Fighter / Fighter-Bomber / Reconnaissance Aircraft
The Supermarine Spitfire became the undisputed champion of the British cause during World War 2.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
The Supermarine Spitfire the legendary British fighter aircraft developed prior to World War 2. The type earned its status as one of the finest fighter aircraft ever made thanks to its involvement in the Battle of Britain and forged its legacy through the dark years of World War 2. The type survived the war in a plethora of variants - the notable marks numbering 20 - and was developed into a navalized form as the "Seafire". Tens of thousands were ultimately produced and rivaled the qualities of the competing German Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 types. The aircraft also claimed several of the German jet fighters and was used in interception of high-speed German rockets headed to English soil. Highly regarded by friend and foe alike- and rightly so - the Spitfire went on to see extended service in the post-war years which further solidified its stature in the annals of military aviation history.
NOTE 1: While the Spitfire production line relied on roman numeral "marks" to identify each type, these did not necessarily appear in chronological order as one might suspect. After 1942, the Royal Air Force moved away from Roman numeral designation marks.
NOTE 2: The Spitfire was primarily produced with four various wing types which directly dictated available armament options. The Type A wing fitted 8 x 7.7mm Browning machine guns while the Type B wing allowed 2 x 20mm Hispano cannons along with 4 x 7.7mm machine guns. The Type C proved the "universal win" fit intended to speed production and allow for flexible armament options: 8 x 7.7mm machine guns, 2 x 20mm cannons with 4 x 7.7mm machine guns or 4 x 20mm cannons. Additionally provision for 250lb bombs was added. The final wing - the D Type - was generally fitted to reconnaissance models which lost their wing armament and gained additional internal fuel stores for increased ranges.
Supermarine Spitfire Development
Headed by engineer Reginald J. Mitchell, the small Supermarine concern developed several award-winning racing seaplanes during the interwar years prior to its development of the excellent Spitfire fighter aircraft series. When the chance came to produce a new modern fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force, qualities of these racers were implemented into the new fighter to create an instant classic including the identifiable elliptical wings which assisted in maximizing lift. Design work began in 1935 and the single prototype, known as the K5054 (company Type 300), went airborne for the first time on March 5th, 1936 with a Rolls-Royce Merlin II/C engine of 900 horsepower under the hood driving a two-bladed propeller. The aircraft exhibited vary clean lines with its long nose assembly housing the engine and the cockpit just aft at center. Aft of the fuselage was a raised spine which allowed for more internal volume at the expense of obstructed rear views. The wings were low-set monoplane assemblies with their distinct elliptical shape that was so pronounced in the design. The empennage was conventional with a curved vertical tail fin and applicable curved horizontal planes. The undercarriage utilized a narrow-track design in which the weight of the aircraft was displaced through the fuselage into the landing gear legs as opposed to mounting these under the wings as in other aircraft. Both main landing gears were full retractable with a tail wheel at the rear. Armament would be concentrated across several bays held each wing and primarily consisting of machine gun armament though this would change over time. The type proved so promising early on that it was immediately placed on order for 370 examples as the Spitfire Mk I, adopted for service on August 4th, 1938. Ultimately, the Spitfire series would comprise a total of 20 major production marks - a stunning achievement for a single aircraft, though undoubtedly helped by the prospect of world war.
Spitfire Mk I
The initial production model became the Spitfire Mk I (first flight May 14th, 1938) with deliveries undertaken in August of 1938 to the Royal Air Force at Duxford. The Mk IA fielded the Rolls-Royce Merlin II inline piston engine of 1,030 horsepower and an armament of 8 x 7.7mm machine guns in the wings while the Mk IB appeared with an armament of 2 x 20mm cannons and 4 x 7.7mm machine guns. The Mk IC was given 4 x 20mm cannons while the Mk IE was identified by its 2 x 20mm cannons and 2 x 12.7mm heavy machine gun array. Top speed was 355 miles per hour with a range out to 500 miles and a service ceiling nearing 34,000 feet. By September of 1939, some nine squadrons were in existence with several more upcoming. The German Army invaded Poland in that time to officially mark the start of World War 2. On October 16th, 1939, a Spitfire claimed its first German aircraft - a Heinkel He 111 medium bomber - over British soil. The Mk IA enjoyed a faster rate-of-climb and more agility over its adversary of the time - the Messerschmitt Bf 109E "Emil" mark - though the German pilot enjoyed greater firepower from his combination of cannon and machine gun. In all, 1,567 Mk IA and Mk IIB aircraft were produced by Supermarine and Westland.
The Battle of Britain and the Arrival of the Spitfire Mk II
Germany steamrolled its way through much of western Europe, capturing Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and - ultimately - France. This placed it squarely in position to invade the British Isles across the English Channel and plans were made by Adolf Hitler for just that through Operation Sea Lion. However, the operation would only succeed if air superiority was clearly in the hands of the German Luftwaffe. Which French capitulation on June 25th, 1940, the stage was set for the first grand air war of World War 2. The war - known as The Battle of Britain after Winston Churchill's mention during a speech in the House of Commons - began on July 10th, 1940 and would encapsulate the entire summer. The RAF could muster some 19 total Spitfire squadrons. The primary player for the German Luftwaffe during this time would become the Messerschmitt Bf 109, a single-seat, single-engined fighter tested during the Spanish Civil War and bound to create its own excellent legacy in time. For the RAF, the players became the Hawker Hurricane and the new Supermarine Spitfire - both would share the glory though the Spitfire would become a national hero and aviation legend. The Spitfire Mk I was the variant that took the brunt of the air war alongside the Hurricane and was produced in 1,566 examples before focus shifted to the Spitfire Mk II. The Mk II arrived in September of 1940 and was powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin XII inline piston engine of 1,175 horsepower. The Mk IIB was armed with 2 x 20mm cannons and 4 x 7.7mm machine guns. By the end of 1941, the Spitfire Mk I had played its role and was relegated to second-line duties. Production of Mk IIA and IIB fighters amounted to 921 examples out of Castle Bromwich with the first available in June of 1940.
The British Victory
After months of deadly bombings on British soil, The Battle of Britain was officially ended on October 31st, 1940 with a decisive British victory. The sheer will and determination of the British people took center stage alongside ready-to-fight pilots on makeshift airfields. Key to victory was the British radar and communications network which outlined bomber formations as they arrived over the Channel. The Spitfire held only a slight edge against the equally-excellent Bf 109s, particularly in fighting under 20,000 feet. The Bf 109, conversely, held the advantage in its engine for it could send fuel from its stores during the most aggressive of maneuvers - such was the fine line separating these two machines and pilot training and experience were truly at play in the conflict.
Spitfire Mk III and FR Mk IV
The Spitfire Mk III proved two "one-off" development models by Supermarine - a converted Mk I and converted Mk V. The Spitfire FR Mk IV actually appeared AFTER the Mk V (detailed below) and was a photo-reconnaissance mount that appeared in 229 production examples.
Spitfire Mk V
The Mk V arrived in February-March of 1941 and were essentially conversion mounts from the existing stocks of Mk I and Mk II production forms. Key to this development was the introduction of the "universal wing" which could take on all manner of expected armament and speed up production times. All told, 6,479 to 6,664 (sources vary) of this model would go on to see serial production making this a definitive Spitfire version, the standard of RAF Fighter Command for the time. Production was handled through Supermarine, Castle Bromwich and Westland. Service entry of the type spanned from June 1941 through 1943 eventually stocking 140 total RAF squadrons and USAAF fighter groups having come to Europe. By the end of 1941 alone there were 43 Mk V squadrons available. A further nine squadrons of the Spitfire Mk V existed overseas. These existed as the Mk VA, Mk VB and Mk VC subvariants with Rolls-Royce Merlin 45 or 50 series inline piston engines of 1,440 horsepower and 1,470 horsepower respectively. Top speed was 374 miles per hour with a range out to 470 miles and a service ceiling of 37,000 feet. Mk Vs proved pivotal in daily fighter sweeps across northern Europe (primarily over France) where their ranges were further increased by the integration of fuel drop tanks. The Mk Vs were also deployed during the disastrous Dieppe landings that more or less served as a runner up to the Normandy D-Day landings. Beyond this, the Mk V was fielded in every capacity across varied campaigns prior to 1943. Many were also supplied to the Soviet Union via Lend-Lease. In 1942, the latest Focke-Wulf Fw 190 offerings dated the once-excellent Spitfire Mk V line.
The Mk VA was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin 45 liquid-cooled V12 inline piston engine of 1,478 horsepower with a top speed of 369 miles per hour and a service ceiling of 36,500 feet. Armament consisted of 8 x 7.7mm machine guns.
The Mk VB was fitted with the Rolls-Royce Merlin 45, 46 or 50 V12 inline liquid-cooled piston engines of 1,440 - 1,480 horsepower for a top speed of 374 miles per hour, a range of 470 miles and a service ceiling of 37,000 feet. Armament was 2 x 20mm cannons and 4 x 7.7mm machine guns in the wing leading edges. The Mk VB mark was the primary fighter mount of RAF Fighter Command during the span of mid-1941 to the middle of 1942.
The Mk VC brought about provision for 1 x 500lb bomb underfuselage or 2 x 250lb bombs underwing for the fighter-bomber role. These versions featured clipped wingtips for better control at lower altitudes while retaining their fighter prowess.
Spitfire Mk VI
The Spitfire Mk VI was developed specifically to counter high-altitude German reconnaissance aircraft and these were given a pressurized cockpit and lengthened wings for the role of high-altitude interception. 100 were produced by Supermarine with the first available in December of 1941. These were followed by the similar Spitfire Mk VIIs which were given a Rolls-Royce Merlin 47 series inline piston engine. However, this development was key in its installation of a two-stage, two-speed supercharger for maximum power at altitude.
Spitfire Mk VII and Mk VIII
At the start of 1942, the Spitfire VII and VIII marks were born specifically to accept the Rolls-Royce Merlin 61/66 series inline engines. The former was a high-altitude pressurized fighter while the latter was an unpressurized version intended for combat at low-to-medium levels. The Mk VII made use of the Rolls-Royce Merlin 61, 64, 66 or 71 series inline piston engines with two-stage compatibility and 140 were produced by Supermarine beginning in September of 1942. The Mk VIII was fitted with the Rolls-Royce Merlin two-stage 61, 63, 66 or 70 series inline piston engines and became a definitive Spitfire addition, seeing service across the Mediterranean Theater and in Asia. To contend with the jungle environment, the Mk VIII also appeared in a "tropicalized" form and sported a retractable tail wheel. Drop tank support was added and a top speed of 408 miles per hour was reported. The XVIII was produced in 1,658 examples by Supermarine from November 1942 onwards.
Spitfire Mk IX
Delays in development of the VIII inevitably postponed it service entry which hastily spurred the development of the Spitfire Mk IX - essentially the Mk V production airframe fitted with the two-stage, two-speed supercharged Rolls-Royce Merlin 61, 63, 66 or 70 series inline piston engines of 1,565 to 1,720 horsepower driving a four-bladed propeller assembly. Armament consisted of 2 x 20mm cannons and 4 x 7.7mm machine guns as well as provision for up to 1,000lbs of external drop ordnance (2 x 500lb bombs underwing) in the fighter-bomber role. These began appearing in June of 1942 and 5,665 were ultimately produced between Supermarine and Castle Bromwich and proved a fast answer to the ever-growing presence of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 of the German Luftwaffe at medium and high operational altitudes. Approximately 100 RAF and Commonwealth squadrons fielded the type to which some were even responsible for the downing of new Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters. The Supermarine Mk IXC managed a top speed of 404 to 408 miles per hour with a range out to 434 miles and a service ceiling of 44,000 feet. The Mk IX became the most quantitative Spitfire in the latter years of the war. A clipped-wing version was also produced for low- to medium-level fighting. The Mk IXE was given 2 x 12.7mm heavy machine guns in place of the standard wing-mounted 4 x 7.7mm machine gun array.
The Mk IX was evolved into the requisite PR Mk IX and FR Mk IX armed reconnaissance and unarmed photo-reconnaissance mounts respectively, the first delivered on November 30th, 1942.
Spitfire PR Mk X
The Spitfire PR Mk X was nothing more than unarmed photo-reconnaissance mounts whose machine gun bays were replaced by internal fuel stores and camera equipment was fitted to oblique mounts aft of the cockpit. These were powered by Rolls-Royce Merlin inline piston engines and 16 were produced by Supermarine beginning service in May of 1944.
Spitfire PR Mk XI
The Spitfire PR Mk XI was another unarmed photo-reconnaissance variant fitting Merlin 61, 63, 63A and 70 (high-altitude) series engines. Supermarine produced 471 of the type beginning in November of 1942 of which 260 were delivered with the 61/63/63A engines and 211 with the Merlin 70. Despite the use of the high-altitude engine, which allowed for performance above 40,000 feet (in the case of enemy avoidance for example), the aircraft did not feature a pressurized cockpit which limited extreme high-level operations to a certain extent. Production spanned into December of 1944 before being replaced along the assembly lines by the PR Mk XIX (detailed further below).
The Griffon-powered Spitfire Mk XII
The Spitfire Mk XII fighter variant was the first Spitfire completed with the excellent Rolls-Royce Griffon IV series inline piston engine of 1,735 to 1,750 horsepower driving a five-bladed propeller assembly and designed in response to the growing threat of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 series in their low-level fighter-bomber guise. 100 of this type were produced by Supermarine for the RAF and were noted for their clipped wingtips for improved handling at lower altitudes. Armament consisted of 2 x 20mm cannons and 4 x 7.7mm machine guns as well as provision for up to 500lbs of external stores in the fighter-bomber role. The Mk XII first appeared in October of 1942.
Spitfire PR Mk XIII
The Spitfire PR Mk XIII was yet another reconnaissance version, this fitted with a single-stage Merlin engine.
Spitfire FR Mk XII
The Spitfire FR Mk XII was an unarmed photoreconnaissance version whose machine guns were given up for more internal fuel stowage. These aircraft were powered by Merlin inline engines.
Spitfire Mk XIV
The aforementioned Mk VIII was then evolved to become the quantitative late-war Spitfire Mk XIV with its Rolls-Royce Griffon 65 or 66 series inline engines of 2,050 - 2,078 horsepower, bubble canopy, lengthened fuselage and enlarged tail fin. The engine drove a five-bladed propeller assembly. Entering service in 1944, this version was armed with 2 x 20mm cannons and 4 x 7.7mm machine guns OR 2 x 12.7mm machine guns as well as provision for up to 500 to 1,000lbs of external stores in the fighter-bomber role. This version managed a top speed of 445 to 448 miles per hour, a range of 460 miles and a service ceiling of 44,000 feet. Performance was such that the Mk VIII was utilized in interception of German V-1 flying bombs and recorded 300 kills in this respect. An Mk XIV was credited with the downing of a Messerschmitt Me 262 in October of 1943 - the first such recorded instance by an Allied aircraft. In December of 1944, 33 Mk XIV fighter-bombers harassed V-2 rocket sites in the Netherlands with disastrous results heaped upon the enemy. Approximately 957 Spitfire Mk XIV mounts were produced by Supermarine.
Spitfire FR Mk XIV
The Spitfire FR Mk XIV appeared in late 1944 as a photo-reconnaissance version from Mk XIV fighter conversions from Supermarine.
Spitfire Mk XVI
The Spitfire Mk XVI (based on the Mk IX) then appeared as a dedicated ground-attack mount fitted with American-made Packard Merlin 266 series inline piston engines (a license-copy of the Merlin 66 series) of 1,720 horsepower, a cut-down rear fuselage spine and a bubble canopy for improved views. Provision for high-explosive air-launched 60lb rockets was added via rails underwing while a 500lb could be carried along centerline and 2 x 250lb bombs underwing in place of the rockets. Standard armament remained 2 x 20mm cannons and 4 x 7.7mm machine guns, all in the wings. The 7.7mm systems were sometimes substituted with 2 x 12.7mm heavy machine guns. These appeared in 1944 and managed a top speed of 405 miles per hour with an internal fuel range of 430 miles and a service ceiling of 41,500 feet. These proved the last of the Spitfire wartime fighter-bomber marks and stocked 11 squadrons of the 2ns Tactical Air Force by war's end. Production of this mark totaled 1,054 units out of Castle Bromwich with entry in October of 1944.
Spitfire FR Mk XVIII/Mk 18
The Spitfire FR Mk XVIII/Mk 18 was a fighter reconnaissance version directly developed from the existing Mk XIV line and appeared with the RAF just prior to the end of the war but missed combat service altogether. The Spitfire FR Mk XVIII arrived at war's end and proved a photo-reconnaissance mount complete with its camera installation and additional fuel. These were powered by a Rolls-Royce Griffon two-stage inline piston engine and sported bubble canopies. 300 of the type were produced by Supermarine beginning in June of 1945.
Spitfire PR Mk XIX/Mk 19
The Spitfire PR Mk XIX was another reconnaissance development powered by the Rolls-Royce Griffon inline piston engine based on the Mk XI. A pressurized cabin was added later in production with increased internal fuel . The type managed a top speed of 442 miles per hour. 224 were produced by Supermarine beginning in May of 1944.
Spitfire Mk 21, Mk 22, Mk 23 and Mk 24
Final late-war and psot-war Spitfire variants went on to include the Spitfire Mk 21 was completed with its Rolls-Royce Griffon 61 or 64 series inline piston engines and based on the Mk XIV airframe - 120 were produced out of Castle Bromwich beginning in January of 1944. The Spitfire Mk 22 saw its powerplant become the Rolls-Royce Griffon 85 series inline piston engine developing 2,373 horsepower and driving a contra-rotating propeller assembly while sporting a cut-down fuselage spine and tear-drop canopy for improved views as well as a larger tail fin - 272 were produced between Supermarine and Castle Bromwich beginning in March of 1945. The Mk 23 was a proposed variant that evolved to become the Supermarine Valiant detailed below. The Spitfire Mk 24 was an improved Spitfire and final production type with a top speed of 454 miles per hour with a 30,000 foot service ceiling. This saw entry in 1946 and was produced in 81 examples by Supermarine beginning in March of 1946.
Supermarine Seafire - The Naval Development
The Supermarine Seafire was the navalized version of the Spitfire Mk VB production fighter, designed for the rigors of carrier life under the Fleet Air Arm banner after successful conversions of Hawker Hurricanes for the same role. These were produced in 2, 334 to 2,556 examples (sources vary) through the Merlin-powered Mk IB (2 x 20mm cannon, 4 x 7.7mm machine guns, V arrestor gear), Mk IIC (May 1942, 4 x 20mm cannon with reinforced fuselage, rocket-assisted take-off equipment) and Mk III (manually-actuated folding wings, Merlin 45, 50 or 55 engines of 1,470 horsepower) variants and the Griffon-powered versions of Mk XV (appearing 1945, sting arrestor gear), Mk XVII (bubble canopy, cut-down rear fuselage spine, increased fuel capacity), Mk 45 (based on the Spitfire F Mk XXI, five-bladed or 2 x three-bladed contra-rotating propellers), Mk 46 (bubble canopy, lower fuselage spine) and Mk 47 (final Seafire production form with power-folding wings) variants.
The Mk IIC was also evolved into a low-altitude fighter development (L Mk IIC) as well as a photo-graphic reconnaissance platform (LR Mk IIC). The Mk III was also furthered into these same roles as the L Mk III and LR Mk III respectively. The Mk XVII was developed into a photo-reconnaissance model with two cameras. The Mk 46 was evolved in a similar fashion to become the Seafire FR Mk 46. Trials were held on the deck of the HMS Illustrious at the end of 1941 to prove the conversion sound. The Supermarine Seafire was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin 55 12-cylinder V liquid-cooled inline piston engine of 1,490 horsepower. This supplied the type with a top speed of 351 miles per hour, a range of 725 miles and a service ceiling of 33,888 feet. Armament for Seafires was generally 2 x 20mm cannons and 4 x 7.7mm machine guns with support for 1 x 500lb bomb at fuselage centerline or 2 x 250lb bombs underwing.
Seafires gave good account of themselves particularly early on when they were used with efficiency over the North African amphibious assaults. Only later during operations over Southern France did the type's narrow-track undercarriage prove a failing for carrier use. Some Seafires also saw service in the Pacific Theater while the latter Griffon-engined versions operated until 1954 in reserve. The Seafire operated with the forces of the Fleet Air Arm, the French Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Irish Air Corps.
Supermarine Spiteful - The Spitfire Replacement
A proposed (though ultimately dropped) Spitfire variant became the Supermarine Spiteful (Spitfire XIV) developed by Joe Smith who succeeded R.J. Mitchell after his death. The type was developed as a potential replacement for the Spitfire series and achieved first flight on June 30th, 1944. However, only two prototypes and 17 production models of the 150 ordered were ever completed due to the end of the war and the arrival of the jet age. The navalized version of the land-based aircraft was to be the Supermarine Seafang. The Spiteful existed in five distinct marks beginning with the F Mk 14 followed by the F Mk 15, F Mk 16, F Mk 31 and F Mk 32.
The End of the Road
In all, 20,334 to 20,351 Supermarine Spitfires were produced (sources vary) from 1938 to 1949. The last recorded mission by a RAF Spitfire occurred over Malaya on April 1st, 1954. The last operational Spitfire - this with the Irish Air Corps - was retired in 1961. Over 30 nations ultimately exhibited the aircraft in frontline service, marking her as one of the most produced combat fighter aircraft behind the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Soviet Lavochkin La-5 series, ending up just ahead of the German Focke-Wulf 190.
Operators of the Supermarine Spitfire were worldwide with the aircraft seeing service beyond Britain's Royal Air Force. Spitfires were operated in one form or another through Argentina (limited use), Australia, Belgium, Burma, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Egypt, France, Nazi Germany (limited), Greece, Hong Kong, British Raj, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Rhodesia, South Africa, Soviet Union, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, the United States and Yugoslavia.
Overall, the Spitfire stood extremely well against its contemporaries of the time which generally included the Messerschmitt Bf 109, Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and North American P-51 fighters of the European Theater. All were adapted for the fighter, fighter-bomber, interception, ground attack and reconnaissance role with success and produced in the tens of thousands.