Spitfire, the Hailed Hero From the Battle of Britain That Ruled European Skies

Even nowadays, it is impossible for anyone who knows a bit of military aviation history to not recognize the famous Supermarine Spitfire from WWII, the aircraft that fought in the Battle of Britain, pushed back the mighty Luftwaffe (German Air Force), and cleared the UK's sky.
Supermarine Spitfire IXb 1943 12 photos
Photo: Falcon/Photography_Flckr
1280px-Temora_Aviation_Museum_(VH-XVI)_Supermarine_Spitfire_Mk_XVI_taxiing_at_the_2019_Avalon_AirshowSpitfire Prototype K5054 5th March 1936Spitfire prototype K5054Supermarine Spitfire IXb 1943Supermarine Spitfire MK I 1940Supermarine SpitfireSupermarine SpitfireSupermarine SpitfireHawker HurricaneHawker HurricaneHawker Hurricane
October is Iconic Vehicle Month here at autoevolution, and I just couldn't help it not to talk about Spitfire. Yes, it is a British plane, but its importance for D-Day is undisputable. It is also one of the best aircraft built in the last century, in 20,334 units and several versions.

In 1931, the Air Ministry called for a high-performance fighter plane. The answer given by Supermarine Aviation Works (Vickers) Ltd came in 1934 in the form of the Type 224. It was a total disappointment. Its 600 hp Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine was less than capable. Its open cockpit was also something that didn't please the airmen. But then, Supermarine has received another shot to fix things up.

The Chief Designer for the British company, R.J. Mitchell, didn't have the time to start from scratch, and took his inspiration from the Supermarine S6B seaplane, which was successful in the Schneider Trophy air race beating all the records in 1931. This resulted in the Type 300, but this was also rejected.

You know what they say, "third time is the charm," and this is what happened next. In November 1934, Supermarine submitted the third project. This time, with the cabin enclosed, thinner elliptic wings, and a more powerful Rolls-Royce engine - and the project took off. On March 5th, 1936, prototype K5054 made its maiden flight from Eastleigh Aerodrome, with captain Joseph' Mutt' Summers at the helm.

Spitfire Prototype K5054 5th March 1936
Photo: Vickers
The final test came just five days later, with different propellers and undercarriage retraction. Legend says that in that day, during a dive, the speedometer reached 500 mph (804 kph), but it wasn't confirmed and the dial couldn't show more than that. Sunders was so confident in the plane that he handed the K5054 prototype to his assistants, Jeffrey Quill and George Pickering. A week later, the Ministry of Air placed an order for 310 aircraft. But this was just the beginning.

Sadly, R.J. Mitchell, the father of this superb machine, suffered from cancer. His illness was severe, but he never stopped working on his final creation. Unfortunately, he passed away in June 1937, but his legacy saved the UK and conquered the European sky. His effort was pictured in the 1942 Hollywood movie "The first of the few."

Several problems affected aircraft production. One of them was the stubbornness of Vickers-Armstrong, the parent company of the Supermarine, to hand over the blueprints to other subcontractors. Eventually, the Air Ministry stepped in and threatened the company to move the production to Bristol-Beaufighter, the producer of the Bristol-Blenheim bomber. That convinced Vickers to cooperate with various subcontractors across the UK and eventually saved the plane.

After the bombing raids over Southampton and Portsmouth, the assembly lines were badly damaged. Vickers had another factory in Birmingham, at Castle Bromwich Works, which was troubled with bad management and unskilled workers. Yet, they managed to fly the first Spitfire in 1940, before the bombing of the Southampton factory. By that time, Rolls-Royce PV-12 (Merlin) powered the aircraft, and its 1,030 hp, with a two-stage supercharger, made the airplane a fierce fighter in the British sky.

Hawker Hurricane
Photo: Imperial War Museum
Its 36'10" (11.2 meters) wingspan and 29'11" (9.1 meters) long were a small target for Luftwaffe. Its superiority was above the 15,000 feet (4,600 meters) altitude, so the German airmen were instructed to fight at lower altitudes. But the Spitfires were better in diving attacks, almost transforming the Bf-109s into sitting ducks during the Battle of Britain.

While the Spitfire was outnumbered in victories by its partner aircraft, the Hawker-Hurricane, it was also built in smaller numbers. Also, Hurricanes' were used for attacking bombers, which were slower but heavily armed.

After the war over Britain was over, Supermarine upgraded the Spitfire. The three-blade propeller was replaced by a four-blade version. In the weapons department, Vickers replaced the former eight 0.303-inch (7,69 mm) machine guns with four 0.8-inch (20 mm) cannons. Thus, their projectiles were fewer but made much more damage, especially to the bombers. Its Rolls-Royce Merlin engines were upgraded and provided up to 1,760 horsepower, making them even more potent over the improved German aircraft such as the FW-190.

The Bf-109, which was built in large numbers, was no match for the enhanced Spitfire at any altitude and any speed. They still matched them in terms of maneuverability. Still, since the best Luftwaffe pilots were shot down in the Battle of Britain, they were no longer that much of a threat.

Supermarine Spitfire IXb 1943
Photo: Falcon Photography/Flckr
Spitfire played a key role and provided air superiority in the Battle of Malta in Northern Africa, Sicily, and Italy. They also paved the way for the D-Day in Normandy. A significant version was a reconnaissance plane, which was unarmed. Its only weapon was a camera, which provided valuable intel. Moreover, that aircraft could fly higher than most other planes and faster than anyone else in the sky.

In 1943, Supermarine installed the newly developed Rolls-Royce Griffon engines, which provided 2,050 hp, almost twice as much as the original Merlin V12 powerplant. Its frame, with the elliptical wings, handled the excessive force with grace. That version could fly at 40,000 feet (12,200 m) and get up to 440 mph (710 kph). Its only true contender was the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet-fighter, which appeared too late to change the tides of war in April 1944.

Among the 24 versions of the Spitfire produced, the most important were the MKV and MKIX, which accounted for half of the entire production. Vickers exported the aircraft in small numbers to Portugal, Turkey, and the Soviet Union. Some of them were sold to a few European countries after WWII.

The production of this British Aircraft symbol ended in 1947. Still, it remained in active service until 1954 as a photo-reconnaissance plane. Only about ten percent (over 2,000 units) of them were powered by the mighty Griffon engine. Now, there are less than 100 planes that are air-worthy, and they appear on various air shows. Some aircraft are restored to perfection and offered for sale at prices over GBP4.2 million ($6.8 million at the current exchange rate).
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Editor's note: Various versions of Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane in gallery

About the author: Tudor Serban
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Tudor started his automotive career in 1996, writing for a magazine while working on his journalism degree. From Pikes Peaks to the Moroccan desert to the Laguna Seca, he's seen and done it all.
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