A third reinforcement was more successful, as the pilots took off from the carrier in planes that were armed and ready to fight. Sixty-four Spitfires were launched from Eagle and Wasp, and most arrived safely on May 9. Additional fighters arrived a little over a week later. With the arrival of the additional Spitfires, the defenders of Malta were able to mount a more effective air defense, and Hitler decided to forgo his plans to invade the island.
Spitfires flown by both British and American pilots played a major role in the Allied effort in North Africa. The threat of damage from swirling sand initially kept the Spitfires out of the Middle East, but the development of improved air filters reduced the problem. British Spitfires first served in Egypt, then joined the Desert Air Force in North Africa. The American 31st and 52nd Fighter Groups picked up Spitfires at Gibraltar, then flew them on to French North Africa, where they engaged in a brief combat with Vichy French fighters upon their arrival. American- and British-flown Spitfires played a major role in the defeat of the Luftwaffe in North Africa.
Late War Roles of the Spitfire
With the attention of the Allied forces directed toward the Mediterranean, the fighter effort from the UK was focused on defending against continuing German air attacks, on rhubarbs against German airfields and shore installations in France, and on escorting American bombers on cross-Channel missions into France and the Low Countries. As the Allied emphasis changed to preparing for the invasion of Normandy, Spitfires were converted into ground-attack aircraft with the addition of hard points for bombs and rockets. Ground attack would continue to be a major Spitfire mission through the remainder of the war. Another role for the Spitfires was intercepting the pilotless V-1 buzz bombs before they could reach their targets in the vicinity of London.
Spitfires also played a role in the Far East, where the first of the type arrived in India in October 1942. Within two weeks they were flying missions over Burma. Spitfires would play an ever-increasing role in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater and were instrumental in preventing the Japanese from overrunning Allied installations at Imphal in the spring of 1944. Spitfires also saw service in the defense of northern Australia, although it was not until early 1943 that they entered operations there. Several Australian and New Zealand squadrons in the UK had previously been equipped with the Supermarine fighter. As pressure on the Northern Territories lessened, Royal Australian Air Force 79, 452, and 457 Squadrons moved northward to New Guinea.
Developing the Seafire
The success of the Spitfire led to an adaptation of the type for the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, following a precedent that had already been set by the Hawker Hurricane. To distinguish them from the RAF aircraft, the Navy fighters were referred to as Seafires. Although later production models featured folding wings to allow storage aboard carriers, the first Seafires were nothing but production Spitfires that had been modified for carrier landings by the addition of an arrester hook.
RAF and U.S. Spitfires had been flown off carriers during deliveries to Malta and North Africa, but the Seafires had true carrier capability. Unfortunately, the narrow landing gear and elongated nose made carrier landings difficult, and the Seafire was not a successful adaptation. Seafires did serve in the Pacific aboard the carrier HMS Implacable, but other British carriers in that theater carried American aircraft types.
Service Around the World
Spitfires served with many nations, not only in the international squadrons of the Royal Air Force that included Czechs, Poles, Belgians, Norwegians, and South Africans. They were also exported. The Soviet Air Force operated more than 1,300 Spitfires as both fighters and reconnaissance aircraft. Turkey was an early customer for the Spitfire, while Portugal received about 50 of the planes in late 1943. Spitfires were also provided to the Egyptian Air Force. A failed British and American diplomatic effort toward Sweden would have diverted 200 Spitfires to the Swedish Air Force in return for a suspension of shipments of Swedish ball bearings to Germany. After deliberating for several days, Sweden rejected the offer.
Whether it was as the hero of the Battle of Britain, interceptor and attack aircraft in North Africa, defender of Malta, or early escort fighter for strategic bombers, the Spitfire earned its rightful place in military aviation history.