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The Spitfire and the Battle of Britain



By the outbreak of the Second World War, the RAF had 187 Spitfires in service with ten Squadrons, although in comparison, the similar Hawker Hurricane equipped eighteen squadrons with three others in the process of converting. The Hurricane was of a more traditional partly wooden construction, although fulfilling almost the same requirements as the Spitfire, namely an eight gun monoplane, had entered service nine months earlier than the Spitfire, hence the increased numbers by September 1939. A fine aeroplane, the Hurricane, while marginally slower than the Spitfire and the joint opponent, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 with a slightly less turning circle, was a more rugged aircraft with a somewhat more forgiving wide track undercarriage and was a more stable gun platform.

Spitfires under construction at Southampton Airport

Some pilots compared the Hurricane to the Spitfire rather unfairly as a ‘carthorse to a thoroughbred’, but Hurricanes tended to attack the bombers while the Spitfires more often engaged the 109 bomber escorts to keep them away from the Hurricanes. This is possibly where one of the Battle of Britain myths began – so many of the general public and indeed authors and historians still assume that the Battle was won by Spitfire fighters alone, without either knowing about or ignoring the Hurricane or for that matter other fighters of the Battle such as the ill-fated Defiant and Blenheim 1F. The early part of the war, known as the ‘Phoney war’ to the British, and ‘Sitzkreig’ to the Germans, enabled Supermarine to refine the Spitfire further and work on the MkII. All through this period, AM Dowding had perhaps controversially kept most Spitfire squadrons in the UK, and had sent his Hurricane squadrons to France. This did enable the Spitfire squadrons to build up strength, as Dowding had the foresight to realise that the German Blitzkreig would eventually target the UK, and he argued that he didn’t want Britain to be unprotected.

A brand new Spitfire ready for takeoff at Southampton Airport

Luckily, therefore, by July increased production and training meant that Dowding and the RAF had nineteen Spitfire squadrons ready for action, as the last country in Western Europe to fall to the German onslaught, France, capitulated on 22 June 1940. The stage was set for the Spitfire’s ‘finest hour’ – the Battle of Britain. Spitfire development continued throughout 1940, even at the height of the Battle. The average Spitfire in squadron service in September 1939 had been improved from the prototype and the first seventy seven aircraft, which had a two blade fixed pitch Watts propeller – by now aircraft coming off the production line as Mk1A’s were fitted with three blade two pitch props that gave the aircraft another crucial 3,000ft of ceiling and the aircraft had increased fuel capacity and more armour plate.

Fighter tactics in 1940

Jeffrey Quill, Supermarine’s chief test pilot, temporarily re-joined the RAF and flew Spitfires with 65 Squadron at RAF Hornchurch, Essex for a few weeks in August 1940 at the height of the Battle to experience for himself the problems reported on the Spitfire by pilots using the aircraft in combat. Over a period of nineteen days, Quill not only recommended several improvements to the Spitfire including redesigning the canopy to improve visibility and the introduction of all metal ailerons instead of the existing fabric covered ones which had a habit of ‘ballooning’ in a dive making the aircraft controls extremely heavy, but also personally shot down two Bf 109’s. These amendments were quickly introduced at Squadron level, to the delight of the pilots. The eight .303 gun armament of both the Spitfire and Hurricane had been considered devastating when the aircraft were designed, but it became quickly apparent once the Battle of Britain was in full swing that heavier armament would be necessary to knock down the enemy aircraft, particularly the bombers.

Dornier Do 17 Bombers

The Germans had begun to fit more armour plate around the vulnerable parts of the aircraft, such as the engines and crew areas, which meant that .303 rounds had to be expended in increasingly greater numbers to gain the destruction of the aircraft. Mitchell had foreseen the need for a cannon armament fitting when he had originally designed the Spitfire, and upon his death, Joe Smith took up the battle in late 1938 to equip the Spitfire with two Hispano 20mm cannon UNDER the wings and design changes commenced early in 1939.

ACM Dowding and many of the experienced Fighter Command pilots objected to the cannon Spitfire proposal, preferring to stick to a tried and trusted [as they saw] machine gun installation – indeed although an experimental pure cannon Spitfire shot down a He 111 off the North of Scotland on 13 January 1940, the installation both under and inside the wings proved extremely troublesome and frustrating. The cannons tended to jam very often after only a few rounds had been expended mainly due to outside temperature variations and the flexing of the wing in tight turns.

How Spitfires were controlled

These problems that at first seemed almost insurmountable gave ammunition [sic] to the ‘No Cannon’ lobby from Dowding downwards, after all, it seemed pointless to scramble a Squadron of cannon armed Spitfires that on contact with the enemy found that they were impotent! As a stop gap measure, a mixed armament wing was devised, with four .303 machine guns and two 20mm cannons. This version was known as the Mk1B, with the all-machine gun version the Mk1A. The Mark II Spitfire introduced the Rotol constant speed three blade propeller that gave the Spitfire a crucial increase in climb rate to engage the enemy. Production was to be centred on the new ‘shadow’ factory at Castle Bromwich near Birmingham initially under the motor magnate, Lord Nuffield, and also at Yeovil in addition to existing production at Woolston, Southampton. The term ‘shadow’ meant that the new complex ‘shadowed’ the existing Austin plant at Longbridge. As the plan was to produce 1,000 aircraft per month, it was soon fairly obvious that Nuffield was out of his depth with such as complicated item to produce as a Spitfire, so the plant and production was transferred to the Vickers aircraft organisation with MkII deliveries commencing in June 1940.

"Achtung - Spitfire!" was the cry of the German pilots

The Spitfire captured the imagination of the British public far more than the Hurricane during the Battle of Britain, perhaps because she was arguably a prettier aeroplane, and many clubs and groups started their own ‘Spitfire Fund’ raising money to ‘buy’ their own Spitfire. Often raising money by a ‘tanner’ [2 ½ p in today’s money] a person to buy a Spitfire for the given sum of £5000 [the production cost for materials, not labour set by Lord Beaverbrook as a nice round figure], these organisations could have their name on the aircraft as ‘presentation’ Spitfires. Enormous numbers were so designated, with aircraft named for towns, clubs, states and organisations from all over the British Commonwealth. Not only Spitfires were ‘supplied’ by the Commonwealth, but pilots who flew the aircraft were drawn from all corners of the world. British, Australian, Canadian, Caribbean pilots flew the aircraft as part of the Commonwealth in addition to other nations. Polish, French, Belgian, Norwegian pilots who had escaped from their own country, often escaping for a second time having flown for France, became part of the ‘last stand’ flying in the RAF with their country of origin as badges on their RAF uniforms. Pilots from the USA came via Canada to fly – as the US was not involved in the war at this time, they were liable on return to the US to arrest and charges for fighting as American citizens for a ‘foreign power’!

A captured German bomber at Southampton Airport

These ‘Yank’ pilots were formed into their own Squadrons as ‘Eagle Squadrons’ with their own USA shoulder badge, a PR coup, and eventually when the US entered the war the three squadrons, 71,121 and 133 formed USAAF squadrons in September 1942 still flying Spitfires – the ‘plane they loved. Eagle Day [Adler Tag] as the Germans called it, Tuesday 13 August 1940 was the height of the Battle. Germany launched an all-out assault on RAF airfields and radar stations with the outnumbered Spitfires and Hurricanes flying three, sometimes four missions daily. Exhaustion surely caused a high proportion of the RAF losses as the Battle intensified. Another myth perpetuated about the Battle is the assumption that most dogfights were fought over London and the south east of England, particularly Kent and Sussex. This couldn’t be further from the truth – although most fighter v fighter action was indeed over that area, mainly due to the limited range of the Bf 109, the Battle of Britain literally covered the United Kingdom.

Over the accepted period of the Battle, from 1 July 1940 to 31 October 1940, and particularly on Eagle Day, forty four RAF airfields, radar stations and bases were attacked, from Wick in the north east of Scotland to St Eval in Cornwall, from Penrhos in west Wales to Martelsham Heath and forty two others in between, with Spitfire squadrons [and Hurricanes] heavily involved in defence of the nation. By the time the Battle officially ended, 326 Spitfires had been lost, 76 ‘struck off charge’ and 589 were damaged. However, 808 Spitfires entered service during the Battle, including some of the damaged ones repaired at factories such as the Morris Motors Cowley complex in Oxford.

The official Luftwaffe losses for the Battle totalled 2071 aircraft of all types – although Hurricanes had shot down more aircraft than Spitfires, the numerical ratio of the two fighters meant that ‘honours were fairly even’.

The Spitfire factory in Woolston

After the failure of Eagle Day, the Germans changed their tactics to attacking cities, with the massive daylight raid of London on 7 September comprising almost 1000 aircraft, with the Spitfire destroying many of the attacking fighters and protecting their Hurricane sisters. 544 Fighter Command pilots had been killed in the Battle, many flying Spitfires, but Mitchell’s masterpiece had given them the chance to fight at least on equal terms. The Spitfire had been bloodied and had come of age. Her development was continuing apace and would continue not only throughout the war, but beyond and into the jet fighter age.

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