SPITFIRES
AND HOW IT ALL STARTED

AN INTRODUCTION

The basis for the Spitfire was made as early as 1922 when aircraft constructor Supermarine entered her Sea Lion II for the Schneider Trophy Race. The Italians had won the race twice already and a third win would bring the Trophy permanent to Italy. But it was not to be, the design by the 26 year old Reginald Mitchell beat the Italians.

Supermarine Sea Lion II

The following year at the Trophy the Americans beat the Sea Lion III. In 1925 Mitchell developed a complete new plane, the S.4. It was a slim and aerodynamic aircraft. Before the S.4 went to the United States for the Schneider race, it broke the world speed record when it reached 226.75 m/h. Disaster struck the day before the race when the plane crashed in Chesapeake Bay. The cause was found in the absents of wires to strengthen the vibrating wings. Mitchell was not just the designer of race planes. He also worked on the development of other aircraft for Supermarine. For instance, he worked on the Southampton, a long distance flying boat for connecting the British Empire in the world.

Supermarine Southampton

But the more imaginative planes for designer Mitchell were the aircraft for the Schneider Trophy. For the race of 1927 the S.5 was developed with a Napier Lion VIIA/B engine. Three versions were built, the N219, N220 and the N222. The wings were still made out of wood, but the fuselage was made out of metal, a great improvement. In Venice Flight Lieutenant S.N. Webster won the race with N220. His average speed was around 218.65 m/h. Later in the year an S.5 flew a new British record when it reached 319.57 m/h. The RAF was impressed with the performance and took over the S.5´s for evaluation. In 1928 N221 crashed into the sea near Calshot. This left two S.5´s for further ‘High Speed Flight’ testing. In the same year, Supermarine was taken over by Vickers. This mend a better financial situation for Supermarine and the team of designers and technicians was enlarged.

A Supermarine S.5's in 1927

The year 1928 was significant when these two companies went together and lay the basis that would give the world the Spitfire. The Napier Lion was underpowered and could not be made any better. The Ministry of Air invited Rolls-Royce to built a new engine. In November the work started on the Rolls-Royce ‘R’. It was developed out of the ‘Buzzard’ that was juiced up to become the ‘Kestrel´ engine. The old Napier Lion had an output of 875 hp, the new ‘R’ almost doubled the power to 1900 hp!

A Supermarine S.6 with de Rolls-Royce 'R' motor

Two S.6’s (N247 en de N248) were ordered for the race in1929. To counter the torsion of the engine, a fuelcel was installed into the starboard float. With an average speed between 328 and 332 miles an hour, the circuits were closed as winners. During September 1929 the S.6 flew an offical new speed worldrecord of 357.7 miles an hour. In 1930 the British goverment stopt paying for the 1931 Schneider Race. Thankfully in December 1930 Lady Houston stept into the ring and donated £100.000 to develop a new plane for the the race in 1931. But time was too short for a new design, so the S.6 was upgraded and improved. The N247 and the N248 became the S.6A, followed by the S.6B, S1595 and S1596.

Supermarine S.6, N248

The Schneider Trophy for September 1931 was held in England. For unknown reasons (were the other nations afraid for losing from the Supermarine plane?), only the British S.6B was present. With an average speed of 340 m/h pilot Flt. Lt. John N. Boothman brought the Schneider Trophy permanent to Great-Brittan. Later S1595 reached a speed of 407,5 m/h, the absolute speed record. It was the first aircraft that broke the 400 mile barrier!

Supermarine S.6B, S1595 flew as first the 400 mile barrier!

Failed 'Spitfire'

Meanwhile a request was given to the British aircraftindustry to produce a fighterplane. With Specification F7/30 it had to be able to fly with a speed of at least 200 m/h and an armament of four machineguns. Mitchell designed the Supermarine Type 224. It had a Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine. To give way for the large propeller it was given a so called ‘gull wing’. This bended wing gave the plane a robust view, far from a fast and slim fighter.

Supermarine Type 224

Problems with the engine and the weight slowed down the construction of the first prototype. On 20 Februari, 1934 the plane took to the air for the first time. The promise maid by Mitchell was not met, and the Type 224 was declared a failure. But Supermarine was already in the process to develop a brand new and much better design.

Reginald Joseph Mitchell

The first of the many

In July 1934 Mitchell delivered his new proposal to the Air Ministry. These had their goal upgraded with Specification F5/35. The new fighter had to have at least eight guns. Mitchells design had only room for four machineguns but the basis was there to become a good fighter. It had a retractable undercarriage, un enclosed cockpit, a thin wing and a powerful engine (a Rolls-Royce PV-12, the later Merlin).

The famous shape of the Spitfire-wing

But the wing was a problem for the asked for eight guns. Vickers gave the go ahead to finance self the project and to built a prototype, Type 300. The Air Ministry saw the potential outcome and donated 10.000 pound to the project. In April 1935 the wooden mock-up was ready for inspection. But if Supermarine wanted the order for production, it had to have the eight guns. Designer Alf Faddy convinced Mitchell to go for the elliptical wing so the eight machineguns could be built into it without losing the performance.

Prototype K5054

Maurice ‘Mutt’ Summers took prototype K5054 on 5 March 1936 from Eastleigh into the air. During the first test flights a speed was recorded of 348 m/h.

On 26 May, 1936 K5054 was flowen in front of the RAF. These were at once enthusiastic and reported this to the Air Ministry which resulted in a first order for 300 fighters. On 28 July, 1936 the name Spitfire was officially adopted after a proposal by Supermarine to the Air Counsil. This same name was in an early stage proposed for the failed Type 224. but now put forward to the new design from Mitchell (who detested the name ‘Spitfire’).

Prototype K5054 with testpilot Jefferey Quill in the cockpit

Beside the fighter from Supermarine, Vickers also built a fighter for Specification F5/35. This plane, Type 279 ‘Venom’ flew, also in the hands of Mutt Summers, on 17 June, 1936. Summers, who flew the Spitfire three months before, could compare both. History shows that the Venom disappeared from view when the Spitfire showed all the signs of a winner

Mitchell would never see the Spitfire in action. On 11 June, 1937 he died of cancer just 42 years old. His successor was Joseph Smith, who stayed Chief Designer during the Spitfire years.

Because of the difficult construction the production made a slow start. The first production Spitfire, the K9787, made it’s maidenflight on 14 May, 1938. On 4 August, 1938 the first Spitfire Mk I, K9789 was delivered at Duxford to No. 19 Squadron.

Spitfire Mk I's, from No. 19 Squadron (K9794 in the foreground)

The training demanded all knowledge from the pilots. A trainer version was not available and the pilot had to fly the Spitfire ‘by the seat of the pants’. When the war broke out, just ten squadron were equipped with the Spitfire. By then, already there were 27 lost through accidents. On 3 September, 1939, 150 Spitfires were combat ready. On 16 October of the same year the first encounter with enemy aircraft was made by the Spitfires. Six Spitfires from No. 602 and 603 Squadron jumped German Junkers Ju 88 of KG30 when those attacked British ships near Rosytt. Three Spitfires from 603 Squadron downed a Ju 88 and made the first victory for a Spitfire. Moment later, 602 also managed to shoot down a Ju 88. On 20 November, 1939 the first Heinkel He 111 was downed by Spitfires from 74 Squadron.

Spitfire Mk IA, X4179 (QV-B) from 19 Squadron

On 10 Juli, 1940, the ‘Battle of Britain’ started. Around this time Fighter Command had 19 squadrons equipped with Spitfires and 38 squadrons with Hurricanes. On average 465 Hurricanes and 290 Spitfires were serviceable on a daily basis. Within four months 628 Spitfires were built and 1025 Hurricanes. In October, 1940 the production was equally for both fighters. Around that time the Spitfire Mk II was introduced to many squadrons. The first Mk II was delivered on 17 July, 1940 to 152 Squadron. First action for the Mk II came on 31 August of that year with 611 Squadron.

First action for the Spitfire Mk II was with 611 Squadron

The first important improvement came with the production of the Spitfire Mk V. The first Mk V flew on 20 December, 1940. Powered with a Merlin 45, the Mk Vb was equipped with two 20mm cannons beside the four .303 inch Browning machineguns (the Mk VA held her eight machineguns). The world was ready to accept the next generation of Spitfires,… the Mk IX. This fighter version would be used widely on many frontlines, during and after the war. After the war the Mk IX was sold to many countries. Among these was Holland who had to built a complete new air force

A sight of a Spitfire Mk VB we prefer,...

Below the Mk IX, MK291 is shown that once flew in post-war Holland with the code H-55 (and H-116). Later she was sold to Belgium. She survived the smelter and went to the United States where she flew with the Confederate Air Force. Here she wore, among other codes, the code from ace Johnnie Johnson (pictured). The fighter was lost during a fire in February, 1993 in Canada.

Click on the picture below to go the Spitfires that flew in Holland.
(Sorry, still in Dutch)