Designed by RJ Mitchell in the 1930s, the Spitfire was produced in greater numbers than any other during World War Two, with more than 20,000 churned out in less than a decade.
During the Battle of Britain the Spitfire – aided by the bulkier Hurricane – helped down 1,887 German planes in little more than three months.
At the height of the Battle of Britain in 1940, as the Germans sustained increasing losses in the face of the heroic RAF, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring summoned the top Luftwaffe fighter ace Adolf Galland to his headquarters.
Frustrated by the Reich’s failure to gain aerial supremacy over southern England, a vital precursor to Hitler’s planned invasion, Göring asked Galland what he needed. ‘Give me a squadron of Spitfires,’ came the reply.
Those words perfectly encapsulate the unequalled reputation that the fighter plane had earned in combat. Its power, speed and manoeuvrability were a source of terror to the Germans and reassurance to the British.
When it first entered service in 1938, the Spitfire was not only the first all-metal monoplane but also by far the fastest aircraft in the RAF, able to reach 350mph.
In later marks, the Spitfire’s maximum speed was increased by 35 per cent and on one occasion in April 1944, a photo reconnaissance variant flown by Squadron Leader ‘Marty’ Martindale flew at an incredible 606mph in a dive from 40,000ft, close to the speed of sound.
In addition to its unparalleled speed, it was also well-armed compared to previous British fighters. Early versions carried eight .303 Browning guns, each with 300 rounds, though later types also had cannon that packed an even deadlier punch.
A German bomber airman, shot down over Malta, said the ‘most terrifying thing’ that he experienced in combat ‘was the sight of 12 Spitfires all firing cannon and machine guns and coming head-on at our formation. All the front gunners had frozen stiff with fear’.
But perhaps the Spitfire’s greatest asset was its manoeuvrability, due to its sleek, aerodynamic design, its thin, elliptical wings and the responsiveness of its controls. ‘There was no heaving or pushing or pulling or kicking. You breathed on it. I’ve never flown anything sweeter,’ said George Unwin of 19 Squadron.
Spitfire pilots often spoke of their almost physical attachment to the plane. ‘It was a bit like a love affair,’ said Nigel Rose, who joined the RAF in 1938. Another Battle of Britain veteran, Wilfred Duncan Smith (father of Tory politician Iain) remembered how he ‘felt part of the Spitfire, a oneness that was intimate’.
The Spitfire’s agility made her not only deadly in a dogfight, but also good at evasion. ‘The bastards make such infernally tight turns. There seems no way of nailing them,’ complained a German fighter pilot.
The Spitfire was in action from the start of World War II, shooting down its first enemy planes, two JU88 bombers, over the Firth of Forth on October, 16, 1939. ‘The general impression is that the Spitfires are wonderful machines and that the Huns hate them,’ stated an Air Ministry report at the time.
During the summer of 1940, in the process of destroying 17 German planes, New Zealander Al Deere was shot down seven times, bailed out three times, collided with a Messerschmitt 109 and had one of his Spitfires blasted at 150 yards by a bomb. Another exploded just seconds after he had scrambled clear of the wreckage.
The climax of the Battle of Britain came on September 15, when the Luftwaffe lost 56 planes, forcing Hitler to abandon his plans for the conquest of Britain.
But the Spitfire fought on. As ever more powerful, faster versions were developed, it turned out to be crucial in a host of different theatres, including the successful campaign against General Rommel — the Desert Fox — in North Africa in 1942, the fight against Japan in Burma, the drive through western Europe after D-Day, and the destruction of German V-weapon sites in France.
The greatest Spitfire ace of them all, Johnnie Johnson, claimed his record-breaking 33rd kill during the summer of 1944, when he shot down a Messerschmitt 109 over northern France. ‘I hit his ugly yellow nose with a long, steady burst,’ said Johnson, who went on to record 38 kills in all during the war.
Without the Spitfire, the course of European history might have been very different.
Pilot Neville Duke wrote that in the plane he felt ‘part of a fine machine, made by a genius’.
He added: ‘It is said that the Spitfire is too beautiful to be a fighting machine. I sometimes think that is true but then what better fighter could you want?’