The World's Classiest and Most Elegant Fighter, the Spitfire
|Spitfire R6923 QJ-S over southern England, May 1941.|
|The Spitfire is one of the top choices for model kit builders everywhere due to its peerless style and grace.|
The Spitfire Was Developed as a SeaplaneThe Spitfire was designed primarily by Reginald Joseph (always referred to as R. J.) Mitchell, chief designer at Supermarine Aviation Works (a subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrong from 1928). Supermarine was a successor to a pre-Great War company that designed seaplanes. The genesis of the Spitfire came about in 1931, perhaps the earliest of any of the elite World War II fighters. The final version of the Spitfire bore little resemblance to its open-cockpit earlier iterations. However, from the start, it had the essential elements of a streamlined fuselage and the genesis of the famed elliptical wings, which were dreamed up by Canadian designer Beverley Shenstone. Shenstone himself was a fascinating figure, recruited by the British Air Ministry as a spy who worked at German airplane manufacturer Junkers in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Shenstone was one of those brilliant boffins who change the world but rarely get the credit they deserve, so lets at least mention his contribution to the most elegant fighter ever made.
|Beverley Shenstone - the man behind the Supermarine Spitfire's elliptical wing. An unsung hero of World War II who didn't drop any bombs or fire any rifles but did as much to win the war any other man.|
The story of the birth of the Spitfire is a remarkable tale. In the early days of aviation, there was a competition called The Coupe d'Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider, commonly called the Schneider Trophy. It involved time trials for seaplanes. The hope was that the competition would spur airplane development. Trophy races began in 1913, and the competition was to be held every two years until one aero club managed to win it three times in a row. It was vaguely similar to America's Cup, except for that last part. Supermarine won the competition in 1927 and 1929. With 1931 coming up, it appeared quite possible that it would win again and own the cup for England.
|After winning the Schneider Trophy outright, the men and lady behind it posed for this victory photograph in 1931. Lady Houston (front center) and R.J.Mitchell (back right) L.S. Snaith (front far right).|
|The Schneider Trophy, England's since 1931. The Schneider Trophy races were revived in the 1980s and continue annually to this day, but the original trophy has been retired and now a replica is awarded.|
|The winning S.6B.|
The Spitfire Then Became a War-Winning FighterOne of the little-known wars-within-a-war was the constant competition between the German and British aircraft designers. The British Spitfire, German Bf 109 and Focke Wulf 190 (once it came along in 1941) constantly evolved through successive versions, some being quite major transitions involving different engines, armament, and even structural changes. Here is a production summary of every Spitfire every built.
|World War Two British infographic. The Supermarine Spitfire. Hurry up and memorize it, you don't go up for training tomorrow unless you have it down pat - and we only ask once, son.|
Mitchell envisioned the Spitfire's distinctive elliptical wing to have the thinnest possible cross-section, which was the key to the design. The extremely thin wings gave the Spitfire a very high speed. Other than the general shape of the wings, though, practically everything else about the design changed repeatedly during the plane's long life that was full of constant modification.
|An aerodrome with Spitfire Vs.|
The RAF understood the plane's obvious quality. In order to ramp up production, the Air Ministry enacted a 'shadow factory' plan under which factories were built ostensibly to supplement the British auto industry, but with the understanding that the factories could be swiftly converted to aircraft production. The first and most important one was at Castle Bromwich Aerodrome in Birmingham, which finally began cranking out Spitfires in mid-1940 after problems with the factory's management.
Thus, at the time of the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire was still in relatively short supply. The load during that battle instead was carried by the Hawker Hurricane. However, the Germans knew the value of the Spitfire, as its performance clearly was superior to the slower Hurricane despite being in short supply.
|Supermarine Spitfire engine - Rolls Royce Merlin. This is the famous "engine that won World War II."|
Given their superior performance, Spitfires were sent against the Luftwaffe fighters while Hurricanes took on the slower bombers. German pilots soon recognized the distinctive Spitfires and cries of 'Spitfeuer! Achtung Spitfeuer!' filled the airwaves during dogfights. Another important but little-known achievement of the fighters was as high-speed reconnaissance aircraft. They photographed several of the German secret weapons such as the V-1 very early in their development.
The Germans in KG-200 - their 'secret ops' unit - were known to have several Spitfires that they had captured or repaired after crashing (along with dozens of Allied bombers). The Germans used them for flight testing and clandestine missions behind enemy lines. The Germans also captured some American bombers and fighters and used them until the last days of the war. Among the later variants of the supremely adaptable Spitfire airframe were Griffon-engined Mark XIIs (the Griffon replaced the legendary Rolls Royce Merlin engines in the initial variants) which maximized the airframe's potential. This mark could fly at 400 mph (640 km/h) in level flight and climb to 33,000 ft (10,000 m) in under nine minutes. They were fast enough to catch the 'buzz bombs' and knock them off course.
The Spitfire was so useful that it also was put to work at sea. The Seafire was a version modified for use on aircraft carriers. Another experimental version during the war even had pontoons and was used as an outright seaplane, hearkening back to the airplane's roots. These were creative versions, but not the best in their class by a long shot.
The Spitfire was revised straight through the end of the war and beyond. The final version, the Mark 24, came out in 1946. Spitfires served with the RAF until June 1957 but remained useful for testing purposes long afterward. Several dozen other countries used the aircraft and used them for decades afterward. There are over 50 Spitfires that remain in a flying condition to this day, with numerous others on static display in museums around the world.
|Spitfires with Red Air Force markings being prepared for shipment to Russia.|
What Happened to Older Versions?As Supermarine Spitfires were updated, the older models had to go somewhere. They were not scrapped, at least during World War II, but there was no single place to put them. It depended upon the circumstances. Front-line fighter squadrons typically got the newest versions of Supermarine Spitfires, which were in constant competition with the Bf-109 and FW-190 in terms of performance characteristics.
An underappreciated fact of World War II is that it wasn’t usually a shortage of planes that was the issue for fighter strength, it was the availability of pilots. You gave your top pilots the best chances of survival, so they got the newest planes. Except in extreme situations, there always were enough planes to fly, though they weren't necessarily always the best and latest types.
|RAF fighters from England on the last stage of their journey via Takoradi to Cairo.|
Sometimes, older Spitfire versions were converted into newer versions, as when the RAF hurriedly converted more than 100 Spitfire Mk. I aircraft into the Mk. V version because they were needed quickly to counter updated Luftwaffe fighters. How much this is done depends on where the production bottleneck is - often it is the supply of engines. Putting a new engine in old and stressed airframes when there are plenty of new airframes available makes no sense - you may as well just build a completely new plane. But, if airframes are the bottleneck or speed is of the essence, then upgrading older Marks with the new engine and/or other equipment makes sense.
|A Spitfire converted to floats in 1942 by Arthur Shirvall.|
A more typical role for old versions of all RAF fighters was to convert them into ground-attack roles or Seafires or other special purposes. For example, in late 1941, Air Training Service Ltd. at Hamble converted 48 Spitfire Mk Vb to the Seafire Mk Ib.
|A Supermarine Spitfire being used by the Red Air Force.|
|The Soviets used this Spitfire on the catapult cruiser "Molotov" in 1944 for research purposes.|
So, there was not one single answer as to what happened to Spitfires that had been replaced. Older fighters, whether Supermarine Spitfires or Hawker Hurricanes or anything else, were used in a variety of ways.
ConclusionI believe that the Spitfire is one of a handful of planes that can be said to best represent aviation during the 20th Century (include the North American P-51 Mustang and the Junkers Ju-52 in that list from World War II). It stayed in service for decades and is emblematic of a time when planes were daring and flying them took incredible bravery. When historians in distant times draw up shortlists of greatest, most memorable planes of aviation, the name Spitfire should be included.