Arts and Culture

The Most Iconic British Fighter in WWII – The Supermarine Spitfire

Britain’s WWII Fighter: The Spitfire

Vehicles which were employed during WWII have gained a legendary reputation over the years, going much farther and vastly outlasting the war they were meant to fight. Britain was among the major military powers during the war. As a result, British vehicles are among the most popular and world renown. More specifically, their warplanes have been the most sought-after by collectors and eccentrics, well-known thanks to their performances during the war and their repeated appearances in film and pop-culture.

A Spitfire Mk. I taking off from Manston Airport, Ramsgate, UK (War Thunder).

Leading up to the Second World War

However, in order to discuss the Second World War, we must first observe the events preceding it. The Great War, or as it is more commonly known, the First World War, was the first example of aircraft being used in combat situations. In 1914, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), the organization preceding the RAF, only possessed 179 planes. However, by the end of the Great War, when the RFC and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) merged, it had a 22,647 aircraft. However, most of these aircraft were civilian vehicles modified for military use, and were largely outdated going into the 1930s.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, only 2000 combat capable aircraft remained in service. Despite this minute number, these pilots were able to distinguish themselves during the Battle of Britain in 1940. The planes that were used during this mass-scale aerial battle were the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. Sadly, the Hawker Hurricane underwent no notable upgrades after its first versions.

A Spitfire Mk. IX flying over Omaha Beach, Normandy (War Thunder).

The Supermarine Spitfire

This plane is now an invaluable artifact, a piece of history existing only in very few genuine examples. Development for this legendary bird began in 1934, with Reginald Mitchell as the chief designer. Its first flight happened in 1935, equipped with a 1000 horsepower Rolls-Royce V12 engine, which was later dubbed as the “Merlin”. The first combat-capable versions which flew during the Battle of Britain were equipped with eight wing-mounted 7.7mm Browning MGs. This plane’s performance during the battle is described as incredible, and many believe it turned the tables in Britain’s favor. 

Nevertheless, it was not a perfect plane. Being an early, liquid cooled V12 engine, it experienced issues whenever it pulled negative Gs. Negative Gs can be described most easily as the feeling of “floating.” We seldom experience it in passenger aircraft, when turbulence or sudden downwards movements of the plane cause us to float upwards, even if it were for the shortest moment. In the spitfire’s case, the carburetor, which relied on the force of gravity, and regulated the amount of fuel introduced to the engine, would fail, and drown the engine, causing it to stall out, meaning that pilots ran the risk of crashing during combat situations due to a fundamental flaw in the design.

Nevertheless, the Spitfire’s success in the Battle of Britain called for more to be developed. As a result, more spitfires were developed and manufactured throughout the war. The most popular among these were the Spitfire Mk.V, of which 6487 units were built, and the Spitfire Mk. IX, which was a close second. Both of these models, however, employed more advanced versions of the Merlin engine. This legendary warbird could be largely divided into two types—those which were powered by the Merlin, and those that were powered by the Griffon engines. Merlin-powered spitfires constituted most of Britain’s fighter force. However, the Griffon engine was much more advanced and produced more power. Unfortunately, this also meant that production and development costs of the Griffon engines were much higher, meaning that these planes were mostly used for reconnaissance and testing purposes rather than combat.

Over the years, as jet-powered aircraft became more favorable, many piston-engined aircraft were forced to retire. However, with the constant improvements of the Griffon engine, the spitfire stayed in service with the RAF until 1955. The Spitfire Mk. 24, which was the final iteration of the Spitfire, is hailed as one of the best performing piston-engine aircraft to this day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Spitfire Mk. 24, the final iteration of the Spitfire on display at the RAF Museum of London.

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