The Vickers Supermarine Spitfire is rightly seen as the greatest British fighter ever built, an inspiring blend of elegance, power and speed. So successful was the plane that over 22,000 were manufactured in 19 different marques and more than 52 variants, with production lasting right up to 1948.
But it was not an easy beginning. In October 1931 the Air Ministry issued specification F7/30, calling for a new day and night fighter to replace the ageing Bristol Bulldog. R.J.Mitchell, Supermarine’s chief designer, came up with an all-metal monoplane, the Type 224, but, though innovative initial trials not a success, the lessons learned lead to the eventual creation of the Spitfire.
The maiden flight of the Spitfire prototype, K5054, took place at Eastleigh near Southampton, on 5 March 1936. Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers, Supermarine’s test pilot, wrote in his appraisal that “The handling qualities of this machine are remarkably good,” The Air Ministry were so impressed with his assessment that 310 were ordered immediately. Despite some severe production difficulties and numerous political crises, the Spitfire finally entered service with the RAF. Nº 19 squadron, based at Duxford, were the first unit to receive the plane, and pilots were reportedly optimistic about the new fighter.
But, as early as 1938 the Spitfire was regarded with disdain by the Air Ministry who merely saw it as a stopgap until the arrival of other supposedly more powerful and versatile fighters while others saw it as little more than a commercial venture for raising revenue from exports. Barely two years after the Spitfire prototype was flown, the plane was described by some senior Ministry figures as “obsolescent” Even Winston Churchill, though an eloquent advocate of a strong RAF throughout the 1930’s, was guilty of this flawed thinking. He too had little faith in the Spitfire before 1940, preferring to pin his hopes on two-seater fighters with rear-mounted turret guns.
The Spitfire first went into combat against the Luftwaffe on 16 October 1939 when aircraft from 602 and 603 squadrons took on Ju 88 bombers over the Firth of Forth. At the first sight of the Spitfires, the Germans turn and try to escape across the North Sea. As one surviving German pilot was to recall afterwards, it was ‘not a pleasant experience’.
Spitfires went on to play a major role in The Battle of Britain which reached its most climactic day on 15 September 1940, when a massive Luftwaffe attack on London led German high command mistakenly to believe that the RAF were almost broken. In truth, Britain’s fighter forces were stronger than earlier in the battle.
Latterly Spitfires were based on aircraft carriers and on 7 March 1942 Spitfires from HMS Eagle in the western Mediterranean flew to Malta, where the island was under siege. Their heroic fightback against superior Luftwaffe and Italian forces, with regular reinforcements arriving from aircraft carriers, began to turn the tide and their victory in the skies above Malta marked the beginning of the end for Axis in the west
In May1942 the Spitfire Mark IX was unveiled, with its two-stage, two-speed Merlin 61 supercharged engine. Widely regarded as the greatest of all Spitfire marks, Squadron Leader Ron Rayner described it as “marvellous, absolutely incredible”. Throughout the war, the Spitfire was in a constant state of evolution and revision.
The final combat flight of the Spitfire was undertaken on 1 May 1951 by Wing Commander Wilfred Duncan Smith during the communist insurgency in Malaya.
At the height of the battle of Dunkirk in May 1940, the brilliant New Zealander Al Deere was on patrol in his RAF Spitfire over the French coast. Suddenly, through the haze of smoke drifting upwards from the raging combat on the ground, he spotted a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter below him. He instantly gave chase. Soon, both planes were descending earthwards at high speed. “Down we went, throttles fully open, engines roaring, each determined to get the last ounce out of his straining aircraft. From 17,000 feet down to ground level I hung to his tail,” recalled Deere. Desperate to shake off the Spitfire, the Bf 109 dramatically changed course, levelling out from his dive and then going into a steep climb. But Deere could not be beaten. “I continued to close range until at about 15,000 feet I judged that I was near enough to open fire. A long burst produced immediate results. Bits flew off his aircraft.” Moments later, Deere watched the Bf 109 plunge into a field near Saint Omer and “explode with a blinding flash”.
Engagements like this were typical of the Spitfire’s formidable combat performance during the retreat from Dunkirk. The battle was the first time during the war that the plane had engaged the Luftwaffe in significant numbers, and the results shook the Germans, undermining their belief in their own invincibility. The effectiveness of the Spitfire was demonstrated even more graphically in the months that followed, as the aircraft played a central, heroic role in the defeat of the Luftwaffe during the battle of Britain. Adored by its pilots and feared by the Germans, it grew into an enduring symbol of British determination in the struggle against Nazi tyranny. The Vickers Supermarine Spitfire is rightly seen as the greatest British fighter ever built, an inspiring blend of elegance, power and speed. So successful was the plane that over 22,000 were manufactured in 19 different marks and 52 variants, with production lasting right up to 1948.