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Supermarine Spitfire

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One of the best British fighter aircraft to see service during the Second World War just over 20,000 examples were built of R.J. Mitchell's design which was easily identified by its iconic elliptical wing shape. Although best known for its exploits in the Battle of Britain during its wartime career it would serve in theatres of war all over the world. In 1954 after 16 years 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 Spitfire 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. 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 Mk Is deployed to France, but these would serve in the reconnaissance role only. July 1940 would see a total of 19 Squadrons now equipped with the Spitfire as the Battle of Britain loomed, and alongside the Hurricane the pair formed a formidable partnership, with the Spitfires being assigned to deal with the fighter escorts, usually Messerschmitt 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 the two prototypes. 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 first of the two prototypes 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 in the end would be converted to the Mk IX prototype. The second Mk III prototype flew on the 4th June 1941 and was used to test four position flaps and extended wing tips. 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. The prototype 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 used in comparison trials during 1942 against the Hawker Typhoon and Focke-Wulf Fw 190. The prototype would be re-designated to Mk XX 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 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 and the Mk XIV, an example of which was fitted with a laminar flow wing and provided the basis from which the Supermarine Spiteful was conceived, which on the 4th October 1944 claimed the first Messerschmitt Me 262 to be shot down by the Allies.

A naval version of the Spitfire for use with the Fleet Air Arm would also be produced when a Mk VB fitted with an arrestor hook would be used to assess the types viability for use on an aircraft carrier and this lead to the Supermarine Seafire. A Spitfire floatplane was also considered with the original idea arising during April and May 1940 after Norway was invaded by Germany. The concept of fast floatplanes was not new to Supermarine as three times winners of the Schneider Trophy. 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.

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 1946 Supermarine converted 20 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.

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. A couple of Spitfires were also tested by the Luftwaffe and one of the more well known German Spitfires was a Mk VB (EN830) flown by Pilot Officer Bernard Scheidhauer which on the 18th November 1942 had to make a forced landing. Post-war saw the type serve with the Swedish Air Force.

From May 1938 until the last Spitfire to be made, a Mk 24, in October 1947 a total of 20,334 of the type were built and it was the only Allied fighter already in production at the start of the Second World War to remain in production throughout the war. The Spitfire would remain in service with the Royal Air Force until the 1950s. 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. Mk 19 of No. 81 Squadron, Malaya bringing an end to sixteen years of RAF service.

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 into a Mk V.
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
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 eight 0.303-in machine-guns
one 1,000lb bomb
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 Imperial War Museum, Duxford
Spitfire Mk VB x 2
Spitfire Mk IXB
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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