One of the most instantly recognisable British fighter planes, Spitfire made the headlines, but not always for the right reasons
Most widely known of all British fighter aircraft, the Spitfire became a national icon after the part it played against the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Despite shouldering less of the defensive burden than the Hawker Hurricane, the Spitfire had a higher 'victory to loss' ratio, and for many is an enduring symbol of Churchill's eventual defeat of Hitler's Reich.
This popularity is partly due to the Spitfire being the most widely produced and strategically important British single-seat fighter of the Second World War. It is also remembered with affection as a classic of British engineering. Designed by Reginald Mitchell of Supermarine Aviation Works – hence the full name 'Supermarine Spitfire' – the aircraft was a short-range, high-performance fighter that could also be used as an interceptor, bomber and for photo-reconnaissance.
Its key strength was its speed (maximum 378mph), seen as necessary to carry out home defence against enemy bombing raids. The Spitfire was designed with thin cross-section, elliptical wings and retractable undercarriage. This produced early flying problems, as pilots unfamiliar with the arrangement simply forgot to lower the wheels for landing. In training nearly 10 per cent of Spitfires were lost partially on account of the aircraft's undercarriage.
When Mitchell started designing the Spitfire the requirement was for an all-metal, low-wing fighter aircraft that could take advantage of developments in monocoque design. The challenge was to come up with an aircraft that could exploit the power of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine while remaining easy to fly. As the expectation was that there would be no enemy fighter planes over Britain, the defence strategy was to produce nimble, fast-climbing fighters.
Initial production of the Spitfire was dogged with problems. While we may think of the aircraft as being the best of British, there were other familiar traits. The Supermarine manufacturing facility (a subsidiary of Vickers-Armstrongs) was overwhelmed by the volume of the order and failed to meet its guarantee of five aircraft a week.
Meanwhile, a 'shadow factory' at Castle Bromwich that supplemented Supermarine's output was plagued by management issues and by 1940 had not produced a single Spitfire, despite the plan for 60 per week to be rolling off the line. After this shaky start Castle Bromwich became the most successful plant of its kind, eventually producing 320 aircraft per month and more than half the total output of Spitfires over the course of the war.
Although Mitchell died in 1937, the Spitfire underwent ongoing improvement with 22 variants in all, and was the only aircraft to be produced throughout the war. By the time production finished, the Spitfire had an engine twice as powerful as the original, with take-off weight and rate of climb doubled and firepower increased by a factor of five. Its maximum speed was up by a third, and all this in basically the same airframe.
The Spitfire remains popular, appearing at air shows and museums. The Allied airmen who flew them are known as the 'Few', taken from Churchill's quotation: "Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few." It's also an apt description of the surviving aircraft, as according to the Spitfire Society there are now only 45 fully airworthy examples left worldwide.