In the annals of World War II, one of the most famous airplanes is the British-developed Supermarine Spitfire, an agile, elliptical-wing fighter that has become synonymous with the Royal Air Force victory in the Battle of Britain. Thanks in large measure to news reports coming out of that battle, the Spitfire captured the imagination of a generation of English and American schoolboys, some of whom would themselves be flying Spitfires by the war’s end half a decade later.
Until the introduction of the North American P-51 Mustang, the Spitfire was considered to be the most maneuverable of the Allied fighters, and it was favored by nearly everyone who flew it.
R.J. Mitchell’s Flying Machine
The Spitfire was a product of the Supermarine Company, a British firm that started out building flying boats before World War I. In 1916, the firm was joined by a young engineer named R.J. Mitchell, who would eventually design the Spitfire. After World War I, Supermarine was heavily involved in designing and building flying boats for competition. Mitchell, however, envisioned smaller, sleeker designs that would be capable of much higher speeds than were possible with the ungainly flying boats.
After the 1923 Schneider Trophy Race, Mitchell decided to design a high-performance seaplane for the 1925 event. Unfortunately, the first Mitchell design crashed during the race, which was won by Lieutenant James H. Doolittle of the U.S. Army. Ironically, 17 years later Doolittle would have command of several Spitfire squadrons operating in North Africa. Supermarine’s S.5 finally took the Schneider Trophy in 1927, establishing the company’s reputation as a builder of fast airplanes and Mitchell’s as their designer. The following year the company was purchased by Vickers. When the worldwide depression of the 1930s led England to decide not to promote an entrant for the 1931 race, Lady Houston, a wealthy Englishwoman and patriot, funded the entry. Thanks to her generous gift, Britain captured the Schneider Cup and took it home for good.
Until that time, Supermarine’s efforts had been aimed at seaplanes, but Mitchell convinced the company to design and build an entry for an Air Ministry specification for a day-night fighter. Although Supermarine had been purchased by Vickers, the original company was given the latitude to design airplanes under its own name. Supermarine named its new fighter “Spitfire,” but the gull-wing airplane was not a success.
One of the main reasons for the first Spitfire’s failure was the long landing distances required by the high-speed design; the Air Ministry had specified that the new fighter would have to operate from short fields. Meanwhile, Rolls- Royce had developed a new engine it called the Merlin, and Mitchell decided to adopt it for a military fighter for the RAF. In 1934, the Air Ministry put out a specification for an eight-gun fighter, and Mitchell took up the challenge; the company adopted “Spitfire” as the name of its design.
To arm the new fighters, the Air Ministry worked out an arrangement with the American Browning Arms Company to build its .30-caliber machine gun in the UK under license and to convert it to the British standard .303 cartridge. The prototype Spitfire took to the air on March 5, 1936.
Spitfires Fight the Phony War
In the mid-1930s Britain had begun rearming, prompted at least in part by the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany. When the Air Ministry put out a requirement for an eight-gun production fighter, Mitchell undertook to redesign the Spitfire to meet the new specifications. After he learned that he was terminally ill, Mitchell devoted himself to the project, working night and day and perhaps speeding up his own demise. Unfortunately, the designer succumbed to cancer before the first production airplane had been completed. But the new fighter he had designed would live on to earn Mitchell his place in military aviation history.
The first Spitfires entered operational service in mid-1938; RAF 19 Squadron at Duxford was the first to receive the new fighter, with the first airplanes delivered on August 4. The second Spitfire squadron was also at Duxford; RAF 66 Squadron began replacing its Gloucester Gauntlets with Spitfires on October 13. Other squadrons began receiving the new fighter the following year. By August 1938 the RAF had 400 operational Spitfires, with orders for 2,100 more. Barely a year later, England would be at war, and the Spitfire would be one of the country’s most important weapons.
A Supermarine Spitfire Mk. I of the No. 74 Squadron, which served during the Battle of Britain, reveals the dark camouflage scheme in use at the time of the battle and the sleek profile of the famed fighter.
Tragically, the first aircraft shot down by Spitfires were friendly Hawker Hurricanes. Shortly after Britain declared war on Germany during the first week of September 1939, a false alarm led to the scrambling of RAF fighters against a nonexistent enemy. Two Spitfires from 74 Squadron came up behind a pair of Hurricanes from 56 Squadron and shot both airplanes down; both pilots were killed by the friendly fire. A court-martial resulted in an acquittal on the basis that the real fault lay with the fighter controllers who had directed the action. Another Spitfire was lost the same day when the pilot allowed his airplane to stall at low altitude; it spun into the trees before he could recover.
On October 16 a Spitfire pilot was credited with the first official kill of the war for RAF Fighter Command. German reconnaissance aircraft operating over the Firth of Forth led to the scrambling of Spitfires from Scottish bases. A three-plane section from 603 Squadron intercepted a twin-engine aircraft and shot it down. But such engagements were rare during the period known as “The Phoney War,” when contact with the enemy was rare. The RAF Auxiliary squadrons took advantage of the temporary lull in the conflict to bring their pilots up to operational readiness in their Hurricanes and Spitfires.
Spits over France
When the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries on May 10, 1940, the Spitfire squadrons were held in reserve while six squadrons of Hurricanes were sent into action over France with the British Expeditionary Force. The decision was logical, in that the difficulties of forward operations could be better endured with only one type of fighter. The Hurricane was better suited for operations from primitive airfields owing to its wide landing gear track—and there were a lot more of them.
As the situation on the Continent worsened, the Spitfire pilots of 19 Squadron were told that they would be deploying to France. Before they could make the move, Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided to suspend further reinforcement of the fighters in spite of French pleas for additional fighter support. His decision to hold the remainder of the RAF in reserve is credited with saving the fighter force and, ultimately, keeping England in the war. As it was, few of the Hurricanes that went to France returned to English soil.
Contrary to the belief among BEF troops who awaited evacuation from Dunkirk that Fighter Command had turned its back on them, RAF fighters—including Spitfires—were heavily engaged against the Luftwaffe during the evacuation. It was just that most of the action took place far away from the beach and out of sight of the frightened British soldiers awaiting evacuation—or capture.
Previously, action by Spitfires had mostly been against German intruders over England. The first dogfight took place on May 23, when Spitfires from 74 Squadron encountered German fighters over France. The squadron commander had to make a forced landing at Calais. A rescue effort was mounted with a Miles Master escorted by two Spitfires flown by Flight Lieutenant Deere and Pilot Officer Allen. A flight of Me-109s appeared over the field just as the Master took off. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Leathart, returned and landed. Deere, who would become one of the RAF’s most famous pilots, shot down one of the Messerschmitts almost immediately. The Spitfires kept the Me-109s away from the field, and the Master took off and returned to England.
The action over Calais was the first engagement between Spitfires and Me-109s, but air action escalated when the BEF was pushed into an enclave at Dunkirk. Even though the troops on the ground were not aware of it, a great air battle was taking place over France as the British Royal Navy attempted to evacuate the BEF from France. The RAF lost 229 aircraft during the evacuation, of which 70 to 80 were Spitfires.