The Supermarine Spitfire was without doubt the most important single-seat fighter type of the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. It was the brainchild of the brilliant designer Reginald J. Mitchell, who had become famous with his S.5, S.6 and S.6B racing seaplanes (finally winning the Schneider trophy for Great Britain) during the thirties. Mitchell worked day and night to finish the Spitfire prototype because he knew that his days were numbered (he died of cancer before the first series production aircraft flew and the further development of the Spitfire fell to his equally able colleague Joseph Smith). In fact the Spitfire was the smallest possible single-seat fighter which could be designed around a Rolls-Royce PV-12 engine (prototype designation of the famous Merlin engine) and a battery of eight machine guns.
The first prototype was flown on March 5, 1936 and in August 1938 No. 19 Squadron was the first operational RAF unit to receive Spitfires. But at first problems were encountered with the production of this type and accordingly delivery rate was slow. But luckily there were enough Spitfires available during the Battle of Britain in summer of 1940 to keep the German Bf 109 fighters occupied, so that the slightly less capable Hawker Hurricanes could concentrate on the bombers. It has been said that the Spitfire could have survived the Battle without the Hurricane, but the Hurricane not without the Spitfire. The Spitfire became synonymous with the British victory in this decisive chapter of the air war. It was not before the second half of 1940 that the Spitfire became the most numerous single-seat fighter in RAF inventory.
The Spitfire mark numbers ran from Mk.I to Mk.24 with countless sub-variants (of sometimes confusing designation), some of them (like Mks.III, IV, XX) were only prototypes. The Spitfire served not only as a fighter and fighter-bomber but was also used for reconnaissance and some experimental and special purposes (e.g. air-sea-rescue - by dropping marker flares, an inflatable dinghy and some survival equipment at pilots downed over the sea, target towing, meteorological flying).
Later variants of the Spitfire (and the Seafire) were equipped with the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine instead of the Merlin (which considerably altered the contours of the forward fuselage) and from the Mk.21 on the typical elliptical wing gave place to a new wing design with a different planeform. There were also built a handful of floatplane prototypes (3 Mk.Vs and 1 Mk.IX) - an idea which came up during the Norwegian campaign in 1940 for producing an urgently needed fighter capable of operations from sheltered waters like the Norwegian fjords. An important development was the navalized Seafire family (Mk.I, Mk.II, Mk.III, Mk.XV, Mk.17, Mk.45, Mk.46 and Mk.47 - also numerous sub-types) for use from aircraft carriers (here the narrow-track undercarriage of the basic Spitfire design proved somewhat troublesome).
Between 1936 and 1949 a total of 20,334 Spitfires (and 2,408 Seafires) were built - no other Allied combat aircraft outside the Soviet Union was built in larger quantities. Together with the German Bf 109 the Spitfire shared the distinction of being the only single-seat fighter type in continuous production throughout the whole Second World War. Apart from Great Britain this type was used during the war or in the immediate post-war years by many other countries like the USA, Turkey, Portugal, Greece, France, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Italy, Egypt, Israel, Czechoslovakia and the USSR.
The Soviet Union received its first Spitfires in 1943 and until 1945 a total of 1,331 examples had been delivered. Most of them were Spitfire Mk.IXs (with the exception of two H.F.Mk.IXs all of the sub-type L.F.Mk.IX), but a relatively small number of Mk.VBs and at least one P.R.Mk.IV were also delivered to Russia.
|Created for RAM November 25, 1999
by Thomas Heinz;
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