Supermarine Spitfire

Supermarine Spitfire VB - AB910
Supermarine Spitfire VB - AB910
Design and Development

R. J. Mitchell's 1931 design to meet Air Ministry specification F7/30 for a new and modern fighter capable of 251 mph (404 km/h), the Supermarine Type 224, resulted in an open-cockpit monoplane with bulky gull-wings and a large fixed, spatted undercarriage powered by the evaporative-cooled Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine. This made its first flight in February 1934. The aircraft was a big disappointment to Mitchell and his design team, who immediately embarked on a series of "cleaned-up" designs, using their experience with the Schneider Trophy seaplanes as a starting point. Mitchell had already begun working on a new aircraft, designated Type 300, based on the Type 224. With a retractable gear with the wingspan reduced, the aircraft was submitted to the Air Ministry in July 1934, but again was not accepted. The design evolved through a number of changes, including an enclosed cockpit, oxygen-breathing apparatus, even smaller and thinner wings, and the newly-developed, more powerful Rolls-Royce PV-XII V-12 engine, later named the Merlin. In November 1934, Mitchell, with the backing of Supermarine's owner, Vickers-Armstrong's, started detailed design work on the Type 300. The Air Ministry issued a contract AM 361140/34 on 1st December 1934. On 3rd January 1935, the Air Ministry formalised the contract and a new Specification F10/35 was written around the aircraft.

On 5th March 1936 the prototype (K5054) took off on its first flight from Eastleigh Aerodrome. This eight minute flight came four months after the maiden flight of the contemporary Hawker Hurricane.

The British public first saw the Spitfire at the RAF Hendon air-display on Saturday 27th June 1936. Although full-scale production was supposed to begin immediately, there were numerous problems which could not be overcome for some time and the first production Spitfire, did not roll off the Woolston, Southampton assembly line until mid-1938. The first and most immediate problem was that the main Supermarine factory at Woolston was already working at full capacity fulfilling orders for Walruses and Stranraers. Although outside contractors were supposed to be involved in manufacturing many important Spitfire components, especially the wings, Vickers-Armstrong's (the parent company) were reluctant to see the Spitfire being manufactured by outside concerns and were slow to release the necessary blueprints and sub-components. As a result of the delays in getting the Spitfire into full production, the Air Ministry put forward a plan that production of the Spitfire be stopped after the initial order for 310, after which Supermarine would build Bristol Beaufighter's. The managements of Supermarine and Vickers were able to persuade the Air Ministry that the problems could be overcome and further orders were placed for 200 Spitfires on 24th March 1938, the two orders covering the K, L and N prefix serial numbers.

By May 1940, Castle Bromwich had not yet built its first Spitfire, in spite of promises that the factory would be producing 60 per week starting in April. On 17th May Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, telephoned Lord Nuffield and manoeuvred him into handing over control of the Castle Bromwich plant to Beaverbrook's Ministry. Beaverbrook immediately sent in experienced management staff and experienced workers from Supermarine and gave over control of the factory to Vickers-Armstrong. Although it would take some time to resolve the problems, in June 1940, 10 Mk II's were built; in July, 23 rolled out, 37 in August, and 56 in September. These were the first of thousands of Spitfires to emerge from Castle Bromwich. By the time production ended at Castle Bromwich in June 1945, a total of 12,129 Spitfires (921 Mk II's, 4,489 Mk Vs, 5,665 Mk IX's, and 1,054 Mk XVI's) had been built.

During the Battle of Britain, concerted efforts were made by the Luftwaffe to destroy the main manufacturing plants at Woolston and Itchen, near Southampton. The first raid, which missed the factories, came on 23rd August 1940. Over the next month, other raids were mounted until, on 26th September 1940, both factories were completely wrecked, with 92 people being killed and a large number injured; most of the casualties were experienced aircraft production workers.

Fortunately for the future of the Spitfire, many of the production jigs and machine tools had already been relocated by 20th September, and steps were being taken to disperse production to small facilities throughout the Southampton area. To this end, the British government requisitioned the likes of Vincent's Garage in Station Square Reading, which later specialised in manufacturing Spitfire fuselages, and Anna Valley Motors, Salisbury, which was to become the sole producer of the wing leading-edge fuel tanks for photo-reconnaissance Spitfires, as well as producing other components. A purpose-built works, specialising in manufacturing fuselages and installing engines, was built at Star Road, Caversham in Reading. The drawing office in which all Spitfire designs were drafted was relocated to another purpose-built site at Hursley Park, near Southampton. This site also had an aircraft assembly hangar, with its associated aerodrome, where many of the prototype and experimental Spitfires were assembled and flown.

Completed Spitfires were delivered to the airfields on large commercial "Queen Mary" low-loader articulated trucks, there to be fully assembled, tested, then passed on to the RAF.

All production Spitfires were flight tested before delivery. During the Second World War, Jeffrey Quill was Vickers Supermarine's chief test pilot, in charge of flight-testing all aircraft types built by Vickers Supermarine, he also oversaw a group of 10 to 12 pilots responsible for testing all developmental and production Spitfires built by the company in the Southampton area. Quill had also devised the standard testing procedures which, with variations for specific aircraft designs, operated from 1938. Alex Henshaw, chief test pilot at Castle Bromwich from 1940, was placed in charge of testing all Spitfires built at that factory, coordinating a team of 25 pilots, he also assessed all Spitfire developments. Between 1940 and 1946, Henshaw flew a total of 2,360 Spitfires and Seafires, more than 10% of total production.

When the last Spitfire rolled out in February 1948, a total of 22,799 examples of all variants had been built, including two-seat trainers, with some Spitfires remaining in service well into the 1950s. The Spitfire was the only British fighter aircraft to be in continuous production before, during and after the Second World War.

Operational History

The operational history of the Spitfire with the RAF started with the first Mk Is K9789, which entered service with No.19 Squadron at RAF Duxford on 4th August 1938.

The Spitfire achieved legendary status during the Battle of Britain, a reputation aided by the famous "Spitfire Fund" organised and run by Lord Beaverbrook the Minister of Aircraft Production. Although the key aim of Fighter Command was to stop the Luftwaffe's bombers, in practice the tactic was to use Spitfires to counter German escort fighters, particularly the Bf 109s, while the Hurricane squadrons attacked the bombers.

Well-known Spitfire pilots included J E "Johnnie" Johnson (34 enemy aircraft shot down), who flew the Spitfire right through his operational career from late 1940 to 1945. Douglas Bader (20 e/a) and R S "Bob" Tuck (27 e/a) flew Spitfires and Hurricanes during the major air battles of 1940, and both were shot down and became POWs while flying Spitfires over France in 1941 and 1942. Some notable Commonwealth pilots were A G "Sailor" Malan from South Africa, New Zealanders Alan Deere and C F Gray and the Australian Hugo Armstrong.

The Spitfire continued to play increasingly diverse roles throughout the Second World War and beyond, often in air forces other than the RAF. The Spitfire, for example, became the first high-speed photo-reconnaissance aircraft to be operated by the RAF. Sometimes unarmed, they flew at high, medium and low altitudes, often ranging far into enemy territory to closely observe the Axis powers and provide an almost continual flow of valuable intelligence information throughout the war. In 1941 and 1942, PRU Spitfires provided the first photographs of the Freya and W├╝rzburg radar systems and, in 1943, helped confirm that the Germans were building the V1 and V2 Vergeltungswaffe (vengeance weapons) by photographing Peenem├╝nde, on the Baltic Sea coast of Germany.

In the Mediterranean the Spitfire blunted the heavy attacks on Malta by the Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe and, from early 1943, helped pave the way for the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy. On 7th March 1942, 15 Mk Vs carrying 90-gallon fuel tanks under their bellies took off from the HMS Eagle off the coast of Algeria on a 600-mile flight to Malta. Those Spitfires V were the first to see service outside Britain. Over the Northern Territory of Australia, RAAF Spitfires helped defend the port city of Darwin against air attack by the Japanese Naval Air Force. The Spitfire also served on the Eastern Front: approximately a thousand were supplied to the Soviet Air Force. Though some were used at the frontline in 1943, most of them saw service with the Protivo-Vozdushnaya Oborona (English: Anti-air Defence Branch of the Soviet Military).

Production Summary
ModelProduction
Mk IA1537 built
Mk IB30 built
Mk IIA751 built
Mk IIB170 built
Mk III? (under 1000)
Mk V150 built
Mk VA94 built
Mk VB3991 built
Mk VC2467 built
Mk VI100 built
Mk VII140 built
Mk VIII1658 built
Mk IX5,656 built
Mk XII100 built
Mk XIV957 built
Mk XVI1054 built
Mk XVIII300 built
Mk XXI120 built
Mk XXII & XXIV287 built
Seafire1803 built
Specifications(Spitfire VA)
Length:29.92ft (9.12m)
Width:36.84ft (11.23m)
Height:9.91ft (3.02m)
Accommodation:1
Hardpoints:3
Empty Weight:4,998lbs (2,267kg)
MTOW:6,418lbs (2,911kg)
Max Speed:369mph (594kmh 321kts)
Max Range:1135miles (1827km)
Rate-of-Climb:2,666ft/min (813m/min)
Service Ceiling:36,499ft (11,125m 6.9miles)
Engine:1 x Rolls-Royce Merlin 45 liquid-cooled V-12 piston engine generating 1,478hp
Armament Standard:4 x 7.7mm machine guns and 2 x 20mm cannons
Armament Optional:None