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Supermarine Spitfire

From PlaneSpottingWorld, for aviation fans everywhere
RAF Supermarine Spitfire XII banks in clouds.
Type Fighter
Manufacturer Supermarine
Designed by R. J. Mitchell
Maiden flight 5 March 1936
Retired 1955, RAF
Primary user Royal Air Force
Produced 1938–1948
Number built 20,351
Variants Supermarine Seafire
Supermarine Spiteful

The Supermarine Spitfire was a British single-seat fighter, used by the Royal Air Force and many other Allied countries during the Second World War, and into the 1950s.[1] It was produced in greater numbers than any other Allied design. The Spitfire was the only Allied fighter in production at the outbreak of the Second World War that was still in production at the end of the war.

Produced by the Supermarine subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrongs, the Spitfire was designed by the company's Chief Designer R. J. Mitchell, who continued to refine the design until his death from cancer in 1937; the position of chief designer was then filled by his colleague, Joseph Smith.[2] Its elliptical wing had a thin cross-section, allowing a higher top speed than the Hawker Hurricane and other contemporary designs; it also resulted in a distinctive appearance, enhancing its overall streamlined features. Much loved by its pilots, the Spitfire saw service during the whole of the Second World War and subsequent years, in most theatres of war, and in many different variants.

Design and development

File:Supermarine Spitfire Protoype K5054 Unpainted.jpg
The still unpainted Spitfire prototype K5054 shortly before its first flight

Supermarine's Chief Designer, R.J. Mitchell, had won four Schneider Trophy seaplane races with his designs: (Sea Lion II in 1922, S 5 in 1927, S 6 in 1929 and S 6b in 1931), combining powerful Napier Lion and Rolls-Royce "R" engines with minute attention to streamlining. These same qualities are equally useful for a fighter design, and, in 1931, Mitchell created such an aircraft design in response to an Air Ministry specification (F7/30) for a new and modern monoplane fighter.

This first attempt at a fighter resulted in an open-cockpit monoplane with gull-wings and a large fixed, spatted undercarriage powered by the evaporative cooled Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine.[3] The Supermarine Type 224 did not live up to expectations; nor did any of the competing designs, which were also deemed failures.

Mitchell immediately turned his attention to an improved design as a private venture, with the backing of Supermarine's owner, Vickers-Armstrongs. The new design added undercarriage retraction, an enclosed cockpit, oxygen breathing-apparatus and the much more powerful newly developed Rolls-Royce PV-XII engine, later named the Merlin.

By 1935, the Air Ministry had seen enough advances in the industry to try the monoplane design again.

Spitfire flying over the English coast (from a period photograph)

Elliptical wing design

From early on Mitchell and the design staff were contemplating an elliptical wing shape to solve the conflicting requirements of having the lowest possible thickness to chord ratio to reduce drag, and having room to install a retractable undercarriage, as well as the projected armament and ammunition which, in April 1935, was changed from two .303 Vickers machine guns in each wing to four .303 Brownings.

It has been suggested that Mitchell copied the wing shape of the Heinkel He 70. Mitchell's aerodynamicist, Beverley Shenstone, however, has pointed out that the He 70 was designed to fulfill a completely different role and that other aircraft had elliptical wings. The Spitfire wing was much thinner with a completely different section. As a practical engineer Mitchell was fully aware of the efficiency of the elliptical wing, as were Siegfried and Walter Günther, who designed the Heinkel. [4][5] In any event, the single-spar elliptical wing was enough to sell the Air Ministry on this new Type 300, which they funded by a new specification, F.10/35, drawn up around the Spitfire.

A design aspect of the wing which contributed greatly to its success was an innovative spar boom design, made up of five square concentric tubes which fitted into each other. Two of these booms were linked together by an alloy web creating a lightweight and very strong main spar. The undercarriage legs were attached to pivot points built into the inner, rear of the main spar and retracted outwards and slightly backwards into wells in the non-load carrying wing structure. The narrow undercarriage track was considered to be an acceptable compromise as it allowed the landing impact loads to be transmitted to the strongest parts of the wing structure.

Ahead of the spar the thick skinned leading edge of the wing formed a strong and very rigid D-shaped box, which took most of the wing loads. At the time the wing was designed this D-shaped leading edge was intended to house steam condensers for the evaporative cooling system which was supposed to be used by the new PV-XII. With the adoption of a 100% glycol liquid cooling system and a new radiator duct design, devised by a Fredrick Meredith of the RAE at Farnborough, the leading edge structure lost its function as an evaporator but was to later be used to house integral fuel tanks of various sizes.[6][7]

The wing section used was a NACA 2200 series which had been adapted to create a thickness to chord ratio of 13% at the root reducing to 6% at the tip. A dihedral of 6 degrees was adopted to give increased lateral stability.

Another feature of the wing was its washout. The trailing edge of the wing twisted slightly upward along its span, from −1/2 degree at its root to +2 degrees at its tip. This caused the wing roots to stall before the tips, reducing tip stall that may have resulted in a spin. In a tight turn the disturbance of the slipstream near the wing-root caused a distinctive "juddering" through the control column, warning the pilot that the Spitfire was nearing a stall. Many other aircraft of the time gave no advance warning and would flick straight into a spin, often fatal. In combat experienced pilots were able to use the tight turn and stall warning provided by the wing to full advantage, especially when pursuing or being pursued by a Bf 109 which had a higher stalling speed and could often fall into a spin without much warning.[8]

The elliptical wing was able to reach a safe Mach number of 0.83 and maximum Mach number of 0.86. without encountering the problem of Mach-induced aileron flutter, a phenomenon which continued to blight many newer designs.

At first the complexity of the wing design, especially the precision required to manufacture the vital spar and leading-edge structures, caused some major hold-ups in the production of the Spitfire. This was amplified when the work was put out to sub-contracters, most of whom had never dealt with metal structured, high-speed aircraft. Over time, however, these problems were overcome and thousands of these wings, of five basic types, were built.[7]

One flaw in the thin-wing design of the Spitfire manifested itself when the aircraft was brought up to very high speeds. When the pilot attempted to roll the aircraft at these speeds, the aerodynamic forces subjected upon the ailerons were enough to twist the entire wingtip in the direction opposite of the aileron deflection (much like how an aileron trim tab will deflect the aileron itself). This so-called aileron reversal resulted in the Spitfire rolling in the opposite direction to the control-column input. The new wing of the Spitfire F. Mk 21 and its successors was designed to help alleviate this problem.

The ellipse also served as the design basis for the Spitfire’s fin and tailplane assembly, once again exploiting the shape’s favourable aerodynamic characteristics. Both the elevators and rudder were shaped so that their centre of mass was shifted forward for the purposes of reducing control surface flutter. The longer noses and greater propeller wash resulting from larger engines in later models necessitated an increasingly larger vertical and, later, horizontal tail surfaces to compensate for the altered aerodynamics, culminating in those of the Mk 22/24 series which were over 50% larger than those of the Mk I.


The Air Ministry submitted a number of names to Vickers-Armstrongs for the new aircraft, tentatively known as the Type 300, including the improbable Shrew. The name Spitfire was suggested by Sir Robert MacLean, director of Vickers-Armstrongs at the time, who called his daughter Ann, "a little spitfire." The word dates from Elizabethan times and refers to a particularly fiery, ferocious type of person, and at the time, associated with a girl or woman of that temperament.[9] The name had previously been used unofficially for Mitchell's earlier F.7/30 Type 224 design. Mitchell is reported to have said that it was "just the sort of bloody silly name they would choose",[10] possibly an oblique reference to an earlier, much less successful aircraft of his design that had been given the same name.


The prototype (K5054) first flew on 5 March 1936, from Eastleigh Aerodrome (later Southampton Airport) just four months after the maiden flight of the contemporary Hawker Hurricane. Testing continued until 26 May 1936, when Captain J. "Mutt" Summers, (Chief Test Pilot for Vickers (Aviation) Ltd.) flew K5054 to RAF Martlesham Heath and handed the aircraft over to Squadron Leader Anderson of the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE).

The Air Ministry placed an order for 310 of the aircraft on 3 June 1936, before any formal report had been issued by the A&AEE, interim reports being issued on a piecemeal basis. The British public first saw the Spitfire at the RAF Hendon air-display on Saturday 27 June 1936.

To build the Spitfires in the numbers anticipated, a whole new "Shadow Factory" was built at Castle Bromwich, near Birmingham, as a "shadow" to Supermarine's original Southampton factory. Although the project was ultimately led by Lord Nuffield who was an expert in mass construction in the motor-vehicle industry, the Spitfire's stressed-skin construction required skills and techniques outside the experience of the local labour force, and experienced staff from Supermarines and Vickers-Armstrongs engineers were needed. Even despite this, evidence exists[11] that the War Ministry was sufficiently concerned about the complexity of manufacture, to write to Supermarine expressing doubts about honouring their contract in summer 1939. The site was set up quickly from July 1938 - machinery being installed two months after work started on the site.

More than 20,300 examples of all variants were built, including two-seat trainers, with some Spitfires remaining in service well into the 1950s. Although its great wartime foe, the Messerschmitt Bf 109, in its many variants, exceeded the Spitfire's production statistics, the Spitfire was the only British fighter aircraft to be in continual production before, during, and after the Second World War.


Duxford, 2001. The "Grace Spitfire," a preserved trainer version, ex-No. 485 Squadron RNZAF.

As its designer, R.J. Mitchell will forever be known for his most famous creation. However, the development of the Spitfire did not cease with his premature death in 1937. Mitchell only lived long enough to see the prototype Spitfire fly. Subsequently a team led by his Chief Draughtsman, Joe Smith, would develop more powerful and capable variants to keep the Spitfire current as a front line aircraft. As one historian noted: 'If Mitchell was born to design the Spitfire, Joe Smith was born to defend and develop it.'

There were 24 marks of Spitfire and many sub-variants. These covered the Spitfire in development from the Merlin to Griffon engines, the high speed photo-reconnaissance variants and the different wing configurations. The Spitfire Mk V was the most common type, with 6,487 built, followed by the 5,656 Mk IX airframes produced.[12] Different wings, featuring a variety of weapons, were fitted to most marks; the A wing used eight .303 machine guns, the B with four .303 machine guns and two 20 mm Hispano cannon, and the C or Universal Wing which could mount either four 20 mm cannon or two 20 mm and four .303 machine guns. As the war progressed, the C wing became more common.[13]

Pilots of 611 West Lancashire Squadron lend a hand pushing an early Spitfire Mark IXb, Biggin Hill, late 1942. (RAF Official)

The final armament variation was the E wing which housed two 20 mm cannon and two .50 inch Browning heavy machine guns.

Supermarine developed a two-seat variant to be used for training and was known as the T Mk VIII, but no orders were received for this aircraft and only one example was ever constructed (identified as N32/G-AIDN by Supermarine). However, in the absence of an official two-seater variant, a number of airframes were crudely converted in the field. These included an RAF Mk VB in North Africa, where a second seat was fitted instead of the upper fuel tank in front of the cockpit, although it was not a dual control aircraft and is thought to have been used as the squadron "run-about." The only unofficial two seat conversions that were fitted with dual controls were a small number of Russian lend/lease Mk IX aircraft. These were referred to as Mk IX UTI and differed from the Supermarine proposals by using an in-line "greenhouse" style double canopy rather than the raised "bubble" type of the T Mk VIII.

In the postwar era, the idea was revived by Supermarine and a number of two-seat Spitfires were built by converting old Mk IX airframes with a second "raised" cockpit featuring a bubble canopy. These TR9 variants were then sold to the Indian Air Force and a total of nine to the Irish Air Corps. Today, only a handful of the trainers are known to exist, including both the T Mk VIII and a T Mk IX based in the USA and the "Grace Spitfire" - ML407, a variant of the Mk IX that is a privately owned (formerly IAC 162) TR9 and operates out of Duxford, UK. The second cockpit of this aircraft has been lowered and is now behind the front cockpit. IAC-161 (Previously PV202) has also been recently restored to flying condition.

Naval variants

Main article: Supermarine Seafire

A naval version of the Supermarine Spitfire, called the Seafire, was specially adapted for operation from aircraft carriers. Although never conceived for the rough-and tumble of carrier-deck operations, the Spitfire was considered to be the best candidate available at the time and went on to serve with distinction. Modifications included an arrester hook, folding wings and other specialised equipment. Some features of the basic design were, whilst unproblematic for land operation, problematic for carrier-deck operations. One was poor visibility over the nose. Like the Spitfire, the Seafire had a relatively narrow undercarriage track, which meant that it was not ideally suited to deck operations. The addition of heavy carrier equipment also added to the weight of the machine and reduced low-speed stability, critical for such operations, and normally a forte of the Spitfire. Early marks of Seafire had relatively few modifications, however late marks of Seafire were heavily-adapted and highly potent machines. The Seafire II was able to outperform the A6M5 (Zero) at low altitudes when the two types were tested against each other during wartime mock combats. Contemporary Allied carrier fighters such as the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair, however, were considerably more robust and practical for carrier operations. A performance advantage was regained when late-war Seafire marks equipped with the Griffon engines supplanted their Merlin-engined predecessors.

The name Seafire was arrived at by collapsing the longer name Sea Spitfire.

Griffon-engined variants

File:Spitfire IV XII DP845.jpg
The first Griffon-powered Spitfire, DP845.

The first Griffon-engined Mk XII flew on August 1942, but only five had reached service status by the end of the year. This mark could nudge 400 mph in level flight and climb to an altitude of 30,000 feet (10,000 m) in under eight minutes. Although the Spitfire continued to improve in speed and armament, range and fuel capacity were major issues: it remained short-legged throughout its life except in the dedicated photo-reconnaissance role, when its guns were replaced by extra fuel tanks.

Newer Griffon-engined Spitfires were being introduced as home-defence interceptors, where limited range was not an impediment. These faster Spitfires were used to defend against incursions by high-speed "tip-and-run" German fighter-bombers and V-1 flying bombs over Great Britain.

As American fighters took over the long-range escorting of USAAF daylight bombing raids, the Griffon-engined Spitfires progressively took up the tactical air superiority role as interceptors, while the Merlin-engined variants (mainly the Mk IX and the Packard-engined XVI) were adapted to the fighter-bomber role.

Although the later Griffon-engined marks lost some of the favourable handling characteristics of their Merlin-powered predecessors, they could still out-manoeuvre their main German foes and other, later American and British designed fighters. The distinctive Merlin sound of a supercharger whine and the accompanying whistle from the under-wing radiators was replaced by a deeper, throatier growl.[14]

Griffon-engined Spitfires and Seafires continued to be flown by many squadrons of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve until reequipped in 1951–52. The last flight of a Spitfire in RAF service took place on 9 June 1957 by a PR19, PS583, from RAF Woodvale as part of the Temperature and Humidity Flight. This is the last known flight of a piston-engined fighter in the RAF.

In late 1962, Air Marshal Sir John Nicholls instigated an interesting trial when he flew a Spitfire against the supersonic Lightning F 3 in mock combat at RAF Binbrook. At the time British Commonwealth forces were involved in possible action against Indonesia and Nicholls decided to identify tactics to fight the Indonesian Air Force P-51 Mustang, a fighter that had a similar performance to the Spitfire PR XIX.[15] He concluded that the most effective and safest way for a modern jet-engined fighter to attack a piston-engined fighter was from below and behind; contrary to all established fighter-on-fighter dictum.[16]

Operational history

Early RAF service

Spitfire Mark I of 602 Squadron at the gun butts having its eight .303 Brownings sighted in, early 1940.

The first Spitfire to enter service with the RAF arrived at 19 Squadron, Duxford, on 4 August 1938, and over the next few weeks aircraft were delivered at the rate of one a week to both 19 and 66 Squadrons (also based at Duxford). The next to be equipped with Spitfires was 41 Squadron at Catterick, followed by a succession of squadrons stationed at Hornchurch in Essex. The public's first sight of the Spitfire in RAF colours was on Empire Air Day, 20 May 1939 during a display at Duxford in which the pilot "belly-landed" his aircraft having forgotten to lower his undercarriage and was consequently fined £5 by the Air Ministry. By the outbreak of the Second World War, there were 306 Spitfires in service with the RAF, with another 71 in reserve and a further 2,000 on order. 36 had been written off in accidents.[17]

On 6 September 1939 in an incident known as the Battle of Barking Creek, Spitfires were first blooded on a pair of unfortunate Hawker Hurricanes from no. 56 RAF Squadron. The Hurricanes were shot down by Spitfires of no. 74 RAF Squadron in a friendly fire incident over the Medway, leading to the death of P/O Montague Leslie Hulton-Harrop, the first British pilot fatality of the Second World War.

On 16 October 1939 the Spitfire first saw action when three aircraft each from 602 and 603 Squadrons intercepted nine Junkers Ju 88s of KG30 attempting to attack Royal Naval ships in the Firth of Forth. Two Ju 88s were shot down, and another heavily damaged.

On 23 May 1940 Spitfire Is of 54 Squadron were the first to shoot down Bf 109s: the first of these is usually credited to either Flying Officer Alan Deere of New Zealand, who shot down two, or Flg. Off. "Johnny" Allen who shot down one.

While the Spitfires of Fighter Command continued to be based in Britain, at the insistence of Air Vice Marshal Hugh Dowding, from late 1939 there were early photo reconnaissance Spitfires of "No 2 Camouflage Unit"[18] operating from Seclin in France, gathering valuable photo intelligence of German defences and cities. Right throughout World War 2 P.R Spitfires would play a vital part in keeping up a constant flow of photographic intelligence, in a role far removed from that of short-range interceptor fighter.

Battle of Britain

R.J. Mitchell and his Spitfire are often credited with winning the Battle of Britain. This is a view often propagated within popular culture, such as in the film The First of the Few. However, the maintenance of civilian morale under air attack is vital and, no doubt, the Spitfire and its legend contributed to this.

The Spitfire was one of the finest fighters of the war; aviators, aviation historians and laymen alike often claim it to be the most aesthetically appealing. It is, however, frequently compared to the Hawker Hurricane, which was used in greater numbers during the critical stages of 1940. Although early Spitfires and Hurricanes carried identical armament (eight .303 in / 7.696 mm machine guns), the placement of the Hurricane's guns was better, yielding a closer pattern of fire. A lower top speed and poorer performance at altitude, however, made the Hurricane more vulnerable against the German fighter escorts. Wherever possible, the RAF tactic during the Battle of Britain was to use the Hurricane squadrons to attack the bombers, holding the Spitfires back to counter the German escort fighters. In total numbers, the Hurricane shot down more Luftwaffe aircraft, both fighters and bombers, than the Spitfire, mainly due to the higher proportion of Hurricanes in the air. Seven of every ten German aircraft destroyed during the Battle of Britain were shot down by Hurricane pilots. Losses were also higher among the more numerous Hurricanes. Post-war analysis shows that the Spitfire's kill ratio compared to the Hurricane's was marginally better.[19]

X4474, a late production Mk I of 19 Squadron flown by Sergeant Jennings in September 1940.

The Mark I and Mark II models saw service during the Battle and beyond, into 1941. Both of these used eight .303 Browning machine guns. It was relatively common during the Battle of Britain for German aircraft to return safely to base with surprisingly high numbers of .303 bullet holes, as the Luftwaffe machines received progressively more armour in critical areas. The use of a smaller number of heavier, larger-calibre guns would have been far more effective, and this was rectified in later versions of the Spitfire. Several Mark Is of 19 Squadron were fitted with two 20 mm Hispano-Suiza cannon in 1940, although frequent stoppages meant the types were replaced by conventionally-armed aircraft in September 1940. Supermarine and Hispano continued work on a reliable cannon installation, with a number of Mk Is armed with two cannon and four .303 m.g s entering operations by late 1940: this version was referred to as the Mk IB, the m.g armed Spitfires were retrospectively called the Mk IA.[20].

Although the Merlin III engine of Spitfire Is had a power rating of 1,030 hp, (768 kW) which is generally quoted in references, supplies of 100 octane fuel from the United States started reaching Britain in March 1940. This meant that an "emergency boost" of +12 inches was available for five minutes, with pilots able to call on 1,305 hp (973 kW) at 9,000 ft (2,743 m). The effect was that the rate of climb especially was increased, enabling numerous lone Spitfires to escape dangerous situations. It also proved useful as an attack feature.[21]

The Luftwaffe's only single engine, single seat fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf 109, was similar in physical dimensions, attributes and performance to the Spitfire. Some inherent advantages helped the Spitfires win many dogfights, most notably manoeuvrability: the Spitfire had a higher rate of turn than the Messerschmitt:[22] there are accounts of 109s being able to out-turn Spitfires, but this was only because the Spitfire pilot probably didn't turn as tightly as possible through fear of his aircraft losing its wings. Good cockpit visibility was probably a factor as well, as the Bf 109s had a narrow enclosure with heavily-framed, panelled cockpit windows. Supermarine's chief test pilot Jeffrey Quill was able to be seconded to 65 Squadron in August 1940. He soon discovered that the thick framing of the laminated glass, bullet-proof windscreen and the curved, perspex quarter panels of the Spitfire created blind-spots and distorted forward visibility. His recommendations led to a new windscreen design and, much later, a clear-blown, teardrop shaped "bubble" canopy.[14]

File:Spitfire MKI Wiki.jpg
Spitfire Mk I, 66 Squadron,P/O Crelin Brodie. On 7 September 1940, Bodie was forced to belly-land X4321 following combat with Bf 109Es.

One major advantage enjoyed by the German Jagdgeshwader was the use of better tactics. Fighter Command weren't expecting to be facing single-engine fighters over Britain, only bombers. With this in mind a series of "Fighting Area Tactics" were set out and rigidly adhered to, involving a series of manoeuvres designed to bring down bombers: with no escorting fighters to worry about RAF fighter pilots flew in tight, vee-shaped sections of three. The pilots were forced to concentrate on watching each other, rather than being free to keep a lookout for enemy aircraft. In contrast the Luftwaffe, based on its experiences during the Spanish Civil War, devised a loose section of two, based on a leader followed to starboard and to the rear by his wingman. While the leader was free to search for enemy aircraft, and could cover his wingman's blind-spots, his wingman was able to concentrate on searching the airspace in the leader's blind-spots, behind and below. Two of these sections were usually teamed up into a "schwarme", where all of the pilots could watch what was happening around them. Because the 109s were well spread, the schwarme was hard to spot, unlike the RAF vee formation, and all of the 109s were able to attack and defend, or retreat in pairs, whereas the RAF formations were often split up into individual aircraft which were then extremely vulnerable. Some RAF units adopted "weavers", a single aircraft which flew a pattern behind the main squadron, which usually still flew in vees. The weavers were usually the first to be picked off in a "bounce" by the German fighters: more often than not the rest of the squadron didn't even know they were under attack. Those squadrons of the RAF which didn't learn to adopt similar tactics to the Luftwaffe suffered heavy casualties during the Battle. Leaders like "Sailor" Malan were instrumental in devising better tactics for the RAF fighters and showed that the Spitfire was a superb fighter.[19]

When German pilots saw what they thought was the Spitfire, irrespective of the actual aircraft type, they would call each other through the wireless phones and say "Achtung! Schpitfeur", which later led to what was called the "Spitfire complex."[23]

Carburettor versus Fuel Injection

Early in its development, the Merlin engine's lack of direct fuel injection meant that both Spitfires and Hurricanes, unlike the Bf 109E, were unable simply to nose down into a deep dive. This meant a Luftwaffe fighter could simply "bunt" into a high-power dive to escape an attack, leaving the Spitfire sputtering behind, as its fuel was forced by negative "g" out of the carburettor. RAF fighter pilots soon learned to "half-roll" their aircraft before diving to pursue their opponents. The use of carburettors was calculated to give a higher specific power output, due to the lower temperature, and hence the greater density, of the fuel/air mixture fed into the motor, compared to injected systems. In March 1941, a metal diaphragm with a hole in it was fitted across the float chambers. It partly cured the problem of fuel starvation in a dive, and became known as "Miss Shilling's orifice" as it was invented by a female engineer, Beatrice "Tilly" Shilling. Further improvements were introduced throughout the Merlin series, with Bendix manufactured injection carburettors introduced in 1943.

European offensive 1941–43

The introduction of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in late 1941 along the Channel front proved a shock to RAF Fighter Command; the new German fighter proved superior to the then-current Mark VB in all aspects except turning radius. Losses inflicted on Fighter Command's Spitfires were heavy, as air superiority switched to the Luftwaffe through most of 1942, until the Merlin 61-engined Mark IX started to see service in sufficient numbers. In an attempt to achieve some degree of parity with the Fw 190, some squadrons still operating the Mark V received specially modified versions that had four feet of wing-tip removed (to improve their rate of roll) and reduced supercharger blades on the Merlin for optimum performance at lower altitudes. These aircraft were designated LF Mark V officially, but were also known by their pilots as "Clipped, Clapped and Cropped Spits," also referring to the fact that many of these Spitfires, thus modified, had seen better days.

File:01097628 062.jpg
Flight of early Mark IXbs of 611 Squadron based at Biggin Hill in late 1942.

During 1943 the first of the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine variants the L.F Mk XII entered service, flown by 41 and 91 Squadrons. This version had superb performance at low and medium altitudes and helped defend Britain from attacks by fighter-bomber Fw 190s and Bf 109 Gs.[24]

As the American strategic bombing campaign gathered momentum in mid-1943, the need for fighter escort meant much of Fighter Command's Spitfire force was utilized in this role while the U.S. fighter groups worked up to operational status. The inadequate range of the Spitfire, however, meant the RAF support operations were limited to northwestern France and the Channel. As the battle intensified over occupied Europe, USAAF fighters like the P-47, P-38 and P-51 bore the brunt of bomber protection. Spitfire IX squadrons had to bide their time until the invasion of Europe before fully engaging the Luftwaffe's Jagdwaffe.

Mediterranean service

The Mk V variant was the first Spitfire to see extensive overseas service, the first batch being shipped to Malta in March 1942. The aircraft reached Malta with the help of Supermarine engineers who increased the internal fuel capacity by adding a 29 Imperial gallon fuel tank in the rear fuselage. In addition, each Spitfire was given a 170 Imperial gallon drop tank. This gave the fighter enough range to launch from carriers (which were avoiding German convoys near Malta) and reach Malta safely. In the months that followed, some 275 Spitfires were delivered to the beleaguered island. The first Spitfire to be modified to carry underwing bombs was a Malta based Mk Vc, EP201 X-V of 229 Squadron, which was adapted to carry one 250 lb bomb under each wing in June 1942.

To counter the prevalent dusty conditions, the Spitfires were fitted with a large Vokes air filter under the nose, which lowered the performance of the aircraft through increased drag. The Vb and Vc Trop (fitted with large Vokes anti-sand air filters) would also equip units of the Desert Air Force during the North African campaign by August 1942. Here, the Mk VCs were used as tactical fighter-bombers in addition to their interception role by being equipped with a maximum clearance load of 500 lb of bombs. Mark VBs equipped the 4th, 31st, and 52nd Fighter Groups of the USAAF in the summer of 1942, and the latter two groups continued flying them until succeeded by Spitfire IXs in mid-1943. By this time, Spitfire Mk VCs with stronger wings and extra ammunition began to carry 4x 20mm cannon. Many Mk Vs also had the new, smaller and much more efficient "Aboukir" filter instead of the ram-air-effect nullifying Vokes filter. The new filter was named as such due to its creation in Aboukir, Egypt by RAF mechanics.

The Spitfire V and, later, much-improved, longer-ranged Mark VIIIs also soon became available in the North African Theatre and, henceforth, featured heavily with the RAF, South African Air Force and USAAF during the campaigns in Sicily and Italy.

In the Mediterranean Theatre and in Italy, the Mk VIII fought with the United States Army Air Force. The 31st and 52nd Fighter Groups operated the fighter for some time until, in March 1944, they had their aircraft replaced by the P-51D Mustang, an "inferior" aircraft according to many 31st FG members,[citation needed] which was adopted because of its long-range escort capability. Over 300 kills were claimed by the two fighter groups while flying Spitfires.

After the fall of Mussolini, and the 9 September 1943 Armistice, the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force (ICAF) was equipped with surplus Spitfire Mk Vs with the first ground-attack mission flown by 20imo Gruppo, 51 imo Stormo on 23 October 1944 over Albania. By 31 December 1944 there were 17 Mk V Spitfires on charge (a total of 40 MK Vs were eventually acquired). Two Italian Spitfires flew the last mission of the European conflict on 5 May 1945.[25]

Asia and the Pacific

File:Spit vs Zero Wawn.jpg
Spitfire versus Zero: Clive "Bardie" Wawn
File:Spitfire versus Zero.jpg
Spitfire Mk XIV versus Hap "Zero": Clive "Killer" Caldwell

The Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Indian Air Force and the RAF also used Spitfires against Japanese forces in the Pacific theatre.

The first Spitfires in the Far East were two photo-reconnaissance (PR IV) aircraft in October 1942. Japanese air raids on Northern Australia prompted the formation in late 1942 of No. 1 Wing RAAF (No. 54 Squadron RAF, 452 and 457 squadrons RAAF), flying the Spitfire Vc. The wing arrived at Darwin in February 1943, and saw constant action until September. The Mk VC versions received by the RAAF proved unreliable and — initially at least — had a relatively high loss rate. This was due to several factors, including pilot inexperience, engine overspeed due to the loss of oil from the propeller speed reduction unit (a problem resolved by the use of a heavier grade of oil),[1] and the practice of draining glycol coolant before shipment, resulting in internal corrosion.

Mk VCs had a ability to carry different armament combinations of either the eight 0.303" gun configuration, or the "B" type setup of 2 X 20 mm cannon with 4 X 0.303" guns or the new "C" type armament of 4 X 20 mm cannon. These Mk Vcs were employed as interceptors against Japanese air raids. As mentioned above, any Spitfire Mk V sent overseas had a performance-reducing Vokes air filter to prevent the suction of excess moisture, sand and other foreign objects found more in tropical and hot desert climates.

In the Burma-India Theatre, the first Spitfire Vs were not received until September 1943. In Burma, the Spitfire VIII served rather successfully. Early in 1944, Spitfires were a major part of the defense of the Arakan area. In an attempt to siege the British, the Japanese Army had surrounded the British 14th Army in the Arakan area. General William Slim, the commander of the British 14th Army, decided to use the new Spitfire VIII to protect C-46 Commando transports which were supplying the 14th Army by air. After days of battling with Ki-43 "Oscars" and Ki-44 "Tojos", the airlift proceeded as the Japanese troops and aircraft withdrew.

In Australia, the Spitfire VIII arrived too late to see much air to air combat. It was intended for the Spitfire VIII to replace the struggling, mechanical problem-plagued Spitfire Vc but the IJAAF had shifted its focus from the conquering of Australia to the defense against the United States at Guadalcanal.

The first, improved Spitfire VIII versions were received by the RAAF in October 1943. Spitfire pilots in Asia and the Pacific were surprised to find that they could not follow many Japanese fighters, such as the Mitsubishi Zero, through a turn. Nevertheless, the aircraft was a superb dogfighter and could outfly and outgun nearly every Japanese fighter it encountered. It was up to 50 mph faster than contemporary Japanese fighters and it was much more manoeuvrable than its American counterparts. It could even be seen as an integration between the American need for speed and the Japanese yearning for manoeuvrability. The fighter served mainly in the defence of the Eastern Commonwealth countries and found success against the more manoeuvrable Japanese fighters by using an altitude and climb advantage. This additional height allowed the Spitfire to dive to gain speed, attack the enemy and climb out of range very quickly to avoid damage

D-day and beyond

After the Normandy landings, some Spitfires (Griffon and Merlin engine marks) were retained in Britain to counter the V-1 flying bomb offensive in mid-1944 as part of the ADGB.

The bulk of the Spitfire squadrons were moved across the Channel, operating as part of the 2nd TAF from forward airfields close to enemy lines. As the Allied air forces achieved air supremacy, most of the Merlin engined Mk IX and XVI units were used in the fighter-bomber role, concentrating their efforts on roaming over German territory, attacking ground targets of opportunity and providing tactical ground support to the army units. In this role there were fewer opportunities to engage Luftwaffe fighters. The Merlin's glycol cooling system proved particularly vulnerable to small arms fire, with one hit in the wrong place being enough to eventually cause the engine to seize.

The Griffon powered Spitfire F. Mark XIVs were deployed with the 2nd TAF on the Continent as one of the main British fighter types used in the air-combat role, alongside of the Tempest V and Mustang III & IV. Spitfire XIVs often provided high altitude cover for the Tempests, which operated as low-to-medium altitude fighters.

Postwar service

Following the Second World War, the Spitfire remained in use with many air forces around the world.


Soon after the end of the Second World War, the Swedish Air Force equipped a photo reconnaissance wing, F 11 in Nyköping (just south of Stockholm), with 50 Mk XIXs, designated S 31. Several S 31 photographic missions in the late 1940s entailed flagrant violations of Soviet and, at least once, Finnish airspace in order to document activities at the air and naval installations in the Baltic and Kola regions. At that time, no Soviet fighter was able to reach the operational altitude of the S 31. No Swedish aircraft were lost during those clandestine operations. However, by the early 1950s, Soviet air defenses had become so effective that such practices had to cease. The S 31s were replaced by jet-powered SAAB S 29Cs in the mid-1950s.

Spitfires played a major role in the Greek Civil War, flown by the RAF and SAAF during October–December 1944, and by the Hellenic Air Force from 1946 to the end of the war in August 1949.

After the Second World War, a small number of eight flyable Italian Air Force Mk Vs were supplemented by 145 Mk IXs (obtained in two batches of 60 and 85 aircraft). The Spitfire went into service with 51 and 5 imo Stormo (wing) flying reconnaissance missions over the Balkans as well as acting in cooperation with the Italian Army and providing a defensive force. Well liked by pilots, the Spitfires were involved in several postwar air races and trophy competitions including the Zerbinati Trophy. Italian P-51s and Spitfires were entered in the handicap race with P-51s penalized by a minute for speed, and Spitfires penalized a similar amount in climb rate. The Spitfire Mk IX remained in service until 1950-52 when a small group of 30 survivors were supplied to the Israeli Air Force (HHA); eventually, these ex-Italian aircraft were sent to Burma in 1954-55.[25] Today, one ex-Italian Air Force Spitfire Mk IX, MM4084, is on display at Vigna di Valle, Rome.

Middle East

Spitfires last saw combat during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when, in a strange twist, Israeli Air Force Spitfires flown by former RAF pilots such as Ezer Weizman engaged Egyptian Spitfires and Royal Air Force Spitfires.


One notable variant was the privately owned LV-NMZ (Argentine registration). This was a PRXI, PL-972, purchased by James Elwyn Storey and his brother Jack to do aerial photography for the Argentine government. Both served in the RAF during the Second World War. James flew his Spitfire from Bournemouth (UK) to Gibraltar, on to Dakar in Senegal, from Dakar to Natal in Brazil, then Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre and finally Buenos Aires. He used external wing tanks and a belly ferry tank. He established two records, one for the heaviest fuel load ever carried by a Spitfire and one for the longest flight for a Spitfire, the Dakar to Natal leg – approximately 1,870 miles.

Some air forces retained Spitfires in service well into the 1960s.

Speed and altitude records

File:Spitfire XI EN 409.jpg
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 606 mph (975 km/h).

Beginning in late 1943, high-speed diving trials were undertaken at Farnborough to investigate handling characteristics of aircraft 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. It was during these trials that EN409, flown by Squadron Leader J. R. Tobin, reached 606 mph (975 km/h) (Mach 0.891) in a 45-degree dive. In April 1944 the same aircraft suffered engine failure in another dive when being flown by Squadron Leader A. F. Martindale, and the propeller and reduction gear broke off. Martindale successfully glided the 20 miles (30 km) back to the airfield and landed safely.

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[14]

On 5 February 1952, a Spitfire Mk 19 of No. 81 Squadron RAF based in Hong Kong achieved probably the highest altitude ever achieved by a Spitfire. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant 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 feet (15 240 m) indicated altitude, with a true altitude of 51,550 feet (15 712 m), which was the highest height ever recorded for a Spitfire. 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 feet (900 m). He landed safely with no discernible damage to his aircraft. Evaluation of the recorded flight data suggested that, in the dive, he achieved a speed of 690 mph (1110 km/h) or Mach 0.94, which would have been the highest speed ever reached by a propeller-driven aircraft.

However, the critical Mach number of the Spitfire's elliptic wing was higher than the subsequently used wing with laminar-flow-section, straight-tapering planform wing of the follow-on Spiteful/Seafang/Attacker aircraft, bringing comment on the wisdom of replacing the old but better wing with the new one.


File:Supermarine Spitfire Mk XVI NR.jpg
Preserved Spitfire at Duxford. Notice the late-war "bubble" canopy

There are approximately 44 Spitfires and a few Seafires airworthy, although many air museums have static examples. For example, Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry has paired a static Spitfire with a static Ju 87 R-2/Trop. Stuka dive bomber. The RAF maintains some for flying display and ceremonial purposes in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.

Spitfires at Goodwood, West Sussex 2006

The Temora Aviation Museum in Temora, New South Wales, Australia, has two airworthy Spitfires: a Mk VIII and a Mk XVI, which are flown regularly during the museum's flying weekends.[26]

In the Polish Aviation Museum a Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk XVIE is on display.

The Hellenic Air Force Museum own and displays a Supermarine Spitfire Mk IXc.[27]

Kennet Aviation, a British company specializing in ex-military aircraft has a Seafire XVII and a number of Seafire projects at its home airfield at North Weald Airfield.[28]

The Black Spitfire is a black-painted Spitfire which belonged to Israeli pilot and former president Ezer Weizman. It is on exhibit in the Israeli Air Force Museum in Hatserim and is used for ceremonial flying displays.

Kermit Weeks keeps a restored Mk XVI at his Fantasy of Flight museum in Florida.[29]

The "Asas de Um Sonho" Museum, located in São Carlos, Brazil, owns the only airworthy Spitfire in South America, a Mk IXc donated to the museum by Rolls Royce and painted in the colors and markings of RAF ace Johnnie Johnson.

One of the newest Spitfires to fly in Canadian skies is Michael Potter's Supermarine Mk XVI Spitfire SL721/N721WK/C-GVZB, refinished in the markings of No. 421 Squadron RCAF and is now registered in Gatineau, Quebec as part of the Vintage Wings of Canada Collection. A Seafire 47, the final aircraft in the long and distinguished line of aircraft, is airworthy with Jim Smith in the US after being restored by Ezell Aviation.


  • Sentinel is a sculpture by Tim Tolkien in Castle Bromwich, England, commemorating the main Spitfire factory.
  • A sculpture of the prototype Spitfire, K5054, stands on the roundabout at the entrance to Southampton International Airport, which, as Eastleigh Aerodrome, saw the first flight of the aircraft in March 1936
  • There is also a Spitfire on display on the Thornaby Road roundabout near the school named after Douglas Bader who flew a Spitfire in the Second World War. This memorial is in memory of the old RAF base in Thornaby which is now a residential estate.
  • In Canberra, Australia, the last remaining Spitfire in its original paint, remains on display in the Australian War Memorial; it has not been repainted since the Second World War.



File:Spitfire at temora nswedit.jpg
The Spitfire Mk VIII "Grey Nurse" which saw action with No. 457 Squadron RAAF in the South West Pacific Area is one of two Spitfires still flying in Australia, both owned by Temora Aviation Museum.
File:Spitfire V 316.jpg
Polish Spitfire Mk V from the 303 Kościuszko Squadron flown by S/Ldr Zumbach
File:SpitIntl Illust3.JPG
American Spitfire MK V of the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group.
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Specifications (Spitfire Mk Vb)

Data from The Great Book of Fighters[31] and Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II[32]

General characteristics



  • Guns: Early version (generally Mk I and Mk II's)
Later versions


  1. Morgan, Eric B. and Shacklady, Edward. Spitfire: The History. London: Key Publishing, 1992. ISBN 0-946219-10-9.
  2. Green, William. Famous Fighters of the Second World War, 3rd ed. New York: Doubleday, 1975. ISBN 0-356-08334-9.
  3. Accessed 6 March 2007.
  4. Note: The ellipse is proven to be the most efficient wing shape in terms of optimum spanwise lift distribution, whilst the associated chord tapering results in a high aspect ratio, important for lessening induced drag so that airflow does not ‘break’ over the wing. Also of noteworthy importance is the type’s low thickness to chord ratio – the thin wings promote effective airflow, another vital factor in reducing drag.
  5. Carpenter, Chris. Flightwise: Part 1, Principles of Aircraft Flight. Shrewsbury, UK: AirLife, 1996. ISBN 1-85310-719-0.
  6. Note: See Supermarine Spitfire variants for details.
  7. 7.0 7.1 The Spitfire Story
  8. Spifire I versus Bf 109E
  9. Wikidictionary: spitfire
  10. Deighton 1977, p. 99.
  11. McKinstry 2007
  12. Spitfire: Simply Superb part three. Air International, Volume 28, Number 4. April 1985
  13. Flintham 1990, p. 254–263.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Jeffrey Quill 1983. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Quill 1983" defined multiple times with different content
  15. Green, Peter. "Spitfire Against a Lightning." Flypast No. 315, October 2007, p. 91.
  16. John Nicholls writing in Spitfire, A Complete Fighting History, ed. Alfred Price, 1991 p. 158.
  17. Price, Alfred.The Spitfire Story, 1982, page 73
  18. Note: This unit was later renamed 1 Photo Reconnaissance Unit (1 PRU).
  19. 19.0 19.1 Bungay, Stephen. 2006
  20. Note: Most Mk IBs were converted to the Mark VB which entered service in early 1941. The "B" configuration of two 20 mm cannon and four .303 machine guns was standard during the mid-war years
  21. Spitfire I versus Bf 109E
  22. Note: the Minimum radius of turn was measured as 696 ft at 133 mph for the Spitfire I and 885 ft at 129 mph for the Bf 109E.Spitfire I performance
  23. Bader 1973, p. 91, 125, 164. Note: Over Malta, unable to launch a defensive force, a Canadian pilot equipped with a ground-based radio set, supposedly gave out dummy orders in German resulting in two Bf 109s shooting each other down in a panic over a Spitfire supposedly being in the air. There's no confirmation of this actually happening.
  24. Spitfire XII
  25. 25.0 25.1 Gueli 1998, p. 4–14.
  26. Aviation Museum, AU.
  27. Spitfire
  28. Area 51.
  29. Spitfire at Fantasy of Flight.
  30. List of Spitfire I and II aircraft used by Polish Air Force squadrons (PDF file)
  31. Green, William and Swanborough, Gordon. The Great Book of Fighters. St. Paul, Minnesota: MBI Publishing, 2001. ISBN 0-7603-1194-3.
  32. Jane 1946, p. 139–141.
  • Bader, Douglas. Fight for the Sky: The Story of the Spitfire and Hurricane. London: Cassell Military Books, 2004. ISBN 0-30435-674-3.
  • Bungay, Stephen. The Most Dangerous Enemy - A History of the Battle Of Britain. London: Aurum, 2006. ISBN 1-85410-801-8.
  • Deighton, Len. Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain. London: Grafton 1977. ISBN 0-78581-208-3.
  • Dibbs, John and Holmes, Tony. Spitfire: Flying Legend. Southampton UK: Osprey Publishing, 1997. ISBN 1-84176-005-6.
  • Flintham, Victor. Air Wars and Aircraft: A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to the Present. New York: Facts on File, 1990. ISBN 0-81602-356-5.
  • Gueli, Marco. "Spitfire con Coccarde Italiane (Spitfire in Italian service)." Storia Militare n.62, November 1998.
  • Jane, Fred T. “The Supermarine Spitfire.” Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II. London: Studio, 1946. ISBN 1-85170-493-0.
  • McKinstry, Leo. Spitfire - Portrait of a Legend. London: John Murray, 2007. ISBN 0-71956-874-9.
  • Palfrey, Brett R. and Whitehead, Christopher. Supermarine Spitfire - History of a Legend. Royal Air Force (RAF). [2] Access date: 27 December 2006.
  • Price, Alfred. The Spitfire Story: New edited edition. London: Weidenfeld Military, 1999. ISBN 1-85409-514-5.
  • Quill. Jeffrey. Spitfire: A Test Pilot’s Story. London: Arrow Books, 1983. ISBN 0-09-937020-4.
  • Spick, Mike. Supermarine Spitfire. New York: Gallery Books, 1990. ISBN 0-8317-14034.

External links

Duxford, 2001. High-speed flypast.

Related Content

Related development

Comparable aircraft

Related lists

See also