The Supermarine Spitfire, an operational history by Christopher Whitehead.


The Poles attached to No 145 Squadron with Spitfire Mk IXs shot down more enemy aircraft in the first two months of 1943 than any other Polish unit in the whole year. In February, No 72 Squadron arrived in North Africa with Mk IXs.

By this time, most 11 Group squadrons had Mk IXs and operations over France and the Low Countries continued with Spitfires escorting the Bostons of 2 Group, mounting fighter sweeps and undertaking shipping reconnaissance sorties. The USAAF had embarked upon its daylight bombing offensive and Spitfire squadrons provided escort for the early and closing stages of the missions - despite the fact that Spitfires were equipped to carry drop tanks of various capacities, the tanks themselves were in short supply.

The very unusual TMk IX 2 seat trainer.

The first Griffon-engined Spitfire, the Mk XII, came into service with No 41 Squadron in February. Although only 100 were built, they was more than a match for the Fw-190. No 91 Squadron was also equipped with Mk XIIs and, operating from Westhampnett with 41 Squadron, formed a bomber support wing, escorting Typhoons and the bombers of 2 Group. A superb fighter at low level, the Mk XII had little combat success because the Luftwaffe declined to be drawn down. At greater heights, the Mk IX was much the superior of the two.

In early 1943, as a result of the Dieppe raid, Air Sea Rescue squadrons began to receive Spitfire IIs equipped to drop a dinghy, food and medicine packs to ditched aircrew. The Spitfire was able to defend itself while waiting for a Walrus amphibian, which it could then escort home.

In May, 143 Mk VBs were handed over to the Russians. By the end of the war, these had been followed by nearly 1,200 LF Mk IXs. Portugal received nearly 50 Mk Vs in 1943 and a number went to Turkey in the same year. The export of Mk Vs was not at the expense of RAF strength as by this stage they were being replaced by Mk IXs. In fact, production of the Mk IX at Woolston finished in June 1943 but continued at Castle Bromwich until the end of the war.

A Mk IX Spitfire at a recent Air Show.

It was a PR Mk IX of 542 Squadron which brought back pictures of the breached dams following 617 Squadron's legendary raid in May. The Spitfire Mk VII was coming into service, albeit at a very slow rate, but its performance proved disappointing. Only six squadrons were equipped with this mark and, as the high-level threat had disappeared, they operated as normal fighters providing top cover.

August and September saw a series of strafing attacks on enemy airfields in the English Channel area in a largely unsuccessful attempt to gauge the Luftwaffe's real strength, but strafing proved costly in both pilots and aircraft.

After the entry of Japan into the war, the idea of fitting floats to Spitfires was revived. Three Mk Vs were converted and, in October they were sent to Egypt, the plan being to operate them from unoccupied islands in the Dodecanese against transports re-supplying the German-held islands in the group. However, before the Spitfires arrived, the Germans occupied the Dodecanese in force, thus denying the RAF the use of any of these islands.

In the Near East, both Spitfires and Seafires took part in the invasion of Sicily, an aircraft of 72 Squadron being the first to land there on 11 July. During the final period of the North African campaign, particular carnage had been wrought amongst the Luftwaffe's air transport fleet as it endeavoured to keep troops resupplied. This continued in Sicily as the Germans tried to fly in fuel. On 25 July, Spitfires of 322 Wing shot down 21 Ju-52s and four Bf-109s in the space of ten minutes.

During the Salerno landings on the Italian mainland, much of the combat patrolling over the beachhead was carried out by Seafires and in five days, the Fleet Air Arm lost 60, mostly due to carrier-landing accidents. On 12 September, the Spitfires of 324 Wing joined the surviving Seafires ashore at Paestum. In the absence of enemy air activity, the Spitfire was being used increasingly as a fighter-bomber whilst in Northern Europe, Spitfires were taking part in 'Noball' operations against V-1 launch sites, escorting Hurricane IVS.

Early in 1943, three Spitfire Mk VC squadrons, Nos 607, 615 and 136, were based around Darwin, Australia, to counter Japanese air raids. In combat, the Spitfire was faster than the Zero but was at a disadvantage in a dogfight. Further quantities of Spitfire could not be spared for operations in the Far East until September 1943. Their first victory was a Dinah reconnaissance aircraft shot down by 615 Squadron over the Burma front. On the last day of the year, 136 Squadron intercepted a formation of Japanese bombers and fighters and shot down 12 for the loss of one Spitfire.

The first Seafires in the Far East formed one flight of 834 Squadron aboard the escort carrier HMS Battler in October. No 889 Squadron arrived later in the year on HMS Atheling.

[ 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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