Carrier-Borne Fighter / Fighter-Bomber / Reconnaissance Aircraft
The carrierborne Supermarine Seafire was a derivative of the highly successful Supermarine land-based Spitfire.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
When the land-based Hawker Hurricane was successfully converted into the carrier-based "Sea Hurricane", thought was given to repeating the process for the ubiquitous Supermarine Spitfire fighter series that had carved a name for itself in the Battle of Britain. The original fighter emerged from the small Supermarine concern as a true legendary performer and debuted in Royal Air Force service in 1938. From there the type was evolved into a myriad of variants and subvariants - the notable marks numbering some 20 versions - and covered sorties from interception and reconnaissance to fighter and ground attack. Thought to converting Spitfires for the carrier role was given as early as May of 1938 but little work was done on the concept at that time. It must be stated that, despite the advanced nature of the Royal Air Force (fielding modern Hurricanes and Spitfires) and the inherent ocean-going surface firepower of the Royal Navy itself, the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) - the aerial arm of the Royal Navy - lacked largely behind in terms of modern quality - it still utilizing biplane designs of a seemingly bygone era of flight.
After the Battle of Britain, which required all of the land-based Spitfires available, interest once again arose for converting the Spitfires for carrier service. For years prior, the Fleet Air Arm relied on the American Grumman Wildcat (as the Grumman "Martlet" in FAA service) and the Fairey Fulmar carrier-based aircraft series. The introduction of a navalized Spitfire was actually delayed by Churchill himself who pushed production of other aircraft including that of the Fulmar. A modified Spitfire (converted from an existing Spitfire Mk VB model) was successfully trialed from the deck of the HMS Illustrious with a "V" frame arrestor gear and reinforced undercarriage. Upon passing additional evaluations during 1941, the type was accepted for Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm service as the "Supermarine Seafire". Some 48 Mk VB airframes were converted for the naval role and the type proved promising enough to net a further 118 examples to the total.
The initial operational model became the Seafire Mk IB which debuted in June of 1942 and the series was also used for training naval pilots in the nuances of carrier flight coming from a Spitfire breed. Seafires initially featured the "B Type" wings of the Spitfire, which indicated their armament of 2 x 20mm Hispano cannons and 4 x 7.7mm Browning machine guns (Spitfires, in whole, were fielded with A, B, C and D Type wings which carried variable armament - the C being the adaptable "universal wing" which could be adapted to suit requirements and sped production). The aircraft was also plumbed along centerline to carry a single external fuel tank supply.
Outwardly, the Seafire largely shared the fine design lines of the land-based Spitfire it represented. All major design details were retained including the retractable undercarriage, inline piston engine installation and low-mounted elliptical wing appendages. Armament was all concentrated in the wing leading edges. The empennage was conventional and held the tail wheel, a rounded vertical tail fin and applicable horizontal planes. The pilot sat in a relatively roomy cockpit with generally good views around his aircraft save for the critical "six" region (the absolute rear), this being blocked by the raised fuselage spine.
Seafire fighters were launched in support of the Allied Operation Torch amphibious landings in North Africa during November of 1942 from the carrier HMS Furious. From there the type proved its worth in support actions over Salerno and across southern Europe, particularly over French airspace. Seafires were a prominent player in all of the Allied actions concerning the Mediterranean Theater, seeing considerable activity during 1943. Seafires were also shipped in number to combat the Empire of Japan forces in the Pacific Theater and these found equal success well into the final months of the war (August 1945). As the aircraft was developed from a proven thoroughbred, the Seafire proved an excellent fighter mount in her own right considering its conversion to naval life from its land-based origins. If the type held any failings it was in its narrow-track undercarriage which had a propensity to collapse under the stresses of ship-born service and the high landing speeds brought about by their inherently powerful origins.
The early Seafire mark was eventually superseded by the newer Seafire Mk IIC series appearing in 1942 and these included the C Type universal wings (dutifully strengthened for carrier launches and recovery), mounting 4 x 20mm cannons with a reinforced fuselage and rocket-assisted take-off equipment (RATOG = Rocket Assisted Take-Off Gear). The Mk IIC models were based on the Spitfire VC and inherited their overall improved qualities. The Seafire L.Mk IIC (with Merlin 32 inline driving a four-bladed propelled) was a low-altitude derivative of the Mk IIC line, intended for optimized combat at low-to-medium levels. These were further branched out to become camera-equipped (2 x F.24 cameras) armed reconnaissance types as the Seafire LR.Mk IIC (Merlin 64 inline driving a four-bladed propeller), retaining their fighter prowess. Seafire Mk IIC production forms were the first quantitative models deployed in number by the FAA with some 372 examples being built in all. 110 of these became the L.Mk IIC low-altitude fighter types.
The Seafire Mk III was the next available production model appearing in 1943 and the most "true-to-form" dedicated carrier variant (previous attempts were essentially developmental conversions rushed into service). These were differentiated by their use of manually-actuated, two-piece folding wings - amazingly the first Seafires to do so up to this point. As the Mk IIC before it, the Mk III was furthered in the low-altitude L.Mk III and the photo-reconnaissance LR.Mk III. Power for the Mk III series was provided for by a Rolls-Royce Merlin 45, 50 or 55/55M series V12 liquid-cooled inline piston engine driving a four-bladed propeller. Top speed was 352 miles per hour with a range out to 465 miles and a service ceiling of 33,800 feet. Armament was 4 x 20 Hispano cannons with noticeably shorter barrels with provision for conventional drop bombs in the fighter-bomber role. Production yielded 1,220 examples which made this mark easily the definitive Seafire variant - manufacture spanning April of 1943 to July of 1945 (the war in Europe was over in May of 1945).
By 1945, the excellent Rolls-Royce Griffon engines were in large scale use on regular Spitfire fighters, essentially splitting the aircraft line into two very distinct forms - the early Merlin-powered Spitfires and the later Griffon-powered Spitfires. As such, the Seafire followed suit and began to introduce these engines to the line in time. This produced the Seafire Mk XV of 1944 which also introduced a "stinger" type arrestor hook and the type was based on the existing Spitfire Mk XII land-based fighter. Six prototypes were constructed prior to production and all by Supermarine. These were powered by the Rolls-Royce Griffon VI supercharged (single stage) inline piston engine of 1,850 to 1,876 horsepower. A bubble canopy with a cut-down fuselage spine for improved vision was introduced only late into production of this mark. 390 aircraft were built in all through the combined efforts of Westland and Cunliffe-Owen beginning in the latter part of 1944 though service entry was delayed until May of 1945.
Following was the Seafire Mk XVII fighter form which brought about use of a tear-drop canopy with a cut-down fuselage spine for much improved vision from the cockpit - though based on the preceding Seafire Mk XV. Internal fuel stores were also increased which promoted better operational ranges and wings were further strengthened. 232 of this mark were produced in all. The Seafire FR.Mk XVII was based on the Mk XVII fighter variant but delivered as a dedicated photo-reconnaissance mount with integrated camera equipment while retaining its fighter capabilities.
When the Spitfire Mk 21 series was developed these were used to produce the Seafire Mk 45 and the type were noted for its use of a five-bladed propeller assembly or a pair of three-bladed propeller units fitted in a contra-rotating fashion. 50 examples were produced and fielded in the post-war years beginning at the end of 1946.
The upcoming Seafire Mk 46 was given a tear-drop canopy with a cut-down fuselage spine, inspired by the land-based Spitfire Mk 22. The reconnaissance version of this mark became the Seafire FR.Mk 46. Twenty-four Mk 46 examples were produced.
The Seafire Mk 47 became the final production mark of the Seafire line and were brought about by the development of the land-based Spitfire Mk 24. These instituted newly designed and reinforced power-folding wings as well as contra-rotating propellers and a reinforced undercarriage. Of course, the fighter variant naturally produced the requisite Seafire FR.Mk 47 photo-reconnaissance version in time. The Mk 47 was considered the best of the Seafire line and broadened its tactical appeal by holding provision for 2 x 500lb bombs or 8 x 60lb high-explosive air-to-surface rockets for the strike role. Additionally, 2 x fuel tanks could be carried underwing with 1 x fuel tank under centerline fuselage. All these additions still made for a rather speedy mount regardless, able to manage 400+ mile per hour levels. Power was served through the Rolls-Royce Griffon 87 and (later) Griffon 88 series inline engines with fuel-injection. 89 Mk 47 aircraft were produced though most were of the photo-reconnaissance type. Service entry was in January of 1948 with production ceasing in early 1949.
These Seafires were used in an October 1949 strike on a Malayan terrorist camp by the men of Squadron No.800, marking the first use of the Mk 47 in actual combat. The Mk 47 was also the last Seafire variant to see operational combat service during 1950, this time over the skies of the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War (1950-1953). The first such mission was recorded on July 3, 1950 in the fighter-bomber role from the deck of the HMS Triumph against North Korean targets. At least 26 Seafires were deployed in action and attrition eventually left just twelve examples in all. No. 800 was disbanded in November of 1950 along with their Supermarine Seafires, bringing an end to the Seafire line as a whole.
Operators of the Seafire variant became the United Kingdom's Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve forces as well as the Royal Canadian Navy, the French Navy Aeronavale and the Irish Air Corps. Production ultimately yielded 2,334 examples and Seafires were in service until 1954 before being removed from their second-line reserve duties of the time.