The most important single-seat fighter used by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II.
Reginald J. Mitchell, the chief designer of the Supermarine company, designed the Supermarine Type 224 in response to a request for new RAF fighter aircraft to meet Air Ministry Specifications. The Type 224 flew for the first time in February, 1934. However, Mitchell was dissatisfied with the plane even before it flew and believed he could design a much better fighter aircraft by ignoring the specification. The Supermarine company undertook the work as a private venture, and the new design, the Spitfire, was accepted by the Air Ministry in January, 1935. Mitchell had previously designed a successful series of racing seaplanes for which the Rolls-Royce company had produced a powerful engine. Development of this engine produced the Rolls-Royce Merlin, which was chosen to power the Spitfire.
The Spitfire was a low-wing, single-seater fighter aircraft of all-metal construction, featuring a retractable undercarriage and enclosed cockpit. Initially it was armed with eight 0.303-inch Browning machine guns, with which the Battle of Britain (1940) was fought. Later models carried gradually increasing armament, until the last, produced after the war, carried four 20-millimeter cannon. It could also carry bombs for use in the ground attack role. The most outstanding visual feature of the Spitfire, and the one by which it could always be recognized, was the elliptical wing shape featuring a smooth curve on the trailing edge to meet a lesser curve on the leading edge at the pointed wingtip.
The Spitfire went into service with RAF fighter squadrons in late 1938, and, by the start of the war in September, 1939, was being flown by nine squadrons. By the time of the Battle of Britain, it was being flown by nineteen squadrons. Although it was not the most numerically important British aircraft, as was the Hawker Hurricane, the Spitfire played a vital role. Equal in performance to the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter, it could take on the Bf-109 even though the British fighters were often outnumbered by the fighters that escorted the German bombers.
The Spitfire had been designed to intercept bombers attacking the British Isles, and, for this purpose, it did not need a great range. After the Battle of Britain had been won, the RAF gradually shifted, with increasing confidence, to a more offensive mode. The Spitfire was used to fight far from home, over enemy territory. In order to provide the necessary range, it was fitted with external fuel tanks to allow it to seek out the Luftwaffe in its home territory.
The first Spitfires could reach speeds of 360 miles per hour and heights of 31,000 feet. By the end of the war, later models reached speeds of 460 miles per hour and heights of 44,000 feet. Later models received a newer, more powerful engine, the Rolls-Royce Griffon. The British Royal Navy also needed modern fighter aircraft, and the Spitfire was fitted with an arrester hook and catapult attachments to become the Seafire, in which guise it operated from aircraft carriers. The first Seafires were simply modified Spitfires. In order to render them fully suitable for naval use, they were redesigned to allow the wings to fold for storage purposes below decks.
The advanced design of the Spitfire and its complicated elliptical wing initially caused production problems, because the hundreds of subcontractors necessary to ensure the required production rate were simply unused to the design. The bombing of the Supermarine works at Southampton during the Battle of Britain almost halted production, and it was quickly decided to disperse the factories, which added to production difficulties. However, new factories were built and additional men and women were trained, and, by the end of 1941, production of Spitfires was more or less satisfactory.
The Spitfire was designed to fight other aircraft, and at this it was perhaps the best all-around fighter aircraft of World War II. Its real strength, however, lay in its superb maneuverability, which few aircraft could even approach. It could out-turn every German fighter, and although some models that were developed for a specific purpose did not have quite the same ability as others, generally speaking, the Spitfire was beloved by all who flew it.
The armament with which the Spitfire started the war soon became inadequate and was upgraded to include two 20-millimeter cannon in the Mark V and most subsequent models. However, some Spitfires were built with no armament at all. It had been found that the Spitfire, with modifications, could fly fast enough and high enough to avoid any attempts at interception and so, fitted with cameras, it became the backbone of RAF reconnaissance units.
The end of World War II did not mean the end of the Spitfire, and the Seafire saw service with the British Royal Navy in Korea. In 1948, Israeli Spitfires flew alongside Israeli Bf-109’s against Egyptian Spitfires in a confrontation in the Middle East. The RAF continued to use the Spitfire in a weather reconnaissance role until June, 1957.
Of more than 22,000 Spitfires and Seafires built, fewer than seventy are preserved, but approximately one-half of these remain airworthy and may be seen at flying displays all over the world.
Dibbs, John, and Tony Holmes. Spitfire: The Flying Legend. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2000. A tribute to the Spitfire, extensively illustrated with contemporary and archival photographs and featuring firsthand accounts from surviving Spitfire pilots. Ethell, Jeffrey L., and Steve Pace. Spitfire. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1997. A history of the Spitfire in World War II, with bibliographical references and an index. Morgan, Eric B., and Edward Shacklady. Spitfire: The History. Lincolnshire, England: Key Publishing, 2000. A wide-ranging and well-illustrated book describing the Spitfire in fine detail. Oliver, David. Jane’s Supermarine Spitfire. London: HarperCollins, 1999. Describes a typical Spitfire interception mission during the Battle of Britain.
Battle of Britain
Royal Air Force
World War II