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Supermarine Spitfire

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The Spitfire was one of the best fighter aircraft to see service during the Second World War, just over 20,000 examples were built of Reginald J. Mitchell's design. Best known for its role in the Battle of Britain during its wartime career the Supermarine Spitfire would serve in theatres of war all over the world. In 1957, 19 years after it entered service with the Royal Air Force, the type was retired.

Quick Facts
First flight
5th March 1936
Entered service
4th August 1938
Total built
20,334

Front view
Spitfire front view photo
Side view
Spitfire side view photo
Rear view
Spitfire rear view photo

As the Royal Air Force entered the 1930s biplane fighters were still considered the way forward by the Air Ministry. So when in 1931 they issued Specification F.7/30 it was to be Gloster's Gladiator biplane design that would be ordered into production. The aircraft Supermarine submitted was the Type 224, a monoplane design with fixed undercarriage which was powered by a Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine. Its top speed was only 228 mph, 22 mph slower than the top speed of 250 mph which the Specification called for. Despite the disappointing performance of the aircraft, the experience and data gathered would prove beneficial for Supermarine's next design.

When on the 16th November 1934 the Air Ministry issued Specification F.5/34 requiring an eight gun aircraft which had a closed cockpit and retractable landing gear Supermarine submitted their new design now given the Type number 300 and this would also be powered by the Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine. Despite all the improvements no order was forthcoming from the Air Ministry. However a change of engine to the Rolls-Royce P.V.12, later to become the Merlin, saw Specification F.37/34 issued on the 3rd January 1935 for a prototype to be built.

The prototype Spitfire was powered by a 900-hp Merlin 'C' engine and Captain J 'Mutt' Summers piloted the aircraft on its maiden flight, lasting eight minutes, on the 5th March 1936. Further flights continued before Captain Summers handed over test flying duties to his assistants who included Jeffrey Quill, who would test every Spitfire Mk, and Alex Henshaw. As a result of these flights and further changes to the aircraft a top speed of nearly 350 mph was achieved. The 26th March 1936 saw the Spitfire prototype arrive at the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment at Martlesham Heath. 310 Mk I aircraft were then ordered on the 3rd June 1936, with an expected completion date of March 1939. Fifteen days later on the 18th June in front of three hundred invited guests the aircraft made its first appearance during an open day at Vickers, Eastleigh. This was followed on the 27th June when the public got their first taste of this new aircraft at the RAF Hendon Airshow, with the 28th July seeing the aircraft officially named the Spitfire. Sadly the following year on the 11th June 1937 R.J. Mitchell passed away, with development of the Spitfire given to Joe Smith.

The maiden Spitfire Mk I first flew on the 14th May 1938 and was powered by the 1,030-hp Rolls-Royce Merlin II engine with newly introduced ejector exhaust stubs and instead of the skid the prototype featured a tail wheel was installed. Although at this stage the undercarriage had to be hand-pumped. Initially only half of the intended eight 0.303-in machine-guns were fitted due to supply shortages and when Spitfires with eight machine-guns did appear they were designated as Mk IAs, a small number of Mk IBs with four machine-guns and two 20mm cannons appeared in 1940 for operational trials, but as the cannon kept jamming these were withdrawn. Development of the type continued with hydraulics for the landing gear and flaps, bullet proof windscreens, bulged canopy and a three blade metal propeller all being added.

The Spitfire was a more complex aircraft to produce compared to the Hawker Hurricane and as a result the initial order for 310 aircraft would be completed 6 months behind schedule, the first Mk Is entering service 26 months after the initial order was placed when No. 19 Squadron, based at Duxford, received their first Spitfires on the 4th August 1938 to replace their Gloster Gauntlets. A further eight squadrons would be equipped with the type by the time the Second World War started in September 1939. The next month would see the Spitfire score its first victories when on the 16th October two Junkers Ju 88s were shot down over the Firth of Forth by No. 602 Squadron, claiming the first German aircraft shot down over Britain in World War 2, and on the same day No. 603 Squadron claimed a Heinkel He 111. The following month would see a number of PR Mk Is deployed to France, but these would serve in the reconnaissance role only, it wouldn't be until the 12th May 1940 that a fighter version of the Spitfire would operate over Europe with its first engagement against the Messerschmitt Bf 109 occurring eleven days later on the 23rd May.

With the German advance through Western Europe during May and June 1940 resulting in the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk and the surrender of France the Luftwaffe would soon turn its attention towards the UK, with the aim of gaining air superiority over the South of England as a prelude to invasion. As the Battle of Britain loomed during July 1940 a total of nineteen Squadrons were now equipped with the Spitfire. Alongside the Hurricane the pair formed a formidable partnership with the Spitfire normally being assigned to deal with the fighter escorts, usually Bf 109s, and the Hurricane the German bombers.

Serving as a prototype of the Mk II a Spitfire Mk I was fitted with a 1,150-hp Merlin XX engine during 1939 which enabled a top speed of 370 mph. The Mk II appeared in three variants, most of them built were Mk IIAs which had eight 0.303-in machine-guns, and this made its operational debut on the 31st August 1940, some Mk IIBs which had the same four 0.303-in machine-guns and two 20mm Hispano cannon armament of the Mk IB. To overcome the previous cannon problems they were turned on their sides. A few Mk IIC, later ASR II, air sea rescue aircraft appeared which had a dinghy and survival gear fitted. This would be dropped to the persons in the sea whilst they waited for rescue. The range of the Mk II could be increased with the addition of long-range fuels tanks, it was due to this that when Fighter Command started their offensive fighter sweeps over Europe on the 20th December 1940 it was with the Mk II.

The Spitfire Mk III was the next in the lineage but would never progress past a single prototype. This intended version would have a number of improvements such as clipped wings, by 2 ft on each wing, stronger undercarriage, retractable tail wheel and a type 'C' universal wing able to take different armament and a internal laminated bullet-proof windscreen. The prototype was a converted Mk I which was powered by a 1,240-hp Rolls-Royce Merlin XX and this flew on the 16th March 1940 and would then be converted to a Mk V before conversion to become the Mk IX prototype. Although an order was placed for the Mk III it would later be cancelled due to a shortage of available Merlin XX engines. Despite not entering service a number of the features from the Mk III would appear on later Spitfires.

The next version was the Mk V, this was intended to be a stop gap measure but would go on to be the most produced and used Spitfire variant, powered by the 1,470-hp Merlin 45 engine which gave it a top speed of 375 mph, a range of 470 miles and a service ceiling of 35,500 ft. The armament depended on the variant, the Mk VA had eight 0.303-in machine-guns, the Mk VB four 0.303-in machine-guns and two 20mm Hispano cannons. The Mk VC had a universal wing which meant it could have the armament of the Mk VA or VB or four 20mm Hispano cannons with either one 500lb or two 250lb bombs. The Spitfire Mk V began to enter service during February 1941 with No. 92 Squadron based at Biggin Hill being the first to receive the type.

The Spitfire Mk VB would be the first of the type to serve overseas as fighters when Malta received 15 which were flown from HMS Eagle on the 7th March 1942. Tropicalised Mk VBs which had an air intake filter under the nose were sent to the Middle East during May 1942. With the arrival of No. 54 Squadron based at Darwin in January 1943 they became the first to use Mk Vs in the Pacific. 1943 also saw some Spitfire L.F. Mk Vs appear with clipped wings and these were powered by a 1,585-hp Merlin 45m for low altitude operations.

During December 1939 the use of a Rolls-Royce Griffon to power the Spitfire was conceived but engine development delays meant it would be a further two years before a prototype could be ordered. A tailored Specification F.4/41 was written for the aircraft which was given the designation Mk IV and two prototypes were ordered on the 26th May 1941 and on the 23rd August 750 were ordered. Only one prototype was built in the end and this was powered by a 1,445-hp Griffon RG 25m IIB engine and had a top speed of 423 mph and was to be armed with upto six 20mm Hispano cannons and this flew on the 27th November 1941 for the first time with Jeffrey Quill at the controls. In the end the aircraft would not enter production with the 750 Mk IVs ordered being built as either Spitfire Mk VB or VCs instead. The Mk IV prototype would be re-designated to Mk XX, to avoid confusion with a Spitfire photo-reconnaissance version which was renamed to Mk IV, before becoming the prototype Mk XII.

To counteract German bombers operating at high altitude the Spitfire HF Mk. VI appeared with a Mk VB used as a base with the introduction of a 1,415-hp Rolls-Royce Merlin 47, giving the aircraft a top speed of 364 mph and able to operate at 40,000 ft, extended wing tips, by about 4 ft on each wing, a pressurised Cabin and two 20mm Hispano cannons. This first flew during June 1941. When the HF Mk VI entered service during April 1942 it was used as an interim plane until the Spitfire HF Mk. VII appeared which was the first Mk to be designed to take the two-stage Merlin 60 engine. This featured a number of modifications and was in fact powered by the 1,700-hp Merlin 71 giving it a top speed of 416 mph and these entered operational service during March 1943 with No. 124 Squadron based at North Weald.

The Spitfire Mk VIII was essentially the same as its predecessor, the Mk VII, but without a pressurised cockpit. The Mk VIII had a top speed of 408 mph, a range of 680 miles with a service ceiling of 43,000 ft. Armament consisted of four 0.303-in machine guns and two 20mm cannons. As well as the standard fighter the Mk VIII would appear with clipped wings as the LF. M.VIII and extended wingtips as the HF. Mk VIII. The first Spitfire Mk VIII flew during November 1942 and the type would first enter service with No. 125 and No. 145 Squadrons based at Luqa in Malta during June 1943. A sole T. Mk VIII, later redesignated to T.8, two seater trainer converted from a Mk VIII was produced and this made its maiden flight in September 1946.

When the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 appeared during August 1941 it was to prove superior to aircraft in service with the Royal Air Force at the time. In an effort to match the Fw 190's performance a Spitfire Mk VC was modified and fitted with a 1,660-hp Rolls-Royce Merlin 61 and this variant, known as the Mk IX, made its maiden flight on the 26th February 1942. It had a top speed of 408 mph, comparable to the Fw 190A, a range of 434 miles, a service ceiling of 43,000 ft and armament consisted of two 0.50-in machine-guns and two 20mm cannons. It was with No. 64 Squadron, Hornchurch that the Spitfire Mk IX made its operational debut on the 28th July 1942. The month before the Mk IX entered service the RAF had been able to test the type against a captured Fw 190A-3 and found the aircraft evenly matched against the Luftwaffe's latest fighter. The Spitfire Mk IX claimed its first victory over a Fw 190 on the 30th July 1942. When a Spitfire Mk IX of the Special Service (High Altitude) Flight based at RAF Northolt intercepted a Junkers Ju 86R in the skies above Southampton two months later on the 12th September 1942 at 43,000ft it would be the highest aerial battle of the Second World War.

On the 10th June 1944 at the Advanced Landing Ground B3, Sainte-Croix-sur-Mer, France a Spitfire Mk IX of No. 144 (Canadian) Wing, Royal Air Force touched down, becoming the first aircraft of the RAF to be stationed on mainland France since June 1940. It would also be a Spitfire Mk IX, this time from No. 401 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, that on the 5th October 1944 claimed the first Messerschmitt Me 262 to be shot down by an Allied aircraft. Although intended as an interim Spitfire the Mk IX would still be in service at the end of hostilities in Europe during May 1945.

With the development of a new wing, with the plan to use a Spitfire Mk 22 as the basis for the Mk 23, aimed at improving diving and high speed performance fitted to a Mk VIII in July 1944 testing began. The results from these were disappointing so a Mk 21 prototype would form the basis of a new Spitfire Mk 23 prototype. Once again the results were unsatisfactory so the aircraft, which was to have been called the Supermarine Valiant, was scrapped.

The development of the Spitfire continued throughout the war with different versions of each Mk of the aircraft depending on the role it was used for. These roles included interceptor, low and high altitude, fighter-bomber and photographic reconnaissance. Some of the notable Mks included the Spitfire Mk XVI which was the last Merlin engined Spitfire. During November 1942 thoughts had started to turn to a successor for the Spitfire and this would see a Mk XIV fitted with a laminar flow wing. This would fly for the first time during June 1944 and would be known as the Supermarine Spiteful. In the end only a small number were built and it would never enter operational service.

The idea of a naval version of the Spitfire was first raised in November 1939 and an example had been tested to see if the aircraft could operate aboard aircraft carriers, but with the need for Spitfires in the Royal Air Force at that time the idea was abandoned and it wouldn't be until December 1941 that the idea was looked at again. This time a Mk VB fitted with an a arrestor hook was used aboard HMS Illustrious for trials. This would lead to the Supermarine Seafire being developed for the Fleet Air Arm. A Spitfire floatplane was also produced with the original idea arising during April and May 1940 after Norway was invaded by Germany. The idea was that the aircraft could operate from Norwegian fjords with the addition of floats. However with the surrender of Norway the plan was put on hold. 1942 saw the idea of a floatplane looked at again and on the 12th October 1942 with Jeffrey Quill at the controls a converted Spitfire Mk VB with floats reached a top speed of 324 mph. Four more Spitfires would be modified and fitted with floats before the idea was scrapped.

In total over 30 countries would use the Spitfire in various guises. They would see action with the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front and the United States Army Air Force and Free French Air Force would also use the aircraft. Post-war saw the type serve with the Swedish Air Force. A two seater Spitfire was considered as a possible aircraft for the export market and during 1944 a small team was formed to convert the design into a two seat configuration. Despite planning to build 48 two seat Spitfires, which would be designated Mk TR 8, only a sole example was built. Some of the single seater Spitfires supplied to the Soviet Union were modified into two seaters during the Second World War. These were to train Soviet pilots on the type. In January 1946 Supermarine converted 25 Mk IXs, designated either Spitfire TR 9 or T Mk IX, into two seaters and these would be sold to India, Ireland, Holland and Egypt. Spitfires were also tested by the Luftwaffe and one of the more well known German Spitfires was a Mk VB flown by Pilot Officer Bernard Scheidhauer which on the 18th November 1942 had to make a forced landing.

The Spitfire would remain in service with the Royal Air Force until 1957. The fighter version made its last operation on the 1st January 1951 when a Mk XVIII of No. 60 Squadron attacked targets in Malaya. The very last operational use of the Spitfire was on the 1st April 1954 by a Spitfire PR XIX of No. 81 Squadron, Malaya with a Spitfire Mk XIX of the Temperature and Humidity Flight at RAF Woodvale performing the last flight by an RAF Spitfire in active service on the 10th June 1957. This wasn't the end of the Spitfire story in the Royal Air Force as during 1963 a PR XIX would be brought out of retirement to take part in trials against the English Electric Lightning. This was so tactics against piston aircraft could be developed as there was a chance the Lightning may come up against the North American P-51 Mustangs being used by the Indonesian Air Force during the Indonesia – Malaysian Confrontation (1963 – 1966).

From May 1938 until the last Spitfire was delivered, a Mk 24, on the 20th February 1948 a total of 20,334 of the type had been built. It was the only Allied fighter already in production at the start of the Second World War to remain in production throughout the war.

Also see Supermarine Seafire



Variants

Click on the aeroplane image to view a larger version.

Top Speed Range Service Ceiling Armament
Spitfire Mk I 364 mph 425 miles 34,500 ft eight 0.303-in machine-guns
Spitfire Mk II 370 mph 500 miles 32,800 ft eight 0.303-in machine-guns
Spitfire Mk III Single aircraft converted from a Mk I then converted to a Mk V then to the Mk IX prototype.
Spitfire Mk V 375 mph 470 miles 35,500 ft eight 0.303-in machine-guns
or four 0.303-in machine-guns and two 20mm cannons
Spitfire Mk IV Powered by the new Rolls-Royce Griffon engine, with only one built.
Re-designated later on as Mk XX before becoming the Mk XII prototype
Spitfire Mk VI 364 mph 475 miles 40,000 ft four 0.303-in machine-guns
two 20mm cannons
Spitfire Mk VII 408 mph 424 miles 45,100 ft eight 0.303-in machine-guns
or four 20mm cannons
or four 0.303-in machine-guns and two 20mm cannons
Spitfire Mk VIII 408 mph 680 miles 43,000 ft four 0.303-in machine-guns
two 20mm cannons
Spitfire Mk IX 408 mph 434 miles 43,000 ft two 0.50-in machine-guns
two 20mm cannons
Spitfire Mk X 417 mph 1,370 miles 43,000 ft none, photo reconnaissance
Spitfire Mk XI 417 mph 1,200 miles 44,000 ft none, photo reconnaissance
Spitfire Mk XII 389 mph 329 miles 37,350 ft four 0.303-in machine-guns
two 20mm cannons
Spitfire Mk XIII 349 mph 500 miles 35,000 ft four 0.303-in machine-guns
Spitfire Mk XIV 448 mph 460 miles 43,000 ft two 0.50-in machine-guns
two 20mm cannons
and either one 500lb bomb or
rocket projectiles
Spitfire Mk XVI 405 mph 430 miles 40,500 ft four 0.303-in machine-guns
two 20mm cannons
one 1,000lb bomb
Spitfire Mk XVIII 437 mph 460 miles 41,000 ft two 0.303-in machine guns
two 20mm cannons
and either three 500lb bombs or
rocket projectiles
Spitfire Mk XIX 445 mph 1,500 miles 42,600 ft none, photo reconnaissance
Spitfire Mk 21 455 mph 580 miles 42,800 ft four 20mm cannons
Spitfire Mk 22 449 mph 580 miles 45,500 ft four 20mm cannons
1,500lb bombs or
rocket projectiles
Spitfire Mk 23 None produced but would have been known as the Supermarine Valiant.
Spitfire Mk 24 454 mph 965 miles 43,000 ft four 20mm cannons
rocket projectiles



Photos

Click on the photo to view a larger version.



On Display

(C) = Cockpit only exhibit. (F) = Fuselage only exhibit. (R) = Remains of an aircraft.

Variant Location
Spitfire Mk I Battle of Britain Memorial
Spitfire Mk IIA Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Visitors Centre
Spitfire Mk VB
Spitfire Mk LFXIE
Spitfire Mk PRXIX x2
Spitfire Mk IX Castletown D-Day Centre
Spitfire Mk IIA Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum
Spitfire Mk IX Eden Camp
Spitfire Mk IA x 3 Imperial War Museum, Duxford
Spitfire Mk VB x 2
Spitfire Mk VC
Spitfire Mk IXB
Spitfire PR Mk XI
Spitfire Mk XIV
Spitfire Mk F.24
Spitfire Mk IA Imperial War Museum, London
Spitfire Mk 21 Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Spitfire Mk I Kent Battle of Britain Museum
Spitfire Mk IX
Spitfire Mk VB (R) Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre
Spitfire Mk VB Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre
Spitfire Mk LF.XVIE National Museum of Flight, Scotland
Spitfire Mk II Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum
Spitfire Mk LF.XVIE (F)
Spitfire Mk XVI Potteries Museum & Art Gallery
Spitfire Mk XVI RAF Manston Spitfire & Hurricane Memorial Museum
Spitfire Mk I Royal Air Force Museum, Cosford
Spitfire Mk IA Royal Air Force Museum, London
Spitfire Mk VB
Spitfire Mk F.24
Spitfire Mk IA Science Museum
Spitfire Mk VC Shuttleworth
Spitfire Mk 24 Solent Sky Museum
Prototype Tangmere Military Aviation Museum
Spitfire Mk IXC Thinktank - Birmingham Science Museum
Spitfire Mk VIII Welsh Spitfire Museum
Spitfire Mk I Yorkshire Air Museum

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