Supermarine Spitfire

The British legend

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A Spitfire in extremely low flight at Imperial War Museum Duxford
(Photo: unknown film crew member) 

Few World War II-era warplanes are as iconic, celebrated and recognizable as the Supermarine Spitfire, arguably the most famous British fighter plane of all time. A sleek and high-performance interceptor, the Spitfire became the “face” of the Battle of Britain, and went on to serve as the only British aircraft in continuous production before and during the entire war. This article will provide a brief overview of the birth and development history of this legendary aircraft.

Mk Vc (trop) Spitfires in Tunisia in 1943 (Photo: Imperial War Museum)
Mk Vc (trop) Spitfires in Tunisia in 1943
(Photo: Imperial War Museum)

In 1931, the British Air Ministry put out specifications for a modern single-engine fighter. Supermarine Aviation Works, a company best-known for flying boats and racing seaplanes, submitted their design, but lost out to the Gloster Gladiator, a World War I-style biplane. Supermarine’s chief designer, R. J. Mitchell, continued to improve his plane until it was eventually accepted in the mid-30s. The name “Spitfire” was inspired not by the plane’s ferocious fighting ability, but by the daughter of the director of Vickers (Aviation), which owned Supermarine: he often called her “a little spitfire,” and decided to name the new plane after her. Mitchell died in 1937 and never got to see his creation in combat; his chief draughtsman, Joe Smith, took over his position as chief designer and continued the project.

The Supermarine Type 224, the rejected original design (Photo: unknown photographer)
The Supermarine Type 224, the rejected original design
(Photo: unknown photographer)

The looming conflict with Germany dictated the new plane’s attributes. Britain had invested a fortune in its radar defense system to detect incoming German bombing raids, but also needed aircraft to actually shoot those bombers down. What they needed was a typical interceptor: a plane that was quick enough and could climb at a high enough rate to take off, quickly get to the incoming bombers before they could drop their bombs, and shoot them down. High speed and climb rate meant the plane had to be light, which in turn meant it could only carry a limited amount of fuel, and thus had a short range. The Hawker Hurricane did a decent job, but the Spitfire incorporated more modern technology and design choices. The distinctive wing shape was one of many features that improved the plane’s interception capabilities: it was thin to reduce drag, it had a large surface area to maximize lift, it skewed forward to prevent it from twisting mid-flight, and its ellipse shape gave it the best aerodynamic properties as long it was untwisted.

Reginald Joseph Mitchell, the Spitfire’s designer, in 1933 (Photo: unknown photographer)
Reginald Joseph Mitchell, the Spitfire’s designer, in 1933
(Photo: unknown photographer)
One interesting feature of the wing was its washout. When the plane approached stall speed, the roots of the wings located at the fuselage would start stalling before the wingtips. This meant that instead of going into an uncontrollable spiral, the plane would first start shaking, alerting the pilot to quickly increase speed.
 
Choosing the plane’s armament was a critical design decision. At a 1934 conference, scientific officer Captain F. W. “Gunner” Hill presented numerous charts to prove that future interceptors would need at least eight rifle-caliber machine guns, each firing 1,000 rounds a minute, to reliably down enemy planes. His arguments were accepted, and the first Spitfires were equipped with eight .30 caliber Browning machine guns.
(Read our earlier article - The .30 cal Browning) (At least nominally; the very early ones shipped with only four guns due to a temporary shortage.) This firepower proved sufficient early in the war, but constant improvements to German plane armor forced later versions of the Spitfire to feature upgraded armament. Several different types of wings were produced to hold different gun configurations. Beside eight .30 cals, the Spitfire could also carry two or four 20 mm Hispano autocannons, two Hispanos and four machine guns, and some later marks also carried heavier .50 caliber Brownings (Read our earlier article – The Browning .50 cal) instead of .30 cals. The first experiments with autocannons were a failure due to the small ammo capacity of the Hispano’s box magazine, and the poor reliability of the gun’s early versions; once these problems were fixed later in the war, the gun gave the Spitfire a rather heavy punch that most American fighters lacked due to their all-machine gun armament.
1917 photo of future Captain Hill testing a gun platform on a floatplane (Photo: unknown photographer)
1917 photo of future Captain Hill testing a gun platform on a floatplane
(Photo: unknown photographer)

The Spitfire made its first major appearance during the Battle of Britain, where it quickly catapulted to stardom: the British populace considered it the plane that won the battle, even though more German aircraft were downed by Hurricanes (in no small part because there were a lot more Hurricanes available). The two plane types often worked in tandem: the nimble Spitfires engaged the BF 109 Messerschmitt escorts, then the slower but more stable Hurricanes gunned down the bombers.
 
The public’s adoration of the Spitfire was enhanced by the introduction of Spitfire funds, donation drives organized by the British government. Children and families could contribute pennies or shillings from their savings; banks and corporations often paid for an entire plane, then advertised the fact in their marketing. Townsfolk often pooled their contributions to have the plane named after the town as a point of patriotic pride. One village drew the outline of a Spitfire on the main square and challenged the residents to fill it with coins (which they did in a matter of days). One Liverpool prostitute showed up at a police station to donate £3, the standard fine for soliciting at the time. Even other parts of the British Empire chipped in: the Nizam (ruler) of Hyderabad (in present-day southern India) donated so much money that an entire squadron was named in his honor.

A downed Messerschmitt being paraded around at a Spitfire fund event (Photo: Express & Star)
A downed Messerschmitt being paraded around at a Spitfire fund event
(Photo: Express & Star)

The first version of the Spitfire was already fast and agile, but still had teething problems. Cold air at high altitudes caused the gun barrels to freeze; this was solved by installing air ducts to take hot air from the engine to the guns, and by covering the gun muzzles with fabric to keep cold air out (until the guns started firing and blew a hole in the fabric.) The Mk (“mark”) I’s landing gear had to be lowered by the pilot pumping it with his right hand while trying to fly with his left, and the men often suffered “Spitfire knuckles” by scraping their hands against the cockpit while pumping; this problem was solved by the introduction of a hydraulic system.

The cockpit of a Spitfire Mk I (Photo: Tonbridge Battle of Britain Museum)
The cockpit of a Spitfire Mk I
(Photo: Tonbridge Battle of Britain Museum)
Another early problem, not unique to the Spitfire, was the lack of IFF (“identification, friend or foe”) transmitters, which led to tragedy at the Battle of Barking Creek on September 6, 1939, a few days after Germany invaded Poland. Spitfires and Hurricanes launched from separate airfields in response to what was believed to be a German air raid, but later turned out to be a false alarm. The inexperienced pilots spotted each other where the enemy was supposed to be, failed to recognize each other as friendlies, and opened fire, resulting in one Hurricane and one Spitfire destroyed and a Hurricane pilot killed – thus, the first British pilot killed in the war was actually killed by a Spitfire.
Hurricanes of No. 151 Squadron, the unit involved in the incident at Barking Creek (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Hurricanes of No. 151 Squadron, the unit involved in the incident at Barking Creek
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
These and other early problems were eventually all fixed throughout the war as the Spitfire went through numerous versions, the latest, the Mk 24, first flying in March 1946, after the war. (It should be noted that the various “marks” of the Spitfire started out with Roman numerals and changed over to Arabic numbers as part of a larger reorganization in the Royal Air Force.) Listing all the changes across the board is beyond the scope of this article, but we will give a brief overview of the most important development steps.
 
The early versions (Mk I to V) were largely about solving early problems, surviving the Battle of Britain and improving the plane based on the lessons learned. These fighters were on parity with their main German counterpart, the Bf 109E, but had a notable weakness. When the plane entered a dive, the fuel would flood the carburetor of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, causing it to stall. The fuel-injected engines of German planes did not have this problem, allowing Messerschmitt pilots to dive away to safety, since the Spitfires and Hurricanes couldn’t follow them. A device nicknamed “Miss Shilling’s orifice” after the inventor, was introduced in early 1941 as a solution that could be installed on already existing planes.
A camera being installed in a Spitfire before a reconnaissance mission (Photo: Australian War Memorial)
A camera being installed in a Spitfire before a reconnaissance mission
(Photo: Australian War Memorial)
From the Mk V onward, Spitfires could also carry bombs to operate in a fighter-bomber role. This gave them extended utility in the later years of the war, when the collapse of the Luftwaffe reduced the need for interceptors, while ground troops fighting in Europe could always use more close air support.
 
Early versions also established the practice of making special photoreconnaissance varieties. These planes were unarmed and carried extra fuel and photographic equipment, relying on their speed and good climb rate to escape German planes. Later, higher-performance Spitfires continued to serve in this role until the end of the war.
A Mk 19, the last photographic reconnaissance version, with D-Day invasion stripes (Photo: Adrian Pingstone)
A Mk 19, the last photographic reconnaissance version, with D-Day invasion stripes
(Photo: Adrian Pingstone)
The Mk VI was designed in anticipation of raids by high-altitude German bombers that could not be intercepted by most fighters. It had a pressurized cockpit and a different propeller that worked better in high-altitude rare air. The Mk VI also had a distinctly different wing shape, where the rounded end of the elliptical wing was “extended” to terminate in a point. This gave it better performance at high altitudes and a service ceiling of 39,200 ft (11,900 m). The high-altitude bomber threat never really manifested, so the 100 Mk Vis built were relegated to other, lower-altitude duties, where they were discovered to have worse performance than Mk Vs due to all the modifications.
 
The carrier-based version of the Spitfire, the Seafire, was introduced in early 1942. Its development history will have to be the subject of a future article, but let us note here that the Fleet Air Arm was desperately in need of a modern naval fighter to replace its aging designs, and the Spitfire was the first thing that could be converted. It turned out that a short-range, lightweight interceptor is not a great match for long-range naval combat and mechanically stressful carrier landings, and the Seafire never really became as good as some of the dedicated American naval fighters.
A later-version Seafire with folding wings (Photo: Kogo / Wikipedia)
A later-version Seafire with folding wings
(Photo: Kogo / Wikipedia)
The Royal Air Force encountered a nasty surprise in late 1941 and early 1942: the new German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter. The Fw 190 rapidly established itself as vastly superior to any version of the Spitfire in existence, forcing the British to scramble for a reply. The Mk IX (actually introduced before the MK VII and VIII) was a desperate stopgap measure, using newer, more powerful versions of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Another attempt to give Spitfires (of different versions) a better fighting chance was to “clip” the wings by making them shorter and giving them squared-off ends rather than the iconic curve. This improved roll rate and the maximum speed at low altitude, two factors at which the Spitfire’s deficiency was particularly glaring.
Two Spitfires, one with a clipped wing (Photo: Crown Copyright)
Two Spitfires, one with a clipped wing
(Photo: Crown Copyright)
The Mk VII was an improved version of the high-altitude Mk VI with a stronger engine, and like its predecessor, was only produced in small numbers due to a lack of high-altitude threats. The Mk VIII was an unpressurized, low-altitude version of the VII, which served almost exclusively in the Mediterranean, Asia and the Pacific.
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A Mk VII with its distinctive pointed wings at Langley, U.S.A., undergoing testing by the USAAF. This particular plane is the only surviving Mk VII today, and is housed at the Smithonian National Air and Space Museum
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)
The Mk XVI was practically identical to the Mk IX, but with a slightly different Merlin engine built in America.
A Spitfire Mk XVIe, presently flying at Imperial War Museum Duxford (Photo: Chowells / Wikipedia)
A Spitfire Mk XVIe, presently flying at Imperial War Museum Duxford
(Photo: Chowells / Wikipedia)
The RAF also briefly entertained the idea of floatplane Spitfires, which could take off from and land on water. The notion was first considered, then quickly shelved, during the German invasion of Norway (Read our earlier article – The German invasion of Norway). It was revived for potential use among the many islands of Greece, then shelved again once Greece fell to Axis forces.
An experimental floatplane version of the Spitfire Mk Vb (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
An experimental floatplane version of the Spitfire Mk Vb
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
The evolution of the Spitfire was taking a distinct direction by 1942. Early varieties were fast and agile, able to dogfight pretty much any Axis fighter except for certain Japanese and Italian designs. The addition of heavier guns and thicker armor, however, made the plane more sluggish, forcing the introduction of more powerful engines. Better engines combined with higher mass resulted in planes that were faster, but became gradually less and less maneuverable. This forced pilots to abandon tight turns in combat in favor of “slash-and-run” tactics where they would dive on the enemy from above, fire, then use the plane’s speed to pull away into a safe distance and set up another attack run. This change became even more pronounced with the introduction of the late-war variants, which abandoned the Merlin engine in favor of the powerful Griffon, also produced by Rolls-Royce.
 
The Mk XII was the first Griffon-powered Spitfire and proved its worth at an air race in July 1942. There were three participants: a captured German Fw 190, a new Hawker Typhoon, and the Mk XII Spitfire. The purpose of the race was to publicly demonstrate the Typhoon’s superiority over the Fw 190, and the Mk XII was only entered as a “pacemaker” to represent the “average contemporary fighter” that would come in last. To everybody’s surprise, it came in first.  Unfortunately for Mk XII pilots, the plane could not rack up a high victory count against enemy fighters as German pilots started refusing to engage Spitfires in low-altitude combat. The Mk XIIs were nevertheless put to good use in 1942, when they intercepted and shot down over 80 V-1 flying bombs
(Read our earlier article – Germany’s V-1 vengeance weapon).
A Spitfire disabling a V-1 bomb by “tipping” it over with its wing (Photo: Crown Copyright)
A Spitfire disabling a V-1 bomb by “tipping” it over with its wing
(Photo: Crown Copyright)
While the Mk XII’s Griffon engine was powerful, it suffered at high altitudes from only having a single-stage supercharger. The Mk XIV rectified this problem with the addition of a two-stage supercharger and a slew of other improvements, becoming the main high-altitude Spitfire version in Europe after the Normandy landings. The Mk XIV also arrived in Asia, but too late in the war to fly against Japanese planes. In 2012, rumors surfaced that the RAF buried several Mk XIVs, still unassembled and in their packing crates, at an airfield in Burma (today Myanmar) in 1945, but none of these rumored planes have been found.
 
The Mk XVIII was an improved Mk XIV with higher fuel capacity and a stronger wing structure to better utilize the Griffon engine’s power, but it arrived too late to serve in the war. The Mk 24 was the final version of the Spitfire and coexisted with the Supermarine Spiteful, the intended next generation of propeller-driven Supermarine fighters. The sun, however, had already sat on prop planes. The introduction of jet engines during the war put an end to prop warplane design shortly after, leaving the Spitfire as the icon of a past age of military aviation. The Spitfire’s last operation flight was a final, symbolic hoorah in 1963, when a Mk 19 photo recon plane went up against a Lightning jet interceptor in mock combat to figure out how jet planes can best fight piston-engine aircraft. Ridiculously lopsided as the fight was, it was noted that the Spitfire’s engine was not hot enough for the Lightning’s heat-seeking missile to get a proper lock on, forcing the much more modern fighter to rely on its cannons.
The participants of the 1963 trial (Photo: Crown Copyright)
The participants of the 1963 trial
(Photo: Crown Copyright)
Around 70 Spitfires still remain airworthy, and some of them fly regularly at Battle of Britain-related memorial events, with many more as static exhibits in museums. Join us on one of our 10-day Britain at War Tours to see this iconic aircraft from up close.
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A Mk 24 (fighter version) in the RAF Museum in London
(Photo: Alan Wilson)

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Winston Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall in London as they celebrate V-E Day, May 8, 1945.
(Photo: Imperial War Museum)
On May 8, we will celebrate the 78th anniversary of V-E Day, standing for Victory in Europe Day, the date of the formal surrender of the German armed forces in World War II on May 8, 1945. On this occasion, you will get a discount of $500 on all our tours if you book and pay in full until May 8, 2023. In addition to the discount, this promotion includes also our available 80th anniversary D-Day tours in 2024. According to statistics, seats for the main D-Day anniversaries get sold out approximately a year before the event. So book your tour as soon as possible because the most popular ones will get fully booked very soon. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. If you have any questions related to this promotion or our tours, feel free to contact our travel consultants.
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