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World War Two: The Spifire: Legend of the skies

Updated on September 16, 2011

In the summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain rages in the skies above the English Channel and the south coast of England. Britain is under constant attack from Hitler's Luftwaffe, but one aircraft will become the symbol of Britain's will to resist, to fight on and ultimately win. This is the story of the Spitfire and it's legendary exploits throughout the second world war.

Early Beginnings

The story of the Spitfire began in 1931, during the Schneider Trophy contest, this was an international aviation race of seaplanes that became a source of national competition and a popular spectator sport. The Supermarine S6B designed by Reginald J. Mitchell had a top speed of 340 miles per hour and achieved a third straight win for a Mitchell designed aircraft.

Mitchell himself was a brilliant aircraft designer who was a particularly good leader of men and a genuinely easy man to get on with. He had a good sense of picking the right people for the right job and to see his designs through to completion.

Reginald Joseph Mitchell
Reginald Joseph Mitchell
The Gloster Gladiator
The Gloster Gladiator

The RAF's need for a new aircraft.

During the early 1930's the bi-planes of the Royal Air Force were barely able to reach speeds of 220 miles an hour. This worried the RAF who feared an aerial attack from as yet an untold enemy. This prompted them to invite design proposals for a single seat fighter aircraft. Mitchell's initial design, known as Type 224, proves to be an early disappointment as it is considered underpowered, has a poor rate of climb and is only capable of a top speed of 240 miles per hour.

Therefore the production contract goes to the Gloster Gladiator, a bi-plane with a top speed of 250 miles per hour. Mitchell subsequently begins drawing up new plans for a radical new design of fighter plane.

His aircraft would have 8 machine guns, an enclosed cockpit and a retractable undercarriage. He also incorporated into his design, a new advanced aero engine that was being developed by the Rolls Royce company. This was a 12 cylinder, 1,000 horsepower, water-cooled power unit, the PV12. Later, this would be given the name the Merlin.

The Supermarine Type 224
The Supermarine Type 224
The Supermarine Type 300
The Supermarine Type 300
The Spitfire
The Spitfire

New planes & the threat of war.

This new aircraft , named the Type 300, bore little resemblance to the Type 224, Mitchell had used a new elyptical wing design in a previous project and decided to use it again here. In December 1934, Mitchell's latest plans are presented to the Air Ministry. With it's all-metal stress-skinned monocot fuselage that utilised it's light alloys and elyptical wing shape, the Type 300 is a radical breakaway from the trditional wood and fabric assemblies of previous RAF aircraft.

The importance of a new and effective fighter aircraft is becoming ever more a neccessity as since his rise to the position of German Chancellor in 1933, Adolf Hitler has began a massive expansion plan for the German armed forces. Personally for Mitchell himself, the task has taken on added urgency, as he has been diagnosed with cancer.

On the 8th March 1936, Mitchell's Type 300 prototype takes to the air and the test flight is a complete success. It achieves a top speed of 335 miles per hour, but strangely, Mitchell unlike the other onlookers from the Air Ministry, remains unsatisfied with it's performance. The plane is now given the name the Spitfire and the Air Ministry gives the thumbs up for it's mass production.

The RAF meanwhile is expanding and many young men are volunteering to become pilots, these keen recruits however, continued their training in bi-planes that were soon to be replaced by Mitchell's new monoplane fighter. Despite increasingly poor health, Mitchell oversaw personally, the developement of the Spitfire's propellor and exhaust systems, which would increase the speed of the aircraft to almost 350 miles per hour.

At the same time, the Nazis re-armament programme continues to expand, in response, the expansion of the RAF is stepped up with a large order of 310 Spitfires, the largest ever single order of planes in history to date. On the 11th June 1937, at the age of just 42, Reginald Mitchell dies without ever seeing the Spitfire's 'finest hour'. The workforce at Supermarine who produced the Spitfire were affected deeply by Mitchell's death and morale was severely tested.

Supermarine Woolston Factory
Supermarine Woolston Factory
Castle Bromwich Factory
Castle Bromwich Factory
Hawker Hurricane
Hawker Hurricane

Continuing the work

But Mitchell's work would be continued by Joe Smith, Mitchell's assistant and chief designer. The size of the 310 plane order however, caused so many problems as the Supermarine factory at Woolston simply wasn't big enough for such large scale production.

The government therefore, had a new larger factory built at Castle Bromwich, because of the difficulty in manufacturing the revolutionary elyptical wing and complex air frame, the Spitfire wasn't used to being built on such large scale quantities. So, new production techniques would have to be overcome by the workforce who were not used to Mitchell's revolutionary new design.

Meanwhile, orders are also being placed for the Hawker Hurricane, although this plane could be up to 50 miles an hour slower than the Spitfire, it's easy to build wood and fabric design (like it's bi-plane predecessor), made it far easier for the workforce building it, to produce it on a large scale and much sooner than that of the Spitfire order.

Towards the end of 1938, an extra 200 Spitfires are ordered by the RAF, as the reality of war, now seems right around the corner. On the 4th August 1938, the very first Spitfires are delivered to an operational RAF squadron. They had a max speed of 362 miles per hour and were able to climb to 20,000 feet in just nine and a half minutes. The Spitfire's pilots would grow to love the aircraft for it's superior handling qualities as well as it's elegant, graceful appearance and highly responsive and natural manoueverability.

The German Invasion of Poland, September 1st 1939
The German Invasion of Poland, September 1st 1939
The Luftwaffe
The Luftwaffe
The Messerscmidtt Me109e
The Messerscmidtt Me109e

A lack of planes & the outbreak of war.

In April 1939, regardless of production difficulties at the Castle Bromwich factory, the RAF put in an order for a further 1,000 Spitfires. On the 1st September that same year, German forces invade Poland, on September 3rd at 11:00 o'clock, Britain declares war on Germany. Less than 350 of the 2,000 Spitfires ordered by the RAF have so far been delivered.

On the 16th October, Fighter Command engage with their first enemy aircraft, as planes from 602 and 603 squadrons attack a formation of German bombers over the Forth of Firth in Scotland, destroying two enemy aircraft.

Spitfire production and supply is still encountering problems however, and 50 squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes are engaging with the Luftwaffe in far greater numbers, especially when sent to France to support British and French troops.

By May 1940, Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg have all fallen to the Nazis in the 'blitzkrieg', en route to France. As the Luftwaffe push ever forwards in advance of the German Army, the Hurricane squadrons soon become overwhelmed. Spitfires are then sent out from their airfields in southern England in support of the retreating British troops who are trying to evacuate from the beaches of Dunkirk, under constant fire from the Luftwaffe.

This would prove to be the Luftwaffe's first ever contact with Spifires, the Messerschmidtt Me109e and the Spitfire are a close match except for the Spitfires' ability to climb in a tight turn being far superior to it's German counterpart. The Messerschmidtt however, had far greater firepower than the Spitfire as it carried explosive shells and 7.5mm machine guns in response to the Spifire's meager 8 machine guns firing just .303 shells. In order for the Spitfire to score a critical hit, it needed to fire a sustained and concentrated close range hit on the Me109e.

With the fall of France to the Nazis, the Luftwaffe now only had the width of the English Channel between them and the RAF's airfields in southern England. The need for those extra Spitfires from Castle Bromwich is now greater than ever. All-out Spitfire production is underway and not a moment too soon as the need to get them constructed, tested and out to the squadrons becomes an ever more desperate panic.

With 2,700 operational aircraft at hand, the Luftwaffe will be facing just 650 aircraft of Fighter Command, and only 230 of these are Spitfires.

British Radar station 1940
British Radar station 1940
The Spitfire Mark V
The Spitfire Mark V
The German Focke Wulfe FW190
The German Focke Wulfe FW190
The Spifire Mark 9
The Spifire Mark 9

The Battle of Britain

By june 1940, the Nazis have swept aside all countries that have stood in their way and now their sights are set firmly on Britain. The Spitfire is about to face the Messerschmidtt 109e for control of the skies in the Battle of Britain. The Germans wanted air superiority over the RAF in order to begin their invasion of Britain, codenamed 'Operation Sealion'.

With their massively superior numbers, the Luftwaffe believed that it would only be a matter of time before they were victorious. Large numbers of German aircraft stream across the English Channel to draw out the RAF squadrons into battle. Guided by Radar, the RAF hit the Luftwaffe hard and fast and Mitchell's vision of a superlative fighter aircraft is soon realised, as the Spitfires' legendary status as the aircraft to save Britain is established.

The Spitfire is fighting to save not only Britain, but the very existence of the RAF itself. As the Luftwaffe attempts to wipe them out completely, the Germans begin to attack the RAF's airfields in order to destroy the squadrons still on the ground.

The nation's air defence system of command and control detection is the world's best. The Radar stations dotted around the coast relay information back to the Group HQ's around the country, enabling the aircraft plotters to best work out how to deal with each enemy threat. The Hurricane squadrons are handed the task of attacking the German bombers, while the Spitfire is left to deal with those Messerschmidtt fighters who are escorting the bombers.

At the beginning of the Battle of Britain in July 1940, the RAF is recieving 80 new Spitfires a month, but by August that has trebled to 245, to replace the 133 that have already been destroyed in combat.

Although the Hurricane makes up the bulk of the strength of Fighter Command, and actually accounts for more enemy aircraft, the distinctive appearance and graceful movement of the Spitfire, captures the public's imagination as they look on at the air battle raging above them in the summer skies over southern England.

Hurricanes and Spitfires would attack from all directions and the German command were misjudging the strength of the RAF, aswell as over-estimating it's own strength. As a result, they were losing the Battle of Britain.

The Mark V Spitfire began active service in February 1941 and was now fitted with two 20mm Hispano cannons aswell as it's existing machine guns. This latest addition to it's firepower however, occasionally caused problems as the cannon's firing mechanism was awkward and occasionally the safety would be activated by mistake, losing the pilot that vital moment to destroy it's enemy.

But the RAF was determined to take the fight to the enemy, attempting to draw out the enemy aircraft, Fighter Command began a series of attacks on German airfields over occupied France. The Spitfire is now operating at the limit of it's range and it's pilots are just as disadvantaged as the Luftwaffe pilots were a year before.

The Spitfire had also to contend with the German's new aircraft, the Focke Wulfe 190. This had a top speed of almost 400 miles an hour with much greater manoueverability than the Messerschmidtt, it quickly gained the nickname the 'Butcher Bird' by the RAF's Spitfire pilots.

To counter this new threat, the designers and production teams at Castle Bromwich needed to come up with a new variant on Mitchell's original design. Amazingly, they were given unexpected assistance from a Luftwaffe pilot who landed at an RAF base....by mistake!

After weeks of close examination of this revolutionary new aircraft, the new Spitfire Mark 9 enters operational service in June 1942. This has a top speed of 410 miles per hour, the Mark 9 is now more than a match for the Focke Wulfe 190.

The Allied invasion of Europe, 1944
The Allied invasion of Europe, 1944

Winning the fight

With the planned Allied invasion of Europe in 1944, the RAF needed an aircraft capable of low-level attacks in advance of the Allied forces. But the Spitfire is vulnerable to attack from anti-aircraft flak that greets those low-level flights.

The Spitfire was designed as a fighter interceptor and a new revolutionary 'fighter bomber', the Typhoon, would prove more successful in the role of a ground attack aircraft. The Spitfire would go on to be the only Allied fighter aircraft to stay in production and see continued service for the duration of the second world war.

By the end of the war, the Spitfire is nearly a third heavier than the very first Spitfire, it can climb 10,000 feet higher and is 100 miles an hour faster. However, the world has now entered the jet age and the Spitfires' days as an operational combat aircraft are numbered.

Gradually production tailed off and eventually there were no more Spitfires being produced or used by the RAF. It did continue operations with the RAF until 1954, over 22,500 of them of all marks and variants had been built and had flown in every theatre of war. R.J Mitchell's aero-dynamic design had been the key to the Spitfires' longevity as a combat aircraft.

Coupled with grace and beauty, the power of the aircraft captured the affection of the pilots who flew it. The Spitfire in all it's glory, came to represent the spirit of the country throughout that desperate time, when Britain stood alone against the Nazi war machine.

It will surely be remembered greater and with more affection than any other aircraft in the history of air combat, as contributing most to overall victory and eventual freedom.

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    • Dave Harris profile image
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      Dave Harris 5 years ago from Cardiff, UK

      Thankyou coriwbaker, I'm pleased you enjoyed it, thannkyou for stopping by and commenting!

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      coriwbaker 5 years ago

      Great information about WORLD WAR 2.Thanks for sharing.