The Supermarine Spitfire is a British single-seat fighter aircraft used by the Royal Air Force and other Allied countries before, during, and after World War II. Many variants of the Spitfire were built, using several wing configurations, and it was produced in greater numbers than any other British aircraft. It was also the only British fighter produced continuously throughout the war. The Spitfire continues to be popular among enthusiasts; nearly 60 remain airworthy, and many more are static exhibits in aviation museums throughout the world.

The Spitfire was designed as a short-range, high-performance interceptor aircraft by R. J. Mitchell, chief designer at Supermarine Aviation Works, which operated as a subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrong from 1928. Mitchell pushed the Spitfire’s distinctive elliptical wing with cutting-edge sunken rivets (designed by Beverley Shenstone) to have the thinnest possible cross-section, helping give the aircraft a higher top speed than several contemporary fighters, including the Hawker Hurricane. Mitchell continued to refine the design until his death in 1937, whereupon his colleague Joseph Smith took over as chief designer, overseeing the Spitfire’s development through its multitude of variants.

During the Battle of Britain, from July to October 1940, the public perceived the Spitfire to be the main RAF fighter, though the more numerous Hurricane shouldered a greater proportion of the burden against Nazi Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe. However, Spitfire units had a lower attrition rate and a higher victory-to-loss ratio than those flying Hurricanes because of the Spitfire’s higher performance. During the battle, Spitfires were generally tasked with engaging Luftwaffe fighters—mainly Messerschmitt Bf 109E-series aircraft, which were a close match for them.

After the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire superseded the Hurricane to become the backbone of RAF Fighter Command, and saw action in the European, Mediterranean, Pacific, and South-East Asian theatres. Much loved by its pilots, the Spitfire served in several roles, including interceptor, photo-reconnaissance, fighter-bomber, and trainer, and it continued to serve in these roles until the 1950s. The Seafire was a carrier-based adaptation of the Spitfire that served in the Fleet Air Arm from 1942 through to the mid-1950s. Although the original airframe was designed to be powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine producing 1,030 hp(768 kW), it was strong enough and adaptable enough to use increasingly powerful Merlins and, in later marks, Rolls-Royce Griffon engines producing up to 2,340 hp (1,745 kW). As a result, the Spitfire’s performance and capabilities improved over the course of its service life.

Operational history

K9795, the 9th production Mk I, with 19 Squadron in 1938

The operational history of the Spitfire with the RAF began with the first Mk Is K9789, which entered service with 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford on 4 August 1938. The Spitfire achieved legendary status during the Battle of Britain, a reputation aided by the “Spitfire Fund” organised and run by Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production.

In fact, the Hurricane outnumbered the Spitfire throughout the battle, and shouldered the burden of the defence against the Luftwaffe; however, because of its higher performance, the overall attrition rate of the Spitfire squadrons was lower than that of the Hurricane units, and the Spitfire units had a higher victory-to-loss ratio.

The key aim of Fighter Command was to stop the Luftwaffe’s bombers; in practice, whenever possible, the tactic was to use Spitfires to counter German escort fighters, by then based in northern France, particularly the Bf 109s, while the Hurricane squadrons attacked the bombers.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk.VC, BR114, of the No 103 MU, Aboukir, 1942

Well-known Spitfire pilots included “Johnnie” Johnson—34 enemy aircraft (e/a) shot down—who flew the Spitfire right through his operational career from late 1940 to 1945. Douglas Bader (20 e/a) and “Bob” Tuck (27 e/a) flew Spitfires and Hurricanes during the major air battles of 1940. Both were shot down and became prisoners of war, while flying Spitfires over France in 1941 and 1942. Paddy Finucane (28–32 e/a) scored all his successes in the fighter before disappearing over the English Channel in July 1942. Some notable Commonwealth pilots were George Beurling (31​13 e/a) from Canada, “Sailor” Malan (27 e/a) from South Africa, New Zealanders Alan Deere (17 e/a) and C F Gray (27 e/a) and the Australian Hugo Armstrong (12 e/a).

The Spitfire continued to play increasingly diverse roles throughout the Second World War and beyond, often in air forces other than the RAF. For example, the Spitfire became the first high-speed photo-reconnaissance aircraft to be operated by the RAF. Sometimes unarmed, they flew at high, medium, and low altitudes, often ranging far into enemy territory to closely observe the Axis powers and provide an almost continual flow of valuable intelligence information throughout the war.

In 1941 and 1942, PRU Spitfires provided the first photographs of the Freya and Würzburg radar systems, and in 1943, helped confirm that the Germans were building the V1 and V2 Vergeltungswaffe (“vengeance weapons”) rockets by photographing Peenemünde, on the Baltic Sea coast of Germany.

In the Mediterranean, the Spitfire blunted the heavy attacks on Malta by the Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe, and from early 1943, helped pave the way for the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy. On 7 March 1942, 15 Mk Vs carrying 90-gallon fuel tanks under their bellies took off from HMS Eagle off the coast of Algeria on a 600-mile (970 km) flight to Malta. Those Spitfire Vs were the first to see service outside Britain.

The Spitfire also served on the Eastern Front with the Soviet Air Force (VVS). The first deliveries of the Spitfire Mk VB variant took place at the start of 1943, with the first batch of 35 aircraft delivered via sea to the city of Basra, Iraq. A total of 143 aircraft and 50 furnished hulls (to be used for spare parts) followed by March of the same year. Though some aircraft were used for front line duty in 1943, most of them saw service with the Protivo-Vozdushnaya Oborona (English: “Anti-air Defence Branch”). In 1944, the USSR received the substantially improved Mk IX variant, with the first aircraft delivered in February. Initially, these were refurbished aircraft, but subsequent shipments were factory new. A total of 1,185 aircraft of this model were delivered through Iran, Iraq and the Arctic to northern Soviet ports. Two of these were the Spitfire HF Mk IX (high-altitude modification) while the remainder were the low-altitude LF Mk IX. The last Lend-Lease shipment carrying the Mk IX arrived at the port of Severodvinsk on 12 June 1945.

The Spitfire also served in the Pacific Theatre, meeting its match in the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Lt. Gen. Claire Chennault noted: “The RAF pilots were trained in methods that were excellent against German and Italian equipment, but suicide against the acrobatic Japs.”  Although not as fast as the Spitfire, the Zero could out-turn the Spitfire with ease, could sustain a climb at a very steep angle, and could stay in the air for three times as long. To counter the Zero, Spitfire pilots had to adopt a “slash and run” policy and use their faster speed and diving superiority to fight, while avoiding classic dogfights.

That Southeast Asia was a lower-priority area also did not help, and it was allocated few Spitfires and other modern fighters compared to Europe, which allowed the Japanese to easily achieve air superiority by 1942. Over the Northern Territory of Australia, Royal Australian Air Force and RAF Spitfires assigned to No. 1 Wing RAAF helped defend the port town of Darwin against air attack by the Japanese Naval Air Force, suffering heavy losses largely due to the type’s limited fuel capacity. Spitfire MKVIIIs took part in the last battle of World War II involving the Western allies in Burma, in the ground attack role, helping defeat a Japanese break-out attempt.

During the Second World War, Spitfires were used by the United States Army Air Forces in the 4th Fighter Group until they were replaced by Republic P-47 Thunderbolts in March 1943.

Several Spitfires were captured by the Germans and flown by units that tested, evaluated, and sometimes clandestinely operated enemy aircraft.

 

Speed and altitude records

 
The Spitfire Mk XI flown by Sqn. Ldr. Martindale, seen here after its flight on 27 April 1944 during which it was damaged achieving a true airspeed of 620 mph (998 km/h or Mach 0.92)

Beginning in late 1943, high-speed diving trials were undertaken at Farnborough to investigate the handling characteristics of aircraft travelling at speeds near the sound barrier (i.e., the onset of compressibility effects). Because it had the highest limiting Mach number of any aircraft at that time, a Spitfire XI was chosen to take part in these trials. Due to the high altitudes necessary for these dives, a fully feathering Rotol propeller was fitted to prevent overspeeding. During these trials, EN409, flown by Squadron Leader J. R. Tobin, reached 606 mph (975 km/h) (Mach 0.891) in a 45° dive.

In April 1944, the same aircraft suffered engine failure in another dive while being flown by Squadron Leader Anthony F. Martindale, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, when the propeller and reduction gear broke off. The dive put the aircraft to Mach 0.92, the fastest ever recorded in a piston-engined aircraft, but when the propeller came off, the Spitfire, now tail-heavy, zoom-climbed back to altitude. Martindale blacked out under the 11 g loading, but when he resumed consciousness, he found the aircraft at about 40,000 feet with its (originally straight) wings now slightly swept back. Martindale successfully glided the Spitfire 20 mi (32 km) back to the airfield and landed safely. Martindale was awarded the Air Force Cross for his exploits.

RAE Bedford (RAE) modified a Spitfire for high-speed testing of the stabilator (then known as the “flying tail”) of the Miles M.52 supersonic research aircraft. RAE test pilot Eric Brown stated that he tested this successfully during October and November 1944, attaining Mach 0.86 in a dive.

On 5 February 1952, a Spitfire 19 of 81 Squadron based at Kai Tak in Hong Kong reached probably the highest altitude ever achieved by a Spitfire. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Edward “Ted” Powles, was on a routine flight to survey outside air temperature and report on other meteorological conditions at various altitudes in preparation for a proposed new air service through the area. He climbed to 50,000 ft (15,000 m) indicated altitude, with a true altitude of 51,550 ft (15,710 m). The cabin pressure fell below a safe level, and in trying to reduce altitude, he entered an uncontrollable dive which shook the aircraft violently. He eventually regained control somewhere below 3,000 ft (910 m) and landed safely with no discernible damage to his aircraft. Evaluation of the recorded flight data suggested he achieved a speed of 690 mph (1,110 km/h), (Mach 0.96) in the dive, which would have been the highest speed ever reached by a propeller-driven aircraft if the instruments had been considered more reliable.

That any operational aircraft off the production line, cannons sprouting from its wings and warts and all, could readily be controlled at this speed when the early jet aircraft such as Meteors, Vampires, P-80s, etc, could not, was certainly extraordinary.

Jeffrey Quill

The critical Mach number of the Spitfire’s original elliptical wing was higher than the subsequently used laminar-flow section, straight-tapering-planform wing of the follow-on Supermarine Spiteful, Seafang, and Attacker, illustrating that Reginald Mitchell’s practical engineering approach to the problems of high-speed flight had paid off.

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