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The Supermarine Spitfire

RAF Ensign In 1940 Hitler prepared to invade Britain but the German air force, the Luftwaffe, for the first time since the outbreak of war found itself facing a determined enemy. The result was an air battle that would change the course of World War 2. Britain's survival in those dark early days of the war depended on two aircraft, the Hawker Hurricane & an aircraft that's become a legend of the skies, the Supermarine Spitfire.

Since the First World War very little had changed in aviation and by the 1930's most aircraft were still biplanes. They were still made of wood & covered with fabric & they were slow. Then on 29th September 1931 a British built seaplane, the S6B, reached the astonishing speed of 407.5 mph (656 km/h) more than twice as fast as the biplanes then in service with most air forces. Seventeen days earlier the same aircraft had won the Schneider Trophy outright by winning the international contest for the third successive time. The S6B was a streamlined metal monoplane far ahead of it's time. It was the latest in a series of racing planes designed by the Supermarine Aircraft Company. It's chief designer Reginald Joseph Mitchell was a brilliant engineer who understood the day of the traditional biplane was over. In 1930 the British Government officially requested that it's aircraft industry submit designs for a new fighter. Mitchell produced some aircraft which stuck closely to the Government's request but was little better than the biplanes it was meant to replace. Mitchell went back to the drawing board. Then in 1933 a new sense of urgency developed, the Nazi Party was voted into power in Germany, it's leader Adolf Hitler began rearming the Luftwaffe with modern all metal bombers & fighters.

Mitchell was diagnosed with cancer & underwent a major operation. While convalescing in Europe he talked with German pilot's who were enthusiastic about the new aircraft designs & itching for combat. He returned home to England convinced that war was coming. He was determined to match the best that Germany could produce.

Designing a Legend

Meanwhile the Rolls-Royce Company was privately developing a new aircraft engine, it was powerful & more sophisticated than any aircraft engine before it. It was christened "The Merlin" not in honour of Merlin the Magician as many think but after a bird called the Merlin. Rolls-Royce named it's aircraft engines after birds during this period. The Rolls-Royce Kestrel & Griffon engines are other examples. Strangely enough Rolls-Royce Kestrel engines powered the early Messerschmitt Bf-109s produced around 1934 due to the fact the designated Jumo 210 engine was not available in time. Mitchell realised that the Merlin engine could give him the extra power he needed to create a high speed fighter. In 1933 he began rough sketches for a new design based on his own ideas, not official specifications. It had a streamlined fuselage, enclosed cockpit & thin section wings which contained folding wheels & eight machine guns. Mitchell's health was failing rapidly & he was in constant pain but by January 1935 work started on the prototype. In a moment of pure inspiration Mitchell created the gracefully curved wing shape which would become the hallmark of the Spitfire. Where biplanes had used a web of wires to brace their wooden frame Mitchell's machine used a stressed metal skin riveted to metal forms. The wings were built around a laminated spar & it's multiple layers combined great strength with flexibility. It was a complex & brilliant design but it would be a nightmare to mass produce.

A Marriage made in Heaven

Originally to have been given the name Shrew, the head of Vickers commented that his four year old daughter was a little spitfire & thus despite the fact that Mitchell did not like the name the aircraft was officially given the name Spitfire.

By early 1936 the prototype airframe & the new Rolls-Royce Merlin engine were ready. The two were combined & on 6th March at an airfield near Southampton with Vickers Chief Test Pilot 'Mutt' Summers at the controls the very first Spitfire, No.K5054 took off. It was a strikingly beautiful & revolutionary machine which looked more like a racer than a fighter. After it's initial flights the prototype was flown by Supermarine test pilot Jeffrey Quill. He described the cockpit as "narrow but not cramped, the instrument panel was tidy, symmetric & logically laid out". The lady was fast & she certainly had looks, but was she a fighter?

Competition & Production Delays

The revolutionary Spitfire was not the only contestant in the race to build a new fighter for the RAF. The Hawker Hurricane was a much less advanced design than the Spitfire with a thick section wing & a wire braced fuselage with a fabric covering but it was easier to build. It was also several months ahead in development. With a top speed of around 328 mph (528 km/h) it was almost as fast as the Spitfire. Spitfire designer Reginald Mitchell knew that he could & must do better but his health was failing & his fighter had not yet been accepted by the Royal Air Force, he drove himself even harder. Meanwhile in Germany the Luftwaffe commanded by Hermann Göring was growing larger & more powerful very rapidly. By 1936 the German threat was obvious even to the Air Ministry. On 3rd June an order was placed for 600 Hurricanes but only 310 Spitfires. Many still saw Mitchell's creation as a lightweight racing machine, fast, elegant but not a fighter. As exhaustive testing continued Mitchell finally lost his long fight against cancer. His death on 11th June 1937 at age 42 devastated the Spitfire team but the genius of his design still inspired them. Mitchell's deputy Joe Smith was able to keep the Spitfire dream alive even though the work was a full year behind schedule. Britain's Air Ministry became increasing frustrated by the delays & there was talk of abandoning the Spitfire programme altogether.

As the German threat increased Britain's fighter production increased but time was running out. In 1938 Britain & France had come very close to war with Germany over German demands on Czechoslovakia but in the case of Britain defence was in an appalling state. Although aircraft production was being stepped up it was still at a tickle. Without this invaluable year the RAF would probably have gone to war with biplanes.

The Gathering Storm Clouds

In April 1938 the Nuffield Organisation was awarded an order for 1,000 Spitfires to be built at a shadow plant planned for Castle Bromwich near Birmingham, and further orders in 1939 brought the number of aircraft on the order book to a total of 2,143 by the outbreak of war. On 4th August 1938 the first operational Spitfires were finally delivered to an RAF station, No.19 Squadron at Duxford in Cambridgeshire became the first fighter unit to exchange it's biplanes for the new Spitfires. The arms race was now on. Between August and December 1938 No. 19 Squadron at Duxford was equipped with the Spitfire Mk.1. By the outbreak of war nine squadrons were fully equipped and two others were in the process of conversion.

By 1938 Germany's Luftwaffe was already re-equipping with it's answer to the Spitfire-the Messerschmitt Bf-109. In 1939 Alex Henshaw, the Chief Test Pilot for the Spitfire, was invited to Germany to see the new fighters. He said the Germans were very conscience of their military power. When a Major in the Luftwaffe showed him the Bf-109s Henshaw replied, "We have the Spitfire". The Major replied , "Yes a very pretty little toy but the 109 is a fighting machine".

The Lights go out in Europe

On 3rd September, 1939 war began between Britain & Germany, now the RAF would have to face the Luftwaffe. Young British pilots were rushed through their basic training. Most ended up flying Hurricanes but the fortunate few were assigned to Spitfire squadrons. R.J. Mitchell's"pretty little toy" was about to teach the German pilots a new game.

In May 1940 the Germans invaded France.Within a month France had fallen. Churchill told the British Nation "The Battle for France is over, the Battle of Britain is about to begin".

It had always been assumed German bombers would have to fly all the way from their bases in Germany to Britain & the distance was too great for fighters to accompany them. Now some bombers were based scarcely more than 20 miles (32.1 km) from the shores of Great Britain & fighters could accompany them all the way to their targets.

The Battle of Britain

What's it like to go to war with only nine hours flight training. You can't fight for your life if you're terrified.

The Battle of Britain began with dive bombing attacks on shipping in the English Channel as Germany prepared for an invasion of Britain. All that stood between Britain's survival & defeat was a narrow strip of sea. Soon Britain's chain of coastal radar stations came under attack, then the fighter airfields.

Hugh Dowding head of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain had four fighter groups defending the country. No.13 Group headquartered at Newcastle-on-Tyne, Northumberland & No.12 Group headquartered at Watnall, Nottinghamshire defended the North & the Midlands respectively. No.10 Group headquartered at Box, Wiltshire defended the South-west & No.11 Group headquartered at Uxbridge, Middlesex defended the vulnerable South-east which included London.

The summer of 1940 produced some of the best weather Britain had seen in ages. Good flying weather meant daily visits by the Luftwaffe, losses began to cause serious concern. By mid July it appeared that if such losses continued the RAF would be eliminated in six weeks. As the pilots waited to take off they knew how slim their chances of survival were. The Royal Air Force was outnumbered roughly two to one, to even the score it had to use it's limited resources effectively. The key was radar. This pioneering form of electronic warfare was primitive but it worked. With a skilled operator, range, bearing, altitude & scale of an attack could be predicted giving defensive fighters a head start. Radar stations reported to Fighter Commands Headquarters at Bently Priory near Stanmore, Middlesex. From here the order to engage the enemy would pass from the sector controllers to individual fighter squadrons-the chain reaction would begin, a blip on the radar screen, a telephone call to Headquarters, rapid assessment of the situation, a decision on which squadrons would intercept the enemy, a final phone call & then the order "Squadron Scramble"! Everything now depended on speed, a squadron had to get airborne in a matter of minutes & gain height as quickly as possible to engage the enemy on equal terms. Every pilots greatest fear was getting caught on the ground a helpless victim of a surprise attack. Now the young pilot's of Mitchell's Spitfires would have to fight for their lives.

Slower moving bombers presented fairly easy targets but any attack on them instantly provoked retribution from above as fighter escorts swept in to attack. For many young pilots their first mission was also their last.

Each aircraft had it's own ground crew, the crews job was to prepare it as quickly as possible for the next engagement. All eight machine guns had to be checked & reloaded. Each gun was fed by a belt of 300 rounds of ammunition, 2,400 rounds total. The pilot had roughly 15 seconds worth of firepower. Meanwhile the fuel tanks were refilled, the oxygen supply was replaced & any engine problems reported by the pilot were investigated. The pilot & his crew knew that his life depended on their skills, a close bond often grew between them.

A new kind of War

Soon wrecked aircraft littered the English countryside. This was an entirely new kind of warfare fought in full view of the civilian population & far above their heads. In the gardens & the harvest fields of Southern England the people gazed up at the drama unfolding above them.

Already in the First World War fighter pilots had become popular heroes & now in 1940 the fighter pilots of Fighter Command with their casual clothing & devil may care attitude became gladiators acting out this drama in the skies over South East England with the population like an audience looking up at them.

The Blitz Begins

The mission of the Luftwaffe pilots was to destroy the RAF & it's bases at all costs. But fate had other plans. The first German attack on London actually occurred by accident. On the night of 24th August, 1940, Luftwaffe bombers aiming for military targets on the outskirts of London drifted off course and instead dropped their bombs just within London destroying several homes and killing civilians. Amid the public outrage that followed, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, believing it was a deliberate attack, ordered Berlin to be bombed the next evening.

About 40 British bombers managed to reach Berlin and inflicted minimal property damage. However, the Germans were utterly stunned by the British air-attack on Hitler's capital. It was the first time bombs had ever fallen on Berlin. Making matters worse, they had been repeatedly assured by Luftwaffe Chief, Hermann Göring, that it could never happen. A second British bombing raid on the night of 28/29th August resulted in Germans killed on the ground. Two nights later, a third attack occurred.

German nerves were frayed. The Nazis were outraged. In a speech delivered on 4th September, Hitler threatened, "...When the British Air Force drops two or three or four thousand kilograms of bombs, then we will in one night drop 150-, 230-, 300- or 400,000 kilograms. When they declare that they will increase their attacks on our cities, then we will raze their cities to the ground. We will stop the handiwork of those night air pirates, so help us God!"

Beginning on 7th September, 1940, and for a total of 57 consecutive nights, London was bombed. The Blitz had begun. For Londoners it was the beginning of a nightmare but for the hard pressed RAF it was a reprieve. The decision to wage a massive bombing campaign against London and other British cities would prove to be one of the most fateful of the war.

As the Luftwaffe switched to bombing London & other British cities the "Battle of Britain" entered a new & far more bitter phase. This was no longer a gladiatorial contest, this was the slaughter of innocent civilians. While Londoners paid the price the RAF got the breathing space it needed to rebuild it's strength & avenge the victims.

There is absolutely no doubt that the German change of emphasis from bombing radar stations & attacking the RAF to bombing London was a major mistake. Events later in the war were going to show that neither the German bombing of Britain nor the Allied bombing of Germany which was much heavier would actually break civilian moral. So by taking the pressure off the Royal Air Force the Germans made the deceive mistake in the "Battle of Britain".

As productivity improved replacement Spitfires began coming off the production lines faster than the Germans could shot them down. They left the factory as anonymous & identical machines but in the hands of a pilot each one began to acquire an identity & a personality. Even a badly damaged Spit could help keep others in the air. Reusable wings, engines & tails were simply grafted on to new or repaired fuselages to produce more fighters. But while the aircraft could be patched up, exhausted pilots could not.

The Turning Point

As the battle developed, the cynicism of German aircrews increased about the dictates of the High Command. There was a sour standing joke of the period about a Luftwaffe pilot closing the English coast and reporting on the intercom: "Here they come again, the last fifty British fighters".

Among the pilots there was grim determination to finish the job but no one knew how much longer they could hold out. As the Battle of Britain reached it's climax raids on London became more intense. Large areas of the city were destroyed as huge fires raged out of control.

The turning point came on 15th September 1940 as the first reports began streaming in from the coastal radar stations. The empty map at Fighter Command Headquarters began filling with evidence that this days raid would be the biggest yet. Five hundred German raiders headed for London, they were intercepted by over three hundred Spitfires & Hurricanes. As Londoners watched, a spectacle unfolded over the city. The sky was full of dog fighting as the German formations broke up & scattered. At the end of the day the RAF proudly claimed 185 kills, later revised down to 60, but it was enough. Two days later Hitler abandoned his invasion plans. The Battle of Britain was over.

The Germans hadn't won air superiority & without it they had no chance of invading across the channel and they hadn't hurt Britain so badly that the British Government or the British population wanted to sue to peace. Britain was still in the war, an unsinkable aircraft carrier for Allied bombing attacks on Germany and that springboard from which the Allies would eventually mount the invasion of Europe. It was all down to the Battle of Britain and there was a great tribute to the fighter which had helped make it all possible. The German air ace Adolf Galland was asked by Göring what he needed to win the battle. He replied, "Spitfires".

The Spitfire had steadily improved in stages throughout six long years of war. Production of the aircraft the Ministry once proposed to cancel eventually reached more than 22,000 in 24 variants of which the largest number manufactured was the Mk.Vc. The Spitfire was in production until 1948 & remained a frontline fighter with the Royal Air Force until 1951. The Spitfire captured the public imagination like no other aircraft before or since. It became a symbol of freedom which helped to save Britain & the world from what Winston Churchill called the new dark age of Nazi tyranny. Housewives gave up their saucepans to build more of them. Out of the frying pan into the (Spit) fire. For as long as there were Spitfires in the skies people felt Britain was safe.

Amongst those who died defending the skies over Britain were pilots from the Empire, Poland Czechoslovakia, Belgium, France & America. A quarter of the legendary few were from overseas, a debt that is often forgotten. This was Churchill's final verdict on the young RAF airmen who fought the Battle of Britain, "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few".

Below are the primary aircraft types used in the "Battle of Britain"

The Royal Air Force
Hawker Hurricane
Supermarine Spitfire
Boulton Paul Defiant
Bristol Blenheim
Gloster Gladiator
Bristol Beaufighter


Maltese  Cross
The Luftwaffe
Messerschmitt Bf-109
Messerschmitt Bf-110 "Zerstörer"
Junkers Ju-87 "Stuka"
Junkers Ju-88
Heinkel He-111
Dornier Do-17

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