After the disastrous events which culminated in the lucky escape at Dunkirk, Britain faced a painful prospect. With the Nazi war machine now rolling right up to the English Channel, many felt an invasion of Britain was only a matter of time. Whether Adolf Hitler truly intended on invading an island with a fearsome navy still protecting it is up for debate, but at the very least it was decided that the island needed to be softened up with bombing raids before any further action.
The resulting attacks and the stirring defence that met them has come to be known as the Battle of Britain and went on for nearly 4 months. These raids were primarily focused on defence installations and airfields, but eventually shifted to civilian targets as the Blitz began. British cities would be bombed for the next 8 months but instead of capitulation, the aerial defence held firm. And central to it all was an aircraft that has come to symbolize the epic struggle. Loved by pilots, adored by those on the ground it protected and no doubt feared by the Germans, the Submarine Spitfire became not only a British hero, but an international one too.
Certain pieces of military hardware have become synonymous with a country and a particular period, and the Spitfire was exactly that. Arriving just a year before the outbreak of World War II, they were held in reserve as the initial acts of the war played out because they were deemed untested in large-scale combat. Instead, it was their cousins the Hawker Hurricane who made their way across the channel in the defence of France. It quickly became clear however that German aerial power was too much for the Hurricanes, and as the British army scampered back home from Dunkirk, it was only a matter of time until the Spitfires was unleashed.
In the early 1930s, the UK’s Air Ministry set out a series of specifications for a new ‘modern aircraft’ capable of speeds of 400km/h (250mph). In response, they received 7 designs from different teams and chose a design that would eventually go on to become the Gloster Gladiator.
One of the designs that were passed over was the Submarine Type 224, an open-cockpit monoplane that had been designed by R.J Mitchell. While there must have been a degree of disappointment of having missed out on the Air Ministry’s decision, those involved knew full well that the Submarine Type 224 fell well below expectations.
But in a wonderfully stubborn way, R.J Mitchell and his design team kept coming back for more, each time with a slightly better model. Type 300 was also rejected which led to numerous major overhauls, not least with the cockpit now enclosed and with breathing apparatus for the pilot. Type 300 wasn’t good enough, but they were close. A new and improved Type 300 was thrashed out and on 1st December 1934, the Air Ministry decided they liked what they saw and awarded a £10,000 contract for the first aircraft.
Over the next two years, a series of small tweaks were made to the design, with the number of guns increasing from two to four (which would eventually increase to eight) and a fine-pitch propeller added to give the aircraft more power during takeoff.
On 5th March 1936, prototype K5054 took off for the first time from Eastleigh Aerodrome for its maiden voyage – which a just 8 minutes was less of a voyage and more of quick spin around the block. The flight had been a success and with a few further alterations, the aircraft was handed over to the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) which would have the final say on the young Spitfire. The report delivered by the A&AEE was broadly positive with one request, that an undercarriage position indicator be added so pilots could tell whether the landing gear was up or down. On 3rd June 1936, the Air Ministry placed an order for the first 310 Spitfires at a cost of £1,395,000 (£100 million today).
It soon became clear that while the aircraft design was sound, the production facilities could not hope to produce the aircraft at a rate that Sir Robert MacLean, the director of Vickers-Armstrong (the larger company within which the Submarine division was part of) had proclaimed. Perhaps in a burst of excitement, MacLean had promised 5 aircraft a week, starting from 15 months after the contract was signed. As time progressed, it became clear this was hopelessly ambitious.
Now, remember, while Hitler had been making plenty of loud noises by this point, World War II had yet to begin. Vickers-Armstrong was busy producing several aircraft, ranging from flying boats to bombers and this was not yet the manic production line that we would see later after war was declared.
Initially, subcontractors were brought on board to speed up the process, but Vickers-Armstrong appeared reluctant to hand over too much power, and/or knowledge relating to this new aircraft and the process dragged unnecessarily on. The situation became so bad that the Air Ministry declared that once the contract had been completed, no further Spitfires would be built. Only the desperate intervention and probably a fair bit of grovelling by Vickers-Armstrong and Submarine bosses persuaded the Air Ministry to reverse course and an order of a further 210 Spitfires was submitted.
In mid-1938, the first Spitfire appeared and was flown for the first time on 15th May. Costs had increased slightly because of the delay, with the final total for the 310 aircraft standing at £1,870,242 (£133 million today).
The hand-fabricated fuselage for each aircraft cost in the region of £2,500 (£169,000) and the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine £2,000 (£135,000). A pair of wings worked out to be £1,800 (£122,000 today), the guns cost £800 (£54,000), and the propeller came in at £350 (£23,000 today).
The Spitfire was part of a new generation of fighter jets which began appearing in the 1930s. The best, and most feared of which was the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 – an aircraft that the Spitfire would soon lock horns with. If the Spitfire was a great aircraft, the Bf 109 was arguably better but lacked the fuel capacity to be truly effective during combat over Britain. The Bf 109 typically had only 10 minutes worth of combat time over Britain before it had to turn for home.
With aircraft design taking a huge leap forward, the Spitfire needed to be able to keep up. Its Merlin engine provided it with 1,470 horsepower (slightly less than 2 modern F1 engines) which at the time was substantial, enabling the aircraft to reach top speeds of 600 km/h (370 mph).
But the real beauty of the Spitfire lay with its complex airframe. The skeleton of the aircraft was constructed with 19 formers (frames) along with four main fuselage longerons running the length of the structure to add further support. Over the top of this was a duralumin skin (an early aluminium alloy) and the final result was a light, yet rigid aircraft that quickly became a favourite to fly.
The Spitfires had a semi-elliptical wing shape with a span of 11.23 m (36 ft 10 in). The original four guns were bulked up to eight as war neared, with most using the .303 in Browning Mk II machine guns, but the 20 mm Hispano Mk II was also used. You might think that with eight guns blazing it might be fairly straightforward to bring down an enemy plane (said somebody who has never needed to be in such a position), but a report during the war found that an average of 4,500 rounds were needed to shoot down an enemy aircraft. Considering a single gun on a Spitfire only carried 350 rounds, maths was not exactly on their side. This was partly why the larger Hispano Mk II rounds were trialled, but with decidedly mixed results.
One major drawback the Spitfire faced during its duals with the Bf 109 was its lack of fuel injection. This meant that while the Bf 109 could go into a high-powered dive, the Spitfire could not. The negative g force essentially flooded the engine’s carburettor causing it to stall. Certain remedies were tested with pilots even learning to do a half roll before diving, but it was a constant thorn in the side. But one that was fixed by a simple piece of metal placed inside the fuel line which restricted the flow to the maximum the engine could consume.
This simple disc was designed by Beatrice Shilling, a technical officer working for the RAF at the time. The small addition was a godsend came to be known as Miss Shilling’s orifice and was used until 1943 when a pressure carburettor was introduced to finally fix the problem. And as if Beatrice Shilling wasn’t already enough of a trailblazer, she was also a motorcycle fanatic and became only the second woman to receive the motorsports gold star for lapping the Brooklands circuit in Surrey at over 100 mph. She even refused to marry her fiancee until he had managed to do the same. This was a formidable woman, and one whose role in the story of the Spitfire shouldn’t be undervalued.
Just after 11 am on 3rd September 1939, radio sets across the nation crackled into life with the voice of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. His words have become iconic,
“This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently, this country is at war with Germany.
The nation once again found itself at war with Germany.
Though the Spitfires would reach acclaim during the Battle of Britain, they did not see much involvement in the early stages of the war, with the Air Ministry choosing to primarily use the slower, but sturdier Hawker Hurricanes in action over France. But as the pendulum swung into German favour, the Spitfires quickly found themselves on the front lines of the frenetic Battle of Britain.
Battle of Britain
Let me start by saying that there were, in fact, more Hawker Hurricanes operating during the Battle of Britain. The fact that the Spitfire is so fondly remembered probably has something to do with the higher victory-loss ratio in comparison, but also their roles were considerably different. As vast waves of Nazi bombers headed for Britain, the Hurricanes were tasked with attacking the bombers, while the Spitfires were pitted against the fighter-escorts – often the formidable Messerschmitt Bf 109. Stories of epic dogfights over Britain helped to establish the Spitfire as Britain’s best-loved aircraft – by some distance.
The conflict that ran from July 1940 to October 1940 was the first battle the world had known to be fought exclusively in the sky. With an early confidence that boarded on arrogance, the Germans believed the RAF could be swept aside quickly and efficiently. Not only did the Germans have better planes, but they also had a lot more of them too.
But the lack of numbers was more than made up with a technology that made its bow during the conflict. Radio Direction Finding (otherwise known as radar) came to the aid of the British and they were able to more or less pinpoint the location of enemy fighters thanks to their radar station that had been built along the coasts during the 1930s. Now, it must be said that the Germans also had such technology, but being the aggressors, they didn’t get to use it until the allies began attacking Germany.
The Germans focused much of their early efforts on airfields and other defensive points but quickly discovered that they would not have everything their own way, and by the end of the four-month battle, they had lost 1700 aircraft along with 2662 men. In total, the RAF lost 1250 aircraft, including 1017 fighters, with 520 men losing their lives.
The Battle of Britain has a special place in British history. The stories of young British airmen with a pitiful number of flying hours under their belts climbing into the skies to defend the nation has become a legendary tale. Winston Churchill himself famously said,
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
In September 1940, the Germans made a miscalculation. Believing the RAF and much of the defensive structure to be on its last legs, the Luftwaffe was ordered to begin striking civilian targets in London. While the attacks that began the Blitz proved to be devastating for the city, it gave Britain’s defences time to recover.
The Blitz continued from September 1940 until May 1941 when Hitler finally called off the bombing raids. While it can certainly be said that this was in no small part down to the heroic defence, it also allowed bombers to be re-directed east in preparation for the invasion of the Soviet Union.
The Spitfires, Hurricanes and other aircraft had put up a ferocious defence and had succeeded, but the war was not yet won. The Spitfires, in particular, would go on to be used around the world – sometimes not even by the RAF – with over 1,000 Spitfires used by the Soviet Airforce to push the Germans out of their homeland. Even the Americans used plenty of these speedy little machines. To give you an idea of its global success, as many as 31 different countries used Spitfires either during World War II or directly after.
From Australia to Burma, from China to Malta, Spitfires were time and time again called into action. Their role sometimes changed and they were occasionally used as fast-flying photo reconnaissance planes but in the majority of major conflicts, they were used in a combat capacity. On D-Day they patrolled the skies while also attacking airfields deep in German territory, while they also took part in one of the last major engagements of World War II, helping to prevent a Japanese breakout from Burma in August 1945.
The British people are fiercely proud of the nation’s defence during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, and this can be no more encapsulated by the adoration felt towards the Spitfire. Though only 60 of these treasured aircraft still remain in an airworthy state at least, their legacy is still very much alive.
In total, nearly 22,000 Spitfires were built between 1938 and 1948 and while of course, they pale in comparison to modern aircraft, it’s difficult to think of anything that has had the same kind of impact. The interesting thing is they weren’t necessarily the best aircraft during the war, with both the Messuchmit Bf 109 and Japanese Zero plane having the edge over it, at least in certain areas. But it goes to show that the best aircraft doesn’t necessarily equal victory.
Through a combination of a terrific aircraft, heroic pilots, and valiant ground staff – including the speed demon Beatrice Shilling – the Spitfire was able to establish itself as the most famous aircraft to take part in World War II. Ifs and buts can be a little dangerous – but the Battle of Britain may have played out very differently, had it not been for the Submarine Spitfire.