Balfour isn't talking about his wife. He is in fact speaking of the Supermarine Spitfire. This single-seat fighter plane of the Second World War became not only a British icon, but quite possibly one of the most famous aircraft ever built.
The Schneider Trophy
Without the peacetime international air competitions of the 1920s, the Spitfire may never have been developed. Supermarine Aviation Works and designer Reginald J Mitchell had found sweet success in these seaplane races with their aircraft not only taking away the Schneider Trophy, but also setting a new world air speed record of 407.5 miles per hour in 1931. The Supermarine S.6B and F.7/30 (Type-224) seaplanes built and used in these races were the forerunners to what was later to become the breathtaking Spitfire.
When the Royal Air Force was searching for a replacement for the Bristol Bulldog, its principal fighter plane during the early 1930s, its expectations were high. The new fighter they dreamed of had to be usable day or night, be capable of flying at a level speed of 195mph and to reach 15,000 feet in no more than eight and-a-half minutes. It also needed to carry oxygen, wireless equipment, have at least four machine guns with a carrying capability of 2,000 rounds of ammunition. Supermarine, and more importantly RJ Mitchell, felt up to the task and began work on the new British fighter.
The Supermarine 'Spitfire'
At 4.30pm on 5 March, 19361 at Eastleigh airport near Southampton, Hampshire, test pilot Joseph 'Mutt' Summers flew the hand-built prototype of the Type-300, 'K5054', for the first time. Mitchell was disappointed with its performance, having confidently predicted it would attain a speed of 350mph, but Summers reported that the handling was perfect and recommended that no alterations be made to the design. Once successive test flights had got its speed up to 348mph, the Air Ministry placed an order for 310 planes on 3 June.
There were a few teething problems, however. Air Vice Marshal Hugh 'Stuffy' Dowding liked the plane but with one major reservation: he wanted an aircraft with eight guns, each capable of firing 1,000 rounds a minute, while the initial design by Mitchell only had four. It was thought at first that increasing the firepower would necessitate increasing the strength (and thus the thickness) of the wings, which would in turn slow the plane down. This problem was solved by means of incorporating the now classic elliptical wing design, capable of carrying four guns on each side. The version that met with final approval, the Mark I, was therefore armed with eight .303-inch Browning machine guns.
Not the least important task now facing the design team and the government was to name the new plane. Sir Robert McClean suggested that the name for the new fighter should be something 'venomous', and that it should ideally start with the same letter as the name of the manufacturer, Supermarine. Early suggestions were the 'Shrike' and the 'Shrew', before the name 'Spitfire' was hit upon. Mitchell was heard to mutter that it was ...just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose.
Into Active Service
Go in quickly - Punch hard - Get out!
- 'Sailor' Malan's Ten Rules of Air Fighting, 1941
The first Spitfire Mk I was delivered to 19 Squadron, RAF Duxford in Cambridgeshire on 4 August 1938, but production problems meant only 46 were airworthy by January 1939. In that time Supermarine Aviation Works laid out their Woolaston factory near Southampton for large-scale production and organised one of the largest subcontract schemes ever envisaged in Britain. Plans were also made during 1937 for the construction of a large new shadow factory at Castle Bromwich near Birmingham for Spitfire production, and it was lucky that this was so. Woolaston came under heavy bombing during the Battle of Britain and although Castle Bromwich stepped up production, other smaller groups of factories scattered throughout England, some in old garages and even churches produced Spitfire parts, including Worcester, Worcestershire and Trowbridge, near Keevil, Wiltshire to aid in the war effort.
On 12 April, 1938 a contract was placed for 1,000 Spitfire Mk IIs to be built at Castle Bromwich, of which the actual construction had not then even begun. In the following year, on 29 April further contracts were placed with Supermarine for 200 Spitfires and on 9 August for a further 450. When Britain went to war on 3 September, 1939 some 2,160 Spitfires were already on order and a total of ten RAF squadrons were equipped with the fighter - 19, 66 and 611 Squadrons at Duxford; 54, 65 and 74 Squadrons at Hornchurch; 72 Squadron at Church Fenton; 41 and 609 Squadrons at Catterick; and 602 Squadron at Abbotsinch. The Spitfire, along with the Hawker Hurricane, became the mainstay of Fighter Command.
Get me Spitfires for my wing!
- Adolf Galland, German Fighter Ace, 1940
The Spitfire soon became a firm favourite amongst pilots; it had tremendous 'flyability'. With an unmatched speed due to the incredible performance of the Rolls Royce PV 12 'Merlin' engine, decent firepower and manoeuvrability, the sleek, beautifully shaped, all-metal monoplane became a source of envy for many pilots, including the enemy! However, its drawbacks were that it required a huge quantity of fuel and therefore a disproportionately large fuel tank - which meant that it tended to burn up quickly when hit by gunfire, the newer design of retractable undercarriage led to some embarrassing accidents on landing, and the cockpit wasn't easy for a pilot to get out of in a hurry;
The cockpit was so narrow that his shoulders brushed against the sides whenever he rubbernecked2 for enemy fighters (which was constantly); his flying helmet, with his radio headset, covered his ears; his nose and mouth were covered by an oxygen mask, which also contained his microphone. He could not hear very well - even the engine roar was muffled; his vision was severely restricted, and his entire body was boxed in by the confines of the cockpit. He was, in short, not only lonely but also extremely uncomfortable.
- Wing Commander Raymond Myles Beacham Duke-Woolley
Despite the complaints, in October 1939 Spitfires from 602 and 603 Squadrons claimed the aircraft's first enemy combat victims when two German Junkers Ju-88s were shot down over Rosyth near Edinburgh, Scotland. As the German forces blitzkrieged through Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France, there was little opposition to the Nazis, both on the ground and in the air, and by 18 June, 1940 the retreat from Dunkirk ensured all allied forces had left France.
However, it was not long before two of the most influential aircraft of the Second World War were to meet in the sky. The Spitfire proved to be a worthy adversary for its Luftwaffe equivalent, the Messerschmitt Bf-109 'E', or 'Emil'. The Spit was a little faster, but the 'one-o-nine' could outclimb and outdive the British fighter due to its pressurised fuel injection system. Dogfights between the two aircraft were tense affairs, but would often lead to the Messerschmitt diving away to safety. The true test for both came when Hitler laid his eyes upon England, and Great Britain.
The Battle of Britain
...the Battle of France is over, the Battle of Britain is about to begin.
- Winston Churchill, 1940
The Battle of Britain was waged between 10 July and 31 October, 1940. At the beginning, Fighter Command had 640 fighters - 27 squadrons of Hurricanes and 19 Spitfire squadrons. Although the Spitfire and Hurricane success rate was virtually in proportion to the numbers deployed, the top-scoring fighter squadrons, like 609 Squadron based at Middle Wallop which was the first to reach 100 confirmed enemy aircraft 'kills', were based on the front line. A typical day for a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain went something like this:
I was Red Three with Flt Lt Lawson. We sighted the E/A3 who were in vics of three4. The escorts dived singly on us, and I engaged one of them (Me 109) with a yellow nose. I gave one burst of six seconds and E/A burst into flames. Pilot baled out. I searched around for half-an-hour but could not find any other E/A. I landed at 1250.
- Combat Report of Flt Sgt George Unwin, 15 September, 1940
Other pilots also found the Spitfire to be a blessing. Douglas Bader even preferred to fly his Spitfire with older .303 Browning machine guns, rather than the newer 20mm cannons fitted in the Mk V, as he liked to get in close to his targets for a certain kill. And the Spitfire certainly made a difference, not only alongside the Hurricane in the Battle of Britain, but throughout the war.
After the Spitfire had shown its mettle in the Battle of Britain, the aircraft began to further its career. Every theatre of war and operations saw the Spitfire involved in some way, shape and form. Variants were designed and produced at an incredible rate, from the Mk I to the Mk XXIV, with a total of some 40 distinguishing types (including a return to the seaplane variant!). With progressions in technology during the war, the original Mk I Spitfire and its humble beginnings became more than just a formidable fighter aircraft. With the addition of cannons, the Spitfire took on tank-busting duties over Europe and Russia, and many older aircraft saw second careers with the Soviet Air Force taking on the Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf 190 fighter aircraft and other German bombers.
The nose of my Spitfire was pointing at the belly of the Heinkel. I opened fire, turned away just in time and saw an explosion. I felt great! I had knocked down my second aircraft that day!
- Col Anatoli Ivanov, Soviet Air Force, 1943
Further changes to the Merlin engine also meant that the Spitfire became dominant in the skies over the heat of Africa and jungles of South East Asia. The 'Grey Nurse' Squadron of northern Australia also showed that the Spitfire had the edge against Japanese fighters like the Mitsubishi Zero. With the Merlin superseded by the improved Griffon engine, the Spitfire was then used for a variety of tasks. With greater horsepower and performance in the engine department, the later models of the Spitfire had the ability to carry heavier armament, in particular bombs or even air-to-ground rockets. There are even stories of Spitfires making runs across the Channel from France with kegs of beer strapped under their wings! The Spitfire took on the role of fighter-bomber with aplomb, seeing action alongside other aircraft like the British Typhoon and Tempest, and the American P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs in the battle for Europe and D-Day.
With such success the Royal Navy even ordered the Spitfire for their aircraft carriers. Renamed 'Seafire', these models had folding wings and arrester hooks for carrier-based landing and storage. But it was always the Spitfire's speed that gave it the edge in the air, and in the latter stages of the Second World War the aircraft became not only an excellent high altitude recon-scout, but was able to meet and greet the V1 Doodlebugs that rained down on London and the south coast of England. Not just a pretty face, the Spitfire showed its endurance as a power in the skies long after VE Day.
The Spitfire was a lady, and everyone who flew her had a love affair with her.
- Col Jim Goodson, 'Eagle' Squadron Pilot
Apart from the RAF, Spitfires also served with most of the allied air forces in the Second World War. Amongst them were the Polish Air Force, Czechoslovak Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, South African Air Force and Royal New Zealand Air Force. The Spitfire was also one of the few foreign aircraft to see active service with the United States Army Air Force and several European countries also operated Spitfires through the RAF during the war, most notably the Armée de l'Air as part of the Free French Air Force, the Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres (FAFL). In the Swedish Air Force the Spitfire was given the designation S.31 and was in service right up until 1955.
Following the Second World War, the Spitfire continued to be a mainstay of many air forces, including Egyptian Air Force, Hellenic Air Force, Irish Air Corps, Israeli Air Force, Italian Air Force, Syrian Air Force, Danish Air Force, Royal Norwegian Air Force and Turkish Air Force. The Spitfire was also a part of the Royal Canadian Navy, Indian Air Force, Royal Netherlands Air Force, the French Aeronavale, Portuguese Air Force, Southern Rhodesian Air Force, the Yugoslav Air Force, Hong Kong Auxilary Air Force, and the Union of Burma Air Force to name but a few!
The last Spitfire was built in 1947 and at the end of its career in 1954 the Spitfire was being used primarily as an unarmed photo-reconnaissance plane. The various redesigns were led by Joseph Smith, who became chief designer when RJ Mitchell lost his fight to cancer in 1937, not knowing how much of an impact his wonderful aircraft had made.
Where to see a 'Spit'
Apart from travelling back in time to 1940s London, which would be inadvisable even if it were possible, Spitfires can be seen in a variety of museums. Some of the best are the;
- Imperial War Museum - Duxford
- Kent Battle of Britain Museum, Hawkinge.
- The RAF Museum
- RAF Manston History Museum
- The Science Museum Flight Gallery
- The Shuttleworth Collection
About fifty Spitfires remain airworthy and can often be seen at Air Shows;
- The RAF maintains Spitfires for flying display and ceremonial purposes in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.
- Historic Flying Ltd. restore and fly Spitfires and other vintage aircraft.
- The Temora Aviation Museum in New South Wales, Australia, has a Supermarine Spitfire Mk VIII, which is flown regularly during local Air Shows.
- Planes of Fame flying out of Chino, California operate a Mk IXE and a Mk XIV, and house a static replica of the S.6B Schneider Cup winner.
- Fantasy of Flight Museum based in Polk City, Florida operate a Mk XVI.
- Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, Texas fly a Mk XVI.
- The Indian Air Force Museum have several Spitfires in flying condition.
- A black-painted Spitfire, which belonged to Israeli pilot and former president Ezer Weizmann, is exhibited at the Israeli Air Force Museum in Hatzerim, and used for ceremonial flying displays.
At the Movies
If you can't get out to see a Spitfire 'in the flesh', the following films portray the aircraft in flight:
- The First of the Few (1942) - starring Leslie Howard and David Niven, tells the story of RJ Mitchell.
- Reach for the Sky (1956) - starring Kenneth More, this is a biopic tale of fighter pilot Douglas Bader.
- Battle of Britain (1969) - starring Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard and Michael Caine, a fantastic film about the lives of pilots during the Battle of Britain.
- Dark Blue World (2001) - a heartfelt film following the lives of two Czech pilots during the Second World War.
A Spitfire of Your Own
Over the course of many years, replica models of all sizes have been made of the many variants of the Spitfire by model aircraft companies such as Airfix or Tamiya. The kits are happily put together and painted by people of all ages, whether it's to be played with in the back garden or for displaying in a place of honour.
For those who want to try the realism behind flying a Spitfire, either just for the joy of it or in the heat of a dogfight during the Second World War, there are many flight simulation software packages and air-combat games available for different computers and gaming consoles. If you don't have a computer, a games console or the inclination to buy such software, why not try the following:
Stick your arms out at ninety degrees from your torso, pucker up your lips and make buzzing noises while you run around a lot, pretending you are shooting down enemy aircraft aboard your Spitfire, its Merlin engine roaring and machine guns firing the standard six-second bursts. Tally Ho!
There are many organisations that pay homage to the Spitfire, but the largest is quite probably the Spitfire Society who hold conventions annually in respect of the aircraft and its pilots. Stories of the Spitfire and the people it touched during the Second World War can also be found at the BBC People's War Website.