Although RAF Hurricanes shouldered a greater burden against the Luftwaffe, the Spitfire’s superior performance gave it a far higher victory-to-loss ratio against the German fighter aircraft
As the Battle of Britain raged, Hermann Göring called a crucial meeting of the Luftwaffe’s commanders. Rebuking them for their inability to defeat the Royal Air Force (RAF) and gain air superiority, Göring demanded to know what more they needed to secure the elusive victory. The young German ace Adolf Galland responded rather cheekily, “A squadron of Spitfires!” – an answer that could not have greatly pleased Göring. Such was the reputation of the Supermarine Spitfire. Indeed such was its capability and adaptability that it was the only fighter in production before, during and after the Second World War. The Spitfire first flew on March 5, 1936, entered service with the RAF in 1938, and remained in service until 1955. In all 20,351 Spitfires were built.
R.J. Mitchell the Spitfire’s designer kept a steely focus on pilot safety and robustness. The plane’s retractable undercarriage was a novelty and many early accidents happened because pilots forgot to lower their wheels before landing. But Australian pilot John Vader testified, “Spitfires have hit the ground, touched the sea, bashed through trees, cut telegraph and high tension wires, collided in the air, been shot to pieces, had rudders and parts of wings fall off and have yet made safe landings, with or without wheels.”
The Spitfire did not have an auspicious start. Mitchell had designed the Type 224 and built a single prototype, but flight testing revealed that it did not meet the required performance standards and so it was abandoned. Undeterred, he immediately began work on the Type 300 which had more graceful lines, a shorter wing, a retractable undercarriage and an enclosed cockpit. The icing on the cake was its more powerful Rolls-Royce PV-12 Merlin engine. This time the Air Ministry had no hesitation in ordering 310 fighters from Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd, which had taken over Supermarine Aviation in 1928. Mitchell, who by now had been diagnosed as terminally ill with cancer, threw himself wholeheartedly into the project, probably hastening his own death at the age of 42.
Although Spitfire production was much delayed (Supermarine had built only half as many total aircraft in the previous 20 years) the order was fulfilled by the time the War commenced in September 1939. On October 16, 1939, a Spitfire pilot achieved its first official kill when a twin-engine German reconnaissance aircraft was intercepted and brought down. The Spitfires saw their first large-scale action in May 1940 at Dunkirk. If not for their protection, the naval evacuation of thousands of trapped Allied soldiers might have turned into an epic disaster.
But the Spitfires really became famous in the Battle of Britain. In May 1940, Hitler sent 2,600 Luftwaffe fighters and bombers to destroy the much smaller RAF. The Germans believed they would triumph in a matter of days. But the professionally capable RAF defeated the Luftwaffe, downing 1,887 German planes while losing 1,023 aircraft. Although RAF Hurricane fighters shouldered a greater burden against the Luftwaffe, the Spitfire’s superior performance gave it a far higher victory-to-loss ratio against the German aircraft, mainly Messerschmitt Bf 109E-series fighters.
Meanwhile, the Spitfire kept evolving till its speed, manoeuvrability and firepower made it a dream fighter unmatched by any other Allied or Axis aircraft. Its maximum speed was 362 mph at 19,000 ft. It was armed with eight .303-in Browning machine guns mounted on the wing. This avoided the need for an elaborate synchronisation mechanism with the propeller which fuselage-mounted guns required. The Spitfire’s innovative design meant it could be upgraded with new engines and armament. It was not meant for long range, but excelled at being scrambled at a moment’s notice to intercept intruding planes. The aircraft was originally powered by a Merlin engine producing 1,030hp but later variants had the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine producing up to 2,340hp.
The Spitfire played a key role in securing air superiority over the Luftwaffe fighters in the battle for Malta. During the Allied Invasion of Normandy, Spitfires heavily armed with 20mm cannon and .50-in guns, provided crucial air support. During the closing stages of the war, a Spitfire Mark XIV even shot down a Messerschmitt Me 262, the world’s first operational jet fighter. However, the advent of the jet age spelt the beginning of the end for the Spitfire.
It is commonly thought that the label Spitfire was chosen to reflect the aircraft’s intense firing capabilities. But the name really came from the Chairman of Vickers-Armstrongs Robert McLean’s affectionate nickname for his feisty elder daughter, Ann – “the little spitfire”. Ann lived to be a hundred.