The Supermarine Spitfire, an operational history by Christopher Whitehead.


To prevent a complete rundown of the aviation industry, the manufacture of the Spitfire continued after the end of the war, albeit in far fewer quantities than originally ordered. By the end of 1946, the only home front-line squadrons still operating Spitfires were No 41 with F.21s and No 63 with LF Mk XVIEs. However, the Auxiliary Air Force was reformed in June of that year and 13 of its squadrons were equipped with Spitfires and when the RNVR squadrons formed, they operated Seafires until 1954. On the continent, the last Spitfire squadron to leave Germany was No 80, which took its F.24s to Hong Kong in the second half of 1949. They re-equipped with Hornets in January 1952 and some of the F.24s were then continued in service with the Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force until April 1955.

The first two-seat Spitfire is thought to have been a local modification to a Mk V carried out by No 261 Squadron in the Middle East in 1944. Shortly after the war, a Mk VIII Spitfire was converted by Supermarine into a two-seat trainer as a private venture. A few Mk IXs were subsequently similarly converted, all for overseas customers. Other exports included 50 PR.19s to Sweden in 1948 and a smaller number to India in 1951.

The only squadron to operate the F.22 was No 73, which briefly flew them in the Middle East. The main users were the Auxiliary Air Force squadrons, which operated them until the last received jets in 1951.

In the Far East, No 155 Squadron retuned to Singapore from the Dutch East Indies in September 1945, where it briefly exchanged its Mk VIIIs for Mk XIVs before disbanding in August 1946. At the same time, No 273 Squadron took its Mk VIIIs to Bangkok and, a week later, to Tan Son Nhut in French Indo-China. The squadron re-equipped with Mk XIVs in November 1945 before disbanding the following January. In April 1946, the Mk XIVEs of No 17 Squadron were ferried by HMS Vengeance to Japan, where they were based at Iwakuni as part of the Allied Occupation Force. The squadron moved to Miho before disbanding early in 1948.

In 1947, six Spitfires flew from Singapore to Hong Kong to test the feasibility of reinforcing the colony. Two years later, with China in the throes of civil war, No 28 Squadron moved to Hong Kong from Singapore to be joined by No 80 Squadron which arrived by sea. No 28 Squadron relinquished its FR.18s in January 1951, while No 80 kept its F.24s until December of the same year.

When the Malayan Emergency was declared in May 1948, the RAF had Nos 28 and 60 Squadrons available with FR.18s and No 81 Squadron with some PR.19s. The first strike of the campaign was carried out on 6 July by two of 60 Squadron's aircraft which virtually destroyed a terrorist camp. Ten days later, an attack was mounted against a hut which was particularly difficult to reach at ground level and ten terrorists were killed. However, old and faulty wiring leading to an accidental ground discharge of a rocket towards the end of August led to a ban on the carriage of rockets by Spitfires. On 28 February 1949, Spitfires carried 20lb fragmentation bombs for the first time and, in conjunction with Beaufighters, killed at least nine terrorists. In April, six attacks in 12 days accounted for 37 terrorists; and, on 21 October the largest attack to date involved 62 sorties by a variety of aircraft including Spitfires and Seafires. Twelve Seafires of No 800 Squadron also supplemented other aircraft between July and September 1950.

Compared to results achieved during the Second World War, operations against terrorists who could not be seen and whose location was in doubt might seem to have achieved little. Yet, they were effective, if not so much in causing casualties as in forcing the enemy to move and hide and in lowering morale. Over 1,800 operational sorties were flown against the terrorists by Spitfires. Age and climate took their natural toll and, in the year before they were withdrawn, the serviceability rate could only average 50%.

The PRMk XIX of the Battle of Briatin Memorial Flight.
This was the last photo-reconnaisance variant produced.

The air reconnaissance task was performed almost entirely by No 81 Squadron, whose equipment included a small number of FR.18s and PR.19s. For the first two to three months of the campaign, all tactical air reconnaissance was performed by one Spitfire and one pilot who, at one stage, flew at least once a day on 56 consecutive days. By June 1949, there were three Spitfires on detachment from Singapore at Kuala Lumpur. In March 1950, all were transferred to No 60 Squadron at Tengah. They returned to No 81 Squadron later in the year, bringing that unit's strength to five Spitfires.

The last RAF Spitfire offensive sorties anywhere were flown by the FR.18s of No 60 Squadron on 1 January 1951. No 81 Squadron continued to operate three FR.18s in the reconnaissance role, together with two PR.19s until replaced by Meteor FR.10s in 1954. The Spitfire's last operational photographic reconnaissance mission was flown by PR.19 PS888 on 1 April 1954. That same year, the Burmese Air Force acquired 30 LF Mk IXs from Israel to replace the 20 Seafire Mk IIIs and a handful of Spitfire FR.18s originally supplied by the UK, for use in the close support role. The last Spitfire sortie in Hong Kong took place on 21 April 1955 when a Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force F.24 participated in The Queen's Birthday flypast.

No Spitfires saw service in the Korean War, although No 2 Squadron of the South African Air Force trained on LF Mk IXs before taking its Mustangs to war. HMS Triumph was in Far East waters with No 800 Squadron and its Seafire F.47s on board however, and their first operation was a strike by 12 Seafires and 9 Fireflies on Haeju airfield on 3 July 1950. Because of their short range, the Seafires were frequently given the Combat Air Patrol task over the fleet. During the Inchon landings in September, Seafires flew armed reconnaissance missions and spotted for the bombarding cruisers. But, by the end of the month, No 800 Squadron had only three serviceable aircraft and no replacements were available in the Far East. The inevitable crop of landing accidents and cumulative airframe stress damage meant the end of the Seafire's operational life. Nevertheless, the squadron flew 245 offensive patrols and 115 ground attack sorties before HMS Triumph was replaced by HMS Theseus with its Sea Furies and Fireflies.

Nearer to home, the Sate of Israel came into being on 15 May 1948. To mark the occasion, two Egyptian LF Mk IXs bombed and strafed Tel Aviv, one being shot down by ground fire. A few days later, the RAF's Nos 32 and 208 Squadrons were strafed at Ramat David. Later the same day, four more Spitfires attacked the airfield and three were shot down by the combined efforts of four FR.18s of 208 Squadron and the RAF Regiment's gunfire. Being the meat in the Israeli-Egyptian sandwich was not a sinecure for the RAF as was evidenced on another occasion when, during the course of a routine patrol along the border between the two countries, an FR.18 of No 208 Squadron was shot down by Israeli ground fire. While circling the crash site, the other three members of the formation were 'bounced' and shot down by Israeli Spitfires, with one RAF pilot being killed.

Spitfires operated alongside Bf-109s in the embryo Israeli Air Force, as they had earlier alongside Fw-190s in the Turkish Air Force. With the lifting of the arms embargo, Israel acquired newer types with which to re-equip. The last nation in the Middle East to operate Spitfires was Syria, which kept its F.22s until 1953.

The final Seafire was the F.47, the naval version of the Spitfire F.24. Ninety were built, the last being delivered in March 1949. It had the longest range of any Seafire mark and had a top speed of 452 mph. However, a Mk XVII holds the record for the Fleet Air Arm's fastest aircraft when a machine from No 778 Squadron achieved Mach 0.88 in a dive. It was also the last Seafire to see service, No 764 Training Squadron finally relinquishing its Mk XVIIs on 23 November 1954.

Even though withdrawn form front-line service, the Spitfire had continued in a number of non-operational roles, including anti-aircraft co-operation. The last three actively employed by the RAF were the PR.19s of the Temperature and Humidity Flight which made over 4,000 meteorological flights before being replaced by Mosquitoes in June 1957.

In November 1944, the Air Fighting Development Unit had recommended that, because of the instability of the first F.21s, not only should the mark be withdrawn from service immediately but no more effort should be made to perpetuate the Spitfire family! Fortunately, the F.21's faults were rectified and both the Spitfire and the Seafire were further developed to the stage where they warranted new names - the Spiteful and the Seafang. Beautiful and fast though they were, the jet age had arrived with its potential of expanding performance still further, and thus a mere 17 Spitefuls and 18 Seafangs were built, only 11 of the latter actually flying. Nevertheless, both types played a part in the research into transonic aerodynamics, particularly in the area of laminar flow wings as used on the Attacker.

In all, over 20,000 Spitfires and Seafires were built. Today, a handful fly on in the hands of private owners and with the Royal Air Force's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

Whenever the song of a Merlin is heard, it will always evoke an image of Reginald Mitchell's magnificent creation - the Spitfire.

[ 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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