One of the most iconic aircraft of the 20th century, the Spitfire protected the sky of the United Kingdom during the Second World War and helped Royal Air Force to have the upper hand in the Battle for Britain. With its elliptical wings and the unique aerodynamic look that made it one of the best maneuvering aircraft, it managed to dominate the Messerschmitt Bf 109.
It was developed by Supermarine Aviation Works and had a distinctive elliptical wing designed by Beverley Shenstone with innovative sunken rivets to have the thinnest possible cross-section, achieving a potential top speed greater than that of several contemporary fighter aircraft, including the Hawker Hurricane.
During the battle of Britain (July-October 1940) it was perceived as the main aircraft of the RAF even though there were more Hurricanes than Spitfires. The Spitfire was designed around a 1,000-horsepower, 12-cylinder, liquid-cooled Rolls-Royce PV-12 engine (later dubbed the Merlin), the Spitfire first flew in March 1935. It also had 8 wing-mounted 7.7 mm guns according to a 1934 Air Ministry specification calling for a high-performance fighter.
A more radical design than the Hurricane, the Spitfire had a stressed-skin aluminum structure and a graceful elliptical wing with a thin airfoil that, in combination with Merlin’s efficient two-stage supercharger, gave it exceptional performance at high altitudes. The maximum speed was 580 km/h and it had a ceiling of 34.000 ft, making it faster than its German rival at altitudes above 15.000 ft. It was initially manufactured in Birmingham but during the Battle of Britain, the production was dispersed as German raids targeted factories. In 1934, Mitchell and his team of designers made a significant decision regarding the wing design. They faced the challenge of meeting two opposing requirements: the wing had to be slender to minimize drag, yet it needed to have sufficient thickness to accommodate the retractable undercarriage, armament, and ammunition. To resolve this dilemma, they opted for a semi-elliptical shape for the wing. The elliptical planform emerged as the most aerodynamically efficient shape for an untwisted wing, resulting in the least amount of induced drag.
The spitfire lacked fuel injection and had a carburetor and that was chosen because this kept the engine cooler, enhancing the performance of the supercharger. However, during a nose dive or some other maneuvers, the engine could stop fuel starvation. In March 1941, a metal disc with a hole was fitted in the fuel line, restricting fuel flow to the maximum the engine could consume. While it did not cure the problem of the initial fuel starvation in a dive, it did reduce the more serious problem of the carburetor being flooded with fuel by the fuel pumps under negative “g”. Invented by Beatrice “Tilly” Shilling, it became known as “Miss Shilling’s orifice”.
During the war, machine guns were replaced by high-caliber auto-canons such as Hispano with a 60-round drum. The cannon suffered frequent stoppages, mainly because the guns were mounted on their sides to fit as much of the magazine as possible within the wing.
Spitfires also took recognisance missions and discovered radars and in 1943 confirmed that the Germans were building the V1 and V2 rockets by photographing Peenemünde, on the Baltic Sea coast of Germany. Spitfire was used in the European, Mediterranean, Pacific, and Southeast Asian theatres and it was much loved by its pilots. The Spitfire operated in several roles, including interceptor, photo-reconnaissance, fighter-bomber, and trainer, and it continued to do so until the 1950s.
Now, before the conclusion, let’s embark on a journey through the stories that highlight the indomitable spirit of the Spitfire and the brave pilots who flew them.
- “The Miracle of Dunkirk”: During the desperate evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, Pilot Officer Geoffrey Wellum found himself in the cockpit of a Spitfire, racing against time to provide air cover for the evacuation ships. Despite being inexperienced and overwhelmed, Wellum fearlessly engaged enemy aircraft, successfully defending the fleeing vessels. His bravery and that of countless other Spitfire pilots turned the tide of the battle and allowed for the safe evacuation of over 300,000 Allied soldiers.
- “The Unbreakable Bond”: Flight Lieutenant Brian “Sandy” Lane formed an unbreakable bond with his Spitfire throughout the war. On one occasion, after sustaining severe damage to his aircraft during a dogfight, Lane crash-landed in enemy territory. Determined not to let the Spitfire fall into enemy hands, he set fire to the aircraft and escaped capture. This act of devotion to his aircraft not only saved valuable intelligence from falling into enemy hands but also served as a testament to the connection between pilots and their beloved Spitfires.
- “The Forgotten Heroes”: While the contributions of male pilots are well-documented, the stories of female Spitfire pilots often go unnoticed. The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) employed women pilots to ferry aircraft, including Spitfires, to their respective airfields. One such remarkable pilot was Mary Ellis, who flew more than 400 Spitfires during the war. Her skill, dedication, and courage paved the way for future generations of female aviators.
- “The Last of the Few”: Wing Commander Tom Neil was one of the few surviving Battle of Britain Spitfire pilots. In the heat of the battle, Neil’s Spitfire was riddled with bullets, leaving him wounded and his aircraft severely damaged. Despite his injuries, he continued to engage enemy aircraft until his ammunition ran out. Neil’s determination and resilience epitomized the spirit of the “Few” who defended Britain’s skies against overwhelming odds.
More Spitfires were built than any other British combat aircraft before or since World War Two – 20,341 in total. They were retired in 1961 but there are 54 Spitfires and a few Seafires in airworthy condition worldwide but there are many air museums that have examples on static display.