Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Supermarine Spitfire - Classic RAF Fighter

The World's Classiest and Most Elegant Fighter, the Spitfire

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Spitfire R6923 QJ-S over southern England, May 1941
The Supermarine Spitfire is one of the legends of World War II. It was the backbone of the Royal Air Force during some of the darkest days of World War II. It also was admired by its Luftwaffe enemies, who could be heard by both sides on their radios yelling 'Achtung Spitfeurer! Spitfeurer!' during actions over the Channel. Among all of the fighters of the conflict, the Spitfire was the one that has endured the longest in public memory, along with the North American P-51 Mustang.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Spitfire is one of the top choices for model kit builders everywhere due to its peerless style and grace.
For some, the word 'Spitfire' is virtually synonymous with the word 'fighter.' It easily is the most beautiful plane of a romantic period in aviation. Was it the best fighter of the war? Perhaps, though I personally prefer the Mustang. I would agree that it is probably the most famous fighter of the conflict, and deservedly so.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com

The Spitfire Was Developed as a Seaplane

The 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.

Beverely Shenstone, the Canadian who designed the Spitfire elliptical wings, worldwartwo.filminspector.com
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.
Beverley Shenstone learned about wing design from wing specialist Alexander Martin Lippisch (designer of the Me 163 rocket plane). Shenstone also pried the secret of sunken rivets out of the Germans by writing a letter to Ernst Heinkel himself, which Heinkel responded to because of the credibility Shenstone had earned at Junkers. British MI6 got Shenstone out of the Reich in 1931 just before German military intelligence was going to arrest him and placed Shenstone with Supermarine. While Mitchell gets all the credit for the Spitfire's design and certainly deserves the majority of it, Shenstone provided the "special sauce" that made the Spitfire a plane for the ages. Mitchell's genius lay in recognizing the unique contribution that Shenstone had to offer and using it, which is not as common a trait as it should be when big egos are involved.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com

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.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Supermarine S.5 (1927) was a 1920s British single-engined single-seat racing seaplane built by Supermarine. Designed specifically for the Schneider Trophy competition, the S.5 was the progenitor of a line of racing aircraft that ultimately led to the Supermarine Spitfire.
However, times were tough during the Great Depression, and the company (which sponsored its own aero club to qualify for the competition) needed financial support to compete. The government refused, saying that it was a matter for private individuals. Naturally, there were few of these to be found at the time. It all looked hopeless. However, someone stepped up late in the game to save the glory and honor of England, and a most unlikely someone at that: Lucy Lady "Poppy" Houston.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com
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 tale of Lady Houston and how she became the mother of the Spitfire is deserving of more attention than it receives. Having outlived previous wealthy husbands, she had the cash to burn, was good friends from the old days with Winston Churchill and had a great well of patriotism. Her good works had, among other things, enabled her to become a Dame of the British Empire at a time when that really meant something. In any event, Lady Houston heard of the possibility of England winning the trophy outright and of the financial issues that might prevent this from happening. She stepped up when nobody else would and wrote a cheque for £100,000.

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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.
Thus properly financed, the Supermarine team designed and built the Supermarine S.6B, which not only won the trophy on 13 September 1931 but also subsequently set a new speed record of 655.8 km/h (407.5 mph).

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The winning S.6B.
The Schneider trophy now sits in the Science Museum, South Kensington, London. One could argue that Lady Houston's contribution not only secured the trophy but led to the classic, aerodynamically pure streamlined forms embodied in several of the Allies' top fighters of World War II. It was one of the most far-reaching philanthropic gestures in aviation history.

Supermarine Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com
No 19 Sqn, early 1939 - the first unit to receive Spitfires. The aircraft are still using two bladed fixed pitch airscrews: few of these remained by the outbreak of war in September. They are nicely camouflaged, however. Only a relatively small fraction of squadrons, about a third, were equipped with Spitfires when they were most needed, in the summer of 1940. This is a squadron cruise formation, in combat. The British quickly adopted a finger four formation which had been developed by the Germans, shown below.
Mitchell remained in charge of development until his death from cancer in 1937, whereupon Joseph Smith took over as chief designer. Smith took a promising design and turned it into a war-winning weapon as a short-range, high-performance interceptor aircraft. Development lasted through many generations that outlasted the war itself.

Seafire F4F Wildcat F4F Martlet Hawker Hurricane worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm aircraft. A Seafire, then a Vought F4U Corsair. The third aircraft from the bottom is known as a Grumman F4F Martlet. On the right is a Fairey Barracuda. At the top, facing head-on is a Hawker Hurricane. I do not know the provenance of this classic shot, all I can say is that it looks contemporary to the war.


The Spitfire Then Became a War-Winning Fighter

One 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.

Supermarine Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com
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.
Each side gained slight, tenuous superiority as new models entered squadron service, soon to be lost as the other side made its own adjustments.


Supermarine Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com

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 planes long life that was full of constant modification.

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An aerodrome with Spitfire Vs.
The Spitfire's first test flight was by legendary Supermarine Chief Test Pilot Joseph 'Mutt' Summers (who also worked on the 1943 Dambusters project). While the Spitfire made its public debut on 27 June 1936 at a Herndon air show, and an order was placed earlier that month, the plane faced numerous teething difficulties. Perhaps the biggest was that the company itself, located in Woolston, Southampton, was too small to ramp up production sufficiently to equip the entire RAF. Even though the plane's production was contracted out, it still took two years for the first production model to fly. The plane also came in seriously over budget at a time when the RAF was counting its pennies. Of course, a few years later, no price was too high to pay for the valiant service of these aircraft.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com

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.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com

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.

Spitfire Merlin engine worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Supermarine Spitfire engine - Rolls Royce Merlin. This is the famous "engine that won World War II."
The Luftwaffe mounted several raids specifically against the Spitfire factories and destroyed some of them on 26 September 1940. Production, however, had been dispersed; despite the tragic loss of life by aircraft workers, production continued. The effort was aided by Lord Beaverbrook's famous 'Spitfire Fund' which encouraged private donations.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com

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.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com

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.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com

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.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com

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.

Red Air Force Spitfires worldwartwo.filminspector.com
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.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com
RAF fighters from England on the last stage of their journey via Takoradi to Cairo.
Older Spitfire models that had been replaced often were shifted to less active squadrons or quieter theaters. That was very common because it also was the simplest solution - just put the plane on a ship or fly it to the new spot. As one of many examples, there was a very active flying route across Africa from Takoradi in the Gold Coast, where freighters from England brought used RAF planes, to Cairo. An older Spitfire that replaced a biplane fighter in the Middle Eastern Command such as the Gloster Gladiator was pure gold for the Allies. A lot of older Spitfires and Hurricanes made their way to Egypt.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com

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.

Spitfire with floats worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A Spitfire converted to floats in 1942 by Arthur Shirvall.
In 1942, some other Mk. V Spitfires were converted to floatplanes by Arthur Shirvall, who had designed the high-speed floats that were used in the 1920s and 1930s on the Supermarine family of racing floatplanes. These modifications included replacing the stock three-bladed propellor with a four-bladed version and adding an extended ventral fin below the tail to counter the directional instability caused by the floats.

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.

Red Air Force Spitfires worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A Supermarine Spitfire being used by the Red Air Force.
Some older Spitfires were sent to Russia. Stalin wanted anything that he could get, so Churchill sent 143 older Spitfire Vb fighters. This turned out to be not such a good plan, as Soviet anti-aircraft gunners mistook them for Bf-109s and shot down a goodly number of them. So, the Soviets converted them to 2-seat trainers. That is what the RAF did as well when they became obsolete and were not needed for operations anywhere else (which is typical for every air force).

Red Air Force Spitfires worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Soviets used this Spitfire on the catapult cruiser "Molotov" in 1944 for research purposes.
Later, about 1000  more Spitfire Mk IX fighters were sent to the Soviet Union and saw service with the 26th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment. The top ace was Lieutenant Colonel Matsievich Basil, who won the coveted title Hero of the Soviet Union for flying 196 sorties and shooting down 16 enemy planes individually and an additional 6 group victories. Nicholas Sherbina was another top Soviet ace who won the title Hero of the Soviet Union and who flew Spitfires.

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.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com

Conclusion

I 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 their short lists of greatest, most memorable planes of aviation, the name Spitfire should be included.

Spitfire worldwartwo.filminspector.com

2018

6 comments:

  1. Dear Mr. Bjorkman, This article has a fine schematic diagram of the finger four formation (hold your right hand with palm facing the computer screen and the four finger tips represent the fighter planes in the drawing) devised by the Luftwaffe ace Werner Molders in the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. I would suggest that this diagram be removed from this page and placed below Werner Molders' photograph in your " Luftwaffe aces " page. Further, please see if you feel like including the fantastic contribution of Lady Lucy Houston in the story of the Supermarine Spitfire.
    Please see the link :- http://www.ingridpitt.net/world-war-2/lady-who-won-war.html and also please see the Wikipedia links on Lucy, Lady Houston and the Telegraph (U. K. daily newspaper) article - The Saviour of the Spitfire.

    Regards,
    Raja

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Excellent suggestions, Raja, I'm going to work them all up as I am able. Thanks!

      Delete
  2. Dear Mr. Bjorkman, Excellently written and superbly narrated article - you have surpassed the Wikipedia page on the Supermarine Spitfire. Please maintain this plateau of splendid perfection in all the pages in your World War II site.

    Regards,
    Raja

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Raja, you majde some capital suggestions, thanks for everything.

      Delete
  3. Hi,
    in the Fleet Air Arm photo
    "Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm aircraft. A Seafire, then a F4F Wildcat" the second aircraft from the front is a Vought F4U Corsair
    Lofty

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you, Lofty, I mixed that one up, didn't I! Appreciate the correction.

    ReplyDelete