Supermarine Spitfire

D-DAY COULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED WITHOUT THE SPITFIRE

Battle of Britain Memorial FlightFormed in July 1957 the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight commemorates the Royal Air Force’s Finest Hour.  The iconic Vic formation of a Lancaster, Hurricane, and Spitfire is seen at air-shows, military, and Royal events all over the United Kingdom in the summer months, and will always be the stars of any air show.  Of those three great aeroplanes, the most affection is afforded to the seek and elegant Supermarine Spitfire, and any small boy who has seen a low flypast by a single Spitfire will long remember the simple beauty of its elliptical winged form and the low, whistling drone of the supercharged 27 litre, (1,650 cu in) Rolls-Royce V12 Merlin engine.

SpitfireBorn out of racing seaplanes and the ugly Supermarine type 224, the Reginald J. Mitchell designed single-seat fighter has probably had more column-inches written about it, and more film shot, than any other British Aircraft.  In all some 20,341 Spitfires of every marque and variant were built over a 12 year period, beginning with its first flight on 5th March 1936.  That’s more than any other British combat aircraft, before or since.   In contrast the Spitfire’s great rival, Messerchmitt Bf 109, was in production from 1936 to 1958 and 34,852 were built.  Ironically some Bf 109s used a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the Hispano Aviacion 109 ‘Bouchon’ is often seen in movies and on TV.  You can even buy a brand new Bf 109, built in Bavaria.

churchillThe Spitfire’s Finest Hour was undoubtedly during the Battle of Britain.  This was Europe’s Last Stand, and England’s battle for survival against the expanding power of Hitler’s Germany.  The Battle of Britain really began when war was declared on September 1939, but is usually taken to cover the period of strategic air war over England from July 10th 1940 to May 10th 1941.  The heaviest fighting took place between July 10th 1940 and October 31st 1940.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his Finest Hour speech to the House of Commons on June 18th 1940.  An equally historic Churchillian moment was his Never was so much owed by so many to so few speech made on 20 August 1940.  It should be remembered that Churchill was carrying the load of Britain’s continuing defiance in the war at that time.  Many, including Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, wanted to negotiate a peace deal with Hitler.

The role of the Spitfire during the Battle of Britain has passed into legend, with some believing that it won the battle, almost on its own.  Other respectable historians take a wider view and stress the importance of Radar, RAF Fighter Command’s brilliant command and control system, the steadfastness of the men at the top, and the Spitfire’s partner aircraft, the Hawker Hurricane.

Aguably, the very best Spitfire of all was the Spitfire Mk IX, which entered service in 1942.  Dispassionately, the Spitfire wasn’t the best single seat fighter of the Second World War, most aircraft historians and aero angineers would probably give that award to the North American P-51 Mustang.  Nor was the Spitfire the RAF’s most influential fighter during D-Day and the 77 days following, that accolade going to the Hawker Typhoon.

The Hawker Hurricane was the RAF’s most numerous single-seat fighter during the Battle of Britain, and the Hurricane was responsible for more enemy ‘kills’ than was the Spitfire.  The Hurricane was also cheaper to buy, easier to build, much easier to repair after battle damage, and much more forgiving on or near the ground than was the thoroughbred Spitfire.  However, the Hurricane had its limitations.  Fighter Command’s normal tactic was to have the Hurricanes go after the Luftwaffe bombers, while the Spitfire flew top cover against the Bf 109’s. The Spitfire was a match for the little German fighter, but the Hurricane could not often meet the Messerchmitt on equal terms.  Quite simply, the Bf 109 was better than the Hurricane.

In easily understood terms, the Hurricane was built with a separate chassis, (frame), like a Ford Model T, whereas the Spitfire was a complex duralumin / aluminium-alloy monocoque, like a Le Mans winning Ford GT40.  Both British aircraft used the same 27 litre V12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, initially producing about 1,030 hp.

  1. Supermarine Spitfire  IIA  355 mph @ 20,000 ft  Ceiling 37,000 ft
  2. Hawker Hurricane Mk.II   330 mph @ 20,000 ft  Ceiling 35,900  ft
  3. Messerchmitt Bf 109E        350 mph @ 20,000 ft   Ceiling 35,000 ft

109 and spitfireArguments continue to this day as to whether the Messerschmitt Bf 109 or the Supermarine Spitfire was ultimately the better aircraft.  It doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that with the Spitfire the Battle of Britain was won.  Without the Spitfire, the Royal Air Force would most likely have lost the Battle of Britain.  In that case there is little doubt that Britain would have sued for peace in advance of a German invasion of these islands.  Hitler may then have occupied parts of mainland Britain, or not.  The important point is that, without the United Kingdom’s continued resistance to the Axis forces, history would be very different.  It is even possible that Hitler would not have invaded Russia when he did, and that Japan would not have attacked Pearl Harbor.

StpaulsblitzCertainly, if for want of the Spitfire the Battle of Britain had been lost, the Luftwaffe would have established air supremacy over Europe.  The British Empire would have fallen easy prey to Italy, Germany and Japan.  For the want of the British Empire there would have been no strategic bombing of Germany, no possibility of a second front and no possibility of D-Day happening on June 6th 1944.  If the Luftwaffe had not been badly hurt over Southern England in the summer of 1940, it may well have held air superiority over Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans well into the 1950’s.  The shape of the modern world would be very different from that which we know today.

mig_sabreThe next time a duel in the skies took place that was comparable to the between the Spitfire and the Bf 109 was during the Korean War, when the North American F-86 Sabre took on the MiG 15.  Both of these aircraft were jet powered, but remember the Luftwaffe had the world’s first operation jet fighter in 1944, the incomparable Me 262.

Conclusion;  Without the Supermarine Spitfire, the Battle of Britain may well have been lost to Goering’s Luftwaffe flying the Bf 109.  Consequently, the shape of the modern world would probably be very different.

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