The Supermarine Spitfire is a legend in British air history. With the Hawker Hurricane, it successfully defended England against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, and throughout the war it saw service on every major front. Performance and handling were superb. The Mk.VII, the second high-altitude version developed, was used in England and the Middle East. Several Mk 2EXVIs, the last production version to use the Merlin engine, remained in service through 1950. In all, 20,351 Spitfires were built.
The Spitfire was the end product of many years of design development at the Supermarine works at Woolston, England. There, Reginald J. Mitchell designed racers to enter in the Schneider Trophy Races, with the British government subsidizing the project. Mitchell designed every British winner after World War I, and on September 13, 1931, his S.6B brought the Schneider Cup permanently home to Britain by winning the third consecutive race.
Interest in high-speed competition flying lagged, but Mitchell continued to work on his designs. His seaplane racers gave way to landplane designs, incorporating such new features as an enclosed cockpit, retractable undercarriage, and the new Rolls Royce PV-12 liquid-cooled engine (later named the Merlin). With these elements, he increased the endurance and speed of his planes. The British government was now issuing specifications for fighter aircraft, which reflected its watchful eye on political developments in Germany. When a specification was issued for a fighter with eight instead of the usual four machine guns installed, Mitchell was ready with the design for the Supermarine Type 300. It surpassed Air Ministry requirements and was accepted. Another specification was written for the construction of the prototype.
On March 5,1936, Spitfire prototype K5054 took off from Eastleigh Airfield, Southhampton, on its maiden flight. After official trials at Martlesham Heath, a specification covering further development of the Spitfire was drawn up. On June 3,1936, an order for 310 planes was placed by the Air Ministry. R. J. Mitchell did not live to see his Spitfire reach production; he died of cancer on June 11,1937, at the age of forty-two. But the groundwork had now been established, and J. Smith, his chief draftsman, took his place as chief designer.
On August 4,1938, K9789, the third Spitfire off the assembly line, was delivered to the Royal Air Force at Duxford. The first squadron to be re-equipped with the new Spitfires was No. 19; No. 66, also at Duxford, began receiving them soon after. When war with Germany was declared, 400 Spitfires were already in service and 2,160 were on order. Nine fighter squadrons were completely equipped with Spitfires; two more were being converted to the fighters.
The Spitfire was an all-metal cantilever monoplane. The shape of the wing, which became its most distinguishing characteristic, was elliptical, reducing drag and increasing speed.
Even while the first deliveries were being made, improvements were being introduced. A metal two-blade controllable pitch propeller replaced the two-blade fixed pitch mahagony airscrew, increasing speed. A tailwheel replaced the tail skid. Bulletproof windshields were installed in Spits already in service and as they came off the production line.
The Spitfire was easy to handle. It became airborne quickly, and once in the air, its maneuverability was outstanding. The combination of its speed and firepower made the Spit a deadly machine. Its eight machine guns concentrated a hail of bullets capable of tearing enemy planes at a point 300 yards in front of the craft.
Since the Spitfire was designed principally as a home defense interceptor fighter, its range was limited. But in 1943 this was increased by adding external (fuel) tanks, which could be jettisoned. This modification enabled the Spitfire to escort bombers to and from targets across the English Channel.
As needs arose, variations on the Spitfire were developed: photo reconnaissance versions to keep track of German movements on the continent and at sea; high-altitude versions to take on the Messerschmitt Bf.109s; low-altitude versions to meet the Focke WuIf Fw.190s. They were also employed in sea-air rescue operations. A Spitfire could quickly reach a downed pilot and drop a dinghy and emergency supplies, often saving the pilot from the cold waters of the channel.
The Spitfire was in service with many different groups and on many different fronts. Belgians, Free French, Poles, Czechs, Americans, and British Commonwealth countries used the fighter. The Eagle Squadron was one of the best known of these foreign units. Composed of American volunteers, the first Eagle Squadron was officially formed on October 19, 1940. They flew Hurricanes until they could be equipped with Spitfires. When the United States entered the war, there were three squadrons of Eagles. On September 29, 1942, these squadrons became the 334th, 335th, and 336th Squadrons of the 4th Fighter Group of the U.S. Eighth Air Force and were re-equipped with American fighter craft.
Spitfires took part in operations in the Middle East, North Africa, India, Burma, Australia, and Russia. The neutral governments of Portugal and Turkey were also equipped with Spitfires. When the war ended, the Spitfire was the only airplane that had been in continuous production throughout the war-20,351 had rolled off the assembly lines.
The museum's specimen is a Mark VII, a high-altitude version, of which only 140 were produced. On March 13, 1943, it was shipped directly from the factory to No. 47 Maintenance Unit at RAF Sealand, Flintshire, near Liverpool. There the plane was dismantled and prepared for shipment to the United States. It was received by the Army Air Force on May 2, 1943, and was used as an evaluation aircraft. It was transferred to the National Air and Space Museum from the Air Force in 1949.
The Supermarine Spitfire is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in the World War II Aviation exhibition.