Spitfire is 60

The Supermarine Spitfire, an operational history by Christopher Whitehead.


At the beginning of 1942, Fighter Command had 60 squadrons of Spitfires. The Fw-190 was first encountered in quantity during operations in connection with the dash through the English Channel by the warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau from Brest to Wilhelmshaven on 12 February 1942. Despite being aware of the imminence of the break-out, a combination of bad weather and unserviceabilities in the patrolling aircraft had given the Germans a head start. The ships were eventually discovered by a section of Spitfires of 91 Squadron, and by the Senior Air Staff Officer of No 11 Group, Group Captain Victor Beamish, who was aloft in another Spitfire. Spitfires subsequently fought a series of running battles with Fw-190s and Bf-109s.

The Fw-190's advantage came from its powerful BMW engine and its high-rate of roll. The Spitfire Mk V was finding itself outmatched, and 59 were lost in April. In May, the Bf-109G appeared, optimised for high-level operations. The first of 100 Spitfire Mk VIs had entered into service in April with No 616 Squadron, intended for high-altitude operations where the Bf-109 had previously reigned supreme. In response to the introduction of the Fw-190, another 'interim' mark of Spitfire was proposed, pending full scale development of the Mk VIII. The result was the Mk IX. Like the Mk V, this 'stop-gap' was also an outstanding success, 5,665 being built, the second highest number of any mark!

A Mk VIII of 615 squadron, RAF
as operated from Palel in India.

In June, an Fw-190 landed at Pembrey after its pilot had become lost. This gave the RAF an early opportunity to test the aircraft against the Spitfire Mk V, and it proved superior in all respects except for turning ability. Pending the arrival of the Spitfire Mk IX, some Mk Vs had their wing tips removed, decreasing the span by four feet four inches. The 'clipped-wing' Spitfire was marginally faster than the standard Mk V but had a considerably better rate of roll. A Merlin with a modified supercharger was also fitted, which gave a speed at low level equivalent to that of the Fw-190. Such Spitfires were known as 'clipped and cropped'.

The first Spitfire Mk IXs went to No 64 Squadron at Hornchurch in July. When tested against the captured Fw-190, the Mk IX was found to compare favourably. It was just in time. The Luftwaffe began to respond to Fighter Command's offensive by mounting very-low-level hit-and-run raids with small numbers of Fw-190s.

On 19 August, 6,000 Canadian troops were put ashore at Dieppe for a large-scale raid. Code-named Operation Jubilee, the raid was a costly failure but provided invaluable lessons for subsequent seaborne invasions. Of the 67 RAF squadrons committed in support, 48 were of Spitfires - 42 with Mk Vs, four with Mk IXs and two with Mk VIs. Of the 106 Allied aircraft lost, 88 were fighters, most of them Spitfires.

On 29 September, the RAF's Nos 71, 121 and 133 'Eagle' Squadrons flown by American volunteers became the 334th, 335th and 336th Squadrons of the United States Army Air Force. Their primary task was to act as escorts to B-17 bombers, a role for which the Spitfire had never been envisaged and for which it was unsuitable.

The Photographic Reconnaissance Unit was split into four squadrons in October. Nos 541, 542 and 543 were fully equipped with Spitfire Mk IVs, while 544 Squadron had other types as well as some Mk IVs.

European operations had taken precedence over those in the Middle and Far East theatres. The first overseas deployment of Spitfires as fighters took place on 7 March, when 15 tropicalised Mk Vs carrying 90-gallon slipper fuel tanks took off from the flight deck of HMS Eagle bound for Malta, 600 miles (960 km) away. Subsequent deliveries in the same manner turned the air battle for Malta in the RAF's favour. One aircraft suffered fuel-feed failure and became the first Spitfire without a hook to land on an aircraft carrier. By August, the Spitfire had entirely taken over the air defence of Malta. To relieve the aircraft carriers from their ferry role, Spitfire Mk VCs were fitted with an extra internal 29-gallon tank and an external jettisonable 170-gallon tank. Armament was reduced to two machine guns. In this form, the aircraft were able to fly the 1,100 miles (1,750 km) from Gibraltar to Malta, where the extra tanks were removed and the armament refitted. These flights commenced in October. Malta-based Spitfires of 126 Squadron were the first to carry two 250lb bombs, which they did during operations over Sicily.

The first Desert Air Force squadron to receive Spitfires was No 145 in April 1942. These were tropicalised Mk VBs. One was stripped of armour and two 0.5-inch machine guns replaced the normal armament. Fitted with a four-bladed propeller and with its Merlin suitably 'tweaked' to give more power at high altitude, this aircraft climbed to 42,000 feet to shoot down a Ju-86P reconnaissance aircraft. Subsequently, Ju-86Ps were intercepted and brought down from heights of 45,000 and 50,000 feet.

The Seafire was first in action during the Allied invasion of Morocco and Algeria when a Mk IB of No 801 Squadron from HMS Furious shot down a Dewoitine 520 on 8 November. American Spitfire Mk VBs were also used during these landings.

The Fw-190 arrived in the Western Desert in November and, the following month, a few Spitfire Mk IXs were attached to 145 Squadron to counter them. Other overseas deployments of Spitfires had seen three Mk IVs being sent to Vaenga, in North Russia, to keep on eye on German warships. While there, they carried Soviet markings.

Pending availability of the PR Mk XI, 15 Mk IXs were modified for PR work. They were first used operationally in November by No 541 Squadron.

A PRMk XI, Photo Reconnaisance Spitfire Variant.

[ Into Service | 1939: War | 1940: Survival | 1941: Into France | 1942: The Fight Continues | 1943: The Tide Turns
| 1944: Return to France | 1945: Victory | Post-War Years | Preserved Examples | High Flight]

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