by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing Historian
Photos from the author’s collection
***image1***In World War II, numerous aircraft including the U.S. Douglas C-47, Boeing B-17, and the German Junkers Ju-52, stayed in production from the beginning to the end of war. For fighters the story was different.
Because of the need for cutting-edge performance, new fighters had to be constantly developed to keep up with the opposition. Three fighters were produced throughout the war. Two of them, the Japanese Zero and the German Messerschmitt Bf-109, were kept in production because there were no suitable replacements. By 1944, while still dangerous in the hands of a skilled pilot, they were outclassed by allied fighters, but one fighter was not only the best fighter in the world when World War II began, it was also arguably still the best fighter in the world when World War II ended. That aircraft was the remarkable British Supermarine Spitfire.
The Spitfire was the spin off of a series of seaplane racing aircraft, designed by Reginald J. Mitchell, that were twice as fast as the RAF’s biplane fighters in the late 1920s. (Sadly, Mitchell died at the age of 42 of cancer shortly after the Spitfire’s first flight in March 1939.) From the beginning the RAF knew it had a winner, and the original test report said the Spitfire Mark 1, powered by an 1100 horsepower Merlin engine, was virtually viceless to fly but with performance and armament − eight .30 machine guns − far superior to any other RAF fighter. When the war began, the Spitfire went on to win acclaim in the Battle of Britain and the Mediterranean, and the Germans acknowledged its excellence when one fighter leader told Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering he wanted Spitfires for his squadron instead of improved Messerschmitt Bf-109s. The Spitfire was gradually improved, and by early 1941 the Mark V version had 1500 horsepower and a much stronger armament of two 20mm cannon and four .303 machine guns.
***image2***But it was just a few months later that the Spitfire met the first major challenge to its design when the Germans introduced the formidable FW-190A in September 1941. Tests with a captured FW-190 showed the Spitfire Mark V was clearly outmatched, and through the spring of 1942 the RAF was regularly roughed up by the new German fighter. It was here that the brilliance of the Spitfire’s design showed up. A new supercharged Merlin engine was basically strapped onto the Mark V without modifying or restressing the airframe and the new Spitfire, the Mark IX, pushed into the battle. It proved to still be viceless to fly but with performance equal to the FW-190, and the balance was restored.
In early 1943 when the Spitfire received an entirely new engine, the Griffin, which added several hundred more horsepower, and with some minor structural strengthening the Spitfire was able to accept the engine without major impact on the handling qualities. The final tribute to Spitfire’s design was that even at the end of the war, it was not only equal in performance to any Allied fighter but was far faster in a dive because of its beautifully designed wing. This allowed Spitfires to run down German jets that left more modern Allied fighters in the dust.
The one shortcoming of the Spitfire was its short range, but this was actually more of a matter of the RAF leadership’s bloody-mindedness than a problem with the Spitfire design. The U.S. Army Air Force flew several Spitfires across the Atlantic with wing mounted fuel tanks, showing the Spitfire was capable of flying long distances, but the official RAF doctrine was that long range fighters were impossible. No attempt was made to test long range wing tanks on the Spitfire, at the beginning of 1944, while American long range P-51s fighters swept across Germany and destroyed the Luftwaffe, Spitfires − equal to the Mustang except in range − watched forlornly from the sidelines.
The pictures above show the external differences between the first and last Spitfire, the Mark 24, with its bubble canopy, enlarged tail surfaces, and contra rotating propellers. This last Spitfire was over 100 mph faster, had twice the rate of climb, more than twice the horsepower, and four times the firepower, but was still recognizably a Spitfire.
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