The story of the Spitfire is one that begins with an idea and a dream, but it wasn’t until 1940 when the British Lancaster became in vogue that its design was finalized. The spitfire’s success comes down to its innovative use of jet power and relatively small size.
The “when was the spitfire made” is a question that has been asked many times. The answer to this question is not as simple as you might think.
When the Spitfire entered squadron duty 75 years ago, it was the perfect aircraft for Britain at the perfect moment. It may not have been constructed at all if it hadn’t been for the devotion of one guy.
On New Year’s Day 1951, the silver aircraft, which bore the recognizable lines of history’s most famous fighter, banked to land in the British colony of Singapore. As the Spitfire’s engine was turned off, Group Captain Wilfred Duncan Smith may have thought on the importance of the mission he had just led: the assault on Communist strongholds in Malaya was the Royal Air Force Spitfire’s last combat mission.
Britain had fought alone against a terrible adversary and delivered him his first defeat eleven years before, in a chapter as magnificent as any in its turbulent history. To face that challenge, it deployed just enough of Supermarine’s superb aircraft just in time. The Spitfire was more than a machine to the British. It was a symbol of the nation’s stubborn fight against the Nazi juggernaut, as well as a boost to the morale and spirit of its people, much like the word itself.
The fighter, on the other hand, almost didn’t get it off the drawing board, and its creator, a character of almost Shakespearean victory and tragedy, never saw it in production.
In 1920, Reginald J. Mitchell, a twenty-five-year-old engineer, was named head designer of Supermarine Aviation, and over the following 16 years, he would be responsible for 24 distinct aircraft—fighters, bombers, and flying boats. During the Great Depression, Supermarine was one of the few British aircraft manufacturers to turn a profit. It made flying boats with fabric-covered wings, tight bracing wires, and polished mahogany hulls, which were beautiful airborne specimens of the boatbuilder’s art. The affluent may “cruise” between Mediterranean destinations on the luxurious Air Yacht. During World War II, the more practical Walrus amphibian would save many pilots from the water.
Mitchell is flanked by fellow Supermarine troops on the running board of his car: Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers, H.R. ‘Agony’ Payne, S Scott Hall, and Jeffrey Quill (from left). (Photo courtesy of the RAF Museum in Hendon)
Mitchell turned Supermarine’s wartime N60 into the Sea Lion, which won the Schneider Trophy flying boat competition in 1922, despite the fact that it was a fortunate victory. The previous two tournaments had been won by Italy, and a nation winning three times in a row would have retained the trophy in perpetuity, thus ending the races and putting a stop to the Spitfire’s development.
Mitchell was persuaded by America’s success with Curtiss CR-3 Navy races in 1923 that future winners would be floatplanes with stressed-skin monocoque construction rather than fabric-covered tube frames. With cantilever wings and a 700-hp 12-cylinder Napier Lion engine, his S4 monoplane represented a quantum leap forward.
Lieutenant Jimmy Doolittle of the United States Army Air Service, who would later command the historic April 1942 assault on Japan, received the award in 1925. (the races were now held in odd-numbered years). Mitchell’s S5 and S6 won in 1927 and 1929, respectively. The S6, which was powered by a Rolls-Royce R engine, marked the start of a long-term partnership.
Britain would have kept the trophy if it had won in 1931, but the government withdrew sponsorship owing to the Depression. Mitchell and his crew were dealt a severe blow when Supermarine couldn’t afford to finance a new racer. Lady Lucy Houston came to the rescue by giving £100,000 to the cause. RAF Flight Lt. John Boothman piloted the S6B, which had a 2,350 hp Rolls-Royce R engine, to victory at an average speed of 340 mph across the seven-lap circuit. Later, the second S6B established a global air speed record of 407 mph, which was extraordinary for an aircraft hauling massive floats at a time when the best fighters could barely exceed 250 mph.
The impetus the races provided to aircraft and engine technology resulted in speeds jumping from not much faster than express trains to well over half the speed of sound in less than a decade. Supermarine continued to construct flying boats after the thrilling years of races and records, but Mitchell’s crew, which had created every British Schneider Trophy winner and had more expertise in high-speed flight than anybody else, was urged to compete for the RAF’s new fighter designs.
In September 1929, the S6 N247, the first Mitchell design to utilize the Rolls-Royce R engine, won the Schneider Trophy race at Calshot. (Getty Images/Central Press) )
Officials at the Air Ministry continued to prefer open-cockpit biplanes and insisted on slow landing speeds since most RAF airfields were grass. Mitchell set out to persuade them that multi-gun, high-speed monoplane fighters would be essential in the event of a future conflict. Vickers-Armstrongs, a massive engineering and weapons firm, had acquired Supermarine. During the Great Depression, Chairman Sir Robert McLean made a bold move by approving a private enterprise. In late 1934, some forward-thinking Air Ministry officials approved £10,000 to assist finance the development of a prototype to satisfy the 275-mph criterion of specification F.37/34. The Type 300 that resulted outperformed it by more than 60 mph.
Mitchell, on the other hand, was going through a personal crisis. He’d undergone colon cancer surgery two years before and was on the verge of death on the operating table. Most guys would have slowed down or retired if given such a dire outlook. However, while recuperating in Europe, he met several Luftwaffe pilots, saw Germany’s rearmament and aggressive leaders, and came home certain that war was looming. This, along with the awareness that his time was limited, pushed him to work even harder.
Mitchell was able to liberate himself from design restrictions by deviating from the ministry’s requirements. The Merlin’s narrow-angle V12 engine allowed for a monocoque fuselage. Mitchell insisted on the wings being as thin and robust as feasible, with minimal drag, excellent maneuverability, moderate stall characteristics, and high-speed capability—an apparent technical riddle that even Willy Messerschmitt could not solve.
Summers stated, “I don’t want anything touched,” after his successful flight in the first Spitfire prototype, K5054, in March 1936. (MH 5213, Imperial War Museum)
The resultant double-ellipse form, mainly the product of Beverley Shenstone, was extremely robust and had a low loading of 26 pounds per square foot, thanks to a primary spar of hollow pieces slotted into one other. The Spitfire’s psf was closer to 40 than the Messerschmitt Me-109’s, enabling it to outturn it—a crucial element in a duel. Despite their small size, the wings could accommodate eight.303-inch machine guns (later four 20mm cannons), ammo belts, undercarriage, coolant and oil radiators, flight controls, and other necessities.
The design was sufficiently sophisticated that high Mach numbers were possible. Squadron Leader J.R. Tobin dove a Spitfire XI to a speed of 675 mph in 1943. (Mach 0.92). After his overspeeding propeller left the airplane with a boom at 606 mph in 1944, Flight Lieutenant “Marty” Martindale landed safely. In 1951, Flight Lt. Ted Powles set a world record for piston-engine aircraft by flying a Griffon-powered PR XIX to 51,550 feet. Powles had to quickly drop altitude when the cockpit pressurization failed, hitting 690 mph—Mach 0.94. (As many an unfortunate Luftwaffe pilot discovered just before augering in, the Me-109’s controls tended to freeze in a high-speed dive.) Vickers test pilot Jeffrey Quill wrote: “That any operational aircraft off the production line, cannon sprouting from its wings…could easily be controlled at this speed when the early jet aircraft such as Meteors, Vampires, F-80s etc. couldn’t, was extraordinarily impressive.”
The Spitfire was not much heavier than the Japanese Zero, which lacked armor, a bullet-proof windshield, self-sealing tanks, a starting motor, and, in most cases, a radio. The Spit could take off in 50 yards with a moderate breeze, while the P-47 Thunderbolt required closer to 500. On shared airfields, Spitfire pilots would take off and execute rolls while Thunderbolt pilots struggled to get off the ground.
The names of Supermarine’s fighters had to start with the letter “S” and suggest something tiny and fierce. Chairman McLean proposed reducing his daughter Annie’s moniker, “Little Spitfire,” and Mitchell’s invention nearly became the boring Shrew. Mitchell was unimpressed, saying, “Just the sort of stupid dumb name they’d choose.”
On March 5, 1936, this incredible combination of structural strength, agility, and high-speed capabilities took to the skies for the first time. With a huge torque engine in a light aircraft, test pilot Captain Joseph“Mutt”Summers started the takeoff roll 35 degrees in the opposite direction of his planned heading once airborne, a legacy of racing seaplanes that would swing almost 90 degrees before leaving the water. Summers found it simple to use the rudder to counterbalance any swing. He ordered, “I don’t want anything touched” after an uneventful trip—not that the aircraft was flawless; he simply wanted the controls left as he had set them for the following flight.
The new fighter represented a significant change from earlier concepts (the contemporary Hawker Hurricane, for all its admirable qualities, was essentially a monoplane development of the Hart and Fury biplanes). Mitchell’s design was so precisely reproduced in the ministry’s new standard F.16/36 that it was more of a matter of the specification being rewritten to suit it, rather than the other way around.
Mitchell, on the other hand, had to deal with bureaucracy, tradition, and myopia. A majority of the Air Ministry believed that radical new fighters were a waste of money right up to the Battle of Britain. They couldn’t see France falling, with a 550,000-man army, the “impenetrable” Maginot Line, new aircraft under development, and more and better tanks than the Germans. There would be no dogfights over Britain; only bombers from Germany would be able to reach it. It didn’t matter how fast you went: A few squadrons of Hurricanes, which can go at least 100 mph faster than modern bombers, would be sufficient. There were 68 bomber squadrons and just 20 fighter squadrons in the 1936 budget.
“Many people believed that the Spitfire, despite its excellent performance…would be a far more costly and complex aircraft to mass manufacture and a much more complicated one to service,” Mitchell wrote. Air Vice Marshall Hugh Dowding, later to command Fighter Command, had a strong interest in technology and a tenacious personality, which was fortunate for the Spitfire and Britain. He felt that “the greatest protection of the nation is dread of the fighter,” and advocated for the development of superior aircraft as well as another weapon that would prove decisive: radar. The Battle of Britain might have been lost in a couple of days without Dowding.
The prototype Spit, on the other hand, was slower than the Hurricane. The project was doomed from the start unless its peak speed increased. As test engineer E.H. said, a modified propeller design was used. “Jeffrey [Quill] went out and performed a series of level speeds with it,” Mansbridge writes. With a huge smile on his face, he gave me the test card and said, ‘I believe we’ve got something here.’ And we had…348 mph, which we were quite happy with.” With further upgrades and more powerful Merlins, this would rise to more than 360 mph in time for the Battle of Britain.
Mitchell had not yet made it out of the trees. Some believed the aircraft would be too tough for ordinary pilots to operate because of its racing roots. The prototype was examined by the Royal Air Force in May 1936. Flight Lt. Humphrey Edwards Jones of the Aircraft and Armament Establishment, who had carried it up to 34,700 feet, was asked whether it could be flown by regular squadron pilots. “Yes, it can,” he said, “and it was a joy to fly.” A contract for 310 manufacturing aircraft was granted based on this suggestion. (Edwards-Jones subsequently admitted that he almost destroyed the lone Spitfire by landing wheels-up, a frequent mistake made by pilots unfamiliar with fixed undercarriages.) Production aircraft were equipped with warning horns at his request.)
At the annual RAF Hendon pageant, the Spitfire and Hurricane made their public premiere. The awestruck audience heard the beautiful song of the Merlin engine for the first time as the new fighters tore across the sky, a sound that would soon become familiar. The prototype Spitfire, on the other hand, was the only one to fly for two years.
The contract was small in comparison to the total number of planes produced, but the thought of turning a hand-made prototype into a production machine worried Supermarine. Its employees were artisans, not factory workers, and their largest prior order was for 79 flying boats, with 10 being delivered each year. They’d never produced 310 of anything before, much alone anything as complicated as the Spitfire. Those elliptical wings featured virtually no straight lines and were difficult to mass-produce due to their multipart primary spar. The fuselage and wings needed unique tooling, and the complexities of even small components, along with Supermarine’s lack of expertise with subcontracting, resulted in excruciatingly sluggish manufacturing, even as war clouds loomed. The RAF had just nine Spitfire squadrons at the start of WWII, and only 11 more when the aerial combat shifted to England in 1940. Thankfully, there were a lot more Hurricanes.
Mitchell retained control of the project and never slowed his pace, despite the fact that he was living in the shadow of death. He’d be taking notes and discussing a flight with the pilot, either in the design department or at the airport. He even got his pilot’s license so that he could better appreciate the difficulties that pilots endure. On other experiments, he would fly beside the Spitfire and observe it in its natural habitat.
In 1937, the disease reappeared, and he faced it with his usual tenacity. He died on June 11, knowing that his invention was operating as he had planned and would soon be deployed by the Royal Air Force. He was just 42 years old at the time. He was replaced by Chief Draughtsman Joseph Smith, who oversaw the evolution of the nascent plane into the Mark I fighter and its descendants up to the final Mark 24.
Quill delivered Spitfire K9789 to No. 19 Squadron on August 4, 1938, the first operational example of what would become the RAF’s fighter force until the jet age. The first RAF pilot to fly it, Squadron Leader Henry Cozens, began his career flying Sopwith Camels in 1917 and finished up flying Gloster Meteor jets. K9789 miraculously survived WWII, only to be destroyed in 1945.
At Duxford, Cambridgeshire, the first operational Spitfires were handed to No. 19 Squadron. (Getty Images/J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency)
The Spitfire may have seemed too delicate for a combat aircraft when compared to its primary rivals, the ferocious Me-109 and Focke-Wulf Fw-190, but despite its beautiful looks, it was a lethal and effective killing machine. And tenacious. Spits have crashed in the air, struck the ground, bounced off the water, punched through trees, cut high-tension wires, clashed in the air, been shot to bits, lost rudders, ailerons, and sections of wings—and their pilots have survived. One was shot down at a low altitude and somersaulted along the ground, losing its wings and tail, but the pilot walked away.
However, like a strong sports vehicle, it may be harsh on novice or irresponsible drivers. During the Battle of Britain, drastically reduced training had unavoidable effects. Six of the 30 student pilots on the school were died in flying accidents, according to Miroslav Lisutin, a Czech pilot studying at Grangemouth. Seven soldiers perished in the first week of Bert Hall’s training in Scotland, according to Bert Hall, who flew S.E.5a fighters during World War I. Pilots had fewer than 10 hours on Spits before heading into combat.
During the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation, the initial battles between Spitfires and Messerschmitts were mostly a draw, but on May 26, Spit pilots claimed six Ju-87B Stukas and six Me-109Es destroyed for no casualties. Despite being outmanned two to one by Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain, Spitfires had a larger psychological impact. “Achtung, Spitfire!” was a terrifying phrase for Luftwaffe pilots. When the Hurricane was shot down, many German pilots had an irrational hatred for the aircraft and refused to accept they had been defeated by the allegedly obsolete jet: “It must have been a Spitfire!” When asked by a frustrated Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring what he required to win the air war over England, Major Adolf Galland, whose Me-109s were forced by Göring to escort the bombers at the optimum height for interception by the Spit, famously responded, “An outfit of Spitfires for my squadron.”
According to Luftwaffe statistics, 1,636 aircraft were lost—47 percent of Me-109s, 66 percent of Me-110s, and 45 percent of bombers—since the combat began in July. Thousands of trained pilots were killed or taken prisoner, which was even more catastrophic. Germany never recovered from these losses in troops and equipment, according to Luftwaffe aces Theo Osterkamp and Günther Rall (history’s third highest scoring fighter pilot). These losses were felt most acutely during the war in Russia, according to Luftwaffe aces Theo Osterkamp and Günther Rall. The Spitfire may not have “won” the Battle of Britain, but the RAF would have lost without it. The fight was a “turning moment in the Second World War….the German Air Force was bled nearly to death, and sustained casualties that could never be made up during the war,” according to Luftwaffe General Werner Kreipe.
“Men came from every part of the free globe to fly and battle in the Spitfire…and all grew to adore her for her thoroughbred qualities,” remarked RAF Wing Cmdr. “Johnnie” Johnson, who had a record 38 verified victories. Several hundred people from the British Commonwealth and other nations achieved aces. Seventeen players, including Irishman Brendan“Paddy” Finucane (32), Canadian George “Screwball” Beurling (31), South African Adolph “Sailor” Malan (27), Australian Clive Caldwell (28), American Lance Wade (22) and New Zealanders Colin Gray (27) and William Crawford-Compton (22) each won more than 20 games (21). Sub-Lt. Colin Hodgkinson and renowned Wing Cmdr. Douglas Bader were two legless pilots who flew Spitfires (20).
On September 15, 1940, Pilot Officer “Red” Tobin downed a Dornier Do-17 for the first verified victory by an American in a Spitfire. Pilot Officer Bill Dunn was the first of 13 Americans to earn ace rank in the Spits. The list was led by Pilot Officer John Lynch, who was credited with ten wins outright and seven shared triumphs. Sixty-eight more of his countrymen, including legends like Don Gentile and Don Blakeslee, who flew in normal RAF units or the RAF Eagle Squadrons, would add to their ace totals while flying the fighter. In a reverse lend-lease arrangement, more than 600 Spitfires were equipped with three USAAF fighter units and one US Navy unit when the US joined the war.
Before the P-51 Mustang arrived, RAF Spitfires guarded US bombers. The Americans were relieved to have Spitfire XIIs from the RAF’s Tangmere Wing alongside them after suffering severe casualties during early daylight bombing sorties. They escorted B-17, B-24, B-25, and B-26 bomber groups to objectives in France in 1943, dashing ahead of the main bomber formations and providing escort cover. “American Bomber Crews are heartily thankful for the excellent fighter protection given today by the Spitfire Pilots of your Command,” Maj. Gen. Frederick Anderson, heading the U.S. VIII Bomber Command, wrote to the wing. ‘As we were leaving the Target area, a large formation of enemy aircraft came in to attack, but they were driven off almost quickly by a powerful formation of Spitfires.’ Around mid-Channel, one of our ships fell out of formation with half of its tail blown off. A pair of Spits rushed to the assistance of the damaged bomber, circled the ship, and successfully returned her to base.’ ‘The Spit cover was excellent,’ says Capt. Carrol D. Briscoa. I’d want to express my gratitude to them personally.’
The Supermarine Spitfire was the sole Allied aircraft in frontline duty from the beginning to the end of WWII, and its Seafire carrier variant lasted 15 years, the longest of any WWII combat aircraft—a testimony to the original design’s soundness and its ability to be modified significantly. In 1950, they took part in the Inchon landings during the Korean War. Engine power would more than quadruple and maximum speed would rise by 100 mph during the course of the car’s 11-year manufacturing life.
The Merlin’s 27-liter engine was replaced with the Mk. II’s 35-liter Rolls-Royce Griffon. Onwards to XII. Four of the original eight.303-inch machine guns were replaced by two 20mm cannons as Luftwaffe aircraft carried additional armor plate to protect engines and crew. Later models included four guns, giving the Spitfire more firepower than the F-86 Sabre aircraft used in the Korean War.
The last version of the Spitfire was the Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered Mk.24, which served with the Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force until 1955. (Image courtesy of HistoryNet Archives)
The Spitfire had more variants (24) and missions than any other fighter, including interceptor, fighter-bomber, ground-attack, night fighter, floatplane, liaison, folding-wing transport plane, and long-range photoreconnaissance. In WWII, it was utilized by nine Allied nations, including 1,343 by the Soviets, as well as postwar countries (32).
In 1939, the Spit pioneered unarmed photorecon. With an additional fuselage and internal wing tanks, the later PR X had a range of almost 1,700 miles, surpassing even the long-legged P-51D Mustang. After the May 1943 “Dambuster” attack, PR Spits were the first to photograph the Ruhr dams, as well as the Peenemünde V1 and V2 secret armament installations.
On February 24, 1949, the final Spitfire, a 454-mph Mk. 24, rolled out of the factory. On June 9, 1957, a PR19 landed after a meteorological fly, marking the last flight of an RAF piston-engine fighter and bringing an end to an era in aviation unlike any other.
The Dambuster attack was the subject of a recent article by RAF veteran Nicholas O’Dell for Aviation History Magazine (July 2013). He also suggests Ken Delve’s The Story of the Spitfire: An Operational and Combat History, Jonathan Glancey’s Spitfire: The Biography, Jeffrey Quill’s Birth of a Legend, and Alfred Price’s The Spitfire Story.
Originally published in Aviation History Magazine’s November 2013 edition. To subscribe, go to this link.
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The “spitfire vs mustang” is a battle of two iconic aircraft. The British Spitfire was made in the 1940s, and the American Mustang was made in the 1950s. Both aircraft were used during World War II, but what makes one aircraft so successful?
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is the Spitfire more famous than the hurricane?
A: The Spitfire is a British World War II fighter plane. Hurricanes are American.
How the Spitfire became a legend?
A: Spitfires were designed to be highly maneuverable, which is why they became a legend in the Royal Air Force during World War II.
Was the Spitfire the best plane in WW2?
A: The Spitfire is the best plane in WW2.
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