With its distinctive sound and shape the Spitfire is undoubtedly one of the most famous aircraft ever built. An icon of the Battle of Britain the aircraft had a long and varied history during its operational service with the Royal Air Force, which it still flies with today as part of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. This article contains a range of Spitfire facts about, not only, the aircraft but also the people behind it.Famous Designer
During his time at Supermarine, many as chief designer, Reginald Joseph Mitchell would be involved in the design of twenty four aircraft. Although it is the Spitfire he is most remembered for he also played a role in the Walrus and Stranraer flying boats. Both of these aircraft would also serve during the Second World War (1939 – 1945).
The lineage of the Spitfire can be traced back to Supermarine's racing seaplanes the S.5, S.6 and S.6B which won the Schneider Trophy in 1927, 1929 and 1931. R. J Mitchell was chief designer for all of these aircraft.
Supermarine Type 224
The Type 224 was designed in response to Specification F.7/30 which had been issued by the Air Ministry in October 1931. Featuring fixed undercarriage and gull wings the aircraft flew for the first time on the 19th February 1934. It proved unsuccessful and only one example was built, but the data and experience gained during the development of the aircraft helped in the design of the Spitfire.
During 1935 the Air Ministry began the process of looking for a two-seat turret fighter that could operate at night as well as during the day with the issuing of Specification F.9/35 on the 26th June. The Supermarine submission, known as the Supermarine Type 305 and with a fuselage based on the Spitfires, was submitted to the Air Ministry during August 1935. This had an unmanned hydraulically powered and electrically aimed gun turret, which was to have four Lewis or Browning machine-guns, just behind the cockpit. In the end the Boulton Paul Defiant was chosen for this role.
The 5th March 1936 saw the Spitfire prototype (K5054), still known then as the Supermarine Type 300, fly for the first time. With a 900-hp Rolls-Royce Merlin 'C' engine powering the aircraft as it flew from what was then RAF Eastleigh , now Southampton Airport, with Captain Joseph 'Mutt' Summers at the controls.
Spitfire Mk IA (P9374) at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford
Don't Touch Myth
“Don't touch anything” was said by Captain Summers at the end of the prototype's first flight. This was not because the Spitfire was perfect but because he was to fly the prototype again later and it was set up how he wanted it.
Some of the other names that were under consideration included Shrew, favoured by R.J. Mitchell, Shark, Serpent and Shrike before officially being named the Spitfire on the 28th July 1936.
After the death of R.J. Mitchell at the age of just 42 on the 11th June 1937 development of the Spitfire would be headed up by Joe Smith , who had been working under Mitchell. He would be involved with all Mks of the type.
The 3rd June 1936 saw an order for 310 Spitfire Mk Is placed by the Air Ministry, which at that time was the biggest single production order they had placed.
Cost of a Spitfire
The cost of each Spitfire Mk I in the Air Ministry's initial order for 310 was around £6,033. This price did not include the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. A far cry from the £3.1 millon pounds which was paid for a restored Mk I in 2015.
Spitfire Mk I (K9795) - No. 19 Squadron, RAF in 1938 © ww2images.com
First Spitfire Squadron
The Spitfire began to enter Royal Air Force service on the 4th August 1938 when No. 19 Squadron, RAF Duxford took delivery of their first Mk Is. These would be a fry cry from the Gloster Gauntlet biplanes they were using at the time.
Early Spitfire Mk Is had hand operated landing gear, as the pilot wound the landing gear up or down their knuckle would catch on the side of the cockpit. Thankfully for the pilots the Mk IA had a hydraulic system to operate the landing gear.
High Speed Spitfire
A converted Mk I (K9834) fitted with a 2,160-hp Rolls-Royce Merlin 3M engine was to try and beat the air speed record of 440.5 mph set on the 23rd October 1934 by Francesco Agello in a Macchi M.C. 72. Known as the High Speed Spitfire (N-17) it would never make an attempt as before it was ready the Heinkel He 100 V8 (30th March 1939) and then the Messerschmitt Me 209 V1 (28th April 1939) put the record out of its reach. It would be converted to a PR Mk I then a PR Mk II serving in the photo reconnaissance role for the duration of the Second World War.
First Aerial Victory Over Britain of the Second World War
No. 602 Squadron Spitfires flown by Flight Lieutenant George Pinkerton and Flying Officer Archie McKellar intercepted a Junkers Ju 88 over the Firth of Forth on the 16th October 1939 and although both pilots attacked the aircraft the victory was given to Flight Lieutenant Pinkerton. Nearby that same day a Spitfire of No. 603 Squadron flown by Flight Lieutenant Pat Gifford also shot down a Ju 88. These would be the first German aircraft shot down during the Second World War over Britain and to be shot down by the Spitfire.
Spitfires in France During 1939
A number of Spitfire PR Mk Is would be sent to France during November 1939, however these would only be used for reconnaissance duties.
No. 222 Squadron, RAF scramble during the Battle of Britain © ww2images.com
Spitfire vs Messerschmitt Bf 109
The Spitfire Mk I and Bf 109E had their first combat engagement on the 23rd May 1940. This saw No. 92 Squadron lose three of their aircraft whilst two Bf 109s and two Messerschmitt Bf 110s were lost. It was in this engagement that Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was shot down and captured. He would go on to lead the 'Great Escape'.
As the aircraft began to enter public consciousness May 1940 saw the creation of 'Spitfire Funds'. From a single rivet costing a sixpence to a whole aircraft at £5,000, although the true costs of a Spitfire was more. Everyone from the public to businesses could donate and if you could afford a whole Spitfire you could dedicate it, such as Lloyds Bank who named theirs 'The Black Horse'. In total around £13 million pounds was raised at the time.
Highest Aerial Battle of the Second World War
Taking off from RAF Northholt on the 12th September 1942 a Special Service (High Altitude) Flight Spitfire Mk IX (BS273) was vectored to the skies above Southampton. It would end up in an engagement with a Junkers Ju 86R at 43,000 ft, the highest aerial battle of the war.
First Jet Aircraft Victory
When the Messerschmitt Me 262 entered service with the Luftwaffe during 1944 it was the first jet fighter to enter operational service. When a Spitfire Mk IX of No. 401 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force shot one down on the 5th October that same year it was the first aerial victory by an Allied piston engined aircraft over a Luftwaffe jet aircraft.
Top British RAF Ace of the Second World War
With 38 victories James Edgar 'Johnnie' Johnson would end the war as the Royal Air Force's top scoring British pilot. He would score all his victories in four different Spitfire variants. Mk I, Mk II, Mk V and Mk IX.
Spitfire Mk VB (EP122) at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford
24 Main Variants
Designed as a fighter like most aircraft during the Second World War the Spitfire would find itself operating in a number of other roles. These included fighter-bomber, photo-reconnaissance, night fighter, delivering mail and air sea rescue. In this role the Spitfire would drop a dinghy and supplies for ditched airmen until a Supermarine Walrus could pick them up. It would then escort the Walrus back.
During the Second World War Jeffrey Quill was working for Vickers Supermarine as Head of Development and Production Flying. As a result of his position Jeffrey would fly all the Spitfire variants produced, the only person to do so.
Other Wing Types
Whilst the Spitfire is known for its elliptical wing shape some Mks would have clipped wings, which gave a straight edge to the wing and improved low level performance. Whilst others had extended wing tips giving a more pointed appearance to the edge of the wing and helped high altitude performance.
Five Spitfires would be converted into floatplanes during the Second World War, however none would see operational service. The Spitfire Mk IX floatplane which had a top speed of 377 mph would be the fastest floatplane of the war.
During the Second World War a number of photo-reconnaissance Spitfires were painted in a light pink. These would operate mainly at dawn and dusk to blend in with the clouds at this time, flying just underneath them. This colour made the aircraft harder to spot from the ground but had the opposite effect when looking down on the Spitfire from above making it easier for enemy aircraft to spot it.
Spitfire Mk IX (MH434) at Shuttleworth
After the invasion of France during June 1944 it was difficult for Allied service personnel to get hold of luxuries such as beer. As a result some Spitfires were modified to hold beer kegs in their underwing pylons, normally used for bombs, or had their external fuel tanks converted to hold beer. Due to the cold air at altitude if the pilot flew high enough the beer was ready to serve on landing.
Entering service with the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm on the 15th June 1942 the Supermarine Seafire, as the naval version was known, would remain in service with the FAA until November 1954. During its time in service the Seafire would take part in one of the last dogfights of the Second World War on the 15th August 1945 and would see combat during the Korean War (1950 – 1953).
During June 1944 a Spitfire Mk XIV fitted with a laminar flow wing made its first flight. This new aircraft, to be known as the Spiteful, was intended as a successor for the Spitfire. However the advent of the jet age and the aircraft's less than expected performance meant it would never enter operational service.
A Spitfire Mk 23 based first on a Mk 22 then on the Mk 21 prototype would fly fitted with a new wing. It was hoped this new wing would improve high speed and diving performance. Testing results proved disappointing so, the Valiant as it would have been known, never entered production.
A total of 33 air forces would use the aircraft, this included the United States, who received approximately 600 Spitfires, and the Soviet Air Force, who had over 1,200 delivered to them, who used them during the Second World War. Post-war a small number were used for photo-reconnaissance and as fighters by the Royal Danish Air Force and the Swedish Air Force used them only in the photo-reconnaissance role.
Seafire Mk XVII (SX336) at Shuttleworth
After making a forced landing in Jersey Spitfire Mk VB (EN830) flown by Pilot Officer Bernard Scheidhauer, No. 131 Squadron was repaired and fitted with a Daimler-Benz DB 605A engine by the Luftwaffe. It would then undergo comparison tests against a Bf 109G which was powered by the same engine. No details of the tests are known.
Pre and Post Second World War Production
The production run of the Spitfire lasted ten years from 1938 – 1948 meaning it had the distinction of being the only Allied fighter in production before, during and after the Second World War.
Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory
Built in 1939 near the aerodrome at Castle Bromwich, Birmingham the factory would produce 12,129 Spitfires, over half the total amount produced.
20,334 Spitfires would be built. The first was a Spitfire Mk IA (K9787) which made its maiden flight on the 14th May 1938 fitted with a 1,030-hp Rolls-Royce Merlin II engine. This was serving with a photographic reconnaissance unit when it was lost on an operation on the 30th June 1941. The last production version would be a Spitfire F.24 (VN496) and this made its first flight on the 24th February 1948 and was powered by a Rolls-Royce Griffon engine, this would be struck off charge on the 15th December 1950.
Highest Spitfire Flight
On the 5th February 1952 a No. 81 Squadron Spitfire Mk XIX piloted by Flight Lieutenant Edward Powles was undertaking metrological reconnaissance when it reached a height of 51,550 ft whilst over Hong Kong.
Spitfire Mk XII (MB882) © ww2images.com
The last operational sortie by a Spitfire was made by a No. 81 Squadron, RAF Seletar Spitfire PR. XIX (PS888) on the 1st April 1954. This aircraft was then sold to the Royal Thai Air Force two months later.
Last RAF Spitfire Flight
Serving with the Temperature and Humidity Flight, RAF Woodvale it would be Spitfire Mk XIX (PS915) that made the last flight by a Spitfire whilst in active service with the Royal Air Force. This aircraft is still flying today with the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
Spitfire vs Lightning
During 1963 a Spitfire PR XIX would be used in trials against the English Electric Lightning to help Lightning pilots develop combat tactics against piston engined aircraft. This was because the Lightning may have been involved in combat against Indonesian Air Force North American P-51 Mustangs during the Indonesia – Malaysia Confrontation (1963 – 1966).
Between the 5th August 2019 and the 5th December 2019 Spitfire (G-IRTY) flew 22,138 nautical miles to become the first Spitfire to fly around the world. The restored aircraft had been built in 1943 at Castle Bromwich as a Spitfire Mk IX (MJ271) and flew 51 combat missions during the Second World War whilst with No. 118 , No. 132 and No. 401 Squadrons.
Restoring a Spitfire
To return a Supermarine Spitfire to flight today so it could display in the UK would, depending on requirements, cost between £2 and £4 million pounds and take twelve skilled engineers around 2-3 years to complete.
Spitfire F.24 (PK682) - No. 80 Squadron, RAF in August 1950 © ww2images.com