Yep, the Supermarine Spitfire Is Such a Badass Plane (2024)

Yep, the Supermarine Spitfire Is Such a Badass Plane (1)

After two long months of grueling air combat between invading Luftwaffe fighters and bombers and the notably smaller British Royal Air Force, England’s pilots were exhausted.

Some British pilots, many of whom had only nine full hours of flight training before heading up into combat in the hazy English skies, had long since turned to amphetamines to keep them alert. Sometimes, they would fly five or six combat sorties per day before settling in for just a few hours of sleep.

The Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940 had taken its toll, but on September 7, 1940, everything changed. Adolf Hitler had given the order to shift focus from military targets to civilian ones—with London being chief among them. The Blitz had begun.

More than 300 bombers with accompanying fighter escorts were stacked atop one another more than a mile and a half high. The massive swarm of Nazi aircraft was said to cover 800 square miles of airspace.

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A destroyed Messerschmitt, shot down by a British spitfire, is paraded in front of the Houses of Parliament, 1940.

“I could see the bright yellow noses of Messerschmitt fighters sandwiching the bombers, and could even pick out some of the types,” Sergeant J.M. Beard, a Spitfire pilot from the 249 Squadron, recounted. “The sky seemed full of them, packed in layers thousands of feet deep. They came on steadily, wavering up and down along the horizon. ‘Oh golly!’ I thought, ‘Golly, golly!’"

With the odds stacked against them, the pilots of the Royal Air Force poured into the sky, splitting the German aircraft into two groups: The slower but battle proven Hawker Hurricanes would take on the Luftwaffe bombers, and a new plane, one that traced its lineage to racing floatplanes, would be tasked with neutralizing the enemy.

"The sky seemed full of them, packed in layers thousands of feet deep. They came on steadily, wavering up and down along the horizon."

The pilots of this new plane claimed 529 enemy planes in defense of Britain, sacrificing 230 of their own aircraft. The Royal Air Force sent 2,917 men into the skies over Britain that summer—544 of them, nearly 20 percent, would give their lives for the victory.

As the sun set over a free Britain on the final day of October, 1940, Hitler had lost his stomach for air combat over Britain. England was safe and the Supermarine Spitfire stood as its knight in shining armor—but the war was still far from over.

A Racing Pedigree

Yep, the Supermarine Spitfire Is Such a Badass Plane (3)

Watercolor painting by Stanley Orton Bradshaw, showing the Supermarine S-6 that won the 1931 Schneider Trophy.

Two years before the Battle of Britain, where the aircraft proved indispensable, the Spitfire had only just started production. In the late '30s, it was actually the Hawker Hurricane fighter that was the favorite of many RAF commanders.

The Hurricane had come from a lineage of bi-planes built for war, like the Hawker Demon and the Hawker Fury. Production of these rugged planes had gone well, so well in fact that the RAF even approved sales to other WWII allies.

Unlike its Hawker peer, the Spitfire had no warfighting lineage driving its design. Instead, Supermarine leaned on Reginald Mitchell to design Britain’s newest fighter. Just a few years earlier, he designed racing floatplanes like the Supermarine S.6, which set a world speed record when it reached a blistering 357 miles per hour in 1929.

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Reginald Mitchell, right, inspects his Schneider Trophy-winning seaplane, 1930.

Mitchell’s new fighter, which bore an aesthetic resemblance to his trophy-winning floatplanes, wouldn’t be easy to build like the steel, wood, and cloth Hurricane. Instead, he’d use a difficult to manufacture stretched aluminum body, built around a 1,000-horsepower, 12-cylinder, liquid-cooled Rolls-Royce PV-12 engine that would later become known as the Merlin.

While more difficult to manufacture, the combination of the powerful Merlin engine and the sleek aerodynamic design of the Spitfire proved extremely capable, even reaching speeds as high as 367 miles per hour. But it wasn’t just speed that made the Spitfire a capable dogfighter. Mitchell’s design utilized an elliptical wing that cut down on drag and allowed for better maneuvering.

Because of the stretched aluminum exterior, the Spitfire was not only tougher to build, it was harder to repair, prompting some to worry that this advanced new aircraft may be too forward-reaching to be practical.

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The Supermarine Spitfire prototype (K5054) prepares for takeoff at the Eastleigh Aerodrome on June 18, 1936. The right image is an example of the gyroscopic gunsight found on later WWII versions of the Spitfire.

Affixed to the Spitfire’s wings were eight 0.303-inch (7.7-mm) machine guns, all oriented to fire at a center point in front of the aircraft. In order to aid with targeting, Spitfires were also equipped with an electric sight that pilots could turn on and off. Once activated, an orange dot would appear on the windscreen in front of the pilot’s field of view in an extremely early precursor to the digital heads-up displays (HUDs).

The eight guns would expend the entirety of their ammunition in just fifteen seconds of sustained fire, so pilots would later be taught to fire in tight two-second bursts in order to maximize their longevity in the fight.

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A WWII-era schematics of the the new Spitfire. Click image to enlarge.

Mitchell devoted himself to the development of this new Spitfire, which was actually the second Supermarine aircraft with that name (after a previous failed attempt at fielding a new fighter for the RAF). Even after learning that he was terminally ill with cancer, Mitchell continued to pour himself into the effort.

He worked night and day on the Spitfire, dismissing the warnings he received from doctors and family alike. Ultimately, Mitchell would succumb to the illness at age 42—before the first Spitfire entered service. But his tireless work would not go unrecognized because only a few short years later, Mitchell’s aerial creation was to become the champion at the Battle of Britain.

Tragedy in the Phoney War

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A Supermarine Spitfire Mk. 1 in flight from Eastleigh Aerodrome, 1938.

The Royal Air Force’s first operational Spitfires arrived at the 19th Squadron’s airfield at Duxford on August 4, 1938. By October, RAF 66 Squadron also received enough Spitfires to replace their aging bi-plane Gloster Gauntlet fighters, making the 19 and 66 Squadrons the first operational Spitfire units in the war.

Less than a year later, England would formally declare war on Nazi Germany, but thanks to the limited number of engagements RAF pilots faced between September of 1939 and May of 1940, many took to calling this period of time, “The Phoney War.” Blissfully ignorant of the grueling air battles ahead, many RAF pilots were eager to get into the fight to prove to the world what they—and their nimble Spitfires—could do.

Yep, the Supermarine Spitfire Is Such a Badass Plane (8)

It was during the first week of this “Phoney War” that Spitfires were called upon to respond to what the RAF believed was a small complement of German aircraft, likely scouting the area for England’s early radar platforms that would prove invaluable during the brutal warfare to come. Two Spitfires from 74 Squadron roared into the sky, intent on hunting down and destroying the encroaching Germans.

Radar for the purposes of air combat was still considered a new technology, and while aircraft-based radar systems would eventually make their way into RAF aircraft, they were not present in the Spitfires tasked with England’s defense in the early months of the War. Spitfire pilots, in other words, had only their eyes and radio communications to coordinate their response.

The two Spitfire pilots spotted their targets in the distance and began to close with them, heeding their orders received by radio. Once they closed to within firing range, they opened fire and destroyed both targets. It wasn’t until shortly after the engagement that flight controllers realized their terrible mistake: the Spitfires had shot down two friendly RAF Hawker Hurricanes, killing both of their pilots.

Yep, the Supermarine Spitfire Is Such a Badass Plane (9)

The tail of a German bomber being chased by an RAF Hawker Hurricane, 1939.

It wouldn’t be until more than a month later that a Spitfire pilot would score the aircraft’s first kill against an enemy, when three Spitfires from 603 Squadron out of Scotland intercepted and shot down a twin-engine German surveillance plane.

As fighting on the European continent continued and Germany poured into France, Spitfires were largely kept out of the fighting, with the British Ministry of Defence opting instead to send squadrons of Hurricanes to France’s aid. Spitfires did participate in some fighting over France, with as many as 80 going down during the fierce battle to support the British Navy’s evacuation of Dunkirk, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1940 that Spitfires and their pilots would finally join the fight in a big way.

Victory From the Jaws of Defeat

Yep, the Supermarine Spitfire Is Such a Badass Plane (10)

Spitfires built en masse at a factory in Southhampton.

In the Spring of 1940, as “The Phoney War” continued, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, chief of the Nazi Luftwaffe, convinced Hitler that his technologically superior bombers and fighters could easily dominate the RAF. After securing air superiority, the Nazi air force would have the ability to bomb England without hindrance—and Hitler believed that would be enough to force Churchill, who had only recently taken office, to surrender. With Hitler’s blessing, Göring amassed a vast fleet of aircraft in the north of France aimed at pounding the nearby island nation into submission.

“Within a short period you will wipe the British air force from the sky,” Göring wrote in a message to the Luftwaffe air fleets.

Decoding a Spitfire

Yep, the Supermarine Spitfire Is Such a Badass Plane (11)

Many within England saw war with Germany as a losing enterprise after the rapid Nazi advance through Belgium and the Netherlands. Then, the French Army, which boasted more tanks and artillery than the Germans, fell almost as rapidly, and there was an increasing sentiment of capitulation for survival among the English. This sentiment didn’t sit well with Churchill.

Among its allies, opinions about Britain’s chances at holding off the Nazi advance were hardly better. General Maxime Weygand, who commanded French forces until their surrender, predicted, “In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.”

“It is no secret that Great Britain is totally unprepared for defense and that nothing the United States has to give can do more than delay the result,” U.S. Sen. Key Pittman (D-Nev.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was quoted as saying at the time.

While the Luftwaffe utilized a number of different types of aircraft, few were as feared as the Messerschmitt BF 109. The Spitfire may be remembered fondly today, the BF 109 was widely seen as the best fighter of the era. Its fuel injected, liquid-cooled inverted-V-12 engine and sleek design made it both fast and maneuverable, not unlike the Spitfire. The German’s fighter’s fuel injection, however, granted it the ability to conduct more aggressive maneuvers that would stall the engines of less advanced aircraft like its British opponent.

Yep, the Supermarine Spitfire Is Such a Badass Plane (12)

A Messerschmitt BF 109 flies over Germany in 1939.

However, it did have a significant drawback: Its small fuel reserves would only allow for around ten minutes of air combat once the BF 109s reached British airspace.

Spitfires, flying from local airstrips, could then take advantage of the BF 109’s fuel woes, sometimes waiting until the fighters had to turn back toward France to swoop in from behind and whittle down the German’s superior numbers. While the Hawker Hurricanes engaged German bombers like the Dornier Do 17 and Heinkel HE 111, the Spitfires were often tasked with engaging the superior but fuel-hungry BF 109s.

Spitfire pilots were not only contending with more advanced opponents, they were also squaring off against vastly superior numbers. RAF estimates at the time made it clear that, for the Spitfire was by every metric the underdog.

“Our young men will have to shoot down their young men at the rate of five to one,” Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, commander of the RAF Fighter Command, famously said at the time.

But the RAF also had another advantage up its sleeve for the new Merlin-powered Spitfire. In May of 1940, just before the onset of the Battle of Britain, the U.S. had begun supplying the RAF with 100 octane fuel, which was considerably more stable than the 87 octane fuel they’d been using.

The Magic of Merlin

Yep, the Supermarine Spitfire Is Such a Badass Plane (13)

The Rolls Royce Merlin Engine is most commonly associated with the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane of the Battle of Britain, despite its use in a number of platforms including the American P-51 Mustang. It drew a great deal of inspiration from another aircraft engine in its lineage, like the combat-proven Kestral motor seen in a number of bi-planes like the Hawker Fury.
Despite its notable power output of over 1,000 horsepower, the Merlin motor suffered a number of technical setbacks. Significant issues like cracking cylinder heads, coolant leaks, and a rapid rate of wear on essential components like the crankshaft’s main bearings plagued the powerful Merlin in the mid-1930s. Like the Spitfire itself, the Merlin motor would continue to see improvements for years to come thanks to men like Stanley Hooker, who redesigned the engine’s intake duct, impeller, and diffuser to improve airflow to and from the supercharger, ultimately pushing power output to 1,240 horsepower using American 100 octane fuel.
The engine’s performance would go on to attain legendary status, but its production was equally impressive. Ernest Hives, the General Works Manager at Rolls Royce, was instrumental in having the engine produced by multiple firms in multiple factories, making nearly 150,000 Merlin engines for the war effort.

Higher octane fuel can withstand greater heat and compression, allowing the Spitfire to run a more aggressive air/fuel ratio that netted the 1,000 horsepower fighter an additional 300 horsepower. For the fairly well-matched Spitfire and BF-109 showdowns that would come, this boost in power gave the Spitfire the advantage it needed to compete in the hellish skies over Britain.

Throughout the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe sent an average of 1,000 airplanes into British airspace a day, lobbing more than 1,100 at London in one massive wave on September 17, but just as they had each time before, the RAF beat them back, with Spitfires leading the way.

A Legend the World Over

Yep, the Supermarine Spitfire Is Such a Badass Plane (14)

RAF Spitfires flying over Italy and the Balkans, 1943.

Spitfires would go on to serve in every theater of World War II wherever British forces could be found, but they saw decreasing usefulness as the Allied forces began to transition away from defensive operations and started going on the offensive. The Spitfire was an extremely capable short intercept fighter, it lacked the longevity it needed to serve as an escort for Allied bomber missions, like the P-51 Mustang

But the capable Spitfire found new ways to wage war on England’s opponents, with hard points being added to some to deploy bombs and rockets against ground targets in support of the Normandy invasion. Other Spitfires continued in their defensive role, engaging the new Nazi V-1 flying bombs that flew across the Channel.

And unlike the Hawker Hurricane, which exited World War II more or less the same way it entered, the Spitfire would continue to see continuous improvements, like adding fuel injection, more powerful engines, and upgraded canons.

“The Me-109E might have been better for air-to-air fighting than the Spitfire Mk.I in 1940,” James Holland wrote in his definitive book, “The Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History, “But Mitchell’s plane was only at the beginning of its development back then.”

Yep, the Supermarine Spitfire Is Such a Badass Plane (15)

Supermarine Seafires on an aircraft carrier, 1942.

Other Spitfires saw duty with the Royal Navy, and while later iterations built specifically for carrier-duty (dubbed Seafires) had folding wings for easier storage, the first Spitfires to operate off of carriers were no different than the platforms being flown off of airstrips around England. Ultimately, the Seafires would not be particularly well suited for carrier deployment due to their narrow landing gear and elongated nose that made landings difficult.

The Spitfire would also serve in the air forces of nations like Poland, Belgium, Norway, and even the Soviet Union, which operated more than 1,300 of the planes as both fighters and reconnaissance aircraft. It would eventually earn the distinction of being the most heavily produced British aircraft in history, with a total of 24 iterations finding their way into military service.

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Today, more than 60 Spitfires are still considered airworthy, with hundreds more on display in museums and at airfields spanning around the world. One company, called Historic Flying Limited, has refurbished at least 29 Spitfires sufficiently to get them back into the sky since 1990 alone.

Eighty years later, the plane that saved Britain remains a legend. It was an aircraft that found itself flying on the narrow line between the modern era of jet fighters and the seemingly ancient age of bi-planes. There, just on the edge of falling headlong into the future, the mighty Spitfire flew, plucking victory from defeat thanks to a forward-looking design, a whole lot of power, and the courage of the young pilots who climbed into the plane’s claustrophobic co*ckpit, popped up their targeting light, and plunged headlong into the fight.

As Churchill himself put it at the end of the Battle of Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

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A World War II British fighter squadron crowds around a Spitfire. This squadron destroyed 73 enemy planes, and damaged 38 others.

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Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is the editor of the Sandboxx blog and a former U.S. Marine that writes about defense policy and technology. He lives with his wife and daughter in Georgia.

Yep, the Supermarine Spitfire Is Such a Badass Plane (2024)
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