The Supermarine Spitfire, an operational history by Christopher Whitehead.


The second of the RAF's modern eight-gun monoplane fighters, the Spitfire, entered service with No 19 Squadron based at Duxford some nine months after the first Hurricanes had been delivered to No 111 Squadron at Northolt. Commanded by Squadron Leader Henry Cozens, No 19 began to exchange its Gauntlet biplanes for Mk I Spitfires when K9789 arrived on 4 August 1938.

The prototype Spitfire, photographed, most appropriately,
at Duxford during the recent 60th Anniversay celebrations

At the time of the 1938 Munich Crisis, No 19 was the only squadron to possess any Spitfires at all. The second unit to receive Spitfires was No 66 Squadron, also at Duxford, which acquired K9802 on 31 October 1938. Thus, by the end of 1938, the RAF had two fully-equipped Spitfire squadrons with 100 per cent reserves. By the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939, Spitfires equipped nine squadrons - Nos 19, 66 and 611 at Duxford, Nos 54, 65 and 74 at Hornchurch, No 72 at Church Fenton, Nos 41 and 609 at Catterick and No 602 at Abbotsinch. Additionally, No 603 Squadron was in the process of replacing its Gladiators at Turnhouse. A total of 306 Mk Is had been delivered of which 36 had been written off in training accidents.

The first 77 Mk Is had a two-bladed, fixed-pitch propeller. Subsequent aircraft received three-bladed, two-position airscrews, with fine pitch for take-off and coarse pitch for cruising, and these were subsequently retro-fitted to the earlier aircraft. Taller pilots found the headroom very restricitive and this led to the original flat cockpit canopy being replaced by the bulged version which was to become a feature of all future marks. Other improvements included the provision of an armour-plated windscreen and 6mm armour panels on the rear engine bulkhead and behind the pilot's seat. Heating for the guns was also installed after it was found that they froze at high altitude. The original armament of eight .303 Browning machine guns had been chosen because of the ready availability of this weapon but, in June 1939, two 20mm Hispano cannon were fitted to L1007 for trails. These proved unsuccessful as the Hispano had been designed to be mounted on top of a fighter's engine block which would be solid enough to absorb the recoil. The mountings in the Spitfire's wings were too flexible causing the guns to jam. Nevertheless, the Hispano was ordered into production, pending a satisfactory solution to this mounting problem.

Many pilots found the new aircraft diffucult to adapt to - those used to open cockpits, often found the closed canopy claustrophobic and left it fully open. Additionally, these pilots were unfamiliar with the retractable undercarriage, and numerous early accidents were caused by their forgetting to lower the Spitfire's wheels. The aircraft did have a warning klaxon but, as this tended to sound whenever vibration increased, it was often switched off - with embarrassing consequences! Taxying was a zig-zag process requiring the aircraft's tail to be swung from side to side so that the pilot could see ahead beyond the aeroplane's long nose. Combined with the narrow-track and somewhat fragile undercarriage , this made crosswind landings hazardous. Nevertheless, it was considered that the aircraft could be flown without risk by the average fully-trained fighter pilot. New pilots came to the Spitfire via Magister and Master trainers and a short spell at an Operational Training Unit (OTU). Experienced pilots converted to type directly on the squadrons.

This shot of a Mk II Spitfire shows the
famous elliptical wing shape to great effect

Yet the Spitfire legend was in great danger of failing to take off at all. Initial production was so slow that the Air Ministry seriously considered cancelling the type in favour of using the production capacity at Supermarine for the manufacture of other aircraft such as the Beaufighter. The problem was caused by the Spitfire's advanced design, particularly the elliptical wing, which necessitated radical new production techniques to be introduced by inexperienced sub-contractors. The Air Ministry was calling for 12,000 fighters, including those from the next generation - the Tornado, Typhoon and Whirlwind. In the event, however, Supermarine was able to convince the Ministry that output would improve with practice and Lord Nuffield's experience of mass car production was turned to good account in the aircraft industry. This resulted, among other measures, in the building of the 'shadow' factory for Spitfire production at Castle Bromwich.

Before the outbreak of war, considerable interest in buying Spitfires or arranging licence production had been shown by many foreign countries, including Japan. In the event, one example was flown to the French before war dictated that all future production would be earmarked for the RAF. Orders placed before September 1939 amounted to 1,160 to be built by Supermarine with a further 1,000 to be produced by the Nuffield organisation.

[ 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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