Battle of Britain: The Supermarine Spitfire

Two_seater_Spitfire_Mk.IX,_Duxford_Military_Vehicles_Day_and_MAFVA_Nationals_2012._(7416447034)The Spitfire was a single seater monoplane fighter of the Second World War and is by far the most famous British aeroplane of the period. It was designed as a short-range interceptor by R.J. Mitchell, the chief designer at Aviation works, who were a subsidiary of the international arms manufacturing giant Vickers-Armstrong. The wings were very thin in cross-section, which enabled it to reach a higher top speed than contemporary fighters

During the Battle of Britain, the aircraft’s grace, maneuverability, speed and rate of climb made it the mainstay of our aerial defence system. After the Battle of Britain it became the backbone of RAF Fighter Command, serving in several roles as an interceptor, photo-reconnaissance fighter and fighter-bomber in all theatres of war from Europe to South East Asia.

The original prototype was powered by an evaporative cooled Rolls-Royce Goshawk engine, and later by the Merlin engine which increased its speed and rate of climb. Much of the development work utilising Mitchell’s experience gained in designing the Schneider Trophy sea planes of the 1930’s. In 1935 the armament was improved from two 7mm. guns on each wing to four Browning machine guns. In March 1936 a retractable undercarriage was fitted, together with a new wooden propellor which again increased the aircraft’s speed.

Air frame technology also developed during the 1930’s. A fully enclosed cockpit  and all-metal wings helped to reduce friction and drag, ensuring an uninterrupted air flow whilst the plane was in flight.

One of the weaknesses of the early Spitfire was the problem of taking the plane into a steep dive, which squeezed the petrol put of the carburetor. Pilots learned to half-roll the aircraft before diving to peruse their target, which helped alleviate the problem of “fuel starvation” at critical moments during dogfights. Another problem was that the machine guns tended to freeze at high altitude. Hot air ducts were therefore introduced in 1938.

As well as its magnificent fighting record in the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire blunted the German air attacks on Malta in 1942 and supported the allied landings in Sicily and on D-Day.

The Spitfire’s speed and beauty in flight has ensured its presence in fly-past ceremonies to this day. Sadly, R.J. Mitchell died of cancer in 1938 and so did not live to see the advantages his design and engineering genius gave his country at one of the most critical times in its history.


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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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