Spitfire is 60

The Supermarine Spitfire, an operational history by Christopher Whitehead.


1939 - Into Action

Tragically, the first aircraft to fall to a Spitfire's guns were two Hurricanes of No 56 Squadron, shot down by aircraft from No 74 Squadron over the Medway on 6 September 1939. This episode, in which a Blenheim was also shot down by friendly anti-aircraft fire, became known as 'The Battle of Barking Creek' and was caused by a technical fault in the fighter control system. The Spitfire pilots were subsequently exonerated from any blame at a court martial, and as a direct result, the highest priority was given to the production of Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) equipment, forerunner of the modern encoding transponder.

Mk 1a Spitfire No AR213
photographed at Boscombe Down

On 16 October 1939, Junkers Ju-88s of 1/KG 30 led by Hauptmann Helmuth Pohle attacked British warships in the Firth of Forth. Nine of the Ju-88s were intercepted over Rosyth by three Spitfires of 603 Squadron, each of which attacked Pohle's aircraft which was hit repeatedly and crashed into the sea. Pohle was the only survivor and was taken prisoner of war. This, the first enemy aircraft to be destroyed by Fighter Command, was credited to Squadron Leader Ernest Stevens, the commanding officer of 603 Squadron. At the same time, two other sections of 603 Squadron engaged and shot down a Heinkel He-111 which had been sent to observe the results of Pohle's raid. Three more Spitfires, this time from 602 Squadron, were joined by two of 603 in time to catch one more of the Ju-88s and shoot it down. Later that day, another He-111 was shot down by 603 Squadron. Thus did the Spitfire spectacularly open its account against the enemy.

The first enemy aircraft to fall on British soil in the Second World War was a Heinkel He-111, which was shot down at Haddington, East Lothian, on 29 November. The aircraft was originally attacked by Flying Officer Archie McKellar of 602 Squadron, who was then interrupted by the arrival of three Spitfires from 603 Squadron. Although argument rages to this day as to which squadron was the victor, the 'kill' was credited to McKellar.

Spitfires based in England registered their first success when 41 Squadron from Catterick brought down a Heinkel He-111 off Whitby. No 74 Squadron from Hornchurch scored its first success when three Spitfires attacked a Heinkel He-111 off Southend and although the Heinkel was not seen to crash, two of its unhappy crew were picked from the sea the next day.

Until this time, photographic reconnaissance was traditionally assigned to bomber-type aircraft, however, the concept of using a small, unarmed aircraft, relying solely on its speed to provide protection was proposed by Flying Officer 'Shorty' Longbotham. The Spitfire was the obvious choice for the task, and the first two Mk Is were converted in October 1939. A five-inch focal length camera was mounted in the in-board gun bay of each wing, inclined so that the field of photography overlapped slightly to give a stereoscopic effect. Stripped of guns, ammunition and radio, and with a high-gloss paint finish, the resulting PR IA was some 30 mph (50 km/h) faster than the standard Spitfire. Contrary to popular belief, the Spitfire was based in France before the Germans overran that country, the Special Survey Flight being established at Seclin with one PR IA. It flew its first sortie on 18 November and, although the mission was unsuccessful because of adverse weather, it nevertheless proved that the Spitfire was eminently suitable for the task.

Throughout this period of the so-called 'Phoney War' - although the Royal Navy has never recognised this description - training was continuous. Excursions by the Luftwaffe over the United Kingdom were comparatively rare and no Spitfire fighters had been sent overseas. The 'Battle of Barking Creek' brutally brought home the necessity of harnessing the different skills and aspects of air defence into one cohesive whole, and full use was made of the time available. Fighter squadrons were expected to operate by day and night, but, after a large number of night accidents, nearly 60 of which involved Spitfires, the Air Ministry reviewed the situation. The Spitfire was particularly difficult to fly at night because of the poor visibility over the nose and the necessity of flying a curved landing approach. The pilot was virtually blind during the final stages of the landing and the problem was exacerbated by the narrow-track undercarriage. Exhaust flame dampers had not yet been fitted and the pilot's night vision suffered accordingly. Consequently, Spitfire night flying was discontinued except on moonlit nights.

A Spitfire Mk 1 of 74 squadron RAF
as based at Hornchurch, Essex in May 1939


[ 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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