Today, March 5th 2016, the Supermarine Spitfire will turn 80. On this day, back in 1936, it made its first successful test flight and a legend was born. Reginald Joseph Mitchell, a feted seaplane designer resting in Europe to recover from cancer surgery, awoke to the danger of Germany’s increasing might in 1933, after chatting to German aviation specialists. Immediately, he began work on a prototype that would eventually be christened the Spitfire (much to his disgust- he preferred the name ‘Shrew’). It would be his last design; he died in June 1937.
In 1934 the Ministry of War called for a single-seater eight-gun fighter, capable of exceeding speeds of 275mph. R.J. Mitchell’s design for the Supermarine Type 300 Prototype K5054 was accepted by the Air Ministry in January 1935, construction began that year, and the finished aircraft was tested on March 5th 1936 at Eastleigh Aerodrome, with Vickers test pilot Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers at the controls. It was able to reach speeds up to 342mph, which meant that it smashed the MOD target, and it could climb 2,500ft per minute. Furthermore, it took just under six minutes to get to 15,000 feet, with a ceiling of 35,400 feet. Reportedly, Summers returned from that first flight imploring the designers not to change a thing (they still made one or two revisions, including the incorporation of the new P.V.12 (Merlin) engine and an eight-gun battery)! The plane received its certificate of flight-worthiness on April 2 1936, and on 3rd of June an order for 310 planes was placed.
The strength and simplicity of its design, according to ‘The Spitfire Story’1, stood the Spitfire in good stead for the rest of the war. By 1948 22,758 Spitfires and Seafires (the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm model) had been built, in 33 marks and 52 operational variants. The Spitfire was easy to handle in the air, thanks to its multi-blade propeller. It had a slim, aerodynamic frame and a unique elliptical wing shape that minimised drag. The retractable undercarriage allowed space for a large number of guns (four in the earliest models) and increased the frame’s resistance to high-speed manoeuvres, while the mechanism for attaching the engine allowed different sorts of engines to be used. The course of the war would see the Spitfire’s power and weight double, its maximum speed rise by 35% and its rate of climb by 80%, all with minor alterations in design.
In 1938 the first Spitfire Mk 1s (Mark Ones) were produced, and in August they entered service, with members of 19 (F) Squadron, Duxford, at the controls. By the time war was declared, 10 RAF fighter squadrons had been equipped with Spitfires, and 1,583 Mk 1s were available. In October 1939 the plane achieved its first kills, with two Junkers Ju 88s being shot down off the coast of Scotland.
As the Battle of Britain loomed, the Spitfire’s strengths and weaknesses became apparent. The big weakness was a propensity for the engine to cut out during a dive, which was ironed out in 1941. Its other weakness was a lack of stability in its base (again later corrected), which made it unsuitable for flight off aircraft carriers, as it tended to overshoot. Its greatest strengths were its speed – though the Bf 109E was faster than the earliest models (unlike the Bf 110) – and above all, its manoeuvrability. The Spitfire might not be able to catch a German aircraft in a dive, but once in a dogfight it could twist and turn until a shocked German pilot found the Spitfire on its tale. The Bf 109E, meanwhile, had a much larger turning circle, and its major weakness was its lack of range. It could only last for 10 minutes over London before being forced to circle back to base.
From July 10th the Battle of Britain commenced, with 120 German bombers and fighters striking British convoys and 70 more bombers attacking dockyard installations in Wales on the first day. Operation Sealion, Hitler’s plan to invade the UK, kicked off in earnest with Eagle Day on 13th August, with air bases, aircraft factories and radar stations in southeast England being targeted. By now 19 Fighter Command squadrons were equipped with Spitfires, and for the next two months the pilots had their hands full. Wave after wave of German bombers, escorted and protected by the inevitable fighters, arrived. Although Britain was producing aircraft more quickly than Germany (according to ‘The Second World War: a Miscellany’2, in June 1940 we produced 446 new aircraft to Germany’s 220), Germany had had many more aircraft before the battle commenced.
The Spitfire was fast and agile on the straight, but at a disadvantage in a dive, while the Hurricane was rather heavy and slow to turn, but faster in a dive and equipped with a good stable gun platform. So, the sturdy Hurricanes went after the bombers, the slow Heinkels, Junkers and Dorniers, achieving an impressive kill rate. The Spitfires achieved less kills because their job was to hold off the lurking Messerschmitts, at least for the vital 10 minutes that would see the Bf 109Es heading for home, leaving the slower and far less agile Bf 110s to cope alone. That explains why, out of 1,185 enemy craft shot down, just 44.6 % of the overall kills were claimed by Spitfire pilots, and of the bombers shot down, 66.2% were claimed by Hurricanes. Each plane covered the other’s weaknesses. By the end of August the RAF was already showing its prowess, with the Luftwaffe having lost 600 planes to its 260.
The feted ‘Aces’ did a lot to boost the morale of beleaguered Britain. Douglas Bader was, of course, particularly well-known for the fact that, despite having his legs cut off after a plane crash in 1931, he went on to gain the Distinguished Flying Cross with Bar, not to mention the Distinguished Service Order with Bar, and to shoot down 23 enemy aircraft. Additionally, he was the co-creator of the ‘Big Wing’ tactics, which involved sending a strong force to intercept enemy pilots over the Channel. However, as explained in ‘Fighter Squadrons of the RAF’3, for every high-scoring Douglas Bader there was a much less celebrated ‘Number Two’ who shadowed and guarded the tails of the attacking planes, allowing the ‘Aces’ to do their job to the very best of their abilities.
Ultimately, the Luftwaffe failed to break the RAF, and the invasion of Britain was postponed in October 1940 (never to materialise), though the bombing continued. ‘Flight: 100 Years of Aviation’4 notes that, overall in the Battle of Britain, 1,900 Luftwaffe aircraft were shot down compared to a little over 1,000 Allied aircraft, and 2,700 German airmen perished compared to 544 British airmen. Instead of annihilating Fighter Command, the Germans had to settle for bombing London and other British cities, and as the Spitfire grew faster and faster thanks to upgrades of its Rolls Royce Merlin engine, and incorporated new wing variations which allowed it to be armed with a mixture of machine guns and cannons, it matured into a truly formidable opponent, feared by all who faced it.
Don’t forget to visit our database to search for your daredevil Spitfire pilot ancestor. Our collections include ‘Bomber/Fighter Command Losses 1939-1945’, ‘Fighter Command Losses 1940’, ‘UK Airforce List 1936’ and ‘UK Air Force List 1940’. Additionally, if your ancestor isn’t among our named collections, our Historic Documents Archive holds loads of information on different types of aircraft and the deeds of Fighter Command, so you can read up on exactly what life as a pilot was like.
1: Peter R March
2: Norman Ferguson
3: John Rawlings
4: R.G. Grant