Sleek, fast and deadly, the Supermarine Spitfire is perhaps the most well known air-superiority fighter in history.
Used by British, Canadian and Allied forces throughout the war and around the world, the Spitfires were loved by their pilots and feared by their enemies.
In August 1940, during the fiercest fighting of the Battle of Britain, when Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring asked the German ace Adolf Galland what his men needed to win... Galland famously replied, "give me a squadron of Spitfires."
The Spitfire was the creation of British aircraft engineer Reginald “R.J.” Mitchell. Dying of cancer, Mitchell worked feverishly on the project – finishing just before his death in 1937. The first Spitfire prototype flew on 5 March 1936 and its performance was impressive enough for the British Air Ministry to begin placing orders.
By the advent of war in 1939 the RAF was in possession of nearly 400 Spitfires with over 2,000 more on order. The planes saw early service during the battle of France; however Winston Churchill’s decision to hold back many of Britain’s front-line fighters ensured that when the Germans began the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, the RAF had a warm reception prepared.
The ‘Spitfire’ was not one single design; it was an aircraft which evolved throughout the war, improving and adapting to new roles and opponents. Overall, there were some 40 different variants of the aircraft put into service. From the Mark I (with a speed of 360 mph) to the final variant – the Mark XIV (with a speed of 450 mph), there were over 20,300 planes produced.
Spitfires were adapted from their early roles as air-superiority fighters to serve as reconnaissance craft, escorts, spotters and tactical bombers. Their armaments evolved from the original eight .303 Browning machine-guns to include a cannon armament in the Mark V, and later bombs and rockets when the Spitfire was assigned the role of close air support and tactical strike aircraft.
The Battle of Britain
It was during the Battle of Britain that the Spitfire truly cemented its reputation as a first rate fighter. They were a minority in the British fighter force; Fighter Command began the battle with 260 Spitfires and 375 Hawker Hurricanes. Yet, it was the Spitfire, with its elegant silhouette, high speeds, and excellent manoeuvrability which captured the public imagination and became the symbol of the British Empire’s indomitable will to resist.
Against the British defences, the Luftwaffe possessed over 800 of the fast and capable Messerschmitt Bf 109s. The Spitfire could outperform the Messerschmitt with its superior turning radius and was slightly faster below 15,000 feet. The Messerschmitt was better in the climb and slightly faster over 20,000 feet. Taking advantage of its superior performance, wherever possible the RAF held their Spitfires back, ready to engage the German escort fighters while the slower Hurricane squadrons were sent in to attack the enemy bomber formations.
Air War over Europe
During the Allied landings in France the Spitfire played a prominent role in defending the invasion armada by supporting the ground forces and striking at German movements far behind the lines. Canadian fighter pilots, who had been serving in Britain since 1939, played a large part in helping to achieve Allied air superiority over the D-day bridgehead, often reaching back some 100 km behind enemy lines to strafe and bomb tanks, trains and generally anything that moved.
While Allied ground forces had complete freedom of movement, German troops usually had to travel at night in order to avoid being targeted by the Allied fighters. Perhaps the RCAF’s most important air strike came in July 1944 when Flight Lieutenant Charley Fox (412 Squadron) was credited with strafing Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s staff car with his Spitfire. The attack seriously injured the ‘Desert Fox’ and put one of Germany’s most capable generals out of the war.
The Spitfire was vital in Europe; however it saw action around the world. Spitfires helped to win British air superiority during Montgomery’s advance across North Africa and even saw action in Australia and Burma. Canada’s most successful pilot of the war, Flight Lieutenant George “Buzz” Beurling, flew his Spitfire from the island of Malta – wracking up over 27 kills in 1942 alone. It was the Spitfire and pilots like Beurling that saved Malta, and consequently the entire Western Mediterranean from complete Axis domination during some of the darkest periods of the war.
From Europe to Africa, and across the world, the Spitfire saw action in nearly every theatre of the Second World War. Fast, manoeuvrable and eminently easy to fly, the sleek craft became the iconic British and Canadian fighter. Its elliptical wing silhouette made it instantly recognizable, its speed and manoeuvrability made it deadly, and the role it played in the final Allied victory made it famous.